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Thursday, April 28, 2005

Accidental Poetry 

Headline from today's NY Times: "Fire and Fresh Legs Fuel Heat's Mourning."

A boring story about a sport of little interest to me, but ignore the fact that "Heat" and "Mourning" are proper nouns, and you have an intriguing first line for a poem. There are probably a lot of cases like this, and I'll bet someone has already figured this out, put together a great list, and had it digested by Harper's where the effect was ruined by its juxtaposition with puerile, simple-minded political essays and pathetic, rage-inducing lamentations about modern society. Ah, forget it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Blugging 

Uh oh. This is becoming a trend: I'm plugging another family member's foray into the blogosphere. My mother-in-law is a guest essayist at The Happy Booker. Take a look!

Important New Blogs 

Looking for some good reads? Here are my suggestions:

1) The new blog Plunk Biggio is "dedicated to Craig Biggio and his (probably unintentional) quest to break the all time major league career record for getting hit by pitches." Somehow the blog's editor has managed to turn this unlikely statistic into six posts and a 1.000 OBP. Here's a sample (from probably the least interesting post):
Friday, April 22, was the 16th anniversary of Biggio's first hit-by-pitch. He celebrated by getting hit by a pitch.
[Via Charles Kuffner]

2) My sister-in-law is cooler than your sister-in-law. Actually, all my many sisters-in-law are probably cooler than anyone in your extended family. Sorry, but it's true. And even in that rarified subset of humanity, Nicole Eisenman (artist, DJ, and humanitarian) has made a splash by becoming the first Bonassus-in-law to start her own blog. Check out A Blog Called Nowhere for the latest on art and music.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Australia vs. East Timor: Round II 

Remember how Australia has gone from being praised as East Timor's savior to being accused of stealing its oil revenues? No? I mentioned it once about a year ago: haven't you been paying attention?

In any case, the issue hasn't gone away. The BBC reports today that:
An advertising campaign has been launched in Australia, criticising the government for its handling of oil and gas negotiations with East Timor. The tiny country has argued that Australia's hardline stance over disputed maritime boundaries could cost Dili billions of badly needed dollars.

The private TV campaign is aimed at embarrassing Canberra into allowing a change in the boundary line. But Australia says its stance has been fair, considerate and decent.

The government in Dili wants the maritime border it shares with Canberra to be in the middle of the 600 km (370 miles) of sea that separates the two countries. But Australia wants to stick with the same boundary it agreed in 1972 with Indonesia, East Timor's former colonial master. In some places, that frontier is less than 150 km ( 93 miles) off the coast of this tiny cash-strapped nation. Where the line is eventually drawn will be critical. At stake are oil and gas reserves worth $30bn, under the seabed in the Greater Sunrise Field.

Now a private television advertising campaign has been launched, aimed at embarrassing the Australian government into accepting East Timor's demands. War veterans appearing in these advertisements fought in East Timor during World War II, and insist they owe it to the people there to fight for their rights.
The (strangely unaffecting) TV ads are being run by the Timor Sea Justice Campaign. I don't know much about the group, but they've persuaded many of the US Congress's human rights caucus to support their cause, along with the big peak union council of Australia and others.

Will the ads work? Is there an interests-based reason for the unions to throw resources into this fight? Would Australian opposition parties supporting the Timorese side really be willing to forgo the oil revenues if they managed to form a government? I don't know. I also don't know if and when a multilateral body will consider the case. But I'm glad to see that just in case, at least people in East Timor and Australia are thinking about how to keep oil revenue from subjecting East Timor to the resource curse [which I've discussed here and here.]

More soon.

Literary Map of NYC 

Since the Internet allows us to see into the future, I've come across this interesting proposal from the May 1, 2005 edition of the New York Times:
I [Randy Cohen] propose to create, with the help of the Book Review's readers, a literary map of Manhattan -- not of its authors' haunts but those of their characters, a map of the literary stars' homes...

I began thinking about this map years ago while reading Don DeLillo's ''Great Jones Street.'' Bucky Wunderlick gazes out the window of his ''small crowded room'' at the firehouse across the street. I realized: there's only one firehouse on that street and few buildings that contain tiny apartments rather than commercial lofts. I know where Bucky Wunderlick lives. Or would live if he existed. He's got to be at No. 35. Knowing this made walking around the neighborhood like walking through the novel. But I walked without a map. Shouldn't there be a map of imaginary New Yorkers?

