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Putin’s Still Got It…

[ 0 ] June 16, 2009 |

This is kind of old, but I still have to acknowledge the fabulous theater of it all:

Moving quickly to stamp out growing unrest, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin flew to the small town of Pikalyovo on Thursday to demand that angry workers receive wage arrears and rebuke their delinquent employers.

Putin told the owners of the town’s three factories that the government had transferred 41.24 million rubles ($1.34 million) to their Sberbank accounts on Wednesday and they had until the end of the day to pay their workers.

“All wage arrears must be settled,” Putin said at a meeting with owners and government officials. “The deadline is today.”

Turning to the owners, including tycoon Oleg Deripaska, owner of one of the plants, Putin offered a stinging rebuke of their business practices.

“You have made thousands of people hostages to your ambitions, your lack of professionalism — or maybe simply your trivial greed,” Putin said in remarks shown on state television. “Why was everyone running around like cockroaches before my arrival? Why was no one capable of making decisions?”

He threw a pen at a contract and told Deripaska to sign it.



[ 0 ] June 16, 2009 |

The New York Times reports that “some scientists” dispute the link between moderate alcohol consumption and better health on a number of measures.  The key is the causality question, of course:

“No study, these critics say, has ever proved a causal relationship between moderate drinking and lower risk of death — only that the two often go together. It may be that moderate drinking is just something healthy people tend to do, not something that makes people healthy.”

Unsurprisingly, the article goes on to point out that what is needed is the gold standard of research design, yet getting a bunch of abstainers loaded, even in the name of good science (and a good time!), might involve some unfortunate ethical questions.  Lacking this, we’re left with the sort of research design often utilized in the social sciences: a multivariate model that in the absence of strong theoretical argumentation can only, at best, establish associations between variables, even in the presence of likely controls.  I would be surprised if the studies being critiqued by “some scientists” were not of a high caliber multivariate approach that at least controls for these other canards (e.g. that moderate drinkers are somehow a priori healthier than abstainers, even though I’ve always believed it about myself).  But I’d have to see these studies to be certain (which is a nice way of saying I could be full of it).
Until then, I’m left holding out hope that these are the same “some scientists” who still dispute global warming.

The Sex-Selection Red Herring

[ 0 ] June 16, 2009 |

William Saletan attempts a gotcha on people who oppose criminalizing abortion:

Today, let’s turn the tables on those of us who oppose abortion regulation. How far should we go? Would you oppose regulation even of abortions aimed at preventing the births of girls? Because there’s increasing evidence that such abortions, which take place by the millions in Asia, are now being done by the thousands in the United States as well.

I think I’ve been through this before, but:

  • Let’s assume arguendo that abortion for sex selection is immoral, or at least that choosing abortion because you don’t value female children is immoral.
  • This is neither here not there in terms of legal regulation, because it’s obviously impossible to ban such abortions through an enforceable legislative enactment. If abortions for certain reasons were banned, women could just refuse to be candid, and how could you prove they were lying? In addition, this would involve putting a great deal of legal discretion in the hands of panels of doctors, which would mean a great deal of arbitrary intrusion on a woman’s right to choose for no obvious benefit.
  • The fundamental problem that creates systematic sex biases in choosing abortion is that girls and women are less valued, and as long as this kind of sexist discrimination is common it will be impossible to regulate away through abortion codes. So the additional question one has to ask themselves is whether passing additional regulations of abortion is more likely to make women equal members of society? This question answers itself. Using these moral dilemmas to bootstrap additional abortion regulations, as is almost always the case, would not merely be useless but actively counterproductive.

UPDATE: A good discussion about why bans on sex-selection abortions don’t work.

The Magic Pooch

[ 0 ] June 16, 2009 |

The War On (Some Classes of People Who Use Some) Drugs could almost be funny if it didn’t ruin so many people’s lives at great expense.

Tank Man and Tank Commander

[ 7 ] June 16, 2009 |

What follows is a long, largely unoriginal rumination on the state, coercion, the Odessa Steps, and Tank Man. Skip to the end for trivial observations about the current situation in Iran. Or just skip entirely…

The modern nation state is an extremely efficient killing machine. We know this from our Tilly; the nation-state replaced its competitors, such as empires and city-states, because it could develop and support institutions of internal and external domination. The nation-state successfully extracted a large surplus from its population, which it transformed into the coercive means for acquiring even more internal surplus and for waging external wars.

