Monday, October 31

Many American clerics could learn from him

Sistani to stay out of Iraq election
Grand Ayatollah Sistani, one of the most revered Shiite clerics in Iraq, told Iraqis to vote their consciences in the election, refusing to endorse a party.

Sistani made his position clear through a Friday sermon by Sheikh Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalai in the holy city of Karbala, the BBC reported.

"The marja (Sistani) enjoins Iraqis to participate massively in the forthcoming elections, but does not support any political group in particular," he said. "It's up to Iraqis to make their choice based on their beliefs."

Sunday, October 30

Dangerous Enemy in the Drug War

Sick: A Florida paraplegic needs relief.

By Radley Balko

Today, Richard Paey sits in a wheelchair behind high walls and razor wire in a high-security prison near Daytona Beach. Paey is a 46-year-old father of three, and a paraplegic. His condition is the result of a car accident, a botched back surgery, and a case of multiple sclerosis — three setbacks that have left him in a chronic, debilitating state of pain. After moving to Florida from New Jersey, Paey found it increasingly difficult to get prescriptions for the pain medication he needed to function normally — to support his family, and to be a parent to his children.

Paey's difficulties finding treatment were in large part due to federal- and state-government efforts to prevent the illegal use — or "diversion," as the feds call it — of prescription pain medicine. Doctors today face fines ,suspension, the loss of license or practice, the seizure of property, or even prison time in the event that drug cops (most of whom have no medical training) decide they are prescribing too many painkillers. As a result, physicians are understandably apprehensive about aggressively treating pain.

Like many pain patients, Paey found himself on the blunt end of such policies. He went from doctor to doctor, looking for someone to give him the medication he needed. By the time he eventually turned to his old New Jersey doctor for help, he had already attracted the attention of Florida drug-control authorities. What happened next is disputed, but it ended with Paey getting arrested, getting his home raided, and eventually getting convicted of drug distribution.

Paey insists his old doctor wrote him the prescriptions he needed. The Florida pharmacists who testified at his trial back him up. But the doctor says he forged the prescriptions. For his part, Paey holds no animus against his former doctor. Cops gave the doctor a devil's bargain — give Paey up, or face 25-years-to-life imprisonment for the excessive proscribing of painkillers. Paey still maintains the prescriptions were legitimate, but understands why his doctor turned against him.

The larger issue, of course, is why a man who is clearly not an addict (he wasn't taking the medication to get high) and had a legitimate use for the medication wasn't given access to what he needed in the first place.

State prosecutors concede there's no evidence Paey ever sold or gave his medication away. Nevertheless, under draconian drug-war statutes, these prosecutors could pursue distribution charges against him based solely on the amount of medication he possessed (the unauthorized possession of as few as 60 tablets of some pain medications can qualify a person as a "drug trafficker").

After three trials, Richard Paey was convicted and put in prison for 25 years, effectively a life sentence for someone in his condition. Ironically, the state of Florida now pays for a morphine pump connected to Paey's spine which delivers the same class of medication at the same doses the state of Florida told him wasn't necessary, and put him in prison for trying to obtain.

Prosecutors originally offered Paey a plea bargain that would have helped him avoid jail time, but Paey refused, insisting that (a) he did nothing wrong, and (b) even if he had, it shouldn't be a crime to seek relief from chronic pain. Paey feared that a plea would make other doctors in the state more reluctant to treat pain than they already were.

Publicly, Paey's prosecutors have conceded that the 25-year sentence was excessive, yet they insist that Paey himself is to blame, citing his refusal to accept a plea agreement. The chilling implication: Paey is serving prison time for drug distribution not because he's guilty of actually distributing drugs — the state admits as much — but because he insisted on exercising his constitutionally-protected right to a jury trial.

Earlier this year, New York Times columnist John Tierney flew to Florida to interview Paey for a story that ran on July 19. Tierney's column was sympathetic to Paey's plight, and sharply critical of the state of Florida.

There is now strong evidence that the state of Florida and prison officials retaliated against Paey for speaking with Tierney. Two weeks after the interview, Paey was moved to a prison facility more than two hours from his wife and family. He was then moved even farther away, some 170 miles, to the Tomoka Correctional Institution near Daytona Beach. Sympathetic prison officials, other inmates, and medical staff have since told Paey he was moved away from his family because the guard who sat in on his interview with Tierney had complained to prison authorities about what Paey had revealed to the journalist.

At about the same time, prison medical staff told Paey that the state of Florida had refused to give permission for them to refill his morphine pump. For Paey, this information was the equivalent of a death sentence. The state of Florida left him to agonize for weeks before finally authorizing the refill, the day before his pump was scheduled to run dry. Here again, Paey has since been given strong reason to believe that the threat to withhold his medication was in retaliation for relaying his story to the New York Times.

Two activist groups representing pain patients — the Pain Relief Network and the November Coalition — have begun a campaign urging Governor Jeb Bush to grant Richard Paey a pardon. Governor Bush should hear them out. Richard Paey is not a criminal. He isn't a threat to anyone. He's a tragic figure who has become a political prisoner of America's allegiance to zero-tolerance drug prohibition.

The Paey case has already cast a good deal of shame on the state of Florida. Just how much more shame his story brings to the state depends on whether political leaders move to rectify his plight, or rather choose simply to ignore him, and continue to intimidate him into spending the rest of his 25-year prison term in silence.

Governor Bush should free Richard Paey. And Florida lawmakers should pass reforms to ensure that drug-war fanaticism no longer prevents sick people from getting the medication they need.

Saturday, October 29

Use the language of evolution

Describing how the U.S. is uniquely badly positioned to prepare for a global flu pandemic in Silver Flu Bullets, Anne Applebaum writes,
Americans and their leaders will have to get over their love affair with intelligent design. Polls show that most don't believe in evolution. But it is actually impossible to talk logically about bird flu, or any other rapidly evolving and constantly changing virus, without using the language of evolution -- specific words such as "mutant," "recombination," "genome" and "selection." Without that language, a sensible popular or political discussion, let alone a scientific discussion, is impossible: We're stuck talking about the virus "jumping" from birds to humans, as if it were a magic bug with a mind of its own. We're stuck thinking that a virus is a hex that can be lifted with a single lucky charm, not something that will change over time.
So not believing in evolution will not only result in some Darwinian winnowing out, it will also mean many of the fittest will have trouble surviving.

God help us. (That's a joke!)

Friday, October 28

The Goverment Does Something Good (for once)

I sent off my passport for renewal awhile ago, and wondered what had happened. To my surprise, I find the Bureau of Consular Affairs, U.S. Department of State has a site where you can Check the Status of Your Passport Application. I'm impressed.

I wonder if I'll like the new biometric RFID chip:
...many civil libertarians are concerned that the "contactless" chips—as opposed to cards that only give up their information upon direct contact with a reader—lack adequate security precautions and are susceptible to unauthorized "sniffing" by identity thieves or government snoops hoping to gather information covertly from passport holders. guru Bruce Schneier remains concerned: "Initially it's just going to be the photograph and a few other bits of data, but these things change. And I don't necessarily want to walk around the Third World broadcasting that I'm an American."

The privacy conscious should be able to shield their documents from surreptitious sniffers by covering passports in a metal sheath. "In this case," jokes Schneier, "a tinfoil hat really is the answer."

It arrived on the very day indicated. I don't see any sign of the RFID beacon, but that doesn't mean it's not there.

Time Reporting

In response to Slacktivist's asking if there's any way to keep track of the time spent keeping track of one's time without it coming across as sarcastic, Brad DeLong answers


It is especially impossible because your log sheet has to look like this:

1PM-5PM: Work

5PM-5:15PM: Entering time into time-reporting system.

5:15PM-5:20PM: Entering time spent entering time into time-reporting system into time-reporting system.

5:20PM-5:22PM: Entering time spent entering time spent entering time spent into time-reporting system into time-reporting system into time reporting system.

5:22PM-5:23PM: Entering time spent entering time spent entering time spent entering time into time-reporting system into time-reporting system into time reporting system into time reporting system.

5:24PM: Brain explodes.

Thursday, October 27

Oh, the humanity!

