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, February 03, 2007

Kash Mansouri writes: >The Street Light: Job Market Update, January 2007: The BLS has new data about the US job market this morning: >>In January, total payroll employment increased by 111,000, to 137.3 million, seasonally adjusted. This increase followed gains of 196,000 in November and 206,000 in December (as revised). In 2006, payroll employment rose by an average of 187,000 per month. In January, employment continued to increase in some service-providing industries. In addition, construction employment was up, while manufacturing employment continued to trend down. >Taking a look at some of the other numbers describing the US job market, we find that the employment-population ratio has (at least temporarily) stabilized, after a nice improvement during 2005 and 2006.Earnings, on the other hand, did not improve in 2006 as much for American production workers as, say, Exxon-Mobile's earnings did. In recent months the drop in gas prices has pushed real earnings noticeably higher, but those earnings are still only around 2% above where they were seven years ago. >So after accounting for consumer price inflation, the average production worker takes home about $10 more per week than he or she did in the year 2000. It's no wonder that lots of people feel that economic growth is passing them by... > >

Dean Baker is unhappy with Michael Abramowitz and Lori Montgomery of the Washington Post:

Beat the Press: I apply the strict "net gain" standard to budget reporting.... [A] typical reader should be better informed about the budget and tax/spending priorities after reading the piece than before they started. The Post's article on President Bush's request for another $245 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan does not meet the net gain standard.... [H]ow about telling [readers] that the 2008 request is equal to approximately 5 percent of total spending, or maybe $2,000 for a family of four? The article then tells readers that President Bush is proposing a 1 percent increase in non-defense discretionary spending. There are probably about 50 budget wonks that can assign any meaning to this information....

Since I'm on the topic of beating up on the Post's budget reporting, let me also call attention to a bit of excessive gullibility in Friday's story on the Senate's minimum wage bill ("Senate Adds Tax Breaks to Minimum Wage Bill," 2-1-07;A1 [sorry, no links, the Post's website is not being cooperative]). This article reported that the tax breaks would help "businesses that would be hardest hit by the minimum-wage increase." Some qualifications would have been in order here like "businesses that Republicans claim would be hardest hit by the minimum-wage increase." I haven't studied the tax breaks closely, but according to the article, one of the tax breaks is an accelerated depreciation schedule for investments by small businesses. That does not seem obviously designed to help businesses that would be affected by the higher minimum wage...

It's been a long time since I've run into any economist willing to argue that the Washington Post ought to survive.

Atrios watches as Time's Jay Carney says that the civil rights movement is not part of America's "mainstream":

Eschaton: Well, not exactly swampland, but in this edition Swampland's Jay Carney reveals his definition of mainstream:

CARNEY (1/31/07): What Biden was saying, and this is Biden's fault for not being clear in what he was saying in this interview, is that there hasn't been a candidate, a viable African-American candidate with all those qualities in one.

MATTHEWS: And mainstream.

CARNEY: Who is mainstream.

MATTHEWS: Mainstream is the key to me.

CARNEY: Who didn't come from the civil rights movement, you know...

Friday, February 02, 2007

Climate model estimates of twenty-first century global warming are still fuzzy to a factor of three--plus the uncertainty about what policies will be, and what the effects of policies on emissions will be. But they are a lot less fuzzy than they were a decade ago.

The prospect of a world that is five degrees warmer in a century is unsettling. More unsettling is what happens after 2100.

John Holbo has three posts that I think are linked: one about Josh Trevino, one about David Frum, and one about Karl Schmitt. Call it a project to analyze a particular current of thought--Dark Satanic Millian Conservatism.

Here Holbo watches Josh Trevino say that we must not be squeamish about dealing death and destruction on people for no reason other than it would be convenient for our Imperial Mission; he watches David Frum say that we must make the lower orders fearful and stressed--the circumstances of the Donner Party are mentioned--in order to make them morally righteous; he watches Karl Schmitt say that it would be insane to go to war to make a profit but that it is our bright shining mission to go to war for no comprehensible advantage at all.

It is a trifecta: ruling elites must be willing to slay villages and put entire populations in concentration camps abroad; ensure that those of the lower orders who breach the principles of thrift and good morals find themselves in poverty and misery at home; and accept the probability of their own violent death for no reason other than that they have labeled somebody else an "enemy." I think that these three currents of opinion are definitely of the same origin. But I don't quite see how they all fit together.

John Holbo on Josh Trevino:

: [T]his, by Trevino (a.k.a. Tactitus):

Americans simply do not wish to suffer, and do not have the senses of patriotism, pride, and honor that buffered such suffering for earlier generations.... The ability of a society to see through grinding conflicts like the Philippines Insurrection or the Boer War augers well for its future, lest it lose the mere capacity to conquer, and be susceptible to humiliation by any small power with no advantage save mental fortitude. It is indeed difficult to imagine now the methods that transformed the Philippines for us, and South Africa for the British, from bitter foe to steadfast friend being applied in Iraq. Would that they were....

Republicans, the suffering for suffering's sake party? It all reminds me of this post by Henry: "There's an important strain within US conservatism that is interested not only in revolution, but in permanent revolution. The struggle itself is what is important, not a successful resolution, which is dull, and somehow slightly distasteful. The everyday politics of policy and markets just aren't very interesting. Some conservatives never seem more comfortable and happier than when they are engaged in an epic struggle between good and evil." Only now I guess feelers are being put out into "beyond good and evil" territory. Conservatives will indignantly respond that Trevino is not an immoralist, [that] "we can accomplish absolutely anything in the world through the application of sufficient military force. The only thing limiting us is a lack of willpower." Do you think the problem with people who think this way is that they don't read enough comic books, or do they read too many?...

John Holbo on David Frum:

John & Belle Have A Blog: Dead Right: I can see why Marshall finds Frum’s book... interesting....

Social conservatism is potentially more popular than economic conservatism. But severed from economic conservatism, social conservatism too easily degenerates into mere posturing. The force driving the social trends that offend conservatives, from family breakup to unassimilated immigration, is the welfare function of modern government. Attempting to solve these social problems while government continues to exacerbate them is like coping with a sewer main explosition by bolting all the manhole covers to the pavement. Overweening government may not be the sole cause of America’s maladies.... The nearly 1$ trillion the federal government spends each year on social services and income maintenance -- and the additional hundreds of billions spent by the states -- is a colossal lure tempting citizens to reckless. Remove those alluring heaps of money, and the risks of personal misconduct would again deter almost everyone, as they did before 1933 and even 1965.

It’s a bit-- um, ripe -- to analogize immigrants and single-parent families directly to sewage. Nevertheless, this can still be read as more or less pure economic libertarianism (with just a layer of slime on top.)... It turns out economic inefficiency isn’t what ‘offends’... Frum.

The great, overwhelming fact of a capitalist economy is risk. Everyone is at constant risk of the loss of his job, or of the destruction of his business by a competitor, or of the crash of his investment portfolio. Risk makes people circumspect. It disciplines them and teaches them self-control. Without a safety net, people won’t try to vault across the big top. Social security, student loans, and other government programs make it far less catastrophic than it used to be for middle-class people to dissolve their families. Without welfare and food stamps, poor people would cling harder to working-class respectability than they do not.

The thing that makes capitalism good, apparently, is not that it generates wealth more efficiently than other known economic engines. No, the thing that makes capitalism good is that, by forcing people to live precarious lives, it causes them to live in fear of losing everything and therefore to adopt – as fearful people will -- a cowed and subservient posture: in a word, they behave ‘conservatively’. Of course, crouching to protect themselves and their loved ones from the eternal lash of risk precisely won’t preserve these workers from risk. But the point isn’t to induce a society-wide conformist crouch by way of making the workers safe and happy. The point is to induce a society-wide conformist crouch. Period. A solid foundation is hereby laid for a desirable social order....

[L]aissez faire capitalism is good if and only if under capitalism the masses are forced to work in environments that break their will to want to ‘jump across the big top’, i.e. behave in a self-assertive, celebratorily individualist manner. Ergo, a dark satanic millian liberal will tend to oppose capitalism to the degree that, say, Virginia Postrel turns out to be right about capitalism ushering in a bright new age of individual liberty, in which people try new things for the sheer joy of realizing themselves, etc., etc....

Contemporary conservatives still value that old American character.... [T]here have been hundreds of such changes -- never mind since the Donner party’s day, just since 1945.... All of these changes have had the same effect: the emancipation of the individual appetite from restrictions imposed on it by limited resources, or religious dread, or community disapproval, or the risk of disease or personal catastophe. (p. 202-3)

Words fail me; links not much better. The Donner party? Where did all these people go? Into each other, to a dismaying extent.... The stoical endurance of the Donner party in the face of almost unimaginable suffering is indeed moving.... But it is by no means obvious... that lawmakers and formulators of public policy should therefore make concerted efforts to emulate the Donner’s dire circumstances.... “It’s the economy, stupid! We need to bury it under ten to twelve feet of snow so that we will be forced to cannibalize the dead... [to] be objects of moral edification to future generations.”...

I’ve had enough of this. I’m stopping. The funny thing about this book is: it isn’t nearly as bad I just made it sound.... The middle chapters -- full of history and policy detail, so forth -- are quite cogent. Just the main chapters have problems...

John Holbo on Karl Schmitt:

Carl Schmitt: War! What is it good for?: John Quiggin writes:

So, let me start with the observation that war is inherently a negative-sum activity and the empirical fact that, in practice, aggressive war is almost invariably a negative-return activity for the inhabitants of countries that undertake it, Germany in the first half of C20 being a striking example. Schmitt and similar thinkers manage to construct logical frameworks that insulate them from crucial facts like this....

