Saturday, January 31, 2009

"Refugee Run"

I don't think there's much comment necessary on this. It's real, Easterly says, not a joke. You get what's wrong immediately.

But I'm also disturbed by the apparent need even to make the argument, as Easterly does. The world of economists can be so utterly tone-deaf about anything outside the world of economics.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

John Martyn

The death of John Martyn (born Ian David McGreachy) this morning at the age of 60 will mostly go unnoticed in the US. It won't in Scotland nor here at this little blog. His health had suffered greatly over the past several years, but it is such a shame to see him go and it's a piece of personal heartbreak.

Martyn was the lesser-known of a circle of great musicians that included Richard Thompson (who played on Martyn's albums Bless the Weather and Solid Air), Eric Clapton, and Martyn's close friend Nick Drake.

He developed his own style of folk/blues/psychedelic/jazz. It became a unique sound - especially after his rather straightforward Scottish folk albums from the 1960s - when he turned his attention to a mix of psychedelia and jazz. He had a melancholy, usually soft voice - more a musical instrument itself than a conveyer of literal messages - that he would turn into growls in some of his more psychedelic blues moments. But he could also produce the gentlest of songs, like his lovely cover of "Singin' in the Rain."

That early 1970s period of jazz-psyche with Echoplex touches of electronic experimentation produced the best of his albums: Bless the Weather (1971); Solid Air (1973), the song of the album title a tribute to his friend and equally brilliant musician, Drake, who died tragically in 1974; Inside Out (1973); and Sunday's Child (1975). One World from 1977 is also a terrific album, but a move away from the psychedelic folk of the previous four (though Lee "Scratch" Perry was involved with the reggae-tinged One World!). That's the very best of his work and some of the finest music of the 1970s from the UK. The four earlier albums from the 1960s have great moments in their own right - and could stand alone as a superb British folk career - as do the several albums from the early 1980s. By the mid-1980s, however, his music became temporarily infected with some of that Pastorius-bass and Seagull-synth sound that turned the mainstream of that decade into musical mush.

I first picked up Inside Out working in a used record store two decades ago in undergrad college days. I didn't know anything about him at the time, but the record became one of my favorites and led to a collection of everything by him from 1967 to 1984. When I played his albums for others, the reaction usually wasn't one of much interest. I felt he was my secret, at least far away from Scotland in central Texas, and his moments of gentle beauty and other moments of Scottish-psyche trippiness became intimate, solipsistic corners of my musical landscape, rivaled in this dimension probably only by Arthur Lee. I have to thank my friend Eric for understanding and sending me the news of Martyn's death.

I finally saw Martyn in concert in a small-ish club in Paris in about 1990. I invited friends along. They didn't quite get him - again, not much interest. I think he was and is probably like that in general. Solid Air is now considered one of the greatest British albums of all time. But that characterization of any of his work seems so alien to Martyn's personality and music. The aim wasn't legendary status or fame or fortune. It was a kind of musical intimacy sung from deep in his beautiful soul. And I think those of us who feel that intimacy are truly lucky we've come across it. We'll miss John terribly.

[Thanks, Eric]

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Keep This in Mind

Darius Rejali, author of the magnum opus on torture (Torture and Democracy) and contributor to the Hilde collection On Torture, says this:
Few things predict future torture as much as past impunity.

Hirst and Darwin

Damien Hirst, the famous artworld con-man, actually does an interesting painting for the cover of the sesquicentennial edition of On the Origin of Species (coming out on Darwin's birthday on February 12th).

A Pragmatic Sentence on Science

Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth.
Um, that's basically right. See the ensuing discussion at the NYT.

It's About Adaptation, Stupid

Yet another report finds that some of the most grave effects of climate change are likely unavoidable anytime over the next 1000 years. Even if other greenhouse gases are seriously reduced, carbon dioxide - which amounts to about half of anthropogenic GhGs - remains much longer in the atmosphere.

"I think you have to think about this stuff as more like nuclear waste than acid rain: The more we add, the worse off we'll be," NOAA senior scientist Susan Solomon told reporters in a conference call. "The more time that we take to make decisions about carbon dioxide, the more irreversible climate change we'll be locked into."

