Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Web design fail

Sorry, Matt, but your new blog layout makes my brain hurt. For starters, it's too busy. And I have to scroll down to see the top post! Worse still, I have to scroll past huge color photographs, which completely torpedo the otherwise-kinda-cool black and white motif. Those photographs appear to link to recent Yglesias posts. Hey, ThinkProgress, newsflash: it's not necessary to link me to the blog posts that I'm already reading.

(I am enjoying the new related posts feature, proving once and for all that Matt Yglesias writes WAY TOO MUCH about Miley Cyrus.)

Also, what's with CyberYglesias at the top? It seems that Matt, no longer content to merely spend his days pouring onto the internet musings about DC height restrictions, has taken the dramatic step of actually entering the computer. He is now posting directly from the Grid, in between lightcycle duels and battles with the Master Control Program.

Monday, May 30, 2011

You can't spell campaign coverage without "pain"

So if you haven't heard, Sarah Palin is back on the map! She joined the Hell's Angels. Or something. Also, she might run for President.

Over on Slate.com, in keeping with Slate's, um, distinctive style of journalism, John Dickerson wants you to know that Palin's (potential) presence in the Republican primary could either help, or hurt, Mitt Romney! Gee, thanks, Slate.

Okay, even beyond the "either this thing is true, or else it's not" nature of the thesis, the Slate article on Palin contains a few pretty glaring oversights.

First, there's this bit:
There is one scenario, however, in which Palin's entry could cause Romney's numbers to fall. Right now, the dynamic of the race is that there is Romney and an anti-Romney candidate. If it becomes instead Palin and an anti-Palin candidate, Huntsman or Pawlenty might have a moment in the sun.
Nevermind the strangeness of informing us that the race is currently dichotomous, containing Romney and an anti-Romney -- and then, in the very next sentence, listing no fewer than three non-Romney alternatives by name. And nevermind the dubious logic behind the whole assertion (if Mitt Romney isn't popular enough to win outright, it seems that there being one significant candidate who isn't Mitt Romney would actually be better than for the person who isn't Mitt Romney than it would be for Mitt Romney).

The real oddity here is how John Dickerson tells us that there's one scenario in which Palin's presence hurts Romney -- and that scenario is if she helps Huntsman or Pawlenty. I can think of at least one other significant scenario in which she might hinder Romney: she actually wins the nomination. As Dickerson himself points out, she is currently tied for the lead in the primary polls! And while it's early, she has been more popular for longer than just about any figure in Republican politics right now! Is it really so implausible that she could win? Is it really wildly more implausible than John Huntsman winning? And why? I agree, Sarah Palin winning the Republican nomination seems comically absurd. But since we're all adults here and don't believe in magic, if we're so convinced that insurmountable obstacles stand between Palin and the nomination, we should describe them. I myself can identify no force in politics which I can say with confidence would doom a Palin candidacy. Wish though I might that America was protected by divine powers committed to sanity in government, and that, upon the eve of a Palin nomination, mystical forces would align and the granite Lincoln on the National Mall would stand up and bound towards the Palinomania campaign bus, thunderously proclaiming, "STOP, IN THE NAME OF THE UNION, FOR YOU KNOW NOT WHAT EVIL YOU UNLEASH!" we live in a world where Sarah Palin is one double-dip recession and three crappy Republican candidates away from the White House.

Well, that's not totally fair. Dickerson does identify one obstacle between Palin and the nomination. And that is... wait for it... the rhetorical genius of Willard "Mitt" Romney. You see, if Palin were to win in Iowa -- surely the first step towards First Man Todd, et al. -- Romney could then "argue that Iowa is following its pattern of selecting quirky, unlikely-to-win-the-nomination candidates like Mike Huckabee and Pat Robertson." Which would no doubt be a boon to Romney, except...

Argue to who, exactly? The top secret Supreme Republican Nomination Council? The Illuminati, who are single-handedly responsible for every presidential election result of the last two centuries? Because either assertion seems more convincing than saying Romney should make that case to the Republican electorate. We're talking about a group of people of which only every third member can successfully identify "The United States" as the birthplace of the current "President of the United States." Receptive to esoteric political arguments about the unconventional voting tendencies of the typical Iowan caucus-goer, they are not.

Look, Romney's still probably going to win. He's a vaguely slimy white guy, with a lot of money. He's boring and kind of conservative. If not Romney, it'll probably be, in my opinion, Huntsman, who is less slimy, maybe more conservative, but has less money. But that doesn't mean we have to indulge in this silly horse-race nonsense about making cases to voters and defining the race and tacking right and claiming the middle ground and winning the heart of the Tea Party.

Of course, everyone's going to do it anyway. It's going to be a long year.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Game time

You should download and play this game. In it you have to sell life insurance to little men. Then they pay you until they fall down a hole and die. After which you have to pay a hefty sum to the widows. In other words, try to insure men who aren't going to fall down holes. You can also fill in the holes, but it's not cheap. The object, of course, is not to go bankrupt, and also, to get rich and buy things, preferably as fast as possible. It's a pretty fun way to kill ten minutes or so.

There are a few strategies for doing well, and surprisingly enough, the strategies each have real-world policy implications. But as far as I can tell, any message seems to be completely unintentional: the creator (incorrectly) believed his game couldn't be beaten. I'm not going to talk about any of that (yet), because I don't want to scare people away from something that is fun.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Department of irony

If I was a really bad dude, and knew I was a really bad dude, and knew that, at some point in the future, I would do some really bad stuff, and I wanted to get away with as much of it as possible, the first thing I would do is join the police force.

World of Warcraft and the futility of responsible consumerism

This is insane. It seems that prisoners in China are being forced into slave labor... playing World of Warcraft. The in-game money and goods they earn are then sold to Western players for real-world money.

It sounds shocking, at first. As the above link points out, the scheme is straight of out a lousy sci-fi plot: "Prisoners being used as slave labour in an artificial reality?"

But the practice is not quite as odd as it seems. First, in-game items and currency -- in World of Warcraft and other games -- have been sold for real money for quite some time. The people who buy it aren't necessarily crazy, either: acquiring stuff in an online game takes time, and often players would rather spend their time using their stuff than earning it. So it all comes down to exactly how a player values his time. If he would rather spend twenty (or two hundred) dollars to buy an item than spend however many hours earning it, purchasing the item from the internet black market is a rational economic choice.

(I do have a vested interest in defending the practice, because, well, I'm loathe to admit it, but I did at one point in my life buy a small amount of online currency. Don't spread it around.)

Second, once the economic opportunity existed, the window opened for individuals with access to cheap, reliable labor necessary to exploit it. And as we see here, they did.

There's a temptation to dismiss this story as an oddity of the modern world. But I think it also leads us to a broader point about underpaid workers more generally. Because in a sense, this isn't any different than any other consumer good being manufactured in the third world or in unacceptable conditions by underprivileged laborers. T-shirts, fruit, and now digital gold: they're one and the same, from a certain perspective.

In all these cases, there are three preconditions:
  • Demand
  • Cheap labor, which is available in many forms, in many countries
  • And a means of conveying the products from the laborers to the consumer
The third condition exists by default in a digital economy; in real life, global trade fills the same role.

If you want to fight the exploitation of workers, you have to remove or alter one of the preconditions.

What you've seen during the last few decades is a lot of people attempting to accomplish this goal by changing demand. "Don't buy Nike; their shoes are made in sweatshops!" "Get oranges from the farmer's market; that way you know they weren't picked by underpaid Mexican workers!" The idea, of course, is that by avoiding products which were produced unethically, we can encourage manufacturers to pay their workers more and generally embrace humane labor practices.

But as this article proves, wage slavery is not the province of a handful of global actors; more and more, even small-time entrepreneurs (like the Chinese prison guards) have access to the global markets that allow them put cheap labor to use. The result: more and more products can be produced in exploitative conditions.

This poses several dilemmas for the responsible consumer movement. First, how do you know which products not to buy? It was easy when you could just avoid certain brands. But it seems implausible that anyone in a developed Western nation could know how every product they buy was produced. Second, at some point, asking people to avoid certain products takes on an almost monastic quality, raising practical and ethical problems. Should a person be asked to avoid a certain kind of thing because they live in a global economy which sometimes produces that thing unethically? Because these days, a lot of different types of things fall into that category -- you'd be asking people to give up an awful lot. More pragmatically, not many successful mass movements are built on the idea of self-deprivation and forbearance.

