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Separated By The Same Language, Deficit Style

[ 0 ] September 24, 2009 |

according to Mock the Week. Thanks to Simon Dyda and Brieg Powel for bringing this to my attention. It affords me greater optimism every time I look at my monthly pay stub to now know that HM Treasury have at least a grasp.


How to Be A Serious Foreign Policy Thinker

[ 0 ] September 23, 2009 |

Follow these simple rules, and Fred Hiatt will always have room for you.

and don’t forget publishers.

Joe Paterno and the Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism

[ 0 ] September 23, 2009 |

Penn State University’s titular head football coach, Joe Paterno, is old. Really, really old. How old? Well Chalmers (“Bump”) Elliott was Michigan’s football coach for ten years, before retiring from the profession 41 years ago this fall. He then went on to be Iowa’s athletic director for 20 years, before retiring from that position 19 years ago. Elliott is a year older than Paterno.

Anyway, PSU under Paterno was for decades a remarkably consistent program. They finished fifth in the nation in overall winning percentage (out of 121 D-I programs) in the 1970s, seventh in the 1980s, and sixth in the 1990s. Then age suddenly seemed to ambush Paterno, and the team more or less collapsed. In the first five years of this decade PSU fell to 72nd in overall winning percentage. Paterno’s behavior on the sidelines and at press conferences started going from charmingly eccentric elder statesman to disturbingly crazy old coot.

After racking up a several-year won-loss record that would have gotten any other coach at a historically elite program fired, Paterno hung on, cashing in a mountain of institutional chips, and leaving observers to wonder how long it would be before his career ended in some Woody Hayes-like incident (Hayes, the legendary Ohio State coach, was fired in 1978 after punching an opposing player on the sidelines at the end of a game).

Then something unexpected happened. Penn State got things turned around. In the four and a third seasons since 2005, PSU is more or less back to where they were before the decline and fall of the Paterno empire. Their 43-11 record is 8th best in Division I over that span. What happened?

Apparently, Penn State’s assistant coaches somehow managed to wrest all actual decision making power from their putative boss. Long time defensive coordinator and heir apparent Tom Bradley is now all but openly acknowledged by everyone but JoePa himself to be PSU’s real head coach. Now during games Paterno sits in a booth high above Beaver Stadium, a quite possibly unplugged headset straddling his still remarkably dark hair, a video monitor before him, which for all anyone knows may be playing highlights of the 1983 Sugar Bowl in a continuous loop.

Perhaps some sociologist or political scientist with an interest in institutional theory (and college football) will one day study this bloodless coup with the analytic rigor it deserves.

Update: I thought it was fairly obvious this post was somewhat tongue in cheek (I don’t actually believe JoePa was watching the 1983 Sugar Bowl on his monitor during games). Still it would be interesting to try to figure out the processes by which guys like Paterno and Bowden cede much or all of their previous decision making authority, while still holding on to their jobs. (It’s clear both of them have, although the extent of their semi-retirements isn’t.)

Castro: But I Want to Nuke them Now!!!!

[ 0 ] September 23, 2009 |


In the early 1980s, according to newly released documents, Fidel Castro was suggesting a Soviet nuclear strike against the United States, until Moscow dissuaded him by patiently explaining how the radioactive cloud resulting from such a strike would also devastate Cuba….

The Pentagon study attributes the Cuba revelation to Andrian A. Danilevich, a Soviet general staff officer from 1964 to ’90 and director of the staff officers who wrote the Soviet Union’s final reference guide on strategic and nuclear planning.

In the early 1980s, the study quotes him as saying that Mr. Castro “pressed hard for a tougher Soviet line against the U.S. up to and including possible nuclear strikes.”

The general staff, General Danilevich continued, “had to actively disabuse him of this view by spelling out the ecological consequences for Cuba of a Soviet strike against the U.S.”

That information, the general concluded, “changed Castro’s positions considerably.”

This is interesting in that it mirrors the (very public) conversation that the Soviets and the Chinese had about nuclear weapons in the 1960s. To sum up very briefly, the Chinese argued that the Soviets should be much more aggressive in their thinking about nuclear weapons, while the Soviets were quite realistic about the prospects for victory in nuclear war. In that case, the Soviets had insufficient leverage to bring the Chinese into line, and eventually concluded that a certain political distance between Beijing and Moscow was desirable in case the Chinese did something stupid. In the Cuba case, the Russians of course were able to essentially dictate policy to Havana.

