I know you are but what am I?

National stereotypes are fun!

It’s nice to see that essentialism hasn’t gone out of style in the UK:

Indeed, Estonia’s success has excited other countries. President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, for example, is a huge fan of Estonia, and based his policies of deregulation, low taxes and privatisation explicitly on policies pioneered by Estonia in the 1990s. Scores of Estonians have spent time in Georgia, advising on everything from anti-corruption efforts to spy-catching.

The temperaments could hardly be more different: Estonians are reserved, unhierarchical and efficient. That makes them excellent team players—one reason why Estonia’s public institutions are the strongest and cleanest in the ex-communist world. Georgians, by contrast, are emotional, status-conscious and individualistic. This leads to a rather different style of work, to put it mildly. But opposites attract: Estonians and Georgians get on splendidly (much more so, in fact that either country does with its immediate neighbours).

The editors of The Economist clearly are not up on the latest research.

National Character Does Not Reflect Mean Personality Trait Levels in 49 Cultures

Continue reading “I know you are but what am I?”

Tragedy doesn’t scale

No one knows how many people—civilians or combatants—were killed in the battle for Tskhinvali, and both self-serving and independent estimates have varied widely since the conflict escalated in early August. The BBC now reports that

The Russian prosecutor’s office is investigating more than 300 possible cases of civilians killed by the Georgian military.

Some of those may be Ossetian paramilitaries, but Human Rights Watch believes the figure of 300-400 civilians is a “useful starting point”.

That would represent more than 1% of the population of Tskhinvali—the equivalent of 70,000 deaths in London.

This sort of “equivalence” is often cited, to convey the impact of a loss on the local population, whether in Iraq,

Thus, violence killed 300 Iraqis last week, the equivalent proportionately of 3,300 Americans,

or in Israel,

Israel’s generals warn that if the Arabs strike first, tiny Israel could suffer 40,000 dead (the American equivalent of nearly three million).

This may be a useful rhetorical device in some narrow demographic sense, but how difficult is it to grasp “one percent”? And there’s a difference between distributed, ongoing casualties—as in Iraq at the time of that article—and what is essentially a single incident. In the former case, the comparison to the U.S. gives a sense of the incidence of violent death, if it were to strike widely and frequently. People often understand frequency-based explanations better than rate-based.

This analogy is likely to sensationalize an already grave matter. Individual lives are not worth more because the victims come from a small community. A car crash in Liechtenstein that kills four people leaves four people dead—it is not equivalent to an earthquake in China that kills 150,000, though each is a comparable share of the total population. 300 dead (or whatever the true figure turns out to be) is terrible enough, but the moral culpability is not the same as for whomever might kill 70,000 civilians in London. On the other hand, thinking about 70,000 dead in London might harden the BBC listener’s heart; one dead man is death, two million are only a statistic (Remarquenot Stalin.)

Update: It seems that Jordan Ellenberg took up this issue a few years ago. I was a math teammate of his; he was much younger and much smarter than I, so I’m not about to take issue with his analysis.

Let Der Spiegel Soar

Now is the time on Sprockets when we propagandize.

I do my best to avoid reading Glenn Greenwald, as I do Gasbag Columnists of all stripes. And I try not to harp too much on bad Georgia analysis, because I value my sanity and like to get regular sleep. But there he goes again :

[T]he vast bulk of the American citizenry has a completely false understanding of a war that took place this year between our “stalwart ally” and our New/Old Scary Enemy (namely, that the New Scary Enemy launched an unprovoked attack on our sweet and innocent democratic ally). That lie is then used to depict the New Enemy as a Grave Threat and to justify proposed NATO membership for the victimized ally, an extremely dangerous policy which all four major candidates, with varying degrees of qualification, fundamentally endorse (thus further eliminating any discussion, debate or dissent over it).

Of course, the mouth-breathing Americans public is credulous and the American press is ovine, while foreigners are all busy reading Goethe:

Americans are alone in this world in being lied to about what happened. Virtually the entire rest of the world—at least the rest of the world that is affected in some way by Russia and Georgia—has access to the truth.

