oddly enough, Political Theory, quicklink, USA

Trading Bush-Shares.

Ever wanted to short sell a few Condis and find out what the price for three-month Colin-Caps is? Spiegel Online reports that Paris-based American expat Andrew Geiger has initiated the American Action Market, a trading platform that will (intentionally) provide insights into the actions and decisions of the US government. The idea is modeled after the US Department of Defense’s now withdrawn idea of a Policy Analysis Market. (link to story)

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German Politics, oddly enough, Political Theory

A New Kind Of Democracy.

Look what I found on „ciao.com“ while looking for credibilty ratings of an ebay pro-seller.

Now that’s what I call „political marketplace“. For those not literate in German, the image below is a screen capture from ciao.com, a website where people can leave their opinions on everything from white laces to, well, globalisation. The latter, of course, is only 68% recommended.

globalisation 68% recommended by commentators on ciao.com

I wonder if it wouldn’t be a good idea to demographically profile the membership of these fora to see whether these opinions are anywhere close to „representative“. While I suppose that would be too hard to implement, especially because of privacy concerns I guess in ciao.com’s strategic business outlook they already see themselves as a real competitor in the traditional polling market.

Will be interesting to see.

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Political Theory, USA

It’s Been A Hard Day’s

and I’m having trouble with my computer. So I won’t be exactly long winded for a change ;-).

There are many reasons for people to pursue a particular lifestyle or live in a particular culture. Some do it by choice [disregarding for practical reasons that any discussion about „choice“ will sooner or later approach the „free will“ dilemma], others less so – if for genetic or societal or whichever reasons. And in many instances there is no clear-cut criterion for a moral ranking of any of these lifestyles or cultures – they are incommensurable.

I have been confronted with this thought twice tonight. For the first time while I have been reading a recommendable essay by the University of Chicago’s Richard A. Shweder. It is called „Moral Maps, ‚First World‘ Conceits and the New Evangelists“ and deals with some problems relating to the seemingly eternal moral rivalry of „cultural relativism“ and „moral universalism“.

Richard A. Shweder is an anthropologist, but as he states himself in the essay, that doesn’t actually say a lot about a person’s belief system (anymore). I very much enjoyed reading this essay although I do not agree with his final conclusion that the world’s cultures will not converge economically if cultural conversion to western values should indeed be a condition for this to happen. But read and decide for yourself.

And then – the second time – I found a practical example of the new evangelism/moral universalism Mr Shweder was alluding to – even within the geographical „west“ – an article on MSNBC news about a new mission Southern Baptists (apparently a larger American evangelical denomination) have assigned themselves to –

„The Southern Baptist Convention announced a new initiative Tuesday to convince gays that they can become heterosexual if they accept Jesus Christ as their savior and reject their ’sinful, destructive lifestyle.'“

I might disagree with Mr Shweder with respect to the question of cultures choosing less productive economic models over more productive ones in order to preserve socialised identities in the very long run (in my opinion, the real question here is, how exactly does de- and re-institutionalisation of cultural elements and their importance for individual identities work in reality – a question to which the Iraki „adventure“ will probably add some observations) but I doubt the Southern Baptists will be particularly successful on their latest mission…

OK, now that was a bit longer than I thought it would be.

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almost a diary, Political Theory, USA, web 2.0

Stupid, stupid, stupid idiots!

Lillimarleen links to „pro-gun“ tirade by Rachel Lucas called just like this entry. Rachel furiously tries to point out why previous cases of civil strife, ethnic persecution, or class warfare are valid arguments in favour of uninhibited gun ownership in general, and specifically in the USA –

„If you make self-defense illegal, or even problematic, you’re making life easier for criminals and tyrants.“

Well, if I were living in a Hobbesian state of nature I would probably have to subscribe to the strict version of that theory, too. But, luckily, I am not. Maybe she is – she lives in Texas, according to her webpage – that would explain her position.

In the real world however, it just doesn’t make much sense. But just like I am, Rachel and everybody else is entitled to tell the world about his or her opinions.

So when there’s nothing to argue, what am I doing here? Well, I am not really concerned with the substance of her rant, but rather with the style.

Unfortunately, Rachel (although she’s far from the worst) seemingly believes in the bizarre discourse theory a lot of bloggers, in my experience predominantly American right-wing bloggers, are spreading these days – that calling people who don’t share their opinions „idiots“ as frequently as possible is making their points more convincing. Generally, they seem to follow the rule „the more aggressive, and insulting, the better.“

Rachel herself admits this practice on her FAQ page

Q: ‚How does Rachel expect to make her point by insulting people she disagrees with?‘
A: Easy. I don’t expect to make my point to people who can’t see past the insults. Also, this is just a blog, not the New York Times op-ed page.“

Don’t get me wrong here, there are instances for the application of „idiot“. But the word’s inflationary use is a kind of verbal pollution, is simply annoying, and possibly preventing a good deal of the debate theoretically made possible by advances in communication technologies – who likes to talk to people who begin the discussion by saying „shut up, you idiot“? In Rachel’s words – why should they want to see past the insults?

