Monday, December 29, 2008

Sunday, December 28, 2008

"Mexican beauty queen arrested in gun-filled truck"

I got no point of view on this, just thought that everyone ought to enjoy this:

Predictions and Predilections

Eric Weiner examines confirmation bias in economic reporting here, while elsewhere Foreign Policy Magazine issues "The 10 Worst Predictions for 2008." My favorite:

“Peter writes: ‘Should I be worried about Bear Stearns in terms of liquidity and get my money out of there?’ No! No! No! Bear Stearns is fine! Do not take your money out. … Bear Stearns is not in trouble. I mean, if anything they’re more likely to be taken over. Don’t move your money from Bear! That’s just being silly! Don’t be silly!” —Jim Cramer, responding to a viewer’s e-mail on CNBC’s Mad Money, March 11, 2008

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Hyperinflation: The "Bush Curve," Redux

Last summer, before the credit crisis hit full bore, I suggested that there were conspicuous parallels in the in the shape of many metrical assessments of the Bush years

Well, we have another entry, this time on the size of the monetary base in the U.S.:

Despite the sense of deflation that we currently feel, this implies that, unless the Fed can manage to turn fiscal policy on a dime, the hyperinflationary iceman cometh. Even if the Fed perfectly times the policy turnaround, it's unclear from a technical perspective how exactly it can pull all these dollars back out of circulation. (For more detailed analysis, see here.)

If you believe this, here's what it implies at a personal level: get your hands on real assets, e.g. property and commodities (canned goods and bullets?), ideally by leveraging up on unindexed dollar-denominated debt (which will soon be meaningless). Securing large amounts of debt is of course very hard to do right now, since banks are refusing to lend -- which is exactly what the Fed's monetary policy is trying to address -- but you can do this in modest ways by buying a car on credit, for example. But the key point is this: the real, tangible assets you possess (goods and skills) are likely to be the only thing you've got in a few years. So get as many of these as you can.

Thinking about this less personally, one has to figure that the coming orgy of inflation will be socially catastrophic. We know from the historical record what hyperinflation does to a country. Anyone on an fixed income is hosed (hello, AARP!). Anyone holding unindexed dollar denomination paper is hosed (hello, Beijing!). Government spending nolens volens must be radically curtailed (hello, Obama!). As the middle class evaporates, barter and scavenging rapidly emerge as crucial forms of economic exchange. 

Finally, the political implications of all this. Since massive cuts to U.S. government programs will inevitably include a massive reduction in defense spending, we are opening a vista with implications as radical for international relations as the similar hyperinflation-stoked reduction in the Russian military ambition after 1991. Except unlike in the 1990s, there's no clear power that will rush in to occupy the power vacuum left by a withdrawing Soviet military. As a thought-experiment, it's worth thinking about what a de facto withdrawal of the U.S. security umbrella would mean in places like Northeast Asia or Europe -- not to mention the Middle East. Security regionalization looks likely to be a byword for the 2010s.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The fun never has to stop!

"Size ten," the video game!

Hat tip: AH


Not to be missed: the transcript of the conversation between Rahm Emanuel and Rod Blagojevich.

Incidentally, the lexigraphy of this post's title can be found here.

Update: Incidentally, since some people seem not to be able to tell, let me say explicitly that the transcript is a fiction, albeit one with a high degree of verisimilitude. 


My friend Stephan Faris's new book, Forecast, was published today. I read it in draft, and recommend it highly. It's written as a travelogue that takes a close look what climate change is doing (and is likely to do) to a broad range of human environments, from Darfur and Bangladesh to Napa and the Amazon. Buy it.

The end of industrial civilization

I'm on a kick right now reading a series of recent books on civilizational decline, trying to understand what a post-industrial future will look like, and what living through the transition away from an energy-intensive civilizational framework will feel like, both physically and intellectually. There's a variety of important texts out there for understanding what this process will look like, and I'll be posting from my readings regularly. 

So far my thinking on this topic has been particularly influenced by Tainter's The Collapse of Civilizations, Homer-Dixon's The Upside of Down (who I've blogged about before),Orlov's Reinventing Collapse (which I first blogged about here), Kunstler's The Long Emergency, Greer's The Long Descent, and John Robb's invaluable blog, Global Guerrillas.

