Archive | October, 2007

(Halloween) Party Like It’s 1999

31 Oct


This is a story about ghosts. It’s a tense thriller involving murder, pregnancy, poisoning, an inept investigation, making out with pumpkins, and a man who exposes himself to Gumby. It’s harrowing and chilling, in the way that a brain freeze from eating ice cream too fast is harrowing and chilling.

Actually, it’s a ghost website that has been quietly taking up server space somewhere since 1999 and tells the story of a fictional Halloween party in fin de siècle America. Some friends and I put it together back during our senior year of high school (and by “put it together” I mean someone else did all the technical work, I just threw the party and took the pictures, which cost me $50 to develop in the days before ubiquitous digital cameras). For some reason, the website has remained up ever since (as far as we know, the webhosting company we used was bought out by some other company and we haven’t paid anyone a dime in eight years). See if you can spot the Mallrats and X-Files posters in the background. Also, I’m Obi-Wan in the story, but only because I bought my costume that day from a party store and it came with a lightsaber, which seemed like a cool enough deal. (Sigh) And this was in the days before I could blame my dumb behavior on alcohol.

With that, I give you The Party.

Annals of Bad Economic Contrarianism

30 Oct

The Economist sidesteps the supply-side debate:

THE RECENT jihad against supply-side fiscal thinking is, as far as I can tell, largely an attempt to distract people from the rather impressive distortionary effects of tax increases. Whether or not tax cuts “pay for themselves” in the short run, it remains that tax increases don’t raise as much revenue as one might hope, and, yes, may be completely self-defeating in the middle to long run. The main point of supply-side thinking is already part of conventional professional wisdom, so it really is quixotic to rail against it.

Beginning your argument with “whether or not tax cuts pay for themselves in the short run” ignores the costs of lost revenues altogether and does nothing more than avoid the debate.  Increasing deficits can lead to rising interest rates and lower capital investment (which is bad for economic growth).  Even assuming a given tax increases is a disincentive for economic growth, it still stacks up better than a revenue draining tax cut that also discourages economic growth.  At least such a tax increase (inefficient as it might be) would be revenue neutral at worst.  Additionally, calling attacks on the Laffer curve “quixotic” misses the entire reason for publicizing the power supply-siders have on the Republican party: to combat the conventional wisdom.

Asking how a tax-cut will affect government revenue isn’t an attempt to distract–its a negative argument .  One can believe the Laffer curve is more economic prestidigitation than tax policy without buying into an uncritical positive argument about the efficiency of tax increases.

Outsourcing My Pre-Debate Political Analysis

30 Oct

Garance Franke-Ruta has an excellent summary of the political opening Obama has given to his opponents:

This is what happens when campaigns are trying too hard to win news of the day stand-offs, and not enough about directing things long-term. There was never an opening for Obama on this issue. The campaign had started to go after her on Iran, and it should have just stuck with that. Instead, Obama has created an opening for others to now go after him.

Obama needs to make significant moves (e.g. a bold policy pronouncement to put some daylight between himself and the other Democratic candidates), and quickly if he doesn’t want to cede the remaining politcial ground to Hillary Clinton. Perhaps his campaign should think about hiring Garance Franke-Ruta as a communications or media consultant instead of outsourcing¹ their message strategy to opinion columns…

¹ My outsourcing is good because I get expertise for free. Obama’s is bad because paid experts are taking bad advise from unpaid experts.

So You Want to Continue a Stealth Argument and Be a Neoconservative Apologist?

30 Oct

The great thing about Robert Kagan is that not only can he hold fast to his own dwindling island of foreign policy respectability (Q: How long can the Kristol/Kagan doctrine last? A: Islamofacism¹!), but can also continue a sloppily argued secret war² with Fareed Zakaria at the same time. (Points to Matt Zeitlin for catching this first and nailing Kagan, but minus a few for accepting Kagan’s reductive summary of Zakaria’s position)

A quick recap: Kagan’s review of The Future of Freedom for The New Republic was an intellectual hit piece which tried to reduce the book’s thesis to “Hooray for liberal autocrats/I ♥ aristocracy” (NB: I’d link to the articles, but TNR’s online archives are inaccessible while the magazine is revamping it’s website. You’ll have to read it through LexisNexis).

Kagan’s central error is the same one made by Thomas Carothers (in a piece Kagan cites in his WaPo article to bolster his argument), reading Zakaria’s argument (and related critiques of representative government) as a case for “democratic sequentialism” (i.e. rule of law and free markets are the necessary conditions for a sustainable democracy). Zakaria’s book (which does lean heavily, perhaps too much at times, on the role of markets and wealth in creation of lasting democratic reform) is more cautionary tale than a form of Rostow’s stages of development for democratic theorists; there is no ideal democratic citizen who will resist corruption and inherently lead toward more liberal policies.  Liberalism is made up of freedoms encouraged and held fast by constitutional protections, civic institutions, free-markets, and cultural norms.  What combination of factors are needed to foster and maintain a democratic regime, political scientists can’t say.  But policy makers would do well to realize that instant democracy can often run counter to the development goals they’d like to see achieved.

