Saturday, August 19, 2006

The power and politics of blogs in the New York Times

Many readers will find this Adam Liptak story in the New York Times on the legal reaction to the NSA surveillance decision interesting because of the near-unanimity among "legal experts" that the judge's legal reasoning in the case was poor.

Some readers will be interested in the story because, as Ann Althouse points out, it contradicts the NYT editorial from the previous day.

Henry Farrell and I are interested in the story because the first five "legal experts" quoted are also bloggers -- Howard Bashman, Jack Balkin, Orin Kerr, Cass Sunstein, and Eugene Volokh.

This would seem to be a classic case of bloggers from different ideological stripes using their first-mover advantage to developing a common frame on an event, which is then picked up by the mainstream media.

posted by Dan at 11:28 AM | Comments (6) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, August 18, 2006

Open JonBenet thread

It's a Friday, it's late August, and I'm technically on vacation. For these reasons, I'm just going to create this JonBenet Ramsey killer thread, walk away from the computer, and let anyone who's still online on this lovely August day a chance to wallow.

Here are links to the Associated Press and Boulder Daily Camera archives on the case.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go wash my hands.

posted by Dan at 12:59 PM | Comments (9) | Trackbacks (0)

Where's the raggedy edge of Red Sox Nation?

In anticipation of this weekend's five-game series between the Red Sox and Yankees, John Branch has an entertaining article in the New York Times on trying to find the dividing line between Red Sox Nation and Yankee Country in my home state of Connecticut:

The idea for this exercise was simple in design but complicated in application: Plot the length of the border between Red Sox Nation and Yankees Country, a sort of Mason-Dixon Line separating baseball’s fiercest rivals, who will play five games in the next four days in Boston.

The midpoint between Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium is approximately Rocky Hill, Conn., a few miles south of Hartford and east of New Britain. Some adventurers have dared to guess where allegiances are perfectly balanced, usually pointing to a place near Route 91, anywhere from north of Hartford to New Haven in the south.

But few have set out on an expedition — Lewis and Clark meet Rand McNally — to draw baseball’s bitterest border, to learn where it makes landfall along Long Island Sound to where it peters out in complacency in upstate New York, a serpentine span of nearly 200 miles.

“The border’s probably as wide as Connecticut,” Tom Brown, a volunteer firefighter in Old Lyme, Conn., said.

But the point was to narrow the boundary until each adjacent town fell to one side or the other. The border would be a continuous line, allowing no recognized islands of hostility in enemy territory. Such bastions would be viewed as anomalies, like Union sympathizers in Tennessee. True borders, after all, are no wider than a dotted line.

Polling a representative sample of people in every town would be impossible, so the method was simplified: Use a company-issued 2002 Pontiac Grand Am to traverse the highways and back roads of Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts. Roll into towns unannounced. Choose a person or group of people — preferably those with a bead on the area, like police officers and firefighters, politicians and postal carriers, bartenders and barbers — to be the proxy for their village. Excuse me, but is this a Yankees town or Red Sox one?

When possible, irrefutable data — a choice of baseball caps, for example, or the sale of team-logo cookies, or an office straw poll — would be used for confirmation.

I do find it interesting that the Times has the border further south than I remember from my childhood, when it ran right through the Farmington Valley. This does make me wonder if the border has shifted southwards in recent years.

posted by Dan at 12:50 PM | Comments (14) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Democratic Party vs. Wal-Mart

In the New York Times, Adam Nagourney and Michael Barbaro have a story on how the Democratic Party has arrived at a new bogeyman -- Wal-Mart:

Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, a likely Democratic presidential candidate in 2008, delivered a 15-minute, blistering attack to warm applause from Democrats and union organizers here on Wednesday. But Mr. Biden’s main target was not Republicans in Washington, or even his prospective presidential rivals.

It was Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest private employer.

Among Democrats, Mr. Biden is not alone. Across Iowa this week and across much of the country this month, Democratic leaders have found a new rallying cry that many of them say could prove powerful in the midterm elections and into 2008: denouncing Wal-Mart for what they say are substandard wages and health care benefits.

