January 31, 2004

Good compromise

Faced with a contentious issue, Georgia makes a sensible compromise:

Superintendent Kathy Cox said the concept of evolution would still be taught under the proposal, but the word would not be used.

You see, it turns out that evolution is just a "buzzword". Sure, this new proposal is not making everyone happy:
"Here we are, saying we have to improve standards and improve education, and we're just throwing a bone to the conservatives with total disregard to what scientists say," said state Rep. Bob Holmes, a Democrat.


"If you're teaching the concept without the word, what's the point?" said Rep. Bobby Franklin, a Republican. "It's stupid. It's like teaching gravity without using the word gravity."

But in furthering the main goal of public schools, i.e. not offending anyone, it's clearly a step in the right direction....

Posted by richard at 01:05 PM | Comments (1)

January 29, 2004

This make me feel better...

Jacob Levy at the Volokh Conspiracy makes me feel better about my caffeine addiction. I've never done the math like he has, but while I'm sure I drink to much, I'm also pretty sure it's not as severe as his:

8 am. Triple espresso. 300 mg.
8:30 am. Breve latte with an extra shot (i.e. a triple espresso with steamed half-and-half). 300 mg.
10:45 am. Diet Coke. 45 mg.
12 noon. 1 cup brewed coffee. c. 100 mg.
2:30 pm. Diet Coke. 45 mg.
3:30 pm. Dan suggests we take a quick break from office hours and get a snack. He gets a Toll House brownie bar. I get another triple espresso. 300 mg.
With dinner: Diet Dr. Pepper. 41 mg.
Total: 1131 mg.

Posted by richard at 04:18 PM | Comments (0)

Context is important...

As this quote makes clear:

"More than 100 Tainan city residents, mostly men, have reportedly gone to see the corpse to 'experience' the size of its penis," the newspaper reported.
Although the true story is only slightly less odd.

Posted by richard at 01:51 PM | Comments (0)

January 27, 2004

Tear down that wall!

The Berlin Wall it's not, but having lived there, it evoked nothing more than the glory days of Eastern European avant garde architecture and the cold utility of central planning.

And now Phutatorius writes to tell me that Princeton will finally tear down the depressing quarters that are Butler college — and he wants to get together some volunteers to help.

Posted by richard at 10:55 PM | Comments (0)

Sizes Explained

GGC points to a site that finally explains the sizes of beverages served at Starbucks. Not exactly work-safe, though.

Unfortunately, they don't explain what size you'll get when you order my metrosexual, Portuguese-Canadian friend's favorite: a "doppio macchiato". You'd expect a "double" to have some heft to it, but that sucker was smaller than small, or is that taller than tall? Anyway, why you'd pay $3.89 for a thimbleful of coffee is beyond me — I prefer to use economy of scale to my advantage and pay $4.68 for twice as much.

Posted by richard at 10:40 PM | Comments (0)

Not Helping

George, if you won't fire him, please put him away. He's not helping:

Attorney General John D. Ashcroft said Monday that concerns such as Iraq's "evil chemistry and evil biology" justified war even without the weapons.

In other news, inspector David Kay said that very little evidence of "black magic" or other "evil physics" had been found. No word yet on "evil petting zoos", but the hunt continues....

Posted by richard at 01:45 PM | Comments (4)

NH Primary

Quick prediction, since everyone seems to be doing it. Since nothing bad will happen to me, other than having to put up with the derision of my few readers, for getting this wrong, I'm encouraged to go out on a limb:

  1. Kerry
  2. Edwards
  3. Dean
  4. Lierberman
  5. Clark

Of course, wishful thinking is probably playing a role here as well. Unlike some, I feel no need to add percentages — I'll just be happy if I'm close.

Update: well, the limb done broke. I knew it was a long shot that Edwards would beat Dean, but I'm actually really surprised that Clark did so well. I just cannot understand why anyone would vote for him — I find him pretty dispicable. I'm sorry Joe-mentum wasn't conserved, because he's at least consistent. Here's the final order:

  1. Kerry
  2. Dean
  3. Clark
  4. Edwards
  5. Lieberman

Posted by richard at 01:28 PM | Comments (0)

January 26, 2004

Internet Democracy

The New York Times had an article on the effect of the Internet on democracy, focusing on the fears of "cyberbalkanization". Some social scientists are concerned that cyberspace, while potentially increasing civic participation, is leading to more extremism. As people choose the sites they visit and the content they consume, they surround themselves with like-minded folks who don't challenge their pre-conceived notions.

First, I was disappointed to see that they didn't have any quotes from people optimistic about the role of the Internet in politics, or any sites, like e.thePeople, that are actually trying to build a public space for respectful dialogue.

But more importantly, as Jack Balkin, a law professor at Yale, points out on his Balkinization blog, the article conflates two different kinds of activities: efforts to organize and motivate like-minded people into acting (like MoveOn.org and the candidate web logs) and ones that strive to provide a place for discussion and debate. These two activities are different, and it's unreasonable to expect to find them in the same place. It speaks to a larger misconception of the Internet that you see fairly often in the mainstream media — the idea that the Internet is monolithic. The beauty of the medium is that a thousand flowers can bloom, some partisan, some pragmatic, some ideological, some objective, some hateful, some spin-ful, some extreme, some high-brow, some low, some professional, some amateur, some reliable....

I, of course, am thankful that my comment section will always challenge me and never let me get complacent about my views.

Posted by richard at 12:12 AM | Comments (2)

January 25, 2004

Backseat Driver

Everyone seems to be dog-blogging, so here's my backseat driver on the way to Christmas in St. Louis:

Backseat Driver

Posted by richard at 01:25 PM | Comments (2)

January 24, 2004

Middle East Peace

This new initiative from Saudi Arabia sounds like the best plan I've seen. It's bold in that it tries to normalize relations between Israel and Arab states while solving the Palestinian crisis. The highlights are that Israel would withdraw to the pre-1967 borders and sign peace treaties and exchange ambassadors with the Arab states. Israel would not be required to take any Palestinian refugees as 2 million would be admitted to the new Palestine and the rest would be let in to other Arab states. The plan supposedly has the backing of Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and (maybe) Qatar and was presented to the US by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

Am I cynical to think that it doesn't have a chance? It's to breathtakingly simple and logical. Are the many leaders (on both sides) who owe their positions to the conflict going to go along with this?

Pointer from OxBlog.

Posted by richard at 09:38 PM | Comments (1)

January 22, 2004

Letter to LeGrand

Well, I mentioned below that I had corresponded with Julian LeGrand, the author of Motivation, Agency, and Public Policy, by e-mail. I posted a (longish) review of his book below, but I wanted to post my e-mail in case anyone found it interesting:

From: Richard Vermillion
Sent: Wed 07/01/2004 06:53
To: Legrand,J
Subject: Motivation, Agency, and Public Policy

Professor Le Grand,

I just finished reading your book, Motivation, Agency, and Public Policy, and I wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed it. The framework you propose, analyzing policies based on their implicit assumptions about human behavior, is truly useful in an area typically dominated by useless Left/Right dichotomies. And while I would have hoped for some additional technical content, I would certainly trade it for the level of accessibility and readability that you achieved. I only wish someone would analyze US policies and history through the same lens.

