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On Zizek and Plagiarism

[ 105 ] July 15, 2014 |

I concur with Michelle Dean:

And two: as a description of the intellectual process, this makes Žižek sound supremely lazy. Copying a summary is indeed a different thing than straight up stealing an idea, particularly if you’re cutting and pasting to criticize. But it still means Žižek was less than personally familiar with the book he’s holding up as a signature example of an evil trend. He’s not exactly setting a shining example of academic rigor, there.

All of these plagiarism panics, of late, share that laziness storyline. Is it just that hitting the top will do you in, make you a target for haters who will comb your work for harmless error? Is it the relentless demand to produce that comes with success that trips people up? Or is it that meritocracy is a total lie and lots of terrible, sloppy work can be so elevated by everyone’s genuflection to intellectual status that it takes years to discover it was constructed with all the finesse of your average Reddit hack?

I’ve been defaulting to that last explanation, myself.

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Your Weekly Wussy Post

[ 23 ] July 14, 2014 |

Look, if you’d all just buy Wussy’s albums, we’d stop promoting them so much. This recent performance at KEXP has 4 songs from their new album and “Pizza King” from Strawberry. I most recommend “Bug” which is a great song.

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[ 182 ] July 14, 2014 |

In this Greg Sargent piece on the need for Democrats to talk more about economic issues is a depressing piece of information about government spending on infrastructure, which is at its lowest levels on record, with data going back to 1947:

Indeed, according to Bureau of Economic Analysis data compiled by Moody’s for its investors and shared with me by White, current state and local investment, in 2009 real dollars, now totals 1.4 percent of GDP. In 1947, the first year for which BEA data is available, the total was 1.7 percent. It steadily rose and peaked in the late 1950s and 1960s, topping out at 4.6 percent, before steadily declining throughout the 1970s and 1980, before dropping below 2 percent during the Great Recession and its aftermath — amazingly — and settling at 1.4 percent today.

Now you can debate whether building more roads is a good idea, but it’s not as if rail or bridges or sewers or other infrastructure is receiving funding either. So basically America falls apart and creating the tax base to fix it is politically impossible.

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Voodoo Economics in the Sunflower State

[ 208 ] July 14, 2014 |

Kansas Republicans pushed through a series of massive tax cuts.  As always, they were justified as a free lunch — economic growth would be so explosive that revenues would actually rise! How did that work out? 

Instead, job growth in Kansas trails the nation. The state’s rainy-day fund is dwindling to zero. Month after month, revenue comes in even lower than fiscal officials’ most dire expectations.

In the rest of the country, school budgets are finally beginning to recover from the toll of the last recession; in Kansas, they’re still falling. Healthcare, assistance for the poor, courts, and other state services are being eviscerated.

But they have more great ideas!

More tax changes were enacted last year. The top rate was cut to 3.9% in stages through 2018. But other cuts were reversed; much of a sales tax reduction was canceled, and the standard deduction was cut back, effectively raising taxes for the middle- and working-class.

In all, as the CBPP documents, the changes will cut the taxes of the wealthiest 1% of Kansans by 2.2%. The poorest 20% of Kansans will see their taxes rise by 1.3%.

The impact on overall state revenue has been devastating. Despite Laffer’s prediction, the state ended fiscal 2014 with a shortfall of $338 million.

In conclusion, upper-class tax cuts cannot fail — they can only be failed.

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Good Job University of Miami

[ 38 ] July 14, 2014 |

The University of Miami for the win, if by win you mean destroying the planet:

One of the world’s rarest forests, a section of Miami-Dade County’s last intact tracts of endangered pine rockland, is getting a new resident: a Walmart.

About 88 acres of rockland, a globally imperiled habitat containing a menagerie of plants, animals and insects found no place else, was sold this month by the University of Miami to a Palm Beach County developer. To secure permission for the 158,000-square-foot box store, plus an LA Fitness center, Chik-fil-A and Chili’s restaurants and about 900 apartments, the university and the developer, Ram, agreed to set aside 40 acres for a preserve.

Ram also plans to develop 35 adjacent acres still owned by the university.

But with less than 2 percent of the vast savanna that once covered South Florida’s spiny ridge remaining, the deal has left environmentalists and biologists scratching their heads.

“You wonder how things end up being endangered? This is how. This is bad policy and bad enforcement. And shame on UM,” said attorney Dennis Olle, a board member of Tropical Audubon and the North American Butterfly Association, who wrote to Florida’s lead federal wildlife agent Friday demanding an investigation.

The university said in a statement that it is committed to protecting the forests — only about 2,900 acres of rockland are left outside Everglades National Park — and helped execute plans for the preserve, but would not respond to questions.

