Search This Blog

Sunday, May 30, 2004

General Zinni (Ret) speaks about errors on Iraq

Since Bret plans to post some positive stories about Iraq, I thought I'd add some balance. This is a link to Molly Ivins's most recent article, and it mainly focuses on points made by Zinni.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Positive Iraq Excerpts

I've generally avoided posting many links or excerpts regarding Iraq as I'd assumed everybody has seen more than enough of them - both negative and positive (I certainly have). I've been told that may not be the case so I will post some positive ones over the next few weeks as I encounter them.

This one is from the May 25, 2004, NY Post:
The fact is that the news from the battlefield in Iraq these past five or six days has been remarkably good. The forces commanded and directed by the thug-cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are on the run or nearly destroyed in three different cities.

Sadr's uprising two months ago was the moment at which even passionate supporters of the war and proponents of the success in achieving civil order began to grow terrified that somehow the United States might actually lose in Iraq. So shouldn't the fact that we're routing him be grounds for some optimism?

It's very meaningful that other Shiite clerics in the city of Najaf now feel safe enough to issue what must be judged an astounding denunciation of Sadr in the past few days.

As reported on the brilliant Healing Iraq blog, Najaf clerics laid the blame for the entry of U.S. forces into that holy city: "It is the movement of Sayyid Muqtada [Sadr] that has encouraged the occupiers to cross the red lines," the senior clerics in Najaf wrote. "And it is clear that the organization of Sayyid Muqtada - and whoever follows the Sadrist movement - were the first to violate the sanctity of" the city's holiest shrine.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

The Data Versus the Story

Jim writes:
I'm beginning to suspect that Bret does not believe anything unless it can be reduced to an equation.
That's true in some cases. For example, consider the article Jim cites about the Iraq war generating more radicalized Muslims. I can find thousands of articles in mainstream magazines and other media that also put forth this opinion in a compelling and convincing manner. However, I can also find thousands of articles in mainstream magazines and other media (and I'm sure Jim's aware of them) that put forth the exact opposite opinion in an equally (to me) compelling and convincing manner. In such a case as this, I choose not to form an opinion until considerably more data comes in, which, in this case, will take years or even decades. Especially since these mainstream media have reported all kinds of stuff that turn out not to be true. One prison scandal does not make or break a war effort. It is only one data point.

U.S. Wasting Goodwill and Power to do Good

In response to Bret's recent posting in which he questions whether the global favorable perception of the U.S. has eroded, I offer the following two polls from the Pew Research Center:

Here, also, is an article from my local Sunday paper (today's) which does a pretty good job of highlighting the problem that has now been created -- a newly radicalized Muslim generation that is crowding out the young, moderating voices that were emerging in the Muslim world before the Iraq War.

Of course, this is probably not enough data for Bret. I'm beginning to suspect that Bret does not believe anything unless it can be reduced to an equation.

As today is Sunday and I have a bunch of other fun things I'd like to get to today, I will be brief with my response to the rest of his question in the posting, the gist of which is, what is it the U.S. should be taking a leadership role in. In past postings, I often have made a case for the power of leadership to create positive change, but I seem not to have made my case with Bret, and I doubt that anything else I say will sway him. Nonetheless, here's my list of issues I think the U.S. could make a world of positive difference on. Note that some of these things do cost money, but their costs pale in comparison to the costs of the $200 billion-and-counting Iraq War.

- The Economist magazine has recently featured articles about the Copenhagen Consensus Project. You can read as many of these articles as you wish at this link. One of them, for example, is about providing clean water and sanitation to the hundreds of millions of people in the world who don't have it. You can quibble with the assumptions if you like, but the article states that an estimated $2 billion investment would yield a present value of $100 billion or more (depending on the discount rate you use). The U.S. certainly could take a lead role in the global reduction (if not elimination) of poverty, with clean water and sanitation being near the top of the list.