Texas A&M University-Galveston oceanographer Glenn Jones says,
"Prior to the 1880s, it was unusual to see lobster on menus at all except in bargain-priced lobster salad," he says. "It was considered a trash fish no one wanted -- it was not something you'd want to be seen eating. In fact, in Colonial America, servants negotiated agreements that they not be forced to eat lobster more than twice a week."
Via Tyler Cowen.

You Certainly Don't See It on the News

Scott C. Pierce writes,
If the view of the anti-war left was true (our soldiers all want to come home now because conditions are tough), then we would not be seeing the overwhelming number of volunteers for areas like Special Forces. The problem in perceptions is that the guy who couldn't make it as a soldier will return and quickly find a sympathetic reporter and an even more willing editor to put his story on the front page.

Don't You Wish You Were Psychologically Rich?

I'm used to hearing art (narratives, performances, and other depictions) being described as "psychologically rich". But last night on public television there was a snippet of a woman who was claiming the suffering certain people had undergone made them "psychologically rich", and what a great thing that was. So you suffer tell yourself it makes you "psychologically rich". Better yet, when you see someone else suffer, tell them it's making them "psychologically rich" Lucky them!

I think it was in the preview to Episode Four of Destination America (Breaking Free: A Woman's Journey) that I heard this remarkably stupid explanation. It's not unlike what Norman Geras quotes of Dylan Evans, who writes
Look at the way we live now, in the west. We grow up in increasingly fragmented communities, hardly speaking to the people next door, and drive to work in our self-contained cars. We work in standardised offices and stop at the supermarket on our way home to buy production-line food which we eat without relish. There is no great misery, no hunger, and no war. But nor is there great passion or joy. Despite our historically unprecedented wealth, more people than ever before suffer from depression.
Ah, for a little misery! So then, war is a good thing?

John Edwards and Mao Zedong

No, this doesn't mean John Edwards is a Maoist.

Amity Shlaes had a good commentary on John Edwards' move to Wall Street. It's to the effect that it's not such a bad thing for politicos, left or right, to see how capitalism works.

That's certainly a twist on Mao Zedong's sending people down to the countryside (known for short as 下放="sending down"). In fact, some have argued that a big reason for the support among upper echelons for Deng Xiaoping's reforms was that many of them had been shocked to see just how poor the peasants were.

But Wall Street is a bit more comfortable than 1960's rural China, right? (Just a guess). So Edwards is getting "sent up" 上方.

Neither Nor

Kerry Urges U.S. to Start Withdrawal From Iraq: Senator's Timetable Specifies 15 Months By Chris Cillizza and Josh White
Kerry offered a middle ground between those advocating an immediate drawdown of the more than 150,000 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq and the Bush administration, which has declined to set a timetable for a decreased U.S. military presence.

"The way forward in Iraq is not to pull out precipitously or merely promise to stay 'as long as it takes,'" Kerry said during an address at Georgetown University. "We must instead simultaneously pursue both a political settlement and the withdrawal of American combat forces."
Does he figure everything will be find starting in a little over a year? No, he wants to pull out, but make it seem that it's a well thought-out policy, instead of a way to try to please both the hard-core anti-war people and the moderates. This is all about American politics and nothing about the situation in Iraq, as The Grape's Vine says. Or as the Houston Conservative says, it's all about political expediency. Then there's this: An Iraq Policy, Better Late Than Never By Dana Milbank:
The good news: John Kerry settled on his Iraq policy yesterday.

The bad news: He did so 51 weeks after losing the election.
It is pretty late. And more than half a nickel short.

Good news?

The New Sunni Jihad: 'A Time for Politics'
Tour With Iraqi Reveals Tactical Change
By Ghaith Abdul-Ahad writes that Iraqi "guerrilla" Abu Theeb says,
"There is a time for fighting, and a time for politics."
For many Iraqi "insurgents", this marks a fundamental shift in strategy
that would separate them from foreign-born fighters such as Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian who leads the group al Qaeda in Iraq.

Two years of boycotting the process had only marginalized Sunnis while Iraqi's Shiite majority gained power. And Abu Theeb's entry into politics was born partly of necessity; attacks by Shiite militias, operating inside and outside the government security apparatus, were taking an increasing toll on Sunni lives...

For men such as Abu Theeb...taking part in politics is a step taken only reluctantly.

"Politics for us is like filthy, dead meat," he said, referring to pork, which is eschewed by observant Muslims. "We are not allowed to eat it, but if you are crossing through a desert and your life depends on it, God says it's okay." Even if politics gets him a result he likes, he said, he will continue to wage war against the Americans, because he views them as occupiers.
Then again, Abu Theeb's group believed hitting a U.S. target
was a sign that God was with them. "By the help of God, this America with its might and glory would be hit by a bunch of barefoot but pure men, in dishdashas with rusty weapons," Abu Theeb said....

Abu Theeb recounted how once he was driving to Baghdad carrying a sack filled with anti-tank rocket detonators. American soldiers stopped him at a checkpoint, ordered him out and began searching his car.

"I prayed to God. I told him, 'God, if I am doing what I am doing for your sake, then spare me. If not, let them get me,' " he recounted. "The American soldier opened the trunk where I had the sack filled with rocket detonators. He moved it away and started to search. He finished and asked me to leave. I knew then I was blessed by God."

But if God had spared Abu Theeb, he didn't spare his family. One brother and a nephew were killed early on fighting the Americans, he said. A second brother was killed several weeks ago when the roadside bomb he was planting exploded.
Jesus loves ya!
...many fundamentalist Sunnis object to al Qaeda's rigid interpretation of Islamic law. Taliban-style Islamic justice already is being enforced in the western Iraqi cities and towns under Zarqawi's control.

"Al Qaeda believes that anyone who doesn't follow the Koran literally is a kafir and should be killed," explained Abu Theeb, using a term for apostate, or a believer who abandons the faith. "This is wrong. We can't take Islamic theory from the time of the prophet and implement the same rules in the 21st century."

Abu Theeb argues that al Qaeda in Iraq's religious views stand to alienate not only Iraqi nationalists but supporters in Syria and other Persian Gulf countries.

More importantly, al Qaeda's war on Shiite civilians-- it has bombed mosques, buses and other places where Shiites gather -- is drawing the wrath of Iraqi government security forces and Shiite militias.

Wednesday, October 26

Watch out

How Good Drivers Get Killed By Ralph Kinney Bennett
...more than half of [head-on collisions] occurred in daylight and more than 80 percent of them in dry weather....More fatal accidents of every type seem to occur in nice weather when drivers may relax their guard; in bad weather, the majority of drivers tend to be more cautious, more attentive....

Is there anything you can do to reduce the risk of meeting another car head-on? There is one measure that eliminates much of the risk. Forget the scenic route and head for the highway. Use major highways where traffic flow is separated by medians, and access is controlled by on- and off-ramps.

...police officers advise extra wariness when approaching intersections, even when you have the right of way. Their best tip: as you approach and see a car about to cross or enter the road you're on, don't just look at the car to see if it comes to a full stop. Check the driver too. Is he or she looking your way? Does he or she appear distracted? It could be your best warning of an accident waiting to happen.

...deadly crashes at red lights increased at more than three times the rate of all other types of fatal auto accidents.

To avoid them, the best advice remains the lesson motorists learned from their high school driver-ed teachers: "Even when your light has changed to green, take one more look both ways before proceeding....You've got to protect yourself. Too many drivers consider the yellow light a 'last chance' to get through an intersection rather than a caution signal...."

Even if you're tooling around a shopping-mall parking lot, there are traffic signs you must obey. Yet many drivers simply blow them off. As a result, a variety of other "failure to yield" collisions -- beyond traffic signs and stop lights -- make up smaller percentages of driver deaths, but taken together, they can be serious killers. And they occur where there are no stop signs or traffic lights, at unmarked side roads, in driveways, and at entries to shopping-center parking lots. These kinds of failure-to-yield accidents took the lives of 11 percent of our good drivers who had the right of way.

The most important conclusion to draw from the statistics compiled by the National Safety Council is this: stick to major highways whenever you can. An overwhelming 86 percent of traffic fatalities happen on side roads and byways. Only 14 percent occur on major highways, according to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
14%! A lot my Chinese friends think the highways are more dangerous than driving around their neighborhood.