¹ When you think about it, this makes as much sense as other contexts in which you see this term used.

² Stealthy and infringing Marvel Comics copyright. Booyah!

Why Oh Why Can’t We Have More Economically Literate English Majors?

16 Oct

I find myself scratching my head at this Kenyon Review blog post about the online presence of literary journals and the value of literary commodities. It starts out with a discussion on the end of Times Select:

Now let me say, I’ve never taken an economics class, but I get the principle here. As the New York Times recently found in the failure of their online subscription service, people will pay for a hard copy of a newspaper, but not its online equivalent. This partly reflects our sense of the internet as a free space, not only in the sense of the free-flow of ideas, but a place where everything is free. But it also reflects the fact that we live in a commodity culture: we value the object — the book — more than its contents.

The demise of the Times paywall is the wrong analogy. The problem wasn’t that people would pay for an actual paper in lieu of an online copy, but that future advertising revenue was likely to outstrip online subscriptions. The New York Times, and now the Financial Times (with the WSJ likely to follow) went full-access (mostly) because, as Felix Salmon noted, they were losing potential pageviews from Google because their content was behind a subscriber firewall. Attention is the big value on the internet (and in “old media,” if you can attract advertisers), thus, less attention meant less revenue. Everything isn’t “free,” it’s just that it’s being paid for in a different way: advertisers instead of subscribers.

Lobanov-Rostovsky is right when he suggests we often “value the object–the book–more than its content.” Books are a type of “symbolic good,” (PDF) which we as consumers buy because of the way it makes us feel about ourselves or as a way to signal to other people that we are educated and cultured. This is less true of writers and literature lovers, who are looking for the content inside the pages, but the basic observation that people will buy books less for what they contain then for their “cultural aura” is correct.

But then Lobanov-Rostovsky makes an argument I’ve read before, but still doesn’t make any sense:

Still, I find this concept surprising when we apply it to literature. I’ve always assumed that one thing we can all agree on is that a literary text can’t be reduced to a commodity. I’m thinking here of Lewis Hyde’s view of literature as a kind of gift economy, in which the intellectual and spiritual labor that goes into the making of a literary text far exceeds anything that the poet or novelist can expect to receive in return, except in the pleasure of reading other literary texts. In a sense, the value of a literary text far exceeds its cost, but only to those who already share a common set of cultural values.

I have no idea why a literary text can’t be reduced to a commodity. Perhaps one would argue it shouldn’t be, but that is a separate argument. A quick look inside the local Barnes and Nobles, Borders–even a college bookstore or small press–suggests that a text can definitely be a commodity. Books are discrete, excludable goods that you have to pay for and can carry around. And although no one can “own” ideas, creative works–while not physical commodities–are protected under intellectual property rights. We can’t quantify the “spiritual labor” that goes into a work, so we can’t compensate someone for that; we can only measure opportunity cost in the form of forgone productive labor. But that is irrelevant, because we can’t quantify the spiritual labor for anyone–doctors, lawyers, teachers, or poets.

I think this conceptual breakdown occurs because Lobanov-Rostovsky, like many others in the literary community, sees market value imputed by something like the “labor theory of value.” But as Brad DeLong put it, “[n]obody who ventured into the labor theory of value has ever emerged.” This is where the occasional economics class might help to clarify things–or at least make for more economically sensible blog posts.

I’ll Let the Structural Engineers Explain

16 Oct


Via Crooked Timber, a familiarly shaped building planned for the Dublin skyline, courtesy of U2.  I figure Quixote should be all over this like the MSM on an outed Republican member of Congress, so I’ll leave the expert analysis to him.

Imperfect Adherence

11 Oct

Both Matt Yglesias and Young MZ see Coulter’s comments about “perfecting Jews” as the unsurprising response of a Christian who sees her faith as the one true faith, and that expressing disdain misses the exclusionary nature of sincere religious adherence. In response, I’ll point to djw at Lawyers, Guns, and Money, who accurately sums up my thoughts on the matter:

I think this post exemplifies a problem analytic philosophy types discussing religion. The fact is, squishy liberal religious people, who exist in very large numbers, exhibit an set of beliefs and justifications that wouldn’t stand up in the seminar room. Their epistemology might be described as flabby, lazy, incoherent. But really, that’s ok. Ecumenicalism can be defended on political grounds quite well, but it harder to defend as a coherent and logical worldview.