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Monday, December 31, 2012

Books of 2012

Books - bookcase top shelf
Photo credit: Phil Moore

As I have annually since 2005, I am posting a nearly complete list of books I read in the preceding year.

Allow me to repeat the groundrules: I will not list books that I reviewed, unless those reviews were published. In my academic job, I reviewed a number of books for a committee that will award $100,000 to a work that exhibited the best "ideas for improving world order."  However, none of those books are listed here except for the winning entry. I read it as a member of the Final Selection Committee.

Of course, since I'm an academic, I read multiple chapters and large sections of many books pertinent to my research and teaching. However, I'm not going to list those here unless I read them cover-to-cover. Save for the books I use in class or read for review, I often skim over some portions even of outstanding books. It's a time/efficiency issue.

So, what did I read this year, mostly for pleasure? (Some of the recommended books include a link to Powell's books; the blog receives a 7.5% commission on sales that begin via these links).


Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan.

Slouching Towards Fargo by Neal Karlen

The Big Short by Michael Lewis

Our Enemies and US by Ido Oren

It Ain't over 'til It's over The Baseball Prospectus Pennant Race Book by Baseball Prospectus writers.

Additionally, I read just about every word in Baseball Prospectus 2012, but not in cover-to-cover fashion. It was edited by King Kaufman and Cecilia M. Tan.

Of these non-fiction books, most were worth reading. The Chenoweth and Stephan book quite deservingly won the 2013 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. I blogged about it at the Duck of  Minerva. Slouching Towards Fargo is an excellent book about minor league baseball, with a good deal of commentary about celebrity culture since Daryl Strawberry and Bill Murray play prominent roles in the tale.

The Big Short is a pretty good book by Michael Lewis on the 2008 financial collapse. He found some financial analysts who saw it coming -- and profited from it by "shorting" the investments that others were buying. 

Ido Oren's book should be read by every Political Science doctoral student as it provides an excellent history of the discipline's early political influences.

I was disappointed by t he relatively dry BP Pennant Race Book. A few chapters were excellent, but too many featured dull writing.


Gun, With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

A Case of Exploding Mangoes by  Mohammed Hanif

Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card

White Butterfly by Walter Mosley

Yesterday's Spy by Len Deighton

Diamonds are Forever by Ian Fleming

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith.

Ubik by Philip K. Dick

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell 

Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

God Save the Child by Robert B. Parker

Man with the Getaway Face by Richard Stark (Donald Westlake)

Road Dogs by Elmore Leonard

Heaven's Prisoners by James Lee Burke

The Long Lavender Look by John D. MacDonald

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Next by Stieg Larsson

Watchmen by Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore

A Drink Before the War by Dennis Lehane

The Dark Tunnel by Ross MacDonald

Killing Castro by Lawrence Block

Last Call for Blackford Oakes by William F. Buckley

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

Pygmy by Chuck Palahniuk.

In most years, I place the best works of literature at the top of the list, then the remaining genre fiction. The least entertaining are then listed last in each section. I abandoned this approach for 2012 for obvious reasons. First, though Palahniuk's Pygmy is not genre fiction, I really disliked it and needed to list it last.

In contrast, Lethem's Gun with Occasional Music seems like genre fiction, but it encompasses two significant genres: science fiction (think Philip K. Dick) meets detective story (think Raymond Chandler). In any case, I enjoyed the book very much and already recommended it to others.

The Hunger Games  has proven to have mass appeal, but that doesn't diminish the accomplishment by Suzanne Collins. It is an engaging story. Hanif's work was marketed as literature, but it is a topical story about Pakistan's military.

The mass market books by Card, Mosley, Deighton, Fleming, and Highsmith were some of the most entertaining books I read this year. Card's Ender is a great character and is much more credible in this book than he was in Ender's Game. White Butterfly is an excellent crime book, I'd recommend it to anyone who likes the genre. Deighton was a master at the spy story and Yesterday's Spy is a strong work. I'm reading the Bond books in order and I believe Diamonds are Forever is the best one so far. 

Thanks mostly to Bookmooch and PaperBack Swap, I continue to read books by a diverse group of (mostly) hard-boiled crime story writers. These authors typically develop a single main character across a long series of books: Parker's Spencer, Stark's Parker, John MacDonald's Travis McGee, Burke's Dave Robicheaux, Mosley's Ezekial Rawlins, Buckley's Blackford Oakes, and Brown's Robert Langdon. Most of them were worth reading, though Buckley was clearly out of steam and Brown was strictly beach-worthy. I also read some Sherlock Holmes short stories and read the initial Lehane book featuring Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro. Those were good too, though Lehane's book featured enough violence for three or four books. 

The novels by Orwell, Greene, and Dick are not among their very best works, though some reader's really like Ubik. I found it the best of these books. Watchmen was interesting, but I certainly wouldn't rank it in the top 100 novels of all-time. 

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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Films of 2012

Movie night
Photo credit: Andrei Z on Flickr

As I note annually, I watch a lot of movies, though most are viewed on DVD (or from DVR recordings, or since August streamed from Netflix) on my television. Because I do not see that many new films in the theater, I cannot at year's end write a credible post on the best movies of 2012. After all, I have not yet seen many of the highly touted films released in late December. I will see them, of course. Eventually.

This year, I missed most of the summer blockbusters as well. For various reasons, I simply didn't watch all that many 2012 films.

In fact, many of the best films I saw this past year were older films on DVD/DVR/Netflix that I originally missed in the theaters -- or were late 2011 films I saw in the theaters during early 2012.