The report is also intriguing in terms of thinking about the relevance that information plays in actor behavior. It’s sort of remarkable to think that Castro wasn’t aware of the consequences that a nuclear attack on the US would have on Cuba; I’m inclined to think that just about everyone in the US (or at least everyone after November 1983) was aware of the devastating environmental effects that nuclear war would entail. Maybe Castro was just playing for bargaining space, in the same sense that it’s possible that Mao was feigning ignorance about the effectiveness of nuclear weapons in the 1950s. But then again, it’s not wholly unreasonable to think that Castro, a busy man, may simply never have taken time to educate himself on what nukes really do.

Finally, I find it interesting that the Soviets took the “even if we win, you lose” tack in explaining the situation to Castro. I suspect that the Soviets were well aware that, even under the most rosy scenarios of a pre-emptive attack, nuclear fallout was the least bad thing that could happen to Cuba, and that the utter nuclear destruction of the island was much more likely. As a corollary to this, I have to wonder whether Castro, like some American policymakers, was taken in by the idea that the Soviets had presumptive nuclear dominance and could destroy the US whenever they liked. Team B made this a fashionable opinion in the US, and it’d be interesting to see whether it filtered in modified form to Havana.

Cracking Down on Ratings Agencies

[ 0 ] September 23, 2009 |

This is a very important step, and hopefully something like these proposals will go forward. As with the collusive accounting practices that were a major part of the Enron scandal, the principal-agent problems with the ratings agencies are indeed severe — it’s not just that the ratings agencies have their own independent interests, but that those interests are intertwined with the companies they were allegedly scrutinizing. Which means stronger regulation is essential. (And speaking of corporate “free speech,” I’m amused by the recently rejected argument that the First Amendment immunizes credit agencies from being sued for deceptive ratings. Does the First Amendment mean that laws against perjury are illegal too?)

This Can’t Be Right

[ 0 ] September 23, 2009 |

The Yankees may not use the greatest pitcher athlete in Yankee known human history in their post-season rotation? If they remember his countless great starts — why, who can forget that masterful outing when he gave up only 4 runs in 5 2/3 innings, he certainly celebrated like he just pitched a shutout in Game 7 of the World Series, and surely that counts for something — I’m sure they’ll reconsider.

Sotomayor on Economic Issues

[ 1 ] September 22, 2009 |

An interesting article by Jess Bravin about Sotomayor’s recent oral argument queries about whether treating corporations as the equivalent of persons for constitutional purposes:

But Justice Sotomayor suggested the majority might have it all wrong — and that instead the court should reconsider the 19th century rulings that first afforded corporations the same rights flesh-and-blood people have.

Judges “created corporations as persons, gave birth to corporations as persons,” she said. “There could be an argument made that that was the court’s error to start with…[imbuing] a creature of state law with human characteristics.”

After a confirmation process that revealed little of her legal philosophy, the remark offered an early hint of the direction Justice Sotomayor might want to take the court.

“Progressives who think that corporations already have an unduly large influence on policy in the United States have to feel reassured that this was one of [her] first questions,” said Douglas Kendall, president of the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center.

It does seem possible that while Sotomayor might be a Breyeresque wet on civil liberties issues, she may also bring an economic liberalism that really has no representation on the current Court.

The rest of the article is very much worth reading, with good background information about Santa Clara County. What’s striking is how cursory the arguments in favor of the very important concept of corporate personhood were, although the constitutional text is silent either way and it’s certainly not obvious that it follows from the classical liberal principles that animated the rights in question.

The Liberal Democrats Gunning for Labour

[ 0 ] September 22, 2009 |

Which given the current polling context, is not news that Labour need. While in the early summer I speculated that Labour still had a chance for a hung parliament, especially with the replacement of Gordon Brown with Alan Johnson, now that looks highly unlikely.

