Semi-Daily Journal Archive

The Blogspot archive of the weblog of J. Bradford DeLong, Professor of Economics and Chair of the PEIS major at U.C. Berkeley, a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Treasury.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

State of Denial

The New York Times on Bob "My Last Two Books Were Full of Lies" Woodward's State of Denial:

A Portrait of the President as the Victim of His Own Certitude - New York Times: President Bush emerges as a passive, impatient, sophomoric and intellectually incurious leader, presiding over a grossly dysfunctional war cabinet and given to an almost religious certainty that makes him disinclined to rethink or re-evaluate decisions he has made about the war. It’s a portrait that stands in stark contrast to the laudatory one Mr. Woodward drew in “Bush at War,” his 2002 book, which depicted the president — in terms that the White House press office itself has purveyed — as a judicious, resolute leader, blessed with the “vision thing” his father was accused of lacking and firmly in control of the ship of state....

Woodward now sees Mr. Bush as a president who lives in a state of willful denial about the worsening situation in Iraq, a president who insists he won’t withdraw troops, even “if Laura and Barney are the only ones who support me.” (Barney is Mr. Bush’s Scottish terrier.) Mr. Woodward draws an equally scathing portrait of Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, who comes off as a bully and control freak who is reluctant to assume responsibility for his department’s failures, and who has surrounded himself with yes men and created a system that bleached out “strong, forceful military advice.”... Woodward reports that after the 2004 election Andrew H. Card Jr., then White House chief of staff, pressed for Mr. Rumsfeld’s ouster... and that Laura Bush shared his concern, worrying that Mr. Rumsfeld was hurting her husband’s reputation. Vice President Dick Cheney, however, persuaded Mr. Bush to stay the course... arguing that any change might be perceived as an expression of doubt and hesitation on the war.

Other members of the administration also come off poorly. Gen. Richard B. Myers... C.I.A. director George J. Tenet... Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice....

Woodward writes that on July 10, 2001, Mr. Tenet and his counterterrorism coordinator, J. Cofer Black, met with Ms. Rice to warn her of mounting intelligence about an impending terrorist attack, but came away feeling they’d been given “the brush-off” — a revealing encounter, given Ms. Rice’s recent comments, rebutting former President Bill Clinton’s allegations that the Bush administration had failed to pursue counterterrorism measures aggressively before 9/11.

As depicted by Mr. Woodward, this is an administration in which virtually no one will speak truth to power, an administration in which the traditional policy-making process involving methodical analysis and debate is routinely subverted. He notes that experts — who recommended higher troop levels in Iraq, warned about the consequences of disbanding the Iraqi Army or worried about the lack of postwar planning— were continually ignored by the White House and Pentagon leadership, or themselves failed, out of cowardice or blind loyalty, to press insistently their case for an altered course in the war....

Woodward... argues that [the administration] continually tried to give the public a rosy picture of the war in Iraq... even as its own intelligence was pointing to... an upward spiral of violence... Philip D. Zelikow....

Startlingly little of this overall picture is new, of course. Mr. Woodward’s portrait of Mr. Bush as a prisoner of his own certitude owes a serious debt to a 2004 article in The New York Times Magazine by the veteran reporter Ron Suskind, just as his portrait of the Pentagon’s incompetent management of the war and occupation owes a serious debt to “Fiasco,” the Washington Post reporter Thomas E. Ricks’s devastating account of the war, published this summer. Other disclosures recapitulate information contained in books and articles by other journalists and former administration insiders....

Woodward has tended in the past to stand apart from his narrative... he is more of an active agent in this volume — perhaps in a kind of belated mea culpa for his earlier positive portrayals of the administration.... [H]e inserts himself into interviews with Mr. Rumsfeld... reports that when he told Mr. Rumsfeld that the number of insurgent attacks was going up, the defense secretary replied that they’re now “categorizing more things as attacks.” Mr. Woodward quotes Mr. Rumsfeld as saying, “A random round can be an attack and all the way up to killing 50 people someplace. So you’ve got a whole fruit bowl of different things — a banana and an apple and an orange.”

Mr. Woodward adds: “I was speechless. Even with the loosest and most careless use of language and analogy, I did not understand how the secretary of defense would compare insurgent attacks to a ‘fruit bowl,’ a metaphor that stripped them of all urgency and emotion. The official categories in the classified reports that Rumsfeld regularly received were the lethal I.E.D.’s, standoff attacks with mortars and close engagements such as ambushes”...

Impeach George W. Bush. Impeach him now.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Jonathan Weisman and Charles Babbington Visit the House Republican Pedophile Scandal

Ah. Will the Washington Post last even a decade? Jonathan Weisman and Charles Babbington write, at the very bottom of their visit to the House Republican pedophile scandal:

Rep. Foley Quits In Page Scandal - Foley chaired the House caucus on missing and exploited children and was credited with writing the sexual-predator provisions of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, which Bush signed in July. A photo on the White House Web site shows Foley among those attending the signing ceremony...

Real reporters would put this piece of context higher up in the article--before the inside House seat count political baseball--and put more weight on the irony:

Ironically, Foley was the Republican point man on the crimes he is now alleged to have committed. Foley chaired the House caucus on missing and exploited children and was credited with writing the sexual-predator provisions of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, which Bush signed in July. At the time, Foley said: "For too long our nation has tracked library books better than it has sex offenders. That day is coming to an end.... We are closing loopholes that sex offenders and pedophiles have used to prey on children"...

Weisman and Babbington write:

House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) told The Washington Post last night that he had learned this spring of some "contact" between Foley and a 16-year-old page. Boehner said he told House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), and that Hastert assured him "we're taking care of it." It was not immediately clear what actions Hastert took. His spokesman had said earlier that the speaker did not know of the sexually charged e-mails between Foley and the boy...

Where what is really going on is:

House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) passed the buck to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). Boehner told The Washington Post last night that he had learned of the scandal this spring and told Hastert, who had assured him "we're taking care of it." Hastert and his staff are dodging us: they have not returned our phone calls this evening. Hastert's spokesman had said earlier that the speaker did not know of the sexually charged e-mails between Foley and the boy, a statement contradicted by Boehner.

Objective news reporting a la today's Washington Post: suppress what details we can in order to cut even pedophiles and their protectors a bit of a break.

Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?

Richard Feynman

The lectures that became Richard Feynman's brilliant book QED:

The Vega Science Trust - Richard Feynman: A set of four priceless archival recordings from the University of Auckland (New Zealand) of the outstanding Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman - arguably the greatest science lecturer ever. Although the recording is of modest technical quality the exceptional personal style and unique delivery shine through.

That Which We Are, We Are...

Diagnarfl links to me on the Bush Torture Bill, which provokes a... disturbing thought:

diagnarfl: The State of the Union: Brad DeLong says of the torture bill:

This is bad. Very bad. I can't underscore how bad this is. This is our Fugitive Slave Act, our Sedition Act, our Korematsu. This is a danger to our domestic liberties and a terrifying threat to our national security--for its impact on our international standing and on our alliances may be terrible indeed.


Daniel Webster will certainly walk tonight, for nobody today can say that the Republic is rock-bottomed and copper-sheathed. But she nevertheless does stand as she stood. Things have been just as bad, and things have been almost as bad in the memory of men yet living.

And then [Brad] talks about the events of the McCarthy era. Let's hope that the Edward R. Murrow's of today are hard at work against these latest crazed fear & hate mongers.

My thought: We are the Edward R. Murrows of today. It's up to us (for some broadly construed value of "us", of course).

Though much is taken, much abides
And though we are not now that strength
Which once moved heaven and earth
That which we are, we are...

Impeach Cheney for Stupidity. Do It Now

I don't know whether this is the fault of the usually-reliable David Sanger or the usually-unreliable Bob Woodward, but Sanger pulls some punches--or rather, some punches are pulled by someone--in Sanger's story about Woodward's forthcoming book State of Denial.

Sanger writes:

Book Says Bush Ignored Urgent Warning on Iraq - New York Times: Vice President Cheney is described as a man so determined to find proof that his claim about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was accurate that, in the summer of 2003, his aides were calling the chief weapons inspector, David Kay, with specific satellite coordinates as the sites of possible caches. None resulted in any finds...

Some punches have been pulled. A Tiny Revolution reads Corn and Isikoff and has the full-punch story:

A Tiny Revolution: Yet More Again From Hubris Additionally: Here's more.... Something like this apparently appears in Bob Woodward's new book as well. As Hubris recounts it, one night after Kay had arrived in Iraq on his fruitness WMD hunt, he was woken up in the middle of the night with a message from Cheney's office. They'd sent him:

...a highly sensitive communications intercept that had captured a snippet of conversation between two unidentified people. Cheney's aides were reading raw transcripts straight from the National Security Agency. And a Cheney staffer who had gotten hold of this piece of unanalyzed intelligence thought that it contained a reference to a WMD storage site in Iraq, even though the captured exchange didn't specifically mention weapons. What made this intercept most promising was that it had come with geographic coordinates for one of the unidentified persons...The next morning, [Kay's] analysts checked the coordinates and discovered they referred to a site in the Bekka Valley in Lebanon--not anywhere in Iraq. This was no lead...[j]ust as Cheney and Libby had done before the war, the vice president's aides were rummaging through top secret, unprocessed intelligence in the hope of discovering what everyone else in the U.S. government had missed.

But the vice president and his aides didn't have a globe with lines of latitude and longitude, or a map of the Middle East, did they?