In other words, you can't get rid of worker exploitation by tinkering with demand. So that leaves two other avenues: raising the cost of labor, and disrupting the medium of transfer.

It seems to me that correct choice here depends on context. For instance, there is simply no way that Blizzard Interactive can raise the cost of labor in China. So instead, if they wants to address the prisoner slave labor problem (and it's a major PR blemish, so I imagine they will), they'll have to find some way to crack down on sales between Chinese producers and Western consumers. Blizzard might step up monitoring somehow. More likely, I think, they will take efforts to drive Chinese players from Western servers, dissolving the intercontinental marketplace altogether.

In the real world, options aren't quite so limited, but labor conditions in China and elsewhere are still mostly going to be controlled by the respective national governments. (Outside agencies can lobby for unionization or other forms of workers' rights, but as long as cheap labor is a profitable resource, it seems that the various governments benefit as much or more by ignoring those pleas.) So the one remaining option, it seems, is proactively tinkering with international markets to prevent worker exploitation.

Now I'm generally all for free trade. In a perfect economy, freer trade benefits all sides. And often, that has proven the case with the real economy as well. Nor do I believe that every instance of a foreign worker getting paid less than the US minimum wage is bad; sometimes, it's just comparative advantage at work. But abuses do happen, as we see here, and they can go beyond perilously low wages: it's not hard, in the shadier corners of the planet, to force groups of people to do work they wouldn't do otherwise. And there are more subtle forms of coercion -- social, political, sexual -- than outright imprisonment and beatings.

So it seems prudent, considering the dearth of other options, to find a way to in those instances to step in and proactively limit the sale -- or the medium for the sale -- of goods that can be and are produced in abusive environments. I'm no expert on international trade, and I'm sure there exist a host of mechanisms for exactly that purpose. And since exploitation still happens, I'm also sure these mechanisms are quite insufficient for the task before them. I'll leave the actual policymaking up to the experts, for now. But strangely enough, I think World of Warcraft has helped me understand the best place to start looking for a solution.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Here are my thoughts on the NYSE's trademark claim to pictures of the trading floor:

Hahahahahahahaha, yeah, no.

Oh, and by the way:

Regime change in Libya

So, Matt Yglesias wrote a post about mission creep in Libya. After noting that NATO's limited campaign to protect rebel lives is logically sound, he claims that the military objectives have nonetheless expanded beyond the original humanitarian mission:
This policy, while logically coherent, is basically impossible to operationalize and in practice the military intervention has been beyond humanitarian from the very get-go.
I agree with Matt that, in practice, despite NATO's protestations to the contrary, regime change has become both a diplomatic and military objective in Libya. But Matt's making a conceptual error here. He's envisioning humanitarian intervention as one objective, and then regime change as a second, independent objective; he's then suggesting that the US and its allies started out pursuing the former but has gradually transitioned towards pursuing the latter.

Matt seems to be misunderstanding the relationship between these two goals. In Libya, the push towards regime change is actually derived from the primary goal, which remains "protecting the rebels and their cities."

The reasoning is simple enough. So long as Qaddafi is bent on slaughtering the opposition, the only way to protect people in rebel cities is to ensure that the rebels don't lose the war. And if neither side is willing to accept a stalemate, the only way to ensure they don't lose the war is to ensure they win the war. And if the only victory condition the rebels will accept is that Qaddafi steps down, then achieving the first-order objective of protecting rebel cities requires some form of regime change. The logic is quite straightforward, and moreover, has been basically imposed on NATO by events outside of its control.

The question we have to ask, then, is whether there's any sign that regime change has become a military objective existing independently of this chain of reasoning. In other words, it's important to know whether regime change has become an end of its own, rather than a means for a greater humanitarian purpose. What would that look like? Presumably, it would entail military action designed to effectuate regime change pursued independently of rebel progress (or failure) in the ground war. Some potential clues: extensive strikes on Tripoli regardless of the progress of the rebel front; troops on the ground, especially outside of rebel-held areas; and most significantly, pressure from NATO to continue the war even if a negotiated solution or divided Libya started to look like a possibility.

Have we seen any of these things? Not really. In fact, the war in Libya has remained more-or-less what it was when it began: NATO planes bombing Qaddafi forces on or near the front lines. The targets have certainly shifted a bit as the war has progressed. Still, it seems that strikes against Tripoli itself remain unusual. Nor does it seem like there have been real attempts to launch some sort of decapitation strike against Qaddafi's government. And there's certainly been zero indication that NATO would conduct attacks if a peace settlement were likely -- which is not to suggest that a settlement has actually seemed likely at any point.

So you have to wonder if there's something bothering Matt (and other liberal bloggers) besides the oft-predicted, little-seen expansion of the war.

I think so. I think they have a problem with something else entirely: after Iraq, they still support humanitarian intervention, but they're gun-shy about regime change. So much so, in fact, that they'll oppose humanitarian intervention if intervention requires regime change.

Like them, I support humanitarian intervention and oppose regime change. But I come out the other way when the two appear side-by-side. If humanitarian intervention is otherwise practical and necessary, I won't oppose it just because it might entail some form of regime change. And in Libya, there are just too many lives immediately at risk to let Qaddafi win.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"In the beginning, God created the world and the world of the living room"

This is too good not to share. Google Scribe (Google's web-based word processor) has added an auto-suggest function. Except with a twist: not only does it try to guess what word you are typing, but it also tries to guess which word comes next. And then the word after that. And after that. String them together and you can get some truly bizarre results.
  • The Prophet Muhammad said that the company is working on a new fast direct download service.
  • LOOK OUT FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES correspondent.
  • We're sorry for the delay in the onset of the disease.
  • Mark Zuckerberg is the youngest of the three major credit agencies.
It's basically an electronic Ouija Board, or maybe some sort of Information Age robot oracle. For the most part its proclamations come out sounding a bit like a paranoid schizophrenic:
  • A large number of people who are not in the same way as the first step in the formation of the first and second ends of the earth and the other is a more detailed description of the King of the Hill Country of Texas at Austin and the Federal Reserve Bank of India and the United States and Canada.
But sometimes its says things that are downright eerie:
  • Kim Jong Il and his son were killed.
Anyway, you should go play around with it.

(thanks for this, Dan)

A poem for DSK

Dominique had whispered in all the right ears
He'd learned his lesson from many careers:
With a little nudging
He might escape all judging
But this time he's still up for twenty years

Click that link if you've made it through the day without being reminded how badly the rich can behave when given half a chance. According to the story (which is both anonymously sourced and from the NY Post, so take it with a grain of salt) Dominique Strauss-Kahn's wealthy buddies are trying to bribe the family of his alleged victim, so that they, in turn, encourage his victim to drop the rape charges.

It's been a relief to know that some crimes remain inescapable and inexcusable, even for the privileged. And it's hard not to find a little bit of grim satisfaction in the collective French horror at seeing one of their favorite sons hauled off in chains.

Still, if the Post story is to be believed, privilege isn't going to go down without a fight. Well, fine. Like the Post suggests, if DSK is guilty, there's surely plenty of evidence against him. Do these shadowy benefactors really think they're helping their friend? If anything, the prosecutors are liable to redouble their efforts if they catch anyone trying to bribe their chief witness. DSK underestimated the American justice system once, and looks like he and his ilk are walking into the same trap all over again.

In the meantime, my grim satisfaction at seeing justice done has just gotten a little less grim and little more satisfying.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Just trust me and watch it.

David Brooks' hackery crosses the Atlantic

It finally happened. David Brooks has finally slid off the brink into a deranged fantasy world. Unable to find a real-world example of moderate conservatism attaining ever-greater glories, he has instead constructed one from thin air. This government bears some resemblance to real-world Britain, but don't be fooled: the characters and events he discusses are entirely fictional.

