Saturday, January 7, 2006
January's Books of the Month
This month's general interest book is by my colleague Eric Oliver -- Fat Politics: the Real Story Behind America’s Obesity Epidemic. The real story, according to Oliver, is that there is no such thing as an obesity epidemic -- rather, this appears to be a whopping case of medical experts confusing correlation with causation.
This write-up in the U of C Chronicle does a fair job of providing a precis:
Oliver contends there is no scientific evidence to suggest that people who are currently classified as “overweight” and even most Americans who qualify as “obese” are under any direct threat from their body weight.Read the whole thing -- Oliver's deconstruction of the body mass index (BMI) as the basic metric for determining obesity is particularly useful. The one mystery that remains for me is why powerful economic sectors -- like processed food services and restaurant owners -- haven't fought harder against the obesity myth.
Oh, yes, in case you were wondering, Eric didn't write this as a massive justification for his own body tpe -- he's quite svelte.
The international relations book is Michael Mandelbaum's The Case for Goliath: How America Acts as the World’s Government in the Twenty-First Century. There's a book excerpt in the January/February 2006 issue of Foreign Policy in which Mandelbaum spells out his basic hypothesis:
The gap between what the world says about American power and what it fails to do about it is the single most striking feature of 21st-century international relations. The explanation for this gap is twofold. First, the charges most frequently leveled at America are false. The United States does not endanger other countries, nor does it invariably act without regard to the interests and wishes of others. Second, far from menacing the rest of the world, the United States plays a uniquely positive global role. The governments of most other countries understand that, although they have powerful reasons not to say so explicitly....Mandelbaum's thesis is, in many ways, an updating an old warhorse in international relations scholarship, hegemonic stability theory (HST).
The funny thing about HST is that almost no one in the discipline would claim to buy the whole argument. Realists don't buy it because the theory posits that a hegemonic actor provides global public goods even though it knows that other states, by free riding off those goods, will catch up in terms of relative power. Liberals don't buy it because the evidence that international regimes collapse when a hegemon is in decline turns out to be pretty meager. Constructivists don't buy it because the root of the theory is a state's material power and not its power over norms is what drives the model. Rationalists don't buy the hegemon's motivations -- why provide public goods and tolerate free riding when an actor can coerce others into chipping in?
That said, the model is still around when academics talk about policy, because at some level there's a ring of truth to it. It's the difference between pure theory and policy-relevant scholarship -- which is a topic too big for this blog post.
Friday, January 6, 2006
There is no engineering gap
Last year there was a lot of hysteria among the business press over the fact that China and India were allegedly graduating hundreds of thousands of engineers a year, while the U.S. could only muster around 70,000 or so.
I blogged last October about how even outsourcing critics were skeptical of these numbers. Now, courtesy of Duke University's Engineering Management Program, there are some harder numbers on this subject -- and it turns out there's not much reason to panic (link via the Wall Street Journal's Carl Bialik). Here's the report abstract:
The effect of the dynamics of engineering outsourcing on the global economy is a discussion of keen interest in both business and public circles. Varying, inconsistent reporting of problematic engineering graduation data has been used to fuel fears that America is losing its technological edge. Typical articles have stated that in 2004 the United States graduated roughly 70,000 undergraduate engineers, while China graduated 600,000 and India 350,000. Our study has determined that these are inappropriate comparisons. These massive numbers of Indian and Chinese engineering graduates include not only four-year degrees, but also three-year training programs and diploma holders. These numbers have been compared against the annual production of accredited four-year engineering degrees in the United States. In addition to the lack of nuanced analysis around the type of graduates (transactional or dynamic) and quality of degrees being awarded, these articles also tend not to ground the numbers in the larger demographics of each country. A comparison of like-to-like data suggests that the U.S. produces a highly significant number of engineers, computer scientists and information technology specialists, and remains competitive in global markets.And this is from the text of the report itself:
The outsourcing debate has been complicated due to conflicting definitions of the engineering profession....So, to conclude, offshore outsourcing will take place when the tasks can be segmented into discrete, simple and rote tasks, and does not pose a threat to engineers at the B.S. level or above.