I had one question/comment about the "backward-bending" supply curves that you discuss in the Annex to Chapter 4. I was struck by the similarity of this curve to the curves that describe aggregate labor supply in the presence of child labor. As originally described in Basu and Van (1998), if you assume the luxury and substitution axioms, you get a supply curve similar to the S-shaped ones you show. (Actually, they tend to look slightly different because they assume inelastic supply at the adult clearing wage and the child clearing wage, but they still provide multiple equilibria). López-Calva (http://www.nipnetwork.org/docs_meeting2000/Calva.PDF) extended this work and proposed a model that assumes "that a parent who sends her child to the labor market is likely to face a social stigma that reduces her own welfare" and that the "stigma is lower the higher the aggregate incidence of child labor", resulting in similarly shaped curves.

While household decisions about child labor would seem to have nothing to do with "knightly" provision of social services, the similarities in results seem too enticing to ignore. First, both describe two modes of supply, the transition between which is governed by a threshold and a social norm. In knightly supply, the threshold is based on self-sacrifice and the positive norm is altruism; in child labor, the threshold is based on subsistence consumption and the negative norm is a stigma for sending children to work. Second, by providing multiple equilibria, both are open to criticisms of exploitation. Finally, because of this, policy-makers have an interest in manipulating which mode dominates, and yet sometimes have difficulty doing so.

Anyway, my question is, have you considered these similarities? Is there something that relates these two things at a fundamental level, or is it just an interesting coincidence? Are they just examples of relatively mundane crowding-out, or do they say more about how norms tend to interact with rational utility maximization?

Thanks for the excellent work, hope these comments are relevant.

Excuse the first paragraph — while I meant everything I said, I was also trying to be nice since I don't know the guy. Anyway, I don't feel comfortable posting his reply, since I didn't ask him before hand, but basically he said that he read the paper that I pointed him to and definitely thought there was something to it and asked that I keep him informed if I decided to do anymore "work" on the subject. He obviously had me confused with someone who does this for a living, but I'll take it as a complement....

Posted by richard at 08:16 PM | Comments (0)

Fnords in the SotU?

Julian Sanchez mentions the unmentionable and attempts to call our attention to the fnords in the State of the Union.

Posted by richard at 08:00 PM | Comments (0)

Jedi Reader

Lileks is not happy about the storyline of the Jedi Reader, a story book for young children set in the Star Wars universe — not to mention the fact that such a thing exists. Of course, it features Jar Jar getting into trouble:

Jar Jar closes his eyes, because he does not want to see Sebulba punch him.

“Stop!” someone says.

It is Anakin Skywalker!

“Do not hurt Jar Jar,” says Anakin. “Jar Jar is a friend of the Hutts.”

The Hutts are bigger and meaner than Sebulba.

Now Sebulba is afraid.

WTF? What is this? It’s bad enough that Lucas invented Jar Jar in the first place; it’s bad enough that they made childrens’ books with him, but Anakin is DARTH FRICKIN’ VADER. To have him show up and dispatch the bully by suggesting that Jar Jar has mob connections is so totally farged I can’t even begin to untangle the moral idiocy of the story. Boil it down: young Damien from “The Omen” saves Rastus McWebfoot from a beating by claiming that the Corleones have his back.

He's not satisfied by what appears to be the moral of the story:
“Be less afraid,” Anakin says to Jar Jar. “Bullies pick on those who are afraid.”

Yes, we know. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering, suffering leads to agony, agony leads to Episode Three....

I'm glad I grew up when I did.

Posted by richard at 07:52 PM | Comments (1)

EU Competitiveness

The Financial Times has a story on European competitiveness:

Europe's apparently doomed attempt to overtake the US as the world's leading economy by 2010 will today be laid bare in a strongly worded critique by the European Commission.

The Commission's spring report, the focal point of the March European Union economic summit, sets out in stark terms the reasons for the widening economic gap between Europe and the US.

It cites Europe's low investment, low productivity, weak public finances and low employment rates as among the many reasons for its sluggish performance.

The draft report, to be published by the Commission today, warns that without substantial improvements "the Union cannot catch up on the United States, as our per capita GDP is 72 per cent of our American partner's".

From InstaPundit.

While economic growth is not the be-all-end-all, as The Wife is wont to say, it's interesting that they are missing their own goals. It seems they have a choice to make: abandon attempts to be the largest economy in the world, or remove some of the regulatory shackles that hinder investment, entrepreneurship, and productivity growth.

Posted by richard at 11:22 AM | Comments (0)

January 21, 2004

Le Grand's Gambit

Julian Le Grand is Professor of Social Policy at the London School of Economics. His latest book, Motivation, Agency, and Public Policy: Of Knights & Knaves, Pawns & Queens, is an examination of the implicit and explicit assumptions about human behavior that underly the public policy prescriptions of both ends of the political spectrum.

As the title suggests, Le Grand posits two axes upon which to chart these assumptions: motivation and agency. He then introduces the "characters" of the subtitle to label the extremes of the axes. "Knights" are motivated by altruism and the spirit of cooperation, while "knaves" are self-interested utility maximizers — the kind of actors touted by public choice theorists. Agents are further divided into passive "pawns", cogs in the public service machine, and active "queens", empowered to make choices and free to act.

He demonstrates that this framework is interesting by examining how various policies promoted by the Left and Right, or as he calls them, the social democrats and neo-liberals, make different assumptions about where people fall (or should fall) on these axes. Social democratic policies tend to assume that service providers (politicians, bureaucrats, public servants) will be knightly while benficiaries will be pawns. Neo-liberals assume the opposite: producers are knaves and consumers should be queens.

Unfortunately, he continues in this vein and treats the two axes fairly differently, almost as two separate, one-dimensional explanations, focusing on motivation for service providers and agency only for recipients. It would be interesting to have the framework fleshed out to examine how both roles can move in this two-dimensional space.

In addition, while he takes a descriptive approach to the motivation axis, his treatment is almost completely normative with respect to agency. He takes it as given that policies should empower citizens and treat them as active agents in their implementation. While libertarians and classical liberals would certainly agree with this assertion, it seems to beg the question to some extent — those who believe that the collective good must come before individual choice may reject this starting point.

Le Grand could have bolstered his argument by showing that policies must take into account individual agency to be effective, i.e. a descriptive argument that showed how policies that treat citizens as pawns are likely to fail. The normative argument could have followed strongly on this consequentialist base.

This conceptual framework is laid out in the introduction. The three subsequent sections focus on Motivation, Agency, and Policies, respectively.


As mentioned above, his theory of motivation focuses mainly on the service providers, examining how they fall into the categories of altruistic "knights" and self-interested "knaves".

He describes how communal spirit after the Allied victory in WWII led, at least in the UK, to the renewed belief in man's ability to set aside selfishness and act in the interest of the community. This, in turn, led to the great movement in social democracy in England in the 50's and 60's. Studies and literature from the period claimed that not only were systems that relied on voluntary cooperation and altruistic motives more desirable from a normative point of view, they were actually more efficient. The most famous of these is Richard Titmuss' study of blood donors in Britain's all-volunteer system and his comparison to "market" systems as used in America.

Failures of these systems to live up to the promises (including the eventual need to import large quantities of blood from America) led in the late 70's and 80's to their replacement by quasi-market systems. These programs, brough about as part of the Iron Lady's conservative reforms, attempt to appeal to providers' self-interest to increase the quality, quantity, and efficiency of public services provided.

Le Grand then goes to the evidence to determine which kinds of programs actually are more effective. He starts from the assumption that, as long as they work, programs that promote and rely on altruism should be considered morally superior and better for society. He brings to bear some evidence from studies that show that market forces can actually remove people's willingness to contribute to the greater good — the collectivist fear that markets corrupt mankind and are, in fact, the source of, rather than the solution to, selfishness. He contrasts this with the hard-to-deny efficiency of market systems, particular in comparison to the failing social democratic policies of the 70's. He also cites studies that show that some incentives can increase altruistic behavior in some circumstances, including one of home care professionals in Britain who were given a small stipend for their time.