And what is this beacon of truth? Der Spiegel. Der Spiegel likes to present itself as a sort of center-left German counterpart to The Economist. In that it is a printed-and-bound collection of words and photographs on current events, okay. But it has a loose relationship with facts. It has devoted a lot of attention to the August war, not all discreditable. Its most-explosive reporting, however, was that an OSCE report had blamed Georgia for plotting an attack on Tskhinvali. Well, not exactly “reporting.” A pre-publication teaser said that the magazine had received secret OSCE documents to this effect. The OSCE denied that any such report exists. The actual article made no mention of the alleged report or the OSCE’s denial, and no other source has found evidence of the report.

This is more than “Are space aliens molesting children at local playgrounds?—tune in for Action News at 11 to find out”-style attention getting. The teaser was released the day before an emergency EU summit on the crisis in Georgia, and it was the talk of the town in Brussels. I doubt that Greenwald is familiar with all of this; it’s not his beat, and there’s no reason for him to follow all the ins and outs. But if you’re the Oracle of the Left, that’s not a problem.

May I present H.E. the Ambassador of Lower Slobbovia

South Ossetia and Abkhazia have been disappointed by the non-recognition of their independence by Belarus, Venezuela, and Syria, among other reliable Friends of Vladimir. But the dominoes are starting to snowball. After recognition by Nicaragua, Western Sahara, Serbska Kraina and Gagauzia, today “Somalia” recognized them. As goes Mogadiscio, so goes Bougainville.

Update: Never mind. Maybe: Somali authorities deny recognition of breakaway Georgian territories.

The original Golden Fleece Award

William Proxmire, John McCain, and Georgia–the pieces fall into place

Not that all roads lead to Georgia, but William Proxmire’s appropriation of the Golden Fleece was a clever play on scientists imagining themselves as a latter-day Order of the Golden Fleece, and the notion of fleecing the taxpayer. But the original Golden Fleece lured Jason and the Argonauts to find it, in the land of Colchis (today, western Georgia). If you find yourself in Cambridge, England in the next few months, you’d do well to check out From the Land of the Golden Fleece: Tomb Treasures of Ancient Georgia.

Proxmire, while we’re on the subject, was a complicated figure. His fixation on pork-barrel spending, pointless as much of it is, prefigured much of today’s cant on the subject—and he didn’t, as Mark notes, distinguish between worthwhile projects (which deserved to be funded by a different mechanism) and scientific bridges to nowhere. But he was a genuine maverick, indifferent to whom he pissed off on Capitol Hill or in the Democratic Party (dairy farmers were a different story), and fought relentlessly for the causes he championed, especially the genocide treaty. And this, as I just learned from his obituary, is a legacy we could use more of today:

On the Banking Committee, he was tireless in pursuit of laws requiring lenders and credit card companies to disclose true lending rates and legislation enabling consumers to determine their credit ratings.

Randy Travesty

In which I find myself in the awkward position of defending the integrity of a lobbyist

Regarding Mark’s second comment on my Georgia post.

Perhaps the advice Scheunemann offered McCain wasn’t problematic, even though he was doing so as a paid agent of a foreign government whose interests, though they run with those of the United States, are not identical. But what about the advice Scheunemann offered Saakashvili? Something fooled Saakashvili into thinking either that the Russians would be restrained or that the U.S. would intervene. Was Scheunemann hyping his own influence, as lobbyists often do to keep the checks rolling in? And did that lead Saakashvili to discount the warnings he was getting from the State Department?

I don’t want to defend too strenuously the whole business of foreign agents, but it’s part of Washington’s lobbyist culture. But, Ken Silverstein’s genius notwithstanding, there’s a difference between lobbying for Australia and for Turkmenistan. No, Georgia’s interests aren’t identical with America’s, but neither are Spain’s. As I said before, active lobbyists shouldn’t be paid campaign advisors, whomever they lobby for.

As for the advice Scheunemann gave Saakashvili about taking on Russia—I don’t know what he said. Saakashvili says they haven’t spoken in a long time; while his response to the host’s question is a non-answer answer, Scheunemann was not a paid advisor—he was a flack. He might’ve provided feedback on what’s selling in DC, but he was not a policy advisor. Saakashvili has plenty of those, including Democratic Party insiders (Saakashvili is resolutely bipartisan, in the U.S.). Scheunemann’s interests and ambitions certainly extend beyond being a humble PR man, but few here think that he was providing Saakashvili with critical intel or advice.

