Monday, March 31, 2008

Las China

Me llaman el desaparecido
Cuando llega ya se ha ido
Volando vengo, volando voy
Deprisa deprisa a rumbo perdido

Cuando me buscan nunca estoy
Cuando me encuentran yo
no soy
El que está enfrente porque ya
Me fui corriendo más allá

Me dicen el
Fantasma que nunca está
Me dicen el desagradecido
Pero esa no es la verdad

-Manu Chao, "Desaparecido"

Among the surprises we encountered in Guatemala City the week before last, one we should have expected: the Semana Santa processions and their associated ephemeral grandeur. None of us had been tuned in enough to the religious calendar to note, even in passing, that our arrival in Guatemala City would coincide with the eve of Palm Sunday; much less that we'd find ourselves -- staying in the heart of zone 1 in the center of the capital city -- right in the middle of some of the most elaborate and crowded processions in the country.

The processions are familiar enough, I think, to folks who know something about the celebration of Semana Santa in Spain and parts of Latin America: that photo above is of an unfinished alfombra, or
tapete -- an elaborate, temporary street carpet made of stenciled, colored sawdust. This one was made by a group of young students from the school across the street from the Guatemala City Casa del Migrante, and the low light does no justice to the careful coordination of its color and design. But you get the idea.

After alfombras have been created along the route -- a fairly complicated schedule of the processions, which happen day and night throughout the week -- the thing proper begins:

guys dressed as Roman Soldiers (the elaborateness of their outfits a direct correlation to the social status of the neighborhood) are followed through the streets by the andas themselves -- big, elaborate Holy Week-oriented floats -- carried collectively along the route.

They're followed by a band. And then a bulldozer, a dumptruck, and a small army of city streetsweepers; working efficiently, they erase, in a matter of a few minutes, any sign of the recently-trampled alfombras.

On the evening of the first picture, above, several of the migrants staying at the Casa had come out to take part in the creation of an alfombra on the theme of migration, directly in front of the shelter. Among them were a young pair of Chinese women who, as far as anyone could ascertain, had been brought to Guatemala to work in the sex trade. They spoke no Spanish, and very, very little English. No one knew for certain if they had chosen to come to Guatemala, but it seemed unlikely that they had arrived with an understanding of the use they would be put to, there. They wound up at the Casa in between being discovered -- by someone -- in Guatemala City and being deported.

That's one of them, in fact, in that first picture -- that blur in the bottom right-hand corner. In the few days we spent there, inexplicably popping in from the States, with our cameras and tripods and digital recording equipment, we had managed only to achieve a kind of friendly non-verbal rapport. When they jumped playfully into the frame of my evening photo of the alfombra, and when they pressed in on each side of me to see the resulting picture, they crossed all kinds of figurative borders, of course. But their closeness was also just warm and human and happy. It felt good.

It felt a lot better than not being able to explain -- they probably knew? -- why they weren't in the picture after all, how I had been trying to avoid using the flash, how they moved too quickly through the frame for me to record them at all. It was with a kind of frustrating desperation that I smiled at them, and shrugged. And they walked away to find another photographer. And then, a few nights later, they disappeared.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Opening Day

Happy Opening Day tomorrow. Go Padres.

Route 3 Through Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam

Photo: Justin Mott for The International Herald Tribune

With trade across these borders increasing by double digits every year, China has helped build a series of roads inside the territory of its southern neighbors. The Chinese government is paying half the cost of a bridge over the Mekong River between Laos and Thailand, due for completion in 2011. It financed parts of Route 3 in Laos and refurbished roads in northern Myanmar, including the storied Burma Road used by the Allies in World War II to supply troops fighting the Japanese. China is also building an oil and gas pipeline from the Bay of Bengal through Myanmar to Kunming.

Taken together, these roads are breaking the isolation of the thinly inhabited upper reaches of Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, areas that in recent decades languished because of wars, ethnic rivalries and heroin trafficking. The roads run through the heart of the Golden Triangle, the region that once produced 70 percent of the world's opium crop.

The invasions of new trade routes.... The Kunming-Bangkok route is especially fascinating given its history as fragmented opium routes and what it could mean in both benefits and costs for a poor country such as Laos.


Zbigniew Brzezinski, writing in the Washington Post, outlines a rough picture of a US withdrawal from Iraq. It'll have to happen, even if few are talking about how. Brzezinski, in my view, sketches about as decent an option as the US now has. It will, however, take a new president committed to wiser foreign policy and better (i.e., existent) diplomacy. Nothing about it will be easy.

Contrary to Republican claims that our departure will mean calamity, a sensibly conducted disengagement will actually make Iraq more stable over the long term. The impasse in Shiite-Sunni relations is in large part the sour byproduct of the destructive U.S. occupation, which breeds Iraqi dependency even as it shatters Iraqi society. In this context, so highly reminiscent of the British colonial era, the longer we stay in Iraq, the less incentive various contending groups will have to compromise and the more reason simply to sit back. A serious dialogue with the Iraqi leaders about the forthcoming U.S. disengagement would shake them out of their stupor.

Ending the U.S. war effort entails some risks, of course, but they are inescapable at this late date. Parts of Iraq are already self-governing, including Kurdistan, part of the Shiite south and some tribal areas in the Sunni center. U.S. military disengagement will accelerate Iraqi competition to more effectively control their territory, which may produce a phase of intensified inter-Iraqi conflicts. But that hazard is the unavoidable consequence of the prolonged U.S. occupation. The longer it lasts, the more difficult it will be for a viable Iraqi state ever to reemerge.

It is also important to recognize that most of the anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq has not been inspired by al-Qaeda. Locally based jihadist groups have gained strength only insofar as they have been able to identify themselves with the fight against a hated foreign occupier. As the occupation winds down and Iraqis take responsibility for internal security, al-Qaeda in Iraq will be left more isolated and less able to sustain itself. The end of the occupation will thus be a boon for the war on al-Qaeda, bringing to an end a misguided adventure that not only precipitated the appearance of al-Qaeda in Iraq but also diverted the United States from Afghanistan, where the original al-Qaeda threat grew and still persists.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Void

Physicists Make Artificial Black Hole Using Optical Fiber. (Via 3QD). OK, that's interesting. Wonder what that involves...

To make their event horizon, Leonhardt and colleagues used a titanium sapphire laser and a microstructured optical fiber—one containing a hexagonal arrangement of air-filled holes that ran its length. They first transmitted an ultrashort, intense laser pulse down the optical fiber. The optical fiber is susceptible to nonlinear effects, such that when an intense pulse of light hits the fiber, it changes the physical properties of the fiber. In this case, the first pulse created a distortion that amounted to a change in the fiber’s index of refraction, which moves along with the pulse. The pulse itself was slowed by the distortion. Leonhardt and colleagues then sent a “faster” stream of infrared laser light in pursuit of the first pulse. When the faster-moving second pulse encountered the distortion, it got trapped at its edge and couldn’t break past it. This edge became the fiber’s “event horizon.”

