Thursday, January 31, 2008

Steroid Social Network

Another link from Slate (I know, I know — I need more diverse reading habits): this one posts Adam Perer and Chris Wilson's "social network" drawing, based on George Mitchell's report on steroid use in baseball.

It's interesting, but woefully incomplete. I'd like to see this network expanded to include information on the BALCO investigation and the accusations leveled by Canseco in his book. For example, Miguel Tejada is given a "green" label indicating that he was a peripheral player with "four degrees of separation" from core distributor Kirk Radomski. But we know as well that Rafael Palmeiro (not named in the Mitchell Report) tested positive, and that Palmeiro insisted he never knowingly took PEDs — but he had recently been given a Vitamin B-12 shot by Tejada.

We also know that Tejada's career took off in Oakland, where it all started, with the Bash Brothers. Canseco openly admits his steroid use (and is now capitalizing on it with his periodic exposés — another will hit the shelves on Opening Day) and named Mark McGwire as a partner in crime. Jason Giambi, another admitted user, started his career with the Athletics and shared a dugout with McGwire. Later in his career — after he tapped into BALCO's product offerings — Giambi played with Tejada in Oakland. Canseco went on to Texas, where he says he introduced Palmeiro to steroids.

George Mitchell should be credited for the diligence and integrity he showed in preparing his report, but let's call it what it is: a biopsy report. Mitchell found a malignant piece of tissue, he put it under a microscope, and he reviewed the hell out of it. What he didn't do was go rooting around for every lesion, every suspicious growth, every cancer cell. He worked with the sources he had, and his rigorous standards of proof would not admit every shred of rumor or innuendo (there's legal liability to consider, for crying out loud). I'm guessing a lot of players heaved sighs of relief when the report came out and their names weren't mentioned.

If this much wasn't apparent from the report itself — to be sure, when a guy produces 409 pages of fact reporting and analysis, it gives the impression of an exhaustive search — the social network drawing makes it quite clear. When I look at the Slate drawing, I can't help but think there's a much larger, integrated work lurking out there beyond its margins, and we've only managed to turn the flashlight on this small section.

It's doubtful we'll ever get to see that full picture of the "steroid social network," so we can authoritatively and completely track the PED diaspora in baseball. There is, however, more information out there than has been found to meet the George Mitchell Gold Standard for reliability. It would be interesting to see a network that takes account of the data we have and includes Canseco, McGwire, Palmeiro, Barry Bonds, Greg Anderson, and Victor Conte — for starters.

So Mr. Perer, Mr. Wilson, get back to work!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Feds Preempted State Efforts To . . . Er, Preempt Subprime Mortgage Crisis

So says Nicholas Bagley at Slate. States like Georgia, New Mexico, and New York passed legislation that would have subdued the market in subprime mortgages, but a federal agency, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which apparently draws its operating budgets from banks — and is therefore, in Bagley's eyes, unduly beholden to their interests — wrote regulations preempting these laws.

I'm not sure what to take from this.

There's much to be said for the states serving as "laboratories of democracy," that is, for state governments enjoying the authority to test out legislative solutions within their own borders. Varying state laws will produce varying results that can in turn inform public policy at the national level — or even among the states, as they look to one another for effective solutions to social ills. Massachusetts, for example, is a "laboratory" for mandatory-subscription universal health care. And we'll see how it goes. California hopes to impose its own program to alleviate or limit global warming. If the legislation isn't held preempted by federal law, we'll see where that goes, too.

The state-as-laboratory theory can't be absolute, however, because if 50 states pass 50 laws, companies that do business across the nation have to answer to 50 different legal standards, some of which may impose conflicting obligations. So there is a virtue as well to writing laws at the national level.

That's the backdrop to all this, and I suppose Bagley would conclude that the subprime crisis supplies a classic example of why certain matters ought to be left to the states. I've argued that this is all well and good, but that state governments have atrophied over the years — principally because all the action is happening at the federal level. State legislators are hacks; if they aren't, they're treating their jobs as stepping stones to something better. And legislation isn't the beginning and end of the matter: state legislation is interpreted and applied in state courts, and please, oh please don't ever get me started on the quality and dedication of state court judges. So Mr. Bagley will have to pardon my cynicism on this score: he himself writes that the AARP — a lobbying group — basically wrote the pioneering subprime regulations in Georgia. In retrospect, the AARP and the legislators it owns in Georgia (if they're writing laws there, just imagine who's running the show in Florida) may have had the right answer. But it's not the AARP's job to consider the long-term effects of subprime mortgages on the larger economy and the global financial markets, is it? My guess is Georgia got it right, in retrospect and by accident. This doesn't make me more confident in the ability of states to solve the nation's problems — except that maybe because there are so many of them, it's statistically more likely that one or more might stumble upon a right answer. But I suppose it's encouraging that at least three other states adopted Georgia's solution. Color me equivocal, then.