The larger questions, then, of how did the decisionmaking that led to war with Russia proceed, and what was the U.S. role? Not surprisingly, there is no clear, reliable account of what happened. The Georgian government has issued hundreds of documents on the events preceding its attack on South Ossetian security forces on the evening of August 7, and has given a few, sparse accounts of the crisis decisionmaking. Opposition figures are calling for an investigation into the events, as is Hillary Clinton.* Several enterprising bloggers and independent investigators, with no inside access, have produced their own timelines. Unfortunately, Georgia has no Bob Woodward or Graham Allison or Paul O’Neill, and I suspect we’ll never know just who said what to whom.

State Department, DOD, and White House officials all insist that they discouraged Saakashvili from unduly provoking the Russians, and certainly from any combined-arms engagement. There’s no reason to believe otherwise. But there’s also no reason to believe, in the absence of evidence, that any outside advisor—formal or otherwise—misled Saakashvili about Russian or American intentions. Tensions had been very high in South Ossetia for weeks, Saakashvili is impetuous, and Putin is ruthless—it’s not hard to see how the conflict could spiral, without appealing to shadowy, behind-the-scenes players. Scheunemann’s history with the INC certainly lends some weight to such suspicions, but I’m with William of Occam on this one.

For what it’s worth, people I know in the Georgian government—analysts and planners, not political types—are divided on whether Saakashvili’s hand was forced or whether he had other options, but none think that he was duped into planning for an easy victory.

*Update: The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly and the Georgian Parliament are both setting up commissions to investigate the war.

Georgia, Russia, mutual restraint, and Scheunemann

What advice did Randy Scheunemann provide his client Mikheil Saakashvili, and did that advice help lead to war?

Once again Jonathan Kulick provides us with the sort of grown-up analysis of the Georgian situation we can’t expect from the public press.

Two comments:

1. When Obama called for mutual restraint, he was precisely echoing official statements from Washington. Unlike his opponent, he seems to understand that he’s not President yet.

2. Perhaps the advice Scheunemann offered McCain wasn’t problematic, even though he was doing so as a paid agent of a foreign government whose interests, though they run with those of the United States, are not identical. But what about the advice Scheunemann offered Saakashvili? Something fooled Saakashvili into thinking either that the Russians would be restrained or that the U.S. would intervene. Was Scheunemann hyping his own influence, as lobbyists often do to keep the checks rolling in? And did that lead Saakashvili to discount the warnings he was getting from the State Department?

Note that from a neocon viewpoint, the outcome in Georgia wasn’t bad: the bogey-man value of Russia just went up. Yes, a bunch of Georgians died, but neocons have always been brave when it comes to shedding other people’s blood.

Master Debating Georgia

Jim Lehrer went down to Georgia

Georgia figured prominently in the first McCain-Obama debate. I’ve annotated that portion of the debate with respect to their previous statements, official U.S. policy, the truth, and the truthiness. (Transcript from CNN.)

LEHRER: Russia, goes to you, two minutes, Senator Obama. How do you see the relationship with Russia? Do you see them as a competitor? Do you see them as an enemy? Do you see them as a potential partner?

Continue reading “Master Debating Georgia”

Russian vocabulary lesson

“Cease-fire,” n. Surrender

Ceasse-fire, n. Surrender

Russia, having signed a cease-fire, has not ceased firing. Ruissian troops are marauding, taking border towns, blowing up rail lines, and even burning a national park.

It turns out that when the cease-fire says that Russian troops wiill withdraw from Georgia proper, that means that Russian troops will stay wherever they want for as long as they want. How long will that be? Why “as long as necessary,” says the Russian Foreign Minister.

“Additional security measures” means whatever Russia wants to do, including apparently establishing zone of permanent occupation within Georgia proper as a “buffer zone.” Russian troops are to be replaced by outside peacekeepers as soon as the U.N. approves, which means as soon or as late as Russia wants, including never.

Apparently the “referenda” on the anschluss with Reich joining the Russian Federation are expected within days. .

I think the Nobel Peace Prize may be out of reach, maybe Sarkozy and Rice could share the Samuel Hoare Prize for Utter Capitulation. I’m not saying a better deal was on offer, but it’s hard to see what a worse one would have looked like. We’ll know whether Sarkozy was a dupe or a co-conspirator when we hear him complain or not.

Don’t know about you, but my money is on “not.”