“Light propagating in a moving medium is similar to the light propagating in curved space” such as you would find near a black hole, explains Volovik. So “it is possible to create artificial horizons.”

Following Einstein’s theory of relativity, as light approaches the event horizon, it would slow down immensely and be stretched out; time would also proceed very slowly. Scientists have worked out what this deceleration would look like, and Leonhardt and colleagues say they observed the predicted effects in their optical-fiber event horizon.

Leonhardt and his colleagues hope their artificial event horizon will let experimentalists see whether anything can escape from a black hole.

There may be a drawback (although the project below is not the same as above): Black Hole Eats Earth.
...Walter Wagner and Luis Sancho contend that scientists at the European Center for Nuclear Research, or CERN, have played down the chances that the collider could produce, among other horrors, a tiny black hole, which, they say, could eat the Earth. Or it could spit out something called a "strangelet" that would convert our planet to a shrunken dense dead lump of something called "strange matter." Their suit also says CERN has failed to provide an environmental impact statement as required under the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act.
For more, try here.
...For in fact what is man in nature? A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything. Since he is infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes, the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret; he is equally incapable of seeing the Nothing from which he was made, and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up. (Pascal, Pensées sect. II, 72).

Friday, March 28, 2008

Flashes of Brilliance

Maybe it's spring in the air, but the blogoid internets seemed to do a particularly good job yesterday of producing interesting analyses on Iraq. Five pieces on Iraq that you must read:

Spencer Ackerman: Ensuring Permanence: The Bush Administration Is Negotiating a Long-Term Iraq Occupation. (Also check out Ackerman's McCain Foreign Policy: Bush Doctrine Plus).

Tony Karon & Alastair Crooke: Iraq and U.S. Faith in Violence.

David Bromwich: Euphemism and American Violence.

John Robb: Sadr's Defensive Strategy.

Marc Lynch: Another theory for the pile.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


Photo: Ming Wei Shen

Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, Father of Recorded Sound

Like so many things at which Americans insist they were first, the French actually were:

For more than a century, since he captured the spoken words "Mary had a little lamb" on a sheet of tinfoil, Thomas Edison has been considered the father of recorded sound. But researchers say they have unearthed a recording of the human voice, made by a little-known Frenchman, that predates Edison's invention of the phonograph by nearly two decades.

The 10-second recording of a singer crooning the folk song "Au Clair de la Lune" was discovered earlier this month in an archive in Paris by a group of American audio historians. It was made, the researchers say, on April 9, 1860, on a phonautograph, a machine designed to record sounds visually, not to play them back. But the phonautograph recording, or phonautogram, was made playable — converted from squiggles on paper to sound — by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California.

"This is a historic find, the earliest known recording of sound," said Samuel Brylawski, the former head of the recorded-sound division of the Library of Congress, who is not affiliated with the research group but who was familiar with its findings. The audio excavation could give a new primacy to the phonautograph, once considered a curio, and its inventor, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, a Parisian typesetter and tinkerer who went to his grave convinced that credit for his breakthroughs had been improperly bestowed on Edison...

Scott's 1860 phonautogram was made 17 years before Edison received a patent for the phonograph and 28 years before an Edison associate captured a snippet of a Handel oratorio on a wax cylinder, a recording that until now was widely regarded by experts as the oldest that could be played back.


Normalizing Hiroshima

Photo: Helmut
Ron Rosenbaum:
That's what everyone says after visiting Hiroshima, the statesmen and citizens who sign the guest book at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. We will never forget. But maybe we will. The very fact that Hiroshima is thriving with its KFC and Starbucks, with the carefully manicured lawns of its "Peace Memorial Park"—the only evidence that hell was unleashed here—may have the opposite, anodyne effect. This is not John Hersey's Hiroshima, the Hiroshima of the horrific immediate aftermath, but is to a certain extent a Hiroshima that says a nuclear detonation is a transient thing, something that's eminently recoverable from with a little time and some good landscaping.
Now, really. Ron's apparently easily distracted by coffee and fried chicken.

I've lived in Japan on three separate occasions at different stages of my life. I've been to the museum in Hiroshima and the Peace Park - I've seen the nuclear shadows of people obliterated from the world in an instant, leaving only the "shadow" outline of their body on the concrete. I've also been to Nagasaki. I spoke some Japanese then. I wandered the streets, ducked into bars, and neighborhood restaurants, talked to locals. My impression of Hiroshima - and I realize it's only that, a personal impression - was of city that was steeped in its horrific past. It was striking because I had traveled all over the country and had never visited a place like this. I felt a sense of suspicion. I was given disdainful looks. I experienced the one and only time in Japan in which someone tried to rip me off. Now, I don't want to say that Hiroshima has some kind of essence of which these are eternal qualities. This is simply anecdotal experience. It is an experience I encountered nowhere else in Japan. But the bombing of this industrial city continues to have deep effects on its very identity and mood. How could it not? Hiroshima's message regarding the atomic bomb is that we should never forget the horrors of nuclear weapons. This is how the museum is presented. You are confronted unflinchingly with human disaster.

Nagasaki chose a different message. Perhaps this is because Kyushu, the lush western island on which Nagasaki rests, was always open - for 300 years - as a matter of Japanese policy to foreigners and different ideas. The cultural mix is apparent in the architecture, customs, and friendliness of the people. The memorial at Nagasaki preaches love. It says that the unqualified horror of nuclear war is only surmounted through continuing to urge messages of peace and love and openness. Nagasaki as a place tries to forgive. The contrast with Hiroshima, in my experience, couldn't be greater. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the yin and yang of Japanese pacifism.

It's offensive and typically America-centric to say that Starbucks and KFC are somehow distraction enough to change either of these necessary messages.

Hillary the Republican Conspirator

Christopher Orr:

1) Matt Drudge hyped a photo of Obama in Somali garb that he claimed (and the Clinton campaign declined to deny) Clinton staffers had been circulating.

2) Bill Clinton went on the Rush Limbaugh show on the day of the Texas primary--after Limbaugh had spent days urging GOP voters in the state to cross over and vote for Clinton in order "rig" the election and ensure that Democrats nominated the weaker of their two candidates.

3) The Clinton campaign has been circulating an article in The American Spectator alleging that an Obama adviser, former Air Force chief Merrill McPeak, is an anti-semite and a drunk.

4) When Clinton attacked Obama on Jeremiah Wright yesterday, she did it at an editorial meeting of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the vanity publication of Richard Mellon Scaife, while sitting next to Scaife himself.


