September 29, 2004

The decline of the company picnic

For reasons best known to myself (if anyone asks I'll answer) I've read a lot of staff magazines from the 1920s through 1940s. It's actually more fascinating than you might think to read the gossip column from a company you don't work for from a time long before you were born. Aside from the enthusiasm for the Kodak moment that developed around 1922, and the discovery that one could be increasingly open about courtship and dating, another thing stands out: by 1940 the company picnic was pretty much dead.

And the company dance, and the company orchestra, for that matter. Though the company soft-ball team continued (and still does).

How is this related to U.S. politics? The company picnic has declined for the same reason that people don't vote as much.

On an individual level it always has, and always will be, irrational in a limited sense to vote.

Since the early twentieth century voting turnout has declined in the U.S. Similarly, involvement in political parties has diminished. None of this is an original observation. Robert Putnam turned this into a well-known book, Bowling Alone.

The reason so many people went to the company picnic was that there weren't as many alternatives entertainments in the early twentieth century. Companies also sponsored the picnics and dances, making them cheaper than other alternatives.

But the mass picnic and the mass dance with 3000 factory workers hanging out with their co-workers is a thing of the past.

The reason is that with higher wages and other things to spend them on the idea of going dancing with the women from the typing pool, and picnicing with the boys from the mail-room became less attractive.

For the same reason -- more forms of alternative entertainment, and the higher opportunity cost implied by real wages -- it is less attractive to follow politics closely or become involved in a political party than it used to be.

If you don't follow politics voting becomes less consequential. What we're seeing is the aggregrate of thousands of people's individual decision to watch a soap opera instead of read the newspaper, to go to the movies instead of listening to NPR, and then not knowing who to vote for.

The professionalization of even the lower reaches of politics in the United States is probably both a reaction to the drop in volunteer involvement, and a cause of continuing decline in volunteer involvement. It takes us further and further away from the historical republican ideal of a nation of citizens who all participate in the political life of the public and do so out of love for country.

I would also note that compared to other western countries, the continuing malign hold of the church on the minds of much of the American population, is another competitor to involvement in political parties. Nowadays with the born again churches promising spiritual growth and happiness without too much self-denial, why get involved in politics with its inevitable trade-offs and disappointments.

Posted by robe0419 at 7:06 PM

September 28, 2004

back to college, or how would we know what George Bush is like, anyway?

Back in the day the Founders instituted the Electoral College to vote for the Vice-President and President because in a country where it took several days just to travel from Philadelphia to New York (or Washington D.C. when it was built) there was concern that the voters wouldn't really get a chance to meet the candidates, and make a fair evaluation of them.

Plus, much as we like to gloss over it now, America was not founded as a democracy as much as it was founded as a republic. "Ochlocracy": Rule of the rabble.

Great idea (the electoral college, not ochlocracy). Then, thinking it would be more democratic, the electors started voting a state's entire delegation to the candidate that won a plurality (and often a majority) in their state.

The one virtue of the Electoral College as configured is that it is a federal arrangment -- a popular vote across the country would unite the states into one national electorate in a way they are not at the moment.

The significant disadvantage of the Electoral College is that we elect the electors, and then just ask them to vote for the plurality/majority candidate in the state that sent them.

We like to think now that we can get to know the candidates in a way that people in the early republic, or even the late nineteenth century, could not.

But is that really true? Not really. How do we know, that John Kerry is "aloof" and "elitist"? How do we know, that George Bush cares more about the rich than the poor, and is in-sincere in his religious beliefs? (To take negative traits attributed to the candidates by the opposition).

I've never met John Kerry, and I've never met George Bush, and I don't think I'm ever likely to. Which puts me in the same category as nearly all of the population. And no, going to a campaign rally where they slap your hand does not count. Geez, by that standard I've met Paul Wellstone, Corey Glover (ex-Living Colour singer), Elijah Wood and Liv Tyler (actually, I've talked to Liv and have her autograph, but that's another story ...)

