painpill
3/14/2003

15:19  
Microsurgery
CSMonitor has a cute little article (via Metafilter) about extracting all French linguistic influence from English. It's a pretty trick, worthy of OuLiPo even (although to be consistent, the techniques of OuLiPo are probably verboten). Don't know what we'll do when the Germans start voting against us. Oh, wait...



15:06  
A question of priorities
First a lethal blast on a Mumbai train; then the discovery of a cache of bombs in a Delhi train station; and finally this afternoon a bloody confrontation with Kashmiri militants.

But check out this hour's top story at the Times of India.


14:59  
The scale of weird ideas
Calpundit theorizes that Colin Powell has threatened to resign if the US goes to war without a UN resolution - and that this threat is what's kept us from going in up to now. I think this is highly unlikely. A couple of months back, Powell might have been our first best hope of avoiding a war, but something changed in him. In recent week he's closed ranks with the rest of the Bush people, and now it's to the point where they're using him to project that multilateralist image, but he's also the one ratcheting up the warlike rhetoric at the UNSC.

People have been saying a lot of things today about Bush's 30-second news conference, the motivations behind the timing, etc. What interested me about it was that Powell came along, just to stand there, mute, next to his president. They're spending his credibility hand over fist... and they couldn't do it without his blessing.


14:48  
Peace dove and budget hawk
The NYT has some good character development on Carol Mosely Braun. Still no website, but it's pretty damned funny to see what comes up when you type in moselybraun.com... go ahead and try it.



14:40  
Questions of travel
I've been doing a pretty awful job of updating the blogroll lately, but to make up for it I've just added several big fish to the list. In addition to the lefties, I'm also adding cloudtravel, which is a travel-blog. This will be of particular interest to my sister, who runs the online travel magazine The Long Trip Home. No links, unfortunately, but as I discover more travel related sites I'll be adding them, probably in a section all their own.



3/13/2003

19:19  
We've got the treasure!
All this week Slate has had a wonderful series on Montreal by Gary Shteyngart. Mr Shteyngart has apparently spent this week trying to see Montreal through the eyes of one of his favorite authors, one Mordecai Richler. I myself hadn't heard of Richler, but I liked Shteyngart's The Russian Debutante's Handbook enough that I'll take his advice and pick up a copy of Barney's Version.

The articles are great travel writing, but I especially enjoyed them because I've spent some time in Montreal. A friend and I have made a habit of driving up there for a couple of days at a time (usually in winter, when the weather here in Chicago just isn't cold enough for us). Typically we sneak up through the cold Canada night, stick around for a couple of grand dinners and a breakfast of eggs benedict, and smuggle back a case or two of French wine.

For what I guess are demographic reasons, we don't usually end up in the same places Shteynhgart's been visiting - the Auberge de Jeunesse is a far cry from the Ritz-Carlton. But the flavors (literally and figuratively) are familiar, and Shteyngart puts them all in their places. More than anything, he makes me want to go back for a few days... maybe this summer? In the meantime, I suppose I can settle for a good book.


15:52  
Stalemate
The latest: Mr Powell is considering dropping the resolution altogether. So much for getting everyone's cards on the table. Meanwhile, all of the pieces seem to be in position.

I wonder how much of this will even be remembered after the war. If we successfully capture Saddam and quickly gain control of the country, will the diplomacy start up again? It's hard to imagine France and the rest of the opposition refusing to play a role in postwar Iraq. On the other hand, getting Saddam and taking control may not be so easy.


13:01  
After the hit
Jeanne d'Arc is doing a great job covering the corporate interests and the Christmas presents they'll be getting after the war. The stuff about Halliburton is esecially nauseating:

The Bush administration, preparing what would be the most ambitious U. S. rebuilding project since the aftermath of World War II, expects in coming days to award a construction contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars to begin remaking Iraq, U.S. officials said Monday.

The huge umbrella contract, the first to be awarded, would pay for construction and repairs to roads and bridges, as well as schools, hospitals and mosques, officials said. Other large deals are under negotiation to jump- start a reconstruction effort that would follow an overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

A handful of U.S. construction giants - including San Francisco's Bechtel Group Inc. as well as Halliburton Co. and Fluor Corp. - were invited to bid for the work on an emergency basis. Analysts said the companies hope to win the contract and position themselves for such future projects as the repair and development of the country's oil industry.

It's interesting that British firms weren't invited to bid for the work. From what I heard of the British parliament debate yesterday, it sounds like they're incensed about the Bush admin's failure to include them for these contracts. It does look like the Brits will get some of the oil contracts, but as I understand it, under international law the occupying powers will have to honor contracts made by the departing government. It's sure to be a big brawl, since Russia and France have all the contracts now.