Damn, that sounds familiar.
"Unassisted human intuition is a bomb"
1) Experts are really bad at making predictions; andToday, Carl Bialik -- the Wall Street Journal's Numbers Guy -- has a follow-up story that corrects one potential misperception about the utility of experts: they might not be great predictors, but they are still better informed than you are -- which means they are still better predictors.
The New Yorker's review of [Tetlock's] book surveyed the grim state of expert political predictions and concluded by advising readers, "Think for yourself." Prof. Tetlock isn't sure he agrees with that advice. He pointed out an exercise he conducted in the course of his research, in which he gave Berkeley undergraduates brief reports from Facts on File about political hot spots, then asked them to make forecasts. Their predictions -- based on far less background knowledge than his pundits called upon -- were the worst he encountered, even less accurate than the worst hedgehogs. "Unassisted human intuition is a bomb here," Prof. Tetlock told me.And that's your quote of the day.
And the dollar watch starts for 2006
The Financial Times has two reports that provide contradictory signals on what the Pacific Rim economies will be doing about the dollar.
China indicated on Thursday it could begin to diversify its rapidly growing foreign exchange reserves away from the US dollar and government bonds – a potential shift with significant implications for global financial and commodity markets.Here's a link to China's State Administration of Foreign Exchange, but damn if I can find the announcement in question.
On the other hand, Song Jung-a reports that South Korea is moving in exactly the opposite direction:
South Korea’s finance ministry said on Friday it would mobilise all possible means to curb the won’s recent sharp appreciation against the US dollar.China's dollar position is more significant than South Korea's, but my bet is that Beijing will move as slowly as possible in its diversification -- which means that South Korea's move in the opposite direction could leave the dollar pretty much where it is now.
This, by the way, is the dream scenario for China -- it can comply with U.S. requests, diversify away from an asset that will fall in the future, and still have the dollar be relatively strong against the yuan in the short term.
Thursday, January 5, 2006
Find the fool in the IAEA!!
Elaine Sciolino reports in the New York Times that those wachy Iranians are up to their old tricks on nuclear nonproliferation:
Iran threw negotiations over its nuclear program into disarray today, abruptly canceling a high-level meeting with the United Nations' nuclear monitoring agency in Vienna as the head of Iran's negotiating team was said to have returned home to Tehran.Those last two paragraphs nicely encapsulate the underlying question before us: is this a case of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad burning through what remains of his diplomatic capital, or is this an example of Iran calling the bluff of the IAEA, the EU, and the UN Security Council, confident that the rest of the world has no endgame strategy?
Of course, one possible answer is "all of the above."
What a difference a decade makes
Blogging over at Andrew Sullivan's web site, Julian Sanchez has a young riff about Doug Bandow's bravura final column in the wake of his admission that he took Abramoff money in exchange for writing op-eds favoring Abramoff's causes.
Why do I say young? In a counterintuitive analysis for a libertarian, Sanchez concludes that money is not his greatest corrupting fear as a rising policy wonk in DC:
[T]here is, as Bandow observes, a big gray area involving indirect support by way of institutions, or more tenuous links where a writer has previously done unrelated work from some party with an interest in a topic she later writes about.A few thoughts:
1) My all-too-brief interactions with Sanchez, combined with the very fact that he is worried about social conformity at all, suggests to me that he is unlikely to alter his views because of social pressure.[This means you've leased your pen out, doesn't it?--ed. No, I haven't, unless shilling for Pamela Anderson counts. But I am receiving more substantial offers, and it's something I'm going to need to guard against for the future.]
UPDATE: This Laura McKenna post does point out one small counter-trend to what I blogged about -- the guilt that comes with ever-increasing consumption. But I suspect that most wonks are not as angst-ridden about it as the ever-charming Ms. McKenna.
Wednesday, January 4, 2006
Kadima is doomed -- the sequel
It appears that Ariel Sharon has suffered from a massive, debilitating stroke -- Omri Ceren has the tick-tock on the latest medical news.
