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Privatize This!

[ 0 ] August 2, 2009 |

Reason number one to vote against the Tories in 2010.

There isn’t much left to privatize in Britain today, and in a lot of ways to this American, the UK is far more privatized than the US.  Some top of the head examples: the transport of prisoners from jail to trial and back is done solely by private subcontractors, most every airport is privately owned and operated, all utilities are privatized, including those where it is impractical to introduce competition such as water.
One would think that as an American, I would be used to all this privatized malarkey, and in general, I do vaguely believe that where practical and regulated, private enterprise and competition supply better products and services at better prices.  But airports?  It’s not as though competition is all that practical.  Because the three main London airports are inconvenient, all suck in their own ways and are getting suckier, I tend to use Bristol as my gateway off that island.  Furthermore, the only two that are geared towards long haul routes are Heathrow and Gatwick.  Throwing a wrench into the whole “competition is good” argument is that all three main London airports are owned and operated by BAA (itself owned by some Spanish concern).  They also have the corner on the Scottish market, owning Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen.  Even in London, where you may just flirt with the suburbs of a context where airports might just be in competition, when they’re owned by the same operator, what’s the bloody point???  (I should point out that the UK Competition Commission decided in March 2009, after seven painstaking months of analysis, that perhaps this isn’t all that good for competition, and maybe the monopoly should be broken up.  Gee, ya think?)
What I have noticed about Bristol Airport since 2003 is a gradual, but determined, erosion of places to sit comfortably waiting for your flight with more and more overpriced, irrelevant retail outlets.  OK, the airport bar is a sacrosanct institution, and the more the better (though this category has not expanded at Bristol, only become more posh and expensive).  But the rest?  I don’t go to the airport to shop, I go to the airport to get hassled by security and then sit in the airport bar before I board a terrifying flight to somewhere else.  Yet this is how they make money: the more overpriced retail, the less seating, the more likely passengers-to-be will be separated from their cash in meaningless and unnecessary ways.  A publicly owned and operated airport has to break even, so there should be some of this stuff, but American airports seem to strike a nice balance.  Private airports have a different incentive, and that is to squeeze as much profit out of the thing as possible.
Bristol used to be a charming little airport.  It’s now a crowded and cramped little shopping mall that also sells flights.  American airports are a joy to deal with in comparison.  
There was an entire paragraph here ranting about Southwest Water, but I deleted it for brevity.  I’ll just say that I only had a water meter installed at the house I own two years ago, and allow readers to draw their own conclusions.
So when I read the Times article linked above yesterday, I became moderately angry (then I had a pleasant pull off of a bottle of Deschutes Mirror Pond Pale Ale, and all was again well in the world).  There are a handful of institutions in the UK that are a credit to the island.  Test Match Special, as cited by a commenter to one of my cricket posts, is one.  The NHS is another (and I have an NHS post in me some day).  
So too the BBC.  Indeed, it can be argued that the British have little idea just what they have in the BBC.  Commercial free, sort of owned and operated by the public.  This comes at a cost, and the cost is probably one of the most regressive taxes found in a western democracy, the tv license fee.   In order to operate a TV in the UK, one must pay £142.50 per year.  (Note, that is per property — the number of TVs on the property is not relevant).  While highly regressive, and as an American poli sci friend commented when he first visited, “holy crap!  There would be a revolution in the US over something like this!”, it is a tax I pay happily.  This is a sentiment I share with many of my British friends / colleagues.
The Party proper is (rightfully) already backing the hell away from this suggestion, but it was made by the shadow broadcasting minister — the very bloke who would be in charge of financing and licensing the BBC should the Tories win in 2010.  I would not put this past Cameron et al., but it would be politically stupid.  The Tories are ahead not so much because of what they stand for (they don’t seem to stand for anything at the moment which is playing the run in by the book in my opinion) but because Labour are tired and Gordon Brown rather unpopular.  When stories like this start to come out, it gives Labour something to work with, as in “they’re going to privatize the BBC, what’s next, the NHS?  Remember how privatizing British Rail worked out?”  Etc.  It’s a tactical blunder for the Tories.
While I agree that Jonathan Ross isn’t £6 Million per year worth of funny, (see here for a less destructive approach on how to handle Ross) privatizing the BBC, even small pieces of it, would be a tragedy.

