Saturday, January 14, 2006

And the dumbest thing said by a Senator is.....

The hardworking staff here at would like to thank the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee for their performance this past week. They provided a lot of grist for contest-entrants and commentators alike.

It's telling that the week ended with numerous pieces on how to improve the confirmation process -- even though Alito proved relatively forthcoming in his answers. Dahlia Lithwick reminds Democratic Senators that members of the Federalist Society are not teeming with hate and rage; T.A. Frank suggested at TNR Online that the way to rescue the dignity of the hearings is to remove television from the equation.

My one good government suggestion -- give both the majority and minority counsel for the Judiciary Committee an hour or two to question the nominee. That'll never happen, of course, but it might actually generate some useful back-and-forth.

Now, on to the contest -- on Monday, readers were encouraged to submit "the single dumbest thing a Senator says during the hearings." A lot of very worthy entrants were submitted. In the end however, there can be only one.

And the Senator who said the dumbest thing is.....

Congratulations to Senator Diane Feinstein of California for this exchange with Alito:

FEINSTEIN: So if I understand this, you essentially said that you wanted to follow precedent, newly established law in this area. And you left a little hedge that if Congress made findings in that law, then that might be a different situation.

If Congress did make findings, would you have agreed that that statute would been constitutional?

ALITO: What I said in the opinion and what I will reiterate this afternoon is that it would have been a very different case for me. I don't think I can express an opinion on how I would have decided a hypothetical case.

FEINSTEIN: It's not hypothetical. I'm just asking you, if there were findings as you said, you might have sustained the law.

ALITO: And I reiterate that...

FEINSTEIN: And I'm just asking you would you have sustained the law...

ALITO: I don't think that I can give you a definitive answer to the question because that involves a case that's different from the case that came before me.

Feinstein had some tough competition -- The Kennedy/Specter exchange over mail delivery, Tom Coburn's auto accident metaphor, anything that came out of Chuck Schumer's mouth, and what I can only figure was Joe Biden's attempt to win a bet in which he could use the word "Princeton" in every sentence he used for an hour. And I confess I might be biased in favor of Feinstein because of her runner-up status during the Roberts confirmation. Let me stress that dumber things might have been said this week -- but the folks here at could only judge the submissions we received.

In the end, Feinstein's ability to deny the existence of a hypothetical in her question about... a hypothetical was what swayed the judges. To be fair, Feinstein was talking about a counterfactual, but I think it's safe to say that counterfactuals were included in Altio's definition of hypotheticals.

Congratulations to Millers Time for being the first to submit the winning entry! [What's his prize?--ed. What all bloggers desire -- links and attention! Plus, you gotta check out this other post of his -- it's the funniest blonde joke I've ever seen.

posted by Dan at 10:44 AM | Comments (14) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, January 13, 2006

Why are Americans better at FDI?

Matthew Higgins, Thomas Klitgaard, and Cédric Tille have an article in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York's December 2005 edition of Current Issues in Economics and Finance on net flows in international investment income. Given the fact that foreigners currently have a net claim on $2.5 trillion in U.S. assets, onme would expect the U.S. to be paying out a lot more in interest, dividends, and profits to foreigners than Americans would receive from their investments.

The weird thing is that, so far, this hasn't been true. Last year the U.S. earned $36 billion more on their foreign investments than foreigners earned in the United States. The question is, why?

Higgins et al have a simple answer and a more complex answer. The simple answer is that foreigners are investing heavily in fixed-income, interest-bearing assets, while Americans concentrate their outflows in riskier but more rewarding areas -- foreign direct investment and foreign portfolio investment. This result is actually consistent with a point I was trying to make before about the comparative advantage Americans hold in risk attitudes.

What really intrigues me, however, is this fact -- even if one limits the discussion to FDI, Americans do better abroad than foreigners do here:

[T]he rate of return on U.S.FDI assets has consistently been higher than that on FDI liabilities (Chart 4). Since 1982, the rate of return on FDI assets has, on average, exceeded that on FDI liabilities by 5.6 percentage points, and not once during this period has the differential dropped below 3.2 percentage points. Surprisingly, perhaps, there is no consensus about the reason for this large and persistent difference in rates of return....