It's just not possible for politicans to meet and know that many people. They only have a certain number of hours in the day, too. The more people they meet, the less they can actually know each individual person.

What we know about the personality and "character" of our politicians comes not from actual interaction with them, but from what (1) a small number of journalists tell us, and (2) what the opposition party tells us. And once a certain notion about a candidate's character has become established it's nigh on impossible to dislodge.

Despite the fact that we can see and hear them on TV and radio, we are no more able to get to know the presidential candidates than when they were just in the newspapers. Improved transportation does mean a slightly, slightly better chance for people to meet national politicians outside Washington. But the four fold increase in population since 1900 means that your chance of meeting and knowing the candidate has also diminished.

Which brings me back to the Electoral College. If we're not going to have a popularly elected president, why not revive the Electoral College?

Each state could use STV to elect a number of electors in proportion to their population. The electors would then be the people involved in selecting the presidential candidates, perhaps the candidates that had emerged from a primary system similar to the current ones. And then, the electors would have several months to interact with the presidential candidates, before electing the president.

I'm sure you can all see the numerous flaws in this system. It's "undemocratic", but actually no more than the current system, I'd say.

Actually, the key to making this work would be getting electors who were not party hacks, sorry, committed party activists, but making this a real opportunity to return citizen involvement to the process. In other words, making the electors ordinary citizens, and getting some genuine independents and initially undecided people in there. Otherwise the election results would be determined by the numbers of electors from each party. What we would need is public financing of the campaigns to be an elector, and some mechanism to reduce the incentive to have partisan blocs in this electoral college. We would also need to pay the electors well to make it worth the while of ordinary citizens to give up their jobs for a year and be an elector.

Parties arise for several reasons; one is as a form of branding, and the other is to co-ordinate political activity. We can't really get rid of the branding aspect, but if the electors could not serve for more than one presidential election, and were disbarred from running for other office for a short period of time, we might get thinking people who were not tied too closely to a party.

Add this, I suppose, to the list of "great ideas that will never happen" as part 3 ...

Posted by robe0419 at 10:31 PM

September 26, 2004

running interference

Now I'm confused ... When Diana Kerry impolitically told Australians that their government had made them less safe it was the "outrage of the day" on conservative blogs. Now, when the Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi visits the United States and says that the Democratic candidate is a "doubter" in the war on terror, the rules of diplomatic propriety apparently mean that John Kerry cannot respond. Logical explanations of how this makes sense will win a chocolate fish.

Let's be clear on this. Politicians will always have opinions on other countries' politics. But currently active politicians and their close associates* should refrain from overt participation in foreign countries' elections. People that may have to deal with each other as leaders or representatives of their countries should try to avoid spoiling relationships for no good reason.

I suppose we should be grateful that foreign 'interference' in domestic politics is now reduced to speeches and asides; since it could be much more martial.

(*I choose my words carefully here. Political operatives, such as campaign advisors, are professionals for hire. So, if someone wants to work for the Labor Party in Israel and Democrats in the United States, well that's their business, just as doing advertising work for companies here and abroad is of no consequence. And if Bill Clinton, who will never again be elected to public office in the United States wants to campaign for Tony Blair next year, then that's not going to affect diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Britain).

Posted by robe0419 at 7:19 PM

September 23, 2004

passionate politics

Welcome, if you've just clicked through from Shane's recommendation. Thanks, Shane! And hello to returning readers too. Please keep coming back. My only income is from this bl ... oh wait, no, ...

Left, right and center, Kerry has been criticized for not inspiring enough passion in his supporters, and for not generating widespread enthusiasm for his candidacy in the electorate.

It's a view that has been expressed for months, and it's sorta strange. It's expecting the unproven challenger to generate the same sort of as the proven incumbent, when that rarely happens. Incumbents who can't get people fired up for them personally often lose; challengers can and have won without much more to recommend them than being moderately competent and not being the current guy.

