Thursday, May 31, 2007

Krugman on Neo-Classical Economics

I haven't gotten into the huge debate over neo-classical economics prompted by Christopher Hayes' excellent examination of the punishing of "heresy" among neo-classicists. There's a great discussion of it going on over at TPM Cafe, though, and I'd particularly like to point out a post by your friend and mine, Paul Krugman:

I don't have time to weigh in on all the issues here, but I'd like to warn against an error I think both sides tend to fall into: assuming that you have to use heterodox economics to reach conclusions critical of free markets. As I said, both sides tend to fall into that error: the heterodoxishly-minded bash neoclassical economics because they claim that it automatically makes you a defender of capitalism red in tooth and claw, and the free-marketeers reject warnings about markets gone wrong as somehow necessarily reflecting ignorance of economic theory. It just ain't so.

Let me give two cases in point. One is the California electricity crisis of 2000-2001. Those of us who saw it as a crisis produced by market manipulation did so on the basis of pretty standard economics, maximization, equilibrium, and all. I know a lot of people ridiculed the market manipulation story, eventually confirmed by the Enron tapes, with statements that began "Economics 101 says ..." - but that just showed that they didn't know much about economics, and were confusing a set of analytical tools with an ideological mindset those tools often don't support.

The other is the effects of trade on income distribution. Anyone who thinks that neoclassical economics says that everyone gains from free trade, and that you have to reject the assumptions of the field to raise concerns, obviously doesn't know anything about the subject: ever since Stolper-Samuelson 1941 we've known that trade can easily hurt large numbers of people, so the question is always an empirical one. A dozen years ago I thought the effects were small, but that was based on the numbers, not a judgement in principle. Now I've revised my views up, because the numbers are bigger.

My point isn't that neoclassical theory can do anything. But it's perfectly possible to believe in extensive market failure, demand a lot more government intervention in the economy, while still believing that maximization-plus-equilibrium is a nifty way to think about lots of problems.
This is giving me flashbacks to the old Krugman, who was such a great defender of neo-classical trade theory against critics of all kinds, from both the left and right. I didn't always agree with him, nor do I think that all of his theories were ultimately proven, but they were well written and interesting.

Here, he's doing the same thing he was back then- pointing out that a lot of Economics' defenders don't, er, actually know that much about economics. They may be well versed in aspects of it, but a lot of the defenders are so dedicated to narrow, technical, mathematical theories that they tend to ignore the fuzzy edges of the field, where most of the really interesting stuff takes place. Many an honest economist, from my experience, is not a reflexive market worshipper. Many market worshippers aren't really honest economists either.

Then again, I think an honest economist has nothing to do with worshipping markets or not. They're someone that admits that, at the end of the day "maximization-plus-equilibrium is a nifty way to think about lots of problems." No more, and no less.

The Litvinenko Story Just Got Stranger

I'm sure that you remember Alexander Litvinenko- he was the ex-KGB spy who was poisoned to death using polonium-210. He signed a statement on his deathbed that it was the work of Putin and his ex-KGB cronies.

Well, one of said cronies has stepped up.

He's blaming Britain.

Andrei Lugovoi, the Russian accused by the UK of murdering Alexander Litvinenko has claimed he has evidence that British intelligence was involved in the poisoning of the former KGB officer.

Mr Lugovoi said he believed the UK intelligence services or Boris Berezovsky, the exiled Russian tycoon, were more likely suspects in Litvinenko's death last November than he was.

In a dramatic 90-minute press conference in Moscow, Mr Lugovoi alleged that both Litvinenko and Mr Berezovsky worked for UK intelligence. He also said that British agents had tried to recruit him to collect compromising material on Russian president Vladimir Putin...

...He said he was being made a "scapegoat" for the murder by the UK, and that traces of polonium found in various locations visited by him and Mr Kovtun had been put there to incriminate them.

Mr Lugovoi is himself a former KGB officer who now runs security and consumer goods businesses in Russia. He alleged Litvinenko had told him he was working for MI6, but said he believed the exiled Russian may have fallen out with his handlers.

"I cannot escape the thought that Litvinenko was an agent who had got out of control and they got rid of him," he said. Asked if he had evidence of British intelligence involvement, Mr Lugovoi responded "I have," but refused to elaborate.
I personally find it a little unlikely that both Litvinenko and Berezovsky were British intelligence assets. It's not totally out of the realm of possibility, though. MI6 were (and likely still are) masters at "Humint", and there's really no more desireable source than one within the other guy's intelligence agency. I'm sure that if they could have gotten Litvinenko to turn during the cold war, they would have.

But I still find this story unlikely. It's too convenient, especially with the inclusion of Berezovsky as another supposed plant. The manner of poisoning is also more consistent with the Russians than the Brits, who could probably be counted on to find something a little more, well, subtle.

What's more intriguing is that this guy may be lying on behalf of his superiors, instead of just for himself. If he was told to say it was the UK, then that's a huge, huge indicator of exactly how bad things have gotten between the West and Russia. The accusation would set Anglo-Russian relations back a good deal, as the UK (justifiably) gets miffed that Putin is trying to foist blame back on them.

As they say, "more as it develops."

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

"Besides, we already have the president we deserve. Most of us do, anyway."

The Republic of T on a Washington Post review (behind a subscription wall, unfortunately) of Al Gore's new book, The Age of Reason. The Post's response? "Ooh, he thinks he's so smart! Well screw you, smarty man!"

No, seriously. Not in so many words, but that's pretty much the gist of it, from what I gathered from Terrence's post. Which is bloody magisterial, so I won't try to reproduce his effort and instead just point you to it.

(It's got videos and everything.)

Oh, Cripes, Zoellick is the new World Bank head?

Not that he's as bad as Wolfowitz on the foreign policy front, but Robert Zoellick has never met a multilateral trading regime he didn't want to rip apart in order to keep the US at the center of his beloved hub 'n spokes arrangement. The World Bank hardly needs this guy leading it.

