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Archive for February, 2010

Who Knew?

[ 0 ] February 7, 2010 |

Alaska, apparently, is a great beacon of hope to oppressed people everywhere.


Party Like it’s 1982

[ 0 ] February 7, 2010 |

The Royal Navy could use a good crisis.

I never said it couldn’t backfire.

[ 0 ] February 6, 2010 |

The downside of exercises like the one outlined in my previous post is the appearance, in the midst of an already stupendously silly argument, of a sentence like this one:

As Obama expressed, socialists and bleeding hearts have warped even sports and rooting into a meritocracy based on sympathy that often has nothing to do with the teams themselves but what they represent externally to the game.

Noted: Socialists do not have bleeding hearts, nor are bleeding heart liberals socialist. Troy Nelson will forget this fact by the time I finish this sentence.

Noted: Meritocracies are not, as their name strongly suggests, based on merit; they are based on sympathy. Whichever team merits the most sympathy wins the meritocracy, but not necessarily the Super Bowl.

Noted: The sympathy on which this meritocracy is based has nothing to do with the teams themselves, nor should it have anything to do with the cities those teams represent. This was undoubtedly not what Troy Nelson believed when this happened, because September 11th happened to all Americans, Katrina only to the black ones.

Noted: The players on the New Orleans Saints are external to the game. You might be tempted to claim that, because they participate in it, they are a part of it, but that’s only because you’re either a socialist or bleeding heart.

Thus Because We Make it Thus

[ 0 ] February 6, 2010 |

To be a bit more sympathetic than Yglesias, I think that Krugman’s argument on Poland might most profitably be put into this form:

A Poland with sensible institutions wouldn’t have suffered from the dilemma of being stuck between Russia and Prussia; rather, Russia and Germany might have been at the mercy of Poland.

It was by no means necessary that the dominant state of north central Europe would be Prussia, or later a Prussia-centric Germany. Similarly, there’s no reason that the continent-spanning Russian Empire had to stop at the borders of Prussia, rather than a few hundred miles farther east. A Poland with more sensible institutions could have played an active role in structuring its institutions, rather than falling victim to circumstance.

That said, I haven’t the faintest real grasp of Polish history, can’t explain why Poland settled on the institutions it had, and can’t confirm that they had the impact that they’re reputed to have. Thus, this observation concerns only the structure of the argument, rather than its historical substance. Finally, I have no idea why people never mention the role of the Habsburg Empire in dissolving Poland; it would be better to say “stuck between Germany, Russia, and Austria.”

How to bootstrap student diction.

[ 0 ] February 6, 2010 |

(The rest of the post is quite long and requires you already be interested in how to teach students how to acquire a credible academic ethos … but since a few of you emailed me saying you are interested in that, I’ll post the first fourth of it here. The rest of it [including the footnotes] can be found at my place.)

When you teach composition, you quickly learn that although you only instruct students for 10 weeks, professors in other departments have the rest of those students’ academic careers to complain to the academic senate about the terrible job you did.

“How is it possible,” these hypothetical professors sputter, “that three years ago these students passed your research and methodology course?”*

Because lower-division writing consists of equal parts remedial buck-passing-correction and advanced training in how establish and maintain an academic ethos, what triggered these professors’ outrage can be almost anything: students whose grammar seems like evidence that they find pleasure in its repeated violation; students with fifth-grade vocabularies, for whom “nest” is a noun they recently left, not a verb to be performed on clauses; students who are actually able to weave money-words into complex sentences, but who still fail to meet an imagined or remembered standard of what constitutes college writing; etc.

When I hear complaints like this, I say nothing. What can I say?

“Three years ago, I spent two months doing my damnedest to teach students who don’t read how to sound like an academics who do nothing but.”

That’s an honest, but wholly inappropriate, response; after all, when complainants are attempting to pass the buck retroactively, the last thing they want to hear is that their reliance on the Great Scantron in large undergraduate lectures means they might have helped create the situation they declaim.

Because no one who never practices the skills they barely acquired will be any good at them three years later, I spend a lot of time in the classroom teaching them to study the way their sources write. They may not remember every last thing I taught them, but if they remember how to model their prose, they can fake like they do.

Quick background: the core text for this section of the research and methodology course is the terrible, terrible self-help book Happier. It has the imprimatur of academic writing—the cover proclaims it to be “the backbone of the most popular course at Harvard” and there’s a conspicuous “Ph.D.” after Tal Ben-Shahar’s name—so on the first day of class, I analyze the rhetoric of the cover in order to disabuse the students of the notion that everything written by a person with a doctorate is authoritative.

