Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Global Government II: Starting with Global Economy

I'm going to do something that feels a little icky. I'm going to have to defend Michelle Bachmann, maybe just a little bit. Oh dear.

Here's Michelle Bachman talking to radio host Scott Hennen, as quoted by Matthew Yglesias:
Well, President Obama is trying to bind the United States into a global economy where all of our nations come together in a global economy. I don’t want the United States to be in a global economy where, where our economic future is bound to that of Zimbabwe. I can’t, we can’t necessarily trust the decisions that are being made financially in other countries. I don’t like the decisions that are being made in our own country, but certainly I don’t want to trust the value of my currency and my future to that of like a Chavez down in Venezuela. So I think clearly this is a very bad direction because when you join the economic policy of different nations, it is one short step to joining political unity and then you would have literally, a one world government.
Yglesias' response is:
Of course the existence of a global economy in which events outside our borders impact us is not something Barack Obama dreamed up, and the idea that having world leaders gather for occasional meetings constitutes a “one world government” is insane. Is her idea that the President should never meet with anyone? Does that undermine our sovereignty?
Unfortunately, although I disagree with the strenuousness of Rep. Bachmann's objections, I actually wrote a while about my own belief that there would be a global government; specifically, a global NATO.

What we have right now are a few world governmental bodies. There are three disconnected branches: an extremely weak international republican legislature (the United Nations), a slightly more powerful international judicial branch (the International Court of Justice), and a few scattered executive branch functions (trade regulation in the World Trade Organization; various UN agencies, etc.).

The purpose of government is to create a social contract between different interests, and create regular methods for dealing with conflicting interests. These international bodies were created to serve as forums for different nations to peacefully negotiate solutions to conflicts of interest.

The ones I've named above, by the way, all have enforcement powers of some kind: UN sanctions, ICJ warrants, WTO trade rulings. They are all technically binding. However, because none of the organizations listed above have the ability to override sovereignty, and none of them have the ability to levy their own taxes, their enforcement powers are extremely weak. The UN can enforce against countries that all of its Security Council members agree should be enforced against, but it can't enforce against Security Council members even if it could get the votes.

There is, however, a precedent for these types of organizations becoming full governments.

The first is the most obvious and most successful, and it is the United States. At the end of the Revolution, we created a governing document called the Articles of Confederation. It required the government to rule with a unanimous vote, denied the government taxation powers or the ability to raise an independent army. The Congress created by the Articles was, basically, the United Nations.

Chaos reigned. Pirates burned coastal cities to the ground, there was a minor revolution in Massachusetts, and the government was helpless to do anything about it. That's what caused the conservative counter-coup that we call the Constitution: the need to give the federal government teeth.

But domestic chaos was only part of the story as to why we came up with the Constitution. One of the biggest salesmen for the Constitution was Alexander Hamilton, who became our first Treasury Secretary, and the reason he was pushing for it was economic: he realized that if America's economic future was tied together, there would need to be an economic regulator in place. The first example of that was when Hamilton used his newfound powers to pay for the debt of poorer states using money from richer states. It meant that within a short period of time, the United States was able to pay back all of its Revolutionary debt, rather than simply having Northern states make good on their debt and Southern states continue to drag America's credit rating down.

Another early reason for the Constitution was to create a unified currency, so as to reduce the cost of doing business in America.

The Constitution introduced those key elements: taxation, an independent army, and the legal ability to override state laws, enforceable by the Supreme Court. Whereas the UN Charter respects the sovereignty of its member nations, the United States Constitution sets itself up as the Supreme Law of the United States.

And, over time, power begat power, and now the Federal government is as powerful as we normally think of governments -- far, far more powerful than even the government the Constitutional framers originally intended. And why did it become so powerful? Largely on the back of the Interstate Commerce clause -- an economic driver for the Federal Government to level the economic playing field between states.

Compare to the other, even more economic driven tale of organic government growth: the European Union. It started as the European Economic Community, and it was simply a system for helping raw materials in Germany (such as coal and Iron) reach French producers in a way that was beneficial for both countries. Then the EEC became the EU, realizing that there needed to be international economic regulation (like our Interstate Commerce Clause), and the lowering of borders (the Schengen Free-Movement Zone), a unified currency (the EU, like our Dollar), and finally an EU Constitution. They're moving in the direction of having a single European nation. If the bail-out of Greece proves anything, it is that the economic interdependence of Europe has created a situation where, sovereignty or no, they are responsible for each other.

Yglesias is right to mock the notion that the G20 is somehow a world government. The problem with Bachmann's analysis is not the foretelling of a world government, but rather a lack of investigation of what that means and what it would look like. I laid out the similar problem a long time ago, in a run of posts I wrote about the Grassroots and Power: an inability to understand how government works, and all of the different shades of control, whether it is direct or indirect. All power is not created equal.

Basically Bachmann sees two things: freedom and tyranny. World government is tyranny; US independence is freedom. Free market is freedom; Cap-and-Trade is tyranny. My argument, of course is that Free market is anarchy, direct control of carbon emissions is a bit tyrannical, and Cap-and-Trade uses moderate socialism to improve market forces. The health-care bill is another example: the current system is tyranny by insurers, a single-payer system is a little bit tyrannical by government, and the new system is... well, it's confusing. But it's neither tyranny nor liberty.

Rather than simply dismissing Bachmann's point that a global economy leads to world governance, it would be a lot more interesting to engage in the premise, which I think is an accurate one. The question is: what governance? How can we make it better, rather than simply covering our eyes and pretending it doesn't exist? ("There is no such thing as the United Nations...")