I wonder if some phd student is already trying to capture the early changes personal publishing is making to the style of written opinion in general – can anyone imagine a NY Times op-ed headline that reads „Stupid, stupid, stupid idiots“? Probably not – for the time being. But who knows what the future, and the effects of personal publishing will have on other forms of media?

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compulsory reading, Political Theory, US Politics

Veto Players On The Move.

Democracy is a tricky thing. That is true not only for the Middle East, where the current US government claims to be implementing it. That is apparently also true for the current US president’s home state of Texas, where the Parliamentary opposition, more than 50 Democratic politicians, has turned into extra-Parliamentarian opposition by fleeing the state before a crucial vote this week, thereby have bringing the state’s political system to a halt but also creating the profound impression that something is seriously rotten in the state of Texas.

What happened – and what is not going to happen. According to the BBC online

„The lawmakers left the city of Austin just before a scheduled debate on a controversial rezoning plan for voting districts, which Democrats say will unfairly tip the balance in the state in the Republicans favour. They arrived in Oklahoma, but when Texas sent state troopers to ask them to return, they refused to come back. The Democratic boycott means that the Texas House of Representatives does not have the minimum of 100 members needed for a vote to be held.“

Ah, good old gerrymandering.

The Original Gerrymander'

As old as the American Democracy, and probably a neglected factor in the last, problematic, presidential election in the US. But it’s tough to say something about the electoral consequences of current or redefined state-constituencies without detailed knowledge of the demographic composition and clear evidence whether these group characteristics actually are a proxy for electoral results. In cases where demographic composition is a politically correct term for ethnic or class voting, gerrymandering can have severe consequences, as, say, the creation of Northern Ireland amply demonstrates. But as cross-voting increases, the consequences vary a lot more, and politicians suffer from an illusion of control when trying to design their constituencies. Again, it’s hard to speculate about the consequences without a detailed analysis.

However, if, as the BBC explains,

[t]he Republicans had gained control of the Texas House in November for the first time since just after the US Civil War in the 1860s.“

It seems quite understandable to me that they are trying to change that long-time history of losing by rezoning electoral districts to their benefit. Likewise, taking job-security from Democratic deputies is not likely to make them happy.

While their trip to Oklahoma increases the impression of the US being a Banana Republic in terms of democratic procedures, it is actually a smart move to do so – and just another proof of the unintended consequences of designing institutions. I am pretty sure that collective absence from the state by the minority faction was not something those drafting the Texas House Rules were ever even contemplating. But by taking advantage of that omission, the minority faction has indeed become a veto player, something their presence in the Parliament would not have allowed.

So when the Republican leader in the US House of Representatives, Tom DeLay, states that

„Representatives are elected and paid for by the people with the expectation that they show up to work do the people’s business and have the courage to cast tough votes, I have never turned tail and run and shirked my responsibility“

His anger seems to have blurred his political instincts, for by taking that leave, the Representatives are actually living up to their responsibility. If the Parliamentary rules de facto accord the minority faction a veto right, they would be negligent not to exercise it if necessary.

Whatever the eventual outcome in this redistricting battle, redrafting the Parliamentary rules will likely be up next. So, who knows, maybe this procedural quarrel turns out to become a travel industry stimulus package…

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almost a diary, Political Theory, self-referential

Homeowner.

I am sure, that you, my gentle readers, will be thrilled to hear that this little page from now on has a second home. One with its very own diskspace and domain. Ladies & gentlemen, „tschwarz.blogspot.com“ is now also „www.almostadiary.de„.

You don’t have to update your links yet as I will continue using blogspot for the time being. But I thought I let you know that it feels good to be a homeowner – who, as Denise DiPasquale and Edward L. Glaeser found out some time ago, might well be the better citizens ;-).