On the other hand, at least he won't be screwing up WTO negotiations by insisting on try to trade ludicrously extensive copyright and patent recognition in exchange for dubious access by agricultural exporters. And honestly, it's not like Bush is going to be nominating a progressive. He's probably the best choice consistent with Bush. I just wish that wasn't such a damning prospect.

Edit: What's with Kos trying to make this an Iraq thing? Appointing Zoellick ain't about Iraq. It's about Republican trade policy, which is not as immediately destructive but with even wider-ranging negative repercussions.

Monday, May 28, 2007

American Spy Rings Broken Up?

I thought I'd bring a comment to the fore from the earlier bit I did on the Bush administration's supposed plan to use intelligence operatives to destabilize Iran. Nolocontendre pointed to this AP piece in the IHT that has Iran announcing that they've broken up several American spy rings.

Iran said Saturday it has uncovered spy rings organized by the United States and its Western allies, claiming on state-run television that the espionage networks were made up of "infiltrating elements from the Iraqi occupiers."

The Intelligence Ministry has "succeeded in identifying and striking blows at several spy networks comprised of infiltrating elements from the Iraqi occupiers in western, southwestern and central Iran," said the statement, using shorthand for United States and its allies.

The broadcast did not elaborate on how the alleged networks were uncovered, but said further details would be published within days.

Meanwhile, state IRNA news agency said the networks "enjoyed guidance from intelligence services of the occupying powers in Iraq" and also that "Iraqi groups" were "involved in the case."
Well, there's three things to consider here.

First, whether the Iranians are telling the truth. I can understand why they'd trumpet this sort of thing, but it could just as easily be a ruse. Publicizing this information can be a very bad move, because it might give away Iran's counterintelligence methods and sources, and that would be cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Second, what these guys were in Iran for. There's two roles to the CIA, as well as many other "intelligence" agencies. The first is, of course, intelligence- getting information. That's not what the Bush administration was supposedly authorizing, though. What they were authorizing were covert operations, the other kind of spook work, where the CIA stops watching and starts acting. It's generally the latter that is more controversial: because it's far more dangerous, because it's far more likely to piss off the target, and because it's where all those really nasty perceptions of Company agents come from. That's why the question of what these guys were up to is really important; it would be bigger news if the U.S. weren't spying on Iran, but the announcement was about covert ops, a different story entirely.

(The story suggests they were covert ops, but the Iranians would claim that anyway, because there's more propaganda value in it.)

The last thing we don't know is if there's any connection to the leak. I personally find it unlikely. Either the Iranians knew damned well who the spies were, or didn't. There's no way that this would have stepped things up, because there's no way Iran didn't already think it was a target for covert operations. Never mind Hersh's exposes; Iran has spent decades as a target for American intelligence, why on earth would they have ever thought they weren't a target?

It's unbelieveably unlikely that the presidential directive had anything at all to do with these guys being in Iran in the first place, too. Ingratiating yourself takes time, and there's no way enough time has elapsed for any plan to be put into action.

My guess is that the Iranians knew exactly who these guys were, they were probably intelligence assets rather than ops assets, and that they were likely to get arrested anyway but the Iranians are trumpeting it to counter the leak.

Assuming, of course, that any of this is true.

I Absolutely Love This Idea

Taking back the web from misogynists is one thing. A worthy goal, to be sure, and necessary.

But can it compare to the incredible importance of taking it back from the zombies?

I think not.

So on (correction!)Jun 13th, a bunch of bloggers are apparently going to be writing about the coming Zombie Uprising.

And, maybe, you should too.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

A Rare Personal Story!

I liked this bit from Majikthise, so I've decided to open the window, if only a little bit.

Look grateful.

First, the quote:

DJA is a classic cocktail fanatic. He collects vintage barware. He can skin a lemon with an icepick. He wants to ban vodka.
Man after my own heart.

Anyway, story. A few weeks ago, I was out with a friend at a bar he favors. We're both drinking beer, and he decides to switch over to cocktails. Great, nothing like 'em. But when he looks at the martini menu, I get peeved, because I realize that real martinis aren't even listed. Vodka, Vodka, vodka. I ask the waitress about this, and she says "oh, well, we get no call for them. I've been here for close to a year, and I've served maybe, um, five?"

So, yeah, I get off on a bit of a rant.

People, that is unacceptable. Those chocolate appletinis or whatever the hell you're drinking? That isn't a martini! Why? Because something called a "martini" should at least include Gin and/or Vermouth! Just because it's served in a martini glass does not make the damned thing a martini.

Do you pour red wine into a flute and call it champagne? No? Same thing!

(Maybe if it was anything else but Vodka. Vodka is just pure alcohol. It's got about as much character as a Tomb Raider movie. It's a way of making water and cheap flavoring alcoholic.)

Anyway, my regards to DJA, and everybody who gets a weird look when they order a martini, full stop, and gets a puzzled look in return.

Intimidation tactic?

To add to the entry from yesterday about the whole CIA-in-Iran thing, Kevin Drum seems to be convinced that it's an attempt to intimidate the Iranians.

I do think that's possible, but I think it's less likely than the idea that the Bush administration was quite serious about this "black ops", which subsequently got shut down by the CIA through the strategic leak. Not only are these black ops deals more in keeping with how this crew works, but I don't see the point of trying to intimidate this way. From a foreign policy point of view, all you're going to do is make the Iranians twitchier and make them adhere even more closely to their government, because the CIA--an organization about as popular as Bubonic Plague in the third world--is after them.

Drum implies that it might also be a way of keeping conservatives restive at home. Sure, it's also possible. Why does Bush even need to bother, though? He faces no elections, and the Republicans in Congress aren't going to get enough votes from this sort of thing to benefit them. It might help Bush's successor, but if that guy wants to stand a chance, he'll need to run as far from Bush as possible, so it won't help him, either.