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Unknown Unknowns

Blogomatopoeia takes people to task for citing the zen of Donald Rumsfeld. RTWT. A choice sampling:

So before we spend another working day in an epistemological tizzy, can we pause to connect Rummy's spooky koan with the historical moment that inspired it? Please? Breaks down like this:

We know Iraq has WMDs.
I know it.
Colin Powell knows it.
George Tenet knows it.
President Bush really knows it.
It is a known known.
Now, we can't seem to find these WMDs.
But at lesat we know we don't know where they are.
It is a known unknown.
And before you ask any more questions ...
Just think of all the WMDs we don't even know we don't know about!
Beware the unknown unknowns!

This idea of not knowing how much danger is out there is less zen and more Department of Fear.

I think it also plays into President Bush's position as a particularly Postmodern President. The concept of at least some truths being independent and verifiable is attacked at its very core, and once that is removed, the Bush Administration can basically move around the goal-posts on fact however is convenient.

Note how Rumsfeld backs up the "Known Knowns":
I know it.
Colin Powell knows it.
George Tenet knows it.
President Bush really knows it.
So clearly we know it, because all of these people know it. And presumably, they are experts. So if these experts know it, clearly it is known. (and there's a little truthiness bonus there: President Bush really knows it).

The problem isn't the concept of known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns; the problem is how to put what facts in what boxes, and Post-modernism usually holds (depending on the strain or thinker) that there's no objective method to put things in those boxes. There's no requirement at any point to compare things to an objective reality, because you can always argue that your understanding of objective reality is flawed.

For instance, President Bush really knows that there was WMD in Iraq. To the best of Hans Blix's knowledge, there were no WMD in Iraq. We invaded, and seven years later we can't find any weapons of mass destruction. To me, that says "There were no Weapons of Mass Destruction." But President Bush could say that the WMD were moved to Syria. Could we verify it? Maybe, if we invaded Syria. And if we didn't find the WMD there? Well, they could have been destroyed, or moved to Iran.

That's the frustration, the fundamental problem that we circle around, and which I've been trying to put together my Pragmatic philosophy to try and take to task.

Fine Arts Economics

If you don't follow a good blog from the fine arts world (I like Real Clear Arts) and you don't have time to read The 12 Million Dollar Stuffed Shark, NPR's Planet Money podcast covered the economics of fine arts in a pretty approachable, Econ 101 way.

Re:Attention California pt. 2

Okay, I was in a pretty ornery mood when I responded to Playgoer's query about how Californians feel about the artsplate initiative. Ian left some needed corrective in my comments:

I think you should double-check some of your assertions in this piece. I don't live in California and don't have intimate knowledge of this campaign, but my understanding is as follows:

1) The California Arts Council already gets the bulk of its revenue from the license plates, not from general appropriations. I believe the state appropriation for CAC has been stuck at around $1 million for several years. So the state can't just "allocate less of its general fund" - there's not much left to not allocate.
2) The license plates are new revenue that was not otherwise coming to the government (because the buyers pay an extra premium on top of the regular price), and thus is specifically earmarked to the arts.
3) The arts license plate is a sustainable fundings source. You have to renew your plates every year. (See: So actually if anything the funding level should go up over time as long as they are getting more subscribers than they're losing.

I actually think it's all kind of brilliant, frankly.
To the first point, it is very true that, having little to take away from the California Arts Council, the fear that this will open up for the California state legislature to take more away from CAC is overblown.

As to the third one, to the degree that car culture remains sustainable (as in, at least between now and the next century), that's very much the valid point.

The second one, that money earmarked to the arts because of a specific expenditure will necessarily arrive to the arts, is the one I'm still not fully willing to concede. In the normal course of budgetary processes, I would agree with this. States normally fulfill their obligations and obey the law and don't resort to theft, and therefore earmarked funds would arrive at their destination unmolested.

But California continues, time and time again, to run up against budget deadlines and resort to at best quasi-legal and often illegal stunts to bridge its budget gap. Federal courts have been insisting that California reform its prisons (calling it cruel and unusual punishment, the way it stands now), but California resists because it says it is broke -- defying a court order in order to avoid balancing its budget. The Supreme Court's going to hear that one.

Another fun tactic is forcing local governments to lend money to the State capital on three year loans. (By the way, on that page is a chart that points out that California replaced some of its higher education funding with Stimulus bill money, which hearkens back to point 1). While legal under California's state constitution, it's incredibly bad practice, especially as local governments try to balance their own budgets.

That's putting aside now-common practices like issuing IOUs instead of payments, like a fifth-grader.

In the theoretical realm, this artsplates initiative does seem pretty brilliant. And maybe I'm wrong, and the collapse of the state of California will corrode everything except this initiative, and this governor or the next one will find somewhere else to close gaping, gaping hole in California. It occurs to me that, if Jerry Brown wins the election, he's not quite as likely to take the ax to the arts... maybe.

But it remains my strong belief that until California has the ability to create a budget that is in some measure balanced, there's absolutely no guarantees that it will live up to any of its promises or obligations. I hope I'm wrong.


There is, however, a light at the end of the tunnel. California did approve a top-two primary system, such as the top-two primary system in Washington. This, hopefully, means that candidates can play to the center, rather than playing to the fringes, and therefore we can see some candidates from both sides who might favor a balanced package of tax increases and budget cuts, as well as changes in California's relationship to labor. It might create a system in which a Californian Obama-style candidate could rise without being torn to shreds by the Californian Teacher's Union on the left or the California Chamber of Commerce on the right.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Re: Attention California

Californians have an incredible opportunity to support the arts through the Million Plates Campaign for the Arts coordinated by The California Arts Council.

