The Iron Bank

The European Central Bank is failing abjectly in [update: what should be] its core mission to protect the common currency through shared prosperity as well as price stability. It no longer deserves its name and logo.

ECBlogo5So here are my proposals for a new name and logo. Continue Reading…

Weekend Film Recommendation: Game Change

The most remarkable thing about Tina Fey’s SNL skit about Sarah Palin’s notorious Couric interview wasn’t the accuracy of her impersonation. It was the fact that the joke spoke for itself so plainly in the verbatim repetition of Palin’s words. If there’s a joke in this week’s film recommendation, it’s of a similar form. Julianne Moore plays Palin in Game Change, the HBO adaptation of the “high risk, high reward” selection of a running mate capable of shoring up the McCain campaign’s lack of popularity with younger—and especially female—voters.

A skin-headed Woody Harrelson plays Steve Schmidt, the campaign’s senior strategist. In a textbook case of the Halo Effect in action, Schmidt champions Palin once her inimitable charm compels him to leave her competence in politics and foreign affairs unquestioned. He easily sells the rest of the team on Palin’s suitability, even over McCain’s preference for Joe Lieberman. Notwithstanding the popularity and momentum gained by Palin’s rousing speech at the RNC upon accepting the nomination, Schmidt soon realizes that Palin is more of a liability than he had anticipated. Before long, the McCain campaign had to grapple with Troopergate, the Couric interview, and Palin’s general inability to differentiate between North and South Korea or between the federal government and the Federal Reserve.

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She also didn’t handle with much grace the creeping awareness that she had bitten off much, much more than she could chew. At times, she became catatonic; at other times, she was violently resentful at the way she felt treated by the staff. And her petulant outbursts never make clear whether Palin blames it all on herself or the “lame-stream media” (Harold Pollack is quite right on this one – why a mother to a physically disabled child coined the term “lame-stream media” just shows what a wasted opportunity Palin was for the country).

The two main characters both undergo a sad development throughout the film. Schmidt begins the campaign with ambitions of installing a noble and worthy leader in the Oval Office. But by the end, he happily jettisons that aspiration when he suggests that Palin ought to memorize 25 answers to pre-packaged debate questions, just to forestall the impending catastrophe of the VP debate against Biden. The plan works beautifully, and he oddly appears not so much relieved as he is proud of the Pygmalion he’s helped produce. For her part, Palin also goes through an un-flattering development. She begins as the hockey mom whose principal concerns are understandably with her constituents back home in Alaska. But that admirable concern eventually becomes a parochial distraction from more pressing national matters, and it’s also a leading indicator of Palin’s weakening capacity to cope under the pressures of office. It’s therefore all the more sad when she concludes the campaign convinced that she’s outgrown Alaska, as though obscurity doesn’t suit her any more.

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Even-handedness is never assured in political dramas of this sort—especially when, as here, the wounds of history remain so fresh—but Game Change has an air of fairness without flattering any egos. McCain, played by Ed Harris in an uncharacteristically middling performance, declines to intervene once Palin’s incompetence becomes apparent for fear that she may direct her anger toward him. Neither character seems particularly courageous as a result. Nevertheless, both of them inspire considerable sympathy: McCain, for the sense in which he feels authentic disappointment at the way the campaign inspired such vitriol toward Obama among the Republican base; Palin, for the sense in which she ingenuously aspires to being the next Reagan, only to be told that she’s not a fit successor.

On this last point, two of my favorite scenes are close to the very end, when Palin voices her determination to deliver a concession speech alongside McCain’s. Her interactions with McCain as he passes along the torch of the Republican party, and Schmidt as he hopes to keep the honor of politics intact are potent and well-wrought. While McCain encourages Palin to strive for something bigger, Schmidt voices the audience’s urgent hope that Palin be reminded of her limits. Presumably Schmidt’s guilt from having been the one to champion Palin’s selection all those months earlier leads to this one scene as a great payoff.