Sure, Clinton's 1992 campaign inspired a lot of people and people recall it as being an election people voted for the challenger, rather than against the incumbent ... Except that if there was really widespread Clinton enthusiasm, the anti-incumbent independent, Perot, would not have got 19% of the vote.

It's a lot easier to recall the Democratic enthusiasm for Bill Clinton after the fact, after he's won. Believe it or not, some Democrats were actually ambivalent about Clinton before he won.

Which challengers, before they won, generated real enthusiasm in the electorate? Certainly not Bush I or II, there was little fervor for 43 before 9/11, and his father, bless him, couldn't even generate enthusiasm once in office. Maybe Reagan, but even then, it's easy to forget that the election didn't break for Reagan until late in the campaign. Some would say Kennedy, but that is the height of projecting the veneration of the [dead] President back onto the candidate. Going further back, perhaps Roosevelt, but it's easy to look good against Herbert Hoover and the Depression.

And I think we can safely say that the losing challengers, by definition, failed to generate widespread enthusiasm for their campaigns, even if they picked up pockets of intense support in losing.

Most challengers win largely because of the faults and failings of the incumbent, not because there is a widespread belief that they are much better. If Kerry wins because he's not Bush, he'll be following in a fine tradition of winning on the other guy's perceived failings. Much of the ambivalence that we see today will be forgotten. Similarly, the fervor that Bush has inspired will dissipate as supporters reconciling themselves to the loss find in the past faults and mistakes they had not appreciated at the time.

Posted by robe0419 at 11:22 PM

pay doctors less!

"great ideas" that will never happen, part 2

In another life I worked as a low-level health economist; and in the last few months of my time there, we had to produce at short notice a report on various international health care systems. What I learnt came to mind listening to [yet another] program on public radio about how we could lower health care costs in the United States. It came to mind, because the two representatives of the presidential campaigns were both doctors.

And my, how they waxed lyrical about cutting administrative costs by streamlining paper-work, and finding ways to reduce duplication of care, and cutting out layers of management, and everything but reducing the incomes paid to their colleagues.

A simple and traditional measure of how high health care costs are here, compared to other developed countries, is that the U.S. spend around 14% of its GDP on health care, whereas other Western democracies vary between about 7.5% (the UK) and 10% (with Switzerland a little higher, but don't let that make you believe that it's federal republics that have high health care costs).

All this would be money well spent if collectively we got something for it, relative to foreigners. The trouble is that on the simplest measures, such as life expectancy and stature, the U.S. comes out behind countries that spend a lot less per capita on health care.

One generally overlooked reason for this is that, again, compared to other countries, American doctors are very well paid. For that matter, American health care administrators are unusually well-paid too. You get that when you privatize the provision of health care, and when health care administrators and managers get private sector salaries, rather than state and federal government pay scales.

Few people have any objection to paying managers less, and paying less managers, if that could be worked out. But no-one ever proposes paying doctors less, even though doctors do very well for themselves. (In case anyone reading this is public spirited enough to be working as a public health physician or in some rural practice, I know, you get paid pretty poorly for bringing more health to more people than most other doctors.) Since we are facing a nursing shortage, it's not surprising that nurses are getting paid somewhat more these days. But there's no real doctor shortage, except (!) in rural areas and some inner cities.

The financing of medical education reflects this -- doctors put themselves into vast debt to graduate, but over their lifetime they do pretty nicely for themselves. Medical school is a good investment.

It's not like doctors in Europe or Australasia or Canada have to shake the Dunkin' Donuts cup at you outside the train station to make a living -- they just don't earn quite as much compared to other professional occupations as they do here.

We're never going to hear about this, because the press and politicians believe that doctors have unique and valuable insights into how to fix the health care system. And they do. They just don't happen to include understanding that someone's health care costs are someone elses health care derived income, Turkeys will vote for a second celebration of Thanksgiving before doctors propose reducing their own incomes.

I guess that's why they call it political economy.