If one million California drivers purchased an arts license plate, we would raise $40 million. That's $40 million dollars that would go directly to more than 300 groups across our schools and communities.

The Million Plates campaign launches Monday in Los Angeles. But plates are available right now by simply going online to

Playgoer asks:

Can this really work, Kally-fawn-ians?

As a Californian ex-pat, all I can say is: No, it can't really work.

That's because the state has such an incredibly gigantic budget deficit that if you were to increase a guaranteed revenue source (from, the State would simply allocate less of its general fund. Why? Because the entire state's finances is completely broken.

If you want to know what a budget deficit really sounds like in our current political climate, listen to This American Life's coverage of New York State's broken politics. It shows how Lieutenant Governor Ravitch came in with a plan that would balance New York's budget over the long term and bring back fiscal discipline, and nobody gave a shit.

And the sad thing is that compared to California, New York really has its shit together.

When I was in Middle School, Governor Gray Davis (D-CA) looked at the gigantic budget surplus -- I mean, a huge budget surplus, we were the boom of the Tech Boom -- and realized he could become really fucking popular. So he started promising everything. He promised deregulation of the electricity industry, he promised class sizes of 20 students, he promised lower taxes.

Then the boom went away, and the economy contracted in 2003. We got ripped off by the electricity industry (remember Enron?), and soon the state's finances were in one of the biggest deficits in the state's histories -- right after the biggest surplus. We had saved nothing, we had cut revenues, and then the pain started.

Pretty soon, school was being made shorter and shorter, class sizes were ballooning past 40 again, and the state's finances remained in a mess. Cue the Terminator music, and we got Governor Cullyfawnia. Democrats refused to run an opposition candidate in the Recall election, refused to admit that anything had gone wrong, and so we got the Terminator. But we still had a Democratic legislator and Democrat voters, so what we got from that point forward was stasis.

So I look at this license plate thing and all I can think is, what a desperate gimmick. Maybe, for one year, it might work a little bit. But Schwarzenegger is still forcing across-the-board budget cuts. If the State Pension Fund realizes that $40 million are going to the arts, are they going to accept reductions in their payments? No! They'll say, "cut us in on that state arts money." So will the Teacher's Union.

California's arts funding can't be saved unless:
  1. The arts manages to take a higher priority than the State's Pension Fund, the Federal Courts who are ordering us to spend more on prisons and reduce their populations, the enormously powerful Teacher's Union, or the voter's penchant for cutting their own property tax (they just voted to do that again).
  2. California's budget stabilizes, and therefore these things are no longer in competition.
Honestly, after listening to This American Life, I bet they're only looking for $40 million in plates so that they can borrow against it as guaranteed revenue.

And one more thing: say 1 million people buy arts plates, and it makes $40 million dollars. How much would it make in year Two? How much time would this money last us?

So I'm not buying one, nor will I tell my family to. Not until the State puts its house in order.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Circle Rules Federation Update

Culturebot had an interview with our founder and my friend, Greg Manley. Choice paragraph:
5. Have you ever had to make a choice between work and art? What did you choose, why, and what was the outcome?

All those lines have been blurring. Lately, I’ve been choosing Circle Rules Football work over acting. So I’ve been in the peculiar place of having acting in theater as a backup job. So my work is art and my art, (Circle Rules Football – the whole reason I’m doing this interview), is work. Maybe that’s just not a very helpful distinction. About a month ago one of my housemates who had started working for the Census said, “Greg, you’d better get a job now. You’re the only one in the house who hasn’t filled out a W2 this year.” I got pissed. I think as soon as you consider your art your work, it is.
Also, on Sunday, I'll be refereeing a 1:00 match at Prospect Park before our usual 2PM pick-up game. Come out at 1:00, watch the match, and then play in the pick-up game afterwards!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Circle Rules Federation Update

So I was away from the sensation that is Circle Rules Football (quick video summary) for a brief spell while I was out in California. But it continued, without me, and I returned to it triumphant both on Sunday for some pickup games and for a league game on Wednesday evening.


The first small-rules pick-up game was, basically, a shut-out. My temporary team for the afternoon, Sobe Beverage Company, dominated quick and early. My roommate, Bret, was playing his first game and scored the opening goal in the first minute or so, with a quick swing around the key and the ball knocked in. Bret went on to score three goals, although only two of them was for our own team.

I personally scored two goals, including the winning goal -- a beautiful moment; the ball was kicked by someone else to the goal, but came to a halt on the goal line. Since in Circle Rules Football you can't touch the ball in the center of the key, it was stalled -- until I took two steps back, and leaped head-first into the key.


A big-rules game between Paralysis (my team) and Death -- and it was a brutal one, a real brutal one. Because of effective goalies, there was a long time between goals, each side wearing down slowly and carving out a goal here and there. This, on top of the 85 degree heat, made for one of the closer matches. I got a couple goals in myself, but the margin never really exceeded two goals up.

At the end of the game, Paralysis eked out a close victory, largely fueled on the three dominating forces of Greg Manley (who only invented the sport), Raymond, and Nate -- two of which are on my league team, so it left me feeling pretty good.


My team, The Slow Polks, came into the game with 3 losses and 3 wins. The early losses came from team disorganization early in the season, when we didn't know each other, many of us were in the process of graduating, and we often had trouble fielding enough teammates on the field. Since then, we'd been on an unbroken winning streak. That, plus America's win at the cup, had me feeling pretty good about the game.

The other team, The Aristocracy, was now in that position - they could only field five players and a goalie, which is awfully light. Meanwhile, our team had thirteen players on the team (and our "mom" who sat on the bench cutting orange wedges for us).