And yet here is what Schmitt actually says on the subject in The Concept of the Political....

War as the most extreme political means discloses the possibility which underlies every political idea, namely, the distinction of friend and enemy. This makes sense only as long as this distinction in mankind is actually present or at least potentially possible.... [I]t would be senseless to wage war for purely religious, purely moral, purely juristic, or purely economic motives.... [R]eligious, moral and other antitheses can intensify to political ones and can bring about the decisive friend-or-enemy constellation. If, in fact, this occurs, then the relevant antithesis is no longer purley religious, moral, or economic, but political. The sole remaining question then is always whether such a friend-and-enemy grouping is really at hand, regardless of which human motives are sufficiently strong to have brought it about. (p. 36)

More succinctly:

To demand seriously of human beings that they kill others and be prepared to die themselves so that trade and industry may flourish for the survivors or that the purchasing power of grandchildren may grow is sinister and crazy (p. 48)

Schmitt is running John Quiggin's point more or less in reverse[:]... since the economic reality does not support war, but it is clear that the possibility of war remains real, therefore the friend-enemy distinction must be fundamental. I have to admit it: that makes a dismal sort of sense to me. And reading the newspaper doesn't make it make less sense, I'm sad to say.

I also agree with Quiggin that Schmitt seems weirdly insulated from these facts, even though he more or less lays them out himself. He complains about one sinister, crazy thing -- going to war for profit -- but seems placidly untroubled by the [even greater] sinister craziness of going to war even though its not profitable, just because you are locked in a friend/enemy thing...

I think there is a break, and the word "neoconservative" meant one thing before 1980 and another when half of them became Reaganite supply-siders and the other half remained in the reality-based world. Bell, Glazer, Moynihan are all featured in Peter Steinfels' /The Neo-Conservatives/, which came out in the late 1970s. Steinfels' definition of neo-cons is outdated, I suppose, but I think that by identifying Bell, Glazer and Moynihan and the early Public Interest, Beinart is clearly signalling that he's using the Steinfels/late-70s definition rather than the current one. Sure, the Public Interest crowd has as much relevance to the current neocons as Lincoln has to the current Republican Party, but we do still call Lincoln a Republican. /Mark On 1/22/07, Bradford DeLong wrote: If you'd asked any of them in 1966 whether they were neoconservatives, they would all have said "no." Beinart is playing two games of intellectual three-card-monte here. The first is that "neoconservative" means post-1980 Team B Reaganite-supply-siders-we- need-"tough love"-on-the-Blacks. That's not Bell ever. That's not Moynihan. That's not Glazer after he recovered his sanity. To call Bell, Moynihan, and Glazer "neoconservatives" is a form of intellectual fraud. The second is the claim that even Kristol and company at the reality- based Public Interest in 1967 had anything to do with the post-1980 crowd. The whole point of neoconservatism was to be ideological and not reality-based--to hype the Soviet threat, to pretend that Brezhnev was Stalin, to pretend that Arthur Laffer and Jude Wanninski and Larry Kudlow were respected economists, all in the interest of winning Republican votes. The transformation from policy intellectual to Republican apparatchik broke any connection with the Public Interest ca. 1967. I keep on saying that Beinart can't be that dumb--that he must be malicious. But I don't really know... On Jan 10, 2007, at 2:51 PM, Mark Schmitt wrote: > re: your comment: > > On January 10, 2007 - 5:15pm delong said: > > I protest! > > Nathan Glazer was a neocon for a decade, but he recovered from the > kool-aid. Daniel Patrick Moynihan always said that he had briefly > been a fellow traveler of the neocons, but never a card-carrying > member. And Daniel Bell vociferously denies that he was ever any > kind of neoconservative. > Not yet rated. > reply | write to author | link | > > On January 10, 2007 - 5:45pm mschmitt said: > > Yes, Brad, but when one makes reference to the "early neo-cons" and > specifically to The Public Interest, as Beinart does, that is > plainly who he is referring to. He names Bell and Moynihan, and > Glazer was a co-founder of the magazine. Maybe they shouldn't > really be called "neoconservatives" anymore, but a definition of > neocon that wipes out the founders and early contributors to The > Public Interest would be a strange definition! > > Beinart says that neo-conservatism went in a very different > direction later, when as he quotes Podhoretz, they decided they > wanted to "abolish rather than reform the welfare state." Beinart's > distinction is precisely that: that today's modest, cautious > liberals are more the heirs of early Bell/Moynihan/Glazer > neoconservatism than are the more direct heirs of that group, e.g. > Bill Kristol.

Comment is free: Not very admirable: It's not a nice thing to say. But Admiral Bill Fallon, whom President Bush has nominated to become the overall commander of US forces in the Middle East, might be a blithering idiot. Admittedly, this is an improbable scenario. Fallon is a distinguished Naval officer with nearly four decades of highly-respected service. His command assignments have taken him from the first Gulf War to Nato's planning office to his current billet as commander of US forces in the Pacific - the most prestigious command posting in the entire US Navy. His ramrod-straight bearing immediately earns him the respect of even casual observers. Even his aides are courteous and toothy - and even to nettlesome reporters. It's unlikely (with a few exceptions) that a simpleton could have advanced so rapidly and sustained such impressive heights. And yet, for nearly four hours yesterday morning in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, I watched Fallon say not a single thing of substance about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a prospective conflict with Iran, Iranian influence throughout the Middle East, al-Qaeda, the recent invasion of Somalia, the stability of the world oil supply, or any other issues that a polite but occasionally incredulous Senate Armed Services Committee put to him. On question after question, Fallon pled ignorance, assuring senators that he intends to "study" the matters before him. Only the matters before him are, well, several deteriorating wars. It's not too much to expect a prospective commander to have read a report on them every now and again. Start with Iraq. The biggest question facing Washington is whether Bush's plan to surge 21,500 US troops to lock down Baghdad has a prayer of working. The outgoing chief of Central Command, Army General John Abizaid, has consistently opposed a troop increase on the grounds that it will create dependency on US forces. What's Fallon's view? "What we've been doing is not working," the admiral told Senator Carl Levin, the panel's chairman. "We need to do, it seems to me, something different." So far so good. But what exactly should be done differently? "I have not gotten into detail on those plans," Fallon said. OK, fair enough. Are the Iraqis up to the challenge of political compromise? "I have no assessment of that yet. I haven't met them." What about the competence levels of Iraqi troops? "My initial assessment: there are some good troops, and some need a lot of work." Helpfully, he noted, the "challenge" was to determine which was which. Is the command relationship of US and Iraqi forces clear to him? "Not yet," he said, before remembering to add, "Clearly this is a very significant, critical item." All this was a stark contrast to the nomination hearing of the new Iraq commander, General David Petraeus, who is widely considered one of the brightest lights in the US Army. Petraeus peppered his answers with the occasional Arabic phrase and, when addressing sectarianism in Iraq, mused about the political inclinations of obscure minorities like the Shabak and the Yazidis. Perhaps wisely, Fallon repeatedly hinted he would defer to Petraeus. Occasionally, Fallon's manifest unfamiliarity with Iraq led him to radically reinterpret Bush administration policy, apparently without realizing it. He said that he would have to consider Petraeus's recommendations on "how many" troops to add to Baghdad - even though Bush publicly committed five full Army brigades to the effort during a televised speech on January 10. "There's a lot of talk about, 'the plan, the plan'," Fallon said in a moment of apparent frustration. "In my mind, a plan is in existence when it has the details put into it." When considering Bush's goal of an Iraqi government that can defend itself, he speculated, "Maybe we ought to redefine the goals here and see what's more practical." Perhaps most egregiously, When hawkish Republican Senator Lindsay Graham fished for an endorsement of his view that the US can win in Iraq," Fallon commented, "I don't know what 'winning' is," before pausing, realizing that he might have just made some unfortunate headlines, and backpedaling. On Iran, Fallon was similarly inscrutable. Many analysts have speculated that the first-ever appointment of a Navy officer to head Central Command indicates a new, bellicose focus on the Persian Gulf -- meaning Iran. In recent weeks, Bush's position toward Iran has hardened significantly, with U.S. troops raiding an Iranian diplomatic office in Iraqi Kurdistan and Bush promising to "respond firmly" to Iranian-sponsored attacks on Americans in Iraq. Fallon said merely that the Iranians "have not been helpful to date" in Iraq. He pledged himself unsure of Iranian intentions in the Gulf, but said he believed Iran was trying to deny the U.S. access to the Strait of Hormuz. Although many journalists in the room had at this point started flipping through the sports pages out of boredom, Fallon had perhaps inadvertently laid out a prospective casus belli: the strait is the gateway to the Persian Gulf, and denial of U.S. access to it would mean a massive disruption of the U.S. oil supply. But when Senator John Warner asked if Fallon was interested in "battleship diplomacy" against Iran, he said he found it "most appealing, because we've got plenty to do right now with active combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan." By the end of the hearing, few senators were left in the room, and Fallon, despite his inability to answer nearly any question, was virtually assured of confirmation. (No senator wants to hold up the US viceroy in the Middle East during wartime, after all.) But the biggest unanswered question is whether Fallon will develop into a competent commander, or whether the White House will bypass him in favor of increased covert actions in the Persian Gulf - like a newly-created special operations unit, known as Task Force 16, charged with hunting down Iranian agents in Iraq. Perhaps the next time Fallon testifies before the committee, he will have to answer for what he knew and when he knew it. Don't expect those answers to be any more illuminating.