I know I have occasional readers in the UK and Ireland, and you guys in particular ought to check this column out. For instance, it contains the following gem:
The United Kingdom seems to be in the middle of that sort of constructive quarrel now. Usually when I travel from Washington to Britain I move from less gloom to more gloom. But this time the mood is reversed. The British political system is basically functional while the American system is not.
It's good that Brooks, technically speaking, avoids suggesting that Britons have escaped from their gloomy tendencies altogether, and instead only focuses on their relative level of gloom. Because while my Gloom Sensors are less finely tuned than Brooks', I do have access to something Brooks apparently does not: numbers. And those numbers are ugly. Over the last six months, the British economy has achieved zero growth. Zero! Nothing! Zilch! Nada! In the last quarter of 2010, the GDP actually shrank by 0.5%! Hey, Britain, 2008 called, and it wants its recession back.

Oh, and it's not over yet: the Bank of England just downgraded its growth forecast for the next two years.

Well, okay, I don't want to misquote Brooks here. And he didn't say Britain was overflowing with exuberance, only that it was less gloomy than the US. Surely the numbers reflect that:
[American real GDP] increased at an annual rate of 1.8 percent in the first quarter of 2011 . . . . In the fourth quarter, real GDP increased 3.1 percent.
Oh, wait. No. They don't. They really, really don't.

So who do we have to thank for this veritable explosion of good cheer in the UK? Now, I'm inclined to say David Cameron and the Conservatives. But I'm just some random dude with a blog, so don't listen to me. Instead, let's turn to that stalwart defender of progressive economics, the Financial Times: "Most mainstream economists argued that the impact of the government's fiscal consolidation on confidence and consumer demand would be negative; so it has proved." Or Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, who acknowledged that "the Government's fiscal consolidation to continued 'to weigh on activity.'"

By "fiscal consolidation," they mean the austerity agenda that was the shining centerpiece of the Conservative government's policy platform. It's the platform the Tories have pursued come hell or high water, in the face of economic backsliding and massive street protests. The austerity program, and more importantly, its failures, are the defining feature of UK politics right now. I wonder what Brooks has to say about that:
Prime Minister David Cameron is a skilled politician who dominates the scene. His agenda doesn’t merely touch his party’s hot buttons, but moves in many directions at once.

His austerity program includes tax increases as well as spending cuts. He’s vigorously protecting the foreign aid budget as he cuts almost everywhere else. He has aggressively reformed welfare and education while retreating on health service reform.

By balancing his agenda, by conveying a sense of momentum, by insisting on fiscal responsibility, he’s remained popular. His party did well in the recent local elections, even amid the fiscal pain.

You'd think that somewhere in his paean to British austerity, Brooks would see fit to mention that austerity has wreaked havoc on the British economy. You would be wrong.

As the passage above demonstrates, the man also seems bizarrely convinced of the Conservatives' continuing popularity.

I suppose, on a certain level, it's an understandable mistake. After all, in his world, there are two parties and two parties only. There are Democrats, decent people who are fundamentally unserious. They want to give money to the poor, they want to make government work better, but they have forgotten to pay for the things they want. Then there are Republicans. Republicans might be a little mean, but they're grownups, real working people, who intuitively understand money. And always, at all times, in all places, the best solution is to split the difference: Democratic compassion tempered with Republican fiscal maturity.

So it's understandable that when Brooks looks at the UK, he sees Labour as Democrats with accents, and the Conservatives as Republicans with accents, and he forgets everything else.

But here's the thing, David Brooks. The United Kingdom has three major parties. And right now, there's a coalition government. So for your beloved Conservatives to stay in power, not only do they have to keep their seats in Parliament, so do the Liberal Democrats.

If David Cameron is as skilled a politician as Brooks claims, preserving the coalition should not be difficult. The Tories apparently did well in local elections, so let's see how the Liberal Democrats have fared:
The Liberal Democrats are bracing themselves for the loss of up to 600 seats in Thursday's local elections in England, prompting fears that their activist base across the country could be devastated.
Uh oh.

And not only are the Lib-Dems facing virtual annihilation, but the Conservatives aren't actually popular in their own right. Currently, they're polling at a mediocre 37%. A huge number of Britons passionately hate the coalition government. The British economy, quite frankly, sucks. If a national election was held today, the Conservatives would be catapulted back to the minority. It's very simple: you cannot describe the Conservative party, circa 2011, as an electoral success.

And yet, somehow, David Brooks wants to convince us that the Tory government is popular and capable -- more popular and capable than the moderate liberal government in the United States. He's unable to cite actual substantive victories, so instead, he relies on rhetorical vagaries. David Cameron is "conveying momentum." Cameron has remained popular by "insisting on fiscal responsibility." America is gloomier than Britain. These claims are both stupid and meaningless. The broader point is completely false.

Besides fabrications masquerading as British political reporting, the column contains plenty of other little buried idiocies. For instance, he reports on one diagnosis of the UK's long-term woes:

As the British politician Oliver Letwin has argued, a generation of misrule between 1945 and 1979 left the U.K. with three large problems: a stifled industrial economy; an overcentralized welfare state; and an enervated people, some of whom are locked in cycles of poverty.

Makes sense so far. Lousy economy, clunky welfare state, and too much poverty. And then, here's how Brooks characterizes the progress on these three fronts:

By liberating the economy, Margaret Thatcher tackled the first of these problems, and subsequent Labour governments consolidated her gains. Meanwhile, a series of governments have been fitfully tackling problems two and three, reforming the welfare state and energizing the populace.
Wait, wait --he wants to address poverty by energizing the populace?! The problem isn't that people don't have enough money to participate meaningfully in the economy and in civil society. No, the problem is that they are literally too lethargic to do so. The poor don't need a handout; they need a Red Bull.

Of course, there are lessons to be drawn from the British experience (hint: austerity doesn't work), and of course, Brooks refuses to draw them. Instead, he once again turns to the one point he's been making, year in and year out, without variation, for the last two decades. You see, apparently, in the UK, as in the US, the correct solution is always the one lying between the ideological extremes of the parties:
Each party took different whacks at pieces of the great national problem, depending on its interests. Opposing parties, when it was their turn in power, quietly consolidated the best of what the other had achieved. Gradually, through constructive competition, the country quarreled its way forward.
Yes! Compromise! Centrism! Both sides are usually wrong and the solution can always be found slightly right of center!

Or, as long as we're talking about Brooks' creepy fetishization of the political center, how about this:
The British political system gives the majority party much greater power than any party could hope to have in the U.S., but cultural norms make the political debate less moralistic and less absolutist.
Brooks sees no connection whatsoever between the content of British political debate and the structure of British government. Well, he wouldn't. David Brooks, perhaps more than anyone, is married to the all-talk-no-action system of overgrown checks and balances that characterizes US governance.

But here Brooks simply has no idea what he's talking about. While he seems impressed that British parties embrace moderation in spite of majority rule, it takes all of about twelve seconds to realize that British parties are moderate precisely because of majority rule. In the UK, voters expect the parties to enact the agenda they campaigned on. Knowing they'll be expected to keep any promises they make, the parties steer clear of overheated rhetoric. If you want American parties to follow suit, the key isn't to adopt British cultural norms (what would that even be? Massive consumption of brown sauce?), but to change our political system so that the people in office can be held accountable for policy outcomes.

What's incredible about this last point in particular, is how close Brooks comes to noticing something both profoundly true and profoundly obvious, before suddenly diverting into his centrist fantasyland. So close, and yet so very far.

And then, for the grand finale, Brooks attacks the very idea of democratic government:

Britain is also blessed with a functioning political culture. It is dominated by people who live in London and who have often known each other since prep school. This makes it gossipy and often incestuous.

But the plusses outweigh the minuses. . . The big newspapers still set the agenda, not cable TV or talk radio. . . British leaders and pundits know their counterparts better.
Short version: British politics are dominated by a wealthy, insular elite. This is good and desirable.

Not coincidentally, David Brooks is a man who has used his position among the journalistic upper crust not to spread truth or report facts, but to inch ever further into the halls of power. He coddles the influential and he expects them to coddle him back. Oh, he's not above issuing the mildest of rebukes now and again. But only in between dinners with the President and media elite. So it's small wonder to discover that, at the end of the day, this is a person who prefers that as few people as possible run the country. Just so long as he is chummy with those people, anyway.

