Friday, July 21, 2006
There's a classified blogosphere?
Apparently so -- and according to the Washington Post's Dana Priest, someone was just kicked off that particular island:
Christine Axsmith, a software contractor for the CIA, considered her blog a success within the select circle of people who could actually access it.Read the whole thing.
UPDATE: Douglas Hart and Steven Simon have an article in the Spring 2006 issue of Survival that addresses the larger question of the role that blogs can play in bolstering intelligence analysis. In light of the Post story, this section is worth quoting:
Current reporting procedures within the intelligence community enforce a hierarchical organisational structure in which information flows up and decisions flow down. Blogs, on the other hand, produce communities of interest in which power is manifested through the number of individual connections within a network, rather than through an individual’s position with respect to reporting chains. These networks are key to emergent or new types of critical thinking amongst the analytical population. In other words, blogs might well be a means for individual analysts to express dissenting opinions that are not subject to official censorship.I have to think that this episode will blunt these kind of benefits.
When will statebuilding be hard?
I've been remiss in not giving the necessary props to Austan Goolsbee as the quasi-new columnis for the New York Times' Economic Scene.
His latest column -- on how to tell when war-torn states will be able to recover -- is an excellent precis of what the literature says:
With little prospect of a quick resolution to most of these conflicts, perhaps it is worth looking at the long-run prospects for these nations once the wars actually end (assuming that they do end, of course).Read the whole thing.
Thursday, July 20, 2006
Why oh why is the press so thick-headed about blogs?
I don't normally like to rant against the mainstream media, but their coverage of this Pew survey of bloggers borders on the bizarre.
The survey found that the overwhelming majority of people who blog do so for non-political reasons -- they function primarily as online personal diaries.
This would certainly be earth-shattering news -- if it was four years ago. Consider this Perseus report from the Paleolithic era of blogging -- October 2003:
When you say "blog" most people think of the most popular weblogs, which are often updated multiple times a day and which by definition have tens of thousands of daily readers. These make up the tip of a very deep iceberg: prominently visible, but not characteristic of the iceberg as a whole.While Pew might reached the conclusion that most bloggers are not political after using sophisticated polling techniques, this is not a new finding (see Mystery Pollster on the methodology). It's merely a confirmation of what prior, less well-funded studies have found.
Nevertheless, media outlets have framed the story in interesting ways. Consider the BBC:
Bloggers who say their writings are a form of journalism are in the minority, despite the hype, two surveys reveal.Or Information Week:
The majority of bloggers prefer to write about themselves and share their digital creations than to discuss politics or technology, a survey released Wednesday showed.Or Sci-Tech Today:
The media tends to focus on a small subset of well-known "A-list" sites that receive a high volume of visitors. These blogs tend to focus on politics or other hot button topics such as technology. For these bloggers, a blog is more than just a hobby, it is a job.Finally, there's Slate's Jack Shafer:
Pew's blogging masses couldn't be more different than the American A-listers. Most A-listers are men over 30; have published before; are in it primarily to change public opinions and not to share their experiences; know only a fraction of their readers; and don't conceal their identities....Shafer's story illustrates what has changed in the past three years, and it's not the blogosphere -- it's the mainstream media's fear of the blogosphere (which is one reason why blogs have been declared to be passé so many times this past year). If the Pew survey suggests that not all bloggers are Army-of-David wannabe journalists, then that's the angle that should be reported.
Now, I am resolutely not a blog triumphalist, and do not think that blogs will supplant mainstream media outlets. However, in the spirit of contrarianism, let me offer two cautionary warnings to the journalists out there who might be reassured by these numbers.
First, it doesn't matter if an overwhelming majority of blogs do not focus on politics and government -- what matters is that there are a huge number of blogs out there and a fraction of them do focus on matters of interest to political journalists. If the Pew survey is accurate, then eleven percent of twelve million bloggers -- more than 1.3 million Americans -- have blogs that focus on the politics. Most of them probably aren't that good -- but I could say the same of many newspapers as well. The point is, 1.3 million is still a pretty large number.
Second, as an A-list [No--ed.] B-list [No-ed.] C-list [In the interest of not embarrassing you further, I'l let it pass--ed.], it's worth remembering that what motivates bloggers changes over time. Most A-list bloggers, when they started their blogs, were also "primarily interested in creative, personal expression." The motivations can change once an audience starts to grow, however.
I eagerly await the Pew survey on commenters.
One obvious benefit of tenure
What are general equilibrium models good for?