Impeach George W. Bush. Impeach him now. Mark Kleiman:

The Reality-Based Community: Puzzle solved?: Why didn't Patrick Fitzgerald indict anyone for the substantive crime of revealing the identity of a CIA NOC?

Perhaps because he discovered that the revelation was done on the orders of the President, who (at least arguably) can't be indicted by a Federal prosecutor. Anyone down the chain (Libby, Fleischer, Rove) would have had a good defense that he or she was acting in good faith to carry out a Presidential order.

If you ignore all Washington and New York reporters and all TV reporters in Baghdad and just listen to Tom Lasseter, you will be better informed:

Lasseter from Baghdad: U.S. 'Surge' Might Only Help al-Sadr: Tom Lasseter, whose reports from Iraq for Knight Ridder and then McClatchy over the past three years has earned wide praise -- and many notices in E&P -- is back in that country after several months of reporting from Lebanon and elsewhere. He filed the following eye-opening dispatch today....

The U.S. military drive to train and equip Iraq's security forces has unwittingly strengthened anti-American Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, which has been battling to take over much of the capital city as American forces are trying to secure it. U.S. Army commanders and enlisted men who are patrolling east Baghdad, which is home to more than half the city's population and the front line of al-Sadr's campaign to drive rival Sunni Muslims from their homes and neighborhoods, said al-Sadr's militias had heavily infiltrated the Iraqi police and army units that they've trained and armed.

"Half of them are JAM. They'll wave at us during the day and shoot at us during the night," said 1st Lt. Dan Quinn, a platoon leader in the Army's 1st Infantry Division, using the initials of the militia's Arabic name, Jaish al Mahdi. "People (in America) think it's bad, but that we control the city. That's not the way it is. They control it, and they let us drive around. It's hostile territory."

The Bush administration's plan to secure Baghdad rests on a "surge" of some 17,000 more U.S. troops to the city, many of whom will operate from small bases throughout Baghdad. Those soldiers will work to improve Iraqi security units so that American forces can hand over control of the area and withdraw to the outskirts of the city.

The problem, many soldiers said, is that the approach has been tried before and resulted only in strengthening al-Sadr and his militia. Amid recurring reports that al-Sadr is telling his militia leaders to stash their arms and, in some cases, leave their neighborhoods during the American push, U.S. soldiers worry that the latest plan could end up handing over those areas to units that are close to al-Sadr's militant Shiite group.

"All the Shiites have to do is tell everyone to lay low, wait for the Americans to leave, then when they leave you have a target list and within a day they'll kill every Sunni leader in the country. It'll be called the' Day of Death' or something like that," said 1st Lt. Alain Etienne, 34, of Brooklyn, N.Y. "They say, 'Wait, and we will be victorious.' That's what they preach. And it will be their victory."...

After U.S. units pounded al-Sadr's men in August 2004, the cleric apparently decided that instead of facing American tanks, he'd use the Americans' plans to build Iraqi security forces to rebuild his own militia. So while Iraq's other main Shiite militia, the Badr Brigade, concentrated in 2005 on packing Iraqi intelligence bureaus with high-level officers who could coordinate sectarian assassinations, al-Sadr went after the rank and file.

His recruits began flooding into the Iraqi army and police, receiving training, uniforms and equipment either directly from the U.S. military or from the American-backed Iraqi Defense Ministry.

I don't like Editor & Publisher's calling this dispatch "eye opening." These are, after all, the reasons that the generals were not in favor of a "surge" last summer. This isn't new.

Felix Salmon on global warming:

RGE - IPCC report released: Everything you ever wanted to know about climate change: The IPCC Report is out. In the New York Times, Elisabeth Rosenthal and Andy Revkin have a good summary of the summary:

If carbon dioxide concentrations reach twice their pre-industrial levels, the report said, the climate will likely warm some 3.5 to 8 degrees. But there would be more than a one in 10 chance of much greater warming, a situation many earth scientists say poses an unacceptable risk. Many energy and environment experts see such a doubling as a foregone conclusion sometime after midcentury unless there is a prompt and sustained shift away from the 20th-century pattern of unfettered burning of coal and oil, the main sources of carbon dioxide, and an aggressive quest for expanded and improved nonpolluting energy options.

They also note that the IPCC, by its very nature, errs on the side of conservatism:

Scientists have recently reported evidence that the glaciers and ice sheets in the Arctic and Antarctic could flow seaward far more quickly than estimated in the past and have proposed risks to coasts could be much more imminent. But the I.P.C.C. is proscribed by its charter from entering into speculation and so could not include such possible instabilities in its assessment.

Meanwhile, Brad DeLong points to a story about how Exxon-Mobil-funded denialists are already trying to pay scientists to "undermine" the report -- since clearly none of the thousands of scientists who worked on the IPCC report have sufficient skepticism.

What annoys me is the way in which the IPCC report, which is truly the gold standard for any scientific project, is criticised as though it were the work of a small group of cranks. None of its critics really take its methodologies and results seriously, as opposed to deciding at the outset that it must be wrong -- probably because if they did, then they wouldn't be nearly as critical.

Barry Ritholtz worries about the good 4Q GDP growth, seeking to put a dark cloud around the silver lining:

The Big Picture | Taking Apart Robust GDP Data: Now, you may not be surprised to see this sort of chatter from me or the even more bearish Nouriel Roubini. However, you should be... shocked to see it from the generally bullish Tony Crescenzi....

I don't mean to discredit the fourth-quarter gain completely, and I have been upbeat about growth, but the reported gain must be watered down to some degree. Let's take a look at each of the four factors listed above and how we can interpret the data.

Crescenzi notes that business spending fell during the quarter -- equipment and software dropped 1.8%, the 2nd decline in three quarters and the largest since Q4 2002. That's consistent with the contraction in the Chicago PMI, suggesting the U.S. manufacturing sector is still decellerating.

The residential spending figure was called "sobering" -- "it subtracted 1.2 points from GDP, and fell for a fifth consecutive quarter, by 19.2%. That follows decreases of 18.7% in the third quarter and 11.1% in the second quarter. The fourth-quarter decline was the highest since 1991..."

Also of note: The relatively large contribution from the government sector. Spending increased 3.7%, with Uncle Sam spending 4.5% more, largely due to an 11.9% spike in defense spending. State and local spending increased 3.3%. Government added 0.7% of the Q4 GDP gains.

Where Tony really surprised me, however, was his take on personal spending.

On the surface, the figure looks solid, increasing 4.4%. The problem, however, is that it reflects a gain of just 3.6% in nominal spending because the personal consumption deflator fell 0.8%, its first decrease since 1961 and the largest decline since 1954, according to Market News.

This means that if the inflation rate for the quarter were at a normal level, say, up 2.0%, personal spending would have seen a very small gain of just 1.6% for the quarter. (I get this by subtracting 2.0% from 3.6%.)

The low level of nominal spending, which was the weakest in four years, reflects strain on the consumer. This figure represents the total amount of money that consumers spent during the quarter, a tally that looked good only because they caught a break with the decline in energy costs. Had energy costs increased, it would have produced a much different result. For context, nominal spending in the overall economy has increased at a pace of 5.6%; it increased at a pace of 5.0% in the fourth quarter.

The bottom line: A good number, but with some hair on it, likely benefiting from warmer weather, government spending, decreased energy prices -- but also likely subject to further revisions.

The usually-reliable Robert Pear misses a catch. And Dean Baker is unhappy:

Beat the Press: A New York Times article discussing President Bush's plans to cut Medicare and Medicaid spending notes that Democrats are likely to oppose these plans. At one point, it reports that Democrats in Congress want to save money by reducing payments to the private insurers that operate within the Medicare program, because they claim that Medicare overpays these plans.

Actually, that is not just a claim of the Democrats. The Medicare Payments Advisory Commission, a non-partisan governmental commission, concluded that Medicare pays an average of 11 percent more per beneficiary for people enrolled in the Medicare Advantage program than for people in the traditional fee for service Medicare program.

It would be helpful if the NYT would distinguish between partisan claims and the assessments of presumably neutral bodies. In this case, Democrats in Congress are advocating a policy that is based on the assessment of a panel of experts, not just their own assertions.

Spencer Ackerman Is Shrill! He summarizes the National Intelligence Estimate:

TPMmuckraker February 2, 2007 10:58 AM: Wow, this is grim. According to the just-released Key Judgments of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, political reconciliation is likely a bridge too far over the next year and a half.

The Sunnis remain "unwilling to accept minority status" and believe the Shiite majority is a stalking horse for Iran. The Shiites remain "deeply insecure" about their hold on power, meaning that the Shiite leadership views U.S.-desired compromises -- on oil, federalism and power-sharing -- as a threat to its position. Perhaps most ominously, the upcoming referendum on the oil-rich, multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk threatens to be explosive, as the Kurds are determined to finally regain full control over the city.

Interestingly, the listed prospects for reversing Iraq's deterioration contradict the NIE's assessment of where things actually stand. For instance, "broader Sunni acceptance of the current political structure and federalism" and "significant concessions by Shia and Kurds" could lead to stability -- but the NIE's earlier section viewed both these events as unlikely. To put this in the realm of the current debate, President Bush's "surge" is designed to give political breathing room to events that the intelligence community formally judges as unrealistic:

...even if violence is diminished, given the current winner-take-all attitude and sectarian animosities infecting the political scene, Iraqi leaders will be hard pressed to achieve sustained political reconciliation in the time frame of this Estimate.