From these interesting but conflicting studies, he comes up with a compelling, but unfortunately very speculative, argument for an S-shaped supply curve for knightly service providers. He argues that small incentives will increase the supply of communal service as the implied recognition encourages knights to provide more services. At a critical threshold, he argues, the incentive overpowers the sense of sacrifice that drives the altruistic behavior and the supply actually decreases. Finally, full market-based incentives lead to an upward sloping supply curve based only on self-interested utility maximization. This is an attractive story, one I find plausible and compelling, but it seems to be based only on a small number of inconclusive and contradictory studies in different areas of "communal service". It would seem to be a promising area for future research, but it's also a tenuous foundation on which to build your theory of motivation.

Despite that, Le Grand tells an interesting story based on this theory and discusses some of the issues that arise because of the multiple equilibria that this "backward-bending" supply curve generates.

He ends by arguing for what he calls "robust" policies that encourage knightly behavior when possible, but also work in situations where knaves dominate. He leaves this as a vague idea in the theory section, but makes it (a bit) more concrete in the Policies section.


Le Grand's theory of agency focuses mainly on the recipients of public services, clustering them into active "queens" and passive "pawns". He starts from the liberal position that individual empowerment is a good, but he acknowledges the collectivist concern that it is not necessarily an unqualified good.

He offers an enlightening look at the problems that can arise from putting "too much" power in the hands of the individual. Here he combines some of the findings of behavioral economics with real world policy issues to show the kinds of failures that humans can be prone to.

Most of these failures are familiar arguments in favor of paternalistic policies of doing what's best for people and "protecting them from themselves". Le Grand, rather than always moving to limit choice because of these possible failures, hopes to find instituional ways to limit their effect. For example, he discusses the value of moving sources of knowledge closer to the agents to help mitigate "irrational" choices made due to limited information. And he encourages building in stuctural incentives to guard against moral hazard and adverse selection effects.

That said, his argument for forced savings, i.e. that the future selves of the individuals need to be respected and given a voice, while novel, seems more like a justification than anything truly explanatory.


The final section contains several concrete proposals that attempt to apply his theories of motivation and agency to specific public goods. While most of his proposals are crafted for the UK, his arguments are general enough to be of interest to anyone concerned with modern welfare state policies.

While the proposals are too extensive to cover in detail here, they are worth mentioning in broad brush strokes to show where the theories take him.

In education, he advocates a form of school choice, like vouchers, pointing to their success in the UK. But he adds in what he calls a "positive discrimination" voucher that would encourage schools to counteract the stratification that is the most compelling argument against vouchers.

In healthcare, he obviously start from the British perspective of a National Health Service, but again argues for increased choice in providers to help harness market-forces for the sake of efficiency. He has a really interesting discussion of the kinds of incentives that manifested themselves (both for doctors and patients) in the various systems put in place by Thatcher and subsequently changed by Labour. He also highlights some of the specific problems associated with empowering people with regard to healthcare — particular the knowledge problem (i.e. the fact that not everyone has a medical degree and can make informed choices as consumers). He discusses the role of the GP in providing information and facilitating good choices by setting up systems that ensure that GP's incentives are balanced between helping their patients first and foremost, and furthering the public good in aggregate.

In social security, he argues for matching funds from the government to foster a sense of partnership in providing for retirement. A graduated scale where the first dollars saved were matched one-to-one, while later dollars were matched at lower rates would ensure that the rich did not get the lion's share. Again, he struggles again with the knowledge problem of empowerment and questions how the savings should be invested and by whom, and under what circumstances they could be used early (e.g. to buy a house or start a business).

His final proposal is the most bold and controversal — the idea of demogrants, cash given to citizens either at birth or at majority. He would fund this from increases in estate taxes. While libertarians should scream bloody murder at the coerced redistribution of wealth, the trade-off is the increased liberty in determining how the money is spent by pushing the decision making down to the individual. The main problem that I see is that society is unlikely to give the money without having some say in how it is spent, and this promises to be an ever increasing set of restrictions (the flip side of tax breaks). Second, for this to achieve the desired results, squandering the demogrant would need to have real consequences and lead to some hardships, or again, the incentives work against you – it's just a freebee. But any nation that decides to redistribute the money to everyone is also unlikely to make people face the full consequences of misuse.

In all, a great book, though I wished for more in some parts. It's greatest contribution is similar to that of Postrel's The Future and Its Enemies in that it provides a new and useful way to examine policies and proposals. As I watched the State of the Union speech tonight, I found myself thinking about whether each policy would make citizens queens or pawns, whether each program assumed that bureaucrats were knaves or knights. I hope this framework sticks with me throughout the 2004 election.

Posted by richard at 12:57 AM | Comments (0)

Random Thoughts on the Union

The President has spoken, the Democrats responded and the pundits are off and running. Thought I'd put down a few thoughts while they're in my head, and hopefully generate some comments.

First, "if [PATRIOT Act techniques] are good for embezzlers and drug offenders, they even more important for terrorist cases." Um, how about they're not okay for embezzlers and drug offenders. If you're going to defend an encroachment on civil liberties by reference to the war on drugs, you're not going to score too many points. But that's too easy — let's compromise, how about we keep the powers for terrorists but take it away for drugs and white collar crimes. And we throw the book at anyone, including Ashcroft, who uses the powers to harass bong sellers and pornographers.

Second, though I'm totally opposed to a Federal Marriage Amendment, I think the President approached it from the exact right direction politically. Framing it as a choice between amending the Constitution the way the Framers intended vs. letting activist judges amend it – that's probably a winner politically. Nevermind that he's abandoning the states' rights stance that's supposed to be a Republican mainstay. Nevermind that he's on the wrong side of this one in the long term (once all the old people who are so opposed to gay marriage die). At least he put some window dressing of respect and dignity for all individuals....

Third, he was pretty strong on Iraq, and I agree with Howard Fineman and Peggy Noonan on Hardball — he was begging for the Democrats to come after him on the war and foreign policy. Which leads me to....

Fourth, how horrible was the Democratic response? Nancy Pelosi looked like a deer caught in headlights, and she said nothing, nothing on foreign policy that wasn't a repeat of the same platitudinous clichés. She did not inspire confidence at all. Daschle was better, sticking to their stronger domestic issues — but I can't believe he took time to talk about country of origin labelling on food products! This is the State of the Union?

Anyway, as a political speech it was okay, a good start to a campaign. As a SOTU, it disappointed. I hate the fact that rhetoric is dead. Killed by television? Certainly a steep downward slope from Kennedy. Is it too much to ask that we use a thesaurus and find another word for "thug", "killer", and "assassin". The colloquialisms are the real killers. I want the President, the Democratic responders, a candidate, anyone, to say something uplifting, something grand. Show me a vision, an idea, a direction, a dream.... anything.

Another thing from Hardball – what about that AIDS money for Africa. Wish he'd brought it up again. If, as Bill Frist claims, the Democrats are to blame for blocking the appropriations, then stuff it in their face by renewing the commitment. But don't just let one of the few uplifting moments from the previous years slide off the agenda while no one was looking.

That's about it. What did you think?