To make this abbreviated 2012 list, I scanned the top grossing movies of the year, as well as IMDB's most popular titles for 2012 and Movie Review Intelligence. In rank order of my preference, these were the best 2012 films I saw this year, so far as I can tell:

Moonrise Kingdom **
The Hunger Games **
Skyfall **

I think almost any film lover would enjoy these films. The list is topped by "Moonrise Kingdom," an engaging film that my wife and I saw on a scorching hot 4th of July day. I liked "The Hunger Games" more than I did any of the Harry Potter films. Indeed, I liked it so much that I borrowed the book from my daughters and enjoyed it too. Woody Harrelson is terrific in "Rampart," but he plays a bad cop. "Arbitrage" was not as good as last year's "Margin Call," but the story serves as a powerful metaphor for the Wall Street collapse of 2008. "Skyfall" was a very good Bond film, but not a great Bond film. It almost topped the next section of the list, but I kept it here as I have not yet seen any of the end-of-year Oscar contenders.

Indeed, the rest of the 2012 films I watched aren't ranked with much care, though the films near the top of this list are better than the ones near the bottom:

21 Jump Street
Jeff, Who Lives at Home
Friends with Kids
Dark Shadows
Thin Ice
The Avengers
The Grey
Men in Black 3

** I saw these films in the theater.

These films are entertaining, generally. If I was grading, I'd give most of them a C+ or B-. Then again, I tend to avoid films that the critics hate (thanks to Metacritic, and links on IMDB, the ratings are easy to find).

Here's the annual list of movies I intend to see in the future (hopefully in 2013): Amazing Spider-Man, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Bourne Legacy, Chronicle, Cosmopolis, Dark Knight Rises, The Dictator, Django Unchained, End of Watch, Five Year Engagement, Flight, Headhunters, Hitchcock, Hope Springs, The Impossible, Killer Joe, Killing Them Softly, Lawless, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Looper, The Master, Not Fade Away, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Premium Rush, Prometheus, Queen of Versailles, Ruby Sparks, Rust and Bone, Safety Not Guaranteed, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Savages, Searching for Sugar Man, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, The Sessions, Silver Linings Playbook, Sleepwalk With Me, Ted, This is Not a  Film, To Rome With Love, We Need to Talk About Kevin, West of  Memphis, Your Sister's Sister, and Zero Dark Thirty.

Metacritic helped me form that list.

Keep in mind that I didn't get around to seeing many 2011 movies from last year's wishlist:  Another Earth, A Better Life, Certified Copy, A Dangerous Method, Go Go Tales, Higher Ground, Hugo, The Interrupters, The Iron Lady, J. Edgar, Jane Eyre, Le Havre, Like Crazy, Lovers of Hate, Mysteries of Lisbon, Myth of the American Sleepover, Of Gods and Men, Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times, Point Blank, The Robber, A Separation, The Skin I Live In, Small Town Murder Songs, Terri, Tree of Life, War Horse, The Way Back, We Bought a Zoo, and Weekend.

Many of those 2011 films are on Netflix, so I'll probably get to them before winter ends.

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Photo credit: Andrei Z on Flickr

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Coach Pitino on Guns

Rick Pitino in his red suit
Photo credit: Bailey Richards
Today's Courier-Journal had a short piece about an unusual portion of coach Rick Pitino's recent exchange with the press about guns. Pitino, like Jim Boeheim, the Syracuse basketball coach, thinks that gun control should be a very high priority. Here's how Pitino expressed his thoughts:
“The fact that every single person would not want it (gun control) would be a mystery,” Pitino said. ”This is not the beginning of American civilization where we need guns ’cause it’s the wild, wild west. We’re not talking about a hunting license.

“There should not be guns in our society. We all know that."
The University of Louisville basketball coach continued:
If they [elected politicians in DC] were doing what’s right for America, that next day (after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting), the country would demand gun control. So Jim (Boeheim) is right. We don’t need that in our society. But more important than that, I don’t know how anybody lives that. I don’t know how anybody could close their eyes in those families.
“There can be no good that comes out of that (tragedy), except immediate gun control.... 
We don’t need guns in our society.


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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Gun Rights and Violence

Gun violence protesters march on NRA lobbying offices
Photo credit: Jay Mallin on Flickr
On December 18 (yesterday), the Christian Science Monitor ran an excellent short piece by NYU history professor Jonathan Zimmerman that contests the claim that the Second Amendment to the constitution has always protected individual gun rights. Just to refresh everyone's memory, here is the relevant text from the Bill of Rights:
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
Gun advocates typically emphasize the last two clauses of that sentence and claim an individual right to own firearms. Two recent Supreme Court cases have upheld this apparent individual right: District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) and McDonald v. Chicago (2010).

Yet, as Zimmerman argues, the individual right to bear arms was never really upheld until these recent cases. Previously, the Supreme Court had pointed to the words "well regulated militia" and "security of a free state" and concluded that individuals did not have a right to own guns.
Until the very recent past, individual gun rights were severely restricted. Believe it or not, the entire concept of “gun rights” – that is, of citizens’ unbridled freedom to buy and own firearms – is largely a creation of our own times.

Yes, the Second Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the “right to bear arms.” But if that means individual citizens – as opposed to state militias – can carry firearms anywhere they want, someone forgot to tell our 19th-century forebears. As law professor Adam Winkler has found, 10 states passed laws in the 1800s barring the possession of concealed weapons.

