Saturday, May 31, 2003
THE SCHOLAR-BLOGGER REPORT: The Chronicle of Higher Education has a story on scholar-bloggers. Yours truly is quoted, but Daniel Urmann easily has the best line in whole piece.

There's also a good list of academic blogs at the end.

UPDATE: Kieran Healy has some additional thoughts, including a good-natured jab at my colleague Jacob Levy.

Two additional points. First, compared to a some of the reporters I've dealt with, I was pleased to see that my words weren't distorted in the Chronicle piece. Thank you, David Glenn.

Second, I think the piece underemphasizes the scholarly reason for blogging. Picking apart the scholarship of a Michael Bellesiles or a John Lott is a rare occurrence. More important is the way blogs can engage an audience outside the small world of students and colleagues. At their best, scholar blogs can function as what Hayek called "second-order intellectuals," applying abstruse theories to real-world problems. They can open a window on the inner workings of ivory tower, debunking stereotypes of academics as detached from the real world.

At their worst, no one reads them and you get denied tenure for engaging in such base pursuits.
DYNAMIST ON FIRE: Virginia Postrel has a passel of new posts up, all of which are good reads. My personal favorite, however, is her takedown of Bill O'Reilly:

Contrary to his image as some kind of conservative ideologue, O'Reilly is just a long-winded cab driver with a TV show and no real interest in policy, ideas, or facts.

Ouch. She even has a link to empirical evidence supporting the long-winded charge.

UPDATE: More trouble for O'Reilly (link via OxBlog)

Friday, May 30, 2003
REGARDING INCOME INEQUALITY: OK, my take on the income inequality situation. [What the hell took you so long?--ed. Sorry, the teaching and research are more time-consuming at the moment.] This will probably be a letdown after talking about it for so long. I have three basic points:

1) Measuring static inequality is in some ways unfair, since the question is whether individuals and families experience upward mobility over time. This Urban Institute report has some valuable background information on the question of mobility vis-a-vis inequality. The money graf:

[S]tudies of relative mobility have produced remarkably consistent results, with regard to both the degree of mobility and the extent of changes in mobility over time. Mobility in the United States is substantial according to this evidence. Large proportions of the population move into a new income quintile, with estimates ranging from about 25 to 40 percent in a single year. As one would expect, the mobility rate is even higher over longer periods—about 45 percent over a 5-year period and about 60 percent over both 9-year and 17-year periods. (emphasis added).

Furthermore, this lengthier Urban Institute report contains an interesting tidbit from a 1992 Treasury Department study on mobility during the 1980s, which was a decade in which by static measures the rich got richer and the poor got poorer:

The Treasury study uses income tax return data between 1979 and 1988, tracking the adjusted gross income of a group of households that paid income taxes in all ten years examined. The study finds that 86 percent of individuals who were in the bottom quintile in 1979 had moved up by 1988. An individual in the bottom quintile in 1979, in fact, was more likely in 1988 to be found in the top quintile than in the bottom one. (emphasis added)

Does this vitiate Kevin's argument? No, not really. If you read the report, it turns out that income mobility in the U.S. is not appreciably different than it is in, say, Scandanavia. Furthermore, mobility has not changed as income inequality has increased -- if anything, mobility has shrunk for those without a college education. Still, an implicit implication of those who fret about rising inequality is that such a rise will lead to greater class stratification -- and that's not happening.

2) So, if we stipulate that income inequality is rising, is this squeezing out the middle class and the poor? The answer is no. If you care only about income, the poorest percentage of the population made great strides during the late nineties, completely erasing any losses from the previous twenty years. Business Week pointed this out in an April 2002 story. Some key grafs:

Real wage gains for private-sector workers averaged 1.3% a year, from the beginning of the expansion in March, 1991, to the apparent end of the recession in December, 2001. That's far better than the 0.2% annual wage gain in the 1980s business cycle, from November, 1982, to March, 1991. The gains were also better distributed than in the previous decade. Falling unemployment put many more people to work and swelled salaries across the board: Everyone from top managers to factory workers to hairdressers benefited. Indeed, the past few years have been "the best period of wage growth at the bottom in the last 30 years," says Lawrence F. Katz, a labor economist at Harvard University....

What's more, workers with a wide range of skills and occupations thrived over the past decade. In the '80s business cycle, real wages of blue-collar and service workers fell substantially. Blue-collar wages, for example, declined by 3.5% from 1982 to 1991. But in the '90s, real wages for these less-skilled jobs rose by 12%. Full-time cashiers saw their median weekly earnings jump by 11% (adjusted for inflation), while auto mechanics' pay went up by 14%, after falling sharply in the 1980s. Hairdressers got an almost 18% boost. That's despite Clinton-era welfare reform and a huge influx of immigrants, both of which were expected to hold down wages at the bottom. [Not to mention claims that economic globalization would cause a race to the bottom in wages]....

It's important to step back and quantify how the productivity gains of the 1990s were distributed. Consider nonfinancial corporations, where annual productivity growth accelerated from less than 1.8% in the 1980s to 2.2% in the 1990s. Over the course of the 1990s business cycle, this increase in added productivity translated into $812 billion in additional output, measured in 2001 dollars. Out of that sum, an astounding $806 billion--or 99%--went to workers in the form of more jobs and higher compensation, including exercised stock options. In effect, not only did the economy speed up in the 1990s but the workers got a bigger share of the pie.

So, the rich may be getting richer, but this is not at the expense of the poor. It's also worth pointing out that even though income inequality is rising, but as Mickey Kaus loves to point out, poverty has fallen over the past 20 years -- though not in a linear fashion. The decline in poverty was more pronounced among African-Americans than the rest of the population, by the way.

3) OK, so rising inequality is not causing an absolute drop in poor families. Still as Kevin argues in an e-mail, increasing inequality means that, "people who successfully move into the middle class are moving into a class that's not as good as it was for their parents, relatively speaking."

Actually, I'd argue the reverse -- more people are enjoying a middle class that's, on the whole, better off that prior generations. Consider two basic staples of a "middle class" lifestyle -- a college education and home ownership. This table shows that between 1980 and 2000, the percentage of all Americans aged 18-24 enrolled in a college or university increased by 40%. A greater fraction of Americans are receiving the college education so necessary for achieving a higher income. Furthermore, this fraction is considerably higher than any other OECD nation except for Canada (click here for some basic cross-national comparisons on education).

What about home ownership? This web site points out that home ownership rates have been steadily rising over the past decade. In 2001, 67.8% of American households owned their home -- the highest rate of home ownership since the Census Bureau began reporting these statistics in 1965.

But what about other quality-of-life issues, like crime, health, safety, and the environment? Gregg Easterbrook wrote a great New Republic piece in January 1999 demonstrating that on every social indicator imaginable, things were improving across the board for ordinary Americans over the past twenty years.

Calpundit's original point was that the distribution of benefits from economic growth over the past 20 years was skewed too much towards the rich. However, the fact remains that the rest of the population has received substantial benefits during the same period.

Furthermore, Americans don't begrudge the rich getting richer. Part of this has to do with the aforementioned mobility -- part of it is probably due to a greater discomfort in the U.S. to income redistribution than in other OECD countries. David Brooks makes this point repatedly (click here and here). His main point:

Income resentment is not a strong emotion in much of America.

If you earn $125,000 a year and live in Manhattan, certainly, you are surrounded by things you cannot afford. You have to walk by those buildings on Central Park West with the 2,500-square-foot apartments that are empty three-quarters of the year because their evil owners are mostly living at their other houses in L.A.

But if you are a middle-class person in most of America, you are not brought into incessant contact with things you can't afford. There aren't Lexus dealerships on every corner. There are no snooty restaurants with water sommeliers to help you sort though the bottled eau selections. You can afford most of the things at Wal-Mart or Kohl's and the occasional meal at the Macaroni Grill. Moreover, it would be socially unacceptable for you to pull up to church in a Jaguar or to hire a caterer for your dinner party anyway. So you are not plagued by a nagging feeling of doing without.

Brooks, by the way, is hardly the first person to make this point about Americans.