“We will be concentrating on the claims he makes and the evidence he cites to back them up,” I tell them. “Not the little letters that follow his name.”**

Because he provides little in the way of evidence and cites what little evidence he provides with all the rigor and clarity of a seventh-grader, Ben-Shahar functions as a perfect foil.*** The students are annoyed by his sloppiness the way I am with theirs, and I cultivate their frustration every class, because they may not remember how to cite something properly three years later, but they will remember the annoyance they felt during, for example, peer review sessions. They begin to appreciate and crave the exactitude of a well-sourced article, which is good, but they still need to learn how to write like the writers they now want to emulate. How do I teach them to do that in 10 weeks?

I devote one class to pretending.

Continue reading…

Israel’s Integrated Military

[ 0 ] February 6, 2010 |

Danny Kaplan at Foreign Policy is pointing out how the US lags behind other top-notch militaries like the IDF in its nascent, grudging willingness to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly.

The United States and Turkey are now the only NATO military powers that do not allow gays to serve openly, but Israel and other countries have shown that the participation of gay soldiers in combat units presents no risk for military effectiveness. What’s more, acknowledging their presence might even improve unite cohesion.

No “might” about it, actually; Elizabeth Kier’s study of this topic twelve years ago demonstrated it does. She drew attention back then to the distinction between “unit cohesion” which is indeed based on a sense of commonality among fellow fighters, and “task cohesion” – the ability to actually get things done in a professional manner – which at times can actually be threatened by too much unit cohesion resulting in group-think. While the “military morale” arguments have accounted for the opposition to open integration by conservatives, Kier explains this only applies to unit cohesion, but it’s task cohesion that makes military units effective.

[cross-posted at Duck of Minerva]

I Really Wish Emptywheel Hadn’t Written This Post…

[ 0 ] February 5, 2010 |

Emptywheel notes that one element of Shelby’s decision to put a blanket hold on all nominees was to defend the Airbus bid for the new USAF tanker aircraft. This represents part of the long competition between Boeing and Airbus for the tanker contract. Unfortunately, Emptywheel decides that it’s necessary to engage in xenophobia in order to attack Shelby.

There has been a lot of discussion of how foreign companies will be able to influence elections and politics given the Citizens United deal. But foreign companies are already dominating our politics.

As we’ll see, Marcy is arguing that Airbus is “dominating” US politics by providing Richard Shelby with incentive to put holds on all of Obama’s nominees. The instrument of Airbus’ domination is a promise to assemble key components of its USAF tanker contract in Alabama, which would supply jobs, investment, facilities, etc.

The key issue is that Shelby wants the Air Force to tweak an RFP for refueling tankers so that Airbus (partnered with Northrup Grumman) would win the bid again over Boeing. The contract had been awarded in 2008, but the GAO found that the Air Force had erred in calculating the award. After the Air Force wrote a new RFP in preparation to rebid the contract, Airbus calculated that it would not win the new bid, and started complaining. Now, Airbus is threatening to withdraw from the competition unless the specs in the RFP are revised.

Essentially, then, Shelby’s threat is primarily about gaming this bidding process to make sure Airbus–and not Boeing–wins the contract (there’s a smaller program he’s complaining about, too, but this is the truly huge potential bounty for his state).

If Marcy had followed this discussion since the beginning, she’d appreciate that “gaming bidding process” has been fundamentally about giving Boeing a heavy advantage. Airbus, of course, won the original contract handily, to much consternation and hand-wringing in the substantial portion of the US military-industrial complex that depends on not having to compete with foreign suppliers. There are legitimate questions about the bidding process, and legitimate debate about what needs the Boeing and Airbus bids provide, but it’s fairly clear that the revision of the terms of the bid have “gamed the process” to the extent that Airbus has no chance whatsoever to win. Marcy is entering this movie halfway through; Boeing has already exerted its influence on the US democratic process to substantially change USAF requirements in favor of its own bid.

I understand why any Senator would fight for jobs in his or her state. And I understand that there was dirty corruption in this original contracting process.

This is a key point; understanding American politics, Airbus determined that promising to assemble key parts of the tanker in the United States would weigh heavily in favor of its bid. Boeing already plays this game, and plays it very well; it has a wide range of Senators and Representatives in its pocket through diversification of its production all over the United States. In this sense, it was somewhat surprising that the USAF believed it possible to give the bid to Airbus. There was no question that Boeing would mobilize its political support to overturn any deal, even if Airbus had submitted a clearly superior proposal.

But underlying the refueling contract is the question of whether the US military ought to spend what may amount to $100 billion over the life of the contract with a foreign company, Airbus. Particularly a company that the WTO found preliminarily to be illegally benefiting from subsidies from European governments.