These gentlemen (and it seems that most all writers on this topic are North American men--a fact possibly worth pondering) come from a wide variety of political and technical backgrounds, but they all converge on a common set of themes. The key variable, for most of them, is peak oil (or, more precisely, the asymptotic approach of EROI toward 1.0). This spells the end of the energy-intensive, globalized industrialism that U.S. politicians like to refer to as the American Way of Life. They concur that the industrial world will not end in a bang but rather in a whimper. (All them rightly excoriate End Days-Road Warrior apocalyptic visions as merely the inversion of the faith that endless technical progress will forever propel our civilization forward, eventually to other solar systems.) Most agree that the secular decline has begun in the center of this industrial civilization, marked by the stagnation or decline in the median standard of living over the last generation. All agree that the ride down will take a long time, and be, in technical economic terms, very lumpy. Most of them, I suspect, would agree with me that Hurricane Katrina, in both its ecological and its political implications, was not a one-off failure but rather represents a dark glass for scrying the future. All agree that government isn't going to save us, and suggest various strategies for learning to live locally.

So what will this look like as we play it forward? For my money, the best brief scenario for what this decline will look like is Greer's:
Imagine an American woman born in 1960. She sees the gas lines of the 1970s, the short-term political gimmicks that papered over the crisis in the 1980s and 1990s, and the renewed trouble in the following decades. Periods of economic and political crisis, broken by intervals of partial recovery, shape the rest of her life. By the time she turns 70, she lives in a beleaguered, malfunctioning city where nearly half the population has no reliable access to clean water, electricity, or health care. Shantytowns spread in the shadow of skyscrapers while political and economic leaders keep insisting things are getting better.

Her great-grandson, born in 2040, manages to avoid the smorgasbord of diseases, the pervasive violence, and the pandemic alcohol and drug abuse that claim a quarter of his generation before age 30. A lucky break gets him into a technical career, safe from military service in endless overseas wars or "pacification actions" against separatist guerrillas at home. His technical knowledge consists mostly of rules of thumb for effective scavenging. Cars and refrigerators are luxury items he will never own, his home lacks electricity and central heating, and his health care comes from an old woman whose grandmother was a doctor and who knows something about wound care and herbs. By the time his hair turns gray the squabbling regions that once were the United States have split apart. All remaining fuel and electrical power have been commandeered by new regional governments, and coastal cities have been abandoned to the rising oceans.

For his great-granddaughter, born in 2010, the great crises are mostly things of the past. She grows up amid a ring of villages that were once suburbs, but now they surround an abandoned core of rusting skyscrapers that are visited only by salvage crews who mine them for raw materials. Local wars sputter, the oceans are still rising, and famines and epidemics come through every decade or so, but with a global population less than half what it was in 2000 and still declining, humanity and nature are moving toward balance. The great-grand-daughter learns to read and write, a skill most of her neighbors don't have, and a few old books are among her most proud possessions, but the days when men walked on the moon are fading into legend. When she and her family finally set out for a village in the countryside, leaving the husk of the old city to the salvage crews, it likely never occurs to her that her quiet footsteps on a crumbling asphalt road mark the end of civilization.
We're living the industrial analog of the Severan Dynasty. It's worth thinking carefully about how people living in the few decades after that experienced their world, as it marked the shift from the classic ancient world to the world of so-called Late Antiquity. Can Obama be our Diocletian

Monday, December 22, 2008

The year in pictures

The LA Times has a great set. My personal favorite: a kid with toy guns approaches a U.S. soldier in Baghdad.

A Christmas Wish

Invoking St. Nicholas as an instrument of an occasionally vengeful G*d I would like to ask this week for a single pillow; placed over the face of Robert Mugabe and held there until the sun rises in Zimbabwe.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged

From Reuters:

President George W. Bush said Thursday he would not be second guessing Barack Obama's decisions after he hands over the White House keys next month.
That's, um, mighty white of him. I'm sure Obama was losing sleep over that. Quite frankly I would pay Bush much money to second guess me.