Economic growth over the past 20 years was a Pareto-optimizing move. It's not clear to me that the income from the richest 5% could have been redirected towards the poorest 20% without some deadweight loss in income. And given that the lower and middle classes have substantially benefited from the 1980-2000 economic boom, and their lack of resentment towards those who are perceived to have benefited disproportionately, it seems pointless to argue ex post that there should have been a greater focus on redistribution.

UPDATE: A comment on Arnold Kling's blog points out -- correctly -- the criticisms of the Treasury study that I cite above. I still cited it because the study does address the question of class stratification -- i.e., whether, over time, individuals and households do see natural rises in income due to increased work experience.

Thursday, May 29, 2003
TUNE IN TOMORROW: I really meant to get to the question of rising income inequality in the United States today, but I'm just swamped. In the meantime, more contributions on the debate from Stephen Karlson, John Quiggin, Yankee Blog, and Kevin Drum redux.
THE MERITS OF AMERICAN DIPLOMACY: Critics of U.S. foreign policy tend to focus on the statements/actions of policy principals (i.e., cabinet secretaries) and their immediate deputies. However, a signal virtue of U.S. diplomacy is the ingrained habit of trusting subordinates to innovate and adapt to local circumstances, and then copying those innovations when they work. This is true even in the most centralized and hierarchical foreign policy organization -- the U.S. military.

Two examples. The first should make the guys at OxBlog happy. According to the Chicago Tribune, in Afghanistan the U.S. military has modified its position on how to deal with incidents that lead to civilian causalties:

One night last month, an American bomb killed all of Mawiz Khan's children.....

The U.S. military says it is not liable for death and damage suffered by civilians in combat. Publicly, it says it does not compensate families for the deaths of relatives, even in cases like the one in Shkin, when the bombing was a result of American mistakes.

Yet here, U.S. military officers did something they have rarely, if ever, done in Afghanistan. They went to Mawiz Khan's house, apologized and promised to rebuild it, relatives and Afghan officials say.

"They came and visited, about 40 people including the Americans, and they said, `Please forgive us,'" Khan said. "I said, `What can I do? I am not a powerful man. I forgive you. That's all I can do. It's already happened. It's over. It's finished.'"

The apology represents a subtle shift in the way American forces are dealing with civilian casualties here, 19 months after the U.S.-led coalition began bombing Afghanistan. No longer are the dead labeled collateral damage. Quietly, the U.S. government is searching for ways to win back those who have suffered--by rebuilding their homes and villages, giving them money and gifts or simply expressing condolences.

"It is a big change," said Mohammad Ali Paktiawal, governor of Paktika province, where the Shkin bombing occurred.

Another example is the extent to which local commanders in Iraq are fostering the beginning tendrils of democratic institutions. First it was Mosul -- now it's Kirkuk:

Voting in an election that U.S. officials are calling an early but significant step in the democratization of Iraq, a council of community leaders selected Abdulrahman Mustafa, a mild-mannered lawyer, as the interim leader of Kirkuk, a vital oil town plagued by conflict between Arabs and Kurds.

The landmark poll took place even as U.S. intelligence reports indicate that high-level fugitives from Hussein's crumbled regime--including figures on Washington's list of 55 most wanted Iraqis--may be hiding out on boats southwest of the city, on an isolated tributary of the Tigris River.

"I believe this is a true historic moment for Kirkuk," Army Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the commander of the 4th Infantry Division, told an auditorium filled with delegates after the often-raucous election. "For the first time in nearly 30 years, you have the new freedom to determine your future."

The 4th Infantry Division organized the vote as part of a U.S. program to return a degree of political control to the Iraqi people as a means of preparing the country for national elections and as an escape valve for anti-U.S. sentiments.

Such makeshift experiments in democracy have been carried out in Mosul, Basra and a handful of other major Iraqi cities, with mixed success.

Both of these examples are small steps. They'll probably have a mixed record of success. However, actions like these by local foreign policy operators are a key way in which the wellspring of successful American foreign policy is constantly replenished.

Wednesday, May 28, 2003
A ROILING DEBATE ON INEQUALITY IN THE BLOGOSPHERE: David Adesnik, Kieran Healy, and Kevin Drum are having an intellectual smackdown on the growth in income inequality in the United States over the past two decades and what to make of it. To recap:

Kevin Drum is arguing that the poor are not getting their fair share of the increasing economic pie:

It's one thing to say that the rich have most of the money — after all, that's the whole point of being rich. But it's quite another to say that as our country grows ever more prosperous, the rich should actually grow richer at a faster rate than anyone else.

David Adesnik responds to Drum's post by pointing out the following:

one can make a strong case that an unequal distribution is (a) the natural outcome of market interactions and (b) especially likely given the United States' recent transition from an industrial to a service-based economy.

Kieran Healy responds to Adesnik. His key point:

Look at the comparative cases —- other advanced capitalist democracies don’t have nearly as much wealth inequality as the U.S., and the U.S. itself for most of its history didn’t have such severe inequities either. So it’s hard to argue that the changes we’ve seen over the past 25 years are simply a matter of the Iron Laws of the Market.

David Adesnik responds here and here.

I'll be posting my thoughts on this debate tomorrow. In the meantime, read all of their posts.

UPDATE: More posts to read on the subject, from Dan Simon, Robert Tagorda, and -- a bit tangentially -- Matthew Yglesias.

DOES MEXICO CITY MAKE SENSE?: My Chicago School companion Jacob Levy argues that the Bush administration's Mexico City of prohibiting "U.S. government funding of any organization that performs abortions or advocates for the liberalization of abortion laws in other countries" is incoherent.

He's got a good argument. Go check it out.
Tuesday, May 27, 2003
BLOGGERS ON THE WARPATH: Josh Marshall is all over Tom DeLay's role in the Texas redistricting case; Mickey Kaus is all over the New York Times' latest embarrassment involving Rick Bragg and the reliance by Times reporters on stringers.

I don't have much to add to Marshall's reporting, except this link to a Chicago Tribune piece on a similar anomalous redistricting taking place on Colorado.

As for the Times imbroglio, Glenn Reynolds, Charles Murtaugh, and Jonah Goldberg all observe that one fallout from the Bragg affair is that prominent columnists are starting to acknowledge the work of their minions -- I mean, research assistants.

If this trend takes hold, there's going to be a veeeerrrrryyyy interesting revolution in today's op-ed pages. It is common knowledge that op-eds and essays attributed to prominent people are usually not written by them, but rather by their minions/flunkies/research assistants (go to the chapter on intellectual life in David Brooks' inestimable BoBos in Paradise for the best description of this part of the knowledge economy). It will be interesting to see if more of these kinds of essays are now explicitly rather than implicitly co-authored.

If so, good for the broad spectrum of twentysomethings with Georgetown BAs and Masters from SAIS who finally earn some recognition. However, Richard Posner makes a provocative point -- that plagiarism in its myriad forms is a venial and not a mortal sin:

copying with variations is an important form of creativity, and this should make us prudent and measured in our condemnations of plagiarism.

Especially when the term is extended from literal copying to the copying of ideas. Another phrase for copying an idea, as distinct from the form in which it is expressed, is dissemination of ideas. If one needs a license to repeat another person's idea, or if one risks ostracism by one's professional community for failing to credit an idea to its originator, who may be forgotten or unknown, the dissemination of ideas is impeded....

The concept of plagiarism has expanded, and the sanctions for it, though they remain informal rather than legal, have become more severe, in tandem with the rise of individualism. Journal articles are no longer published anonymously, and ghostwriters demand that their contributions be acknowledged.

Individualism and a cult of originality go hand in hand. Each of us supposes that our contribution to society is unique rather than fungible and so deserves public recognition, which plagiarism clouds.

This is a modern view. We should be aware that the high value placed on originality is a specific cultural, and even field-specific, phenomenon, rather than an aspect of the universal moral law.

I'm still not convinced that Posner is correct -- but I am convinced that the blogosphere will strongly resist Posner's assertion. We traffic in the very ideas that Posner discusses. To us, any theft of our ideas is a theft of our intellectual progeny. To the general public, however, it matters not a whit.