There is more:

The signals intercept was not the only intelligence tip Cheney's office urgently passed on to Kay. On another occasion, the vice president's aides sent a message to Kay and the ISG: check out this overhead photograph. It showed what looked like the opening of a tunnel.... Kay and several of his analysts... burst out laughing.... "Anyone who has spent any time on the ground in Iraq immediately would recognize these as cuts that the local population made to get to ground water for their animals," Kay said later. "We reported back that we had looked at it and it was not what you thought it was. There was no point humiliating them"...

But there is point in impeaching them, right?

GM Thinks too Many Democrats Buy Its Cars

Ezra Klein watches in amazement:

Ezra Klein: GM Makes Good Business Decisions: Apparently, GM just made Sean Hannity their spokesman. Their new ad campaign is the "You're A Great American!" giveaway, and who better to kick that one off than the guy who said a Kerry win -- which 48 percent of the country voted for -- would be a victory for the terrorists, and keeping Nancy Pelosi out of the speakership would be "worth dying for."

Guess they thought the problem with their cars was that too many folks bought them.

More Lies from Joe Lieberman

Although he is (as long as he votes for the Democrats to organize the Senate) vastly, vastly preferable as a Senator to any Republican, this does not mean that Joe Lieberman is not an ignorant, underbriefed, mendacious dork. We saw this on Social Security. Now we see it on Iraq:

Greg Sargent reports:

CT-SEN: Lieberman Suggests Terrorists Were In Iraq Before U.S. Invasion | TPMCafe: This one almost slipped through the cracks. Buried at the end of a long article in today's Hartford Courant, Joe Lieberman is quoted suggesting that one reason for the decision to wage war on Iraq was that terrorists were there before the U.S. invasion:

Even the news about the National Intelligence Estimate, which found that the Iraq war had spread terrorism, did not deter Lieberman.

"Are there terrorists in Iraq? Of course there are. That's a reason we went in," he said.

But he would not comment on the report itself, saying, "We don't know what it says. We have to see it."

The terrorists were in Iraq before "we went in"? Anybody have any idea who Lieberman's referring to? Our best guess is that he's talking about al Zarqawi, whose presence in Iraq has been held up at times by various Bush administration officials as proof of "ties" between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. But the recently-released Senate Intelligence Committee report concluded that there were no ties between the two men, that Saddam didn't "harbor" him, and that Saddam viewed Al Qaeda as an enemy.

Department of "Huh!?"

Department of "Huh!?"

A bunch of people have said that I should give Duncan Foley a second chance. So I started back through Duncan Foley's Adam's Fallacy. This time I got to pages 42-44 before the incomprehension meter redlined at I hit three things in rapid succession.

First came, on p. 42:

The Wealth of Nations is the product of Adam Smith's teaching of political economy at the University of Glasgow. Smith, as a teacher, was more concerned with introducing key ideas and insights of poitical economy to his students than with constructing a consistent framework for these ideas. At critical points in his argument, he plausibly changes the subject in such a way as to obscure the inconsistency of the various points he is making...

To which one can only say, "Huh!?"

The Wealth of Nations is not the product of Adam Smith's teaching of political economy at the University of Glasgow. Smith did not teach political economy. He taught moral philosophy and jurisprudence. The Wealth of Nations is not anything like a reworked version of his lecture notes, or his courses, in either logic or moral philosophy. Adam Smith taught courses at Glasgow from 1751 to 1764. He published the Wealth of Nations in 1776, and wrote it in the decade after he left Glasgow.

The Wealth of Nations, instead, is a contribution--a game-changing contribution, as Adam Smith intended--to the discourse of what Keith Tribe calls Political Oeconomy, a discourse whose audience vwas composed of the literate landlords who ran the eighteenth-century British Empire and their advisors. There's no truth at all in Foley's claim that the Wealth of Nations is oversimplified because it focuses not on making a consistent argument but on introducing ideas to callow teenagers. No truth. At all. None. Zero.

Adam Smith is simply not playing hide-the-ball, and I have no idea why Foley accuses him of doing so. The weak points in Smith's arguments are weak points in his argument--he is, after all, trying to do something very new. He is not trying to hide them, or obscure them. He is saying what he thinks, and doing so as straight as he can. He is not pulling the wool over anybody's eyes via misdirection. And I have never heard of anybody, before Foley, accusing him of doing so.

But it got worse, rapidly. Second came, on page 43:

[T]he real heart of The Wealth of Nations.... Smith stands out as a philosopher and moral defender of capitalist social relations through his ingenious, if tortured, claim that the ruthless pursuit of self-interest, which can lead people to do bad things to other people, is transmuted by capitalist social relations into a moral good.... Smith sheds his general good sense and moral authority without rigorously establishing the logical basis for his approbation.

A good example of this type of argument in Smith's hands is his famous observation that it is not from the love of goodwill of the butcher or baker that we get our dinner, but from our appeal to their self-interest through our paying for meat and bread.... That is indeed how capitalist society works and reproduces itself. But to support the claim that this pursuit of self-interest is a positive good, Smith would have to show that antagonistic market exchange relations are the only possible way to support the division of labor, and that we have no alternative to accepting the distributional inequities and moral violence that accompany private property relations as the means to securing our dinners. Smith comes no closer to making this argument stick than he does to reconciling the dependence of rent on the value of the commodity with the adding-up theory of value...

To which, once again, one can only say, "Huh!?"

Let's rewind the videotape back to what Smith actually wrote, at the start of chapter 2 of Book II of the Wealth of Nations:

OF THE PRINCIPLE WHICH GIVES OCCASION TO THE DIVISION OF LABOUR: This division of labour, from which so many advantages are derived, is not... the effect of any... fores[ight of] that general opulence.... It is the necessary, though very slow and gradual, consequence of a certain propensity in human nature... to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.... It is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals, which seem to know neither this nor any other species of contracts....

Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog.... A puppy fawns upon its dam, and a spaniel endeavours... to engage the attention of its master.... Man sometimes uses the same arts... endeavours by every servile and fawning attention to obtain their good will.

He has not time, however, to do this upon every occasion. In civilized society he stands at all times in need of the co-operation and assistance of great multitudes, while his whole life is scarce sufficient to gain the friendship of a few persons.... But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and shew them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them....

[I]t is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages....

Even a beggar does not depend upon [the benevolence of others] entirely.... [H]is occasional wants are supplied in the same manner as those of other people, by treaty, by barter, and by purchase. With the money which one man gives him he purchases food. The old clothes which another bestows upon him he exchanges for other clothes which suit him better, or for lodging, or for food, or for money, with which he can buy either food, clothes, or lodging, as he has occasion...

If you were to tell Smith in an unpleasant hectoring voice, "You haven't proven that antagonistic market relations are the only possible way to support the division of labor!" Smith would reply, "Huh!?"

If he were feeling benevolent--did not conclude that you are a complete fool not worth talking to--he might expand on this, and say that in this passage he is making a historical inquiry into why it is humans and humans alone among vertebrate animals who have an extensive social division of labor. He might say that he concludes that humans have this extensive social division of labor because of a long, very slow, and gradual process of historical development that is rooted in a natural human propensity to truck, barter, and exchange. "Only" does not enter into it, he might say. He is telling his readers how this extensive social division of labor came to be, and how it is today supported by market exchange.

Smith might go on to say that yes, there are of course other ways of organizing society that could also support an extensive social division of labor. He might point to the despotism of the Castro brothers in Cuba as a convenient example of one such extensive social division of labor that is primarily supported by things other than market exchange.

If you asked him about "antagonistic market relations," he would say that his relations with the butcher, the baker, his publisher, and his publisher's relations with those who buy the Wealth of Nations are anything but "antagonistic": both parties are happier as a result of the interaction--which is not usually the case when people have non-market interactions with clerics, kings, judges, thieves, party bosses, or members of the local Committee for Defense of the Revolution. Go back half a century and a few miles north to the Highlands of Scotland, Smith might say, where if you are not a clan member than you are either a clan enemy to be killed or a stranger to be robbed--those are the real "antagonistic social relations," and they involve the maldistribution of property, and those three alternatives to market exchange: force, violence, and fraud.

And last came, on page 44:

Smith... balanc[es] his glittering vision of a virtuous spiral of economic development with the idea that economics can be constrained within a larger political and social framework. Laissez-faire, yes, but the Navigation Acts too. Free trade modified by the infant industry exception. Unregulated banking, as long as banks strictly follow a "real bills" policy...

And I thought back to page xiii:

By "Adam's Fallacy" I mean... the idea that it is possible to separate an economic sphere... with its presumed specific principles of organization from... politics, social conflict, and values...

And all I can say is: "Huh!?"

Greg Mankiw Puzzles Jason Furman

Max Sawicky gives Jason the keys to MaxSpeak. Jason takes it out for a spin, and admits to being puzzled by Greg Mankiw:

by Jason Furman
: My friend Greg Mankiw says we shouldn't be worried about the current fiscal [deficit] situation, just the looming fiscal challenge. I'm not quite sure what to make of the statement, back in the Clinton administration our argument for running large [current] surpluses and reducing the debt was precisely to prepare for the looming fiscal challenges...

Jason's right. The appropriate stance for fiscal policy right now is not to have--as Mankiw maintains--a debt-to-GDP level equal to some historical average, but to have a low debt-to-GDP ratio in order to be well-positioned for the stresses that the next two generations of population aging and rising medical capabilities place on the federal budget.

