Saturday, July 29, 2006

Interest group capture and Snakes On A Plane

Entertainment Weekly's Jeff Jensen has a cover story on the movie Snakes On a Plane (SoaP), and the online fanboys who really like the title of the movie:

For nearly a year, SoaP obsessives have been chatting and blogging about the movie, not to mention producing their own T-shirts, posters, trailers, novelty songs, and parodies. As the movie has morphed from a semiprecious nugget of intellectual property into a virtual plaything for the ethertainment masses, Snakes and its cult are teasingly threatening to revolutionize the rules of marketing for the do-it-yourself digital era....

It's the promise of enlightenment that has drawn thousands of SoaP fans to Comic-Con for a peek at 10 minutes of the film's fang-baring snake-rageousness. But what thrills these SoaP fans the most on this ain't-it-cool Friday is confirmation that their jocular voices have been heard, which comes once they've seen the footage, when Jackson himself shows up to bellow his already-famous line, a line inspired by the fans themselves:


The crowd goes wild.

Now let's see if they actually go to the movie....

[Soap's diehard fanbase] raises some provocative questions. Consider the ''motherf---ing'' line, which was directly suggested by SoaP fan culture. Sure, it's something an R-rated Sam Jackson action hero would say. But should fans be allowed any input into the artistic process during the actual making of a film? Jackson offers a qualified yes: ''Films are a collaborative process, and this is the next step. If a film is vying for that mass teen dollar, then yes, they have every right to say: This is the kind of film we want to see. Films of social relevance — well, no.''

Adds Snakes costar Julianna Margulies: ''On one hand, it's fantastic, because it put our film on the map. But it's a slippery slope. If we have to rely on the public to tell us what great work is — I don't know if that's a great idea.''

In addition, a vociferous fan culture doesn't always translate to big grosses (see Joss Whedon's Serenity). Earlier this year, New Line conducted focus-group research that revealed that awareness of SoaP among potential moviegoers wasn't nearly as large as the fan base made it seem. Which meant that a small and noisy band of enthusiasts was independently shaping the image of the movie — an image at odds with New Line's intentions. The studio wanted to position the film as a scary, if fun, Final Destination. But in co-opting the film for their own amusement, SoaPers were assuming Snakes was something campy — or worse, demanding that it be. ''I don't really like that,'' says [director David] Ellis of the film's so-bad-it's-good rep in some quarters. ''[But] I guess it's good that they're talking about it, and when I get them in the theater, I can change their mind."

....New Line execs are worried. ''What's unique about Snakes is that the idea of the movie has excited people. But that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the movie we made,'' says [New Line president Toby] Emmerich. ''I'm hoping it does. But I just don't know what people are expecting.'' And [New Line's domestic marketing president Russell] Schwartz thinks it's impossible to use the film as a marketing template: ''If this movie opens, I [still] don't think we've shown the Web can open a movie.''

New Line execs are not the only people freaking out -- Chuck Klosterman has a rant on this in the August issue of Esquire:
I have not seen Snakes on a Plane, so I have no idea how good this movie is (or isn't). But I do know this: Its existence represents a weird, semidepressing American condition, and I'm afraid this condition is going to get worse. I suspect Snakes on a Plane might earn a lot of money, which will prompt studios to assume this is the kind of movie audiences want. And I don't think it is. Snakes on a Plane is an unabashed attempt at prefab populism, and (maybe) this gimmick will work once. But it won't keep working, and it will almost certainly make filmmaking worse....

When it comes to mass media, it's useless to ask people what they want; nobody knows what they want until they have it. If studios start to view the blogosphere as some kind of massive focus group, two things will happen: The first is that the movies will become idiotic and impersonal, which is probably predictable. But the less predictable second result will be that many of those movies will still fail commercially, even if the studios' research was perfect. If you asked a hundred million people exactly what they wanted from a movie, and you used that data to make exactly the film they claimed to desire, it might succeed. Or it might not. Making artistic decisions by consensus doesn't work any better than giving one person complete autonomy; both strategies work roughly half the time.

There are several possible ways this could play out. However, the one that interest group theory suggests will happen is that by trying to please the most ardent base of fans, the movie will reduce its appeal to a wider audience.