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At the moment, carbon concentrations in the atmosphere stand at 385 parts per million. Many climate scientists and the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have set a goal of stabilizing atmospheric carbon at 450 ppm, but current projections put the world on track to hit 550 ppm by 2035, rising after that point by 4.5 percent a year.

The new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, projects that if carbon dioxide concentrations peak at 600 ppm, several regions of the world -- including southwestern North America, the Mediterranean and southern Africa -- will face major droughts as bad or worse than the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Global sea levels will rise by about three feet by the year 3000, a projection that does not factor in melting glaciers and polar ice sheets that would probably result in significant additional sea level rises.

Even if the world managed to halt the carbon dioxide buildup at 450 ppm, the researchers concluded, the subtropics would experience a 10 percent decrease in precipitation, compared with the 15 percent decrease they would see at 600 ppm. That level is still akin to mega-droughts such as the Dust Bowl. The already parched U.S. Southwest would probably see a 5 percent drop in precipitation during its dry season.

Look, emissions credit trading is fine in my view as a stopgap measure, as are carbon taxes. But neither present a real answer to climate change, as I've been saying over the past few years (see here, and more here, here, here, and here). Much of the international negotiations over climate change are, however, based on the extent of trading regimes, taxes, etc. I'm not saying that this is not important. Mitigation is crucial, and these mitigation policy options are crucial, but a wise overall climate policy will view them as part of a larger basket of diverse policy efforts.

If we're truly serious about climate change, however, we have to be more serious about adaptation. Many are, including the grand environmental institutions like the UNFCCC (1992), it's offshoot the Kyoto Protocol (1997), and much of post-Kyoto thinking (for instance, the not uncontroversial Clean Development Mechanism of the Protocol is designed to extend assistance to poor countries).

It's pretty basic. The negative effects of climate change- such as desertification and drought, flooding in other areas, changing vegetation, etc. - are already and will increasingly be felt by human beings. Those who will bear the brunt of the negative effects live in developing or least developed countries and are usually the poorest of these people. Poor people have the least capacity to adapt to the effects of climate change precisely because they are poor. But they also have the least to do with creating the problem. The wealthy industrial countries (and increasingly the rapidly developing countries of China, India, etc.) are the most responsible for both historical and current emissions. In this sense, the exacerbation of already difficult conditions for the global poor are largely the cause of the wealthy nations.

The responsibility is clear. The discourse and rhetoric, as much as climate policy, need to reflect this responsibility.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Good Reads

Photo: Reuters / Santiago Ferrero

Cheryl Rofer at Whirled View has an outstanding piece on NATO supply routes into Afghanistan. It's most fascinating for the overlapping, shifting politics of pretty much every country in the region. A definite must-read.

More conservative self-castigation, this time by Reid Buckley in AmCon Mag (via Wolcott). A little bit more self-reflection might allow Reid to not stereotype and trivialize environmentalism coming from the left (or wherever else lumped into "The Left" because it's apparently not conservative). He's on the right path, but he still doesn't get the reality-based community.

The Editors hand out the Golden Winger awards with guest-hosts GW Bush and Harry Reid.

The NY Review of Books (via Changing Society) publishes a translation of China's Charter 08, signed by 2000+ Chinese, which lays out the basic principles of legal and political reform in the country.

A fine piece from a couple of weeks ago by Tony Karon on Israel's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Like Juan Cole's Informed Comment, Karon's Rootless Cosmopolitan has become essential reading on the Middle East, particularly Israel/Palestine.

A final shout-out to France from Bush. SuperFrenchie explains: "With only hours to go (finally!), and 6 years after it reached the height of international stupidity with the freedom fries name change, the Bush administration has decided to get into one more food fight by imposing a 300% tariff on… Roquefort!"

The Wege returns. And - I'm late on this - so does Michael Berubé. Welcome back, both.

Scott Horton's savvy take on Obama's inauguration speech. Agreed.