More climate sausage

Follow-up to my post on the Paris climate agreement.

To help you out – and to check for myself whether I hadn’t got the whole thing wrong – I’ve had a go at redrafting the Vice-Chairs’ non-draft in their non-paper, shrinking all options to one. It’s now comprehensible and of reasonable length (11 pages). Link to downloadable version.

The selection was entirely personal and has 0 promises of votes. I just took whichever option that seemed strongest, clearest or shortest. So what you have is in the top decile of the large universe of possible texts that could emerge from the drafts on the table. The outcome will almost certainly be worse than the King James Version: fuzzier, weaker, and more confused. But it probably won’t be that much worse.

For the most part, I resisted the professional bureaucrat’s temptation to improve. In three cases, explained in the intro, I thought it was essential. My changes (not selections) are marked in red.

Given a free hand, I could clean it up and cut it down a lot more. Dream on.

With any known make of pen, snarled Mitty, I could have redrafted the treaty at 1000 miles to six pages with my left hand.

Postscript 30 July

In hopes of stimulating some reaction, here are my drafts of Articles 2 and 3, to compare with the extracts of the real working document I cited in the previous post:

2. OBJECTIVE
The objective of this agreement is to further enhance the full, effective and sustained implementation of the Convention in order to achieve the stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a time frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner. To these ends, all Parties will strive to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions and maintain and increase resilience to the adverse effects of climate change.

3. COLLECTIVE EFFORTS
All Parties, in accordance with Article 4 of the Convention and their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities shall make individual efforts and cooperate with a view to achieving long-term emission reductions and stabilizing greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system, consistent with holding the increase in global average temperature below 2 °C or 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. Developed country Parties shall take the lead by undertaking ambitious emission reductions and Parties included in annex [Y] shall provide finance, technology and capacity-building support to developing country Parties.

I move the 1.5 degree cap to Article 7, “Ambition”, as an aspiration subject to review.

To Cultivate Open-Mindedness

Johann Koehler impressed me the other day (a common occurrence) by explaining why he no longer reads The Economist: “I came to the point where I could predict what they would say about everything”. This struck me as admirable because I think most people who had such a realization would promptly renew their subscription rather than end it.

Much of the audience of political/cultural media products is composed of people who adore having their expectations met (e.g., “Tonight on the show our investigative reporter shows that, once again, you were right about everything!”). Indeed, if their biases are not reinforced, for example if their favorite outlet presents some evidence that challenges their views, such consumers will react quite negatively. More than once I have started following an independent-minded, original, unpredictable blog and seen it be battered into predictability over time by hostile comments from readers in search of comfort food.

This reflection reminded me of wonderful quote passed along by Andy Sabl in an excellent post about life at Harvard:

an alumnus wrote me to say that he’d always thought there were two Harvards: one that was about intellectual inquiry and expanding one’s horizons, and one that was about exactly the opposite.

As a professional educator and more generally as someone who wants our democratic republic to function properly, I despair at the tendency of so many people to use the wonder of the Internet mainly to search out whatever narrow slice of the media world will never surprise them, never being them into contact with competing views/facts and never teach them anything that they don’t already know. I wish I knew how we could produce more people who saw value in consuming the unfamiliar, the challenging and the off-beat rather than living on the empty calories provided by predictable confirmation of their own prejudices.

Inside the climate sausage factory*

We have a sort of draft of the Paris climate agreement, in the form of a “non-paper” (a charming diplomatic oxymoron invented IIRC in Brussels) of Figueres’ two joint vice chairs, Ahmed Djoghlaf of Algeria and US envoy Daniel Reifsnyder. (H/t to Sandy Dechert).

It’s true that to get a coherent document out of a long discussion, camels and committees don’t hack it. Real drafting is done by one or two people in a quiet room.  The wider forum then negotiates amendments to the reference text. The Paris agreement will follow the two diplomats’ structure.

