Saturday, February 08, 2003

From the Bush Administration's economic report, according to the Washington Post

"The report says current methods of measuring the impact of tax-policy changes on different income groups unfairly tars such tax reforms as harmful to the poor and helpful to the affluent. That is because the government examines how tax changes affect taxpayers at various income levels in a given period of time. Instead, the report says, such "distributional analyses" should consider that a poor person one year could be middle-class or even rich in subsequent years, and a rich person could drop down the income ladder. Given that fluidity, it would be folly to make social and tax policies to address the body of poor people at any particular point in time, it says."

Words fail me ...

Friday, February 07, 2003

"Boys were permitted to capture owls and keep them in the fives court, provided they caught enough sparrows to feed them." Surrealist Daily Telegraph obituaries, via Neil Gaiman.
Brad de Long can't understand why the Republicans would want to screw up the economy for short term political gain; he sees politicians as genuinely motivated by patriotism. But there is strong evidence to the contrary. Paul Pierson at Harvard, has a nice discussion of this issue.
"A statement attributed to David Stockman, Reagan's budget director, is unusual among political decision-makers only for its candor. Asked by an advisor to consider pension reforms to combat social security's severe long-term financing problems, he dismissed the idea out of hand, exclaiming that he had no interest in wasting "a lot of political capital on some other guy's problem in [the year] 2010..." (quoted in Pierson's The Path to European Integration).

Pierson argues that all politicians have short time horizons; ideologues may limit the claim to supply-side Republicans, but the point remains.
Game Theory II - the serious side ... non-social scientists can safely skip this post. Avner Greif and David Laitin's paper on self-reinforcing and self-undermining institutions is now available on the web, at It's been floating around in samizdat form for a while, first, as a single authored piece by Greif, then, with changes to theory, and a big chunk of added empirics, in its present co-authored form. For me, it's a really exciting piece. It pushes game theory about as far as it can go (and perhaps rather further). It also holds out a tentative olive branch to other versions of institutional theory, and to historical institutionalism in particular. It's quite clear from the piece that there are limits to the kinds of institutional change that game theory can deal with (although see also this criminally neglected paper by Calvert and Johnson). Historical institutionalism won't be gobbled up by formal models anytime soon. But at least this should spur some proper conversation between the two approaches.

Thursday, February 06, 2003

Non-specialists gripe that game theory is dry, abstruse and boring. But they're only right in part. The field has some suppressed poetry to it, to compensate for its mathematical complexity. A lot of game theoretic terms sound as though they're inspired by the titles of dime-store detective novels; "Prisoner's Dilemma," "Sucker's Payoff," and the wonderfully lurid-sounding "Grim Trigger Strategy.", to name a few. This isn't really surprising; economists and hardboiled crime writers have a lot in common. Both have cynical views of human nature. If you want to see homo economicus in action, read Donald Westlake's Parker novels (written under the pseudonym of Richard Stark). They're pretty sharp on short term utility maximization, and a lot more fun than any economics textbook that I can think of. Or political science textbook, for that matter. Do game theorists have other secret sources of inspiration? The concept of "Strict Domination," key to non-cooperative game theory, is certainly suggestive ...
Charlie Stross has a troubling post about the UK and Iraq. You may remember that Britain released a dossier on Iraq's bad behavior a few months ago, when the US was reluctant to provide any evidence at all of its allegations about Iraq. The conservative press lapped it up, with sage remarks about the strong case that Britain had made for action. Turns out that this dossier, supposedly based on "intelligence material," was in fact an unacknowledged plagiarism of a post-graduate student's paper in Middle East Review, and two other articles, complete with original spelling errors. Together, of course, with some Downing Street spin. The original material, much of which was based on outdated information, was exaggerated or distorted wherever it would make Saddam sound nastier (admittedly, not very difficult to do). What's amazing is how stupid this is - if they had to lie about where their source material came from, couldn't they at least cover their tracks better? But then, my teaching experience suggests that plagiarists are rarely smart enough to do it well (or at least when they are smart enough, they don't get caught).

Wednesday, February 05, 2003

Here's one from Statewatch which I just had to share. If it wasn't so tragic, it'd be funny. No, it is tragic, but it's still funny.

