28 February 2005

Seven out of fourteen

I gotta stop making predictions about the technical awards --- it's too hard. Other than that, I did really well guessing the Oscars. But I was foolish about Best Actress; let that be a lesson to me.

Economists are so clever

A friend of mine once summarized Wagner's Ring of the Niebelung as "dwarf steals gold; gods get mad."

In that spirit, yet another reason to read Brad DeLong's weblog: lecture notes from his Berkeley economics classes. Just recently, he posted these notes:

Cost of the Civil War:
  • In perspective, it would have cost $90 per capita to buy and free all the slaves
  • Cost of Civil War to North: $140 per capita (including only economic damages for dead and wounded)
  • Cost of Civil War to South: $340 per capita (including only economic damages for dead and wounded)
  • "Indirect" additional cost of Civil War to South: $450 per capita
... which I think may be even more stunning than these notes:
The Slave Trade:
  • Guns
  • Slaves
  • Sugar/molasses/tobacco/cotton
  • Very profitable
  • Extraordinarily inhumane
Adam Smith expected slavery to come to a rapid end after 1776; Adam Smith was wrong.
Okay, perhaps only amusing if you like extremely pithy summaries of complicated subjects as an art form for creating new insight. But I'm that kind of guy.

27 February 2005


Is the US going to attack Iran? There's reason to think so.
[Former UNSCOM weapons inspector Scott] Ritter said that President George W. Bush has received and signed off on orders for an aerial attack on Iran planned for June 2005. Its purported goal is the destruction of Iran’s alleged program to develop nuclear weapons, but Ritter said neoconservatives in the administration also expected that the attack would set in motion a chain of events leading to regime change in the oil-rich nation of 70 million.
Not to worry. CNN reports that President Bush himself has reassurance for us.
This notion that the United States is getting ready to attack Iran is simply ridiculous.
His very next comment further comforts me.
Having said that, all options are on the table.

26 February 2005

Oscar picks

Oscar night is tomorrow night, and I probably won't manage to watch this time. There's a pretty strong field of nominees this year, which means that my usual bad handicapping will be even harder this time. Still, it's fun to guess.

Best Picture: Million Dollar Baby

There's a school of thought that says that Scorscese is taking Best Picture for The Aviator, given that he's the greatest living American director, and has never won an Oscar. In 1990 Goodfellas lost to Dances With Wolves, in 1976 Taxi Driver lost to Rocky, and in 1980 Raging Bull --- #24 on the AFI list of the 100 Greatest American Movies, right under The Maltese Falcon --- lost to Ordinary People.

So Oscar is a little embarassed.

But I don't think it's Marty's year. The Aviator is a whole lot of movie, but it's not a masterpiece. The pace is a bit broken, and it ends fifteen minutes too late.

Meanwhile, Million Dollar Baby is a gem. The Academy loves Clint Eastwood --- he has two Oscars and a Thalberg, and would have taken one home for Mystic River last year had it not been the year of The Lord of the Rings. It's the best film he's ever done. So that's my guess.

Best Director: Clint Eastwood for Million Dollar Baby

The Academy rarely splits the ticket, and it's obviously Clint's hand at work, so I think he'll get both statues.

Best Actor: Jamie Foxx, Ray

There are a lot of strong performances this year, but I think my odds are good on this pick. I'd love to see the magnificent Don Cheadle take it for Hotel Rwanda. And I haven't actually seen Ray so I don't have a truly informed opinion. But by all accounts he is terrific in it, and it's exactly the sort of thing that the Academy loves: a breakout role by a good actor who hasn't had much attention in the past, plus it's a biopic about a fascinating, well-loved figure.

Best Actress: Imelda Staunton for Vera Drake

I'm going out on a limb for this one, which means I'm probably guessing wrong. Critics are saying that Annette Benning deserves it for Being Julia. And Hillary Swank has both a terrific performance and good-movie momentum going for her for Million Dollar Baby. But Staunton's performance is the movie in Vera Drake, and if enough of the Academy voters actually sat down to see the picture, they might look for this as a way to honor it.

Best Supporting Actor: Morgan Freeman for Million Dollar Baby

An easy pick. Oh, I suppose Alan Alda has a chance, for showing up so late in his career and playing against type in The Aviator. But it wasn't really a memorable performance, per se. You can't give Thomas Hayden Church an award for Sideways when Paul Giametti isn't up for one. You can't give Jamie Foxx an award for Collaterol when he's also up for one for Ray. You can't give Clive Owen an award for being good in a bad movie, when you know he's got better performances ahead of him. And you can't give anyone an Oscar when they're up against Morgan Freeman, because he's Morgan Freeman ... and he hasn't won one yet.

Best Supporting Actress: Cate Blanchett for The Aviator

This is a tough one. Laura Linney is a hardworking and underappreciated actress who was terrific in Kinsey. Likewise Virginia Madsen, who took her little monologue bit in the best segment of dialogue in Sideways and knocked it out of the park. I didn't see the other two nominees, but critics report very good things.

But Cate Blanchett has everything going for her here. Everyone recognizes she's a great actress. She lost her one prior shot at Best Actress to the vastly inferior actress Gwyneth Paltrow in '98. She took on an impossible rôle of playing Katherine Hepburn. Katherine Hepburn. She did it a go-for-broke style that has to be seen to be believed. And it worked. So that's my pick; I think people are gonna be hoping she accepts the award in character.

Animated Feature: The Incredibles

No contest. I'm just disappointed that director Brad Bird isn't up for Best Supporting Actress for playing Edna Mode.

Adapted screenplay: Million Dollar Baby

Partly I'm expecting a sweep effect, partly the screenplay is just really really good. But I'm ready to be wrong on this one: both Sideways and Before Sunset are all about the dialogue, and very strong contenders.

Original screenplay: Hotel Rwanda

A very tough call. Charlie Kaufmann may do it again, for Eternal Sunshine, but I think the Academy is now wise to his basic trickiness and is going to wait for him to take it to the next level. The Aviator has a chance here, since the screenplay does a lot of things all at once and manages to keep them aloft. But Hotel Rwanda manages to be both entertaining and Serious, so that's my pick.

Art Direction: Finding Neverland

I could be wrong. A Series of Unfortunate Events and Phantom of the Opera are both movies about art direction, and deserving candidates in the category. But inconveniently, as movies, they sucked. So my guess is the good movie about art direction.

Cinematography: House of Flying Daggers

Again, in these technical awards the way to win is either by being in a movie that's all-around terrific and sweeping, or by being in a movie that's really about that technical aspect. And House is about colour and light and movement. And Hollywood people have just recently discovered this style of Asian cinema. So I think that's a winning combination.

Documentary: Super Size Me

I'm told that Born into Brothels is actually a better picture, but I think this is a slam dunk. It's the only one anyone saw, and it was good and funny and audacious.

Editing: Collatoral

Probably a sucker pick, since the competition is a bunch of films up for more important awards, but I saw the picture and the editing really is terrific, and solves some hard problems. Plus, the film has a bunch if fight scenes, which are a chance for the editor to show off.

Visual effects: Spiderman 2

No contest. There were some lovely effects in I, Robot, yes, but also some lame ones. And Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban had both some impressive big effects and a number of lovely grace notes. But Spidey swinging through the city is so dazzling that it's hard to resist --- and Doctor Octopus' arms gave a better acting performance than Will Smith did.