About Iran. This must have been one of the most controversial elements of the estimate: Iraq's neighbors are "not likely to be a major driver of violence or the prospects for stability because of the self-sustaining character of Iraq's internal sectarian dynamics."... [N]o matter how much Bush wants to lay the blame for the disintegration of Iraq on the meddlesome interference of Iran and Syria, the U.S.-sponsored political process itself -- indeed, the new, U.S.-midwifed Iraqi political order -- itself sows the seeds for the country's destruction. Apparently Bush could attack Iran to his heart's content, and Iraq would still remain inflamed.

Oh, and one final thought: this is just what's unclassified. If past NIEs are any prologue, what remains classified is much, much grimmer than what we see here. More likely than not, this is the most optimistic presentation of the NIE possible. Happy Friday.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Why oh why are we ruled by this loser?

: there are some curious patterns in the search engine. It turns out that it has been blocked from returning most results if the search phrase includes "global warming" - even if it's from the President himself. For instance, searching for "issue of global" gives as top result the President's Rose Garden speech in June 2001 on Global Climate Change, but searching for "issue of global warming" (which of course is the full phrase used) returns nothing...

Is a life without Fafblog worth living?

John & Belle Have A Blog: Fontana, agreed. I left the OED out of my first comment, expecting universal acclamation and thanks, but then everyone ignored me, and damn, you can't ignore a blogger. Posted by: ogged

How good that we agree. What's really sad about this whole thing is that we don't get 20-something comments on anything at that other blog and Belle does it with dessert. Posted by: FL

ogged you are crazy. Your definition would exclude not just the Boston cream pie and the Shepherd's pie but the noble and evertrue Pumpkin pie. If a pumpkin pie is not a pie, wellthen I do not want to live in a world with your cold mechanical robot pies! Posted by: fafnir

Fafnir is right. I do not eat pecan cake. Neither do I eat key lime cake. In a sane world, all cakes would be square and all pies would be round and we'd all join hands and raise songs of praise for our precise dessert categories. Bundt would be neither cake nor pie, but in a category with doughnuts. But the world is insane. And I have only been able to secure three and twenty blackbirds for my cake. Posted by: apostropher

Ah. I think John Quiggin and I should try for the cash:

Scientists offered cash to dispute climate study | The Guardian | Guardian Unlimited: Scientists and economists have been offered $10,000 each by a lobby group funded by one of the world's largest oil companies to undermine a major climate change report due to be published today.Letters sent by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), an ExxonMobil-funded thinktank with close links to the Bush administration, offered the payments for articles that emphasise the shortcomings of a report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)....

The AEI has received more than $1.6m from ExxonMobil.... The letters, sent to scientists in Britain, the US and elsewhere, attack the UN's panel as "resistant to reasonable criticism and dissent and prone to summary conclusions that are poorly supported by the analytical work" and ask for essays that "thoughtfully explore the limitations of climate model outputs". Climate scientists described the move yesterday as an attempt to cast doubt over the "overwhelming scientific evidence" on global warming. "It's a desperate attempt by an organisation who wants to distort science for their own political aims," said David Viner of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. "The IPCC process is probably the most thorough and open review undertaken in any discipline. This undermines the confidence of the public in the scientific community and the ability of governments to take on sound scientific advice," he said.

The letters were sent by Kenneth Green, a visiting scholar at AEI....

The contents of the IPCC report have been an open secret since the Bush administration posted its draft copy on the internet in April. It says there is a 90% chance that human activity is warming the planet, and that global average temperatures will rise by another 1.5 to 5.8C this century, depending on emissions. Lord Rees of Ludlow, the president of the Royal Society, Britain's most prestigious scientific institute, said: "The IPCC is the world's leading authority on climate change and its latest report will provide a comprehensive picture of the latest scientific understanding on the issue. It is expected to stress, more convincingly than ever before, that our planet is already warming due to human actions, and that 'business as usual' would lead to unacceptable risks, underscoring the urgent need for concerted international action to reduce the worst impacts of climate change. However, yet again, there will be a vocal minority with their own agendas who will try to suggest otherwise...

Anyone have a .pdf of the letter?

The big frost that devastated the California citrus crop was two weeks ago, yet prices did not jump immediately. Only recently have the prices of boxes of small EZ-peel oranges at Trader Joe's risen, from $4.99 to $7.99 a box.

This tells us that such oranges are not storable--if they were, Trader Joe's would have kept them in the back until now, and so made an extra $3 a box. This also tells us that the memory of eating oranges is not storable either--it it were, consumers would have gorged themselves on oranges as soon as they realized they were going to be scarce this winter, and so saved themselves an extra $3 a box.

What other goods can you think of that are "nondurable," in the sense of neither being storable by producers or sufficiently memorable to consumers? What goods are "durable" in either of these senses.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

For no sane reason anybody can think of, Marty Peretz attacks George Soros:

The Spine: I've got a short essay about George Soros, only a faux intellectual, self-corrupted as both an American and a Jew. OK, maybe the point is that he isn't a Jew. So to what extent does he think of himself as an American, he who is so vexed by tribalism and so animated by greed?...

Glenn Greenwald writes on the meaning of Marty Peretz:

Unclaimed Territory - by Glenn Greenwald: The Meaning of Marty Peretz: UPDATE: From former TNR writer Spencer Ackerman, responding to Chait:

Jon. You know very, very well Marty, um, isn't really fond of the Arabs. For instance, he likes to flirt with descriptions of Arabs as subhuman. Everyone who works at TNR knows Marty is a racist. Don't make me tell stories. You shouldn't really be contesting this point with Matt. And, if you insist on it, you certainly shouldn't write about how someone else "wants to pretend he doesn't know that's the case."

This is the point. It is common knowledge that Peretz is an anti-Arab bigot. One barely needs to make the case because he makes it himself in almost everything he writes (I only documented it this extensively because Chait was denying it and because if an accusation of bigotry is made, it should be accompanied by proof -- something, incidentally, which Peretz and other casual purveyors of that accusation rarely provide)). Yet this well-known fact doesn't seem to generate many ripples. Peretz's magazine is deemed more or less acceptable and, in most mainstream circles, so is Peretz. The fact that such a well-known bigot can be so accepted in so many places obviously has meaning.... Admiration for Peretz's views of Arabs and Muslims, and a desire for more unrestrained and indiscriminate slaughter in the Middle East, are not unreleated, to put it mildly. That is why tolerance for Peretz is so significant...

Well, I'll tell a--relatively innocuous--story:

I've only seen Marty Peretz up close for any length of time once, at... I think it was the 25th anniversary dinner for Harvard's Social Studies major... in 1990 or so. He and I were at the same table. He dominated the conversation.

He argued that the Israeli government's biggest mistake had been to intervene to prevent Syria and the PLO from overthrowing King Hussein and the government of Jordan at the start of the 1970s. If Yasir Arafat had become president of Trans-Jordanian Palestine, he said, then Israel and Palestine would have been two normal countries with a border dispute. And the border dispute would eventually have been settled as all border disputes are settled, by a combination of border-line adjustments and transfers of populations. I understood this to be a complete buy-in of Likud's annexationist fantasies: that pushing Palestinian Arabs across the Jordan was the way things ought to work, and would eventually work if only the Israeli government was far-sighted enough to plan for it and to grab whatever opportunities history would throw up.

It seemed to me at the time--it seems to me now--that such buy-in to Likud's annexationist fantasies was likely to substantially raise the chance of utter disaster--raise the chance that Tel Aviv becomes a radioactive abattoir (along with Damascus, Baghdad, and Tehran) sometime in the next fifty years. Ariel Sharon decided to put a settlement on every West Bank hilltop where it would have been nice to have a firebase in 1948, thus making Israel not more but less secure. Every day that Israeli settlers sit on the West Bank in Sharon's wanna-be firebases weakens Israel's long-run strategic position. And a mass expulsion of the Palestinian Arab population from the West Bank would be a total strategic disaster for Israel. Yet that is the future that Peretz hoped--and probably still hopes--to see.

The true friends of Israel are trying to loosen not tighten the knot of war. All the cheerleaders for Likud annexationist fantasies--and those who carry water for them and defend them--are not Israel's trues friends.

Under oath at the Scooter Libby trial, former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer has testified that he told reporters John Dickerson and David Gregory that Ambassador Joe Wilson's wife worked for the CIA. This poses a problem for John Dickerson, already on record as saying that Ari Fleischer told him no such thing.

How does Dickerson handle his problem? By dodging and weaving. He doesn't want to accuse Ari Fleischer of perjury:

My surprise role at the Libby trial. - By John Dickerson: [H]e's never lied to me.... [H]e never outright lied, and I don't see how it would be in his interest here...

Or does he:

More likely, he admitted to prosecutors more than he may have actually done because better to err on the side of assuming he disclosed too much than assuming he gave over too little...

And he creates a little wiggle room for himself:

Could I have forgotten that Ari told me? I don't think so...

Now if I were Dickerson--and if Ari Fleischer's recollection was wrong--I would have done two things immediately after Fleischer's testimony:

  1. I would have pulled out my notes from the summer of 2003 and said: "Look. Here are my notes from that trip. If Ari remembers things correctly, then what Ari says he told me would be in my notes. It isn't."
  2. I would have called David Gregory and said: "You were there. Please back me up."

Dickerson does neither of these things.