And, finally, an interesting photo essay at the Big Picture on African immigration to Europe (photo above from there).

A Good Step on Emissions

President Obama on Monday will direct federal regulators to move swiftly to grant California and 13 other states the right to set strict automobile emissions and fuel efficiency standards, two administration officials said Sunday evening.

The directive makes good on an Obama campaign pledge and marks a sharp reversal from Bush administration policy. Granting California and the other states the right to regulate tailpipe emissions is one of the most dramatic actions Mr. Obama can take to quickly put his stamp on environmental policy.

The presidential orders will require automobile manufacturers to begin producing and selling cars and trucks that get higher mileage than the national standard, and on a faster phase-in schedule. The auto companies had lobbied hard against the regulations and challenged them in court...

Beyond the California waiver, officials said, Mr. Obama will announce that he is moving forward with nationwide regulations requiring the automobile industry to increase fuel efficiency standards, rules that the Bush administration decided at the last minute not to issue. He will also order federal departments and agencies to find new ways to save energy and be more environmentally friendly. And he will highlight the elements in his economic plan intended to create new jobs around renewable energy.

Taliban Grows in Pakistan

This isn't good.

I'd be interested to know more about the draw of the Taliban since we have a rather two-dimensional view in the US. How does such an entity - particularly the Taliban - grow and spread ideologically? What is the attraction? Is poverty the main driver? Any good books or articles worth reading?

For that matter, why do people follow this guy?

Blood Orange

Heck of a Job, Ehud

Juan Cole summarizes the results of the recent Israeli assault on Gaza.
According to UNICEF, their preliminary estimate of the damage done by the Israeli military to Gaza infrastructure is $1.9 billion. Note that this is Gaza infrastructure, not Hamas infrastructure.

So at least the war weakened Hamas's political control of Gaza, right? Not so much.

So then, the Israeli military boasted that it destroyed 60% of the tunnels whereby Gazans smuggle food, medicine and other goods into Gaza (the Israelis say they bring in explosives for rocket-making as well; but since rockets can be made from simple materials and petroleum products, and since the rockets are so primitive, they can't be bringing in very good explosives). So at least, the Israeli war on the people of Gaza permanently reduced the capacity of those tunnels, right? Naw, the Gazans are working Caterpillar backhoes to rebuild the tunnels, already!

If the goal was to stop the rockets, so the ceasefire last June stopped the rockets from Hamas for 4 months until Israel broke the truce. Negotiation had been proven to work. Henry Siegman has decided that the Israeli narrative of the lead-up to the Gaza War was just lies, which American media largely bought, hook, line and sinker. He outlines what really happened.

How unpopular Israel made itself in Europe with this war was still visible nearly a week after it ended, when 20,000 protesters marched in Paris on Saturday, still protesting the war.
This is from the Siegman link in Juan's text.

Western governments and most of the Western media have accepted a number of Israeli claims justifying the military assault on Gaza: that Hamas consistently violated the six-month truce that Israel observed and then refused to extend it; that Israel therefore had no choice but to destroy Hamas’s capacity to launch missiles into Israeli towns; that Hamas is a terrorist organisation, part of a global jihadi network; and that Israel has acted not only in its own defence but on behalf of an international struggle by Western democracies against this network.

I am not aware of a single major American newspaper, radio station or TV channel whose coverage of the assault on Gaza questions this version of events. Criticism of Israel’s actions, if any (and there has been none from the Bush administration), has focused instead on whether the IDF’s carnage is proportional to the threat it sought to counter, and whether it is taking adequate measures to prevent civilian casualties.

