Saturday, July 14, 2007

Meet David Petraeus, patsy or savior

William Kristol, "Why Bush Will Be A Winner," Washington Post, July 15, 2007:

Bush has the good fortune of having finally found his Ulysses S. Grant, or his Creighton Abrams, in Gen. David H. Petraeus. If the president stands with Petraeus and progress continues on the ground, Bush will be able to prevent a sellout in Washington. And then he could leave office with the nation on course to a successful (though painful and difficult) outcome in Iraq. With that, the rest of the Middle East, where so much hangs in the balance, could start to tip in the direction of our friends and away from the jihadists, the mullahs and the dictators....

What it comes down to is this: If Petraeus succeeds in Iraq, and a Republican wins in 2008, Bush will be viewed as a successful president.

Thomas E. Ricks, "Bush Leans On Petraeus as War Dissent Deepens," Washington Post, July 15, 2007:
Some of Petraeus's military comrades worry that the general is being set up by the Bush administration as a scapegoat if conditions in Iraq fail to improve. "The danger is that Petraeus will now be painted as failing to live up to expectations and become the fall guy for the administration," one retired four-star officer said.

Bush has mentioned Petraeus at least 150 times this year in his speeches, interviews and news conferences, often setting him up in opposition to members of Congress.

"It seems to me almost an act of desperation, the administration turning to the one most prominent official who cannot act politically and whose credibility is so far unsullied, someone who is or should be purely driven by the facts of the situation," said Richard Kohn, a specialist in U.S. military history at the University of North Carolina. "What it tells me, given the hemorrhaging of support in Congress, is that we're entering some new phase of the end game."

In his public comments, Bush has not leaned nearly as heavily on the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan C. Crocker, Petraeus's political counterpart in Baghdad. At his news conference Thursday, the president mentioned Petraeus 12 times but Crocker only twice, both times in his prepared statement.

This is not a "same planet, different worlds" kind of comparison. If the Iraq war ends well, then Kristol's scenario is correct; if the status quo persists or worsens, then the Ricks scenario is correct.

Unfortunately for Petraeus, I suspect most experts would give Kristol's scenario less than a 10% chance of coming true.

posted by Dan at 11:39 PM | Comments (17) | Trackbacks (0)

Calling all international lawyers!

As a general rule, international law (IL) scholars don't get a lot of love from international relations (IR) scholars. IR types tend to think that IL people hold naive and unsubstantiated views about the power of global rules to compel governments into certain forms of behavior. In turn, IL types tend to look askance at us IR types, convinced that because we do not hold international law in such high esteem, at any moment we will bully them, beat them up, and hog the best hors d'oeuvres at all the good conferences (this last accusation carries a ring of truth).

Nevertheless, there are moments when us IR types need to confess that we're not entirely sure why states are behaving in a certain way, and turn to IL types for support. This is one of those times: why, suddenly, is the Bush adfministration so gung-ho about ratifying the Law of the Sea Convention?

This treaty was negotiated during the seventies and completed in 1983. The Reagan administration rejected ratification at the time because of disputes over seabed mining that appear to have been hashed out. The U.S. essentially honors 99% of the treaty anyway, but only now has there been any momentum to formally ratify the treaty.

Vern Clark and Thomas Pickering have an op-ed in the New York Times today making this case for ratification:

The treaty provides our military the rights of navigation, by water and by air, to take our forces wherever they must go, whenever it is necessary to do so. Our ships — including vessels that carry more than 90 percent of the logistic and other support for our troops overseas — are given the right of innocent passage through the territorial seas of other states. In addition, the treaty permits American warships to board stateless vessels on the high seas.

The treaty also provides an absolute right of passage through, over and under international straits and through archipelagoes like Indonesia. These rights — the crown jewels of the treaty — did not exist before 1982, when the Convention was concluded. Our security and economic interests are tied directly to these rights.

Another provision in the treaty establishes the breadth of the territorial sea — the area within which a state may exercise sovereignty — at 12 miles. This allows the United States to extend its territorial sea from three miles to 12 miles, while making several other nations reduce their excessive claims.