Six Democratic presidential contenders have appeared at rallies like the one Mr. Biden headlined, along with some Democratic candidates for Congress in some of the toughest-fought races in the country.

“My problem with Wal-Mart is that I don’t see any indication that they care about the fate of middle-class people,” Mr. Biden said, standing on the sweltering rooftop of the State Historical Society building here. “They talk about paying them $10 an hour. That’s true. How can you live a middle-class life on that?”

The focus on Wal-Mart is part of a broader strategy of addressing what Democrats say is general economic anxiety and a growing sense that economic gains of recent years have not benefited the middle class or the working poor.

Their alliance with the anti-Wal-Mart campaign dovetails with their emphasis in Washington on raising the minimum wage and doing more to make health insurance affordable. It also suggests they will go into the midterm Congressional elections this fall and the 2008 presidential race striking a populist tone.

Biden's comment here is revealing in how the Dems want to frame the debate -- they think Wal-Mart's greatest impact is as an employer. Most (thought not all) economists, I suspect, see Wal-Mart's greatest impact as lowering the costs of consumption for Americans who frequent their stores -- including the middle class.

In the Financial Times, Jonathan Birchall and Holly Yeager report on Wal-Mart's response:

Under Lee Scott, chief executive, the company has in the past year expanded beyond the usual realm of corporate lobbying to wage a fully-fledged campaign in the mainstream of American politics. “When a company is as large as ours, we’re certainly going to have a lot of interaction with both politics and government,” says Bob McAdam, vice-president of corporate affairs.

On Tuesday it sent 18,000 “voter education” letters to its employees in Iowa, pointing out what it said were factual errors made by politicians who had attacked the company. The group is to despatch similar letters to its staff in other states....

Wal-Mart’s evolving political strategy, shaped with advice and support from Edelman, the public relations consultancy, has been twofold. First, it has attacked its critics – arguing that it is the victim of an unholy alliance between Democrat lawmakers and the unions they rely on to deliver votes and campaign financing. Second, it is seeking to make the argument that the company is good for America.

It is doing this by mobilising its own political constituency, seeking alliances with local community leaders and businesses – in particular, black and Hispanic groups – that accept Wal-Mart’s argument that the company helps low-income Americans by offering low prices and jobs with the prospect of advancement.

Working Families for Wal-Mart, funded mainly by the retailer, is part of both strategies....

John Zogby, the pollster, argues that focusing too much on Wal-Mart “means no net gain”, because union voters already favour the Democrats and the party must seek other support if it is to recapture the White House in 2008. “When are the Democrats going to talk to Wal-Mart shoppers?” he asks (see below left). Mr Zogby, who has done some polling work for Wake Up Wal-Mart, says Democrats still lack “a strategy that deals with Joe and Mary Middle America – and Joe and Mary Middle America are at Wal-Mart”.

Two questions to readers:
A) Who's going to win this battle over the next few years?

B) Who should win this battle?

UPDATE: Well, I think it's safe to describe Andy Young as a loser in this battle.

posted by Dan at 10:58 PM | Comments (47) | Trackbacks (0)

The neoliberal Hugo Chavez

The New York Times runs an amusing story on the growth in bilateral trade between Hugo Cavez's Venezuela and George Bush's America. Some highlights:

[E]ven as the talk from Caracas and Washington grows more hostile and the countries seem to be growing ever farther apart, trade between Venezuela and the United States is surging.

Venezuela’s oil exports, of course, account for the bulk of that trade, as the country remains the fourth largest oil supplier to the United States. Pulled largely by those rising oil revenues, trade climbed 36 percent in 2005, to $40.4 billion, the fastest growth in cargo value among America’s top 20 trading partners, according to WorldCity, a Miami company that closely tracks American trade.

But American companies are also benefiting, as Venezuela’s thirst for American products like cars, construction machinery and computers has steadily grown, rising to $6.4 billion last year, from $4.8 billion a year earlier....

[T]he trade numbers illustrate a widening gulf between Mr. Chávez’s increasingly anti-American speeches, aimed at revving his political base, and the needs of Venezuela’s otherwise freewheeling economy.