One of them was Texas, the lodestar of the gun-rights movement today. But as the Lone Star governor said in 1893, “the mission of the concealed weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law abiding man.”
Saul Cornell, the Paul and Diane Guenther Chair in American History at Fordham University, made a very similar argument in The Daily Beast on December 18:
A cursory look at the history of the Second Amendment shows that regulation was a central part of its rationale—putting “well regulated” at the very start of the amendment was no accident. For instance, starting in the colonial period, states enacted a variety of “safe-storage” measures to deal with the danger posed by stored gunpowder. A 1786 law went as far as prohibiting the storage of a loaded gun in any building in Boston. Up until the 1980s, there was no “individual-rights” theory of the Second Amendment.

See also Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker, December 18.

Cornell (as does Zimmerman) quotes this interesting statement from conservative chief justice Warren Burger:
As late as 1991, former Supreme Court chief justice Warren Burger famously called the idea of an individual right to bear arms “one of the greatest pieces of fraud—I repeat the word ‘fraud’—on the American public by special-interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”
Indeed, Cornell, Toobin and Zimmerman all credit  (or blame) the National Rifle Association (NRA) for creating the political movement to change the Court's interpretation and make gun ownership an individual right. 

Cornell points out that the Court's recent cases, especially Heller, are clearly not grounded in the original intent of the Founding Fathers:
[Justice] Scalia produced a pompous, error-filled opinion that has done more to discredit his beloved originalism than a generation of liberal academics ever could. Even leading conservative legal scholars have harshly criticized the ruling: federal judge Richard Posner said most professional historians reject Scalia’s historical analysis in the case, and described Scalia’s jurisprudence as “incoherent”.
See also this Harvard Law Review article by Reva B. Siegel.

In any case, virtually all the legal analysts agree that even if individuals now have a right to bear arms under the Second Amendment, it is certainly not an absolute right that trumps other freedoms. America is a land of free speech, but the First Amendment does not allow anyone to yell "fire!" falsely in a crowded theater, incite illegal activity, defame others, publish obscenity, utilize false and deceptive commercial advertizing, etc.

Thus, the federal government surely has the constitutional power to ban assault weapons, as it has done previously, limit the number of bullets in a magazine, tax ammunition, close the gun show loophole on background checks, etc.

Stanford Law professor John Donohue explains the effectiveness of Australia's set of gun policy reforms after a horrific gun massacre in 1996 that left 35 dead:
The Australian federal government persuaded all states and territories to implement tough new gun control laws. Under the National Firearms Agreement (NFA), firearms legislation was tightened throughout the country. National registration of guns was imposed and it became illegal to hold certain long guns that might be used in mass shootings.

The gun ban was backed up by a mandatory buy-back program that substantially reduced gun possession in Australia.

The effect was that both gun suicides and homicides (as well as total suicides and homicides) fell. Importantly, while there were 13 mass shootings in Australia during the period of 1979--96, there have been none in the sixteen years since.
Australia's policy, by the way, was changed under the political leadership of Prime Minister John Howard, a self-described conservative.

As Peter Bergen wrote for CNN this week, gun violence can be viewed as a national security issue. Since the 9/11 attacks, jihadi terrorists have killed 17 Americans in the US, while "88,000 Americans died in gun violence from 2003 and 2010." The numbers are actually lower because of improved medical treatment in U.S. hospitals -- "the number of people seriously injured in gun-related violent incidents has actually gone up almost 50 percent in the past decade."

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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

At Duck of Minerva

My small group of regular readers might like to read my two most recent posts at the Duck of Minerva:

Today, I posted about the "2013 Grawemeyer Award Winner." Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan won for their book on Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (Columbia University Press).

Saturday, November 24, I posted "Thinking the Unthinkable?" -- a piece about climate change, not nuclear strategy. Will an unprecedented event like Hurricane Sandy, striking heavily populated New York and New Jersey, lead more IR scholars to work on the problem of climate change? Could it be the 9/11 for climate change work?

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Local Music

Last Saturday night, while playing our regular monthly Texas Hold 'em game, Roots 'n' Boots host Michael Young and some other players talked about local band Houndmouth. Mike pointed out that the band is from across the river in New Albany, Indiana, and another guy noted that they are performing at Headliner's Music Hall this Saturday night at 8 pm.

Mike has been playing their song "Penitentiary" on his weekly radio program. In case you haven't heard it, check out this video from their Youtube channel:

On Friday night at 9 pm, a somewhat older band, Bodeco, is playing in Louisville at the Palace Theater. Here's a video from their 2011 appearance on WFPK's Live Lunch:

I'm going to try to attend one of these home-for-the-holidays shows. I have a Bodeco CD, so I can listen to them anytime... Hmmm.

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Friday, November 09, 2012

The Reality-Based Community Wins!

This is good, though unlikely to hit the audience with the greatest need to hear the message.

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Sunday, November 04, 2012



Just one night after headlining the Hurricane Sandy relief telethon, Bruce Springsteen was in Louisville performing live at the Yum! Center downtown. My wife and I attended with some old friends. We previously saw Springsteen shows together at Rupp Arena in Lexington on November 14, 2002 (with 2 of the same friends), and at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California on May 3, 1988. I also saw him before we were dating at the Cap Centre in Landover, Maryland, August 26?, 1984. She saw him without me in 1980, perhaps at this show.

Last night's concert was fantastic. Though Springsteen is now 63, he played for more than three hours and demonstrated all the enthusiasm and energy of a much younger man. I found concert reviews at the Courier-Journal website and in Lexington's ace weekly paper.