Looking a few steps ahead, this will leave Shimon Peres as the leader of Kadima -- which compels me to repeat what I blogged a few weeks ago:
I have only one thing to say about Shimon Peres' decision to leave the Labor party and join Ariel Sharon's brand-spanking new Kadima Party -- it can only mean Kadima is doomed to implode.
Will Rasmussen is 50% correct
Over at TNR Online, former Beirut Daily Star correspondent Will Rasmussen argues that Hezbollah's performance in the Lebanese government confounds predictions by democracy activists that Islamist movements will moderate once they get involved in governing:
Should radical groups in nascent democracies be allowed to participate in politics? This has long been a central dilemma in the Middle East; and as Islamist parties have demonstrated their electoral power in Egypt and Iraq, the question has only grown in importance. One common response to this quandary has been to argue that bringing radical groups into politics can serve to moderate them. In TNR, the Carnegie Endowment's Marina Ottaway has argued that "there is ample evidence that participation in an electoral process forces any party, regardless of ideology, to moderate its position if it wants to attract voters in large numbers and avoid a backlash." In a recent editorial, the Financial Times echoed this sentiment: "The Islamists are part of the future of the region and their participation in the political process remains the best hope of moderating their often radical views." The Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, published by the Middle East Forum and the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon, has asserted that there is "reason to believe that Islamist movements become more moderate when they are allowed opportunities to participate in a democratic political system."I'm pretty sure most democracy activists would dispute Rasmussen's characterization of their position. The argument isn't that democratic participation will cause radical Islamic movements to moderate - it's that radical Islamic movements will either moderate or lose their base of support.
Something that got pruned out of this piece is worth stating: no radical Islamic movement, upon taking office, has succeeded at the mundane tasks of governing. Iran's Ahmadinejad, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the Sudanese under Turabi -- they have all sucked at governing.
I suspect democracy activists are perfectly comfortable with the outcome in Rasmussen's piece.
There's money and then there's Abramoff money
Howard Fineman provides a pithy but accurate explanation in MSNBC on why Abramoff will be so damaging:
[T]he thing that jumps out at me is the figure $20,194,000. If I read the fed’s plea-agreement papers correctly, that’s the amount of cold cash that the Republican lobbyist siphoned from Indian tribes and stashed in his secret accounts.I don't buy Fineman's thesis that a third party movement will be born, but he's right about the money and the social mores of DC.
UPDATE: Brendan Nyhan really doesn't like Fineman's third party suggestion. He's probably right, but I think the term "insipd" is a touch overblown. To play devil's advocate, the current set of conditions -- massive deficits, disenchantment with Congress, official scandals, a Bush in the White House -- do evoke the environment that allowed Ross Perot to make a splash in 1992. That's a long way from a real third party, but it's not nothing either.
Time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping....
In Newsweek, Mark Hosenball has obtained copies of the sildeshow senior White House officials saw connecting Al Qaeda with Saddam Hussein:
The White House slide, dated September 2002, cites publicized allegations from a post-9/11 Czech intel report that Atta met the April before 9/11 with Iraqi spy Ahmed al-Ani, and asserts the United States had "no other" intel contradicting the report. The slide offers purported details about Atta's activities in Prague (including two earlier, confirmed visits). It says that during one visit al-Ani ordered an Iraqi intelligence officer to "issue funds to Atta." The slide also includes previous unpublished allegations that Atta met the Iraqi Embassy charge d'affaires and that "several workers at Prague airport identified Atta following 9/11 and remember him traveling with his brother Farhan Atta."Here's a link to the actual slides.
After reading the report, Mickey Kaus is puzzled:
It's always hard to believe top government officials actually make big war/no war decisions based on these simplified slide show briefings, as opposed to drilling down and assessing the veracity of the underlying raw intelligence. Did Cheney (who stuck with the Atta-in-Prague story) really not want to learn of any possibly-inconvenient doubts about what the briefings told him? Or are briefings less important than reporters tend to think they are?My hunch is that there were two things going on. The first thing is that Kaus is partially correct: Cheney really, really wanted to believe that there was a connection, and the slide provided it.