Let it not be said, however, that there was some sort of a shut-out. Early in the first half, the score was 10-4 in our favor, but as the Aristocracy began to catch on to some of our tactics, they staged a quick insurgent comeback, taking advantage of some sloppy pass-work and some hesitancy to get in front of the ball. Early in the second half, the score was 10-9, and The Slow Polks realized they had to get their A-game on.

We played hard, as did they, and finally the game wound up as a Slow Polks victory, up by a nice but not ideal margin of about 4 points.

Want to join in with Circle Rules? Pick-up games are come-as-you-are and everyone's-welcome, Sundays at 2PM at Prospect Park in Brooklyn.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Hey everyone, remember when Obama was running for President, and he and Hillary Clinton got into a snit about whether or not Obama should seek rapprochement with Cuba?

... whatever happened to that?

Friday, June 18, 2010

It's As Though God Knew What I Needed In Life II

I'm going to chew on both accounts for a little bit -- I love the fact that The Federalist Society basically proposed a critical frame for their own concepts, so the question is, how do they live up to it?

Legal Commentary III: Legal Arguments That Piss Me Off

I'm not going to comment on the unanimous court decision, handed down today, saying that if the US Government raises land above the water they still own it. It's really, really straightforward. No fun.

Kansas GOP gubernatorial candidate Sam Brownback is proposing an “Office of the Repealer,” tasked with seeking out bad or repetitive laws, wasteful programs, and archaic state agencies for elimination. As a general rule, the media venerates politicians who propose new government programs as bold and visionary, while anyone daring to suggest perhaps there might be cause to eliminate an agency or two is depicted as some fringe draconian nut. Or just quaint and silly.
Okay. Imagine we had some sort of an office whose job it was to review laws that are bad or repetitive. Imagine they had broad powers to overrule legislation on a broad range of grounds, all geared towards the public good.

What Brownback is proposing is a Fiscal Supreme Court, that would overrule wasteful spending. What would he say if we proposed giving those powers to the Supreme Court? Probably what he said about Sonia Sotomayor:

Judge Sotomayor has indicated through past rulings and in her writings that she believes the judiciary should take an activist role and make laws, instead of upholding the law. As Chief Justice Roberts said, a justice should be an impartial umpire, not a player in the game. I am afraid Judge Sotomayor wants to be more of a player than an umpire.
Why should the Supreme Court have extremely limited powers to overrule "bad or repetitive laws," but this Office of the Repealer should have broad powers not only to overrule bad laws, but also to overrule expensive or out-of-date ones?

I was going to say it's because maybe he thinks he'll have more control over the Office of Repealer, but we do have a Conservative court right now anyways. It's a baffling contradiction of thought. And that's why it's a legal argument that pisses me off.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

It's As Though God Knew What I Needed In Life

Henry the V as performed by neo-conservative lawyers, commented on afterwards by John Yoo and other Bush Administration Officials. Read. The. Whole. Thing.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Where Does The NEA Money Go? II: Quick Update

Hey everyone, just a quick note: I haven't forgotten the NEA data project. I've filed a FOIA request with the NEA from a very helpful woman at their FOIA office, and I should be hearing back from them soon. For the State Arts agencies, I'm giving a call to the National Association of State Arts Agencies (NASAA) today to get the state numbers. As soon as I get the NEA numbers, I'll begin.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

More Good News!

RVCBard's Crossroads Theatre Project got its fiscal sponsorship, so if you want to help a new voice get new work out there, go support! Or you can come to the reading, if you don't like supporting things you don't know about, and donate afterwards.

Participation I: Listening vs. Doing

Ian Moss has a great post over at Createquity about participation in arts in the realm of orchestral music:
A survey included in the Knight Foundation’s Search for Shining Eyes report found that of 74% of adults who said they were interested in classical music had played an instrument or sung in chorus at some point in their lives. I think that the real gospel of classical music ain’t about hearing it – it’s about doing it. I think what’s happening is that our dominant “engagement strategy” for classical music – offering sustained, substantive, professionally-oriented classical music training, including in such contexts as youth and student orchestras – has not been very successful at producing listeners/fans of classical music in my generation, but has been extraordinarily successful in producing practitioners of classical music.
This point has a flip-side, also documented in the report: audience education (in terms of developing listening audience) winds up benefiting the already-educated audience-member, rather than bringing in new audiences.

So the problem facing orchestras appears to be a cruel catch-22: programs aimed at developing listeners wind up focusing money on an already-existing audience, and programs aimed at developing musicians winds up making a larger orchestra, not a larger audience.

I can't say that this is just a classical music problem, but it seems to me that the problem is more acute in classical music. I bookmarked the following from Ian five days ago, wanting to respond to it:
In some ways, I’m the very picture of orchestras’ audience problem. I’m still in my twenties (for another week, anyway); I have a Master’s degree; my bachelor’s was in music (intensive track) and I have an extensive background as a composer. If there’s low-hanging fruit in audience development, I’m it. And yet I’ve only been to three orchestra concerts in the last three years—and I didn’t pay my own money for any of them. It’s very hard for me to imagine any normal concert program (i.e., one without a world premiere) that would induce me to pay as much as $40 for a ticket—and even that number would have been a lot lower a few years ago.
I personally don't see as much theater as I wish I were seeing -- usually this has more to do with time than with money. But I do sympathize with the feeling that even I would not pay $40 dollars for most of the theater out there. Yet I have spent, once or twice, a little bit more on tickets for shows I felt were really deserving.

For instance, not only did I spend $35 for The Lily's Revenge, I spent another $35 to see it again. I can't imagine another play I'd shell out that much for but, well, I wouldn't have imagined shelling out $70 dollars for The Lily's Revenge in the first place.