Posted by robe0419 at 8:36 PM

September 22, 2004

Soap, water and the president


Wash with warm water. Use mild soap. Dry
flat. Do not use bleach. Do not dry in the dryer. Do not iron. We are sorry that our President is an idiot. We did not vote for him.

Posted by robe0419 at 7:37 PM

September 20, 2004

great ideas that will never happen, part 1

The "Hare" system or Single Transferable Vote is a great way of having all the advantages of single member electoral districts, and none of the attendant disadvantages of gerrymandered districts.

It is no more complicated than being asked to rank your 5 favorite movies. Which is no doubt why thinking people all over the web like it.

It is not immediately clear how it would translate into the American system. I'm sure that Dakotans at both points on the compass can rank their 1 preference in at-large election, but as a commenter points out, that's much harder in California if you had to rank 54 people. Now, you can have a perfectly good STV election even if people don't fill out all their preferences. You can tick the party line, and have your votes go in the nominated order of the party you vote for. This is what happens in Australia.

But this starts to diminish the electors closeness to individual candidates and representatives. Hence, the need for smaller multi-member districts. These would still need to have boundaries drawn from them ... but gerrymandering would have much less effect in this system.

But the chances of this happening are slim to none! A paradox of American democracy is that its institutions were founded in a revolutionary moment, yet the barriers to further institutional reform are very high, and the existing institutions have powerful defenders, whose conservative arguments for the continuation of those institutions are somewhat ironic in light of their beginnings.

Posted by robe0419 at 8:54 PM

About that Australian election ...

If you went to the Sydney Morning Herald website to see what the polls were saying about the Australian election you would have learnt ... the two contradictory facts below. Guess it must be close.

Posted by robe0419 at 5:58 PM

Outrag[eous inconsistency] of the day

Little Green Footballs comments:

John Kerry’s sister has gone to Australia, to tell the Australian people that the Howard government’s alliance with the Bush administration is putting them in danger. (Hat tip: Captain’s Quarters.)

This is certainly a new low for the Kerryites—undermining our alliances in the Iraq War while the war is going on, and pandering to the appeasement crowd in a blatant attempt to influence the Australian elections. I can’t say I’m shocked, but it does qualify as the outrage of the day.

How this would be different from the numerous attempts by the Bush administration to influence the Australian election (and other foreign elections) I don't know.

In case LGF didn't notice, there's an election on in Australia too. George Bush has given everything short of an endorsement to the current Prime Minister, John Howard.

That's hardly surprising, given Mark Latham's comments that Bush was dangerously incompetent.

There has always been, and always will be, sharing of advice, strategy and personnel between parties of a like mind in different countries. Anyone who thinks that Latham and Kerry don't secretly want each other to win, and likewise with Howard and Bush has been under a rock the last 2 years.

But, it's bad form all around, on both sides of the ocean, and both sides of the aisle for current politicians to be actively commenting and participating in each other's elections.

Right now I'd put my money [just] on Latham and Bush winning, but both elections are so close it could go any which way, and people will have to learn to get along.

Australia's relationship with Indonesia is more important than it was before September 11th; it is a crucial and close relationship between a Western [regional] power and the world's largest Muslim democracy; a country trying to solidify a tolerant, democratic society.

Thus, the American relationship with Australia is valuable, far over and above the Iraq troops they have committed.

Posted by robe0419 at 5:43 PM

September 19, 2004

Movie recommendation: Silver City

Roger Ebert gives this movie 3.5 stars, which is normally a recommendation in itself. But his review of this new John Sayles film, Silver City, insists on seeing the main character as

obviously intended to be George W. Bush. How do we know that? Because Dickie Pilager speaks in short, simplistic sound bites, uses platitudes to conceal his real objectives and has verbal vertigo.

But if you go to the movie you'll get much more out of it, whether you love or loathe George Bush, by not seeing Pilager as Bush. In some ways Pilager's politics and style are incidental to the plot that absorbs Danny O'Brien and Nora Allardyce (Danny Huston and Maria Bello), and the humorous interlude with Madeline Pilager (Daryl Hannah). These parts of the movie, which take up most of the running time, could easily have been derived from a plot with an old school machine politics Democrat, as well as it actually was from a corporate-Christian Republican.