Unfortunately it’s still unreadable. What we have is still an ordered compendium of all the positions on record, not a true working draft. I’m not familiar with UN procedures, and just how the UN deals with so many optional drafts is a mystery to me. I suspect that in the end, facing a deadline, a strong chair (and France will provide one)  just shuts down discussion, produces a chairman’s draft, and only important amendments are voted on.

Two sample core provisions give the flavour: Continue Reading…

The Emerald City Theory of Ending Police Brutality

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The Green Lantern Theory of Politics is the naive idea that political actors are not truly constrained by other political actors, but in fact can do anything given sufficient willpower. In recent years it has been used mainly to blame President Obama for not forcing Congress to do a broad range of things, when in fact Congress is an independent and co-equal branch of government that the President does not control.

Most of what is being written and said about what the current presidential candidates should do to stop police brutality toward people of color suffers from a related misunderstanding, which to keep with verdant terminology we can call Emerald City Theory. Emerald City Theory holds that all aspects of U.S. policy are controlled from Washington D.C. In L. Frank Baum’s books, the Emerald City was at the center of the Land of Oz. If you had a problem all you had to do is walk the yellow brick road to this seat of power, which oversaw all aspects of life throughout the realm.

In some policy areas, for example those concerning the economy and health care, there is a great deal of truth in Emerald City Theory. But for others, such as education and criminal justice, Washington simply isn’t where most of the action is in our federated system of government.

In the U.S., state and local law enforcement dwarfs that at the federal level, whether one looks at the number of officers, arrests, trials or courts. The FBI for example employs a third fewer people than New York City’s police department. The federal role in incarceration is also a footnote to the huge presence of state and local government.

To ask what Congress should do to stop police brutality, or what Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush or any other candidate for President will do if elected, is to fall for Emerald City theory. To be sure, residents of the Emerald City can and should acknowledge the pain of the victims, use the bully pulpit to condemn racism, and launch federal investigations where needed. But none of these things will have the impact of even a single large American city’s mayor and police chief deciding to take on the issue.

There is in short no yellow brick road for activists to walk in this case. There are instead hundreds of roads which lead to state capitols, city halls, and county commissions. Like the Wizard of Oz, people in Washington can put on an impressive display but don’t have the power to deliver the changes that the country needs.

Happy 25th Anniversary, ADA

Twenty-five years ago today, July 26, 1990, President George HW Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law.

The fact that this anniversary is boring and uncontroversial underscores the depth of social changes that ADA exemplified, ratified, and advanced.  Aspects of the ADA are costly.  The required changes to American physical structures–buildings, sidewalks, roadways, and more–have been significant. (If you wonder how significant, travel to any great old European city and imagine how you would get around if you were mobility-impaired.) No serious politicians speak of repealing and replace ADA. They would be universally condemned if they tried.

So much of American social policy has proven mediocre or mean-spirited. Much remains to be done to help people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric limitations and disabilities achieve full and equal citizenship in American society. Yet today deserves celebration. Americans across the political spectrum have opened their hearts and their wallets to make a better country. In this important area, much was accomplished.

Guns again

The NRA seems to have been struck dumb, at least for the moment, in response to the shooting in Louisana.  Let me help, because the event demands analysis, not to mention that it’s always correct to say that what we need is more guns.

The tragic events in the Lafayette movie theater could have been prevented if only Louisiana had not disarmed its citizens. If it had ‘shall-issue’ rules for concealed carry, and allowed anyone over, say, 16 open-carry permission, the theater would have been full of armed citizens who would surely have killed the shooter the minute he drew his own weapon…and, in the darkness and confusion, presumably several of each other, grateful for the chance to personally water the tree of liberty.  Instead, senseless tragedy ensued. Governor Jindal, when are you going to give your citizens their Second Amendment rights?