For Worse

Even since the voters of California decided to protect chickens but not same-sex couples we knew this day was coming:

The sponsors of Proposition 8 asked the California Supreme Court on Friday to nullify the marriages of the estimated 18,000 same-sex couples who exchanged vows before voters approved the ballot initiative that outlawed gay unions.

The Yes on 8 campaign filed a brief arguing that because the new law holds that only marriages between a man and a woman are recognized or valid in California, the state can no longer recognize the existing same-sex unions. The document reveals for the first time that opponents of same-sex marriage will fight in court to undo those unions that already exist.

"Proposition 8's brevity is matched by its clarity. There are no conditional clauses, exceptions, exemptions or exclusions," reads the brief co-written by Kenneth Starr, dean of Pepperdine University's law school and the former independent counsel who investigated President Bill Clinton.
Ah, Ken Starr, you dick.

I question the use of the word "reveals", this is like saying "Joe bought a case of condoms and has revealed for the first time that he plans on having sex."

My own take on it, shared by a constitutional law professor friend of mine who happens to be a lesbian, is that the word "marriage" does have religious meaning in most faiths, for better or for worse. A much more comprehensive approach to establishing this particular freedom of association would be to acknowledge that fact and challenge the constitutionality of the State santioning a religious activity.

A win would threaten the canon of family law and force legislators to establish, for everyone, a solution absent of religion. A civil solution for a civil right. As for marriage, you are free to pick a faith which is truly inclusive, or ends participation with 'hillbilly heroin' dealers.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Alaskan Gothic

The stories about the colorful extended Palin family just keep coming.

The Anthropocene?

Humans are inducing such rapid biological change to the planet that a scientific consensus is forming that we have entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. The term was originally coined in 2000 by the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, to denote that the impact of industrial-era humans on the planet were creating such an impact (notably by spurring climate change, but also more generally inducing a huge die-off in species) that our own era deserved a different moniker than the the standard Holocene--that is, the post-ice age era that began some 10 millennia ago. Geologists are now joining the bandwagon, arguing that human effects on the planet are creating a distinct stratigraphic signature, based on the about of exotic chemicals, radioactive elements, and above all carbon that we are spewing into the environment.

Obviously, I'm not an expert on such debates, but as a sometime historian, I know a thing or two about disputing periodization. My own view is that "in the long run" (that is, from the point of view some putative scientific observer millions of years from now), it would not make sense to demarcate the Anthropocene from the Holocene. In fact, seen in geological terms, the heat-up of the planet that happened 14,000 years ago and is now set to take another sharp uptick, should really be seen as one continuous process. Seen from the perspective of millions of years, the planet has been in a glacial period for several million years, with phases of warming and cooling, in which species were fairly stable. The last phase of cooling, however, happened to spit out a novel feedback element (modern humans, which evolved around 100-150K years ago) that happened to engage in behavior that diverted the usual cooling cycle, such that the planet now appears to be shifting to a definitively post-glacial period, more climatically akin to the way the world was some 55 million years ago.

However, seen in the millions-of-years perspective, the two distinct heat-ups -- the one 14K years ago and the one now -- look less like two distinct events, and more like one continuous event, rather than two distinct events, and should probably be interpreted as such. After all, the massive extinctions we are witnessing now are of the same order (and arguably, so far, less severe)  than the ones that took place 10K years ago, when much of the North American megafauna was killed off, radically changing the North American continental ecosystem.

Indeed, I'd argue that human-induced climate change is just another part of the wider ecosystemic feedback mechanism that humans are. Further, I'd argue that, qua feedback mechanism, humans are no different in our bio-geologic essentials than any other feedback mechanisms, such as the release of methane from melting tundra. I would argue that it is merely a conceit, a kind of species-narcissism, to think that just because we humans understand this feedback process that this makes our participation in that feedback mechanism somehow radically different from any other feedback loop. Neither scientific consciousness nor intellect generally are a geologic features.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Someone should check George Bush's neck for bite marks, because he's suddenly breaking out a surprisingly statesmanlike approach to governing, providing the Obama team with extensive contingency plans for dealing with various possible emergencies that may erupt early in the administration. Money:
"This doesn't absolve the Bush administration of some of their judgments they've made over the years, but this is the right thing to do," said a Democrat close to the transition who did not want to be named to avoid alienating the team. "This is when enlightened self-interest works."