This first map will display fiction set in Manhattan (in the future, I can imagine maps of Brooklyn, Chicago, London and more). It could include novels, poems and stories from all eras (from Hart Crane to James Baldwin to Michael Chabon to William Gibson) and all genres -- literary fiction (Truman Capote, the Roths, Henry and Philip), pop fiction (Bertice Berry and Sophie Kinsella), Ed McBain mysteries, Ira Levin thrillers, children's books (Faith Ringgold's ''Tar Beach,'' E. B. White's ''Stuart Little''). It will be a kind of Global Positioning System for the characters of Dawn Powell, Han Ong, Meg Wolitzer, Mario Puzo, Colson Whitehead, Tom Wolfe and Thomas Pynchon (from ''V.'' -- ''This alligator was pinto: pale white, seaweed black.'' Where is that alligator? Where is the sewer where Benny Profane hunted it down?)

Since nobody is widely enough read -- I'm not widely enough read -- to know the haunts and houses, the offices and bars and subway stops of so diverse a population, I appeal to Book Review readers to send in their favorites. The graphic artist Nigel Holmes and I will put them on the map and credit the first person to submit a site we use.
Sounds like a really interesting project. I encourage Bonassus readers to participate by sending suggestions to bookmap@nytimes.com

Thursday, April 21, 2005

That Book Thingy 

Ereshkigal asked me to do this some time ago, and I live to serve. So here are my answers to that "pick a book and pass the buck" business that's going around:

You’re stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be?
I had a good answer lined up for this one, but Ted Barlow at Crooked Timber beat me to it and did a better job than I would have:
I would be Fahrenheit 451. I’d run around telling everyone that they were fictional. It would turn the dystopian nightmare into a Borgesian mindwarp, which would be a trip.
Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?
Nope.

The last book you bought was:
Honest answer: The Complete Photo Guide to Home Repair. I'll let you know if it succeeds in transforming me into a toilet-fixin', radiator-drainin' man-about-townhouse once I've taken it for a test spin. The book I bought before that, sadly, is of even less literary merit (but a must-read if you're a comparative political economist): Democracy & Redistribution by Carles Boix.

The last book you read was:
Aside from the Boix book, the last book I read was Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Levitt's ideas are entertaining, fascinating, and thought-provoking. Plus, the sheer volume of hagiographizing by Dubner (the journalist tagging along with the economist) makes you loathe him from the core of your heart, which is a nice bonus.

What are you currently reading?
I am currently reading Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson, and not enjoying it very much. I am also reading A Perfect Stranger by Roxana Robinson, which I recommend wholeheartedly. Not only is it a good read, but the book is dedicated to my daughter (the author is my mother-in-law). And lest you think my review is biased, no less a figure than Joyce Carol Oates says its "beautifully rendered prose captures moments of domestic drama -- sometimes painful, sometimes ecstatic, always heartrending and illuminating." Go buy it.

Five books you would take to a desert island:
Book number one would be the Bible. I figure if I'm stuck on a desert island, I might want to do some serious Pascal's Wager-style thinking about my long-term future. Plus I can always read the Book of Job if I need some good schadenfreude to keep my spirits up.

I guess I'd bring at least one very long book which I feel I ought to have read but have never been able to bring myself to start. Remembrance of Things Past is one element of that enormous set. Shockingly, so is War & Peace, so let's add that one as well.

I don't think I'd last too long in the desert island environment, Boy Scout training notwithstanding, so I think I'd want my last two selections to be good distraction-from-starvation material, particularly as I'm unlikely to crack open the Proust even if there's practically nothing else to do. The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem was the best book I read in 2004, so I guess I'd take his newest opus along. I'd also bring one of Richard Russo's books on the same principle (I loved Empire Falls).


Who are you going to pass the baton to (three persons), and why?
I am selfish and refuse to pass batons unless asked repeatedly. If readers want to volunteer, they can knock themselves out in the comments.

Does the Filibuster Systematically Benefit Conservatives? 

Are the "kill the filibuster" rumblings from Capitol Hill really a blessing for Democrats and their supporters? The estimable Scott Lemieux of Lawyers, Guns and Money puts a fine point on an argument heard 'round the leftish blogosphere:
It seems to me that the American system is plagued far more by the inability of the federal government to react and experiment with policy solutions to social problems than by the risk of passing unwise legislation. The Madisonian system already has a large number of veto points; the last thing we need is to create more... The way I would look at it is this: comparable liberal democratic systems with fewer veto points, such as the UK and Canada, have much better policy outcomes (health care being the most striking example) without any noticeable sacrifice of minority rights. For progressives, I think, the evidence makes it clear that the costs of the filibuster will always outweigh the benefits in the long run. But, of course, it all depends on how one makes a variety of theoretical tradeoffs.
I'm with Scott: comparative analysis is a great way of sussing out how getting rid of the filibuster would affect the direction of US policy. I think he's also right to point out that the filibuster is but one kind of veto point, and that not all veto points are created equal.