Monday, May 26, 2003
POSTWAR PRESSURE ON ISRAEL, REDUX: Great article in Ha'aretz describing the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments among Israel's ultra-conservatives after the Israeli cabinet's decision to accept the "steps" of the road map -- which means accepting the concept of an independent Palestinian state in the occupied territories. The key grafs:

Less than a month ago, analytical Israeli hawks, buoyed by President George W. Bush's Six Week War victory in Iraq, his sympathy for Israel's battle against terrorism, his neoconservative advisers, his pro-Israel power bases among fundamentalist Christians and Jews in key states, as well as the pressures of a coming election year, began to take confidence in the possibilty that the road map could be delayed into oblivion.

Nonetheless, for some on the right, the interminable process of putting off the road map seemed flawed, the idea that it would simply go away like its modest predecessors the Tenet and Mitchell plans, too good to be true.

This week, the boom fell.

Going farther than any previous government in formally endorsing the concept of Palestinian statehood , the cabinet Sunday gave a qualified but high-profile endorsement to the road map, which provides for an independent Palestine in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip by 2005.

Shellshocked hawks were at a loss to explain how Israel's most rightwing government had taken the most left-leaning bedrock policy decision in the history of the Jewish state.

Analysts said the vote, in which Sharon, the progenitor of the system of settlements and for decades Israel's best-known hawk, bordered on a revolution in Israel.

At the same time, "for the settlers and their supporters, the cabinet's acceptance of the road map is an earthquake," says Haaretz commentator Nadav Shragai. "When Yesha Council members say 'the road map is worse than Oslo,' they mean every word, without exaggeration."

This really should not have been a surprise -- it's a replay of Gulf War I. After the 1991 war, the Bush administration recognized the need to move forward on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and forced a Likud government into accepting the Madrid conference, which helped paved the way to Oslo.

One disturbing difference is the relative power of the settlers in the occupied territories -- they are simply a larger constituency now than before. Here's more from Ha'aretz:

Longtime Yesha Council official and former MK Elyakim Haetzni, a Hebron resident, blasted the cabinet vote an act of "national treason" and a "national catastrophe." It was a historic day "in the same sense that the Destruction of the Temple was historic," Haetzni said....

Asked about apparent majority backing for the road map, Haetzni shocked Israelis by telling state-owned radio:

"Yes, of course. And the Jews also willingly boarded those trains [to the Nazi concentration camps], believing everything that the Germans told them. The Jews are a people which is very dangerous to itself. It is a people that has brought Holocausts down on itself throughout the course of its history.

Haetzni, it developed, was only warming up. "It is a people that has extraordinary powers of construction, and extraordinary powers of destruction. It builds and destroys, and this is an intrinsic part of Sharon's personality - Sharon is the greatest builder that we have had, and the greatest destroyer. Today he is in a destruction phase."....

For some Israelis, Haetzni's strident anti-government tone, echoed by a range of far-right demonstrators and groups, posed dangers not only of a volatile, ugly split on the Israeli right, but of dangers to the society at large.

Friday, May 23, 2003
CUE "THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA" MUSIC: This is just so cool (link via Drudge)
AFGHANISTAN UPDATE: Last month I was very pessimistic about the situation in Afghanistan.

This month, Steve Verdon argues that U.S. efforts to create a semblance of an infrastructure in Afghanistan are being overlooked by the media. He's got a point. This Baltimore Sun story, for example, has the headline, "IN KANDAHAR, SLOW PROGRESS," while containing the following graf:

Since the Taliban's fall in 2001, Afghan exiles and refugees have been slowly returning, giving the city a new vibrancy. New shops and restaurants are open, and women walk the streets alone, unescorted by male relatives as required by the Taliban. Once-forbidden music blares from alleys, and movie DVDs are on sale.

If you read the story, it's clear that most of the city's problems date back decades. Efforts to create a national police force, rebuild roads, help malnourished children, and voter registration are proceeding apace. India and Afghanistan just signed a preferential trading agreement.

However, the key political problem remains the lack of central authority and persistence of low-level violence. On this front, one can point to limited progress. This week, for example, local governors pledged to transfer more tax and customs revenue to the central government of Hamid Karzai. And the Washington Post reports that Karzai has relieved Aburrashid Dostum, one of the most opportunistic warlords in Afghanistan, from his regional post.

However, several grains of salt are in order. As the Economist notes:

[T]he governors had little to lose. Mr Karzai has no power to enforce the agreement, let alone to collect back taxes, or even to work out how much is actually being raked in at remote border posts by often corrupt officials. Mr Karzai said that the customs money would help boost central-government revenues from a pathetic $80m last year (excluding foreign aid) to $600m next year. Not likely, say observers close to the finance ministry. Several of the governors, notably Ismail Khan in the west and Abdul Rashid Dostum in the north, will still have the power to skim off what they see fit, albeit a bit less than before. After all, they need the money, not least in order to pay for their extensive private armies. Mr Khan's alone is tens of thousands strong, far outnumbering on its own the national army that Mr Karzai is trying to build.

And the Post story notes the following on Dostum:

Attah Mohammad [an ethnic Tajik militia leader whose forces frequently clash with Dostum's] had asked Karzai to relocate Dostum to Kabul rather than let him return to the north. But Dostum will be allowed to stay in the north, where he maintains a militia force numbering in the thousands, and advise Karzai on military and security affairs from afar

There are also reports that Al Qaeda is reconstituting itself in Afghanistan.

To sum up: progress slow, security still a problem.


Thursday, May 22, 2003
IDIOT OF THE WEEK: That award goes to Tarrytown Village Justice William Crosbie. From the Associated Press (link via OxBlog)

An Arab-American woman who was in court to fight a parking ticket fainted when the judge asked her if she was a terrorist.

Anissa Khoder, 46, has filed a complaint with the state Commission on Judicial Conduct over the May 15 incident before Tarrytown Village Justice William Crosbie.

Crosbie, 79, confirmed this week that he made the remark but said he was "probably kidding with her." He denied her claim that he also accused her of financially supporting terrorists....

Anissa Khoder told The Journal News that when her name was called, the judge asked if she was a terrorist. She said she was offended but kept that to herself.

She claimed that after giving the judge her explanation for why the tickets should be dismissed, "He said something like, 'You have money to support the terrorists, but you don't want to pay the ticket.' I could not believe I was hearing that."

Now, let's go to the Journal News story -- which has much more detail and explains the absence of corroboration -- and get Crosbie's side of the story:

Crosbie yesterday confirmed that he made the initial comment, asking Khoder if she were a terrorist, and acknowledged that it "may have been inappropriate." But he denied saying anything further regarding terrorism....

Interviewed at his home yesterday, Crosbie said he could not recall the exact sequence of his exchange with Khoder. He said he thought he asked her if she were a terrorist when she moved toward his desk and seemed to wave her hands after giving her explanation about the tickets. He said that he did not find the movement threatening in any way and, when pressed about why he would bring up terrorism at that moment, said he wasn't sure.

"I was probably kidding with her in the beginning," Crosbie said. "Sometimes, you just pose that question to people. I don't know what I based it on."

Sigh. It could be worse, I guess -- he could be working for the Office of Homeland Security.

For more stories on the episode, click here for Reuters and here for Channel 12 news.

Wednesday, May 21, 2003
THESE DEMOCRATS GET IT: Remember that Democrats for National Security web site that I mentioned last week? It's creator, Timothy Bergreen, has an op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal with Donna Brazile. The key grafs:

Mr. Clinton's victory in 1992 convinced many Democrats that the Republican advantage on national security was no longer consequential. But the 1992 campaign was an exception--Mr. Clinton's election took place in the context of post-Cold War euphoria over the "end of history," with politicians salivating over the prospects of a "peace dividend."