When I go out to the theater, I'm not going out to see the virtuosity of the theater-people, I'm going to be surprised by some act, some new expression -- something I didn't think to do, something I've never heard before. I'm trying to keep in touch with a conversation between my colleagues, in some way that I can't be sitting at home or working on my own work.

After all, what the first part I quoted from Ian said, really, is that there's a three-way competition taking place for the attention of the classically-interested audience:
  1. Listening to classical music at home,
  2. Listening to an orchestra performance,
  3. Participating in an orchestra.
Right now, #2 is being torn apart by #1, and #3. I'm looking right now at the New York Philharmonic's page, and they're advertising concerts of Lindberg, Sibelius, Brahms, and Beethoven. All of which the casual audience member can get at home. And of course, the unique joy of participating in the orchestra can only be got in the orchestra. So there's only a thin slice of audience who will go for #2.

And I feel the same way about the "classic" plays. I saw Waiting for Godot once, and even when Nathan Lane came by to perform in it, I felt little compulsion even to try and get a student rush ticket, because I was fairly sure that even at its best it would only about equal to the production which I saw (the Gate Theatre, which is about as definitive as it gets).

What I do go and see are the things which are new, the things that excite me because they haven't been seen before: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, or Whatever, Heaven Allows, or The Lily's Revenge. Companies like TEAM or Elevator Repair Service could part me from that much. Granted, if you made them much more expensive I might not spring out to see them, but for those plays I might have paid up to $40 if my wallet was feeling safe that week.

Now, my lack of involvement in the classical music scene makes it difficult for me to tell whether it's just my perception that 90% of orchestras calendars are either pops evenings or classics from two hundred plus years ago. I know that there are composers out there writing new music for classical orchestra, but at least from my perch what little word of mouth reaches me (or the very occasional philharmonic TV spot), it seems like it's dominated by the great works of the great composers, filled in with some less-notable music from less-notable composers from several hundred years ago.

What excites me about today's theater scene in my 'hood is that it's a playground for new expressions, and the occasional wild new interpretation of an old classic. If there's an orchestra out there that fits that bill, I'd love to go out and take a listen. But I feel as though the spirit in the classical music world is that of historical re-enactors, trying to perfectly recreate actions from a long time ago.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Change V: Boycott BP

I covered the "Move Your Money" campaign in my first cynical change post. Well, Boycott BP may have the advantage that there's plenty of reliable other gas stations to fuel up. But they're at a disadvantage. Here's an email from some progressive group (Democracy for America) declaring victory in the Boycott BP campaign, quoting from Convenience Store News:
A chain of Convenience Stores in Philipsburg, Pa decided to debrand three of its BP-branded stations:

"We are debranding BP. We will no longer be associated with BP by the end of the month. We are doing this because of the backlash and bad publicity from the handling of BP's catastrophe," Sean Lay, vice president of operations, said in the report. "We don't want to be associated with them anymore. We've had enough."[Convenience Store News]
They are, rightly, declaring that their action is having a positive response because BP gas station operators don't want to be connected to the company. But clearly they're able to adapt. In Los Angeles, there's a big refinery that used to be owned by Arco. It had a massive, three story tall flag over the front that said "ARCO." When it was bought out by BP, they put the name BRITISH PETROLEUM on it -- at the time, they were not called BP. There was some displeasure at that, so they rebranded the factory with a flag that said BP. Then they tried putting up a flag that said "BETTER PETROLEUM" (the 'Kitchen Fresh Chicken' of the oil world). That didn't take. So now the flag is just a gigantic American flag. And people are basically mollified.

Do you know where the name Exxon comes from? It's actually the result of a multi-million dollar consulting project that concluded that the best name for the brand would be a completely neutral name that no one had any associations with. Then Exxon-Valdez happened, and all of a sudden we all had associations with that name, so the tactic was ineffective. But if they'd waited a year and then changed the name, people might not have noticed.

Have you heard of Altria Group? That's the name that they came up with so that you would no longer associate Kraft with Phillip Morris -- even though they're part of the same company. God forbid your disdain of tobacco influence your taste in cheese.

I hope that the American consumer keeps tabs on brand ownership, or they're going to have a hard time figuring out what they're boycotting. Otherwise they might get duped, like the whole CREDO Mobile thing.

Change IV: Bias, our Default Position

A couple of days ago, as I was sitting at my desk in my office, one of my co-workers looked up from his desk and asked, "When did Israel become the enemy?" It wasn't an ideological irritable prelude to a rant, it was a genuine question. A moment later, he admitted, "I don't really follow the news." He was at a loss as to why Israel was suddenly being pilloried in the media, because he had only the vaguest sense of what had happened. He knew that Israel was embargoing Hamas to prevent the flow of weapons, and he knew that some civillians had died in a fight with some police officers.

Sensing that the room wasn't fully agreeing with his bafflement, he asked me (as the token Israeli on hand) what my "take" on all this was, I described to him the missing facts: the nature of the embargo (in terms of what precisely is being banned), and the outrage aimed at the decision to board the boat, rather than use another strategy to stop the boat. I don't know whether he changed his mind, but he clearly had his question answered as to why Israel was in the position that it is today.

It reminded me what the biggest barrier in terms of public opinion about Israel: the inertia of not keeping up with the news. For those people who are not reading Andrew Sullivan's torrent of updates or listening to NPR daily, suddenly there's splashy news, and people around them are talking about the need to "take action" about Israel -- talking about Israel the way that we've been talking about Iran. What happened? Without the facts, this is just irrational, baffling. It would be as though all the chatter was suddenly about sanctions against Canada, or trying to erase the word French from the language (okay, bad example...).

