Monthly Archives: January 2010

Thought of the Day, Fight Club Edition

Actually, I have a few thoughts. About Fight Club. And they aren’t about the book (which I have yet to read)

1. If you think that the lessons from Fight Club are in the vein of Marx and anti-capitalism, sure, there are some lessons there. But the really interesting connections are to the psychology of mass movements, a topic that invokes Eric Hoffer’s seminal work The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.

2. Viewing Fight Club through a Dostoyevskian lens also yields many insights. Indeed, the main character’s psychological fragmentation is a core theme of the narrative through which the narrative itself is possible. Here is a brief summary of Dostoyevsky that those not familiar might find useful.

3. Heidegger’s insights on what he calls ‘techne‘ also have much to offer, though I find Heidegger only worth mentioning for his exposition on a few concepts and find other thinkers provide much more fruitful avenues for development.

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Google Doesn’t Lie: Evidence of Racism During the Katrina Tragedy

Here is the wikipedia timeline for Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Note particularly formation (Aug. 23rd), Florida landfall (Aug 25th), Louisiana landfall (Aug. 29th), Gov. Blanco orders evacuation of New Orleans (Aug. 30th). The Senate passed the relief bill, rumors of looting began to filter through the media, and Kanye called out President Bush on MTV on the 1st of September.

The following graph is trend data from Google’s Insights for Search tool for the search term ‘niggers’. Note the first real deviation from the trend as searches begin to really spike somewhere within Aug. 29-31. The peak is on September 3rd, and by the 11th of September searches have reverted to their normal rate.

Search Trend for 'Niggers' August 2005-September 2005

Here are the geographic distribution and the list of top searches during this period.

Geographic Distribution and Top Searches, Aug. 2005-Sept. 2005

The story here seems pretty simple; large-scale natural disaster in a prominent city with a majority black population (67.5%) seems to have provoked a pattern of racial animosity that is visibly concentrated in California, Texas, Florida, and New York. Keep in mind that this picture is incomplete for at least two reasons. First, Google’s search data may not be fully aggregated and indexed or have been made searchable yet. Second, the search data is incomplete because people can block their information from being tagged with geographical parameters. And there may be other idiosyncratic reasons as to why the data is severely under-reported, but there is nothing I can see that mitigates the conclusion that a non-negligible group of Americans continues to harbor vicious racial animosity.

Here, by the way, is the link to the Google Insight for Search page that this data came from.

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Line of the Day, Trumpets Edition

My friend Scott Clemens, a pianist, on Dr. Michael Budds on the trumpet: Dr. Budds loves arguing that the trumpet is the most egotistical and  phallic of instruments*, and there is nothing quite like a trumpet to communicate the climax or high point of music (and you should know exactly what that represents).

*Particularly in light of Beethoven and Wagner.

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Master Recital with Leonard Candelaria

I just saw master trumpeter Leonard Candelaria perform with accompaniment on piano from Natalia Bolkshakova at the Whitmore Recital Hall on the University of Missouri-Columbia campus. The recital to my understanding did not follow the program notes exactly here are my thoughts:

Abblasen (Gottfriend Reiche, 1667-1739): A short piece (1 min?) taken from notes in an inscription? or painting? The piece was played on the piccolo trumpet, an instrument that produced sharp, high brassy notes that were less dense and weighty that I expected. If I understood Candelaria correctly, this piece might be authored by Bach and not Reiche, but who knows.

Allegra Spiritoso (first movement), Concerto in D (Giuseppe Tartini, 1693-1770): Again with the piccolo trumpet and accompanied by the piano. There sometimes an awkwardness when you pair the piano, with its mellow fluidity, with wind instruments, which are brighter, brassier, and more punctuated. This piece seemed to work well thought.

Caprice (Joseph Turrin, b. 1947): I wasn’t able to take notes on the trumpet used in this piece, but it was a bright, jaunty piece of music that played deftly with mood and pace. Candelaria was able to use the diversity of the instrument well; overall, the piece had a coy, flighty mood that played with emotion and tone well.

La virgen de la Macarena (‘The Bull Fighter’s Song’, Benardo Monterde 1880-1959, arr. Rafael Mendez and Charles Koff): the story of Rafael Mendez was the most interesting part of Candelaria’s brief notes; Mendez was a musician who went to Detroit as a laborer in the automobile industry, was discovered through the local music scene, and made a career in California as a top performer.

