Friday, February 29, 2008

Wow does that suck

Boy, seems to have been a one-trick pony.

This isn't just not good, it actually makes me more inclined to vote for Hillary. (Lucky for Obama I could only vote in NY.)

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Liberals: Bad comics

The secret to comedy, they say, is timing. So let's recount some excellent examples of comic timing from the last, oh, six months...

In the fall, you'll remember, the Liberals decided to abstain on the throne speech and not throw Canada in to an election. The throne speech passed on October 24. Had it failed, we probably would have been looking at a Christmas election.

Chalk River was shut down November 18, and the Liberals missed the chance to run against the Conservatives when, I think even some of their partisans will agree, they weren't at their finest.

Now, we've got the Liberals announcing not 72 hours ago that they'll support the budget and -- this is what kills me -- "Canadians don't want an election". (Canadians didn't mind rapid-succession elections when it was a chance to kick Paul Martin's ass, as I recall.)

Oh, looky, it appears our current Prime Minister attempted to bribe an MP with a life insurance policy for a man dying of cancer. And there's tape. So, do Canadians want an election now?

My hypothesis falls apart here, because while the timing is shit, I find it hillarious.

Did you ever know that you're my hero?

David Roberts, you are the wind beneath my wings. I'm not sure how this tracks with Gristmill's billing as "a blogful of leafy green commentary", but some barriers are meant to be broken.
Italy's highest appeals court has ruled it is a criminal offence for Italian men to touch their genitals in public - a judgment that has far-reaching implications for superstitious males.

Anyone who has seen a hearse go past in Italy, or been part of a discussion in which some terrible illness or disaster is mentioned, will know it is traditional for men to ward off ill luck with a quick grab at what are delicately called their attributi....

The third penal division of the Rome court was having none of it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A long time ago, in a country far, far away

So how about a break from US politics, to take a look at the infinitely-more-boring Canadian politics?

When Stephane Dion won the Liberal leadership a bit more than a year ago, I think I was very optimistic about his victory. I wrote then:

"Despite being the underdog for most of this race, despite being outspent and under-reported, and despite the fact that he might not win the next election, the Liberals have chosen the candidate who I think most deserves the job, even if his political preferences don't match my own as closely as others would have. He's been a loyal member of the Liberal Party - MP since 1996 - and handled one of the least forgiving portfolios in government (intergovernmental affairs) with incredible skill and even passion. That he is an academic endears him to me, especially in contrast with the political process in the US which seems to bias against book larnin'....

The role of the party, now, is to make Dion as electable as possible in the time between now and the next election - if I recall correctly, this is what political parties do."

While I still remember why I was enthusiastic, and even excited about a Dion-led Liberal Party, it's difficult to remember who I was so excited about. That Stephane Dion doesn't seem to live here anymore.

Why the hell is Stephane "Greener than Gore" Dion supporting a budget that has mild-mannered Tyler Hamilton foaming at the mouth with rage? (Seriously. If you think I've been bleak lately, go read Tyler for a minute.)

You've really got to wonder what the Liberal Party thinks would be an appropriate reason to topple the government at this point. Harper brought his biggest tax and spending cuts already, and this budget (and probably the next one) will be weak tea in comparison. Dion has already agreed to take Afghanistan off the agenda. And he's happy to support a budget that shovels tons of new subsidies to fossil fuels and nuclear.

Look, I really wanted to be on Dion's side for the last year or so. I really did. And I think my writing shows that -- both the part I quoted above, and other things I've written. But when it comes right down to it, it's hard for me to be on Dion's side when he keeps taking Harper's.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Debates that amuse me

You know, every time an American liberal writes about the "triumph" of American capitalism over Soviet communism, I think of Kaiser Wilhelm, sitting in Berlin in the summer of 1918 (but before this started) pondering his triumph over Tsarism and imminent victory in the war.

It is, in fact, impossible to know what the judgment of history will be while you're living it.

And why, oh why, is the comparison never made between the Soviet Union and another economic model that combined liberal use of violence, massive state control and subsidy, and daily humiliation of the populace in service of a tiny elite? It was plenty relevant during the Cold War -- Soviet Propaganda explicitly contrasted America's words with America's deeds in the old Confederacy.

The point isn't that "the US is racist, ergo the Gulags were okay". The point is that globally, we've seen a collapse in the number of states that are able to use wholesale violence against their citizenry to serve the interests of a few. The fall of the USSR says less about a defunct economic theory than it does about how unsustainable it is to have a polity based on human rights abuse.

Just buy the damn things

A little history lesson: In 1959, Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments patented a "solid circuit", what we today would call an integrated circuit. People immediately saw that Kilby's device could, in theory, be very useful but it was too damn expensive -- more than $100 per unit in the beginning, in 1960 dollars.

But the people who needed ICs the most also had an unlimited budget -- the United States government was, at that very moment, building systems that would benefit immensely from the power and weight savings that ICs would allow: the Minuteman ICBM and the Apollo lunar mission systems. The Pentagon started buying ICs basically as fast as they could be manufactured.

And, as we all know, the Pentagon promptly went bankrupt and the Soviets won the Cold War after Uncle Sam wasted all this money on an untested and expensive piece of technology. No, wait, that doesn't sound right...

Ah, here we go: in the short span of 6 years, the cost of producing an integrated circuit went down 96%. There was no revolutionary breakthrough, just manufacturers getting incrementally better at their jobs -- albeit at a fast pace.

This lesson is totally lost on people who think solar power is too expensive, or that we need some new breakthrough for the technology to be useful. I love those 80% efficient nanoantennas myself, but the fact is we could already have a solar economy today, if we'd been intelligent enough to press the technology forward during the oil shock years of the 1970s.

Meanwhile, the cost of new coal power plants is now higher than electricity from natural gas. To be more precise, it's cheaper to run expensive but idle natural gas plants longer than it is to build entirely new coal plants.

Coal is dying, coal is dead. If only we had a clean, renewable source of electricity with which to replace it.


Did a National Post columnist seriously just argue that global warming is bunk because it's cold??? In the Arctic? In February?

Why yes, I believe he did.

And yet I don't have paid work as a writer. Proof, if you ask me, that there is no God.

Monday, February 25, 2008


Okay, so for the last two weeks we've been told that after Sen. Clinton's mediocre showing on Super Tuesday, Texas and Ohio were a "must-win", a statement that even the Senator's husband agreed with. So given Sen. Obama's momentum in Texas, I hoped that an Obama victory in one or both of those states would lead to the impending end of the primaries, and a Clinton withdrawal. Better that than the continuing debate over which states matter and which don't.

No such luck:
I’d love to carry Texas, but it’s usually not in the electoral calculation for the Democratic nominee. Florida and Michigan are.
This isn't said in the context of whether or not she'll leave the race, but she's already preparing the ground for sticking on, and she's made it clear she's going to continue to press for two illegitimate state delegations to be seated. The Florida and Michigan issue really is dirty, dirty pool. And it adds ammunition to the charge that the Clintons don't care about progressives, liberals, or the Democratic Party: they care about the Clintons.

UPDATE: Ouch. This poll has basically no good news for Sen. Clinton. Not only does the 16-point lead by Obama make one other poll showing similar numbers look less like an outlier, it shows Obama beating McCain by 12 points, taking independents by 10. Somewhat amusingly, given all the talk of an Obama "cult", is that Hillary's supporters are in fact more excited about her candidacy than Obama's.

Which will no doubt make them even more angry when she loses.

Fuel cells breakthrough?

Interesting. I've been a skeptic on the potential of fuel cell costs to come down so quickly... apparently scientists at the University of Hyogo have potentially reduced the cost by 83%. Pretty big stuff.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Things I learned from tonight's Oscars

One of my favourite pieces of writing from the West Wing was lifted wholesale from Tom Hanks' Oscar acceptance speech.

"The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels..."

And here:
I would not be standing here if it weren't for two very important men in my life, two I haven't spoken with in a while but I had the pleasure of just the other evening - Mr Rawley Farnsworth, who was my high school drama teacher, who taught me 'Act well the part, there all the glory lies', and one of my classmates under Mr Farnsworth, Mr John Gilkerson.