Since 2000, the U.S. rate of return on FDI has risen from 5.4 percent to 8.6 percent, an increase of 3.2 percentage points; the foreign rate of return on FDI in the United States has risen from 2.0 percent to 4.3 percent, an increase of 2.3 percentage points.Had rates of return on FDI remained at their 2000 values, U.S. net income receipts would have been $33 billion lower in 2004....

Seeking to shed light on the puzzle, we examine FDI returns by industry and country. Unfortunately, our analysis deepens the puzzle rather than solves it: with few exceptions, the U.S. rate of return advantage holds across industries and countries. of U.S. firms at about the advanced-economy average.

This puzzle is pretty damn important. The gap in returns is significant enough so that Harvard economists Ricardo Hausmann and Federico Sturzenegger talking about this as "dark matter", explaining why the U.S. has been able to run a persistent current account deficit without any decline in the U.S. surplus on investment income.

Higgins et al proffer some possible explanations -- tax differentials, less experienced foreign investors, U.S. firms are better governed and more efficient, or the U.S. market is just more competitive and so profits will be lower here. Only the last argument persuades me much.

Higgins et al also don't think this situation will persist. Haussman and Sturzenegger, on the other hand, push the argument that US has a comparative advantage in FDI very hard:

Imagine the construction of EuroDisney at the cost of 100 million (the numbers are imaginary). Imagine also, for the sake of the argument that these resources were borrowed abroad at, say, a 5% rate of return. Once EuroDisney is in operation it yields 20 cents on the dollar. The investment generates a net income flow of 15 cents on the dollar but the BEA [Bureau of Economic Analysis] would say that the net foreign assets position would be equal to zero. We would say that EuroDisney in reality is not worth 100 million (what BEA would value it) but four times that (the capitalized value at our 5% rate of the 20 million per year that it earns). BEA is missing this and therefore grossly understates net assets. Why can EuroDisney earn such a return? Because the investment comes with a substantial amount of know-how, brand recognition, expertise, research and development and also with our good friends Mickey and Donald. This know-how is a source of dark matter. It explains why the US can earn more on its assets than it pays on its liabilities and why foreigners cannot do the same. We would say that the US exported 300 million in dark matter and is making a 5 percent return on it. The point is that in the accounting of FDI, the know-how than makes investments particularly productive is poorly accounted for....

In a nut shell our story is very simple. The income generated by a country’s financial position is a good measure of the true value of its assets. Once assets are valued accordingly, the US appears to be a net creditor, not a net
debtor and its net foreign asset position appears to have been fairly stable over the last 20 years. The bulk of the difference with the official story comes from the unaccounted export of knowhow carried out by US corporations through their investments abroad, explaining why the US appears to be a consistently smarter investor, making more money on its assets than it pays on its liabilities and why the rest of the world cannot wise up. In addition, the value of this dark matter seems to be rather stable, indicating that they are likely to continue to compensate for the measured trade deficit.

Globalization has made the flows of dark matter a very significant part of the story and the traditional measures of current account balances paint a very distorted picture of reality. In particular, it points towards imbalances that are not really there, making analysts predict crises that, for good reason, remain elusive.

They might be right -- but they don't have any evidence that this is true beyond the persistence in the gap between U.S. and foreign rates of return in FDI.

This is a really, really interesting puzzle, however -- and I'm very surprised some B-school professor hasn't written something so definitive on the topic that the book is a must-read. Maybe I'm out of it, but I haven't seen any book like this.

In lieu of a tome, commenters are free to figure out and post on this puzzle for themselves.

posted by Dan at 12:16 PM | Comments (14) | Trackbacks (0)

I'm asserting that you should read this

The Project for Excellence in Journalism, an institute affiliated with Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has released its State of the News Media 2005 online.