In summary, David Brooks, you are bad pundit. You lie with misdirection. You blame the poor for being poor, while you yourself earn six figures by endlessly churning out the same lazy column. You think "national character" explains all sorts of things, but you ignore facts and figures. You don't understand policy. You don't care about good government. Please, please, for the sake of all of us, just go away.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Tornadoes: maybe not so great after all

Absolutely insane and terrifying:

You win this round, tornadoes. As if the Midwest needed more reasons for me not to live in it.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Let's face it, tornados are the best natural disasters

[Edit: Of course, as soon as I post this, a tornado kills a ton of people in Missouri. Now I feel like a jerk.]

Looks like we just had a tornado west of the cities! It knocked over some trees and stuff! Anyway, what's the deal with tornado warnings? There appear to be three alert levels:

-Tornado watch, meaning, there could be a tornado.

-Tornado warning, meaning, there is a tornado.

-And then the sirens go off, meaning, there's a tornado and it's headed this way!

But what exactly am I supposed to do at each stage? Since I'm probably not going to spend all day hiding in my basement because someone issued a severe weather bulletin, the first two don't seem to do much good. Then again, I'm the wrong audience for this sort of stuff. Here's how I react to all three:

-When there's a tornado watch, I wonder what it would be like to see a tornado.

-When there's a tornado warning, I wonder what it would be like to see a tornado.

-When the sirens go off, I rush out to my porch in hopes of seeing a tornado.

In my defense, I'm pretty sure everyone does the same. As far as disasters go, tornados have got to be the most exciting, and more importantly, the most YouTube-able. Relatedly, here is a really awesome video of a tornado in Canada. I probably watch it once a month. Come on, you have to be a little bit jealous of the guys that took it.

Department of false equivalences

Jacob Weisberg makes the obvious point that a lot of Republicans believe a lot of crazy things, but he goes one further:
Moments like this point to a growing asymmetry in our politics. One party, the Democrats, suffers from the usual range of institutional blind spots, historical foibles, and constituency-driven evasions. The other, the Republicans, has moved to a mental Shangri-La, where unwanted problems (climate change, the need to pay the costs of running the government) can be wished away, prejudice trumps fact (Obama might just be Kenyan-born or a Muslim), expertise is evidence of error, and reality itself comes to be regarded as some kind of elitist plot.
Amen, Jacob. There just isn't anything on the left remotely comparable to what's happening in the GOP right now, nor has there been in my lifetime. True, neither party has a monopoly on the truth. But compared to the left, mainstream American conservatism propagates extraordinarily false ideas, it requires its members believe in an extraordinary number of those ideas, and it requires that they believe those ideas to an extraordinary degree. Too often the obvious mismatch is described in terms of "needing to fix our politics," which dodges the issue. Half of our politics is fine. Half of our politics is working just like it always has. The breakdown isn't in our politics, it's in the Republican Party. And it's the Republican Party that needs to be fixed, preferably before someone who genuinely believes that the government spending should be 3% of GDP actually makes into the Oval Office. If you're a Republican and you can't recognize how far off the rails your compatriots have flown, then you're probably part of the problem.

Anyway, go read the whole article.

Saturday, May 21, 2011


The other day, someone (thanks, Drew!) forwarded me this story about the Senate filibustering a proposed reduction in oil subsidies. Now I feel pretty much compelled to blog about it. Which is okay, because it's interesting!

And one of the most interesting things about the article is that the chart it provides basically disproves the contention the article's own contention: that the subsidies were protected by industry-backed senators. It's accurate that the senators receiving the largest sums from the oil and gas industries all voted to keep the subsidies. But that's only true for the top ten or so beneficiaries; after that, it's not at all clear whether there's any correlation between contributions received and the senator's vote.

There is, of course, a much easier-to-spot correlation. All the Republicans, minus two, voted for subsidies; all the Democrats, minus three, voted against them. And in a way that's a lot more telling than anything that can be gleaned from poring over records of political donations.

Now obviously my opinion of the general correctness of the Republican Party's views are fairly public at this point, so I'm not going to go any further down that road today. But taking a step back, I do think it's interesting the way a vote in favor of subsidies seems completely incompatible with the party's professed belief in free markets and laissez-faire economics. Tax subsidies distort the marketplace just the same as regulation or anything else, and if anything, are even more vulnerable to the sort of rent-seeking behavior that free market purists fear and abhor.

So what's going on here? I think the answer is relatively simple: whatever its claimed ideological commitments, the Republican Party, at the end of the day, represents interest groups. That's no less true of the GOP than it is of the Democrats. Both parties go to great lengths to disguise this fact: Democrats by talking about social justice and fairness, Republicans by talking about business and the free market. But either way, when push comes to shove, the parties break in favor of the groups that fill their coffers and set their agenda. For Republicans, those are mostly industry groups, for Democrats, it's some confused mixture of industry groups, unions, poor people, minorities, and god knows what else.

You'll note the stark contrast between the behavior of the parties writ large, the (1) behavior of commentators on TV and in the papers, who are mostly driven by the need to develop and defend their beliefs, and (2) the behavior of individual politicians in the parties, who are mostly driven by their need to not run afoul of the party base.

Anyway, while the disproportionate influence of industry relative to other groups is deplorable, I'm actually glad that Republicans sometimes vote in accordance with the interests of their benefactors and not in accordance with their ideals. That's how a democracy is supposed to work: everybody gets a lawmaker who can defend their preferences. Whatever this system lacks in ideological fidelity, it makes up in predictability and stability. After all, ideologues run amok can be scary.

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And now, a very special message

Blogger doesn't tell me very much about who is visiting my blog. Just about the only information I get is:

A. How many of you there are (answer: not too many).

B. What browsers everyone is using.

With that said, congratulations to the 91% of you who aren't using Internet Explorer! Using this number and math, I've discovered that the average reader of my blog is approximately 34.6% smarter than the ordinary internet user. Well done, I'm proud of you! Keep up the good work!

If you're one of the sad souls in that last 9%, please, come into the light.

Dear conservatives: time to give up on gay rights

Tennessee has moved one step closer to signing a bill banning, before grade nine, discussion of sexuality not related to the "science of human reproduction." Because, as Tennessee state senator Stacey Campfield astutely observed, "homosexuals don't naturally reproduce," this law has the side effect of preventing any mention of varying sexual orientations, right down to the fact of their existence. That just so happens to be exactly what Stacey and his fellow senators wanted in the first place. (Sidebar: Stacey being a dude goes a long way towards explaining why the particular combination of "gayness + grade school" might be so traumatic for him. I doubt third grade was much fun for this guy. But I digress.)

On one hand, this sort of stuff is infuriating. It's a naked attempt to restore the taboo around homosexuality. It points to gays and lesbians, people who have been openly living in polite society for the better part of twenty years, and says, "We liked it better when no one knew you existed. Go away." And it's not just an attack on them. As the article above points out, some of the kids in these schools will have been raised by gays or lesbians. What would this law say to those kids about their upbringing? The bill is an affront to common sense and decency, pure and simple.

But on the other hand, there's an air of desperation around the whole thing. Does anyone really think many kids in Tennessee schools will now grow up unaware of gays and lesbians? For that matter, does anyone think kids currently in Tennessee schools are learning about homosexuality in the classroom? Of course not. You want to know about being gay? Turn on the TV. Or, you know, just talk to people on the street. It's in the culture. Stacey Campfield is way too late.

All this bill really does is highlight the utter backwardness of the Republican position on gay rights. And holy moly, is it ever. This is the party that overwhelming supported DADT, and whose presidential candidates still yammer on about repealing the repeal, as if there were the the faintest glimmer of a chance that such a thing could happen. This is the party which keeps pushing anti-gay amendments into state constitutions. And this is the party whose dead-enders have a seemingly limitless capacity to dream up creative new ways, like the Tennessee law, or gay adoption bans, to force gays back out of American public life. I'm embarrassed just watching them.

Is there any issue where the GOP is further from the American mainstream ? Any half-attentive observer can see which way the winds are blowing. The topic of gay rights isn't shocking or, well... anything anymore. The country overwhelmingly opposed DADT. Progress on the marriage front has seemed all but inevitable for a while now, and it increasingly appears that right now, this moment, a majority of Americans support full marriage equality.

