Sunday, October 30, 2011

Who Hates Herman Cain?

Herman Cain is blaming liberals for the recent sexual harrassment allegations against him. I guess that's the thing to say if you're running for the GOP nomination, but obviously it would be dumb timing for any actual liberal to hand a bad story on Cain to the media right now. If you're a liberal, you'd sit tight and wait until Cain is the nominee to start dumping stuff on him. (I think Cain is extremely unlikely to be the nominee.)

This looks like the work of one of his GOP competitors. My top suspect would be the Perry campaign, just because it makes sense for them to do it -- they certainly don't want this Cain surge lasting any longer.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Quidditch Isn't A Well-Designed Game

Caperton at Crooked Timber reveals that people have started a Muggle Quidditch league. (Since it's Muggle Quidditch, you don't have to fly.) But this doesn't solve the major problem with Quidditch, which is that the scoring system makes it a boring one-on-one game for Seekers.

In most matches we see in the books, 6 of the players are barely relevant to the outcome. Since getting the Golden Snitch scores 150 points and ends the game, and the only other way to score is in 10-point increments, having a good Seeker is basically all that matters. I recall only one game described in the books -- the one where Victor Krum loses the game on his own terms -- where the decisive points are scored by non-Seekers. I guess the Beaters kind of matter, insofar as they can create obstacles for an opposing Seeker, but the other 4 players hardly make a difference. They do nifty-looking stuff, but it's usually just a sideshow.

Of course, this works well enough plotwise in the books, because it's all just a vehicle for Harry to win at things. If that counts as working well. I like a bunch of characters in the books (Lupin! Hermione! Snape! Dumbledore! Hagrid! Tonks!) but I'm not such a big Harry fan, as I think he's mostly just an Awesome Suit for boys to dress up in.

Threaten Pakistan With India

Pakistan is an enemy, as Spencer Ackerman says, and we've got to deal with it on those terms. Treating it as a wayward friend who needs to be bribed to deal with problems just gets Pakistan keeping the problems in play so that the bribe situation will stay intact.

What Pakistani military officials always think about is conflict with India. (I'm sure they like being bribed too, but as far as actual foreign policy goes, it's India.) They've fought three major wars with India. They like China because it's a powerful counterweight to India. Insofar as they like us, it's as a source of stuff they can use against India, and they just play us for more stuff.

So the kind of thing we'd need to do to get them to do what we want is threaten to strengthen India's position relative to them. I'm not sure exatly what one does here, but I'm thinking of something like regularly updating India on what our spy satellites tell us about what's going on in Pakistan, including precise locations for all their major military hardware.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Ordinary Muslim Man

These quickmeme things are always uneven in quality because it's random people making new ones all the time, but I'm enjoying Ordinary Muslim Man.

There are 1.57 billion Muslims in the world, and a lot of them live in poor countries where there's all kinds of political strife for reasons that go beyond religion. Any group that big is going to have a few really destructive people in it who are actively involved in killing others. And it's going to have a huge majority of people who don't do anything like that.

15% of the population in Singapore is Muslim. It's mostly Malaysians, though there are also some Indians. And it's just about the safest place in the world!

Abortion Restrictions Mapped

Via Amanda Marcotte, here's a nifty map of abortion restrictions around the world. Restrictions are tightest in Latin America (probably due to Catholic influence), Africa, and the Muslim world including Indonesia but excluding Turkey.

It took me a little while to understand the map, because I have a lot of trouble telling these shades of red and green apart. Green is the really problematic color for most people with poor color vision, so it'd be better if mapmakers and other designers could use blue instead.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Gaddafi's Violent End

It's definitely a good thing that Gaddafi was removed from power. And I'm thinking that it might have been a good thing for him to meet a violent and ignominous end, pulled out of hiding in a what appears to have been a sewage pipe, treated roughly by angry Libyan revolutionaries, and shot in the head. Better, certainly, for him to be sentenced to death or life imprisonment through a proper trial in Libya or perhaps some international court. Fair trials increase the public credibility of the justice system that produces them, and that would've been a good thing to get. But the actual outcome was a pretty valuable one.

