Archive for May, 2010

Morning Links

So what happens when BP succeeds?

This morning Karl Rove has an op-ed (can we call it a column yet?) in the Wall Street Journal forwarding the increasingly silly and increasingly CW talking point that the BP oil spill is Obama’s Katrina:

As President Obama prepares to return to the Gulf Coast Friday, he is receiving increasing criticism for his handling of the oil spill. For good reason: Since the Deepwater Horizon rig blew up on April 20, a lethargic Team Obama has delayed or blown off key decisions requested by state and local governments and left British Petroleum in charge of developing a plan to cap the massive leak. Now the slow-moving oil spill threatens Mr. Obama’s reputation, along with 40% of America’s sensitive wetlands. Critics include some of his most ardent cheerleaders, who understand that 38 days without an administration solution is unacceptable. Obama officials have it backwards: They talk tough about BP’s responsibilities but do not meet their own responsibilities under federal law. They should not have let more than a month go by without telling BP what to do. And they should avoid recriminations against their partner in solving the problem until after the leak is sealed.

Rove’s analysis is good political point scoring, to be sure, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for a serious argument. Let’s think for a moment about the counterfactual: Obama spent the last month in BP’s war room, personally directing the operation, failing to use his Magical President Powers to fix the leak. Then Karl Rove would have written this:

As President Obama enters his fifth week embedded with BP’s senior management, he is receiving increasing criticism for his handling of the oil spill. For good reason: Since the Deepwater Horizon rig blew up on April 20, a hyperactive Obama team has interfered with and second-guesses every British Petroleum decision, making it impossible for the company to develop a plan to cap the massive leak.

Now the slow-moving oil spill threatens Mr. Obama’s reputation, along with 40% of America’s sensitive wetlands. Critics include some of his most ardent cheerleaders, who understand that 38 days without a engineer-led solution is unacceptable.

Obama officials have it backwards: They talk tough about the federal government’s responsibilities but do not allow BP to do what it knows, which is manage oil production. They should not have tried to take control of the situation from day one. And they should avoid recriminations against their partner in solving the problem until BP has really been given a chance to try.

Moreover, most of Rove’s criticisms have little to do with the president, but rather a big, complicated, inflexible, and opaque federal bureaucracy — the same bureaucracy that mucked up the response to Katrina, leaving political egg on Bush’s face.

Over at NRO’s Corner, Jonah Goldberg is a voice of reason:

Don’t get me wrong, I’m usually singing from the same “It’s Obama’s Fault and We Know It” songbook. But I just can’t bring myself to agree with the folks who think that the BP spill is a major indictment of Obama. He may have handled the politics  of this thing badly, by which I mean the P.R., but unless someone can explain how Obama could have “taken over” and fixed this faster, I think a lot of the criticism is overboard. Not all of it; it sounds like Bobby Jindal has some legitimate complaints. But the notion that B.P. isn’t motivated to cap this thing as quickly as possible and so therefore Obama needs to lean on BP harder is nothing short of crazy talk. Obama could have been on vacation for the last month and I’d bet the tempo of the BP operation wouldn’t have been one minute slower.

What I wonder is whether there is a wrinkle in Goldberg’s argument that’s not the fault of the administration but of Congress. For weeks, BP has been trying to stop the leak with dome capsjunk shots (do they know that that phrase means?), and top kills. Nothing’s worked so far, but eventually something will. Maybe this week, maybe next; the flow will be staunched or at least contained.

At that point, every Congressional committee with jurisdiction over energy, public lands, commerce, and the environment will dragoon BP officials before them and ask sanctimoniously, “Why didn’t you do [insert whatever procedure ends up working] first?” Whichever engineer and manager organized the working solution will be hailed as heroes, while the developers of junk shorts and top hats will be publicly mocked.

To what extent does this change BP’s incentives to cap this spill? Who knows? Despite an ostensible $75 million cap on liabilities facing BP, it seems to be a bipartisan consensus that they’ll end up paying more, since we’re not really so much into the rule of law right now.

Whatever the result, though, it’s untoward to have Congress utilizing 20/20 hindsight to second-guess technical decisions after the fact. But at this point, I suppose we should be used to it.

The what commission now?

President Obama’s “National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform” met for the second time today. They have just three more meetings before the panel releases its recommendations on December 1st. So, what’s the big news out of the meeting? It’s hard to know because the event seems to have gone completely uncovered in the press.

Perhaps internet culture has spoiled me, and maybe we’ll in fact see coverage in tomorrow’s morning papers, but right now, three hours after the meeting ended, I find no trace of coverage. Not from the AP, Reuters, or Bloomberg, and not from NYT, WaPo, or WSJ. The only thing I’ve found is a blog post from The Hill.

What does this tell us about the press? That they don’t think this meeting was that important. At the last meeting, Bernanke and Orszag testified, and it was widely covered. This time mere academics spoke. (Carmen Reinhardt pointed out that gross debt is approaching 90 percent of GDP, that this will drag down the economy, and that this will lead to further debt spiral. She counseled “austerity.”)

