Monday, March 30, 2009

# Posted 10:50 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

THE POLITICS OF INTELLIGENCE: It's the old nature vs. nurture debate. Is intelligence genetic, or does your upbringing matter? Yesterday, the Times reviewed a new book that makes the case for nurture. This comment from the reviewer caught my eye:
When the evidence is ambiguous, it is all the easier for ideology to influence one’s scientific judgment. Liberals hope that social policy can redress life’s unfairness. Conservatives hold that natural inequality must be accepted as inevitable.
Actually, I think conservatives have an equally compelling interest in the case for nurture, rather than nature. It's all about responsibility. Your family has to take responsibility for your education. Schools can't do it alone, no matter how much funding they have. Consider the following item from the review:
If I.Q. differences are indeed largely environmental, what might help eliminate group disparities? The most dramatic results come from adoption. When poor children are adopted by upper-middle-class families, they show an I.Q. gain of 12 to 16 points.
So what now? Should the government help poor families become upper-middle class? Or do poor families have to learn from the example of their wealthier cousins? The answer to that may really be about ideology.

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly
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# Posted 10:39 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

I KNOW A BESTSELLING AUTHOR: Craig Mullaney, my classmate from grad school, is at #10 on the NY Times bestseller list for hardcover non-fiction (for the second week in a row). His book, The Unforgiving Minute, is the story of his time at West Point, Oxford, and Afghanistan.

If you need some persuasion to party with your money, check out Vanity Fair's excerpt from the book, about Craig's boxing match in Afghanistan.

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly
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Friday, March 27, 2009

# Posted 1:22 PM by Taylor Owen  

NEWSPAPER DECLINE BAD FOR DEMOCRACY, REALLY?: Nearly two years ago Dave and I wrote a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review (which they opted not to publish) critical of Kuttner and the CJR's faith in the print-hybrid model for media.

After having it sit on our hard drives all this time we are putting it up for download (back story on my next post). It is, sadly, more or less as relevant today as it was when we wrote it.

Here is a link to the full version of the article Missing the Link: Why Old Media Still Doesn't Get the Internet.

And here's one of our favourite passages:

Newspapers’ decline is a sign of democracy, not a symptom of its death

A recent Columbia Journalism School panel on the future of the newspaper industry ended with a solemn and bold pronouncement: “If print newspapers disappear, it will be a fundamental threat to our democracy.”

Such statements made many of New Media participants roll their eyes—and for good reason. Are newspapers really a precondition for democracy?

This type of irrational hyperbole discredits traditional media’s claim to rational objectivity. Newspapers are not a precondition for democracy—free speech is. This is why the constitution protects the latter and not the former. It is also what makes the internet important—it provides a powerful new medium through which free speech can be transmitted. As we argued earlier, the internet offers its own democratic way of filtering content, allowing what people think is important, relevant and interesting to be aggregated and heard. It may be messy and far from perfect, but then, so is democracy.

Newspapers, in contrast, are many things, but they are not democratic. They are hierarchical authoritarian structures designed to control and shape information. This is not to say they don’t provide a societal benefit—their content contributes to the public discourse. However, how is having a few major media outlets deciding “what is news” democratic, or even good for democracy? The newspaper model isn’t about expanding free speech; it is about limiting it to force readers to listen to what the editor prescribes. When is the last time you had an opinion piece or letter published in a newspaper? There are many more voices in America that deserve to be heard aside from Ivy League educated editors and journalists.

The “necessary for democracy” argument also assumes that readers are less civically engaged if they digest their news online. How absurd. Gen Y is likely far more knowledgeable about their world than Boomers were. The problem is that Boomers appeared more knowledgeable to one another because they all knew the same things. The limited array of media meant people were generally civically minded about the same things and evaluated one another based on how much of the same media they’d seen. The diversity available in today’s media—facilitated greatly by the internet—means it is hard to evaluate someone’s civic mindedness because they may be deeply knowledgeable and engaged in a set of issues you are completely unfamiliar with. Diversity of content and access to it, made possible by the internet, has strengthened our civic engagement.

Far from a prerequisite, traditional media is to democracy what commercial banks are to capitalism. Are banks necessary for capitalism? No. Have they sped up its growth and made it more effective? Definitely. But could some better model emerge that performs their functions more effectively? Absolutely. Much like claiming “you’ll never get by without me” rarely reignites a relationship, fear mongering and threatening your customers won’t bring readers back. This approach merely demonstrates how scared old media has become of its readers, their free speech, and the type of democracy they want to build.
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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

# Posted 11:38 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

RED CROSS ON CIA BLACK SITES: The editors of the WaPo comment on the recently revealed Red Cross report that describes US tactics at CIA-operated black sites as torture: "The allegations are familiar, yet some of the details are sickeningly new.