2000 dead

My thoughts are with those who died and their survivors, but I can't help feel many anti-war activists are delighted to be able to wave this magic number around. But recent stats on Death Due to Injury for 2002 show
  • 48,366 dead from Transport Accidents
  • 58,376 dead from Nontransport Accidental Injuries
  • 31,655 dead from Intentional self-harm
  • 31,655 dead from Intentional self-harm
  • 17,638 dead from Assault
  • 2,843 dead from Complications of medical and surgical care and sequelae
I wrote something similar earlier.

What he says

Andrew Sullivan:
If someone had told me three years ago that by October 2005, Saddam Hussein's murderous tyranny would be over for ever, that Iraq would have a new constitution that emerged from a democratic process and that it will soon have a democratically elected parliament and government, I would have been thrilled. If I were further told that the inevitably embittered Sunni Arab minority had decided to throw itself into democratic politics to amend the constitution and protect its interests in a future Iraq, I would be amazed by how swiftly democratic habits can take root in a post-totalitarian country. If I had been told that, despite extraordinary provocation from Jihadist and Sunni Arab terrorists, the country had not dissolved into civil war, and that unemployment was dropping, I'd be heartened. If I had also been told that the United States had not suffered another major terror attack since the fall of 2001, I would have refused to believe it. The fact that the administration has made countless, terrible errors in the aftermath of the invasion and miscalculated badly on how the Baathists and Jihadists would fight back, should not distract us from these underlying realities. In 2002, I feared U.S. casualties approaching 10,000 in a brutal, urban war for Baghdad. The enemy gave us a simmering insurgency instead, shrewdly calculating that that was their best defense. They were right in the short term. But that makes it all the more imperative to prove them wrong in the long term. For the sake of the 2,000 who have already died; and the countless, innocent civilian Iraqis who have borne an even greater burden, let's do all we can to make this work.

Tough Chicks

Iraqi women take up arms By Sharon Behn
"Before I got into this, I was like a normal female; when I heard bullets, I would hide," said Muna, a stocky young woman in a black T-shirt and black pants.

"Now, I feel like a man. When I hear a bullet, I want to know where it came from," she said, sitting comfortably with an AK-47 assault rifle across her legs, red toenails poking out from a pair of stacked sandals. "Now I feel equal to my husband."

If the work provides personal fulfillment for Muna, her colleague Assal -- a divorced mother -- sees it as a cause.

"I have seen a lot of innocent people die," she said, staring out with intense black eyes. "We are trying to defend ourselves and defend each other. I am doing this for my country."

Like many Iraqis, she has no idea what the future will bring.

"I see today, I don't see tomorrow," she said, voicing a common refrain.
(via The Mudville Gazette) Reminds me of Mark Burnell's The Rhythm Section.

Preserving the "purity" of Communist ideals

The change- and risk-averse nature of the Hu leadership is … evident from a series of articles recently run by the party journal Guo Feng ("Spirit of the Country") on the secrets behind the staying power of several evergreen political parties in the world. A piece written by theorist Xiao Feng on the Cuban Communist Party heaped lavish praise on how Fidel Castro has stood up to American pressure. Xiao asserted that Cubans had remained strong and defiant thanks to their "firm faith [in socialism] and unyielding spirit." Xiao cited the famous Castro axiom: "We won't change the direction of our ship even if we were to sink into the deep sea." Indeed, in a now-famous internal talk late last year, Hu had praised the Castro and Kim regimes in Cuba and North Korea for effectively preserving the "purity" of Communist ideals. Moreover, a series of ideological campaigns launched this past year by Hu, including a Maoist movement to "preserve the advanced nature" of party members, has been modeled upon the Cuban experience. It is highly doubtful, however, whether the Chinese leadership's ambitious blueprint for socio-economic take-off could ever be attained through wallowing in the mire of old-style CCP norms.
What a donkey. As detestable as I find Kim and Castro, at least they actually seem to believe in Communism. Hu just wants to keep his party in power.

Another book I won't read

A (projected) 10-volume English edition of Mao's writings, titled Mao's Road to Power, 1912-49, by Stuart Schram
Schram said that Mao's Great Leap Forward was characterized by enormous waste, while the Cultural Revolution, his attempt to regain control through a broad-based purge of "counterrevolutionaries," was "even worse."

According to Schram, Mao's 27 years as ruler of China were marked by "faulty judgment, a failure to face facts, impetuosity, and vindictiveness. He made loyalty to himself the touchstone of ideological thinking, and the conviction that the party had become revisionist provided a fig leaf for an increasingly autocratic dictatorship."
He's going to give him the benefit of the doubt anyway:
But despite enormous blunders and crimes, he was a great leader who was trying to do the best for China.
If leadership and good intentions are what matters, I'd expect a lot more Americans to support Bush.

Tuesday, October 25

Not Funny

Scare Yourself Silly, but the Real Terrors Are at Your Feet By ABIGAIL ZUGER, M.D.
A few years ago, a young woman waited patiently to be seen in our office after hours. She was a patient of one of my colleagues, but she couldn't wait for their scheduled appointment; she needed to see someone right away.

"I'm worried I have Lyme disease," she said. "I have all the symptoms. I think I need to be treated."

"But you have AIDS," I said.

"I'm tired and weak and I have fevers and sweats. I've lost my appetite. I can't think straight. I'm losing so much weight!"

She had seen a TV news report on Lyme disease, and then she had checked the Internet. All her symptoms were right there.

"But you have AIDS," I said. "And you don't want to take meds. That's why you're feeling so bad."

"I'm really scared about Lyme disease," she said. "I really need to get treated."

"If you want to be scared, how about that untreated AIDS of yours?"

We looked at each other. It was an impasse. The fact that logic was on my side mattered not at all: evidently the real was just a little too real for her. How much better to find another illness to be scared of, obsess over, get treated for, get rid of.

Eventually she coerced my colleague into testing her for Lyme disease and treating her despite negative tests. Then she decided her symptoms might actually be due to a brain tumor, instead. And so it went, until she died of AIDS.
It's not funny, but I'm laughing. Well, laugh at this. The doc contintues,
I did not say: If you want something to be scared of, how about the drug-resistant Klebsiella that is all over this very hospital, an ordinary run-of-the-mill bacterial strain that has become so resistant to so many antibiotics that we've had to resurrect a few we stopped using 30 years ago because they were so toxic.

That Klebsiella is one scary germ. It's in hospitals all over the country, and by now it's probably killed a thousandfold more people than the avian flu.

Well, It Was Convenient Anyway

BISMARCK, N.D., Oct. 24 -- An elderly woman on her way to a doctor's appointment smashed her car into the hospital's lobby, sending five women to the emergency room, police said.

Monday, October 24

Another Book I Didn't Buy

Russell Roberts's The Invisible Heart: An Economic Romance. I loved it while I was reading it because like the hero, my understanding of economic topics generally makes me feel like a fish swimming against the tide, although unlike him I generally just keep my mouth shut. Like the endings of a lot of other books, the conclusion struck me as a little flat or contrived. Ironically, maybe the hero's decision to stick with his principles with regard to his employer's decision at the end made it a little downbeat.

No Economic Expert

The other day, Debbie Elliott interviewed Sinan Antoon "a poet, novelist and filmmaker born in Iraq" on Iraq's new constitution. The short interview ends with Elliott asking,
Is there anything in here that clues you to think that maybe this document had not been written entirely by Iraqis?
Antoon replies,
Yes. What really raised the red flag for me was the article about how private property is sacrosanct. Private property is something that's acceptable, but the word sacrosanct, why all this emphasis on private property? Why not the rights of the individual are sacrosanct? And we must remember that one of the first laws that Bremer promulgated when he was the leader of the Iraq....was to open the country entirely for foreign investment and allow foreign companies to reinvest zero inside the country, meaning take all of the profit outside. So this emphasis that is sacrosanct is really telling, I think.
Property rights are important. What's telling is Antoon's ignorance and the NPR editorial decision to air the views of a poet on the constitution.

Does it Make You Proud?

Motown's Ominous Message By Sebastian Mallaby
Last week's terrible results from Ford; this month's bankruptcy of the big auto parts maker Delphi; and the rising tide of speculation about the potential bankruptcy of GM -- a big cause of all this grief lies in excessive non-wage benefits. Hourly pay may be a little high: It averages about $27 at GM and Delphi, compared with the $17 average for American manufacturing. But health and pension benefits are the real killers. Once you've counted those, workers cost $74 an hour at GM and $65 an hour at Delphi.

