Saturday, March 4, 2006

Your Oscar predictions for 2006

Continuing an annual tradition here at since 2003, let's get right to our Independent Spirit Academy Award predictions for this Sunday night's event.

In contrast to last year, I'm pleased to report that my lovely wife and I were able to see almost all of the major films nominated this year. Naturally, it seems that this was unnecessary, since a lot of the races appear to be mortal locks of one kind or another. There isn't even a lot of controversy this year. [What about the Boston Globe op-ed by Michael Kalin asserting that Oscar host Jon Stewart is bad for the body politic?--ed. Oh, you mean the op-ed that presented an absurd thesis and provided exactly zero empirical evidence to support the argument? No, the only controversy is whether a) Kalin used compromising photos of someone on the Globe's editorial staff to crack the op-ed page (this would explain a lot of bizarre editorial decisions at major newspapers); and b) whether any of my readers can dig up an even dumber op-ed published this calendar year.]

As always, the hardworking staff here at provides two lists -- who will win and who should win.

Best Supporting Actor
Will win: George Clooney, Syrianna
Should win: Paul Giamatti, Cinderella Man

Clooney was a triple threat this year, he's been a bankable movie star for five years, he put on 40 lbs. to play the role, and he gets under the skin of Bill O'Reilly. Is there any doubt?

Giamatti wins it in my book for degree of difficulty. He's in a cliche-ridden movie (Erika and I always have a good laugh when one of us looks at the other and says, "You're the champion of my heart" in our best faux-Jersey accent) playing a stock character of long-suffering but loyal sidekick. He still makes the guy compelling. That's acting.

Best Supporting Actress
Will win: Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener
Should win: Catherine Keener, Capote and The 40-Year Old Virgin

Weisz has picked up all the pre-Oscar awards, so she seems to be a lock for this one and can I just say I don't get it? I mean, OK, she's perfectly serviceable in the role, and Lord knows, she's easy on the eyes. Unlike Giamatti, however, she never seemed to add anything unique or interesting to the stock role of passionate crusader. Michelle Williams was much more compelling in Brokeback Mountain.

Keener, however, deserves the Oscar for playing two wildly divergent parts. She's all quite and stillness in Capote -- but I'd rather she win for The 40-Year Old Virgin. It's the toughest part in the movie to play (well, next to Steve Carrell), and yet she completely pulls off the "hot grandma" role.

Best Actor:
Will win: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote
Should win: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote

Drezner's First Law of Oscar: Whenever there's a close race between two actors -- neither of whom has won an Oscar before -- the award will always go to the guy with the longer and better track record. Between Hoffman and Heath Ledger, this means Hoffman [Does this law hold for actresses?--ed. No, that's Drezner's Second Law of Oscar: whenever there's a close race between two actresses -- neither of whom has won an Oscar before -- the hotter actress wins. I'm not saying it's right -- I'm saying that's the way it is.]

In this case, Hoffman's win will be well-deserved. For me, the scene that clinched it was his diatribe at the bar to Harper Lee at the opening of To Kill a Mockingbird. That scene was Capote at his most loathsome, a harbinger of the dissolute, drnk narcissist he would become after In Cold Blood was released. Hoffman is willing to make his character completely unlikeable to service the movie.

In the end, it comes to this: I can see Hoffman playing Ledger's character in Brokeback -- whereas I can't see Ledger playing Capote.

Best Actress
Will win: Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line
Should win: Maria Bello, A History of Violence

On Witherspoon, see what I wrote about George Clooney, and add the fact that she's a comedienne playing a dramatic role. Unless you're Jim Carrey, that's Oscar gold, baby.

I still can't believe Bello did not score a nomination -- and I didn't even like A History of Violence. You could argue that Bello had a supporting role, but given the weak field this year in the best actress category, I think she belongs here.

Best Director
Will win: Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain
Should win: Tie, Lee and Bennett Miller, Capote

Ang Lee directing Brokeback was the perfect marriage of style to material, and he does a fine job. However, for my money MIller does something remarkable in Capote. Visually, the movie grabs your attention in the first half, especially in the contrast between the New York skyline and the flat Kansas landscape. As you begin to identify and understand the characters, however, Miller starts using more close-ups, focusing your attention on the people rather than the place. It's an arresting piece of work.

Best Picture
Will win: Brokeback Mountain
Should win: Tie, Capote and The 40-Year Old Virgin

I liked Brokeback a lot -- though to give Mickey Kaus some ammo, when I told my hetero friends that I was going to see it they almost instinctively recoiled in horror. And I'll confess that my affection for Capote might not be generalizable. However, as someone who gets paid to be a detached observer of real-world events, I found the theme of Capote to be much more interesting.

As for The 40-Year Old Virgin, look, it's just the funniest movie of the year.

Enjoy the show!! I'll be sure to post a post-awards update.

POST-AWARDS UPDATE: A few quick thoughts:

1) Worst. Montages. Ever. (except for the cowboy one -- that was quite funny). Grease is an epic???!!! The Day After Tomorrow is on par with All The President's Men??!! Thank God Jon Stewart said, "And none of those problems ever occurred again. Hooray for us."

2) I'm glad an American-sounding name won Best Actress.