Cross-posted on Conventional Folly
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# Posted 11:24 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

YES, I WATCH RACHEL MADDOW: On Monday night, Maddow invited counterinsurgency expert John Nagl to discuss Afghanistan in her 'Talk Me Down' segment. Nagl is a retired lieutenant colonel who commanded an Army battalion in Baghdad and wrote Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife, an influential analysis of American failures in Vietnam. In addition, Nagl worked with David Petraeus on Field Manual 3-24, the Army's official doctrine for counterinsurgency, which informed the surge. Currently, Nagl serves as President of the Center for a New American Security, the erstwhile home of many of the top civilians in the Obama Pentagon (except Bob Gates).

FYI, the first five minutes of the clip below are Maddow's commentary, followed by five minutes of discussion with Nagl. You may want to skip to the discussion if you're not fond of Ms. Rachel. I certainly wouldn't mind if she stopped making faces for the camera, as if she were trying to be David Letterman of Jon Stewart. But that's not important.

What's really interesting is that in spite of Barack Obama's constant description of Afghanistan, for two years running, as a war we must win, Maddow basically considers it a lost cause and doesn't seem to think that there would be serious costs to walking off the playing field. Since I'm no expert on the (overtly) liberal media, I'm not sure whether to take Maddow's position as a bellwether. Yet it seems that even with a brilliant liberal president in office fighting a war considered fully legitimate by the international community, Maddow and others on the left want no part of it.

via videosift.com

Cross-posted on Conventional Folly
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Monday, March 16, 2009

# Posted 4:23 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

THANK YOU, NEW YORK TIMES: I've got to give credit where credit is due. Yesterday's front-page story about Obama's health care plans is a remarkable vindication of what McCain was saying about healthcare last fall. The Times' story captures just how dishonest Obama's attacks really were. I can tell you as a veteran of the McCain policy shop just how angry and frustrated we were by those attacks, which were repeated night after night in tens of millions of dollars worth of television ads. The fact checkers were pretty good about exposing Obama's "old politics" (as well as GOP spin on the issue), but it would've been nice if the Times and the MSM gave Obama's distortations the attention they deserved and made it plain what a stark contrast they offered to promises of hope and change. Here's the story:

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is signaling to Congress that the president could support taxing some employee health benefits, as several influential lawmakers and many economists favor, to help pay for overhauling the health care system.

The proposal is politically problematic for President Obama, however, since it is similar to one he denounced in the presidential campaign as “the largest middle-class tax increase in history.” Most Americans with insurance get it from their employers, and taxing workers for the benefit is opposed by union leaders and some businesses.

In television advertisements last fall, Mr. Obama criticized his Republican rival for the presidency, Senator John McCain of Arizona, for proposing to tax all employer-provided health benefits. The benefits have long been tax-free, regardless of how generous they are or how much an employee earns. The advertisements did not point out that Mr. McCain, in exchange, wanted to give all families a tax credit to subsidize the purchase of coverage.

At the time, even some Obama supporters said privately that he might come to regret his position if he won the election; in effect, they said, he was potentially giving up an important option to help finance his ambitious health care agenda to reduce medical costs and to expand coverage to the 46 million uninsured Americans. Now that Mr. Obama has begun the health debate, several advisers say that while he will not propose changing the tax-free status of employee health benefits, neither will he oppose it if Congress does so.

At a recent Congressional hearing, Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat whose own health plan would make benefits taxable, asked Peter R. Orszag, the president’s budget director, about the issue. Mr. Orszag replied that it “most firmly should remain on the table.”

Mr. Orszag, an economist who has served as director of the Congressional Budget Office, has written favorably of taxing some employer-provided health benefits and using the revenue savings for other health-related incentives. So has another Obama adviser, Jason Furman, the deputy director of the White House National Economic Council.
The rest of it's here.

Cross-posted on Conventional Folly
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# Posted 4:13 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

THANK YOU, DAVID GREGORY: Yes, this is the second post in a row to pick on Christina Romer, head of the President's Council of Economic Advisers. But this exchange was too good to pass up:
MR. GREGORY: There's an effort across the administration to sound more confident about the economy. The president, speaking on Friday, said this:

(Videotape, Friday)

PRES. OBAMA: If we are keeping focused on all the fundamentally sound aspects of our economy, then we're going to get through this. And I'm very confident about that.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: And yet last year during the campaign, Senator John McCain said something similar. This is what he said back then.