More on banker pay

A banker investor friend of mine writes:
The real reason that comp in investment banking should be regulated is that the comp levels attract people who are very energetic but in a stupid way and greedy way. Its an entire industry populated by lobotomized greyhounds.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Tale of Two Bubbles

With all of the Madoff madness it is good to see some in-depth coverage from the Washington Post of the much bigger pyramid scheme which is taking us all down right now, the packaging and repackaging of mortgages. From the lead,
It was Wall Street's version of an inside joke: Take a motley collection of largely unwanted assets, repackage them into a new set of bonds, and name it after the pristine white-sand beaches of an exclusive New Jersey town where Katharine Hepburn once summered.
to the close,
Former SEC commissioner Paul S. Atkins, a strong advocate of deregulation during his six-year tenure that ended earlier this year, agreed that the trading of CDOs and other private investments must be done more openly to prevent systemic risk. But he cautioned that there needs to be smarter regulation, not just more rules.

"Remember this crisis began in regulated entities," Atkins said, referring to investment and commercial banks overseen by the SEC and other federal agencies. "This happened right under our noses."

this article shows both the promise of journalism and the problem of groupthink inside a bubble.

Jumping to the back of the A-Section Richard Cohen takes a look at a different bubble, the Presidency.

Inside The Bubble, as Obama well knows, lurks a further danger: groupthink. Obama has used this Orwellian word himself. "One of the dangers in a White House, based on my reading of history, is that you get wrapped up in groupthink, and everybody agrees with everything and there's no discussion and there are no dissenting views," he said this month.

Cohen has an self-serving antidote for the president-Elect: the newspaper. Given the quality of above article I will go ahead and give him the cure; but given Obama's self-awareness, and his appointments so far I am not sure we will see a repeat of the disease.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Quick reflexes

Update: Jim Fallows has a pitch-perfect reaction.


Here's a story I just don't understand: the Justice Department is apparently refusing to allow the Obama transition team to examine the classified legal memos that sanctioned NSA wiretapping of US citizens and the CIA torture of terrorist suspects. This follows on the heels of the rumor that Mike Griffin, the head of NASA, is also refusing to cooperate with the Obama transition team, claiming they aren't technically qualified to judge the merits of NASA's program's.

Assuming these rumors are true, I fundamentally don't get this approach. If you've got a new boss coming in who you think is likely to torpedo your favorite program, the best approach has to be to make a strong case for those programs, not to deny him or her access to the information or to claim that he or she doesn't know enough to make a call on whether these programs are good. I mean, Obama's going to be the boss in five-six weeks--all that blocking his team access to information is going to do is sow ill will that will increase the chance that they will reverse these policies.

This seems like such a bureaucratically self-evident observation, that it casts doubt on whether these stories can possibly be true. (Indeed, Griffin is vigorously denying any rift with the incoming administration--although there seems to be litle doubt that there are sharp policy differences.

Then again, maybe these guys are simply trying to cause as much trouble as possible in order to disrupt Obama's ability to govern. Seems like you have to assume that they are both malign and stupid in order for that to be the case.

Friday, December 12, 2008

By Default

A few years ago as part of buying a house the old-fashioned way, saving up money beforehand, we stopped going to restaurants during the week. It was depressing how much money this saved. The exception was Thursday night, when we did cheap takeout. Of course once you have the house you have to maintain the house and what exactly where they thinking when they put that tile in the bathroom? So, the tradition continued.

And the back-story continues. A friend of a co-worker does marketing for Budweiser and he provided some insight on their advertising theme. It seems that the overall goal of Budweiser advertising is to establish it as the “default beer,” not the best beer, the default beer. I was fascinated by the idea and have been looking for similar patterns in other marketing campaigns and in the grand tradition of looking for something you see it everywhere. Particularly in policy campaigns, where I am looking hardest. On almost every issue there is a mad scramble to define the “default solution.”