Here's a link to the executive summary, in which five trends are delineated. Here are two of them:

There are now several models of journalism, and the trajectory increasingly is toward these which are faster, looser, and cheaper. The traditional press model—the Journalism of Verification—is one in which journalists are concerned first with trying to substantiate facts. It has ceded ground for years on talk shows and cable to a new Journalism of Assertion, where information is offered with little time or attempt to independently verify its veracity. Consider the allegations by the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” and the time lag of weeks required in reporting to find the claims were unsubstantiated. The blogosphere, while adding the richness of citizen voices, expands this culture of assertion exponentially, and brings to it an affirmative philosophy: publish anything, especially point of view, and the reporting and verification will occur afterward in the response of fellow bloggers. The result is sometimes true and sometimes false. Blogs helped unmask errors at CBS, but also spread the unfounded conspiracy theory that the GOP stole the presidential election in Ohio. All this makes it easier for those
who would manipulate public opinion—government, interest groups and corporations—to deliver unchecked messages through independent outlets or their own faux-news web sites, video and text news releases and paid commentators....

The rise in partisanship of news consumption and the notion that people have retreated to their ideological corners for news has been widely exaggerated. A year ago we mentioned a third, older form of news regaining momentum—the Journalism of Affirmation. Here the news is gathered with a point of view, whether acknowledged or not, and audiences come to have their preconceptions reinforced. In 2004, this notion gained new force when Pew Research Center survey data revealed that Republicans and conservatives had become more distrustful of the news media over the past four years, while the perceptions of Democrats, moderates and liberals had remained about the same. This led to the popular impression that independent journalism was giving way to a European style partisan press, in which some Americans consume Red Media and others Blue. The evidence suggests this perception is grandly overstated. The overwhelming majority of Americans say they prefer an
independent, non-partisan news media. So, apparently, do advertisers and investors. In addition, distrusting the media does not correlate to how or Not only do Republicans and Democrats consume most news media outlets in similar levels, but those in both parties who distrust the news media are often heavier consumers of these outlets than those who are more trusting. The only exceptions to this are talk radio and cable news, where Republicans
have tended to congregate in one place, Fox. For most other media, the political orientation of the audience mirrors the population. The political make up of the network news audience, for instance, matches that of the Weather Channel.

I'll leave the assertive responses to this report to the commentators.

posted by Dan at 12:01 PM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

The unasked question about Mexican expatriates

Lurking among the many fears of anti-immigration advocates -- and Sam Huntington -- is the fear that the large influx of Mexican immigrants into this country will have divided loyalties -- or worse, develop no sense of American identity. Another fear is that this is a conscious policy of the Mexican government in order to wield influence in the United States.

This brings me to a story by Oscar Avila and Hugh Dellios in the Chicago Tribune about Mexican government efforts to get expats to vote in Mexican elections. Apparently it's not going so well:

At a registration drive in Pilsen, radio host Javier Salas tried to energize his countrymen about their historic opportunity to vote in Chicago for their homeland's next president. "Let's hear it!" he shouted into his microphone Thursday. "Viva Mexico!"

But Salas later acknowledged that few are tuning in to that message: Three days before the registration deadline, it appears that the widely heralded debut of Mexican expatriate voting has fizzled.

Since registration started in October, only about 15,500 Mexicans in the U.S. have registered to vote by mail in the July presidential election, of an estimated 4 million eligible voters.

When the Mexican Congress approved the plan last year, organizers predicted a turnout of about 300,000 voters....

It's possible that many would-be voters are waiting until the last minute, election officials say, or that the final publicity push will create momentum.

But for now, an experiment billed as a celebration of Mexican democracy has devolved into fingerpointing on both sides of the border, while casting doubts on the commitment of expatriates to their homeland.

No one seems happy with the process, which required immigrants to register by paid certified mail and travel to Mexico to get electoral cards, effectively shutting out undocumented immigrants, who cannot easily go home.

"This has all been a failure," grumbled activist Oscar Tellez of the Chicago-based United Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. "It is better to have no vote than this turnout."

The hand-wringing has spread to Mexico, where lawmakers and pundits have questioned whether it is worth the government's expense to organize expatriate voting when so few signed up. Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute has spent $10 million on organizing the effort.