25 February 2005

Dressed for diplomacy

Jesse Taylor at Pandagon gives us Condi Rice slash.

Condoleezza Rice wore all black. She also wore high-heeled boots. And gauntlet-knives. Oh, and she carried a fully-loaded Uzi onstage and proceeded to unshackle an Islamist. Setting the Uzi in the middle of the stage, she and the Islamist started each thirty feet from the gun, began running towards the gun, and proceeded to fight using a mixture of taekwondo and hapkido to defeat the Islamist. After the fight, grinning with brilliantly white teeth, she ripped his head off with his bare hands and threw it to a legless veteran in the audience.

She then broke the Uzi in half with her bare knee, and gold coins poured out. She has changed the way we think about national security. Forever.

Actually, he has a purpose. Read the actual Washington Post article which inspired Mr. Taylor.
As Rice walked out to greet the troops, the coat blew open in a rather swashbuckling way to reveal the top of a pair of knee-high boots. The boots had a high, slender heel that is not particularly practical. But it is a popular silhouette because it tends to elongate and flatter the leg. In short, the boots are sexy.
Rice's coat and boots speak of sex and power --- such a volatile combination, and one that in political circles rarely leads to anything but scandal. When looking at the image of Rice in Wiesbaden, the mind searches for ways to put it all into context. It turns to fiction, to caricature. To shadowy daydreams. Dominatrix! It is as though sex and power can only co-exist in a fantasy. When a woman combines them in the real world, stubborn stereotypes have her power devolving into a form that is purely sexual.
That's the Washington Post, people. "Serious journalism" from the "liberal media." Yeah.

(Um, and if you're saying whaddya mean, "slash"? I offer an explication.)


Ken MacLeod reminds us of the wit and wisdom of Phil Agre. I myself have plugged his amazing comments from right after 9/11 in this blog.
Three days after 9/11, Phil Agre circulated this chilling essay about the consequences for democracy in the US. A few months later, I recall rereading it and finding it scary and prescient. Rereading it again now, "scary and prescient" is an understatement.
Even more so now. Definitely worth a read.
The conditions of war are almost identical with the social vision of conservatism, and it is no surprise that conservatives are so eloquent when the possibility of war arises.
And what is that social vision of conservatism? That's one of the Agre essays MacLeod links for us. Agre takes the long view to answer the question "what is conservatism?"
Q: What is conservatism?
A: Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy.

Q: What is wrong with conservatism?
A: Conservatism is incompatible with democracy, prosperity, and civilization in general. It is a destructive system of inequality and prejudice that is founded on deception and has no place in the modern world.

That's a very strong statement, so Agre lays out his argument a length. It's worth your time. And for extra credit, you may want to read what Agre has to say about the current devolution of our political rhetoric.

24 February 2005


While we're waiting for the Oscars --- and yeah, I'll have picks and predictions up before showtime --- let me point y'all to the Koufax awards for the best of lefty bloggers. They've been doing them for the last three years, and the winners are invariably amazing. Indeed, all of the runners-up are amazing. If you've reached deep into my blogroll, you'll recognize quite a few names.

Special congratulations to my man Orcinus, who scored a Koufax for The Rise of Pseudo Fascism, an essay which I plugged just a little bit ago.

23 February 2005

Hunter S. Thomson headline

From CNN:
Thompson probably planned suicide
Remains may be blasted out of a cannon
Sounds like him ...

Not exactly antisemitism

Big Media Matt makes a little observation about Jews and the American right.
Here in the United States, the right has a tendency (once, but mostly no longer, found on the European right) to serve up a mixture of hostility to intellectuals, Hollywood, journalists, academics, and residents of big cities along with valorization of farmers, soldiers, and small-town life that I, at least, find remarkably uncongenial to the values of American Jewry. I rather doubt, at this point, that there's any actual anti-semitism lurking beneath this murky cauldron of anti-semitic tropes, but still, there they are. Or to put it another way, granting that pretty much nobody on the American right seems to hate Jews as such, pretty much everybody on the American right seems to hate the things that, in practice, American Jews do.
Follow the link for more provocative thoughts, if you liked that one.

Umber Nay of the East Bay

A friend of mine recently professed ignorance of Patrick Farley's manga-style Whore of Babylon from his Apocamon: The Final Judgement series. I plugged the magnificent Mr. Farley's web comics some time ago, and for those of you who missed that, I suggest you follow the link and see why I think he's worth mentioning again.

22 February 2005

Today's quote

From my teammate Scout, describing the brain-bending complexity of some documentation we received from a client.
It's like the sewage control system for the Death Star
I expect that I will have use for this expression again in the future.


Hunter S. Thomson
Duke of gonzo journalism
American original

I'm late to keyboard on this one, so I'll let other folks say it better:

Greg Palast's weblog doesn't seem to allow permalinks, so here's his obit:

Nose hair and Hunter
Monday Feb 21, 2005
Greg Palast on HST

It was Princess Di's photographer who told me to shave the hair on top of my nose. That was when I was famous, famous for a whole week. I was famous only in England, an island off the coast of Ireland, but it was fame nonetheless. The entire front page of the Mirror, a London tabloid newspaper, was splashed with a ghastly photo of my head (hair on nose, not on head), an attack on my investigation of Tony Blair. My own paper, the Guardian/Observer, wanted to give a different impression of me, so the editors spent an ungodly sum of money to hire Princess Di's photographer to make me pretty for a large photo spread of their own. But there was nothing much the lens man could do. “Get rid of the nose hair,” he suggested, working, without success, on the 200th snap.

I met Hunter Thompson when I was twenty years old — that is, saw him from the back of a crowd at the gym at my college where he was performing. I say “performing” because that's what Thompson did, even three decades ago. He'd become an astonishing success as a writer — and his writing was astonishing. Then he became very accomplished at success and stopped accomplishing much as a writer. That's when I decided not to become a journalist.

If that's what a journalist does, I thought, I'd rather do something a little more interesting with my life. I switched to the hospital administration program with a plan to open a community health center in Woodlawn, then the hardest of the hard-core poverty troughs in Chicago.

Things didn't work out as planned; and twenty-five years later I ended up a reporter. Thompson ended up as a cartoon character — not just the Doonesbury send-up, but the humorless and hagiographic fantasy of Transmetropolitan comic books, “Spider Jerusalem,” drinker, druggie, smart-aleck scourge of bad guys and editors.

That was the comic book; then there's the man. Thompson the writer kept writing in bits and snips, but it was always a parody of Thompson. His later compilations (he couldn't sustain a book) like Generation of Swine were brilliant one-joke rants. You'd read them and you didn't know a goddamn thing you didn't know before you read them.

Thompson stopped taking on the big topics ... after all, what topic could measure up to him?

It wasn't always that way. What impressed me about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is that it was written as a coda, a needed break, from Thompson's grueling investigative report on the death of Chicano activist Ruben Salazar. And this I also know: all that cool fear-and-loathing patter was not written on acid in a Ghia doing 140; it was typed alone in a quiet room.

Alone in a quiet room. No school gyms of adulating audiences on their feet to cheer the genius, no comic book figures dropping bon mots could press those keys.