Democrats have yet to fully comprehend the new reality of the post-Sept. 11 world. While most Americans viewed the war in Iraq through the prism of the Twin Towers attacks, many prominent Democrats still seem not to grasp the profound sense of insecurity that so many people feel in our country. This unease is especially pronounced among women, who have been a cornerstone of our party's strength and without whom we cannot hope to win back the White House or Congress.

What I find particularly interesting here is the transformation of Donna Brazile. In past campaigns, Brazile was a partisan's partisan, making some extremely inflammatory comments towards Colin Powell and George Bush Sr. Now, she's on the board of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and bashing Dukakis in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Drezner's Assignment to Beltway bloggers: Explain Brazile's turnaround -- is it a change of heart or a change of tactics?

UPDATE: Greg Whyte thinks it's tactics -- Josh Marshall thinks its genuine.

Robert Tagorda thinks it's a combination of the two. He's got a ton of links on Brazile as well.

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, 1997-2003: I'm in mourning today, as my favorite television series ever went off the air last night.

I could try to explain why I loved the show so much, but I suspect it would come off as flat. I can link like crazy, however.

For reviews of the final episode, Salon raves while Slate pans.

CNN provides a wealth of back story for the uninitiated. Connie Ogle has an excellent essay of why Buffy was so good. Jonathan Last has a great overview of his top-ten favorite episodes. Joyce Millman has an exhaustive archive of odes to Buffy in Salon. The best ones are here and here. And don't miss Slayage: The Online Journal of Buffy Studies, including this exhaustive academic bibliography of scholarship devoted to the Buffyverse. [Isn't that all a bit pretentious?--ed. Go read this Stephanie Zacharek article on the phenomenon from a non-academic perspective. And then read this Rita Kempley piece on why Buffy is so appealing to theologians]

The Parents Television Council labeled Buffy the least family-friendly show of 2001-2 -- and I must admit, their description of the show is pretty dead-on in terms of its potentially objectionable material. However, it's telling that Christianity Today praised the show's use of such material:

[S]ometimes it isn't enough merely to list the contents in a show or a book to determine its merit. How a taboo topic is dealt with can be just as important. In Buffy, the "how" is intriguing because of the show's honest portrayal of consequences....

What saves the show is its realistic grounding. Sure, it's about a skinny girl who throws demons around, but the writing honestly depicts how individuals struggle in their lives. Characters make mistakes and sin but pay consequences and change over time. In this way, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has consistently confronted human suffering and addressed compelling themes.

When a television show earns cultural praise from Christianity Today,The American Prospect, National Review Online (though they hated the finale), FHM Magazine, Reason (according to Virginia Postrel) and the New York Times editorial page, you know you're talking about something that cannot be reduced to a whiff of transient pop culture -- you're talking about a pathbreaking work of art.

I'll close with two quotes. The first is from an Onion interview with the show's creator, Joss Whedon:

I designed the show to create that strong reaction. I designed Buffy to be an icon, to be an emotional experience, to be loved in a way that other shows can't be loved. Because it's about adolescence, which is the most important thing people go through in their development, becoming an adult. And it mythologizes it in such a way, such a romantic way—it basically says, "Everybody who made it through adolescence is a hero." And I think that's very personal, that people get something from that that's very real. And I don't think I could be more pompous. But I mean every word of it. I wanted her to be a cultural phenomenon. I wanted there to be dolls, Barbie with kung-fu grip. I wanted people to embrace it in a way that exists beyond, "Oh, that was a wonderful show about lawyers, let's have dinner." I wanted people to internalize it, and make up fantasies where they were in the story, to take it home with them, for it to exist beyond the TV show.

The second is from Zacharek again, capturing how I'm feeling today:

[T]here have been many days when, after a particularly potent "Buffy" episode, I've found myself feeling vaguely off my game, my mind clouded with a gauzy, muted sense of dread. When a show jostles your equilibrium to the point of haunting your days or robbing you of sleep, when it finds a place in your imagination that also rubs, hard, at the core of who you think you really are, it starts to look like something more than what we simply call TV.

Mission accomplished, Joss.

Tuesday, May 20, 2003
AL QAEDA'S CURRENT STRENGTH(?): The attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, combined with the Bush administration's deliberations about raising the terror warning, prompts media reports that Al Qaeda is back in strength.

However, some reflection is in order. The AP reports that the Morocco attack suffered from some poor execution:

The suicide bombers attacked a Jewish community center when it was closed and empty. A day later, the building would have been packed.

Another attacker blew himself up near a fountain, killing three Muslims. He apparently mistook it for one near a Jewish cemetery not far away. The cemetery was undamaged.

These and other miscalculations indicate that the 14 suicide attackers who killed 28 people in Casablanca in five near-simultaneous assaults Friday were not as well-trained as first believed. One attacker survived and was arrested....

A high-level Moroccan official said that investigators suspect the bombings were the work of homegrown Islamic groups working on instructions from Al Qaeda.

This fact, combined with evidence that the Saudi attack was hastily arranged, suggests that Al Qaeda is more dependent than ever on its local affiliates, who are of varying degrees of quality in terms of their competence. The BBC has more:

But if al-Qaeda is still in business, it is not the al-Qaeda of 11 September 2001.

It has lost its base in Afghanistan. Thousands of suspected members have been arrested. Millions of dollars in assets have been frozen.

Although Bin Laden himself is probably still alive, about a third of his senior officials have been killed or captured.

All this has forced the organisation to change....

Local affiliates, which always had a certain degree of autonomy, may now be working on their own initiative.

Above all, al-Qaeda seems to have adapted to the fact that, for the moment at least, it is no longer able to hit high-profile Western targets.

If it was involved in last week's suicide attacks, as seems likely, then it is now focusing on "soft" targets in Muslim countries - rather than better protected ones in the West.

For al-Qaeda, this has a downside. In the latest attacks Muslims were among the dead and wounded, even if they were not the main targets.

This has shocked many Muslims around the world.

Christopher Hitchens uses punchier language:

In Saudi Arabia, which is a fertile place for anti-Western feeling of all sorts, they managed to kill a number of Saudi officials and bystanders while inflicting fairly superficial damage on Western interests. Widespread and quite sincere denunciation of this has been evident across Saudi society. While in Morocco, where the evidence for an al-Qaida connection is not so plain, whatever organization did set off the suicide attacks in Casablanca has isolated itself politically. Please try to remember that al-Qaida and its surrogates are engaged in a war with Muslims as well: They boast of attacking the West in order to impress or intimidate those Muslims who are wavering. But they are steadily creating antibodies to themselves in the countries where they operate.

This ties into my previous post.

It is possible that Al Qaeda is marshalling its remaining strength to attack a target in a Western country, and is therefore subcontracting its other operations to locals. I'm not saying they can be entirely written off. The point is, Al Qaeda may be adapting to new circumstances, but those new circumstances have weakened it more than the past week's media coverage suggests.


UPDATE: Brian Ulrich suggests a similar phenomenon occurring among Al Qaeda's affiliates in Central Asia. He also links to Juan Cole, who has some interesting thoughts on the spate of recent bombings.

Monday, May 19, 2003
THE ARAB MEDIA WAKES UP: Salon has a fascinating interview with Khaled Al-Maeena, editor in chief of Arab News, about the independent Arab media's reaction to the fall of Saddam Hussein and the spate of Al Qaeda bombings in the region. The money quote:

we are free to criticize the governments and all, but for a long time people were afraid to take on the extremists. But in the last two years, and especially after September 11, people sort of began parrying with them, if you know what I mean. Now I think there will be people who will go in for the knockout punch.

Frankly speaking, we are tired of them. If you want me to speak boldly, I'm tired of obscure ranters, I'm tired of people who have very little knowledge of religion trying to force down my throat teachings that do not subscribe to the views of Islam.

Read the whole thing.

THE BUSH CYCLE: This administration has a peculiar pathology. It focuses like a laser beam on a key priority for several months, ignoring any criticism from outsiders. It then achieves its priority, earning plaudits for gutsiness and discipline. Immediately afterwards, however, drift sets in, unexpected complications arise, events beyond the Bush team's control create new obstacles to policy implementation, and things appear to fall apart.