The story blames cumbersome bureaucratic procedures for the low turnout, but I have to wonder -- how much of this is due to the fact that Mexicans coming to the United States don't really care about Mexican politics any more?

posted by Dan at 08:41 AM | Comments (11) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Should Cuba play in the World Baseball Classic?

I wrote about the World Baseball Classic back in July, so I suppose I should comment on the recent low-level decision to ban Cuba from participating in the 16-game tournament, and whether this is the right thing to do or not. Short answer -- yes, let the Cubans play even if they make a buck off of it.

This is a post of obligation, however, because it requires me to talk about one of my least favorite topics -- the Cuba embargo.

Some background: for the "Yes, let's ban them," go check out Roberto González Echevarría's op-ed in the New York Times from earlier this week (hat tip to David Pinto, who's been keeping close tabs on the issue). For the "let 'em play" argument, check out prett much any sportswriter you can find -- Sports Illustrated's Frank DeFord is serviceable enough here.

Those who want to ban Cuba have a leg to stand on. There's no question that the Castro regime is pretty thuggish. And there's some evidence that denying them opportunities like participation in the World Baseball Classic could have a negative effect on the Castro regime. There's a scholarly literature out there that argues the apartheid regime in South Africa lost its base of support once they were banned from various sporting events, including the Olympics.

The thing is, the World Baseball Classic is just getting started, so I don't think preventing Cuba from participating will have much of an effect on the regime -- whereas it would have a deleterious effect on the tournament itself. The International Baseball Federation is threatening to pull its imprimatur from the event, which could trigger the withdrawal of other countries.

More importantly, denying them from participating is a self-inflicted wound. The WBC is a rare opportunity to highlight the common sports heritage the U.S. shares with Latin America and the Pacific Rim. It's an opportunity to popularize a sport that originated in the United States. It's even, dare I say, a chance for the United States to build up a little soft power -- if our pitching holds up.

This is particularly true with regard to Cuba. Consider:

1) While their best players might be good enough for Olympic gold medals in baseball, they're going to face American and Dominican squads stacked with all-stars if they participate in the WBC. My hunch is that they won't do so well in the standings.

2) Their delegation is going to be obsessed with not having any of their players defect in the middle of such a sporting event.

3) Anyone who thinks the Cuban regime is loathsome should feel free to protest that fact at their games.

Let the Cubans play ball -- and let them get their butts whipped.

posted by Dan at 11:07 PM | Comments (12) | Trackbacks (0)

Michael Ignatieff.... politician

David Sax has an essay on Foreign Policy's web site about Harvard Professor Michael Ignatieff's quixotic move towards politics. Ignatieff is the flip-side of all the anti-war/anti-Bush protestors who threatened to move to Canada and then didn't; he supported the war but has decided to move to Canada... and run for Parliament:

Canadians normally don’t get fired up about foreign policy in their parliamentary elections. Then again, Michael Ignatieff is not a normal candidate. Last fall, the professor left his post as director of Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy to run for parliament in his native Canada. His new office is in a bare-bones campaign headquarters on an industrial corner in suburban Toronto, where he prepares for the January 23 election. Ignatieff, a Liberal Party candidate who is considered by many to be one of the best minds Canada has ever produced, wants Canada to assume a greater role in world affairs....

“In the foreign policy of the 21st century, the key thing to be is a producer of good ideas,” says Ignatieff. “As a middle power, our policy is not leveraged by power but by ideas.” Unfortunately for Ignatieff, many Canadians don’t like his ideas. Ignatieff supported the Iraq war, which an overwhelming majority of his compatriots opposed. He backed the proposed continental missile defense shield, which the Liberal government refused to endorse. And he’s been taking heat for his controversial endorsement of interrogation techniques such as sleep deprivation that are, he says, “lesser evils” than torture. His critics paint him as a neocon in humanitarian clothing. At his nomination rally in late November, hecklers shouted, “American,” “Torture lite,” and “Illegal war.”