But I disagree with him on what the evidence shows us. I'd argue that in many cases, left and center-left policy outcomes are more likely where there are more, not fewer veto points. Bear with me.

First, let's widen the search a little. Instead of just looking at the UK and Canada, as Scott suggests, why not extend our analysis to the other Westminster-style (and thus veto-player-impaired) states, Australia and pre-1996 New Zealand? Or how about looking at all the wealthy democracies, most of which regularly have coalitions governments (and thus veto players up the wazoo)? What do we see?

This is a tough question, but let me take a stab at answering it. First, as the veto players literature would suggest, systems with a healthy dose of veto points are less nimble, policy-wise. This is just what Scott suggests. Of course, since (because of "globalization" or the spread of ideas or your-pet-theory-here) much of the policy action since the 1970s has been in the realm of dismantling the welfare state, we see that for the past 30 years or so, having more veto points usually means more leftish policy.

OK, but let's say the world is changing, and we believe that the near future holds out the promise of, well, progressing, i.e. enacting positive legislation in a left or center-left vein. Shouldn't the filibuster make this more difficult?

The answer: yep, it sure should. This is exactly the point people are making when they point to the Civil Rights Act battle, and it's a damn good point. But there's a second, important point to be made here: it's one thing to pass progressive legislation, and another thing entirely to get firms, workers and interest groups to play along with the new rules in such a way that left policy actually works. Generally speaking (and obviously some entitlements like Social Security are exceptions) the social democratic policies that folks on the left tend to hope get passed require a certain amount of trust, cooperation and coordination to actually work. When they do work, it's because the various actors involved believe that the system enabling this kind of coordination is around to stay and thus worth investing in. This point has been ably made recently by scholars like Pepper Culpepper and Stewart Wood, who've shown that states like the UK with few veto points often pass left-friendly legislation but with disastrous results. Since the next right-leaning government can and will dismantle the new policies with ease, no-one takes them seriously enough to invest in.

More on this later, but let me just sum things up: the filibuster isn't just a tool for preserving the status quo. It can also, conceivably at least, be a tool for building progressive institutions.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Pope Coverage Inanity 

From CNN.com's "Pope Benedict XVI" page, one of the stupidest headlines I've seen in some time: "Benedict a Popular Pontiff Name"

Really? Huh. I wonder how many there have been. I guess we'll never know.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Monkeys in Law Enforcement 

Given the growing body of evidence supporting the notion that our simian cousins are plotting to usurp our position atop the primate hierarchy, is this really such a good idea? From the AP:
MESA, Ariz. - The Mesa Police Department is looking to add some primal instinct to its SWAT team. And to do that, it's looking to a monkey.

"Everybody laughs about it until they really start thinking about it," said Mesa Officer Sean Truelove, who builds and operates tactical robots for the suburban Phoenix SWAT team. "It would change the way we do business."

Truelove is spearheading the department's request to purchase and train a capuchin monkey, considered the second smartest primate to the chimpanzee. The department is seeking about $100,000 in federal grant money to put the idea to use in Mesa SWAT operations.

The monkey, which costs $15,000, is what Truelove envisions as the ultimate SWAT reconnaissance tool.
I'm concerned about the trans-species technology transfer, to be honest. But even such a confirmed monkey-phobe as I must blanch at this alternative employment of our tree-dwelling relatives:
RABAT, D.C., Morocco, March 24 (UPI) -- A Moroccan publication accused the government Monday of providing unusual assistance to U.S. troops fighting in Iraq by offering them 2,000 monkeys trained in detonating land mines.

The weekly al-Usbu' al-Siyassi reported that Morocco offered the U.S. forces a large number of monkeys, some from Morocco's Atlas Mountains and others imported, to use them for detonating land mines planted by the Iraqis.

The publication quoted a highly-informed source as saying, "that is not a scientific illusion but a well-known military tactic."

When is an Idiom not an Idiom? 

The Toronto Blue Jays are losing badly to the Red Sox this Patriot's Day morning, probably because the pitching is strictly bush league.

I'm being completely literal here: The Toronto starter, Dave Bush, was lifted for a righty reliever, Brandon League, after giving up seven runs in 2+ innings. I guess sometimes bullpen rosters are destiny, and sometimes an idiom is not just an idiom.