The Economist has a long story on the relative value of Big Economic Models -- the kind of general equilibrium monsters that are used to calculate how much the world benefits from a completed Doha round,or how much the global economy suffers from high oil prices.
The story does a good job of highlighting the sensitivity of these models to first assumptions -- while also pointing out their signal virtue:
[Leon] Walras was adamant that one could not explain anything in an economy until one had explained everything. Each market—for goods, labour and capital—was connected to every other, however remotely. This interdependence is apparent whenever faster car sales in Texas result in an increase in grocery shopping in Detroit, the home of America's “big three” carmakers. Or when steep prices for oil lead, curiously enough, to lower American interest rates, because the money the Saudis and the Russians make from crude is spent on American Treasury bonds. This fundamental insight moved one economist to quote the poetry of Francis Thompson: “Thou canst not stir a flower/Without troubling of a star.”The more surprising argument in the article is that these models are politically powerful:
These models were, for example, a weapon of choice in the battles over the 1994 North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The pact's opponents had the best lines in the debate—Ross Perot, a presidential candidate in 1992, told Americans to listen out for the “giant sucking sound” as their jobs disappeared over the border. But the deal's supporters had the best numbers. More often than not, those with numbers prevail over those without. As Jean-Philippe Cotis, chief economist of the OECD, has put it, “orders of magnitude are useful tools of persuasion.”[You do realize that the title of this post is worthy of an entry to Crooked Timber's contest for off-putting titles--ed. It's my special talent.]
Is Israel waging a just war?
Israel clearly is targeting not just Hezbollah, but also Lebanon's official military, and, most important for our purposes, Lebanon's basic civilian infrastructure. The Beirut airport has been closed by Israeli attacks. Bridges, ports, roads, and power stations are all being targeted. As this column was being written, more than 100 civilian fatalities -- including some citizens of neutral countries, most notably Canada -- already had been reported. More surely will have occurred before this column is published.In The New Republic, Michael Walzer takes a more ambiguous position:
The easy part of the answer is to say what cannot rightly be done. There cannot be any direct attacks on civilian targets (even if the enemy doesn't believe in the existence of civilians), and this principle is a major constraint also on attacks on the economic infrastructure. Writing about the first Iraq war, in 1991, I argued that the U.S. decision to attack "communication and transportation systems, electric power grids, government buildings of every sort, water pumping stations and purification plants" was wrong. "Selected infrastructural targets are easy enough to justify: bridges over which supplies are carried to the army in the field provide an obvious example. But power and water ... are very much like food: they are necessary to the survival and everyday activity of soldiers, but they are equally necessary to everyone else. An attack here is an attack on civilian society. ... [I]t is the military effects, if any, that are 'collateral.'" That was and is a general argument; it clearly applies to the Israeli attacks on power stations in Gaza and Lebanon.My take -- the longer the air campaign proceeds, the less just it will become. This is simply the law of diminishing marginal returns. Over time, Israel will exhaust the set of "high-quality" targets for Hezbollah and start bombing more marginal targets. Since these target will likely generate a constant degree of collateral damage in civilian deaths, each successive bombing run looks more and more like "direct attacks on civilian targets."
[Er... what about Hezbollah and Hamas?--ed. It would be exceptionally difficult to argue that their tactics are consistent with jus in bello. This Chris Bertram post tries to make a go of it, but given Hamas and Hezbollah's targeting strategies, I don't think it works.]
UPDATE: In the comments, Bertram correctly points out that his post was not trying to justify Hezbollah and Hamas actions. Indeed, this was a poorly worded sentence on my part. Rather, Bertram's post summarizes an argument for how to apply just war ethics to asymmetric conflicts, in which additional jus ad bello constraints are placed on the stronger side. I still don't think the argument is persuasive, however, since it basically rewards a group like Hezbollah for pursuing an asymmetric strategy.
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
My contrarian take on George Will's contrarianism
Late on Monday, Steve Clemons from the Washington Note sent around an e-mail trumpeting George Will's column blasing neoconservatives, the Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol, Condi Rice, et al. The piece has attracted a fair amount of blog attention.
My reaction was similar to Passport's James Forsyth: "George Will savages neocons, dog bites mailman":
I must confess that one of my pet peeves in life is how everyone treats it as news when Will criticizes the neoconservatives. Will has never been a neocon and has been being critical of them for years. Obviously, this doesn't invalidate his criticisms--it just means that it is no more surprising when he attacks them than when his fellow WaPo columnist Richard Cohen does....This is not to say that Will's criticisms don't have merit -- particularly this section:
"No Islamic Republic of Iran, no Hezbollah. No Islamic Republic of Iran, no one to prop up the Assad regime in Syria. No Iranian support for Syria . . ." You get the drift. So, the Weekly Standard says:Will is right (see Cato's Gene Healy for an even broader attack on the neocons), but so is Forsyth -- so please spare me the "even George Will" observations.