Of course, both Jensen and Klosterman miss one important point in their analyses -- they're generalizing from a $30 million dollar film. $30 million is a lot to you and me, but to Hollywood that's barely enough to pay for Jessica Alba's skin care products. Somehow I doubt this kind of interactive filmmaking process would take place with a tentpole movie, as it were. With a bunch of lower-budget films, however, this kind of feedback might increase the viewing pleasure of specialized viewers, even if it doesn't make the movie seem any better to a general viewer.

There's more to discuss here, but I'l leave it to my readers and a plaintive cry for help from Virginia Postrel.

All I want to know is, why isn't Salma Hayek in this mother f*&%ing movie?

posted by Dan at 11:07 PM | Comments (7) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, July 28, 2006

Someone please explain to me how this multinational force will work

CNN reports that President Bush now supports a U.N. resolution calling for a cease-fire in Lebanon:

President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced Friday their support for a U.N. cease-fire resolution to end the Mideast crisis and a multinational force to stabilize southern Lebanon.

The leaders said the force would help Lebanese troops take control of the south, where the Hezbollah militia is firing rockets into Israel and Israeli soldiers are striking Hezbollah positions.

"We want a Lebanon free of militias and foreign interference, and a Lebanon that governs its own destiny," Bush told reporters after meeting with Blair at the White House.

It's unknown whether Hezbollah would participate in the proposed cease-fire and Blair said the multinational force wouldn't "fight their way" into the region.

"This can only work if Hezbollah are prepared to allow it to work," the prime minister said.

OK, I see... a multinational force that will rid southern Lebanon of militias and "help Lebanese troops take control of the south," but will do so with Hezbollah's blessing.


This sounds kind of familiar... ah, yes, here's a front-pager by Thanassis Cambanis in today's Boston Globe that looks at the multinational force that's already in southern Lebanon:

A volley of outgoing Katyusha rockets zipped from the hilltop above the gate of the United Nations peacekeepers' compound here yesterday late in the afternoon.

"That's Hezbollah, firing from a position 300 meters away," Colonel Jacques Colleville said, pointing up the hill. "Now the Israelis will retaliate."

Ear-shattering explosions soon followed as the Israelis replied by shelling the Hezbollah position. Smoke, dust, and fire rose from the hilltop.

Israel and the United States have been adamant that a robust international military force should take on the role of peacekeeper in south Lebanon when the bloody two-week-old war between Israel and the Islamist militia in southern Lebanon ends. None of the proposals yet addresses the number or origin of troops or the authority the peacekeepers would have. But any future force will have to contend with many of the same problems that crippled the existing United Nations mission, including Hezbollah's power as a popular guerrilla movement, the weakness of Lebanon's central government, and the limited mandate that has prevented peacekeepers from using force.

Colleville, who is French, said the UN troops have been largely powerless to stop Hezbollah from launching rockets right beside UN positions or to intervene when the Israeli military bombs civilians when attacking what it says are Hezbollah targets.

Asked whether UNIFIL could have helped disarm Hezbollah, Colleville laughed.

"How would I disarm them?" he said. "With my telephone?"

The United Nations Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) is easy to mock as a symbol of the UN's ineffectiveness. However, their observations of what would be needed to actually do their job are worth noting:
[UNIFIL commander Alain] Pellegrini said a future multinational force in southern Lebanon would have to have the muscle to stop belligerents, for example finding and stopping Hezbollah units like the one that started firing from in front of the UN compound in Naqoura yesterday afternoon.

``We have to be well-beefed and able to enforce some international decision," Pellegrini said. ``Heavy weapons and strong rules of engagement."

More important , the international force would need approval from Hezbollah's followers, or else it would face the same kind of punishing guerrilla resistance that hounded Israel's occupation from 1982 to 2000, UNIFIL's political affairs officer Ryszard Morczynski said. And he said it should be a UN force, not under some other command such as NATO, as one proposal calls for.

"If it's not a UN force, the population won't accept it," he said. ``The population must accept it, or at least tolerate it."

Morczynski, who is from Poland, said proposals to dispatch a ``coalition of the willing," rather than a UN force, to disarm Hezbollah and keep the peace in southern Lebanon, could touch off the kind of spiraling insurgent warfare the United States faces in Iraq -- without ever curtailing the power of Hezbollah.

He added that the goal should be to control Hezbollah, not disarm it, which he said would be all but impossible. ``If you flatten the country and make it a parking lot, then you will disarm Hezbollah," he said.