This is the setlist:

Shackled and Drawn
Lonesome Day
Hungry Heart
We Take Care Of Our Own
Wrecking Ball
Death to My Hometown
My City of Ruins
Spirit in the Night
The E Street Shuffle
Streets of Philadelphia
Atlantic City
Because The Night
She’s the One
Growing Up
Open All Night
Darlington County
Waitin’ on a Sunny Day
The River
The Rising
Land of Hope and Dreams


Rocky Ground
Born to Run
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
Dancing in the Dark
Tenth Avenue Freeze-out

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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Turnout Unskewed?

I haven't blogged much about the presidential "horse race" this year. However, I've read a large number of articles about the state of the race and am generally convinced by the data and analysis presented by Nate Silver, Drew Linzer, Sam Wang, etc. Using primarily state-based polling data, these analysts see a solid lead for Barack Obama. In this work, the President's well-established lead in Ohio is a key firebreak that Mitt Romney cannot easily overcome.

Many conservative websites point to the Gallup likely voter national polling (temporarily suspended because of Hurricane Sandy) and challenge Silver et al. Romney has been winning handily in Gallup LV polling. One writer on Red State called the President "toast" because of his apparent failure to appeal to independent voters in 2012. Some conservatives ridicule the "Moneyball" election analysts. If national poll averages suggest a 50-50 election, then this is best seen as a coin flip like 2000 (or 2004), not a likely Obama victory.

Silver, famously, put the odds at an Obama victory at roughly 2-to-1 for many weeks and that ratio is now creeping past 3-to-1 towards 4-to-1. Wang thinks the President's chances are over 90%. Linzer is also confident that Obama will win.

If you read Silver consistently (or Linzer or Wang), they have at one time or another explained why all the conservative arguments are wrong. They don't employ ideology or wizardry, they use math.

For example, some critics and skeptics argue that Obama cannot win because young people and other enthusiastic 2008 voters are disillusioned with his presidency and will not vote next week. This will significantly depress 2012 turnout and pave the way for enthusiastic Republican anti-Obama voters to tilt the election to Romney. Silver responds analytically:
Suppose, for example, that you take the consensus forecast in each state. (By “consensus” I just mean: the average of the different forecasts.) Then you weigh it based on what each state’s share of the overall turnout was in 2008, in order to produce an estimate of the national popular vote.

Do the math, and you’ll find that this implies that Mr. Obama leads nationally by 1.9 percentage points — by no means a safe advantage, but still a better result for him than what the national polls suggest.
What if turnout doesn’t look like it did in 2008? Instead, what if the share of the votes that each state contributed was the same as in 2004, a better Republican year?

That doesn’t help to break the discord between state and national polls, unfortunately. Mr. Obama would lead by two percentage points in the consensus forecast weighing the states by their 2004 turnout.

Or we can weigh the states by their turnout in 2010, a very good Republican year. But that doesn’t help, either: instead, Mr. Obama leads by 2.1 percentage points based on this method.
Ohio polls close at 7:30 pm ET, though anyone in line at that time can still vote. Conceivably, the election could be effectively over if Obama clearly wins this key state at an early hour. On the other hand, there are going to be a large number of provisional ballots in Ohio-- perhaps more of them than the margin between Obama and Romney.  Since those ballots are not counted for 10 days, we might wake up next Wednesday without a clear winner. I find that unlikely, but these are the range of alternatives.

I would note that Obama will likely retain the presidency without Ohio, Florida,  and North Carolina (all states in won in 2008) if he holds on to the appropriate combination of Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Virginia and Wisconsin. Silver finds that Obama has a 1 to 4 point lead in each of those states.

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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Staples and the 2012 Presidential Election

Mitt Romney claims that he is the superior choice for President because he has been a job creator thanks to his time in the private sector. Specifically, as the Wall Street Journal reported in July, Romney claims that he created "more than 100,000" jobs while running Bain Capital.

However, this figure seems to be overstated, as the WSJ noted:
Steven N. Kaplan, a finance professor at the University of Chicago who studies private equity, used another approach: counting 100% of the jobs gained and lost at Bain companies, but only until Mr. Romney left the firm in 1999. By that measure, Mr. Kaplan concluded that Mr. Romney had created "tens of thousands" of jobs....

"I don't think that an investor should get credit for the jobs created beyond the ones where an investor has a position in the company," said John M. Abowd, a labor economist at Cornell University who donated to the Obama 2012 campaign.
He suggests yet another way: Give Mr. Romney and Bain credit for a share of jobs created proportional to Bain's ownership stake in its investments at the time. Because Bain held minority stakes in all four firms, and sold out years ago, that method would produce a far lower total—less than 1,500.

By whatever counting method, it is clear that Staples figures prominently in Romney's jobs record. The Republican presidential candidate refers to Staples fairly frequently and the WSJ piece specifically evaluated Romney's contributions to the office supply company's success:

Mr. Romney includes in his tally the total Staples head count today, about 88,000 jobs. Securities filings show Bain owned 7.3% of the office-supply retailer when it went public in 1989 and had sold out by early 1992, when Staples had 5,300 employees.

Thomas Stemberg, Staples's founder and former CEO, said Mr. Romney's contribution to Staples came "from his personal advice, input and efforts, not his money." Mr. Stemberg, a major backer of the Romney campaign, said he would give Mr. Romney credit for 100% of Staples's 88,000 jobs.