3) Jon Stewart was great, George Clooney does self-deprecating well, and Reese Witherspoon veered awfully close to Sally Field-territory. The entire show had an off-kilter feel to it... in that Stewart gently mocked how out of touch Hollywood might be with the rest of the country, while the rest of the show seemed dedicated to proving that Stewart was understating his case. Most bizarre moment -- the slow-motion dance sequence during Kathleen's York's performance of the Crash theme.

4) I was batting 1.000, and then we get to Best Picture. Jack, I swear...

When Nicholson said Crash won Best Picture, it seemed so absurd to me that I was expecting Nicholson to say, "just kidding!" a second later. I dare my readers to name a worst Best Picture winner in the past 25 years. Crash will always be a testament to the effect that good actors can have on a one-dimensional, badly-plotted, didactic pile of Brechtian crap that passed for the script. What the f$%@? Hmmm..... I wonder if Hollywood still has a homophobia problem. [Or Capote and Brokeback split the pro-gay vote!!--ed. No, it looks like Kaus was right, but picked the wrong substitute winner. See also Tyler Cowen.]

5) They should create an Oscar for Best Hair just so Salma Hayek can win it.

LAST UPDATE: James Wolcott concludes: "The true theme of tonight's broadcast: boobies!" Er... I thought that was the theme every year.

posted by Dan at 10:09 AM | Comments (29) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, March 3, 2006

Academic flotsam and jetsam

The following items of interest will only be of interest to academics and academic wanna-bes:

A) Hey, grad students -- go check out Mary McKinney's excellent essay "Academic AWOL" for Inside Higher Ed. It's about how professors and graduate students fall into the black hole of procrastination, and the ways to get out. It's nothing revolutionary, but it might help some to know they're not the only ones suffering from missed deadlines.

McKinney's first three bits of advice are particularly trenchant:

1. Realize that your absence weighs heavier on your mind than the other person’s. Advisors are not losing sleep over late dissertation proposals and journal editors aren’t agonizing over missing manuscripts. The project is more important to you than anyone else.

2. Remember, when you do get in touch, the person is unlikely to be angry and punitive. We tend to be much harsher about our own tardiness than we are about other people’s delays. Advisors know it is difficult to write dissertation drafts. Journal editors are accustomed to academics who take a long time to turn around R&R manuscripts.

3. Lower rather than raise your standards when you’re running late. Don’t try to make your work more polished to make up for taking so long. Just try to get something sent out for feedback. End the cycle by chanting to yourself “A done dissertation is a good dissertation” or “A published paper is the only paper that counts.”

Read well, grad students, or you will learn very quickly the power of Newton's First Law of Graduation.

B) Frau Doktor Professor Eszter Hargittai has a post up on the oddity of being addressed as "Mrs. Hargittai" in correspondence and at conferences:

On occasion, I get emails in which people address me as Mrs. Hargittai. I’m not suggesting that people need know my personal history or preferences. However, if you are going to contact someone in a professional context and they have a Ph.D. and they teach at a university (both of which are very clear on their homepage where you probably got their email address in the first place), wouldn’t you opt for Dr. or Professor?
For the record, as the son of an M.D., I can't stand using "Dr." "Professor" can also sound odd when first addressing a colleague. If I need a gender-specific honorific, however, I use "Ms."

C) Henry Farrell and David Bernstein have posts about whether Universities and academic departments can use the lessons of "Moneyball" as a means of moving up the academic ranks. Within the social sciences, there are certainly examples of this. Rochester's political science department catapaulted into the top ten because there was a time when they were the only ones willing to hire rational choice scholars, for example.

Henry thinks a Moneyball philosophy could move hiring markets away from "winner-take-all" outcomes where two or three people soak up all the extant offers, but doesn't think it will work because academia doesn't have the same quantitative measures as sabremetricians do to measure quantity and quality of output. I think Henry's right on the second point, but for the wrong reason. The problem is not measuring academic productivity. It's that unlike in baseball, academic contracts come in only one of two forms -- six year contracts with an option for a lifetime extension, or just a lifetime contract. Not even Billy Beane would be all that risk-loving in a world where very few professors can be cut, and no professors can be traded.

D) Social scientists should have a field day picking apart the holes in William Stuntz's essay at TNR Online about how the fall of Larry Summers presages the fall of American universities in the global education marketplace. In the essay, what does Stuntz erroneously assume?

1) His experience at Harvard can be generalized to the rest of academia;

2) All academic departments function like the humanities;

3) "Those who go through the motions" in terms of teaching will, for some reason be "more likely to attend the meetings and write the memos and vote on the motions of no confidence?" In my experience, those two facts tend to be negatively rather than positively correlated.

4) Market competition won't work within the United States, but mysteriously, will fuction at the global level -- because other countries have much less government intrusion into the education marketl;

5) All of the above?

Have some fun and dig up some other fallacies of your own!!

E) International Studies Perspectives is like most other academic IR journals, with one quirky exception. On their back cover they publish "PIeces on Our Craft," a humor essay on the absurdities of academia. The targets might be obvious -- a jargon-filled poli sci interpretation of Green Eggs and Ham, for example -- but they're still funny.