Israel "Cachao" López, the great Cuban musician, died this past weekend.

Cachao, as he was universally known, transformed the rhythm of Cuban music when he and his brother, the pianist and cellist Orestes López, extended and accelerated the final section of the stately Cuban danzón into the mambo. “My brother and I would say to each other, ‘Mambea, mambea ahí,’ which meant to add swing to that part,” he said in a 2006 interview with The Miami Herald. The springy mambo bass lines Cachao created in the late 1930’s — simultaneously driving and playful — became a foundation of modern Cuban music, of the salsa that grew out of it, and also of Latin-influenced rock ’n’ roll and rhythm-and-blues. For much of the 20th century, Cachao’s innovations set the world dancing.

In the late 1950’s, he brought another breakthrough to Latin music with descargas: late-night Havana jam sessions that merged Afro-Cuban rhythms, Cuban songs and the convolutions of jazz. The mixture of propulsion and exploration in those recordings has influenced salsa and jazz musicians ever since...

“His phrasing and his attack and how he functioned in the orchestra was unique to Cachao,” the actor Andy Garcia, who reinvigorated Cachao’s career by producing albums and documentaries in the 1990’s, said in a telephone interview on Sunday. “He always played bass with the bow in his hand. He would go back and forth. And as he was strumming with his fingers, he always had the bow in his hand and the bow would strike the bass percussively.”

Cachao played with abandon. You hear it. This isn't pleasant, lopingly structured salsa and mambo, or the watery, bleached "world music" version. It's rough and aggressive at times, fast, the musicians - some of the best of Afro-Cuban music - absorbed into their craft. It's joyful.

WFMU has a nice set of downloads. Captain's Crate has another nice set.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Particular Universal Proposition

Jacques Louis-David's The Death of Socrates, 1787
Logic has long used the proposition, "all men are mortal," as a staple of syllogisms: as in "All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal." The proposition is a universal affirmative proposition to the extent that there is a necessary connection between "man" and "mortal." That is, a universal proposition ("all men are mortal") states that all members of a class (men) carry a further designation (mortality). (A particular proposition holds only that some members of a class have that particular designation).

Universality as a metaphysical notion further holds to the extent that the proposition is true for all times and places. "2+2=4" is a universal proposition in this sense. Its truth doesn't change if you're in medieval Calcutta, ancient Rome, or modern Dekalb.

But, although long considered universal both logically and metaphysically, the proposition "all men are mortal" may not really be true. For one thing, developments in genetics and cellular biology suggest new possibilities for extending life, even indefinitely. Other developments in artificial intelligence suggest a transformed notion of life and immortality in which one could upload human consciousness to virtual bodies.

It's curious to think of this proposition above all as a black swan. If "all men are mortal," that well-worn absolute certainty of Intro to Logic, is simply a false, formally universal proposition, what does this say about universal propositions or metaphysical universality? I also wonder what this does to the central proposition of most Asian religions - but specifically the religions of Tibet, Nepal, and India - that everything that lives, dies.

Anti-Jaguar Wall

The wall being constructed on the border between the US and Mexico is also becoming a barrier to the migratory range of the jaguar, reducing further its ever-precious habitat at a time when Central American countries are seeking to preserve jaguar corridors. Jaguars in the southwestern US are rare today. Nonetheless, their habitat still extends as far north as New Mexico and Arizona.

In Olmec, Aztec, and Mayan jaguar myths, the jaguar was a creature of authority and strength, as well as mobility between different physical and spiritual worlds due to its rare feline capacity for inhabiting not only the trees and the earth, but also water. It is a symbol at the core of indigenous identity in the Americas so profound that its non-existence would entail the evolution of a completely different culture over the last three millennia. In the name of racial identity and spurious economic arguments, the jaguar in North America will also end with the wall, its non-existence the symbol of reactionary weakness and cultural immobility.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008



Photo: Andrew Holbrooke/Corbis
Soot. It's a more damaging problem than previously thought.

On Norway's pledge to become "carbon neutral" by 2030.

"Chemical geography." On unmonitored radioactive and chemical waste off the coast of northern California.

The New Hydrological Temples of Modern India.

Another sign of growing inequality in the US: the gap in life expectancy rates grows.

Liberals doing their own bigotry thing.

NY Times chief correspondent in France says goodbye after 5 years, leaving behind an astounding trail of clichés about "the French." (...ah, life in the 16th arrondissement!). SuperFrenchie sums it up.

East German escape tales.

Phronesisaical friend, Abbas Raza of 3QD, "defends" Pakistani dictatorship at n+1.

Obama's other brilliant speech last week; the one on foreign policy.

Al Giordano's "five givens"
as we approach the Democratic Convention in Denver.

Sadrist "civil disobedience" campaign in Iraq.

Iran trying to help in Basra... by supplying electricity.

Successful! Michael Schwartz on Baghdad:
Over the course of five years, Baghdad, the capital city of Iraq, has been transformed from a metropolis into an urban desert of half-destroyed buildings and next to no public services, dotted by partially deserted, mutually hostile mini-ghettos that used to be neighborhoods, surrounded by cement barriers reminiscent of medieval fortifications. The most prominent of these ghettos is the heavily fortified city-inside-a-city dubbed the Green Zone, where Iraq's most fearsome militia, the United States military, is headquartered.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Royal Democracy in Bhutan

Tomorrow, Bhutan becomes a democracy. This event occurs through the active development and encouragement of the young, progressive monarch, King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, and especially his father, former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck. The latter introduced the idea of Gross National Happiness as a replacement for thinking of development in the reductive terms of GDP (here's a paper by colleague Carol Graham on the economics of happiness). The monarchy has decided that, in the best interests of the country, democratic government is a better form as long as democracy does not equal rampant, unfettered capitalism (as Americans often confuse the two).

As always regarding Bhutan, there are lessons to be learned for the rest of the world.
Two main political parties are vying for votes. They are the Druk Pheunsum Tshogpa, or DPT, with its slogan of "Growth with equity and justice," and the People's Democratic Party, or PDP, with the slogan "Service with humility. Walk the talk."

Analysts say there are few ideological differences between the two parties. And both have a leader who served two terms as prime minister under the monarchy. The head of the party that wins a majority of the 47 parliamentary seats will become the country's first elected prime minister.

One candidate accused his opponent's wife of donating a butter lamp, a traditional gift used to burn butter or oil, to a monastery to win the support of monks, who hold powerful sway in villages. Another candidate criticized the opposing party for its yellow campaign logo -- yellow is the royal family's color.

"We were very happy before this election, because the country was peaceful," said Thugi Dema, 50, as she chewed a clump of betel leaf that turned her teeth bright red. She flashed a button showing the king's face, pinned to her traditional dress. "We don't need this tiresome campaigning. It's not our culture."