Our national security interests alone should be sufficient to persuade the Senate to act now. But the Convention also advances the economic interests of our country. It gives us an exclusive economic zone out to 200 miles, with sovereign rights for exploring, exploiting, conserving and managing the living and non-living natural resources of the zone. Coastal states are given sovereign rights over the continental shelf beyond 200 miles if the shelf meets specific geological and other scientific criteria. Under the Convention, our Arctic continental shelf could extend out to 600 miles.

Our nation will be in a much stronger position to advance its military and economic interests if we ratify the treaty. We can guide and influence the interpretation of rules, protecting our interests and deflecting inconsistent interpretations. The agreement is being interpreted, applied and developed right now and we need to be part of it to protect our vital interests in the area of security and beyond.

This is pretty much the official Bush administration position as well. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England also add an additional reason:
Accession makes sense from the perspective of U.S. leadership on the world stage. Joining the convention would give the nation a seat at the table, a voice in the debates, to help shape the future development of oceans law, policy and practice. Accession would also give the United States better opportunities to keep a close watch on other nations' efforts to exercise their rights under the law of the sea and to counter excessive claims if necessary.

Finally, accession would powerfully and publicly reiterate the nation's commitment to the rule of law as the basis for policy and action. It would make U.S. leadership more credible and compelling, in important multi-national efforts like the Proliferation Security Initiative -- designed to counter proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and other dangerous materials. And it would strengthen the general argument in favor of more robust international partnership in all domains -- partnerships essential to meeting today's global and transnational security challenges.

So far, so good. Except that earlier this month, Jack Goldsmith and Jeremy Rabkin argued in the Washington Post that this treaty would actually hinder WMD interdiction efforts:
The Bush administration is urging the Senate to consent this summer to the Convention on the Law of the Sea, the complex and sprawling treaty that governs shipping, navigation, mining, fishing and other ocean activities. This is a major departure from the administration's usual stance toward international organizations that have the capacity to restrain U.S. sovereignty. And it comes in a surprising context, since the convention has disturbing implications for our fight against terrorists....

[Ratifying the treaty] would put America's naval counterterrorism efforts under the control of foreign judges. Suppose the United States seizes a vessel it suspects of shipping dual-use items that might be utilized to build weapons of mass destruction or other tools of terrorism. It's not a wild supposition. Under the Proliferation Security Initiative, the United States has since 2003 secured proliferation-related high-seas interdiction agreements with countries such as Belize and Panama, which provide registration for much international shipping. If the United States ratifies the Convention on the Law of the Sea, the legality of such seizures will, depending on the circumstances, be left to the decision of one of two international tribunals....

At minimum, these tribunals would pose awkward questions to the United States about the evidence behind a seizure, how we gathered it and who vouches for the information. At worst they would follow the recent example of the International Court of Justice and use a legal dispute to score points against American "unilateralism" and "arrogance" for a global audience keen to humble the United States. In every case, a majority of non-American judges would decide whether the U.S. Navy can seize a ship that it believes is carrying terrorist operatives or supplies for terrorists.

It's true that the convention exempts "military activities" from the tribunals' jurisdiction, but it does not define the term. The executive branch, worried about this ambiguity, has proposed a condition to ratification that would allow the United States to define the exemption for itself. But this condition amounts to a "reservation" disallowed by the treaty. International tribunals would still have the last word on the validity of the U.S. condition and the resulting scope of permissible U.S. naval actions.

Supporters note that many of the treaty's "freedom of the seas" provisions favor U.S. interests. But the United States already receives the benefits of these provisions because, as Negroponte and England acknowledged, they are "already widely accepted in practice." They maintain that ratifying the convention would nonetheless provide "welcome legal certainty." In recent years, however, the United States has not received much legal certainty from international tribunals dominated by non-American judges, and what it has received has not been very welcome. There is little reason to expect different results from these tribunals.

