Friday, August 31, 2007

His Favorite Cartoon

I expect TalkingPointsMemo will push this story to the level of scandal, and it seems to merit it:
This story in this morning's Post about Green Zone authorities putting out 'tip sheets' about visiting Democratic lawmakers that read like they were written by the RNC is a really big deal. It's all par for the course for this administration, how they've politicized every branch of the government and every agency, eroding democratic institutions in American while they pretended to build them in Iraq. In fact, from the start the White House tried to stock the Green Zone and the US occupation authority with GOP operatives. But I thought that had changed a little. This latest incident, though, should trigger a number of forced retirements and resignations.
But aside from the issue of politicizing the Green Zone, isn't this little tid-bit from the Post story even more odd?
But even such tight control could not always filter out the bizarre world inside the barricades. At one point, the three were trying to discuss the state of Iraqi security forces with Iraq's national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, but the large, flat-panel television set facing the official proved to be a distraction. Rubaie was watching children's cartoons.

When Moran asked him to turn it off, Rubaie protested with a laugh and said, "But this is my favorite television show," Moran recalled.

Porter confirmed the incident, although he tried to paint the scene in the best light, noting that at least they had electricity.

"I don't disagree it was an odd moment, but I did take a deep breath and say, 'Wait a minute, at least they are using the latest technology, and they are monitoring the world,' " Porter said. "But, yes, it was pretty annoying."
Now, depending on what cartoon it was ("Itchy & Scratchy," "The Road Runner"), I suppose there might

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Random Economic Follow-Up

Still on the great Harvard magazine article, which among things, is serving as a great Econ 52 refresher:
Money flowing into the United States injects purchasing power into the economy unevenly—it affects certain sectors, such as housing, more than others. “Assume the world is divided into things that are tradable and things that are not,” says Jeffry Frieden. Hard goods, clothing, and most foods are tradable: they are transported easily across borders and are therefore subject to international competition. Haircuts, housing, medical care, restaurant food, and public transportation, on the other hand, are consumed where they are produced. Because these kinds of goods and services can’t be exported or imported, they are considered non-tradable. When foreigners are buying our currency, the dollar appreciates, making international goods relatively inexpensive. That leaves consumers with even more money to spend on non-tradables, such as housing and land. And because housing and land are not subject to foreign competition, their price goes up.
Is it plausible, through a combination of an increasingly global distributed base of high-value knowledge workers, that some of the services (hair cuts, medical care, restaurant food) described as non-tradable become tradable? To borrow from the Greeks, what if the best barber lives in Italy, and technology enables him to cut your hair remotely, let's say with robotic arm? Is that simply far-fetched? Does it matter, in terms of how capital flows, and how we value services?

No Reincarnation Allowed

It's so crazy, it's funny. If it wasn't so sad. I need to make it to Tibet:
In one of history's more absurd acts of totalitarianism, China has banned Buddhist monks in Tibet from reincarnating without government permission. According to a statement issued by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, the law, which goes into effect next month and strictly stipulates the procedures by which one is to reincarnate, is "an important move to institutionalize management of reincarnation."
And I need to move to China. The audacity of their insane policies is a little awe-ing.

By the way, are we all agreed that if the Dalai Lama chooses to reincarnate in America, he's fucked? I mean, how is that kid going to see his way clear of Grand Theft Auto, junior high, and McDonald's. This is not the place to find enlightenment. This is the place to invent a crazy religion out of nothing.

How Are We Paying For All Of This Stuff???!!!

Through all of the economics courses I took, there have been a set of first principles that have never exactly sat well with me - maybe because I just didn't get them or maybe because they aren't taught well because they are fundamentally impractical questions. Generally, these questions occupy the outer bounds of economic questions - extremely microeconomic questions, like how assumptions about rational actors could really be used when considering, you know, humans, to macroeconomic questions, like how is wealth created, how do you value good & services that aren't financially accounted for, or whose value must be factored over long periods of time, or what happens when societies fundamentally consume more than they produce over long periods of time.