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compulsory reading, intellectual property rights, media, Political Theory, web 2.0

De-Merging Patriotism

Last year, Michael Wolf, a director in McKinsey�s New York office, published an article in the WSJ (here via McKinseyQuarterly) explaing that market forces – especially a sluggish advertising market and the general trend to digital distribution – would continue to pressure media companies to merge into ever larger entities. Mr Wolf’s article was triggered by a US appeals court decision to allow media companies to own both cable systems and local broadcasters in the same market, a decision which he seemingly supported on grounds of value creating synergies, while knowing very well that the media are not just one business among others –

„Critics of media concentration will now wonder how much more wheeling and dealing can go on before there are but one or two juggernauts controlling every image, syllable, and sound of information and entertainment.“

He also explained why he believed that more hierarchy would not yet pose a problem for the world –

„Actually, the industry has a long way to go yet before it reaches that point. There are more than 100 media companies worldwide, with more than $1 billion in revenues; and entertainment and media are still fragmented compared with other industries such as pharmaceuticals or aerospace.“

That was last year. Just when the whole Iraq thing started. And last year, I think I agreed with Mr. Wolf’s efficiency conclusion and pharmaceuticals analogy, arguing like he that

„[w]hile the media mogul archetype may be Charles Foster Kane, the better analogy is Jack Welch in his early GE days, in pursuit of strategic fit and maximum returns…“ –

or, to make the argument more fun, along the lines of Michael Kinsley’s brilliant article „Six Degrees of America Online“ (which is now premium, how surprising…).

Kinsley’s still rather useful point was that hierarchical control of today’s media conglomerates is probably not as dangerous as many may think because, well, it’s incestous and competitive at the same time. AOL owns a chunk of this parent of that joint venture with Microsoft who are in bed with Murdoch in Asia and cooperate with the state run television in Bulgaria. And never forget the promiscous EMI. Kinsley had a point. Upstream or downstream, the convergence value chain does look like a conglomerate soap opera. Or, if you prefer the same conclusion in McKinsey-speech –

For a German example of this just look at some of the people who are going to be on the ProSiebenSat1 Media oversight board once Haim Saban will have finalised his purchase of roughly 25% of the German eyeballs in early June this year. His Malibu neighbour Thomas Gottschalk, who’s a host on ZDF television, and Helmut Thoma, former CEO of RTL+, part of the Bertelsmann owned RTL group, for which he is still apparently still consulting.

But now, after seeing the enourmous power the media had in establishing what behavior is right or wrong on both sides of the transatlantic media rift, I no longer agree. Of course, it is not hierarchical control of large chunks of access to people’s brains per se that is problematic. But I’d say, it does become a huge problem if some big players succeed in setting the agenda for everyone else. Think of the American „WarNow!LetsGoAndKickSomeAss“, or its European antithesis, „NoWarEverBushIsSaddamInDisguise“.

There comes a point when deescalation is just no longer possible, when myths of reality established by the media become an imperative for themselves. When whatever could be true becomes true by pure repetition. And having more, and more smaller, media entitites will allow for a slowdown of this process.

Media is a content business where there are economies of scale primarily in the realm of risk structuring and distribution. Economics of scope primarily exist in cross-media publishing and promotion. So there are reasons for integration. But having witnessed the consequences of the described mechanism on a previously unintelligible scale, I believe efficiency considerations for media corpoations have to be looked at from a different angle if a merger is considered the appropriate therapy.

I am not proposing any policy here. But I’d say media concentration control has become more important now than ever. I am not proposing state interventionism per se – that would probably cause as many problems as it would be trying to solve – but there must be other ways to ease the economic pressures than merging. Less taxes for tv? I don’t know. But I think this is an issue that should be put on the public agenda here, there, and everywhere rather sooner than later.

Having just written this, I can already hear people scream – yeah, but what about the end of the bandwidth restriction, what about the internet, what about those amazing new context filtering technology, blogging – isn’t that offsetting the Murdochs of this world?

Hmm, well. As much as I like doing this, I’d have to say ‚blogging-schmogging‚. The internet is not as decentralised as one would believe (how many internet booksellers do you know off-hand?), and for the time being – despite all the blog-bubble-induced discussion how it is changing the face of journalism on this planent – much of blogging is predominantly a different, extremely useful, qualitative (ie, non statistical) kind of collaborative filtering (like the amazon recommendations), bringing together people – „Other people who looked at this blog also read this article in the NYTimes.“ I’m not saying it can’t work.

But it cannot offset the reality shaping power of conventional publishing. At least not yet.

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compulsory reading, Iraq, oddly enough, Political Theory, US Politics

A Tale of Perle and Pirls

So Baghdad sort of fell today. The Iraqi regime seems to have disappeared overnight. This is clearly a very good thing. I still believe that this war was unnecessary as well as unwise and I still believe that it is going to be far more costly – monetarily as well as in lives and in terms of international security – than the US administration seems to have reckoned in their calculations. And it is not over yet.