The heckling set the tone for a tumultuous campaign. Already tagged as a carpetbagger (he has never lived in the district in which he’s running) handpicked by the Liberal Party, Ignatieff hurt himself when he told the Harvard Crimson that he might return to Harvard if he were to lose—a statement he later retracted, saying it was a joke. Still, the comment helped his opponents who portray him as disloyal to Canada. Rather unexpectedly, he has also faced protesters who claim his 1993 book on ethnic nationalism, Blood and Belonging, is insulting to Ukrainians, a group that accounts for 7 percent of his district.

If he wins, even bigger challenges await; there is already talk of Ignatieff eventually becoming leader of the Liberal Party. But Ottawa is not Harvard, and if elected, Ignatieff would find it difficult to bring his ideals into policy. “[It] will be a test of whether principled intelligence can survive the Lilliputian reality of Canadian politics,” wrote the columnist Robert Sibley in the Ottawa Citizen at the start of the campaign.

Ignatieff is aware of the difficulties. “I’ve gone into politics to test what you can achieve if you believe certain things,” says Ignatieff. “If I’m asked to do stuff that just seems to be in the dishonorable compromise realm, then I should get out. If I forget these noble words, my wife will kick me in the backside.” That is, only if the voters don’t do so first.

Ignatieff is in a can't lose situation. Wither he wins and climbs the ladder of Liberal Party politics -- or he loses and writes a book that's excerpted in the New York Times Magazine about what it's like to be a candidate who speaks truth to power.

posted by Dan at 09:55 AM | Comments (21) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The good news about avian flu

There have been a series of avian flu cases reported in Turkey over the past week, and oddly enough there's been some good news from this development.

First, World Health Organization officials are convnced that this isn't a sign of human-to-human transmission:

World Health Organisation (WHO) officials said that the 14 cases of avian flu recently discovered in Turkey were contracted through contact with infected animals and that there is absolutely no evidence that human-to-human transmission is occurring.

The officials said there are different locations where the outbreaks have been confirmed, showing that it is poultry that is infected and that the deadly disease continued to be spread by infected birds and not through contamination between humans.

Link via Glenn Reynolds, who has more here about US preparedness. I remain convinced that calling for the US to engage in crash preparedness can lead to more harm than good.

Second, Elizabeth Rosenthal of the International Herald-Tribune reports on a very interesting development among some of the avian flu diagnoses -- they're not getting sick:

Two young brothers, aged 4 and 5, are being closely watched at the gleaming new Kecioren Hospital here, a police car at the entrance guarding a potential scientific treasure. Though both boys have tested positive for the H5N1 virus after contact with sick birds, neither has any symptoms of the frequently deadly disease.

Doctors are unsure if - for the first time - they are seeing human bird flu in its earliest stages, or if they are discovering that infection with the H5N1 virus does not necessarily lead to illness.

In any case, the unusual cluster of five cases detected in this capital city over the last three days is challenging some doctors' assumptions about bird flu and giving them new insights into how the virus spreads and causes disease.

These cases have raised the possibility that human bird flu is not as deadly as has been thought, and that there may be many mild cases that have gone unreported....

A study released Tuesday in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggested that the H5N1 virus might cause a wide spectrum of disease, but that doctors in Asia might only detect the severest cases, the ones that went to the hospital. The four children in Ankara bolster that theory

Here's a link to the medical study abstract cited in the article. Their conclusion is a touch more neutral: "Our epidemiological data are consistent with transmission of mild, highly pathogenic avian influenza to humans and suggest that transmission could be more common than anticipated, though close contact seems required. Further microbiological studies are needed to validate these findings."


posted by Dan at 11:39 AM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

A very important post about.... how I wasted an hour today

So I stumbled across today -- which claims to have a face recognition program that lets you upload a photo and tells you which celebrities you look like.

Of course, I couldn't resist. After uploading the picture on the front of the web site, here's the list of celebs I was told I resemble:

Matt LeBlanc
Dustin Hoffman
Antonio Banderas
Usama bin Laden
George Clooney
Pierce Brosnan
Jason Biggs
Roberto Rossellini
Hugh Grant
Tom Stoppard
If you've managed to contain yourself to this point, well, you have better self restraint than I.