Question to readers: does anyone believe it would be possible to constitute a multinaional force that would be able to constrain Hezbollah's actions without triggering more bloodshed?

UPDATE: Another question -- who's going to commit troops to such a force? As Elaine Sciolino and Steve Erlanger pointed out a few days ago, it's not like the countries calling for a multinational force actually want to send troops:

The United States has ruled out its soldiers’ participating, NATO says it is overstretched, Britain feels its troops are overcommitted and Germany says it is willing to participate only if Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that it would police, agrees to it, a highly unlikely development.

“All the politicians are saying, ‘Great, great’ to the idea of a force, but no one is saying whose soldiers will be on the ground,” said one senior European official. “Everyone will volunteer to be in charge of the logistics in Cyprus.”

posted by Dan at 03:07 PM | Comments (52) | Trackbacks (0)

My diavlog debut

For months, nay, years, the hard-working staff here at has begged yours truly to start paying them join the vlogging revolution.

Your humble blogger has finally made the plunge... on To see me debate Nonzero author Robert Wright on the Middle East, Doha, the clash of civilizations, "progressive realism," and sportswriting, click here.

posted by Dan at 11:56 AM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)

The situation in Lebanon has calcified

When the war started in Lebanon, I said the situaion was fluid.

Not any more.

Neil MacFarquhar has a front-pager in the New York Times suggesting that the Arab Middle East has come to a consensus about the war in Lebanon -- and it's not a consensus the United States would like:

At the onset of the Lebanese crisis, Arab governments, starting with Saudi Arabia, slammed Hezbollah for recklessly provoking a war, providing what the United States and Israel took as a wink and a nod to continue the fight.

Now, with hundreds of Lebanese dead and Hezbollah holding out against the vaunted Israeli military for more than two weeks, the tide of public opinion across the Arab world is surging behind the organization, transforming the Shiite group’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, into a folk hero and forcing a change in official statements.

The Saudi royal family and King Abdullah II of Jordan, who were initially more worried about the rising power of Shiite Iran, Hezbollah’s main sponsor, are scrambling to distance themselves from Washington.

An outpouring of newspaper columns, cartoons, blogs and public poetry readings have showered praise on Hezbollah while attacking the United States and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for trumpeting American plans for a “new Middle East” that they say has led only to violence and repression.

Even Al Qaeda, run by violent Sunni Muslim extremists normally hostile to all Shiites, has gotten into the act, with its deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, releasing a taped message saying that through its fighting in Iraq, his organization was also trying to liberate Palestine.

This situation is no longer developing -- it's developed. And ironically, it's developed because Arab governments in the region are doing what the Bush administration wants them to do -- respond to popular opinions within their countries.

To be fair, I suspect if the IDF had managed to cause Hezbollah to disintegrate within the week of conflict, this wouldn't have happened -- and I think that was what the IDF expected to happen. However, I'm shocked, shocked to report that pre-war intelligence might have been flawed.

Now, Israel faces the worst of both worlds -- they've discovered that Hezbollah is a more potent, disciplined, and technologically savvy threat than they previously thought. At the same time, public opinion in Lebanon, the region and across the world has shifted against Jerusalem, making it next to impossible for them to adopt the military measures necessary to eradicate the threat [What measures are those?--ed. I'm not even sure -- I just now they would involve action on a greater scale than what the IDF is currently doing.]

UPDATE: There is one whopping caveat to the above that I forgot to mention -- it is possible that Hezbollah has suffered far greater losses than we know. There is an asymmetry in the reporting of the conflict -- reporters clearly have much greater access to the Israeli military than Hezbollah. While it's in both sides' interest to keep published reports of their losses to a minimum, it's institutionally tougher for Israel to do this.

As a result, the Israeli losses are known -- the Hezbollah losses are not completely known. [If Hezbollah crumbles in the next week, will this be your "quagmire" post?--ed. Pretty much, yes -- but I still don't think they will fall apart.]

posted by Dan at 07:57 AM | Comments (23) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The healthy automotive sector in the United States

No doubt, the title to this post must sound odd. After all, according to one recent report, foreign automakers now command a majority of the U.S. auto market for the first time ever.