The size of these benefits is odd. On its face, non-wage compensation is likely to be inefficient. Cash can be spent on exactly what each individual worker wants. But converting cash into benefits inevitably means waste. Some workers won't want the benefits, perhaps because they have a pressing need for money or perhaps because they would have preferred a different sort of pension or health plan. These workers may value the benefits less than it costs to provide them.

Companies provide benefits nonetheless because government encourages them to do so.... More recently, government has pushed the same way by sheltering pension contributions and health premiums from taxes. The resulting company-based welfare system is widely accepted as the way things ought to be. But it's based on a myth of lifetime employment at one firm. And its tax breaks are unfair to self-employed workers who don't get them.

Why did carmakers get to the point where they not only offer pensions and health care, but where these benefits account for the majority of workers' total compensation? Again, the answer has to do with government. The law allows firms to reward workers with valuable benefit promises today, but pay for these promises later. In the car industry, just as in other industries facing a cash crunch, this promise-now, pay-later option has proved irresistible.

The option is clearest in the case of retiree health benefits. The law allows companies to promise health coverage to workers when they retire, but it fails to require them to set aside cash to pay for that obligation. So in bargaining sessions over the years, Detroit's managers and unions have found it easier to make "progress" on health plans rather than on wages that would have to be paid for immediately. For managers, cost-free promises of gold-plated health coverage in the far future bought labor peace. For labor leaders, they impressed rank-and-file members and ensured reelection.

The promise-now, pay-later trick applies to pensions, too, although it is more subtle. The law does require companies to put aside money to fund pension promises -- but not enough money. GM, for example, is allowed by pension accounting rules to report that its pension plans are fully funded. But if the plans were terminated tomorrow, their assets would be worth $31 billion less than GM's promises to retirees. Rules that effectively allow a company to report $31 billion that it doesn't have provide an irresistible temptation. The bigger your pension plan, the more billions in fake assets you'll be able to report. This has done nothing to discourage Detroit's generous retirement promises.

Now the future has arrived. GM is providing gold-plated health plans to more than 1 million retired Americans; its health costs came to $4 billion last year and will top $5 billion this year. These "legacy costs" -- the legacy of bad management decisions encouraged by bad government rules -- are driving the carmakers to the wall. Last week GM forced retirees to swallow cuts in their health plans, and Delphi seems likely to use the bankruptcy courts to impose similarly sour medicine.

...From now on, tax incentives should not encourage welfare systems that depend on the false premise of corporate immortality. And the law should oblige firms to recognize the cost of compensation promises immediately and transparently.

...But the political system has a formidable ability to ignore even the oldest and most obvious lessons. Congress is considering legislation to force proper funding of pensions, but the reform will probably end up full of holes. Likewise, Congress will soon be prompted by the president's tax commission to consider ending the tax shelter for company health premiums, but the people's representatives will no doubt brush that idea aside. Politically unthinkable, we will be told -- and never mind the fact that it may be good policy.
Probably not.

Oh, Howard!

I realize English is tough, but I was disappointed to see HOWARD W. FRENCH write, "His visits back to China are those of a prodigious son...." Surely he means prodigal son.

Sunday, October 23

More weirdness

A year ago last summer, I got a red rash/discoloration on my lower legs. Later my doctor in the U.S. said it was rosacea, and gave me some anti-biotics to get rid of it. It worked, but this fall, it started to come back again. So I guess we can eliminate the late unlamented Kaohsiung 前金游泳池 pool. Anyway, this time I stopped drinking (instant) coffee, and it's started to fade. But rosacea on the legs? It seems pretty weird to me.

Friday, October 21

Shades of Amy Tan's lame Chinese

I didn't much like Rachel DeWoskin's Foreign Babes in Beijing. There is a little too much girly gossip and hand-wringing for me, but there are also a lot of niggling errors.

In discussing Chinese racism, she claims that there is a 黑哥 hēigē ("black brother") toothpaste. The only one I could find was an illegal knock-off. But she says nothing about 黑妹 hēimèi ("black sister") toothpaste.

Then there are many language errors. At one point she says she embarrassed herself by saying 閹割 yāngē ("castrate") instead of 嚴格 yángé ("strict"). She says someone explained to her that people understood her to say that her teachers castrated their students instead of saying that the teachers were strict. Yes, it's funny. But such a misunderstanding on the part of the Chinese doesn't sound likely to me. I believe her companion was just teasing her. In any case, she goes on to claim that "strict" is pronounced with two third tones, which would be yǎngě (and tone sandhi would change that to yángě), but that is simply wrong: 嚴格 is yángé.

At one point she refers to a club called "Jazz Ya", which she glosses as "Jazz Place" in Japanese but "Jazz Duck" in Chinese. But the syllable "ya" can mean many different things in Chinese, depending on how it is written. In the first tone alone, it could be 鴉 "crow" as well as 鴨 "duck", or just 呀 an exclamation, among other things. And there are several other choices:
yā: 押, 椏, 壓
yá: 枒, 芽, 蚜, 牙, 涯, 衙
yǎ: 啞, 雅
yà: 揠, 掗, 軋, 亞, 砑, 迓, 訝, 氬, 婭

The first time she notices the written Chinese title of Foreign Babes in Beijing, the soap opera she is to act in, she sees "a few extra, sexy strokes" in one of the Chinese characters.

First, as to those "sexy" strokes. The phonetic for 妞 is 丑, which was most commonly seen as number two of the duodecimal cycle, but was also used in words like 丑旦 chǒudàn, a woman clown on stage, and now under the simplified character regime, 丑 chǒu is used to mean "ugly". How is that sexy?

As to pronunciation, she can't hear the sound rendered as ü in Chinese. She initially thought the title of the series was 洋女在北京 yáng nǚ zài Běijīng instead of 洋妞在北京 yáng niū zài Běijīng. In other words, she cannot hear the difference between 女 nǚ and 妞 niū.

Similarly, at one point she also says of the title, "I heard 'foreign' and 'niu' and 'in Beijing'. 'Niu' sounded both like 'cattle' and 'girl'". Here she is similarly confusing 牛 niú and 女 nǚ.

She also misspells the pinyin for the second character in the phrase 當局者迷,旁觀者清 spelling it jiu instead of ju (it should be dāngjúzhěmí,pángguānzhěqīng "those closely involved cannot see as clearly as those outside").

And finally, she claims the young woman who "thong-flashed" people was afterwards known as "guang pigu nu", which should be guāng pìgu nǚ; it's that same 女 nǚ that she has so much trouble with.

And even if she had trouble with this, why didn't someone proofread the Chinese? Would W. W. Norton publish a book with Latin misspellings? I guess her father (the retired sinologist Kenneth J. DeWoskin) was too busy.

Shades of Amy Tan's yi ta fa duo!

Contradictory Obama

Here's Senator Obama's reply to my note urging him to cut the pork.
Thank you for writing me with your concerns about the cost of rebuilding the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. I appreciate the benefit of your comments and your suggestions for how we should pay for this effort. Congress has already approved more than $62 billion for relief and recovery efforts, and significantly more spending is expected in the months ahead.

The American spirit of resilience and determination demands that we rebuild the Gulf Coast, and we will. It is important, however, that we rebuild the devastated areas sensibly while being fiscally responsible.

First, we must resist calls for further tax breaks for the wealthy. Enacting more tax cuts, or extending the President's first-term cuts for the wealthiest of Americans, is simply irresponsible. As America faces growing deficits and mounting national debt, we cannot afford to drastically reduce federal revenue. And as working Americans struggle with higher gas prices and other costs, we must not shift the tax burden onto those who can afford it the least.

Second, we must look at government spending with a critical eye. That is not a call for cuts to programs that support our most vulnerable citizens. One of the tragic lessons of this disaster is that too many of our fellow Americans had already been left behind long before Hurricane Katrina hit. It would be counterproductive to pay for relief efforts by gutting invaluable poverty-fighting programs like Medicaid and Food Stamps.