Needless to say, their technology appears to be heavily dependent upon the angle of the face in the photo, hair length, facial hair, the presence of eyeglasses, etc. In other words, it's pretty much rubbish. When I uploaded a Salma Hayek photo, the program declared her to be only a 74% match with... Salma Hayek.

So this was a waste of time..... until I realized that I could upload pictures of other bloggers and see who they resembled. The resulting lists of names are pretty friggin' funny.

Glenn Reynolds:

Ward Cunningham
Yossi Beilin
Alan Alda
John Major
Franz Kafka
Pierre Curie
Linus Torvalds (this was the one photo where I really thought the program worked)
Marshall McLuhan
Sidney Lumet
Henry Kissinger
Virginia Postrel:
Diane Keaton
Eva Peron
Alicia Keys
Agam Rudberg
Renee Zellweger
Meryl Streep
Preity Zinta
Andie MacDowell
Andrew Sullivan -- no matches. I tried two different photos, and Andrew stumped the computer.

Matthew Yglesias:

Leonardo DiCaprio
River Phoenix
Danny Elfman
Orlando Bloom
Vaclav Havel
Elton John
Tyler Cowen
Boris Trajkovski
Rudolph Nureyev
Benjamin Netanyahu
Cary Grant
Alec Baldwin
Benicio Del Toro
Zoran Djindjic
Kevin Bacon
Arvo Part
Roy Orbison
Ana Marie Cox:
Annette Bening
Kirsten Dunst
Angelina Jolie
Gwyneth Paltrow
Megan McArdle:
Katie Holmes
Neve Campbell
Liv Tyler
Demi Moore
Grace Kelly
Kate Winslet
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
Lauren Bacall
Oh, and as a final check, I uploaded this photo of Henry Farrell and myself:

Henry and Dan.jpg

For Henry:

George Clooney
Art Garfunkel
Michael Jackson
Heitor Villa-Lobos
George Lazenby
Chet Baker
For myself: Henry
David Thoreau
Federico Garcia Lorca
Shahrukh Kahn
Chet Baker
Michael Douglas
Keanu Reeves

posted by Dan at 11:53 PM | Comments (24) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, January 9, 2006

Those young, whiny whippersnappers

I'm roughly the same age as Daniel Gross, and I'm not surprised to see that I had roughly the same reaction as he had in Slate to the latest Generation Y laments about how hard it is to find a financially rewarding job:

The economic jeremiad written by a twentysomething is a cyclical phenomenon. People who graduate into a recessionary/post-bubble economy inevitably find the going tough, which compounds the usual postgraduate angst. And with their limited life experience and high expectations, they tend to extrapolate a lifetime from a couple of years. I know. Back in the early 1990s, when my cohort and I were making our way into the workforce in a recessionary, post-bubble environment, I wrote an article on precisely the same topic for Swing, the lamentable, deservedly short-lived David Lauren twentysomething magazine. If memory serves, the headline was something like "Generation Debt."....

Now, today's twentysomething authors are clearly onto something. College is more expensive today in real terms. There's been a shift in student aid—more loans and fewer grants. The Baby Boomers, closer to retirement, are sucking up more dollars in benefits. There's more income volatility and job insecurity than there used to be. So, why are these books—Generation Debt in particular—annoying?

....[M]any of the economic issues the authors identify—job insecurity, low savings rate, income volatility, the massive ongoing benefits cram-down—affect everybody, not just twentysomethings. And the people hurt most by these escalating trends aren't young people starting out. They're folks in their 50s and 60s, middle-managers at Delphi whose careers have ended, coal miners in West Virginia who face death on the job, the people at IBM who just saw their pensions frozen.

Today's twentysomethings, by contrast, have their whole lives in front of them. Want a cheaper house? Quit Manhattan and move to Hartford, Conn. Want to make more money? Pick a different field.