And this is the inertia in the political process that leaves politicians vulnerable to AIPAC. American voters don't seem to be interested in a debate as to the nuances of the Israel-Palestine-America-Lebanon-Syria-Turkey-Iran-Iraq-Saudi Arabia-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India web (IPALSTIISAAP? Ipalestisap?). They just don't want us to be "on the side of terrorists." That's what bias looks like: it's our default position, in the absence of other facts.

By the way, the same co-worker asked me why Egypt is enemies with Hamas. I explained to him about Egypt being a secular dictatorship, and he said, "Oh, so an enemy of an enemy is my friend?" That sentence is the big stumbling block here. Why? I'll let Jon explain:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Headlines - Enemy Plus Enemy Equals One Ally
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

Which is not to say that Egypt is our enemy. But neither are they our friends. Actually, maybe this one is more appropriate:

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Billions and Billions
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Made some changes to the blog's visual atmosphere. Part of me thinks it is too much. Part of me thinks that it gives the blog some character. Ah well. Take a look.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Graphs That Make You Wonder Things

The graph on the right, which comes from Nate Silver's Esquire article about the decline in car culture, makes me wonder one thing -- what the hell happened in 1995?

I Can't Believe No One Linked To This During The Helen Keller Thing

Presented without further comment:

Economy Is People

A great demonstration of the fact that economy is people, from the 1920s:
On behalf of the pool, the pool manager, as broker, would begin buying and selling shares of the stock at frequent intervals, in no apparent pattern. Often he would buy and sell it back and forth among the members of the pool…..these essentially spurious transactions, accomplished with the sympathetic help of the specialist, would be so weighted that the price of the stock would begin to rise slightly. In speculators’ jargon, it would be “active and higher”…Thus the stock would be called to the public’s attention, and the notion of making a quick profit in it planted in the public’s mind. The eager tape-watchers would gradually begin to buy – cautiously and tentatively at first, then as the activity continued to increase and the price to rise, more and more boldly. Now the pool manager’s operations would become more delicate. On some days he would abruptly switch to the selling side, simply to create confusion; then just when the public was about to decide the picnic was over, he would come back in with a torrent of buying that would sweep all along with him. Finally, in a skillfully conducted manipulation, the thing would become self-sustaining; the public would in effect take the operation over, and in a frenzy of buying at higher and higher prices would push the stock on up and up with no help from the pool manager at all. That was the moment of the final phase….often spoken of indelicately as “pulling the plug.” With a mousiness in sharp contrast to the elaborate fanfare with which he had begun his buying, the pool manager would begin feeding stock back into the market. The price would respond by turning downward, gradually at first, then more rapidly as the pool manager’s trickle of sales mounted to a flood; and before the public could collect its senses, the retreat would have become a rout, the pool wold have unloaded its entire bundle profitably, and the public would be left holding the suddenly deflated stock….
Proof that fund managers are not in the business of manipulating dollars, they're in the business of manipulating people.

Another fantastic example of that (which actually extends the example above) is the profile Planet Money did on Proprietary Trading. The central contention there is that investment banks took money on behalf of people to invest in the market, and then used that money to help make their own investments do better, at the cost of the people who were investing their money through them.

I Like Douthat, Usually

I have tended to like NYTimes conservative Ross Douthat, not just because he isn't Bill Kristol, but because he strikes me as a tragic figure -- a lone intellectual, trying in vain to justify the philosophies and the ideologies of a GOP that frankly hates intellectuals like Ross Douthat.

However, Douthat has an post up in response to a study stating that Generation Y-ers have less empathy than previous generations, just gets my gall up:
On the face of it, these seem like contradictory portraits — how can the same generation be more solipsistic and more interested in human betterment and ambitious social activism? But maybe they actually go hand in hand. There’s a kind of humanitarianism that’s more interested in an abstract “humanity” than in actual people, and a kind of idealism that’s hard to distinguish from moral vanity. Perhaps this is the spirit that’s at work among the empathy-deficient world-changers of Generation Y — visible, for instance, in the way that community service has become a self-interested resume-padding exercise for ambitious young climbers, or in the way that Barack Obama’s rhetoric (“we are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” etc.) managed to appeal to younger voters’ idealism and flatter their egos all at once.
There are, of course, a multiplicity of explanations that could be reached to untangle this "contradictory portrait." For instance, looking at the actual survey, it is simply possible that Generation Y has a different way of responding to questions about empathy? After all, we're in an environment where appeals to our pity and good-meaning-ness are increasingly frantic -- call it the GiveWell hypothesis; we're aware that our emotions are not the best vehicle for doing good.

Anyways, Ross Douthat's contention that we are in love with "the people" but not particular people is completely backwards given the actual nature of the survey. The survey asks about "the less fortunate" and "someone" and "them" but it doesn't actually provide empathetic scenarios and ask for action.

In a way, it would be nice for Douthat to imagine a world where the youth lack empathy. Because that means later on, when they lose their concern for the strawman of "the people," they'll become Conservatives. Because isn't that what economic and social conservatism is -- a lack of empathy for people outside of the norm?

After all, we know what the rest of conservatives think of empathy these days:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Back in Black - Glenn Beck's Nazi Tourette's
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

At the end of the day, why would you privilege a questionnaire over an analysis of actions and impact?

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Regional Bloggers

The Guardian rounds up some regional bloggers in the UK. What about the US? What are some good regional theater blogs?

Israel's Three State Solution II

A while back, I proposed that Israel's best chance for security peace would be a three-state solution; separating Hamas' Gaza and Fatah's West Bank in terms of the peace process, so that Qassams from Hamas won't be a deterrent to Fatah's peace process with Israel.

