Saturday, March 22, 2003

Questions and Answers

Good news for William Sjostrom, even if he's naturally a bit nervous about it; he'll be one of the guests on Irish TV's main political discussion show, "Questions and Answers." People familiar with the BBC's "Question Time" should have a good idea of what's involved - it's four talking heads, politicians and pundits of one variety or another, sounding off in response to questions from members of the audience. It's a slightly artificial format, but works pretty well when you have good people on it. It's also pretty high profile in the (admittedly small) world of Irish public discussion. RTE, the TV station in question, streams the show - so interested parties in the US and elsewhere should be able to see Dr. Sjostrom in action on the WWW. And good luck to him.

Friday, March 21, 2003

State of Nature

David Held has an interesting piece in Open Democracy. Held argues against Robert Kagan and his crowd, who think the US is a sort of Hobbesian hegemon, bringing peace, stability, and the 'commodious' life. Instead, pace Held, the US is in fact reverting to the state of nature and bringing us all back with it; "endangering its citizens (especially abroad), further dividing and polarising international affairs, and weakening the international institutions of peace and justice." So, instead of reacting to 9/11 by strengthening multilateralism and international institutions that represent a long-term investment in peace, the US has responded with contempt for diplomacy and any institution which binds. US freedom to act unilaterally and unfettered is won at the price of making the world an even more dangerous and unpredictable place, a place where democracy and justice are given lip service only, and where events are driven by hegemons and rogue powers.

I like Open Democracy. I met the people who run it at a British Council event in Brussels a year or two ago, and I think they've really come into their own in the last 6 months or so by creating a rare venue for debate which is as considered as it is heartfelt. Sometimes, though, when I've been reading it, I just want to go out and tear into a great big dripping bloody steak and shout at people for no good reason.

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

La Flaneuse

I love that expression 'shot through with'. I may be wrong, but I think it came into fashion in academic and pseudo-academic circles following the publication of Illuminations, the collection of translated essays by Walter Benjamin, in 1969. Certainly, that is the first place I ever saw it (in the life-changing 'theses on the philosophy of history') and the people I've seen use the expression since seem likely candidates for having picked it up from there too.

Like so much of that essay and that book, the term "shot through with" expresses so much more, and so much more violently, than must of us scribblers can dream of. And like any well coined phrase, it's been applied all over the place and in all sorts of banal settings until it's been all but wrung dry of its original power. I should have kept a running tally of all the redundant uses I've come across over the years. I haven't, but I think the greatest offenders are the cultural theorists, and mostly because they seem to go around trying to make shallow and fleeting things seem important and deep. And also because they have hijacked one of Benjamin's least interesting essays, the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, and made it a tired out staple of any primer in cultural theory.

(By the way, why do so many of the key names in late 20th century cultural studies start with 'B'? Benjamin, Baudrillard, Bourdieu...)

Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Also sprach Yglesias

Via Matthew Yglesias, a nice aphorism; "if bullshit could talk, it would quote Nietzche." Not that Friedrich himself is entirely to blame for this - the problem is that he wrote about complex and subtle issues in a simple and lucid style, so that it's easy to read him superficially; legions of not-very bright people are quite convinced that they understand him. I almost prefer the people whom Nietzche influenced to Nietzche himself though. Especially Max Weber. One of my old professors, Mark Warren (no mean Nietzcheian himself) memorably described Weber as "chapters of sociological stodge, shot through with occasional flashes of Nietzcheian brilliance." Read Weber's essays, "Science as a Vocation," and "Politics as a Vocation," in particular - they have a wonderfully gloomy resonance, depicting both politics and (in a somewhat different sense) academia as agonistic realms where the truth will never be known, never can be known. The best you can do is to cling to your own beliefs and principles, and battle as consistently as possible on their behalf, even though you know that they're radically contingent, and indefensible in any absolute sense. Powerful stuff.
jungle capitalism

Deliberately turning to something lighter ... does anyone else remember those bizarre ads that a crew of Objectivists used to run in the Economist ten or twelve years ago, looking for donations to buy a chunk of the Amazon jungle, and build a libertarian technopolis far away from the oppressive presences of state and profanum vulgus? As I recall, they were full page affairs, with fulsome predictions of the miracles that would happen once the inhabitants of the city started to do their creative individualist thang. I presume it never came to anything, but always thought that it would make for a great movie: The Fountainhead meets Lord of the Flies. Further information on this eagerly solicited.