If I were a Republican trendsetter, it would keep me up at night. Maybe smearing gays riles up the base, but in the long term, it drags down the party. It reminds everyone under 40 who's on the right side of history. For that matter, it reminds people who was on the right side of history in the past, and where all the segregationists went. Unless the GOP wants to cement into place all the stereotypes about being a party for the old and intolerant, it should figure out a way to reject relics like Senator Campfield.

Friday, May 20, 2011

It's not about what you believe, it's about who you agree with

I guess I'm going to make a habit out of answering Ezra Klein's weekend questions. Or at least this week's, because it's super easy:

In 2008, Republicans nominated a candidate who’d fought the 2003 Bush tax cuts, opposed torture, sponsored the first cap-and-trade bill introduced in the Senate, flirted with joining the Democrats, passed a campaign-finance reform law, led the fight for comprehensive immigration reform and attacked the Christian Right. So why are so many commentators so certain that the heterodoxies of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman will disqualify them?

The answer has nothing to do with the substance of the underlying policies -- god knows political commentators couldn't care less about the substance of the underlying policies -- and more to do with guilt by association.

In 2008, superficially aligning oneself with George W. Bush was assumed to be a political liability.

In 2012, superficially aligning oneself with Barack Obama is assumed to be a political liability (at least, for Republicans).

It really is that simple. To the extent that this is true, it says a lot about the Republican base. To the extent that it's not, it says a lot about the quality of our political media.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Unicameralism forever

The Senate filibustered the nomination of liberal Goodwin Liu to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals today.

First off, bummer. Liu was a good nominee and the federal judiciary is already perilously understaffed.

Second off, looks like we're taking yet another step towards the US Senate being the perpetual and omnipresent Check in our system of Checks and Balances. Signed a treaty? Hope the Senate likes it! Want to nominate the judge? Hope he's blandly moderate enough for the Senate! Passed a bill through the House? Hope a handful of senators don't decide to hold it hostage for kicks (or kickbacks)!

The Senate's ongoing evolution becomes more bitterly ironic when you think about the high esteem in which senators hold themselves. The Senate actually describes itself as the "World's Greatest Deliberative Body" and most senators seem to agree. It's not clear to me how a deliberative body can be the world's greatest when its sole function in our current system of government is basically telling the other parts of the government what they are and are not allowed to do. Maybe the focus is on the "deliberative" part, and it's true, the Senate certainly does do a lot "deliberating." Months and months worth, for every tiny little dinky bill that escapes its clutches. Of course, even then, calling the legislative process as it takes place in the Senate "deliberation" insults actual decision-makers everywhere. The Senate works something like this:

1. The idea for a bill appears. Generally the bill is proposed by the President or passed up from the House.

2. The bill dies in committee.

On good days, it works like this:

1. The idea for a bill appears. Generally the bill is proposed by the President or passed up from the House.

2. It passes through committees.

3. Someone forms a Gang of Four/Six/Twelve/Twenty. Speeches are made.

4. The motion to begin debate is filibustered.

In purely theoretical terms, Item Number Four means that senators are unable to stop debating whether to have a debate over a bill.

In less theoretical terms, this is probably the most idiotic mobius strip of retarded parliamentary reasoning you will ever encounter anywhere or anytime in your life. The W.G.D.B. is paralyzed on a daily basis by its endless "deliberation" of whether or not it should deliberate in the first place. Think about that. Or don't, your head might explode. "US Senate v. a bill or nomination or treaty" is like "WOPR v. Tic Tac Toe" or "Windows Vista v. a PDF file" or "a supercomputer that has never heard of logical paradoxes v. Captain Kirk." Except the computers also have the good sense to shut down or blow up or BSOD and otherwise embrace sweet, sweet oblivion. By contrast the army of blowhards in the Senate are quite content to do nothing forever, all the while reminding us of the Ancient And Honorable Tradition of Debate in the Senate.

The Senate should be stripped of its name and its history. It's not a legislative body anymore. It's the Government Oversight Office, a massively hypertrophied rubber-stamping body that exists to tangle up the rest of the government as it tries to do its job. It should be given a new name more reflective of its function. Something long-winded and bureaucratic, like the Committee for Reconsideration of Activities Proposed by Other Legislative Agencies. And then the whole worthless thing should be dumped into the sea.

Voters care about the things they hear about

I'm blatantly stealing this from The American Prospect, but it's worth reposting because

A. it's kind of awesome.

B. replace "Donald Trump" with "the deficit" and it goes a long way towards explaining why so many Americans worry so much about something they understand so little.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Wikipedia page of the week

Largest organisms! So many freaky things on there. Particularly under "Arthopods."

"The largest arthropod ever known to exist was either the eurypterid (sea scorpion) Jaekelopterus or the Carboniferous millipede Arthropleura, which were both between 2.5 and 2.6 m (8.2-8.5 ft) in length. They were closely followed by Pterygotus, an aquatic eurypterid that was up to 2.3 m (7.5 ft) in length."

I was having trouble envisioning an eight foot centipede, so I just imagining an insect stretching diagonally from one corner of my bed to the furthest opposite corner. Seems about right.

Anyway, sweet dreams, everyone.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Can Minneapolis transit planning survive Minnesota weather?

People like to ride bikes when the weather is good. And over the long-term, we either need to over-provide bike infrastructure for the winter months or under-provide it for the spring and fall. The problem is particularly intense for a bike sharing program, since the targeted users are precisely the marginal cyclist rather than the hard-core bike commuter.
Greetings from the frozen North, Matt. Minneapolis winters make Boston or DC winters look tropical by comparison, and the city actually does nonetheless maintain a bikeshare program. The city has its own way of dealing with seasonal variations: our bikeshare stations are removable and disappear during the endless winter months, presumably cutting down on maintenance costs.

I have wondered how well this works, though. On one hand, it certainly doesn't make sense to provide bikes when every week sees another foot of snowfall and temperatures are dropping to -15 or worse. Any cyclist crazy enough to go out in that kind of weather surely has their own bike. On the other hand, it seems to somewhat defeat the purpose of building bike-and-pedestrian-centric infrastructure if everyone just drives everywhere from October to April. Also -- and this may or may not be related -- I've had a hard time getting a sense of how deeply the Nice Ride program has taken hold. You do see people on the signature green bikes pretty often. But just anecdotally, those people always seem to be tourists, sight-seers, or just out for pleasure rides. That's nice, but to really make a dent in car traffic, the program needs to be adopted by commuters.

Despite a number of fairly compact, walkable neighborhoods, the Twin Cities metropolitan area sprawls a long way out. I do wonder how much of this is because of the weather. What's the point of moving closer to the city centers when you're always going to need a car and a parking space for a good fraction of the year? No matter how busable, bikeable, or walkable you make Minneapolis or Saint Paul, hardly anyone who can afford to drive is going to go outside in sub-zero, frostbite-inducing temperatures. It must be a depressingly insurmountable challenge for transit planners in the cities.

Monday, May 16, 2011

What sex tells us about the rich and famous

I'm manifestly unqualified to talk about the consequences of Dominique Strauss-Kahn's arrest for France or Europe. Suffice to say Stauss-Kahn's behavior appears to have been monstrous and one can only hope his status doesn't stand in the way of justice being done.

But there's something that always bothers me about powerful men and sex, which seems to apply no less here than anytime else.

I suspect I'm far less forgiving of sexual transgressions committed by politicians and other public figures than most of my peers. The prevalent view on these things (the Strauss-Kahn affair excepted, of course, because rape is quite rightly in a category of its own) among many of my friends and acquaintances is that what somebody does in his private life is nobody's business but his own.

I disagree. Not because I think it's important what a person does in the bedroom, but because I think it's important what a person does when he's given power over others.

You see so many powerful men, when granted a position of prestige and influence, through talent or good fortune, rushing to exploit the fact that the ordinary laws of social gravity no longer apply to them. Obviously abuse of privilege can manifest itself in a lot of ways, like corruption, but behavior towards women is one of the clearest and most common. I don't care if you're Bill Clinton or John Edwards or John Ensign or Eliot Spitzer or Tiger Woods or Dominique Strauss-Kahn, your treatment of women all comes from the same place: a sense of entitlement. A sense that "I am special" and "I am different" and "I can have whatever I want." These men harbor ambition that has met with too much success, and now feel infallible.