Which brings us to the federal government. Another "preemptive" strike, another disaster. Score it! Clearly it's far from optimal to have bankers so peculiarly positioned to dictate federal preemption legislation. One would hope the OCC would be more independent than it is. And there's the obvious irony that the OCC apparently made its case to The Federalist Society. One wonders how the OCC's position was received there: did it meet catcalls from the purported "states rights" folk in the Society, or did the Federalists nod agreeably, understanding as all good conservatives do that what is good for the short-term interest of the nation's banks must be good for America?


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Another Reason (I Don't Count Them) Why I Am Scornful of Michigan

Rich kid gets richer, ditches Michigan. Then he comes back as more of a prodigal son than a native son, except unlike in the parable, he's asking for something, and he's copping a 'tude. He blames Washington, D.C. for the state's economic malaise, and Republican Michiganders, no doubt admiring his lush head of hair (as seen in minutely television commercials), hail him "the victor" in the state's Presidential primary.

Hey Mitt: I suppose it's Beltway Politics, too, that are responsible for the Wolverines losing four straight to my Buckeyes?

You big dork.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Here's a Hint, TSA

When the Department of Justice has paid for a guy's plane ticket, he's probably not a guy you need to subject to additional security scanning.

Honestly — what the hell kind of profiling is that?

Anyway, more on this trip tomorrow.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Screw the Fascists at Jolly Rancher! Screw 'Em!

"Thank you for contacting The Hershey Company. Your comments about JOLLY RANCHER hard candy are important.

We are sorry to disappoint you, but JOLLY RANCHER lemon flavored hard candy is currently not available. This product is not being produced for nationwide retail distribution at this time and we are unable to provide you with details as to when and where you might be able to obtain this product. We apologize for any inconvenience and assure you that your comments will be shared with our Marketing Department.

Your interest in our company is appreciated."


It's good to see that I'm not the only one mourning the passing/discontinuation of the lemon-flavored Jolly Rancher, which might have been the single best species of hard candy every marketed. Peach, too, has disappeared without a trace.

Testimonials to The Lemon lie here, here, here (great for catching rats in your garden!), and here (a scented body-lotion, for crying out loud!)

In the place of these giants, these Members Emeritus of the Flavor Fraternity, we now have the newly-introduced tasteless "grape" and a bizarre non sequitur called "blue raspberry" (as in "I don't who's [sic] fucking idea it was to add 'blue raspberry' to the basic canon of false-fruit-flavors . . . .").

I'm not one to carry a grudge, but I'm still not over Taco Bell's retirement of the Belgrande (see here), and it will be some time before I'm ready to forgive Hershey for this. Actually, I'm willing to let them off the hook if they'll hand over to me the names and contact information of the ridiculous candy-tasting hacks they had in their focus group when they reached this absurd decision. These people need to be neutralized before they can do any more damage.

Huckabee's Sales Tax Proposal

I officially don't know what to think about it. It has the virtue of simplicity. The sudden price jump on goods and services will be jarring, but in the long run it might result in people grumbling less about their taxes: they'll be getting nickeled and dimed all year long, and they won't be in a position of having to pay a lump sum in April — or even to have to examine the bottom line of a 1099 form that tells you, almost sneeringly, what you gave the government this year to spend on objectionable projects. Making the federal tax levy more insidious and less of a cause for annual outrage might have the salutary effect of supporting deliberative democracy. So many people I know vote consistently Republican because they want lower taxes — even though they disagree fundamentally with so much of what the GOP does when it's not slashing tax rates.

Steven E. Landsburg's recent article in Slate points out one other important virtue of Huckabee's proposal: if you're taxed at the point of purchasing goods and services, you're encouraged to save money. Thus we don't have to invent exceptional vehicles for tax-free saving, like IRAs and 401(k)s and all these other accounts that people with the time, money, and initiative to hire tax planners and financial consultants get to have — but many other people don't. All savings are tax-free.

But Mr. Landsburg's argument assumes that the tax rate will simply transfer over: it compares a 20% income tax rate with a 20% sales tax rate. That can't be how it would work in practice. First, we're all paying different tax rates, on the principle that a progressive tax is fairer than a flat tax. I'm not sure how you replicate that fairness in a sales tax paradigm, except perhaps by the clumsy way of making the tax rate higher on luxury items or expensive goods and lower on cheaper goods or necessities. And now we've compromised the simplicity of the sales tax model to make it fair — and it's still arguably not as fair as the progressive income tax model. Some middle-income people want to own BMWs, right? Whenever someone from a formerly lower tax bracket wants to buy an item keyed to a higher sales tax bracket, the tax would be regressive — at least more so than the current income tax system. Remember, too, that the current system provides a lot of tax breaks for people who need them (as well as certain people who don't, admittedly, so maybe that's a wash). It would be hard to carry over the current tax code's many gestures at fairness into a sales tax model.