I don’t recall reading Marcy’s robust defense of WTO intervention in domestic subsidy discussions, but it’s at least worth noting here that one reason Airbus receives subsidies is to allow it to compete with Boeing in the civilian jetliner market. Unlike Airbus, Boeing has significant DoD contracts that give it sufficient financial security to weather turbulence in the international civilian aircraft market. Airbus doesn’t have the kind of cozy relationship with a major defense buyer, and has to rely on subsidies. The story is a touch more complicated than that, of course, but it’s nevertheless fair to say that Boeing’s ability to sell to DoD is one reason why Airbus needs subsidies.

Richard Shelby is preparing to shut down the Senate to try to force the government to award a key military function to a foreign company.

And this is really the key line. If we’re to take this seriously, Marcy is arguing that Airbus should not have been allowed to bid for the tanker contract. Allowing Airbus to to bid meant that there was at least the possibility that they would win, resulting in the “award of a key military function to a foreign company.” Now, I suppose it’s a defensible position to suggest that only American companies should be allowed to bid for American defense contracts. In this case, since there are precisely three companies worldwide capable of building long range military tankers (including one Russian), this would have the practical effect of awarding the contract to Boeing. The implications of giving a contract to a European company are, to me, a good deal less scary than the suggestion that Boeing should be insulated from defense competition when providing to the DoD. I would further argue that if you’re going to award key military functions to any foreign company, it might as well be Airbus; the US and Europe have maintained a tight defense relationship for sixty years, and the US defense industry supplies a very substantial proportion of European defense needs.

And so here are my key problems:

  1. Marcy is demagoguing the Shelby question, when she really doesn’t need to. Shelby’s behavior is despicable enough without making insinuations about the dread domination of foreign corporations.
  2. By highlighting the “foreign” aspect, Marcy is playing with the worst kind of xenophobic prejudice. Progressives really, really shouldn’t truck in the kind of anti-foreign stereotyping that conservatives love to employ. It’s also incidental to the argument; would Marcy have been cool with Shelby’s hold if it had been in defense of a Lockheed Martin or Boeing contract?
  3. Marcy appears to be suggesting that foreign companies ought not be allowed to bid for major US military contracts. That’s all fine and well, but it rather substitutes the domination of US defense corporations for foreign defense corporations. For my part, I’m pretty happy about the idea of letting Airbus into the competition, and of giving them a fighting chance to win.

…And I’m sorry that I have to include this, but when Marcy notes that the first bidding process (which Airbus won) was characterized by “dirty corruption,” she links here, which is a letter from a Boeing whistleblower about fraud and corruption at Boeing, rather than at Airbus. In other words, she identifies Boeing as the corrupt party, then argues that Shelby is trying to “game the process” by making sure that Airbus has a fair shot to win a contract that Airbus has, in fact, already won.

Executive Power and the Constitution

[ 0 ] February 5, 2010 |

I don’t think it contradicts the text of Matt’s post, but it’s worth noting that the trend towards unilateral executive power is a question of constitutional norms, as opposed to the text of the Constitution. John Yoo’s nonsense notwithstanding, the framers were worried about the President having excessive authority over foreign affairs, and clearly divided the relevant powers between Congress and the President in ways that put substantial limits on the president’s authority. The trend toward unilateral power has happened because Congress has been for the most part willing to delegate its powers to the executive branch.

Madison was right about one important institutional question: in and of themselves, parchment restrictions on state power are not very effective constraints, and hence they had to be accompanied by an institutional design that would make such limitations effective. Where Madison has largely turned out to be wrong is in his assumptions about the separation of powers. Madison assumed that institutional actors would be very jealous about guarding their prerogatives. But in practice, rather than maximizing their authority members of Congress often take advantage of the separation of powers to evade responsibility. Thus dynamic explains not only the increased foreign policy powers of the presidency, but the general growth in policymaking authority on the part of both the executive branch as a whole and the federal courts.

Genocide and the ICC

[ 0 ] February 5, 2010 |

Mark Leon Goldberg of UN Dispatch explains yesterday’s decision of the International Criminal Court’s Appeals Chamber to require the Pre-Trial Chamber to reconsider including the crime of genocide in the arrest warrant against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. The Pre-Trial Chamber previously included “only” war crimes and crimes against humanity in the warrant. The ruling is here.

Via Veronica Glick, Don Krause argues that the ruling demonstrates the ICC is governed by rule of law. That’s a good point. But I also think the fact that a relatively minor procedural decision is being treated as so significant tends to demonstrate why the PTC may have sought to avoid the charges in the original indictment. On procedural terms, the ruling makes absolute sense. But in political terms the earlier decision may have made sense as well.