What does this tell us about the commission? I don’t want to overstate the point, but I think it says what everyone knows: that presidential commission go nowhere. Name the last presidential commission whose recommendations were heeded by Congress. As Judd Gregg pointed out before he joined the commission,

Numerous commissions have been created by executive order over the years, and their common thread is that none have produced any legislative results. How can they?  No one has any real responsibility, or expectation of action, and so their recommendations collect dust on a shelf.

In which case, is the commission simply an election-year detente? Have we postponed seriously dealing with the problem until December so that both parties can avoid having to vote for the painful cuts and likely tax increases that are inevitable? How much worse will things get between now and then?

Morning Links

Arthur Brooks’ “The Battle”

Arthur Brooks, the polymath president of the American Enterprise Institute, today released his newest book, The Battle. It’s one barnstormer of a defense of free markets and a very lucid indictment of Brooks’ ideological opponents. Short, to the point, well-researched, and simple without being simplistic, this is a must-read for anyone who’s been bemoaning what for the last few years has looked like the death of intellectual conservatism.

Brooks’ thesis is that America is in the midst of a culture war, one that splits citizens who support markets and free enterprise from those who distrust it and want to fundamentally transform what America was, is, and will be; Brooks refers to the former as the 70 percent coalition and the latter as the 30 percent coalition, citing a plethora of data suggesting that Americans are split roughly 70/30 on the questions underlying the two different worldviews. (This echoes, but I think is emphatically different from, Grover Norquist’s “leave us alone coalition” and “takings coalition” division of the right and left.)

The difference between these groups has nothing to do with God, guns, and gays; rather, it’s about free markets and free enterprise. (To be sure, Brooks never touches on social issues.) Nor is this merely a consequentialist or Benthamite argument; Brooks writes that the “culture war between free enterprise and statism is not [about] material riches—it is [about] human flourishing. This is a battle about nothing less than our ability to pursue happiness.”

Read more »

Here Lies Love: The Imelda Marcos Song Cycle

This morning I learned that David Byrne and Fatboy Slim had teamed up to write and produce a concept album entitled Here Lies Love, a two-disc song cycle based on the life of Imelda Marcos.

It’s true. And even more odd, it’s good. I’ve only gotten through the first disc, but I’m hooked. Think the Talking Heads do Evita on rollerskates. With glowsticks.

I’m not a music critic so I won’t attempt to describe the tracks. But suffice it to say, the more skeptical you are that this would work (it’s an experimental song cycle about Imelda Marcos, for crying out loud!), the more you’re likely to be impressed.

Here’s Byrne from the liner notes:

The story I am interested in is about asking what drives a powerful person—what makes them tick? How do they make and then remake themselves? I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be great if—as this piece would be principally composed of clubby dance music—one could experience it in a club setting? Could one bring a ‘story’ and a kind of theater to the disco? Was that possible? If so, wouldn’t that be amazing!

It’s available from Amazon or directly from David Byrne’s web site in a variety of formats. If the Byrne and Slim names aren’t enough to get you interested, some of the leading lights of current indie, alt-country, and rock music are involved, including Steve Earle, Allison Moorer, Tori Amos, Martha Wainwright (on a track Byrne rightly calls “Disney-esque”“quasi-Disney”), Sharon Jones, Kate Pierson, Natalie Merchant, and Alice Russell.

Update: Here’s one of the tracks from the album, “Never So Big,” featuring Sia.

Morning Links

Morning Links

This is why you’re losing ten million dollars per day

The web site chronicles over-the-top foods that offer obvious explanations for America’s obesity problem. Perhaps it’s time to start a rival web site devoted to pictures showing why the US Postal Service lost over $3.8 billion last year, leading it to close hundreds of branches and consider suspending Saturday delivery.

This photo, taken this afternoon at the US Post Office on Washington Boulevard in Arlington, Virginia, suggests a reason why the USPS might not be in the finest fettle:


  • A line six deep.
  • Nobody at the counter. (The gentleman in the black polo hiding behind a pillar appears to have been a contractor or some other non-USPS employee.)
  • The backwards sign at the top of the third window from the left.
  • The overstuffed waste bins.
  • The lack of tape, pens, and other mailing supplies.
  • The lack of air conditioning (not pictured due to technical limitations of photography).

I won’t cry for the postal service, which admits that it’s only kept alive financially by Congressional subsidy and the millions of pounds of junk mail it thrusts through unwilling victims’ customers’ letterboxes every year. As Radley Balko wrote in 2008,

Americans should be bothered with useless, unsolicited junk mail so that the USPS can continue to pay otherwise unneeded postal workers to deliver it. Makes sense to me. I thus propose a federal “Agency for Digging Holes in Americans’ Front Yards.” Then, because of the holes-in-people’s-front-yards problem that will inevitably result, I propose a second “Agency for Filling In Yard Holes.”