By Mr. Kaplan's method, Mr. Romney should be credited with the 43,000 jobs Staples had when Mr. Romney left Bain in 1999. The weighted average count would be more like 250 jobs—a total Mr. Stemberg called "absurd."
Regarding Staples, the Journal does not address an issue that Mother Jones raised this past July:
Mitt Romney, who served on Staples' board of directors in addition to investing in the company when he was at Bain Capitol, likes to tout the chain as an example of private-sector success. But as the National Employment Law Project Action Fund points out in a new report, that success has not trickled down to employees.

The report lists Staples as one of the 50 largest low-wage employers in the US. The company has continued to turn high profits even in the recession, and its CEO made $8.8 million in 2011 (which was a 40 percent drop from what he made in 2010). And yet most of its nearly 33,000 employees make less than $10 per hour
The Mother Jones piece contrasts Staples to Costco, where employees earn $19 per hour, on average. Many (if not most) employees also receive health care benefits.

Readers might be interested to learn that the Costco CEO, Jim Sinegal, spoke at the Democratic National Convention:
“And that’s why I’m here, supporting President Obama, a president making an economy built to last,” Sinegal said in his prepared remarks. “See, in order for companies like Costco to invest, grow, hire and flourish, the conditions have to be right. That requires something from all of us.” And later: “here’s the thing about the Costco story: We did not build our company in a vacuum.”
The Washington Post story includes Sinegal's entire address, if you are interested. Incidentally, the Staples CEO, Stemberg, spoke at the RNC and often touts Romney in various media outlets.

I offer one note in closing for local readers: The cost-conscious University of Louisville Purchasing policy includes this opening paragraph in the section on office supplies:

"Office Supplies are to be purchased through the University's primary contractor, Staples Advantage. The cooperative effort between Staples and the Department of Purchasing continues to keep our University at the leading technological edge of procurement and together we are able to offer unprecedented discounts based on volume purchasing contracts. "

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Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Good Club

In an age of austerity, what global political actors will have the resources and willpower to tackle major problems such as poverty, hunger, global warming, inequality of wealth, etc.? 

A recent issue of The Nation featured a book review by Mark Mazower that included an interesting anecdote about the super-wealthy people who seek to address world problems via their philanthropy:
In 2009, for instance, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and David Rockefeller called a meeting of their fellow super-philanthropists—people like George Soros, Oprah Winfrey and Ted Turner—to discuss what they could do in response to the global financial crisis and the longer-term environmental and health problems facing the world. When the participants gathered at an Upper East Side residence in New York on May 5, the meeting was shrouded in secrecy. It was scarcely surprising: the combined wealth of the people in the room was reckoned to be around $120 billion—and that was after already spending billions in the previous twelve years. Such sums dwarfed the social spending budgets of most member states of the UN down the road.
The so-called "Good Club" apparently had an important agenda at this private meeting -- though no one is precisely sure of the details. Most importantly, Mazower notes that the super-rich cannot solve global problems. That is a job better left to various international institutions: 
...did they decide, as some newspaper accounts have it, that it was up to them to tackle the threat of planetary overpopulation—probably the top global fear of wealthy American philanthropists for about a century? We cannot know. But we have learned enough about the history of private wealth to know that these do-gooders alone are inadequate vehicles to supply the global public goods that well-run multilateral international institutions can handle more systematically and openly.
Incidentally, the piece also discusses the work of NGOs and provides some interesting data. For example, 90% of NGOs have been formed since 1970 and "two-thirds of EU relief goes through them." Since 2003, these NGOs have been distributing more money globally than related UN organizations.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Romney vs. Romney

Obviously, I haven't blogged as much about the 2012 election as I did the 2004 and 2008 campaigns. This does not mean that I am disengaged. Unfortunately, I simply have much less free time to blog than I did in those earlier years.

Also, I haven't focused too much attention on Mitt Romney because he seemed like such an obviously bad candidate -- a rich corporate raider running during an era when the Occupy movement brought new attention to decades of policies that spawned incredible inequality in the U.S. Even Romney's Republican rivals were bashing him about this record.

Moreover, Romney has demonstrably reversed his positions on many issues, apparently so that he could get elected in a Republican presidential primary system dominated by social conservatives and tea partiers.

The Romney that served as Governor of Massachusetts was more moderate than the 2008 and 2012 presidential candidate versions and it appears that the relatively centrist Romney is back on the top shelf. However, this "new Romney" still has to reconcile his latest positions with the stands he took earlier in 2012. Hence, the Romney vs. Romney debate:

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Friday, September 28, 2012


It's been some years since I played Risk. Like dogs, I prefer poker now.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Romney's latest gaffe

Mitt Romney to a room full of donors:

John Sides at The Monkey Cage doesn't think it will matter.

Conservative NY Times columnist David Brooks, meanwhile, thinks it is devastating. He renames Mitt as Thurston Howell Romney.  

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Thursday, September 06, 2012

Bill Clinton and the Facts at the DNC 2012

I did not watch Bill Clinton's speech at the 2012 DNC last night because I'm trying to catch up on a few missed episodes of "Breaking Bad." However, I've now listened to all of the address (and watched some of it) thanks to C-SPAN's complete 49 minute video:

The NY Times has the full transcript.

According to Bloomberg News, Clinton's big early applause line about the huge advantage in jobs created during Democratic versus Republican administrations is true:
since 1961, for 52 years now, the Republicans have held the White House 28 years, the Democrats, 24. In those 52 years, our private economy has produced 66 million private sector jobs.