It's not rocket science.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Meta-Berube Blogging

Scott McLemee sez: Kos and Comrade Adjunct Professor command that all right-thinking... that is left-thinking... right-thinking too, basically everybody who is not an idiot on the order of Lee Siegel... to read Michael Berube's What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?:

Jobs, News and Views for All of Higher Education - Inside Higher Ed :: A Liberal Dose of Reason: Michael Bérubé’s What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? Classroom Politics and “Bias” in Higher Education.... A reader of Bérubé’s blog quickly learns that satire is one of his default modes. (Upon being listed by Horowitz as one of the academe’s “dangerous professors,” he announced that his field was “dangeral studies.”)... I expected fireworks. Or, more accurately, dynamite.... But in fact, no....

What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? assumes the existence of a large, smart, but ambivalent (or frankly confused) audience.... The author assumes on the part of the reader both skepticism and an open mind....

The book covers quite a lot of ground. It debunks some of the more heavily publicized but fact-free accusations regarding the persecution of conservative students; acknowledges the embarrassments of the “Monty Python left” of Ward Churchill and friends; and describes what it’s like to teach The Rise of Silas Lapham to undergraduates who almost never actually like the book. It also offers a pretty compelling and accessible account of what’s at stake in the Habermas-Lyotard debate over the incommensurability of discourses, with special reference to the debate over foot massages in the opening section of Pulp Fiction.

And there’s more besides... higher education is much less homogenous — or for that matter, ideology-minded — than certain propagandists make it look....

“Universities,” writes Bérubé in a passage that sums up an important strand of his argument, “even private universities, are thoroughly and complexly interwoven into what remains of the public sector of the United States, and their relative economic health, together with their extraordinary capacity to generate economic wealth (if you’re interested in that kind of thing), provides powerful testimony to the wisdom and the long-term structural soundness of the mixed free-market/welfare state economy. So America’s cultural conservatives may despise us for the obvious reasons — our cosmopolitanism, our secularism, our corrosive attitude of skepticism about every form of received authority — but the economic conservatives, I think, despise us because we work so well.”...

What Will Treasury Secretary Paulson Do?

David Wessel wonders what Treasury Secretary Paulson will do for the next two years:

Capital - President Bush faces a big decision in coming weeks: how best to deploy his energetic, impatient new Treasury secretary, Henry Paulson, after November's congressional elections.

Although his presidency will be defined by Sept. 11, 2001, and the Iraq war, Mr. Bush and his chief of staff, Josh Bolten, surely are beginning to ponder whether they can accomplish anything economic in the two years Mr. Bush has left in office. If they decide to be ambitious -- and that is a big if -- Mr. Paulson is eager to be the field marshal.

"When there is a big problem that needs fixing, you should run toward it, rather than away from it," Mr. Paulson said in his first speech. "That is one of the reasons I decided to come to Washington."...

China obviously looms large in the Paulson portfolio, and he plans to return there before year end. But that is a long-term investment.... Paulson, alarmed that so many companies are choosing to make their initial public offerings outside the U.S., is serious about making America's capital markets "more competitive."...

Mr. Paulson has the advantage of being unscarred by the partisanship of the past few years.... "If you see me in Ohio, I'll be there for reasons other than political," Mr. Paulson quipped while in China. "And I've got no plans to go to Ohio in the immediate future."

Whether Mr. Paulson can do anything depends largely on the president. One bold stroke would be to team Mr. Paulson with Trade Representative Susan Schwab to resuscitate the stalled Doha Round of world trade talks....

An even bolder stroke would be for the president to tell Mr. Paulson to tackle long-term budget issues, reopening the conversation about fixing Social Security, perhaps tying it to some kind of tax reform. Moving on fiscal issues, though, would require Mr. Bush to give Mr. Paulson negotiating authority to consider things the president, so far, has sworn to avoid. Without that, Mr. Paulson would be well-advised to spend more time in China and less in Washington....

If Paulson were going to try to close the Doha Round or fix entitlement programs, he would have negotiated for the baton to do so before he took the Treasury Secretary job. He didn't. So the odds are he will focus on the U.S.-China relationship--a place where he could actually do a lot of good.

"Neighbor, How Stands the Union?"

Ah. Today Daniel Froomkin boosts the journalistic reputation of Washington Post-Newsweek Interactive--which, as everybody in the Post newsroom hastens to assure me, is a very separate operation from the print Washington Post:

Dan Froomkin - Bush Rules - Today's Senate vote on President Bush's detainee legislation, after House approval yesterday, marks a defining moment for this nation. How far from our historic and Constitutional values are we willing to stray? How mercilessly are we willing to treat those we suspect to be our enemies? How much raw, unchecked power are we willing to hand over to the executive?

The legislation before the Senate today would ban torture, but let Bush define it; would allow the president to imprison indefinitely anyone he decides falls under a wide-ranging new definition of unlawful combatant; would suspend the Great Writ of habeas corpus; would immunize retroactively those who may have engaged in torture. And that's just for starters.... The people have lost confidence in their president.... Bush remains deeply unpopular... mistrusted... out of touch....

But he's still got Congress wrapped around his little finger. Today's vote will show more clearly than ever before that... the Republicans who control Congress are in lock step behind the president, and the Democrats -- who could block him, if they chose to do so -- are too afraid to put up a real fight. The kind of emotionless, he-said-she-said news coverage, lacking analysis and obsessed with incremental developments and political posturing -- in short, much of modern political journalism -- just doesn't do this story justice....

This is bad. Very bad. I can't underscore how bad this is. This is our Fugitive Slave Act, our Sedition Act, our Korematsu. This is a danger to our domestic liberties and a terrifying threat to our national security--for its impact on our international standing and on our alliances may be terrible indeed.

The sixteen-year-old is reading about another Daniel: "The Devil and Daniel Webster" is assigned for his English class:

Steven Vincent Benet, "The Devil and Daniel Webster": It's a story they tell in the border country, where Massachusetts joins Vermont and New Hampshire. Yes, Dan'l Webster's dead--or, at least, they buried him. But every time there's a thunderstorm around Marshfield, they say you can hear his rolling voice in the hollows of the sky. And they say that if you go to his grave and speak loud and clear, "Dan'l Webster--Dan'l Webster!" the ground'll begin to shiver and the trees begin to shake. And after a while you'll hear a deep voice saying, "Neighbor, how stands the Union?" Then you better answer the Union stands as she stood, rock-bottomed and copper-sheathed, one and indivisible, or he's liable to rear right out of the ground...

Daniel Webster will certainly walk tonight, for nobody today can say that the Republic is rock-bottomed and copper-sheathed.

But she nevertheless does stand as she stood. Things have been just as bad, and things have been almost as bad in the memory of men yet living.

From Fred Friendly's memoir, Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control..., p. 59 ff:

The day after [Joe] McCarthy's reply [broadcast to Edward R. Murrow's attack on him], President Eisenhower held a news conference. After expressing doubt over [whether there had been] any delay over the production of the H-bomb [caused by Communist agents working for the U.S. government, as McCarthy had claimed], the President paid tribute to [Edward R.] Murrow, "my friend," which provided headlines for most afternoon papers that day.

As for the senator's broadcast, I don't believe that anybody [informed], including his own supporters, felt that he had made his case against Murrow, but as Gould of the New York Times observed: "When as much mud is thrown at an individual as Senator McCarthy threw at Mr. Murrow, it is futile to expect that all the debris can be wiped from the public mind.... [McCarthy] huffed and he puffed but Mr. Murrow's house wouldn't blow away..."

That house suffered more wind damage than we realized.... Frank Stanton... [said that] reaction to our two programs had been so negative... some broadcasters had told him that the Murrow "attack on McCarthy" might cost the company the network.... [A] public-opinion survey... CBS had commissioned from Elmo Roper... 59% of the adult population had either watched or heard about the program... 33% of those [who had watched or heard] believed either that McCarthy had proved Murrow was pro-Communist or had raised doubts about Murrow.

I told Stanton that if the poll had been five to one in McCarthy's favor... there would have been even more justification for having done the original telecast. Stanton... was most distressed; there was certainly no suggestion that McCarthy was justified, but he believed that such controversy and widespread doubts were harmful to the company's business relationships...

Even with Eisenhower's explicit but coded support, CBS executives still wished that Murrow had not made his anti-McCarthy broadcast. It would have been nice if Eisenhower had been more explicit and aggressive in his attempts to undermine McCarthy--but Eisenhower was never one to lead from the front where he might take a bullet; he was one to work night and day to get the people at the front the bullets they needed.

The Rain-Soaked Purple of the White Birch in Spring

Robert Frank on economic possibilities for our grandchildren:

The More We Make, the Better We Want - New York Times: Productivity growth has raised living standards in the United States more than 40-fold since 1790.... John Maynard Keynes speculated about how the continuation of such spectacular productivity growth might transform our lives. Like many other distinguished thinkers, both before him and after, he predicted that people would have great difficulty filling their days once it became unnecessary to spend more than a token amount of time working.

This concern seems comical in retrospect....

How could Keynes, the most influential economist of the 20th century, have made such an absurd prediction? It would be one thing if he had merely overlooked the possibility of boundless human desire. Yet he explicitly considered this possibility, only to dismiss it.... [H]e wrote that human needs fall into two classes: basic, or absolute, needs, which are independent of what others have, and relative needs, which we feel "only if their satisfaction lifts us above, makes us feel superior to, our fellows." Keynes granted that although needs rooted in a desire for superiority might indeed be insatiable, this was not true of absolute needs. And seeing absolute needs as more important by far, he concluded, "A point may soon be reached, much sooner perhaps than we are all aware of, when these needs are satisfied in the sense that we prefer to devote our further energies to noneconomic purposes."