Here's a tip Giuseppe; if you're looking for the main perpetrators of "widespread political illegality", try asking your boss Silvio. I hear he 'knows' some people.

The Italian Interior Minister, Giuseppe Pisanu, appeared in parliament on 27 January 2003 to answer questions on the threat of terrorism with a
detailed report in which he warned of a growing climate of "widespread political illegality" which must be monitored and combated. The Minister
mixed together Islamic terrorist groups, endogenous left-wing armed groups, anarchist insurrectionaries in general, and right-wing groups, as part of a
common threat. Thus anarchist insurrectionaries are a "vast armed group" (terrorist organisation) in spite of "a lack of strategic leadership and
hierarchical organisation"; although there is "a lack of evidence of interaction between Islamic groups and endogenous subversive organisations"
investigators are following this line of inquiry due to contacts between people in prison from Maghreb countries and the far-left; likewise,
"widespread political illegality ... does not result in terrorist actions", but it must be monitored and combated because it is "undoubtedly" dangerous.

I know Italy has genuine problems with terrorists, but ...
Let's have it for non-libertarian SF! Reading that piece by Eric Raymond, it's bizarre that anyone should think the last 30 years essentially consists of a series of 'failed revolutions' against libertarian hard SF. I suppose when the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.

One sentence is very telling; "There is no socialist, liberal, moderate, conservative or fascist equivalent of the class of libertarian SF writers including L. Neil Smith, F. Paul Wilson, Brad Linaweaver, or J. Neil Schulman; their books, even when they are shrill and indifferently-written political tracts, actually sell — and sell astonishingly well — to SF fans."

I don't think the facts really bear this statement out, at least in the UK where Iain Banks' purportedly socialist Culture novels generate massive sales hand over fist. (though if you ask me, Banks is just a libertarian in denial.) But Raymond raises an important question - why are so many SF readers libertarians? Why is it that there is such a huge market for these 'shrill and indifferently written political tracts' which celebrate individualism above all but are themselves practically character-free ?

Well, you might as well just look at the SF demographic and ask why do reasonably educated, materially comfortable, overwhelmingly white, and inexplicably alienated young men espouse such a radical philosophy of freedom over equality? Why do the people who won the lottery of birth think they are where they are purely on their own merits, and therefore so is everyone else? Why do the very people who have got the best that this planet has to offer dream of a life in another world?
Kevin Drum has some interesting posts here and here about space exploration in the wake of the shuttle disaster. As he says, bloggers' and columnists' attitudes to space tend to break down along right/left lines. Rightwingers like Instapundit feel pretty strongly about space exploration, and want more of it, while left-liberals like Drum and Paul Krugman are more cautious. Drum suggests it's because conservatives think that space flight is cool; I think it has more to do with the politics of science fiction (why so many bloggers are rabid sf fans is an open question). Many libertarians, for example, increasingly ludicrous open source guru Eric Raymond, learnt their political philosophy from from Robert Heinlein and Poul Anderson, and still cling to images of space as the "high frontier," where libertarians can get away from pesky Earth governments and establish a freewheeling stateless utopia. They tend to get upset when science fiction deviates from a strict libertarian party line, or when people suggest that manned space flight is a waste of money. Lefties like Drum and Patrick Hayden like Heinlein too - but don't have a kneejerk response that space exploration is good, because they don't buy into the politics. Nor do the best current sf writers like Paul McAuley, Alistair Reynolds, and ex-New Waver Mike Harrison, whose recent space opera "Light" does an exuberant demolition job on free market mythologies.

Tuesday, February 04, 2003

Warren Zevon ain't quite gone yet, but he couldn't ask for a better pre-emptive strike of an obituary than this.