(Videotape, September 15, 2008)

SEN. JOHN McCAIN (R-AZ): You know that there's been tremendous turmoil in our financial markets and Wall Street, and it is--it's--people are frightened by these events. Our economy, I think--still, the fundamentals our--of our economy are strong, but these are very, very difficult time.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: So back then during the campaign when Senator McCain talked about the strong fundamentals of the economy, it was then-candidate Obama and his team that roundly criticized McCain, saying he was out of touch, he didn't get it, he didn't understand how bad the economy was. And yet now the president's talking about the strong fundamentals of the economy. So what's different between then, the campaign, and now, except for the fact that the economy's gotten dramatically worse?

DR. ROMER: I think when the president says he's focusing on fundamentals, what he means is, is we're focusing on, on fixing the fundamentals; that we've always said we're not looking at the ups and downs of the stock market, we're looking for those crucial indicators: when are jobs turning around, when are sales turning around, when do we see consumers coming to life? That's the kind of thing that--certainly that I'm looking at in terms of when's the economy going to be doing better and, and when can we see some hope.

MR. GREGORY: Are the fundamentals of this economy sound?

DR. ROMER: Well, of course the fundamentals are sound in the sense that the American workers are sound, we have a good capital stock, we have good technology. We know that, that temporarily we're in a mess, right? We've seen huge job loss, we've seen very large falls in GDP. So certainly in the short run we're in a, in a bad situation. [Emphasis added]

MR. GREGORY: All right, but then what's different between now and then, when the economy was in even better shape than it, it is now, when McCain was saying the fundamentals were strong and then-candidate Obama criticized him?

DR. ROMER: I think--again, I think what, what we're saying is that the, you know, where we are today is obviously not good. We have a plan in place to get to a good place. I think that's the crucial--a fundamentally crucial difference, is to make sure that you have put in place all of the comprehensive programs that'll get us back to those fundamentals.

The other thing I think is so important, the president has actually said in terms of fundamentals, we need to make changes. That's why he's focusing on energy, education, getting the budget deficit under control, precisely because he said...


DR. ROMER: ...when we get through this thing, we want to be in a better place.

MR. GREGORY: But perhaps Senator McCain was right when he said the fundamentals of the economy were strong, because you have President Obama saying roughly the same thing now?

DR. ROMER: I really think you're misinterpreting the president. I think the key thing that the president was saying is we have our eyes on the fundamentals, that is why we're concerned about.
There is no such thing as the new politics. Say it three times out loud.

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly
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# Posted 4:02 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

A REPUBLICAN WHO SINCERELY WANTS OBAMA NOT TO FAIL: Dr. Christina Romer is the chair of the President's Council of Economic Advisers. Her comments yesterday morning on Meet the Press left me rather unsettled about the administration's readiness to handle this crisis, because I sincerely want the economy to recover as soon as possible.

But seriously, should you believe a Republican who says a rapid recovery is what he truly wants, when you know that he secretly hopes the recovery will be delayed just long enough to ensure that Barack Obama gets blamed for the crisis and the Democrats suffer a major setback in the 2010 elections?

Well, I certainly admit to wishing ill to the President's approval ratings and hoping for a big GOP win in the next elections. But my personal financial interest in a rapid recovery is so strong that the prospect of extensive schadenfreude is hardly enough to change my mind. I think a lot of middle and upper-middle class Republicans are in the same position. We've lost 30-40% of our net worth because of the stock market plunge, throwing our financial health into disarray. Personally, I've been forced to reconsider what kind of house I can afford once I go on the market later this year.

Forgive the extensive quotation, but I think it's worth looking closely at what Romer had to say about why Tim Geithner is still alone at Treasury, without a single significant deputy confirmed to support him:
MR. GREGORY: The president's economic team has come under some criticism, namely Treasury Secretary Geithner, for not install--instilling a great deal of confidence with regard to plans to shore up the financial system. And one of those areas focuses on something that you would think would be simple but apparently it's not, and that's staffing the Treasury Department. This is how the AP reports on it on March 5th: "Critics say part of the problem is that Geithner is flying solo: Not one of his top 17 deputies has been ... confirmed. And without senior leadership, lower-level Treasury employees can't make decisions or represent the government in crucial conversations with banks and others." If you go to Treasury's Web site, your own Web site, under the heading of "senior Treasury officials" there's one name on there, Tim Geithner, the Treasury secretary. If this is an economic war, isn't this akin to going to war without an army?