Maybe it's Rove trying to implement some master plan. Good luck with that.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Great Bit on Sampling by Sifu Tweety

It can be summarized as Mashups rock, and the legal barriers they face suck, but with the added insight that Sifu Makes Mashups! Quelle horreur, je dit! Quelle horreur!

Jon Swift Just Won The Internet

I honestly can't think of a better argument on the whole "teen porn" thing.

There should be a little ceremony or something.

I actually felt a little bad about the posting I did on the issue, as proud as I am of my nifty little Overton Series, because I implied that the whole teen porn thing was just a stalking horse for anti-porn crusading in general. I thought, maybe, that that was unfair.

Then I saw Lance Mannion get called "odious", "non-liberal", and "less than human" by Ann Barlow for even thinking about looking at the stuff.

Of course, Ann Barlow wrote in to clarify that she's calling the porn industry's practices odious, rather than the people. Unfortunately, that still leaves "non-liberal" and "less than human". Sorry, but "less than human" is worse than both illiberal and odious by a long shot. That's what you call people you want your soldiers to kill. It also doesn't address the problem of Garance Franke-Ruta backhandedly calling Mannion a pedophile.

(That's what you call people you want prisoners to kill.)

Somehow, I don't feel bad anymore.

Oh, and as for the industry practices? Dan Savage actually did a pretty good job of addressing this issue last month. In a response to a letter-writer uncomfortable with their roommate's penchant for BDSM porn, he noted in an interview with at least one small BDSM producing outlet that they're pretty careful about issues like informed consent. They have to be; they live on the bleeding edge of legality to begin with. While that doesn't address the whole "effect on perception of women" issue with erotica, it does suggest that it's at least possible for its producers to be ethical and self-policing.

(Unless Savage was being sold a bill of goods. Which is possible. I doubt it, though, because the blowback would be vicious.)

I'm Sure This Will End Well

ABC's Blotter reports that "The CIA has received secret presidential approval to mount a covert 'black' operation to destabilize the Iranian government".

Wow. This is an excellent idea. It draws on a legacy of success of American black ops in the Middle East that is the envy of the world, and the resources of a Central Intelligence Agency whose skill and judgement has never been more respected than they are nowadays. Just look at Iraq.

What the hell? Never mind Bush, he thinks history is what's going to save his legacy, not something he needs to learn from. Where the hell is everybody else on this to remind him that screwing with Iran directly has been an absolute disaster every time they've tried it? I mean, yes, it's supposed to be "nonlethal" (riight), but the results of any attempt at "destabilization" is almost certainly going to end up lethal to somebody.

In any case, this is probably a dead issue. Black ops can only conceivably work when they're kept in complete secrecy. Iran is going to go absolutely nuts over this, and will almost certainly take steps to ensure that "destabilization" is unlikely at best. The entire country will know that the CIA intends to plunge Iran into chaos, ensuring that the current regime has more power and more stability than it did before, so the only way the CIA can avoid making things worse is by making damned sure that Iran knows that they're doing nothing of the kind. Channels are probably already buzzing.

Unless, of course, the CIA is delusional enough to believe that black ops, openly engaged in, would actually work. But that's highly unlikely.


Props to A Tiny Revolution for the link.

Edit: Hmm... I have to revise slightly. Actually, this sort of tactic could work, but not in this case. If you wanted to provoke repression of dissent in order to make the regime look bad, this might be a way to do it. It'd be a very, very nicely Machiavellian trick to use against a democratic regime that you want to behave undemocratically through its paranoia. You'd even want it to get out through a neutral source like ABC, so as to make it more of a gray op than a black op.

Unfortunately, it'd be useless in Iran. The repression already exists. All this provides is justification.

Edit #2: Ah. I finally figured it out. The CIA itself almost certainly leaked this so that it would get killed. Someone at the CIA probably said "this is utterly mad, there's no way we can pull this off with the kind of resources we actually have in the country" and got the go-ahead to tip off the Blotter on deep background. Even if the public doesn't pay attention, Iranian intelligence would be on this immediately.

I can't believe I didn't see this immediately.

So, Did the Dems Roll Over?

From one perspective, the Democrats' decision to approve a war spending bill without a timetable certainly appears so. You can tell the Dems are divided over it, and I imagine that this isn't so much political as personal. I really doubt Pelosi is playing sillybuggers on this.

That said, I do think they were up against a wall. They didn't want to be portrayed as obstinate to the point that the troops don't get needed supplies, they don't have a veto-proof majority, and they're up against a president who is clearly totally unconcerned by the 2008 election and, thus, isn't going to bend for political purposes.

(I'd said back in 2004 that this would be a problem. Now we're seeing it really hit home, now that he doesn't have Republicans running the show to roll over for him.)

It's frustrating, but I think it has more to do with term limits (which create politicians with nothing to lose, a dangerous combination) and the unfortunate reality that impeaching the man's sorry butt is impossible than any real Democratic weakness.

Edit: Again, people are missing the point that political tactics won't work on an administration with nothing to lose politically. If he's guaranteed to stay until '08, and doesn't give a crap about Republicans' chances in '08 either, then he has no reason to bend.

It's like playing chicken when the other guy is controlling the car by remote control- you can't win, because he's got nothing to lose.

The only solution is to threaten impeachment. But, well, that door's closed, isn't it?

Give me a Sec, Need to Remove This Log in My Eye

I probably shouldn't have ragged on people so much for ignoring major interational issues... considering I had been ignoring this one.

So, what's going on? Well, Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps are the site of pitched fighting between Lebanese forces and Fatah al-Islam, a radical Islamic splinter group that split off from the dominant Palestinian Fatah faction. There may be a Syrian connection, as the group is also a splinter from the Syrian-backed Fatah al-Intifada group. It's not a certain thing, though; they may have really split, or Syria may have engineered the "splinter" for plausible deniability of responsibility for the conflict. They are not al-Qaeda but are friendly to its aims, and are largely Lebanese with people from other nationalities mixed in. They supposedly also have about 150-200 members, though their numbers have probably increased.