But I am ready to admit that I was moved by the Iraqi people welcoming the US troops – and I felt reminded of the tales my parents told me about US soldiers handing out chocolate to starving German toddlers after WW2. Whatever the regime that will follow on the US military government will be like, whether authoritarian, in order to handle the ethnic clashes and distributive conflicts that will in all likelihood arise now, or possibly truly democratic – as Paul Wolfowitz said today, paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln, a government of the Iraqi people, by the Iraqi people, for the Iraqi people – life in Iraq will in all likelihood be better in the future than it was in the past. And not just because of the „tax refunds“ some Iraqis claimed today in the form of previously administration-owned furniture.

However, for the time being, I still do not share the US neoconservatives‘ assessment that the American Prometheus can indeed bring good governance and enlightenment to the middle east. Certainly not within a few years. And that’s a huge part of the problem. The Saudis welcomed the US in 1990. Four years later, they were already regarded as semi-occupiers of Islamic holy land. Candy for kids is not going to modernize the region by itself. Just as Brad DeLong notes today

… we could still turn operational victory into strategic defeat, and harm the national security of the United States. The story the world needs to tell itself is that the United States overthrew a cruel dictator and gave Iraqis a much better life, not the out-of-control United States bombed and invaded a small country because President Bush wanted to get his hands on its oil.

I suppose, there is indeed a tiny, tiny chance that social modernisation by tank could work. And it remains tiny, even though the professionalism of the allied troops that made this war a short campaign without too many civilian victims has clearly increased it significantly. But however minuscule it is, the US has – against the will of many – committed itself and the rest of „the west“ to embark on this adventure.

I contend I do not believe it will work. But this is a problem where I would love to be proven wrong in the end. If all goes well, I am hereby inviting Richard Perle to publicly lecture me in, say, 15 years about the right attitude in international relations with the following fable. It was, interestingly enough, part of the recently published „The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study“ (PIRLS) which assessed a range of reading comprehension strategies of ten year olds in 35 countries. I thought about adapting it to „Weasel heralds the War!“ but then decided against it – after all, it is a fable that is very likely to remain just that.

Hare Heralds the Earthquake
by Rosalind Kerven

There was once a hare who was always worrying. „Oh dear,“ he muttered all day long, „oh deary, deary me.“ His greatest worry was that there might be an earthquake. „For if there was,“ he said to himself, „whatever would become of me?“

He was feeling particularly anxious about this one morning, when suddenly an enormous fruit fell down from a nearby tree – CRASH! – making the whole earth shake. The hare leaped up. „Earthquake!“ he cried. And with that he raced across the fields to warn his cousins.

„Earthquake! Run for your lives!“ All the hares left the fields and madly followed him. They raced across the plains, through forests and rivers and into the hills warning more cousins as they went. „Earthquake! Run for your lives!“ All the hares left the rivers and plains, the hills and forests and madly followed. By the time they reached the mountains, ten thousand hares pounded like thunder up the slopes. Soon they reached the highest peak. The first hare gazed back to see if the earthquake was coming any closer, but all he could see was a great swarm of speeding hares. Then he looked in front but all he could see was more mountains and valleys and, far in the distance, the shining blue sea.

As he stood there panting, a lion appeared. „What’s happening?“ he asked. „Earthquake, earthquake!“ babbled all the hares. „An earthquake?“ asked the lion. „Who has seen it? Who has heard it?“ „Ask him, ask him!“ cried all the hares, pointing to the first one. The lion turned to the hare.

„Please Sir,“ said the hare shyly, „I was sitting quietly at home when there was a terrible crash and the ground shook and I knew it must be a quake, Sir, so I ran as fast as I could to warn all the others to save their lives.“ The lion looked at the hare from his deep, wise eyes.

„My brother, would you be brave enough to show me where this dreadful disaster happened?“

The hare didn’t really feel brave enough at all, but he felt he could trust the lion. So, rather timidly, he led the lion back down the mountains and the hills, across the rivers, plains, forests and fields, until at last they were back at his home.

„This is where I heard it, Sir.“ The lion gazed around – and very soon he spotted the enormous fruit which had fallen so noisily from its tree. He picked it up in his mouth, climbed onto a rock and dropped it back to the ground. CRASH! The hare jumped. „Earthquake! Quickly – run away – it’s just happened again!“

But suddenly he realized that the lion was laughing. And then he saw the fruit rocking gently by his feet. „Oh,“ he whispered, „it wasn’t really an earthquake after all, was it?“ „No,“ said the lion, „it was not and you had no need to be afraid.“ „What a silly hare I’ve been!“

The lion smiled kindly. „Never mind, little brother. All of us – even I – sometimes fear things we cannot understand.“ And with that he padded back to the ten thousand hares that were still waiting on top of the mountain, to tell them that it was now quite safe to go home.