Instead, we should revisit recent spending bills and examine the merits of money earmarked for special projects. For example, it is extremely important that our nation's roads are safe and in good repair, and I believe the transportation bill goes a long way towards reaching this goal. At the same time, money allocated for some projects might be better spent elsewhere, such as on rebuilding the devastated Gulf Coast region. Americans have indicated a willingness to sacrifice for the greater good, and I believe that their elected officials should heed this call and be willing to return earmarked funds that are not absolutely necessary.

Finally, we have a responsibility to ensure that the money allocated for recovery efforts is spent wisely and efficiently, and that every tax dollar goes toward assisting the people devastated by this storm, not toward padding the pockets of no-bid contractors. To this end, I have joined with Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) to propose legislation that would require the appointment of a Chief Financial Officer (CFO) within the Executive Office of the President. The CFO would review expenditures associated with recovery efforts before they are approved to better prevent waste, fraud, and abuse.

Again, thank you for contacting me about the funding of Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts. I believe that we can and must rebuild the Gulf Coast in a way that is financially responsible, and I will work towards that goal with your comments in mind. Please stay in touch on this or any issue of concern.
(Emphasis mine.) But he still voted against the Coburn anti-pork amendments.

Modern Art

Piero Manzoni (1933-1963)
Artist's Shit 1961
Merda d'artista

Tin can with paper wrapping with unidentified contents
object: 48 x 65 x 65 mm, 0.1 kg

Purchased 2000
From the Tate, which paid £22,300 ($61,000)
What did the artist say? "I should like all artists to sell their fingerprints, or else stage competitions to see who can draw the longest line or sell their s--- in tins," he wrote. "If collectors really want something intimate, really personal to the artist, there's the artist's own s---. That is really his."

The cans were sealed according to industrial standards and then circulated to different museums around the world.

In addition to the Tate, the Pompidou Museum in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York have bought cans since. At least 45 of the original 90 cans have exploded, however. This is exactly what Manzoni intended. Soon after he created the cans he told a friend "I hope these cans explode in the vitrines of the collectors."

Thanks, Jesus

Thanks for the cancer, Jesus!

Thursday, October 20

Abort the Mission

I thought the headline read "Senators Grouse About Responses From Mars". So would they have wanted more support from Martians to stop their endless pettifogging and tell us straight out whether there is life (live Terry Schiavo fetuses?) on Mars or not?

Abort the Missionaries!

I'm a little tired, I guess.

He's Just Playing Politics (again)

All of the reporters on last week's State Week in Review panned Gov. Rod Blagojevich's plan to guarantee health insurance for all of the children of the state of Illinois. They argued that he's just introducing the plan now to get a lead in the polls, and that he has made no real suggestion on how to pay for it.

Wednesday, October 19

The World's Smartest Investor

In The Branding of the World's Top Intellectual: Noam Chomsky Peter Schweizer notes,
Chomsky, for all of his moral dudgeon against American corporations, finds that they make a pretty good investment. When he made investment decisions for his retirement plan at MIT, he chose not to go with a money market fund, or even a government bond fund. Instead, he threw the money into blue chips and invested in the TIAA-CREF stock fund. A look at the stock fund portfolio quickly reveals that it invests in all sorts of businesses that Chomsky says he finds abhorrent: oil companies, military contractors, pharmaceuticals, you name it.

When I asked Chomsky about his investment portfolio he reverted to a "what else can I do" defense: "Should I live in a cabin in Montana?" he asked. It was a clever rhetorical dodge. Chomsky was declaring that there is simply no way to avoid getting involved in the stock market short of complete withdrawal from the capitalist system. He certainly knows better. There are many alternative funds these days that allow you to invest your money in "green" or "socially responsible" enterprises. They just don't yield the maximum available return.
Well, as Tim Worstall says, he is the World’s Greatest Intellectual. (I invest in index funds that should show I'm almost as smart.)

A Little Dry

4,000-Year-Old Noodles Found in China
October 12, 2005—A 4,000-year-old bowl of noodles unearthed in China is the earliest example ever found of one of the world's most popular foods, scientists reported today. It also suggests an Asian—not Italian—origin for the staple dish.

The beautifully preserved, long, thin yellow noodles were found inside an overturned sealed bowl at the Lajia archaeological site in northwestern China. The bowl was buried under ten feet (three meters) of sediment.

"This is the earliest empirical evidence of noodles ever found," Houyuan Lu of Beijing's Chinese Academy of Sciences said in an e-mail interview.

The scientists determined the noodles were made from two kinds of millet, a grain indigenous to China and widely cultivated there 7,000 years ago. Modern North American and European noodles are usually made with wheat.

Archaeochemist Patrick McGovern at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia said that if the date for the noodles is correct, the find is "quite amazing."

Even today, he said, deft skills are required to make long, thin noodles like those found at Lajia.

"This shows a fairly high level of food processing and culinary sophistication," he said.

About 30 million starved to death

EnviroSpin Watch offers a 'Premier League Table of Deaths from Natural and Semi-natural Causes', but although he relies on Wikipedia, omits the world's most disastrous famine. The following is part of the Wikipedia entry for Great Leap Forward:
The Great Leap Forward is now widely seen both within China and outside as a major economic disaster. As inflated statistics reached planning authorities, orders were given to divert human resources into industry rather than agriculture. Various Western and Eastern sources put the death toll at about 30 million people, with the majority of the deaths owed to starvation.

Wait a Minute...

One of the things I'm not supposed to buy new is a car, but part of the subtitle of Tim Harford's book is "Why You Can Never Buy a Decent Used Car!" Books are another thing I shouldn't buy new according to the article, and in fact I usually don't.

Tuesday, October 18

Krugman protectionist?

Tim Worstall also castigates Paul Krugman:, of all people, raising the ugly spectre of protectionism? What the hell happened? You used to be very good on such points. Like back in 1996 when you wrote Ricardo’s Difficult Idea.
The link is to Krugman's defense of free trade.

Awhile ago, I noted Alex Tabarrok linked to the same article. Sure, I'm senile.

The false consensus effect

John Tierney via Tim Worstall
"If people are engaged in deliberation with like-minded others, they end up more confident, more homogenous and more extreme in their beliefs," said Cass Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago. "If you have an English or history department that leans left, their interactions will push them further left."

Once liberals dominate a department, they can increase their majority by voting to award tenure to like-minded scholars. As liberals dominate a field, conservatives' work comes to be seen as fringe scholarship.

"The filtering out of conservatives in the job pipeline rarely works by outright blackballing," said Mark Bauerlein, a conservative who is an English professor at Emory. "It doesn't have to. The intellectual focus of the disciplines does that by itself."

Suppose, he said, you were a conservative who wanted to do a sociology dissertation on the debilitating effects of the European welfare state, or an English dissertation arguing that anticommunist literature from the mid-20th century was as valuable as the procommunist literature.

"You'd have a hard time finding a dissertation adviser, an interested publisher and a receptive hiring committee," Bauerlein said. "Your work just wouldn't look like relevant scholarship, and would be quietly set aside."

Social scientists call it the false consensus effect: a group's conviction that its opinions are the norm. Liberals on campus have become so used to hearing their opinions reinforced that they have a hard time imagining there are intelligent people with different views, either on campus or in politics. Last year professors at Harvard and the University of California system gave $19 to Democrats for every $1 they gave to Republicans.
And yet
Conservatives complain about this imbalance in academia, but in some ways they've benefited from being outcasts. They've been toughened by confronting skeptics on campus and working at think tanks in Washington involved in the political fray. They've come up with ideas -- welfare reform, school vouchers, all kinds of privatization schemes -- that have been adopted around the country and the world.

But how many big ideas from liberal academics are on anyone's agenda? Democratic politicians are desperately trying to find something newer than the New Deal to run on next year. They're glad to take campaign contributions from professors, but they're leery of ideas from intellectuals who've have been talking to themselves for so long.
So, it's a good thing for opponents of leftists that the academy has made itself irrelevant!

Monday, October 17

Keep this in Mind

10 things you shouldn't buy new
  1. Books,
  2. DVDs, CDs and videos
  3. Little kids' toys
  4. Jewelry
  5. Sports equipment
  6. Timeshares
  7. Cars (For more, see "How to save $10,000 on your next car.")
  8. Software and console games
  9. Office furniture
  10. Hand tools

Friday, October 14

Is it the Bureacracy?