Since then, of course, it has been clear that Netenyahu doesn't particularly care to make peace with Fatah. Still, if some electoral miracle brings someone genuinely interested in peace around, the three-state solution will still be the best way forward. And it doesn't seem so preposterous to me as it once seemed, especially once I saw this in the BBC:
What could be the impact [of the Aid ship events] on the peace talks?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said peace talks with Israel will continue. Proximity talks, mediated by the US, resumed in May after a two-year break.

At least from the perspective of the Palestinians, who I presumed would be the harder sell on the "three-state solution" idea, they're effectively acting separately from Gaza. If Abbas wanted to link their fates to the Gaza Strip, now would be the time to press forward, on their advantage -- maybe meet with Turkey, maybe withhold further talks until aid ships are allowed to progress.

Instead, Abbas is looking after his own people in the West Bank. His own incentive structure is to continue to serve his constituents, which are the people of the West Bank and it appears he's already making decisions with regards to them.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Change III: Detritus of the Past

The Economist has an article about possible trends in the future of the architecture business. Will we have cities that are based around auto-piloting cars as living spaces? Or will we have walkable cities with robotic delivery systems?

The note that The Economist leaves us on, as they always, do, cuts against the grain of the rest of the article:
But perhaps the whole exercise is misconceived. Cities are perfect examples of the sorts of system that emerge from unplanned preferences even as they seem to demand large-scale planning. The question is whether the patterns of that emergence can be shaped by changing the objects of desire, or whether it is necessary to change the desire itself. If the former, then experts in beautiful buildings and sleek aluminium have a chance. If the latter, the question becomes a whole lot harder.
Leaving aside The Economist's tendency to finish an article telling you why it probably isn't as important as they spent the preceding paragraphs telling you it was... the whole problem with utopian futurism is that if you want to build a model in real life, you have to answer the question -- what happens with the detritus of the past?

The problem goes beyond people's desires. The problem is that if you look at the world around us, very little of it was actually built in our lifetimes. I'm in Orange County, California right now; most of the city was built in the 1970s, and that's considered extremely new on the urban timescale. New York City is even older -- a city of ghosts. And yet, if you compare it to world cities, its a spring chicken.

But every generation only adds a little of what is new to a mass of what is old. The key changes to history come from some small new thing that manages to change the shape of the old things around it. For instance, the transcontinental railway managed to reshape the geography of the Mid-West even though most of the prairie folks still lived in pre-Industrial Revolution towns and life-styles.

So a successful dream of the future is going to have to plan for the detritus of the past. You can't bring the future command-economy style. Unless of course you are China. But you can figure out how the new thing can change the old thing, so that the changes will be magnified. They say that car culture is ending. But if you want to propose a vision of the future without cars, you're going to have to account for the layout of suburbs, the infrastructure of freeways, the many people whose lifestyles are built around cars. You're going to have to deal with the detritus of the past.

That's why, to quote William Gibbons, "The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.”

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Where Does The NEA Money Go? I: Proposal

Alright, so, the last Pitching Arts to Conservatives post has really become, specifically, "Where Does The NEA Money Go?" This is a question I thought had a simpler answer, but after some questions have been raised about the charts and what they actually mean, I want to delve deeper into the issue and see if I can tease out more information.

So, to recap: with two different sets of data that were arbitrarily selected, two different pictures emerged. One picture was the NEA giving money to CA and NY and kind of neglecting everyone else. The other picture was the NEA giving money fairly evenly, but with the least-populated states getting disproportionate money.

  1. Both sets of data were from the Stimulus Bill. I don't know how the Stimulus Bill's money was distributed, but seeing as it originated from Congress rather than from the NEA, there's the possibility that it isn't representative of the NEA's normal funding in the course of events.
  2. The per capita basis of comparing arts funding may skew as the population gets smaller -- $50k in Montana is roughly .10 per capita, whereas it is less than .01 per capita in California. If there's a theoretical/logistical floor to NEA spending, then states at the floor might seem over-represented if per capita is used as the measure.
Anyways, in the coming days I'm going to track down the data to try and measure a few different hypotheses as to how the NEA money winds up being distributed:

  1. The "Money Follows Artists" Theory -- Ian Thal, in the comments, as well as my mother both raised the question as to whether states that have more artists or art organizations will be favored by NEA grants. This would line up more with the first set of data than the second one. This probably means comparing NEA Funding (stimulus/normal budget; raw and per capita) to number or artists (from Census data) and number of art organizations (from...?).
  2. The "NEA Fills In State Gaps" Theory -- J. Holtham, on the other hand, raised the question in the comments as to whether the NEA is predisposed to give more money to states that support their arts less, which is one theory that might explain the second set of data. I am skeptical of this one, but I want to examine it. This means comparing NEA funding (stimulus/normal budget; raw and per capita) to State arts council funding (raw, per capita, and percentage of state budget).
  3. The "NEA Gives it to Big Cities" Theory -- My original theory was that arts funding concentrates in big cities, which the two charts don't really directly reflect well. This means comparing NEA Funding (stimulus/normal budget; by Congressional district) to population density (by Congressional district).
  4. The "NEA as Pork" Theory -- Also related to my original theory, the idea that NEA funds are distributed to make Congresspeople happy. I am almost completely sure that the normal NEA distribution is not this way, but I am curious about whether the Stimulus bill was determined this way. This means comparing NEA funding (stimulus/normal budget; by congressional district) to total earmarks (by congressional district).
  5. The "NEA as Liberal" Theory -- A minor theory of mine as to why the first set of data gave NY and CA an advantage over TX, NEA funding (stimulus/normal budget) to CPVI (a dataset that I can find immediately!)
I think those are the major theories that I want to test with the numbers. I will probably go one-by-one over the next week or so, depending on how much work it is to find each of these data sets. If anyone wants to comment with good sources for this data, I'd be much obliged.