However, Daniel Griswold and Daniel Ikenson argue otherwise in a Cato policy brief that looks at the U.S. automotive sector. Their argument is unsurprising for anyone familiar with Cato:

The financial woes of a few companies operating in a healthy, competitive market do not justify intervention by Washington policymakers but are the market's way of providing feedback about the decisions of those firms. It is not the role of the government to rescue companies that have made relatively bad decisions. Healthy competition ensures that best practices are emulated, leads to gains in productivity and innovation, and provides American automobile consumers with greater choice, better quality, and more competitive pricing.
This argument is unsurprising coming from Cato -- but they do have the advantage of marshalling useful facts to buttress their argument:
Although complaints about unfair competition from abroad are less shrill than in the 1980s, foreign producers have not escaped criticism. The chief executive officers of General Motors and Chrysler recently complained that an allegedly undervalued yen gives vehicles imported from Japan an unfair price advantage of as much as $3,000 per vehicle. Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, charged at a hearing in February that Detroit-based automakers face unfair foreign competition. "They are competing with currency manipulation by other countries, including China, Japan and Korea, which gives their vehicles and other products an unfair price advantage in our market," Levin said in a statement. And the United Auto Workers union, which represents workers at GM, Ford, Chrysler, and several parts' producers, has called for a federal "Marshall Plan" to aid those companies....

In 2004, 16.9 million light vehicles were sold in the United States, of which 2.4 million, or 14 percent, were imported from Asia, while 3.5 million, or 21 percent, were Asian nameplates produced in the United States.5 Of the nearly 1.7 million Toyotas sold in the U.S. market in 2004, nearly 3 of every 4 were produced in the United States, which was a greater share than in the previous year. Over 81 percent of the nearly 1 million Hondas sold in 2004 were produced in the United States, which was an increase from the 78 percent rate attained in 2003. Nissan's U.S.-produced vehicles accounted for 86 percent of its U.S. sales in 2004, which was a big shift from the 66 percent rate of the previous year.

In fact, each of the top 10 selling cars and top 10 selling trucks (pickups, SUVs, and minivans) in the first half of 2006 is produced at facilities in the United States.7 Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Chevy Impala (GM), Ford Taurus, Nissan Altima, Ford Explorer, Chrysler Town & Country, and the other models that round off the most popular 20, regardless of the location of company headquarters, are produced in U.S. plants by American workers who contribute to the local, state, and national economies through their employment, expenditures, and taxes....

Domestic output of motor vehicles and parts has actually enjoyed a healthy increase since 1993 even if employment has not. In 2005, U.S. factories were manufacturing 68 percent more motor vehicles and parts in volume terms than in 1993. That compares with a 56 percent increase in U.S. manufacturing output overall during the same period. The number of workers employed domestically in the production of motor vehicles and parts was 1,098,200 in 2005, down from a peak of 1,313,600 in 2000 but still above average employment levels in the early 1990s. In light of increasing output, any decline in employment in the domestic automobile industry has been because of rising productivity and efficiency in the industry, not because of an overall decline in the industry's fortunes.

The biggest beneficiaries of a globally competitive U.S. automobile industry have been U.S. auto-buying consumers.


One small caveat to their argument -- these percentages could change as demand for hybrid vehicles go up. The Toyota Prius, for example, are manufactured in Japan.

posted by Dan at 01:47 PM | Comments (13) | Trackbacks (0)

The glimmer of good news from the Middle East

There's a great deal to be depressed about when contemplating the situaion in Lebanon, or the Middle East writ large -- go check out Marc Lynch's blog to read about the shift in Arab perceptions as a result of U.S. actions and inactions.

However, Niall Ferguson makes a point in the Los Angeles Times that is worth remembering -- contrary to the fears of a few weeks ago, the odds of a wider war appear to be slim:

Could today's quarrel between Israelis and Hezbollah over Lebanon produce World War III? That's what Republican Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, called it last week, echoing earlier fighting talk by Dan Gillerman, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations.

Such language can — for now, at least — safely be dismissed as hyperbole. This crisis is not going to trigger another world war. Indeed, I do not expect it to produce even another Middle East war worthy of comparison with those of June 1967 or October 1973. In 1967, Israel fought four of its Arab neighbors — Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. In 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel. Such combinations are very hard to imagine today.

Nor does it seem likely that Syria and Iran will escalate their involvement in the crisis beyond continuing their support for Hezbollah. Neither is in a position to risk a full-scale military confrontation with Israel, given the risk that this might precipitate an American military reaction.