And while the verbal miscues of Dickie Pilager have a certain echo in the President's1, surely it's possible to laugh at the politician out of his depth without insisting on seeing them as a standin for a particular, current politician.

In a representative democracy where people are elected to govern or represent geographic area, there is often going to be a gap between who a politician claims to represent and who they actually represent. And in that gap, there's always going to be scope to wonder whether a politician is an independent Burkean representative of the people, or whether they do the bidding of specific groups within their constituency.

Over time, that likely averages out as true for the right as for the left, and the humor of this film is less dependent on current analogies than Ebert will have you believe.

1Most noticably their resort to circular reasoning when asked to explain something. "Priorities are the things that belong on the front burner." "Tribal sovereignty means that ... I mean, you’re a—you’re a—you’ve been given sovereignty and you’re viewed as a sovereign entity.")

Posted by robe0419 at 5:35 PM

September 17, 2004

Bayesian votes, classical deaths

In the comments, a reader asks:

what is it about americans that make them think a terrorist attack is so imminent? (i like to think that they're just stupid, but that would be
politically incorrect or something)

Indeed, it puts me in mind of the old George Carlin quip "Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that."

But more seriously, George Stigler pointed out once "that which is regular, is not stupid." In other words, when many people behave in the same way it's worth taking seriously.

What appears to be "stupid" behavior can often be attributed to bounded rationality, incomplete information, cultural norms, and the like. In other words, people generally act rationally, but within a framework we don't necessarily understand.

On this specific issue, "why do people think a terrorist attack is imminent?" it's likely that we have a very widespread example of people over-estimating the probability of infrequent events, especially when the outcome is pretty horrible.

So, it's strange indeed that the presidential election is not turning on who will be toughest on firearms and road accidents, since these are both areas in which neither Bush nor Kerry are proposing much substantive to deliver a "safer America."

Our votes may be Bayesian, but our deaths will largely be classical ...

Posted by robe0419 at 7:49 PM

September 16, 2004

negative polarity

With the polls showing the presidential race slightly to Bush's advantage, the result is all going to come down to campaigning, the debates and turnout.

Strictly on the merits of Bush's record in office, this should have been any Democrats race to lose by now. That it's even close is a failure of the Democratic party to relentlessly sell the idea that the President has failed.

The objective facts of

  • $250 billion spent for little strategic advancement and many opportunity costs in really fighting terrorism.
  • More than one million jobs lost
  • Stagnant real incomes for the majority of the population
  • Increases in poverty
  • Declining health insurance coverage
  • Huge increases in the federal government's budget deficit.

are indisputable. You can argue that the President has less influence on economic, social and military outcomes than many voters would acknowledge, and you'd be right. And to expect life to be ever onward and upward for everyone is a little too optimistic, but a steady increase in the standing of the average person and family over four years is something American voters have come to expect.

That they are giving Bush a pass on this mediocre record is simply stunning, but also a tribute to what an effective political operation he is part of.

Bush has taken advantage of several key facts about American politics;

  • that many people are not really interested in politics and pay attention at the most superficial level
  • that much of the press is happy to play the role of stenographer rather than analyst
  • that many people in America over-rate the threat of Islamist terrorism in the sense that the risk to many Americans is really very low
  • under-appreciate that it is a danger that has killed many people outside the United States since 9/11 and is not uniquely an American problem
  • many people are ignorant of the dangerous incompetence that is the administration's policy towards North Korea, to say nothing of Iran.

It's not as if Kerry is a terrible campaigner; there have surely been many worse in the modern era, but in comparison to Bill Clinton and George Bush his political instincts are lacking. And thus the episodic panic in Democratic ranks.

One of the saving graces the Democrats have left is that there still appear to be 15-20% of the electorate who are persuadable, some because they haven't yet paid much attention to the campaign.