Where are John Dickerson's notes from the trip? And Tom Maguire asks the big question:

JustOneMinute: David Gregory, Where Are You?: John Dickerson has posted a vigorous denial at Slate. David Gregory, however, is strangely silent (he gave David Corn an "I can't help you, sorry" when his name was first bandied about in the opening statements.) Interesting....

[M]ight Gregory have a different tale from Dickerson?... I think the public would love to hear from David Gregory.

It doesn't help Dickerson that he is already laboring under the burden of his past declarations that he will misread his readers rather than break promises to sources.

For Project Syndicate What kinds of inequality and how much we should worry about it depends on the counterfactual:

How much should we worry about inequality--on the global level, on the societal level, on the personal level? Answering that question requires that we first answer another question: "Compared to what?" What is the counterfactual, what is the alternative situation against which we are going to judge the degree of inequality that we see? Florida is a much more materially unequal society than Cuba. But the right way to look at the situation--if Florida and Cuba are our alternatives--is not to say that Florida has too much inequality, but that Cuba has much much too much poverty.

On the global level, it is hard for me to make the argument that inequality as one of the world's major political-economic problems. It is hard for me at least to envision changes in economic policies or in political arrangements over the past fifty years which would have transferred any significant portion of the wealth of today's rich nations of the global North to today's poor nations of the global South. I can easily envision changes that would have impoverished nations now in the rich North: Communist victories in the post-World War II elections in Italy and France would have done the job for those countries. I can easily envision changes that would have enriched nations now in the poorer South: the promotion of Deng Xiaoping to the post of China's paramount leader in 1956 rather than 1976 would certainly have done the job for China. But alternatives that would have made the South richer at the price of reducing the wealth of the North? I find those much harder to imagine, without a wholesale revolution in human psychology

On the personal level, it is also hard for me at least to make the argument that a great deal of political-economic worry should be spent on the problem that some people are richer than others. Some have worked harder; some have applied their intelligence more skillfully; some have been better people; some have been worse people; many more have just been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. But are there alternative political-economic arrangements that could make individuals' relative wealth closely correspond to their relative moral or other merit? I don't see what they might be. The addressable problems are those of poverty and social insurance, of safety net, not of inequality.

But on the level of individual societies, on the level of nations, I believe that inequality does loom as a serious political-economic problem. In the United States, the average earnings premium received by those with four-year college degrees over those with no college has gone from 30% to 90% over the past three decades. This is a matter of supply and demand: the skill requirements of the American economy have outstripped the educational system's ability to educate and train, skills acquired through formal education have become more relatively scarce as a factor of production, the education earnings premium has risen, and the income and wealth distribution has pulled apart. Ceci Rouse and Orley Ashenfelter of Princeton University report that they find no signs that those who receive little education do so because education does not pay off for them: if anything, the returns to an extra year of schooling appear greater for those who get little education than for those who get a lot. Odds are that a greater effort to raise the average level of education in America would have both made the country richer and produced a much more even distribution of income and wealth by making educated workers more abundant and less-skilled workers harder to find and thus worth more on the market.

Again in the United States, corporate CEOs and their peers and near-peers make ten times as much today relative to the patterns of a generation ago. They do not do this because a CEO's work effort level and negotiation and management skills are in relative terms ten times as valuable to a corporation today as they were to a corporation of a generation ago. They have risen because of a reduction in the ability of other corporate stakeholders to constrain the freedom of top managers and high financiers to direct the value added in their direction.

Similar patterns are found in other countries across the globe. Within each country, odds are that the increase in inequality that we have seen in the past generation is predominantly a result of failures of social investment and changes in regulations and expectations, and has not been accompanied by any acceleration in the overall rate of economic growth. For the most part, it looks like these changes in economy and society have not resulted in more wealth but in an upward redistribution of wealth: a successful right-wing class war. The easiest counterfactuals to imagine are those in which greater public investments in education and greater moral, legal, and cultural constraints on the freedom of action of those at the top produce an equal or greater amount of total wealth and income with a lower degree of inequality.

This kind of inequality should be a source of concern. Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, and the other hundred-millionaires of Microsoft are brilliant, hard-working, entrepreneurial, and justly wealthy. But only the first 5% of their wealth can have any justification as part of an economic reward system to enourage entrepreneurship and enterprise. And the last 95% of their wealth? It would create much more happiness and opportunity if divided evenly among the citizens of the United States or the world than if they were to consume any portion of it.

Moreover, an unequal society cannot help but be an unjust society. The very first thing that any society's wealthy try to buy with their wealth is a head start for their children. And the wealthier they are, the bigger the head start. Any society that justifies itself on a hope of equality of opportunity cannot help but be undermined by too great a degree of inequality of result.

In the United States, the problem of inequality has two dimensions: insufficient effort to educate, and insufficient control by other stakeholders' of the ability of the top 50,000 or so earners' discretion. In other countries the problem of inequality has these two but also other dimensions as well. In all it is something we should worry about, because we can see in our minds' eyes alternatives that would make for better, healthier, happier, and equally well-off societies.

I have read books published by major publishers that have less meat in them than a single blog post by John Holbo.

Here are two:

John & Belle Have A Blog: Dead Right: A fortnight ago Josh Marshall recommended... David Frum’s Dead Right (1994). That David Frum? Off to library went I.... I can see why Marshall finds Frum’s book... interesting. Its thesis is clearly stated in the final chapter’s final paragraph:

Conservatives suffer a very different political problem from liberals these days. Avowed liberals have a difficult time winning power in this country; avowed conservatives do not. You no longer get far in public life by preaching that the poor are poor because someone else is not poor, or that criminals can be rehabilitated, or that American troops should get their orders from the United Nations. There’s no liberal Rush Limbaugh. But exercising power -- that is a very different business. When conservatism’s glittering generalities, “you are overtaxed,” turn into legislative specifics, “you must pay more to send your kid to the state university,” we run into as much trouble in midsession as the liberals do at election time. Twelve years of twisting and struggling to escape this snare have just entangled us ever more deeply in it, until we have arrived at the unhappy destination this book describes. Is there a way out? Only one: conservative intellectuals should learn to care a little less about the electoral prospects of the Republican Party, indulge less in policy cleverness and ethnic demagoguery, and do what intellectuals of all descriptions are obliged to do: practice honesty, and pay the price. (p. 205)

Frum’s conception of liberals as unhappy until there’s a paroled murderer and UN bluehelmet on every corner -- is subject to doubt. But we pass over in silence; the man, to his credit, does not mince words about the faults of his party.... My compass is evidently twitchy and unreliable. Wouldn’t advise anyone else to use it. But I do find the following piece of simple woodcraft has its rugged employments: figure out which side of the trees the NRO is growing on. Then head dead-straight in the opposite direction until you hit civilization....

Let’s start at the very beginning....

Social conservatism is potentially more popular than economic conservatism. But severed from economic conservatism, social conservatism too easily degenerates into mere posturing. The force driving the social trends that offend conservatives, from family breakup to unassimilated immigration, is the welfare function of modern government. Attempting to solve these social problems while government continues to exacerbate them is like coping with a sewer main explosition by bolting all the manhole covers to the pavement. Overweening government may not be the sole cause of America’s maladies. But without overweening government, none would rage as fiercely as it now does. The nearly 1$ trillion the federal government spends each year on social services and income maintenance – and the additional hundreds of billions spent by the states – is a colossal lure tempting citizens to reckless. Remove those alluring heaps of money, and the risks of personal misconduct would again deter almost everyone, as they did before 1933 and even 1965.

It’s a bit-- um, ripe -- to analogize immigrants and single-parent families directly to sewage. Nevertheless, this can still be read as more or less pure economic libertarianism (with just a layer of slime on top.)... It turns out economic inefficiency isn’t what ‘offends’ conservatives after all, at least not Frum.

The great, overwhelming fact of a capitalist economy is risk. Everyone is at constant risk of the loss of his job, or of the destruction of his business by a competitor, or of the crash of his investment portfolio. Risk makes people circumspect. It disciplines them and teaches them self-control. Without a safety net, people won’t try to vault across the big top. Social security, student loans, and other government programs make it far less catastrophic than it used to be for middle-class people to dissolve their families. Without welfare and food stamps, poor people would cling harder to working-class respectability than they do not.

The thing that makes capitalism good, apparently, is not that it generates wealth more efficiently than other known economic engines. No, the thing that makes capitalism good is that, by forcing people to live precarious lives, it causes them to live in fear of losing everything and therefore to adopt – as fearful people will -- a cowed and subservient posture: in a word, they behave ‘conservatively’. Of course, crouching to protect themselves and their loved ones from the eternal lash of risk precisely won’t preserve these workers from risk. But the point isn’t to induce a society-wide conformist crouch by way of making the workers safe and happy. The point is to induce a society-wide conformist crouch. Period. A solid foundaton is hereby laid for a desirable social order.

Let’s call this position (what would be an evocative name?) ‘dark satanic millian liberalism’: the ethico-political theory that says laissez faire capitalism is good if and only if under capitalism the masses are forced to work in environments that break their will to want to ‘jump across the big top’, i.e. behave in a self-assertive, celebratorily individualist manner. Ergo, a dark satanic millian liberal will tend to oppose capitalism to the degree that, say, Virginia Postrel turns out to be right about capitalism ushering in a bright new age of individual liberty, in which people try new things for the sheer joy of realizing themselves, etc., etc....