Adventures in Drug War Moralism

[ 0 ] August 2, 2009 |

Allen Barra and Will Weiss say much of what needs to be said about Toure’s review of three books largely about steroids in baseball. (Amazingly, a second Times review has considered and uncritically praised Selena’s Roberts’s book while not engaging with any of the problems that pretty much every other reviewer has found with it.) In addition to some bizarre claims about Slappy (who allegedly hurt attendance although the Yankees never drew four million fans before he got there), we get two classic tropes of drug war moralists. First, the inability to distinguish between correlation and causation, taken to extremes:

The real, unignorable problem, the main reason steroids cannot be allowed to proliferate, is that they are killers. Steroids can lead to several forms of cancer, heart attacks, liver disease, even homicide and suicide. The football star Lyle Alzado died at 43 from a brain tumor that he was certain steroids were responsible for. The high school baseball star Taylor Hooton committed suicide, perhaps because of depression brought on by steroids. Ken Caminiti, the National League’s most valuable player in 1996 and an admitted steroid user, died from an accidental drug overdose at 41.

We’re pretty much dealing with self-parody here. I mean, if someone with Lyle Alzado’s impeccable scientific credentials believes with no evidence that steroids caused his brain tumor, that’s all the data I need! And surely Ken Caminiti overdosing on coke and pills provides even more compelling evidence about the negative health effects of steroids.

Toure also engages in bog-standard union bashing, attacking the MLBPA for not agreeing to drug testing with no conditions. (The owners, for some reason, manage to escape scrutiny entirely, although if they had wanted a testing program they could have negotiated it.) Those damned unions, standing up for the privacy rights of their workers! At any rate, I’m sure Toure would be happy to submit a urine sample with every piece he sells and have the results made public. I want to know that his writing is natural — I mean, won’t someone please think of the children!?!?!?!?!?

Speaking of which, make sure to see here for an excellent rebuttal to claims that the illegal leaking of confidential tests should be made more widespread.

Great Puzzles of the Universe

[ 0 ] August 2, 2009 |

How, exactly, does Alessandra Stanley keep her job?

THE TIMES published an especially embarrassing correction on July 22, fixing seven errors in a single article — an appraisal of Walter Cronkite, the CBS anchorman famed for his meticulous reporting. The newspaper had wrong dates for historic events; gave incorrect information about Cronkite’s work, his colleagues and his program’s ratings; misstated the name of a news agency, and misspelled the name of a satellite.

“Wow,” said Arthur Cooper, a reader from Manhattan. “How did this happen?”

The short answer is that a television critic with a history of errors wrote hastily and failed to double-check her work, and editors who should have been vigilant were not.

And it would be one thing if she was a first-rate critic or something, but she (unlike most regular Times critics) is a flyweight.

Excellent background here.

Make it Stop

[ 0 ] August 1, 2009 |

So I left Alaska about a month ago to embark upon a violent, multi-time zone bender a prolonged vacation, happy in the knowledge that the de-Palinization of the state would be more or less complete when I returned. Between blackouts stays with various wings of the family, I avoided most news sources, with the exception perhaps of a few unendurable moments of Wolf Blitzer that I accidentally watched while trying to find Man v. Food. Had it not been for the impending arrival of the Farley Heiresses, I would have avoided the internet completely during that time. So while I’m told that a significant fraction of the news media felt compelled for some reason to continue talking about Sarah Palin, my life has been comfortably unperturbed for the past four weeks; I didn’t even bother to read her farewell address, though about a thousand people e-mailed me with links to William Shatner’s brilliant rendition of a speech that I imagine was composed between huffs of gold spraypaint.