Keynes was surely correct that only a small fraction of total spending is prompted by the desire to flaunt one's superiority. He was profoundly mistaken, however, in seeing this desire as the only source of insatiable demands. Decisions to spend are also driven by perceptions of quality, the desire for which knows no bounds.... When a couple goes out for an anniversary dinner, for example, the thought of feeling superior to others probably never enters their minds. Their goal is just to share a memorable meal. But a memorable meal is a quintessentially relative concept. It is one that stands out from other meals. The standards that define a memorable meal are thus elastic.

When my wife and I were living in Paris a few years ago, we went out to dinner with well-to-do friends who were visiting from the United States. The restaurant we chose had a good reputation and, by our standards, was not cheap. But although my wife and I enjoyed our meals enormously, our friends found theirs disappointing. I'm confident they were not trying to impress us or make us feel inferior. By virtue of their substantially higher income, they had simply grown accustomed to a higher standard of cuisine.

There are no obvious limits to the escalation of quality standards. For example, dinner for two at Sketch in London can easily top $500, even if you choose the least expensive offering on the wine list....

By placing the desire to outdo others at the heart of his description of insatiable demands, Keynes relegated such demands to the periphery. But the desire for higher quality has no natural limits. Keynes and others were wrong to have imagined that a two-hour work week might someday enable us to buy everything we want. That hasn't happened and never will.

I can't quite pin down why I am dissatisfied with Robert Frank's argument over "quality" and "memorable experiences," and I don't see why the equilibrium should be twelve hours a day six days a week or eight hours a day five days a week rather than (except for those of us very lucky enough that lots of our work feels essentially like play) say, six hours a day four days a week.

Maybe I'll turn the mike over to Margo Timmins:

Have you ever seen a sight as beautiful
as that of the rain-soaked purple
of the white birch in spring?

Have you ever felt more fresh or wonderful
than on a warm fall night
under a Mackerel sky,
the smell of grapes on the wind?...

Have you ever had the pleasure of watching
a quiet winter's snow slowly gathering
like simple moments adding up?

Have you ever satisfied a gut feeling
to follow a dry dirt road that's beckoning you
to the heart of a shimmering summer's day?...

Have you ever seen a sight as beautiful
as a face in a crowd of people
that lights up just for you?...

Well I have known all these things
and the joys that they can bring
And now every morning there's a cup of coffee
and I wear your ring

Hoisted From Comments: Duncan Foley "Fairness" to the Past (Wie Es Eigentlich Gewesen Department)

Duncan Foley writes, apropos of his history-of-economic-thought book, Adam's Fallacy:

Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: The Childish Babbling of a Say...: Just, as Brad suggested, to get things clear:

I use "Adam's Fallacy" in the book to refer to two things. First is Adam Smith's claim that the pursuit of self-interest, which is morally problematic (not necessarily immoral, but in need of examination) in most human interactions, is unambiguously a social good in the context of competitive market interactions.

Second, I take this problem as representing a deeper issue that runs through Adam Smith's writing and the work of all the political economists I discuss in the book. This is the idea that there is an economic sphere of life subject to special laws, either moral or scientific. The book makes an extended case that this "fallacy" (which is not just Adam's) runs through the history of political economy and economics.

Whether or not I actually committed all of the Follies Brad identifies I leave to readers of the book to judge.

I think the way Smith uses Say's Law reasoning to support his analysis of free trade is a fair example of the way "Adam's Fallacy" works in his discourse. The discussion links up with the chapters on Malthus and Ricardo, Marx, and Keynes.

There is a broader issue about the impact of labor productivity increases on society, which is the "destructive" aspect of Schumpeter's "creative destruction". Cost-reducing technical change may not reduce employment in the sector in which it occurs, but it can have (and has in many cases) devastating effects in other sectors and economies. It is hard to look at the polarized world economy today without acknowledging this.

I don't think the lack of a long-run trend in unemployment in and of itself can settle the question of Say's Law, at least in the form "aggregate supply in the willingness of input owners to sell their resources creates its own aggregate demand", because in the long run the aggregate supply of inputs is adjusting, along with aggregate demand. The classical and Marxian analyses of macroeconomics, in which population is endogenous, are a good example of this.

I did not, as I say in the Preface, write the book to be "fair" to Smith or Malthus or anyone else. (As far as I can tell, all these guys are doing fine without my help.) I did write it to raise questions and prompt debate about the presumptions of economic policy discourse. I'm glad Brad de Long has taken me up on this and generated this discussion.I did not, as I say in the Preface, write the book to be "fair" to Smith or Malthus or anyone else. (As far as I can tell, all these guys are doing fine without my help.) I did write it to raise questions and prompt debate about the presumptions of economic policy discourse...

Let's pick up the thread:

Foley's claim that cost-reducing technical change powered by modern capitalism is the cause of mass poverty in "the polarized world economy [of] today" was decisively answered two generations ago by Joan Robinson: "It's a terrible thing to be a worker exploited in the capitalist system. The only worse thing is to be a worker unable to find anyone to exploit you." Where wages are lowest in the world today, it is because of the absence, not the presence of industrial capitalism and the technical change it drives forward.

Moving forward, Foley on pp. 36-7--writing "Smith concludes that the national interest is best served by getting rid of tariffs.... This argument rests on several assumptions.... Smith assumes that Say's Law is operating, so that there will be no long-term unemployment of labor or capital..."--runs into trouble with Foley on page 11: "Over long periods of time, it appears that something like Say's Law does operate." You just cannot say on one page that Smith's argument that free trade is good in the long run is flawed because it assumes that Say's Law operates in the long run, and say on another page that Say's Law operates in the long run. That's just not fair.

Last, apropos of Foley's declaration that he "did not... write the book to be "fair" to Smith or Malthus or anyone else": Robert Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times And Ideas Of The Great Economic Thinkers is eminently fair to all the writers he discusses. For that reason, I think, Heilbroner's book cannot help but do a much better job of raising questions and prompting debate about the presumptions of economic policy discourse.

Smith, Malthus, Ricardo, Marx, the marginalists, Keynes, even Hayek--these are all mighty and powerful thinkers who deserve interpreters and commentators who will treat them fairly.

Kai Kassai, Berube!

Kai Kassai, Berube!

Some say intellectual standards have fallen. Michael Berube is a counterexample. Not even Matthew Yglesias has the skills at snark to make four people look as completely stupid in a short space as Michael Berube does--to David Horowitz, Alan Wolfe, Mark Judge, and Erin O'Connor--in three paragraphs.

Michael Berube writes, apropos of his book, What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?:

Le Blog Berube: Alan Wolfe writes that my arguments against David Horowitz “do not reassure” him:

It is instructive to learn that anthropology is not a discipline composed entirely of like-minded people because left-liberals do not always agree with poststructuralist Marxists, but this hardly addresses the widespread perception that cultural anthropology has little room for those who might believe that America’s presence in a third-world country might bring about some good....

[W]ho knows what Professor Wolfe was thinking...? Not me-—because, as it happens, my book never says anything about left-liberals and poststructuralist Marxists in anthropology departments. So when Professor Wolfe says “it is instructive to learn that anthropology is not a discipline composed entirely of like-minded people because left-liberals do not always agree with poststructuralist Marxists,” I have to imagine that he is thinking of some book other than mine in which it is instructive (though, finally, not reassuring) to learn this....

But some good might come of this little misunderstanding in the end, because from this point onward, whenever you run into someone saying,

Michael Bérubé says that there is no liberal bias on campus because the anthropology department includes left-liberals and poststructuralist Marxists, and therefore Michael Bérubé is either a knave or a gull

you’ll know they haven’t read the book!... For example... conservative writer Mark Judge, who writes:

Berube pointing to the “diversity” between left-liberals and poststructuralists [sic] Marxists isn’t exactly an advertisement for a comprehensive and diverse education....

And Judge’s review has been commended in turn by Erin O’Connor at ACTA Online, who [says]...

those with the most immediate cachet are not always those with the best arguments, and Berube doesn’t draw anywhere near as much thoughtful criticism as he might. An exception may be found in Mark Judge’s review of Alan Wolfe’s New York Times review of Berube’s book.... Defenders of the academic status quo don’t want to be argued with, and they go to great lengths to shut down such argument in advance. But that’s all the more reason for substantive debate....

Now, once upon a time, smart conservatives didn’t go around applauding the “thoughtful reviews” of people who hadn’t bothered to read the material ostensibly under review, while casting aspersions on “defenders of the academic status quo” who “go to great lengths to shut down such argument in advance.” I am deeply nostalgic for those days myself. Accordingly, I’m all for substantive debate; I second Professor O’Connor’s call for it, and I thank her for recommending my book to people who might disagree with some aspects of it. But I’ll say this much in advance—-if someone tries to give me a hard time for my defense of left-liberals and poststructuralist Marxists in anthropology departments, and my refusal even to entertain the possibility that these professors are shutting out the “America can bring about some good in third world countries” faction of job-seeking anthropology Ph.D.s, then I’m just going to keep quiet for a bit and wait for a substantive debate with someone who disagrees with arguments that I actually make.

No matter what your politics or your substantive commitments about education, you have to admire the technical skill with which Michael Berube eviscerates his victims without, apparently, sweating a drop. Now that's sprezzatura for you!

Once again: Kai Kassai, Berube!