And then came the satanic sucker-punch, celebrity. Poor Mr. Thompson.

When I think of how my one goofy week of offshore stardom twisted my head (I'm still neurotically plucking hairs off my nose), I can only imagine what Thompson's daily dose of fame cocaine did to him.

When I go off track, when I catch myself obsessing about my number on the Times' paperback nonfiction list, I wrestle my thoughts back to Tundu Lissu. Tundu's the lawyer who followed up on my investigation of the deaths of 50 Africans in George Bush Sr's gold mines. They were buried alive and Lissu brought back the evidence ... for which he was arrested and charged with sedition by the government of Tanzania. Released from prison, he refuses to seek refuge and safety.

Tundu Lissu is a giant. I barely reach his knees, that is, as a moral being. But I can do one thing: tell his story to the world ... and keep myself out of it.

When a writer gets bigger than his subjects, he's dead — though not yet buried.

This morning, I heard that Thompson faced this intractable truth, and completed the job; suicide with one of the guns he toyed with for the cameras.

Goodnight, Mr. Thompson.

And thanks for those astonishing words, no matter what they cost you.

And an appreciation by Oliver Shykles, researcher at www.gregpalast.com:

Hunter was my hero. He saw right through the establishment and established behavior: the bullshit, the lies and the politicians who stumble around on their own bad acid trips — all the more scary for the fact the only thing they’ve dropped are their morals.

Yes, it was only a matter of time before Hunter blew his brains out — I was surprised he made it this far. Was he sane? Probably not, but that depends on how you look at it, in a world that is insane maybe Hunter was the sane one.

Let us just hope that wherever he is now he saved a few bullets for Nixon.

Peace, dude.

This article reprinted in full without permission for the purposes of discussion and review, as permitted by Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976

19 February 2005


Hmmnn. You may recall that I tried to be fair and said
For all I know, Constantine will be a pretty good movie for folks who don't know anything about the comic. The trailer has some cool eye candy in it. My trailer-dar makes me suspect bad writing, but it could be wrong. So a fun movie is plausible.

I'm trying to resist a fanboyish response ...

and for a minute there, I thought this might turn out to be true. Andrew O'Hehir of Salon quite liked it, duly noting
I can understand why Hellblazer fans are upset about this movie. John Constantine was invented 20 years ago by hallowed comics genius Alan Moore in his Swamp Thing series, and his fictional history is well defined
Reeves' Constantine is an entirely different character, a sardonic L.A. noir hero who lives alone in a gigantic loft with all his supernatural trickeries and a boatload of old-school Catholic guilt. I wouldn't argue that he's a better character, but he works.
and then arguing
It's genuinely too bad that comics fans couldn't be made happy too, but Constantine, in this dark season, is a reason for action-movie fans to give thanks
But I don't entirely trust Mr. O'Hehir. He's pretty good, but I've seen him miss the mark.

A. O. Scott of the New York Times didn't like it one bit, calling it an

overblown, overlong attempt --- which falls just short of success --- to make a movie dumber than Van Helsing.
but he often doesn't take to genre movies that I enjoy, so that's not necessarily completely damning.

So I trundle on over to Roger Ebert, who generally has a good nose for genre movies, and he gives the movie a star and a half out of four and then just starts MST3000-ing details from the movie.

Oh, and the plot also involves the Spear of Destiny, which is the spear that killed Christ, and which has been missing since World War II, which seems to open a window to the possibility of Nazi villains, but no.
So I don't know what to think. Rotten Tomatoes is reading almost exactly half fresh, half rotten.

At least he does smoke cigarettes.

18 February 2005

Destroying the city to save it

I see that Yezida beat me to the punch, but if you haven't seen it yet, via Ken MacLeod I have a horrific account of the invasion of Fallujah.
You may think you know what happened in Fallujah. But the truth is worse than you could possibly have imagined.
This article relies on a single source, but it's apparently supported by video shot for the BBC, which suggests that the report is reliable. I'd note for the benefit of readers disinclined to trust a report from the UK Socialist Worker that, for historical reasons, socialists in the UK are generally not nearly as nutty as socialists in the US.


Whoa: I've just been caught at a bit of sexism. Rogers at Kung Fu Monkey, talking about the year's superhero comics, makes an observation that I'm embarassed simply never occurred to me.

There are some very talented writers working on female heroes. Gail Simone; Waid always does them well; call me a slut for him, but Warren Ellis treats ‘em right; Giff, of course; Rucka with Tara Chace and that new SCU boss … and of course a few others. But what we need, really need, is some good female VILLAINS. Somebody maybe a little different from the Madonna/whore complex of Selina Kyle or the “deadly kiss” of Poison Ivy. Even Harley Quinn, as much fun as she is, is a villain because she’s Joker’s girlfriend.

It’s time for some cunning bastard with a double XX-set. Some woman who, when she pops up with a grin on the JLA viewscreen, makes Batman’s teeth grind.

Conan Doyle created Irene Adler in 1891. And comics are still catching up?

Now in recent years, my superhero diet has been restricted down to the occasions when Snarky Brit Masters — Moore, Gaiman, Ellis — deign to write for the genre, plus Busiek's delicious but infrequent visits to Astro City. But regular readers of my blog know that superheroes are as dear to my heart as pirates. So why hadn't I noticed this?

In the superheroine department, things are a bit better than one might expect, especially considering that the primary audience of the genre. You have Wonder Woman together with Superman and Batman among the Big Three characters. The X-Men are pretty badly misnamed, as just about half of the characters to fill out the X-Roster over the years have been women, including many of the most beloved and interesting of them: Storm, Rogue, Jean Grey in her many variations, plus pretty cool second-stringers like Kitty Pryde, Jubliee, Dazzler, and a zillion others. In fact, many of the most interesting second-stringers in the superhero biz are women: Black Canary, the Wasp, Black Widow, and the coolest of the many Captain Marvels. Don't forget the simply sensational She-Hulk, who isn't quite as silly a character as she sounds.

And if you're up for a visit to the rarefied air I breathe with the snarky Brits, there's a feast. Warren Ellis gives us a bunch of nifty superheroines, the best of them being Jakita Wagner ... or maybe Jenny Sparks, who could probably defeat the whole soddin' Justice League while nursing a hangover from the night before. And I can't let this pass without mentioning Alan Moore more than atoning for his two Silk Spectres with the magnificent Promethea.

But great supervillainesses? Okay, you've got Elektra, supremely badass and cool. Catwoman, likewise. (What other character in any genre could deserve Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt, Michelle Pfeiffer, Halle Berry, and ... surprise ... Gina Gershon and Adrienne Barbeau?) And Mystique in the X-Men films is great. And, ho-hum, as Rogers pointed out, you've got Poison Ivy who's, uh, kind of silly. And ... ah ... did I mention Elektra? Very tough, she is, and she has a great costume. Beyond these few, you're looking at the White Queen and Black Cat: other than being excuses to have exiles from the Victoria's Secret catalogue standing in the panel, is there any point to them?

And none of these are even close to the epic villain league of the Joker, Doctor Doom, Magneto, Darkseid, or Galactus. (Don't give me Madeline Pryor in Goblin Queen mode, okay? It's pathetic.)

What's up with that? It's weird.