Incidentally, if you're not from New England or Wisconsin, nor a SportsCenter addict, you may not know that Patriot's Day is the annual commemoration of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. It's observed in three states, and celebrated in Boston by a bizarre endurance contest and the only Major League Baseball game started before Noon.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Is Google Crazy? 

More on filibusters later. Right now, go play with this. Post your favorites in the comments section.

Here are a few to get things started:
two times two is four, three times three is nine. and Three times two is six. and three quarters inches in diameter) and inches high and comes with a Certificate of Authenticity.

If you filibuster this nominee, because of his Love that is, the question of the Day is over The Decision to use the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; by The Manhattan Project. and the National Library of Medicine, s Office of Operations is a matter of Fact an actual child.

The pythagorean theorem is one of the most popular Names for boys and Girls Club of Burlington, Central High SCHOOL. Home of the Open source community

Most international relations theorists and international lawyers have been slow to adopt the new technology and the End of the world as We know It is the moon. that shines so bright.

Non-tariff barriers can be made to the site: we may also use the information for the traveling salesman Problem, TSP) This is a relatively new concept in Finding love and romance www. weddinggoddess. com) Also check out the new updated version of the Holy Qur AN. by the Qur an the Word of the Day is over The Edge


Monday, April 11, 2005

Don't Go Nuclear on the Nuclear Option 

Wow. Mickey Kaus actually makes some good points for once, joining Hendrik Hertzberg in rejecting the kind of knee-jerk, puerile contrarianism that gives rise to anti-filibuster rants like this one. Read Kaus's post if you have a chance.

Here's another point I'd like to make, however poorly: it's time for all good bloggers to quit pointing to the filibustering of civil rights legislation in the 1960s and claiming that this constitutes, by itself, a valid anti-filibuster point. Filibusters have been used for all sorts of purposes. During the same period as the fight over the Civil Rights Act, liberal Democrats used the filibuster in a near-succesful attempt to stop what they saw as a giveaway of publicly-financed technology to a private corporation. [There's surprisingly little info on the internet about Sen. Kefauver's fight against the "Communications Satellite Act of 1962" (a fight so bitter it gave him a heart attack). Here's what a quick Google scan turned up.]

Another major function of the filibuster that bloggers (other than the absolute must-read Mark Schmitt) seem happy to overlook is that in non-judicial-appointment contexts, it offers a parliamentary method for forcing a majority to accept floor consideration of non-germane amendments. One might well argue that this function actually makes the filibuster a means for reducing, not increasing, the Senate's built-in anti-democratic character.

Finally, the filibuster tends to be used most often under certain very specific conditions: there has to be a majority with an activist bent (the filibuster protects the status quo) with too few members to reliably achieve cloture. Those conditions are met right now. Liberals endorsing the "nuclear option" (especially outside the narrow judicial context) are basing their arguments on an expectation that a small-but-activist-liberal Democratic majority will be in place in the Senate at sometime in the future, contemporaneous with a Democratic House and Presidency. It's quite likely to happen...someday. But in every other context their preferred institutional change is anti-democratic and possibly anti-Democratic as well. More on this last point soon.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Can You Hug a Judiciary with "Nuclear" Arms? 

[My apologies for the post title. I don't know what I was thinking.]

In an op-ed in yesterday's issue of Roll Call, Douglas Kendall and Jennifer Bradley argue that Democrats should embrace the "nuclear option":
[C]hanging the filibuster rule would not end the debate on judicial nominations. In fact, it would put this debate on new terms more favorable to Democrats, as the fissures between Republicans in the Senate would be shown in a harsh spotlight.

The argument that Democratic filibusters are all that stands between Bush's nominees and judges' robes only holds up if one assumes that Republican Senators, who have voted lock-step to oppose Democratic filibusters, would similarly support all of Bush's judicial nominations. Yet if one takes even a cursory look at the views of blue-state Republican Senators such as Lincoln Chafee (R.I.), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Susan Collins (Maine) - not to mention the views of the constituents they represent - that assumption evaporates.