- Dialogue among the leaders of nations is another area in which Bush has been miserably deficient. There are approximately 200 nations in the world. Why isn't Bush himself engaging with groups of national leaders to aggressively address the problems in various regions? Through personal power and selective economic benefits, the leader of the U.S. could persuade nations to adopt practices that lead to better circumstances for their citizenry (and more benefits in terms of security and trade for U.S. citizens). One specific example would be to press for public accounting principles when it comes to distribution of government revenues, e.g., from multinational corporations for oil-field concessions. Corporate leaders have expressed support for such practices, but conversion of corrupt regimes is slow when they can pick companies who don't press hard on this issue. Another obvious area of presidential pressure could be on human rights. Africa, for example, has been and continues to be rife with persecution of select groups by governments or their proxies. With pressure applied through regional coalitions and with relatively small economic carrots, the lives of tens or hundreds of thousands of people would be saved, and the seeds of individual democratic empowerment would be gradually sown.

- Bush trade policies are a sham. Aggressive deconstruction of agricultural, energy, textile, and other subsidies and import tariffs should happen immediately. If necessary, to mitigate political fall-out, create liberal unemployment benefits and retraining mechanisms for anyone who is affected by the removal of subsidies. The obvious benefit to the rest of the world -- the ability for poor people in many countries to now make a living exporting to the U.S.

- One of the good things about the Israeli-Palestinian problem is that it is not very much about religion. Because it is not about religion and therefore not quite as irrational as it might otherwise be, I contend that much could be done to resolve the problems there with economic incentives. Take half of the $200 billion from the Iraq War, and put it in a fund to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue. (Hell, for that kind of money, it might be possible for landfill to expand the landmass of Israel into the Mediterranean equal in size to the entire West Bank.) The focus should be to create incentives for change, and to do so as much as possible so the benefits fall to the average citizen.

Why do I care so much about what goes on in the rest of the world? Because I believe my life and those of my family and friends could be vastly better. The global economic boom -- not to mention the security assurance -- that would result from a free-trading world without major conflicts (I suspect we'll always have minor conflicts and random acts of terrorism by lunatic groups) would be, I believe, like nothing we've yet seen. Leading the charge toward empowerment of the individual -- through human rights, systems of basic welfare, free trade, education -- is where I think the U.S. should be spending more and more of its globe-changing resources. Not more and more on military programs, weapons, and interventions which perpetuate a global system dominated by the actions of governments which, like any colossus, are subject to great forces of corruption.

The opportunities for global leadership are abundant -- I didn't even mention the environment! If you think that these issues are not likely to yield improvements by having the President of the United States seriously address them, then we probably don't have much to talk about.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Tidbits About Nationalized Healthcare in other Countries

Nationalized healthcare can be beneficial but can also be expensive. France is having problems according to this:
France offers its citizens the best healthcare in the world, and it isn't only the French who will tell you so. The World Health Organization ranks France at the top of its list.

The trouble is, the country cannot afford it. The French public health insurance scheme is heading for a $15.5 billion deficit this year, threatening to bankrupt the system.
Canada's healthcare system is also having some difficulties:
Prince Edward Island Premier Pat Binns warned, "our current system is not sustainable, the principles of the Canada Health Act are at risk, and health care as we know it will not survive the end of the decade."
I really don't know that much about it, but Jim mentioned he was interested in understanding healthcare and these articles struck me as interesting.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

What Goodwill?

A common theme from the Bush hating portion of the populous is that under Bush we've squandered goodwill (here, for example) or that Bush's actions have damaged our reputation. The actions that have alledgedly caused the squandering or reputation reduction are always listed (e.g., invading Iraq, not ratifying Kyoto, etc.), but never the mechanism, nor the evidence that our reputation was particularly high in the first place, nor any evidence that our reputation is lower now. For example, I've never seen a worldwide poll conducted that shows that a significant majority of the six billion people on this planet have significantly less respect for a majority of American attributes today than they did, say, five years ago.

But I also never paid it much attention since the goodwill or reputation thing seemed to be a touchy feely sort of thing that didn't have much intrinsic value. In other words, all other things being equal, I'd just as soon people around the globe feel goodwill towards us, but if they don't, so be it.

But Jim recently wrote:
The U.S.'s reputation in the world is perhaps the lowest it has ever been, seriously inhibiting our ability to lead anything globally.
So now I have something more concrete beyond the touchy feely realm. Our reputation is low, and, as a result, it's inhibiting our ability to lead. Now I'm curious. What sorts of things are we now unable to accomplish (that we want to accomplish) because we can't lead because our reputation is lower than it was that we would have been able to accomplish five years ago when our reputation was higher? Things that we can still accomplish but at a higher cost because of the lowered reputation also count.