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (Michael Kinsley Is Hurting America Department)

Michael Kinsley needs to stop. He is hurting America.

Michael Kinsley: Print Page: TIME Magazine -- Do Newspapers Have a Future?: Quarreling about staff cuts, the old medium is missing the bigger questions: By MICHAEL KINSLEY

It seems hopeless. How can the newspaper industry survive the Internet? On the one hand, newspapers are expected to supply their content free on the Web. On the other hand, their most profitable advertising--classifieds--is being lost to sites like Craigslist. And display advertising is close behind. Meanwhile, there is the blog terror: people are getting their understanding of the world from random lunatics riffing in their underwear, rather than professional journalists with standards and passports.... [T]he home-delivered newspaper is an archaic object.... [Y]ou can skip the newspapers and go to some site that makes the news more entertaining or politically simpatico. And where do these wannabes get most of their information? From newspapers, of course....

So are we doomed to get our news from some acned 12-year-old in his parents' basement recycling rumors from the Internet echo chamber? Not necessarily.... [T]here is room between the New York Times and for new forms that liberate journalism from its encrusted conceits while preserving its standards, like accuracy.

I'm not sure what that new form will look like. But it might resemble the better British papers today.... The Brits have never bought into the American separation of reporting and opinion. They assume that an intelligent person, paid to learn about some subject, will naturally develop views about it. And they consider it more truthful to express those views than to suppress them in the name of objectivity...

Let me take a look at the last... what do I have in my history?... thirty-five things I have looked at on the web:

We have three print-media sites: the WSJ (news pages only), the FT, and the Economist (not quite up to the other two in quality, but still close.

We have Bloomberg, and the wire service formerly known as Knight-Ridder.

We have five sites that might indeed fall under the classification of "wannabes [that] get most of their information... from newspapers": "Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing," Daniel Gross, Matthew Yglesias, Ezra Klein, and Kevin Drum's "Political Animal" at the Washington Monthly. But none of these are in any sense "wannabes." These are "bes." They are all of them the cream of the journalistic and analytic crop in their niche. And they are all of them deliberately filling the vital niche of providing the background and context to the daily news--the background and context that the newspaper reporters lack the knowledge, intelligence, and ovaries to provide.

We have twenty-five other sites. None of them "" or "acned 12-year-old[s] in [their] parents' basement recycling rumors" or "random lunatics riffing in their underwear... [without] standards of passports." All of them draw some of their "information... from newspapers," but by no means most of it. They draw their information from their own expertise and their own networks outside the national dailies and newsweeklies.

They are:

Laura M.'s 11D; Duck of Minerva; Felix Salmon's RGE Economonitor; RGE Brad Setser; Steve Clemons's Washington Note; Greg Mankiw; P.Z. Myers's Pharyngula; BoingBoing; Marginal Revolution; Jim Henley's Unqualified Offerings; Making Light; Josh Micah Marshall's Talking Points Memo; Unfogged; Mark Thoma's Economist's View; Crooked Timber; Intel Dump; Laura Rozen's War and Piece; MaxSpeak; FireDogLake; Greg Djerejian's Belgravia Dispatch; Balkinization; Walter Jon Williams's Angel Station; Duncan Black's Eschaton; Craig Newmark's Newmark's Door; and Billmon's Whiskey Bar.

All these are very smart, very articulate, very thoughtful people with things to say. Michael Kinsley should read some of them. He might learn something.

And with respect to the "journalistic" "standards" of the newspapers today, what do we have in the Washington Post this morning? We have two things:

First, we have David Broder praising Arnold Schwarzenegger for being "independent"--that is, for simultaneously "stand[ing] as the barrier to higher taxes" while trying to issue "$50 billion in construction bonds," as if state-issued bonds do not have to be amortized by taxes. The kindest thing one can say to Washington Post op-ed columnist David Broder today is: "Please be quiet, you blithering idiot."

Second, we have staff writer Michael D. Shear eagerly printing smears from the George Allen campaign:

campaign officials... direct[ed] a reporter [i.e., me] to Dan Cragg, a former acquaintance of Webb's.... Cragg, 67, who lives in Fairfax County, said on Wednesday that Webb described taking drives through the black neighborhood of Watts, where he and members of his ROTC unit used racial epithets and pointed fake guns at blacks to scare them. "They would hop into their cars, and would go down to Watts with these buddies of his," Cragg said Webb told him. "They would take the rifles down there. They would call them [epithets], point the rifles at them, pull the triggers and then drive off laughing. One night, some guys caught them and beat... them. And that was the end of that..."

Note Shear is eager to print the smear, even though Cragg lied to Shear's face:

Cragg said Webb told him the Watts story during a 1983 interview.... [Cragg] provided a transcript of the interview... [which] does not contain the ROTC story...

The kindest thing one can say about Washington Post staff writer Michael D. Shear is: "Please find another profession as soon as possible."

The kindest thing one can say about Michael Kinsley is left as an exercise to the reader.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Wash Your Hands!

Dubner and Levitt:

Selling Soap - New York Times: Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where Bender has been practicing for 37 years, is in fact an excellent hospital. But even excellent hospitals often pass along bacterial infections, thereby sickening or even killing the very people they aim to heal....

Once Semmelweis had these doctors wash their hands with an antiseptic solution, the mortality rate plummeted. But Semmelweis's mandate, as crucial and obvious as it now seems, has proved devilishly hard to enforce. A multitude of medical studies have shown that hospital personnel wash or disinfect their hands in fewer than half the instances they should. And doctors are the worst offenders, more lax than either nurses or aides.

All of this was on Bender' mind when he got home from his cruise. As a former chief of staff at Cedars-Sinai, he felt inspired to help improve his colleagues' behavior.... It may seem a mystery why doctors, of all people, practice poor hand hygiene. But as Bender huddled with the hospital's leadership, they identified a number of reasons. For starters, doctors are very busy. And a sink isn't always handy.... There also seem to be psychological reasons for noncompliance. The first is what might be called a perception deficit. In one Australian medical study, doctors self-reported their hand-washing rate at 73 percent, whereas when these same doctors were observed, their actual rate was a paltry 9 percent. The second psychological reason, according to one Cedars-Sinai doctor, is arrogance....

So the hospital needed to devise some kind of incentive scheme that would increase compliance without alienating its doctors... e-mail, faxes and posters... the physicians' parking lot.... They started a Hand Hygiene Safety Posse that roamed the wards and let it be known that this posse preferred using carrots... they'd try to "catch" a doctor who was washing up, giving him a $10 Starbucks card as reward....

When the nurse spies reported back the latest data, it was clear that the hospital's efforts were working -- but not nearly enough. Compliance had risen to about 80 percent from 65 percent.... Murthy handed each of them an agar plate %u2014 a sterile petri dish loaded with a spongy layer of agar. "I would love to culture your hand," she told them.... The resulting images, Silka says, "were disgusting and striking, with gobs of colonies of bacteria."

The administration then decided to harness the power of such a disgusting image. One photograph was made into a screen saver that haunted every computer in Cedars-Sinai. Whatever reasons the doctors may have had for not complying in the past, they vanished in the face of such vivid evidence.... Hand-hygiene compliance shot up to nearly 100 percent and, according to the hospital, it has pretty much remained there ever since...

Niall Ferguson Sez: "But I Didn't Know Bush Was Incompetent!"

Greg Mankiw sends us to an interview with Niall Ferguson:

Greg Mankiw's Blog: Ferguson Interview: The "Ideas" section of today's Boston Globe interviews Harvard historian Niall Ferguson. An excerpt:

IDEAS: But you supported the invasion of Iraq.

FERGUSON: I argued that if it was to be done, it should be done well or not at all. But I didn't oppose it. With the benefit of hindsight, I regret that. It was a disaster to commit so few troops and to have no coherent plan for reconstruction. It was in defiance not only of British imperial history but of successful American occupations--for example of Germany, Japan, and Korea, where the United States stayed long enough to change institutions. But typically, American interventions last only a few years. In the case of the Middle East, the result will be turning Iraq into a Haiti on the Tigris.

But by the start of 2003, it was clear that the Bush administration was incompetent at everything, wasn't it? It was certainly clear to many--although Daniel Davies put it best:

D-squared Digest -- FOR bigger pies and shorter hours and AGAINST more or less everything else: Can anyone... give me one single example of something with the following three characteristics:

  1. It is a policy initiative of the current Bush administration
  2. It was significant enough in scale that I'd have heard of it (at a pinch, that I should have heard of it)
  3. It wasn't in some important way completely f---- up during the execution.

Agreed that the administration of this jumped-up sadistic spoiled rich kid frat boy has been much more incompetent than any of us imagined. But shouldn't there be some embarrassment on Niall Ferguson's part at being conned--somehow--into thinking it was competent?

Barry Ritholz Says Amaranth's Investors Knew Damn Well It Was Likely to Blow Up

Barry Ritholz:

The Big Picture: Who's to Blame for Amaranth's Losses?: Answer: their investors.... I have spent the past 18 months or so traveling around the United States, speaking with my limited partners (i.e., investors) and with potential investors for our hedge fund.

My experience with this is why I have been watching the unfolding debacle at Amaranth Advisors’ with some bemused detachment....

[W]e have had conversations with some very intelligent people who were a pleasure to meet with; Brilliant, fascinating, successful folk with interesting lives and of great accomplishment. However, once we sat down with their financial advisors - lawyers - accountants, things became, well, repetitious. In every meeting, there were some variations on the same conversations....