The oft-overlooked reality of the nuclear option is that it would shift the decision-making pressure and the public attention away from moderate Democrats, who are needed to sustain a nominations filibuster, to moderate Republicans, who are needed to confirm Bush's appointees. Democrats, one could argue, have been doing these Republicans a huge favor all this time, allowing them to toe the party line by voting to break a filibuster while letting them dodge an actual vote on the president's most radical nominees. Notably, moderate Republicans have been extremely reluctant to support the nuclear option. Could it be that going nuclear would force them to choose between the views of their party and the views of their constituents?
It's an interesting argument, and one that Noam Scheiber takes a bit farther in a blog post today:
eliminating judicial filibusters actually puts additional pressure on the White House. I agree with Will Saletan's argument that the White House has bought into the current "conservative pro-choice" consensus on abortion--i.e., it favors restrictions on abortion and abortion funding, doesn't favor overturning the basic right to an abortion. Today the White House can credibly argue that any conservative activist bent on overturning Roe v. Wade would be filibustered, so there's no point in nominating one. (Just as Bush recently pleaded to conservative evangelical leaders that there's no point in pushing an anti-gay marriage amendment since the votes in the Senate aren't there.) Absent the filibuster excuse, Bush would have a much harder time resisting demands from his base that he nominate that kind of candidate. The flaw in this logic--at least, what made me discard the idea--is that there are plenty of what my colleague Jeff Rosen calls "principled conservative judges" for the White House to choose from. These are people who personally oppose abortion but have sufficient respect for precedent that they're unlikely to support overturning Roe. I suspect people like this--a Michael McConnell or a J. Michael Luttig--would be agreeable to social conservatives, which would allow Bush to thread the needle on abortion.
Here's what I think: putting pressure on Republicans is great, as far as it goes, but there's every reason to think President Bush and the Senate Judiciary Committee would embark on a pedal-to-the-metal program of confirming judges drawn from the wackiest fringes of conservative jurisprudence in a post-"nuclear" Senate. Even barring this result, "veto player" theories give us every reason to expect a steady rightward trend in the beliefs of confirmed judges in a filibuster-free Senate, at least until the inauguration of a new President (and no matter the partisan make-up of the post-2006 Senate). My next post will have a nice little diagram showing why, but I imagine the logic is pretty obvious.

If the proponents of this line of thinking could offer more concrete examples of electoral benefit to be drawn from enactment of the "nuclear option," no matter how fanciful, at least we could think in terms of probabilites and expected benefits. But the Kendall/Bradley/Scheiber approach is blessedly free of such subtleties, and I'm not inclined to take it seriously.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Setting the Table 

Let's say liberal megablogger Atrios gets his way:
Frankly, I'm basically hoping that the Republicans go ahead with their "nuclear option" threat and that the Democrats follow up by making good on their signalled intent to make it a nightmare to actually get anything done. I'd be more than happy for the Republicans to stop actually passing new legislation and, oddly, this kind of showdown might actually force Republicans to engage in the lost art of compromise.
Is this really such a great idea, even from the standpoint of partisan politics? On the policy merits, as I'll discuss in a post later today, there's every reason to think that this scenario, if actually played out, would be disastrous on a host of fronts. But assuming away collateral policy damage, could a shutdown of the legislative branch redound to the electoral benefit of one party or the other?

Sure. Of course. And there's some history to get all analogical with too. Of course, as I've argued before, reasoning from historical analogy can be a big mistake.

I'm certain most of my readers remember the ill-fated 1995 GOP "government shutdown." The conventional wisdom on that one was that Newt Gingrich and his footsoldiers drastically overplayed their hand and ended up strengthening President Clinton and congressional Democrats. The conventional wisdom, moreover, is correct on this one. But lest we forget, that dogfight didn't happen in a vacuum. Gingrich was presenting himself as a revolutionary and a radical. At more or less the same time as the shutdown fight came to a boil, Gingrich made an ass of himself by throwing a temper tantrum over seating arrangements on a flight to the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin. Without the popular image of Gingrich as prone to bratty tactics and his agenda as in some ways extreme, the GOP strategy might well have worked.

Are we in an analogous situation here? The most obvious difference is that instead of a powerful, popular president carrying the Democrats' banner, we have an array of poorly-known, charisma-challenged opposition leaders in the House and (more cogently) the Senate. Furthermore, in the 1995 case, the battle for the electorate's support boiled down to the question "are all government services bad things?" whereas in the potential showdown to come, the question is not so clear. Is it a fight over judicial appointments? The nature of government? Democratic norms? Who wins will be determined by who gets to set the terms of the debate. As it stands today, I think a shutdown would so clearly bite Senate Dems in the tuchus that GOP leaders are probably as gleeful as Atrios when they picture the results.

In short, Democrats and their allies need to work very, very hard right now to set the table, at the least in order to make their shutdown threats credible. Right now, I'd think the Democrats at the very least need to make preparations in case the national narrative makes this a story about judicial appointments. One way is to make Senatorial Republicans look like froth-mouthed judge-haters. This Matthew Yglesias take on the Cornyn tempest-in-a-teapot is a good start.

OK I'm Back 

Yep, I'm back.

[tap, tap]

Is this thing on?

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