I mention their names because they are two of the finest gay Americans, two wonderful men that I had the good fortune to be associated with, to fall under their inspiration at such a young age. I wish my babies could have the same sort of teacher, the same sort of friends.

And there lies my dilemma here tonight. I know my work in this case is magnified by the fact that the streets of heaven are too crowded with angels.

We know their names - they number a thousand for each one of the red ribbons that we wear here tonight. They finally rest in the warm embrace of the gracious creator of us all - a healing embrace that cools their fevers, that clears their skin, and allows their eyes to see the simple, self-evident, common-sense truth that is made manifest by the benevolent creator of us all and was written down on paper by wise men, tolerant men, in the city of Philadelphia 200 years ago.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Poor Charlie Brownistan

So Turkey, apparently with US blessing, has invaded Kurdistan. I say with Washington's blessing only because it's hard to imagine Turkey doing this without at least tacit US support -- maybe Istanbul has finally convinced Bush that the Kurds are like Al-Qaeda or something.

In any case, I wonder how much farther this will go. Frankly, I think we've already passed the "Lucy point", a principle I derive from Jon Schwarz's writings almost four years ago:
The Kurds have really become the Charlie Brown of international relations, always believing that Lucy, in the form of the US, is finally going to let them kick the football.
Follow the link for classic picture.

It's worth pointing out that a number of our stupider liberal hawks supported the war in Iraq based on their experience with the Kurds. This was always a bad rationale, because there were pretty slim chances that the outcome of any war -- even one that succeeded beyond our wildest dreams -- would be objectively better for the Kurds than the de facto independence they had. So way to go, people! We've managed to screw over even the people who had it pretty good pre-2003.


via IP, this is pretty funny:
For what those West Wing fans stunned by the similarity between the fictitious Matthew Santos and the real-life Barack Obama have not known is that the resemblance is no coincidence. When the West Wing scriptwriters first devised their fictitious presidential candidate in the late summer of 2004, they modelled him in part on a young Illinois politician - not yet even a US senator - by the name of Barack Obama....

What's more, the West Wing had the Republicans choose between a Christian preacher - a pre-echo of Mike Huckabee - and an older, maverick senator from the American west whose liberal positions on some issues had earned the distrust of the party's conservative base: a dead ringer for John McCain.
Now, as we all remember from Season 6 of the West Wing, Santos was President Bartlet's choice for the nomination. So if you don't vote for Obama, you hate Martin Sheen.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Riots in Serbia

Yes, imagine that. You cleave off a historically-sensitive part of someone's country, and they get all snippy about it. This is going to be as hillarious as watching the Americans suddenly discover that backing the Shah wasn't the best PR move in history.

I think, long term, the example of Kosovo is going to ruin any possibility of humanitarian intervention for the foreseeable future: we (NATO) explicitly, repeatedly said that the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia was not a prelude to partitioning of Kosovo. President Clinton himself said it repeatedly, in public. And now it turns out to have all been lies.

You want to try and send peacekeepers in to Darfur with this record behind you? I mean, forget Iraq: the single good example of what western military might do was based as much on lies (claims that hundreds of thousands of Kosovars had been murdered, when nowhere near that number were) as the Iraq War was. And was used to dismember a sovereign state in defiance of international law.

There was a time -- we called it the 90s -- where the UN was able to be somewhat more effective because, despite their reservations, Russia and China sat on their vetoes and didn't stonewall the entire process. I think it's safe to say that time is over, and it's in large part because of our own actions.

The interesting thing here is that peace is being bought by the Europeans. The recent presidential elections in Serbia went to the "right" guy (the one who disavowed violence in Kosovo) largely because of a promise of lots of goodies from the EU -- visa-free travel for Serbs in the EU, plus a whole pile of aid money. The American military snottily talks about how the US "cooks dinner" and the Europeans "do dishes", trying to dismiss the power that Europe has when it comes to peacekeeping and nation-building. But there's a very real case to be made here that we'd be looking at the third Balkans War since 1990 if it weren't for the EU.

I'll have more to say about that in a bit.

Not St. McCain!

It's kind of amusing watching CNN -- all the guests, all the anchors, all the, well, everything is being thrown together to defend John McCain against the slanderous accusations against him in the NY Times and the Washington Post this morning.

Amusing, because no politician, anywhere, at anytime, has had a protection racket the way John McCain does in the US media. Lost in the issues of anonymous sourcing, McCain's denials, etc is a simple list of questions any journalist should ask themselves when they see this kind of story, regardless of the characters involved:

1) When was the last time you saw a prominent politician spend prolonged amounts of time with a women half his age and it didn't involve sex, money, or both?

2) When was the last time you saw a cornered politician not lie about their involvement with a scandal?

3) How much would you trust a man with a history of adultery and ethics problems? (His current wife is McCain's 2nd, whom he was sleeping with while married to his 1st. Cindy McCain was not the only woman John slept with who wasn't his wife.) I mean, I know sexual misconduct is basically an entry requirement for the GOP Caucus, but that's not exactly exculpatory.

4) How many non-denial-denials do you need to hear before you start assuming the smoke really does mean there's fire out there? "No romantic relationship"? Naw, we're just fuck-buddies.

The other sad thing was watching Jon Stewart rush to McCain's defense last night on Larry King. Look, Jon, I know McCain's "a friend of the show", but he's still a politician, and yes they can disappoint you sometimes.

In praise of Hillary

So I was watching Jon Stewart on Larry King last night, and he said something that I found kind of bizarre: he basically proposed that Bill Clinton had subconsciously sabotaged his wife's campaign because they have such an obviously dysfunctional relationship. I found this bizarre, but then he said something that got my attention. Probably not an exact quote, but he mimicked Bill, saying "How dare you humiliate my wife -- that's my job!"

Now, I've criticized her campaign because, er, I think it's been worse than Obama's. But I don't want to be either a) the guy who only starts saying nice things about the other candidate after they've won, or b) the guy who only says nice things after they've lost. So let's set a few things straight.

First of all, Hillary Clinton has earned this shot at the White House. That's not the same as me saying she "deserves" the nomination, but if she wins enough delegates to win at the convention, I'll be rooting for her all the way. I laughed at her claim that being first lady counted as job experience for the Oval Office, but there's one thing that I think needs to be very clear: people who think she wouldn't be where she is without her husband have it, I think, exactly wrong. Even before he was elected President, Hillary Clinton had to endure some pretty humiliating things in order to ensure that Bill made it to the White House. A woman who wasn't committed to her husband's success could have torpodoed his campaign at any time. Nobody on Earth has been as lucky to have Hillary Clinton around as Bill has been. And anyone who thinks that Hillary Clinton endured the humiliation of Gennifer Flowers -- remember her? -- because she was planning her Presidential bid with a 16-year time horizon needs to get their heads checked. In short, Bill owes at least as much to Hillary as she owes to him.

But plenty of women have been humiliated, though few as publicly, and they don't get a shot at the White House. So it's worth pointing out that, while she hasn't run the best campaign, nor do I think she's the best candidate, she's still run a pretty good campaign, and she is still in fact a superb candidate. (Her biggest weakness, bizarrely, is her campaign.) None of this would have been predictable from her two previous elections. In 2000, she was a shoe-in after Giuliani dropped out, and in 2006 nobody even bothered to learn the name of her GOP candidate. So the fact that she's done as well as she has is a welcome development. Her campaign is correct when they point out that, outspent and out-staffed, she's still doing very well considering. (I think that Obama's fundraising, both the volume and the type of small donations, speak volumes about both candidates, but that's an issue for another day.) And I think that Sen. Clinton would make an excellent 2nd President Clinton.