What's your track record? (Good)
How much skin do you have in the game? (alot)
How is Alpha generated (our models keep us on the right side of the major trend, and avoid big counter-trend moves)
What do you think will happen to the economy and the market?
(I don't know, but here's an underappreciated possibility . . .)
What is your Gamma ? (I neither know nor care; This isn't a B-school exam)

Then comes the exact same question, which I (foolishly) answer honestly:

"What sort of performance are you looking for?"

I usually start with: "It depends upon what the market offers us; If we remain range-bound, it will be difficult to put up great numbers without a lot of leverage or a lot of risk (or both), and we don't do that. We do particularly well, however, in major dislocations or strong rallies."

My initial answer is rarely accepted....

Answer two: "What we want is irrelevant; Its what we can reasonably do while still managing risk, and not overleveraging. Our goal is to outperform the S&P500 with less risk, and in the event the SPX is negative, still have positive expectancy (i.e., be up when the indices are down)."...

Now comes THE QUESTION.... "We are looking for a number. What should we expect from you in the first 2 years?"

What they want to hear is "I am going to do 30-40% annually, fully hedged."

I don't say that, because it isn't true.... You have a few choices: you can answer the investors' questions honestly -- or to quote Ray Davies, you can give the people what they want (or think they want):

"We expect gains of 35-45%, with minimal risk or leverage. Our black box algorithms have been backtested, and generate better numbers than that, but we would rather under-promise and outperform."

Of course, that statement will be nonsense....

There are some funds that aim to fill this niche. They use lots and lots of leverage, play the highest beta moves, load up on derivatives, put up good numbers for a stretch. Eventually, they do one of two things: They take on some risk management -- lower their volatility plays, reduce leverage, aim for more sustainable gains.

Or they blow up....

So Amaranth put up great numbers for a while. And now we know how they did it: They took extraordinary risks, using lots of leverage on the highest beta trades. And when one went against them, it blew up, and they lost a few billion dollars in a week. Don't blame them. Their investors demanded huge returns, and they turned a blind eye to the inordinate amount of risk required...

Modes of Production: Cuba

Modes of production. Back in 1848, Karl Marx wondered why market capitalism could not deliver a level of real wages that gave workers a truly human standard of living given the extraordinary productive potential offered by modern science and technology.

Today we wonder why the few remaining political parties that claim to draw their inspiration from Karl Marx rule countries that do not deliver a level of real wages that gave workers a truly human standard of living given the extraordinary productive potential offered by modern science and technology:

Daily Life in Cuba: by Raul Rivero (Published by Le Monde, Paris, France, on January 2, 1999): In Cuba, with the exception of some owners of small twelve seat restaurants and of minimal coffee, pizza and candy stores, the only employer is the State. Now, it is said, only half-jokingly, that when a Cuban gets offered a job, he does not ask how much is the salary, but how much he can steal.

Society has been taken over by the Robin Hood syndrome: the rogues who steal something from their workplace every day, those who resuelven, are seen with sympathy. Their crime, their sin, their actions, are not perceived by the community as a fault, but rather as a form of struggling for survival. This is why such people are known in all of Cuba as "luchadores", rogues in the most orthodox Spanish tradition. Simple and good people who have been forced to enter the shady side of life "because of the American blockade", according to government sympathizers. "Because of the Government's blockade, the draconian penal code, the eagerness to control everything, even the adjacent seas and the air we breathe", says Felix Velázquez, a 50 year old, unemployed, human rights activist, who lives "from my family's charity". In a scene full of misery and anguish, many forms of stealing, of crime in general, are accepted....

[T]he conquests of real socialism have dissolved in the inefficiency of the system. Meager production, an agriculture incapable of working, and the government's refusal to allow the people to take off the yoke of the state, have not allowed the start of a process of individual sovereignty

Education is free, but with a clear hue of indoctrination. A grade-school manual, distributed in the 1998 academic year, asks "Who builds the círculos infantiles (nurseries), schools and hospitals?" Carlos M. 32, government employee, asks: "What happened in Cuba before 1958? I am not religious, but I do not want my children to be educated under any dogmatic beliefs. In this day and age, that is a crime. Give them education, pure education, and let them choose their political color later. No more Lenin, Marx or any other imposed idea. Children must go to school to prepare for a profession, not to serve anyone or any ideology."...

[O]ne must add the fact that most of the population lives without information. "Granma", a little daily paper published by the Communist party, sets editorial guidelines for the two television stations which start to broadcast at 6:00 PM, and for the radio network. Cubans who do not have access to a shortwave radio have a partial, "amputated" version of world events; every incident receives the appropriate ideological treatment in the laboratories of the Department of Revolutionary Orientation (DOR).

Since the State, as has been said here, owns everything, in Cuba one lives in what has been called "double morality". This means that you think one thing and say another or nothing at all, because a clash of opinions may, for common people, result in difficulties at work, problems with the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CFR) and the loss of the mediocre tranquillity in your life.. "I do things my way. I don't get involved in politics. I have enough problems trying to get food. I am quiet, at home, seeing everything, but silent". Pedro Aguirre, guard at a warehouse, 29....

Forty years are but a brief and diffuse time in the history of a nation. More than three generations of Cubans have been born in this time. From the dreams of human redemption sung by the bearded victors of 1959 and which- if they did not shake the whole world, at least were transmitted to millions of humans- nothing, not even ashes or dust, remains.

Trapped in their contradictions, in a limitless Utopia, delirious and mindless, the largest of the Antilles arrives at the end of the Millennium shoeless, homeless, dressed in rags and with a bellyful of great hunger. Little is left of the real socialism which, only ten years ago, still boasted about development, the future, quality of life and other such rhetorical concepts.

What is left is the daily nightmare of children, women, men and senior citizens, all trapped, with no link to an universe which is more and more unreachable for all of us who live in this Island. All ways seem to be closed. And the skies of our motherland are not brightened by the dose of rationality and sanity which could be expected from a ruling team who knows, better than anyone, the terrifying crisis they face and in which they are sinking, and dragging with them the Island, from one end to the other.

Forty years after, Cuba- fragmented, broken, lonely and going from one nightmare to another- can only wait for a miracle....

Distribution of food and other products under the Rationing Card {libreta de racionamiento} in Havana: Monthly, per person:

6 pounds of rice
3 pounds of brown sugar
3 pounds of refined sugar
20 ounces of beans (green peas or lentils)
12 ounces of coffee
Half a liter of oil (every two or three months)
10 ounces of salt
One quarter pound of ground beef/soy mixture
Half a pound of mortadella (every two months)
1 pound of fish
6 eggs
1 bar of laundry soap (every two months)
1 bar of bath soap (every two months)
1, 80-gram, loaf of soft bread, (daily)
1 tube of toothpaste (every two months for three people)

Projecting Real GDP Growth

Brian Blackstone writes that Randy Kroszner is optimistic about productivity growth in America:

Washington Wire: U.S. Productivity Push: Robust U.S. productivity growth is likely to persist "for some time," providing continuing support to the U.S. economy and living standards, Federal Reserve governor Randall Kroszner said. "The rate of technology growth appears to be proceeding apace, and further diffusion of already existing technologies and applications to more firms and industries should continue to boost productivity," Kroszner said in remarks prepared for a group of economic forecasters in New York.

Economists have pegged the annual productivity growth trend at 2.5%, which is near the 1995-2000 period, he noted, and "a good case can be made" that those gains will persist. Productivity growth, Kroszner said, "is a key source of higher living standards."

Two Important Ideas About American Health Care

David Leonhardt tries to juggle two ideas:

  1. We get significantly lower bang-for-buck than other countries from our health care expenditures.
  2. The bang-for-buck we get from the average expenditure on health care is huge.

Both of these are true.

The Choice: A Longer Life or More Stuff - New York Times: These spiraling costs — a phrase that has virtually become a prefix for the words “health care” — are slowly creating a crisis. Many executives have decided that they cannot afford to keep insuring their workers, and the portion of Americans without coverage has jumped 23 percent since 1987.... Mr. Wagoner’s argument has become the accepted wisdom about the crisis: the solution lies in restraining costs. Yet it’s wrong. Living in a society that spends a lot of money on medical care creates real problems, but it also has something in common with getting old. It’s better than the alternative.

To understand why, it helps to look back to a time when Americans didn’t worry much about health care costs. In 1950, the country spent less than $100 a year — or $500 in today’s dollars — on the average person’s medical care, compared with almost $6,000 now, notes David M. Cutler, an economist who wrote a wonderful little book in 2004 titled, “Your Money or Your Life.”

Most families in the 1950’s paid their medical bills with ease, but they also didn’t expect much in return. After a century of basic health improvements like indoor plumbing and penicillin, many experts thought that human beings were approaching the limits of longevity....

But then doctors figured out that high blood pressure and high cholesterol caused heart attacks, and they developed new treatments. Oncologists learned how to attack leukemia, enabling most children who receive a diagnosis of it today to triumph over a disease that was almost inevitably fatal a half-century ago. In the last few years, orphan drugs that combat rare diseases and medical devices like the implantable defibrillator have extended lives. Human longevity still hasn’t hit the wall....

There is no question that the American medical system does suffer from a lot of waste, be it insurance industry bureaucracy or expensive procedures that haven’t been proven effective. But the No. 1 cause of the cost increases is still the one you can see at the hospital and in your medicine cabinet — defibrillators, chemotherapy, cholesterol drugs, neonatal care and other treatments that are both expensive and effective.