If you're at a university, click over to James H. Lebovic's "The Academic Conference: An Irreverent Glossary of Terms." Here's Lebovic's definition of "chair":

The chair is the ringmaster for the festivities. The chair's job is to mispronounce the names of the panelists, keep time, and struggle to stay awake. There are no apparent qualifications for the position of chair, other than owning a watch. Chairs enjoy all the prerogatives of the discussant, and more: chairs can comment on the papers without the pretense of having read them. Still, chairs must justify their existence by warning panelists that time has expired using notes of increasing urgency, knowing that it would be easier to stop a speeding train.
F) If you're at the U of C, pick up the Winter 2006 issue of 1000 Typewriters, published by the Society for Undergraduate Poetry. There's a very amusing poem by one Tobie Harris called "The Economist's Lorax." Here's a snippet from the poem:
Now chopping one tree at a time was too slow
So I quickly invented my Super-Ax Hacker
Which whacked off four Truffula trees at a smacker.
We were making Thneeds four times as fast as before.
And the Lorax?... Pretty soon he was back at my door.
"You fool!" he berated. "Can't you just understand?
Your supply is too high, it exceeds your demand.
It makes no fiscal sense to deforest this land!
My boy, what you need is a good fiscal plan.
If the market you glut, then you lower your price.
Four times as fast may sound awfully nice,
But you'd do a lot better if you heeded some facts,
And started using your brain, instead of an ax.
You've got a monopoly, making these Thneeds.
A larger supply is the last thing you'll need.
You don't need more Thneeds, they're fine as they are
What you need, my boy, is some brand new PR!
UPDATE: Thanks to the commenter who ppinted out that Ms. Harris has posted the entirety of the poem on her blog.

G) Finally, hearty online congratulations to my soon-to-be-former colleague, Jacob Levy (sniff!), for accepting a tenured, endowed chair at McGill University.

That is all.

posted by Dan at 12:18 PM | Comments (16) | Trackbacks (0)

Most interesting sentence of the day
I haven’t encountered any awkward situations yet running around public bathrooms snapping photos, but I can imagine eventually I may get some curious glances.
Eszter Hargittai at Crooked Timber. You'll have to click on the link to see her perfectly innocent explanation.
posted by Dan at 09:35 AM | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, March 2, 2006

Will the India gambit be worth it?

MSNBC is reporting that India and the United States have reached a nuclear deal:

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Bush on Thursday announced an agreement on a landmark nuclear deal, a breakthrough for the Bush administration as the president made his first visit to India.

Under the accord, elusive until the last minute, the United States would share American nuclear know-how and fuel with India to help power its fast-growing economy. The move represents a major policy shift for the United States, which imposed temporary sanctions on India in 1998 after it conducted nuclear tests. India insists it has been a good steward of nuclear material for decades; that there has never been one incident of proliferation from it.

The pact marks a major breakthrough for New Delhi, long treated as a nuclear pariah by the world, as it allows it to access American atomic technology and fuel to meet its soaring energy needs — provided the U.S. Congress gives its approval.

Although India did not agree to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty — which met with nationalist resistance in the massive South Asian nation — it did agree to oversight of its civilian program.

Here's a link to the White House's fact sheet on the Indo-American strategic partnership. To be honest, it's not clear to me from the reportage how this is different from what was reported back in July plus a repackaging of pre-existing commitments.

Fred Kaplan is not thrilled with the deal, mostly because he thinks Bush is steamrolling a lot of foreign policy actors in the process:

One could make a case that the trade-off is worth it—that the benefits of a grand alliance with India more than compensate for the costs of exempting India from the NPT's restraint clauses. India is not going to disarm, anyway; it has agreed, as part of the deal, to open its civilian reactors (though not its military ones) to international inspectors and safeguards; it's better, one could say, to impose some controls than none at all.

But a few things are worth noting. First, the United States has no authority to grant such an exemption on its own. The NPT is a treaty signed by 187 nations; it is enforced by the International Atomic Energy Agency; and it is, in effect, administered by the five nations that the treaty recognizes as nuclear powers (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France). This point is not a legal nicety. If the United States can cut a separate deal with India, what is to prevent China or Russia from doing the same with Pakistan or Iran? If India demands special treatment on the grounds that it's a stable democracy, what is to keep Japan, Brazil, or Germany from picking up on the precedent?

Second, the India deal would violate not just international agreements but also several U.S. laws regulating the export of nuclear materials.

In other words, an American president who sought to make this deal would, or should, detect a myriad of political actors that might protest or block it—mainly the U.N. Security Council, the Nuclear Suppliers' Group, and the U.S. Congress. Not just as a legal principle but also as a practical consideration, these actors must be notified, cajoled, mollified, or otherwise bargained with if the deal has a chance of coming to life.

The amazing thing is, President Bush just went ahead and made the pledge, without so much as the pretense of consultation—as if all these actors, with their prerogatives over treaties and laws (to say nothing of their concerns for very real dilemmas), didn't exist.

I still think that this is the right deal to make. If I had to make Bush's case to the rest of the world, I'd say, "Look, there's no way India is going to renounce their weapons, and if you lived in their neighborhood you wouldn't either. That said, they've agreed to open up their civilian nuclear program up to outside oversight, and they haven't aided or abetted anyone else's weapons program. So this deal acknowledges that the genie is out of the bottle in New Delhi, but keeps the bottle closed for everyone else."