Update: mucho thanks to Alan Schussman for sending me more detailed info and further links on this within two hours of my posting - blogging has unexpected bonuses. Turns out that it's a pretty interesting story. "Laissez Faire City" was first floated around 1994, and advertised in the Economist in 1995 (much later than I had remembered). Alan has dug up an interesting, if slightly squirrely history of the project, as well as a 1999 assessment by another crowd of libertarians. Originally, the founders of Laissez-Faire City planned to lease a 100 square mile chunk of Peru, Hong-Kong style, to build their City on the Hill. When the ad appeared in the Economist, the crazies started to pile in; so much so that the ad received the wonderfully absurd Ad Q "Award In Recognition Of The Advertisement Achieving Outstanding Readership Response, As Measured Against All Other Ads Appearing In The Economist June 10th-16th, 1995." Really. Unfortunately, Peru's President Fujimori (later to abscond to Japan) failed to give solid commitments on the land lease, so that the deal fell through. Other possible hosts for the project had their own problems. One South East Asian country offered two miles of shoals covered by two feet of ocean (Atlas Shrugged meets Waterworld?). Another crowd of tribal chiefs were prepared to give land - in return for Laissez-Faire City underwriting a "welfare system" for their members.The project seemed doomed; founders started to pull out.

However, Perry Barlow's famous Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace created another wave of libertarian lunacy, which the Laissez-Faire City people tried to ride all the way home on. "Laissez Faire City" was reinvented as a "City of the Mind," with a Laissez Faire City Times touting the technolibertarian creed, as well as a variety of technical projects that were supposed to liberate individuals from the clutches of the nation-state. Laissez-Faire City Mark II collapsed itself in due course - hard to be sure exactly what happened on the basis of a couple of partisan websites, but it looks like the usual welter of personality clashes, and accusations about who did what with the money. Perhaps the US Department of Commerce was in on it too - some paranoid accusations flying about of purported Commerce sting operations that seek to draw innocent libertarians into their evil web. And using honest US tax-payers money to boot!

It's easy to sneer at all of this, and it's fun. But there's also something that's admirable about this Utopianism, dotty though it may be. There aren't all that many people left who have a genuine political vision of the ideal society, and who are prepared to put their money where their mouth is. Laissez-Faire City is silly, but it's not that far removed from all of those 19th century socialist utopian communities and phalansteries that sprang up in isolated corners of the North American continent, failed, and have passed almost entirely from popular memory. So much of politics is about bread and butter issues, or sordid clashes of group or material interest. It's refreshing and touching in an odd way to see a few dreamers still out there, persisting against the odds.

Monday, March 17, 2003


I haven't been blogging the war the last several days, which isn't to say that I haven't been thinking about it. I just don't know what I can say that's constructive. It leaves me feeling bitter and disgusted. The current US administration's policy has been a shambles, mixing prevarication, ineptitude and arrogance in equal proportions. Nuclear proliferation, and terrorism are real problems - this war, far from addressing them, is likely to make matters worse. The US has squandered the real international goodwill that existed following September 11 pursuing a chimera, and trying to bludgeon, bluster and bully everyone who disagrees into submission. They've actually managed to make Jacques Chirac look good in comparison - a minor (if malign) miracle. I don't know if there has been a more deeply incompetent, ideologically blinkered US administration in living history; I find myself hankering for the realpolitik of James Baker, who at least gave the impression that he knew what he was doing.
Airline Passenger Data & Privacy - part III

It's pretty questionable whether the Commission actually had any legal basis to have EU-based airlines make EU citizens' personal data available to US Customs. Frits Bolkestein, Commissioner for DG Internal Market, argued to the European Parliament that because there was no formal agreement between the Commission and the USG, then parliamentary accession was not really required:

"Many reports referred to an "agreement" or "decision". There is no "agreement" or "decision". It follows that there is no legal base. There have been discussions; the US side have given certain assurances. This is the first step in a process. Both sides are committed to finding a more legally secure solution in due course."

Well, Bolkestein may think he has wriggled off the hook on the whole democratic accountability side of things. But the fact is that his "discussions" had a real outcome which is that as of March 4, the US government has direct access to European customer reservations databases. Full stop. We will have to wait till the summer for a formal agreement to be concluded, but facts are facts and the unlawful data access has already begun.

Bolkestein went on to say that presenting the "outcome of the discussions" to the European Parliament as a fait accompli was not an attempt to conceal;
"It was more a question of when to bring this to the attention of the Parliament and in what form." Oh, well then...

Bolkestein was, however, rather illuminating on the role of the USG in the discussions, agreeing with Parliament that "US' way of proceeding by unilateral action and threats of penalties is unacceptable" and also saying that the US had dragged its feet on providing assurances on how the data would be treated since the US does not have data protection (echoes of similar foot-dragging on data-sharing with EUROPOL). Maybe the Commission was trying to make the best of a bad lot, but it is hard to shrug off the impression that when USG says 'jump'. the Commission says 'how high?'.

After Bolkestein's mea culpa, Parliament voted overwhelmingly to censure the Commission, simply, I think, because they felt slighted at being kept out of the loop. If the treatment of data retention in last year's communications data protection Directive is anything to go by, the European Parliament will talk big and fold when the crunch moment comes.