Crucially, Washington's consistent support for Israel is not matched by any great power support for Israel's neighbors. During the Cold War, by contrast, the risk was that a Middle East war could spill over into a superpower conflict.

Hat tip: Oxblog's Taylor Owen.

UPDATE: Hey, another glimmer of good news -- it's a trend, I tell you! [No, I'm afraid the AP just mistranslated a statement--ed.]

posted by Dan at 12:26 AM | Comments (12) | Trackbacks (0)

A business-writing tic that drives James Surowiecki nuts

Sports journalists are not the only ones to overinterpret small samples. In The New Yorker, James Surowiecki makes a similar point about business writing.

His example -- the Boeing-Airbus rivalry:

What much of the talk about the inherent weakness of Airbus ignores is that, just a few years ago, it was Boeing that looked fundamentally flawed, while Airbus was seen as the future of the industry. Beginning in the late nineties, Boeing’s commercial-aircraft business went into a long and nearly profitless slump. In 2001, Airbus surpassed Boeing in new orders, a lead it maintained until this year. During that period, Airbus’s unusual structure was praised; its insulation from the stock market supposedly allowed it to invest in long-term research and development. Boeing, by contrast, was thought to be trapped in a short-term, cost-cutting mentality, because, as one analyst put it, “the money guys don’t reward long-term thinking and investment.” In 2003, Business Week declared that Boeing was “choking on Airbus’ fumes,” and warned that Boeing’s “slip to No. 2 could become permanent.”

The problem with such prognostications is that they infer basic truths about a company’s prospects from its short-term performance. In fact, present success is often determined as much by context and chance as by fundamental viability. This is particularly true of the aerospace industry, because success is heavily dependent on a small number of big gambles. If you bet right, you look like a genius for a few years, even if the success of your bet was due to factors out of your control. The 787 may now look like Boeing’s salvation, but Boeing built it only after more ambitious plans—for a plane, known as the Sonic Cruiser, that would have been the fastest passenger jet in the air—fell through, partly because of the slowdown in air travel after September 11th. And had Boeing not been in such straits in 2003 it probably wouldn’t have risked the investment required for the 787.

People are generally bad at accepting the importance of context and chance. We fall prey to what the social psychologist Lee Ross called “the fundamental attribution error”—the tendency to ascribe success or failure to innate characteristics, even when context is overwhelmingly important. In one classic demonstration, people shown a person shooting a basketball in a gym with poor lighting and another person shooting a basketball in a gym with excellent lighting assume that the second person hit more shots because he was a better player. This problem is compounded by the tendency to extrapolate big conclusions from small samples, something that behavioral economists call “the law of small numbers.” In the decade or so that Airbus has been a serious competitor to Boeing, this is its first really bad patch, and its difficulties are due mainly to making one bad bet while Boeing made one good one. That’s a minuscule sample size on which to base any kind of conclusion. But this is exactly what we like to do: sports fans assume that a few excellent performances are proof of a player’s underlying ability, while investors assume that a mutual fund’s record over one year is a reliable indicator of the manager’s skill.

Because we underestimate how much variation can be caused simply by luck, we see patterns where none exist. It’s no wonder that management theory is dominated by fads: every few years, new companies succeed, and they are scrutinized for the underlying truths that they might reveal. But often there is no underlying truth; the companies just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

posted by Dan at 12:06 AM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Will Hezbollah overtake Al Qaeda in the standings?

I've blogged before about how Al Qaeda is like the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Without using the baseball metaphor, Bernard Haykel argues in today's New York Times that Hezbollah could supplant them in the eyes of many Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

This isn't necessarily a good thing, accoding to Haykel:

With Israel at war with Hezbollah, where, you might wonder, is Al Qaeda? From all appearances on the Web sites frequented by its sympathizers, which I frequently monitor, Al Qaeda is sitting, unhappily and uneasily, on the sidelines, watching a movement antithetical to its philosophy steal its thunder. That might sound like good news. But it is more likely an ominous sign....

Hezbollah has taken the lead on the most incendiary issue for jihadis of all stripes: the fight against Israel.

Many Sunnis are therefore rallying to Hezbollah’s side, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan. The Saudi cleric Salman al-Awda has defied his government’s anti-Hezbollah position, writing on his Web site that “this is not the time to express our differences with the Shiites because we are all confronted by our greater enemy, the criminal Jews and Zionists.”