The good thing about the circumstances of his death is that we have a rough correlation between the brutality of the means with which the North African dictators suppressed revolutionary sentiment and the consequences they suffered. In Tunisia, Ben Ali gave up and fled. Now he can't return to Tunisia, but he's living in exile in Saudi Arabia. That's what we hope dictators do once popular sentiment for their overthrow rises, and for doing it he got off easy. In Egypt, Mubarak made a stronger attempt to hold onto power, but stepped down. Things turned out worse for him, as he's facing all sorts of corruption charges and has health problems, but I don't see that he'll meet any sort of violent end.

And then there's Gaddafi, whose bloody suppression of political dissent far outstripped the others. One of the things that made it easy to support NATO intervention in Libya is that the daily death tolls that resulted from war were much greater than the daily death tolls from Gaddafi's peace. Here's an article describing how Gaddafi massacred 84 civilians one day and 140 the next. He was sending helicopter gunships and artillery to kill peaceful demonstrators. As far as I know, the other two didn't use that kind of heavy military force against their own citizens. In contrast, the daily death tolls from the fighting in places like Misrata were usually in the single digits. The worst I recall seeing from the fighting after NATO got involved was a death toll of 25 one day.

The rather graphic message to dictators from Gaddafi's end is to get out while the getting is good. You want to end up like Ben Ali, and not like Gaddafi.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Gaddafi Is Dead, Tarhouni Is Doing Well

The Libyan revolution moves forward as Moammar Gadhafi has met his end. It's an event of some importance, since it leaves loyalists of the old regime with no hope that the dictator will return.

Obviously, what's more important is the progress of the new government. I've been using former University of Washington economics professor Ali Tarhouni as my guide to how well things are going in Libya. Longtime readers will remember him as the guy who cancelled class to become Oil and Finance minister for the rebels. My thought was that if the smart liberal former student dissident who got great teaching evaluations at UW is doing well, things probably aren't taking some kind of dictatorial turn. And things are looking good, as Tarhouni is now either Oil and Finance Minister or Deputy Prime Minister (news accounts vary, which is weird, but in any case things are going well). Here's an article about him resolving an oil worker strike last week by agreeing to get rid of the Gaddafi-linked chairman of the oil company whom the workers didn't like.

Rachel Maddow

I appreciated this post by Jon Cohn criticizing the New Republic, where he blogs, for calling Rachel Maddow overrated. His description of Maddow's work to prevent Uganda from instituting the death penalty for homosexuality is especially powerful.

It was hard not to smile when reading the New Republic editors' criticisms: "She knows the answers even before she has the questions. The truth about everything is completely obvious to her. She seems utterly incapable of doubt or complication." I guess the problem is that she's clearly right about things that annoy centrists like TNR editors. (By the way, is 'The Editors' really just Marty Peretz? If so, that'd explain a lot.)

I don't watch a lot of TV, because I find a lot of it overstimulating and dumb, even when it's presenting views I agree with. And anyway, I can take in news ten times as fast through text as I can by having some newsperson read it to me. But Rachel Maddow is one of the few people I can watch, because she just keeps saying smart things and doesn't treat viewers like morons.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Primaries Should Be About Big Issues, Not Stopping Nonexistent Plots

I'm quite proud of the way that the 2008 Democratic presidential primary went. My guy didn't win (thank goodness?) but the whole party got into a debate about lots of important issues of policy and strategy, most importantly how to set up health care reform. Democratic candidates were pushed to come out with serious proposals, and engaged activists educated themselves about the issues. I'm still impressed that so many people spent so much time learning and arguing about the wonky issue of mandates. A party consensus developed around a health care plan that eventually became law, minus one or two parts that we had to break off to fit it through the Senate. Overall, it was a triumph of democratic engagement and public deliberation.