Megan Williams' Factories open — and close — in Swaziland is about how Swaziland is having trouble keeping textile manufacturers from pulling out. It reminded me of Tim Harford's note on Niger's bureaucracy. But there's no clue to Swaziland's bureaucracy here

Lots of classical music

Naxos is offering
  • Internet access to their entire catalogue for a year for $19.95.
  • Free access to 25% of each track.
That's great. I actually bought a few Naxos CD's a few years ago, and I found nothing wrong with them; of course I'm not a snob about classical music.

I also downloaded the Beethoven symphonies from the BBC, even though
Some from the recording industry expressed concerns that the BBC was setting itself up as unfair competition in the recording market.
And now,
BBC Radio 3 will be celebrating Christmas 2005 by broadcasting continuously over ten days the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach.
(via Marginal revolution)

Speaking of crudity...

...I try to avoid it, but maybe it's time to write like a Nobel Prize winner. It's not just Pinter: the work of Elfriede Jelinek, last year's winner,
has also been described as "pornographic" for its frank depictions of sex and violence, but Jelinek's reputation as an overtly political writer has kept critics from denouncing her work as simply prurient.
So as long as you're political , it's OK to be pornographic. However, political seems to mean left-wing anti-American.

Theory rules

The Hatemonger's Quarterly wrote,
As far as we, the crack young staff of "The Hatemonger's Quartery," can tell, graduate students in English don't study English literature.

Even more intriguingly, graduate students in Comparative Literature neither write about literature nor compare things.

Perhaps this is a rather old story for those venerable culture warriors among you. Many of today's academic departments have eschewed their fields' ostensible subject matters in favor or noxious political hectoring. Hence so many dissertation titles begin with the words "Queering the Other."

Call us behind the curve, but we still find this a rather odd situation. After all, you don't very well see Mathematics students writing dissertations on the aesthetics of music. And those in Business Administration don't tend to write about William Faulkner.

So why do those in English and Comparative Literature feel as if their training miraculously transforms them into experts on practically everything? Why do English professors appear to believe that they are the world's leading experts on the World Trade Organization, origami, transgender bathrooms, and NASCAR?

The answer, of course, is what contemporary graduate students call—without a trace of irony, alas—theory. Apparently, a few reader-proof pages of Jacques Lacan turn anyone into an instant authority on particle physics, Tampax, neo-conservatism, and the War of 1812.

This has all compelled us, the crack young staff of "The Hatemonger's Quarterly," to urge universities nationwide to disband all academic departments besides English and Comparative Literature. With these omnipotent experts on board, why would a college require any other faculty members?


Quoting Donald Sensing
How can you tell a real demon from a mere psychological disorder? Speak to it in Latin. (Or, one would assume, Aramiac, since that is what Jesus spoke.)
In all the Chinese ghosts stories I've read, none of them speak Latin or Aramiac. Also reminds me of the French expression "Y perdre son latin" (literally, "to lose one's Latin over something"): to find something incomprehensible; to make neither head nor tail of it.

Thursday, October 13

Hating the U.S.

The Literary Saloon writes of Harold Pinter's receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature:
It will, again, be a controversial choice, in particular because of Pinter's recent anti-war writings. Indeed, it's hard not to see this also as yet another Nobel signal that they really disapprove of the Anglo-American handling of all things Iraq (as the IAEA getting the Peace Prize obviously was). But Pinter is a globally acknowledged significant playwright, and there will be fewer is-he-worthy-debates than there were with Jelinek.
Yeah, the Swedes hate us. And while I've at least heard of Pinter, I'm not sure this is great literature:

There's no escape.
The big pricks are out.
They'll fuck everything in sight.
Watch your back.

Harold Pinter Februrary 2003
(It's under the rubric War Against Iraq?). And let's not even start with his politics. He really needs to read Sasha Abramsky.

The Times (the real one, not the one we read in the US) wrote,
Pause for thought
Harold Pinter and the Nobel Prize for ...

. . . The Nobel Prize . . . for Literature . . . to Harold Pinter . . . Hmmm . . . there are two possibilities. First, the Nobel committee may have ruled that 2005 was the ideal moment to honour a man who wrote his signature works in the late 1950s. To be fair, Pinter produced notable plays in the succeeding decades. But he made his name, and gave birth to the adjective Pinteresque, with the stripped dialogue, edgy mistrust and air of tangible but mysterious threat of his early works.

Then there is another possibility: that Pinter is just about the biggest and sharpest stick with which the Nobel committee can poke America in the eye. His recent output has consisted almost entirely of rabid antiwar, anti-American and expletive-filled rants against the Iraq conflict.

Wednesday, October 12

Hating "the West"

Whose al-Qaida problem? by Sasha Abramsky

....reading the voices of much of the self-proclaimed "left" in the London papers in the aftermath of the [London] bombings, I was struck by how ossified many of them have become, how analyses crafted at the height of the cold war have lingered as paltry interpretive frameworks for political fissures bearing little if anything in common with that "twilight conflict." While on the one hand I agreed with their well-reasoned arguments pointing to a certain degree of western culpability for spawning groups like al-Qaida, on the other hand I was saddened by how utterly incapable were those same arguments of generating responses to the fanaticism of our time.

"(No) one should doubt that these were Blair’s bombs," Pilger, famous for helping to bring to light the genocidal actions of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, wrote in the New Statesman (11 July 2005) while the bodies of the 7 July victims were still being identified. British journalists Robert Fisk, John Pilger, and Tariq Ali, along with British MP George Galloway, and, on the other side of the Atlantic, commentators such as Naomi Klein have all essentially blamed Britain and the United States for bringing the attacks upon themselves. While being careful to denounce the bombers and their agenda, these advocates uttered variations on the same theme: get out of Iraq, bring home the troops from all points east, curtail support for Israel, develop a more sensible, non-oil-based energy policy, and our troubles would dissipate in the wind.


Pilger, Fisk, Ali, Galloway, and Klein grasp the undeniable fact that shortsighted western policies and alliances of convenience over the past century have contributed to today’s mass alienation of young Muslims, to a climate in which millennial groups such as al-Qaida flourish.

These advocates understand – in a way the cartoonish "good versus evil" language in which George W Bush frames world events certainly cannot – the rage the Iraq war in general has stoked among Muslims, and in particular, how searing are the images of humiliation rituals and torture emanating out of Abu Ghraib. They rightly recoil at the news-in-brief references to "collateral damage" when Iraqi civilians are killed compared with the oceans of ink generated whenever a western target is hit by terrorism.

But theirs is also a truncated analysis. They assume that groups like al-Qaida are almost entirely reactive, responding to western policies and actions, rather than being pro-active creatures with a virulent homegrown agenda, one not just of defence but of conquest, destruction of rivals, and, ultimately and at its most megalomaniacal, absolute subjugation.

It misses the central point: that, unlike traditional "third-world" liberation movements looking for a bit of peace and quiet in which to nurture embryonic states, al-Qaida is classically imperialist, looking to subvert established social orders and to replace the cultural and institutional infrastructure of its enemies with a (divinely inspired) hierarchical autocracy of its own, looking to craft the next chapter of human history in its own image.

Simply blaming the never quite defined, yet implicitly all-powerful "west" for the ills of the world doesn’t explain why al-Qaida slaughtered thousands of Americans eighteen months before Saddam was overthrown. Nor does it explain the psychopathic joy this death cult takes in mass killings and in ritualistic, snuff-movie-style beheadings. The term "collateral damage" may be inept, but it at least suggests that the killing of civilians in pursuit of a state’s war aims is unintentional, regrettable; there is nothing unintentional, there is no regret, in the targeting of civilians by al-Qaida’s bombers.

Moreover, many of those who reflexively blame the west do not honestly hold up a mirror to the rest of the world, including the Muslim world, and the racism and sexism and anti-semitism that is rife in many parts of it. If bigotry were indeed the exclusive preserve of the west, their arguments would have greater moral force. But given the fundamentalist prejudices that are so much a part of bin Ladenism, the cry of western racism is a long way from being a case-closer.

We should attend to the way bin Laden and his followers invoke "the west." They do so alternately to describe any expansive and domineering "first world" economic and political system and, even more ominously, to demarcate a set of ostensibly decadent liberal political, cultural, social, and religious beliefs and practices.