Either way, on Sunday they began fighting with Lebanese authorities after a police raid on an apartment in Tripoli. The fighting left at least 41 dead; worse, though, is that multiple bombs have exploded in Beirut, suggesting the conflict may be spreading, and the conflict has left the 40,000 Palestinians in the Nahr al Bared camp without water, electricity, or enough food for the last three days. Aid was slow in coming, due to the danger; even after aid groups arrived, though, the convoy came under mortar fire- and anybody trying to get out of the camp by car was subject to sniper fire. Thousands are still leaving, however.

As for where this is headed...

The conflict has tugged at Lebanon's fragile social fabric, inflaming already difficult relations between the Lebanese and the Palestinians.

Many Lebanese see the Palestinians as a growing blight on their country and blame them for harboring groups like Fatah al-Islam. Some residents of Tripoli openly called for the army to destroy the camp altogether, insisting that the Palestinians be forced to move away.

Palestinians, who already feel discriminated against, say the shelling and machine-gun fire appear to have been aimed at them, not just at the militants.

On Tuesday, demonstrators at other refugee camps - including Lebanon's largest, Ain el Hilwe, and the Rashidiye camp - burned tires and chanted against the fighting, insisting, "We will not let our Palestinian brothers be slaughtered," The Associated Press reported.

Sultan Abu Aynayn, the leader of the Palestinian Fatah movement in Lebanon, speaking to reporters after a meeting with Siniora, warned, "If the random shelling does not stop, there will be uprisings in all the camps in Lebanon."
It sounds like both the Lebanese and the Palestinians want this to end. The question, though, is whether they'll hold this unity as the conflict continues.

The other question? What's Hezbollah going to do?

(Portions of this drew on CFR's Fatah al-Islam backgrounder.)

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Like Copyright ain't Bad Enough...

Now we've got guys like Mark Helprin saying that a state-imposed monopoly should be FOREVER, because of the backflips peple can do to call infinitely-reproduceable arrangements of bits and letters property.

Er, no. The reason why physical property can exist in perpetuity is precisely because it's physical. There's a thing, and people naturally wonder who owns said thing. "Intellectual property" is nothing of the sort. What it is, and all it is, is the government saying "only this guy over here has the right to copy something".

And that should last forever?

Gimme a break.

Lawrence Lessig rips him up here, and John Scalzi responds thusly:

What would happen, almost inevitably, is that copyrights of any value (positively, negatively or ideologically) would be secured by a few large private repositories, who would jealously police any new content they believed infringed on their copyright portfolio. One suspects that most of these repositories would also be publishers themselves, who would publish on terms advantageous to them (i.e., works for hire and/or assignation of copyright to the publisher after the death of the author). If you don't think it would happen, look at the actions of media companies today and the content protection groups they fund.
This isn't even what "would" happen. This is what "does" happen, at least in the arena of science research; a lot of people in the scientific community decry the fact that a lot of research is locked up by a few companies that own many (most?) of the most respected journals, propelling the move towards open research that we've been seeing lately.

I think an even better argument would be to ask what would happen if, say, patents were perpetual. Would that make for better science and technology? No? Then why on earth should copyrights be any different?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Just in Case it Comes Up: Al Didn't Say He Invented the Internet

As James Boyce helpfully reminds us.

Here's the truth.

In March 1999, Vice President Al Gore was doing an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer. In the course of that interview, he said:

"During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet."
And guess what? It's true.

Let's quote Vincent Cerf, a man often called The Father of the Internet,

"The Internet would not be where it is in the United States without the strong support given to it and related research areas by the Vice President in his current role and in his earlier role as Senator."
Marc Andreesen, Internet pioneer who actually received federal funding thanks to Al Gore, who while Senator wrote the High Performance Computing Act also credits Gore. Another Internet expert, Dave Ferber says that without Gore the Internet "would not be where it is today."

Multiple early web pioneers say that Gore was the first political leader to grasp and understand the Internet and its possibilities. They all say it was his vision and yes, initiative, that helped turn the Internet into what it is today.

Al Gore took an essentially internal government program and set it free to the marketplace.
I'll drill it down to a simple talking point. "He was the one who pushed for its early funding, and helped with its legal development in Congress."


If they keep on trying to pull out the bullshit, just say "no, he didn't say that. He gave it money. He pushed the government to invest in it. Do investors help in the creation of a product? Yes? Then he helped with the creation of the Internet. Now shut the hell up."

Looking forward to the book, by the way.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Wolfowitz is out

At the end, he did in fact resign, instead of being ignominiously shoved out the door. Here's hoping that the corrupt little man doesn't darken the door of another significant institution; his stamp on the White House will take a long time to clean off, and the World Bank was a troubled enough institution to begin with without ol' Pauly.

Unfortunately, his successor will be chosen by Bush, although I can imagine that if he's unacceptable to other World Bank members it'll be rough at best for Bush to push through another ideologue. He doesn't have much play in the Senate these days- international institutions are a non-starter.

(Hey, there's a thought. Remember when every second neoconservative was taking shots at the U.N.? Funny how that isn't anywhere near so prevalent these days, huh?)

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Helllooo, New Homepage

Gotta give whatzisname credit: this thing is awesome.

It's a news agglomeration tool, but it kind of beggars description. You really need to see it for yourself. Either it'll horrify you, or delight you. I lean in the latter direction, but I'm odd that way.

BTW, SotH appears to be a little over 5 years old. Surprised it made it this long- probably because of those long breaks, where I wasn't going whole hog. Some were desired, some were unavoidable, but all probably have a lot to do with why I ain't Duncan.

Then again, I'm not sure, at the end of the day, that I ever really wanted to be.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Al Has a New Book!

Here's an excerpt.

American democracy is now in danger—not from any one set of ideas, but from unprecedented changes in the environment within which ideas either live and spread, or wither and die. I do not mean the physical environment; I mean what is called the public sphere, or the marketplace of ideas.