12:44  
Power to the people?
Nathan Newman has a couple of posts on the legitmacy of the filibuster as an institution. He agrees with the Republicans who've been calling it "undemocratic", but he doesn't think it needs to be thrown out. He goes on to say we should impose a 60-vote supermajority rule for judicial appointments.

First of all, it's hard to see how a filibuster is undemocratic. I guess if you take democracy to mean "majority rules" then there's an argument to be made; but democracy American-style stresses individual rights almost as much as the power of the majority. This means, for instance, that we have a Bill of Rights that protecting minorities from being overrun by majority interest.

But filibusters aren't even discussed in the constitution - they're actually part of the instutional rules governing the functioning of the Senate. They're designed to protect strong majorities from being manhandled if they're a vote or two shy - which means they protect the status quo.

But even though 60 votes are needed to break a filibuster, allowing filibusters isn't the same thing as requiring a 60-vote majority in the first place. The thing is, filibusters have a high cost politically, so the strong minority has an incentive to use them only rarely. That's why, from an institutional design perspective, they're so ingenious. Requiring 60 votes on every issue - whether we're talking judicial appointments or legislation - would make it next to impossible to get anything done. But having a disincentivized 60-vote option availiable protects the strong minority when it really matters.


3/12/2003

10:39  
Absent a congressional declaration of war
The 1st Circuit should have a ruling on presidential war powers in the next couple days, according to this WP story. Courts dismissed a similar case in 91, but apparently this case has more merit since Congress has (some would say prematurely) passed a resolution authorizing a war. This is what interests me most:

The plaintiffs in this case argue that the constitutional founders wanted to forestall a monarchical executive who might squander the treasury and thousands of young lives on war. By giving Congress the right to declare war, the plaintiffs argue, the Founding Fathers situated war-making powers in the most representative wing of government.
I had always thought of this as a separation of powers issue, but it makes sense to vest the power to declare war with the most representative branch of government. I don't have any illusions that Bush would fail to get a declaration, but in a time of rapidly expanding executive power, this is attractive. Given our new strategy of deficit-funded preemption, the stuff about a monarchical executive squandering the treasury seems awfully relevant.



10:26  
Nuclear family
I think the documents referred to in this article must be related to the framework agrement, which promised the DPRK a light water reactor. Still, it's awfully strange that they're allowing this to continue.



3/11/2003

18:46  
The closest thing to a war on terror
Re Richard Perle's comment about Seymour Hersh being "the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist"; it occurs to me that this tells us as much about what Mr Perle thinks of terrorists as it tells us about what he thinks of Hersh. Why is Hersh a terrorist?
Because he sets out to do damage and he will do it by whatever innuendo, whatever distortion he can - look, he hasn't written a serious piece since My Lai.
Note that Perle doesn't bother with Hersh's arguments. Instead he goes right for the jugular - Hersh's tactics. By declaring innuendo and distortion out-of-bounds, he relieves himself from any responsibility for what Hersh actually says. And of course, the same goes for real-world terrorists. Rather than acknowledge their ideologies and causes, Perle places them - al Qaeda, the Palestinians, the Chechans, even Saddam Hussein - in the evil category.

It's true that not everybody plays fair, but in at least some of these cases, our enemies are rational actors. Why not deal with them as such? I guess it's easier to just call them terrorists and leave it at that.


3/10/2003

22:44  
The science of economics?
I don't know if Scientific American generally thinks of economics as a science, but they don't seem to have very scientific standards when it comes to their economics contributions. They've showcased Terrence Healey, a biochemist and administrator at the University of Buckingham who apparently dabbles in economics, in an interview about the economics of science funding.

He has this to say about the growth of the Japanese economy:

I very rapidly discovered that, of all the lead industrial countries, Japan--the country investing least in science--was growing fastest. Japanese science grew spectacularly under laissez-faire. Its science was actually purer than that of the U.K. or the U.S. The countries with the next least investment were France and Germany, and were growing next fastest. And the countries with the maximum investment were the U.S., Canada and U.K., all of which were doing very badly at the time.
This is about as far from a scientific argument as one could imagine. There's an incredible number of inputs to GDP growth, and I can't imagine that government-funded scientific reasearch, as a tiny, tiny fraction of GDP, has a controlling influence on growth. Then there's the problem of whether scientific research conducted today would be relevant to growth today or growth tomorrow. And then there's the whole issue of scientific research as a public good, which he apparently has left for an upcoming book.

George Solow showed that in the long run, technological change is the only source of growth for an economy. But that doesn't mean that all growth is related to scientific research, especially in the rapidly growing economies of East Asia. Japan or Korea's impressive growth may have had something to do with technical change, but the kinds of technologies we're talking about here are not new science. Rather, they're things like better infrastructure and human capital, and the already existing technlogies that come with those things. For countries like the UK and US (and by now, the Japanese as well), introducing better education or infrastructure alone may not produce the same miracle results, because it's no longer possible to pull in technical changes that have worked elsewhere. Finding better technologies instead becomes a matter for scientists.