Things obviously aren't going so well in this year's GOP primary. I liked Jonathan Bernstein's comments on the way that candidates spend a lot of time running against proposals that Democrats aren't actually making (Obama's going to take away your guns and fly around the world apologizing to all leaders for America being evil, etc):
Strawman attacks on the other party are seriously unhealthy during the nomination fight, at least if they dominate to the extent that policy fights are all about who is best able to stop nonexistent plots. After all, nomination fights are when parties really have a chance to determine what they want to do. Republicans have some serious questions they could be fighting over, beginning with whether they want to return to George W. Bush's first term foreign policy, and what they actually believe should be done about the economy in the short and long term. If they don't deal with those things now, they're going to wind up (should they win) with someone in the White House who won't really be constrained by actual party preferences on the issues
I'd seriously like to hear Republicans talk about general approaches to foreign policy, and argue amongst themselves about those issues more. There isn't a whole lot of enthusiasm in the party for continuing the war in Iraq. This would be a good time for that to become part of the overall GOP approach to foreign policy. But if they spend all their time arguing against nonexistent plots and coming up with insane proposals like a twenty foot electric border fence to kill immigrants, the opportunity will be wasted.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

White House Cites Lincoln's Depression as a Disability

I often wonder what importance I should attach to politicians' efforts to make symbolic gestures towards this or that interest group. Does a Presidential Proclamation honoring the contributions of Native Americans to our nation's social fabric really earn any votes? Does anyone care whether the audience standing behind the President is sufficiently "demographically correct" that their particular race/gender/regionality is represented?

With that said, here's an excerpt from a recent White House blog entry on disability hiring (emphasis mine):
The Tony Coelho Award recognizes commitment and action to employ people with disabilities– in every available position. I was honored to accept this year’s award on behalf of OPM this past Wednesday. It reflects our work towards OPM’s simple goal: Hire the best.

At least two of our presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, lived with disabilities. First-hand accounts tell us that President Lincoln experienced depression. From his wheelchair, President Roosevelt led America through a Great Depression and a World War.
I'm not really interested in going into details, and I still don't know how many votes this sort of thing moves, but I guess today I learned that symbolic gestures have at least a little importance.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Friday Obama Caption Contest and Kitsch Cover

Original caption: "President Barack Obama participates in a high level meeting on Libya at the United Nations in New York, N.Y., Sept. 20, 2011. Pictured with the President, from left, are: Ambassador Susan Rice, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations; National Security Advisor Tom Donilon; Chief of Staff Bill Daley; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France"

Here's Alex Parks' cove of "Mad World", originally by Tears for Fears but popularized in the movie Donnie Darko by that guy who sounds like Neil Young, and in the commercials for Gears of War:

Leave your captions and nominations for future Kitsch Covers in the comments

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Today in Urban Policy Innovations

Seattle recently added the ability for late-night party-goers to pay for "hangover parking". Street parking Seattle only costs money during the day. But if you're out and about on a Friday night with out a designated driver, taking the bus home is safer for both you and the public at large. But then you're stuck with a parking ticket unless you can get back to your car before 8am the next morning.

Elsewhere, the city of Victoria, BC, uses parking cards both to eliminate the guesswork in deciding how much parking time to buy and save the city a few bucks on credit card fees. Several cities have shifted to smart cards for transit purchases, so adding the ability to use your smart card to pay for parking would be fantastic.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

What Chris Christie Understood that Rick Perry Didn't

Running for President because other people tell you you should run for President is a bad idea.

See also Clark, Wesley; Thompson, Fred; etc.

Islam Karimov Matters

I'm one of the people who, when asked "Who is the president of Uzbekistan?" would be able to answer, "Islam Karimov." This makes me unlike Herman Cain.