It is simply no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse. I know I am not alone in feeling that something has gone fundamentally wrong. In 2001, I had hoped it was an aberration when polls showed that three-quarters of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for attacking us on Sept. 11. More than five years later, however, nearly half of the American public still believes Saddam was connected to the attack.

At first I thought the exhaustive, nonstop coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial was just an unfortunate excess—an unwelcome departure from the normal good sense and judgment of our television news media. Now we know that it was merely an early example of a new pattern of serial obsessions that periodically take over the airwaves for weeks at a time: the Michael Jackson trial and the Robert Blake trial, the Laci Peterson tragedy and the Chandra Levy tragedy, Britney and KFed, Lindsay and Paris and Nicole.

While American television watchers were collectively devoting 100 million hours of their lives each week to these and other similar stories, our nation was in the process of more quietly making what future historians will certainly describe as a series of catastrophically mistaken decisions on issues of war and peace, the global climate and human survival, freedom and barbarity, justice and fairness. For example, hardly anyone now disagrees that the choice to invade Iraq was a grievous mistake. Yet, incredibly, all of the evidence and arguments necessary to have made the right decision were available at the time and in hindsight are glaringly obvious.

Those of us who have served in the U.S. Senate and watched it change over time could volunteer a response to Senator Byrd's incisive description of the Senate prior to the invasion: The chamber was empty because the Senators were somewhere else. Many of them were at fund-raising events they now feel compelled to attend almost constantly in order to collect money—much of it from special interests—to buy 30-second TV commercials for their next re-election campaign. The Senate was silent because Senators don't feel that what they say on the floor of the Senate really matters that much anymore—not to the other Senators, who are almost never present when their colleagues speak, and certainly not to the voters, because the news media seldom report on Senate speeches anymore.

Our Founders' faith in the viability of representative democracy rested on their trust in the wisdom of a well-informed citizenry, their ingenious design for checks and balances, and their belief that the rule of reason is the natural sovereign of a free people. The Founders took great care to protect the openness of the marketplace of ideas so that knowledge could flow freely. Thus they not only protected freedom of assembly, they made a special point—in the First Amendment—of protecting the freedom of the printing press. And yet today, almost 45 years have passed since the majority of Americans received their news and information from the printed word. Newspapers are hemorrhaging readers. Reading itself is in decline. The Republic of Letters has been invaded and occupied by the empire of television.

Radio, the Internet, movies, cell phones, iPods, computers, instant messaging, video games and personal digital assistants all now vie for our attention—but it is television that still dominates the flow of information. According to an authoritative global study, Americans now watch television an average of 4 hours and 35 minutes every day—90 minutes more than the world average. When you assume eight hours of work a day, six to eight hours of sleep and a couple of hours to bathe, dress, eat and commute, that is almost three-quarters of all the discretionary time the average American has.

In the world of television, the massive flows of information are largely in only one direction, which makes it virtually impossible for individuals to take part in what passes for a national conversation. Individuals receive, but they cannot send. They hear, but they do not speak. The "well-informed citizenry" is in danger of becoming the "well-amused audience." Moreover, the high capital investment required for the ownership and operation of a television station and the centralized nature of broadcast, cable and satellite networks have led to the increasing concentration of ownership by an ever smaller number of larger corporations that now effectively control the majority of television programming in America.

In practice, what television's dominance has come to mean is that the inherent value of political propositions put forward by candidates is now largely irrelevant compared with the image-based ad campaigns they use to shape the perceptions of voters. The high cost of these commercials has radically increased the role of money in politics—and the influence of those who contribute it. That is why campaign finance reform, however well drafted, often misses the main point: so long as the dominant means of engaging in political dialogue is through purchasing expensive television advertising, money will continue in one way or another to dominate American politics. And as a result, ideas will continue to play a diminished role. That is also why the House and Senate campaign committees in both parties now search for candidates who are multimillionaires and can buy the ads with their own personal resources.
Yeah, that's a pretty massive quotation. It's a book, there's lots where that came from. There's also a reason I did it.

I'm not really sympathetic to "OH EM GEE television"; to be blunt, that's a complaint that might have suited the boomers, but has little relevance in this age of declining television viewership and exploding internet usage. The rest, though, speaks to a single, basic problem: that image trumps substance far too often in modern politics, and that the decline of long-form debate in favor of the "snappy" in whichever medium you care to name is a big problem. This medium itself is, unfortunately, a good example; most of those incessant "blogging tips" articles feature advice to keep it short, pithy, and disposable, rather than trying to write something longer and more meaningful. Most of the really good blog entries I've ever read, and most of the entries on Shadow of the Hegemon that I've been particularly proud of, have been relatively lengthy ones that would serve as a fair-sized opinion column, if not an essay.

Way back when I was debating that Den Beste guy, one of the reasons why I focused on him was because that as wrongheaded as he was, at least he wrote in depth and at length, trying to get out everything he could on the subjects he was interested in. Often he went off the rails, but I'll give the guy one thing: he didn't try to dismiss legitimate points with a snappy comeback and a single link. That was always Instapundit's bit, and that's why I could never be bothered with Instapundit.

To be fair, this is also what the audience expects, and it's understandable that you'd want to cater to the audience. I, for one, am curious about how many readers even got to this point in the entry before surfing off somewhere else. Television, too, gives people "what they expect"; you can't blame this all on television, or blogging, or the Internet, or whatever.

Gore finished off this excerpt by saying that "the Internet has the potential to revitalize the role played by the people in our constitutional framework". Yes, yes it does. I wouldn't even say "potential"; I think it's really already doing that. The problem, though, is that it's only going to revitalize things if it goes beyond a snarky sentence or two and a response thread filled with attaboys.

And since that seems to be what's rewarded a lot of the time...