Over at Opinio Juris, Peter Spiro pours a lot of cold water onto Goldsmith and Rabkin's argument. Spiro may be right that Goldsmith and Rabkin are overhyping the threat from international tribunals. However, I do know the following is true:
1) The PSI is a linchpin for the Bush administration's anti-proliferation policies;

2) One Bush administration's few international law initiatives has been to build up soft law precedents allowing for the U.S. to interdict flagged ships on the open seas if they suspect it of carrying WMD materials.

3) Ratifying the Law of the Sea treaty appears -- here I might be misreading things -- to undercut that initiative just a wee bit.

4) The U.S. already reaps the benefits of the Law of the Sea treaty, since it honors its provisions and every other country respects it as well. In other words, the gains from ratification don't seem that great.

In this administration's balance sheet, it's always been willing to jettison international legal strictures even if it theoretically constrains U.S. freedom of action.

So, my question -- why is the Bush administration suddenly so gung-ho about ratifying the Law of the Sea treaty? Is there a hidden quid pro quo that I'm missing? Is this strictly a PR stunt where the Bush administration can claim it's multilateral? Am I simply overstating the treaty's constraints on PSI? What gives?

UPDATE: Chris Borgen misinterprets this post a little. I'm not stating that the costs of ratifying the LOS outweigh the benefits (to me it really does depend on how much, if at all, LOS constrains PSI). I'm saying that by revealed preference, I would have expected the Bush administration to have made this calculation.

And yet they didn't. Why?

ANOTHER UPDATE: Thanks to alert reader S.B., who e-mail a Reuters story suggesting one additional benefit for LOS ratification:

Canada will buy at least six patrol ships to assert its sovereignty claim in the Arctic, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper backed away on Monday from an election pledge for navy icebreakers that would ply the waters of the Northwest Passage all year....

Canada’s claim over the Arctic Northwest Passage that links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans is disputed by countries, including the United States, that consider much of the region to be international water.

posted by Dan at 08:57 AM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, July 13, 2007

The most frightening sentence I've read today
"A lot of suburbanites have moved to the city in the last five years looking for action," said Beehive co-owner Darryl Settles
Suzanne Ryan, "The place to be (over 30)," Boston Globe, July 13, 2007.
posted by Dan at 03:55 PM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

Thief foiled by Democratic party caricature

In the Washington Post, Allison Klein writes about an attempted robbery thwarted by.... Camembert:

A grand feast of marinated steaks and jumbo shrimp was winding down, and a group of friends was sitting on the back patio of a Capitol Hill home, sipping red wine. Suddenly, a hooded man slid in through an open gate and put the barrel of a handgun to the head of a 14-year-old guest.

"Give me your money, or I'll start shooting," he demanded, according to D.C. police and witness accounts.

The five other guests, including the girls' parents, froze -- and then one spoke.

"We were just finishing dinner," Cristina "Cha Cha" Rowan, 43, blurted out. "Why don't you have a glass of wine with us?"

The intruder took a sip of their Chateau Malescot St-Exupéry and said, "Damn, that's good wine."

The girl's father, Michael Rabdau, 51, who described the harrowing evening in an interview, told the intruder, described as being in his 20s, to take the whole glass. Rowan offered him the bottle. The would-be robber, his hood now down, took another sip and had a bite of Camembert cheese that was on the table.

Then he tucked the gun into the pocket of his nylon sweatpants.

Click on the story to read what happens next... but group hugs are involved.

posted by Dan at 03:23 PM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, July 12, 2007

A whole-assed effort on a half-assed policy measure

In response to this post blasting the Baucus-Grassley-Schumer-Graham China bill -- and the presidential candidates who endorse it -- I received the following e-mail from a Hill staffer who shall remain very, very anonymous:

Over the next few months, our committee is going to be considering trade legislation on China, including the currency issue. I've read with interest your recent blog about your concerns with the Baucus-Grassley-Schumer-Graham bill. If we accept that something needs to happen legislatively (for political, if not substantive reasons) on currency, do you have any thoughts on what a sensible piece of legislation would look like?
So, the problem is that a political imperative exists to do something, but even the staffers know that the something proposed is bad, bad, bad.