(UPDATE: In lieu of the CPVI set, I'm going to try and get the Social/Economic Liberal/Conservative scores that just used. It gets me a little more fine investigation of the leanings of state voters.)

Court Commentary: Berghuis v. Thompkins

The Court handed down a big ruling today in Berghuis v. Thompkins about the Miranda Rule. SCOTUSblog:
...the Court held, by a vote of five to four, that suspects must explicitly tell police that they want to be silent to invoke Miranda protections during criminal investigations. Justice Sotomayor’s dissent was longer than the majority opinion and drew particular notice. The L.A. Times’s David Savage describes it as her “first strongly written dissent,” while Tony Mauro of the National Law Journal characterizes it as perhaps “her most important writing since joining the Court.”
In the case, the defendant (Thompkins) was being questioned in a murder trial. For three hours he said not a single word -- he held absolute silence. In the third hour, he was asked whether he would like to pray to God for forgiveness for his crime, and he responded, "Yes."

Thompkins' lawyers argued that the "Yes" could not be used against Thompkins in the court of law because he had, in those three hours, been absolutely silent -- thus asserting his right under the Miranda Rule to remain silent.

The court ruled against that, saying that in order for you to assert your right to silence, you need to verbally and deliberately invoke your right to silence. Even if you are silent for three, five, twenty hours, if you speak you are waiving your right to silence.

Unfortunately, there are no protections to prevent law enforcement officials from simply waiting you out, barraging you with questions, and generally bullying until you break under the pressure. Granted, it's not forced confession like torture, but it still may lead to false confessions from those prone to break under pressure.

I agree with Sotomayor's passionate dissent. Note, by the way, that Sotomayor is the only trial judge on the Supreme Court. The other justices come from non-criminal Trial backgrounds, and so they perhaps have less direct experience with criminal trials, and the way that the protections afforded to the defendant protect them from abuses of the law.

In the world of the more esoteric, it may seem like a no-brainer that if a criminal says something they are waiving their right to remain silent (and it does seem in keeping with the way the Miranda Warning is phrased --- RTWT, btw, there's some fascinating distinctions between different nations and their equivalents to our Miranda Warning). But in practice, any right that you have to assert will be tailored to the educated and intelligent criminal; the poor and uneducated will not know.

According to NPR, criminal justice professors from right to left have been against the ruling; the people in favor of the ruling are law enforcement officials. One officer quoted in the NPR story said on air that the ruling is good because it would make things easier for police.

There's the bias: is easier for police always better for the community?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

My Mind 5/30-7/4

My 500th Post! And happy Independence Day!

How I was keeping my mind clean this week:
How I was keeping my mind fit this week:
Important facts:
Things to watch in the future:

I Have Hope for Israel

I feel really strange writing this, because most of today, I was feeling the lowest about Israel I've felt in years -- and believe me, I've been feeling really damn low about Israel lately. The nation that my parents left when they were my age is unrecognizable to them, and so far, not a single one of my fears has proven unfounded. There is no low expectation that they have not exceeded.

Two Turkish activists were reported to be among those killed in the flotilla. Ankara warned that further supply vessels will be sent to Gaza, escorted by the Turkish Navy, a development with unpredictable consequences.
Combined with this:
Note that the flag on that ship was Turkey, a NATO member. Will Turkey demand invocation of NATO's Article 5?
The reason I've had such incredibly low hopes for Israel is because there hasn't been anyone with any leverage over Israel. And the reason is because, for whatever reason, Israel has both the Democratic and Republican party establishments by the balls. It is debatable whether they control American popular opinion in the same way.

The United Nations, as toothless as it is, is also by extension neutered by the United States, and by its own irrelevance. So no help there.

Turkey, however, has its own special relationship with the United States. They can, for instance, wish away genocide when it feels like it. Why? Because of their key role in Iraq, where they have occasionally invaded. Previously in history, Turkey and Israel have had a cordial but distant relationship. But the Netenyahu government has gone out of its way to drive them away:
After summoning [Turkish] Ambassador Ahmet Oguz Cellikol for a tongue-lashing, [Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister] Ayalon put him in a low chair. He deliberately failed to display the flag of Turkey next to Israel’s flag on his desk. And — listen to this — he didn’t smile at the Turk, as required by diplomatic protocol.

People in the know tell me that you’ve got to tongue-lash ambassadors with a smile. If you don’t, you risk a diplomatic incident. Ayalon not only failed to smile at Cellikol but, in case the Turk missed it, he told the media. Look, Ma, no smile! No Turkish flag on my desk, either! The chair — well, the ambassador could hardly have missed sitting on a chair so low he needed a periscope to look up at Ayalon — but just in case, the Deputy mentioned it to the press, too. No point in humiliating ambassadors who don’t notice.
If it is true that Turkey is going to involve itself rather deliberately and personally in this conflict, then I think the game changes. If they bring the Turkish navy into it, then they carry the weight of the rest of NATO into it. Because if Israel comes into conflict with the Turkish navy, then it is automatically a war with NATO.

Now, the United States could try to weasel out of their obligations. But if they do, then the other NATO members are going to have great cause to no longer involve themselves in Afghanistan. If the US decides not to come to the aid of a NATO member, as its treaty requires, it will basically declare NATO null and void.

So suddenly, there's an involved player with actual leverage over Israel, via its leverage over the international community.

We'll see if it amounts to anything, but it gives me hope of a way out of this rabbit hole.