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Jerry Falwell Passed Away Yesterday

Bucking the trend, I'm not going to speak ill of the man. He was who he was. I don't know if there was a reward or punishment waiting for the man, but assuming he knows anything anymore, I imagine he's the only one who does know.

Monday, May 14, 2007

More Windows, Less Snark- Overton Pt. 3

Edit: A commentator complained that this process that follows isn't the only way to "move the window". Well, no, it isn't. But it is one of the things you really, really need in order to make an extreme mainstream: a new extreme for it to be compared against. As the PoMo types are often seen pointing out, you don't have an "us" without a "them".

So, yeah, more stuff about how you turn extreme into mainstream. Here's the first part on defining the Overton Window. Here's the second about the Window, its "stretchiness", and how it impacts the modern debate over legal teen pornography.

Ok, observation the third. If you want the Overton Window movement/stretching technique to work, you need not just two, but three groups. You need the "centrists" of course, to pull things together. You need the extreme guys that you want to make mainstream. But, the thing is, you also need some guy even more extreme than those guy are. Why? Because you need someone for the "new moderates" to point at and say "hey, we're not extreme, look at those guys!" They work in concert with the "middle ground" types, because they provide a new benchmark to set it again, with the new moderates closer to the middle.

Case in point: school vouchers. Not the most successful program, but an apt example. The mainstream had been "publicly funded schools, but they should be well run, with maybe some private schools for rich people and the very, very religious, but they don't get no tax monies". The prospective "new moderate" is, of course, school vouchers, where they have kinda-sorta privatization, but still government money for each individual kid. The religious schools like this a lot because now they can indirectly get state funding for saying that evolution is bunkum, and the elite private schools aren't worried because vouchers ain't going to get any hoi palloi (or, God forbid, developmentally challenged kids) in there to screw up their cooked stats.

Problem, though: vouchers are seen as pretty extreme. It's creeping privatization. How do you make them seem moderate?

Solution: two sets of "hardcore extreme" types, both with a radical hatred of public schooling. The first is the religious types who claim that public schools are indoctrinating their children in Godlessness of whatever sort. The second are the hard "libertarians" who want everything to be privatized because the Market Solves All Ills, and who think the government should get out of education, full stop. Both groups coexist relatively well on this issue.

So you start having these guys nibble away at the edges: talk radio, the Internet, maybe local newspapers. For the Libertarian types, you can also try to sell it to the Powers That Be, because wealthy guys are often all in favour of paying less taxes and not giving a crap about poor people's education.

(Not always, thankfully, but often.)

Of course, most people aren't going to agree with them. They certainly aren't going to change their minds. They are, maybe, nice enough to want to find a way to accommodate them though. Up pops vouchers, and hey! There's a solution. It's a weak solution, but it is one that supposedly "everybody can be happy with", and the guys arguing in favor of it seem so nice, well spoken, and well dressed. Certainly they're everywhere on the TV- because they've been trained and coached on how to best exploit that medium.

Eventually, they win. Vouchers become mainstream, and those saying "um, maybe we should have a secular public education because those are good things" end up being seen as "out of the mainstream", instead of sensible. The "extreme guys" are happy because they're defining the edge now, and may end up "new moderate" later, and to an extent got what they wanted.

Of course, it didn't happen that way. Partially it's because the Dems aren't nearly the pushovers on education that they are on foreign policy, and also because vouchers are terrible policy. They're out there, sure, but they're hardly ubiquitous, and the debate over them has died down. Education itself isn't the issue it was with Iraq looming over everything, but even so, vouchers didn't succeed to the extent that people wanted.

You take that education example and apply it to foreign policy, though, and the whole thing still makes perfect sense. It was a lot more successful, too.

The lesson for progressives? Well, oddly enough, it's that those far-left guys are actually necessary for you to succeed. You need to be seen as the "reasonable compromise", while still being on the edge of the Overton window prior to movement. They're the way you're going to do that. Maybe not the hardest of the hardcore socialists, but the protest-happy guys with all the black bean burritos and suchlike? Yeah, they're the ones. Trying to seperate yourselves from them doesn't work, because right now they're not doing anything to pull the window in their direction. You have to help them a little, on the "DL", to have more of a voice, because then you look like the compromisers and solution-builders.

And, in turn, you need to ensure that the far-extreme righties are not just seen as outsiders, but actively ignored as a part of the debate. (Kind of like how the lefties are now.) How to do that? The right points the way: either completely ignore them, treating them with a kind of benign indifference, or some kind of active mockery. That's why I like sites like the poorman so much- because humor is the single best way of invalidating a nonsense argument. Don't get mad, or get even. That pulls them into the debate.

Just make them look silly, and refocus things on the debate that you want to have.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

A Pointless Bit of Cruel-Minded Snark

I'd be more impressed by posts like these about "building an online community" if the advice didn't always come down to three basic rules:

1) Group blog (translation: either have a blog big enough to support other writers, or write for some other guy in the hope of exposure, and if you're the newbie that ain't a "Name" guess which side you're on.)

2) Cater to a niche, the smaller the better, because Kos et al have the whole "general political analysis" field sewn up for some reason;


3) For God's sake, don't write anything longer than a few paragraphs, that's not what this medium is for.

(Unless you're digby. Or Glenn Greenwald.)

Meh. This reminds me of the advice of neoliberal economists, who ignore actual economic history in favor of pointless theory. Honestly, if you look at how most blogs actually got popular, the lessons would be:

1) Exploit network effects;

2) Get other writers to make your content by hosting diaries instead of linking to smaller bloggers;


3) follow Andrew Sullivan's dictum of media success: ignore those who are smaller than you, while trying to provoke those larger than you into responding angrily to your criticism.

(Also: Blogwhore.)

Me, I'm just gonna keep prattling about the Overton window every few days.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

We Know Once a Person Is Perverted...

In keeping with the new subtitle, I think it's time to add a voice of reason to the whole teen pornography debate. Sixties style.

Watch. And learn.

(And thank Ken Levine.)