Contemporary conservatives still value that old American character.... [T]here have been hundreds of such changes -- never mind since the Donner party’s day, just since 1945.... All of these changes have had the same effect: the emancipation of the individual appetite from restrictions imposed on it by limited resources, or religious dread, or community disapproval, or the risk of disease or personal catastophe. (p. 202-3)

Words fail me; links not much better. The Donner party? Where did all these people go? Into each other, to a dismaying extent. A passage from one of those moving, stoical diary entries:

...Mrs. Murphy said here yesterday that [she] thought she would commence on Milt and eat him. I don't think she has done so yet, [but] it is distresing. The Donno[r]s told the California folks that they [would] commence to eat the dead people 4 days ago, if they did not succeed in finding their cattle then under ten or twelve feet of snow & did not know the spot or near it, I suppose they have [cannibalized] ...ere this time.

The stoical endurance of the Donner party in the face of almost unimaginable suffering is indeed moving. The perseverance of the survivors is a lasting testament to the endurance of the human spirit. (On the other hand, the deaths of all who stoically refused to cannibalize their fellows might be deemed an equal, perhaps a greater testament.) But it is by no means obvious – some further demonstration would seem in order -- that lawmakers and formulators of public policy should therefore make concerted efforts to emulate the Donner’s dire circumstances. What will the bumper-stickers say? “It’s the economy, stupid! We need to bury it under ten to twelve feet of snow so that we will be forced to cannibalize the dead and generally be objects of moral edification to future generations.” I think we are beginning to see why Frum feels that his philosophy may be a loser come election time. I think the Donner party -- who, be it noted, set out seeking economic prosperity in the West, not snow and starvation -- would not vote Republican on the strength of William Bennett’s comfortable edification at the spectacle of their abject misery....

At this point let me step back and make quite clear: I don’t actually think Frum... is actually advocating the intentional infliction of dire economic hardship and suffering -- let alone cannibalism -- on the American people for the sake of hardening them up, stiffening the national spine. I think if there were some Americans caught in the snowy mountains these days, he’d advocating sending in the helicopters and so forth....

Luckily, we have conservatives holding the line against moral arrogance with their (Frum’s own words) “sweeping moral claims” and deep convictions about how everything is interrelated -- kente cloths, handicapped access, not enough British history in school, foreign policy -- and only they hold the secret key of knowledge. It’s. All. Connected. (You may not be able to see it. But that's just because you are benighted.)

'It is not new,' Whittaker Chambers observed of this creed in another seminal conservative book, Witness. 'It is, in fact, man’s second oldest faith. Its promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: ‘Ye shall be as gods.'”... In short, conservatism, properly conceived, is not a philosophy whose practical implications are in the material interests of the middle-class.... Frum actually thinks that conservatism means forcing the poor and middle-class to sacrifice government programs whose existence is, or may be, in their economic interest. And why? Near as I can figure, for the sake of making over the poor and middle-class into more agreeable objects of aesthetic contemplation for (wealthy) conservatives, whose tastes run to: Donner party-like look-alike doughty leatherstocking hard-bitten frontier-type workers (respectful hats in hand.) And the word for this aesthetic transformation is: making people free....

I've got no problem with economic libertarianism. At any rate, I can reason with such folk. But Frum is a cultural and a social conservative. What's his philosophy? I’ve had enough of this. I’m stopping. The funny thing about this book is: it isn’t nearly as bad I just made it sound.... The middle chapters -- full of history and policy detail, so forth -- are quite cogent. Just the main chapters have problems. Frum has written a book about the need for a reflective, conservative philosophy. And: that’s the one thing he hasn’t got. He just has no clue why he is a conservative, or why being one might be a good idea -- or even what ‘conservatism’ ought to mean. Whenever he starts trying to talk about that stuff, his mind just goes blank and he fantasizes about... the Donner party.

Those folks at the NRO are often weird.

1 draft 12/29/2006: FORM FOLLOWS THE FUNCTION OF THE LITTLE MAGAZINE - John Holbo: Blogging does a lot of things well that academic publishing flat-out needs to do a lot better. Like circulation. Maybe you remember Stephen Greenblatt’s 2002 MLA Presidential Address. And I had another piece by Peter Brooks lined up.... Brooks laments that critical culture seems moribund in part because review culture has atrophied; no more ‘mediating organs’—like Partisan Review. So no hope of contact with the public sphere; this takes a lot of wind out of the sails.

Greenblatt says we can’t all be Lionel Trilling or Edmund Wilson, and the problem goes deeper. We aren’t even reading each other. Never mind that the ivory tower can’t contact the public sphere. The ivory tower can’t even contact the ivory tower any more. If I write a scholarly book about literary criticism, how can I get anyone to read it?

Now, this is NOT a problem for blogs. In my own case: Crooked Timber-—8,000 visits a day; and The Valve-—5,000. Academic publishing not only should, but frankly needs to, tap that energy. But how?...

James Madison said standing armies were the greatest threat to liberty—-were standing invitations to tyranny, you see. It sounds strange, but a standing army of literary critics—-that would be us; the MLA-—are a threat to intellectual liberty, in that we are a standing invitation to the tyranny of the monograph. Or, if not that, something like it. Our number is, crudely, a function of the volume of undergrad papers that need grading; our number is not a function of any independent sense of a critical project or set of projects requiring approximately this many hands. We must produce work of ‘scholarly value’ yet our number is corrosive of our sense of it, which ends up having its level settled somewhat arbitrarily—-an uncertain equilibrium point between pedagogic need and economic constraint. Not that we wouldn’t all be happy to read a great book. I hope we know ‘scholarly value’ when we see it. But in the aggregate, 30,000 members of the MLA worth, we don’t know it. This volume of production is—-to repeat—-a function of a demand for teaching credentials, not for scholar-authors. Scholarly overpopulation AND overproduction, with respect to intellectual demand, is deeply rooted in our institution.

I don’t think we need to beat ourselves up about it. It’s good that kids get college educations. So here we are. But we need to acknowledge the shape of the problem. All the money you could hope to throw at it wouldn’t buy a better conversation. For that you need serious, industrial strength mediating forms, specifically engineered to compensate for inevitable overproduction. You need to prevent the library from turning into some sort of disposal site for run-off from the industrial manufacture of professional humanists. If I may say so: before the web, there was no hope. Paper not strong enough. The good news is: we’ve got web.

So: if we stage the end of the Gutenberg era as some sort of Buecherdaemmerung, we squander a fantastic opportunity. Gestures of doomed idealism are only noble if idealism is doomed. We’ve got good work to do....

What will happen is that, in a perennially tight market, candidates will be obliged to generate the greatest possible impression of productivity.... The forms of academic publishing follow two functions.... You publish to share ideas, contribute to knowledge, take part in conversation. And you publish to fill your CV. These functions don’t HAVE to pull apart. But when they do, which function should form follow? Obviously intellectual....

[V]anity publishing is arranging for publication of your work in a form that is self-deceptive or self-outwitting, in that it effectively aims not at shaping the opinion of others, but at shaping the apparent shape of the opinion of others. Your book is hardbound, promising solid influence. Handsome artifact. Makes a sound if you rap it with your knuckle. (But only 200 copies sold.)...

Then there’s cost. But really I’ve made the point already: high-minded indifference to profit no proof of intellectual honor. A system for haphazardly sprinkling 200 libraries with copies of your book, at great cost, is intellectually inefficient. In an age in which it is possible to distribute a book as a PDF for free, you might be better off vanity publishing the true old-fashioned way; just plain self-publishing.... But now it isn’t peer- reviewed and all that. Well yes, we’ve lost quite a lot, haven’t we?...

What we need now is a taskforce for evaluating scholarship NOT for promotion and tenure. We ought to get clear about what the system would look like, ideally, the better to beat back inevitably deforming, institutional demands.... Trilling, “The Function of the Little “Magazine”. My point was that blogs can be wonderful Little Magazines....

First, I want to be a public intellectual. I want one foot in the ivory tower, the other in the public sphere. And I don’t just want to wear two hats. I want the two roles to be mutually informing.... Second, even specialists can affirm the spirit of that quote from Trilling... you don’t write an idiotic paper just because you expect your audience to be a bunch of idiots. The publishing system ought not to compel you to deform your writing.... Finally, Trilling’s essay was written on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the founding of Partisan Review. After 10 years they had 6,000 subscribers. Slightly more than the Valve, slightly fewer than Crooked Timber. God, we bloggers are lucky....

A simple normative principle. Every scholarly book published in the humanities should be widely read, discussed and reviewed. Because any scholarly book incapable of rousing a modest measure of sustained, considerate, intelligent discussion shouldn't have been published as a book. Turning the point around: in the information age, any book worth the time and expense of publishing, that fails to be read, discussed and reviewed—-has been catastrophically failed by the mediating function of the academic culture in which it was so unfortunate as to be born....

We need three kinds of things....

First, new media, made possible by new technology. New publication forms. If anyone complains that this mucks up the credentialing process, tar them as vanity publishers....

Second, new mediation, made possible by new media. Not every book event is brilliant, but the form is just fantastic. Every author wants one. And should get one. Keep battering those institutional benchmarks until they reward this stuff in proportion to its vital importance to the conversation.

Third... [t]he loss of peer-review and other mediating functions of academic publishing as we know is pretty intolerable, even in exchange for great circulation. But now: suppose we ‘event’ this author. What do we have now:? Post-publication peer review. Of a highly rigorous sort—-and transparent-—although it’s highly unconventional, admittedly.

Do you see what I just did? Give me my book event—-and I invent not just one new kind of book but two. This one, which we’ve got. And a more utopian one, which admittedly we don’t got: a post-publication peer-reviewed book, potentially.