Another recent episode teaches us the importance of everyone, always, packing heat; in New York, this woman would never have suffered violence and robbery if she had only been carrying an appropriate weapon and had training to use it.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Traffik

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I once saluted the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy mini-series as the summit of BBC programming. This week’s film recommendation is in the same league: 1989′s Traffik. Most Americans remember Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning adaptation of this series, but far too few have seen the British original, which at just over 5 hours allows much more character and plot development than could Soderbergh’s fine movie.

Simon Moore’s masterful script anchors what could have been a sprawling, confusing series in the lives of a small number of characters: A UK Home Office drugs minister (Bill Paterson) whose daughter is a heroin addict (Julia Ormond), a dogged German cop (Fritz Müller-Scherz) who relentlessly pursues an ice queen (Lindsay Duncan) who steps into the drug trafficking business when her husband (George Kukura) is indicted, and a desperate Pakistani poppy farmer (Jamal Shah) who finds work with a ruthless drug lord (Talat Hussain). As events buffet the protagonists and their respective story arcs cross, Moore’s narrative skills and Alastair Reid’s deft direction ensure that the viewer is irresistibly drawn in emotionally and able to track the complexities of the plot.

The performances by the actors range from good to amazing. Though it is hard to choose some to single out for praise, Müller-Scherz completely inhabits his role as a working class police detective who seems to hate traffickers as much for their wealth as their drugs. Paterson is marvelous in a tragic role, playing a rigid man who desperately wants to do good at home and at work yet almost always fails in both domains. Lindsay Duncan is also impressive, beginning the film as a woman accustomed to wealth and knowing yet not wanting to know where the money comes from. After her husband’s arrest, Duncan makes credible her character’s transformation into someone even more cold-hearted than he, revealing the greed and entitlement that was lurking in her all along. Her character, along with Talat Hussain’s Pakistani drug lord, are used by the film to portray the drug trade much as socialists tend to see all of capitalist enterprise: A system with a few rich sociopaths on the top and countless marginal people (whether in the drug trade or addicted to its products) scraping by and suffering at the bottom.

The cinematic team behind Traffik took a somewhat subjective approach in their portrayal of drug production and daily life in Pakistan. Home Office minister Jack Lithgow (Paterson), improbably, roams around Pakistan unstaffed, not unlike Macbeth lost in the haunted forest. His encounters with the locals are more emblematic than realistic, including his somehow running into Fazal, the farmer who will be a hub of the story that unfolds. Coupled with dreamlike, sun dappled shots of the countryside by cinematographer Clive Tickner, the whole effect of the Pakistan sequences is akin to watching a surrealist play. Yet it works because Lithgow is on a mission of unreality, trying to stop drug production with a feeble crop substitution program and more generally trying to control a culture that he can barely even understand.

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In contrast, the scenes set in Europe are more gritty and realistic, particularly Ormond’s descent into addiction. The skies are darker, the shadows longer and the cinematic look grimier. And over both the European and Pakistani scenes hangs Tim Souster’s music, a quasi-mystical threnody that accentuates the emotional anguish that the film creates. You won’t get his score out of your head quickly and you will not want to.

Traffik is a powerful, mournful film that doesn’t speechify or offer easy answers about drugs. Both artistically and as an education about its subject, it’s a triumph from start to finish.

Uber v. taxi in Brooklyn and Queens: twice as fast but no cheaper

The results of one day’s observation of taxi and Uber service in the outer boroughs of New York – the pilot phase of what is planned as a larger study – are now in.  Our riders in fact used three systems—street-hailing yellow cabs or Boro cabs, phoning NYC car ride services, and app-summoning UberX—in two randomly-selected low-income, low-crime areas, one in Brooklyn and one in Queens. 

Even ignoring the substantial number of cases where no taxi or boro-cab service was available within a thirty-minute period or where the request for a ride was refused entirely, total time from initiating the request to being in a car was half as long for Uber as for the two varieties of taxi service. That more or less matched the results from Los Angeles. By contrast with the LA results, there was no measurable difference in price.