The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Thursday, August 31, 2006

A Christian with Four Aces

Tom Maguire is [relatively] gracious in victory. Hats off to him.

Notes from Out There

Following up on a rant at Belgravia Dispatch, I came upon this Al-Jazeerah article. After reproducing the Washington Post article that roused Mr. Djerejian's ire, they conclude:


You seem to not be looking out for only a particular foreign interest, ARE YOU????


What kind of strange game do you play, is the fact SEAN LENNON helped you all get elected something you want to continue to hide???

What are you doing, Congressman Tom Lantos??

What are you doing to our country, and the world?

Who in the world is Sean Lennon?

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

In the Iron Triangle

The worst legislation I have heard of this year is, apparently, languishing in committee:
A bill pending in Congress would divert a percentage of profits from federally chartered institutions such as Fannie Mae to a national affordable-housing trust fund, but it seems stalled.

At first this bill seems almost sweet-natured; skim a little of FNMA's ill-gotten gains and use them to help the poor. But this is a sham. The real effect would be to further entrench Fannie's [and Freddie Mac's] implicit government guarantee, by entangling its operations more closely with those of the federal government. This would in turn bolster the corporate welfare they enjoy (in the form of advantageous borrowing rates), which has been dented somewhat by the recent scandals and by Alan Greenspan's open criticism.

This bill is a scam, and should be known as such.

The Case Against Negotiation

Kevin Drum points us to a report from Tehran by David Ignatius, which says in part:
Perhaps the most interesting fact of life in Tehran this week is that you can't find anyone who is opposed in principle to dialogue with the United States. Even a few months ago, that topic was almost taboo, but now here's Ahmadinejad himself calling for a public debate with Bush.
Mr. Drum thinks that this makes the case for negotiation:
Even now, it's not too late to talk to Iran. There are things they want and things we want.

That much is true. However, one of the things Iran's leaders want is simply to negotiate. The very act of opening negotiations contains two major concessions:
  • It undercuts the years of time invested in the G-3 negotiations, giving the Iranian regime an immediate excuse to reset the clock and postpone a reckoning over their nuclear efforts. Have our European allies asked us to negotiate directly with Iran?
  • It legitimizes the regime in the eyes of its own populace and the rest of the region, alowing it to demonstrate possession of strength sufficient to bring the possibility of U.S. concessions. As Pejman Yousefzadeh observed in discussing the Carter-Brezhnev summit:
    ... leaders seek legitimacy by being associated favorably with leaders who have achieved a mandate by democratic means. And what better way to garner such legitimacy than by receiving the implicit stamp of approval of the President of the United States?
It is possible that the Iranian government is strong enough that this grant of legitimacy will have little effect. And it is possible that our negotiations can be so much more effective than those of the European G-3 that we can afford the delay. But a call for direct bilateral negotiations should be understood as a call to concede both of these points and likely to receive nothing in return.

Entering into negotiations with America and then refusing to concede anything is a clean win for the Iranian regime -- and would mean an unmitigated loss for us.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Why Pay?

The UK is proposing sentencing guidelines which would, for all practical purposes, legalize shoplifting:

Shoplifters could avoid jail no matter how many times they commit the offence, under proposals from a sentencing watchdog.

The radical change could apply even when the thief is a persistent offender who has breached community sentences in the past, the Sentencing Advisory Panel suggests.

[...] Under option one, the panel says: β€œThe most severe sentence for a standard offence of theft from a shop would be a high-level community order, even where an offender may have failed to comply with such an order in the past. The only factors that could allow a custodial sentence to be imposed would be the existence of identified aggravating factors.”

This is known in finance as a "free option" -- there is now to be no downside to attempted shoplifting. So here's the drill. First, steal the stuff. Repeat until you get caught; you will then be sentenced to community service. Don't serve it. Return to step 1.

Share and enjoy!

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Mercantilism in Action

Kevin Drum is once again using GM's pension troubles to argue, not for personal responsibility for retirement, but for a redoubled effort to replicate the same problems on a larger scale. [For an earlier analysis, start here or here.]

Mr. Drum is a true paleoliberal, and a booster of nationalized healthcare and pensions. In two particular cases, he lets his enthusiasm for these projects overcome his reason. He attempts to airbrush the libertarian case out of existence:
So who benefits from this lopsided system? No one except the insurance and financial services industries that administer these plans.
Clearly there are other beneficiaries; for example, the workers at companies like Google [Mr. Drum's example, not mine], who wish to sell their services for a mutually agreed fair price, and are willing to take responsibility for their own savings and retirement.

But the real failure of understanding comes still earlier. Bemoaning the fact that GM's generous pensions have driven up its costs, Mr. Drum says:
GM's management faces higher costs than its competitors in other countries because it has to pay its employees' healthcare costs and Toyota and Volkswagen don't.