The task, therefore, is to devise a bill that is perceived as doing something about China but in point of fact does not seriously rupture either the bilateral economic relationship or the U.S. economy. A bonus if the policy were to actually achieve the desired end -- a slow appreciation of the yuan.

Faced with this assignment, and after pleading numerous times to just do nothing, I'd offer four recommendations that might make this kind of thing look sensible:

1) Give China 18 to 24 months to achieve a quantifiable degree of appreciation (no, I'm not going to provide a number) before any measures are enacted. This kicks the can down the road for a while, and with some luck Beijing will head in that direction anyway.

2) Since a tariff will result in a) higher consumer prices and b) higher interest rates if China retaliates or acquiesces, have the bill suspend any punitive action unless the inflation rate is below 4.5% and/or the Federal funds rate is below 5.5%.

3) Demand that the Treasury Department investigate sovereign wealth funds, akin to their investigations of currency manipulation.

4) Screw trying to punish China for currency manipulation and focus on consumer health and safety instead. This gets at the issue sideways, but Beijing is clearly vulnerable on this point, no matter how many ex-regulators they execute. This is also an an issue where, for reasons I've elaborated at length elsewhere, Beijing is more vulnerable.

Please excuse me so I can wash my hands until they're clean.

posted by Dan at 05:04 PM | Comments (7) | Trackbacks (0)

The thing about handling Iran...

Over at, Monica Maggioni makes a case about how the U.S. should handle Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that will be familiar to readers of this blog:

In Tehran, the mood is quickly shifting. And it’s easy to feel it every time you stop to buy a newspaper, have a coffee, or wait in line at the grocery store. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s star is fading fast.

Since his election in June 2005, Iranians have had conflicted feelings about their president. At first, he evoked interest and curiosity. And there were great expectations from this humble man who was promising economic reform, an anticorruption campaign, and a rigid moral scheme for daily life. Then came fear—when Ahmadinejad began to destroy any chance of good relations with the outside world.

But today in Iran, laughter is supplanting fear. Mocking the president has become a pastime not only for rebellious university students, but also members of the establishment and the government itself.

Behind the high walls of Iranian palaces or in the quiet of Tehran’s parks, Iranian elites will indulge in a quick laugh about the president’s intelligence or his populist bombast. Jokes about his résumé are especially popular. Many refer to his “Ph.D. in traffic” or his letter last May to U.S. President George W. Bush, in which he proclaimed, “I am a teacher.”

The jokes—and who is delivering them—tell the story of a man whose power is on the decline as Iran’s economy collapses around him. Prices for basic goods are skyrocketing, and the government is unable to cope with increasing poverty. Just last month, over 50 Iranian economists sent an open letter excoriating the president’s mismanagement of the economy....

[I]t’s likely that Ahmadinejad’s power will decrease dramatically even before 2009. The elections for Iran’s parliament in March 2008 could represent a turning point if the majority inside the parliament shifts against him. Ahmadinejad still has a strong supporter in Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, who heads the 12-member Guardian Council that holds the political reins in Iran. The Council must clear all candidates for the presidency and parliament. But the Council itself is not monolithic, and it will be impossible to keep all the reformists and pragmatist conservatives out of the electoral race. But even if Ahmadinejad makes it through next spring, many analysts in the country are ready to bet that he won’t be reelected in 2009; the opposition is just too strong, and the economy will likely be in worse straits by that time.

In fact, the only thing that could save him now is the United States. Nobody knows this better than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As his support within Iran has evaporated, he has cranked up the anti-American rhetoric, and the U.S. military has publicly accused the Pasdaran of arming insurgents in Iraq and even Afghanistan. At this point, the only way Ahmadinejad can revive his flagging fortunes is by uniting his country against an external threat. U.S. officials adamantly maintain that Washington is committed to using diplomacy to resolve the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program and its aggressive role in the region. Yet pressure is mounting in some branches of the Bush administration to take military action against Iran. That pressure should be resisted. For military action would give Mahmoud Ahmadinejad exactly what he wants most: job security.