Am I advocating self-publishing? No. I am advocating experiments on... micro-publishing. I can’t do everything, but I can do many things ‘good enough’. What I am counting on, in part, is that efficient new media allow for efficient new mediation. Through better distribution you get to the point of enabling distributed, at least partially post-publication quality control.

At this point I go on talking for another half hour about power laws, 80/20 (20% of books are sure to get 80% of the attention); the long tail, and how my ideas are, in effect, plans for maximizing the circulation of all that stuff under the thin end. But we really don’t have the time. (And I am very sorry the severe brevity of my presentation makes me sound like I don’t see all the obstacles in the path of what I have proposed. Of course I do.)

No Consensus On Regulating Hedge Funds - No Consensus On Regulating Hedge Funds Officials Around Globe Aim to Protect Markets But Differ on Methods By KARA SCANNELL in Washington, JOELLEN PERRY in Frankfurt and ALISTAIR MACDONALD in London January 5, 2007; Page C1 Hedge funds are coming under increasing scrutiny from global regulators, central banks and finance ministries. But despite the recent collapse of several prominent funds, differences among the watchdogs over any proposals to regulate these ever-larger players are likely to generate more talk than action. European officials are pushing for more disclosure of hedge-fund portfolios or a ratings system like that for corporate debt. German officials, using their chairmanship of the Group of Eight leading nations this year, are particularly aggressive. BUYERS BEWARE • The Issue: A lot of people seem to want to regulate hedge funds. But countries can't yet get their moves coordinated. • The U.S. Philosophy: Rather than changing hedge-fund behavior, just make the funds take money only from the wealthy and "sophisticated." • On the Table: The SEC has proposed a rule to limit the investors who qualify to invest in hedge funds. But U.S. and British officials are taking a more hands-off approach, advocating additional study and, at least in the U.S., focusing on making sure hedge funds take money only from the wealthy and sophisticated rather than on changing hedge-fund behavior to minimize risks to the global financial system. In addition to disagreements among global policy makers, hedge funds are basking in a U.S. appeals-court ruling last year that foiled an initial attempt by U.S. regulators to force hedge-fund advisers to register with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Phillip Goldstein, the manager who challenged the SEC's registration rule, now wants to go even further. He is asking the SEC to exempt his fund from a rule that requires funds managing more than $100 million to disclose equity positions every quarter. He says that amounts to disclosure of his intellectual property. If the SEC doesn't grant his request, Mr. Goldstein has made it clear he will pursue the matter in court. Hedge funds are lightly regulated pools of capital that wield an estimated $1.3 trillion. These funds play a significant role in financial markets and, at times, in the affairs of the companies in which they invest. They don't fit neatly in the traditional baskets of financial regulation, which govern banks, mutual funds, brokerage firms, insurance companies and pension funds. Government officials generally acknowledge the virtues of hedge funds -- including the liquidity, or market activity, that they provide and the way they use derivatives and other financial instruments to shoulder financial risks that others want to shed. Crisis Management There is a nagging worry among many regulators and central banks that hedge funds may pose a significant risk to the global financial system and could precipitate or exacerbate a monetary crisis. They have expressed a desire for a borderless solution. "Given their explosive growth, the instruments they trade and the evolution of our financial marketplace, we must continually assess their actions and impact on the market," Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has said. The hedge-fund industry is braced for intensifying scrutiny, which is likely to include congressional hearings in the U.S. The Managed Funds Association, which represents hedge funds in Washington, recently enlarged its staff and hired Lisa McGreevy, a former lobbyist with the Financial Services Roundtable. It says its goal is to demystify hedge funds on Capitol Hill. "We are trying to work with the policy makers to help them understand what the asset managers are doing because the big question here is: 'Who are they and what are they doing?'" Ms. McGreevy said. Today, hedge funds are mainly regulated indirectly through the rules governing the banks and brokerage houses that they trade with and borrow from. In the United Kingdom, hedge-fund managers are required to register with the Financial Services Authority, making them subject to random inspections and examinations. Leaving the Club In the U.S., more than 200 advisers have revoked their registration, citing the appeals-court decision. Registration in the U.S. is voluntary, unless the adviser manages more than 15 U.S. funds and more than $25 million. About 2,300 advisers are registered, and the funds are subject to periodic inspections and examinations and must have a compliance officer and code of conduct in place. SEC enforcement officials have said they expect to bring several enforcement actions against hedge funds in the near term. The SEC's legal setback has further slowed U.S. attempts at regulation. SEC Chairman Christopher Cox testified in July that "to the maximum extent possible, our actions should be nonintrusive." Timothy Geithner, president of the New York Federal Reserve, has said that it is important to monitor hedge funds but that it isn't desirable to regulate them for now. In Continental Europe, skepticism of hedge funds is greater. The European Central Bank, which makes monetary policy for the 13 countries that share the euro currency but hasn't any mandate to police markets or investors, has called for more transparency and expressed interest in proposals to create an international registry to which hedge funds would report their investment positions continuously. Hedge funds would pass along current information about, for instance, what is in their portfolio to independent service providers, which would then customize the data for investors and banks. Hedge funds have balked, saying that providing details of their positions could cause them to lose their competitive edge and harm returns. Germany's central bank, the Bundesbank, working with the German Finance Ministry, suggests hedge funds voluntarily adhere to a code of conduct governing corporate governance and risk management. It also wants them to submit to external, voluntary ratings of investment strategies and risk-management structures, much like Standard & Poor's and Moody's debt ratings. The European Central Bank, however, in a recent report, said rating concerns probably can't keep up with funds' fast-changing portfolios. "Credit ratings are not free," it added, "which means that they might only be affordable for large funds." Would Investors Sing? Edgar Meister, chairman of the ECB's Banking Stability Committee and a member of the Bundesbank board, predicts investors would flock to rated funds. In a recent speech to a German parliamentary panel, though, he said ratings wouldn't mitigate "the danger that a deterioration of the [financial] situation of a hedge fund will be realized too late." In an interview, Mr. Meister also said the fact that hedge-fund issues will be discussed at this year's G-8 meetings is positive, even though concrete proposals are unlikely to emerge. "Success would be to discuss these issues at the highest political levels, and perhaps to find common consensus," he said. The European Commission, which has the legal power to seek laws to regulate hedge funds, has been less interested than other European governments in cracking down on them. An outside report it commissioned last summer found that "the existing light-touch regulatory approach has ... served the industry, its investors and the wider market well." And in November, Charlie McCreevy, the European commissioner for internal markets, said, "There are currently no regulatory gaps which call for EU-level intervention to regulate hedge funds above and beyond those measures that are already in place at the national and European level." British regulators take a different stance from others in Europe. The FSA's chairman, Callum McCarthy, speaking at conference in Germany last year, said that asking hedge funds for transparency on their positions has little practical benefit and could prove destabilizing to markets. Forms and More Forms The U.K., which is home to 80% of Europe's hedge-fund assets, requires hedge-fund managers to fill out forms detailing their business plan, the capital they hold to cover liabilities and details of managers, such as whether they have criminal records. Yet many U.K. hedge-fund companies are domiciled abroad, particularly in the Caribbean, so aren't regulated by London. Still, a fund manager needs to register with the FSA, which checks on controls and management culture at least once every three years. The FSA also brings the largest hedge-fund managers together every quarter to discuss regulatory issues. Hedge funds need to send in quarterly returns on their funds and basic balance sheet data. In the U.S. lawmakers have turned their attention away from how funds invest toward who is investing in the funds as a way to protect vulnerable investors. Members of Congress have said they are concerned with pension investments in hedge funds, and the SEC last month proposed a rule that would limit the number of individual investors who qualify to invest in hedge funds by raising the minimum threshold of investment acumen they must meet. ---- Marcus Walker in Berlin contributed to this article. Write to Kara Scannell at, Joellen Perry at and Alistair MacDonald at

Stan Collender is very happy with the Congressional Budget Office and with Heritage's Brian Riedle:

BUDGET BATTLES: Thank God For CBO: The Congressional Budget Office proved again last week why it is such a critically important part of the federal budget debate. CBO's most recent economic and budget outlook report [PDF] did what the agency is required to do by calculating the deficit using the unrealistic estimates mandated by law. CBO then went a giant step further by making it clear that these calculations may not tell the real story.

CBO didn't just say the budget baseline was misleading; it also provided substantial additional information that made it possible to see what the true federal budget outlook is far more likely to be. This significantly altered the upcoming budget debate. OMB Director Rob Portman used the official baseline to say the new CBO numbers were "good news."... [T]he CBO alternative baseline paints a very different picture than the official numbers. The official baseline requires that CBO make no political judgments: it has to assume that existing law will not be changed, even when it very likely will....

By contrast, the CBO alternative baseline takes political reality into account by assuming that expiring tax cuts will be extended, the AMT problem will be fixed, domestic appropriations will grow by 4 percent a year, and Iraq and Afghanistan spending will be at the midpoint between a slow and fast drawdown. The difference between the two calculations is substantial each of the next five years but most pronounced in FY12. There will be a $170 billion surplus in FY12 according to the required-by-law baseline. Under the more realistic calculation, however, there is more likely to be a $367 billion deficit....

The best example of how much the alternative baseline changes the budget outlook was provided by the Heritage Foundation, which produced an excellent analysis of the numbers the same day CBO released its report. Instead of lawmakers thinking they have $170 billion to play with in FY12, Heritage's Brian M. Riedle said that balancing the budget without tax increases will require that federal spending not increase by more than $294 billion from FY07 levels in the next five years. Riedle also noted, however, that under current law Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid alone are projected to increase by $367 billion during that period....