Unfortunately, this went from satire to conventional wisdom in a matter of months. So there’s probably little hope for the US Post Office going out of business anytime soon.

Kentucky fact of the day

The last Public Policy Polling survey in Kentucky found that more Republicans think Rand Paul (R) is too liberal (17%) than think he is too conservative (12%). (Via Political Wire.)


Ex-Hacker Adrian Lamo Institutionalized for Asperger’s

According to Wired’s Threat Level, noted hacker Adrian Lamo was institutionalized against his will for 9 days last month. He was released with a diagnosis of Aspberger’s. The whole article is an interesting read, but what fascinated me is how folks on the autism spectrum can go for so long without being diagnosed and how they’re surprised when they find out. From the article:

Also anecdotally, people with Asperger’s are frequently diagnosed in adulthood, even into their 50s, according to the U.S. Autism and Asperger’s Association. As in Lamo’s case, the diagnosis often follows a run-in with the police, says Dennis Debbaudt, an independent consultant who trains law enforcement agencies on interacting with people on the autistic spectrum.

Daley’s amusing FOIA revenge

A couple of weeks ago I spoke at the launch of the Congressional Transparency Caucus. A (somewhat weird) idea that was discussed was improving Freedom of Information Act requests for the purpose of helping the dying newspaper industry. Like I said, weird.

In general, though, the FOIA process definitely stands improvement. Once a federal agency receives and complies with a FOIA request, it should not only give the requested information to the requester, but also publish it to its website so it’s available to all. Today, the same in-demand documents can be laboriously requested many times by different individuals.

Transparency Caucus co-chair Rep. Darrell Issa made the interesting suggestion that there might need to be a deliberate delay between when an agency complies with a journalist’s FOIA request and when it publishes it on the web. Otherwise competing journalists will be able to see what the requesting journalist is sniffing around for thereby destroying any investigative scoop. Issa likened his suggestion to a patent or copyright for journalistic ingenuity.

Now comes word that Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago is doing exactly the opposite. To annoy his enemies in the press, his new transparency policy goes out of its way to disclose what all is being FOIA’d and by whom:

In the name of “transparency,” Mayor Daley on Thursday got some measure of revenge against the investigative reporters who’ve made his life miserable by digging up dirt on the Hired Truck, city hiring and minority contracting scandals.

He revamped the city’s new website to include a log of all Freedom of Information Act requests. The list includes the name and organization of each applicant, documents demanded and dates the information was requested and is due to be released.

A new state law merely requires city departments to maintain such a log — not to post it on the Internet to tip investigative reporters about the trail being followed by competitors.

But Daley gleefully declared that he was going “above and beyond what’s required” in the interest of “transparency, openness and the free-flow of information.”

“If you want transparency in government, you have to have this. I’m sorry. This has nothing to do with [getting even with] the Sun-Times, Tribune, media or anything. This is what you want,” Daley said.

This is very amusing. For what it’s worth, I don’t think the government owes journalists or any other profession any special consideration. I also don’t understand why the requester’s identity should be disclosed, either.

Academic Entreprenuership

As many scholars have observed, the market for tenure-track jobs is declining, relative to contingent faculty positions such as lecturers or instructors.  And this trend is not likely to change. Add to this the retirement of the baby boom professors, cost constraints for state higher education budgets, the eroded value of endowments, declining philanthropic support, and new business models by higher education companies –you have a recipe for tumultuous marketplace for faculty jobs over the next decade.

So in this environment, what can grad students and faculty in the early stages of their careers do to pursue a successful career in academia?

One idea emerging is “academic entrepreneurship”–the idea of taking your career into your own hands and discovering your own comparative advantage in this changing marketplace.  In a great piece at Inside Higher Ed, “The Entrepreneurial Grad Student,” Christine Kelly offers three things you can do to be entrepreneurial: brand yourself, seek opportunities, and be willing to adapt.

Apologies for the cross-promotion. But for faculty and grad student readers who are interested discussing and exploring this topic, I am moderating a Academic Entrepreneurship group at Kosmos, the online community of classical-liberal scholars. (Kosmos is in beta, so please excuse some part of the website still under construction.)

Morning Links

Can Twitter approximate polls?

At Pollster, Alex Lundry reviews a new study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon that attempts to use Twitter to approximate public opinion polls. For instance, the researchers used the prevalence of tweets like “Obama’s awesome” and “Obama sucks” to measure President Obama’s job approval rating, a common measure by pollsters. Implication:

This study also highlights a debate the polling community must have sooner or later: can the shortcomings of dirty data be overcome by a mix of sheer volume, sound data preparation/manipulation and savvy analysis? In this new era of IVR, online panels, social media and big data, the answer is increasingly pointing to yes – especially when you consider the advantages of speed, cost and access that these non-traditional data collection methods enjoy.

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