Monday, May 17, 2004

Personal Bankruptcy

As Jim has pointed out, personal bankruptcies hit record numbers in 2002 and looked poised to do so in 2003. Given that our population increases every year, that's not surprising. Indeed, it wouldn't be surprising if the number of personal bankruptcies set a new record every year. It has no real meaning by itself.

Note that the bankruptcy rate (e.g. bankruptcies per thousand people) doesn't set new records every year. There was a significant increase in the rate during the Clinton years, but that seems to have largely leveled off now. There was also a bit of an uptick during this last recession, but that's typical and also not surprising.

Who loses when someone declares bankruptcy? Each of the players involved has different perspectives and the surprising answer is that from their respective perspectives, nobody loses.

Society and the economy as a whole don't lose. The same assets and wealth exist the instant before and the instant after bankruptcy. It's just redistributed. In fact, society gains because the burden of debt isn't as heavy and stressful to people so they can be more entreprenuerial and live closer to the edge which on average can be argued to allow them to live fuller, more interesting lives.

The party filing bankruptcy doesn't lose. That's why they filed for bankruptcy. Since their debt is erased, their net worth increases when they become bankrupt. Sure, there's significant disruption to their lives, but they were able to enjoy living significantly beyond their means, possibly for many years. After the bankruptcy, they can usually even still get credit, though on worse terms.

So that leaves the lenders. Lenders look at their aggregate portfolio. They have sophisticated statistical tools that predict bankruptcy rates for different classes of borrowers and set their rates accordingly. Some lenders actually court higher risk borrowers because they can charge an interest premium. So from their perspective, the bankruptcies were expected and paid for out of the larger pool of borrowers.

So society wins, the party filing bankruptcy wins, and the lenders win overall. What a deal!

Friday, May 14, 2004

Can You Own a Number?

I hereby copyright the number 2. No, you say? 2 is already in the public domain? Okay, how about 3? 4? 5? Okay how about:
This number possibly has never been printed before. Do I own it now? By copyright law for the next 120 years?

Turns out this integer was generated by the expression 3625 (and then subject to double precision floating point roundoff error so it's not exact). And, of course, 625 is 54. If I own the above big integer number, do I also own the expression 3625? And how about 3? 625? Subexpressions such as 54?

Every integer can be generated by an infinite number of expressions containing all of the other integers. If I own the big integer above and all ways of generating it and the relevant subexpressions and integers, I own all of the integers. If I only own the integer but not all expressions and subexpressions that could possibly generate that integer, then my copyright protection is much less useful. In that case, anybody could copy a few numbers that could then be used to generate my number.

The contents of a CD or DVD is nothing more than a number. To be sure, it's usually a very large number, with possibly billions of digits. Somebody copyrights it and owns that number and every possible subsequence of that number as long as the subsequence is large enough to be deemed unique. And they apparently own every possible expression for generating that number as well. Otherwise, Napster could have simply created three different numbers for each CD, people could have downloaded those three numbers, and Napster would have done absolutely nothing illegally. If, after downloading the three other numbers, a user regenerated the copyrighted number, they would have violated copyright law, but not Napster. But if Napster can have the three numbers (which everyone knows full well can be used to generate the original number), Napster might as well be able to copy the original number as well.

So, we have a paradox here. Either a copyright holder owns all numbers, or he has virtually no protection.

I think that copyright should apply only to the number when it is presented to a medium that converts the number into something physical. In otherwords, if I have the number that represents Madonna's latest album on my computer (and I haven't paid for it), or even on a CD, it should not be a violation of copyright unless and until I cause that number to be played so that someone can hear it. I think this is the only approach to copyright that makes sense.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004


I've noticed that Jim uses the word "crisis" a lot more than I do in the posts on this Blog (and comments). Jim has used it 15 times, six times for Bret (but 5 of those were quoting or responding to Jim), and Howie once.

I'm wondering if it's just coincidence, reflects overall pessimism/optimism, reflects an affinity for the word, or is based on a definitional difference. I have a hunch it's just a definitional difference.