Let's walk through this slowly. Enabled by Germany's nationalized pensions and healthcare schemes, Volkswagen AG does not need to bear the full cost of building a car. They can hire more workers, build more cars, and sell them abroad at a nominal profit. But while the corporate sector publishes a profit, the state sector accrues a loss -- and, if the pension and healthcare costs are the competitive difference, it means this loss exceeds the corporation's profit: in short, Germany as a whole is selling cars abroad for less than their cost of manufacture.

Mr. Drum appears to believe that this is a good thing.

[Update 24 August: Alex Whitlock points out in comments that Mr. Drum's premise is probably factually wrong.]

Friday, August 11, 2006

Not My Favorite

Pejman Yousefzadeh, though he has kindly provided me an excellent home at Chequer-Board, has a strange blind spot -- an inexplicable love of soccer. Respect for truth compels me to admit that soccer is not "world's most boring sport"; that honor belongs to cricket, where twenty-two men stand on a field for five days constructing draws from a negative binomial distribution.

Despite not reaching this pinnacle, soccer is a pointless game and a useless spectator sport. Its many and glaring flaws have been perfectly showcased by the risible and shameful World Cup just passed.

Who can forget Portugal's antics against England, with one forward writhing on the ground, hands over his face like Gloucester in King Lear, when replays showed he had not been touched?

Or three red cards in two minutes in the U.S.-Italy game?

Or two quarters and the final being decided by highly paid grown men tossing a coin with their toes? Forza Italia! To the penalty line!

A game that is about manipulating the referees, about faking injuries, and at the last about a 30-second near-stationary test of luck is always going to be less than spellbinding.

[Expanded from a comment at Chequer-Board.]

Friday, August 04, 2006

Sanctioning Rogues

Via Megan McArdle, we find a commentary by Dan Drezner on the limits of constructive engagement:
Put crudely, if a regime wants to stay in power at all costs, all of the economic openness in the world is not going to make much difference, because the government that wants to stay in power will simply apply strict controls over trade with the outside world.

But a repressive regime will do more than "apply strict controls". It will bring in the products its ruling class wants. It will apply tariffs to raise more money for its own ends, or else will allow bribe-collection along the delivery chain to create revenue streams which can be directed to supporters.

The point of sanctions against, say, Iran would not be to isolate them from the Western world -- they are already seeking to isolate themselves. Rather, it would be to deny their rulers the ability to cherry-pick the West's offerings, and to give them one less way to buy off potential dissenters. To argue that sanctions strengthen the Iranian government is demented: it ignores the fact, pointed out by Mr. Drezner, that that government could duplicate the favorable effect of sanctions internally. And, without sanctions, it could make a pretty penny doing so.

Ups and Downs

Sometimes Kevin Drum is so impressive, you wonder how you could ever not agree with him:
I don't want to make any grandiose claims about the effect of a single policy change, but [reducing farm subsidies] is the kind of thing that we ought to be doing as part of our campaign to win the war on terror. High farm subsidies send a message to poor countries that not only do we not care about them β€” exactly as Osama bin Laden claims β€” but that we aren't willing to help them out even when it would benefit our own consumers and practically every relevant expert in our own country agrees that it's a step we should take.
And then sometimes, you don't have to wonder:
This attitude [repugnance for the far left] is what I've come to think of as Kaus-ism.... But today? When serious lefties sneer at the Democratic Party and Republicans are united behind the barroom gibberish of George Bush? Why should anyone even moderately left of center spend more than a few minutes a week worrying about a barely detectable liberal drift in the Democratic Party?

In short, the best policies for the nation have somehow become more liberal, just because George Bush is inarticulate? If your aim is simply to drag the country as far left as possible, this is plausible; but it shows a distinct lack of interest in seeking the best policies.

[Cross-posted from Chequer-Board.]

Update: By the way, I must note that Mr. Drum's trackbacks, after a long absence, are now sensational.

Update [8 August]: Mr. Kaus is quite capable of defending himself.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006


So-called "speciesism", a neologism coined to capitalize on the stigma attached to racism and sexism, is a shibboleth among animal-rights extremists, a self-exculpatory flag under which to attack humanity.

But what is the opposite of "speciesism"? We should have a name, it seems, for those who
think humans do not possess any morally unique qualities and people are no better than other lifeforms. They argue that those who claim a special or a higher status for humans are no better than those who talk about racial or male superiority.

Fortunately, there is no need to coin a word. The opposite of speciesism is already named, and its name is bestiality.

The denial of human primacy, "the assumption that it is wrong to prioritise humans over animals", is of a more refined sort than that of a rural zoophiliac near a livestock farm; it is a kind of Platonic idealization of bestiality, where the human gives over not mere bodily fluids but the mind's own capacities of affection and persuasion.

Worse still is the Gaia theory which, having escaped its creator, posits a sentient Earth or -- just as wrongly -- a planet or ecology with value beyond that of its constituent parts [see also here]. The adherents to such theories have not only embraced bestiality, but they pathetically imagine that they will be thanked or loved in return.

[Update 11 September: related thoughts from Richard Fernandez.]