Monday, February 03, 2003

Kieran Healy has a good post on Instapundit's politicization of the shuttle disaster. Using a major tragedy to hammer home your anti-France prejudice is cheap; see also Calpundit. However, as shrill as neo-cons can be, no-one is quite as smug as a self-satisfied "common-sense" market liberal when he has just mounted his high horse. Exhibit Number One: mustachioed uber-pundit, Thomas Friedman. His recent op-ed for the New York Times on "euro-whiners" is a model of its kind. Friedman's shtick is that democracy is spread through markets and globalization; what Albert Hirschman calls the "doux-commerce" theory of modernization. However, his recent arguments owe more to Commodore Perry - send in the gunboats when other societies fail to accept the superiority of the American Way. Like his confreres, Friedman dismisses European arguments against war with Iraq out of hand - they're political posturing whining born out of "cynicism," "insecurity," and "weakness." This allows him to duck the difficult questions. Sure, France is being hypocritical, and Schroeder tailored his policy on Iraq to gain domestic political advantage. So what? Isn't US foreign policy riddled with hypocrisies (treatment of North Korea vs treatment of Iraq) and often designed for short-term electoral advantage (just ask Karl Rove). What Friedman doesn't even start to acknowledge is that European policy has roots in post-WW II European history - and in recent experience of fostering democracy. During the Cold War, US hawks spluttered in outrage at Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik. It worked - and made the post-Communist transition easier in most Central/East European countries. EU structures underpinned the consolidation of democracy in Spain, Portugal and Greece - previously ruled by US-sponsored authoritarian regimes. "Soft" approaches to democracy and security have worked in the past - the real debate is about when, how, and what does this mean for policy today. Until people like Friedman acknowledge that Europe has real arguments, that are worth taking seriously, they're blowing hot air.

Update: Kieran Healy has a great post about another weird Friedman piece. Healy describes him as mixing "wishful thinking and realpolitik in equal measure;" I reckon that's just about right.
Radwanski's point isn't limited to Canada. When I was working at the Law Society in London shortly after September 11, we put together a team of policy advisers to respond to the draft Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security bill which was published approx. 6 weeks after the attacks. While parts of it (especially those concerning practice of religion) were clearly scribbled down on the back of a napkin the day before the draft bill was published, my then colleagues in immigration, asylum law and housing immediately recognised other parts as bits that had been dropped from previous bills, because they were far too extreme to make it through Parliament. The Bill was stampeded through both Houses before Christmas, an unbelievably fast time for a major criminal justice bill which, amongst other things, took derogations from human rights conventions. And all the while, it was obvious that the Home Office was looking for much more than it needed to fight terrorism - powers over a much wider range of offences, and exercisable in much broader circumstances, than could be explained by the purported justification.

Meanwhile, of course, President Bush wrote to the European Commission with a list of measures he wanted introduced, including the removal of legislative protections against mass traffic data retention, a policy which he wouldn't have gotten away with at home.

The more you look at the policy initiatives in the criminal justice area in the last 15 months or so, the less resemblance they bear to "pure" anti-terrorism measures. I'm a moderate on these issues, but I think we're witnessing a concerted, co-ordinated power grab by justice and interior ministries in the EU, North America and elsewhere, at a time when the public is least willing or able to object. Of course, different countries pursue different policies. Germany and Austria are at least trying to avoid widescale data retention while others, possibly including Ireland, may feel an intolerable amount of pressure to copy the biggest kids in the playground. It's hard to know exactly what's going on because there is no real transparency or parliamentary check on goings on at the European Council of Justice Ministers. But it's clear that the US is pushing other countries, including EU members, to increase their powers in various areas, and that within the EU, the UK is pushing this line the hardest, both at home and in Brussels. It's unclear - at best - whether the people affected by these new measures can stop them.

Sunday, February 02, 2003

George Radwanski, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has an excoriating account of government policy on privacy post September 11. In his words, " The Government is, quite simply, using September 11 as an excuse for new collections and uses of personal information about all of us Canadians that cannot be justified by the requirements of anti-terrorism and that, indeed, have no place in a free and democratic society." This isn't only true of Canada. Most countries in the "free" world are introducing similar legislation, often at the behest of the US government, which still hasn't succeeded in introducing similar laws domestically (just wait). Security and intelligence services are salivating; September 11 has been their free pass to introduce all sorts of nasty measures that they have been trying to get on the statute books for years. Many of which have absolutely nothing to do with combatting terrorism, as Radwanski makes clear.