I mean, sure we are committed to saving the rockland in the sense that we will sell for the 1,000,000th Wal-Mart in this country and turn it into cash we can then concentrate in improving the salaries of our most administrators. That is what America is all about, destroying rare ecosystems to buy ivory backscratchers (unfairly illegal!) to not only our president and provost, but our deans as well. Thus, no questions.

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On MoDo And Chelsea Clinton

[ 119 ] July 14, 2014 |

I’m surprised it took Dowd this long to glom onto the emerging narrative.  A few points:

  • Chelsea Clinton’s career path so far does indeed reveal several rackets central to the American political economy that are eminently worthy of criticism.  Her $600 K “news” sinecure at NBC certainly represents much of what is wrong with America today.  $75K speaking fees ditto, although since Clinton donates them to the family foundation I’d say she wasn’t the perfect representative of this point (her parents, I agree, are a different story.)
  • As always, I’m dubious about personalizing what are systematic issues, which of course is what Dowd does.  The $600 grand from NBC to do nothing in particular is certainly the symptom of something very wrong and it’s fair game to note that Clinton benefited from it, but we also shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that she didn’t cause the problem. Had Clinton turned down NBC’s money it wouldn’t have gone to elementary school teachers or starving orphans or cancer research; it would have gone to some other pseudo-celebrity to do pseudo-journalism.
  • Dowd strikes me as particularly poorly positioned to tell this as a story of “wanton acquisitiveness” among individuals.  What does Dowd get paid for writing 1600 shallow, consistently fact-challenged words a week?  Does Dowd donate her own speaking fees to charity?
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Business Owners Always Hate Worker Power

[ 184 ] July 14, 2014 |

Yes, I too am shocked to find out that my small-time capitalist who sells lefty books also hates unions like a member of the Walton family.

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Water Thieves

[ 55 ] July 14, 2014 |

If only we could combine Michigan’s draconian anti-water laws with Texas’ love of killing people we would be able to deal with these savages committing the heinous crime of having water in their homes.

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Sunday Book Review: Sleepwalkers

[ 54 ] July 13, 2014 |

Of the many volumes that have emerged over the past year on the opening of the First World War, few have inspired as much discussion as Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers.   Several discussions of the book have broken out in long LGM threads; see here, here, here, here, and here.

As the title reflects, Clark argues that the war mostly happened through an accumulation of short-sighted policy maneuvers, the impact of which few could understand at the time. Policymakers in France, Russia, Austria, and Germany either were captured by organizational processes that made the full picture difficult to appreciate, or made miscalculations with respect to the commitment of other powers.  Clark doesn’t dispute that elements within every country either sought or welcomed war, or that the war parties were particularly strong in St. Peterburg, Berlin, and Vienna.  He argues, rather, that the assassination of the Archduke failed to resolve intra-governmental conflict in favor of war.  Instead, it pushed all of the states involved towards risk-acceptant behavior, with war as the result. This amounts to the most sophisticated story we have about World War I as “accident.”

Serbia provides the biggest exception to this rule.  Clark begins with the massacre of the Serbian royal family by a group of nationalist Serbian military officers, using this story to illustrate the virulent nature of Serbian nationalism. Eventually, this nationalist feeling would lead Serbia to ignore (or abet) the activities of terrorists groups within its borders, and to pursue a variety of destabilizing policies with respect to the Balkans and Austria-Hungary. Effectively, Clark argues that Serbian nationalism was more poisonous in nature and more dreadful in effect than any of the other virulent nationalisms circulating in Europe at the time.  He certainly makes a strong case for both; Serbian behavior toward occupied areas in both Balkan Wars was simply dreadful, and the impact of nationalist agitation seems to have had a singularly negative effect on Serbian domestic politics, with reverberations into Serbia’s international behavior

How this provided sufficient catalyst to drive the events of July 1914 is another question.  The Russians, British, and French were willing to overlook Serb atrocities in return for influence in the Balkans. Austrian policymakers were divided, with some seeking an excuse for war against Serbia, and other interested in primarily political solutions to the problem.  Serbia’s position was particularly precarious because it amounted, in 1913 and 1914, to a garrison state.  Without French support, Serbia could have no hope of maintaining a level of military readiness sufficient to deter, or even threaten, Austria-Hungary.

Nevertheless, Clark’s account sees Serbian nationalism as the first mover in a cycle that would eventually result in war.  The assassination of Franz Ferdinand destroyed the political balance in Vienna, eventually (after no small degree of internal dissension) resulting in the ultimatum and the decision for war.  Germany was concerned enough about the developing balance-of-power to support Austria, while neither France nor Britain could act decisively enough to restrain Russia, which felt its position in the region slipping.