It's stylish, at the moment, to bash Clinton's campaign, and I've bashed along with everyone else. But I think it's worth pointing out just how good the Democrats have it this year: Hillary Clinton took as many votes -- losing -- as all the GOP candidates combined yesterday night in Wisconsin. And this was only the latest in a string of states where that is true. If Obama had decided that 2008 wasn't his year, Hillary wouldn't just have won by now, but I think people would be talking about Sen. Clinton in much the same way they're talking about the Obama juggernaut now. Or to shift the emphasis slightly, John McCain won against two non-entities who he should have crushed by now, while Clinton is pulling 45% against one of the best/luckiest campaigns of the decade. If this comes down to getting out the vote, I think Clinton can still win in November.

McCain has this weird aura of electoral strength around him that I've never understood. Yesterday the New York Times has dug up some old stuff about the S&L scandal, plus some sex thing, and given what the Dems will inevitably have to go through that's fine. But I truly don't understand people who think he's going to be tough to beat. This is a guy who couldn't get Republicans to vote for him in 2000, and has barely gotten Republicans to vote for him in 2008. And I'm supposed to believe America is going to flock to his banner? With an even half-competent Democratic opponent, I just don't think it's gonna happen.

But a competent campaign is what it's going to come down to, and this is where Sen. Clinton's weakness has been. And here the fawning ends, because (without dismissing the obvious sexism the Clinton campaign has had to face) Clinton's worst wounds have been self-inflicted. Mark Penn is a moron, and he's the one person who's head hasn't rolled but most deserves to. But even without the self-inflicted wounds, the point remains that Obama has run, I think objectively, a much better campaign. Better organized, better planned, and now better-funded. It all adds up, no surprise, to winning more votes. Which is how you win, right?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


The mind boggles. Bush, in Rwanda:
A clear lesson I learned in the museum was that outside forces that tend to divide people up inside their country are unbelievably counterproductive. In other words, people came from other countries — I guess you’d call them colonialists — and they pitted one group of people against another.
If only someone could have shown him a textbook on colonial history before now...

Silly arguments

1) "The state Obama just won doesn't count because X", where X = some probably spurious slicing of polls to demonstrate that while he may have won, it was just a fluke. This was insulting last week, now it's silly.

2) "Obama is killing the chances for universal health care." What, you mean that the difference between their two policies is going to make the difference between heaven and hell? Because from where I sit -- a country that already has universal health care -- it looks like the difference between two laughably inadequate half-measures. It looks like what you'd expect from a country that was, in living memory, burned by someone promising too much in a failed drive for universal health care. Who was that again?

3) "Obama is now the front-runner, Clinton is the insurgent/underdog." No, really, you don't want to do this. Sen. Clinton ran the first year of this campaign on the presumption that she was not just electable, but the only one worth considering. And that's still an advantage she holds over a considerable number of voters. If you give away the air of inevitability, you've given away the only thing your campaign ever had. Might as well hand Sen. Obama the nomination on a plate.

LATER: Fixed #3 to make more sense. Thanks, Nonynony.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Because nothing happens outside of the primaries...

It's more than a little grotesque to say, but the fact that Iraq has just released Shia Mosque Bombing II: This Time It's Personal has no small amount of relevance to the Presidential election.

Sen. McCain, and to a smaller extent Sen. Clinton, have both publicly boosted the Surge and said that its obvious success show that opponents of the war need to temper their criticism now that the US has turned things around. Except that, of course, it hasn't. What we saw were a number of interrelated events that happened at the same time -- some of them were even deliberately engineered by the US, to their credit -- but none of them were sustainable:

1) The surge itself. Saw a massive increase of US forces in Baghdad, but also at the expense of numbers throughout the rest of Iraq. In any case, can't be maintained for much longer, which is why it was called "the surge."

2) The "Sunni Awakening", which saw the US bribe hostile Sunni tribes to stop shooting at US forces. This worked surprisingly well, but at the cost of arming the most likely opponents to the Shia-dominated Iraqi government, America's nominal ally. (See Matthew Yglesias on this point.) The (temporary?) pacification of Sunni Arabs mitigated the effects of large numbers of US troops moving to Baghdad.

3) The Sadrist ceasefire, since August of 2007, was only ever supposed to last 6 months anyway. Time's almost up.

So, over the next 7 months, what can we expect to see? The key to remember is that, while there's talk about extending the surge by a few months, those US troops are coming home, and soon, in large numbers. The plan is for troop levels to go back to pre-surge levels by July. That leaves... August, September, and October for violence to reassert itself, assuming for some reason that the Iraqis actually wait for the Americans to leave, first. And there's no reason to believe that has to happen.

What would it take for us to see chaos in 2008 like we did in 2006, but (mostly) tamped down in 2007? Well, more of the same, really. Some crisis outside of Baghdad -- and there's no shortage of potential hotspots -- pulls a number of troops out of that city. With lower US troop densities, the Sadrists decide to take on their rivals in the Iraqi security forces. Or maybe the status of the referendum in Mosul will lead to fighting there. But my bet's on the reappearance of Sunni-Shia violence, in a big way. Probably outside of Baghdad itself, for now.

My point -- and I do have one! -- is that for a number of reasons, not all of them within the control of the US government, things in 2008 could get much worse in Iraq. All of the factors which were causing violence in 2006 still exist in 2008. So yes, Iraq will very much be an issue in the election.

So who do you want to be the Democratic frontrunner if, despite the hallowed surge, shit hits the fan? The person who, like McCain, praised the war, the surge, and will be unable to successfully mount a criticism of the same without being accused of flip-flopping? Or a persistent critic of the war who hasn't engaged in the same level of surge-cheerleading?

Right-wing chortling, cont.

Har har har. Stupid environmentalists.
If this theory holds up, it means that global warming and the build-up of heat-trapping gases are bringing about oceanic changes beyond those previously documented: a rise in sea level, more acidic ocean water and the bleaching of coral reefs.

Low-oxygen dead zones, which have doubled in number every decade and exist around the world, have a variety of causes....

What's happening off Oregon, scientists believe, is that as land heats up, winds grow stronger and more persistent. Because the winds don't go slack as they used to do, the upwelling is prolonged, producing a surplus of phytoplankton that isn't consumed and ultimately dies, drifts down to the seafloor and rots.

"It fits a pattern that we're seeing in the Benguela Current," said Andrew Bakun, a professor at the University of Miami's Pew Institute for Ocean Science who wasn't part of the Oregon study. "It's reasonable to think these hypoxic and anoxic zones will increase as more greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere."
See, nothing to worry about. It's just the oceans running out of oxygen. Stop being such an alarmist.

Pretty sure I don't like this

Chet mentioned this a while ago, but it seems to actually be something that McGuinty wants to do. My reaction? Yeah, this is probably going to suck.
The TTC should be taken over eventually by the province's new transportation authority to provide "seamless" public transit in the Greater Toronto Area, says Premier Dalton McGuinty.

McGuinty, whose government has a 12-year, $17.5 billion transit expansion plan for the GTA, said yesterday the province would like to eventually integrate the TTC into the fledgling Metrolinx regional authority, and could do so without additional funding.
I don't make a lot of friends defending the TTC on a regular basis, but this is a large corporate body that's been running on diminishing funding for the last 15 years or so. And while McGuinty's promise of more cash for construction and infrastructure is nice, it's fundamentally not the problem. Not even close. Cities have no problem funding infrastructure over the long term: large infrastructure projects have (mostly) predictable costs: construction and interest payments on debt, costs that municipalities have historically borne well.

The problem with the TTC is the same problem with the city at large: not capital spending, but operations spending. Running libraries, schools, transit, not to mention a police force larger than Canada's force in Afghanistan, requires a modern tax base to fund. McGuinty has been unwilling to actually give cities the money they need to run their operations, or let them raise their own, but in this he's just following every other premier. Instead, McGuinty wants to amalgamate a municipal service, something with a bad history in this province, and continue to not address the actual problem at hand. (Read the above quote again -- "without additional funding...")

Oh, any kind of real merger would inevitably raise fares even more than they already have, as Toronto commuters effectively subsidized new suburban passengers. This already happens in effect as people who live downtown subsidize people living in Scarborough and North York, for example. Integrating the TTC in to a larger system would only increase this effect.