Middle East peacemaking has been smothered in deceptive euphemisms, so let me state bluntly that each of these claims is a lie. Israel, not Hamas, violated the truce: Hamas undertook to stop firing rockets into Israel; in return, Israel was to ease its throttlehold on Gaza. In fact, during the truce, it tightened it further. This was confirmed not only by every neutral international observer and NGO on the scene but by Brigadier General (Res.) Shmuel Zakai, a former commander of the IDF’s Gaza Division. In an interview in Ha’aretz on 22 December, he accused Israel’s government of having made a ‘central error’ during the tahdiyeh, the six-month period of relative truce, by failing ‘to take advantage of the calm to improve, rather than markedly worsen, the economic plight of the Palestinians of the Strip . . . When you create a tahdiyeh, and the economic pressure on the Strip continues,’ General Zakai said, ‘it is obvious that Hamas will try to reach an improved tahdiyeh, and that their way to achieve this is resumed Qassam fire . . . You cannot just land blows, leave the Palestinians in Gaza in the economic distress they’re in, and expect that Hamas will just sit around and do nothing.’

The truce, which began in June last year and was due for renewal in December, required both parties to refrain from violent action against the other. Hamas had to cease its rocket assaults and prevent the firing of rockets by other groups such as Islamic Jihad (even Israel’s intelligence agencies acknowledged this had been implemented with surprising effectiveness), and Israel had to put a stop to its targeted assassinations and military incursions. This understanding was seriously violated on 4 November, when the IDF entered Gaza and killed six members of Hamas. Hamas responded by launching Qassam rockets and Grad missiles. Even so, it offered to extend the truce, but only on condition that Israel ended its blockade. Israel refused. It could have met its obligation to protect its citizens by agreeing to ease the blockade, but it didn’t even try. It cannot be said that Israel launched its assault to protect its citizens from rockets. It did so to protect its right to continue the strangulation of Gaza’s population....

It's a truism that bears repeating - the US needs an overhaul of its policy towards Israel and Palestine. Perhaps especially now that Israel is headed into elections that look likely to re-elect Netanyahu as Prime Minister.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Marx and Math

I did not know this. A book in French (Manuscrits mathématiques de Marx by Alain Alcouffe) from 1985 discusses Marx's contributions to mathematics. Excerpts here.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

January 20th, 2009

Photo: Helmut

Closing Guantánamo and CIA Black Sites

I'd like to point you to one particular passage of this extremely important interview from mid-December at Subtopia (which Andrew Sullivan also commented on briefly).
You know, Obama closing Guantánamo is indeed a good thing. And the symbolism is important because Guantánamo is so high-profile. But I fear that the closing of Guantánamo will relieve political pressure as torture recedes back into its darker corners. The public knows a lot less about rendition and "black sites," for example, than it does about Guantánamo. In this sense, I worry that torture could just revert to a well-concealed practice used by a liberal state when it's supposedly in its interests. And it would also be a profound mistake simply to deal with all this as a matter of international PR-management for the US. In the wake of Bush administration torture, there's an opportunity to do so much more than engage in symbolic acts. I hope we can muster the political imagination.
It's thus really nice to see the first orders from Obama regarding not only Guantánamo but also the CIA black sites.
...And the orders would bring to an end a Central Intelligence Agency program that kept terrorism suspects in secret custody for months or years, a practice that has brought fierce criticism from foreign governments and human rights activists. They will also prohibit the C.I.A. from using coercive interrogation methods, requiring the agency to follow the same rules used by the military in interrogating terrorism suspects, government officials said.
Shutting down the black site operations is less about satisfying the anti-torture public and international opinion than it is about sticking to basic moral principles whether they're expressed in a high-profile way or not. I think this approach is also reflected in who Obama is picking for less high-profile positions at DOJ and perhaps particularly the Office of Legal Counsel at DOJ. For one, the tireless Marty Lederman, formerly of Balkinization.

Deep Pragmatism


"We believe the oath of office was administered effectively and that the president was sworn in appropriately yesterday. Yet the oath appears in the Constitution itself. And out of the abundance of caution, because there was one word out of sequence, Chief Justice John Roberts will administer the oath a second time."

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Durian

President Obama's First Steps on Transparency and Accountability

"Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency."

Via TPM:
Over a hundred senior staffers making over $100,000 per year will have their pay frozen at current levels.

There will be a two-year waiting period for any former lobbyists to work on issues for which they had previously done lobbying work.