For instance, non-oil exports to the United States climbed 116 percent in the first three months of the year, according to the National Statistics Institute. Venezuela also maintains close ties to Wall Street banks, with Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse advising the governments of Venezuela and Argentina on their coming sale of $2 billion of bonds....

Most delicately, oil services companies like Halliburton, an emblem of the Venezuelan government’s distaste with American foreign policy, are at the forefront of the deepening interdependence.

“There’s rhetoric and there’s business,” said an official with the United States Commerce Department who closely follows trade with Venezuela, and asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of relations between the countries. “The Venezuelans can’t produce their oil without our equipment. It’s as simple as that.”

With 10 offices and 1,000 employees in Venezuela, Halliburton recently won a contract to assist Petrozuata, a venture between Venezuela’s national oil company and ConocoPhillips, in extracting oil from fields in eastern Venezuela....

In its July filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Halliburton reported that its energy services group, which helps companies drill for oil, hit double-digit sales growth in Venezuela in the first six months of 2006, offsetting a decline in Mexico....

The resilient ties with the United States are too much for some of Mr. Chávez’s critics on the left, including Douglas Bravo, a former Marxist guerrilla commander who was once close to Mr. Chávez, but who has broken with him over Venezuela’s heavy reliance on energy companies from rich industrial countries.

“If you look at its speech and discourse, this is a revolutionary government,” Mr. Bravo said in a recent interview with the newspaper El Nacional. “But if you look at what it has accomplished, it is a neoliberal government.”

posted by Dan at 10:51 PM | Comments (9) | Trackbacks (0)

New blogger on the scene!!

Reuters reports about a new and exciting blogger:

Iran's president has launched a Web log, using his first entry to recount his poor upbringing and ask visitors to the site if they think the United States and Israel want to start a new world war.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose speeches are riddled with anti-U.S. rhetoric, also described how he was angered by American meddling in Iran even when he was at elementary school.

Ahmadinejad swept to a surprise victory in last year's presidential race by promising the country's poor a fairer share of Iran's oil wealth and emphasizing his own humble origins that led many to vote for him as an "outsider" to Iran's ruling elite.

"During the era that ... living in a city was perfection, I was born in a poor family in a remote village," he wrote in a blog dated Friday, after opening with Islamic greetings.

Here's a link to Ahmadinejad's first post, which ends by confessing, "I will continue this topic later on as it took long in the beginning. From now onwards, I will try to make it shorter and simpler."

To which I can only say, as a fellow blogger, good God, yes.

The blog is worth checking out for Ahmadinejad's... interesting interpretation of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei's post-revolution strategy of political inclusion.

Surprisingly, Ahmadinejad's poll shows a bare majority disagreeing with the contention that "the US and Israeli intention and goal by attacking Lebanon is pulling the trigger for another word (sic) war."

posted by Dan at 03:52 PM | Comments (7) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A cost/benefit analysis of the Pakistan alliance

In the Wall Street Journal, Shalid Shah has a good story chronicling the tradeoffs of the U.S. alliance with Pakistan:

Pakistan's cooperation in foiling last week's terror plot shows the benefits to the U.S. of good relations with its South Asian ally. But the case of Safdar Sarki shows that such ties also have complications.

Mr. Sarki, a Pakistan-born American citizen, disappeared in Karachi in February, two days before he planned to fly home to El Campo, Texas. For years, Mr. Sarki had been an advocate for Sindhis, the indigenous residents of a southeastern province of Pakistan, who claim they have suffered political and economic discrimination since the 1947 creation of India and Pakistan.

Mr. Sarki, 42 years old, is one of hundreds of political activists who have gone missing in Pakistan over the past decade. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a nongovernmental organization that tracks human-rights issues, says 57 political activists have "disappeared" in the past two years, including prominent figures such as Asif Baladi, a young scholar, and Nawaz Zaunr, a journalist and poet. When asked about the claim of such "disappearances," the spokesman for Pakistan's embassy in Washington said authorities in Pakistan are investigating the cases but have no information on them.