Now, that's not to say we don't need a regional transit plan. I'm a big fan of anyone who wants to seriously think about moving people around this region who's not entirely in love with more highway ashphalt. But the TTC isn't even the proper solution to this problem. GO Transit is, and i nthe 1980s a Liberal government proposed GO ALRT -- and abandoned it. Looking back, ALRT would have really been a revolution in the GTA: high speed commuter rail ("driverless" as in computer controlled) on its own rights of way. Today, we're still stuck with the piddling GO trains buying their time on CN's tracks. If we had that system in place today, it's hard to imagine how much easier people-moving would be in this region. Not to mention it would be possible to effectively expand the system incrementally as the Golden Horsehow metastasizes outwards.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

...and Tom Friedman is six feet of concrete

Bill Kristol isn't just wrong, he's anti-right. Were he ever in the presence of factual correctness, the universe would explode. So it's imperative that he never be anywhere near actual facts.

Clearly, the best place for him is the New York Times op-ed page.

Something I don't understand

BEIJING was defiant yesterday in the face of its most embarrassing Olympic crisis so far, sparked by the US director Steven Spielberg's announcement that he is quitting as an artistic adviser to the 2008 Olympic Games because of China's continued support for its oil-rich trading partner Sudan.
Of all the things that the People's Republic is doing and has done, Sudan would not be the reason I suddenly decided to stop working with them. I can understand refusing to work with them from the beginning because of Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, all of which China has shown a willingness to abuse and ignore people's rights.

But Spielberg decided it was okay to work for the People's Republic of China despite Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong -- things that the PRC is unquestionably responsible for -- only to throw a snit over something far less directly traced to Beijing.

Darfur is horrible, and Khartoum should be ostracised, I suppose. But I don't get to set other countries' foreign policy. (If I did, there would be a million more Iraqis alive today.) And China's complicity with Darfur is pretty ephemeral, isn't it? I mean, America has had no luck in persuading Musharraf to not be a dick, and they've got a lot more influence over Pakistan than China has over Sudan, I'd say.

The definition of insanity

Fascinating, both for the technical advance and the psychology it's a demonstration of: Los Alamos labs have invented a technology they say can suck CO2 out of the air with energy and capital costs orders of magnitude lower than previous technology, and at higher efficiency. And what do they want to do with this world-saving technology?

Make gasoline. Which can then be burned to release the CO2 right back in to the atmosphere. Apparently, the whole "sequestration" thing has passed them by. But it's still a fascinating concept: I'd love to see an energy-analysis of this kind of system vs. photosynthetic (i.e., biomass) liquid fuel production.

Some rough math suggests that if their claims are accurate, we could suck almost three kg of CO2 out of the air for every kWh used. Meaning -- and this is funny -- even if you powered the plant with coal, you'd actually net out less CO2 than you put in. Or, we could use 10% of the Earth's total electrical output for 50 years, and lower the concentration of CO2 from 372 ppm to 350, which should be well short of the danger zone. If we stop emitting CO2 now. 10% is a lot of electricity, no kidding, but this is the kind of application off-peak power was made for.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Bipolar: I swing between depression and snark

We've spent the last thirty years mocking the Club of Rome and The Limits to Growth. Some data points, all from today's blog-cull:

1) The Colorado River is losing so much water every year that the Hoover Dam could stop generating electricity by 2017. So long, Las Vegas.

2) Phosphate (key fertilizer ingredient) prices have tripled in a year. According to this paper, the world passed the peak of conventional phosphate production in 1989. There is no substitute for phosphorus (it's a key ingredient in DNA, fer chrissakes) and feeding 6 billion people -- never mind 9 billion! -- requires megatonnes of the stuff. And, because our primary source of phosphate is mined rock, a non-renewable resource, we're running out quickly. As a bonus, most of the stuff is located in Morocco and China. Maybe we can go back to the days of Guano Imperialism.

3) If you haven't heard yet, biofuels are worse than fossil fuels.

4) Oh, and there aren't enough skilled people to build new nuclear plants. Maybe that's why the people of Ontario are getting hosed again.

5) Arctic sea ice loss will be even worse in 2008 than it was in 2007.

This phosphate thing is a new one to me. There is literally zero possibility of substitution -- the likely impact of ever-higher prices is going to be the use of less phosphate. Liebig's Law of the Minimum says that soil productivity declines with the most-scarce resource, meaning that less phospate will be a bottleneck that drags down global food production. Yikes.

But I'm sure glad right-wing economists got to spend decades chortling to themselves about how naive those people worrying about "carrying capacity" were. I'm sure it was worth it.

Why yes, I am a giant nerd. Why do you ask?

It's weird to think that it's only been a week since Super Tuesday... but wow, that was a really bad night for Sen. Clinton. The smallest of Obama's victory margins was... 23%. He won by 50% in DC. Now, he was expected to win in all three states, but let's recall that as recently as December her own campaign was talking about winning Virginia, where she lost handily. Sen. Clinton lost men, she lost women, she lost blacks, she lost latinos, and she just barely eked out a win among whites, and especially white women. As Yglesias says, "basically, everyone voted for Obama."

The scale of Obama's victory is such that some people -- namely my blog-mate Nick Beaudrot, who's been simply fantastic with the data and maps this primary season -- are basically calling the primary as done. Clinton needs to win by unrealistic margins -- indeed, by Obama-like margins -- in the remaining big states, where Obama is likely to keep the delegate count close to even.

You can see that everybody basically senses this -- Obama and McCain's victory speeches were both noteworthy last night because they both attacked each other, not their remaining primary challengers. This, I think, is the most dangerous position for Clinton to be in: if it becomes common sentiment that the primary is over, she lost, and she needs to drop out, we could see a lot of polls change quickly, even in the big states.

No predictions on the horse race, but I will say this: when the books are written, people will say the general election for 2008 began last night, if for no other reason than because McCain seems to have finally put Huckabee to bed.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Clearly, these trees bear no relation to this forest you speak of

Mark Penn, Sen. Clinton's chief campaign strategist, seems to be one of the stupidest people alive. This, at least, would explain how the presumptive front-runner has gone from 20-point leads in most states to being trounced in the primaries tonight. But his memo released today is equal parts hillarious and awful. Let's deal with the awful first:
Sen. McCain Will Run on National Security; Hillary Wins That Argument. When it came to national security, "strong and wrong" won out over "right and weak" in the 2002 and 2004 elections. With Hillary, that is not and will not be an issue...
Huh? The Democrats who voted for the war but, um, weren't Republicans lost in large numbers in 2002. Kerry voted for the war and lost in 2004. Clinton voted for the war and.... How does Hillary come out as having a stronger foreign policy than John McCain, without questioning the fundamental madness that they both agree on? (If you need a refresher, remember who voted to authorize war with Iran...)

Now, in fairness, Penn does make some reasonable points -- Obama's numbers, he argues, will go down while Clinton's negatives are already factored in. I disagree, but it's at least debatable. There's some other stuff here. But now, on to the hillarious:
Current Poll Numbers Don't Tell the Story of What Will Happen: Sen. Obama Routinely Underperforms While Hillary Overperforms.
Er, whuh? I mean, Penn's got a long list of polls he shows prove that Obama routinely gets lower results than his polls suggest. But -- seriously, WTF? Penn's sage advice has turned Clinton from the de facto nominee to someone who basically has to sit out primaries tonight and hope she wins by double-digit margins in Texas and Ohio, and the argument is that Obama has underperformed expectations? As recently as two months ago everyone, everyone expected Clinton to be the nominee, no matter who they actually supported. Now Obama's done so well that tonight's wins could put him ahead of Clinton in the delegate count.

With advice like that, no wonder she's in this mess.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Krugman II

I swear I hadn't read Paul Krugman's latest column this morning when I wrote my last post, but it's kind of relevant. Krugman is showing a side I haven't seen since 2000, when he preferred to address the dirty fucking hippies made of straw in his head.
Why, then, is there so much venom out there?