Anybody who has grown up in the real world knows that life can be about tradeoffs and sacrifices. And if you want to hold a position of influence and power, one of the things you're sacrificing is the right to philander about, to charm or seduce or throw in with whatever women take your fancy. Anything else would imperil your family, who would suffer immensely if your dalliances come to light, would imperil the ideas you profess to champion, and, all too often,would imperil the women of whom you are taking advantage.

These are men, not impulsive teenagers. They have in almost all cases demonstrated tremendous ability to control how they behave and present themselves in the public eye. They are intelligent. They are capable of long-term thinking. They see and know full well the potential consequences of the actions they choose to take.

But so many powerful men -- and for whatever reason, it almost always seems to be men -- simply don't care. Instead of exercising even the slightest forbearance, they'll take everything society will let them take, and sometimes more.

What minimal degree of self-control is needed to simply say "No?" Of course, most of the time, it's not even a matter of refusing or deferring gratification -- it's a matter of not actively seeking it out. Having an affair while running a presidential campaign; hiring prostitutes while governing the state of New York; attempting to assault your hotel's chambermaid: these things aren't mistakes to be regretted and repented, they're egregious failures to live within the bounds that society has constructed, acts of violence against the idea that the powerful should have to live like everyone else.

That's what bothers me. The inescapable sense that so many powerful men have no rules on the inside. They aren't guided by their personal code, or their morals, or even their vaunted ideas, but the laws that forcibly keep them in line, as well as the occasional fear that their transgressions will come to light. For every one that oversteps and gets caught, you have to wonder how many go unnoticed. Quite aside from the tricky politics and morals of the sex itself, what does it say about man when he is unable to live by a simple set of rules for the good of everyone around him? Should he be in charge of anyone or anything?

Life After Trump

Donald Trump has officially decided that he's not running for president after all. Trump's exit from the fray is both understandable nor much unexpected, but also sad, because he's the first Comedy Candidate to cut and run. Yesterday, Mike Huckabee also dropped his presidential bid, and Haley Barbour recently called it quits as well. That means the ratio of Very Serious Politicians to Comedy Candidates in the dropout column is currently 2 to 1. Which is kind of inexplicable, because if you look across the vast sea of buffoons that remains in the Republican presidential primary field, it's quite clear that even a portly redneck like Barbour or (formerly) portly redneck like Huckabee would be quite competitive.

I mean, let's review:

You have Mitt Romney, the guy who installed health-care reform before Obama made it cool, and such a diehard conservative that Matt Yglesias voted for him.

You have Newt Gingrich.

You have Rick Santorum, a man who truly believes that all homosexuals are going to burn in the darkest pits of hell, and a man whose name you should never, ever Google.

You have Sarah "In what respect, Charlie?" Palin.

You have Ron Paul, who thinks that black helicopters are coming to abduct anyone who stands in the way of the Rothschild plan for a New World Order.

You have Michele Bachmann, who thinks that black helicopters are coming to abduct anyone who stands in the way of the Rothschild plan for a New World Order.

Last and most definitely least, you have Tim Pawlenty, the Republican John Edwards, a candidate so oppressively mediocre that his grip on the nomination is still in doubt, despite his opponents being Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Ron Paul, and Michele Bachmann.

I guess there are a bunch of random scrubs as well, like Mitch Daniels (who?) or Jon Huntsman (isn't he a Democrat?) or maybe Rudy Giuliani (ha, that guy again?). Wikipedia informs me that Jimmy McMillan -- founder and, as far as I know, sole member of the Rent Is Too Damn High Party -- has also announced a bid for the Republican nomination. It sounds ridiculous until you realize that he probably has better name recognition among Republicans than Tim Pawlenty does.

The lesson here is that the primary is still anybody's game! And more importantly, we need at least one or two or twelve good debates with the whole raving crew, just for spectacle. So hang in there, everyone!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The NYT talked to Dick Lugar and they want you to know that he seemed like a really nice guy

There's one thing conspicuously missing in this NYT profile of Dick Lugar's battle against a more-conservative primary challenger. The Times casts Lugar as moderate Republican pushing back against the excesses of Tea Party conservatism. Unfortunately, the Times forgets to add concrete examples of Lugar's moderation.

Let's break it down:
Many of his positions dovetail with the Tea Party agenda; he has sponsored a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution and argues for the need to reduce military spending and restructure entitlement programs to reduce the deficit.*

But Tea Party groups complain about his sponsorship of the Dream Act, which would have created a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants who are students or military veterans. They disapprove of his votes for President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees and for the bank bailout of 2008. In the criticism most puzzling to him, they disapprove of his pushing for a new strategic arms reduction treaty on nuclear disarmament.
So in the not-so-moderate column, he supports a balanced budget amendment, which is literally the craziest and furthest-right budget plan currently extant in Congress.

In the he's-a-moderate-no-really-we-swear column, we have his sponsorship of the DREAM Act. But about that: Lugar withdrew his backing of the DREAM Act as soon as he got a primary challenger. Considering this is literally the first piece of evidence that the Times marshals to prove Lugar's moderate bona fides, isn't his recent abandonment of the law sort of an important fact? The Times doesn't think so, neglecting to mention this anywhere in its profile.

Then there is Lugar's vote for the TARP bailout. But check out the vote breakdown for TARP. If you scroll down a little bit you can see a list of people who voted "Nay" and therefore against Lugar. There's 25 of them, including nine Democrats and socialist Bernie Sanders. Meanwhile, on the "Yea" side you have moderate shrinking violets like the Johns Cornyn and Kyl.

So that leaves us with Lugar's votes for two Supreme Court justices and New START. Is that all it takes to be a moderate these days? Voting for the opposition's judicial nominees -- something that, as recently as a few decades ago, was done as a matter of course -- and supporting the extension of a treaty originally negotiated by George H.W. Bush?

There's another metric we can use: in the current Congress, Lugar has voted with Republicans 99% of the time. In the last one, he voted with his party 82% of the time. For comparison, that puts him in the same neighborhood as Jim DeMint and Rand Paul.

Here's the thing: I don't doubt that Lugar is a moderate in some respects. Even I suspect that, deep down inside, the guy is more reasonable than the vast majority of his colleagues. And certainly, for him, the important thing is that the Tea Party thinks he's a moderate and wants to topple him because of it.

But where it really matters -- casting votes -- Lugar is often impossible distinguish from the hardcore base of the Republican party. A no vote against the health care bill doesn't count for more if it comes from a Tea Partier instead of Dick Lugar. When the Times talks about Lugar's moderation, what they're actually talking about is his temperament, not his voting record. It's a very important distinction, and it's one that gets elided all too often. And that's deeply problematic, because the political media establishment idealizes compromise and centrism, and as a consequence also idealizes people like Lugar who want to cast themselves in that mold. But focusing your reporting on a politician's public persona means you're ignoring the single most important feature of his political existence: not how much he hums and haws about wanting to find a compromise, not how long he sits on the fence before choosing a side, and not how chummy he gets with politicians of a different stripe, but where he votes when the chips are down.

*Note how the NYT describes "reductions in military spending" as part of the Tea Party agenda, so you know immediately that they're talking about the hypothetical media version of the Tea Party as an ideologically distinct movement of conservative libertarians, as opposed to the real life version of the Tea Party, where it's the right wing of the Republican party and believes all the same things that mainstream Republicans do, just more so.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

I saw Thor and now I will review it for the edification of my readers

First things first: I love going to see all superhero movies. That's not to say that I love all superhero movies, although I love a lot of them (especially the first two Spiderman movies, X-Men 2 and 3, Iron Man, and my very first superhero movie: The Shadow, starring Alec Baldwin, a film tragically forgotten by history). But superhero movies seem almost uniquely aware that the main reason that I've turned over eight to twelve of my dollars to spend several hours of my day sitting in a dark room is to be entertained, and they obligingly respond with a series of events that are carefully tuned to be maximally entertaining.