I'll entertain objections to this position in the comments.

posted by Dan at 02:30 PM | Comments (52) | Trackbacks (0)

Who's the proudest country of them all?

The University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center just released a cross-national survey to find who had the greatest degree of pride in their countries.

Guess who did well? The results may partially surprise you:

Among 33 nations surveyed, the United States was the nation with the leading score in pride over specific accomplishments and Venezuela was the leading nation in the general national pride portion of the survey....

The researchers asked a series of questions related to general national pride that asked people to what extent they agreed with such statements as, “I would rather be a citizen of my country than any other country in the world,” and “Generally speaking, my country is a better country than most countries.”

A second set of questions about national pride in specific areas, such as the nation’s achievements in science and technology, the arts, sports and political influence in the world.

On the general pride measure, people in Venezuela had a score of 18.4 (out of a possible 25), while people in the United States had a score of 17.7. Other top leaders in that category were Australia (17.5), Austria (17.4), South Africa (17), Canada (17), Chile (17.1), New Zealand (16.6) and Israel (16.2).

In the domain-specific category, the United States led with a score of 4 followed by Venezuela (3.6), Australia (2.9), Austria (2.4), South Africa (2.7), Canada (2.4), Chile (2.6), the Philippines (2.3) and Israel (2.3).

The countries at the bottom of the list are generally established nations in Europe. “It could be that those nations are experiencing a response to globalism, particularly among young people. Many identify as much as being Europeans as they do as being citizens of their own country. In some European nations, the concept of strong patriotism also has negative connotations,” Smith said.

The bottom 10 nations in the survey, beginning with the last, were the eastern portion of Germany, Latvia, Sweden, Slovakia, Poland, the western portion of Germany, Taiwan, France, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic.

Click here to see the full paper. The paper distinguishes between the general pride and domain-specific measures as follows:
The domain-specific measure assesses positive feelings towards national accomplishments in specific areas, but is not overtly nationalistic, imperialistic, nor chauvinistic. The general national pride measure has a much harder edge to it..... [put] another way, the domain-specific, national pride scale is nationally affirming without being necessarily hegemonic, but the general, agree-disagree, national-pride scale places one's nation above other countries.
For a variety of reasons, I'm not surprised about the U.S. results -- they're pretty consistent with both the 1995/96 results and the "American exceptionalism" thesis underlying those responses.

Venezuelan pride does surprise me a bit. General Social Survey director Tom Smith observed that the top two countries "formed their national identities through conflicts that bound their people together and created a national story that resonates with citizens." That could be it. Supporters of Hugo Chavez no doubt would credit his policies.

Based on no scientific evidence whatsoever, I would posit that a key source of Venezuelan pride can be found here, here, and here -- though this factor appears to annoy UNESCO no end.

posted by Dan at 12:36 AM | Comments (18) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

The European Commission's tough test

The European Commission has lost a lot of big battles over the past few years -- the growth and stability pact and the constitutional referendum, to name two. One could easily debate the virtues of either proposal, but the key political science fact is that the Commission was unable to get its way.

Tobias Buck reports in the Financial Times that the next big test is coming -- preventing a beggar-thy-neighbor policy on mergers and acquisitions:

Just over four months ago, Charlie McCreevy raised eyebrows when he warned of a “strong wind of protectionism” blowing through the European Union.

Today, that wind has turned into a storm that is threatening to tear apart some of the principles on which the Union is founded.

Within the past few weeks, the EU internal market commissioner has seen governments in Madrid, Paris, Warsaw and Luxembourg hardening their opposition to foreign takeovers.

Stung by France’s move to fend off a possible bid from Italy’s biggest energy group, the government in Rome this week also ratcheted up its protectionist rhetoric.

More trouble could be in store. On Tuesday the Commission began examining French justification for its decision to protect 11 sectors from foreign takovers.

Even though Commission officials stress that some countries may be violating the spirit rather than the letter of the law, the hostility to foreign takeovers is raising serious doubts over whether the 25 EU members are committed to the idea of a borderless, open and competitive market.

Mr McCreevy said on Tuesday: “Some...hanker after protectionist barriers not only on the Union’s external borders but internally as well. Such an attitude strikes at the very heart of the freedoms enshrined in the treaties and I will never accept it.”

The architects of the internal market have watched recent developments with growing dismay. While protectionism has never really been defeated, attacks on the free market have become more numerous and aggressive, they say.

Karel van Miert, who served as a European commissioner for transport and competition between 1989 and 1999, told the Financial Times on Tuesday : “The vehemence we have seen recently in the Mittal case, in Spain and in Poland is indeed something new and rather worrying.”

The report suggests that the Commission is fighting against some awfully powerful structural forces:
[S]ome point to a more sinister reason for the rise in hostility towards foreign suitors. “One factor is clearly the current economic malaise gripping Europe. In times when the macroeconomic conditions are less favourable, protection is always on the rise,” said Jean-Pierre Casey, research fellow and financial policy expert at the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies.