All of this I mention only to try to remind myself why an attitude of Zen-like detachment is vastly preferable to caring about stories like this, which — like nearly everything regarding the Palins’ private lives — is plausible enough, but holy shit, why bother anymore? I mean, there’s a guy on the teevee who eats chocolate-covered bacon and hamburgers pinned between grilled cheese sandwiches, and yet some people would rather talk about the former governor of Alaska. Weird.

Sir Bobby Robson 1933-2009

[ 0 ] August 1, 2009 |

Aged 76.  Times obit here.  While a fan of the sport since my (so-called) playing days, I didn’t really come into the English leagues / national team until after Robson left the England post.  Indeed, he had just taken over what would be his last real job in football as manager of Newcastle United when I moved to Europe.  

I’ve been well educated since.  And what a career.  That he managed not only in England (Ipswich and Newcastle), but also Holland (PSV twice), Portugal (Sporting Lisbon and Porto), and Spain (no less than Barcelona) is impressive on its face.  (And who can forget that year with the Vancouver Royals of the NASL?  Tears must be flowing up north . . . )  Winning at least one major trophy in every country he managed only adds to this.  His managerial legacy includes Jose Mourinho and Sven Goran Eriksson.  Finally, his eight year tenure in charge of England was rather successful by post 1966 standards.
This resume is all the more impressive today where not only do the English find themselves the opposite of in demand for coaching roles on the Continent (*) they have a hard time landing jobs managing in their own English Premier League (let alone their own national side).
(*) Save for the great Steve McClaren, who manages F.C. Twente in the Dutch league.  This is only really notable as my office at Universiteit Twente, where I worked for three years, is right across the street from the stadium where F.C. Twente ply their trade.

Cory Aquino

[ 0 ] August 1, 2009 |

Rest in peace.

I had the good fortune to meet President Aquino twice, once in 1996 and once in 1997. At the first meeting I was running the media equipment for her meeting with the University of Oregon Philippine-American Student Association. My boss gave me one instruction: Make sure to get her autograph. She was clearly tired (especially since every member of the Association wanted an autograph) but was nonetheless a good sport, and finally signed for the media tech. For the second meeting, she gave a guest lecture to a twenty-student Political Science course in which I was enrolled. She was Good People. I also remember that she was extraordinarily small. In terms of her political activity, she was dealt a very difficult hand, but her contribution to Philippine democracy will, I think, endure.

Now This One I Get

[ 0 ] July 31, 2009 |

Washburn to Detroit, LHPs French, Robles to Seattle.

Unlike my snap assessment of the last major trade made by the Mariners (which Scott and I initially disagreed on) this one makes perfect sense for a selling club.  While the two pitchers coming Seattle’s way are probably not as “stellar” as the NYT blog suggests, it is an excellent return according to Dave Cameron over at USS Mariner.
What the NYT did get right was that Washburn was traded at perhaps the peak of his value, which is excellent GM-ing in anybody’s book.

Such A Dick

[ 0 ] July 31, 2009 |

Until reading this, I had assumed that “Mouthpiece Theater” was a horrible one-shot. (A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards…) But, no, apparently Milbank and Clizza are bringing the painfully unfunny as part of an ongoing series.

LG&M has been unable to confirm rumors that it was rejected by Pajamas Media for failing to meet their rigorous standards.

see also. Indeed, “[o]ne wonders how much of the Post staff’s time and resources were devoted to researching, writing, staging, shooting, and editing such an extraordinarily value-free contribution to the annals of political commentary.”

Fat Rights/Gay Rights

[ 0 ] July 31, 2009 |

Reading through the comments here and here and here I’m reminded of the many suggestive parallels between arguments about body diversity and those regarding sexual orientation.

To simplify a great deal, I’d say fat rights are where gay rights were at 30 or 40 years ago. Elaborating:

(1) Pathological disease/syndrome versus natural non-pathological (“healthy”) variation. As most people know, a generation ago same-sex sexual orientation was treated by much of mainstream psychology and psychiatry as a mental disorder, and was formally defined as such. Similarly, at present any variation outside a narrow range of body mass is formally defined as pathological.