But to take wrap up the 3/4 of persuadables it will take to win the White House, the Democrats have to get themselves a succinct message first.

That message has to be the failure of Bush as president. Some in the press will wring their hands about this being negative campaigning, and may even point to polls showing that voters disapprove of negative campaigns.

Voters may say they don't like negative campaigns, but there's precious little evidence that too many people are concerned enough to let it affect their vote.

Drawing attention to Bush's record may be negative campaigning, which is negative, but it's also campaigning on the issues. These two things are not mutually exclusive, contrary to what you may hear in the press. And it's Kerry's best option. That has to be positive.

Posted by robe0419 at 10:37 PM

September 13, 2004

please explain football!

After the something-th coolest summer on record in Minneapolis, it seems that now the city is enjoying a September heat wave of sorts. All I can say is it had better drop to 38F at 8am on October 3rd.

But I wouldn't know about that September heat, I'm in the city that persists in believing its sports teams are perennial underdogs, even when its football team has won 2 out of the last 3 Superbowls.

Football for me signals that period of year when I get to ignore large parts of the sports section of the paper. I've been to some games. I even saw the Gophers beat Penn State (is Joe Paterno still coaching? I think he could coach from six foot under, and perhaps he has been doing so for a while). But I just can't get interested in the game itself. I follow the NFL standings since the position of the Vikings and their inevitable failure to convert regular season victories into post-season glory is central to understanding Minnesota society. And I think that the way the college football championship is decided is meaningless, and could so easily be made meaningful (like the basketball final four) that the NCAA should be indicted.

But unless I'm in a bar, and the TV is pointing at me, and the conversation is deathly dull, will I watch the actual game. This is not, I hasten to add, a prejudice against American sports. Baseball. Great sport worthy of more international attention. Worthy of soaking up many summer evenings and afternoons. (I was halfway kidding about making the outfielders take their gloves off). Ice hockey. Great sport, especially at the college level. Worth the ticket prices the Gophers charge. Basketball. Great sport.

But football, I just don't get. At many levels it is the simple fact it takes 3 hours and then some to get through 60 minutes of playing time for a running, contact sport.

Now, other sports, like baseball and cricket have significant breaks in the action. But baseball and cricket are not primarily meant to be sports of continuous interaction (let alone contact) between the players. They are in many ways, the addition of discrete plays, with the strategic drama of the situation building slowly. The breaks between innings, and the breaks between deliveries of the ball to the batter, allow the spectators to reflect on how the situation has evolved with the last play, and what could happen next.

But American football in many ways is closer in spirit to, well, other forms of "football," such as soccer, both codes of rugby, and Gaelic football. The object of football is also similar to basketball, netball, [water]polo, lacrosse, and hockey in its temperate (field) and frigid (ice) climate varieties. Both teams have the same number of players participating on the ground at the same time, and the object of each team is to convey the ball [puck] to the other end of the field, and into some scoring zone past the defence of the opposing team.

But all these other sports have lengthy periods of continuous interaction [and contact] between the opposing teams. The breaks in play are relatively limited (though the fourth quarter of a basketball game can get mighty long), and in soccer and rugby occur largely after an infringement of the rules.

By contrast, in football, there are remarkably short stretches of continuous interaction between the two teams. It is essentially a series of set pieces, with ample time for the coaches to advise players on how to react to the situation on the field, and for players to move on and off the field, depending on the situation.

Now, many of the other sports face the football problem of swapping players into the action, so it's not as if this is a facet of the game unique to football. But in ice hockey (especially), and to some extent in soccer and rugby, the players must swap in and out of the game while play is occuring, and this ability to swap on the move is an additional skill.

WIth the partial exception of basketball, these other codes try to limit in time and frequency the breaks in play. To a large extent the game flows, and can flow for lengthy periods of time, 20 minutes in ice-hockey for example. American football doesn't impose nearly the same restrictions on breaking the action.