In [Anya] Kamenetz's book [Generation Debt: Why Now Is a Terrible Time To Be Young], there are plenty of poor, self-pitying upper-middle-class types, disappointed that they can't have exactly what they want when they want it. Sure, it's tough to live well as a violinist or a grad student in New York today; but the same thing held 20 years ago, and 40 years ago. To improve their lot, twentysomethings have to do the same things their parents should be doing: saving more, spending less, building skills that are marketable, and aligning aspirations with abilities. It's tough to have a bourgeois life at 26....

Kamenetz complains that: "No employer has yet offered me a full-time job with a 401(k), a paid vacation, or any other benefits beyond the next assignment. I have a savings account but no retirement fund. I can't afford preschool fees or a mortgage anywhere near the city where I live and work." Of course, Kamenetz doesn't have kids to send to preschool. And chances are, by the time she does, she'll be able to afford preschool fees. Most people in their 20s don't realize that their incomes will rise over time (none of the people I know who have six-figure incomes today had them when they were 25), that they will marry or form a partnership with somebody else, thus increasing their income, and that they may get over having to live in the hippest possible neighborhood.

Look. It's tough coming out of Ivy League schools to New York and making your way in the world. The notion that you can be—and have to be—the author of your own destiny is both terrifying and exhilarating. And for those without marketable skills, who lack social and intellectual capital, the odds are indeed stacked against them. But someone like Kamenetz, who graduated from Yale in 2002, doesn't have much to kvetch about. In the press materials accompanying the book, she notes that just after she finished the first draft, her boyfriend "proposed to me on a tiny, idyllic island off the coast of Sweden." She continues: "As I write this, boxes of china and flatware, engagement gifts, sit in our living room waiting to go into storage because they just won't fit in our insanely narrow galley kitchen. We spent a whole afternoon exchanging the inevitable silver candlesticks and crystal vases, heavy artifacts of an iconic married life that still seems to have nothing to do with ours." The inevitable silver candlesticks? Too much flatware to fit in the kitchen? We should all have such problems.

Lest one think Gross is being overly Panglossian about the economy, click on his blog. [But you're Panglossia about life in your thirties, right?--ed. No, families and potentially higher incomes do not come without their tradeoffs.] His larger point, however, is that people -- particularly educated people who try to write books in their twenties -- tend to make a significant move up the income chain when they hit their thirties.

UPDATE: Check out Gross' e-mail exchange with Kamenetz on the latter's blog. Kamenetz thinks she can "declare victory," after the exchange, but I don't find her response either persuasive or elegant.

One last point -- the crux of the issue appears to be the rising cost of college education. There is no doubt that the retail price of a 4-year college education at a private university has drastically risen over the past two decades. However, that overlooks a few key questions:

1) What percentage of college students pay the retail price? To what extent does student aid reduce the burden, even if there's been a shift towards "more loans and fewer grants"?

2) To what extent is tuition at a four-year competitive state institution out of the reach of middle-class America?

3) Given the rising gap in wages between those with a college education and those without, doesn't a rising premium on college tuition make sense?

posted by Dan at 10:04 PM | Comments (42) | Trackbacks (0)

Senate Judiciary Committee contest!!!

Ah, I see that Samuel Altio's confirmation hearings begin before the Senate Judiciary Committee today.

When the hearings were held for John Roberts last year, there was a lot of silliness uttered by a lot of people -- mostly members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

So, the hard-working staff here at announces its first contest -- finding the single dumbest thing a Senator says during the hearings.

For example, my winner for the Roberts confirmation would have been Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who averred, "[I am using] my observational capabilities as a physician to know that your answers have been honest and forthright as I watch the rest of your body respond to the stress that you're under." Diane Feinstein gave Coburn a run for his money, but this was stupidity in its purest form.

So, listen closely and post your nominations in the comments below. Be sure to provide a link to the source of the quotation for our legal staff here. [What does the winner receive?--ed. Hmmm.... suggest your own reward as well, and I'll see what the staff can whip up.]