Extra openness will be practiced with any information that the Administration might want to keep secret.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Hopeful Celebration

I live in Washington, DC. It's not the town I'm originally from (a long story), but it's now my hometown after eight years here. And this town is filling up rapidly for the celebration that began last night and will continue through Wednesday.

Note the eight years. My time here has overlapped entirely with the Bush presidency. It has been a time in which many people here - thousands and thousands of whom are genuinely committed to good government - have had to swallow their hope in the potential of the US government. These eight years have been a time of cronyism and incompetence throughout the administration, bloated security everywhere in the city, and a sense of futility and shame in a leadership no one trusts except perhaps those who have benefited so handsomely from the outgoing administration.

This is about to change, and maybe the main reason it's about to change is because the new President Obama has explicitly devoted himself to democratic accountability. We'll have to hold him to that. Over the past eight years a presidency antithetical to democratic accountability has bored holes in our hope for decent government. Obama's giving us a chance to repair ourselves.

This may not be the greatest presidency if you're an ideologue. We progressives can hope for a lot more than we've had over the past decade or two or three, but we'll have to do so as pragmatic progressives in the sense in which I discussed Obama and philosophical pragmatism earlier. I'm not a pollyannish guy, but I think we can be genuinely hopeful that our thought and work and decency can be met by a receptive government and real policy change. From my perspective here in DC, you can sense this here apart from Obama himself. The right people are coming into office from the top on down, and the lights have gone back on in the minds and souls of many of DC's career public servants. It really does feel like Bush's Middle Ages to Obama's Renaissance.

This is a very real opportunity for all of us and, for this long weekend, a cause for celebration. Cheers.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Arne Naess

Arne Naess, father of deep ecology, passed away on Monday at the age of 96. The Norwegian philosopher was a decent man who lived a long and adventurous life; an influential thinker, one of the most important environmental philosophers ever; and a cautiously hopeful voice of environmental concerns. Thousands of people will miss him deeply.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Governance

Klein (via Sullivan):
I spent the day at the Clinton confirmation hearings and came away impressed, as always, with the woman's sheer ability to process information. Not a missed beat, not an "I'll have to get back to you on that..." It was several hours into the hearing that the full force of the new Administration hit me. Clinton was being asked by Senator Benjamin Cardin whether we could exert our influence on mineral-rich countries to share their wealth with their people. The Secretary of State-designate immediately brought up Botswana's "excellent work" in this area, the education and infrastructure programs that had been funded. And I thought: Botswana? Wow. We've got people who are really interested in governing--who really love public service, who understand that foreign policy means more than simply issuing threats--coming back to your nation's capital! Enthusiasm and care don't always result in wise policy-making, but we've seen how fecklessness and carelessness works.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Virgin Less Easy Under New Vatican Rules

Virgin Mary sightings will henceforth be subject to examination and certification by secular psychiatrists, according to a story in the Independent, who need not be Catholic and may include "atheists" as well. Exorcists too will be asked to sign off before claimants will be credited with a sighting. It's become too frequent that somebody says they've seen the virgin when they haven't.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Duh

Does this surprise anyone?
Federal prosecutions of immigration crimes nearly doubled in the last fiscal year, reaching more than 70,000 immigration cases in the 2008 fiscal year, according to federal data compiled by a Syracuse University research group. The emphasis, many federal judges and prosecutors say, has siphoned resources from other crimes, eroded morale among federal lawyers and overloaded the federal court system. Many of those other crimes, including gun trafficking, organized crime and the increasingly violent drug trade, are now routinely referred to state and county officials, who say they often lack the finances or authority to prosecute them effectively.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Rockets

Israeli rocket:
Photo: REUTERS/Nikola Solic
Palestinian rocket:
Photo: AP Photo/Bernat Armangue
More photos here.