For Al Qaeda, it is a time of panic. The group’s Web sites are abuzz with messages and questions about how to respond to Hezbollah’s success. One sympathizer asks whether, even knowing that the Shiites are traitors and the accomplices of the infidel Americans in Iraq, it is permissible to say a prayer for Hezbollah. He is told to curse Hezbollah along with Islam’s other enemies.

Several of Al Qaeda’s ideologues have issued official statements explaining Hezbollah’s actions and telling followers how to respond to them. The gist of their argument is that the Shiites are conspiring to destroy Islam and to resuscitate Persian imperial rule over the Middle East and ultimately the world. The ideologues label this effort the “Sassanian-Safavid conspiracy,” in reference to the Sassanians, a pre-Islamic Iranian dynasty, and to the Safavids, a Shiite dynasty that ruled Iran and parts of Iraq from 1501 till 1736.

They go on to argue that thanks to the United States (the leader of the Zionist-Crusader conspiracy), Iraq has been handed over to the Shiites, who are now wantonly massacring the country’s Sunnis. Syria is already led by a Shiite heretic, President Bashar al-Assad, whose policies harm the country’s Sunni majority.

Hezbollah, according to these analyses, seeks to dupe ordinary Muslims into believing that the Shiites are defending Islam’s holiest cause, Palestine, in order to cover for the wholesale Shiite alliance with the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ultimately, this theory goes, the Shiites will fail in their efforts because the Israelis and Americans will destroy them once their role in the broader Zionist-Crusader conspiracy is accomplished. And then God will assure the success of the Sunni Muslims and the defeat of the Zionists and Crusaders.

In the meantime, no Muslim should be fooled by Hezbollah, whose members have never fought the infidel on any of the real battlefronts, like Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya or Kashmir. The proper attitude for Muslims to adopt is to dissociate themselves completely from the Shiites.

This analysis — conspiratorial, bizarre and uncompelling, except to the most diehard radicals — signals an important defeat for Al Qaeda’s public relations campaign.

Read the whole thing to see why this could spell trouble for the west.

posted by Dan at 08:41 AM | Comments (31) | Trackbacks (0)

A sportswriting tic that drives me nuts

Yesterday, sports reporter Jeff Horrigan wrote the following in the Boston Herald:

Less than two weeks after the All-Star break, the Red Sox suddenly appear to be in desperate need of a collective breather.

Entering last night’s game against the Oakland Athletics, they found themselves in sole possession of first place in the American League East for the 36th consecutive day. Yet their grip on the top spot - 2 1/2 games over the Yankees and 4 1/2 over Toronto - appeared more precarious with each passing hour.

After losing two of three at Seattle this weekend, the Sox opened a three-game series against the A’s with areas of concern in all major facets of the game.

Now, the Red Sox had just lost two games to the Mariners, and their relef pitching and defense did not perform up to spec. However, Horrigan takes a two-game trend and assumes that will be the new status quo. This leads to the argument that the second-best team in baseball (by winning percentage) is falling apart.

This is a sportswriting tic that drives me nuts -- failing to recognize regression to the mean. If teams go through a mini-slump or reel off a few victories, it's attributed to a fundamental change in the quality of the players. Sometimes, bad things happen to good players and vice versa. Just because the Sox have a few bad games does not mean that things will stay that way.

Baseball writers are far from the worst culprits on this score -- that award has to go to basketball writers. Lest one believe that I'm exaggerating, go back and see what was written about the Heat-Mavericks finals after the Mavs went up 2-0 in the series.

posted by Dan at 08:24 AM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Us greedy, chocolate-eating, Wal-Mart-shopping, family-protecting academics

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Mathew H. Gendle engages in one of the more useless acts of self-flagellation about globalization I've seen in quite a while:

Like many liberal-arts institutions, the university where I teach [Elon] places a heavy emphasis on the freshman year, and all new students are required to take a class called "The Global Experience," taught by faculty members drawn from departments across the campus. One of the central objectives of the course is to break students out of their bubble by forcing them to think about the interconnectedness of our world.

In my class, we spend considerable time talking about the negative aspects of globalization: depressed wages, slave/child labor, the exploitation of the poor, and homogenization of cultures. I emphasize the underbelly of modern economies not to condemn them in a "holier than thou" manner, but with the intention of getting students to understand (in some small way) that their everyday consumer choices can have far-reaching social and economic effects around the globe.