The most common interaction we have with the state is thus; the state demands property that we regard as our own, and if we refuse to hand this property over it sends men with guns to our house. If we resist these men with guns, they imprison us. If we resist too effectively, they kill us. This is true of every modern nation-state. Liberal democracies differ from authoritarian states in that they allow us to complain loudly about the process, to minimize its arbitrariness, and to have some (very) small say in how our property is reallocated. This difference isn’t trivial, but it isn’t as large as normally assumed.

The modern nation-state is nevertheless tolerable because it substantially reduces private coercion (replacing it with less arbitrary public coercion), creates a relatively safe space in which commerce and the production of wealth can be undertaken, provides regulation necessary for the conduct of a modern (socialist or capitalist) economy, provides social services, and because it creates a sense of identity and political efficacy. Its murderous tendencies notwithstanding, I’d rather live in a nation-state than not, and would prefer a more complete and capable state to the rump that libertarians envision.

The long century (1789-1914) can be regarded as the period of consolidation of the institutions of the modern nation-state. The last competitors were either eliminated or co-opted, small statelets were amalgamated, and the lower and middle classes were fully integrated into the domestic processes of the state. The perfection of these institutions, as much as anything else, allowed European states to conquer the rest of the world, and to apply the institutions of the modern-state to heretofore unfamiliar populations. This was, it is fair to say, a bloody process. It saw untold colonial depredation, from the conquests of Africa, South Asia, and North America to the “opening” of China and Japan. The Wars of the French Revolution exceeded any previous conflicts in size and destruction, largely because of the increased extractive and warmaking capacity of the state. Still, the old ways were not wholly replaced; in Europe, at least, much of the traditional elite continued to hold the reins of the state.

This process of perfection would culminate in 1914, when the truly destructive nature of the state would be unleashed. Internally and externally, the major states of the world set about the task of murdering as many people as possible. Eighteen million or so were killed in World War I. In 1917, the Russians had a Revolution designed to hand their state to right thinking people, and those right thinking people murdered dozens of millions more. Between 1939 and 1945, the German state murdered six million Jews, along with roughly twice as many Poles and Russians. The Japanese state murdered about 20 million Chinese. The good guys in that war (and I use the term with no ironic intent) saw fit to incinerate millions of German and Japanese citizens by dropping bombs on them as they slept. Following World War II, the Chinese state killed some fifty million of its own citizens, concentrated in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The various combatants in the Vietnam War killed about 4 million altogether, and the Khmer Rouge killed probably 2 million. All of this was made possible by the institutions of the modern nation-state; its extractive capacity, its efficient bureaucracy, and its ability to maximize military power.

The modern nation-state could murder at such an efficient rate because competent, well educated, healthy, efficient people staffed its bureaucracies. The medical systems of the modern state kept its soldiers and policemen healthy and capable. The educational institutions created unprecedented literacy, which maximized its killing capacity; soldiers and police who can read can also fight more effectively. The microfoundation of the story of the twentieth century is, thus, that the state created citizens, and those citizens made possible the murder of vast quantities of other citizens. This isn’t a particularly new idea; it’s more or less Arendt, and it’s something that I talked about in the context of Battle of Algiers a few years ago. Twentieth century evil is the efficiency and enthusiasm of capable bureaucrats.

Tank Man was not the first person to stand up to the coercive power of the state. People defying other people holding guns has a long and distinguished history, from Napoleon forward. The survival of Tank Man and of every other such protester depends on a decision made by the state employee carrying the gun. What distinguishes the few moments near Tiananmen from the Odessa Steps, thus, is not the heroism of the protester, but rather the decision by the tank commander not to run Tank Man down, or to shoot him. The video has always been more compelling to me than the shot; the tank commander actively tries to carry out his job without running over tank man, and eventually decides to hold up an entire tank column while Tank Man clambers on to his vehicle.

I feel that I can understand why Tank Man risked his life to stand in front of the tank column. I have less of a sense of why the tank commander decided to stop. For all I know, Tank Man may have been Tank Commander’s brother. Tank Commander may have been afraid that his superiors would have been pissed if he ran over a guy while cameras might be watching. He may not have wanted innocent blood on his hands, or on the treads of his tank. He may have sympathized with the demonstrators; perhaps his father or mother had been a victim of the Cultural Revolution. Or perhaps he identified the Tiananmen demonstrators with the Cultural Revolution, and sympathized with them. I really have no idea.

