No longer a problem?
We've heard a lot in the past couple of days about how the capture of Khalid Sheik Mohammed is a long-term blow to al Qaeda. Some have suggested that in the short term, the threat level will increase because terrorists isolated by Mohammed's absense will push up their operations. Maybe that's plausible, but the implication is that after a few probably failed attacks in the short term, we'll all be a lot safer.

This flies in the face of everything I understand about terrorism. Taking one individual out of the picture might delay or even prevent some current operations from taking place. But won't someone else step up and fill that role eventually? That's certainly the way it's worked in Israel; I don't know how many times I've read about this or that terrorist leader being captured - or, more often, assassinated - and yet the terrorism continues, even escalates. In fact, terrorist attacks seem to correlate directly with the amount of retributive action taken by the Israeli government. Do we have any reason to think al Qaeda will be different? Yet right now we're being told that in the long term, American interests are safer. I simply don't believe it.

By the way, I'm not trying to suggest that we mustn't defend ourselves from terrorists; obviously we have to do what we can to defend ourselves from imminent attacks. But maybe there are other kinds of actions we might take as well - non-military actions - that could help reduce the threat level. Ultimately, military action can't eliminate the terrorist threat - certainly not without turning the United States into a vast global empire. But in the long term, fostering democracy and reducing poverty in the world will take away the medium in which terrorism grows.

MORE: This terrifying statement of US policy makes a similar argument about a better connected world minimizing terrorist threats, but it comes to startlingly different conclusions about how we should bring that better connected world into being. Specifically, it correlates the presence of strong US military forces ("exported security") with prosperity in the developed world, and argues that we must therefore expand our military presence in the developing world ("the Gap"):

Until we begin the systematic, long-term export of security to the Gap, it will increasingly export its pain to the Core in the form of terrorism and other instabilities.
This is an argument for creating a vast American empire in the developing world. I don't think I've ever seen anything so frightening from the US government.

A small premium to do the right thing
According to CNN, Ford will sell the hyprid version of its Escape SUV at a loss in order to break into the market. I thought this was interesting in light of Calpundit's post on SUV profit margins (here is my response to that post).

Obviously this behavior isn't a surprise if automakers (and according to the article, Toyota and Honda do the same with their hybrids) feel there's potential for long-term profitability. But it is a surprise in light of the Bush admin's policy on hybrid cars - namely, that they're an inferior technology. Presumably, the losses incurred by Ford would be covered - at least partially - if Bush pushed hybrid technology instead of hydrogen. That Ford is building hybrids anyway says something about the viability of the product - both technologically and from a profit standpoint.

For your reading pleasure
I've added a couple more blogs to the blogroll: Rittenhouse Review, and Brad DeLong's site, which will probably be required reading for me. I've also added Metafilter, which is an incredible resource, probably the most compelling blog I've seen yet.


Faking it
According to this LA Times story, Steve Winfield, the interpreter for Dan Rather's interview with Saddam Hussein was faking an Arabic accent. What are they thinking over there at CBS? If they really wanted that authentic Arabic sound, couldn't they have aired one of the Iraqi translators, or even found an Arab of their own? I guess it's no surprise that Hollywood does the sinister Arab thing better than Saddam himself!

The phony peace
According to this CNN article, we're already flying 750 missions a day over southern Iraq:

Military sources said the change is in response to the Iraqis moving mobile surface-to-surface missiles, mobile surface-to-air missiles, early warning radars and anti-ship missiles into the southern no-fly zone.

Those systems are being struck by coalition aircraft as soon as they are located through reconnaissance efforts, officials said, because of concerns the systems could be within range of U.S. troops in Kuwait.

Slate has this in-depth look at what a war with Iraq might look like from a military standpoint. But they don't really mention the possibility of ramping up current operations until they reach fever-pitch.

I have to admit I don't know much about the legal side of the no-fly zones, but it seems a little strange that they're already destroying radar systems and anti-ship missiles. Are they concerned about a preemptive Iraqi attack? More likely we're already at war.


The right place to be linking to
Brian Weatherson wonders if I should be linking to his site, after I said that I'm not by nature an argumentative type. I guess I have no choice but to take issue with him!