The policy drift has occurred four times in this administration -- after the passage of the 2001 tax cut, after the fall of the Taliban, after the 2002 mid-year election, and, alas, after the victory in Iraq.

What's going wrong? There's the wave of Al Qaeda attacks, which the FBI now warns could hit American soil. Click here and here for the latest problems with postwar Iraq. And here's Jacob Levy on the stupidity of a temporary tax cut on dividends. And, as in other down cycles, key staffers are announcing their departure.

A troubling hypothesis -- is it possible that the message discipline so valued by the Bushies also leads to the suppression of policy adaptability?

[WARNING: The argument presented in this post is purely inductive].

UPDATE: Kevin Drum and Jay Fitzgerald suggest an alternative hypothesis with regard to Iraq -- Bush just doesn't care about the people of Iraq. That would certainly be consistent my TNR piece about Bush using the neocons rather than vice versa. The problem is, I don't buy Kevin's assertion that "[Bush] thinks that committing lots of money and lots of troops over a long period is an electoral loser, so he's not willing to fight for it." What viable Democratic challenger is going to criticize the President on these grounds? John Edwards just blasted Bush from the other direction today.

Glenn Reynolds and Andrew Sullivan think that the Bushies are quick to adapt but slow to realize when it's necessary to adapt. I hope they're correct.
Sunday, May 18, 2003
BLOGGING, ANONYMITY, AND THE PAPER OF RECORD: The New York Times has an amusing article on personal (as opposed to policy) blogs. My favorite part:

Being found out is no deterrent for 18-year-old Trisha Allen, a blogger from Kentucky. She has been blogging for roughly a month, and spends most of her time reporting candidly on her friends and on her relationship with her boyfriend.

A recent entry reveals that the couple are not quite ready for children — though "we have had two scares" — and that Ms. Allen's preferred form of birth control is the pill, even though, she wrote, "I am starting to hate it, because it has screwed up my menstrual cycle wickedly."

"There's not a lot I won't put on there," Ms. Allen said by telephone. Ms. Allen said her mother was aware she keeps an online journal, but does not know how to find it, and added that she relied on a doctrine of security by obscurity, hoping that in the vast universe of personal Web sites known as the blogosphere, she will be able to preserve her anonymity behind all those other blogs.

Good thing she doesn't talk to newspapers with national circulation, or else someone using Google could locate it in about twenty seconds.

UPDATE: Today, I received an e-mail request from Ms. Allen to delete this entire post. I found this a trifle amusing -- the next sentence of the Times story quoted above runs

"Ms. Allen said her motivation for posting personal details was simple: 'I love to be the center of attention.'"

At the same time, I also felt some sympathy for an 18-year old who sounds a bit freaked out by the Blogosphere's focused attention on her quotidian activities. Despite the Times reporter's claim -- and her own -- it's pretty clear she doesn't want to be "found out."

So a compromise: yesterday's version of this post contained an active link to Ms. Allen's blog. Given the quotation above, I suspect the source of Ms. Allen's discomfort was that link, so I've deleted it.

Three concluding lessons from this:

1) Don't ever think it's possible to hide material on the Web. The "doctrine of security by obscurity" never works.

2) Being the center of attention carries negative as well as positive externalities.

3) This episode highlights another distinction between bloggers and journalists. A journalist wouldn't -- and shouldn't -- ever be able to make such a retraction.

Fortunately, I'm not a journalist.

Friday, May 16, 2003
TOM DELAY DOING THE HURT DANCE: This has not been the best of weeks for the House Majority Leader.

First, Josh Marshall, smelling blood in the water, is all over DeLay's role in locating Texan Democratic state legislators -- click here for some background. Andrew Sullivan keeps it simple: "TOM DELAY IS A MANIAC."

Meanwhile, from today's Chicago Tribune:

Delivering a rare rebuke to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Speaker Dennis Hastert said Thursday that he has not yet decided whether to call for a vote to renew the ban on assault weapons before it expires next year.

DeLay (R-Texas) said Tuesday that the votes do not exist to renew the 10-year ban, scheduled to end in the fall of 2004, and an aide said he would not send the bill to the floor....

Hastert (R-Ill.) said he spoke with DeLay after the majority leader announced that the bill would fail.

"I think he was trying to put his old whip's hat on and try to figure out whether he had the votes or not," said Hastert, who opposed the ban nine years ago.

"That bill hasn't been discussed by the leadership yet," Hastert continued. "I haven't had a discussion with the president yet, so I'm not ready to make that decision."


UPDATE: Lloyd Grove reports on another DeLay travail (link via Tapped).

Thursday, May 15, 2003
CONFESSION: I FIRST THOUGHT THIS WAS SPANISH: For those readers dying to see a Portuguese translation of my latest New Republic Online essay, click here.
DEMOCRATS FOR NATIONAL SECURITY: Liberals like Michael Totten, Dr. Joshua Micah Marshall, and Heather Hurlburt have acknowledged that Democrats face a credibility gap on foreign policy issues vis-a-vis the Republicans. Today, Josh Marshall links to Democrats for National Security, organized by one Timothy Bergreen, an ex-State staffer during the Clinton years. Here's a great quote from Bergreen from a Jonathan Rauch story that explains why such an organization is necessary:

"We have reached the point where this has metastasized into a crisis in the party," says Bergreen. "What I would like is to have a Democrat be comfortable reading the words that were in John F. Kennedy's inaugural. Have you read that recently? That's tough stuff. That liberty and freedom are something worth fighting for, worth bearing a burden for. Just because there's no Soviet Union doesn't make these things less relevant."

I wish Bergreen luck. So should all of you. [Ahem, aren't you a Republican?--ed. I'm also a firm believer in the two-party system, and I get really uncomfortable when one party seems incapable of competently discussing matters of grand strategy.]

ON THE LIGHTER SIDE: Kieran Healy's post on Krispy Kremes is a must read for anyone who recognizes that doughnuts are the most addictive substance on the planet -- next to chocolate-frosted Pop-Tarts®.

And Bill Amend of Foxtrot comes up with a devastating comeback for geeks everywhere.
RACE AND THE NEW YORK TIMES: Andrew Sullivan and Mickey Kaus are writing and linking like crazy on the role that race played in the Jayson Blair affair. And it now appears that even Howell Raines admits race may have played an unconscious role in Blair's swift ascension through the Times ranks:

"Our paper has a commitment to diversity and by all accounts he appeared to be a promising young minority reporter," Mr. Raines said. "I believe in aggressively providing hiring and career opportunities for minorities."

"Does that mean I personally favored Jayson?" he added, a moment later. "Not consciously. But you have a right to ask if I, as a white man from Alabama, with those convictions, gave him one chance too many by not stopping his appointment to the sniper team. When I look into my heart for the truth of that, the answer is yes."

Two other must-read essays on this topic. The first is Eric Boehlert's discussion in Salon -- it's worth seeing the ads to get to it. The piece does a nice job of pointing out the combustible mix of elements -- Blair's ability to schmooze, Raines' management style, and yes, race -- that led to the scandal. Here's the money quote:

Times metro editor Jonathan Landman, who tried to warn fellow editors at the paper about Blair's increasingly erratic behavior, says the truth lies somewhere in the middle. "There are two conventional wisdoms out there [about the Blair scandal]," he says, but "neither one of them is right. It's not a morality play about race and affirmative action, as some would like to suggest, and it's not a story that has nothing to do with race. Race was one factor among many in a subtle interplay."

Read the whole thing -- and, if you're wondering where Boehlert is coming from, read his previous Raines piece from last December.

The other must-read today is Don Wycliff's Chicago Tribune essay. Wycliff is the Trib's public editor, an ex-Timesman, and a member of the National Association of Black Journalists. The key grafs:

Almost as depressing as reading the Times' voluminous account of l'affaire Blair has been reading the e-mail traffic for the last week or so on the National Association of Black Journalists' listserve.

Much of the discussion has been near-apoplectic in character, as members fulminate, agonize and hand-wring over the uses to which they fear the Blair case will be and is being put by opponents of newsroom diversity.