Theory in action occurred last night as I stopped to pick up wine before getting the takeout. A couple walked in, he strolled over and bought one of the 2-liter white wines they sell while she gazed in wonder at the wall of beer in the coolers. “What should I get?” she asked. “I don’t know, Bud Light?” he asked back. A 12-pack of Bud Light was soon on the counter, the default beer.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Modernization Theory and Deviant Globalization

Pundita has some very flattering things to say about Mandarins of the Future, and she also correctly notes that my current efforts to understand deviant globalization are built on the foundation of insights generated from the earlier study.

But it's also important to note that the concept of deviant globalization has also been deeply informed by my collaboration with Jesse Goldhammer and Steve Weber, starting with in the course we taught togehter at Berkeley last year, who have brought with them a very different set of ideological, theoretical, and methodological commitments. Likewise, I've learned a vasy amount from reading and talking to, among others, John Robb, Mark Duffield, John Hagedorn, Mike Davis, William Langeweische, Carolyn Nordstrom, and Moises Naim.

My understanding of deviant globalization has also been shaped by my client work, which over the last several years addressed topics as seemingly disparate but in fact deeply intertwined as 
  • how urbanization happens without industrialization
  • what vast and growing wealth disparities means
  • how the poor are reacting to climate change
  • what the implications are of the commercialization of a vast number of crucial social functions that used to be managed either by governments or deeply rooted cultural institutions
  • and how all this intersects with the rapid proliferation and democratization of media and communications technologies
Daniel Lerner wasn't wrong when he claimed that the adoption of modern media would fundamentally undermine traditional societies, ushering in "modernity." What he was wrong about, however, was the meaning of modernity.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Strange Currencies

An NPR story this morning gives a good example of the inefficiencies of greed. The greed in this case is not for money, but for position and power, the currency of bureaucracy.

In New York City, the local police and the feds do not get along — at least when it comes to counterterrorism. Now the FBI has a new man in New York. His name is Joe Demarest. Besides guarding against terrorists, his top job will be to help patch things up between the New York Police Department and the FBI.
That's because things are a little different in New York. While the law enforcement community does pull together in a pinch, the personalities are very strong, very "New York." The U.S. attorneys are aggressive, and so are the district attorneys. As the police commissioner of America's most populous city, Kelly is used to picking up the phone and calling [FBI Director] Mueller directly. And if he doesn't get what he wants from that call, he'll call his friends on Capitol Hill.
Something to keep in mind as various proposals for more government involvement in certain industries bubble up, trade and trespass will always find its currency, be it dollars, mentions in the dispatches, or mackerel. I personally find it easier to follow the money, the machinations are usually more apparent. But neither of the above selections are why the story stuck in my mind this morning, it was this one:
And then there's what happened last month: The head of the NYPD, Commissioner Raymond Kelly, accused the Justice Department of dragging its feet on approving wiretap applications. The Justice Department said the New York police were asking for wiretaps that broke the law. The angry letters between Kelly and Attorney General Michael Mukasey went public.

Exactly how messed up is your wiretap request that THIS Justice Department raises a red flag?

Monday, December 08, 2008

Chuzpah Dept.

Remember my post the other day about cutting banker pay? Well, here's why I say things in this country are fundamentally out of whack, and may in fact require a solution like the one that Mick calls for: John Thain, the boss of Merrill Lynch--which lost $11B over the last year, necessitating a firesale of itself to Bank of America for about ten percent of what it was worth eighteen months ago--just informed his board of directors that he believes he deserves a $10,000,000 bonus this year.

Are you fucking kidding me?

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Actually existing development

I just finished Mark Duffield's latest excellent book, this one entitled Development, Security, and Unending War, a profound analysis of the recent evolution of the official discourse of development (particularly the British discourse of development). Duffield has an annoying tendency to wallow in unnecessary theoretical disquisitions about Giorgio Agamben and Etienne Balibar, but if you bracket that, he offers some extremely interesting insights that bear very directly on the politics of deviant globalization.