Bhutan has been taking a prudent route towards both democracy and modernization. They're doing so with great intelligence, and the country is a fascinating study in economy managed by more important noneconomic values. But the strains on the society due to the introduction especially of television are like other countries and regions that have undergone rapid changes from traditional modes of life to consumerist societies driven by the neoclassical ideology of economic growth, especially the reproduction of consumer desires.

The Himalayan countries/regions - Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet, and Kashmir - are very special places on this planet. Places of great beauty, gentleness, and profoundly fascinating ideas of the good life crossed by violence (except, thus far, for Bhutan) and the uprooting of simple ways of life through the pressures of the global economy. From my tiny blogging perch, I wish Bhutan the greatest success.

[The Bhutanese photographer above, Thinley Namgyel, is a former student - a very sharp, interesting man working on environmental policy. Please pay his website a visit and check out the photos and links].

"Politics and the English Language" Phrase of the Day: "Operation Streamline"

In sorting through a week's worth of unchecked gmail this morning, I found a recommendation (from my friend Bob of Texas Prison Bidness) for this post, at Grits For Breakfast. The short version: "Operation Streamline" is, like a great deal of federal initiatives in the last eight years, both stupid and expensive:
When you hear folks advocating mass expulsions or "securing the border," whatever that means, what you rarely hear along with it is a discussion of opportunity costs. Personally, I'd rather the US Marshals stay focused on fugitive apprehension, and I don't want the federal courts to divert their attention from sex crimes and serious violent offenses. But that's what's happening thanks to the sheer volume of immigration cases flooding Texas' southern and western federal district courts.
We just returned late last night from seven days in Guatemala (and a short excursion into Chiapas), where we visited with -- and were very graciously hosted by -- the Preists, volunteers, and workers who administer the network of Scalabrinian Casas del Migrante. Assisting on a documentary project focused on the network of these houses in Mexico (Nuevo Laredo, Tijuana, Tapachula) and Guatemala (Guatemala City, Tecun Uman), we spent the week interviewing migrants from Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, along with those dedicated to the Sclabrinian mission of providing some temporary comfort and security to them. I'll post more in coming days (if I can; I'm ill-prepared for a coming conference next weekend), especially after I have some photos developed (also included: fruit pictures).

Many of the migrants I talked to -- especially along the Mexico-Guatemala border in Tecun Uman and Tapachula -- are aware of "Operation Streamline." One told me he plans not to try to re-enter the United States as a result. Clamor for punishment of 'illegals' notwithstanding, deterrence is the goal of "Operation Streamline;" it's working for this guy, at least. Others, undeterred by the sentencing, understand that they represent profit to prison operators. They know Wackenhut, they know CCA. They think it's funny that we can't think of a better way to spend the payroll taxes they've paid than to put them in jail for a few months before deporting them to Central America.

The focus on financial costs as opposed to human costs (in both the Grits for Breakfast post and the Dallas Morning News article from which it is derived) is troubling and embarrassing. As usual, the economic argument means more to us than the ethically difficult realities that we're detaining people by the thousands, that their incarceration profits private corporations, that we are actively separating parents and children. I won't dispute that our focus on money suits us well; but many migrants among us understand the relationship between economies and human lives a great deal more deeply than those of us here in the States.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Mp3 Find of the Day

Color me impressed. Check out The Bookworms' "The World Is Becoming a Wasteland" posted and downloadable at Music for Maniacs. Brilliant, sloppy (what do you expect? - they're like 9 years old) girl punk from the Rock & Roll Camp for Girls, a camp at which girls pick up instruments and learn to rock (check out the video at their site). Here's a review from someone who was at the 2004 camp show:
Some of the bands were definitely a little more coordinated than others, but a few of 'em were wonderful on their own--I especially loved the Bookworms, two VERY tiny girls whose song was called "The World Is Becoming a Wasteland" and sounded like the very early Germs....

"Show-shirt" photo by Chelsey Johnson



This article makes out the insanity plea to be a matter of legal maneuvering. It's quite likely, however, that if he wasn't insane before, after his ongoing torture the mind of Abu Zubaydah is indeed mush. This is the only stated instance I know of in which US torture has led to actionable information (that is, other than generic statements from the administration about winning the war on terror through torture).
The president said that Abu Zubaydah's interrogations led agents to two other men now held with him at Guantánamo as senior al Qaeda captives -- reputed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, and his alleged deputy, Ramzi bin al Shibh.
That is, torture led to the capture of another terrorist. Is that the time bomb? Does that rise to the level of justifying an institution of torture?

And, by the way, recall this below (as well as an interview with Ron Suskind here: "We Tortured an Insane Man"):
..."I said he was important," Bush reportedly told Tenet at one of their daily meetings. "You're not going to let me lose face on this, are you?" "No sir, Mr. President," Tenet replied. Bush "was fixated on how to get Zubaydah to tell us the truth," Suskind writes, and he asked one briefer, "Do some of these harsh methods really work?" Interrogators did their best to find out, Suskind reports. They strapped Abu Zubaydah to a water-board, which reproduces the agony of drowning. They threatened him with certain death. They withheld medication. They bombarded him with deafening noise and harsh lights, depriving him of sleep. Under that duress, he began to speak of plots of every variety -- against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. With each new tale, "thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each . . . target." And so, Suskind writes, "the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered."

Religion and Racism

Sam Harris on the religious side to Obama's race speech:

...The stultifying effect of religion is everywhere to be seen in the 2008 Presidential campaign. The faith of the candidates has been a constant concern in the Republican contest, of course--where John McCain, lacking the expected aura of born-again bamboozlement, has been struggling to entice some proper religious maniacs to his cause. He now finds himself in the compassionate embrace of Pastor John Hagee, a man who claims to know that a global war will soon precipitate the Rapture and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ (problem solved). Prior to McCain's ascendancy, we saw Governor Mitt Romney driven from the field by a Creationist yokel and his sectarian hordes. And this, despite the fact that the governor had been wearing consecrated Mormon underpants all the while, whose powers of protection are as yet unrecognized by Evangelicals.

Like every candidate, Obama must appeal to millions of voters who believe that without religion, most of us would spend our days raping and killing our neighbors and stealing their pornography. Examples of well-behaved and comparatively atheistic societies like Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark--which surpass us in terrestrial virtues like education, health, public generosity, per capita aid to the developing world, and low rates of violent crime and infant mortality--are of no interest to our electorate whatsoever. It is, of course, good to know that people like Reverend Wright occasionally do help the poor, feed the hungry, and care for the sick. But wouldn't it be better to do these things for reasons that are not manifestly delusional? Can we care for one another without believing that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and is now listening to our thoughts?