These abstract economic questions take on puzzling forms in my day to day life. For example, commuting on the subway in Manhattan, it's apparent that everybody, everybody - ghetto kids, grandparents on social services, day laborers, NYU students with no jobs and lots of debt, teachers! - have upwards of $500 dollars worth of products on them at any moment, every day. Cell phones, iPods, shoes, handbags, designer clothes, digital cameras. It's crazy. Where is all the money coming from to buy all of this? To wit, Harvard magazine has an interesting article tying our macroeconomic troubles, in terms of foreign accounts balances and national debt, with our individual consumption habits:
“When a country gets a capital inflow [such as the United States has now], generally speaking things are pretty good,” observes Jeffry Frieden, Stanfield professor of international peace. “It allows you to invest more than you save, and consume more than you produce. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that,” he notes. Firms do it all the time, and so do households. They borrow on the expectation that they will be more productive and better able to pay the money back in the future. The United States, for example, was “the world’s biggest debtor for a hundred years,” Frieden notes, “but the money was used to build the railroads and the canals and the factories and to improve the ports and to build our cities. It was used productively, and it worked. The question to ask now is not, ‘Is the country living beyond its means?’ The question is, ‘Is the money going to increase the productive capacity of the economy?’ Because if it just goes to getting everybody another iPod,” he warns, “then unless iPods make people more productive, there is going to be trouble down the road when the debt has to be serviced.”
Well worth the read.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Adorable Do-Gooders

I cannot say enough good things about MF and JJF's incredible project, And the good press just keeps rolling in. Check out the adorable video on Yahoo.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Rich Have Inherited the Earth

And we are them. Or so goes my simple reading of this New York Times review of a new book being published by UC-Davis economic historian Gregory Clark. The central thesis of Clark's work, based on analysis of economic data from the Middle Ages, is that demographic trends in those years lead to a downward social mobility where the progeny of the rich, imbued with a certain psychological disposition and value set, began to form a larger portion of society, fostering the shift from a cycle of subsistence to economic cycles where wealth was created, consolidated, and enhanced:
Generation after generation, the rich had more surviving children than the poor, his research showed. That meant there must have been constant downward social mobility as the poor failed to reproduce themselves and the progeny of the rich took over their occupations. “The modern population of the English is largely descended from the economic upper classes of the Middle Ages,” he concluded.

As the progeny of the rich pervaded all levels of society, Dr. Clark considered, the behaviors that made for wealth could have spread with them. He has documented that several aspects of what might now be called middle-class values changed significantly from the days of hunter gatherer societies to 1800. Work hours increased, literacy and numeracy rose, and the level of interpersonal violence dropped.
I won't form an opinion from the review alone, and hopefully will get to the book in the near future. In the mean time, you can read along with the folks at the Marginal Revolution blog.
Thanks to DL for forwarding the original article.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Happy 60th!

India celebrates 60 years of independence. Amazing how far she's come.

Read the New York Times article covering celebrations in India and an accompanying essay by the historian Ramchandra Guha reflecting on and warning of the 60 year old conflicts betwen the two twins, India and Pakistan

Photos from Flickr Most Interesting search for "India Independence 60"

The New, New Thing by Michael Lewis

I am a fan of Michael Lewis the writer, from Liar's Poker and Moneyball and the occasional essay. I am a fan because stylistically, he is a simple, direct writer, observant and funny. But I am more a fan because thematically, Lewis engages topics like work, business culture, and sports, the substance of both life and dreams for so many people, myself included, and renders them with clarity, honesty, intelligence, and humor. Writing about work and business culture, Lewis treats it not just as a diminishing, soul-crushing exercise foisted upon us, but as occupation, something we do, and some of us, some times, with tenacity, zeal, and inspiration. He conveys jobs and entire industries truly as livelihoods, pulsing, consuming, informed by both biography and history. But with perspective throughout, chronicling his subject's mania with an offset balance of dry humor and an eye for the absurd.