First, the central historical thrust of Duffield's book is the story of how the NGO-led model of development, which emerged in the 1980s and which remains dominant to this day, displaced modernization theory, which was the dominant model of development from the early cold war through the middle 1970s. Unlike modernization theory, which sought a technology that would allow post-colonial states to "close the gap" with the developing world, the NGO-led model of development seeks to "contain" and "stabilize" the poor. Institutionally (as we know from reading James Scott), the high modernist model of development believed that the state should be the instrument that would drive development. By contrast, the NGO-led model believes in working around the state, which is rightly perceived as corrupt and predatory. (Of course, while the NGO-friendly "sustainable development" movement likes to think of itself as politically progressive, its anti-statist bias dovetails very conveniently with neoliberal views of reducing state power--hence the  liberal-conservative "consensus" in the Washington Consensus.) Successful development, in this model, is not about "catching up" but rather about achieving "sustainability" or "self-reliance." Contemporary liberal developmental dogma holds that such "self-reliance" not only provides local dignity and eliminates the need for humanitarian interventions, it also reduces local sympathy for radicalism, jihadism, etc.

Second, analyzing this NGO-led model of development, Duffield points out that the use of NGOs to deliver developmental aid and to perform aid-effectiveness monitoring compromises the sovereignty of the subject state by wresting the biopolitical commanding heights (e.g. population surveilance and monitoring) away from the state, and placing these responsibilities in the hands of non-governmental organizations. With a nod to Judith Butler, Duffield describes this process as a multiplication of "petty sovereignties." His point is that in much of the so-called developing world, "governmental" functions (e.g. the delivery of "political goods" such a social services, health care, education, security, etc.) are being taken over by non-state actors. 

Because he is writing about the official development discourse, Duffield focuses on the role of official (that is, West-approved) NGOs in this process of multiplying petty sovereignties. But he might also have pointed out that there are plenty of other non-state actors that are taking on (or taking back) these "governmental" functions: tribal elders, gangsters, religious leaders, transnational and local corporations, mercenaries, ethnic militias, etc. I would suggest that, rather than refer to non-state actors who deliver political goods generically as "NGOs," we should instead refer to them as "governmental organizations" (not to be confused with "government organizations," which ironically enough are often not performing these "governmental functions").

Third, while most of Duffield's book is an extended analysis of the evolution of the official discourse of development, he also briefly alludes to the danger at the heart of making "self-reliance" the key metric of developmental success, in a passage that resonates with my own work on deviant globalization:
Self-reliance has a dangerous ambiguity in relation to attempts to strengthen state authority. When successfully and innovatively pursued, rather than being a process of governmentalization, self-reliance supports resistance and imparts independence. The "actually existing development" of informal trade, illegal commodity procurement, transborder smuggling networks and diaspora enterprise can encourage centrifugal forces of autonomy and alternative cases of legitimacy (p. 183).
Trying to wrap my head around "actually existing development" is precisely what I've been after ever since I finished my book on modernization theory. Duffield's book offers the beginning of a vocabulary for understanding what is happening on the ground in weak or fragile states. The majority of people in these locales of course merely become victims of the situation into which they are born. But there are some who refuse to be victims, and follow their entrepreneurial instincts (read: risk-willingness and bloody-mindedness) to make the best of their situation, using the channels provided by globalization to free themselves. These are the people who participate in the economy of deviant globalization.

Deviant globalizers know the state is neither going to help them close the gap with the rich world, nor protect them from the buffets of the global market. But for that very same reason, they are also not revolutionaries: they have no interested in seizing the state to enact development (that's so twentieth century). Rather, they seek autonomy from the state, so that they can build their economic empires and establish alternative forms of legitimacy. This analytic applies broadly to groups as otherwise different as the PCC, Laurent Nkunda, Lakshar e Taiba, Viktor Bout, Hamas, Mara Salvatrucha, and the Muslim Brothers. These deviant entrepreneurs aren't waiting for the state -- or for Washington-sanctioned NGOs -- to come to their rescue. They're doing it for themselves.