Yes we can...

Friday, March 21, 2008


Not Much of a Democracy

PERINO: So we believe that the president stood on his principle. He hasn't chased public opinion polls. He's aware of them, but he hasn't made decisions because of them, and I think there's a distinction. Just because you don't make decisions based on opinion polls doesn't mean you don't care what people think. We are all Americans. We care deeply about what people think.

REPORTER: The American people are being asked to die and pay for this, and you're saying they have no say in this war? ... [W]hat it amounts to is you saying we have no input at all.

PERINO: You had input. The American people have input every four years, and that's the way our system is set up.
And here:
The comment came in Amman, Jordan, during an interview with ABC News' Martha Raddatz, who prefaced a question to Cheney by saying, "Two-thirds of Americans say it's not worth fighting."

"So?" Cheney answered.

"So?" replied Raddatz. "You don't care what the American people think?"

"No," Cheney said. "I think you cannot be blown off course by the fluctuations in the public opinion polls."

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Nakbah Anniversary

I'm a day late marking the fifth anniversary of the Iraq invasion, but I can't let it pass without making a small effort to prevent the memory hole from becoming a black hole in which the very imperative of accountability disintegrates. I've said many times on this blog that the hawkish narrative about the Iraq War that things didn't go as expected in Iraq or the critics' narrative that the war is steeped in incompetence are both wildly incomplete. The former is a subtle attempt at forgetting inconvenient truths and precipitous reasoning, and the latter is flatly insufficient.

The fact remains that there was a clear choice about the invasion. One was supported by strong evidence, rational argument, reasonable conjecture, and - especially in hindsight, although they were well-informed at the time - accurate predictions. Combined with a reasonable prudence, demanded morally by any deliberations over war, all signs pointed away from an invasion as morally and politically sound policy. All of this went unheeded. The other version, supporting the invasion, was a fog of anger, propaganda, willful ignorance, wishful thinking, misinformation, bald deceit, petro-greed, and that curious Cold War legacy in Washington of perceiving the world as a gameboard in which the Middle East is prime property on which to place your tokens.

There are plenty of places to go to refresh the memory on the pre-war days, but I want to draw your attention to one in particular, Tony Karon's piece "Iraq, an American 'Nakbah'".

Also worth a look is Spencer Ackerman's piece here.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Mamey Sapote

Patriots of the Authoritarian Wing

I had unfortunately allowed myself the brief fantasy that race wouldn't matter in this election. No,... rather that race would understandably matter for many African Americans watching the first black candidate with a serious shot at the presidency (similarly with Clinton and gender) and, on the other hand, those remaining racists who have an aversion to a particular color and "culture" not like them. Even if I and many others think that Obama's speech yesterday was as good as a speech on race can be in the American political climate, ideological partisans nonetheless could apparently see nothing of merit in it. That's an extraordinary blindness.

But it's precisely that ideologically-driven, religiously fervent blindness that will increase volume in the general election. The Republicans are licking their lips in anticipation of accusing yet another decent person of a lack of the same level of patriotism they have apparently defined for everyone else, recognizable by its superficial symbols and maudlin expressions. The patriots of the authoritarian wing are incapable of nuanced and intelligent discussions of patriotism informed by histories that aren't their own. Their world is apparently one in which no one dissents, no one holds views other than their own, and no one can truck any difference. The mass media hivemind is equally incapable of such discussions. Combine these two elements and you have the core of the coming Republican strategy, as well as the further debasement of the public political discourse. Ultimately, that's also the antithesis of patriotism.
Now, with the emergence of the notorious video portraying Rev. Jeremiah Wright damning the country, criticizing Israel, faulting U.S. policy for the attacks of Sept. 11 and generally lashing out against white America, GOP strategists believe they’ve finally found an antidote to Obamamania.

In their view, the inflammatory sermons by Obama’s pastor offer the party a pathway to victory if Obama emerges as the Democratic nominee. Not only will the video clips enable some elements of the party to define him as unpatriotic, they will also serve as a powerful motivating force for the conservative base.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Dammed Climate Change Effects

Xinhua / Landov
Very interesting.
The oceans are on average about 6.3 inches (16 centimeters) higher now than in 1930, when they started a noticeable upward climb. Melting glaciers and ice caps, along with ocean warming—water expands as it heats up—are the main culprits behind the increase.

But the new study shows that reservoirs are also an important factor. Rather than adding to sea-level rise, however, they have counteracted it by storing more water on land.

Since 1930 the storage of water has prevented a total of about 1.2 inches (3 centimeters) of sea-level rise.

Without dams, sea levels would have risen 30 percent more than they already have, according to research led by Benjamin Chao of National Central University in Taiwan.

(Via Pruned - and check out the Pruned piece and Alex Trevi's selection of photos from Desire Paths).

The Capital of Israel

US Republican presidential candidate John McCain said on Tuesday that he supported Israel's claim to Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state.

"I support Jerusalem as the capital of Israel," McCain said in Jordan on the latest leg of a visit to the region.

I heard George W. Bush say the exact same thing by live video address in 2000 at a giant AIPAC dinner meeting (don't ask) in Washington, DC. Every Republican presidential candidate says this. Every election year AIPAC falls for it. It is part of the quadrennial peacock dance between the US and the Likud.

Iraqi Deaths

A very good analysis in The Guardian of the numbers on Iraq.

Alas for Bush and Blair, most statisticians do not support their case. Nor can any journalist or other independent witness who has seen the pain of the bereaved still living in post-invasion Iraq or the millions who have escaped to Jordan and Syria. Estimates of the Iraqi deaths caused by Saddam's regime amount to a maximum of one million over a 35-year period (100,000 Kurds in the Anfal campaign in the 1980s; 400,000 in the war against Iran; 100,000 Shias in the suppressed uprising of 1991; and an unknown number executed in his prisons and torture chambers). Averaged over his time in power, the annual rate does not exceed 29,000.

Only the conservatively calculated Iraq Body Count death toll credits the occupation with an average annual rate that is less than that - some 18,000 deaths in the five years so far. Every other source, from the WHO to the surveys of Iraqi households, puts the average well above the Saddam-era figure [ed. from a total of 100,000 to over one million]. Those who claim Saddam's toppling made life safer for Iraqis have a lot of explaining to do.

Deformed Conscience

Thoreau, of Unqualified Offerings:
The media doesn’t invite the Flat Earth Society to “discuss the controversy” every time they show a picture of the globe. They don’t invite a North Korean official to argue that his country isn’t a shithole when they want to do a story on North Korea. They don’t invite NAMBLA to offer an opposing perspective when somebody is accused of child molestation. And they don’t give a guest column in leading publications to a cheerleader for the Libyan regime. Yet when somebody wants to show up and argue that Iraq is a success story, that torture (fricking torture!) is OK, that unchecked executive power is just peachy, they invite that person onto the show and thank him. Instead of reporting the abuses of power they treat the apologists as honored guests...