Superhero movies also understand that a movie doesn't have to constantly wink at the audience in order to be fun. Most seem good-naturedly willing to to put on their game face and crank up the faux gravitas and dime-store melodrama. My pet theory is that this is because a long time ago comic books discovered, accepted, and embraced the fact that audiences are enthusiastic co-conspirators in the suspension of disbelief, willing to go along for the ride, just so long the ride is sufficiently thrilling. Most films operate under the assumption that they have to convince us -- even force us -- to like or believe their characters, but superhero movies know that isn't necessary. Superhero movies know that people are empathetic creatures that can relate to anything if we want to. So they bargain with us. "If let yourself feel sad about Uncle Ben's death, you'll be rewarded with a perfectly satisfactory ending with all the appropriate emotional beats you crave." A lot of people probably find this approach annoying but I think it's admirable in its pragmatic drive to make sure everyone has a good time. It also means that superhero movies aren't trying to reinvent the wheel; they don't monkey with the all plot and character and stylistic archetypes that everyone knows and everybody responds to. Instead, they dedicate themselves almost entirely to putting those archetypes to use as effectively as possible, constantly fine-tuning a finite set of affirmedly satisfying, entertaining dramatic tropes. Superhero stories have taken a handful of stock situations that elicit glee from the audience -- the hero recovers from certain defeat, to the shock of the gloating villain! -- and made an art form of cultivating the emotions they evoke. It's all very workmanlike but they've also gotten quite good at it. And as result, while there have certainly been lousy superhero movies I can hardly think of one that I didn't have fun watching. (Except the Fantastic Four movies. Those sucked.)

So that's a fairly roundabout way of saying I definitely enjoyed Thor. It was pretty good! Especially if you're the type of person who likes these things!

(Judging from the people at my showing, the "type of people" who like these things are balding middle-aged men, uncomfortably alone, evenly spaced out at 15-seat intervals throughout the theater. I could speculate as to what this means for me and my past and future emotional development. But I won't.)

There were only two things that bugged me about the movie, really. The first was Natalie Portman, the mortal woman who wins the heart of Thor, god of thunder, in about three days. Natalie Portman is a hopelessly irritating actress in a lot of contexts -- something about the chirpy voice and the fact that she will forever remind me of this doofus. More broadly, the love-at-first-sight romance ("first sight" being literally as Portman runs over him with her car) seemed pretty implausible initially. Then I remembered I was watching about warring Norse gods, so I settled down and went with it.

The other problem is that a very large part of the appeal of Thor is watching burly Viking-types hit each other with blunt and bladed implements, and Kenneth Branagh instead has chosen to direct the action scenes like he's just seen The Bourne Identity 17 times in a row, which is to say that very often you're left watching, in extreme close-up, ambiguous forms that may, or may not, be burly Viking-types hitting each other with blunt and bladed implements. What makes the choice even more baffling is that the entire purpose of this style of action directing is to make the action feel real, like you're there in the midst of the battle, except in this instance "there" is the extra-dimensional realm of Asgard and generally speaking it's going to take a good deal more than shaky-up-close camera work to mentally transport me so far afield. All things considered, I would have preferred that Branagh had just zoomed back the camera a bit and slowed down the fights slightly and traded a little bit of, um, verisimilitude for the opportunity to let me watch Thor really thwack a frost giant with his mighty hammer Mjolnir.

But then again, the other movies I could have seen are Water for Elephants and Jumping the Broom and this movie is still way ahead of them in the frost giant department. So all and all, pretty happy with Thor.

Flip-flopping all the way to the top

Ezra Klein asks whether politicians who abandon prior policy views are being cynical or are just talented at self-persuasion. In short, why do flip-floppers flip-flop?

On one level, I should say, I don't think this is a very important topic of conversation. Because basically, who cares why they do it? Flip-flops are for the most part very predictable, and it doesn't really matter whether a senator, in his heart of hearts, subscribes to his new position or his old one. What matters is how he casts his vote, and that's much easier to explain (how's his party voting? How well does each side poll?). But it's still instructive to explain what makes this happen, because it shows a little bit about what goes on in the brains of our leaders, and maybe suggests a way to make them better at what they do.

So with that in mind, I don't really agree with either of Ezra's options. I don't think that most politicians are willing to sell America down the river to win a vote, and I certainly don't think a guy who supports universal health care enough to make it Massachusetts law can suddenly become genuinely, honestly opposed to the same system when it's enacted nationwide. Instead, I think politicians feel free to change their views because they hold a political worldview that minimizes their own role in the lawmaking process. Ironically, for people who have spent large portions of their lives seeking power, their behavior is mostly facilitated by a belief that they don't really hold any power at all.

Basically, I don't think individual lawmakers attribute policy outcomes to their own efforts so much as they see policy outcomes as a reflection of public opinion. There's a bit of truth to this idea, and a bit of incoherence. (A lot of more dramatic policy proposals are precluded by the general shape of political opinion: for instance, privatizing Medicare - or, for that matter, installing a UK-style health service. But process matters too! Many bills in Congress live and die on the structure of the political system. Cap-and-trade, for instance; it passed the House and would be law today if there wasn't, by recent historical accident, a supermajority requirement in the US Senate. You can't really say that the American public rejected cap-and-trade -- you can only say that cap-and-trade didn't survive the journey through the American political process, but might have survived the journey through a nearly identical political process.)

Nonetheless, people are always more keenly aware of the obstacles they face than the agency they exercise. So politicians tend to overstate the importance of public opinion limitations and understate the importance of their role in shepherding good legislation through the process.

Once you've assumed the centrality of public opinion to lawmaking, it's only a short hop to justifying a flip-flop. If Mitt Romney truly believes that America opposes the health-care law, and that any Republican president would, as a result, also be forced to oppose the health-care law, why does it matter what he thinks about the health care law? In this view, him supporting the law might affect him personally - it could prevent him from becoming president! - but it doesn't affect America at large, the trajectory of which is beyond his control. If he changes his view and opposes the law, he might have to reckon with himself a bit but the moral consequences don't extend much further than that.

In a sense, politicians justify bad behavior the same way people have justified bad behavior since the beginning of time: telling themselves it doesn't really matter. It does. And politicians aren't just policy-makers, they're opinion-setters. As Ezra himself said: "Politically knowledgeable individuals tend to be partisans who take cues from their parties. Voters take cues from politically knowledgeable friends."

So it seems to me the best way to stem the tide of flip-flops isn't to increase media scrutiny or decrease partisanship. It's to instill in our leaders the idea that there is gravity in what they do, and that they have an obligation to behave accordingly.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Glad that's done with.

Finished with finals! Back to regularly scheduled blogging, I guess.

Anyway, in case you were wondering how finals actually went, I, in flagrant violation of the honor code, managed to record the first few minutes of my Civ Pro II exam. It's not for the faint of heart.

Minnesota lost a lot of good men and women that day.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Don't release the pictures

I'm knee-deep in exams and oughtn't be blogging at all, but I felt compelled to say something about the ongoing controversy over whether to release pictures of Osama's body.

I'm sympathetic to both sides here. The "Release The Photo" crowd believes that Americans shouldn't be shielded from the true costs of war, that too often our military endeavors exist as an abstraction in the heads of the public, and that this picture, however gruesome, will force the public to reckon with America's bloody handiwork. Besides, they say, it is a government record, and the government shouldn't be in the business of shielding us from the things it does in our name.

The other side argues that the photo is a trophy of war, and parading it across television screens would be akin to parading the actual body through the streets.

I'm of the latter view. I might think otherwise if I believed that releasing the photo really would force Americans to confront the realities of the War on Terror and the war in Afghanistan. But I don't believe it could have any such effect. The reaction to the photo would not be self-reflection, but rubbernecking. It always happens. There is, after all, a reason that in the pre-Youtube, Wild West days of web video, gruesome videos of deaths and accidents were the third pillar of internet clip culture, after "cute animals" and "pornography." To be clear, this is manifestly not a criticism of Americans, because I don't think fascination with the morbid is anything less than a common human trait. But people who google "osama bin laden death picture" aren't looking for sober insight into war, they're looking for a cheap thrill, something to gawk at. Publishing the photo would simply create an object of public curiosity. Knowing this, we have to take it into account in our decisions. Our enemies deserve some measure of respect as human beings, a principle not worth sacrificing in a futile attempt to educate the body politic.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

America the inexplicably terrified

Matt Yglesias posts this chart and wonders why so many Americans believe Al Qaeda has the capacity to strike the US after bin Laden's death:

I agree; it's silly to think that Al Qaeda has a cell just waiting around in NYC, hoping for the day when their boss gets capped, so they can mount some sort of reprisal. But with all due respect, Matt is burying the lede here. Because when I looked at his graph, I could only wonder about something even more amazing:

Forty percent of Americans have spent the last ten years convinced that a terrorist attack was only weeks away?!?