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On Overcoming Biases: The Wine Critic

Lisa Perotti-Brown, MW, solicited comments from sommeliers on how many wines one can reasonably taste and evaluate in a day. I found this answer to be particularly worth noting:

“I reckon the optimum amount of wines to taste blind is 60 in a day,” commented Andrew Caillard MW of Langton’s Auction House in Australia.  “This is enough to taste, write a reasonable tasting note, review and memorize. Anything significantly over this is a struggle and requires short cutting. Anyone who says they can do more than this truly effectively is having him or herself on. The late Dr John Middleton of Mount Mary used to say it is 12 wines. Fatigue is a real issue and leads to inaccuracy. More alarming is the poor allocation of points and the lack of empathy for other cultural values that pervades among wine critics. Critics applaud individuality but assume that taste and received wisdom is homogenous across cultures.”

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How To Start A Bank Panic Using Twitter

From the Irish Times, May 16, 2009:

POLICE IN Guatemala have arrested a Twitter user and confiscated his computer for inciting financial panic after he urged people to remove funds from a state-owned bank.

Jean Anleu Fernandez (37) was jailed for posting the 96-character message on the micro-blogging website earlier this week.

It is thought to be the first such case in central America.

Police raided the IT worker s home in Guatemala City on the orders of the public ministry division in charge of banks, according to local media.

The head of the banking system, Genaro Pacheco, said Mr Anleu admitted sending a message about Banrural, a rural development bank at the centre of a murder mystery which has engulfed the government in a political storm.

Mr Anleu sent the message on Tuesday of this week. It said: First concrete action should be remove cash from Banrural and bankrupt the bank of the corrupt.

Inciting financial panic is an offence in Guatemala, which like much of Latin America has a history of economic volatility.

Mr Anleu is due to be held in jail until payment of a EUR 4,800 fine, after which he will be placed under house arrest pending trial.

The detention prompted a backlash from the Twitter community.

Mr Anleu s message has been resent by other Twitters and funds are being collected to pay the fine.

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Cheap at the Price: A Libertarian Theory of Regime Change

A story from the Washington Post by DeYoung and Abramowitz (9/27/07), contains this tidbit that caught my eye:

Less than a month before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein signaled that he was willing to go into exile as long as he could take with him $1 billion and information on weapons of mass destruction, according to a report of a Feb. 22, 2003, meeting between President Bush  and his Spanish counterpart published by a Spanish newspaper yesterday.

The meeting at Bush’s Texas ranch was a planning session for a final diplomatic push at the United Nations. The White House was preparing to introduce a tough new Security Council resolution to pressure Hussein, but most council members saw it as a ploy to gain their authorization for war.

Spain’s prime minister at the time, Jose Maria Aznar, expressed hope that war might be avoided — or at least supported by a U.N. majority — and Bush said that outcome would be “the best solution for us” and “would also save us $50 billion,” referring to the initial U.S. estimate of what the Iraq war would cost. But Bush made it clear in the meeting that he expected to “be in Baghdad at the end of March.”

I want to make an argument about how we should have gone about regime change in Iraq. I argue that we should have credibly offered Saddam Hussein to accept cash and exile in return for regime change (the rest of the story seems to indicate President Bush was never serious about the offer). Even a relatively expensive bribe ($1 billion-$10 billion) would have enabled a transfer of power far less bloody and expensive in human and fiscal terms than the war that President Bush initiated.  Using cost-benefit analysis, that conclusion seems obvious to me; even a pure fiscal comparison between the current costs of the Iraq conflict (a little over $702 billion at present according to www.costofwar.com) would have indicated the relative merits of an exile deal.

This subject is an underexplored subject in the literature as far as I know. An SSRN search came up with two working papers that I thought were immediately relevant, both taking a stance on the option of offering exile to Saddam for regime change. The first paper, by Michael Scharf at Case Western in 2006, notes particularly that:

Admittedly, thousands of lives could have been spared if Hussein had accepted the deal. But at the risk of being accused of blindly embracing Kant’s prescription that “justice must be done even should the heavens fall,” this Article argues that it was inappropriate for the Bush Administration even to make the offer, and that if implemented the exile-for-peace deal would have seriously undermined the Geneva Conventions and the Genocide Convention, which require prosecution of alleged offenders without exception.