So what’s the job score? Republicans, 24 million; Democrats, 42 (million). (Cheers, applause.)
Actually, Bloomberg didn't really find any significant factual errors in Clinton's speech. That's partly because he didn't do what many other Dems did last night. Consider Elizabeth Warren's address, as the Times reported it:
Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Senate candidate, summed up Mitt Romney’s tax plans this way: 

“He wants to give tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires,” she said. “But for middle-class families who are hanging on by their fingernails? His plans will hammer them with a new tax hike of up to $2,000.” 
The Times noted that this charge "is not entirely accurate." That is odd phrasing, but easily explained. The problem is that Warren, like other Democrats, correctly calculated that the Romney tax "reforms" (including significant rate cuts and unidentified reductions in "loopholes") cannot possibly be revenue-neutral, as intended. As Clinton aptly noted on many occasions, the arithmetic just does not work.

Thus, Warren and others assume that the lost revenue would be made up primarily by closing loopholes that benefit the middle-class, such as the mortgage tax deduction or other benefits related to payment of college tuition.

The Times explains the problem with Romney's vague plans for the budget and taxes:
Many tax experts — from the left, the right and the center — do not think there is any way to do all of those things. 

When you cut tax rates that much, rich families’ tax liability falls considerably. For the tax plan to raise the same amount of money as it does now, someone would need to pay more. 

But it is not clear that Mr. Romney would raise taxes on the middle class. Instead, the plan might add to the deficit, make smaller cuts to marginal tax rates or take away preferential rates on investments and savings.
Former President Clinton avoided this problem, as Bloomberg noted, because "he showed the possible choices that Romney’s constraints would force."

It does seem a bit unfair that Democrats would be criticized for stretching the truth about Romney's tax and spending policies precisely because his plans are so slippery and unworkable. 

Incidentally, the Times also called out some Democrats for repeating the Romney line I've discussed about him allegedly liking to fire people. Fair point. Then again, the Republicans made a similar untruth the organizing theme of the convention.

Also, Democrats are essentially accused of hypocrisy for claiming that anti-terrorism initiatives will not "run afoul" of civil liberties or constitutional protections. Again, fair point. The drone war is deeply unsettling.

Unfortunately, the problem is primarily that President Obama has not reversed all of the egregious policies initiated by George W. Bush and other predecessors in the Oval office.

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Friday, August 24, 2012

Whole Wide World

This week, to begin the new school year, my class on "Global Politics Through Film" viewed "Stranger Than Fiction." If you haven't seen it, Will Ferrell plays an IRS tax auditor named Harold Crick. Roger Ebert explains why Crick turns to a literature professor in order to understand different kinds of narratives.
Harold begins to hear a voice in his head, one that is describing his own life -- not in advance, but as a narrative that has just happened. He seeks counsel from a shrink (Linda Hunt) and convinced he is hearing his own life narrative, seeks counsel from Jules Hilbert, a literature professor (Dustin Hoffman). Hilbert methodically checks off genres and archetypes and comes up with a list of living authors who could plausibly be writing the "narration." He misses, however, Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), because he decides Harold's story is a comedy, and all of her novels end in death. However, Eiffel is indeed writing the story of Harold's life.
Ah yes, the old comedy-versus-tragedy argument.

Anyway, I'm posting the following video because the song "(I'd Go the) Whole Wide World" by Wreckless Eric figures prominently in a key scene. Since watching the film on Tuesday, it has been an earworm that I cannot escape:

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Bad Drivers and Political Corruption

Last week, at a reception following the first Department faculty meeting of the new academic term, a few colleagues and I discussed the comparative abilities of automobile drivers from different parts of the country. The discussion may have been sparked by the presence of a new colleague from a part of the U.S. quite distant from Kentucky.

As it happens, one Department faculty member has posted a list of states ranked by the relative (in)abilities of their drivers. One of the group borrowed the list from her bulletin board and we discussed the rankings. In case you have not seen the list somewhere else, the list was compiled from a study by car insurers that uses "data from three sources: the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (driving fatalities), the American Motorists Association (which states hand out the most tickets), and MADD (drunk drivers)."

In the study, Louisiana is said to have the worst drivers, followed by Missouri, Texas. and Florida. Kentucky drivers rated 7th-worst (note: Louisville schools do not provide driver's education). The list of states with the worst drivers is mostly comprised of states located in red (and southern) parts of America as it also includes Oklahoma, Arizona, Alabama and South Carolina. Montana was 9th.

About that same time last week, I read Joshua Hammer's related story about driving in Africa in the July/August issue of The Atlantic. He points out an interesting correlation:
According to Tom Vanderbilt, the author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), “Traffic behavior is more or less directly related to levels of government corruption.” Vanderbilt cites a clear correlation between traffic-fatality rates per miles driven and a country’s ranking on Transparency International’s corruption index. (In terms of road safety, the Scandinavian countries fare the best; Nigeria is near the bottom of the list.)
To check the domestic situation, I found a list published in the NY Times in December 2008 that used a decade's worth of federal public corruption convictions to rank U.S. states by political corruption. The study placed Louisiana, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Montana, and Florida in the top 10 (excluding Guam, Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and DC).

So, just eyeballing these results, a U.S. correlation seems to align with a global correlation.
While searching around the internet looking into this relationship, I found an interesting tidbit from Anneli Rufus at The Daily Beast (referencing GMAC Insurance Company data): "Kansas is home to the nation’s best-prepared drivers." As a young Kansan, I received my first driver's license at age 14 years and 6 months and participated in driver's education in junior high school (to be fair, today's 9th graders are often educated in high schools).