(Also, having learned what "fair and balanced" apparently means when applied to news coverage, I can't help but be skeptical at the outset of any tax plan that feels the need to call itself "fair.")

I've read, too, that for the government to generate the same amount of revenue as it does now, the sales tax rate will have to be higher than the income tax rates. This is because — as I gather — the income tax rate is guaranteed to be paid. The sales tax rate is linked to a contingency: it's added to the price of goods and services that you may or may not elect to purchase. Remember: we're not talking tax in a vacuum. We pay taxes so that the government can run its (term used loosely) business. It's a means to an end. It's not necessarily the ceteris paribus proposition that Mr. Landsburg suggests. If the sales tax rate is expected to exceed by a significant amount the income tax rate, could a federal sales tax actually overencourage saving? Too much saving isn't good for the IRS or for the economy.

And finally, we seems to have a consumer debt crisis in this country. People spend on credit cards like there's no tomorrow, but unfortunately tomorrow does come — with a bill. AM radio is thick with ad spots promising to negotiate or restructure your credit card debt: those companies are out there for a reason. Banking laws promoted by credit companies are making it more difficult for people to get out from under their consumer debt. If people aren't disciplined enough to spend money they don't have, does it make sense to slap a significant surcharge on what they buy? I guess my point is this: maybe the sales tax will encourage people to save. But maybe it won't. If it doesn't, profligate spenders will screw themselves even worse than before. I guess the trick is to do the analysis and predict as best you can how a sales tax would affect consumer spending/saving habits. You want to encourage saving, but not too much. On the other hand, you don't want to slap a hefty sales tax on, well, everything, and find that nobody saves at all.

Bear in mind that I wrote all the above with a bare-minimum understanding of (and in most instances, interest in) economics and finance. So I'd be interested in having everything I say reviewed and rebutted by someone with a modicum of expertise. There seem to be a lot of complicated questions here. I wonder, too, if it's not just a Fear of the Unknown that undergirds a lot of what I wrote. We shouldn't resist innovation explicitly — nor should we do so instinctively and then rationalize away the resistance. But I do think there are a lot of questions that need answering, and that won't be accomplished in a campaign soundbite/debate answer format.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Howlin' Pelle Almquist, Meet the InstaSheep

Back in April 2004 — when conservatives were leveraging the Oil-for-Food scandal to try to disqualify the UN from playing any meaningful role in the reconstruction of Iraq (never mind that the United States government had armed Saddam) — I wrote the following comment to one of Richard's posts on the subject:

Holy crap, Rich! This blog's blown wide open!

But here's my problem with your post: certainly generalized dishonesty, incompetence, and opacity cannot be factors that disqualify an institution from playing a role in Iraq — or the Bush Administration would have to go to the back of the line as well.

But I know, I know: you destest my casual "apophases," and Cheney, Wolfowitz, and Bremer are our exploitative cronyists and demagogues, so let them run amok. The simple fact is that the UN, for all its faults, is a better bet for nation-building than the US, particularly under these conditions.

Putting aside the simple fact that they're more experienced at it (for better or for worse), they're not American. And that means something, for legitimacy purposes, when the Iraqi people, right or wrong, are increasingly suspicious of the motives underlying the U.S.-led invasion and occupation. Sure, the case can — and will — be made that the UN, when it acts, is simply an extension of the American hyperpower's will.

But multilateral peacekeeping spearheaded by the UN, and not the US, has a certain cachet of trustworthiness that the "U.S.-led coalition" peacekeeping does not — for the same reasons that an invasion of Iraq with the UN's approval was amply preferable to the invasion without it, and for the same reasons that supported our jeers at the Administration's decisions to consider only coalition country-based corporations (and to short-list Halliburton) for reconstruction contracts.

Yeah, fine: the Oil-for-Food scandal was terrible. These bad actions compromise the integrity of the entire UN institution. We get it. But you fail to show how this failure peculiarly disqualifies the UN from the specific enterprise of helping to transition Iraq into democracy. And I think that's an important question, when so much of the problems we're dealing with now are rooted in concerns that the U.S. is trumping up a puppet government of preferred Chalabis.