Indeed, the NABJ itself issued a statement Friday that said in part, "While Jayson Blair is black, his race has nothing to do with allegations of misconduct."

Not only is that false; it's foolish. Almost as foolish as the notion that Blair's behavior somehow demonstrates the bankruptcy of the entire effort to diversify the staffs of America's newsrooms.

Gerald Boyd, managing editor of the Times and the first black person ever to ascend to so lofty a position at that newspaper, was quoted in Sunday's story as saying Blair's promotion to the status of full-time reporter was not based on race.

With all due respect--and I have genuine respect and admiration for Gerald Boyd--that does not ring true. On the strength of the Times' own description, Blair's work record to that point was marginal at best. Only something extra--like the hope that he might contribute to publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.'s noble goal of a more diverse newsroom--could have justified his promotion.

Nothing, I'm afraid, could have justified subsequent decisions to assign Blair to major news stories like the D.C.-area sniper case and the war in Iraq--stories on which he lied, cheated and stole his way to front-page treatment and those "attaboys" from the bosses that every reporter covets.

This is a kid who should have been on the night shift, learning the basics.

A closing note. Those readers suspecting me of schadenfreude are mistaken. Well, OK, I experienced about five minutes of it reading the story on Sunday. And yes, I like to critique the Times coverage of foreign affairs from time to time.

However, I also link to it a fair amount. Compared to any other American paper -- with the partial exception of the Christian Science Monitor -- their international coverage simply covers more ground than anyone else. The Times gets more criticism than any other paper because it's more widely read than any other paper.

Wednesday, May 14, 2003
CONSPIRACY SECRETS REVEALED!!: The origins of my latest New Republic Online essay can be found in my posts about the Straussian meme here and here.

Click here for an online version of Richard Hofstadter's "The Paranoid Style in World Politics."

Here's a link to the Washington Post story quoted in the essay.

Propagaters of the "neoconservative cabal" argument include Pat Buchanan and Tam Dalyell. Robert Lieber's essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education does an excellent job of collecting the quotes of others who push this argument, such as William Pfaff.

As for the Straussians, the Boston Globe had a story this past Sunday on Strauss' influence on world politics. Here's Seymour Hersh's New Yorker article -- and here's an interview with Hersh that touches on Strauss as well. Le Monde also ran a piece on the Straussians that pre-dated both the NYT and Hersh -- here's a translated version. Josh Cherniss has a series of excellent posts -- here, here, here, here and here -- that provides considerable background on Straussian thought and its relative incompatibility with neoconservatism.

Finally, for those conspiracy-mongers reading this a looking for some way to dismiss my claims, let me provide some ammunition. I teach in the very same political science department where Leo Strauss taught and Paul Wolfowitz studied forty years ago. In 1994, I briefly worked with Abe Shulsky, one of the Straussians highlighted in the New Yorker article. Last night, I attended a talk that my overlord -- I mean, respected commentator William Kristol -- gave for the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations.

Oh, and I'm Jewish.

UPDATE: Justin Raimondo provides a traditional conservative rebuttal. Man, that guy can link.
THE LIMITS OF CONSPIRACY THEORIES: My latest TNR Online essay is up. It's on the latest round of foreign policy conspiracy theories. Go check it out.
ELSEWHERE IN IRAQ: While the administration scrambles to improve order and security in Baghdad, it's worth noting that post-war reconstruction is progressing in other places -- like Mosul. This Chicago Tribune story does an excellent job of contrasting the situation in Mosul with Baghdad:

As Baghdad pops with daily gunfire and limps along with intermittent electricity and water, Mosul has accomplished near wonders under the active command of an American general: Water flows from taps, road crews pick up trash, and Iraqi police and U.S. troops, working side by side, patrol the streets.....

In this tale of two cities, Mosul is an unlikely success. The sprawling northern hub of 2 million--a combustible mix of Iraqis, Kurds, Turkmen and Assyrians that American forces feared would roil with ethnic warfare--became the first place, early this month, to hold local elections for an interim government. And it was one of the swiftest to open its government bank vault to dole out back pay to Iraqi workers.

Read the whole story, and it's clear that a big reason for this is the sage leadership of Major General David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne Division. The story notes the following

The commanding general, Petraeus, fresh from battle in the south, said he quickly adapted his force of 17,000 to the needs of Mosul's 2 million people. The infantry walked along the streets to convey a sense of order. The first day in town, Petraeus went on Al Jazeera television to talk about the future of Iraq.

Petraeus soon found that people in Mosul were eager for direction. A manager from the local airport knocked on his door. Could Petraeus give him the authority to call back workers? Yes, the general replied, sending armed soldiers to help.

The head of the central bank phoned. He had money to pay government workers, but no one in Baghdad could give him the authority to open the vaults. Petraeus, writing on 101st Airborne stationery, commanded that the cash flow begin.

And then Petraeus embarked on a political campaign unlike anything Iraqis who were interviewed for this story had ever seen. He and his aides contacted tribal leaders, Kurds, Arabs, former military officials and former police and rounded them up for talks.

Every day, for nine straight days and for three to five hours at a time, Petraeus urged and cajoled the townsmen of Mosul to figure out what they could do for Iraq.

The 50-year-old general, a West Point graduate who has a doctorate in international relations from Princeton University, appealed to the Iraqis' sense of duty, knowing that Mosul had been an important source of generations of military men. (emphasis added)

I don't mean to suggest that training in international relations improves one's ability to engage in post-war reconstruction. [Yeah, right--ed.]

Seriously, it seems pretty clear that Petraeus's actions should be a template for Baghdad and elsewhere.

GOODBYE, STRONG DOLLAR: Looks like the Bush administration has decided on one strategy for jump-starting the economy -- kissing the strong dollar goodbye. From today's Chicago Tribune:

While professing to favor a strong dollar, the administration is sending an unmistakable signal that it would not resist if the dollar continued to weaken in world financial markets.

A less-valuable dollar stimulates the economy through price changes. American exports become cheaper, and foreign imports become more expensive. That should boost sales of U.S.-made products here and abroad, putting more Americans back to work.

This "benign neglect" dollar policy, as many analysts call it, holds some promise. U.S. firms are beginning to see benefits from the greenback's yearlong decline against the European euro and the Japanese yen....

The new dollar policy is being pursued quietly amid the administration's frustration with an economic recovery so anemic that not a single net new job has been created since the 2001 recession ended.

Then there's this from Reuters:

"People are waking up finally to the reality that the game has changed. The slurry of comments from [Treasury Secretary] John Snow today are going to be remembered as the moment when the mythology of strong Bush administration support for the Rubin-era strong dollar policy finally fell away," said Andrew Weiss, a strategist at AIG Trading Group in Greenwich, Conn.

Snow has been in the currency spotlight for a few days now, after he alluded to the benefits a weaker dollar have had on the U.S. export sector.

While highlighting the benefit a weak dollar has on exports, Snow cast doubt on the benefits of currency intervention.

I have decidedly mixed feelings about this strategy. There is some logic to it. Letting the dollar slide simultaneously increases aggregate demand in the economy, as our exports are cheaper and Americans substitute away from more expensive imports). This move simultaneously helps to alleviate the Fed's fears of deflation, as a devaluation raises the price level of imports.

In terms of foreign economic policy, however, this is a dangerous game that's being played. There was nothing in the last G-7 statement to indicate that this slide in the dollar is being coordinated with our major trading partners. Without multilateral coordination, this move smacks of beggar-thy-neighbor -- and our neighbors are Canada, Japan and the European Union, none of which is a real engine for growth right now. Japan does not want the yen to appreciate too much, and let's just say I don't see the EU willing to absorb costs to get the American economy moving again.

It will be very interesting to see how the rest of the G-7 reacts to this.


Tuesday, May 13, 2003
THE WHEEL TURNS BACK A LITTLE: I've been churning out some optimistic posts about the Middle East as of late, so let's get to the bad news.

First, there's the Riyadh bombing. The death toll is now estimated at 20, but it will probably rise.Josh Marshall is all over this story, and the Saudi government's inability to provide reliable information. The parallel here to China's early handling of the SARS virus is telling.