The most popular online video of the campaign

The most popular homemade online video of this past campaign season was not, liberals may be surprised to learn,'s "Yes We Can," but rather the following independent video released in support of the McCain campaign:

What's effective, and affecting, about this video is not just that the young veteran politely criticizes Obama on the point that made his candidacy within the Democratic party. (Obviously one can argue with the substance of what the young man has to say -- notably his ridiculous claim that "Iraqis are just like us.")

Rather, the real effectiveness of his video comes less from the words than in the sincerity and personal nature of this veteran's commitment to those words that gets demonstrated visually when he walks away from the camera. It is ironic that this mode of visual persuasion was originally (and, even more effectively) used by the epic anti-war documentary "Hearts and Minds," which won the Academy Award for best documentary in 1975 (and which the same kinds of people who probably like the video above excoriated as a hachet job). What makes both the video above and "Hearts and Minds" so moving is the way that passionate, sincere words are given forceful weight by a visual trick which, after the intellectual argument is made,seals the case by visually "proving" the commitment of the speaker. (Only a cynic would argue, in both cases, that the personal sacrifices of the speakers delegitimate what they have to say: in the case of the video above, is the veteran merely desperate to ensure that his personal sacrifice was not fruitless? in the case of the anti-war veterans of "Hearts and Minds," are they merely displaying bitterness over their personal sacrifices?)

Clay Shirky has more.

Update: The original version of this post incorrectly implied that this video was produced by the McCain campaign. In fact it was produced independently, in support of the McCain campaign, much as's video was produced independently, in support of Obama. I have changed the wording of the post to make this distinction clear.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

My New Favorite Newspaper

I was on vacation last week and have spent most of this week catching up on the myriad of blogs I read daily; so it was refreshing tonight to sit down and do some honest-to-goodness web surfing, just riding links through the craziness. It was “Bride-to-be Lost at Sea” which led me to, the website of The Oregonian with such headline goodness as:
It was the last one which got me to thinking. Earlier this week I sat in on a pitch meeting from some visual information wizards --political, not Tufte stuff-- and I flashed back to the meeting when the page loaded with the article. Now the headline obviously did the trick, I clicked through, but in terms of properly using the visual they totally missed an opportunity. "Armed sex offender on the loose" gets you traffic, but


rallies those crazy gun buyers and thieves, plus every machete wielding maniac in the Northwest into a frenzied mob to track this guy down. Then afterward they could help the Coast Guard find the other guy’s mail-order bride. Now that would be community organizing.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Cutting banker pay

Maybe its my bolshy tendencies, or more likely my ethnic background, but I have an instnct that massive payand wealth disparities are a sign of a sick society. While I have respect for entrepreneurs who have built lasting businesses and gotten rich doing so, the paydays in the finance sector over the last three decades have been, to my mind, sickening. And with the current financial meltdown, even some longtime and sympathetic industry observers are beginning to look at it the same way, and finding the testicular fortitude to dismiss the usual hogwash about how lower pay would lower performance:
I've now reached the point at which I simply don't believe people when they say that lower pay for bankers will result in worse performance -- especially since it looks very much as though it was higher pay for bankers which was at least partly responsible for much of the present crisis. Let's bring down pay, a lot, and see whether performance really falls.

The financial system went for decades, quite happily, without monster paydays: why can't we go back to those days? No one thinks we need to pay the Treasury secretary lots of money to make sure he's "working hard"; why are bank CEOs any different? And insofar as lower bank salaries would drive America's best and brightest into other sectors of the economy, that would surely be a good thing.

A massive, across-the-board pay cut in the banking system -- to levels which would still be incredibly generous by normal-America standards -- might result in a mass exodus of employees and a radical downsizing of the banking sector. But that's going to happen anyway, this would just achieve it without layoffs. And the outcome can't really be worse than what we've seen to date.
I don't know how you legislate this except through taxation, but as a matter of political ethics, this is just about common sense and democratic decency. The argument for much greater pay equality is fundamentally about political justice. And just as Salmon dismisses as nonsense the argument that lower pay would lower performance, I dismiss as nonsense the claim that higher taxes compromise the liberty of the rich.