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Friday, August 10, 2012

Old Book Meme

I unearthed the following list of books and accompanying instructions on Duck of Minerva while searching for something else. The list can apparently be found on many other blogs if you look around for  it. Bill Petti posted it in February 2006, so this is an old meme among academic and other bloggers:

Bold the books you have read. Italicise the books you might read. Cross out the books you probably won't read. Underline the books you have on your shelf to read or have started reading.
Some bloggers add this line to the instructions: "Pass it on."

I also clarified my status in that some of the underlined books are owned by other readers in my home, but I'm only likely to read the ones in italics.

The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
The Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger
The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy - Douglas Adams
The Great Gatsby - F.Scott Fitzgerald
To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
The Time Traveler's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman (3 books)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - J. K. Rowling
Life of Pi - Yann Martel
Animal Farm: A Fairy Story - George Orwell
Catch-22 - Joseph Heller
The Hobbit - J. R. R. Tolkien
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
Lord of the Flies - William Golding
Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
1984 - George Orwell
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - J. K. Rowling
One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel García Márquez
Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
Slaughterhouse 5 - Kurt Vonnegut
Angels and Demons - Dan Brown
Fight Club - Chuck Palahniuk
Neuromancer - William Gibson
Cryptonomicon - Neal Stephenson
The Secret History - Donna Tartt
A Clockwork Orange - Anthony Burgess
Wuthering Heights - Emily Brontë
Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
American Gods - Neil Gaiman
Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card
Snow Crash - Neal Stephenson
A Prayer for Owen Meany - John Irving
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - C. S. Lewis
Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides
Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
The Lord of the Rings - J. R. R. Tolkien (3 books)
Jane Eyre - Charlotte Brontë
Good Omens - Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman
Atonement - Ian McEwan
The Shadow Of The Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafón
The Old Man and the Sea - Ernest Hemingway
The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
Dune - Frank Herbert

So, of the 50 books listed, I've read 22 and have immediate access to another 3 that I intend to read. I might read 15 or so of the others eventually. Yes, I'm stubborn about Harry Potter. The Hunger Games trilogy is not on this old list, but I have been thinking about reading it and it is on a shelf in this house. I think I enjoyed the film version more than I enjoyed any of the Potter movies.

Update: added yellow highlighting to indicate books read since this was posted.

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Monday, August 06, 2012

Michigan trip 2012

We're back from our (almost) annual trip to Michigan. This is the lighthouse in Ludington, where we spent a couple of days and one night:

If you ever visit Ludington, I'd recommend taking a picnic to the beach. The local Best Choice Market had a terrific deli for sandwiches and salads, assorted veggies, and a nice selection of local brews.

Speaking of beer, +1000 for Short's Huma Lupa Licious IPA. Wow! 

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Sunday, July 29, 2012

"I like being able to fire people..."

In the interest of fairness, here's some information about that famous Mitt Romney line. The context is not always reported, but PolitiFact has it:

Romney was specifically talking about the ability to get rid of your health insurance provider when you aren’t satisfied with its services.

"I want individuals to have their own insurance," Romney said. "That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep you healthy. It also means if you don’t like what they do, you can fire them. I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. You know, if someone doesn’t give me a good service that I need, I want to say I’m going to go get someone else to provide that service to me."

So Romney wasn't referring to his work at Bain Capital -- or to the more general question of serving as a boss who has decided to fire employees of his company -- but rather the notion of switching service providers. He might as well have been talking about switching cellphone carriers or cable TV companies.
That's from January 11, 2012, so the main line has been percolating for some time. In fact, it was really more of an item during the Republican primary season.

Of course, this contextual information does not excuse the Romney campaign from its distortions of Obama's "You didn't built that" line.

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Saturday, July 28, 2012

China: It's Just a Question of Time

I watched the Todd Solondz film "Life During Wartime" tonight and I think this was my favorite scene by far:

The movie includes lots of references to terrorism and war. At one point two characters trade Bush-era clichés -- should a person "stay the course" or "cut and run" in a dismal situation?

The final line of the film is also about the "war on terror" and is spoken by a 13 year old boy:  “I don’t care about freedom and democracy. I just want my father.”

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Friday, July 27, 2012

Bear cam

Have you wasted any time viewing Bear cam? This Wired story explains:
Media company Explore has teamed up with Alaska's Katmai National Park to install webcams that will deliver live video feeds of brown bears catching salmon in a popular feeding ground.
Each year, around a hundred bears travel to a stretch of Brooks River to fill their bellies with salmon. Now anyone with an internet connection can witness this gathering thanks to four high-definition cameras that have been set up in this remote part of Alaska. 
One camera is positioned at Brook Falls, where the larger male bears fight it out for salmon that are desperately trying to leap their way upstream.
This is the link to that camera: Brown Bear & Salmon Cam - Brooks Falls - Bears - explore

Warning: this is highly addictive.

Compare that to this 1980 Reagan campaign commercial to see how far we've progressed in our tolerance for bears (right?):

Yesterday, I watched as two bears postured somewhat violently towards one another. Meanwhile, a nearby bear was dining on salmon. This demonstrated that the two in the foreground learned nothing from the 2012 Republican primaries.

Note: Cross-posted at Duck of Minerva.

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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Property Rights

The Nation recently published a book review by Princeton historian Hendrik Hartog that addresses a new work on property rights: American Property: A History of How, Why, and What We Own by Stuart Banner.