I would say that we haven't really had an economic crisis in this country since the Great Depression and would like to know what Jim considers to be a crisis.

Must an economic contraction be at least 2%, 5%, 10%, 20%, 50%, or 80% to pass the threshold for an economic crisis?

Must the unemployment rate exceed 6%, 8%, 10%, 15%, 20%, 25%, 40%, or 60% to be called a crisis?

Or is there any other way the concept of economic crisis can be related to numbers?

I know, I'm a numbers guy and Jim is a story guy, but try to speak my language so I can better understand what a crisis is (in the economic sense). Or is this a case of not being able to define it, but you'll know it when you see one?

New Blogger Help

Anybody have any idea how to get the post window to wrap the text in this new counfounded blogger post window? How annoying!

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

April Jobs Report: It’s All Good

The April Jobs Report shows more good economic news:
On its face, the April jobs report released today by the Labor Department looks good, but the details look even better. Job growth was far above expectations in both the payroll and the household surveys, the rate of unemployment dropped to 5.6 percent, hourly earnings grew by 0.3 percent, and, best of all, the number of people suffering long-duration unemployment declined by hundreds of thousands. This is the first time in years that the labor markets show universally positive gains in every area—job growth, wages, and hours—in almost all sectors and across all demographics. The U.S. economy is moving from recovery into a self-sustaining expansion.

Payroll employment jumped by 288,000 workers in April, the second straight month of strong employment gains. The data also show that the number of working Americans is at an all-time high of 138.57 million, according to the household survey...
Not bad, given that Bush has been characterized by certain economists as the worst President for the economy since Herbert Hoover.

Krugman says it well

I couldn't resist posting this 5/11 article from Paul Krugman:

Didn't you know, in your gut, that something like Abu Ghraib would eventually come to light?

When the world first learned about the abuse of prisoners, President Bush said that it "does not reflect the nature of the American people." He's right, of course: a great majority of Americans are decent and good. But so are a great majority of people everywhere. If America's record is better than that of most countries — and it is — it's because of our system: our tradition of openness, and checks and balances.

Yet Mr. Bush, despite all his talk of good and evil, doesn't believe in that system. From the day his administration took office, its slogan has been "just trust us." No administration since Nixon has been so insistent that it has the right to operate without oversight or accountability, and no administration since Nixon has shown itself to be so little deserving of that trust. Out of a misplaced sense of patriotism, Congress has deferred to the administration's demands. Sooner or later, a moral catastrophe was inevitable.

Just trust us, John Ashcroft said, as he demanded that Congress pass the Patriot Act, no questions asked. After two and a half years, during which he arrested and secretly detained more than a thousand people, Mr. Ashcroft has yet to convict any actual terrorists. (Look at the actual trials of what Dahlia Lithwick of Slate calls "disaffected bozos who watch cheesy training videos," and you'll see what I mean.)

Just trust us, George Bush said, as he insisted that Iraq, which hadn't attacked us and posed no obvious threat, was the place to go in the war on terror. When we got there, we found no weapons of mass destruction and no new evidence of links to Al Qaeda.

Just trust us, Paul Bremer said, as he took over in Iraq. What is the legal basis for Mr. Bremer's authority? You may imagine that the Coalition Provisional Authority is an arm of the government, subject to U.S. law. But it turns out that no law or presidential directive has ever established the authority's status. Mr. Bremer, as far as we can tell, answers to nobody except Mr. Bush, which makes Iraq a sort of personal fief. In that fief, there has been nothing that Americans would recognize as the rule of law. For example, Ahmad Chalabi, the Pentagon's erstwhile favorite, was allowed to gain control of Saddam's files — the better to blackmail his potential rivals.

And finally: Just trust us, Donald Rumsfeld said early in 2002, when he declared that "enemy combatants" — a term that turned out to mean anyone, including American citizens, the administration chose to so designate — don't have rights under the Geneva Convention. Now people around the world talk of an "American gulag," and Seymour Hersh is exposing My Lai all over again.

Did top officials order the use of torture? It depends on the meaning of the words "order" and "torture." Last August Mr. Rumsfeld's top intelligence official sent Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the commander of the Guantánamo prison, to Iraq. General Miller recommended that the guards help interrogators, including private contractors, by handling prisoners in a way that "sets the conditions" for "successful interrogation and exploitation." What did he and his superiors think would happen?