Then there's the "Baghdad in Anarchy" headline. This Washington Post story sums up the problem:

Baghdad residents and U.S. officials said today that U.S. occupation forces are insufficient to maintain order in the Iraqi capital and called for reinforcements to calm a wave of violence that has unfurled over the city, undermining relief and reconstruction efforts and inspiring anxiety about the future.

Reports of carjackings, assaults and forced evictions grew today, adding to an impression that recent improvements in security were evaporating. Fires burned anew in several Iraqi government buildings and looting resumed at one of former president Saddam Hussein's palaces. The sound of gunfire rattled during the night; many residents said they were keeping their children home from school during the day....

[T]he British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, expressed disappointment with efforts so far to bring democracy to Iraq. He told the British Parliament that "results in the early weeks have not been as good as we would have hoped." Straw also said the lack of security in Baghdad has been disappointing.

An office and warehouse belonging to the aid group CARE were attacked Sunday night. In two other weekend incidents, two CARE vehicles were seized by armed men, the organization reported today, asking the U.S. occupation forces to "take immediate steps to restore law and order to Baghdad."

"The violence is escalating," said Anne Morris, a senior CARE staff member. "We have restricted staff movement for their own safety. What does it say about the situation when criminals can move freely about the city and humanitarian aid workers cannot?"

Baghdad residents have been increasingly preoccupied by violence and the uncertainty it has produced, slowing relief and rebuilding efforts. One U.S. reconstruction official said tonight, for example, that as the Americans seek to distribute salaries and pensions, 20 bank branches have been unable to open without U.S. protection in the absence of a credible Iraqi police force.

"Security is the biggest problem we have," the official said. "The banks don't feel comfortable opening, and I agree with that."

This failure of U.S. forces to engage in active peacekeeping goes back to a problem I discussed last month. It's not going to be solved anytime soon.

Monday, May 12, 2003
SOUTH ASIAN TERRORIST WEB SITES: While the media is focused on the Mideast road map for peace -- not that there's anything wrong with that!! -- attention has drifted from other flash points -- like South Asia. Alyssa Ayres writes in the Wall Street Journal that although recent trends are positive, Pakistani support for -- or benign neglect of -- terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba will remain a sticking point:

Theoretically, the Lashkar does not exist: Pakistan's President Musharraf banned it in January last year and jailed its founder for six months. It enjoys the distinction of a place on the U.S. State Department's Foreign Terrorist Organizations roster, which puts it in the company of al Qaeda, the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and Hamas. But for a banned militia, one whose assets should have been frozen 16 months ago, their media production continues apace. Two weeks ago they gave their family of Web sites a muscular relaunch, suggesting a new infusion of cash or smarts.....

For a banned militia to be printing up magazines in hard copy and virtual form, material obviously designed to recruit militants for a "final journey" into Kashmir, right under the nose of the Pakistani authorities, can only mean one of two things. Someone either can't, or won't, connect the dots.....

[P]eace will remain a fantasy as long as spoilers like the Lashkar-e-Taiba receive free rein to propagate their vision and recruit new soldiers to the task.

Read the whole thing.

MORE WHEELS TURNING IN THE MIDDLE EAST: The Washington Post suggests that Syria is now discussing serious domestic and foreign policy reforms in the wake of U.S. successes in Iraq:

With tens of thousands of U.S. troops positioned just to the east and U.S. officials warning Syria it could be the next object of American ire, Syrians acknowledge they are feeling vulnerable. These regional developments -- nothing less than an "earthquake," according to Khalaf M. Jarad, editor of the state-run Tishrin newspaper -- have prompted Syria to alter its foreign policy to accommodate U.S. demands, while rethinking its domestic affairs.

"When your neighbor shaves, you start to wet your cheeks," said Nabil Jabi, a political strategist in Damascus, citing an Arabic proverb. "It means you must study the new situation in your neighborhood."....

But the changes in domestic policy may ultimately prove to be of even greater consequence.

During the past two weeks, the Syrian government has licensed its first three private banks, considered an essential step in modernizing the state-dominated economy, while approving two new private universities and four private radio stations. Officials are now reviewing the possibility of removing military training from the curriculum of schools and universities and eliminating a requirement that all students join youth groups affiliated with Syria's ruling Baath Party, according to sources close to the leadership.

While discussions about reforming the Baath Party have been underway for at least three years, they have taken on a much greater urgency since the collapse of Iraq's Baath Party government, said Syrians close to the leadership.

"If now people feel a more pressing need to do that, so much the better," said Buthaina Shaaban, spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry. "I think it's normal to be affected by external events and to use it for your own benefit, to reform your reality."

Meanwhile, Juan Cole reports that Egyptian opposition parties are also seizing the moment to push for greater democratic reforms in their country.


Sunday, May 11, 2003
THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION'S DREAM SUNDAY: The Bushies' two most tenacious foils over the past two years -- France and the New York Times -- are facing a world of hurt this week.

In France, the Elf Aquitaine scandal has metastasizedto the point where it has managed to include Iraqi billionaires and the Irish financial sector (link via InstaPundit).

Meanwhile the New York Times' credibility is hemorrhaging badly, as Jayson Blair's web of deceit is put on full display [Doesn't the Times deserve credit for putting the results of its investigation so prominently on Page 1?--ed. Yes, absolutely -- although one could argue that this was merely a pre-emptive strike that prevented other news outlets from breaking the magnitude of the story behind Blair's dismissal.]

Andrew Sullivan and Mickey Kaus are -- naturally -- all over this story. However, I believe Glenn Reynolds's response is probably the most devastating.

UPDATE: Matthew Yglesias takes this post a bit too seriously:

[Drezner's post] sums up everything that's bad about the Bush administration. A "dream Sunday" consists not in making substantive progress on issues that would improve the lives of Americans -- employment, homeland security, nation-building in Iraq, North Korea, health care, etc. -- rather it consists in the revelation of embarrassing information about its enemies.

Friday, May 09, 2003
MORE ON BUSH'S MIDDLE EAST INITIATIVE: Following up on my previous post on this, here's a link to Bush's speech on the Middle East today -- and here's a link to the concrete policy proposals. Some highlights from the speech:

A time of historic opportunity has arrived. A dictator in Iraq has been removed from power. The terrorists of that region are now seeing their fate, the short, unhappy life of the fugitive. Reformers in the Middle East are gaining influence, and the momentum of freedom is growing. We have reached a moment of tremendous promise, and the United States will seize this moment for the sake of peace.

Hey, that's my line!!

The combined GDP of all Arab countries is smaller than that of Spain. Their peoples have less access to the Internet than the people of Sub-Sahara Africa. Across the globe, free markets and trade have helped defeat poverty, and taught men and women the habits of liberty. So I propose the establishment of a U.S. -Middle East free trade area within a decade, to bring the Middle East into an expanding circle of opportunity, to provide hope for the people who live in that region.

These are truly depressing statistics.

And, ultimately, both economic success and human dignity depend on the rule of law and honest administration of justice. So America will sponsor, with the government of Bahrain, a regional forum to discuss judicial reforms. And I'm pleased that Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has agreed to lead this effort.

That should make these folks very happy.

If the Palestinian people take concrete steps to crack down on terror, continue on a path of peace, reform and democracy, they and all the world will see the flag of Palestine raised over a free and independent nation.

All sides of this conflict have duties. Israel must take tangible steps now to ease the suffering of Palestinians and to show respect for their dignity. And as progress is made toward peace, Israel must stop settlement activity in the occupied territories. Arab nations must fight terror in all forms, and recognize and state the obvious once and for all: Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state at peace with its neighbors.

These statements strike me as intuitively obvious. I therefore predict European criticism that Bush was being too lenient on the Israelis.

Again, my only criticism was the failure to mention Turkey at all in the speech. Part of promoting freedom means accepting the inconveniences that come with it, and Turkey's behavior in March falls under that category. Pretending like they have no constructive role to play in this initiative is foolhardy.