Who are these people? And from where are they drawing their apparently unflagging belief that terrorism is just right around the corner, always just a few days away, no matter how many weeks, months, or years have passed since the last successful attack?

How could this be? Maybe people don't pay attention to the news and think terrorist attacks are occurring constantly. Ordinarily I'd say this is a pessimistic view of the country, but I think I almost prefer it to the other possibility, which can be summed up as "millions of US citizens are in the thrall of unyielding paranoia."

Four out of every ten people in the United States have spent the whole decade worrying that the next 9/11 is imminent. The six out of ten who now believe that bin Laden was only biding his time for bin Laden's death seem reasonable by comparison.

In any case, no wonder it's been so simple to cajole Americans into sacrificing civil liberties, international standing, their fiscal future, and common sense in the name of ever-tighter security: over a third of the country is living in a perpetual state of fear.

Well, America, fear no longer. Through not-inconsiderable personal effort and extensive research, I've put together a report on the likelihood of future terror attacks. I think you're going to like what you see:

Sleep easy tonight, fellow countrymen.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Governor Christie robs Treasury at gunpoint; escapes on foot

Look, I'm only a law student, but I'm relatively certain that if you take someone's money, refuse to give it back, and then go off and use it to buy stuff for yourself, that's pretty much outright theft.

Chris Christie has also decided that its a perfectly acceptable way to fund a state highway system. Apparently, deficit notwithstanding, there's nothing wrong with spending federal money, as long as the Feds don't want you to have the money in the first place.

Department of worryingly high-profile security leaks

In infinitely weirder bin Laden news, the first person in America to learn about the successful mission in Abbottabod -- before the Twitter leak, before the White House even announced its press conference -- was, apparently...

...wait for it...

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

Er, what?

Americans are complicated, just like everybody else

You'd think that anybody who is so enlightened that they can regard the death of a mass-murderer with total analytic dispassion would also be enlightened enough to understand why the men and women in the street are excited to see him go.

I'm not sure Glenn Greenwald's take on Osama's death merits much response, because Glenn, as always, comically overstates his case. For instance, he says:
It is already a Litmus Test event: all Decent People -- by definition -- express unadulterated ecstacy at his death, and all Good Americans chant "USA! USA!" in a celebration of this proof of our national greatness and Goodness (and that of our President).
...conveniently ignoring the many millions of Americans that assuredly met last night's news with quiet satisfaction or sober reflection on what we've lost. First among them, the President himself. As far as I can tell, no one is criticizing these people in the slightest; I'm one, and I can say without hesitation that no one has troubled me about my reaction or my views.

But there's another problem with Greenwald's reasoning that bothers me more than his characteristic aversion to nuance.

Last night's celebrations were occasionally silly (and, in the instance of New York emergency responders or former soldiers, occasionally justified), but only Glenn Greenwald could look at crowd of drunk college kids and see a mob with "renewed faith in the efficacy and righteousness of military force." He's right when he says that people were happy to see a "dastardly villain" get his due. But to Greenwald, the crowds singing at Ground Zero were also participating in a "national celebratory ritual" -- a resurgence of bloody-mindedness in the American psyche -- no different from the jingoistic anger whipped up before the invasion of Iraq or after the capture of Saddam. In several cases, he makes the connection explicit.

To Greenwald, the distinction between Osama and Saddam -- that the former murdered thousands of Americans in cold blood, and plotted to murder many thousands more -- seems irrelevant. The important thing is that both men are simply playing the role of Bad Guy in a grand fiction orchestrated by our leaders to keep the masses in line. Both men are wearing black hats in the perpetual cartoon Western that, he believes, sums up the American view of history.

And because of this, for Greenwald, celebrating Osama's death is not much different than celebrating the invasion of Iraq. Worse still -- if you celebrated Osama's death, you were probably part of the same gullible class that drove us into Iraq and that demonized Saddam as the great mastermind behind 9/11. And to him, the people singing in front of the White House last night are equally liable to be tricked into supporting some other act of unsupportable American violence. The proof, such as it is, can be found in their enthusiastic support of this act of American violence.

Greenwald's view ignores the simple and obvious truth that bin Laden actually was different. Bin Laden actually did murder thousands of innocents in the United States and around the world. He actually had begun an organization dedicated to the pursuit of political aims through senseless violence against Americans. Among the seven billion people living on this planet, Osama occupied a completely unique place in the minds of many Americans, not because their government told them he should -- indeed, it often told them the opposite -- but because they saw his crimes for what they were and deemed them unforgivable.

In the legal world, there's a term for this: sui generis, or of its own kind. Without precedential value. Osama is sui generis. Despite what Greenwald says, cheering at the thought of Osama's death simply is not the same as cheering for any form of state-sponsored violence, past or future. Americans may not be exhibiting the perfect detached stoicism that he'd prefer, but they're not announcing their embrace of bloodlust or barbarism either. Being happy that an affirmed, confessed mass-murderer of your fellow countrymen has been killed really is a very long ways from being happy that some faceless national antagonist has been killed. For Greenwald, people who celebrated bin Laden's demise are of the same class as people who celebrated bin Laden's deeds. The comparision is ridiculous. Maybe the day will come when the nation unites to "glorify" the violent death of an innocent or a political adversary. But that day certainly wasn't yesterday.

When Greenwald tries to equate everyday New Yorkers to Islamic fanatics, he thinks he's highlighting the uncritical simplicity of the American worldview. But he's mostly highlighting the uncritical simplicity of his own.

I don't know if Greenwald thinks Americans are incapable of seeing the distinction between Osama and less evil men. Maybe he's so far down the rabbit hole of moral relativism that he can't see it himself.

No matter what, though, he's almost certainly wrong on the merits. Most of the celebrants in NYC and DC, being from NYC and DC, very likely opposed the war in Iraq, oppose the war in Afghanistan, and voted against George Bush. Many of them are probably critical of Obama's foreign policy, some skeptical of the military and its role in American life. These are not cities noted for their love of Bush-era torture regimes. Manhattan notoriously supported the so-called Ground Zero mosque by a wide margin. And all these people, holding all these views, all of which are anathema to Greenwald's conception of Americans as self-styled cowboy crusaders, will still hold these views next week, and next year. They're not likely to cheer us into war against Pakistan or Iran. But last night, they were glad -- maybe a little too glad --to witness a mass murderer brought to justice. It's a small, human thing. And I wish the people who are so eager to point out the complex humanity of monsters and murderers were also willing to recognize the complex humanity of Americans who aren't quite as judicious in their thoughts and feelings as Glenn Greenwald.

Or, you know, short version: I'm with Jon Stewart.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Quick! Let's start the Bin Laden conspiracy theory!

Whoever gets there first is opening up a goldmine of t-shirt and DVD sales in Middle America.

Important facts that YOU NEED TO KNOW:

-Where is the body? Oh, wait, Obama had it thrown it into the ocean? Of course he did.

-And it was done in accordance to Islamic practice, which is practiced by Muslims, which we now have proof that Obama is.

-Is Pakistan even a real country?

-You know who else's death was announced on May 1? That's right, Hitler. Too coincidental to be a coincidence.

-Didn't Obama just start his reelection campaign a few weeks ago? Doesn't anyone else find the timing a little... convenient? Early October surprise, anybody?

-You know whose show was interrupted to make this announcement? That's right, Donald Trump. NOW WE KNOW WHO OBAMA FEARS MOST.

-Oh and supposedly he authorized the operation on Friday, right before he released his alleged birth certificate. Obama obviously wants to distract us from the birth certificate issue with the Osama news. Or maybe he wants to distract from the Osama news with the birth certificate issue. Actually, why not both?

Put the pieces together, America. There's no such thing as a free lunch. Wake up!