Ill be the first to concede that in free markets (as long as they have decent patent laws and enforcement) private firms have incentives to provide some new science. But no matter how you look at it, certain kinds of research will be left up to the government. The first example that comes to mind is the internet, which started out as a military and scientific research platform. Ultimately, we have seen and will continue to see huge productivity growth, but a single firm, or even a coalition, would've had no reason to build it.

MORE: Here's an unforgiving review of Kealey's first book, also via Scientific American.


22:26  
Additives
I'm adding several weblogs to the blogroll, but I'll only mention one for now, Rebecca's Pocket, as in what's in it? I single her out because I just read and enjoyed her book on weblogs. A lot of what she says is common sense, but her attitude and approach are wise even beyond the realm of blogs (!).



22:18  
Don't ever take sides with anyone against the family again
According to this article from the London Times (via tedbarlow), Bush Sr is making some noise about his son's approach to foreign policy. This isn't really a surprise, after the high-profile article by Brent Snowcroft a couple weeks back, but considering W's obsession with loyalty, this may be one for the tabloids.



14:35  
He knows a lot about foreign policy
Gabriel Wildau (via CalPundit) takes apart Howard Dean's performance on Meet the Press yesterday, and I'm inclined to agree with him. For someone who's making this stand a central part of his push, Dean sure didn't sound like he knew what he was talking about. But then, I've gotten that impression from him all along.

A much more consistent/compelling policy statement comes from Gary Hart in yesterday's Post.


14:24  
Dropping the dismal
Today Odyssey was about economics and finding ways to work around the rationality stipulation for utility. On the whole I wasn't very impressed with what they had to say on the issue, although Philip Mirowski made the sensible enough argument that trying to endogenize altruism and other extra-rational behavior is simply not the realm of economics. Most of the professors I've encountered here at school seem to share that view - they'll bring up extra-rational behavior, only to brush it aside as difficult to seriously address with the tools of microeconomics. There are people doing serious work on this stuff, most notably Amartya Sen, who focuses on situations where individuals - seemingly irrationally - act in the interests of others. (There are zillions of related links, but unfortunately none seems to give access to any of Mr Sen's very accessible writing.)

About Odyssey, I should mention that I've always been a fan of the show, but less so recently. Along with a lot of people, I went through that Gretchen Helfrich crush stage, but these days I find her shows really stale and self-satisfied. Probably it's the parade of academics... the perspective of some of these people is so limited - which would be fine, except that there's rarely anything to anchor the discussions in reality. The show works best when there are non-academic "experts" there to balance things out a little - journalists, policy makers, she even had Rick Bayless once. Now that was worth listening to.


14:13  
A new world order
I don't know how many posts I've read about hawks on the left recanting, but I can't resist counting my friend in Mexico part of the trend. He wrote just now decrying the US govt as "the biggest freaking thugs on the block". I guess the business about no "official" retaliation against Mexican Americans for a no vote has really hit home down there.

My own position has changed somewhat as well, just in the month that I've been writing here. I'm still opposed (with shades of ambivalence) to a war, especially where the justification is weapons of mass destruction. But I've become increasingly terrified by the Bush admin's handling of the issue, from the bungled intelligence gathering activities to the veiled threats against Mexican Americans. I'm starting to see this war as one that will change the world order for the worse, and it's put me in the extremely uncomfortable position of hoping that we won't succeed, because of the frightening precedents it would set.

(Lest this be taken the wrong way, I'm referring to our political efforts, not the military campaign - if we're going to war, I'm hoping for a short war, and more importantly one that puts a democratic government in Iraq.)


14:06  
Killer app
I recently started using Mozilla, and I appreciate it so much I feel it deserves some free advertisement here. The browser is, to be sure, slightly less stable than the Internet Explorer I was using, but in exchange I get the ability to eliminate popup ads, or even banner ads (though I haven't yet used this feature, thanks to Matthew Haughey's guilt trip).

By the way, the change isn't any kind of Microsoft protest - I used to be one of those people who spent time investigating workable workarounds for Microsoft products, but Bill Gates's hefty donations to the third world have pretty much won me over - or a least, I'm not unduly prejudiced against his products anymore.