That said, The New New Thing was an entertaining read, brisk, but not particularly insightful. Ostensibly chronicling the culture of entrepreneurship that drove the growth of Silicon Valley from the late 1970s through to the end of the 1990s, The New New Thing is basically a character study of Jim Clark, founder of Silicon Graphics and Netscape adorned with some half-drawn conclusions about character of entrepreneurship that was the spirit of the times. Jim Clark, as portrayed by Lewis, is an immensely interesting personality, and as much as business in the Valley is driven by cults of personality, I suppose it makes sense to latch on to that as anything else. It is disappointing, however that Lewis is not able to draw much by way of insight into what makes Silicon valley tick as a hot-bed of innovation, beyond a few obvious sentiments like technology is a young man's game, timing is everything, and California is a place where you can re-invent yourself.

I will transcribe one passage that I find modestly interesting:
[B]ack in 1921 [Thorstein] Veblen had predicted that engineers would one day rule in the U.S. economy. He argued that since the economy was premised on technology and the engineers were the only ones who actually understood how the technology worked, they would inevitably use their superior knowledge to seize power from the financiers and captains of industry who wound up on top at the end of the first round of the Industrial Revolution. After all, the engineers only needed to refuse to fix anything, and modern industry would grind to a halt. Veblen rejoiced at this prospect. He didn’t much care for financiers and captains. He thought they were parasites.
When I told Clark about Veblen, he did a good imitation of a man who was bored out of his skull. When he didn’t ant to seem too interested, he pretended he wasn’t paying attention. Now, his head splitting, he was particularly keen on the idea of the engineer grabbing power from the financier. “That’s happening right now,” he said. “Right here. In the Valley. The power is shifting to the engineers, who create the companies.”
That, Clark thought, was only as it should be.
Certainly a nice sentiment. Truer than before. yes. True, absolutely? Not yet. Thoughts?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Turtle Theory of Diversity

Excellent article about a new study from Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, challenging much of the conventional wisdom regarding how diversity functions in communities. Excerpt:

In documenting that hunkering down, Putnam challenged the two dominant schools of thought on ethnic and racial diversity, the "contact" theory and the "conflict" theory. Under the contact theory, more time spent with those of other backgrounds leads to greater understanding and harmony between groups. Under the conflict theory, that proximity produces tension and discord.

Putnam's findings reject both theories. In more diverse communities, he says, there were neither great bonds formed across group lines nor heightened ethnic tensions, but a general civic malaise. And in perhaps the most surprising result of all, levels of trust were not only lower between groups in more diverse settings, but even among members of the same group.

"Diversity, at least in the short run," he writes, "seems to bring out the turtle in all of us."

Well worth the read. Don't have much to say about it, but a lot to mull over. And I definitely appreciate both Putnam and the article's acknowledgement of the need to balance objective research with civic engagement.

Investors Helping Investors

Can qualitative data provided by a community of investors help you beat the market? Out perform the experts? Motley Fool has created a service that does just that - and it will be very interesting to see the results. Although my exploration of the service has been cursory so far, I am impressed by the approach. Check out the Motley Fool's explanation here, and I'll see if I can dig up more reviews and a more substantial evaluation in the coming days.

The Energy President?

The reviews that I have seen of Bill Richardson's record on energy and the environment over the years have always been fairly mixed. I should qualify that: mixed from the perspective of advocates of environmental policies -- but always reasonably good in the context of mainstream politicians. Grist magazine is running a series of interviews of (Democratic) presidential candidates, focusing on the environmental and energy policy planks of their respective platforms. While the aesthetic of Grist is pretty crunchy, there features can be decently substantive, and the few interviews I have scanned are worth a read. Grist also hails Bill Richardson's climate and energy plan as the "boldest and most visionary."

From Bill Richardson:
Right now, the most important domestic and national-security issues involve America becoming energy independent and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. I believe it's going to take an "energy president" who will lead this country toward these goals by asking all Americans to sacrifice for the common good and be more energy-efficient and promote a green style of living.
At the end of the day, it is still just rhetoric, but I am impressed that Richardson has proposed substantive targets in reducing emissions and increasing energy efficiency, broached the question of nuclear and biofuels, cited Brazil as an exemplar in energy policy, and invoked the 'S' word - Sacrifice - when discussing energy policy. Also curious to me that the twin messages of climate change and energy independence don't seem to be playing a major role in the Democratic primaries to-date.