The claim that a normal body mass is between 18.5 and 24.9 (this is the official position of the public health establishment) could be analogized to the claim that normal sexual relations consist of heterosexual vaginal intercourse, and that variations from this norm are pathological perversions/diseases of increasing severity. A loose analogy: you can imagine spectrum in which non-vaginal heterosexual sex = “overweight” (BMI 25-29.9), while drag queens = “morbid obesity” (BMI 40+). In this schema, a closeted GOP senator is mildly obese (In other words Larry Craig has a sexual orientation BMI of 32).

The fat rights movement wants people to recognize that body diversity is every bit as natural, inevitable, and desirable as diversity in sexual desire/orientation. From this perspective, the labeling of a narrow range of body mass as normal and the pathologizing of everyone outside of it as involuntarily sick or voluntarily deviant is completely arbitrary and unscientific, and does a great deal of unnecessary damage.

(2) Temporary state versus fundamental identity. In the traditional model, and still today for most cultural conservatives, many or most gay people choose to be gay, and therefore could choose not to be. The analogy with fat prejudice is obvious: the present climate of fat hatred depends in good part on the assumption, often rising to the level of an evidence-proof axiomatic act of faith, that fat people choose to be fat. The arguments in this area almost couldn’t be more parallel. “Everyone knows” how to stop being gay: Stop having gay sex. Everyone also knows how to stop being fat: restrict caloric intake and increase activity levels, forever. In both cases, you see, it’s a simple matter of a “lifestyle change.” And of course both arguments are correct: It’s perfectly possible, in theory, for people who strongly prefer to have sex with other people of the same gender to stop doing so, and become “normal.” It’s perfectly possible, in theory, for fat people to eat less, increase activity levels, become thin, and stay that way (become “normal,” i.e., thin). It’s perfectly possible in theory, but in practice almost no one in either category stays straight or thin, because it’s extremely difficult for gay people to limit themselves to either straight sex or abstinence, and it’s extremely difficult for fat people to transform their bodies into thin bodies and keep them that way.

Here is where the distinction between a temporary state and a fundamental identity is crucial. In a deeply homophobic society, you’ll have a certain number of gay people who, usually temporarily, but sometimes for long stretches and even for entire lifetimes, limit themselves to straight sex. In a deeply fat-hating society, you’ll have a certain number of fat people who, usually temporarily but sometimes for long stretches or even entire lifetimes, inhabit thin bodies. Are such people not “really” gay or fat?

(3) The possibility of transformation varies greatly among individuals. The extent to which sexual behavior and even sexual desire can be transformed falls along a wide spectrum, as does the the extent to which body mass can be transformed. It’s safe to say there’s a vastly higher amount of same-sex behavior in an all-male American prison than there is in an Afghani village controlled by the Taliban. There are per capita, vastly more upper class fat women in west Africa, where fatness is prized as a sign of social status, than in the USA, where it’s despised as a sign of poverty (the reverse is equally true — there are far more poor fat people in America than in west Africa. As several commentators have pointed out, famines are an effective cure for “obesity.”). The protests of many a liberal regarding how fat people can be cured of fatness with the right combination of willpower and sensitive interventions sound quite similar to the protests of many a cultural conservative that gay people can be cured of gayness with the right combination of willpower and sensitive interventions.

(4) People living in the fat closet tend to react very strongly when anyone tries to open the door. How many upper-middle class and upper class American women maintain a size 4 or 6 when, in a less fat-phobic society, they would be a size 10 or 12? For such people, the idea that the fantastic amounts of time, money, and most of all mental and emotional energy they’ve devoted to conforming to an arbitrary cultural norm must be justified by a socially respectable reason. In this case, the secular god of “a healthy lifestyle” does the work performed by the Book of Leviticus for the closeted gay cultural conservative.