It's not that I know a whole lot about the region -- I couldn't tell you who the presidents of Tajikistan or Turkmenistan are, for example. But Uzbekistan is interesting because Karimov's regime boiled a political opponent, and we were having to rely on his help to set up military operations in Afghanistan (I don't know if we still are). If you're interested in human rights vs. War on Terror issues, it's a pretty good case study.

Age Ain't Nothing But A Way To Screw Over Gen Y

I've been trying to figure out how it is our political system can be so unresponsive to such a sever economic downturn. It seems to defy the laws of physics. Sure, Congressional Republicans decided to engage in an unprecedented campaign of obstruction at nearly all possible opportunities, but I thought the imperative to "do something" would lead to extremely creative attempts to circumvent such obstruction. I'm less surprised by the Federal Reserve, an institution that has always been by, of, and for the financial sector, despite occasional symbolic nods to a larger public mission. But I thought the need to deliver prosperity to the broad public would light a fire under the collective derriere's of our elected officials.

 But as is often the case, the folks most likely to face financial hardship are the least likely to vote. In case you weren't convinced, here's another chart demonstrating the phenomenon:

You see a certain amount of commentary complaining that the young people involved in the Occupy Wall Street protests should put down their signs carping about student loans and big banks and go get a job. What the commentators don't say is that no one is willing to hire them. The economy has now been so bad for so long that a big chunk of the youth population who tried to ride out the recession are leaving school with huge debt and a job market that is even more unforgiving than when they started school. And it appears to be specifically unforgiving to young people. When you combine this phenomenon with the huge disparity in employment based on education levels, for those who try to find a job straight out of high school or a two-year associates degree, we're probably not that far Great Depression-era levels of employment.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Steve Jobs Abortion Argument

Right-wing blogger Tigerhawk notes this anti-abortion Washington Times article asking how things would've been if Steve Jobs had been aborted. Tigerhawk says a bunch of things cautioning conservatives away from this line of argument.

One thing I'd add is that if the "Don't abort, or we might lose a Steve Jobs" argument works, so does the "Don't abstain from sex, or we might lose a Steve Jobs" argument. This isn't specifically an anti-abortion argument -- it's just an argument in favor of making more people by whatever means necessary. I don't think that anybody really wants to go where this argument would take them.

It does have the distinction of being a bad argument that could turn itself into a bad pickup line.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Pelosi And The Occupation

This place hasn't seen much Nancyblogging since health care reform passed (and it hasn't seen much blogging of any sort this week -- I'm finishing up a run of 8 talks in 12 days tomorrow at Syracuse) so I'm happy to point out that Pelosi is saying nice things about Occupy Wall Street. Not that she has any amazing witticisms or anything -- that isn't her thing -- but there she is staking out good left-wing territory as usual.

I actually stopped by Occupy Wall Street while I was in NYC and got a copy of a publication that called itself the "Occupied Wall Street Journal". Clever naming, folks.

Monday, October 3, 2011


If I hadn't gotten enough of arguing about issues I care about with smart people (I just presented a paper at a workshop at Princeton yesterday, and talked about utilitarianism with a bunch of smart Rutgers grad students!) here's Jonathan Bernstein criticizing my defense of an approach to politics grounded in principles.
First of all, most of us don't actually have "well-reasoned principles" to apply to particular cases. Sinhababu is a philosopher, but most of us aren't -- and we're not ideologues, either. Establishing a hierarchy in which "well-reasoned principles" are the best basis for politics is, in my view, awfully risky if one is concerned about full participation for all, including those unable, untrained, or just uninterested in formulating or adopting such principles.
I definitely don't want to exclude people from political participation because they're bad at abstract moral reasoning. Even if all people can do as voters is register their own level of happiness at the time, they're making sure people whose policies create great unhappiness get thrown out. That keeps the system from going off the rails. This is a version of an argument for democracy I've heard people attribute to Amartya Sen in regards to famines. It's really important for political leaders to know that if they let people go hungry, they'll lose the next election, because that makes them take steps to avert mass starvation.