The thing is, Tank Commander is far more dangerous than Tank Man. Tank Man can simply be shot; most seem to believe that Tank Man was later executed, far out of sight of the international media. The regime survives if Tank Man dies, even if the death of Tank Man isn’t the optimal outcome. The regime dies, however, if Tank Commander refuses to run over Tank Man. Eisenstein used the Odessa Steps to demonstrate the corruption of the Czarist regime, but the regime didn’t die until the soldiers refused to shoot the demonstrators. The successor regime didn’t die until Boris Yeltsin climbed on a tank in August 1991. While there’s some mystery as to the fate of Tank Man, I don’t doubt that the CCP found Tank Commander and put a bullet in the back of his head at the first opportunity.

1989 is the end of the Short Century, in large part because of the collapse of the Eastern European empire of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War. Although the People’s Republic of China survived, I think that the moment that Tank Man and Tank Commander shared symbolizes the end of the era; the image and video of the moment, spread across the world by 24 hour news networks, signified a shift in the way that the state could interact with its citizens. It made the relationship between state and citizen explicit, and also exposed the weakness at the core of the state. States can still engage in brutal behavior, and horrible things can still happen, but the relationship has changed; the reliability of the bureaucracy of murder is in greater question now than it has been since the creation of the modern state system.

1989 is not 2009. The media trends that allowed the dissemination of the moment between Tank Man and Tank Commander have, if anything, accelerated; the ability of individuals to create their own narratives, independent of the state, is remarkable. At the same time, the state has developed new strategies for dealing with its citizens. This is as true of liberal democratic states as it is of authoritarian. I think, however, that the center of gravity of the state remains with Tank Commander. To the extent that the United States, other Western regimes, non-governmental organizations, and pretty much anyone else want to affect the course of events in Iran, the key is to convince Tank Commander not to shoot. The Iranian state has not deployed its full coercive resources against the demonstrators, and there’s no indication that it really wants to; even the CCP is said to believe that the massacre in Tiananmen Square was a serious mistake. The news to watch for is something like this, in which several members of the Revolutionary Guard were purportedly arrested for collaborating with dissident elements. Without the obedience of the security forces, the state collapses.

Can Giuseppe Rossi’s US Citizenship be Revoked?

[ 0 ] June 16, 2009 |

USA 1 – 3 Italy

I thought the USA held up well against an admittedly aging Italian side,
for the first 55 minutes or so until they predictably tired while a man down. The red card against Clark wasn’t, but both my Welsh lodger and I felt that Chiellini should have been sent off for cynically bringing Altidore down in the box. Indeed, it was a bad day for the Refs’ Union, as we also felt the offsides call against the Italians was 50/50 at best, and we’d have likely waved play on.

That call saved Bornstein some embarrassment on the own goal. What was he thinking? I thought Donovan had one of his better matches against top tier competition, Spector looked good at the back, Bradley had a decent, at times even creative match in midfield, but Giuseppe Rossi’s first goal of the match for Italy was worth the price of admission. Compared to the Americans’ typical flailing in front of goal (I’m thinking of you, Bradley and Altidore) that Rossi strike was sublime.

I know that there is some anger directed at the New Jersey-born Rossi for choosing to play for Italy over the United States, and I did find his decision unfortunate. But seriously, consider the following: 1) he moved to Parma and joined their youth set-up at 14. 2) he represented Italy at U-16, 17, 18, and U-21. 3) who would begrudge him the opportunity to represent Italy over the US? 4) the US benefits from such decisions more often than not. Oh, and at least his father, and I’m pretty sure both his parents are Italian by birth. So on the merits it’s a tossup at best, and he chose the historically more successful side.

Of course, the British media persisted in bringing up his two pointless years with Manchester United, ignoring his New Jersey roots.

Clinton: Be Bold On Health Care

[ 0 ] June 15, 2009 |

I was fortunate enough to be part of a group of journalists and bloggers invited to meet with President Clinton at his offices in Harlem this afternoon. The main subject was the Clinton Foundation, but as one would expect the conversation ended up being quite wide-ranging. There was lots of interesting stuff, but perhaps best was Clinton’s argument for being very bold on health care. Clinton identified four major ways in which the current context differs from the one he faced in 1993:

  • A different psychological and political landscape. Because, as Clinton noted, Democrats in Congress had stopped Reagan’s strongest anti-government from being enacted, stated Republican retained a popularity that, after 8 years of Bush (much of it under unified government) they no longer do. Knee-jerk anti-government opposition won’t be nearly as effective. And, of course, Obama has larger and more liberal majorities to work with.
  • Obama doesn’t have the same budget restraints. Clinton, having barely gotten a minor tax increase through Congress, wasn’t in the position to raise taxes. Obama will have more options, along with a political context much more receptive to spending increases (although of course this window will close shortly, making quick action on health care essential.)
  • Obama doesn’t have to deal with a Republican Senate leader running for President. The famous letter from Bill Kristol to Dole played a significant role in killing Clinton’s proposed reforms, although Dole might have been willing to cut a deal in different circumstances.
  • Health Care has gotten even worse. Since the GOP killed reform, American health care has continued to get more expensive while failing to even come close to universal coverage and failing to produce outcomes any better than countries that provide care to more people for less money.