Indeed, what al-Qaida apparently hates most about "the west" are its best points: the pluralism, the rationalism, individual liberty, the emancipation of women, the openness and social dynamism that represent the strongest legacy of the Enlightenment. These values stand in counterpoint to the tyrannical social code idealised by al-Qaida and by related political groupings such as Afghanistan’s Taliban.

Geez, I Wanted to Panic over this

Floodwater Not as Toxic As Feared, Experts Say: Metals Seen as Chief Hazard In Survey of New Orleans By David Brown
The floodwater that covered New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was not unusually toxic and was "typical of storm water runoff in the region," according to a study published yesterday.

Most of the gasoline-derived substances in the water evaporated quickly, and the bacteria from sewage also declined over time, the scientist leading the study said. The water's chief hazard was from metals that are potentially toxic to fish. However, no fish kills have been reported in Lake Pontchartrain, where the water that once covered 80 percent of the city was pumped.

A deranged version of Pavlov's dog

Hold the champagne Although Democrats are jubilant about Bush's current problems,
...the Democrats are split down the middle on everything from Iraq to gay marriage. Centrists believe in working with business, protecting family values and fighting terrorism. “We believe that the September 11th attacks changed America for ever,” says the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), "and defeating terrorism is the supreme military and moral mission of our time." Liberal activists believe the opposite: that corporations are bad, family values are hogwash, and the war on terror a delusion.

Worse still, the wrong side is getting the upper hand. A new generation of angry young activists have used their mastery of the internet to tilt the party to the left. Groups such as (which claims 3.3m members) and blogs such as the Daily Kos (which has thousands of partisans venting daily) now colour the whole tone of the political debate on the left.

The teenage scribblers of the left seem to be turning the Democrats into a deranged version of Pavlov's dog—reacting to every stimulus from Professor Rove's laboratory rather than thinking ahead. Look what has happened in Congress, where the combination of a re-energised left and a ruthlessly partisan White House is making life miserable for would-be centrists. In 1994, 102 House Democrats voted in favour of NAFTA; this year, only 15 voted in favour of CAFTA, a more modest free-trade deal.

The teenage scribblers are wedded to a suicidal strategy: they think that their party's best chance of winning lies not in emulating Mr Clinton and moving to the centre but in emulating their nemesis, Mr Bush, and motivating their base. This ignores the most salient fact about American politics: there are three conservatives for every two liberals. The Democrats cannot win without carrying about 60% of moderates.

Stealth nominees

The great Miers mystery
In the future, presidents of both parties are likely to prefer "stealth" nominees like Ms Miers. This will have two harmful consequences. First, appointments will become more like the lottery Ms Miers once ran. No matter how good a judge of character a president may be, he will find it tougher to pick dazzling jurists if he excludes from his search judges with a long record of judging hard cases and academic lawyers with a long history of debating controversies with their peers.

Second, if obscurity is to be rewarded, the most ambitious lawyers will shy away from writing articles for law reviews or expressing clear opinions in public. That will surely stultify debate about the proper role of the law in America—hardly a trivial matter in the most legalistic society on earth.

Religion isn't necessarily the problem

Nassim Taleb finds opposition to teaching religious ideas in schools "somewhat misplaced", criticizing instead what he calls "the opiates of the middle class" and criticizes the gullible fool who invests in the stock market.
...he does not realize that the manager of his mutual fund does not fare better than chance — actually a bit worse, after the (generous) fees. Nor does he realize that markets are far more random and far riskier that he is being made to believe by the high priests of the brokerage industry.
But what about index funds? They've got low fees, and do better than average. Long term, an investment in a basket of stocks will outperform other investments. The problem is many people are too afraid to invest anything in stocks, or put their money all in one company, or buy high and sell low.

Taleb also criticizes the "fool" who
...believes in the news media providing an accurate representation of the risks in the world. They don't. By what I call the narrative fallacy, the media distorts our mental map of the world by feeding us what can be made into a story that can be squeezed into our minds. For instance (preventable) cancer, not terrorism remains the greatest danger. The number of persons killed by hurricanes, while consequential, is dwarfed by that of the thousands of isolated daily victims dying in hospital beds. These are not story-worthy, implying; the absence of attention on the part of the press maps into disproportionately reduced resources allocated to their welfare. The difference between actual, actuarially defined risks and the perception of dangers is enormous — and, sadly, growing with the globalization and the media, and our increased vulnerability to visual stimuli.

Theory at the periphery

In A New Postwar History of Europe Examines the Uneasy Embrace of East and West, RICHARD BYRNE's review of Tony R. Judt's Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 he notes that Judt debunks the notion that the United States was the major player in ending the cold war. I've always been a little skeptical of the credit given Reagan.

Anyway, what I liked to see was this:
Mr. Judt also dispenses judgments that will raise eyebrows, especially in the United States. Poststructuralist theory, for instance, takes a few sharp knocks. (In one footnote, Mr. Judt writes of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan that "even by the lax standards of Sixties-era Paris he remained quite remarkably ignorant of contemporary developments in medicine, biology, and neurology, with no discernible harm to his practice or reputation.")

Quizzed about those barbs, Mr. Judt observes that "one of the distorting effects" of theory's influence in American academe is that theory's totemic figures — Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Louis Althusser, Julia Kristeva — are "seen as much more prominently at the center of European thought than they actually are. Whereas I deliberately 'decentered' them, to use a cliché, and put them where I think they belong, which is within the intellectual and cultural world of Europe, but much more at the periphery."

Today's European intellectuals, he adds, have lost their public platform. As an example, he cites the apathy surrounding a 1993 essay project, led by Derrida (who died in 2004) and the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, to forge a European response to growing American unilateralism. "The whole project sputtered out," writes Mr. Judt. "One hundred years after the Dreyfus affair, 50 years after the apotheosis of Jean-Paul Sartre, Europe's leading intellectuals had thrown a petition — and no one came."

The secular left made the world safe for intelligent design

Backward, Christian Soldiers! Why must intelligent design be stopped? Because this—God forbid—could be the moment when the theocratization of America makes a real advance. By Kurt Andersen

For several decades the philosophical ground has been softened up by the relativism and political correctness of the secular left, which succeeded in undermining the very idea of objective reality and of calling a spade a spade—so now, in the resulting marsh, fantasies like intelligent design (or Scientology or feng shui or 9/11 as a CIA plot) take root and spread like weeds. Liberals pioneered squishy-minded indulgence of their key constituencies’ unfortunate new ideas, like reparations and criminalized hate speech; now it’s the right’s turn.

The ID people, I’m afraid, remind me of Holocaust deniers. They’re not evil, but they are distorting and ignoring a century and a half of overwhelming empirical evidence to make it easier for people to believe in a historical miracle, just as Holocaust deniers distort and ignore half a century of overwhelming empirical evidence to make it easier for people to disbelieve a historical crime. Both are enemies of truth.

Erin Brockovich--self-promoter

All About Erin: Heroine of screen and courtroom Erin Brockovich deserves a prize, all right. But not for what you think. by Walter Olson led me to
GINA KOLATA's April 11, 2000A Hit Movie Is Rated 'F' In Science
...scientists said, the movie encouraged exactly the wrong way to think about data, elevating individuals' medical histories to the level of proof and distorting the notion of risk. Scientists, seeing the evidence that so infuriated Erin Brockovich, would be much more cautious -- and skeptical. The first question to ask is whether residents of Hinkley really did have more sickness than people living elsewhere. And, if so, what illnesses are being discussed?

"Everyone has symptoms," said Dr. John C. Bailar III, a professor of health studies at the University of Chicago. Half the adult population eventually gets cancer. One out of every 700 children gets cancer before age 15, he said. Vague complaints, like aches and pains and difficulty sleeping are ubiquitous. If people look for diseases, they will find them, simply because illness is so common.

The next red flag is the sheer number of diseases. "Any time I see half a dozen diseases attributed to some exposure, I get very nervous," Dr. Bailar said. Biological agents, he said, "are very well targeted."

Vinyl chloride has been shown to cause liver cancer, but not asthma. Asbestos has been shown to cause lung cancer, but not breast cancer or brain cancer. The list of illnesses that any chemical is known to cause is very short, said Dr. Stephen Safe, a toxicologist at Texas A & M University. "The list is not 10,000 diseases," he said.