Mr. Sarki's case is different largely because it has drawn the attention of the State Department and some members of Congress. It illustrates a strain that persists as President Bush works to strengthen America's relationship with Pakistan.

Mr. Bush is advocating the spread of democracy around the world, and Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a coup, is an example of the kind of leader Mr. Bush has criticized. The disappearances of Mr. Sarki and others are an aspect of Islamabad's human-rights record that the Bush administration has termed troubling.

Bush's agenda for global democracy promotion seems dormant to me, but this case does highlight the difficulty of pursuing an "transformative" strategy of regime change while trying to maximize intelligence-gathering.

posted by Dan at 03:28 PM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, August 14, 2006

What happens in the Middle East now?

With a cease-fire ostensibly taking effect, a few things worth reading this morning.

In The New Yorker, Sy Hersh files his latest on the extent of U.S.-Israeli cooperation and expectations going into the war against Hezbollah. Like all Hersh pieces, it's difficult to parse between what's the stone-cold truth and what's being leaked to him by bureaucrats in CYA mode (these two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, mind you). Hersh is never boring however:

“The Israelis told us it would be a cheap war with many benefits,” a U.S. government consultant with close ties to Israel said. “Why oppose it? We’ll be able to hunt down and bomb missiles, tunnels, and bunkers from the air. It would be a demo for Iran.”

A Pentagon consultant said that the Bush White House “has been agitating for some time to find a reason for a preëmptive blow against Hezbollah.” He added, “It was our intent to have Hezbollah diminished, and now we have someone else doing it.” (As this article went to press, the United Nations Security Council passed a ceasefire resolution, although it was unclear if it would change the situation on the ground.)

According to Richard Armitage, who served as Deputy Secretary of State in Bush’s first term—and who, in 2002, said that Hezbollah “may be the A team of terrorists”—Israel’s campaign in Lebanon, which has faced unexpected difficulties and widespread criticism, may, in the end, serve as a warning to the White House about Iran. “If the most dominant military force in the region—the Israel Defense Forces—can’t pacify a country like Lebanon, with a population of four million, you should think carefully about taking that template to Iran, with strategic depth and a population of seventy million,” Armitage said. “The only thing that the bombing has achieved so far is to unite the population against the Israelis.”

Meanwhile, in a front-pager for the Washington Post, Edward Cody and Molly Moore assess what Americans and Israelia think about Hezbollah now:
Hezbollah's irregular fighters stood off the modern Israeli army for a month in the hills of southern Lebanon thanks to extraordinary zeal and secrecy, rigorous training, tight controls over the population, and a steady flow of Iranian money to acquire effective weaponry, according to informed assessments in Lebanon and Israel.

"They are the best guerrilla force in the world," said a Lebanese specialist who has sifted through intelligence on Hezbollah for more than two decades and strongly opposes the militant Shiite Muslim movement....

Hezbollah's military leadership carefully studied military history, including the Vietnam War, the Lebanese expert said, and set up a training program with help from Iranian intelligence and military officers with years of experience in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. The training was matched to weapons that proved effective against Israeli tanks, he added, including the Merkava main battle tank with advanced armor plating.

Wire-guided and laser-guided antitank missiles were the most effective and deadly Hezbollah weapons, according to Israeli military officers and soldiers. A review of Israel Defense Forces records showed that the majority of Israeli combat deaths resulted from missile hits on armored vehicles -- or on buildings where Israeli soldiers set up observation posts or conducted searches.

Most of the antitank missiles, Israeli officers noted, could be dragged out of caches and quickly fired with two- or three-man launching teams at distances of 3,200 yards or more from their targets. One of the most effective was the Russian-designed Sagger 2, a wire-guided missile with a range of 550 to 3,200 yards.

In one hidden bunker, Israeli soldiers discovered night-vision camera equipment connected to computers that fed coordinates of targets to the Sagger 2 missile, according to Israeli military officials who described the details from photographs they said soldiers took inside the bunker.