I don't really disagree with this analysis, but there's one nagging concern. As Maggioni points out, Ahmadinejad is aware of his own political conundrum. He therefore has an incentive to pursue policies that antagonize the United States as much as possible -- in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in the Persian Gulf, towards Israel, etc. The U.S. response, according of every Iran-watcher I've heard from regardless of party affiliation -- should be low-key.

Here's my problem -- doesn't this approach essentially give Ahmadinejad carte blanche to do whatever he wants in the region? Is "multilateral pressure" really going to prevent him from arming Iraqi insurgents, seizing more sailors, threatening the Saudis, and accelerating the nuclear program?

I think the short-run costs of tolerance clearly outweigh the long-term benefits of Ahmadinejad backing himself into a corner. But I also have to admit I'm not thrilled with the menu of options here.

posted by Dan at 08:45 AM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

What motivates economic journalists?

At least once a year, journalists who cover economics like to use the trope of "the dominant market-friendly paradigm is being challenged, changing economics as we understand it." It's safe to say that Patricia Cohen's New York Times story from yesterday fits that bill:

For many economists, questioning free-market orthodoxy is akin to expressing a belief in intelligent design at a Darwin convention: Those who doubt the naturally beneficial workings of the market are considered either deluded or crazy.

But in recent months, economists have engaged in an impassioned debate over the way their specialty is taught in universities around the country, and practiced in Washington, questioning the profession’s most cherished ideas about not interfering in the economy.

“There is much too much ideology,” said Alan S. Blinder, a professor at Princeton and a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. Economics, he added, is “often a triumph of theory over fact.” Mr. Blinder helped kindle the discussion by publicly warning in speeches and articles this year that as many as 30 million to 40 million Americans could lose their jobs to lower-paid workers abroad. Just by raising doubts about the unmitigated benefits of free trade, he made headlines and had colleagues rubbing their eyes in astonishment.

“What I’ve learned is anyone who says anything even obliquely that sounds hostile to free trade is treated as an apostate,” Mr. Blinder said.

And free trade is not the only sacred subject, Mr. Blinder and other like-minded economists say. Most efforts to intervene in the markets — like setting a minimum wage, instituting industrial policy or regulating prices — are viewed askance by mainstream economists, as are analyses that do not rely on mathematical modeling.

The story conflates a bunch of things (adopting interventionist policy positions, deviating from formal methods, behavioral economics, heterodox economics) together. Alex Tabarrok has a nice takedown (and see also Greg Mankiw). Even Dani Rodrik (cited in the piece) thinks the article "does overstate it quite a bit."

What's of interest to me is that this kind of scattershot critique of standard economic theory -- in which a whole bunch of disparate, even contradictory critiques are lumped together -- seems to be a common trope among journalists. My question is, why?

There's a Freakonomics-style question to be asked here -- are journalists who wash out of Ph.D. programs more or less likely to do this? What about journalists with overt ideological biases? And why the hell hasn't The New Republic written its standard, contrarian, "the neoclassical model does better than you think" kind of piece?

posted by Dan at 05:29 PM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Clinton and Obama officially scare the crap out of me

About a month ago I was talking with a big-name economist who was advising a couple of presidential campaigns. I've differed with this person on a few policy issues, but I'd be very comfortable with this person in a position of authority.

I asked him which candidates on the Democratic side would be able to pursue a responsible trade policy, and he replied, without hesitation, "Clinton and Obama."

After reading Eoin Callan's Financial Times story, I'm afraid I can't believe that anymore:

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the frontrunners for the Democratic presidential nomination, have agreed to co-sponsor legislation that would levy punitive duties on Chinese goods to cajole Beijing into revaluing its currency, according to aides....