Scientists would also ask if it is even plausible that chromium (VI) in drinking water was making hundreds of people gravely ill. Of course, both sides in the litigation that ensued over the Hinkley groundwater contamination brought in their own scientific experts, although that was not pursued in the movie, but federal agencies whose scientists were not involved in the litigation said evidence was lacking that chromium (VI) in groundwater caused a myriad of health problems. The chemical's main problem, they said, is that it can cause lung cancer if workers inhale it as particulates in large doses for long periods of time.
More recently, Norma Zager, editor-in-chief of a free weekly has exposed how Broko is trying to whip up hysteria over pollution on the campus of Beverly Hills High School.

So who cares? Well, Harvard School of Public Health is preparing to give its highest award, the Julius Richmond Award, to Erin Brockovich.

Bringing Home the Bacon

Mickey Kaus writes about how much time & money following Davis-Bacon can take, and concludes,
Preserving Davis-Bacon may endear Democrats to the AFL-CIO's construction unions, but it's a slightly trickier case to make to voters--"Hey, this will really slow rebuilding and make it way more expensive for taxpayers!" Why take a stand defending the indefensible?

Dick Durbin, Idiot

Durbin proposes tax on oil industry's "excessive" profits
Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin proposed a new tax on oil companies' "excessive" profits Tuesday, saying the money could help consumers cope with the high cost of gasoline and heating oil.

He said refineries have seen their profits soar 255 percent over the past year. High fuel costs threaten the economy and hurt working families, he said.

"Every dollar that you're paying at that gas pump is going into more profits for the oil companies - dramatically higher profits than they have ever seen," the Democratic senator said at a news conference.

He proposes taxing 50 percent of the profit that companies make when oil prices rise above the 2004 average of $40 a barrel. Oil is now selling for more than $60 a barrel.

The estimated $40 billion in tax money could be used to give consumers a $150 rebate, help poor families pay their home heating bills and provide $1 billion in incentives for auto companies to improve fuel efficiency.

Durbin, the Senate's minority whip, acknowledged his proposal faces long odds in the Republican-controlled Congress.

He defended his proposal as a fair response to rising prices in a critical industry. Durbin's aides later said a windfall profits tax was imposed on the oil industry in the 1980s.

The National Petrochemical and Refiners Association did not return a call seeking comment.
In addition, on the local news, I heard Durbin quoted as saying that this was not "anti-capitalist".

I wonder if he knows it's not going to pass, or if he doesn't care, and is only doing it for his typical rabble-rousing politics.

Tuesday, October 11


Benjamin Joffe-Walt wrote 'They beat him until he was lifeless'
The last time I saw Lu Banglie, he was lying in a ditch on the side of the street - placid, numb and lifeless - the spit, snot and urine of about 20 men mixing with his blood, and running all over his body....He lay there - his eye out of its socket, his tongue cut, a stream of blood dropping from his mouth, his body limp, twisted. The ligaments in his neck were broken, so his head lay sideways as if connected to the rest of his body by a rubber band.
It turns out this former human shield is a bit of an hysteric. Jonathan Watts added Protests surge as reforms fail to match rising hopes
The government says 3.6 million people took part in 74,000 "mass incidents" last year, an increase of more than 20% on 2003. Most of these protests were sporadic, disorganised and centred on local issues, typically land ownership rights, official corruption and environmental destruction. But they have alarmed the authorities. At last year's central party meeting, the leadership called rural unrest a "life or death" issue for the party, which pledged to make itself more responsive to the concerns of the people.

But plodding political reforms have failed to keep up with rising expectations among the public. According to the local media, the most ambitious proposal on the agenda this year is to allow towns in three provinces to vote for their mayor. The main thrust of the reforms is to maintain Communist party rule.

Civil rights activists say this is out of touch with public opinion and a rising grass-roots democracy movement. "There is growing coordination among activists," said Hou Wenzhou, director of the Empowerment and Rights Institute. "There is growing awareness of rights among the public and there is growing resentment of the government."

She said that while the number of activists was still small - just a few hundred in Beijing, and less in other cities - numbers had increased sharply in the past three years. The Taishi case, in which outside activists supported the locals in their attempt to impeach their mayor, showed they were becoming more organised.
And finally Activist found alive after beating by mob. So he's not dead after all. Many more details of the the Taishi 太石 elections at EastWestNorthSouth


A New Measure of Well-Being From a Happy Little Kingdom By ANDREW C. REVKIN
In Bhutan, happiness is
preserving cultural traditions, protecting the environment and maintaining a responsive government.

Around the world, a growing number of economists, social scientists, corporate leaders and bureaucrats are trying to develop measurements that take into account not just the flow of money but also access to health care, free time with family, conservation of natural resources and other noneconomic factors.
They're thinking about what makes them happy. That's not what makes me happy.

The article also concedes that people in some relatively poor countries are happy.
Ronald Inglehart, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, found that Latin American countries, for example, registered far more subjective happiness than their economic status would suggest.

In contrast, countries that had experienced communist rule were unhappier than noncommunist countries with similar household incomes - even long after communism had collapsed.
So anyway, does that mean we'll stop looking at economic inequality as a bad thing?

Adam Davidson and "neoliberalism"

Yesterday on NPR on a broadcast before the Nobel prizes for economics were announced, Davidson said that the prize was controversial, because
  • It was not part of Alfred Nobel's bequest
  • It was biased in favor of neoliberalism
  • The most influential economists were awarded the prize in the 70's and early 80's
Interestingly, these points raised in the wikipedia entry about the controversy about the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. Then Steve Inskeep asked what "neoliberalism" was. Davidson seemed a little at a loss, but ended up saying that it was the opposite of liberalism. In fact, neoliberals are often in favor of personal freedoms that leftists are, it's just that they believe in free markets as well.

The broadcast NPR has available now doesn't go into that. Davidson simply concludes that while in the past, winners were "aggressive free market economists", this year's winners "may indicate a change in how the prizes are awarded."

According to his biography
Davidson’s reports focus on the effects of increased global trade on the U.S. economy, U.S. workers, and U.S. competitiveness...

Davidson has visited countries that are undergoing dramatic economic change, such as China, to help listeners make sense of the sometimes overwhelming and confusing phenomenon of globalization. By introducing listeners to the people most affected by globalization, Davidson says he hopes to help listeners "better understand the profound changes happening in every part of the world."
It sounds like he wants to find the bad news about globalization, but in other reports, he ends up talking about the benefits of free trade.

Saturday, October 8

Oh, please

I'm trying to figure out the new house bill. I find House Passes Bill to Boost Refineries, which includes the nugget
Supporters of the measure said that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita made clear that the country needed more refineries, including new ones outside of the Gulf region. No new refinery has been built since 1976, although large refineries have been expanded to meet growing demand.

Critics of the legislation argued a cash-rich industry with huge profits over the past year shouldn't need government help to build refineries. They said the bill would allow the oil industry to avoid environmental regulations and would lead to dirtier air.
But then there's this citation of a letter from Representative Sherwood L. Boehlert (R - NY):
After the Rules Committee reported the manager's amendment late last night, Mr. Boehlert wrote in a Dear Colleague letter (and I quote):

'Please join me in voting no on H.R. 3893, which will increase the deficit, harm the environment, undermine the states, and give charity to the oil companies while doing virtually nothing to help consumers.'

"It is clear that this Republican Majority is exploiting the disruption to our nation's refining capacity caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to push many of the same provisions that were dropped from the Energy Policy Act that we passed in July.

"This Republican bill, for example, would create a fund that would pay oil companies if they are sued – even if they lose in court. It would enable cities with dirty air to delay meeting Clean Air requirements. And it would preempt state and local zoning regulations related to the siting of refineries.

"What do these provisions have to do with reducing gas prices today?

"In sharp contrast, the Democratic substitute would put some bite in the Federal Trade Commission's bark. It would give the FTC explicit authority to stop price gouging – not just for gasoline and diesel fuels, but for natural gas, home heating oil and propane.

"It provides for enhanced penalties for price gouging; explicitly outlaws market manipulation; and empowers state attorneys generals to enforce the federal law...
Whoops. Gouging? He just lost me. So can I believe the rest of his criticism?