High levels of unemployment in western Europe have hampered efforts to open the European services market to more cross-border competition. The centrepiece of those efforts – the services directive – now looks certain to take effect only in a heavily diluted version. Much of the hostility towards the services directive has fed on fears that workers in countries such as Germany and France would be swept aside by an influx of cheap service providers from the new EU member states in eastern Europe.

EU enlargement may also have fuelled protectionist sentiment. The EU of today is, after all, a less cosy and less homogenous place than it used to be. But perhaps the most worrying reason for recent developments is that protectionist measures in one country appear to trigger protectionist responses in other EU member states....

“There is a risk that over time this dynamic triggers a series of tit-for-tat reactions,” said Mr Casey. “That is precisely how the great depression started: one country after the other erected barriers and finally free trade just ground to a halt.”


posted by Dan at 06:06 PM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

In honor of Baseball Musings

My favorite baseball blogger, David Pinto of Baseball Musings, is celebrating his one year anniversary of being a professional blogger. Click over to make a donation and keep him at Baseball Musings on a full-time basis.

In honor of Pinto's anniversary, I'll raise a contrarian point about the utility of sabermetrics as a management tool that will warm the cockles of Steven Leavitt's heart. In a Baseball America chat about the top 100 prospects, Jim Callis responded to a very interesting question:

Q: Dave from Third Avenue, Manhattan asks: Jim, what is your take on the Moneyball draft, four years out. Swisher and Blanton seem to be doing just fine. Who else bears watching? Jeremy Brown?

A: Jim Callis: ...Given the number of picks the Athletics had in 2002, their Moneyball draft looks pretty average to me. They had seven first-round picks, and they got two solid big leaguers (Swisher, Blanton--both of whom were consensus first-round picks and not Moneyball choices out of the blue, by the way), a fringe regular (Teahen) and four guys who won't do much (McCurdy, Fritz, Brown, Obenchain). After that, there's not much beyond Shane Komine in the ninth round. Don't tell Michael Lewis, but it doesn't look like anyone revolutionized the draft in 2002.
If you re-read Lewis' chapter on the 2002 draft, you could go even further than Callis' assessment. In his chapter on the draft, Lewis recounts how Athletics GM Billy Beane went ballistic because in the previous year, the A's first-round draft pick was.... Jeremy Bonderman. Bonderman was the player to be named later in a deal that sent Ted Lilly from the Yankees to the Athletics. My guess is that Beane would be happy to have the current incarnation of that pitcher given his current price tag.

The 2002 Athletics draft should have been an "easy test" of the Moneyball revolution. The Athletics had a large number of draft picks, and no other team had really embraced the sabermetric philosophy to the extent that the A's had. If that draft failed to yield an above-average number of quality MLB players, what does it say about the utility of sabermetrics as a scouting tool?

The one out I can think of for Lewis is that Beane was able to sign those draft picks for way less than normal market value given when they were picked. There's definitely cost-effectiveness, which is really at the heart of the Moneyball argument. Still, that's pretty weak beer given the way Lewis wrote about the potential of that draft.

I'm certainly not suggesting sabermetrics is useless... but might this approach be overrated as a scouting tool?

posted by Dan at 11:45 PM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

So, You Want To Buy a Strategic American Company …

That's the title of my latest essay for Slate:

Political resistance to foreign takeovers is not all that shocking, even in the supposedly laissez-faire United States. Foreign corporations are the perfect political bogeyman. By definition, they are un-American. Critics are usually correct when they claim that these firms are only concerned with making money (our multinationals would never act like that!!), and if they are state-owned, well, then their purposes must be even more nefarious. The targets of many of these takeovers—infrastructure, utilities, steel—are perceived to have some strategic value, which makes ordinary citizens even more sensitive....

So, what's a foreign CEO to do? How do you take over a national treasure in such a hostile political environment? Here are a few lessons that can be learned from recent experience.

You'll have to read the essay to see my meager bits of advice.

For readers clicking over from Slate, click here to see a list of blog posts on the Dubai ports deal. Then click here for my post about Euro-hysteria on hostile corporate takeovers. And, finally, click here to see my musings on CNOOC's proposed takeover of Unocal back in the summer of 2005.

posted by Dan at 11:18 PM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (0)

A subversive thought about the ports deal

The more information that comes out about the proposed port deal, the more I realize why the politics of this case seems so confusing. If you read this Washington Post story by Jim VandeHei and Paul Blustein, this Jim Geraghty post at NRO, this Washington Post story by Walter Pincus, this New York Times story by Carl Hulse and David Sanger, and this Coast Guard release from Monday, you recognize the following facts:

1) This decision was not made by policy principals, but rather assistant secretarie or deputy assistant secretaries;

2) The CFIUS process worked. Some homeland security agencies, like the Coast Guard, raised concerns -- and those concerns were addressed in negotiations with DPW;

3) Neither Bush nor his cabinet played any role in the decision until the very end of the process.

Now, this leads into an interesting conundrum -- depending on where you stand on the political spectrum, the decision-making process affects your take on the deal in odd ways.

If you're a true-blue liberal, you should be perfectly delighted with this outcome. The Bushies did not have a high profile, there was no stovepiping from neoconservatives, and the interagency process seemed to work pretty well. This is, in other words, an exemple of how good government is supposed to operate.