Rambutan

Public Reasoning

The most recent (recycled) posting at AskPhilosophers is a variation on the classic question all philosophers get regarding the practical utility of philosophy. (And this is a constant since the ancient Greeks - you'd think we might have better responses by now). In this particular case, it's about logic. And, as usual, the philosopher's answer is rather inadequate. That's the problem philosophers face - you have to have spent some serious time with philosophy in order to understand its importance. And we ought to do that. But even then you still might not get it nor be able to use much of it at all.
Q: ...No political columnist ever cites logical validity or fallacies to support their view or dismiss the views of others - it is all opinion and anecdote (even if they did, few would get their point) - so how does logic work outside of the rarefied realm of philosophy?

A: Well, I happen to think that it would be better if political columnists DID point out logical mistakes in the arguments made by public officials. There is no shortage of mistakes to point out. Of course, to point out mistakes in the arguments made by politicians, there would have to be arguments to begin with, and they too are in perilously short supply. Perhaps more attention to logic would encourage participants in public debates to offer arguments instead of appeals to emotion, innuendo, name-calling, and sanctimonious prattle....
Sure. It is not the case that this is the case, but it ought to be the case that this is the case. But for this kind of response - a standard one among philosophers - to be compelling, it has to at least add some element of self interest for the interlocutor. It's silly to demand that public officials ought to be honest all the time and be rigorously held to a standard of reasoned argumentation in public discourse - that is, silly if the expectation is that this will become reality. And it's silly to respond simply that we ought to hold public officials accountable - that is, for the sake of accountability.

Why not simply respond to the questioner that he/she, or any other citizen, is a fool if he/she does not study and demand reasoned arguments, transparency, accountability, and honesty in both public officials and those who help develop and relay their messages? After all, many decisions (or ongoing decision-making) by public officials shape the lives of citizens in both the minute details and in the bigger picture of life aspirations. And one would hope to have some control over the shape of one's life, right? And then you could add that public officials often have a real leg up on you because some know how to manipulate logic and rhetoric for their own ends. Precisely because they are public officials, they thus have the ability to shape your world according to their understanding of it. Jonathan Schwarz directs us to this recent exchange:

What should one do in public debate when confronted with an ad hominem attack? Martin Indyk, US ambassador to Israel during the Clinton administration, conducted a master class on this subject on yesterday's Democracy Now!

The disgusting smears began with Norman Finkelstein's endless litany of personal insults toward Indyk:

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: I think we should talk about [Indyk's] book. In fact, I stayed up ’til 1:30 a.m. to complete the book, made sure I read up to page 415, read every word of the book...

According to Mr. Indyk’s account of the negotiations that culminated in the Camp David and Taba meetings, he says it was the Palestinians that were blocking a settlement. What does the record show? The record shows that in every crucial issue raised at Camp David, then under the Clinton parameters, and then in Taba, at every single point, all the concessions came from the Palestinians. Israel didn’t make any concessions...

The law is very clear. July 2004, the highest judicial body in the world, the International Court of Justice, ruled Israel has no title to any of the West Bank and any of Gaza...

Now, the important point is, on all those questions, the Palestinians were willing to make concessions. They were willing to allow Israel to keep 60 percent of the settlements, 80 percent of the settlers. They were willing to compromise on Jerusalem. They were willing to give up basically on the right of return. They made all the concessions. Israel didn’t make any concessions...

To his credit, Mr. Indyk kept his cool in the face of this onslaught. At the same time, he insisted on naming Finkelstein's appalling tactics for what they were:

MARTIN INDYK: I told you, Amy, I’m not here to debate Norman Finkelstein...I’m not going to respond to his ad hominem attacks.

Even more impressive, Mr. Indyk then showed the ability to rise above his opponent's ugly behavior, and demonstrate by example what reasoned political discussion should look like:

MARTIN INDYK: Well, why don’t we focus on some other issues, like the American role in this or something that can get us out of this ridiculous debate, in which he’s just a propaganda spokesman for Hamas, you know.

One Good Thing...

Or one of three good things (hint: number two is Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument)...

Photos by Enric Sala, National Geographic and Washington Post

That is, the preservation of 195,280 square miles in the Pacific Ocean, including Rose Atoll in American Samoa; seven of the Line Islands; and the three northern islands of the Marianas Islands and the Mariana Trench itself.

But apart from that, war criminal....