Update: one more thing that I thought was particularly strong and is a large part of my support for the war in Iraq: "For diplomacy to be effective, words must be credible -- and no one can now doubt the word of America." The credible threat argument is the biggest weakness of the multilateralists. But I won't change any minds here....

Second update: yes, I shouldn't complain about Daschle's food labelling next to Bush's steroid testing of all things. No issue too small I guess.

Posted by richard at 12:03 AM | Comments (4)

January 20, 2004

Clinton in Qatar

Ralph Peters praises Clinton in the New York Post. At a speech at a conference on Middle East - American relations in Qatar, he "began taking stands as brave as they were necessary. With virtuoso skill, he led the audience where they needed to go - while convincing them it was where they had wanted to end up all along.... He didn't pander. He made America's case and made it well."

This part particularly impressed: " Asked by an eager-to-Bush-bash delegate if he, Bill Clinton, would have behaved differently after 9/11, our former president said he would have followed an identical course, pursuing our enemies into Afghanistan and beyond. Queried about his position on Iraq, he stated that any disagreements he might have would be most appropriately expressed at home in the U.S., not before a foreign audience."

His silence on criticising Bush on Iraq to-date is, I believe, a combination of what he knew and thought during his own administration, a tradition of not second-guessing standing president's on foreign policy, and a desire to protect Hillary's chances in 2008.

But, if he has, as Peters argues, "become the perfect statesman", then I agree that Bush should use him on further "missions of persuasion" – but I'm not holding my breath.

Posted by richard at 03:38 PM | Comments (0)

Books for January

Hey, just wanted to point out the new books in the bookshelf.

I've finished Motivation, Agency, and Public Policy and I have a review of it two-thirds of the way done — I'll post it once I get a chance to polish it up. I also had an interesting e-mail exchange with the author which I'll post about (I love this Internet thing, have I said that before?)

I'm about halfway through Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists which is pretty interesting, but not breath-taking. They're saying important stuff about the threats to capitalism of the well-to-do trying to protect their entrenched interests, and they say it well, but it doesn't exactly capture the imagination.

I've read one chapter (the one on Hayek) in The Mind and the Market but I'm looking forward to the rest. It's very well written and puts the ideas of modern economists in the historical and intellectual context in which the people lived – part biography, part history of ideas. The chapter on Hayek was a good summary of the ideas from the The Road to Serfdom and The Consitution of Liberty but it added some great details from his life in Vienna and the anti-liberal movements that made his "classical liberalism" originally untimely.

I posted below about Walter Russell Mead's article on the Jacksonian tradition in foreign policy. And now I've got his Special Providence cued up to read next.

Posted by richard at 03:20 PM | Comments (0)

Jobs and Recovery

Bill Hobbs has a post about employment figures. The basic point is that the two methods of determing the employment rate: the payroll survey and the household survey are continuing to diverge. The bleak picture in the payroll survey, gathered from established companies, is not mirrored in the household survey, which captures the self-employed.

In fact, the payroll survey shows a net loss of about 750,000 jobs in 2002 (through Nov), while the household survey shows a net gain of close to 2 million.

I know several people who would not be counted in the payroll survey, but who are most definitely employed (in fact, one just complained about how well his business is going).

Check out the post, it has some interesting quotes from a Bear Stearns analysis [PDF], as well as a chart from a report of Congress' Joint Economic Committee.

Posted by richard at 03:06 PM | Comments (1)

Iowa Caucus

The results are in, and Kerry (38%) managed to more than double Dean (18%) in Iowa. In my mind, the real winner is Edwards both for coming in second (32%) and for his speech afterwards. The pundits were eating it up and he added to it with strong appearances on CNN and MSNBC.

Even better for Edwards was the juxtaposition of his speech with Howard Dean's absolute melt-down. Dean's speech was horrible — he looked like he was going to blow a gasket and he looked positively anything-but-presidential. Screaming the names of states, he sounded like something uncontrollable that had gotten away from his handlers — hmmm, perhaps that's not too far off the mark, actually. I think he's done for. Democrats have wisely realized that he's not electable and are focusing in on pragmatic choices who can achieve their number one objective: get rid of George W. Bush.

I've always thought that Edwards was the one to watch out for. He's an excellent speaker, has reasonable (and remarkably detailed for a candidate) policy proposals on his web site, and is probably the most likely to win some Southern states. I could even see myself voting for him – though I am concerned about his coziness with the ATLA trial lawyers and their money. And I'm not sure I understand voting for the authorization for the Iraq war, but then voting against the reconstruction money (as both he and Kerry did).

If Edwards wins the nomination, Bush is in serious trouble — and now there's a real chance of that happening. Rolling out Ted Kennedy may help Kerry in New Hampshire and the northeast, but it will kill him when trying to capture southern votes. I don't think much of Clark, but we'll see whether concentrating on New Hampshire was a good strategy for him — right now it doesn't look so good since Kerry (who he's been taking votes from) is sure to get a bounce and Edwards (who he compete with on southern credentials) now looks like less of a long shot.

Oh, and we're all winners that protectionist rhetoric and union muscle only bought Gephardt a plane ticket home.

Posted by richard at 01:03 AM | Comments (1)

January 17, 2004

Arab Nationalism v. Islamism

Paul Berman, author of Terror and Liberalism, has an interesting post in Wednesday's issue of Slate's series, Liberal Hawks Reconsider. He criticizes the Bush Administrations "mendacities" arguing that "the claim that Saddam and Osama were in cahoots was one of Bush's principal mendacities."

He goes on to explain the differences between Baathist "radical Arab nationalism" and al Quaeda's "radical Islamism" and why they make undertandable the recently discovered directive from Saddam that Iraqi insurgents not cooperate with foreign jihadists. Their differences make them unlikely to work together and also made possible the somewhat successful (at least in the short term) Machiavellian tactic of playing these strains off against each other during the Cold War years.

But he cautions that these tactics will be unsuccessful in the long term because, in fact, the two movements do have some dangerous similarites and share common beliefs, including:

1) A Paranoid Conspiracy Theory, according to which the Arab world (for the Baath) or the world of Islam (for the Islamists) is under a massive assault by a sinister and cosmic conspiracy of Zionists (and/or Jews, and/or Masons) and Crusaders (and/or Western imperialists).

2) An Apocalyptic Fantasy. The cosmic conspiracy will be defeated in order to reinstate the Golden Age of Islam in the seventh century, described as the Islamic Caliphate (by the Islamists) or as the Arab Empire based on Islam (by the Baath)—though both movements picture the reinstated seventh century as a high-tech extravaganza, a kind of modernity.

3) A Tyrannical Plan: The reinstated Golden Age will require an extreme police-state, described as the pious reign of Shariah or Quranic law (by the Islamists) or as the reign of brotherly Arab love (by the Baath).

4) A Cult of Death: the belief that masses of people should die, and death will strengthen the larger cause. The Iran-Iraq War was conducted on this basis, which is why it was one of the ghastliest things that has happened in modern times. And, as a consequence of that same Cult of Death, both movements, Baathism and radical Islamism alike, took to promoting random terror attacks.

These shared tenets, he claims, makes them part of a broader movement, despite their differences and mutual hatred. In fact, the beliefs are recognizable as new variants of something familiar:

They are the central tenets of European fascism (and, in some respects, of Stalinism), which have been adapted into Muslim and Arab dialects by a variety of theoreticians. And this single movement, which I call Muslim totalitarianism, has, over the last quarter century, killed millions—exactly as European totalitarianism did, in its time.

As I mentioned below, the whole conversation is worth reading no matter what you think about the war or Bush.