Of course, if you're a red-meat conservative, this is just awful. Unelected bureaucrats and low-level flunkies ran the show. The Commander-in-Chief was out of the loop. Bureaucrats were telling politics what to do, rather than vice versa. This is exactly the kind of thing the Bush administration was not supposed to let happen.

I'm not sure it explains anything, but I thought it was interesting enough to point out.

posted by Dan at 10:23 PM | Comments (14) | Trackbacks (0)

Where's the income beef?

Brad DeLong has a post up about the dizzyingly unequal distribution of income in the United States. He quotes Paul Krugman:

So who are the winners from rising inequality? It's not the top 20 percent, or even the top 10 percent. The big gains have gone to a much smaller, much richer group than that. A new research paper by Ian Dew-Becker and Robert Gordon of Northwestern University, "Where Did the Productivity Growth Go?," gives the details. Between 1972 and 2001 the wage and salary income of Americans at the 90th percentile of the income distribution rose only 34 percent, or about 1 percent per year. So being in the top 10 percent of the income distribution, like being a college graduate, wasn't a ticket to big income gains. But income at the 99th percentile rose 87 percent; income at the 99.9th percentile rose 181 percent; and income at the 99.99th percentile rose 497 percent. No, that's not a misprint.

Just to give you a sense of who we're talking about: the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center estimates that this year the 99th percentile will correspond to an income of $402,306, and the 99.9th percentile to an income of $1,672,726. The center doesn't give a number for the 99.99th percentile, but it's probably well over $6 million a year.... The idea that we have a rising oligarchy is much more disturbing. It suggests that the growth of inequality may have as much to do with power relations as it does with market forces. Unfortunately, that's the real story. Should we be worried about the increasingly oligarchic nature of American society?

I'll confess those numbers even give me some pause -- and I've historically been unfazed by income inequality. And yet, there is surprisingly little grumbling about this within the mainstream political discourse about this, with the partial exception of rising protectionist sentiment. Why?

I'd offer three possible reasons -- all of which could be at work:

1) Those on the bottom of the income spectrum are increasingly tuning out politics -- call this the Hacker-Pierson thesis;

2) Those at the bottom of the income spectrum believe that they will eventually rise to the top of the income spectrum, and therefore see no reason to complain -- call this the David Brooks thesis;

3) Income is not the only measure that counts in evaluating Americans' well-being, and on other factors, the distribution of gains is far more even. I can think of two economic benefits in particular:

a) Asset prices. Americans have done well the past decade not through income gains but capital gains, in the form of their stock and housing portfolios (not to mention intergenerational wealth transfers). These gains have been impressive even given the bubble-like quality of some of the rise. While I have no hard data on this, and will gladly welcome empirical falsification, my hunch is that these gains might be more evenly distributed than rises in income;

b) Leisure. I've blogged about this before, but Virginia Postrel has an excellent New York Times summary from last week. The key point -- the gains in leisure are particularly strong at the bottom of the income spectrum.

c) Consumption. Inequality in consumption is not as stark as inequality in income. Furthermore, in many areas productivity gains have drastically lowered prices. Daniel Gross touches on this point in his Slate column on Chipotle and other restaurant IPOs:

[T]he restaurant industry has done a Wal-Mart. Through tight control of sourcing, a focus on logistics, and a firm rein on labor costs, it has managed to keep a lid on inflation. Yes, a Big Mac costs more than it used to. But virtually every fast-food joint still has a 99-cent menu. And it's not just fast food that's cheap. As noted in this space in 2004, between 1982 and 2004, according to figures provided by the ever-expanding Zagat survey, the average cost at the same restaurant rose from $29.23 to $50.32, a 2.62 percent annual rate—substantially below the rate of inflation in that period.
Even if incomes are stagnant, there is a large category of goods for which more can be purchased for less.
Call this the Drezner thesis -- unless I'm wrong, in which case call it typical half-assed blog analysis.
I'll be happy to entertain other hypotheses.

UPDATE: One additional hypothesis that is clearly emerging from the comments is that the growth in income inequality does not generate resentment because of the changing sources of that income. The rich are no longer rich because of inheritances, but because of their own effort. To explain, let me quote from Rajan and Zingales, Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists, page 92 yet again:

One statistic best sums up the changes that have taken place: in 1929, 70 percent of the income of the top .01 percent of income earners in the United States came from holding of capital -- income such as dividends, interest, and rents. The rich were truly the idle rich. In 1998, wages and entrepreneurial income made up 80 percent of the income of the top .01 percent of income earners in the United States, and only 20 percent came from capital. Seen another way, in the 1890s the richest 10 percent of the population worked fewer hours than the poorest 10 percent. Today, the reverse is true. The idle rich have become the working rich!

Instead of an aristocracy of the merely rich, we are moving to an aristocracy of the capable and the rich.