Some antitank missiles also can be used to attack helicopters, which has limited the military's use of choppers in rescues and other operations. On Saturday, Hezbollah shot down a CH-53 Sikorsky helicopter in Lebanon, killing all five crew members, according to the Israeli military. As of late Sunday, Israeli troops still had been unable to retrieve the bodies because of fierce fighting in the area of the crash.

The Hezbollah arsenal, which also included thousands of missiles and rockets to be fired against northern Israel's towns and villages, was paid for with a war chest kept full by relentless fundraising among Shiites around the world and, in particular, by funds provided by Iran, said the intelligence specialist. The amount of Iranian funds reaching Hezbollah was estimated at $25 million a month, but some reports suggested it increased sharply, perhaps doubled, after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took over as president in Tehran last year, the specialist said.

Like Kevin Drum, I don't necesaarily have any fresh or coherent ideas to add.

Here's my question to readers: will the failure to eradicate Hezbollah cause the Bush administration to change it's approach to dealing with Iran?

posted by Dan at 12:06 PM | Comments (74) | Trackbacks (0)

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Why the academy needs a South Side fellowship

In the pages of the Boston Globe, Harvard Law professor David Barron looks at how the city of Chicago is treating big box retailers and believes it to be a good thing:

On July 25, the Chicago Board of Aldermen passed an ordinance requiring big-box retailers-those with $1 billion in sales and 90,000 square feet of shopping space in their stores-to give their employees a living wage. By 2010, the stores would have to pay workers $10 an hour and provide an additional $3 in benefits.

Despite strong support from local unions and merchants, and concerns that an influx of low-paying big-box retail jobs could do more harm than good, the mayor has threatened to veto the measure, and some are talking about asking the courts to strike it down if it's enacted. They say the new law is not only unfair but also bad policy. It would, they argue, deprive the city of sales taxes, force consumers to pay higher prices, take jobs from poor people, and push new development to the suburbs.

But whatever one thinks of the merits of this debate, the fact that Chicago is even having it is important. Other cities, including Boston, are already thinking about following the aldermen's lead: As Wal-Mart contemplates its first store in Boston, city councilors Chuck Turner and Felix Arroyo have said they plan to explore an ordinance similar to Chicago's. This surge of interest in regulating big-box retail shows that, at last, America's cities are beginning to think of themselves as choosers rather than beggars. They have emerged from decades of decline with newfound financial strength, and they are now beginning to assert their public powers to decide the kind of cities they want to be....

And so, with demand for urban locations higher, cities-as free marketers should be the first to realize-are no longer willing to sell themselves at any price. The Chicago Sun-Times, in the process of condemning the aldermen's action, hit on just this point: ``[They] think the dense Chicago market is too attractive for the retailers to pass up, especially since most suburban areas already are saturated. They're taking a risk that Wal-Mart and Target are bluffing." Exactly right. The aldermen are betting that big-box retailers will build even if the ordinance becomes law, but it's a safer bet than the Sun-Times allows. After all, the new measure does not bar big-box retailers from doing business in the city. It just requires that they provide employees high enough wages and benefits so that the city won't have to make up the difference through the social services it provides....

Like new office buildings, big-box retailers also bring burdens along with benefits. Some studies show they may depress wages in related businesses or threaten small, usually family-owned retailers. In many cities, including Chicago, it is the growing immigrant neighborhoods, chock-full of such small family-run establishments, that are re-knitting the urban fabric and producing significant amounts of social capital. A law restricting big-box companies from using low wages to support price cuts that might force these important community retailers to close is arguably a tailored response to a reasonable concern. Certainly it's hard to say that Chicago is acting recklessly.

As I've said before about this case two years ago, Chicago is acting recklessly. Erecting significant barriers against big box retailers moving into the inner city does little more to hurt the poor.

Barron seems to assume that without Wal-Mart, the whole of Chicago is this nirvana of small, quaint shopkeepers who provide a diversity of goods and services with a smile and a fair price. Having lived close to the area where Wal-Mart was planning on putting its South Side location, I can assert that Barron doesn't know what he's talking about. There are very few, "small family-run establishments" to displace. The absence of any big-box retailer between Roosevelt Rd. and 85th St. makes it fantastically difficult for the poorest members of the city of Chicago to buy low-priced goods. Barron's focus on unions and small merchants at the expense of, well, everyone else is more than a bit disconcerting.