Update: Tamar Altebarmakian has a great comment about why this is important, referencing how Xena handles this well.

It’s just as important to have female villains as it is to have female protagonists, and this is perhaps doubly important in a show that has a female protagonist at its center, because it shows that these heroes come from a community of strong women and that an empowered woman is the norm as opposed to an isolated incident.

17 February 2005


It's been a while since I've passed on a silly web animation. It occurs to me that I haven't yet posted this one:


Plus, if you missed 'em, my personal hall of fame:

Strindberg & Helium
Badger badger badger
Foamy in Five more minutes
Odd Todd

Oh, and while we're at it, check out Lego Trogdor!

16 February 2005

Another Digby rant

It's about torture, again, it's powerful, and the punchline is a killer.
We are disappearing people, rendering them to friendly governments that aren't afraid to put the electrode to genitals and threaten with dog rape. And we are building our own infrastructure of torture and extra legal imprisonment. It is a law of human nature that if you build it, they will come. This infrastructure will be expanded and bureaucratized. It's already happening. And when they decide, as Professor Yoo has already decided, that an election is a sanctioning of anything the President chooses to do in the War on Terror, it is only a matter of time before internal political enemies become a threat.

And then it will be us.

Not that opposing evil isn't good enough, but concern for one's own skin is added motivation.

15 February 2005


On a quest for a definition of 'conservativism' John Holbo says a couple of clever things. The first is how the function of the culture war in contemporary conservatism explains a little something about conservatives' relationship with lefty academics.

I tend to the view that poor Republicans aren't dumb; they're masochists. That is, they are hedonists. There is a whole palette of pleasures associated with being on the losing side of a culture war. In fact, it's pretty much the only sort of war it can be much more fun to lose because of all the ressentimental goodness. Despise the winners secretly! Be part of a scrappy rear-guard action! The recruitment posters write themselves. Very English in its way, really, what with the English tradition of getting sentimental and poetic about losing battles. But the romanticism of unbowed but eternally defeated cultural opposition and refusal fits here, too. Holding to the high ground in grimly joyful defeat is nothing that distinguishes the right. Lefty academics (the boring ones, anyway) eat their own brand of this filboid studge, reheat it and eat it again. I think this is part of the reason righty's like to pick on them. Like likes like. David Horowitz is not like Ward Churchill in a lot of ways, but part of him likes battles that have the same contours as the battles that Churchill likes.

("Who's Ward Churchill?" I hear you ask. I wondered myself. Kevin Drum and Digby have the goods.)

This sounds right to me. The example of David Horowitz rings true. The core of his story is "I was a rationalizing lefty zealot, realized that lefty zealots had some of their priorities screwed up, and therefore realized the answer was to become a zealot on the right." He's one of the few commentators on the right with a subtle understanding of the stupid stuff we sometimes say and do on the left, though his sense of proportion about this things is completely bonkers. You can see it in his comments on Churchill.

Holbo goes on to sum up the tenor of a lot of rhetoric on the right, and why it's effective.

Two words: sore winner. That's the soul of a successful conservative. At least these days. ... being sore makes you mean and hungry. Being a winner makes you fat and strong. Being a sore winner makes you fat and mean and hungry and strong: a powerful combination. (Also, if you are happy with just being sore or just being a winner, you can also tag along into the big tent of conservatism. The free market-types are just winners. The pure cultural conservatives are just losers. You won't be refused at the door.)

The expression "sore winner" is sure to turn up in my speech from now on.

14 February 2005


Perhaps you've heard the legend of the 11th Edition of the Encyclopædia Brittanica.
Of course, what made this edition deliciously special were its contributors, over 1,500 of them, and not a lightweight in sight. The 11th was staff-written in part, but many, many notables contributed articles as well. Henry Ford wrote what was to become a classic essay on mass production. Naturalist John Muir, scientist T.H. Huxley and poet Edmund Gosse all penned brilliant pieces. The list of primary sources goes on and on, and even many of the staff-written articles were written by those who later kicked ass --- for example, a then unknown Bertrand Russell.

But it wasn't just who was doing the writing. It was also how it was written. It was conceived from the outset to be engaging and accessible, something the reading public could actually use. No longer would the encyclopedia be a repository for ponderous treatises. Suddenly, almost as if roused from a deep Victorian sleep, it sprang to life, breathing fresh insight into every imaginable topic

There was a set --- in the small format handy edition, no less --- floating around a dorm lounge at UC Santa Cruz, forgotten, and I've long regretted not stealing it. I regret no longer: it's public domain, and the whole thing is available online.

13 February 2005

Red, white and ... blue, not black

So Apostropher pointed me to this annotated photo essay about a military recruiting rally. It's long and a downer. Before you decide to skip this one, take a quick look at the money shot of soldiers, Jesus, and a great big American flag all together, and reflect that this photograph was taken in a church.

Those pictures make the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

In a minute, I'll start to answer whether this is serious business or not by linking you to the place where I found Robert O. Paxton, Mellon Professor of Social Sciences Emeritus at Columbia University, and his 1998 essay “The Five Stages of Fascism.” First, let me give you a quote from him.

[O]ne can not identify a fascist regime by its plumage. George Orwell understood at once that fascism is not defined by its clothing. If, some day, an authentic fascism were to succeed in England, Orwell wrote as early as 1936, it would be more soberly clad than in Germany. The exotic black shirts of Sir Oswald Mosley are one explanation for the failure of the principal fascist movement in England, the British Union of Fascists. What if they had worn bowler hats and carried well-furled umbrellas. The adolescent skinheads who flaunt the swastika today in parts of Europe seem so alien and marginal that they constitute a law-and-order problem (serious though that may be) rather than a recurrence of authentic mass-based fascism, astutely decked out in the patriotic emblems of their own countries. Focusing on external symbols, which are subject to superficial imitation, adds to confusion about what may legitimately be considered fascist.

...[E]ach national variant of fascism draws its legitimacy, as we shall see, not from some universal scripture but from what it considers the most authentic elements of its own community identity. Religion, for example, would certainly play a much larger role in an authentic fascism in the United States than in the first European fascisms, which were pagan for contingent historical reasons.

Looking at those pictures, I see what I imagine that a distinctly American fascism would look like, as Paxton says. On the surface, it doesn't look like a Nazi rally, but if fascism comes to the US, it won't look like Nazis, it will look like Norman Rockwell. The pictures look too much like my lefty dystopian fantasies. Am I overstating the case? Lefties have been making jokes since the election about expatriating. They're getting less and less funny. Are we overreacting?

We mustn't overstate the case. We aren't running murder factory concentration camps around the clock. We don't have secret police carting away dissidents every day. You can make fun of the President on national television. America is not a fascist state, not a totalitarian state, not a genocidal state, not a police state, not a military junta, not a one-party state, not a dictatorial cult of personality. But it is not hard to argue that aspects of these things are creeping in around the edges, with our damaged civil liberties, our endorsement and participation in torture, in too much of the rhetoric in our public discourse and so on. How do we talk about these things without running afoul of Godwin's Law?

As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.

There is a tradition in many groups that, once this occurs, that thread is over, and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically lost whatever argument was in progress. Godwin's Law thus practically guarantees the existence of an upper bound on thread length in those groups. However there is also a widely recognized codicil that any intentional triggering of Godwin's Law in order to invoke its thread-ending effects will be unsuccessful.