Brian Pomper, a former Democratic adviser, said China was becoming a proxy for US political anxiety about globalisation and that sponsorship of the bill was the most combative position yet taken towards Beijing by the two candidates.

Sandra Polaski, a trade analyst at the Carnegie Endowment, said US politicians were making China a scapegoat in the face of widespread economic insecurity among voters. “Opinion polls consistently show the American public has a balanced view of China. It is campaigning politicians who are turning the heat on Beijing,” she said.

Brad DeLong makes the point better than I:
Of course, then the candidates will be attacking US consumers (who will pay higher prices for imports), workers in the construction industry, US borrowers (who will then pay higher interest rates to domestic and foreign creditors), and US homeowners (who will see the higher interest rates push down housing prices and reduce their equity). The net short-run effect is surely a minus--it's not as though we desperately need to swap construction jobs for manufacturing jobs right now, and we surely don't need a more-rapid decline in housing prices right now.

In the long run of three to five years, yes: The renminbi needs to become worth a lot more (primarily for China's sake). Pressure on China to adopt better policies is helpful (provided we don't shoot ourselves in the foot). But this strikes me as a classic threat to shoot ourselves in the foot: it is not a good policy move on either Obama's or Rodham Clinton's part.

This prompts Matt Yglesias to ask the following:
Now where I tend to lose the plot is this. If mainstream economists like Brad think it's a bad idea to use threats of tariffs to push China into changing its exchange-rate policies, how come the economics mainstream seems to have so few complaints about the fact that it's completely normal for US trade negotiators to use exactly this sort of leverage to try to get other countries to change the intellectual properties policies or to privatize their water systems or what have you? Why is the threat to shoot ourselves in the foot okay when made on behalf of pharmaceutical companies and movie studios, but not when made on behalf of import-competing manufacturers? Often when I see this argument made, I feel like the point is -- aha! hypocrites! you should support our China bill after all! -- but I really do think Brad's right, this is a bad bill. But by the same token, the people who complain about this sort of thing ought to complain about the other sort of thing as well.
To answer Matt's question to the best of my ability, you have to realize the following:
1) All trade sanctions, when imposed, are welfare-reducing. The hope in deploying them is that they will be sufficiently painful to the targeted country that its government will acquiesce in a prompt manner -- i.e., before they really bite.

2) The kind of sanctions that Matt discusses -- "leverage to try to get other countries to change the intellectual properties policies or to privatize their water systems or what have you" -- have actually worked pretty well. Even better, they've worked at the threat stage, so the costs of sanctions imposition have not been incurred. They've worked remarkably well when the WTO authorizes them, which they do if a dispute resolution panel decides that a country is imposing a protectionist measure. So Clinton and Obama aren't completely crazy to think this tactic could be applied towards China.

3) On the whole, this tactic has worked because the U.S. has a really big market, and the countries we've targeted for sanctions have been much smaler, highly dependent upon the U.S. market, and don't have more than a trillion dollars in U.S. debt lying around.

4) China is a pretty big economy, and they do have that trillion dollars. If the regime is facing any domestic pressure, it's a nationilist impulse to say "f#@k you" to the United States. Furthermore, we're asking them to do something far more significant than enforce intellectual property rights in some sectors. We're asking them to f$%k with what's been their primary engine for growth for the past two years. DeLong is correct that this engine is unsustainable in the long run, but -- and this is the key point -- they're not going to acquiesce to this threat anytime soon. If anything, nationalist sentiment will make it less likely that Beijing would acquiesce after sanctions were imposed than at the present moment.

Clinton and Obama are willing to screw over the American consumer for a self-defeating measure. Both of them should know better.

UPDATE: Dani Rodrik blogs an intriguing proposal on how to remedy China's undervalued currency. That is to say, it would be intriguing if the policy could be executed in a vacuum with zero political externalities. I don't think it can actually be implemented.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Several commentators have suggested that a) Clinton and Obama are merely posturing; and b) Republicans are just as bad.