The second thing is more mundane but nevertheless true -- the higher you go up the policy food chain, the less detail in the memos. The reason is that the most precious commodity of cabinet-level officials is time. They're scheduled to within an inch of their lives -- the last thing they have time for is "assessing the veracity of the underlying raw intelligence."
This is why stovepiping is so dangerous. Even with a decision as momentous as going to war, a president is rarely going to devote the time to assessing the accuracy rate of intelligence briefings. More likely, they'll assume that if it gets to their desk there must be something there there.
I'm not saying that there wasn't a willful blindness in parts of the White House about this intelligence. But never underestimate the cognitive limitations of policy principals that time crunches create.
Tuesday, January 3, 2006
Psst.... anybody interested in a dissertation topic?
Every once in a while a natural disaster has a significant impact on international relations. We've seen in the past year how U.S. humanitarian assistance can improve America's public image in the affected countries. The 1999 earthquake that affected Greece and Turkey -- and the outpouring of cross-border assistance -- led to a thaw between those two enduring rivals.
Of course, not every natural disaster has such an effect. The Bam earthquake in Iran, for example, led to no diplomatic thaw -- neither did the French heat wave of 2003 nor hurricane Katrina in 2005.
This leads to an interesting question for a dissertation -- under what circumstances will a truly exogenous shock lead to a lessening of international or internal conflicts?
The December 2004 tsunami presents an interesting comparative case study. In Indonesia, Nick Meo reports for the Australian on the budding peace in Aceh:
The head of the feared Indonesian military in Aceh was doing what was almost unthinkable only a year ago: telling its people that the war - one of Asia's longest and, until last year's tsunami, most intractable - was over.Thinks have not worked out quite as well in Sri Lanka, as the Economist observes:
One year on from the tsunami that devastated large parts of Sri Lanka, killing more than 30,000 there, the South Asian island’s people are facing another looming disaster: the revival of a brutal civil war that has killed around 65,000 since it began 22 years ago. A fragile ceasefire, brokered by the government of Norway three years ago, is close to breaking-point after a string of recent attacks by the Tamil Tiger rebels, who are fighting for an independent homeland in the north and east of the island.I have absolutely zero knowledge about either conflict, but I do find it interesting that the tsunami clearly pushed one case towards a more peaceful equilibrium while having no appreciable effect on the other case.
Looking at both cases, John Quiggin proposes a different dissertation topic:
It would be a salutory effort to look over the wars, revolutions and civil strife of the last sixty years and see how many of the participants got an outcome (taking account of war casualties and so on) better than the worst they could conceivably have obtained through negotiation and peaceful agitation. Given the massively negative-sum nature of war, I suspect the answer is “Few, if any”.
Monday, January 2, 2006
Talk about frozen in time
When I was living in Ukraine in the early nineties, Russia was trying to exploit Ukraine's dependence on Russian energy to extract economic and political concessions from that country -- minor things like control over key industrial groupings and the Black Sea Fleet. Russia and the government gas provider, Gazprom, would periodically threaten to shut off supplies.
While it sounds like Russia had all the leverage, there was one problem -- Russia exported much of its gas to Southern and Eastern Europe through the gas pipeline that ran through Ukraine -- and Russia could do very little to prevent Ukraine from siphoning off these supplies... except bluster a bit.
Now, back then, all of the involved parties would muddle through -- Ukraine would proffer some token concessions without making its economy more energy-efficient, Gazprom would punt on raising prices in the near abroad, and the crisis would be deferred for a year.
Let's see what develops this year.
UPDATE: Well, that was fast:
A heavily-criticised Russia on Monday promised to restore full gas supplies to Europe after Germany warned that its dispute with Ukraine over deliveries could hurt its long-term credibility as an energy supplier.
"We stress that the additional delivery of gas is not designed for Ukrainian consumers but is meant for transit through the territory of Ukraine for delivery to consumers outside the borders of Ukraine."