The other candidates?

John Edwards, long on rhetoric:
The thing that I am certain is true is that our dependence on oil has an incredibly negative effect in trying to stop the forces of terrorism. It props up bad governments, particularly in the Middle East, who don't educate their kids, don't reform their governments, don't economically develop, and in many cases are largely isolated from the rest of the world, and the main reason is because they are on drugs, and that drug is oil. So long as they are mainlining oil, they will never reform.

Which is why America needs to make a switch from our addiction to oil and carbon-based fuels to wind, solar, safer biofuels, and cleaner renewable energy, which will have positive impacts far beyond economic impacts. No. 1: It will create at least 1 million "green-collar jobs" in this country. No. 2: When we drive down the price of oil, it creates an environment where these countries that are mainlining oil all of the sudden have no choice, and they have to reform, they have to educate their kids, they have to economically develop.
Hillary Clinton, lots of names dropped and a win-win rhetoric, but not sure if there is a real plan in there:
I have worked to pass the Brownfields Revitalization Act and the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act. I've taken many actions specific to New York, like pushing for the Hudson River cleanup by GE. I have been very committed on health-related effects -- that is why I've got legislation to try to deal with asthma and other respiratory diseases and to reduce pollution from power plants. Time and time again I have tried to protect public lands, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. I cosponsored the Roadless Area Conservation Act to try and get back what my husband had done as president to protect the National Forest system. I believe strongly in supporting the "polluter pays" principle, and I am going to work to try to reinstate that.
Barack Obama, the right rhetoric, a solid approach, but is the depth of analysis really there:
I consider energy to be one of the three most important issues that we're facing domestically, along with revamping our education system and fundamentally reforming our health-care system. And the opportunities for significant change exist partly because awareness of the threat of climate change has grown rapidly over the last several years. Al Gore deserves a lot of credit for that, as do activists in the environmental community and outlets like Grist. People recognize the magnitude of the [climate] problem and are ready to take it on.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Obama: The Speech, part 2

ENW posted this great, "behind the scenes" look at the making of Obama's speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. I've previously written about how much I like this speech. I wanted to briefly articulate why.

I think most liberals/progressives and most Democrats get fired up about Obama for three reasons. First, he has done a superb job articulating liberal values in a way that reflects clarity of moral purpose, thoughtfulness, and a rational grounding. I think most liberals, true or not, like to view their values in this way - not as warm compassion, but as very much as a set of values bundled with how those values were cultivated - by examining facts, making considered opinions, and centered morally. Second, Obama projects strength, even forcefulness, in his face, through his eyes, in his physical posture, and through his words and arguments - this strength is lacking in many other candidates. Finally, Obama is stylish and a sexy candidate, but in a cagey and tough way, something missing from the remainder of the field, and not embodied by either Kerry or Gore. Even Clinton's sex appeal, I think, was different - warmer, and less dangerous.

I get fired up about Obama for all those reasons, as well. But what really drew my attention to his speech when he first delivered it was another element, far out-stripping each of the above. What resonated for me was the immigrant narrative that Obama used to frame his father's experience, and from which Obama derived much of his values and sense of purpose. Now whether this is contrived or genuine, I don't know, but it is a powerful narrative which I think will have political consequence in this election, or an election soon to come.

Specifically, I think there are two major implications of a presidential candidate who can claim an immigrant narrative (has this been done before? Dukakis?). The first is that the candidate can relate and draw in that wide swath of first- and second-generation immigrants in this country, from the children of seasonal and manual laborers, to political and war refugees, to the shopkeepers and taxi drivers of the inner city, to the high-achieving sons and daughters of well-educated professionals. Through fortunate circumstances and hardship, pretty much every immigrant shares a set of experiences when coming to America - in terms of learning a new language, grappling with a new culture, trying to carve a niche in a community, connect with their "American" neighbors while maintaining connections with their native country and culture, and so forth. Moreover, the values of achieving, of hoping better for your children, and the broad, empowering narrative of the American dream are still vigorously resonant for these populations (of which, of course, I am one). Obama, as a candidate, can speak in a uniquely resonant way to this portion of the electorate, which may otherwise have diverging political allegiances.