David “Orcinus” Neiwert has done some very deep thinking on this subject. His blog is largely concerned with his observations in the wake of covering the Patriot movement as a journalist. He has three essays that I believe are importanr—essential—to read.

First, his award-winning essay The Political and the Personal. It's long for a blog post, but not too long, and he talks about his personal experiences of the shift in our nation's political winds. I think it's important to read because it makes clear that he's not some effete lefty urbanite like me: he's a sober heartland working-class American who knows whereof he speaks. It's also a heartrending essay on its own terms, and my hope is that it will hook you on his writing.

And as my oldest friends can tell you, the truth is that I used to be fairly conservative myself. I come from a working-class family—my mother's side of the family was in road construction, and my dad's was mostly a farming family, though his father actually was an auto mechanic.

Working-class values, and my belief in blue-collar virtues—like integrity, decency, hard work, honesty, common sense, and fair play—all were quite deeply ingrained. When I was younger, I really believed that conservatism best embodied those values.

Over the years that morphed, especially as I worked as a newspaperman (beginning in about 1976, when I was just turning 20). I was confronted innumerable times with realities that conflicted with my old preconceptions. I came to know hard-working Democrats who had the highest integrity and greatest decency (people like Frank Church and Cecil Andrus). I got to know Republicans who were prolific liars of the lowest integrity (like George Hansen, Steve Symms and Helen Chenoweth). And, of course, I got to know scumbag Democrats and honest Republicans as well, people who jibed with my old worldview. But it was obvious that the old construct was not really valid.

What became especially clear was that—even though I had always believed, and still do, that upper-class and urban liberals are prone to a phony compassion that only extended to various victim classes, rather like a parlor game, often rationalized with a tortuous intellectualism—conservatives likewise were fond of wrapping themselves in my old-fashioned, working-class values (along with the American flag, of course) while utterly undermining the ability of ordinary, working-class people to make a decent living and obtain equal opportunity.

Second, and most important, his very long, very thoughtful essay Rush, Newspeak, and Fascism. He describes in detail the fundamental characteristics of fascism, the ways in which this strain in politics has cropped up throughout the last century in America, and then examines how right-wing rhetoric in the mass media is implicated in its recent manifestations. If you follow the fulminarions of the right, you'll be reassured that you aren't wrong to be spooked. If you don't, you'll be discomforted to know how spooky it is. And how it does matter.

The line between right-wing extremists and “the conservative movement” has been increasingly blurred in the past 10 years. The distance between them now has grown so short in some cases as to render them nearly indistinguishable.

Certainly it is hard to distinguish between George Bush's contempt for the United Nations and the kind that a John Bircher might harbor. Moreover, Bush panders to these sentiments; he reportedly waxed nostalgic before a group of visiting Southerners about the old “Get us Out of the U.N.!” billboards that were common in Bircher country.

This, in addition to sloppy thinking, is why some on the left will offhandedly label Rush Limbaugh or George W. Bush “fascists.” I'm here to explain why, despite all appearances, they aren't. Yet. And how we'll know when they are.

Third, he follows up with another not-quite-so-long essay, The Rise of Pseudo-Fascism, talking about how the current state of the American right really isn't fascist, but is implicated in being something at least related to it.

Certainly, one only needs review the current state of affairs to recognize that the “conservative movement”—especially as embodied by the Bush administration—has wandered far astray from its original values. Just how “conservative” is it, after all, to run up record budget deficits? To make the nation bleed jobs? To invade another nation under false pretenses? To run roughshod over states' rights? To impose a radical unilateralist approach to foreign policy? To undermine privacy rights and the constitutional balance of power? To quanitifably worsen the environment, while ignoring the realities of global warming? To grotesquely mishandle the defense of our national borders?

Mind you, it is not merely liberals who have observed this transformation. It includes a number of longtime conservatives who remain true to their principles as well.

The “conservative movement,” in the course of this mutation, has become something entirely new, a fresh political entity quite unlike we've ever seen before in our history, but one that at the same time seems somehow familiar, as though we have seen something like it.

What's become clear as this election year has progressed—and especially in the wake of the Republican National Convention—is the actual shape of this fresh beast.

Call it Pseudo Fascism. Or, if you like, Fascism Lite. Happy-Face Fascism. Postmodern Fascism. But there is little doubt anymore why the shape of the “conservative movement” in the 21st century is so familiar and disturbing: Its architecture, its entire structure, has morphed into a not-so-faint hologram of 20th-century fascism.

It is not genuine fascism, even though it bears many of the basic traits of that movement. It lacks certain key elements that would make it genuinely so ....

Which brings us back to the pictures that started this. Those pictures are not a demonstration of fascism, but a sample of how it might taste, a look at our fascism in potentia. Orcinus quotes Billmon describing the fear this provokes in those of us who see it.

The truly sinister thing—and the reason why that Slate story made the hair stand up on the back of my neck—is that even as these people move, like sleepwalkers, towards a distinctly American version of the cult of the leader, most of them honestly appear to have no idea what they're doing, or creating. I'm not even sure the Rovians themselves entirely understand the atavistic instincts they've awakened in Bush's most loyal followers. But the current is running now, fast and strong. And we're all heading for the rapids.

Please, even if you don't follow the link above to my long comments, take the time to go read what David Neiwert has to say.

12 February 2005


Today, Yezida's asking a doozy of a question.
There are those of us who play at being slaves. "Yes Master." What does this mean? How does this work in our world that contains both post-modern language queerifying and actual pre-modern practices? Is it akin to people wearing pink triangles as a symbol of pride instead of a mark that they should be imprisoned, tortured and sent to death? Is using the word slave in such a context like me using the word queer? Turning it on its head to take back the power? But what does taking back the power of such a word mean in a world where real slavery still exists? No one is being forced to wear pink triangles anymore. But people are still being forced into actual slavery.

I am truly wondering, here. Help me out.

It's a poser, and I'm guessing some of my readers will have some good ideas. I know just enough crazy John Lilly mind games lore, and enough folks from pervy circles, to venture some thoughts of my own.
Experienced BDSM bottoms talk rapturously about being "broken," and do not kid yourself: it is the same mechanism in the human frame that is triggered when a person is dragged into chains and then beaten into submission as an unwilling slave. The slave is broken into a mockery of the human spirit. The willing bottom is broken to a different purpose, to be put back together with care and reassurance and love, made stronger by the experience.
Tricky stuff. Very tricky stuff.

Only Tango

A friend of mine recently reported to me that she had just seen Last Tango in Paris, and was, of course, blown away. I first saw it five or six years ago, and while it is true in a sense that my contemporary eye did not see the same film that people saw thirty years ago, nonetheless it still astonishes. It is brilliant, and singular: seeing it, one is amazed that something so very different from any other film is possible.

Of course, the most famous comment about the film is Pauline Kael's

Brando cashes the check that Stanley Kowalski wrote 20 years earlier
and this is true. But she was wrong when she predicted that it would shock the world into changing the way it worked with its medium. No one else --- not even Bertolucci --- has been able to do anything like it since.