...At some point you have to say that an idea has been sufficiently discredited that it’s time to move on and stop treating its proponents like the Serious People that they insist they are. As long as the worst ideas in circulation are treated as Serious, it’s impossible to hold their proponents accountable because what they do is not a crime but merely a controversial decision.
Yeah - there's a very good point here. But let me take this briefly in a somewhat different direction.

Consider that the prohibition of torture, for instance, is a basic peremptory norm (jus cogens) under international law (along with slavery, genocide, and others). Peremptory norms are the most fundamental norms of international conduct, and any normative stability that exists to international law in the absence of a global legal system and mechanisms for enforcing it. Peremptory norms are such that they are widely agreed and allow for no violation of the rule underlying the law. In other words, if there is anything institutional at the international level that functions like universally agreed morality it is jus cogens.

is what the US has violated and whose defenders the media trots into the public discourse as if that which is beyond law and morality has a place in the public discourse of a any decent society. The conscience of the polity, as a result, is deformed.

Obama's Race Speech

Brilliant. I'm saying this because it was the best speech on race - intelligent, nuanced, and rhetorically sparkling - perhaps since King and Malcolm. Because Obama gave a speech that no other politician would be courageous enough to touch, demonstrating again why he is far beyond the candidate and even person that Hillary Clinton and John McCain are. Because he just transcended the whole damn stupid discussion we've been having for the past few campaign weeks about "the race issue." And because this speech was not only a political speech intended to do campaign damage-control but a genuine and eloquent contribution to the deeper discussion of race and racism in the United States.

For the first time in my life, I have the opportunity to vote not simply for who can defeat the nominee from the other party - how John Kerry's candidacy felt for me - but the opportunity to elect a person who I truly want to become president.

Here's the video and text.


Andrew Sullivan
I have never felt more convinced that this man's candidacy - not this man, his candidacy - and what he can bring us to achieve - is an historic opportunity. This was a testing; and he did not merely pass it by uttering safe bromides. He addressed the intimate, painful love he has for an imperfect and sometimes embittered man. And how that love enables him to see that man's faults and pain as well as his promise. This is what my faith is about. It is what the Gospels are about. This is a candidate who does not merely speak as a Christian. He acts like a Christian.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Cornucopia of Sunday Links

Image: CCTV/Agence France-Presse
David Bromwich on "Euphemism and American Violence" in the NY Review of Books.
This complacency suggests a new innocence—the correlative in moral psychology of euphemism in the realm of language. And if you take stock of how little general discussion there has been of the advisability of pursuing the global war on terrorism, you realize that this country has scarcely begun to take stock of the United States as an ambiguous actor on the world stage. Those who said, in the weeks just after the September 11 attacks, that the motives of the terrorists might be traced back to some US policies in the Middle East were understandably felt to have spoken unseasonably. The surprising thing is that six and a half years later, when a politic reticence is no longer the sole order of the day, discussion of such matters is still confined to academic studies like Chalmers Johnson's Blowback and Robert A. Pape's Dying to Win,[3] and has barely begun to register in The New York Times, in The Washington Post, or on CNN or MSNBC. Ask an American what the United States may have to do with much of the world's hostility toward us and you will find educated people saying things like "They hate the West and resent modernity," or "They hate the fact that we're so free," or "They hate us because this is a country where a man and a woman can look at each other across a table with eyes of love." Indeed, the single greatest propaganda victory of the Bush administration may be the belief shared by most Americans that the rise of radical Islam—so-called Islamofascism— has nothing to do with any previous actions by the United States.
In the LA Times, Philip Jenkins on the possible rise of homegrown terrorism (and for ongoing discussion, see David Neiwert's tireless work at Orcinus).

At Foreign Policy TV, FBI interrogator Jack Cloonan on interrogation methods.

The riots in Tibet against Han Chinese rule are spreading to other provinces. Reporting and images are tightly controlled throughout the country. The Dalai Lama calls for an international investigation into the "cultural genocide" of Tibet.

Via Andrew Sullivan, World Politics notes that the Bush regime just became even more centralized,

In a move that seems to have flown under the radar, President Bush issued an Executive Order on Friday, February 29, that transformed the Clinton-era President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board into the President's Intelligence Advisory Board. The White House maintained that the board maintains its independence under the new order, but as a general rule, it's a safe bet to be skeptical of Executive Orders issued on a Friday.

Most of the changes made to the board's function remove the teeth from the board's oversight capacity, thereby consolidating the White House's control over intelligence oversight.

Shifting gears... Bill Reagan suggests presidential candidates ride the bus in order to get to know the US.
Commuter buses are cluttered with white collars, blue collars, suits, stoners, hippies, teenage parents, college kids and just about every other personality a casting agent could envision, and while it’s one thing to say, “I know there are other people in this city”, it’s quite another to sit thigh-to-thigh with them on a molded plastic seat. In our private lives we all tend to congregate with like-minded friends, which can cause us to forget that there are other types of people in the world, people whose values and manners are vastly different than our own: The bus is crowded with such reminders every day.
Guest writer, Alexandra Huddleston, reports on her Fulbright work in Mali at Whirled View. my last months in Timbuktu, I couldn’t walk half a block without an acquaintance waving, without a friend pausing to pass the time of day, or without the kids yelling “photo!” begging me to take their picture. Indeed, I learned what all citizens of the town knew: which back alleys to take if I was in a hurry, so I’d actually make a meeting on time, without too many cordial delays.
Ffffound image of the day:

The Eight Fundamentals of the Washington Consensus

Tom Engelhardt on the "Washington Consensus" on the Iraq War:
In mainstream Washington, hardly anyone has taken a step outside the box of conventional, inside-the-Beltway thinking about Iraq, which is why it's possible to imagine March 19, 2009 with some confidence. For them, the Washington consensus, such as it is, is the only acceptable one and the disagreements within it, the only ones worth having. And here are its eight fundamentals:

*A belief that effective U.S. power must invariably be based on the threat of, or use of, dominant force, and so must centrally involve the U.S. military.

*A belief that all answers of any value are to be found in Washington among the serried ranks of officials, advisors, former officials, pundits, think-tank operators, and other inside-the-Beltway movers and shakers, who have been tested over the years and found never to have a surprise in them. Most of them are notable mainly for having been wrong so often. This is called "experience."

*A belief that the critics of Washington policy outside Washington and its consensus are, at best, gadflies, never worth seriously consulting on anything.