I make a point of discussing how we are all implicated in some of those adverse outcomes, and suggest that the only way to prevent them is to work together for change. Despite my best efforts, I find myself feeling like a complete fraud with such idealistic talk. Indeed, I have pointed out to previous classes that on the very same day that we are discussing such issues, I am also wearing clothes that were probably manufactured with child labor and have consumed chocolate that was, in all likelihood, produced by slaves.

But I had no idea just how much of a hypocrite I was until I started to pay attention to my retirement account....

[A]s ignorant as this sounds, I was quite unhappy to discover that the equities funds in which I have invested own millions of shares of General Electric, Unocal/Chevron, Altria Group, Halliburton, Nestlé, and other corporations whose behaviors I have used in class as specific examples of poor global corporate citizenship....

You might say, "Well, that's capitalism," but that response seems hollow and unsatisfactory. Unfortunately, the simple reality is that as long as you are operating within a capitalist market, there will always be winners and losers, and I am essentially trying to position myself to be one of the winners.

The same could be said of my clothing purchases. Sure, theoretically I could buy only clothing that was union-made, or the product of workers earning a living wage. But the reality is that such articles are pricey and surprisingly hard to find. With a mortgage and child-care expenses, I find myself gravitating toward the inexpensive and mass-produced clothing offered by large corporate retailers.

With those choices, I am again essentially saying that the welfare of my family is more important than the welfare of others, which is truly the last sentiment that I want my students to identify with.

I find myself confounded and in one of the most uncomfortable positions I have been in as a college professor.

When I teach "The Global Experience" this coming fall, it is my intention to share the nasty details of my investments with my students. But will that really matter? Can I honestly expect my students to change their consumer behaviors when I refuse to change my own? (emphasis added)

Oh for Pete's sake.....

If Gendle really wants his students at Elon to learn, he might want to inform them of the following:

1) Eric V. Edmonds and Nina Pavcnik, "Child Labor in the Global Economy," Journal of Economic Perspectives 19 (Winter 2005): 199–220,. Their punchline:
Fortunately, abhorrent images of children chained in factories or forced into prostitution stand out for their relative rarity. Most working children are at home, helping their family by assisting in the family business or farm and with domestic work....

While some children do work in circumstances so hideous as to command immediate attention, development is the best overall cure for child labor.

In all likelihood, the clothes you wear are not manufactured with child labor -- but if you choose to refrain from buying clothes made in countries like Bangladesh, you actually increase the likelihood of exploitative child labor.

2) As for cocoa and slave labor, I can understand the confusion -- there's been a lot of media reportage of the alleged abuse of children to cultivate cocoa in West Africa. In 2000, Save the Children-Canada estimated that “15,000 Malian children have been forced to work in virtual slavery on plantations in the Ivory Coast” to harvest cocoa for multinational corporations such as Nestlé or Hershey. This figure was cited in many press accounts of the problem of child labor in West African cocoa plantations. A November 2001 cover story in the New York Times Magazine painted a harrowing picture of one child’s ordeal as a plantation worker.

However, this meme has turned out have little basis in fact. Three months after it originally appeared, the New York Times Magazine cover story was revealed to be a fabrication; the author’s titular character was in fact a composite, and events in the story were based on “extrapolation”. The New York Times later reported that the 15,000 figure is also a myth.

The ILO and USDA financed study by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, "Child Labor in the Cocoa Sector of West Africa." The ITTA study does an excellent job of chronicling labor abuses, but the big-picture point is on page 12:

The quantitative surveys revealed that the recruitment and employment of both children and adults from outside the family [to work on cocoa plantations] as permanent salaried workers was relatively uncommon. In RCI [Ivory Coast], an estimated 0.94% of farmers indicated that they employed children as permanent full-time workers, while in Ondo State, Nigeria, an estimated 1.1% of farmers reported doing so. In Ghana and Cameroon, none of the farmers questioned reported employing children as salaried workers. An estimated 5120 children were employed as full-time permanent workers in the RCI (versus 61 600 adults), while in Ondo State, Nigeria, 1220 children (versus 11 800 adults) were full-time permanent workers. In the RCI, an estimated 4630 farmers were employing salaried child workers.
3) On Wal-Mart, I'll just refer to Jason Furman's analysis of the welfare effects of big-box retailers.
If Gendle wants to make his Elon students really ponder their consumer behavior, here's a question worth asking -- what is the welfare effect of not purchasing goods and services made in the least developed countries?