Vincent Canby at the New York Times was half right when he said

It's what in the 1960's (a decade not great for jargon) would have been called, lamely, a Now film. It's so Now, in fact, that you better see it quickly. I suspect that its ideas, as well as its ability to shock or, apparently, to arouse, will age quickly. This is not true, I think, of the superlative production by Bertolucci, nor of the extraordinary performance by Marlon Brando
He was right the Bertolucci's production and Brando's performance, but he was wrong about the film's ideas aging quickly. A different time reads it differently, to be sure, but it still shocks and arouses us as a film, and I think it will forever. It is so distinctive, so successful in the face of the opportunities for absurdity implicit in its audacity.

Which is why we often talk so much about Brando's performance --- at least we can attempt to describe that. I took a crack at it, describing my favorite scene while eulogizing Brando last year.

There's a scene in Last Tango in Paris where Brando is idly drumming his hands against the wall. That's all that's happening, and it lasts a couple of minutes. It's a scene of a man standing drumming his hands. It should be duller than a Jarmuch film and put you to sleep. But the scene is utterly hypnotic --- more movie than you get from most entire feature films.

Talent. Magic.

We talk about how cool Brando is because the film as a whole is a mystery --- something to ponder that one cannot explain. Roger Ebert has tried three times and still seems to think he's stumbling around the truth. In 1972 he said
Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris is one of the great emotional experiences of our time. It's a movie that exists so resolutely on the level of emotion, indeed, that possibly only Marlon Brando, of all living actors, could have played its lead. Who else can act so brutally and imply such vulnerability and need?

For the movie is about need; about the terrible hunger that its hero, Paul, feels for the touch of another human heart. He is a man whose whole existence has been reduced to a cry for help --- and who has been so damaged by life that he can only express that cry in acts of crude sexuality.

which says something true about the picture, but apparently didn't satisfy Ebert. In 1995 he talked a lot about how the film seemed at the time, and how his read had changed.
This movie was the banner for a revolution that never happened.

"The movie breakthrough has finally come," Pauline Kael wrote, in the most famous movie review ever published. "Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form." The date of the premiere, she said, would become a landmark in movie history comparable to the night in 1913 when Stravinsky's "Rites of Spring" was first performed, and ushered in modern music.

Last Tango premiered, in case you have forgotten, on Oct. 14, 1972. It did not quite become a landmark. It was not the beginning of something new, but the triumph of something old --- the "art film," which was soon to be replaced by the complete victory of mass-marketed "event films." The shocking sexual energy of Last Tango in Paris and the daring of Marlon Brando and the unknown Maria Schneider did not lead to an adult art cinema. The movie frightened off imitators, and instead of being the first of many X-rated films dealing honestly with sexuality, it became almost the last.

And still he wasn't happy with what he said there. Last year, he tried again, and said that half of his '95 review was hogwash.
I wrote in 1995, "but Brando knows Paul, while Schneider is only walking in Jeanne's shoes." Seeing the film again, I believe I was wrong. Schneider, who plays much of the film completely nude, who is held in closeup during long scenes of extraordinary complexity, who at 22 had hardly acted before, shares the film with Brando and meets him in the middle. What Hollywood actress of the time could have played Brando on his own field?

In 1995 I wrote: "He is in scenes as an actor, she is in scenes as a thing." Wrong again. They are both in scenes as actors, but I was seeing her as a thing, fascinated by the disconnect between her adolescent immaturity and voluptuous body. I objectified her, but Paul does not, and neither does the movie. That he keeps his secrets, refuses intimacy, treats her roughly, is explained by the scene with the body of his wife, and perhaps by his own experience of sex.

It is the only film of its kind. It dazzles us, and we struggle to describe any part of what it does. If that doesn't make a masterpiece, what could?

11 February 2005

Death of a playwright

Arthur Miller
One hit wonder

Well, two hits. But what hits! As Sara Nelson, editor and literary journalist, is quoted as saying in Salon:

I was introduced to Arthur Miller. Looking into the face of the creator of Death of a Salesman, I could think only two thoughts:
  1. Great play! And
  2. What was Marilyn Monroe really like?

Superhero economics

Jim Henley of Unqualified Offerings has been watching TV and has an interesting comment about the economics of a show I really like, Justice League.

Aging Leaguer Wildcat has secretly begun participating in Metabrawl, an illegal cage-match series among (mostly) “supervillains,” sponsored by the entrepreneurial Roulette. Black Canary recruits Green Arrow (they aren't dating yet in this continuity) to try to spring Wildcat on the QT, since he's flouting League rules and could get kicked out if caught.

There was some nice byplay among the characters, and Dennis Farina was good as the voice of Wildcat. I gotta say, as a libertarian, I was rooting for Roulette. In this incarnation of Metabrawl, everything is consensual. No one's been kidnapped; fighting is to “last man standing,” meaning submission is an option. (In Roulette's comics appearances, she gets contestants by drugging and kidnapping superheroes. The TV Roulette apparently has a better idea of the labor situation in the DC Comics universe.) Wildcat himself “has always been a fighter,” as he says; he likes the chance to whale on people he thinks have it coming; and he feels like the League is shoving him aside because of his age. As for the real villains, let's consider: in Metabrawl they're making money by beating up other villains who have chosen to be there. Other ways supervillains might make money: robbing; killing; blackmail. Yeah, I think Metabrawl is a nobler career path.

Hmmnn. Since Henley is a libertarian, he doesn't see the obvious implication of this thinking, that people with super-powers should be pensioned off by the government, like farm subsidies.

Ha! Henley responds on his blog

Snarf, I say! Snarf indeed!

... which I'm not sure how to interpret, but daresay deserves to be the last word.

10 February 2005

Not all numbers are equal

So dig this.
You might expect that there would be roughly the same number of numbers beginning with each different digit: that the proportion of numbers beginning with any given digit would be roughly 1/9. However, in very many cases, you'd be wrong!

Surprisingly, for many kinds of data, the distribution of first digits is highly skewed, with 1 being the most common digit and 9 the least common. In fact, a precise mathematical relationship seems to hold: the expected proportion of numbers beginning with the leading digit n is log10((n+1)/n).

This relationship, shown in the graph of Figure 1 and known as Benford's Law, is becoming more and more useful as we understand it better. But how was it discovered, and why on earth should it be true?

Very counterintuitive. Very cool. And, it turns out, there are a lot of applications.

09 February 2005


Old punks never die, they just turn into spoken word monologists. I don't know why, but there it is. Jello Biafra. Patti Smith. Henry Rollins.

The wheels of popkultur turn strangely. The Independent Film Channel, in their infinite wisdom, have given Rollins, the former frontman for the most agressively awful band of all time, his own show called ... I kid you not ... Henry's Film Corner. See, he reviews movies and interviews filmmakers.

The little IFC website is oddly fascinating. There's video clips: Henry rants, and the camera jump cuts about every 700 milliseconds to make sure we know how exciting it is. It's kind of fun.

There was a presidential election. And I didn't get the result I wanted!
If I was sixteen I'd probably think that this burly ranting crazy man had the Courage to, y'know, Tell It Like It Is.

But the website features a two part interview with Daryll Hannah. Okay, it's funny. He tells her ...