NATIONALISM AND FINANCE: In light of the Euro hitting a four-year high against the dollar today, this CNN story should provide a cautionary warning for those who believe that nationalism plays no role in global financial markets: The key grafs:

Interestingly, while this view [that the dollar needs to fall further] is more or less seen as gospel in the rest of the world, it's not the majority view in the States, according to Merrill Lynch's April survey of 314 fund managers, both foreign and domestic.

In that survey, when asked to pick their "favorite currency," 65 percent of global respondents picked the euro. Their least favorite? For 57 percent of the world, it was the greenback.

And a whopping 66 percent of overseas fund managers thought the greenback was still too dear, despite its recent decline. In comparison, only 34 percent of U.S. respondents thought the dollar was overvalued....

The Merrill Lynch survey showed 56 percent of overseas fund managers thought U.S. equity markets still the most overvalued in the world -- compared with just 24 percent of U.S. managers....

In the Merrill Lynch survey, 42 percent of foreign fund managers said the swollen U.S. current account deficit worried them enough to make them hedge some or all of their exposure to a possible dollar decline. Just 21 percent of U.S. respondents had done the same.

DREZNER GETS RESULTS ON FREE TRADE IN THE MIDDLE EAST!!: Two months ago, as an addendum my TNR Online essay on democratization in Iraq, I recommended the creation of a regional club of emerging and established Middle Eastern democracies. To quote myself:

If President Bush means what he says about a democratic Iraq, there is one other policy initiative worth considering – the creation/promotion of a regional club of emerging Middle Eastern democracies....

Of course, the rewards of membership would have to be significant. A preferential trade agreement with the United States might be an option, especially since the U.S. already has such deals with Israel and Jordan.

Currently, a club for Middle Eastern democracies would have a small list of invitees. Within the next year, that may change for the better.

From today's New York Times:

Administration officials said Mr. Bush would also offer rewards to the Arab world on Friday, when he is to propose a United States-Middle East free trade area during a commencement speech at the University of South Carolina. The White House would not say tonight what countries were to be eligible for inclusion in the trade deal, but a senior official said Iraq would be among them.

"We fully expect Iraq to be able to compete and to have free trade agreements with the U.S. and others," the official said. The United States already has free trade agreements with Israel and Jordan. A senior official said the president would set a goal of 2013 to create the free trade area.

The only thing that worries me about this is the suggestion in the article that Turkey be excluded from such a free trade area. I'm going to assume that the administration appreciates the fact that excluding the one stable, pro-Western, established Muslim democracy from any proposed agreement would be counterproductive in the long term.

UPDATE: The Associated Press and Reuters also have the free-trade area story. This Washington Times piece suggests that Egypt and Bahrain are also on the list.

Thursday, May 08, 2003
TRAGEDY IN CHICAGO: The Onion has the scoop.
MORE ON DISCIPLINARY BOUNDARIES: Last week I took Megan McArdle to task for asserting that the economic mode of analysis was superior to theories and methodologies that emerged from other social science and the humanities.

Now, just because I thought Megan was exaggerating things doesn't mean I think economists should stick to their disciplinary knitting and never attempt to explain other phenomenon. For example, consider this Chicago Tribune story about a University of Chicago economist venturing into the humanities:

David Galenson, an economic historian who teaches at the University of Chicago, took on the art history establishment two years ago with his book "Painting Outside the Lines: Patterns of Creativity in Modern Art" (Harvard University Press), in which he claimed statistical methods could be used to rank artistic achievements.

That idea was anathema to many art historians, who believe that creativity is fragile and unquantifiable, that using the marketplace to evaluate art would sully the field....

Robert Storr, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is on record as declaring art is essentially "unquantifiable." Michael Rooks, an assistant curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, said upon the release of Galenson's book, "There's a real sense that when you start quantifying artistic output in dollars and cents, those things are tangents to what we really should be talking about."

Galenson, who publishes frequently in the leading journals in his field such as The Journal of Political Economy and The American Economic Review, found it impossible even to get his book reviewed by art historians. "To them," he said, "I'm just a nerd with a computer."

The problem, of course, is specialization. Economists are supposed to study economics, leaving the art history to the art historians, and vice versa.

Read the whole piece. Galenson's typology of artists -- "conceptual" and "experimental" -- and his method for appraising their artistic value -- how their work is valued in auctions -- are hardly slam-dunk assertions. But they are pretty interesting, and art historians do a disservice to themselves by pretending they don't exist or are beyond the pale.

Wednesday, May 07, 2003
THE STRAUSSIAN CONSPIRACY, CONT'D: Seymour Hersh's latest New Yorker essay goes even further than the New York Times in arguing that there's Straussian conspiracy that's captured American foreign policy. [Wait, wasn't this published the day after the New York Times published their Strauss story? And wasn't Hersh formerly a New York Times reporter? Surely this isn't a coincidence?--ed. Maybe conspiracies beget conspiracies. Or maybe you need a vacation]

The essay focuses on the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, which functioned as a "Team B" of intelligence ferreting out links between Iraq and Al Qaeda in the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Some highlights:

The director of the Special Plans operation is Abram Shulsky, a scholarly expert in the works of the political philosopher Leo Strauss....

Shulsky’s work has deep theoretical underpinnings. In his academic and think-tank writings, Shulsky, the son of a newspaperman—his father, Sam, wrote a nationally syndicated business column—has long been a critic of the American intelligence community. During the Cold War, his area of expertise was Soviet disinformation techniques. Like Wolfowitz, he was a student of Leo Strauss’s, at the University of Chicago. Both men received their doctorates under Strauss in 1972. Strauss, a refugee from Nazi Germany who arrived in the United States in 1937, was trained in the history of political philosophy, and became one of the foremost conservative √©migr√© scholars. He was widely known for his argument that the works of ancient philosophers contain deliberately concealed esoteric meanings whose truths can be comprehended only by a very few, and would be misunderstood by the masses. The Straussian movement has many adherents in and around the Bush Administration. In addition to Wolfowitz, they include William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, and Stephen Cambone, the Under-Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, who is particularly close to Rumsfeld. Strauss’s influence on foreign-policy decision-making (he never wrote explicitly about the subject himself) is usually discussed in terms of his tendency to view the world as a place where isolated liberal democracies live in constant danger from hostile elements abroad, and face threats that must be confronted vigorously and with strong leadership.

I'll give Hersh some credit -- unlike the Times piece, he makes an effort to actually link Strauss' ideas to current trends in foreign policy. In the end, however, this piece has the same problem as all conspiracy theories -- a lot more is implied than actually proven.

Then there's Hersh's track record over the past two years. Jack Shafer neatly eviscerates Hersh in this Slate piece:

At almost every critical turn since the events of 9/11, Hersh has leapt to the front of the editorial pack with a bracing, well-researched, and controversial explication of the war on terror. And almost every time, Hersh's predictive take on the course of events has been wrong. Boneheaded-dumb wrong....

Why are Sy Hersh's recent New Yorker defense pieces so consistently off the mark? Perhaps Hersh, who made his name tilting against the establishment, has become too willing to channel establishment sources' complaints. Indeed, most of his unnamed sources hail from the defense/intelligence establishment, which feels encroached upon by Rumsfeld and the rest of the new guard. If the question is, What's wrong with today's CIA?, Hersh reports back, it isn't enough like the old CIA. If the question is, What's wrong with today's Pentagon?, Hersh answers at the behest of his Army sources, Rumsfeld is mucking with tip-fiddle! If the Delta commandos and the Army generals talking to Hersh don't like Rumsfeld's policies—or the CIA, the DIA, and others resent similar turf encroachment by Wolfowitz's "cabal"—they know there is a place where their gripes can get a complete airing: A Hersh piece in The New Yorker. (emphasis in original)

Every bureaucratic struggle has at least two sides, and a reporter who recklessly throws in with one side against the other may publish blockbusters. But of what use are blockbusters that are consistently wrong?

I'll keep updating the Straussian meme's half-life as it develops.

(Full disclosure: During my brief stint at RAND in the mid-90's, I worked with and for Shulsky.)

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