The long-term viability of the Dual Monarchy looms large in Clark’s argument.  Clark grants that the empire had serious problems with its internal structure, and with the various nationalities within its borders. However, he argues that these problems had long afflicted not only Austria-Hungary, but also other polities, and that there was little reason to think that the empire was under looming threat of collapse. In particular, Clark argues that Franz Ferdinand himself understood the nationalities problem, and had a vision for reorganizing the empire around a triad of national collectives, which he hoped would prove more stable than the Dual Monarchy.

Clark points out that extant expectations regarding Austria’s instability drove destructive political dynamics around Europe. Skeptical about the long term survival of the Empire, Russia and Serbia became more risk-acceptant in their diplomatic and military policy.  France, the United Kingdom, and Italy saw little long-term benefit in taking risks to maintain a state that might not survive.  Concerns about collapse pushed Germany into unconditional support of Austrian foreign policy.

Were the contemporaries correct?  This is an exceedingly difficult question.  In light of what came in the wake of Austria-Hungary, a certain degree of imperial nostalgia is justified.  We can imagine (and Clark helps us imagine, through the figure of Franz Ferdinand) a set of institutions that could have weathered the nationalist storm, kept the empire together, and created a new future for Central Europe.  But then there were many, even within the empire, who were deeply antagonistic to the sorts of reforms that would be necessary for survival.  Maintaining the empire would have required more than sleepwalkers.  But on the other hand, the empire shambled along for much longer than many expected, in the end succumbing only to defeat in a systemic war.  In the absence of war, or in case of victory, it might well have shambled forward indefinitely.

One of Clark’s consistent themes is that trigger events tend to trigger things, and that we’re often a bit prosaic in suggesting that the war was inevitable, and that events would have followed a similar course had Princip never encountered the Archduke.  For one, a war that began over a different issue (a Bulgarian attack on Romania, or a Turkish collapse, or a colonial fracas in East Africa) would have produced a different operational situation than the one that planners faced in August, 1914.  The military plans of the great powers were inflexible, but not so inflexible as to be wholly immune to politics.  More importantly, a war that started in July 1916 would have seen marginal differences in the political and military capabilities of the combatants.  Given how closely fought both the Eastern and the Western Fronts were in 1914, these marginal differences might well have had consequential effect.

Most importantly, an alternative trigger would have affected the diplomatic and policy mechanisms of the European powers in different ways.  The war was about more than the Archduke, and even more than Serbia, but the commitments of the Great Powers were arranged in a unique configuration with respect to Balkan politics.  Shifting the timing or the nature of the event might have produced different coalitions in Vienna, St. Petersburg, Paris, and London, which might well have resulted in either a different war, or no war at all.

Clark doesn’t precisely provide a brief for the Central Powers, but it’s easy to see why many have interpreted the book in such terms.  Clark doesn’t share the view that either Austria-Hungary or Germany intended to use the crisis as a pretext for general war.  There were certainly many voices within the Austrian government that sought war, particularly within the military establishment.  The first effect of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was to remove one of the most important voices against war with Serbia.

For the German part, Clark suggests that Berlin was willing to risk war, but did not actively seek it out.  The German national security apparatus believed (as did the French) that Russian strength was growing, and that a war now would be preferable to a war in several years.  However, Clark argues that this merely made Germany risk-acceptant, rather than openly belligerent.  Germany would have seen a successful Austrian “punishment” of Serbia as a victory rather than a missed opportunity.  A Russian decision to go to war, conversely, was interpreted by the Germans as intractable belligerence.

Clark’s treatment of the British, French, and Russian decision-making processes is somewhat less complete than his discussion of Austria. Nevertheless, he gives a good account of the feel of the British, French, and Russian diplomatic systems. In every case, the diplomatic establishment was divided, with often nasty conflicts between factions who favored compromise and conflict.  The expressed attitude of the state often reflected these divisions, rather than a careful appraisal of the national interest, or a reasoned assessment of the risks of entanglement.

I was ready to be convinced by Clark’s case, but I’m not quite there.  Clark does excellent work with the Austrian records, but there’s enough leeway for interpretation to make compelling arguments in the other direction. I was more convinced by the account of Serbian politics and foreign policy, but even that left me uncertain of how Serbian behavior translated into systemic effect.  We have examples of Serbian bad behavior that don’t lead to great power war.

As some critics have noted, Clark gives relatively little attention to military positioning and operational deployment, instead concentrating on economic and diplomatic affairs.  In some areas this helps clarify issues; Clark explains that neither Russia nor Austria could maintain repeated partial or total mobilizations, because of the economically disruptive nature of such activities.  However, a better sense of how the policymakers appreciated the conjunction of military and diplomatic affairs might have helped illuminate some of the intrigue, particularly on the German side.  I also think that a fuller account of the military balance between Austria and Serbia could have clarified the decision-making that took place on either side, both with respect to Austrian caution and Serbian intransigence.