*A belief that the American people, though endlessly praised in political campaigns, are know-nothings who couldn't think their way out of a proverbial paper bag when it comes to the supposedly arcane science of foreign policy, and so would certainly not be worth consulting on "national security" matters or issues involving the sacred "national interest," which is, in any case, the property of Washington. Like Iraqis and Afghans, the American people need good (or even not so good) shepherds in the national capital to answer that middle-of-the-night ringing phone and rescue them from impending harm. (The very foolishness of Americans can be measured by opinion polls which indicated that a majority of them had decided by 2005 that all American troops should be brought home from Iraq at a reasonable speed and that the U.S. should not have permanent military bases in that country.)

*A belief that no other countries (or individuals elsewhere) have anything significant or original to offer when it comes to solving problems like the situation in Iraq (unless, of course, they agree with us). They are to be ignored, insists the Bush administration, or, say leading Democrats, "talked to" and essentially corralled into signing onto, and carrying out, the solutions we consider reasonable.

*A belief that local peoples are incapable of solving their own problems without the intercession of, or the guiding hand (or Hellfire missile) of, Washington, which means, of course, of the U.S. military.

*A belief that the United States -- whatever the problem -- must be an essential part of the solution, not part of the problem itself.

*And finally, a belief (though no one would ever say this) that the lives of those children of George Bush's wars of choice, already of an age to be given their first lessons in global "realism," don't truly matter, not when the Great Game of geopolitics and energy is at stake.

Dead on.

Wright Links

  • Andrew Sullivan posts Jeremiah Wright's full "Audacity to Hope" sermon from 1990.
  • Obama's church accuse the media of character assassination.
  • Columbia Journalism Review points out - yet again - the double standard regarding media treatment of Obama's pastor and meida treatment of McCain's truly crazy "spiritual guide," Rod Parsley. Not to mention Pastor John Hagee. Frankly, Wright has said a few questionable things, at least for sensitive media and über-patriot tastes. But his criticisms are directed at actually existing problems. Parsley's and Hagee's agendas are far-right ideological programs against people not like them, often calling for the use of violence.
  • Jonathan Schwarz decides he kind of likes Wright.
  • Dennis Perrin says this:
Jeremiah Wright's supposedly inflammatory statements about 9/11 and the ongoing specter of racism are uncontroversial to those following the real world. We live in horrific, corrupt times, and while I don't agree with everything Wright says, he's certainly not speaking fiction, primarily when it comes to American foreign policy. We are hated not so much for our freedoms, such as they are, but specifically for our mass murder, our torture, our occupations. There are other, cultural elements that are part of the overall mix, yet they are doubtless secondary to those seeking refuge from our cluster bombs and client armies. Wright's sermons about reaping what you sow is nothing new, especially in the Christian tradition. But to hear cable chatters and assorted reactionaries tell it, such time-honored concepts don't apply to the United States. The God who watches over us and guides our trigger-happy hand excuses any and all slaughter committed in His Holy Name. He wouldn't have endorsed that song about how He blesses us were the opposite the case.

I've been pretty hard on the Obama campaign, and still am; but if anything would soften my view, it's this bullshit furor over Jeremiah Wright. If you are white and don't listen to black talk radio, now would be a good time to start. Wright's opinions are not deemed crazy there, and you'll hear much stronger denunciations of imperialism and racism than you ever will on a white liberal's show. Sure, some dementia is present: this is America, after all. But contrast the opinions exchanged between African-Americans to those expressed on the corporate kabuki programs, or worse, white reactionary broadcasts. Which do you think is closer to what's actually going on?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

A President With a Mind

The eminent legal scholar Cass Sunstein testifies in this Chicago Tribune article to Obama's strength as an intellect (via Sullivan).
In about 20 minutes, he and I investigated the legal details. He asked me to explore all sorts of issues: the president's power as commander in chief, the Constitution's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the Authorization for Use of Military Force and more.

Obama wanted to consider the best possible defense of what Bush had done. To every argument I made, he listened and offered a counterargument. After the issue had been exhausted, Obama said he thought the program was illegal, but now had a better understanding of both sides. He thanked me for my time...

This is the Barack Obama I have known for nearly 15 years -- a careful and evenhanded analyst of law and policy, unusually attentive to multiple points of view.

French Prejudice Towards Obama?

Jim Johnson at Politics, Theory and Photography posts this image that accompanies an article on the US presidential race in the French popular economics magazine Enjeux-Les Echos. The article is titled, "After Bush: Financial Crisis, Social Fragmentation, Immigration, Environment: Why America Must Reinvent Itself." (Jim translates it as "...should reinvent itself." That's wrong, and the difference is subtle, but perhaps meaningful. The conditional should would be "Pourquoi l'Amerique devrait...").

Jim, another blog (Lens Culture) from which he got the image, and the commentors at Jim's place all find the image patronizing, if not racist. I don't see it, and I commented as much at Jim's blog. One common interpretation seems to be that the image plays on the theme in the US political campaigns that Barack Obama is inexperienced and so on, and then rubs it in by portraying him as a boy, and even as a "boy," as Southerners interpret the term. That would be particularly offensive, but French readers or editors at least aren't likely to interpret the cover in those terms.

As for Jim, after comparing the image to earlier UNICEF images published in Germany (here) showing children in blackface, he says,
In this instance as in that, what seems troubling is less intention than thoughtlessness. That does not make the cover less troubling, it merely shifts the grounds for objecting to it.

At present we in the U.S. have what many consider the first serious black candidate contending for the presidency. We also have the first serious woman candidate contending for the position. The latter has repeatedly criticized the former on grounds that he is relatively 'inexperienced.' I myself think those charges are baseless at best. At less than best they trade on both fearmongering and on racist stereotypes of blacks as naive and childlike. This magazine cover, in my view, trades on precisely the same patronizing and paternalistic stereotypes.
We all agree that the Clinton campaign has made use of racist stereotypes. While this is execrable, I don't see how it's the issue here unless, perhaps, the editors of Enjeux-Les Echos are Clinton fans. Not having access to the actual article, I have to set that aside. I do read French newspapers regularly, and - anecdotally-speaking - I haven't gotten a sense that the subtle racist tweaking in the US campaign has seeped into the minds of French readers. That doesn't mean that the magazine isn't trying to create these themes; simply, that it would be difficult to say one way or the other. The comparison to the blackface images, however, sets up a further interpretation of the above cover not implicit in the image itself. (I wonder also whether the fact that this is a French magazine plays a role particularly in American interpretations.).

For example, if I show you this UNICEF-Germany image first:

And then I show you the magazine cover at the top of this post, your impression of the Après-Bush cover will be much different than if I show you the following image and then the Après-Bush cover.