ANOTHER UPDATE: James Joyner still wants someone to show him the money.

posted by Dan at 10:12 AM | Comments (67) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, February 27, 2006

For once, I was ahead of the curve

As part of its cover package on India, Newsweek's Keith Naughton writes about the interesting fact that offshore outsourcing to India is not the political hot potato it used to be:

Not long ago, what seemed most possible was that India would steal the jobs of American workers. But as George W. Bush visits there this week, he'll find a maturing economy that is no longer all about call centers and basic tech support. Now big American investment banks and drugmakers are joining tech firms on the passage to India. R&D centers are springing up so fast that there's now a shortage of Indian engineers. And the stigma of outsourcing jobs to India is disappearing. American companies once afraid to put their names on the doors of their Indian offices now issue press releases touting their latest investments there. "American firms have gotten over their anxiety about India," says financial-services consultant Harrell Smith of Celent Communications. "Now the new anxiety is if you're not in India."

What happened to the outsourcing backlash? It has been muted by the fact that India didn't suck Silicon Valley dry after all. Actually, U.S. tech employment is growing. There are 17 percent more tech workers in the United States today than back in the bubble days of 1999, says a new study by the Association for Computing Machinery. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the U.S. economy will add 1 million tech jobs over the next decade, a 30 percent increase. "Everyone was worried about the offshoring bogeyman," says Moshe Vardi, an author of the ACM study. "But the big whoosh of jobs to India never happened.'' Indeed, that gush slowed to a steady stream once American companies realized it's tough to set up shop in a country with bad roads and a patchy power grid. Lately, American consulting firms that once predicted runaway growth in outsourcing to India have been slashing their estimates by half or more. Now American companies are hanging on to the high-skilled work that requires face-to-face interaction, while everything that can be done "over the wire" gets shipped offshore.

Wow, you learn something new every day. Oh, wait.....

posted by Dan at 07:15 PM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

My mad math skills

Well, this is a relief:

You Passed 8th Grade Math
Congratulations, you got 10/10 correct!

This, on the other hand, makes me seriously doubt the testing methodology:

You Are Los Angeles

Young and fun, you always know where the best parties are.

And while you tend to keep things carefree and casual...

You certainly can glam it up when you need to.

posted by Dan at 01:35 PM | Comments (17) | Trackbacks (0)

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Still looking for a reason to get riled up....

I'm still trying to find a reason to get exercised about the Dubai port deal. The latest is Mickey Kaus' argument:

I recommend Daniel Engber's Explainer on what a port operator actually does:
It gets cargo containers off of ships and puts them onto trucks or trains. A port operator also provides other services to the shipping industry: It does the paperwork to get incoming shipments through customs and uses its computer system to help connect the goods with potential recipients. ...

Most operators invest in a computerized yard management system to help each trucker connect with his payload. ... The port operator also handles personnel issues.

If we're afraid of bad guys sneaking something dangerous into the U.S., it sure seems like there are lots of opportunities for mischief if you can infiltrate the firm that does the paperwork and runs the computer system and handles the "personnel issues"! Is it comforting matter that "security" at American ports will still be "controlled by U.S. federal agencies led by the Coast Guard and the U.S. Customs and Border Control Agency ... ." Not if what you're worried about is a small cell of people looking for a way to get around the Coast Guard's security. Just having a port operator that is more easily approached by people who speak Arabic vastly increases the risk, at least the risk from Arab jihadists, no? (emphasis added)
I would recommend that Mickey read this Washington Post story by Jim VandeHei and Paul Blustein. It's ostensibly about the White House's lugubrious reaction to the ports controversy, but it also sheds some light on how the CFIUS process addressed U.S. security concerns:
The process began on Oct. 17, when representatives of the Dubai company informally approached the Treasury Department to disclose that they were planning to purchase the British firm, Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., according to testimony by administration officials at a Senate hearing last week. Treasury officials directed them to consult with Homeland Security because of the port security question.

The executives of Dubai Ports World -- several of whom are American -- well understood that they might face extensive scrutiny.

"You don't have to do this, but I brought a small team here [from Dubai] to meet with the CFIUS agencies in early December," said Edward H. "Ted" Bilkey, the company's chief operating officer and former U.S. Navy officer. The idea was to give the panel plenty of time even before the company formally filed to start a standard 30-day review.

Homeland Security officials, especially in Customs and Border Protection, had high regard for the company, which is owned by the government of Dubai and operates terminals in 19 ports in Asia, Europe and South America. It was the first in the Middle East to participate in a post-Sept. 11 program in which Customs agents are posted overseas to screen containers before they are loaded onto U.S.-bound ships. U.S. intelligence agencies -- who were asked on Nov. 2 for any information they had on the company -- produced nothing "derogatory" about it, Baker said.

Even so, the department had enough qualms to insist on a number of legally binding conditions for approving the deal -- a frequent CFIUS practice. The company pledged to maintain its participation in the Customs program, "and they agreed to open their books, and give us access to records, without any formal legal process," Baker said.

The department also wanted to ensure that the personnel at the U.S. terminals to be taken over by the company would remain almost entirely American. So it extracted a pledge that the company intended to keep the current management of U.S. operations in place. (emphasis added)

Given the concessions obtained through the CFIUS process -- DPW's participation in the Customs initiative, the transparency of DPW's books, the continuance of the current management team for the U.S. ports -- is there any rational reason to get exercised about this deal? Is Mickey's assertion that jihadists would have a better opportunity to infiltrate DPW's ports a valid one, given the layers of American management involved?