I won’t try for fake evenhandedness here: most of the venom I see is coming from supporters of Mr. Obama, who want their hero or nobody. I’m not the first to point out that the Obama campaign seems dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality.
Okay, first of all, Krugman could have looked up some actual numbers here. Because believe it or not, no matter who you are, your email inbox is not a statistical sample. It's the primary season, for fuck's sake, and we're not exactly in the middle of a poll drought. So you could see the exit polls from that distant land of yore, Super Tuesday. Also known as last week. Hilzoy did exactly that, and found that there's almost no difference between Obama and Clinton supporters and their support for the rival candidate.

Remember what I was saying about Krugman's problem with easily-attained evidence? He was attacking anti-globalization protesters when all the evidence shows that the era of the Washington Consensus has been worse for the poor around the globe. Lower wages, lower wage growth, and more debt. Not too hard to find out, but back then Krugman said we were just a bunch of spoiled rich kids who hated the poor.

But back to Obama -- suppose it had been true? What would that prove? Only that Obama is attracting independents and even some Republicans*, who are exactly the kind of people you would expect to say things like "Well if it ain't Obama I'm voting McCain." But no, it can't be that -- it has to be a cult, a scary freaky personality cult like the one they had in the USSR! Even economists should understand Occam's Razor.

Tucker Carlson is a waste of flesh, but he did have one good moment in his life. In 2000, after McCain won New Hampshire against Bush, Carlson was asked if he thought McCain was a maverick. He said "well, I don't know, he does have a day job as a United States Senator." Point being, McCain could only be a maverick by the standards of the US Senate. People who think that Paul Krugman is a leader for liberals need to remember he has a part-time job as a New York Times columnist, and can only be a liberal by the standards of the NYT op-ed page. Which now includes Bill Kristol.

*Attracting independents and soft GOP in to the Democratic Party has it's own perils, I will readily admit. But seriously, could the Democrats be any more useless? Besides, rather than worry about reddening the Democrats with yokels, I prefer to believe the opportunity here is to get them voting for the right Party, show them that the government can work with them and for them, and cobble together a new coalition. But you need the votes first, then build the tribe.

My Krugman problem

It's no secret -- if you care about this stuff, that is -- that Paul Krugman, columnist, economist, and maybe the one sane person allowed on television is no fan of Barack Obama. Which is fine: I'm almost as unenthusiastic about Obama as I am about Sen. Clinton. I'm very excited about watching the primaries, but that's because I'm a huge nerd and enjoy the horse-race.

What concerns me is a number of people I've seen (Ian Welsh here as one example) who basically anoint Krugman as the definition of liberalism and progressivism. If Krugman doesn't like Obama, they write, then clearly Obama's got something wrong with him.

Well, see, I remember this other Paul Krugman. Before the war, before Bush was even the GOP candidate, I remember the Paul Krugman who inaugurated his NY Times gig by proclaiming that anti-globalization protesters were all about "denying opportunity to third-world workers", a claim that was about as accurate as the people who claimed Krugman himself advised the Malaysian government in '97 because he hated the Jews. If you'll cast your mind back to the hallowed days of 1999, you'll recall that the actual claims made by the Seattle movement were that the Washington Consensus was bad for the poor and working class in all countries, bad for the Planet, and reflected the demands of the wealthy and powerful, not the needs of the developing world. Over and over and over, the spokespeople for the movement said their beef was not with globalization per se, but with the policies of the Washington Consensus. Yet people like Krugman continued to caricature activists as simple-minded if not actually malicious.

Contrast what Professor Krugman was writing in 2000 with what, say, the CEPR was putting out in 1999, eschewing theory and using things like "evidence" and "history" to guide their assessment of globalization. It's no exaggeration to say that the intervening years have been much, much kinder to Baker, Weisbrot, and the others at CEPR than they have been to Krugman's assessment of globalization. Indeed, not quite a decade later, this is all basically so uncontroversial that even Krugman was forced to abandon the IMF after the Argentina disaster. Hell, the WTO is currently in disarray because the rich countries refuse to accept even the most timid demands of the poor ones. The IMF is totally discredited after the pillaging of Argentina, and the World Bank is running on empty as country after country opts out of the Bretton Woods institutions, in favour of the number of alternatives that have sprung up since 2000 -- China, Mercosur, or others.

My point is that Krugman isn't a leftist in any sense of the word. And that's really okay, I don't expect liberal economists to quote Chomsky. But, to put it bluntly, I don't "trust" him the way Mr. Welsh seems to. I was shrill before Mr. Krugman was, and back then he was on the other side.

Gibbering terror II

via Gristmill, I read this report put out by Carbon Equity last week, and it basically scared the piss right out of me. More than anything, the first section is a terrifying summary of the latest science of climate change, including some of James Hansen's work as recent as last December. Specifically, they point out something that should be clear by now, especially to Canadians: the effects we're seeing today, not 50 years from now but today, mean that the current concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is already "dangerous climate change". Basically, scientists didn't have good models for a lot of processes -- most especially ice sheet breakup -- and so they assumed that processes would occur in a roughly linear fashion. Or rather, the IPCC process wouldn't accept non-linear models, due to lack of consensus, so the public debate among policymakers assumed, for example, that we had decades before we needed to worry about an ice-free arctic. Instead, we've seen a non-linear collapse of ice in the arctic, driven by albedo-flipping and moulin-tunneling. I showed this picture once before:

And what's noteworthy there is not just the fact that sea ice loss is way outside the predictions, but how quickly it's turned.

Or, we could just go with historical data: the last time CO2 concentrations in Earth's atmosphere were as high as they are today, it was 3 million years ago, sea levels were 25 meters higher, and birch forests grew in Antarctica while a small number of austrolopithecines experimented with a radical new idea -- walking on two legs. The idea that human civilization has ever faced a climate change like the one that's in the pipeline is simply false.

If nothing else, the sea level rise implied in our current CO2 concentration means we need to stop emitting carbon, now, and we need to rapidly draw carbon out of the atmosphere by any means necessary. James Hansen, who has been a geoengineering skeptic, now seems to be arguing that a limited amount of sulphate injection may be the only way to stop the total collapse of the Greenland ice sheet.

But probably the most valuable thing to take away from Hansen's work, and that of Carbon Equity, is that time is of the essence. Too many people, I believe, think that solving the climate crisis will be easier in the future -- because of new technologies, better understanding, or generally more wealth. I believe this misunderstanding will, if it continues, doom most of the planet to a hungry death. Even people who understand what the phrase "tipping points" means don't actually seem to have internalized it: at a certain point, it will be beyond our capacities to control climate change. You can talk about space mirrors lowering insolation or whatever other magical ability that free-market pixie dust will grant us, but the reality is once we pass that threshold, there's no going back. Seeing as we don't know where the point of no return is, but we do know we're approaching it at speed, the only sane course is to stop and turn around.

We've already warmed the Earth 0.8 degrees celsius. There's another guaranteed 0.6 in the pipe, meaning that if we eliminated CO2 emissions tomorrow, we're still going to see 1.4 degrees of warming relative to pre-industrial times. James Hansen esimates the "point of no return" at 1.7 degrees. If the melting of the arctic isn't arrested and reversed, we could see as much as a 0.3 degree warming from the albedo effect. And, it's possible that already-thawing permafrost will add more than another 0.3 degrees. Add it all up and it means that if James Hansen is right (and he's got an excellent track record) we need to stop CO2 emissions, now, because if we push it any further we will be well and truly over the cliff. And we may be already.