UPDATE: The flagellation continues in the Chronicle's discussion board:

I'm in an area that focuses on social justice and responsibility along environmental, gender, political, and economic lines. Know what I'm doing this afternoon? Going to the WalMart to buy a product I haven't been able to find anywhere else. After I finish my tropical fruit and non-organic, non-fair trade coffee and take a 20-minute shower, of course.

It is really difficult to have ideals and still live in the world.

posted by Dan at 10:26 AM | Comments (28) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, July 24, 2006

Doha, R.I.P.????

World trade talks have collapsed. The Financial Times' Alan Beattie and Frances Williams explain:

A last-ditch meeting in Geneva of the six core “Doha round” negotiators – India, Brazil, the US, EU Japan and Australia – broke up amid recriminations over irreconcilable differences about farm liberalisation. The US continued to argue for big cuts in farm import tariffs to open up markets for its farmers, a demand fiercely rejected by the European Union, Japan and India, who said America had first to go further in offering to cut agricultural subsidies.

The Doha round, which began in November 2001, will now enter indefinite suspension unless and until a consensus within the World Trade Organisation’s 149 member countries can be found to revive it.

The Economist explains why this is a tragedy (excerpted by Megan McArdle):
Last year, the World Bank estimated that global gains from trade liberalisation would equal roughly $287 billion, of which $86 billion would accrue to developing nations, lifting at least 66m people out of poverty. Activist groups including Greenpeace and Oxfam were quick to condemn both Washington and Brussels for intransigence over agricultural subsidies, saying that rich-world self interest is leaving the poor to suffer.

Without further progress at the WTO, those keen on liberalising trade will focus on regional and bilateral agreements. These are already proliferating... just about every one of the WTO's 149 members is a party to a regional trade agreement of some sort.

But these smaller agreements are a poor substitute for global progress. While they improve flows within the deal, they distort markets by favouring certain countries over others, even if their goods offer less economic value. The proliferation of special regulations, which companies must spend time and money to understand, does nothing to free up trade generally.

[Why the question marks in the title?--ed.] Because trade rounds have been declared dead before and were revived. Doha looked dead after Cancun and was brought back to life by Bob Zoellick. On the other hand, the hard deadline here is the expiration of President Bush's Trade Promotion Authority in June of next year. Beattie and Williams are sober about the chances for a resurrection of Doha:
Historical experience provides a little hope but not firm ground for optimism. The previous “Uruguay round” of trade talks was in essence suspended in 1990 after similar disagreements between countries. Arthur Dunkel, then director-general of the WTO’s predecessor organisation, continued to take soundings among member countries and produced his own “Dunkel draft” suggestion for a final deal a year later, leading eventually to a final agreement in 1994.

But the current situation differs from 1990 in two respects: Pascal Lamy, the WTO’s director, has already been deeply involved in trying to get countries to agree, and because the White House is likely to lose the “fast-track authority” granted by Congress when it comes up for renewal next year.

WTO members can continue negotiating, but if the world’s largest economy cannot pass trade deals through its legislature, it seems unlikely the talks will have any urgency.

Developing.... I hope.

UPDATE: Simon Lester has a good roundup of who is blaming who for the collapse of the talks.

posted by Dan at 05:16 PM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

The case of Juan Cole

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a (subscriber only, alas free for all!) symposium on the case of Juan Cole's non-hiring by Yale University this spring. Contributions from Cole, Siva Vaidhyanathan, Glenn Reynolds, Ann Althouse, Brad DeLong, Michael Bérubé, Erin O'Connor, and yours truly.

DeLong's essay makes the best case for the scholarly benefits from blogging; O'Connor makes the best case for why blogs should be a factor (and not necessarily a positive one) in hiring decisions.

For background on the case, click here for this story by Liel Leibovitz in The Jewish Week.

UPDATE: While on the subject of academia, it's also worth checking out this Stanley Fish essay from yesterday's New York Times, and Ann Althouse's critique of it.

posted by Dan at 01:58 PM | Comments (16) | Trackbacks (0)