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compulsory reading, oddly enough, Political Theory, US Politics, USA

Desperately Seeking Simplicity

Somehow, I hate to restate something as obvious as this – the world we are living in is an extremely complex system. A system far too complicated for any individual to understand. That’s why we tend to categorize and model the world in order to reduce complexity and gain a little insight into the „underlying causes“ of the reality constructed by our sensory system.

But somehow, I guess it is necessary. Fellow German Blogger „Lilimarleen“ wonders how people living in a world featuring violent anti-globalisation demonstrations and politicians desperate to cater to the needs of multinational corporations with the ability to go „regime shopping“ can actually believe that there is something like a „national“ product that can be boycotted without harming anyone but a clearly (nationally) identifiable producer (and oneself, because of the choice not to engange in a otherwise utility enhancing transaction).

The answer is evident, in my opinion – they are looking for simplicity – and ways to regain control of a global system that is seemingly beyond anyone’s control. Knowing that their individual *political*, ie „non-market“, influence on the relevant international players‘ actions is not even negligible, they are turning to a different institution of imaginary popular control – consumer „democracy“. As one of Lilimarleen’s reader’s remarked –

„Boycotting is the only way that I can make a difference.“

Well, should the problem of collective action indeed be overcome by a specific momentum like the current wave of „Freedom“-branding, they could indeed have *some* influence. But in an extremely complex system like the world economy, there is no way to predict the indirect ramifications of their actions apart from the fact that everyone will suffer from reduced economic exchange.

In order to uphold this illusion of influence those boycotting „French“ products need to adopt a simplistic view of the transactional structure through which the good in question has been created.

I suppose it’s a bit like driving fast in a car – a mechanism of mental self protection. Rationally, I know that there are quite a lot of things that could lead to an accident that are entirely out of my realm of decision making. But I don’t think about that because holding the steering weel emotionally reassures me that I am in control of the machine I am sitting in. I am deluding myself, and I know it.

But otherwise, I would not be able to drive (fast) at all. And there is no way I would renounce to that.

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media, oddly enough, Political Theory, US Politics, USA

Stalinism.

Andrew Northrup is concerned with the distorted reality that mass media is constructing in our heads, specifcally by the notion that the western public is more and more appalled even by small numbers of wartime casualties, citing an article by Greg Easterbrook who seems to hold this opinion –

„[a]s we weep for the Iraqi dead – whoever slew them, they did not deserve their fates–we should reflect that the recent trend both of general war, as in Iraq, and of ‚armed conflict,‘ as in other places, is for fewer people to die, while the threshold of what constitutes an atrocity is steadily lowered. Both are good signs for the human prospect.“

Northrup, on the other hand holds that

„… media coverage, and world opinion, has basically nothing to do with actual magnitudes, and basically everything to do with scoring political points. … Is a single Palestinian or Israeli death global news because a precious, precious life was lost, and life is the most precious, precious thing there is? Or because it lets someone say „I told you so“?“

He certainly makes a good point by citing an Economist article about another – far bloodier – war that is being waged these days without global attention – in Africa, Congo, to be precise, a forgotten country on a forgotten continent –

„… if the Economist’s figures are to be believed, the death toll of the past half-decade in Congo is about the same as the entire population of the occupied territories, or Israel, or Baghdad. Put another way, it’s 3 orders of magnitude greater than Intifada 2, probably 4 powers of ten greater than GW2 (so far…), and has received 3 or 4 orders of magnitude less press coverage than either one. The explanation for this is politics, not the greater caring and sensitivity of 21st century man.“

I agree that domestic and international political/ economic salience is clearly an important variable to explain media attention – but I think that casualty numbers do have some importance, albeit not quite in the way that Mr Easterbrook alleges.

I doubt human beings have become any more emphatic in recent years than they have been before. But low casualty numbers allow a stronger expressions of empathy than higher numbers – mostly because of psychological „bandwidth restrictions“. We might be able to grasp the suffering of a few people, but not that of millions. Factor that into the media’s programming decisions and there is an additional explanation for overproportional coverage of „small scale“ atrocities.

Maybe Andrew Northrup forgot about a point once made by Joseph Stalin: while the Soviet dictator was undisputably wrong in pretty much everything he ever said or did – after all, depending on whom you ask he will be a close runner up to Hitler or even top the Austro-German monster on the list of the most evil men of the 20st century – he seems to have had a certain grasp of mass media constructed reality and human psychology when he once stated that –

„A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.“

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