These concerns notwithstanding, Sleepwalkers is a remarkably fresh, absorbing look at the July Crisis.  It provides a great deal of necessary background on Balkan, Austrian, and Russian politics, as well as a glimpse into the foreign policy machinery of Britain and France.  Moreover, because Clark takes a point of view (however defensible), it’s quite an entertaining read.  Most anyone with a basic knowledge of the events of 1914 and an interest in the details of international diplomacy will find Sleepwalkers useful, whether or not they find themselves compelled by Clark’s case.

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Pizza Toppings

[ 280 ] July 13, 2014 |

It seems unlikely that we have never had a thread on pizza toppings before, but a quick search of the blog’s archives suggests we have not. I am reminded of this because yesterday my parents took me here. The pie we had was actually quite solid. But you have to search through a menu dedicated to whatever rococo concoctions Oregonians think belong on pizzas to find something that reminds me of pizza. Most revolting is this pizza:

Springfield Sunrise
Classy pizza isn’t just for dinner anymore. We were asked how creative we could be with breakfast & we started thinking about those inspired (& filling) farmer’s omelets. Country sausage gravy, potatoes, eggs, cheddar & country bacon.

First, no food should ever be named after my home town. This is not a good sign. Second, country gravy on pizza is the single most disgusting thing I have ever of, except for getting this very pizza with a cheese stuffed crust (because not enough cheese on the actual pizza).

If you all have heard of a worse idea for a pizza, this is time to share for your therapy.

I am no traditionalist when it comes to pizza. Jon Stewart is fundamentally correct on Chicago style pizza (although if you want a pizza-style casserole at 1500 calories per slice, it can be tasty), but then a lot of traditional New York pizza leaves much to be desired as well. I know this is heresy to many, but I think pizza’s finest forms have come out of California cuisine, adding delicious fresh ingredients to a food too often defined by canned olives and canned mushrooms. Sun-dried tomatoes, pesto, kalamata olives, these are outstanding ingredients for pizza. The year I spent teaching outside of Cleveland, we asked around for the best pizza place in Cleveland. The place universally lauded served a pie with canned mushrooms. I was not impressed. There is some pretty good pizza in Providence. I am particularly a fan of Tommy’s, both for quality and for price. But overall, I can’t help but think that the California food revolution has helped improve the overall quality of American pizza tremendously. Except when people demand country gravy on it.

…Worst pizza idea in the United States anyway. I am reminded of the pizzas of South Korea, consisting of imitation cheese, sliced up hot dogs, canned corn kernels, and ketchup for the sauce. But that’s a different category of bad food.

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The Final

[ 70 ] July 13, 2014 |

After more than 110 minutes, I finally have a rooting interest — Argentina being shut out the rest of the way to avoid the abomination of penalty kicks.

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“The current death score is 159-0.”

[ 243 ] July 13, 2014 |

This Saletan column has been sitting in my tabs for several days, waiting for me to contain my amazement long enough to write about it. Fortunately, Bertram has already beaten me to the punch:

I wonder if Israel’s cheerleaders realize the damage they do their own cause when they write things like “Israel, unlike Hamas, isn’t trying to kill civilians. It’s taking pains to spare them” and “But in the Gaza war, it’s clear that Israel has gone to great lengths to minimize civilian deaths. The same can’t be said of Hamas.”…Anybody who is not parti pris can see that the Netanyahu government has partially contrived and partially been trapped by a domestic political climate that requires them to kill numbers of Palestinians in order to satisfy the Israeli electorate. Of course there’s the usual blather about “operatives” and “terrorist infrastructure”, but it is hard to take seriously the idea that anyone believes this as a description of Israeli aims. In fact nobody does, but lots of people in political power in the West think they have to go along with the story and pay lip service to Israel’s “right to defend itself”, even though concretely this takes the form of airstrikes against densely populated urban areas with predictable civilian deaths. Meanwhile, those who speak for the Israeli government go around claiming that no state could tolerate missiles being fired into its territory and that any state would have to retaliate. This is false, indeed absurd: much of British policy in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 80s was deplorable, but though the IRA fired plenty of mortar rounds across the border, nobody seriously contemplated taking out “terror operatives” by aerial bombardment of civilian housing in the Irish Republic.

I have only a couple of small points to add. First of all, this is another illustration of why focus on motives in politics is generally misplaced. I also find Saletan’s readings of the relevant Israeli officials implausible, but it doesn’t actually matter whether they sincerely think they’re minimizing civilian deaths or not. They’re using tactics that guarantee many civilian deaths; what the motives are is fundamentally beside the point.

This also isn’t a defense of Hamas’s rocket strikes. They’re both objectionable in themselves and as with most heighten-the-contradictions strategies the chances that they will make things better by making things worse as opposed to just making things worse are roughly 0%. But this doesn’t change the fact that the Israeli response has been grossly disproportionate.

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