I might quibble with #3 — while of course this precise factor shouldn’t be an issue, it looks like most Republicans in Congress plan on being just as obstructionist. The other 3 points are certainly valid, and for this reason Obama needs to be aggressive rather than living in fear of the failure of reform that happened under Clinton.

From a strategic perspective, Clinton said that it was smart for Obama to try to get 60 votes rather than using reconciliation, to preserve his relationship with Congress for other issues. However, that doesn’t mean “giving away the store”; if the only way to get a good bill — i.e. universal coverage combined with policies that will contain spending — is a 50%+1 vote, then that’s what Obama should do. I think that this is right (and if Obama attempts to get a more bipartisan bill, this would also contain the political damage if he needs to do it with a simple majority.)

Media Hero of the Day

[ 0 ] June 15, 2009 |

Nina Totenberg.

Or as Ann puts it:

Listening to the clips, Sotomayor sounds an awful lot like John Roberts — who did not face any concerns about his “fiery temperament” during his confirmation hearings. Totenberg exposes this talking point for what it is: straight-up sexism, with some racism mixed in for good measure.

"everyday bullshit in the world of organized labor"

[ 0 ] June 15, 2009 |

At Cogitamus, there’s a good reminder of why the fetishization of the “secret ballot” preserves a balance of power that favors employers. I don’t suppose I’m making a unique point here, but it’s a shame that a voting mechanism first proposed by English chartists has now been so thoroughly contorted as to make workplace democracy vastly more difficult to achieve. The fact that employers are struggling to preserve a ballot system that actually enables and protects coercive practices — while making bosses sound as if they’re sturdy, mugwump reformers — pretty much says it all. I’m going to assume that someone who believes the current iteration of “secret ballot” is necessary to prevent pro-union misbehavior is also the sort who would believe that voter suppression is an appropriate means of keeping Foghorn Leghorn from stealing the next election.

And George McGovern’s opposition to EFCA almost makes me glad that Nixon defeated him.

Today In Moralistic Hysteria

[ 0 ] June 15, 2009 |

This is the key part of Publius’ take on the federal government devoting increasing resources to cracking down on online poker by freezing the accounts of players:

And just so we’re clear — I’m allowed to play government-administered lotteries, to bet on horse races, to go to casinos, and to purchase things from AIG. But the federal government is apparently drawing the line at Demon Rum online poker. We delicate snowflakes simply cannot endure its horrors.

The lottery point is really key. I prefer a more libertarian allow-regulated-and-taxed gambling approach. I can also see an argument that the social ills that come from gambling mean that it should be banned. But what I can’t defend is banning online poker while permitting incredibly low-odds state lotteries. On can say something similar about New York permitting a slots-only casino in Yonkers. I can see arguments for both permitting and banning casinos, but I can’t see any argument for allowing casinos but only allowing them the games that are probably the most addictive, provide the least jobs, and have the least appeal to affluent people (hence making the de facto tax as regressive as possible). If anybody can defend banning (as opposed to regulating and taxing) online poker but permitting state lotteries and state slot machines, I’d love to see the argument.

Hypocrisy and Double Standards

[ 0 ] June 15, 2009 |

Not surprising to see the High Principle of the “Up or Down Vote” be abandoned, of course — such things are inevitable after changes in party control — but for the record.

USA v Italy

[ 0 ] June 15, 2009 |

Even more important than changing electoral systems: USA v Italy, Group B, FIFA Confederations Cup (kicks off 19:30 BST tonight). This is a largely meaningless tournament beyond affording the World Cup host nation the chance to see if they can actually do this hosting malarky. This will be an interesting match, as its a reprise of the bloodbath during the 2006 World Cup. While being drawn into the same group as Brazil and Italy does little to generate optimism, at least the USA were the only side to take a point off of Italy in the 2006 WC. I’m encouraged that Bob Bradley has named a strong side for the tournament, and who knows, with just a bit of luck, maybe they make it out of the group.

Smart money’s on Spain to win this thing, of course.