Certainly, the Commission didn't have a leg to stand on when it asked the European data protection authorities (DPAs) nicely to refrain from taking action against the airlines that must implement this. As Henry says, the DPAs have already written to the relevant European Parliament committee to complain. DPAs could also take separate action against individual airlines for violating data protection law (e.g. passing personal data to third parties without the consent or knowledge of the data subjects). Which puts the airlines between a rock and a hard place. The US threatened to stop transatlantic flights if its demands weren't met - clearly this would be devastating to the airlines themselves, not to mention the European economy as a whole - or start imposing enormous financial penalties on non-compliant airlines. But now the airlines face a whole new set of risks. They are forced to implement a reprehensible policy over which they had no control, and are potentially breaking European data protection law. There is nothing the Commission can do to reduce this liability, apart from asking DPAs not to shoot the messenger.

This is rather similar to what's happening on traffic data and communications service providers in the UK. The UK DPA, the Information Commissioner, has said that it is almost certainly illegal to hold individuals' personal data (traffic data) without individual cause. Companies that are forced by the government to hold onto this information may be liable for claims by heir customers that customers' data has been misused. They are certainly obliged to respond to any (and potentially every) customer who comes along and says, as they have a right to, that she wants to see all the data the ISP has on them. This could cause those firms huge problems and expense, particularly if every privacy activist and his mates start calling in their rights. The UK Home Office, after more than a year of negotiating on a 'code of conduct' for industry has not been able to give ISPs what they want, immunity from this type of liability. Nor can it, without going back and changing the 1998 Data Protection Act, which is itself based on the European data protection Directive 95/46/EC. The UK ISP association walked away from the table before Christmas because of this. Interestingly enough, I understand that the Australian government has given communication service providers immunity from data protection liability in return for widescale traffic data retention - but Australian data protection legislation is a lot weaker than European law.

Basically, industry - be it internet service providers or airlines - is being made to implement, at considerable cost, government policies which customers don't like, and which confer whole new sets of liability and risk. Brings new meaning to the term public-private partnership.

If the European DPAs have any sense, though, they will hold off taking action against individual airlines and concentrate their efforts on being part of the formal deal to be worked out between the Commission and USG this summer. Not that I have much hope for what they can achieve. The deal is a done one, whatever Bolkestein wants to call it.

Sunday, March 16, 2003

dead weight losses

There's an interesting argument going on between Mark Kleiman and Megan McArdle about the respective roles of government and market in creating optimal outcomes. McArdle argues that truly democratic states will fall victim to the same problems as markets, and that states which don't fall victim to the problems of democratic choice will incur massive deadweight losses if they do intervene. Her conclusion: "The liberal mantra is that the market fails. The free market mantra is that government fails worse. And I think the weight of empirical evidence is on our side." McArdle is clearly a smart woman - I enjoy her blog - but these are not smart arguments. I could rant for pages about her shallow take on democratic theory - there ain't many liberals out there who advocate purely representative democracy without checks and balances - but that's a side issue. The main problem is how she makes her case against state intervention in the first place.

First, let's take the tendentious claim that "the weight of empirical evidence is on our side." Up to a point, Lord Copper. As Mark Kleiman points out, there's lots of evidence that could be used to support the opposite contention: that governments can act successfully to counteract market failures. More generally, arguments over whether the "evidence" supports or disproves vague and wafty claims about the state versus the market, are doomed to sterility, because of how human beings process information. As Nobel Prize winning economist Doug North describes it,

"individuals from different backgrounds will interpret the same evidence differently ... If the information feedback of the consequences of choices were "complete," then individuals with the same utility function would gradually correct their perceptions and over time converge to a common equilibrium; but as Frank Hahn has succinctly put it, "There is a continuum of theories that agents can hold and act upon without ever encountering events which lead them to change their theories."

In other words, individuals who want the same end-results, but have different priors are likely to disagree on their interpretation of the evidence, and to continue disagreeing, even as the evidence mounts up, and even if they're fully rational. Libertarians can always find ways to explain contradictory evidence (as, indeed, can their ideological opponents). McArdle's conviction that the empirical evidence "supports" libertarianism is just that; a conviction. It's not an argument - nor is it likely even to lead to a useful argument.

This leads on to the second, and deeper problem. She sets up a debate between a straw man and an abstraction - liberals, who've never seen a problem that they didn't want to legislate for, and libertarians, who recognize the fundamental problems of interventionist government. This setup is false to reality - liberals of the sort she describes are more often found in the fevered imaginings of libertarians than in the real world - and ducks the real questions. An argument over whether the state should always trump the market, or the market should always trump the state, is an argument for morons. The real debate (as more sophisticated libertarians acknowledge) is over the particular circumstances under which markets produce better outcomes than government action, and under which the opposite applies. There aren't many liberals who are completely opposed to market solutions; even radical democrats and socialists can provide a strong justification for market mechanisms when people have made the collective choice that a particular issue area is best governed by market exchange. Libertarians may dispute the extent to which the state should play a role in society - but everyone except the most crazed Objectivists concedes that states can sometimes play a useful role.

We should be arguing about when -not whether- states are more useful than markets and markets are more useful than states. Not that we're any more likely to reach agreement in the end, but at least we can refine our arguments and notions a bit in the process, and engage in useful critique, rather than sticking out our tongues at each other, and yelling "yah boo! Government sucks." Or "yah boo! Markets suck," for that matter.