Posted by richard at 01:23 PM | Comments (4)

January 13, 2004

Eminent Domain

The ACLU and the Pacific Legal Foundation are asking a Court to Stop Government Abuse of Eminent Domain. They'd like the court to overturn Poletown Neighborhood Council v. City of Detroit, which allowed the city to condemn a low-income neighborhood in order to sell the land cheaply to General Motors.

The folks at Reason's blog are understandably upset about this kind of expropriation, and the abuses of it that have come about over the last 20 years.

Posted by richard at 12:51 PM | Comments (0)

January 12, 2004

War Reconsidered

I reposted my original case for war below, adding a little bit of reflection based on what we now know. Seems I'm not alone in thinking this is a good time to reconsider the Iraq war. Slate has collected an impressive list of "liberal hawks", including Thomas Friedman, Christopher Hitchens, Fred Kaplan, George Packer, Kenneth M. Pollack, Jacob Weisberg, and Fareed Zakaria. Over the coming week, they will be discussing how their positions have changed, if at all, with the benefit of hindsight. So far, they seem to be leaning towards continued support, despite serious misgivings about Bush's diplomacy and post-war planning, although not all have weighed in yet. As usual, these guys are definitely worth a read....

Posted by richard at 09:56 PM | Comments (0)

Drug War Censors

Ted Galen Carpenter at the Cato Institute points out how Drug Warriors Try to Censor their Opponents. Just another in a long list of civil liberties that are being quashed by over-zealous prohibitionists — "collateral damage" in the war on drugs.

Here's the scariest part:

The most ominous proposal for repressing pro-drug reform speech comes (not surprisingly) from the United Nations. The UN's International Narcotics Control Board has issued a report implicitly calling on member states to criminalize opposition to the war on drugs. Citing the 1988 UN Convention Against Illicit Trafficking in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, the INCB asserts that all governments are obligated to enact laws that prohibit "inciting" or "inducing" people to use illegal drugs and to punish such violations as criminal offenses.

If such a vague and chilling restriction on freedom of expression were not odious enough, the UN board contends that any portrayal that shows illicit drug use "in a favourable light" constitutes incitement and therefore should be banned as well. Since the report also repeatedly denounces medical marijuana initiatives as well as decriminalization or legalization proposals, even the most sedate advocacy of changing prohibitionist drug laws might run afoul of the censorship regime being pushed by the United Nations.

It is not reassuring that the U.S. government has pledged to cooperate with the UN group's global anti-drug efforts. Although Washington has not explicitly endorsed the censorship recommendations, neither has it stated that the United States rejects such proposals -- even though it certainly could have added that caveat. Indeed, one official pledged "absolute cooperation" with the UN's drug control programs.

Link from Hit & Run.

Posted by richard at 01:28 PM | Comments (2)

Case for War

I've recently had to defend my support for the war in Iraq to some close friends and it has made me think back to the case for war that I wrote last March on e.thePeople. I had always thought that it would be worthwhile to revisit that post to see how well it stood the test of time, and I suppose that now is as good a time as any.

In general, I think it still holds up pretty well. In retrospect, I would have placed less emphasis on the oil point. While it does frame our interest in the region, I've concluded it's less relevant than the other points — at the time, it seemed important to counter the "No blood for oil!" crowd. Also, I actually was a bit harder on the Bush administration's foreign policy than I would be now. Events have convinced me that their was little to no chance of getting France, Germany and Russia's blessing, although more skillful diplomacy could certainly have made their obstinance more costly to them.

I would also emphasize my third point about the non-proliferation regime more. The recent moves by Lybia are hopefully an example of the effectiveness of this strategy. North Korea and Iran show the importance of getting this right and I, for one, actually do feel more secure in a world where despots fear the results of non-compliance rather than scheme about how much they can game the system.

Anyway, read the whole thing and judge for yourself:

This article is an attempt to put forward a pragmatic, rational case for the war with Iraq. I fall in to the camp of citizens who support the war despite being appalled by our recent ham-fisted moves that pass for diplomacy. I believe the war is justified without condoning an "oderint dum metuant" mentality. I tried to reach my conclusion by weighing the facts as I see them, rather than resorting to partisan or ideological reasoning.

First, it is about the oil -- and it should be. But it's not about the oil in the "greedy oil companies looking for profits" way. It's about the oil because it's in our national interest and the world economy's interest to control (or at least not allow others to control) the supply of oil. I will be the first to call out the Bush administration for their short-sighted energy policy that benefits their campaign contributers' coffers. Their lack of vision is atrocious and I would support a massive strategic effort on the scale of the Apollo project to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels. But that is neither here nor there. For the foreseeable future, whether we like it or not, commit to change it or not, our economy and the economy of the entire world is dependent on the oil supplies of the Middle East. In fact, the developing world, whose oil consumption is growing far faster than the US's, has many of its hopes pinned on that energy continuing to be cheap and available. No amount of wishful thinking will change this for the next 10 years at least. Though not a happy conclusion, we must protect our access and deny hostile regimes control even if it does mean "blood for oil".

Second, it is about liberation of Iraq. Even if this is simply a nice side benefit to a policy we would choose anyway, it is still an important and morally strong argument for the war. Those that oppose war because of the certainty of civilian casualties ignore the repression of the people, ignore the fates of the Marsh Arabs and the Kurds, ignore the stories of torture and rape, and suddenly become worshippers at the altar of national sovereignty. Those that say that it's folly to think that the Iraqis can support democracy are caught up in their own form of cultural chauvinism. Although it will surely be difficult, and I pray we have the resolve to stick it out as long as it takes, I do believe it's the right thing to do.

Third, it is about viability of the current non-proliferation regime. If a country can flaunt the UN for 12 years and give just enough to avoid the "serious consequences", how much longer until dozens of countries learn to play the game. The peace of the Gulf War was conditioned on disarmament, and that condition has not been met. If we continue to countenace open defiance and nuclear blackmail from the likes of Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-il, their ranks are likely to swell with immitators. The world must do the unpleasant to avoid the unthinkable.

This leads to my final argument -- the absence of any realistic alternative means of disarming Iraq besides the use of force. Despite Martin Sheen's unconvincing "inspections work, wars don't", I have yet to see a reasonable alternative put forward by the anti-war movement. Even if you believe that the recent moves by Saddam are not just another cat-and-mouse game, but reflect real compliance with the UN resolution, you still cannot possibly argue that "inspections work". At best, you can argue that inspections, backed by an imminent, credible threat of force, work. You can argue that international demands, backed by 200,000 troops on your doorstep, work. What would lead someone to the conclusion that these "gains" would continue, and not reverse, after the pressure was off? Certainly not Saddam's past behavior. The most responsible and thoughtful public figures speaking out against the administration's tactics (e.g. Sen. Biden) admit this, and balance their misgivings about going to war against this realization. As Tacitus said, "si vis pacem, para bellum" -- if you want peace, prepare for war.

Of course, everyone acknowledges that if you have to go to war, going with the blessing of the UN is better than not. And I believe that if we had handled the lead up to this situation better we could have had that support. But it appears that we don't have it now, partially due to our own arrogance, partially due to struggles within Europe as to who will dominate the Union and whether to define that Union in terms of opposition to America or not.