It’s my belief that, in another generation or two or three, the casual fat hatred now flaunted by many an otherwise doubleplusgood-thinking liberal will look as shameful as the casual fag-bashing engaged in by his predecessors a generation ago.

Update: As several commentators note, many of the responses illustrate the thesis of the post well. Such responses evince levels of fear, hatred, wilful misreading, and sheer incomprehension which are characteristic of these types of social prejudices.

I’ve never denied the existence of a relationship between weight and health. This absurd strawman is thrown up by people who don’t want to engage with the claim that the extent to which higher than average weight has been shown to be an independent health risk has been grossly exaggerated. Indeed, given the level of fat hatred in our society at present, it would be remarkable if such exaggerations weren’t commonplace.

Nor have I ever said anything but good things about physical activity and healthy eating habits. I’m all for encouraging both of these, but it’s also remarkable the extent to which people believe that encouraging weight loss and encouraging healthy habits are actually identical activities, when in many ways these two things are often in pragmatic tension (many people improve their health habits and lose little or no weight, while many people have, as one commentator notes about himself, terrible health habits while remaining “ideally” thin. And many people pursue weight loss by very unhealthy means). The benefits of good lifestyle habits seem to be almost completely independent of whether these habits produce weight loss. Meanwhile, the bad effects of focusing on the supposed desirability of thinness are acknowledged by all but the most hopeless fatphobes.

In short, in an ideal world we would pursue public health initiatives to improve lifestyle without any reference to weight or weight loss. Yet given a choice between public health programs that demonize fatness as a strategy for improving nutrition and physical activity, and doing nothing, I believe the latter is preferable.

One basis of this post’s original analogy is my belief — and it’s shared by a growing number of academics and other critics — that supposed concerns about the health risks of higher than average weight are often proxies for aesthetic digust, moral disapproval, and class anxiety. (Not to mention the financial interests of the nation’s $50 billion a year weight loss industry). In other words, we’ve seen this moral panic movie before, with an ever-changing cast of characters playing the role of the folk devils of the moment.

Open Ashes Post

[ 0 ] July 31, 2009 |
Australia 263 all out.  England 116-2, bad light stops play.

Day 2 of the third test sees England with a slight advantage, which could have been a strong advantage following the Australia collapse had they themselves not lost two quick wickets.  

The Bell standing in for Pieterson project begins here, and over at the Ashes Blog they compare the two, not favorably for Bell.  Strauss is looking good on 64, and England enjoyed some fine bowling from Anderson (5-80) and Onions (4-58).
This one could very well end in a draw, with weather being an issue.
UPDATE: At the end of day 3, weather is indeed an issue, with the entire day a washout.  The scoreline above remains, with two days remaining.  I suspect a draw at the end of this one.

This Matters..How?

[ 0 ] July 31, 2009 |

The Broderite argument against politics in the United States Senate, at least when it comes to judicial confirmation hearings, has now been made by the man himself:

Both these senators decry the growing role of interest groups that lobby on judicial confirmations. Both have defied those pressures, Leahy in voting for Roberts and Graham in being the lone Republican to support Sotomayor in this week’s vote.

“I pointed out that Roberts was not someone I would have recommended to Bill Clinton or Barack Obama,” Leahy said, “but I did not want to see the chief justice of the United States confirmed on a party-line vote.”

Graham took the same stance on Sotomayor, saying he expected to disagree with many of her rulings, but gave great deference to Obama’s choice because “elections make a difference” and she is “clearly qualified.” He said he hoped it would serve as an example to Democrats the next time a Republican president makes a nomination.

If their examples spread, we might avert the ugly partisanship of recent confirmation fights.

What he doesn’t do is explain exactly why it’s a bad thing if Senators vote against judges who have a different constitutional philosophy. For those of us who don’t see “partisan” as a pejorative term, what exactly is the argument?

Loves Springs Internal? Wait, I Don’t Get It…

[ 0 ] July 31, 2009 |

Making the case for IUDs.