The second implication is more subtle, but perhaps interesting. An American president who maintained some identification with a foreign country, particularly, a poor, non-white foreign country would send an interesting signal to the rest of the world. No longer does the American government represent the distant will of some rich, white people, but rather, it becomes the provenance of a distinctly more identifiable persona. Symbolically, an immigrant president might restore the deteriorated perception of America as a land of opportunity and diversity - as well as a country where globalization happens, not just the place where globalization comes from.

It will be interesting to see, of course, how this all plays out - particularly in light of the current hot-button immigration debate. For me, the more interesting political narrative will be in watching how the unspoken tension resolves between that swath of America who has no connection with any other country and that swath of America who does feel a connection, either through an immigrant heritage, or by living in ethnically diverse communities, or simply through travel and a global perspective. Will a symbolic divide be exposed, and potentially exploited, like race has in the past? Or is this distinction inconsequential?

Giuliani Takedown

Having lived in New York City from 2000, I have a remarkably vague impression of Rudy Giuliani. On the one hand, his "leadership" in those post-9/11 days always struck me as being blown out of proportion - isn't it the job of elected officials to act like adults? - and not half as genuine or inspiring as David Letterman, on whose late night coattails I think he was able to ride a bit. His public policies and civic relations, particularly with minorities, the poor, and the downtrodden in New York seem drastic and lacking in compassion. He seems every bit the politician, smug, self-satisfied, and calculating. Additionally, his public persona is that of a genuinely nasty and self-serving person. And liberal New Yorkers have always maintained a special vitriol for Giuliani, which stems from before the start of my tenure in the city.

On the other hand, New York City did clean itself up between the beginning of his tenure and the end, to the point where it is an absurdly safe and permissive place to live these days, and it is hard to call it a coincidence, right? His stated positions on social issues like abortion and gay rights are the best that can be hoped for from a Republican candidate these days. And I do like the fact that he is willing to cross-dress and poke fun at himself on national television.

So, I've been a little surprised at the venom that has been thrown at Giuliani, above and beyond that targeting the other collection of fakers and nut-jobs who comprise the Republican primary field at the moment (not that I would vote Republican, but Huckabee is my favorite candidate by a fair distance at the moment). Where have you gone, dignified curmudgeons?

For examples, check out this worthwhile Village Voice takedown.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Kiss of Death

The last six years of international politics in the Middle East have placed in stark contrast the questions of democracy in the Middle East. Specifically, it seems that democratic political institutions may be taking hold in parts of the region, but with results that are not congruent with the hopes and intents of the Bush Administration, and perhaps, mis-aligned with the national interests of the United States. From Friday's New York Times:
There has been talk of the Christian vote and the Armenian vote, of history and betrayal, as each side sought to claim victory. There is one explanation, however, that has become common wisdom in the region: Mr. Gemayel’s doom seems to have been sealed by his support from the Bush administration and the implied agendas behind its backing.

“It’s the kiss of death,” said Turki al-Rasheed, a Saudi reformer who watched last Sunday’s elections closely. “The minute you are counted on or backed by the Americans, kiss it goodbye, you will never win.”

The paradox of American policy in the Middle East — promoting democracy on the assumption it will bring countries closer to the West — is that almost everywhere there are free elections, the American-backed side tends to lose.
Now, I don't know enough in depth about the Middle East, history, culture, politics, or people to comment on any of the speculation that goes on among American political commentators about if/how/when/by whom should democracy find its way into practice in Middle Eastern countries. I do firmly believe, however, that the purpose of democratic institutions is to express the will of the people, the electorate, and not to acquiesce with American foreign policy or install pro-American governments. I also believe that other countries have the right to national interests that may differ from the United States. Not controversial statements, I know, but at the same time, they are the curiously unstated sensibilities that under-gird so much of American foreign policy and opinion, particularly in the current Bush administration.