DR. ROMER: So I think we need to be clear that there are certainly people there, he has brought in people. They're obviously--not, not a large number of them are confirmed. I think I don't like the, the reference to the, the Fed--the, the Treasury staff unable to do anything. There is a huge professional career staff. And if you think of what most of the work we're having to do, or the, the nuts and bolts, getting all of these programs that we're putting into place right, it's that career staff that's absolutely crucial.

MR. GREGORY: Right. But Paul, Paul Volcker and other top economic advisers said it's shameful that these people are not in place, his top officials are not in place. You say the people--the career people--I've certainly talked to people who are in the Treasury Department who say the people responsible for communicating with Wall Street, for doing that nuts and bolts work are simply not there, it's all falling on the Treasury secretary. It's not as if this administration didn't see these problems coming back prior to taking office. Why wasn't this a priority, getting these people in place?

DR. ROMER: I mean, it absolutely is a priority. And then another thing, I do a little historical reference here, which is if you look at how many people we've gotten into senior positions in this administration, it's really very high in comparison, even at the Treasury.

MR. GREGORY: But we're talking...

DR. ROMER: I think that's the, the numbers I have...

MR. GREGORY: Really? What's the historical parallel when you don't have any of your top people that you've nominated in the Treasury Department serving during the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression? [Emphasis added]

DR. ROMER: I mean, you're absolutely right that this, this is a very serious crisis and we certainly, you know, need all, all hands on deck. The Treasury secretary is working as hard as he can to get those people into place.

MR. GREGORY: Is part of the problem that the administration or, or the more political advisers in the administration don't want people from Wall Street, don't want people who are experienced, because they think they're tainted?

DR. ROMER: No, of course not. We want--right? We want the best people to be dealing with things, and...

MR. GREGORY: Right. So what's the problem? Where are they? You just had four people withdraw their nomination, including, including Rodge Cohen, who is one of the most senior people on Wall Street as a lawyer with Sullivan & Cromwell, who's advised all of these, all of these banks, and now he's pulled out.

DR. ROMER: I think one thing to realize, the--that the Obama administration is doing business in a different way. And we do have very strict rules on, you know, sort of the, the kinds of vetting requirements and whether you can have been a lobbyist and things like that. And it does tie your hands on some of the people you can hire. But we think the, the administration has made the decision it's worth it to have honesty and accountability and, and a sense of confidence for the American people.
Some of Romer's weak excuses can be cast aside as talking points she obviously doesn't believe. It's always nice to praise the career civil servants who staff our government, but no one really thinks they can make and implement major decisions without guidance from politically-appointed senior executives.

In contrast, I think Romer's talking point about "honesty and accountability" says a little more about what's really going. What she's basically saying is that the vetting process has hit a wall. The first half of the story is about the "strict rules" for political appointments that Romer mentioned. The second half is about the nomination fiascos (Daschle, Richardson, Gregg, etc.) that undermined the administration's confidence that it could move quickly while playing by its own strict rules.

Weighed down by the pressure not to have another one of its nominations become a fiasco, the administration seems to have lost sight of priority #1, putting together a team to fix the economy.

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly
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Saturday, March 07, 2009

# Posted 6:39 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

A delegation of senior Middle Eastern leaders has travelled to Sudan to express international support for Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese president, who is accused of war crimes in Darfur.

Officials from Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah joined Syria's parliament speaker and the leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group for talks with al-Bashir in Khartoum, Sudan's capital, on Friday.
Don't forget that the victims of Bashir's genocide in Sudan are Muslims. A potent reminder of just how cynical jihadi terrorists and their sponsors are when it comes to taking the lives of innocent civilians. They will use civilians as human shields in Gaza, denounce Israel for war crimes, then rush to Sudan to show solidarity with its genocidal president.

For a look at the strategic implications of Bashir's indictment for war crimes, I highly recommend this essay by Peter Pham of James Madison University.

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly
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# Posted 6:19 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

If God is good, why does evil exist? Do men have free will, or are our actions predetermined?

Above all, why don't hotels ever put little tubes of toothpaste in your bathroom?

The hotel I just stayed in had little bottles of mouthwash, shampoo, body lotion, conditioner and several bars of soap. Clearly, the issue isn't money. Is the anti-toothpaste lobby getting in the way? Does toothpaste cause global warming? I dunno.