The second article, by Leila Sadat of Washington University in 2006, agrees, noting:

Second, this Article challenges the conventional wisdom that “swapping justice for peace” is morally and practically acceptable. Instead, I argue that international negotiators offering exile are neither morally nor legally justified in doing so. Indeed, although it is beguiling to imagine that offering exile to Saddam Hussein would save thousands of lives, or that the Lord’s Resistance Army of Uganda would have laid down its weapons in return for automatic immunity, the evidence suggests the contrary: that warlords and political leaders capable of committing human rights atrocities are not deterred by the amnesties obtained, but emboldened. As will be discussed below, the cases of Sierra Leone, the Former Yugoslavia, and Haiti suggest that amnesties for top-level perpetrators imposed from above or negotiated at gunpoint do not lead to the establishment of peace – but at best create a temporary lull in the fighting. Indeed, amnesty deals typically foster a culture of impunity in which violence becomes the norm, rather than the exception.

I find both statements rather, well, wrong. I think it’s true Scharf and Sadat woefully underestimate the real costs of war; Scharf says “thousands of lives could have been spared” with Saddam in exile and Sadat says those who offered exile are neither “morally or legally justified in doing so”. I don’t think that either scholar evaluated the true impact of not exiling Saddam; Scharf notes the value of robustly enforcing international legal conventions like the Geneva conventions, ignoring the possibility that a pre-emptive war against Iraq would almost certainly involve greater circumventions of the Geneva conventions than exiling Saddam. Indeed, this turned out to be the case, as many well-documented cases of extra-legal rendition, torture, and violations of civil liberties turned out to be the modus operandi of the organization (President  Bush’s administration) prosecuting the war. Sadat’s article talks about the morality of exiling criminals, but portrays this debate in a vacuum that does not include the costs of war and forced regime change.

I do have the sense that offering amnesty or exile to those in nations where institutions are extremely unstable ( particularly those in Africa) may not be a good idea for practical reasons and also that there is a very real difference between offering amnesty and offering exile. In any case I think there are clear differences between the offering of amnesty or exile to African warlords than to Middle Eastern dictators and that both Scharf and Sadat never really articulate clear reasons why clearly different scenarios are functionally the same (I understand that this is not a completely clear statement and that I haven’t come close to establishing the basis under which I think it is true but that’ll come soon as I progress in this direction).

But I digress. Let’s start from another angle. The difference between the cost of exiling Saddam and the nominal fiscal current cost of the war is staggering, about $701 billion. Even if you are very generous about estimating the cost of getting Saddam’s organization into exile and assume a tenfold increase ($10 billion) the answer is still obvious. Even with an absurdly expensive transition involving substantial amounts of US troops providing security while Iraqis were able to organize elections and start the process of governmental change, we can presume that war still looks like an unattractive option. If we expand our notion of the fiscal cost of war to account for the casualties of the war and the internal conflict that followed (roughly 5,000 coalition members and roughly 100,000 civilian casualties), the comparison is bleakly compelling.

What is the cost of a human life? If that question sounds like evidence that economics is a bleak, amoral science, rephrase the question. What is the value of preventing a human fatality? The US Department of Transportation uses the estimate $5.8 million as the basis for its cost analyses, and also runs the analyses for the higher estimate of $8.4 million. Using $5.8 million as the value for preventing the average human fatality, a rough estimate of the cost of the Iraq war is now

Fiscal Cost ($702 billion) + human cost ($5.8 million x 105,000=$609 billion) = $1.311 trillion

Using the higher value, $8.4 million, the cost of the Iraq war is $1.584 trillion.

Note, furthermore, that the cost estimates here don’t even begin to incorporate other large scale costs associated with the war, like foregone GDP growth, or the implicit costs of the damage done to the US’s status. At this point I really am beating a dead horse with a rather large club, so I’ll move on and save my energy for the seals.

What is the opportunity cost of the Iraq war? What alternative policy options could we come up with for equal to or less than $1.3-1.5 trillion dollars that would leave us better off? The sheer magnitude of the difference between the explicit initial costs of exile vs. the explicit initial costs of invasion would seem to be worth it; even if Iraq devolved rapidly post-Saddam and we still committed the same fiscal resources post-Saddam to the country we still save on the cost of the invasion and are likely to have far fewer civilian casualties.

There is the argument to morality that says we should punish the evil. What this analysis is designed to give is the sense that sometimes the costs of punishing the evil are too high. It is easy to see the evil that Saddam Hussein perpetrated throughout his career (some of it with US backing), but what is less easy to see are the thousands and millions of evils that perpetrate in the aftermath of a war. From the circumvention of international legal conventions on war and human rights, to the blatant corruption and crime that followed as the US gave contracts to private contractors operating as if they were their own law, to the warlords that sought to tear Iraq apart using their own militias, to the million small crimes against children and women and the weak that happen in the absence of law and order, the aggregate evils that flourish in the aftermath of war far outweigh the  singular qualms that we have in sending an accomplished elderly dictator into comfortable exile.