All Right, More Overton! And (a) HOT TEEN PORN (discussion)

Since my last take on the subject seemed pretty popular, I'll do a bit more on the Overton window.

But first, the promised HOT TEEN PORN (discussion). Discussion seems to be swirling among feminist circles about Garance Franke-Ruta's proposal to ban women from selling images of themselves naked and/or having sex until they're 21. Why? Because pornography is exploitative, and 18-year-olds are far too dumb to be able to decide to allow themselves to be exploited.

(The original proposal was in the Wall Street Journal, a pay site, so I just linked to Garances' blog)

An uncharitable description? Well, here:

First of all, our laws recognize that maturity comes slowly. In addition to the minimum drinking age of 21, the minimum age for entering Congress is 25, and for the Senate, 30. Many jurisdictions make 21 the baseline minimum for holding state senatorial or other government positions, while others use 25 as their local baseline. Several states have a 30-year-old minimum for the governorships, and we’re all familiar with the 35 year minimum that exists for the presidency.
Yeah. Sorry, and I have the deepest respect for your views, perspective, and abilities, Garance, but this really does boil down to "dumbass kids can't be trusted". Besides, nobody in their right mind thinks that the age minimum for the presidency is a great baseline for maturation, and I personally think that anybody who is able to vote should be able to be voted for. A teenage president might have a bit more of a long-term perspective.

(Besides, the "Prez" issue of The Sandman was amazing.)

The drinking age doesn't work a a model either. That is honored more in the breach than in the observance, everybody knows it is, and at a basic, core level nobody really cares, either. Teenagers getting drunk illegally is a joke in America. Right or wrong, that's the way it is.

Honestly? This didn't pass the giggle test. It's near-unenforceable, unless you're willing to throw young adults in jail over it. It raises enormous questions about "why 18", as opposed to any other age. It's incredibly insulting to everybody between the ages of 18 and 21, and it's a total overreaction to "girls gone wild".

Most importantly, it's really just a stalking horse. From what I've seen, many of those backing it (that I've seen) hate porn, full stop. Not necessarily Garance, but many others. Moral or otherwise, let's be honest: there's a lot of people who would back anything that hurt the pornography industry. It's like "partial-birth abortion" bans: just a tool used to chip away at a larger concern by constantly narrowing the band of what's seen as "acceptable".

Whoops, and here we are, back at Overton's Window, this time looking in on something much more interesting than Republicans arguing about evolution. It illustrates one thing about the window, though: it stretches and flexes, as the bounds of acceptable debate can shift in many ways.

Erotica/Pornography/whatever you call it, it has become more acceptable over the years, and the political debate about porn has definitely shifted. What we've seen is less of a "shift", though, and more of a stretch- the "ban the porn" types are still very much around, but have a more porn-friendly culture and more porn-friendly counterparts to deal with. The "haters" don't have the cachet they did, but it's still around and very much powerful. It's a stretch, rather than a switch.

That's why things aren't as simple as pulling the window from one side and/or pushing it from the other side. It narrows and expands, and you could (like the erotica advocates) find yourself simply pushing the boundaries of the debate out, instead of over. People address this elasticity itself.

They might strengthen it:

"you can have different points of view on what you find acceptable in erotica or not."

Or they might attack it, from different directions:

Anti: "Pornography is unGodly/immoral/exploitative, full stop, and if you watch it or advocate it you are ticking off the Divine and anti-woman while you're at it."

Pro: "If you don't accept gonzo porn, you're a prude and anti-sex and deserve to be ignored."

Somewhere in between: "The answer lies somewhere in the middle with the kind of ultra-softcore Skinemax fare that I like. Screw extremists. So to speak."

All of these arguments can be and are deployed on a regular basis, and all have the function of convincing people that the window should be smaller than it is. Then you get that cohesion effect I talked about earlier: if the window is getting smaller, whoever compromises first loses- the boundary on your side shifts in the direction of the other guy.

Again, that's why opinion journalists are so important for this. Some open up the boundary, by putting out "crazy notions" that get talked about, made mainstream, and enter the real discourse. Things start stretching. Those on the other side might defend their position, though, and the middle stays in place. The guys who claim to be "above it all", like David Broder, really just serve to reinforce the elasticity.

(That's what all that "the middle is always right" stuff does. That's the only thing it's good for.)

Then, it comes down to who can best withstand the pressure.

Oddly enough, this means that progressives/Liberals need to think some counterintuitive things about their message. It can't just be about inclusion, as all you're doing is weakening that elastic force. That's fine, but it benefits both sides equally. They need to actually advocate something, or stand with those who do. Then, when the boundaries shrink, they'll be better suited to come out ahead.

So to speak.

I Have the Same Blogger Template as Roast Beef

Never noticed that before.

(If you don't read Achewood, you might not know what the hell I'm on about. Then again, if you don't read Achewood, you've got a lot of reading ahead of you, so I won't keep you.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Republican debate? Nope!

Edit: Links! Thanks to the Sideshow, Pacific Views, and of course Good Nonsense: who shows the good taste to link to me regularly, and has some of the better "piles o' links" posts around.

Further Edit: Next bit on the Overton window can be found here.

Another Edit: Part the third can be found here.

Yeah, I can't be arsed to really get into the Republican presidential candidate debate much. Three of them are evolution deniers, what the hell do you do with that? We know now what we did before: Giuliani, McCain, and Romney are the players, and that's pissing off the social conservatives because two aren't lockstep enough and one's a Mormon and, thus, clearly damned.