I learned my lesson a long time ago. Bring your own damn toothpaste.

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly
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# Posted 6:04 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

I'm posting in San Francisco right now, after spending the past couple of days at a Stanford conference on democratic transitions and the role that international actors play in supporting them. I presented a paper on the South Korean transition to democracy in 1987, co-authored with a colleague from Seoul.

If you're into the academic literature on democratic transitions, you may have noticed that it rarely even asks whether international actors play a significant role. The exception is the work of a small number of experts on democracy promotion, who tend to overcompensate for this trend by overemphasizing the role of outside forces.

The purpose of the conference at Stanford was to commission around 15 case studies that rigorously compare the role of domestic and international factors in democratic transitions. In my case (South Korea), the Reagan administration made a concerted effort to prevent violence and ensure a safe transition to democracy at the height of the riots that swept across South Korea in 1987.

The best way to characterize the US role in this transition (and many others) may be as a thumb on the scales. South Koreans led both the pro- and anti-democracy forces, but American influence helped the pro-democracy forces win out in the end.

If the balance of power strongly favors anti-democratic forces, there isn't much that the US or other democratic nations can do to change the outcome. But if a pro-democracy movement builds up a strong head of steam, the US and others can influence both the nature and the outcome of the transition.

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly
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Sunday, March 01, 2009

# Posted 2:36 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

BLACK PRESIDENTS BEFORE OBAMA: A brilliant study of ficitional black presidents by Sean Higgins, courtesy of Doublethink Online. If Eric Holder read this article before giving his "cowardice" speech, he might have saved himself a lot of embarrassment.

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly
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# Posted 2:19 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

OBAMA AND THE SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRES: I just saw Slumdog for the first time last night. A truly deserving winner, IMHO. Also, a good moment to reflect on the flourishing relationship between the US and India.

Asia is one part of the world where even Democrats say George Bush did a very good job. As Dan Twining observes, Dubya's most important achievement in Asia was the firm establishment of a strategic partnership with India. Then why, Dan asks, does the Obama administration seem so uninterested in India? Why wasn't Prime Minister Singh one of the first world leaders Obama telephoned from the Oval Office? Why didn't Secretary of State Clinton even consider stopping in India during her maiden voyage to Asia?

Peter Pham raised some of the same red flags earlier this month in a column entitled "Ignoring India". Peter writes that the Obama administration has already provoked criticism in New Delhi for its careless handling of the Kashmir issue. India has also cast a wary eye on Obama's outreach to American protectionists:
Currently the United States is India’s largest trading partner, with bilateral commerce worth some $41.6 billion in 2007. America is also the largest source of foreign investment in India. Indeed, one of the most egregious protectionist elements in the stimulus bill making its way through Congress, the ban on using imported iron and steel in infrastructure projects, is already being interpreted in India as a swipe at two of the country’s largest firms, ArcelorMittal and Tata Steel, respectively the world’s largest and sixth largest steel producers.
Both Peter and Dan's columns should be read in their entirety.

Now, turning back to Slumdog for a moment, I have to wonder whether Indians have mixed feelings about the prominence it has given their country on the global stage. In the film, India is a place where policemen casually torture innocent suspects, Hindu mobs slaughter Muslim women, beggar children have their eyes put out by their Fagin-esque guardians, sex trafficking is rampant and so is Dickensian poverty.

If you want to know why our strategic partnership with India is essential, this film won't provide any answers.

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly
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# Posted 2:16 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  


"We now have moved a major step in the direction of socialism," Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) said Friday, adding: "We are close to a fascist system where the government has control of our lives and our economy."
It sounds funny, but when you think about, the full name of the Nazi Party was the National Socialist German Workers Party. Who says fascists can't be socialists, too?

Anyhow, not surprisingly, the WaPo's coverage of CPAC amounted to a compilation of the most ridiculous and/or politically incorrect things anyone said there, plus a brief dismissal of conservative ideas as "little more beyond the notion of keeping government limited and 'unleashing the power of freedom' in the lives of Americans."

And I shouldn't forget a third essential point: Reprinting conservative self-criticism that echoes liberal talking points:
Huckabee sounded a populist note: "We've got to get the word out that the Republican Party is not just a haven for rich white guys who want to get richer.
This article belongs in the official MSM textbook on how to trivialize a subject while pretending to provide objective coverage.

Cross-posted on Conventional Folly
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