Of course, exile for such a person would never truly be comfortable. Even on the most remote island, Saddam in exile would fear for his life; one does not rule a nation with an iron fist for decades and not make the kind of implacable enemies that would seek extra-legal justice at any cost.

Some make the argument that we don’t want to incentivize dictatorship by paying off current dictators. In a world where the steady-state path seems to be towards liberal democratic governments and we only buy off the dictators in nations where the institutional facilities exist to make a successful transition of power viable, nations transition ineluctably towards democracy and dictators become an endangered species. If we relax these constraints and try to buy off dictators in countries at the margin of institutional continuity and anarchy, this strategy still works if we are able to facilitate the rapid creation of those institutions by stimulating economic growth and increasing the education level of the population.

Note that though I describe the heft of this argument as libertarian (the outcome I describe is achievable solely through voluntary trade and all parties are better off) liberals and conservatives should find much to like about this argument. First, I think liberals would like the argument that wars of these kinds (superpowers vs. marginal third world countries) are outmoded and needlessly wasteful and allow precisely those kinds of government encroachment into rights and liberties that democracies are designed to ameliorate. I think conservatives would like the idea that America can buy peace and profit from it. I think those among us with common sense would like the idea that we can pursue an aggressive foreign policy that doesn’t treat Islam as an enemy and spreads the notions of economic liberty and freedom. The Western victory happens when we get people of different beliefs to understand the idea that differences in religion and belief don’t matter as much as the freedoms and liberties that allow us to pursue wealth and prosperity.

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Assorted Links

1. “The spiritually transformed firearms of Jesus Christ” or how to not alienate and piss off Muslims.

2. What the Snuggie can teach us about branding.

3. The philosophy of taste.

4. How to make deliveries to stations in the Earth’s orbit for $250 a pound.

5. A simple theory of political jobs: One implication is that paying politicians more, and giving them more privacy, would lead to less craven behavior.

Important Words from Arnold Kling

President Obama is getting flack from the nutjob nativists for his decision to grant temporary amnesty to Haitians illegally in the United States. This seems like the charitable thing to do to me; economist Arnold Kling at Econlog also notes that it is the libertarian thing to do:

Finally, on another subject, a reader asked me to say more about Haiti. Jeff Sachs offers a predictable proposal for a massive infusion of aid. I have to admit that compared to other things our government does with our money, I see little reason to object. But the libertarian approach to Haiti instead would focus on opening our doors to refugees.

Look at the track record of refugees in America. It seems to me to have worked out remarkably well in most cases, both for the refugees and for America. Now, compare the track record of American military occupation and nation-building, or the track record of foreign aid to underdeveloped countries.

It is my feeling that one of the great failures of the Republican Party is that it cultivates this ethos that America’s greatness and glory is beyond reproach and that America’s status as the sole remaining global superpower gives it the moral right to war with nations and intervene militarily in places like Iraq for the purpose of liberating others. But this dodges the lessons from our history; generally, our attempts at Third World nation-building and geostrategic dominance have met with muddled success at best and spectacular failure at worst.

I can explain this in another fashion. An integral part of the conservative narrative is that A) market solutions work and are generally superior to government policy, B) that the best government is limited government and here you find particularly good defenses of federalism. Both of those ideas seem fundamentally sound to me. But the narrative becomes intellectually bankrupt where it becomes part of the other narrative of American power and dominance. That’s because the narrative of American power as an unequivocal force for good is also a narrative of superior American knowledge and expertise coupled with moral obligation.  But this narrative does not wholly manifest itself as American exports of the ideas of economic liberty and freedom; it also manifests itself as geostrategic meddling, coupled with economic imperialism and schizophrenic focus on particular problems as they are relevant. Many of our problems in the Islamic world, for instance, are rooted in our defense of dictatorships against the Soviet threat, when we should have been directly supporting democracy and economic liberty.

It seems to me that Arnold’s argument is exactly right. The tragedy in Haiti deeply saddens me, but the deeper tragedy is also rooted in the inability of Haiti to sustain economic development and build the institutions that are key to rising GDP and human welfare. We shouldn’t forget that Haiti’s economy and government were critically damaged by a US occupation to preserve US economic interests in the nation, regardless of what the nation’s citizens actually wanted.

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Math Animation of the Day

How to turn a sphere inside out.

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