These are the key paragraphs in the review:
Central to the secret knowledge of property law is the recognition that property rests on the state. Most of the land that white America first lived on had to be expropriated—whether purchased or taken more or less violently—from Native America. Expropriation required an active and militarized state. To know what one owned, to be recognized as a legitimate possessor of property, relied on a series of steps usually including the payment of taxes and the recording of title in the county records office. Ownership usually involved the protection of the local police, and sometimes the state militia or the army. Even when a property owner exercised what property law calls “self-help”—for example, by evicting a tenant, pulling a gun on a trespasser or hiring Pinkertons—he or she knew (or should have known) that it was necessary to follow the rules of self-help set out by the state; otherwise, legitimate self-help would be redefined as criminal violence. Over the course of the past two centuries, the realm of legitimate self-help has dramatically narrowed. Meanwhile, throughout the twentieth century, the value and use of what one held increasingly depended on engagement with zoning boards and a variety of regulatory agencies.

The presence of the state is pervasive throughout Banner’s narrative. There is no period in American history that lies “before” regulation or public vexations. Private property has always found its origins, its recognition and its security in the largesse of the state, even as much of the sentimental claptrap that passes for historical understanding continues to deny that truth.

Obviously, the section at least indirectly speaks to some of the key issues in the current trumped up controversy being stirred by the Romney presidential campaign. As I discussed a few days ago, President Obama's "you didn't build that" remark, in context, was clearly referencing the underlying social contract.

As Banner and Hartog emphasize, every bit of private property in the U.S., even a private business, is deeply embedded in the power of the state.

Incidentally, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama largely agree about the government's role in promoting business, as Jon Stewart's The Daily Show has been illustrating the last couple of nights. This quote used by Stewart tonight is taken here from Think Progress:
ROMNEY: I know that you recognize a lot of people help you in a business. Perhaps the bank, the investors. There is no question your mom and dad, your school teachers. The people who provide roads, the fire, the police. A lot of people help.
Compare the highlighted text (from Think Progress) to the Obama speech I quoted the other day.

Update: Here's The Daily Show bit on this from Wednesday, July 25: 

The Daily Show with Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Democalypse 2012 - Do We Look Stupid? Don't Answer That Edition
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

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Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Underlying Social Contract

By now, these lines from Barack Obama have been burned into the 24/7 news cycle by the American right: "If you’ve got a business -- you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen." Mitt Romney on the campaign trail and Fox News in its programming (presuming you see a difference) have apparently been using it relentlessly.

Here's the video for those who have missed the uproar:

Here is the wider context from the White House website:
     I’m not going to see us gut the investments that grow our economy to give tax breaks to me or Mr. Romney or folks who don’t need them.  So I’m going to reduce the deficit in a balanced way.  We’ve already made a trillion dollars’ worth of cuts.  We can make another trillion or trillion-two, and what we then do is ask for the wealthy to pay a little bit more.  (Applause.)  And, by the way, we’ve tried that before -- a guy named Bill Clinton did it.  We created 23 million new jobs, turned a deficit into a surplus, and rich people did just fine.  We created a lot of millionaires.

     There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me -- because they want to give something back.  They know they didn’t -- look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.  You didn’t get there on your own.  I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart.  There are a lot of smart people out there.  It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.  Let me tell you something -- there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.  (Applause.)

     If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.  There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.  Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.  Somebody invested in roads and bridges.  If you’ve got a business -- you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen.  The Internet didn’t get invented on its own.  Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

     The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.  There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own.  I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service.  That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.

So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together.  That’s how we funded the GI Bill.  That’s how we created the middle class.  That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam.  That’s how we invented the Internet.  That’s how we sent a man to the moon.  We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people
Typical socialist, eh? He's talking about how government can promote free enterprise to grow the economy for everyone. Not exactly how Marx and Lenin mapped the future.

As others have noted, these words from Obama echo those of Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren (starting about 0:50):

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Thursday, July 05, 2012

Applying Skinner's Behavior Modification

As I've sometimes mentioned, I've been serving on the University's Sustainability Council for some years. Throughout that time, the group has often discussed the prospects for influencing behavioral change in the students, staff, faculty and administrators.

The June 2012 Atlantic Monthly had a piece by David H. Freedman about "Skinnerian" behavior modification. Freedman demonstrates that psychologist B.F. Skinner's ideas have earned a bad reputation over the years, but they potentially offer a good deal for the modern world. Many people fail to understand that "Skinner sought to shape only consciously chosen, directly observable behavior, and only with rewards."

Readers of this blog might want to check out the lengthy article as it is filled with interesting anecdotes and explanation.

I found the following paragraphs to be especially useful as they suggest practical application of Skinnerian thinking to address contemporary problems related to sustainability and health:
At Palo Alto’s storied University Coffee Cafe, I recently found myself sitting next to a young fellow named Yoav Lurie, who turned out to be running a Boulder-based company called Simple Energy, which uses Facebook as a social-reinforcement tool for conserving energy by tracking, sharing, and reinforcing certain behaviors. The product, like many of its competitors in the booming field of energy-related apps, is sponsored by large utility companies incentivized to reduce their reliance on conventional power sources.
Government agencies are in a similar position to benefit. I was speaking with a manager at the U.S. Department of Transportation about public transit when he mentioned that the agency is testing an app that provides local travelers with various transportation options for specific trips and that could gently reinforce decisions to use public transit by pointing out the extra calories commuters would burn by walking to the station and the carbon they’d avoid emitting by leaving their cars at home.
Once we reconvene, I'll bring this to the attention of some others on the Council.

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