Many years ago, I was in this band, Black Flag. We would play the most dire holes all over the world. Very depressing.
... and okay, there's a weird thrill in hearing him say that. "You know me as a movie critic, but when I was a kid I had a rock 'n' roll band." Then he says ...
I would put your name on the guest list ...
... and even if this funny story is true, there's something heartbreaking about seeing even ragin' Rollins neatly productized and participating in the media hype cycle. Yeah, I know that Rollins has always been in showbiz. I'd like to retain some fragment of my romantic ideas about the possibility of radical antinomian showbiz: Rollins, Andy Kauffman, the Sex Pistols, Marilyn Manson. But the corrosive power of celebrity-driven media culture is apparently so mighty that it can melt even Rollins' granite heart.

A Pattern Language

For those of you who like that sort of thing --- and I know that I have at least a couple of you reading me --- I offer you spiritual poetry about architecture from Miriam bat Asherah.
From line to paper,
The ammonnia smell of blueprints:
Foretell in two dimensions
Plans for three.
It's best if you read all of Chistopher Alexander's work, first. But if you haven't, don't let it prevent you from clicking that link.

08 February 2005

Today's quote

From DeLong:
an operating system with nine fives of reliability
Just a little computer humour. If you didn't laugh, it's okay, just go on ahead to the next post.


I swear, I swear, I was looking for something very very different when I stumbled across Leia'sMetalBikini.com. And this picture --- which I think is actually kind of endearing --- was passed on to me by a friend.

I'm not saying that I don't have nerdy dream women lurking in my imagination --- I can admit that I do --- but those ain't them. And my cinema-inspired imagination mostly runs in a different direction, okay?

While we're on the subject

Photographer George Hurrell shows us how movie stars are supposed to look.

07 February 2005

Photoshop, epistemology, ethics, and war

Remember my little discussion of that Teresa Neilsen Hayden piece about trying to understand a deceptive infographic, and the work it took to follow the trail to find out its real agenda?

Terry Karney does something similar with a photograph used for propaganda favoring the Iraq War, tracing where the photo came from and the story that lies behind it. It's another fascinating exercise in the value of skeptically reading what you see.

05 February 2005

Pentagon vs. CIA

A little while ago, I was talking to Yezida, and she asked me about this story, which I hadn't heard about.

The Pentagon, expanding into the CIA's historic bailiwick, has created an espionage arm and is reinterpreting US law to give Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld broad authority over clandestine operations abroad, according to interviews with participants and documents obtained by the Washington Post.

The previously undisclosed organization, called the Strategic Support Branch, arose from Rumsfeld's written order to end his “near total dependence on CIA” for what is known as human intelligence. Designed to operate without detection and under the defense secretary's direct control, the Strategic Support Branch deploys small teams of case officers, linguists, interrogators, and technical specialists alongside special operations forces.
The Pentagon has a vast bureaucracy devoted to gathering and analyzing intelligence, often in concert with the CIA, and news reports over more than a year have described Rumsfeld's drive for more and better human intelligence.

What's this about? More intelligence is good, right? Yezida smelled a rat, but couldn't identify it. But I think I can.

See, I followed the Valerie Plame story pretty closely for a while. In brief: Plame was a CIA spook whose cover was blown by conservative journalist Robert Novak. Plame's husband, Joseph Wilson, had very publicly debunked the president's “sixteen words” claim in the State of the Union that

the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa

Lefties suggested that the outing of Plame was political retribution against Wilson. The administration made no serious effort to track down the person who leaked Plame's secret spy identity, which is bad because

  1. Plame was working on preventing nuclear proliferation, which is, y’know, kind of important, and leaking her identity not only destroys her effectiveness, it burns all of her contacts
  2. A government official who leaks the identity of a “NOC” undercover agent has committed a felony

On the face of it, this is bad enough, but I've learned an important rule: with the Bush administration, it always turns out to be even worse than I first think, even after compensating for the fact that it's even worse than I first think. Following the story, it became apparent that it was the manifestation of a deeper conflict. As Kos summed up

... the Plame Affair is just a symptom of continuing warfare between the White House, the Pentagon and the CIA.

Neoconservatives, in particular, have accused the Agency of having failed the nation, permitting planning for the attacks of 9-11 to go undetected. They were furious, too, that the CIA’s intelligence didn’t provide strong evidence that Iraq was the imminent threat that the neocons vociferously claimed it was. The dispute between the neocons and the established intelligence community didn’t begin when the World Trade Center towers crashed into lower Manhattan, however. The wrangling dates back to the 1980s when the Committee on the Present Danger was saying the Soviet Union was much more dangerous than the CIA claimed and publishing annual reports to prove it. Reports that turned out to be ... exaggerations. Just like their “reports” on Iraq.

Once you start to look for it, the feud between the hawks at the Pentagon and cooler heads at the CIA (and State) becomes apparent. The centerpoint is over the Iraq invasion. Recall that the CIA doubted that Iraq was an imminent threat, while the administration was cooking the books on intelligence to justify the war. Since the CIA turned out to be right and the Pentagon and President turned out to wrong, our President, bad CEO that he is, invited correct-but-disloyal CIA Director Tenet to spend more time with his family while fortifying wrong-but-loyal Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld.

So I read the news about a growing Pentagon intelligence operation from the standpoint that Bush wants an intelligence group that understands that their job is to justify what he believes and support his conclusions. But remember the rule: With the Bush administration, it always turns out to be even worse than I first think, even after compensating for the fact that it's even worse than I first think.

Sy Hersch is, of course, on the case, and tells us how.

The President has signed a series of findings and executive orders authorizing secret commando groups and other Special Forces units to conduct covert operations against suspected terrorist targets in as many as ten nations in the Middle East and South Asia.

The President’s decision enables Rumsfeld to run the operations off the books—free from legal restrictions imposed on the C.I.A. Under current law, all C.I.A. covert activities overseas must be authorized by a Presidential finding and reported to the Senate and House intelligence committees. (The laws were enacted after a series of scandals in the nineteen-seventies involving C.I.A. domestic spying and attempted assassinations of foreign leaders.) “The Pentagon doesn’t feel obligated to report any of this to Congress,” the former high-level intelligence official said. “They don’t even call it ‘covert ops’—it’s too close to the C.I.A. phrase. In their view, it’s ‘black reconnaissance.’ They’re not even going to tell the CINCs”—the regional American military commanders-in-chief. (The Defense Department and the White House did not respond to requests for comment on this story.)

In my interviews, I was repeatedly told that the next strategic target was Iran. “Everyone is saying, ‘You can’t be serious about targeting Iran. Look at Iraq,’ ” the former intelligence official told me. “But they say, ‘We’ve got some lessons learned—not militarily, but how we did it politically. We’re not going to rely on agency pissants.’ No loose ends, and that’s why the C.I.A. is out of there.”

So it's not just about cooking intelligence, it's about conducting operations. The President wants a big team of spooks to go around the world doing nasty shit without Congressional oversight. Lovely.

Update: Kurt Eichenwald writing for the New York Times reports that pre-9/11 CIA briefings strongly suggest that the feud between the CIA and Pentagon predated the 9/11 attacks.