An important distinction between “crimes against humanity” and “genocide” is that in the case of genocide, the burden of proof is on the prosecutor not only to demonstrate that atrocities occurred, but that the defendant ordered them with the intent that they have a particular effect on groups, rather than people. Intent crimes are extremely difficult to prosecute. At the same time, genocide is considered by the public to be more heinous than crimes against humanity, and many people take it for granted already that what went on in Darfur was genocide, which is why UN lawyers’ equivocating on this point was so unpopular in 2005. So the charges over genocide will likely be both more politicized and harder to prove than “crimes against humanity.” By prosecuting genocide, the court may set itself up to disappoint a lot of people if it is unable to convict.

The salience of the “genocide” concept in public understandings of Darfur also explains why this new ruling has been greeted with so much enthusiasm by Darfur watchers. Yet I tend to agree with Alex de Waal (see his comment on David Barsoum’s blog) that the significance of the legal distinction here may be overblown. How different does genocide seem from crimes against humanity from the perspective of the victims of killing, rape, or forced displacement? There is also no difference in terms of the maximum sentence. So at best the charges are somewhat redundant; at worst I fear the insistence on genocide charges erroneously suggests that crimes against cultural groups are somehow worse than crimes against people, or that if something is not “genocide” then somehow it’s not quite as bad. (On this, Kevin Jon Heller has a dissenting view.)

I would be interested in seeing the definition of genocide in the Rome Statute reconsidered by states parties given the decades of reconsideration and critique of the 1948 definition, which is not only hard to prosecute but also extremely limited (excluding purges of political groups, for example).

All that said, the procedural issue here was an important one. Al-Bashir may now have, if he is ever apprehended, a more costly and politically complicated trial but in any case one that meets ICC internal procedural standards – which is itself good for rule of law and may help dampen criticisms of the court. Will justice itself ultimately be served by this decision? I think this ruling shows that the a landmark case like this is never only about justice, but also about institutional credibility. And it shows that how to balance those two goals is not always entirely clear.

[cross-posted at current intelligence]


[ 0 ] February 5, 2010 |

Via the Twitter feed of Roger Ebert,whose Twitter feed which is a treasure.

The Court and African-Americans

[ 0 ] February 4, 2010 |

Both the long and short book-length versions of his argument are worth reading, but Michael Klarman’s remarks about the Supreme Court’s generally poor record when it comes to the rights of African-Americans constitute a very useful summary. These points about the contingency of the Court’s recent record are also important:

I would draw three lessons from the last forty years of the Supreme Court’s racial jurisprudence. First, most of these rulings have been five to four. Had there been one more liberal justice, many of these cases likely would have been decided differently. It was not predestined that the Court would reject race-based affirmative action, prematurely terminate the school desegregation project, or reject the argument that the Constitution bars racially disparate impacts regardless of discriminatory motive. Constitutional interpretation involves judicial discretion; judicial discretion reflects political ideology; and conservative justices tend, unsurprisingly, to subscribe to the conservative racial ideology of the party that appointed them. That ideology embraces a narrow, formalist conception of what counts as race discrimination; abhors the use of racial preferences, whether benignly motivated or not; and deems this nation’s ugly history of white supremacy as something more to be repudiated than remedied.

Second, while the political composition of the U.S. Supreme Court is partly fortuitous, the victories of the conservative bloc of justices since 1970 have predominantly been a function of politics. Between 1968 and 2008, Republicans controlled the presidency for twenty-eight years, Democrats for only twelve. Of the fourteen appointments made to the Supreme Court between 1969 and 2006, twelve were made by Republican presidents, most of whom prided themselves on their conservative politics. Because constitutional interpretation is so inextricably fused with politics, it should come as no surprise that justices appointed by presidents for whom very few black people voted would decide race-inflected cases in ways that contravened the preferences of most African Americans.

Because of cases like Roe, it’s sometimes argued that LBJ’s botched attempts to nominate Warren’s replacement and Nixon’s 4 quick appointees ended up not making much difference. But on the issues that Nixon cared about, it mattered. San Antonio v. Rodriguez and Milliken v. Bradley — which combined lent the Court’s imprimatur to schools that were both separate and unequal — were both 5-4 with all of Nixon’s appointees in the majority.

Worst Idea Since the Schumacher/Lloyd Weber Collaboration

[ 0 ] February 4, 2010 |

I thought it would be hard for Duncan Sheik to come up with something worse than the ludicrously overrated Spring Awakening. However, it’s entirely possible that I was wrong. I’m sure his new songs about how he’s the first person ever to discover that Wall Street executives are greedy will be almost as fascinating as his songs about being the first person ever to discover that sexual repression is suboptimal…

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