Because football allows players to swap in and out of position during frequently occuring breaks in play, it encourages a high degree of specialization in players' skills, and the input of the coaches likely reduces the players' tactical and strategic ability. The excitement of watching a player have to play out of position, of watching a team have to regroup and re-organize several times before there is a break in play is, if not entirely missing, not present in football.

As I noted, breaks in play and the input of coaches and captains in determining the next move, do not make a sport intrinsically less interesting. They are an essential part of the charm of the game in baseball and cricket.

But inserted into a game that in other respects bears more resemblance to continuous, contact sports, it's just odd. It's like listening to a symphony line-by-line, rather than stanza by stanza; or reading one sentence in a novel, taking a 60 second break, and reading the next one, rather than reading whole paragraphs or chapters.

I write this not because I don't like football, but because I like most other sports (tho' maybe beach volleyball got more than its due of Olympic coverage) and my obvious failure to appreciate football cries out for one of my readers to help me out, and tell me what I should see in the game ...

Posted by robe0419 at 10:37 PM

September 11, 2004

Never too late to learn ...

Maybe now you'll all regret that Revolution thing and leaving the British Empire and all its fun games like cricket and [field] hockey and netball ...

Wisden reports that New Zealand scored a "crushing victory" against the USA at cricket. 

Other words used to describe the encounter were "pillaging," "a torrential downpour of sixes," "highest score in the history of the Trophy," "the Americans began to flounder," "an eight ball spell that removed the wheels from the American wagon," and more ominously "This was bad enough for the Americans, but on September 13 they come up against Australia at the Rose Bowl. The record books could need a major rewrite after that one."

More in the New Zealand Herald ... if you care for it.

Posted by robe0419 at 10:29 PM

Fiddling while the republic burns

Oh my! The topic du jour of the election campaign seems to be whether typewriters had proportional and superscript fonts in the 1970s. Wake me when the republic falls! In the interim, some musings for y'all.

In the course of the last week I have traveled through or to, 5 other states. This explains the lack of posts. Hopefully the 2.5 people that read this regularly have all switched to some RSS feed, and have not had to check the actual URL for my thoughts too often.

Anyhow, I have some questions and observations from my travels.

What's with all the place name repetition in America? Down US-218 in Iowa, there's scarcely a town that does not share the name of another [larger town] somewhere further east. And Cedar Falls followed by Cedar Rapids just 50 miles away. How original! In particular, there's not a lot of obviously Native American place names, which suggests to me that compared with other countries I have driven through (that would be New Zealand) settlers on the American frontier didn't have as much reciprocal contact with the original inhabitants.

There's no money in nostalgia for Mark Twain. Hannibal (MO) has a lovely setting and some once lovely old buildings. But otherwise it's a rundown little town that reminds you that poverty is white and small town more than it is black and metropolitan. Galena (IL) OTOH. Who would have predicted that President Grant would bequeath his hometown with such a prosperous and kitschy tourist legacy?

Take the mitts off outfielders in baseball! Now, I know that baseball is a pitchers game [and cricket is a batters game] but there really is so little interest in outfield catching in baseball. If the ball goes up and comes down anywhere near a fielder there is nearly no drama about whether the ball will be caught. To add a little interest [and skill] the outfielders should not be allowed to wear gloves. In my humble opinion, of course.

Do not expect to check your email at O'Hare airport. This is a public service announcement! It is a very pleasant airport to pass through if you want to have a meal, read or buy a book, or have a coffee. It is, I discovered, not the best if you want to use the time productively. There are precious few locations which have outlets located near tables. There are lots of outlets for the cleaners, you just have to rest your laptop on your lap and sweat it out ... The outlets also come in groups of two, so invariably you are sitting beside someone else seeking to eke out some more time from their phone or laptop. As for getting connected to the web, well! There are hotspots. In the Red Carpet Club. Otherwise you can pay 65¢/minute to connect at Laptop Lane. At MSP you can connect for $6.95 for a whole day ... Cheaper than Starbucks, and in a captive market to boot.