To their credit, some supporters of the administration are speaking out. "This is about system failure," said Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina. But do Mr. Graham, John McCain and other appalled lawmakers understand their own role in that failure? By deferring to the administration at every step, by blocking every effort to make officials accountable, they set the nation up for this disaster. You can't prevent any serious inquiry into why George Bush led us to war to eliminate W.M.D. that didn't exist and to punish Saddam for imaginary ties to Al Qaeda, then express shock when Mr. Bush's administration fails to follow the rules on other matters.

Meanwhile, Abu Ghraib will remain in use, under its new commander: General Miller of Guantánamo. Donald Rumsfeld has "accepted responsibility" — an action that apparently does not mean paying any price at all. And Dick Cheney says, "Don Rumsfeld is the best secretary of defense the United States has ever had. . . . People should get off his case and let him do his job." In other words: Just trust us.

Originally published in The New York Times, 5.11.04

Senator Seeks Gods Resignation

This must be a misprint, but I found it funny:
Once those people are identified, Biden said, Bush must "demand the resignations for whoever is involved in this policy, and that includes Lord God Almighty himself."
Sorry God, you're fired!!!

Response to Bret's Comments

Since I couldn't fit my comments within the 100-word maximum, here's my response to your latest comment on a previous posting.

It's interesting how different our perspectives are. The way I see it:
- Invading Iraq distracted us from doing an adequate job in Afghanistan where almost all of the country is run by warlords, and a popular pasttime for women is burning themselves to death because they can't stand the oppression.
- Invading Iraq gave Al Qaeda the chance to regroup -- just ask the Spanish. In my opinion, the chance of future terrorism on U.S. soil is much higher now as a result of the increased hatred we've engendered among radical Muslim elements as a result of our behavior in Iraq.
- The approximately $200 billion committed so far in Iraq could have done much more for democracy and global cooperation.
- The U.S.'s reputation in the world is perhaps the lowest it has ever been, seriously inhibiting our ability to lead anything globally.
- Libya's change was underway long before taking out Saddam.
- Iran is still a mess -- the mullahs still reign supreme. Frankly, it's hard to tell what the effect our Iraq invasion has had. Having lived there, my guess is that we made them more paranoid and, therefore, more inclined to take countermeasures in the form of both offensive and defensive weapons.
- Our military is spread so thin, we would have a hard time dealing with a significant new threat. Further, its morale is now undermined, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is taking a high toll.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Victor Davis Hanson

In today's opinion journal, Mr. Hanson has an excellent summary of the hawkish right's perspective. I'm not pointing to this article because I agree with its premises, or because I expect anyone else reading this blog will agree, but because I think that many people do agree with the article's contents, and it's clear why someone who did agree would then be supportive of Bush and his foreign policies.

Friday, May 07, 2004


Here's a new saying to try:
"It's better than a badly angled million dimensional hypercube in the eye."
I'll bet you never heard that particularly nerdly variation of the "sharp stick in the eye" saying before.

Hypercubes are nasty things. Consider a unit-square. Each of the sides is one half unit from the center. However, the corners are farther from the center than the sides: about 1.4 times as far. The corners of a cube are even farther relative to the sides: about 1.7 times as far. For a four dimensional hypercube the ratio is 2.0.

For a million dimensional hypercube, the ratio is 1000. What this means is that if you take a 3 dimensional projection of the hypercube tilted at just the wrong set of angles, you can get one really nasty, spikey shape with some points coming 1000 times farther out from the center than others. Let's just say you wouldn't want to sit on one by mistake. If this blog supported pictures, I'd post the shapes here for lower dimensional hypercubes, so you could see what I mean, but I can't, so I won't.

One last thing about hypercubes. The number of vertices is 2 N where N is the number of dimensions. For a 1000 dimensional hypercube, there are far more vertices than subatomic particles in the universe.

Hyperspheres are as sexy as hypercubes are nasty. They are wonderfully smooth everywhere. Just as a sphere is more smooth and sexy than a circle, a 4 dimensional hypersphere is even sexier than either of those. An infinite dimensional hypersphere is infinitely sexy. You just want to touch one. It makes me drool just thinking about it. Well, maybe not, but you get the idea.