But of course, this isn't realistic. Cars, coal, and concrete in China alone are going to keep CO2 emissions climbing, with the US doing way more than its share and everyone else tagging along. Canada has, in effect, decided that the allure of tar sands wealth and a newly-opened arctic shore is too much to sacrifice. The fact that millions will die seems to be unmentionable in polite company. You would think that at the very least our own lives and treasure would be worth something. Play around with this map, which models sea-level rise at various heights, and tell me what you think about the idea of Vancouver Intl. Airport being underwater, with a 1m rise. Or all of Richmond, B.C. being underwater at 5m. Amusingly, Halifax and St. John's are relatively okay at 5m, but the flooding of the St. Lawrence leaves parts of Quebec City and Montreal scrambling. At 5m, the grounds of the Pentagon and Ronald Reagan airport in DC are both flooded. That's about the only saving grace in all of this -- rich, white America would know what it's like to rely on the levee-building skills of the Army Corps of Engineer for their safety and security.

Do I see any hope? Well, not today I don't. I keep up with new technologies, and the improving politics of climate change as much as anyone else (and more than most) but the report from Carbon Equity makes it clear that, in effect, the policy makers of the Earth are aiming for a plateau of CO2 concentrations at or even above 450 ppm, despite the clear evidence, outside of Carbon Equity's references, that this would be disastrous. And this "goal" of 450 ppm of CO2 is, like everything else we've done so far, basically a phony war: commitment in rhetoric only.

Carbon Equity's report ends with a number of ideas, most interestingly an individual carbon ration to make as rapid as possible a change to a carbon-negative society. It's not actually that radical, unless you've drank too much of the economist's kool-aid. Not only is rationing a natural response in a crisis (which I hope you can see we're in) but it has the benefit of being at least potentially sell-able. Cap-and-trade systems or a carbon tax are both going to raise costs that the poor and middle class will revolt against, but a ration could potentially be more equitable.

And if you think this is an unwarranted expansion of the power of the state in to our daily lives, all I can say is this: It wouldn't be necessary in the first place if we hadn't listened to small-government, anti-environmentalist types for the last 30 years. If we'd started this transition away from fossil fuels back then, it would have been easier and more painless on top of being early enough to avoid the current crisis. Now, we face the worst of both worlds: the massive expansion of state power to contain the crisis, and the possibility that it will still be too late to avoid the crisis.

Inhumanity watch

Tony Snow, who says that four-fifths of Bush's advisors were against the surge:
“Everybody was telling him, ‘You’re crazy, don’t do this,’” Snow said. “You get the chills. He’s really unafraid to take the hits if he thinks he’s doing the right thing.”
So, to the poor GI from Ohio or Kansas, bleeding out in the wreckage of a burning Stryker -- don't worry, George Bush is taking that hit for you.

Even better than the real thing

Lies and the lying liars, pt. MMCXVI

Another day, another left-wing talking point confirmed by the Pentagon.

See, I've always said that people who supported this war were idiots. Not misguided, not well-intentioned-but-wrong, just plain dumb. Especially Michael Ignatieff. The reasons are numerous, but one of the important ones was that it was clear before the war even started that the US would go in with too few troops and too few resources to adequately secure the country post-invasion. This really wasn't up for debate: anyone who had any knowledge of the history of successful occupations and peacekeeping knew that the so-called "coalition" would have too few troops on the ground to secure, well, anything.

Why was this the case? Again, simple. If you need to invest the kind of lives and resources that a proper occupation requires, you can't prepare the public for that kind of cost when the main reason people support your wars is because it's going to be cheap and easy. So the Bush administration lied about the threat, lied about the costs, and got itself and the whole world in a mess of trouble.

(This, btw, is the strongest evidence that Bush never learned the lessons of his addictions: addicts lie all the time, to everyone, to themselves, and they frequently don't even realize they're lying. And in some cases, the lying continues after the addiction has been controlled. I'm not the first to compare Bush to a Dry Drunk, but seriously -- go read these symptoms here, and tell me they don't fit to a T.)

Anyway, the NY Times reports today that those long-haired hippy weirdos at the Rand Corporation wrote a report in 2005 which said Iraq is a disaster and it's all Bush's fault. (More or less.) But I noticed this bit right away:
“Building public support for any pre-emptive or preventative war is inherently challenging, since by definition, action is being taken before the threat has fully manifested itself,” it said. “Any serious discussion of the costs and challenges of reconstruction might undermine efforts to build that support.”
Can't discuss costs or consequences before something like a war -- it might get in the way of the war!

This is a short must-read.

The notoriously anti-semitic left strikes again!

Or, you know, not.

Faking a death camp tattoo? Not to undermine the broader point, but if that's the best holocaust joke she can come up with, she's clearly never met any actual Jews. Certainly no Israeli ones.

Oh, and congratulations to Warren Kinsella for seeing the light and leaving the National Post.

Friday, February 08, 2008

The wisdom of the ancients

Watch as scientists explain the dangers of global warming -- in 1958:

via Greyflcn.

Abandoned, cont.

Ooh, this is a good one too - the 2nd condition (after pulling 1000 foreign troops from our arses) for staying in Afghanistan:
to better ensure the safety and effectiveness of the Canadian contingent, the government secure medium helicopter lift capacity and high performance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance before February 2009.
See, this is what happens when you let the interns write motions. Governments -- functioning, mature governments, unlike Canada's -- don't "secure" military equipment unless it's the enemy's. They "procure" it, and some governments are very good at it. Here's a wild idea. If we think staying in Afghanistan is necessary, and we need 1,000 troops, helicopters, and UAVs to do so, then hire the soldiers, and buy the equipment your own damn self. But no, can't have that. We're afraid our penises would shrink if we left or something, so we have to a) stay there, not accomplishing much worth the cost in lives, but b) keep whining until someone sends 1,000 more soldiers and a whole mess of really expensive equipment or we threaten to leave.

Better deconstruction from Mr. Sinister.

Abandoned! Abandoned, I say!

Oh goody. The Conservatives have tabled their motion to protect the women, puppies, and rainbows of Afghanistan from perfidious, uh, voters, who might want to stop seeing Canadian soldiers come home in body bags ad infinitum. This part, I love:
the House does not believe that Canada should simply abandon the people of Afghanistan after February 2009.
Canada is contribution roughly 2,500 soldiers out of roughly 40,000 in all of ISAF. To put it another way, Canada makes up:

2500/40000 * 100 = 6.25%

of ISAF's current force level. So, even if we just pack up and go home, NATO will be left with... 93.75% of its current force levels.

"Abandoned". Yup, we'd sure be leaving them in the lurch, we would.

Two things to draw here: One, and yes I'll keep writing it until Jim Travers does, we aren't that fucking important. Canada's contribution to ISAF is so minimal, compared to the numbers needed, that we could disappear entirely and the Americans and British would only notice because Christie Blatchford wouldn't be around as much. The only conceivable reason that Canadians think we matter is because other NATO countries are contributing even less. But think -- if our allies refuse to contribute to a war of occupation in Asia, what does that say about the war?

Two, if the disappearance of 5-6% of your combat force is the dividing line between victory and defeat, absent heroic measures you've already lost. And "doing exactly the same thing in exactly the same place" doesn't count as a heroic measure, people. To use an example, Iraq didn't become a shithole because the Spanish, the Poles, the Koreans, or anyone else in the coalition of the marginal departed. It was a shithole from the beginning, and there was never any other likely outcome.

So, if Canada's departure means that the Taliban will win, then Canada's persistence can only mean that the Taliban will still win, but they and we will kill a lot more people in the process.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

I'm filled with gibbering terror

Housing prices are insane in Toronto, but while I've been basically pessimistic about the market (these kinds of market obey gravity, inevitably) I wasn't in an outright panic, mostly because a) I don't own a house, and b) don't have the means to buy one for the forseeable future.