To kick things off, consider this example from Patrick Leahy's opening statement:

Last October, the President succumbed to partisan pressure from the extreme right of his party by withdrawing his nomination of Harriet Miers. By withdrawing her nomination and substituting this one, the President has allowed his choice to be vetoed by an extreme faction within his party, before hearings or a vote. That eye-opening experience for the country demonstrated what a vocal faction of the Republican Party really wants: They do not want an independent federal judiciary. They demand judges who will guarantee the results that they want.
Right. I'm pretty sure that:
a) Opposition to Harriet Miers was across the board;

b) The most significant pressure came from.... members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

c) Patrick Leahy apparently believes that all NARAL really wants is for justices to "vote their conscience."

This should be an easy one to top -- get to it, readers!!!

UPDATE: Click here to find out who won!

posted by Dan at 01:03 PM | Comments (51) | Trackbacks (0)

Sunday, January 8, 2006

Talk about reviewer whiplash

So do I go buy Ana Marie Cox's novel Dog Days? The dearly departed Wonkette has already cost me a great deal of money when I made the mistake of letting her order the menu at the dinner after our APSA blog panel from 2004. Should I plunk down an additional $17.00?

Well, Christopher Buckley -- who knows a thing or two about comic novels set in DC -- says yes in the New York Times Book Review:

In "Dog Days," Cox's brisk, smart, smutty, knowing and very well-written first novel, the 28-year-old protagonist Melanie Thorton, a Democratic presidential campaign staffer, diverts media attention from her candidate's political troubles - and her own romantic ones - by creating a fictitious blog supposedly written by a local libertine calling herself Capitolette. (Yes, rhymes with toilette.)

....At times, Melanie sounds like a funnier, more self-knowing Maureen Dowd. And I like Maureen Dowd....

I don't spend much time in the old blogosphere myself, and to be honest hadn't clicked onto Wonkette until now. But if this sparkly, witty - occasionally vicious - little novel is any indication of Wonkette's talent, then Cox ought to log out of cyberspace and start calling herself Novelette.

Sounds promising.

But wait!! P.J. O'Rourke, writing in the Washington Post Book Review, dissents:

Washington's pretensions, blown so large in skins so thin, should produce bursts of hilarity when poked with the dullest of tools, and Dog Days is that....

Ana Marie Cox made her name writing a political blog, I've never seen it. As far as I can tell, no one has. Admitting reading political blogs is like admitting watching daytime TV. Yet somehow, as with "Oprah," everyone knows all about Wonkette....

Creative writing teachers should be purged until every last instructor who has uttered the words "Write what you know" is confined to a labor camp. Please, talented scribblers, write what you don't. The blind guy with the funny little harp who composed The Iliad, how much combat do you think he saw?

But in Dog Days 's favor -- and there must be something -- Cox has written a stirring polemic for those who think Washington is inherently mindless and greedy and who believe that the dim, envious, self-cherishing mess that is politics should be employed only as society's last, desperate resort. In this, Dog Days is comparable to Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom. Albeit the prose makes Hayek's seem elegant and pellucid. But Hayek's first language was German. Cox's first language is blog.

Well, this is a quandry. Furthermore, if you read both reviews, you'll find many positive nuggets contained within O'Rourke's pan and quite a few backhand compliments contained in Buckley's thumbs-up.

In the end, I suspect I'll grab a copy, because a) The excerpts I've seen do match Cox's spicy wit; and b) The last political novel I recall O'Rourke panning was Primary Colors -- which wasn't a great work of literature but is an extraordinary read and remains, in my opinion, the piece of writing that best captures Bill Clinton (and this includes his memoirs). So, I'm going to judge Buckley's acumen as slightly more on target than O'Rourke.

That said, P.J. does have a paragraph that goes a good way towards explaining why there are so few good novels set inside the beltway:

The problem is that fiction, especially comic fiction, concerns why people do what they do. The more unlikely or bizarre the reasons the heart has, the better. Why people do what they do in Washington is so obvious that a beginner novelist would be advised to take up a subject that involves more complex motivations. Breathing, for example.
This might answer the question Chrisopher Lehmann raised a few months ago in The Washington Monthly about the state of American political fiction.

Lehmann, of course, is Ana Marie Cox's husband.

Ah, now the circle is complete.

posted by Dan at 11:01 AM | Comments (11) | Trackbacks (0)