I know what you're thinking now that you've read the above, admittedly rather off-the-wall, paragraphs. Either Bret has lost his hyper-marbles completely, or has just jumped off the nerdly deep end. Have no fear, there's method to my madness. I'm going to write, over the next couple of years, a series of posts describing everything from Marxism to Bushisms as interactions of vectors in high dimensional hyperspaces. I'll try to introduce the concepts in hyper-byte sized chunks. Bear with me, as it will take a while to get to the meat. The meat is not necessarily useful, but it is (I think) interesting.

Connect the Dots

- Bush declares to Iraqi fighters: "Bring it on!"
- Bush explains that Geneva Convention does not apply to Al Qaeda prisoners.
- The administration denies prisoners access to lawyers and other privileges previously considered "rights."
- Prisoner abuses reported but ignored by the administration.
- The truth about abuse, torture, and murder begins to come out. (There are so many more dots to list, I could spend all morning doing so.)

We have our own Lord of the Flies situation here. A swashbuckling, brutal culture reinforced by leaders. Young people thrown into a chaotic situation without oversight or consequences, and provided near absolute power.

I do not think we have hit bottom yet in Iraq. In fact, I think things will continue to get worse. I hope I'm wrong.

Greenspan Disagrees with Bret

Bret, a timely posting. I thought you might be interested in what Alan Greenspan has to say about deficits.

What you describe is clever, but I'm skeptical. It seems like a Ponzi scheme to me, and I suspect (but couldn't begin to prove without a whole lot more time to devote to it) that the success of it has a lot to do with the velocity of money and stability in growth. Again, I suspect that while the numbers might work out on paper as you suggest, in the real world, changing perception of risk could lead to instability, crisis, and a long period of economic pain. Not to say that this should be avoided at all costs. Who's to say we aren't better off today as a result of the restructuring and more enlightened trading policies that were precipitated by the Great Depression? But, nobody could get elected advocating a willingness to increase the risk of crisis for the sake of the presumed benefits it might precipitate.

I sometimes wonder though if that is why war is so much a part of the human character. As WWII demonstrates, the sacrifice of 45 million or so people was just enough shock to cause a new, better paradigm to emerge among the nations of western Europe and Japan. I remain committed to the proposition that there must be a better way to succeed with systemic adjustment without human catastrophe.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Borrowing Forever

Suppose I were to keep a diary. And suppose that for every two days I live, I write about one day of my life in my diary. Then, when I die, I will have written about one-half of my life.

Suppose an immortal deity were to keep a diary and also takes two days to write about each day of his existence. How much of his life will he end up chronicling? All of it! Because he will write about each day N on days 2N and 2N+1. There are no days that he won't write about.

The difference between the time limited and the forever applies to borrowing as well. If I borrow more than I pay off every year of my life, when I die there will be, by definition, unpaid debt that will never be paid and at that point my estate would be bankrupt (if not before). However, it's not quite the same for a government. If the U.S. government borrowed four percent of GDP each year forever, and the U.S. economy grew four percent each year, also forever, would the total government debt:
(a) Spiral out of control causing the government to go bankrupt; or
(b) Asymptotically approach 1.04 times GDP and level off?
The answer is (b). In other words, the government can borrow forever, and as long as there is some growth, the total debt as a fraction of GDP will approach some constant level. 1.04 times GDP might be a bit high, but if the deficit were only 2% on average, the total debt level would be 0.52 times GDP, a pretty manageable value. Higher growth reduces the level further. Inflation (i.e., higher nominal growth) reduces it further.

Indeed, that is why Social Security and Medicare dwarf deficits when considering future government liabilities. As long as there's growth, deficits today matter little in 50 years.

Also, even this year's deficit doesn't look like it will be as bad as first expected. According to the Washington Post, Federal Deficit Likely to Narrow by $100 Billion:
Smaller-than-expected tax refunds and rising individual tax receipts will pare back federal borrowing significantly for the first half of this year and could reduce the $521 billion deficit projected for the fiscal year by as much as $100 billion, Treasury and congressional budget officials said yesterday...
U.S. government deficits are way down on my list of worries at the moment.