Not even most forms of preventive care, like keeping diabetes under control, usually save money, despite what many people think. The care itself has some costs, and, more important, patients then live longer than they otherwise would have and rack up medical bills....

[T]he best way to reduce health care spending is to reduce health care itself. Which is exactly what we’re starting to do. The growing number of families without health insurance are, in effect, families who have been kicked off the country’s health care rolls. Many will go without available treatment, will get sicker than they need to get — and will thereby save the rest of us money. They are what now passes for a solution to the health care mess.

The current situation is indeed unsustainable, a point that the conventional wisdom has right. The cost of health insurance can’t keep doubling every seven years, and wasteful spending — the brand-name drugs that are no better than generics, the treatments that haven’t been proved to extend lives or improve health — does need to be reined in.

But far too much of the discussion has been centered on this narrow idea. Somehow, going to the mall to buy clothes has come to be seen as a vaguely patriotic way to keep the economy humming, and taking out a risky mortgage is considered to be an investment in one’s future. But medical care? That’s just a cost.... [T]he way to start is by acknowledging that an affluent society should devote an ever-growing share of its resources to the health of its citizens. “We have enough of the basics in life,” Mr. Cutler, the economist and author, points out. “What we really want are the time and the quality of life to enjoy them.”

Niall Ferguson Sez: "But I Didn't Know Bush Was Incompetent!"

Greg Mankiw sends us to an interview with Niall Ferguson:

Greg Mankiw's Blog: Ferguson Interview: The "Ideas" section of today's Boston Globe interviews Harvard historian Niall Ferguson. An excerpt:

IDEAS: But you supported the invasion of Iraq.

FERGUSON: I argued that if it was to be done, it should be done well or not at all. But I didn't oppose it. With the benefit of hindsight, I regret that. It was a disaster to commit so few troops and to have no coherent plan for reconstruction. It was in defiance not only of British imperial history but of successful American occupations--for example of Germany, Japan, and Korea, where the United States stayed long enough to change institutions. But typically, American interventions last only a few years. In the case of the Middle East, the result will be turning Iraq into a Haiti on the Tigris.

But by the start of 2003, it was clear that the Bush administration was incompetent at everything, wasn't it? It was certainly clear to many--although Daniel Davies put it best:

D-squared Digest -- FOR bigger pies and shorter hours and AGAINST more or less everything else: Can anyone... give me one single example of something with the following three characteristics:

  1. It is a policy initiative of the current Bush administration
  2. It was significant enough in scale that I'd have heard of it (at a pinch, that I should have heard of it)
  3. It wasn't in some important way completely f---- up during the execution.

Agreed that the administration of this jumped-up sadistic spoiled rich kid frat boy has been much more incompetent than any of us imagined. But shouldn't there be some embarrassment on Niall Ferguson's part at being conned--somehow--into thinking it was competent?

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (Washington Post Edition)

Past time to fire David Ignatius, if the Washington Post wants to last a decade.

Matthew Yglesias reports. You decide:

Matthew Yglesias / proudly eponymous since 2002: Who? When? Why?: David Ignatius... what's the deal with "Some extreme war critics are so angry at Bush they seem almost eager for America to lose, to prove a political point." That's a serious charge. Does Ignatius have evidence for it? No. Does he cite any examples? No. Does he name any names? No. I find it extremely frustrating that you're allowed to toss off this kind of liberal-bashing without providing any backing.

This matters not because I doubt Ignatius could find someone or other who "seems" like he's "eager" for America to lose. It matters because "extreme war critic" is such a vague phrase. For years, perfectly mainstream war critics -- Howard Dean, Tony Zinni, Richard Clarke, Dick Durbin, Zbigniew Brzezinski -- were portrayed as "extreme" and they still are on Mondays, Wednesdays, and alternate Saturdays. On the other hand, when I was in college there were these members of the Spartacist Youth League (or something) who would sit on the corner calling for the violent overthrow of the US government ranting and raving about North Korea's inalienable right to nuclear weapons and the need to unify the peninsula under Pyongyang's beneficent rule. No doubt those "extreme war critics" really do want to see America lose. But is Ignatius talking about crazy people who shout on streetcorners -- in which case his observation is silly -- or is he talking about meaningful participants in American politics, in which case it's false? Well, I think, he's talking about the former, but talking as if he's talking about the latter.

Which is just to say that, once again, practitioners of the Higher Broderism can get away with saying just about anything about American liberals without needing to seriously support it. As long, of course, as what they're saying is critical.

Nick Gillespie Has Had It with Marty Peretz (Lafayette! Nous Sommes Ici! department)

He writes, accurately and correctly:

Hit and Run: They're starting to shit themselves in public... TNR owner and "Spine" blogger Marty Peretz is enacting the cyberspatial equivalent... with posts such as this one on French jokes:

Let me assure you though that I am not a Francophobe. It is true that for a few years in recent times I have not bought French wines. But I did drink the ones I had in my cellar. In any case, there is some silliness in what follows. But there is also some wisdom, wisdom garnered from historical experience. If you are a Francophile, you may not want to read this. It's your choice. Feel free to send this to friends if you like. That's how I saw it in the first place...

"Going to war without France is like going deer hunting without your accordion." --Norman Schwartzkopf
"We can stand here like the French, or we can do something about it." --Marge Simpson
"As far as I'm concerned, war always means failure." --Jacques Chirac, President of France
"As far as France is concerned, you're right." --Rush Limbaugh
"The only time France wants us to go to war is when the German Army is sitting in Paris sipping coffee." --Regis Philbin

It's odd. The French, in World War II, did about as well in their first encounter with the Nazi war machine as everybody else. Poland. Britain and Dunkirk, Greece, Libya, and Crete. America and Kasserine Pass. Russia and the catastrophes of Barbarossa Phase I. France's problem was that they didn't have (as Britain did) the ocean to protect them or (as Russia did) space to retreat to or (as America did) allies soaking up most of the Nazi forces.

And as long as the French did fight, they fought. Roughly one in five French soldiers was a casualty. The 600,000 military casualties France suffered during the six weeks its outgeneraled and outmaneuvered commanders lost its war were roughly the equivalent of the casualties America suffered during the entire 3 1/2 years of its involvement in World War II.

And the French chose to fight the Nazis. They were one of two countries--themselves and Britain--who declared war on Hitler, rather than waiting for Hitler to come after them. They were the only country without ocean between themselves and Hitler who chose to go after him. The honor of Daladier and de Gaulle far outweighs the shame of Petain and Laval.

I don't know whether Marty Peretz is more ignorant not to know this, or more stupid in that he at some level knows this but can't think it through, or more lazy in that he simply hasn't bothered to think it through.

But let me assure the people of France, and the ghosts of de Gaulle, Daladier, and Lafayette that not all Americans are as ignorant, stupid, and lazy as Marty Peretz, and that some Americans understand how much America owes France (and France owes America).

Matthew Yglesias has more:

Matthew Yglesias / proudly eponymous since 2002: What's especially fascinating is the particular form of the contemporary France-bashing narrative, as reflected in Peretz' post. According to this story, the USA differs from France in our greater eagerness to go to war and that this disagreement reflects superior wisdom on the part of the United States. Interestingly, neither prong of that narrative is supportable.

Obviously, there was an instance of France being unwilling to fight in a situation where the USA wanted to go in -- Iraq, 2003. But here the French position -- that Saddam's WMD programs were not a serious danger, that a western occupation of an Arab country was likely to go poorly, and that such a war would hinger the fight against al-Qaeda -- has been utterly vindicated. Other recent American wars -- for Kuwaiti independence, against Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia, agains the Taliban -- were undertaken with French support. Before that, you had Vietnam where France fought Ho Chi Minh's movement first, lost, then let us go make all the same mistakes over again. So French dovishness comes down to one war -- Iraq, part deux -- that France didn't want to fight, and that France was right not to want to fight.

France's "rep" for weakness and appeasement comes, of course, from World War II. But in 1938, France was the non-axis country most eager to fight Germany. Going to war without the support of England, the USSR, or the United States would have been a horrible policy. Once their British ally was on board, they fought. They lost, of course, but the contrast between France, the UK, and the USA in this regard is that France was located adjacent to Germany without a convenient stretch of ocean to block the Nazi advance.

I suppose congratulations of a perverse sort are owed to New Republic editor Franklin Foer, who has in Marty Peretz found a weblogger even worse at it than Lee "Sock Puppet" Siegel.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Outsourcing Once Again

Trade Diversion writes:

Trade Diversion: Globalization & Disaggregation: The Economic Council of Finland published a number of papers on globalization last week. Here's the summary of the lead article by Richard Baldwin:

Three eminent economists from Princeton University have recently argued that globalisation has entered a new phase that requires a new paradigm understand. This paper examines what is new in the new paradigm and considers the policy implications for Europe. Roughly speaking new-paradigm globalisation differs from the old in that it is occurring at a much finer level of disaggregation. Due to radical reductions in international communication and coordination costs, EU firms can offshore many tasks that were previously considered non-traded.

This means that international competition -- which used to be primarily between firms and sectors in different nations -- now occurs between individual workers performing similar tasks in different nations. The really new feature is that deeper new-paradigm globalisation will seem quite unpredictable from the perspective of firms and sectors. Since individual tasks can be offshored, globalisation may help some workers in a given firm while harming others. Moreover, old-globalisation's correlation between skill groups and winners and losers breaks down. Certain highly skilled tasks may turn out to be offshore-able, while other highly skilled tasks are not. Increased offshoring will therefore not systematically help or hurt skilled workers in the EU. In particular, many %"Information Society" jobs are prone to offshoring so EU policies aimed at moving workers into Information Society jobs may be wasted since those jobs are only "good jobs" because they do not yet face direct international competition.