Seriously though, he has an interesting breakdown of the arguments for the government banning the sale of human organs:

There are two kinds of arguments for banning a course of action that people might have wanted to take. First, there is the flatly paternalistic argument that the ban prevents individuals doing things that they want to do, but which are really not in their interests. This is the Government as the ropes around Ulysses model, and it only works if you assume you know more about what is in individual’s interest than they do. Secondly, there is the game-theoretic argument that taking some options out of play will mean that the decisions made by all players lead to an outcome that is preferable for all. Here the role of government is to rule out, by fiat, defections in Prisoners Dilemmas.
I'm not sure how the first kind of argument applies to organ transactions - maybe if I'm the one selling my kidney then I'm doing something that's not in my interest? The second argument makes more sense to me, especially if there are equity considerations in play. And to me this last point is key... there's no question that legalizing these transactions would lead to a more efficient allotment of organs; but if lives are at stake and the only currency available is money, the poor will die. Now, it may be possible to construct a market without this result, but if not - if the actors are threatened with death - won't that skew prices in such a way that we all line up in order for who has the most material wealth? Or is this just another way of saying some things shouldn't be for sale?

Ouvroir de Conspiration Potentielle
For whatever reason, some bloggers - possibly led by Mandarin Design Daily? - have decided to try and generate a wordbust with the word "oulipo." At this point their little conspiracy only generates 21 hits on Daypop, which from what I can discern is far too few to accomplish their goal.

Nobody seems to know what oulipo is, but whoever originated this business is obviously having a little fun with it. For those who don't know, OuLiPo, or Ourvoir de Litterature Potentielle, is a consortium of mostly literary figures who concentrate their creative energies on highly constrainted systems. Georges Perec, for instance, wrote an entire novel, La Disparition, without making use of the letter e (Gilbert Adair has since translated it into English as A Void). Other members have included Italo Calvino, Raymond Queneau, Harry Mathews, and the artist Marcel Duchamps.

At any rate, the choice of "oulipo" for a conspiratorial wordburst is ironic, because it's just this sort of word game that the group itself would countenance. Their version would probably be a little more sophisticated - finding ways to use a word meaningfully without calling attention to it so bluntly. But still, the joke has legs. The internet has given us a million external opportunities for constraints, and a limitless audience of accidental readers.

By the way, I should mention that the original name for this site, counterfactual, was inspired by OuLiPo and the new Google News site, which generates the top news stories via a weighted search algorithm. I thought it would be interesting to have a site where fictional hard news stories would be generated randomly from search-generated results. Obviously I abandoned that idea before I even got started, and that's part of the reason I abandoned the name too. But I think there's a lot to be done with the idea of highly constrained creative writing on the internet. Maybe I'm stuck in the wrong circles, but it amazes me that there isn't more to be found along creative lines. I've been throwing around the idea of starting a strictly creative/literary blog, and maybe this will be the kick in the pants I need to actually do it.

UPDATE: Here's a skeletal website for OuLiPo and a partial online version of the OuLiPo Compendium. I've never been able to find much in the way of online OuLiPo resources, but that's probably because most of the key figures are quite old. I guess this wordburst campaign will mean more links...

Cultural calculus
According to this article from ArabNews (via Amish Tech Support), McDonald's has a new sandwich called McArabia out in he Middle East. Good for them! In India last summer I was totally impressed with the way McDonalds had carefully adapted its menu to that culture and its unique dietary requirements. When I got back, I tried to find other countries where they'd done the same thing, but apart from a Mexican sandwich called McNifico there wasn't much. In India almost everything on the menu is different, because nobody eats beef. You'd be amazed what they do with a lentil/potato patty.

By the way, McDonald's really needs a boost right now. Their stock is way down, in part because of mismanagement, but also because foreign markets just aren't as receptive to American fast food these days... of course, no surprise there. But I've read articles comparing them to KMart.

Homeland insecurity
By the way, this was a couple days ago, but I'm still shocked that they're surveilling the Bloomington campus of Indiana University by plane. Too bad the students there don't have a squadron of MIGs with which to respond.

Indiana, we're all for you
Forgot to post this yesterday, but I added three weblogs to the blogroll: Tom Spencer and The Bloviator, both IU alums; and The Hoosier Review, bringing back some colorful memories with all that talk about the IU Student Association. I'll watch this last one closely - it looks like a great source for IU news.

One more for today: David Appell's blog, Quark Soup, has several insightful (and very readable) science posts, starting with the one about Gary Taubes and the Atkins Diet.