04 February 2005

Markets redux

In comments, reader JD asks a good picky question about the policies I would enact as King of America. How I can say that I want radical drug decriminalization but heavy taxation of sugar?
Why is being strung out on sugar worse than being strung out on meth? If warning labels are good enough for (currently illicit) drugs, why shouldn't the warning labels that are already on fatty, sugary foods be sufficient to keep people informed about the risks they're taking by eating them?
Obviously, being strung out on meth is worse than being strung out on sugar. So why does it seem that I am trying to keep people from using sugar but not meth? The difference lies in what remedy I think is necessary for the two different classes of problems ...

In both cases I want to discourage the bad choice, but not prohibit it, and I want to find the most effective means I can of affecting the fundamental problem. I want to fix the problems I can affect, accept the problems I cannot affect, and permit as much personal liberty as I can in the process.

Medicinal drugs are a question of civil liberties. If I have reliable information about a drug's known effects and risks, then I am equipped to make an adult decision. I should be able to make my own risk assessments, especially if I have a really scary disease. If inadequately-tested drugs have a big red sticker on them saying "RISKY: the FDA does not certify that this drug is either safe or effective," that should work pretty well.

The only public health problem I can think of that is affected here is the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria from antibiotic abuse, but our current restricted regime is already screwing this one up, so I don't think that freer access will really make things worse.

The major social problems with illicit recreational drugs are

  1. Some people are prone to addiction and screw up their lives
  2. Drug users create medical crisis intervention costs bourne by society
  3. Addicts are willing to do socially destructive things to supply themselves with the drugs they desire
  4. Drug supplier mafiosi engage in violence and generate political corruption
Considering point #1, it's well understood that the best thing we can do for that is an extensive public education campaign, as has been slowly but surely effective in the case of tobacco smoking, together with providing resources to help people clean themselves up. Making a drug illegal appears to do little or nothing to prevent some people from finding them and spinning out of control, but it does complicate efforts to reach those folks with rehabilitation services once they reach that point.

On point #2, again the legality of a drug does little to affect how many people do stupid things that lead to this need. If anything, making a drug illegal leads people to wait to seek aid until their condition is more acute and expensive to treat.

On points #3 and #4, these problems arise largely from the availability constraints that arise out of illegality. Nicotine is more addictive than heroin, but people don't break your car window to steal your car stereo to buy cigarettes, because cigarettes. are cheap and readily available. But people will rob you to buy heroin because they have to deal with heroin dealers, who manipulate price and supply, to placate.

Thus the social ills from recreational drugs are actually better addressed through a set of policies that create more availability, not less.

Sugar, on the other hand, is a problem of too much availability. America is a great big candy store. For the poor and hungry, sugar gives you the most calories for your dollar. For the rich and busy, it's one of the most conveniently available ways to get your calories. The cheapness of sugar creates an incentive for food manufacturers and retailers to sell consumers more of it in more formats, and drives sugarless foods out of the market.

If we make sugar more expensive --- not prohibitively expensive, just enough that it's a bit of a luxury --- we shift the incentives in favor of making more wholesome alternatives available. Candy won't go away, but if it's easier for food makers and sellers to make money on fruits and vegetables, then they will offer a greater variety of these in more venues. I'm still free to eat sugar, but I'll be less likely to just turn to it by default. And if I want to not eat sugar, I'll have more options.

03 February 2005

Iraqi elections

Via Atrios, I learn that Eric Alterman has quoted one of his correspondents, Charles Pierce, who strikes exactly the right note about the moving news about the Iraqi elections --- and how we ought to talk about them.
You do not own their courage.

The people who stood in line Sunday did not stand in line to make Americans feel good about themselves.

You do not own their courage.

They did not stand in line to justify lies about Saddam and al-Qaeda, so you don't own their courage, Stephen Hayes. They did not stand in line to justify lies about weapons of mass destruction, or to justify the artful dodginess of Ahmad Chalabi, so you don't own their courage, Judith Miller. They did not stand in line to provide pretty pictures for vapid suits to fawn over, so you don't own their courage, Howard Fineman, and neither do you, Chris Matthews.

You do not own their courage.

They did not stand in line in order to justify the dereliction of a kept press. They did not stand in line to make right the wrongs born out of laziness, cowardice, and the easy acceptance of casual lying.  They did not stand in line for anyone's grand designs. They did not stand in line to play pawns in anyone's great game, so you don't own their courage, you guys in the PNAC gallery.

You do not own their courage.

They did not stand in line to provide American dilettantes with easy rhetorical weapons, so you don't own their courage, Glenn Reynolds, with your cornpone McCarran act out of the bowels of a great university that deserves a helluva lot better than your sorry hide.  They did not stand in line to be the instruments of tawdry vilification and triumphal hooting from bloghound commandos.  They did not stand in line to become useful cudgels for cheap American political thuggery, so you don't own their courage, Freeper Nation.

You do not own their courage.

They did not stand in line to justify a thousand mistakes that have led to more than a thousand American bodies.  They did not stand in line for the purpose of being a national hypnotic for a nation not even their own.  They did not stand in line for being the last casus belli standing. They did not stand in line on behalf of people's book deals, TV spots, honorarium checks, or tinpot celebrity. They did not stand in line to be anyone's talking points.

You do not own their courage.

We all should remember that.

If you want a little more cold water on your face, follow the link and read Alterman talking about the parallels with El Salvador's election in 1985.

02 February 2005

Markets and tyranny

The New York Times has a provocative op-ed from Robert Wright. He argues that market capitalism is corrosive to tyrannical government.

Capitalism's pre-eminence as a wealth generator means that every tyrant has to either embrace free markets or fall slowly into economic oblivion; but for markets to work, citizens need access to information technology and the freedom to use it - and that means having political power.

Well, while I do have some discontent with market capitalism for a host of reasons, and see this a bit of an oversimplification, this is still pretty much true. Which leads Wright to a counterintuitive conclusion.

The president said last week that military force isn't the principal lever he would use to punish tyrants. But that mainly leaves economic levers, like sanctions and exclusion from the World Trade Organization. Given that involvement in the larger capitalist world is time-release poison for tyranny, impeding this involvement is an odd way to aid history's march toward freedom. Four decades of economic isolation have transformed Fidel Castro from a young, fiery dictator into an old, fiery dictator.

Economic exclusion is especially perverse in cases where inclusion could work as a carrot. Suppose, for example, that a malignant authoritarian regime was developing nuclear weapons and you might stop it by offering membership in the W.T.O. It's a twofer — you draw tyrants into a web of commerce that will ultimately spell their doom, and they pay for the privilege by disarming.

I dunno: I have to think about that. But it's a seductive idea. Certainly it leads Wright to articulate well a big chunk of my thinking about American foreign policy:

In the wake of John Kerry's defeat, Democrats have been searching for a new foreign policy vision. But Mr. Clinton laid down as solid a template for post-9/11 policy as you could expect from a pre-9/11 president.

First, fight the spread of weapons of mass destruction, which means, among other things, making arms inspections innovatively intrusive, as in the landmark Chemical Weapons Convention that President Clinton signed (and that Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, et. al., opposed). Second, pursue terrorist networks overtly and covertly (something Mr. Clinton did more aggressively than the pre-9/11 Bush administration). Third, make America liked and respected abroad (as opposed to, say, loathed and reviled). Fourth, seek lasting peace in the Middle East (something Mr. Bush keeps putting off until after the next war)

So check it out, if you like that sort of thing.