But not having UN support does not change the underlying calculus of the decision. If we were France, whose only role on the international stage is membership, predicated on past greatness, in multilateral institutions, we would be forced to relate to the world through those institutions and privilege the products of their processes. But we are not, we are America, and we are forced to engage each country individually and bear the vast majority of the enforcement work around the world. Sometimes we are forced to do the heavy lifting for NATO or the UN, as in Kosovo and the Gulf War. Sometimes we are pushed to "handle" it alone as people seem to insist in North Korea. Sometimes we must address interests that are ours alone. Because of this we have a vested interest in people taking us seriously above and beyond our interest in people taking the UN seriously. This is a fact of being a superpower and it always has been. And it is guaranteed to put us at odds with others in the international community from time to time.

You'll notice that my reasoning does not invoke the spectre of Al Qaeda and I deplore Bush's reliance on that tenuous link. I hope we find more evidence (like the recent deportation of Iraq's Phillipine envoy for contacts with Abu Sayyaf) after the war, but only to give the administration some credibility back. I believe the case stands without the link at all.

Although my arguments may be too pragmatic for some, they lead me to conclude that war is justified.

Posted by richard at 12:12 AM | Comments (0)

January 11, 2004

Postrel on Hayek

Virginia Postrel has an article on Friedrich the Great at Boston.com. Reading The Constitution of Liberty was a pretty unique experience for me. I knew relatively little about Hayek at the time except "economist, libertarian economist" but I've rarely read anyone who just seemed so right so much of the time. He deserves recognition as "one of the most important thinkers you've barely heard of". His work on tacit knowledge and "the role of prices in coordinating dispersed information" is eye-opening.

Posted by richard at 07:49 PM | Comments (0)

Labor Market

Brad DeLong has some labor statistics that show how different this recovery from previous ones. But he says,

Kash of the Angry Bear reports that the decline in the labor force share over the past three years is concentrated among men, not women: it's not that the boom of the late 1990s and the associated extraordinary employment opportunities led women who in normal times would have preferred not to be in the labor force to find jobs, and that they are now returning to their normal out-of-the-labor-force state. That is not what is going on.

I'm not arguing that that's necessarily wrong, but it seems to fall into the same logical trap that anti-free traders do when they talk about textile jobs vs. steel jobs, i.e. the assumption that the two groups are not interchangeable.

It seems plausible that, in this enlightened age, men with wives who still have good jobs might be the ones to decide to drop out of the labor force during the tougher times. Just because female employment grew during the boom times, it doesn't necessary follow that it would shrink during the downturn — families should rationally (barring stereotypes) have the less-employable member drop out of the market when they can't find a job — and today that just might be the man.

Posted by richard at 06:41 PM | Comments (0)

Mead's Traditions

Walter Russell Mead, author of Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World, summarized the Jacksonian Tradition of foreign policy in an early 2000 article in The National Interest. It is incredibly relevant now, post-September 11 – both in understanding the popular appeal of Bush's policies here at home and in explaining the incomprehension of the rest of the world. In his book, he lays out the four traditions of American foreign policy. In the article, he focuses on the important but oft-ignored strain of Jacksonianism:

Nevertheless, the American war record should make us think. An observer who thinks of American foreign policy only in terms of the commercial realism of the Hamiltonians, the crusading moralism of Wilsonian transcendentalists, and the supple pacifism of the principled but slippery Jeffersonians would be at a loss to account for American ruthlessness at war.

Those who prefer to believe that the present global hegemony of the United States emerged through a process of immaculate conception avert their eyes from many distressing moments in the American ascension. Yet students of American power cannot ignore one of the chief elements in American success. The United States over its history has consistently summoned the will and the means to compel its enemies to yield to its demands.

The article is really worth reading in full – thanks to Eject! Eject! Eject! for the link.

Posted by richard at 05:51 PM | Comments (0)

Deconstruction Algorithm

After encountering postmodernism at the Second International Conference on Cyberspace , computer programmer Chip Morningstar researches it a bit and comes up with an algorithm for How to Deconstruct Almost Anything:

Step 1 -- Select a work to be deconstructed. This a called a "text" and is generally a piece of text, though it need not be. It is very much within the lit crit mainstream to take something which is not text and call it a text. In fact, this can be a very useful thing to do, since it leaves the critic with broad discretion to define what it means to "read" it and thus a great deal of flexibility in interpretation. It also allows the literary critic to extend his reach beyond mere literature. However, the choice of text is actually one of the less important decisions you will need to make, since points are awarded on the basis of style and wit rather than substance, although more challenging works are valued for their greater potential for exercising cleverness. Thus you want to pick your text with an eye to the opportunities it will give you to be clever and convoluted, rather than whether the text has anything important to say or there is anything important to say about it. Generally speaking, obscure works are better than well known ones, though an acceptable alternative is to choose a text from the popular mass media, such as a Madonna video or the latest Danielle Steele novel. The text can be of any length, from the complete works of Louis L'Amour to a single sentence. For example, let's deconstruct the phrase, "John F. Kennedy was not a homosexual."

Step 2 -- Decide what the text says. This can be whatever you want, although of course in the case of a text which actually consists of text it is easier if you pick something that it really does say. This is called "reading". I will read our example phrase as saying that John F. Kennedy was not a homosexual.

Step 3 -- Identify within the reading a distinction of some sort. This can be either something which is described or referred to by the text directly or it can be inferred from the presumed cultural context of a hypothetical reader. It is a convention of the genre to choose a duality, such as man/woman, good/evil, earth/sky, chocolate/vanilla, etc. In the case of our example, the obvious duality to pick is homosexual/heterosexual, though a really clever person might be able to find something else.

Step 4 -- Convert your chosen distinction into a "hierarchical opposition" by asserting that the text claims or presumes a particular primacy, superiority, privilege or importance to one side or the other of the distinction. Since it's pretty much arbitrary, you don't have to give a justification for this assertion unless you feel like it. Programmers and computer scientists may find the concept of a hierarchy consisting of only two elements to be a bit odd, but this appears to be an established tradition in literary criticism. Continuing our example, we can claim homophobia on the part of the society in which this sentence was uttered and therefor assert that it presumes superiority of heterosexuality over homosexuality.

Step 5 -- Derive another reading of the text, one in which it is interpreted as referring to itself. In particular, find a way to read it as a statement which contradicts or undermines either the original reading or the ordering of the hierarchical opposition (which amounts to the same thing). This is really the tricky part and is the key to the whole exercise. Pulling this off successfully may require a variety of techniques, though you get more style points for some techniques than for others. Fortunately, you have a wide range of intellectual tools at your disposal, which the rules allow you to use in literary criticism even though they would be frowned upon in engineering or the sciences. These include appeals to authority (you can even cite obscure authorities that nobody has heard of), reasoning from etymology, reasoning from puns, and a variety of word other games. You are allowed to use the word "problematic" as a noun. You are also allowed to pretend that the works of Freud present a correct model of human psychology and the works of Marx present a correct model of sociology and economics (it's not clear to me whether practitioners in the field actually believe Freud and Marx or if it's just a convention of the genre).

You get maximum style points for being French. Since most of us aren't French, we don't qualify for this one, but we can still score almost as much by writing in French or citing French sources. However, it is difficult for even the most intense and unprincipled American academician writing in French to match the zen obliqueness of a native French literary critic. Least credit is given for a clear, rational argument which makes its case directly, though of course that is what I will do with our example since, being gainfully employed, I don't have to worry about graduation or tenure. And besides, I'm actually trying to communicate here. Here is a possible argument to go with our example:

It is not generally claimed that John F. Kennedy was a homosexual. Since it is not an issue, why would anyone choose to explicitly declare that he was not a homosexual unless they wanted to make it an issue? Clearly, the reader is left with a question, a lingering doubt which had not previously been there. If the text had instead simply asked, "Was John F. Kennedy a homosexual?", the reader would simply answer, "No." and forget the matter. If it had simply declared, "John F. Kennedy was a homosexual.", it would have left the reader begging for further justification or argument to support the proposition. Phrasing it as a negative declaration, however, introduces the question in the reader's mind, exploiting society's homophobia to attack the reputation of the fallen President. What's more, the form makes it appear as if there is ongoing debate, further legitimizing the reader's entertainment of the question. Thus the text can be read as questioning the very assertion that it is making.