[T]he officially required baseline has been increasingly discredited as Congress and the White House have found ways to game it. For example, passing a popular tax cut with a set expiration date allows you to show both a limited cost because the cuts are assumed not to continue and higher revenues after the cuts are assumed to expire. The fact that the tax cut is highly likely to be extended is irrelevant; the law requires that the projections be based on what was actually enacted. It's also partially due to the tremendous erosion in OMB's credibility that has occurred in recent years. CBO's estimates simply look more credible because OMB's have become increasingly questionable...

It is interesting to remember that the same collapse of OMB's credibility happened during the Reagan and Bush I administrations. It's no accident that CBo loses credibility under budget directors like Rob Portmon, Josh Bolten, and Mitch Daniels. No accident at all.

Dan Froomkin changes the name of his column to "White House Watch." It is an old and honorable name: that is what the New Republic called John Osborne's column back when it was a real magazine. And Dan Froomkin is a worthy heir to John Osborne:

Dan Froomkin - How This White House Operates - From the first time the White House was asked about allegations that senior officials had exposed a CIA agent's identity as part of a plot to discredit an administration critic, the answer was consistent. As spokesman Scott McClellan put it as early as July 22, 2003: "That is not the way this President or this White House operates." But in the course of the Scooter Libby trial, one thing has become quite clear: That is precisely the way this White House operates. Faced with accusations that they had marched the country to war on evidence they knew was suspect, White House aides evidently responded with little if any restraint in attempting to discredit their critics.

That lack of restraint, now exposed for all to see, is likely to leave a bad taste in the public's mouth. But generally speaking, it has served Bush and his aides well. The White House's ferocity -- compounded by an easily distracted press corps and a Republican-controlled Congress not the least bit interested in oversight -- successfully kept crucial information about the administration's use and abuse of prewar intelligence out of the public sphere through the 2004 election and, arguably, to this day.

White House Watch As of today, this column's name is changing from "White House Briefing" to "White House Watch." I am delighted with the new name -- in fact, it's what I originally proposed this column be called when it launched three years ago. My editors at feel that the new name better conveys the column's mission -- that is, to take a critical look at the White House and its media coverage. They also feel that renaming the column will head off any confusion that some users might have about its relationship to " Capitol Briefing," a new blog that just launched in's revamped Politics section. That blog will apparently not contain the same sort of opinionated analysis that I bring to my column. Nothing else is changing: Not my approach to the column, not the support of my editors, nothing...

If we are to use the rational-actor model to understand American government policy since 2000, then we conclude that George W. Bush, Richard Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and the entire staff of the American Enterprise Institute and the Weekly Standard are deep-cover Iranian agents--part of a conspiracy so immense to attempt to bring the Shia Mahdi back down to earth.

Josdhua Micah Marshall reflects on an article by Anthony Shadid:

Talking Points Memo: by Joshua Micah Marshall January 30, 2007 12:02 AM: Complimenting Anthony Shadid's work is almost redundant.... In the US at present we tend to think of the 'Iran' issue in terms of Iranian influence (or 'infiltration' -- take your pick) on Shia militias and political factions within Iraq. But we need to pull back the frame of reference and see that before 2001 Iran was bordered on the east and west by hostile or at least unfriendly countries -- Afghanistan and Iraq. Iran almost went to war with the Taliban government in the 1990s, Shadid notes.

Over the last five years we've overthrown both governments and... created a power vacuum.... Read Shadid's narrative of events and you see that if the US government were in the pay of Iranian agents they would have been hard-pressed to find a series of actions and policies better crafted to increase Iranian prestige and power in the region and decrease ours.... As a Saudi writer told Shadid: "The United States is the first to be blamed for the rise of Iranian influence in the Middle East. There is one thing important about the ascendance of Iran here. It does not reflect a real change in Iranian capabilities, economic or political. It's more a reflection of the failures on the part of the U.S. and its Arab allies in the region."...

[H]ere we come back to the recurring theme of the Bush presidency: the president's perverse effort to be the beneficiary of his own incompetence and policy disasters.... Iran's power is waxing. And we're supposed to rely on the approach of the White House, the guys who created the terrible situation in the first place, to solve the consequences of their latest screw up. It's like a perpetual motion machine of calamity and self-justification.... "Don't tell me about how stupid I was to get us into this situation. Now that I've created a disaster this big, what's your policy to deal with it?" Sort of takes your breath away....

[W]e're in this eerie afterburn of our four long years of disaster. The public has rendered its verdict. Every thinking person has rendered their verdict. But the administration is still going on more or less as though nothing's happened. Serious thinking in Washington of The Note variety is still on a sort of mental autopilot. The story's over. All the real arguments are settled. But as of yet the car is still in drive rather than reverse.

Like the line says, first do no harm. And for the United States as a country, right now, that means doing everything constitutionally, legally and politically possible to limit the president's and even more Vice President Cheney's free hand to shape and execute American foreign policy. Sift it all out and it's that simple. Stop them from doing any more damage. All the rest is commentary and elaboration.

Impeach George W. Bush. Impeach Richard Cheney. Do it now.

Thabo Mbeki and all the others who have sponsored Robert Mugabe's tenure as dictator of Zimbabwe should tremble in terror when they contemplate the prospect of standing before the Throne. Here's Hilary Bok:

Obsidian Wings: Zimbabwe Melts Down: [B]ear in mind that all of these stories are from this month, and most are from the last ten days. It would be bad enough if all this had happened over a span of, say, a decade. But this is ten days. The main problem is hyperinflation.... Zimbabwe's hyperinflation, which saw levels persist stubbornly above 1,000 percent in 2006.... As a result of the skyrocketing cost of living, more or less everyone seems to be on strike. Today, for instance, the NYT has a story on Zimbabwe's doctors' strike.... Junior doctors at state hospitals now earn... less than $50 [a month].... The rural health workers who staff the public health system have gone on strike as well.... Drugs for HIV have become unaffordable. And now, to top it all off, cholera has struck Harare, probably because of the problems with the water supply.... University lecturers are already on strike, and teachers are about to join them.

Earlier this month an article in South Africa's Mail & Guardian had the charming headline: "Striking Power Workers Switch Off Harare". The one group of government employees that Robert Mugabe truly can't do without is not too happy either:

Government employees in the security sector, including police and soldiers, who get an average of about US$280 a month, are also reported to be unhappy. They are not allowed to go on strike, but top security officials have warned that if the government does not raise their salaries and improve conditions of service, their personnel may end up joining opposition forces to remove the ruling ZANU-PF party from power. The state-owned Standard newspaper reported on Sunday that many soldiers had left the Zimbabwe National Army over poor pay to take up posts as security guards or restaurant waiters in neighbouring South Africa and Botswana."...

And some workers in low-paying jobs can't afford to go to work:

"Jacqueline Munyaka (35) of Harare resigned from formal employment as a merchandiser in December. She told The Standard: "It was no longer making sense for me to travel to the city centre every day because transport alone would take up over three quarters of my salary then. I would have to scrounge for money for rentals, school fees and food from friends every month."...

Meanwhile, other catastrophes loom. Yesterday brought this news:

The Zimbabwe Electricity Authority (ZESA) has admitted to a nation already suffering sweeping and extended power cuts that it is broke, and things will get worse. (...) In some parts of Zimbabwe people have been without electricity for three months. The power utility's inability to keep users supplied is being caused by the unavailability of foreign currency to replace and repair outdated equipment; ZESA said it required US$30 million to repair equipment that had become inoperative.

Zimbabwe's economy has been in freefall in recent years, with the formal economy shrinking by 65 percent, agricultural production down by 50 percent, unemployment touching 80 percent and inflation running at 1,281 percent, the highest in the world, causing a slew of shortages, including food, fuel, medicines and foreign currency. (...)

With power no longer guaranteed, urban Zimbabweans are now using firewood as their main source of energy for cooking or heating, stripping the surrounding countryside and farms of their trees.


Zimbabwe's biggest sewage plant has broken down, sending tonnes of raw effluent into a major river and polluting the water supply of the capital, Harare, city authorities said on Monday. Harare's Firle sewage plant has been down since last week and requires at least Z$20-billion to fix, a huge burden for a country already in the grip of its worst economic crisis in decades.

Officials from the national water authority said half of the raw sewage from Harare -- a city of about 1,5-million -- was now discharged into a river that flows into the capital's main water reservoir, the state-owned Herald newspaper reported.."...

And then, of course, there's the looming famine:

Zimbabwe is facing a food deficit of hundreds of thousands of tonnes - a third of its requirements - an international monitoring agency warns. The Famine Early Warning System says the cereal balance sheet projects a shortfall in maize - the staple food - of some 850,000 tonnes. By December only 152,600 tonnes had been delivered, meaning widespread hunger looks set to continue.

The monitors say Zimbabwe's lack of foreign currency is a key problem.

It might be even worse, since agricultural workers are leaving Zimbabwe's farms because of low pay. No wonder even the wealthy have taken up urban farming....

[T]he Mugabe government, whose thuggish and idiotic policies are responsible for all this, is making it worse. The government has threatened the media, announced its intention to seize more white-owned farms, arrested thousands of people who are illegally panning for gold out of economic desperation, and threatened to carry out another round of its brutal slum clearances, in which poor people with nowhere else to go are forced from their homes, which are then bulldozed.

Think about it: this is about ten days' worth of bad news in Zimbabwe. At some point, something has to give.