MORE: OK, I can't resist this one: I actually used to be this guy's editor, back in my days at the Indiana Daily Student. Too bad I don't have the authority to edit him today!


A price on your head
Slate has a cute piece by Steven E. Landsburg about the dollar value we typically place on an individual life. He explains:

So, how do we find out how much a life is really worth? One of the best ways is to measure how much extra you have to pay someone to take a dangerous job. If lion tamers and elephant tamers have comparable skills and comparable working conditions, but lion tamers earn $20,000 a year more than elephant tamers, it's probably because that's what it takes to compensate someone for the risk of being eaten by a lion. And if that risk amounts to, say, an extra half-percent probability of dying on the job, then you figure that the value of a life must be $20,000 per half-percent, or $40,000 per percentage point, or $4 million.

So, once you carry out that experiment, how much does a typical life turn out to be worth? Professors Dora Costa of MIT and Matthew Kahn of Tufts point out that it depends on exactly when you asked the question. As incomes have risen, so has the value of life. The increase is more than proportional: A 10 percent rise in income is generally associated with about a 15 percent rise in the value of a life. Between 1940 and 1980, according to Costa and Kahn, the value of a life increased from about $1 million 1990 dollars to between $4 million and $5 million 1990 dollars.

Landsburg goes on to poke fun at the strange way that future lives work out to be more valuable than present lives. I presume these data are not available in other countries, but I think the measure might be a valuable economic and/or cultural measure. I'd expect wide variation in the figures, and only a partial correlation with GDP per capita.

UPDATE: I didn't catch this before, but Landsburg is the author of The Armchair Economist, which is for the most part equally cute. He does have a tendency to oversimplify things - an old English prof of mine would have called him "reductive" - and it doesn't serve him very well where non-economic factors are at play... but that's a tendency almost all economists seem to have.

Escalation watch
BBC news has this report:

North Korean fighter jets flew just metres from a US reconnaissance plane in international airspace early on Sunday and shadowed it for 22 minutes, a Pentagon spokesman has said. The spokesman said four North Korean MiGs at one point approached the RC-135 plane as close as 15 metres (50 feet), with at least one of them locking onto it with its fire control radar.
It doesn't mention this in the article, but an RC-135 carries about 32 people. It's not the same kind of plane that went down in China after a collision with a Chinese fighter jet. But, as that incident showed, this kind of behavior can lead to serious problems.

A friend in need
Castro has made an interesting offer to help with the NK crisis. Too bad Bush hates him as much as Kim Jong Il... but maybe the Japanese will work with him?

His bowtie is really a camera
At first I was shocked by the revelation that the NSA is surveilling other countries' UN delegations for strategic advantage. But maybe I shouldn't be - the story does say that many diplomats to the UN assume they are being bugged. At any rate, this won't help our efforts to win over other nations for the war effort. Rather, it's the kind of intimidation you'd expect from a country with a strategy of preemtion.

By the way, I'm also suprised that this story hasn't made it into the American press... does that have implications for its veracity?

Profit margins
Kevin Drum has this interesting observation/question about SUV profit margins:

So I watched 60 Minutes tonight, and in the segment on SUVs I heard once again about how the profit margin on these vehicles is anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 or more. This compares with ordinary cars, which we are lead to believe are practically sold at a loss.

I've heard this so many times that it must be true, but what's the explanation for this? The same companies compete in both the car and the SUV market, so shouldn't competitive pressures force the profit margins to similar points? Isn't that how this whole free market thing is supposed to work?

For one thing, the competitive pressures at work here probably not the same as those in perfect competition, which is the model that usually pushes profit margins down. The market for cars and SUVs is probably more like an oligopoly, where firms react to other firms' prices in setting their own. This leads to an equilibrium, but it isn't necessarily profitable for the ologopolists... that depends on how the firms' cost structures match up. I posted last week about the anti-trust class action suit over milk in Chicago, which is a classic case of oligopolistic competition on price: Dominick's and Jewel were eacting to each others' prices in a way that made it seem like collusion, when actually (or at least, this was the verdict) they were just competing. Competition in oligopoly often seems like collusion, precisely because prices don't act like they would in perfect competition.

If it's true that cars aren't profitable, that could also be the result of an oligopoly situation, although I don't have any explanation for the differences between the markets for cars and SUVs. But SUV's are a different kind of product, so demand is probably different. That would affect the profit margins regardless of the supply-side.

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