Of course, no real deconstruction would be like this. I only used a single paragraph and avoided literary jargon. All of the words will be found in a typical abridged dictionary and were used with their conventional meanings. I also wrote entirely in English and did not cite anyone. Thus in an English literature course I would probably get a D for this, but I already have my degree so I don't care.

Another minor point, by the way, is that we don't say that we deconstruct the text but that the text deconstructs itself. This way it looks less like we are making things up.

Posted by richard at 05:35 PM | Comments (1)

January 10, 2004

Terrorism Courts

An interesting argument at the Weekly Standard for a new terrorism court. Thomas Powers argues that neither the normal criminal courts nor military tribunals are the right place to try "enemy combatants" and other terror suspects. He says that, rather than wait for the Supreme Court to force the government to act, the Bush administration should proactively design a system that can protect national security and demonstrate our commitment to due process:

To deal with terrorism cases that could be handled under the ordinary criminal law (as were, for example, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the Oklahoma City federal building bombing, and the case of Zacarias Moussaoui), Congress should create a new specialized court. This terrorism court would incorporate special security measures, protect the secrecy of sensitive information and sources, and make provision in its evidentiary rules for the peculiar situations arising from operations on a battlefield or its equivalent. Terror suspects should know the charges against them, have access to attorneys (specially trained, with the proper security clearances), and enjoy a right of appeal. To ensure independence from executive branch influence, federal judges with lifetime appointments should fill the bench. A terrorism court would provide a framework for the emergence of a body of precedent and the development of a cadre of specially trained expert judges and lawyers. There is some precedent for a roughly similar arrangement in the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, created in 1978 and expanded under the Patriot Act. Experience in European countries (especially France, Germany, and Great Britain) in processing terrorism suspects in civilian courts also provides useful points of reference.

Thanks to Randy Barnett at Volokh.

Posted by richard at 03:54 PM | Comments (0)

January 09, 2004

Steven Levitt

Brad DeLong calls the award of the John Bates Clark medal to Steven Levitt "a well deserved prize". Levitt was featured in a NYT magazine article this summer (Aug. 3) and is considered somewhat of a wunderkind in the economics world, known for his ability to approach difficult problems from a new direction.

His topics included the effect of school choice on educational results; the causes and consequences of distinctively black names; the effect of legalised abortion on crime; how to test theories of discrimination using evidence from the television programme, "The Weakest Link"; the gap in test results between blacks and whites in the first two years of schooling; gambling and the National Football League; and teachers who cheat in appraisals of their students' performance. Among the work he has published in prestigious peer-reviewed journals are a series of papers on crime and punishment, drug-gang finance, penalty kicks in soccer, money and elections, drunken driving, and the effect of ideology as opposed to voter preferences on the policies supported by politicians. In 2002 the impeccably sober American Economic Review published a paper co-written by Mr Levitt on corruption and sumo wrestling.

He's a pretty fascinating guy, but his interdisciplinary forays and provocative choice of topics ensure that he's got his share of detractors.

Posted by richard at 12:43 AM | Comments (0)

January 08, 2004

Strange Bedfellows

This NYT op-ed is an example of the kind of strange bedfellows that Virginia Postrel predicted in The Future and Its Enemies. A liberal Democrat and a conservative, supply-sider, together, holding dynamists at bay with their (separate) visions of (different) static futures. But they know what they're against....

Michael Kinsley offers balanced and insightful comments in Slate. (From Volokh Conspiracy).

Posted by richard at 09:06 PM | Comments (0)

Too bad...

... Christmas is over. The Wife and my brother-in-law both need one of Talking these.

Posted by richard at 08:44 PM | Comments (0)

International "Jet set"

Mark Steyn attacks their flip-flop on intervention:

Up to the moment Saddam popped out of the spider-hole, the international jet set's line was that deplorable as Saddam's rule might be -- gassing Kurds, feeding folks feet-first into industrial shredders, etc. -- it was strictly an internal matter for the Iraqi people. The minute the old boy was in U.S. custody, the international jet set's revised position was that gassing Kurds, feeding folks into industrial shredders and so forth were crimes against the whole world and certainly not a matter for the Iraqi people. Instead, we need a (drumroll, please) United Nations-mandated international tribunal.

Posted by richard at 06:24 PM | Comments (0)

Self Defense

They have different ideas about it over in the UK. The BBC Radio 4 ran a poll where listeners could select a bill that they would like passed by Parliament. They billed it as a "unique chance to rewrite the law of the land". A member of Parliament, Stephen Pound, promised to present whichever bill was chosen and attempt to get it passed. According to The Independent, neither the BBC nor Mr. Pound were happy with the proposal that won: that homeowners should be allowed "to use any means to defend their home from intruders".

Pound described it as a "ludicrous, brutal, unworkable blood-stained piece of legislation", remarking that "the People have spoken, ... the bastards." He says, unenthusiastically, that he will still offer the bill as promised.

Seems popular opinion has rallied a bit around the right of self defense since Tony Martin was sentence to 5 years in prison for killing a burgler in his home. (From Hit & Run).

Posted by richard at 01:39 PM | Comments (0)

January 06, 2004

Media concentration

I've commented before on the FCC's move to deregulate media ownership, but that was before I had a blog on which to vent. I came down (fairly) solidly on the free-market side of the debate that raged on an e-mail list.

Now, Reason has a new article debunking the myth of media concentration: Domination Fantasies: Does Rupert Murdoch control the media? Does anyone?

According to Ben Compaine, the media industry compares favorably in competitiveness to the US auto, semiconductor and pharmaceutical industries. Another tidbit: the total number of stations owned by Clear Channel (1,200) is less than half the number of new stations started in the last 20 years (2,500 of a total of 10,500).

Overall, worth a read.

For those that I didn't spam with my thoughts before, click the link to read my e-mail from September, happily removed from the troublesome responses and salient points of those I was debating....

Well, after much hesitation about joining the fray, here's my 2 cents.

While it may shock my wife to hear it, I agree with almost 100% of Alex's analysis, even though I'm sure our policy conclusions are pretty different. I wouldn't have said that capitalism and democracy are "contrary" -- I would have said "orthogonal", but that may be because I'm a computer geek. I actually think that they have a lot in common, since they both harness self-interest, decentralized decision-making, individual preference, and diffuse, tacit knowledge to create outcomes that are better than any one person (or elite group) could come up with. In my mind, they work for the same reasons. Yes, they butt heads in certain areas (like campaign finance, media, etc.) but, to paraphrase and extend Churchill, they are the worst combined economic/political system, except for all the rest.

But beyond that, contrary to Alex, no one worth listening to on the pro-capitalism, pro-business, pro-free-market side of the debate is actually arguing for full-on laissez-faire capitalism. That's a straw man argument from 125 years ago that's easy to beat up on but not really close to anyone's actual position. Similarly, very few on the pro-labor, pro-egalitarian, pro-welfare side of the debate are arguing that full-on central planning is a better idea than some form of market economy any more. Both extremes died in the laboratory of the 20th century -- or should have.