Boston is unlike Minneapolis. Despite the similarities in the weather, the enthusiasm for ice hockey [actually, this being the east coast the Boston Globe sports section includes college field hockey results too.], and the river that runs through the city, there are many differences.

  • There is no grid system in Cambridge. Perhaps this is because many Cambridge streets predate wide knowledge of the Cartesian plane. Or maybe, it's because 'urban planning' in the 1600s sought to bend around natures curves, rather than impose a grid over them like cities did in the 1800s.
  • Downtown Boston is actually quite dirty.
  • Getting to and from the airport is kind of a drag.
  • There are no political ads on TV in Massachusetts
  • I have not seen a Bush-Cheney bumper sticker yet.

Posted by robe0419 at 1:46 PM

September 7, 2004


If this is all that Bush supporters can point to as a sign of the president's moderation, they're getting really desperate:

Such a response seems quite plausible in light of this New York Times article, which reports: "Bush has an eye toward expanding his appeal beyond his conservative base as the race enters the home stretch." He points to Democrat Zell Miller's support. He may allude to the possibility of Colin Powell's continued service. In other words, Kerry's overhaul may fit right in with Bush's post-convention plans: the president can show moderation while pinning his opponent to the left.

Posted by robe0419 at 12:36 PM

September 2, 2004

double entendre

GOP comes out swinging

Interesting. So, does this mean that Federal Marriage Amendment idea is dead? Is most of the Republican Party gay and proud of it?

Posted by robe0419 at 5:55 PM

September 1, 2004

a strawman

In his speech last night Arnold Schwarzenegger said:

... If you believe that this country, not the United Nations, is [the] best hope of democracy, then you are a Republican ...

Huh? The charge that liberals and Democrats fetishize the United Nations as the best hope of democracy is ridiculous, and I'm not sure that anyone has ever seriously advanced that argument.

Sure, the U.N. is institutionally committed to human rights and democracy and the Secretariat, which cannot act independently of what the members decide, does take some steps to try and advance human rights and democracy.

Liberals and Democrats are more likely to actually believe that the U.N. is a forum and a vehicle where the United States can advance democracy, by being able to communicate with the representatives of other countries. It does not preclude other channels of communication, such as through alliances with countries that share American values.

Posted by robe0419 at 5:03 PM

surprisingly useful

writing a dissertation? meant to be writing a dissertation, but not actually doing so? trying to forget about your dissertation?

This library tool is like the assignment calculator they have for undergrads, but it's for a dissertation! I notice they don't have "Stage 15: Panic" or "Stage 101: Jump from Washington Avenue Bridge" but otherwise it could be helpful!

Posted by robe0419 at 3:42 PM

realism and idealism

If you've been following the debate about the course of U.S. foreign policy over the last two years you'll be familiar with the realist/idealist debate.

Realists believe our diplomacy should be ruled by self-interest, that we may often have to deal with unsavory, unlovely rulers of foreign countries who do not have freedom or democracy as guiding principles.

Idealists believe that our diplomacy should be devoted to advancing democracy abroad, by force if necessary, and that the values espoused in the Declaration of Independence are universal human rights.

The idealist frustration with the realist world finds its outlet in the hostility to French, German [and Russian] opposition to the war on Iraq (critiqued here). "France would never have gone to war" and "Russia is just motivated by oil contracts" are reasonable paraphrases of the views expressed about these countries.

I don't expect this observation to be totally original, but the realist/idealist debate appears to be a conversation between one group who are arguing positively in the sense of empirically (realists), and another group who are arguing normatively.

The other way of looking at this, I think, is that the realists may be advocating the best course of actions given the constraints we face, and the way we expect other people to act.

If you implement an idealist foreign policy, when the rest of the world behaves in a realist fashion, you might not get what you want.

It's rather cynical to suggest that other countries are nakedly pursuing their national self-interest but your own is acting selflessly. You might even observe that this is hardly the way to maintain the international friendships you already have.

Posted by robe0419 at 3:24 PM