Bracketing out the image comparisons, which do too much over-determining work on the original image in question, I see the Après-Bush image as saying something more like this: Boy=youth=future. Note that the commentors all focus primarily on the boy being black, not that he is primarily a boy, nor even an apparently patriotic boy. If we want to take particular notice of this boy being black, we might interpret the image as saying something like this: after Bush and his cronies, with all their disasters, the US has to move to a different vision of the future on a number of fronts. This future will be multiracial, multicultural because, after all, America is a pluralistic society. (Note also the patriotic buttons on the lapel. In a curious twist, Obama, remember, doesn't wear lapel flag pins and this has raised the hackles of the simpleton-patriots). I see the cover even as implying that Bush's vision of America was overly white or non-pluralistic. The contrast is with the Bush years, after all, and the man is hated worldwide. What do you see?

Apparently, the magazine article spends little time discussing Obama. But that might be unimportant in interpreting the image itself. Maybe Jim's right and the Après-Bush image plays on the stereotypes we're dealing with in the US campaign. I think the whole thing, however, raises a number of interesting issues, not only about our typical American manhandling of the role of race in American society and politics.

Many in the US aspire to "colorblindness" in American institutions. That's the very soul of American liberalism when it comes to racial identity, the core philosophical grounds of the American founders, even if their historical context was one of slavery and overt racism. The logic of the liberalism of "all men are created equal," is more powerful than the historically contingent nature of Jim Crow. But Americans do have that terrible history that required not only the prohibition of slavery, but also a civil rights movement nearly 200 years after the inception of the country. Today, even if we're not racists, all of our perceptions of races different than our own and the issue of race itself are colored by that history. The colorblindness of the liberal institutional ideal is nevertheless enmeshed in a history colored in glaring hues. Apart from a few superficial biological distinctions like color, race is largely a cultural construct, after all. But cultures and histories are powerful things and, crucially, provide the background framework through which we interpret the world, for better and worse. This is ineluctable. With some hard work, we reshape and reconstruct bits and pieces of that background framework in the face of contingent events, experience, learning, and so on. The US, like many countries, has inherited a terrible part of its history that is taking and will take a long time to overcome.

What's fascinating about the case of this particular image is that the interpretations and discussion are built upon another axis as well. This is a French magazine. The US has just gone through a period in which the public discourse was filled with expressions and images of hatred towards the French as an entire people (the same dynamic as racism). On the other hand, the French have just gone through a period of suffering that abuse, while at the same time very often being guilty of their own insulting stereotypes of Americans. We all peel one layer of scales from our eyes only to find another.

The Economist

Dani Rodrik, the economist, on why he doesn't read The Economist.
Call it a one-man boycott of ideology that masquerades too often as journalism.


Friday, March 14, 2008

Climate Change and Saving the Grandkids

An economist discusses the kinds of economistic arguments about climate change that you might expect from some quarters, almost always American. That is, if short-term costs exceed longer-term benefits, then mitigation and adaptation efforts are probably not worth it. Screw the grandkids.

Assuming our grandchildren’s welfare is just as valuable as our own provides a metric to measure the value of investments for the future: devoting X percent of the current generation’s income to forestall global warming would be a good deal if it produced a benefit amounting to more than X percent of that future generation’s income.

Such notions of intergenerational equity underpin the 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, a British study that marked a turning point in the debate, stressing the enormous cost of delaying preventive action. It projected that avoiding large-scale environmental damage, starting in the second half of this century, justified starting to spend immediately 1 percent of the world’s income — about $700 billion this year — to cut carbon emissions.

However, farsightedness, as in saving for a rainy day, went out of fashion a long time ago. People often sacrifice the future to the present. We may love our children and grandchildren. But since they can’t vote, we stiff them in the public sphere: poverty is deeper among children than the elderly, yet public spending on the elderly vastly outstrips spending on the young. In Florida, “I’m spending my children’s inheritance” is a popular bumper sticker. Even among very green Western Europeans, polls show that the older people get, the less they are willing to pay to reduce carbon emissions....

Skeptics have used these arguments to make a case against aggressive efforts to address global warming. A group of respected, mainly American economists signed the so-called Copenhagen Consensus, stating that efforts to address global warming, such as the Kyoto Protocol, had “costs that were likely to exceed the benefits.” It was better to spend money on some of the world’s other pressing problems.

Of course, if the costs exceed the benefits of, say, genuinely trying to solve global hunger, or to eradicate malaria, or to ensure clean water, then they're not worth doing either. These "pressing problems" hardly ever end up pressing enough to fit cost-benefit schemes because many of the values in question cannot be captured in quantitative terms, or because certain human lives are discounted vis-à-vis other human lives. The future - given rising uncertainty the further we go into it - is always discounted vis-à-vis the present. So, the general climate change argument, depending as it does on some sense of responsibility to the future, faces an uphill battle from the get-go if our only tool of analysis is cost-benefit. That battle is simply assumed into the models.

The author of the piece suggests this at the end,
The best case for bold action now is that it provides insurance against the chance of an unfathomably grim future of large-scale environmental disruption, widespread species extinction, worldwide hunger. All of that might come to pass if the world chooses to do nothing. Averting that kind of future is worth quite a lot of investment today.
But how does that serve as a reason for economists, the ones who have an inordinately (and unjustifiably) tight grasp over policy questions in the US government? It doesn't. The disaster scenario has a fairly high level of plausibility, specious accusations against supposed liberal, environmental fear-mongering notwithstanding (here and here and here, for example). These people use the language of "environmentalists are..." when what is really meant - though they may not know it themselves - is "a few of my straw man environmentalists are...." Good arguments depend upon charitableness towards opponents' views - none of these come close. The real philosophical, ethical, scientific, and even economic debates are more sophisticated, complex, and momentous.

The author of the present article, in the end, makes a series of ethical claims. We can attach economic importance to them - environmental disruption also entails economic losses - but they are nonetheless primarily ethical. Yet, here we are, generally poor deliberators, having subsumed ethical deliberation under the category of diminishing investment returns for so long that we've impoverished our own capacity to try make sense of and wise decisions about the future. And that's really odd because without a robust future, whether short or long term, our lives are pretty pointless.

Rawls on Baseball

Yes, the great philosopher makes a few observations about the great game.
...the rules of the game are in equilibrium: that is, from the start, the diamond was made just the right size, the pitcher’s mound just the right distance from home plate, etc., and this makes possible the marvelous plays, such as the double play. The physical layout of the game is perfectly adjusted to the human skills it is meant to display and to call into graceful exercise. Whereas, basketball, e.g., is constantly (or was then) adjusting its rules to get them in balance.

Obama's Mom

Here's a lovely little article in the IHT on Barack Obama's mother. What an interesting woman. And note not only what she accomplished and thought, but also the historical context in which she did it.