Nope. Today, I'm all about the Overton window! I know I've spoken on these concepts before, but a quick blog search shows that I haven't dealt with the specific term, named after Joe Overton, former vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. The linked article is mostly about web standards, but it provides a good explanation of the window:

As I understand it, the Overton window is a visualization tool used by “think tanks” that want to sway public opinion on certain issues. You start by outlining the continuum of possible opinions on an issue, including opinions which seem ridiculous or unthinkable. Then you figure out the narrower range of opinions that people currently consider reasonable. This range is the Overton window. The job of the think tank is to move the Overton window in a certain direction, so that ideas that were once unthinkable become acceptable to discuss, and ideas that were once radical become popular and perhaps even become policy. Along the way, certain ideas that were once popular may “fall out of favor” and become taboo.
Now, first, when I heard about this, I felt like the proverbial "dumbass". Why? Because I know a fair bit about political theory, and I've been chattering about this for AGES, and yet I never knew about this. It's like the first time you find out what Scientology's actually about- whether you're a supporter or critic, it does kind of blows you away.

(Personally, I'm in favor of freedom of religion, but I do think that lawsuits for revealing the "secret teachings" shouldn't be court-admissable. Copyright doesn't work that way, and you can't patent a religion.)


I love this concept, because it explains almost everything that has happened in American politics since FDR, and emphasizes an important concept: that it's not the middle of the debate that matters so much, but its edges. Too far outside those edges and nobody pays attention to you, but if you're just inside enough, or if the whole thing gets moved, all of a sudden you're listened to. The problems start when people assume that the window can't get moved, and insist that everybody else move with it.

Oddly enough, the Overton window appears to function a lot like a prisoner's dilemma. If both sides act all extreme, then neither is listened to, and if both act nice, then the debate can go on. If one acts extreme while the other is conciliatory, then the window moves; while the latter group might get some temporary political success by riding on how the other side is "out of the mainstream", if the side with the extreme elements stays coherent, pretty soon the window shifts.

It's also about this coherence. If both sides have loud, extreme elements, then the question is where both sides are willing to "break off" from their extreme counterparts. The "break points" can end up being the borders of the new "window", as a coherent movement isn't likely to be dismissed.

Most importantly, though, it's about those who are deciding what "acceptable" is. That isn't the participants, that's the moderators or commentators; in other words, the media. The reason why I like this idea so much is because the Overton window explains precisely what the role of the media, particularly opinion writers, is in politics. They really aren't good at directly swaying the public; look at the Clinton thing. And while they may have an impact on the nuts 'n bolts of lawmaking, by and large that's the realm of lawmakers themselves and their helpful lobbyist pals, not opinion writers. What opinion writers mostly do is try to define the Window by constantly pronouncing on what is acceptable and what isn't, and to the extent that they can get the political actors to break away from (or cohere with) other political actors, they set the agenda. The media at large also sets the Window by choosing what to report on, of course, but let's face it- popular opinions among both the public and politicians get underreported all the time, and the subject of non-opinion coverage of politics is more the horse race than the substantive debate to begin with.

And, yes, bloggers fit into this as well. I've said over and over and over again that the vast, vast majority of political bloggers are not journalists, and aren't even necessarily aspiring to be such. What they are is a pack of opinion writers, and what they're attempting to do is push the Window one way or another, a little at a time, through both their writing and their linking.

(Case in point: I don't link to Little Green Footballs, because I consider the crap there beyond the pale. It's outside the Window to me, or at least should be.)

So when I was laughing about the Republican at the beginning of the entry, what was I really doing? I was pointing out that those three guys are outside the realm of "acceptable" opinion; that they're loons, and worth being treated as such.

Outside Overton's Window.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Quiet Over the Last Few Days?

Yep. Sorry, for those anxiously clicking F5. In recompense, here's something interesting: an account by one congresswoman, Elizabeth Holtzman, about why Alberto Gonzales ain't going nowhere.

See, the problem is simple: Bush has to appoint a new prosecutor, right? Well, the Dems have the ability to hold that up indefinitely, so they'll set conditions. They already have, actually...

Already, the Senate is outlining conditions for confirming a Gonzales successor. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has said that his panel would not hold confirmation hearings unless Karl Rove and other White House aides testify about the firing of U.S. attorneys to clarify whether "the White House has interfered with prosecution."

All this is reminiscent of the Watergate scandal. In 1973, as the coverup was unraveling, the Senate imposed a condition on the confirmation of President Nixon's nominee for attorney general, Elliot Richardson. Richardson's predecessor had resigned because of Watergate troubles. Concerned that the Justice Department would not get at the truth, the Senate insisted that Richardson would name a special prosecutor to investigate Watergate. Richardson duly appointed Archibald Cox.

The rest is history. Cox's aggressive investigations led to the prosecution of top administration officials and the naming of Nixon as an unindicted co-conspirator in the coverup. When Cox sought White House tapes of Nixon's conversations with his staff, the president had him fired, unleashing a firestorm of protests. Americans demanded that a previously reluctant Congress start impeachment proceedings against Nixon. Congress complied; the House Judiciary Committee, of which I was a member, voted for impeachment, and Nixon resigned.

Aspects of this history could easily repeat themselves. The Senate could demand, as it did in 1973, that a new attorney general appoint a special prosecutor, and this could again have dire consequences for the White House.

A new special prosecutor would have many questions to investigate.
You got that right.

Holtzman goes on to point out that there's little reason to believe that Bush wouldn't just chug along with a damaged AG instead of going through the poltically painful process of replacing him. Can't say I disagree: look at how long Rumsfeld was around. It may sap the energy of the DoJ, but I can't believe at this point that Bush gives a rat's ass, as the only thing that he seems to be concerned with right now is trying to salvage his foreign policy and maybe save his party. Strengthening the DoJ at the cost of a special investigator helps him with neither, so I don't think Gonzalez is going anywhere unless the House removes him themselves.

Which, I think, will be the logical end-point of all this. At this point they're just building the case. Having AGAG as a trophy on the wall will both ease the internal tensions between the DLC types and the "netroots", and cement public opinion of the Republicans as a pack of thieves and crooks. The only possible downside is that they'll look "partisan", but since Gonzalez is so very damaged, it's unlikely that charge will stick.

No, they can't really impeach the president, or his veep. But damned if they can't nibble around the edges a little.