Those broad-brush sentiments aside, what is of particular concern to me is how closely aligned the perception of America has become to the actions of the Bush Administration, and more specifically, how difficult will it be to distance the image of the United States from the legacy of this administration in the Middle East? I am hoping to visit Egypt, and perhaps Jordan and Turkey (and maybe Lebanon?) over the winter. It would be my first visit to the region and my hope is that I will be able to gauge some sense of the sentiment there towards the United States government, and towards Americans as people. My unfortunate expectation is that the perception of both the United States government and its people will be greatly damaged, and that the unwillingness or ineffectiveness of average Americans to broadly communicate their displeasure with some of our actions abroad will fundamentally undermine perceptions of "Good people, bad government" that have held sway in many parts of the world at length. Thoughts?

Sunday, August 5, 2007


From Flickr user chuckp

Except for maybe the most disconnected of college students or deeply radical of environmentalists, it is difficult any more to really argue against wealth as a social good. Still, questions like how a person becomes wealthy, how a society becomes wealthy, what defines wealth, how wealth can be sustained, and how wealth should be distributed through a population are interesting and contentious. As such, the NYT series on the theme of the "Gilded Age" holds great intrigue and promise. The basic premise, as I understand i, is to profile basic archetypes of varying strata of wealth in contemporary America, with the underlying understanding that the current era is a particularly wealthy one.

The first in the series of articles profiled a handful of America's richest businessmen - those who comprise the "upper one-one-hundredth of a percent" of American families who control a full five percent of the national wealth. The second installment took a step down the status ladder, looking at a few of California's technology entrepreneurs - millionaires by definition, but still working, without a feeling of having "made it."

Both articles are shallow, providing a surface picture of America's rich, but neither really tackle at depth interesting social questions (What makes these people special, in terms of creating or achieving wealth? Are these people uniquely positioned or capable of sustaining wealth for the economy as a whole? Has the increased concentration of capital at the upper echelons of society successfully facilitated improved quality of life at the lower echelons?) or challenging psychological questions (What drives the extremely rich to keep getting richer? What drives the moderately rich to stay in the rat race?) Nevertheless, it is interesting that the Times has chosen to broach the subject, and it will be curious to see where the series goes. Moreover, it is much more interesting to see what the rich think about the rich, rather than the sniping poor or middle class.

The Heartbeat of the Left?

Admittedly, I neither regularly read nor participate at the Daily Kos website. Talking Points Memo tends to be my blog of choice for left-leading political news and analysis. I have been following with modest interest the coverage over at TPM of the Yearly Kos convention, which has attracted the attention and participation of the Democratic establishment, in the form of the attendance of each of the presidential hopefuls. The convention coverage hasn't provided any momentous insight in to either politics or policy, but is still probably worth a look. My meager comments:

- Most impressive to me about the political left "blogosphere" has been their consistent and innovative appropriation of new technologies in engaging with political thinkers and actors, in broadcasting this content, and ultimately, in shaping the debate within the Democratic party. The post-panel informal interviews posted on TPM are a great case in point.
- While I think my politics are still consistently "progressive," I am less certain if I actually identify with the current community that is the political left -- particularly at the grassroots/blogosphere level. It is a horrible thing to say, but the still somewhat wonky, over-earnest, indignant, and slobbish political culture of the grassroots left isn't a great fit with my self-perception. Why does this image and these beliefs seem to be hand in glove?
- Since I practice my politics exclusively in bars, around kitchen tables, and at the ballot box, it is hard for me to really sense whether the political left is as energized and focused as commentators from this conference seem to think it is. Harder still is for me to have any idea how this measures up to the Republican political organization. But if the enthusiasm at the convention translates into political success, then wonderful.
- Steve Clemons' point, above, that the legacy of the Bush administration is to change the international order from one based on trust, to one based in fear is one that has been preoccupying me lately, though not in as precise a formulation. Will a turn over in 2008 be sufficient to restore some of the trust and reputation of our government, and of us as Americans abroad? Or is there deeper damage that needs to be undone, in our fundamental relationship with other countries?