But: In the newest issue of Toronto Life, there's an article by Rachel Giese that convinces me that we're fucking doomed. Not because of any pessimism on the writer's part, but because it reads exactly like something written in SoCal about three years ago. We even get this choice bit:
A more likely scenario is that the housing market will plateau.
Right, a "soft landing". We've, uh, heard this before, and recently. While Giese is quick enough to realize that this will hurt people who are borrowing against their home's equity, she doesn't seem to connect the dots with what has just happened in the US. First, the most marginal cases are hurt, and they sell their houses below-market to get their asses out of the sling as quick as possible. This is the start of the snowball -- as the price of homes stops increasing as quickly, the market reverses direction. People who have homes and were thinking about selling, start doing so in greater numbers to get out at the top of the market. This puts a glut of houses on the market, and presto. Dean Baker explained this very basic reality about five and a half years ago (PDF), and was warning people about the housing bubble ever since. This isn't, really, the kind of thing you can solve with better regulation, nor is unscrupulous realtors: the article points out in every example, the realtor recommended an "agressive" overbidding to secure the house, but neglects to mention the realtor gets a percentage of the sale -- the bigger the final sale price, the more the realtor makes. Kind of an obvious point here: the people who are the key players in a pretty opaque market have a direct financial interest in driving prices ever-higher. If you're thinking auditing firms, circa Enron, 2001...

The other problem with the article is that it focuses on people buying houses, when the real bubble in Toronto, the one that has the potential to pop in a really nasty way, is condos. Eventually, people will stop paying semi-detached prices for a two-bedroom shoebox. (Not that I oppose shoeboxery, I intend to be a big fan of condo living some time in the future...)

The Toronto Life article is not online, sadly, but I'd recommend picking it up and glancing at the article, which is actually very good on its own merits -- pointing out the growing class of house-rich, money-poor yuppies in Toronto. Which are, of course, exactly TL's prized demographic. Sympathetic or no, Gliese sums up their predicament nicely. Also, she gets major points for pointing out that no, it does not always and everywhere make sense to own vs. renting. In fact, if you click on the Baker PDF link above, you'll see that for the entirety of the post-war period, it's been cheaper to rent than to own.

Jason Cherniak helps his party win the next election

Verbatim Liberal blogger extraordinaire:
I've never understood the concept of the young, attractive, charismatic politician....

"Change"? "Hope"? That's all meaningless clap trap.
Not to be too snarky, I'll at least try to engage one of the few substantive arguments that Cherniak makes: that qualifications and experience matter, and Clinton is clearly better qualified.

1) I don't believe this is as much the case as Jason claims. She's largely run on the "qualifications" of being first lady, about which I simply won't write any more, and being Senator for a whopping 4 years longer than Obama -- during which time she accomplished little of note (being in the Minority) except to endorse the Iraq War. The rest of her career is of dubious value. Being on the board of Wal-Mart, which has been sued repeatedly for being the worst offender of women's and visible minority rights?

Given that people (though not the Senator herself) were talking up a Hillary campaign during the last cycle, when Clinton had been a Senator for exactly as long as Obama has been today, I don't see why Obama's "inexperience" is a game-ender.

2) If qualifications actually mattered in a general election, then Bill Richardson would be the nominee. To replace President Gore. Now, obviously, I think living in that reality would be preferable to living in this one. But it simply isn't the case that "the best qualified candidate" should win. The press is incredibly lazy, and hates nothing so much as an actual policy debate. Paul Krugman wailed and gnashed his teeth as much as he could, and still couldn't get the media to understand, in 2000, that 2+2=4.

But suppose Clinton wins on the strength of her qualifications -- who's more qualified, Clinton or McCain? McCain's been a Senator for decades, is better-versed in defense and foreign policy, and has way more legislative accomplishments of note. Now, he's also wacko to my eyes. But if you were looking at their resumes without the names, party affiliation, or ages, of the candidates, I think McCain would be the objective choice on "qualifications".

Or, to put it in a domestic vein, when will Cherniak endorse the unquestionably-better qualified (by now) Conservative government?

NSFW video sharing

I had this song stuck in my head all day yesterday, which made for an interesting conversation with my manager...

And while we're at it, check out the preview for Forgetting Sarah Marshall. It seems Judd Apatow is trying to corner the "writing movies about how being a dopey man-child is really lame" market.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Obligatory Super Tuesday post

I am actually very sympathetic to women who argue that Hillary's defeat, if it comes, will be due in large part to the ever-present sexism in US society. But there's a bunch of different ways that August is right here -- Hillary needs to be protected from her own supporters. Especially those who make the argument that the only way to support women's rights in this election is to vote Clinton. I think it's obvious on this count that the only way to support women's rights in the election is to vote Democrat, but that the daylight between the two remaining contenders is slim indeed on this. Finally, I think those of us who didn't line up with Hillary need to check our arguments twice -- so many of them, including mine, sometimes sound like "I support a women President in theory, just not one who can win."

I'm also sympathetic to Paul Krugman, who is rapidly approaching Sullivan-esque levels of obsession, if not derangement, with his anti-Obama posts. The root of this is not because Krugman thinks Obama is the reincarnation of Ronald Reagan, but because health care is Krugman's red line issue, as he wrote yesterday:
I believe that universal health care has to be THE central item in a progressive agenda — not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because of its political economy implications. As I explain in Conscience of a Liberal, Republicans went all-out in 1993 to block health reform because they feared that success would reinvigorate the progressive agenda. And they were right.
To me, this is a silly issue to draw a red line on, frankly. The American poor have had 40+ million uninsured citizens for quite some time, including much of the time that Sen. Clinton was first lady -- the time she claims she was learning valuable things as co-President or something. The US has gotten used to this stain on the nation, and they don't particularly care much anymore. More than that, both Democratic proposals are so confounded that I simply cannot believe that even if they succeeded totally and immediately before Feburary 1, 2009, the American electorate would pave the street with rose petals for the Democrats. The proposals on the table aren't game-changing programs like social security, or medicare -- they aren't even Amtrak. Good health care proposals could absolutely, I think, rebuild the Democratic majority. But neither candidate has brought something like that forward.

Meanwhile, to coin a phrase, don't you know there's a war on? A war which, aside from costing thousands of US lives and hundreds of billions of dollars, was conceived in deceit, nurtured with lies, and midwifed by stone cold killers. That, unsurprisingly, is my red line issue. Hillary was, is, and will be on the wrong side of that issue for the foreseeable future, if her performance at the latest State of the Union is any indication. This is really as simple as it gets. Paul Krugman wants health care, fine: where's the money going to come from if we keep throwing money in the fire of burning MRAPs? Hillary's supporters say she's only "running" as the hawk candidate because, as a woman, she has to. But play that out -- she needs to win the general election, too, meaning that she'll have to out-hawk McCain. (If possible!) Then she'll need to run for re-election, so she'll actually have to be a hawk President, if she wins. Then her VP will need to win, too, so the hawkiness continues.

Or, you can choose not to play the game at all -- repudiate this war, and all wars of aggression. As Ackerman says:
Obama is the only candidate the marry strength and justice and wisdom. His foreign policy starts with ending the most disastrous national-security mistake in recent American history; and then it proceeds to undo its deep-seated ideological foundations. When faced with that prospect, especially from the most electable candidate in the race, nothing else will do.
I agree with Krugman's arguments that Obama has actually undermined the case for some needed reforms, and I wish he hadn't. But there are some issues bigger than health care, and the war is one if there ever was. If it ends, progress on health care, the environment, the economy all becomes possible. Keep it going, or start new ones, and we'll be stuck where we are, forever.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Listen carefully

America does not have "defense spending." If it did, I wouldn't be reading article like this:
The U.S. military is not prepared to meet catastrophic threats at home, and it is suffering from an "appalling gap" in forces able to respond to chemical, biological and nuclear strikes on U.S. soil, according to a congressional commission report released yesterday.
So no, America doesn't have a $500 billion "defense" budget. Defense implies actually defending something. What America has is a war budget. A killing other people in other places budget. America spends on offense -- killing people overseas. And, as the numbers in the last link show, the US spends big at killing foreigners. It has a half-trillion dollar "we think losing one war at a time is for pussies" budget. It has an Apollo-times-four "Muslims should expect to have their shit fucked up" budget. America has a Manhattan-project-times-twenty-five-sized "threats come from anywhere, so we need to be everywhere" budget.

Unsustainability doesn't just mean coal.