The Lib Dems and Labour present the UK with the most likely coalition partnership in an electoral system that rarely produces the need for such talk. Indeed, they did serve in a coalition government of Scotland, but then the electoral system for the Scottish Parliament facilitates coalition government.
This says more about the chances of the Liberal Democrats, and they appear to believe that they can replace Labour into second place. This I doubt; while early polling indicated that the Liberal-SDLP Alliance erm, Liberal, SDP Alliance had a chance at supplanting Labour as the official opposition, by election day their support had attenuated. Now, the Lib Dems don’t even have this level of support in the polls.
An election, of course, is around seven months off, so a lot can change; it remains to be seen whether the sustained support for the Tories and David Cameron result from their innovative policies, or simply exhaustion with 12 years of a Labour government. As Cameron et al. are understandably coy about what, if anything, they stand for, I suspect the latter.
What makes this interesting to watch is that if the Liberal Democrat strategy comes close to success, it might suggest the chance of a realignment in British politics on the left. In 2005, considerably more of Labour’s 5% loss in vote share from 2001 went to the Lib Dems (3.7%) than the Tories (0.6%). If this did not result from only contextual elements specific to the 2005 campaign (e.g. the unpopularity of Michael Howard and the lack of cosmetic innovation in the Tories) this could perhaps bring about conditions that may allow a realignment on the left.
I’ve argued in class for the past couple of years that Brown’s best move, short and long term, is to introduce a form of PR into Westminster elections. With Tory support topping out around 44% in my lifetime, and only currently polling at 43%, it would appear that there is a natural ceiling for the Conservatives. A form of PR, while eliminating the current electoral system’s ability to deliver crushing parliamentary majorities from slim popular vote results (witness the 35% Labour secured in 2005), would ensure a coalition government so long as the relative strength of the three main national parties remained stable. So long as the Lib Dems worked with Labour, it would shut the Tories out of government for the forseeable future. Since neither Blair nor Brown maintained their enthusiasm for electoral system reform following the 1997 results, that was never in the cards.
And of course, the Liberal Democrats can’t seem to agree on much, anyway.

Hack of the Day

[ 0 ] September 22, 2009 |

Michael Barone. (Am I right to remember that Barone once had a reputation as being something other than a fourth-rate op-ed propagandist?)

See also, although of course even if Gladney was a genuine victim of assault it would hardly prove anything about “liberals.”

It’s about time…

[ 0 ] September 21, 2009 |

…conservatives pulsed with outrage over an actual outrage. Or not.

Obstruction of justice

[ 0 ] September 21, 2009 |

It’s always difficult to figure out what’s going on from news reports regarding a criminal investigation, but this story raises a lot of questions.

First, why isn’t Zazi being charged under one of several very broadly-worded federal anti-terrorism statutes? If, as the FBI asserts, Zazi admitted attending courses “at an al-Qaeda training facility in the FATA (tribal) region of Pakistan” and that “he received instruction from al-Qaeda operatives on subjects such as weapons and explosives,” those are very serious crimes — far more serious than giving false statements to investigators.

Second, the crime with which Zazi, his father, and the NYC informant have been charged with is essentially a form of obstruction of justice. But the federal statute that supposedly criminalizes this conduct is a textbook example of a law that’s subject to abuse by overzealous prosecutors. Obstruction of justice at its core involves acts like witness tampering, intimidation, and the like. But a catch-all provision in the statute allows making false statements to an investigator to be treated as a free-standing crime.

Note that when they agreed to submit to questioning none of these people were under oath, or had been charged with anything. The “crime” they have supposedly committed is that of giving inaccurate statements to investigators. Meanwhile the investigators are free to lie with impunity to the people they interview.

Third, this kind of case appears to illustrate how easily civil libertarian and due process concerns can get tossed out the window when the magic word “terrorism” is invoked. From what’s been reported there appears to be no solid evidence of an actual plot of any sort, or the existence of real weapons, or indeed anything beyond some suspicious movements and conversations. This probably explains why the suspects haven’t been charged with any crime other than that of failing to cooperate appropriately with their interrogators. (Note too the absurdly transparent pretext that Zazi’s rental car was stopped by the NYPD as part of a “random drug stop.”).

Now of course it’s always possible that Zazi is part of an actual Al Qaeda cell of some sort, as opposed to say a clownish amateur who hasn’t done enough to be charged with a real crime. But then he ought to be charged with one.

He wanted to distinguish the "known knowns" from the "unknown knowns"

[ 0 ] September 21, 2009 |

Some people evidently had too much time on their hands:

Donald Rumsfeld had to be talked out of editing his own entry on Wikipedia, which he referred to as “Wika-wakka.” He was a Drudge Report reader and used to watch YouTube clips that made fun of his press conference performances.

Good thing there’s not a “Rate My Defense Secretary” site. Rummy totally would have given himself a chili pepper.

Rumsfeld’s Wika-wakaa page, incidentally, has already been updated to include this important news.