If there's any sort of prescription that comes out of my arguments, it's one that operates at an individual level for people who have already become political activists. You, intelligent and politically engaged reader of this blog, should have some interest in figuring out what really is good and bad in general, so that you can better pursue the good. There are some people to whom I wouldn't suggest this, because they might be unable, untrained, or uninterested, as Jonathan says. And there are plenty of people who shouldn't try to learn about monetary policy, for just the same reasons. That stuff can be hard! But if you can learn more about monetary policy or what counts as making the world a better place, that's a way to make yourself a better political agent. There isn't enough time to do all of it, since there's a tremendous amount of important information out there, but the more you can learn, the better off you are.

Here I think there's plenty of common ground between Jonathan and I. The political system definitely needs to be able to include the preferences of those who aren't good at reasoning out good general principles, and they should get into politics so their preferences can be included (this seems to be Jonathan's point). But one of many ways to become a better political agent is to be able to do that kind of reasoning (this is my point). I don't see anything incompatible here.

I wanted to address something at the end of Jonathan's post too:
One is that I'm likely to avoid certain types of errors through group affiliation politics; if my only question is "Is it good for the Jews?", then I may still be wrong about what's actually good for the Jews, and I may also accidentally support some monstrous policy because I overlook its implications outside of the Jews, but it's at least got to be a heck of a lot easier than figuring out whether a policy meets utilitarian (or, say, Randian) principles.
Maybe it's easier to figure out what's good for the Jews than to figure out what's good for everyone. But doing politics this way will perpetuate gruesome injustices. Horrific misery persists throughout history because people continue to support policies that cause massive suffering to others (slavery, the disenfranchisement of women, wealth inequalities that lead to preventable deaths among the poor).

To take a happy example of principles guiding politics from our times, consider the increasing support for gay rights in contemporary America. As far as I can tell, a lot of this support comes from people who might have had visceral reactions of disgust towards homosexuality at some point in their lives, and maybe still have such reactions at some level. But they appreciate that there's no principled reason to deprive gay people of equal rights. Recognizing this, they've gotten to the right side of the issue. This wasn't something I talked so much about in the previous post, but it's one of the best things about moral reasoning -- it helps you weed out prejudices that have gotten into your moral sentiments. It's a good thing that some people are good at that, and I wish more were.

On Primary Challenges To Obama

I've heard some people talking about primary challenges to Barack Obama. It's really late in the game for anything like that to get started, and for a variety of reasons I don't think it'd go anywhere. I also understand that there are plenty of incentives for party officials to play down the idea like John Burton does here -- the president is the leader of the party and you don't want to buck him. But I think it's important for party officials to understand primary challenges as a legitimate way for good Democrats to express and act on differences with the president, and generally be conciliatory about him.

There's a tactical reason for this. "Moderate" functions in our political culture as a relative term -- someone is a moderate only if there are serious political forces to either side of them. If there's no political movement to the left of Obama, he automatically is considered a liberal and not a moderate. A visible left-wing primary challenge would make Obama count as more of a moderate, and there seem to be some advantages to that sort of thing.

There's also a larger strategic reason. In a system designed the way ours is, the legitimate way to create new political options beyond what the two parties currently offer is to take over one of the parties through primary challenges. That's what the Tea Party has done, and it's been quite successful. The counterproductive and potentially disastrous way is to try to start a third party. Party officials must do their part to make sure that people on the left understand that working within Democratic Party structures is the best option. They should make it clear that primary challenges are the acceptable path, while third parties aren't.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Wall Street Occupies NYPD

With money, you can do things:
JPMorgan Chase recently donated an unprecedented $4.6 million to the New York City Police Foundation. The gift was the largest in the history of the foundation and will enable the New York City Police Department to strengthen security in the Big Apple...New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly sent CEO and Chairman Jamie Dimon a note expressing "profound gratitude" for the company's donation.
Giving substantial gifts to those who have a monopoly over the use of force is a pretty slick move.