My response to (a) is that it stops being posturing when you're co-sponsoring legislation that has a decent chance of passing. My response to (b) is a free round of tu quoque for everyone.

posted by Dan at 03:06 PM | Comments (15) | Trackbacks (0)

Drezner's pop culture minute!!

One of the pernicious side-effects of shuttling around small children in one's car is that it causes one to lose with touch with today's music. Anything that's not on "Music Together" or the theme song from Maisy is lost on my youngest child, and she gets very grumpy when her music is not being played.

Even with this caveat, I'll go out on a limb and declare myself a better arbiter of pop music meanings than David Brooks.

This is based on Brooks' column ($$) in the New York Times today, a sociological exegesis of three hit songs today:

If you’ve been driving around listening to pop radio stations this spring and summer, you’ll have noticed three songs that are pretty much unavoidable, and each of them is a long way from puppy love....

[Brooks' three songs: Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats," Pink's "U + Ur Hand," and Avril Lavigne's "Girlfriend". I'll go out on a limb and add that I think Kelly Clarkson's "Never Again" is actually a better song than these three and better represents what Brooks is trying to get at in his column.--DD]

If you put the songs together, you see they’re about the same sort of character: a character who would have been socially unacceptable in a megahit pop song 10, let alone 30 years ago.

This character is hard-boiled, foul-mouthed, fedup, emotionally self-sufficient and unforgiving. She’s like one of those battle-hardened combat vets, who’s had the sentimentality beaten out of her and who no longer has time for romance or etiquette. She’s disgusted by male idiots and contemptuous of the feminine flirts who cater to them. She’s also, at least in some of the songs, about 16.

This character is obviously a product of the cold-eyed age of divorce and hookups. It’s also a product of the free-floating anger that’s part of the climate this decade. But as a fantasy ideal, it’s also descended from the hard-boiled Clint Eastwood characters who tamed the Wild West and the hard-boiled Humphrey Bogart and Charles Bronson characters who tamed the naked city.

When Americans face something that’s psychologically traumatic, they invent an autonomous Lone Ranger fantasy hero who can deal with it. The closing of the frontier brought us the hard-drinking cowboy loner. Urbanization brought us the hard-drinking detective loner.

Now young people face a social frontier of their own. They hit puberty around 13 and many don’t get married until they’re past 30. That’s two decades of coupling, uncoupling, hooking up, relationships and shopping around. This period isn’t a transition anymore. It’s a sprawling life stage, and nobody knows the rules. (emphasis added)

A few thoughts:
1) David needs to haul his current research assistant into his office and bitchslap him or her for a while. It's the RA's job to have a better grasp of pop culture, and in this case there has been a clear failure, because this kind of song has been around for a while. A decade ago, there was Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know," Fiona Apple's "Sleep to Dream", and Meredith Brooks' "Bitch."

Two decades ago, there was Tina Turner's "What's Love Got to Do With It?"

Three decades ago, there was Blondie's "One Way (Or Another)"

2) The persistece of this song suggests that Brooks' fears might be just a wee bit exaggerated. II'll wager it's been at least three decades since educated women have had to marry the farmer next door at gunpoint. The fact that this period has stretched out further (for both sexes) does not breed more confusion -- it simply means that a higher percentage of the population has experienced the kind of traumatic break-up that generates the songs discussed above. [Did you experience this?--ed. Yes, but in my case it manifested itself into marathon watchings of thirtysomething back when it was aired on Lifetime. You were such a wuss!!--ed. I was keenly aware of this fact, yes. ]

3) Pop songs are about moods more than permanent states of personality. The mistake in Brooks' column is to assume that the mood identified in these songs lasts beyond a summer. They don't.