3/09/2003

02:21  
Undervaluing your spare kidney
Brian Weatherson responds to my response to his post on the arguments surrounding organ sales:

We could allow organ sales but ban private organ purchases, by having only the government, or maybe only the government and insurance companies, be the only legal buyers of organs. Now there are problems with such a policy, particularly in settling on how we reach a fair price, but I have no idea how this is worse than simply banning all sales. That the government would be undervaluing your spare kidney if it were offering $10,000 for them is hardly a reason to prefer a policy where it has no monetary value.
This makes sense enough. I was going at this from more of an economic perspective - right now there's a big welfare loss because those who would pay can't get to surplus organs can't consummate a legal sale. So, allowing person-to-person sales would elminate the welfare loss, but then there would be a shall we say awkward ethical situation as regards the people who couldn't afford to make a purchase. Having the government do all the purchasing seems like a good enough idea, but if there's still a shortage, there will still be a welfare loss since those who can afford to pay more than the government pays will still be unable to do so. And if the organs sales are related to life-threatening conditions, presumably there will be people willing to pay quite a lot to get their hands on an organ.

I guess the government could avoid a shortage by picking the price that would bring in exactly the right number of organs needed to fill the need; depending on how high that price was, it might or might not be worth it. You couldn't stray much from that price though, because you'd end up with either a surplus (talk about ethical problems!) or a shortage, which would still leave you with a welfare loss, essentially the same problem you had when you started.

He goes on:

But maybe this can be turned into an argument. So let me add a third possible argument against organ sales - that all proposals for who the organ buyers may be are unacceptable. Again, I have no doubt that the McGrath’s original conclusion - that none of the existing arguments in favour of a ban work - is true. But there is a third possibility for a future argument here, although given the range of possible buyers (or buyer types) that would have to be excluded there is some danger that it could not simultaneously be finite and sound.
This I find a little confusing... if the line of argument is that there are no acceptable organ buyers, how could we have that argument collapse because we've chosen to make exclusions? At any rate, I'm convinced at this point that having the government purchase the proper number of organs successfully sidesteps the problem of the wealthy having priviledged access to organs. It does still leave the issue of harvesting organs wholesale from those most willing to accept compensation - the poor.

Maybe a line of argument could focus on the sellers - after all, at any offered price, there will be some people who are willing to make a sale. But since making that sale involves grave risks to the seller (anywhere from diminished lifetime health to death from surgical complications), potential sellers are ultimately cornered by their means. There's an equity problem in there somewhere!

ALSO: There was a question as to my identity... so far I've failed on my promise to provide some easy-to-find biographical information on this site, but in the meantime this post explains that my name is Paul Goyette, and in the interests of openness I will even go so far as to confirm that I am, in fact, male.


02:00  
How they fight terror
Haggai emailed this response to my post on the long-term effects the capture of Khalid Sheik Mohammed will have in the war on terror:

Re: your post on terrorist organizations replacing their captured/killed leaders and possibly retaliating, the Israeli strategy for targeting terrorists is much more complex than is sometimes portrayed in the media, which too often portrays each Israeli act as bringing a Palestinian reaction that happened solely because Israel struck first. As damaging as I think the current Israeli government's refusal to take any diplomatic steps is, I have little or no disagreements with how they fight terror. Here's an article that deals with the policy at some length.
Do check out the article.

I didn't mean to paint Israeli strategy as simple or naive with respect to the terrorist threat. I don't think Palestinian terrorists attack first and foremost because they are retaliating for the retaliations, and I'm pretty sure there would still be attacks absent the IDF reprisals (in fact, we've seen this). But it's impossible to look at the situation and say rationally that taking out terrorist leaders has diminished the long-term threat to Isreal. In the short term, it may make terrorist operations more difficult, but ultimately - unless you think all Palestinians are terrorists - the lack of a diplomatic approach is catastrophic for any hope of peace.

So, I'm not suggesting they put the breaks on ther counterterrorism operations - I've got no beef with Israeli military and intelligence tactics, which are probably the most accurate in the world. I just think it stinks as a long-run peace strategy.


01:50  
Self-congratulatory nostalgia
So, I've been doing this for about a month now, and I wanted to post about how great that is, but I'm having a hard time getting excited about that. I'm definitely enjoying myself. A lot of things aren't quite as I expected... I didn't think I would have this much to say; I expected to get some flames (and I probably will, if I ever get any readers); I thought my posts would be less formal and more spontaneous than they seem to be (although my comfort level has increased considerably); I expected my best (and most interactive) readers to be people I already knew, which hasn't been the case at all.

Anyway, it's been a good month and here's to another one (yes, I actually happen to be drinking a glass of wine, a pinot grigio for those of you keeping score). I've just changed the title at the top... not the URL of course, since that was kind of disastrous before, but just the header, just for fun. I'll probably do more of that, maybe change the design a little? Lots out there to try.

I've added two more usual suspects to the blogroll, PLA and Counterspin Central. Not to belittle these two valuable, informative sites; but I'm going to try and focus on non-political blogs a little more, just because I've had so much fun with a couple of them. I've been kind of blogged down by the ceaseless international-political content, and again and again I'm awed by what else is out there.





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