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
So you want to be a critic....
Within every blogger (and commentor) lurks someone who yearns to be a paid critic. There are perils to this profession, however -- though the peril depends on the subject matter of the criticism.
[I]f "nice reviewing" has attracted few explicit defenders, a number of today's critics nonetheless seem to share a tacit understanding that it is somehow indecorous--what used to be called bad form--to come out and say that a book is bad. Peck's critics generally lambasted him not for the substance of his judgments, but for his unwillingness to play by what they determined to be the rules. "If you're going to be in it for the big run, you have to act responsibly," intoned Sven Birkerts, whom [Dale] Peck had criticized precisely for his tendency to be overly generous in his criticism. (Birkerts did not elaborate on what he meant by this, but presumably, if you're "in it for the big run," whatever that means, you will inevitably run into some of your subjects at cocktail parties--or, worse, they will someday review your books.) John Leonard, in a scalding review of Hatchet Jobs, Peck's collected essays, in The New York Times Book Review, laid out his own idea of literary etiquette in these guidelines for "responsible reviewing": "First ... do no harm. Second, never stoop to score a point or bite an ankle. Third, always understand that in this symbiosis, you are the parasite."On the other hand, if book critics fear being too harsh in their assessments, A.O. Scott points out in today's New York Times that there is a bigger fear for movie critics -- being irrelevant:
“Dead Man’s Chest” [is] a fascinating sequel — not to “Curse of the Black Pearl,” which inaugurated the franchise three years ago, but to “The Da Vinci Code.” Way back in the early days of the Hollywood summer — the third week in May, to be precise — America’s finest critics trooped into screening rooms in Cannes, Los Angeles, New York and points between, saw Ron Howard’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s best seller, and emerged in a fit of collective grouchiness. The movie promptly pocketed some of the biggest opening-weekend grosses in the history of its studio, Sony.UPDATE: Of course, there are worse killjoys than being a critic -- try the academy for that.
In their summer 2006 issue, Foreign Affairs featured a roundtable on "What to Do In Iraq?" with contributions by Larry Diamond, James Dobbins, Chaim Kaufmann, Leslie Gelb and Stephen Biddle.
This month, foreignaffairs.org invited four prominent online commentators -- Christopher Hitchens, Kevin Drum, Marc Lynch, and Fred Kaplan -- to a web-only discussion of the articles and Iraq in general. Biddle and Diamond respond in kind.
Go check it out.
Monday, July 17, 2006
Open progressive realism thread
Still catching up from jet lag, but that doesn't mean you can't comment on Robert Wright's proposal of a new foreign policy paradigm -- progressive realism -- in the New York Times. Quick excerpt:
Every paradigm needs a name, and the best name for this one is progressive realism. The label has a nice ring (Who is against progress?) and it aptly suggests bipartisan appeal. This is a realism that could attract many liberals and a progressivism that could attract some conservatives....Read the whole thing. Mickey Kaus offers his critique here.
My insta-critique is three-fold:
1) I look forward to the cage match between Wright, Francis Fukuyama, and the other non-Bushies to come up with the best adjective-noun moniker that combines realism and liberalism. Is progressive realism better than "realistic Wilsonianism?" By the title alone, I have to give the edge to Wright.
Sunday, July 16, 2006
Stratfor on Israel's strategy
Back in Boston, but very jet-lagged.
I see that the Middle East did not get more peaceful while I was on a jet plane. Stratfor provides a useful analysis on what Israel and Hezbollah are thinking in the current conflict. I don't know if the analysis is correct, but it does have the advantage of matching my cogitation on the matter:
The Israeli strategy appears to be designed to do two things. First, the Israelis are trying to prevent any supplies from entering Lebanon, including reinforcements. That is why they are attacking all coastal maritime facilities. Second, they are degrading the roads in Lebanon. That will keep reinforcements from reaching Hezbollah fighters engaged in the south. As important, it will prevent the withdrawal and redeployment of heavy equipment deployed by Hezbollah in the south, particularly their rockets, missiles and launchers. The Israelis are preparing the battlefield to prevent a Hezbollah retreat or maneuver.