The question is, pragmatically, how do you strike the right balance to achieve your goals (and, of course, what are your goals)? Is it the income gap or absolute standards of living or the poorest, or the average standard of living that should matter? How much inequality is okay? How do you harness the engine of capitalism without losing control to the corporations? How do you provide a meaningful social safety net without "moral hazard" becoming a valid concern? These are all tough problems that reasonable people can disagree on.

I tend to come down on the libertarian, free-market side of the line for a few reasons. Skipping over the philosophical ones, the most important for this discussion is that the world is a dynamic place. All of the things that make 2003 a more pleasant (and healthier) time to live than 1903 or 1803 are here because of innovation, growth, progress, invention -- in short, change. And there's one thing that markets (and other decentralized, networked systems) are good at -- handling change. Central governments, on the other hand, tend to be pretty bad. Whether it's Soviet Gosplan trying to shuffle steel prices to take into account a coal shortage, or the US Patent Office trying to deal with gene sequence patent applications, or copyright law trying to deal with digital media, or the FAA with space flight, or Congress with Internet porn, or.... they tend to muck it up. At best they simply slow everything down, at worst they stymie innovation and force everyone down blind alleys. It gets even worse because companies with entrenched interests in existing regulations fight tooth and nail to keep them the way they are, clinging to the monopoly or competitive advantage the current rules give them. So I generally look sceptically at government regulations.

Now, all that being said, the FCC rule change is an interesting case.

First, rather than a market in tangible property, we have a market created from whole cloth in the licensing provisions of the Radio Act of 1927 and the Communications Act of 1934 that superceded it. Since you don't have real property rights, but rather renewable licenses in radio spectrum -- you can't just sit back and "let the market work". The government created the scarcity by limiting the number of stations in a geographic area and so needs to regulate the ensuing market. The same law that made the license in the first place, empowered the commission to protect the "public interest, convenience, and necessity." This is not the case in other markets with more Lockean property rights.

Second, I don't think the ownership rule changes are that easy to judge. To my point above about technological change, the current rules are either already out of date, or will be soon. Take the 1975 rule prohibiting "cross-ownership" of newspapers and radio or TV in the same market, for instance. Is this rule actually good for us now? With cable television, satellite TV, and the Internet, newspapers aren't the only place to advertise locally, and many are having a hard time surviving. Some major cities (including the 4th largest) have only one major paper. It's plausible that allowing cross-ownership will increase the number of papers available, which might be a good thing even if they are affiliated with a TV station. Also, the editorial departments of the newspapers could improve the quality of local news coverage on TV. I don't know if this will happen, but it seems possible. Plus, I can still use news.google.com and read any online paper in the world. With satellite TV and cable, why can Discovery, Inc. own 4 channels that I recieve, but a company can't own 2 broadcast channels in the same market? With streaming Internet radio, low-power radio, and XM satellite radio, how much longer is the artificial scarcity of radio broadcast licenses going to be relevant? Is 8 radio stations in a market really that much worse than six? Will it be in 5 years?

Third, in my mind if you really care about this stuff, you should care about the low-power radio rules, and make sure you support ("politically appointed") Powell there. Chairman Powell recently modified the rules to open up thousands of cheap licenses for low-power community radio stations -- a potentially major shift in how music and content is delivered. Maybe he "bought" these changes by caving on the ownership rules -- I don't know. Maybe that wouldn't be a good deal for us, the consumer -- again, I don't know. Regardless, Congress already tried to close this door once before with the Radio Broadcast Preservation Act of 2000, which put many roadblocks in the path of those trying to get the low-power licenses. It's likely that they'll try again -- so make sure any bill that you support to rollback the ownership rule changes doesn't also squash the new low-power rules. More choice is good for everyone.

So where do I come down on this one? I'm actually pretty conflicted. I don't want to see Clear Channel own 100 more stations any more that anyone else does. I'm not convinced that the rules are that great the way they are now, but I don't see a pressing need to change them either. Both the old rules and the new rules will have problems handling the future. I think the government's role as anti-trust watchdog is an incredibly important "check and balance" on the power of the private sphere, but I think our problems in the media space are much larger than just these rules over distribution. Technology will find a way to obsolete and replace the current means of distribution, so the rules governing the distribution aren't that important in the long run.

The larger issue, which no one in Washington wants to touch, is the control of the content. The six media companies that own all the content scare me much more than the distributors. And when they're the same company, it's their content that gives them their power. Increasingly strong copyright laws, protecting content in practical perpetuity, limiting the usefulness of our hardware and software, all bought by the lobbying of the big six -- that is the real danger.

So, yeah, maybe, oppose the rule change. But fight to repeal the DMCA, block the next Copyright Term Extension Act, stop the encroachment on fair use rights, donate to the EFF, etc., etc.

Posted by richard at 07:40 PM | Comments (2)

If I had a dime...

Phutatorius tells it like it is:

Diary of TiVo Angst, Entry #451: The DVR is ten minutes from erasing your week-old — but still unwatched — episode of 24, but your Wife is watching a recorded episode of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and she won't surrender the remote. What do you do, Jack Bauer? tick-tock, tick-tock . . .

Posted by richard at 05:02 PM | Comments (0)

Back to Work

Thanks to Phutatorius for reminding me that vacation is over and it's time to blog again.... I suppose that applies to my real job as well.

Posted by richard at 02:42 PM | Comments (0)

"Sacred" Marriage

Andrew Sullivan has a point about the sanctity of marriage:

We live a world in which Britney Spears just engaged in something "sacred" (in the president's words), where instant and joke hetero marriages and divorces are a subject of titillation, and where a decades-long monogamous lesbian marriage is a threat to civilization as we know it. Please.

I understand why he's infuriated, which is why I voted in this poll by the AFA. I voted for civil unions rather than straight-up marriage for gays mostly because I think that government should pretty much get out of the marriage business completely and leave it to religions. Right now, much to the AFA's chagrin I'm sure, the poll is running 60% for legalization of marriage, 33% against, and 8% for civil unions with the full benefits.

Posted by richard at 01:16 PM | Comments (3)

Soldier's Funeral

This chokes me up and made me proud to be a Texan: SOLDIER'S FUNERAL TEXAS STYLE. (Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for the pointer).

Posted by richard at 01:06 PM | Comments (1)

Crichton on "Consensus Science"

Michael Crichton has another interesting speech on the role of science in public policy: Aliens Cause Global Warming. While he ratchets up the rhetoric pretty high, he has a point about how science gets used in political debates, particularly the relatively frequent use of "consensus" when instead science should be silent on the issue. The way Bjorn Lomborg was treated was pretty outrageous — when political correctness muzzles scientific research, we have a problem.

To head off a critique from the Wife: yes, I think Crichton does put too much stock in the ideal of "disinterested" science. Science is a social institution, one of many, and while I, on pragmatic and instrumentalist grounds, accept it as one worth protecting and perfecting, it's worth remembering that there was no golden age of disinterested science. It has always been and will always be used to further agendas, some of them dispicable.

That being said, it is worth striving for the unobtainable ideal of pure science and condemning "consensus science" is one way to do that.

Update: here's another speech where he labels "environmenatlism" the new religion. Again, over the top, but some more interesting points.

Posted by richard at 12:58 PM | Comments (1)

Do your part

I just donated 220 frisbees for Iraqi children. Whether you were for the war or against, do your part to help the reconstruction here: Spirit of America

Posted by richard at 12:37 PM | Comments (0)