4) I've wasted way too much time on this post.

posted by Dan at 09:25 AM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, July 9, 2007

Why there will never be a reality show about academia

Four years ago (?!!), I blogged the following:

[T]he caricature of academia in popular culture is a collection of lecherous white male who inevitably bed one or more of their students.
In The American Scholar, William Deresiewicz uses many more paragraphs to make a similar point:
Look at recent movies about academics, and a remarkably consistent pattern emerges. In The Squid and the Whale (2005), Jeff Daniels plays an English professor and failed writer who sleeps with his students, neglects his wife, and bullies his children. In One True Thing (1998), William Hurt plays an English professor and failed writer who sleeps with his students, neglects his wife, and bullies his children. In Wonder Boys (2000), Michael Douglas plays an English professor and failed writer who sleeps with his students, has just been left by his third wife, and can’t commit to the child he’s conceived in an adulterous affair with his chancellor. Daniels’s character is vain, selfish, resentful, and immature. Hurt’s is vain, selfish, pompous, and self-pitying. Douglas’s is vain, selfish, resentful, and self-pitying. Hurt’s character drinks. Douglas’s drinks, smokes pot, and takes pills. All three men measure themselves against successful writers (two of them, in Douglas’s case; his own wife, in Daniels’s) whose presence diminishes them further. In We Don’t Live Here Anymore (2004), Mark Ruffalo and Peter Krause divide the central role: both are English professors, and both neglect and cheat on their wives, but Krause plays the arrogant, priapic writer who seduces his students, Ruffalo the passive, self-pitying failure. A Love Song For Bobby Long (2004) divides the stereotype a different way, with John Travolta as the washed-up, alcoholic English professor, Gabriel Macht as the blocked, alcoholic writer.

Not that these figures always teach English. Kevin Spacey plays a philosophy professor — broken, bitter, dissolute — in The Life of David Gale (2003). Steve Carell plays a self-loathing, suicidal Proust scholar in Little Miss Sunshine (2006). Both characters fall for graduate students, with disastrous results. And while the stereotype has gained a new prominence of late, its roots go back at least a few decades. Many of its elements are in place in Oleanna (1994), in Surviving Desire (1991), and, with John Mahoney’s burnt-out communications professor, in Moonstruck (1987). In fact, all of its elements are in place in Terms of Endearment (1983), where Jeff Daniels took his first turn playing a feckless, philandering English professor. And of course, almost two decades before that, there was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

What’s going on here? If the image of the absent-minded professor stood for benevolent unworldliness, what is the meaning of the new academic stereotype? Why are so many of these failed professors also failed writers? Why is professional futility so often connected with sexual impropriety? (In both Terms of Endearment and We Don’t Live Here Anymore, “going to the library” becomes a euphemism for “going to sleep with a student.”) Why are these professors all men, and why are all the ones who are married such miserable husbands?

Deresiewicz answers his own question with a Jungian flourish ( "they are a way of articulating the superiority of female values to male ones: of love, community, and self-sacrifice to ambition, success, and fame"). Actually, there are several Jungian flourishes, to match the many answers he provides.

Rather than tangle with Deresiewicz, let me offer up an explanation, provided my the Official Blogwife, that Deresiewicz leaves unexplored: "The reason professors sleep with their students in fiction is because any realistic portrayal of your jobs would bore readers out of their skulls within ten minutes."

Alas, this is true. I'd like to think I've carved out an interesting career, but a diary of a typical working day for me would probably run as follows:

9:00 A.M.: Dan turns on computer.

9:01 A.M.: Dan checks e-mail.

9:10 A.M.: Dan surfs news sites.

9:30 A.M.: Dan considers writing referee report that was due ten days ago; decides it's better tackled after lunch.

9:31 A.M.: Dan opens up Word document containing manuscript du jour and stares blankly at it for a while.

9:41 A.M.: Dan decides that he's really itching to work on the other manuscript du jour, because this is where his mind is wandering. He opens up that document and stares blankly at it for a while.

9:51 A.M.: On a good day, Dan gets a small piece of inspiration that he quickly converts into a paragraph of prose that will buttress his thesis.

9:56 A.M.: Dan scratches his ass.

And so on.

UPDATE: Jeez, even the librarians have more fun. At least, however, professors retain their mighty fun advantage over either economic journalists or graduate students.

posted by Dan at 09:36 AM | Comments (24) | Trackbacks (0)