The Post story also aleviates the other small concern I had about this deal -- that the Bush administration bollixed up the process. The New York Times story I cited in my first post on this topic asserted:

The administration's review of the deal was conducted by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a body that was created in 1975 to review foreign investments in the country that could affect national security. Under that review, officials from the Defense, State, Commerce and Transportation Departments, along with the National Security Council and other agencies, were charged with raising questions and passing judgment. They found no problems to warrant the next stage of review, a 45-day investigation with results reported to the president for a final decision.

However, a 1993 amendment to the law stipulates that such an investigation is mandatory when the acquiring company is controlled by or acting on behalf of a foreign government. Administration officials said they conducted additional inquires because of the ties to the United Arab Emirates, but they could not say why a 45-day investigation did not occur.

VandeHei and Blustein have a different desription of the process in the Post story:
[O]nce Dubai Ports World had agreed to the conditions required by Homeland Security, none of the agencies on CFIUS objected to the transaction when the 30-day review was completed on Jan. 17. If even one agency had objected, the matter would have gone to a 45-day investigation -- which would have required a presidential decision at the end. Moreover, a single dissent would have meant bringing the matter before higher-ranking officials in each department.

But instead, the matter stayed with assistant secretary-level officials, who told the company the transaction could go forward.

I should know which version of the process is correct, but I don't. Readers are encouraged to enlighten me on this [UPDATE: Thank you, Chris! This comment clears up much of the confusion.].

UPDATE: Mickey e-mails me to suggest I read Charles Krauthammer's thoughts on the matter:

[T]he problem is not just the obvious one that an Arab-run company, heavily staffed with Arab employees, is more likely to be infiltrated by terrorists who might want to smuggle an awful weapon into our ports. But that would probably require some cooperation from the operating company. And neither the company nor the government of the UAE, which has been pro-American and a reasonably good ally in the war on terrorism, has any such record.

The greater and more immediate danger is that as soon as the Dubai company takes over operations, it will necessarily become privy to information about security provisions at crucial U.S. ports. That would mean a transfer of information about our security operations -- and perhaps even worse, about the holes in our security operations -- to a company in an Arab state in which there might be employees who, for reasons of corruption or ideology, would pass this invaluable knowledge on to al-Qaeda types.

That is the danger, and it is a risk, probably an unnecessary one.

Color me unimpressed. DPW already gets a lot of this information because Dubai is a participant in the Container Security Initiative. Furthermore, the on-the-ground environments in the ports themselves look like they won't be changed one iota because of this deal. It will still be U.S. longshoremen handling the cargo, U.S. managers running
port operations for DPW, U.S. managers at the upper echelon of DPW, and U.S. law enforcement managing port security. Where's the beef?

A final point -- my support for the Dubai deal should not be misinterpreted as a lack of concern about port security. I'm as sanguine now as I was before the deal -- that is to say, not all that sanguine. It's just that this deal is irrelevant to the real problems at hand for port security -- inadequate inspections.

An excellent primer on port security can be found in Jon D. Haveman, Howard J. Shatz, and Ernesto A. Vilchis (2005) "U.S. Port Security Policy after 9/11: Overview and Evaluation", Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management: Vol. 2: No. 4, Article 1.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Looks like DPW has requested the 45 day review, which has gone a long way towards alleviating Congressional concerns.

posted by Dan at 10:23 AM | Comments (28) | Trackbacks (0)

Al Qaeda defines victory down

If this Associated Press report by Donna Abu-Nasr is correct, then Al Qaeda's spokesman is starting to sound a lot like the publicist for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Both are all too eager to declare moral victories when real ones aren't happening:

Al-Qaida on Saturday vowed more attacks on Saudi oil facilities, a day after an attempt to bomb the world's biggest oil processing complex showed the group still can strike inside the kingdom....

Two suicide bombers in explosives-packed cars traded fire with police at a checkpoint before a gate in the first of three fences around the sprawling, heavily guarded complex. One bomber collided with the closed gate, exploding and blowing a hole in the fence, a senior Saudi security official said.

The second bomber drove through the hole before police opened fire, detonating his car, the official added on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Witnesses on Friday reported that security forces traded fire with gunmen outside the facility after the explosions and that a hunt for attackers continued for hours. Saudi officials have not reported the capture of any assailants....

"There are more like them who are racing toward martyrdom and eager to fight the enemies of God,'' the posting said. "You will see things that will make you happy, God willing.''

In a later statement, the group said it carried out the attack "based on the instructions of our leader, Osama bin Laden'' and identified the two slain suicide bombers as Abdullah Abdul-Aziz al-Tweijri and Mohammed Saleh al-Gheith.

It denied that the bombing was foiled and gave its own account of the attack. It claimed that Al-Qaida fighters overcame guards at the gate, killing three and forcing others to flee. The fighters then opened the gate for a car that entered and blew up, it said, without specifying what the blast targeted.

The authenticity of the statements could not be independently confirmed.

I look forward to future Al Qaeda posting claiming that, "it was a good operation today, we just caught a bad break," and "With our farm system, we are confident in our ability to be a powerful terrorist group in 2010."

posted by Dan at 01:11 AM | Comments (13) | Trackbacks (0)