What's going on?

via Atrios, the Clinton people are pre-emptively talking down the results from tomorrow. A bad sign for them, if you ask me. All the most recent polls show national momentum for Obama, and many of the statewide ones as well. Add to that this evaluation from Kos, and we could see not only a perceived "win" tomorrow, but a string of wins over the next month putting Obama solidly in the front-runner position. Finally, this note -- that Clinton could be having relative fundraising woes -- and it starts looking better and better for Obama.

Unless it doesn't. This race has been so unpredictable exciting! that I'm going to stay out of the predictions game for now.

Except for this: if, as expected, McCain knocks Romney out of the running tomorrow, it's certain that the next President of the United States will be the first one in 48 years to have had no experience as President, Vice-President, or Governor of a State. McCain, Clinton, and Obama: Senators, all of them, and none of them with direct executive experience. (Sit down, Clinton supporters...) Admittedly, Ford was only Veep for about 8 months, but it counts as much as anything... Truman was only Veep for 4 months, after all.

Are markets darwinian machines?

Mike at Rational Reasons has an interesting book he recommends: Schermer's The Mind of the Market. Apparently, Schermer argues that evolution and free-market economics both operate on the same fundamental principles. Right away, however, Schermer loses points by putting up this strawman in the Prologue to his book.
...most scientists — especially social scientists — have resisted with the emotional intensity of a creationist any attempts to apply evolutionary thinking to psychology, sociology, and economics.
This is simply false, and a ridiculous straw man for someone who bills themself as a scholar of the history of science to put up. There's been a constant mixing of evolutionary thought and economics from the very beginning -- Malthus and Smith were enormously influential on Charles Darwin, for just one example. More recently, A Farewell to Alms by Greg Clark, a book that makes an explicit argument that natural selection culled out the poor, has been one of the most talked-about economic books of the year. In political science, it's hardly a new theory that the Westphalian state system spread around the world not because of some inherent virture or efficiency, but because it excelled at using selective pressures to create war-capable states. Evolutionary psychology has been around for years.

Now, it's true that there has been resistance to all of these ideas, but there is resistance to any new scientific theory, regardless of content. People resisted plate tectonics for decades both because it was revolutionary and, in the US, because prominent scientists had made their names espousing opposite views. Still, with the exceptions noted, resistance to new ideas is a good thing. Absent rigorous analysis and debate, there's the danger of accepting unworthy ideas too soon. We should probably not, for example, dump all of our current energy spending in the hands of a few anneutronic fusion advocates who may or may not have stumbled on Nobel-worthy discoveries. That isn't science, that's called credulity. So right away, I'm not disposed to take Schermer's arguments charitably -- straw men, constructed so early in a book and so egregiously, do not put me in a charitable mood. There's the additional note that Schermer is explicitly trying to equate the natural, proven, processes of science with the fervent know-nothingism of the anti-science crowd, which is so clearly false and cheap that it pisses me right off.

But there's the additional part that, after reading his Scientific American article and the prologue to his book, I still have no idea what his argument actually amounts to. Or, to put it another way, I don't know what his argument would prescribe:
In biological evolution, nature selects from the variation produced by random genetic mutations and the mixing of parental genes. Out of that process of cumulative selection emerges complexity and diversity. In economic evolution, our material economy proceeds through the production and selection of numerous permutations of countless products. ... Those that are purchased “survive” and “reproduce” into the future through repetitive use and remanufacturing.

As with living organisms and ecosystems, the economy looks designed—so just as humans naturally deduce the existence of a top-down intelligent designer, humans also (understandably) infer that a top-down government designer is needed in nearly every aspect of the economy. But just as living organisms are shaped from the bottom up by natural selection, the economy is molded from the bottom up by the invisible hand.

The correspondence between evolution and economics is not perfect, because some top-down institutional rules and laws are needed to provide a structure within which free and fair trade can occur. But too much top-down interference into the marketplace makes trade neither free nor fair. When such attempts have been made in the past, they have failed—because markets are far too complex, interactive and autocatalytic to be designed from the top down.
Now, he explicitly rules out prescribing "nothing" with respect to the economy -- he says the state is necessary, and even this is too much for Mike! But Schermer, here, has a point -- competition and diversity in the natural world occurs within bounded conditions (i.e., the capacity of a forest to absorb sunlight, the weight of krill a whale is able to ingest) but I kind of think that if you're going to buy the "markets are like nature" argument you should be on Mike's side -- the market and nature share the same planet, in case you hadn't noticed, so the same pressures that apply to nature automatically apply to market actors.

Indeed, if I were accepting this kind of argument, I think Mike actually has a better stand: the state will always have a major, and sometimes determinative role, in shaping the market so long as it exists. (See ethanol.) States are not competitive actors domestically, so if you want to see a genuinely unconstrained, competitive market you should, as Mike does, argue for the exit of the state.

But this line of argument is actually very suspect to me (surprise!) because like I said I'm not sure it means what we think it means. And here it's worth looking at the most successful examples of natural selection, and what it would mean in an economic sense. What are the most successful examples of natural selection? If our unit of analysis is the organism (is this a "firm" in the biosphere?) then surely the most successful life forms are unicellular microbes who have made only marginal changes in the last few billion years? In the multicellular world, we could look at beetles, ants, or other insects who have endured millions of years without substantial evolutionary change. Sharks and crocodiles are called living dinosaurs because of their evoloutionary histories. In the plant kingdom, we can look at the forests, where fundamental change is actually quite rare -- the Redwoods of California were thousands of years old during the Fall of Rome.

My point, in all this, is that successful ecologies and life forms do not, by their nature, show a lot of change. Indeed, life changes in nature because of failure, not success. Change is manifested by the death of unsuccessful life. Successful organisms and ecologies show a lot of stasis, in fact, and redundancy -- the opposite of what we usually call an efficient market. A forest might occasionally burn to the ground, but this is part of the process -- the system is built with enormous redundancy to accomodate that, and soon the same tree species will be back. The US financial system is in the process of burning to the ground, and instead of being something the system is meant to accomodate, even normally even-keeled people like Paul Krugman are (politely) scared witless. You rarely see an ecosystem collapse like this, absent a massive exogenous shock -- climate change, or more likely an invasive species: disease, predator, or good ol' homo sapiens.

Now there's an analogy I can get behind. All cultures, throughout human history, have had some mix of market and non-market forces in their economies. (And let's all remember that the "market" is distinct from the economy.) But the market-centered approach was spread across the planet, usually accompanied by fire and the sword. (See Westphalia, above.) More recently, it's been IMF conditionality packages, but the process has been the same -- marketization and globalization have been processes of the powerful, against the weak. See also Power and Plenty. Now maybe this proves Schermer's argument better than he intended: armies march only as far as the wallets of their sovereigns, after all.

But I don't think so. You cannot simultaneously argue that markets are an emergent, synergistic system that require no creator if you also acknowledge the historical fact that the global market has only been created by explicit use of political violence.

Finally -- and this post has gone on too long -- I would ask how Schermer would explain development states: those miracle economies that were explicitly created by the heavy use of government powers. The best example might be South Korea, which in 1963 had a lower per capita GDP than Ghana, and today belongs to the OECD. Again, a contrast: the best example of economic growth has shown incredible dynamism and massive change in just over half one human lifespan, while the most successful organisms change little to none over millions of years.

To anyone who thinks the Korean miracle was done with liberal, laissez-faire policies, I can only say, read a book. Specifically, this one. Unlike Dr. Schermer, Chang's PhD is in economics, which I think gives him some credibility to speak on the matter. Chang is also South Korean by birth, and has a number of moving pasages describing what it was like living in the Korean economy during the miracle years.

Actually, Chang makes an argument that is relevant here: he says the market, like my description of a mature ecology, tends towards the status quo. This makes the market an efficient allocator of resources, but a shitty mechanism for actual development -- defined, for these purposes, as the transition from agrarian poverty to industrial wealth.

So let's see: the most successful economies do have effective creators, successful organisms and ecologies tend to exactly the opposite behaviour of healthy economies, and the social sciences have been mixing it up with darwinian ideas since the very beginning. Have I left anything out?