The paper argues that this has important implications for the EU's competitiveness strategy, education strategy, welfare states, and industrial policy. The underlying theme is that the increased unpredictability should make EU leaders more cautious about moving workers or skills in a particular direction. Flexibility is, as always, the key to allowing Europe to seize the opportunities of globalisation while minimizing the adjustment costs.

The three economists at Princeton cited by Baldwin are Gene Grossman, Esteban Rossi-Hansberg, and Alan Blinder. The two Grossman and Rossi-Hansberg papers on offshoring are available at Grossman's website. Blinder's article is his March Foreign Affairs article, with which most readers of this blog are probably familiar.

Pasting Feathers Together and Hoping for a Duck

John Holbo writes:

John Holbo: Like pasting feathers together and hoping for a duck: If you haven't, you should read this Intel-Dump post, "National Insecurity" And then read all 154 comments. If every American voter had to read the whole thread (it's only, like, 30,000 words) I think the Democrats would get about 70% of the popular vote, showing most dramatic improvement in red states. Of course, we would still have no real plan for Iraq, sadly. But accountability starts at home.

The moral progress of the spectacularly ill-named Diogenes, through the thread, is worthy of special attention. He is the first commenter, leaping in with a brash accusation of partisan bias. When it is pointed out this thing he calls "a subsidiary of" is a catalogue of facts, he fires back, guns blazing in all manner of directions. Gradually he is reduced to mounting a narrow but determined point defense: we need to be roughing up some terrorists. He's shining a lantern beam of, like, moral darkness, in the dead of factual night, looking for a bad man. Or, to put it a bit less unkindly, he is bound and determined to find some way to be bloody-mindeder than thou. The last stand of the moral clarity brigade. The fact that Diogenes in effect sidetracks serious discussion of Iraq and national security issues by loudly making the case for torture is a hideous illustration of just how wrong the frame of the national debate is, at the moment.

I'll just quote the thread's owner, in comments:

Some will wonder why I bother to respond to Dio instead of ignoring him as a troll? Because he is not a troll. He believes what he is saying, and 32% of US voters agree with him. They can't really say why they agree, or they rely on "documents" that even the White House won%'t push for fear of giving the Democrats another cudgel to beat them with -- in short, the administration knows that such talk is nonsense. But why do they still imply such nonsense? Because people WANT to believe that the president has a plan, they WANT to believe that our nation was not misled or lied to, they WANT to believe that our cause, for which we have sacrificed so much, is just and right. They WANT to believe that invading Iraq was the right thing to do.

The title of this post is taken from another commenter, who thusly characterizes the CPA. The torture debate, I guess, is what happens when "pasting feathers" turns nasty. We'll show that duck.

The first step for the Dems is becoming the party of speaking hard truths about what is going on NOW before they can hope to be the party of making plans about what should be done. (Plans they have no hope of implementing before 2008, after all. But telling the truth can start today.) Democrats will, of course, be maligned as traitors and defeatists and Bush-hating partisans -- a thousand Diogeneses, as if to make up for the duck, will tar and feather with terrible zeal. But I simply refuse to believe that telling hard truths and holding a couple yards of high moral ground -- about torture -- isn't a stance that can win the approval of a majority of the American people.

One of the great things about the internet is that one virtually meets so many people who make one proud to belong to their species. And then there are people like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and the 101st Fighting Keyboarders.

Why Oh Why Are We Ruled by These Clowns?

Kevin Drum:

The Washington Monthly: YE OLDE DONUTTE HOLE....It's coming soon, thanks to the Republican Party treating the Medicare prescription bill as a political football instead of a serious policy issue:

"Virtually everyone who calls to say they've been denied coverage, they're shocked," said Robert M. Hayes, president of the Medicare Rights Center, a nonprofit that helps seniors navigate Medicare. "Trying to explain that this is the way the program was created by Congress angers folks who think it makes no sense. Many people feel blindsided."

The coverage gap was one of the most contentious elements of the 2003 legislation that created the new benefit. It ends federal payments for a person's drug purchases once an annual spending limit is reached, resuming them only after the beneficiary has spent thousands of dollars out of pocket.As I've said before, I would have been willing to cut the budget for the Medicare prescription bill by a third if Republicans had just been willing to let serious policymakers craft a program that was wholly dedicated to getting prescription drugs into the hands of seniors as efficiently as possible. But they wanted to play games instead. Result: a bad program, and one that costs more than a good program would have cost.

Your Republican Congress at work.

Tim Geithner Should Be Sleeping Easier These DSays

Just after New York Fed President Tim Geithner gives a speech about systemic risk and hedge funds, Amaranth blows up following a trading strategy that either had no method at all to it or was a failed attempt to corner next spring's natural gas market.

Yet there is not a sign of disturbance to the markets. Amaranth's investors have lost what is now said to be $6 billion. Some other people have the $6 billion--if they can, in turn, unwind their positions. But the system cruises on with no worries about liquidity or solvency and no changes in risk premiums.

Reassuring, I think.

Ian Buruma on Gunter Grass

Ian Buruma on Gunter Grass:

The New Yorker: PRINTABLES: In 1985, Chancellor Helmut Kohl and President Ronald Reagan decided to remember the war and celebrate the postwar alliance of Western democracies, by laying wreaths at the site of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and then at a military cemetery in Bitburg. Grass called it an “insult,” a “defilement of history,” because among the thousands of graves were the remains of forty-nine Waffen-S.S. soldiers. Thirty-two of the soldiers were less than twenty-five years old when they died. Grass, as his critics have now had occasion to point out, never even hinted that he could easily have been one of them.

Just as unequivocal was his declaration, in 1989, that Germany should remain divided, the unified state having “laid the foundations for Auschwitz.”

And his criticisms of the United States show precious few shades of gray. The stationing of U.S. Pershing missiles on German soil, in the eighties, was likened to the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews.

Why was this man, who dissembled for so long about his own past, so eager to expose the shameful secrets of others? Why was he so intent on imposing a collective guilt on his people, as if all Germans had followed Hitler as blindly as he had? And why is there such a discrepancy between the subtlety of his best narrative writing and the fierceness of his public scoldings?...

Grass’s memoir.... His father, a provincial shopkeeper, a good Roman Catholic, a “peace-loving family man... forever bent on harmony,” filled him with loathing. There was nothing grand or exciting about him. He was, as Grass would say, a Spiessbürger, a stuffy petit bourgeois.... This loathing, in Grass’s recollection, was one of the reasons that he yearned to join the Army at the end of the Second World War.... “I was spoiling for a fight with him,” he writes about his father. “I would like to have murdered him with my Hitler Youth dagger.” He was desperate to find escape routes. “All led in one direction. Away from here, to the battle front, one of the many fronts, as soon as possible.”...

[S]uddenly, the draft card arrived, telling him to report to the Waffen-S.S. in Dresden.... Was he shocked by the reputation of the S.S.? Not at all... there was something attractively European about the Waffen-S.S.; its volunteers included Frenchmen, Walloons, Dutchmen, Norwegians, Danes, and even some neutral Swedes, all battling on the Eastern Front to “save the West from the Bolshevist flood.”...

For decades, serious intellectuals and politicians wouldn’t talk about the effects of Allied terror bombing, say, or the expulsions from the German-speaking areas of Silesia and the Sudetenland... confined to the right-wing fringes of German politics. This began to change recently, and Grass followed the trend with his 2002 novel, “Crabwalk,” about the Wilhelm Gustloff, a Nazi cruise ship that was sunk by Soviet torpedoes in 1945, sending almost nine thousand German refugees, many of them children, to the bottom of the frozen sea.

The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff is an enormity worth recalling; and yet the tone of Grass’s novel is oddly peevish. The narrator complains that it was “as if there were no room for another maritime disaster, as if only the victims of the Titanic could be remembered, not those of the Gustloff.” He goes on, “The Internet was abuzz with a tearjerker of colossal proportions, the sinking of the Titanic freshly filmed in Hollywood and soon to be marketed as the greatest maritime catastrophe of all times.” Much is made, earlier in the story, of the fact that the Gustloff, when it was still the flagship of Nazi cruises, was classless, an innovation that had wide appeal. The Titanic, we know, was anything but.... [T]here is an element of contempt here—-toward commercial culture and capitalism—-that hints at some of Grass’s earlier attitudes. It explains his hostility to America....

Grass, from a petit-bourgeois background, a convert to democracy, ashamed of his own youthful moral obtuseness, viewed Adenauer’s Germany as an outrageous betrayal.... Even now... [e]very word is filled with rage:

Chancellor Adenauer was like a mask, hiding everything I loathed: the pseudo-Christian hypocrisy, the disgusting, lying professions of innocence, and the ostentatious bourgeois respectability of a criminal gang in disguise.

This is harsh, but in the context of the early postwar decades Grass’s voice was a necessary moral correction to Adenauer’s pragmatism.... His compatriots needed to have their consciences pricked in the nineteen-fifties and sixties.... The problem is that he hasn’t been able to let go. The Nazi ghosts have continued to haunt him, and any kind of hypocrisy, material greed, or use of military force provokes hysterical denunciations.... [Grass] sometimes talks as if the United States were the Third Reich’s successor... there are hints of earlier enthusiasms, of a possibly unconscious nostalgia for more heroic, more mythical, more tragic times...