[He's right about abstaining from tax breaks and the like, though, right?--ed. There's a valid point to be made about putting a halt to cities throwing tax breaks around like candy in a vain effort to attract corporate headquarters, manufacturing plants and the like. However, Barron's implicit economic assumption is that because cities have considerable market power, they can use it to advance the cause of good. The trouble with that argument is that anyone who has ever chatted with a Chicago alderman knows full well that good has very little to do with urban plicy.]

It might behoove some foundation to create a fellowship for enthusiasts of urban reform to spend a year on the South Side in order to get a taste of what it's actually like to live in the inner city before pontificating about policy [Would this apply to free-marketers as well?--ed. Sure.]

UPDATE: Barron responds on his blog. Key section:

I was not arguing that Chicago should pass the ordinance but rather that Chicago should have the legal power to make the policy judgment for itself. Drezner, an economist, skipped right over that distinction. (If I need a fellowship to take me to the South Side, as he suggests, then maybe he needs one to take him to law school.) Actually, though, Drezner is on to something interesting and important. He emphasizes rightly that not all city neighborhoods are the same. It might be that the city would be wise to permit bix box retail in some neighborhoods within the city on more favorable terms than others. The mayor has suggested as much, proposing that each ward be able to decide the matter for itself. It's a complex policy question, however, whether such neighborhood-based tailoring is a good idea or a bad one, and it depends a lot on the particularities of the retail market in the Chicago area. I am skeptical it is a good idea, but open to being persuaded otherwise. But, for me, the key point for now is that a city could not tailor its policy in this neighborhood-focused manner even it was a good idea for it to do so unless it had the legal power to enact such living wage ordinances at all. And that's part of the reason why I think the Chicago ordinance, if enacted, should be upheld against the home rule, equal protection, and ERISA-preemption challenges that are sure to follow.
Question to readers: should a city have the right to mandate a living wage and apply that mandate asymmetrically to businesses? I suspect that for most people this depends on whether you believe a living wage is sensible policy. One could adopt a process-based position that says regardless of the stupidity of such an approach, an elected council has the right to enact such a policy. At the local level, however, on measures that impose asymmetrical barriers to entry, I strongly lean towards a combination of a public choice perspective, which is skeptical that any city-wide ordinance would actually represent something approximating the general will, and a classical liberal perspective, which would be profoundly skeptical of the city imposing property rights constraints.

posted by Dan at 09:49 PM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (0)

Popping the bubble

I have a review of Peter Hartcher's Bubble Man: Alan Greenspan and the Missing $7 Trillion in today's Washington Post. The opening and closing:

The subtitle of Bubble Man symbolizes the many flaws in Peter Hartcher's jeremiad against Alan Greenspan and the dot-com hysteria that the former Federal Reserve chairman allegedly abetted. The "Missing 7 Trillion Dollars" refers to the losses that stockholders incurred in the three years after the late-1990s stock market bubble collapsed. Throughout the book, Hartcher argues that Greenspan is to blame for those losses -- until the epilogue, in which Hartcher acknowledges that in the three years after those three years, a market upswing recovered "nine dollars out of every ten lost." As Gilda Radner's Emily Litella famously put it, "Never mind."....

By the end of the book, Hartcher seems determined to throw as much mud at Greenspan as possible. Some of this is amusing (Greenspan was a recipient of the Enron Award for Public Service), but most of the time he overreaches. After all, blaming Greenspan for all day traders is like blaming Bill Clinton for all adulterers.

A central irony of Bubble Man is that it is Greenspan's aura as the master of markets that gives Hartcher's accusations any resonance at all. Greenspan was so adroit at handling so many aspects of his job that it seems plausible that he should have handled the dot-com hysteria as well. Greenspan is not perfect, but he's no bubble man.

It was difficult, in the space alloted, to list all the reasons I thought this book sucked eggs. For those who really care, do check out Steven Mufson's lengthier critique in The Washington Monthly.

posted by Dan at 09:06 AM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)