Do you really think that internationalizing this thorny problem will result in rapacious U.N. officials grubbing for shares in Iraq's oil reserves? Because otherwise I don't see what the Oil-for-Food scandal has to do with the U.N.'s ability to provide constructive aid to this process — a process that we're having some trouble with on our own.

For this I was set upon by a herd of InstaSheep who were briefly grazing on Richard's site, at the direction of their Shepherd. Years later, of course, bittersweet vindication: the CPA stiffarmed and subordinated the UN, to the considerable detriment of Iraq. Samantha Power writes in this week's New Yorker about the lost opportunity. Regrettably, it's only an abstract of the article online, but it probably wouldn't kill you to go out and buy a hard copy of the magazine.

All this is of course a roundabout way of announcing Feigned Outrage's first promotional event: the first 50 InstaPundit readers who make their way here and post an appropriately "Sheepish" comment will be awarded a copy of The Hives' Hate To Say I Told You So off iTunes. Please leave your email so I know where to send the gift. Richard, you're eligible. And so are the rest of you comment heroes: reheatedsouffle, AST, Steve in Houston — all of you.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Justice Clinton? Yeah, Right.

The speculation about President Hillary nominating her husband to the Supreme Court bench seems, to me, a bit much. The Wall Street Journal hit it first, presumably to trump up further right-wing indignation about a prospective Clinton Dynasty. Now CNN is in on the action, explaining that federal anti-nepotism laws don't apply to a President's judicial nominations.

So it could happen. But would it?

One key issue that I haven't seen discussed is recusal. I went on Westlaw a moment ago. In 2007 the Supreme Court issued 16 orders or opinions in cases in which President Bush was a named defendant. These are all "official capacity" cases, of course, and many of them relate to Guantanamo detentions. So it's possible and even likely that a President Clinton would find herself sued in federal court less frequently than her predecessor. Still, though, it's pretty much a certainty that a case will land in the Supreme Court in which she's on one or the other side of the "v."

It seems to me an open question whether Bill should recuse himself from reviewing executive actions taken by his wife. Recusal would be pretty much automatic if Hillary were sued in her personal capacity. Official capacity is a different matter: Justice Scalia invoked the distinction in a case involving official actions taken by a certain hunting buddy of his. So there is precedent for a Justice Clinton to stick around in an official capacity case against his wife. And for that matter, the precedent comes from a right-wing justice in a case against a Republican Vice President. But all the ingredients for a firestorm of conservative outrage are here, nonetheless. In politics, if there's an occasion for outrage, there will be outrage — whether or not it's warranted or hypocritical.

As I see it, it just wouldn't be worth the grief. To be sure, I think Bill Clinton would be a more-than-adequate Supreme Court Justice. Bill could bring to the bench eight years' experience with matters of national security on the executive side. We've seen an unprecedented expansion of executive power in recent years, and the questions about the constitutionality of the President's arrogated (and to be fair, occasionally delegated) powers are steadily making their way to the Supreme Court. I think it's fair to say that the Court could rule more confidently in these cases if a former Chief Executive sat on the bench. The extent to which a President needs to be able to do X to keep the nation secure from cataclysmic harm is probably not, in most cases, an appropriate consideration when the Court is asked to review the President's authority to do X. That said, you can bet the Court takes this and other practical considerations into account when it rules on the constitutionality of X. Having former President Clinton on the bench would add value on this score.

But again, I say it wouldn't be worth the grief. The recusal question would occur and recur, and even in cases when it wouldn't be on the table per se — for example, in any other case challenging executive action that does not rise to level of the President's desk (suits against the Attorney General, or executive agencies) — you'd hear howls of bias from the nongovernmental party. Moreover, if a Justice Clinton did have to recuse himself, he'd not be very useful to the President. You nominate justices who you think will advance your interests while on the bench (see, e.g., Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito). Toward that end, you want a full-timer.

Finally, there's the Perfect Storm Scenario: Bush v. Gore all over again, but in 2012, with President Hillary Clinton's reelection hanging in the balance, and her husband on the Supreme Court bench. In this case Justice Bill would have to recuse himself: it's his wife, suing or being sued in her personal capacity, and the stakes couldn't be higher. What if Justice Bill opts out and the Court splits 4-4? Wow.

In the end, I just don't think Hillary cracks open this can of worms. It may make for interesting speculation, or easy fearmongering, but it just wouldn't happen. Bill seems pretty committed to the prospect of traveling the world as American goodwill ambassador, if Mrs. Clinton wins. He can do a lot of good in that capacity — indeed, with his name recognition, charisma, and cachet abroad, he's uniquely suited to fill that role. There are a dozen or so accomplished liberal jurists who would do as good or better a job on the Court. Let Bill do what Bill does best, and don't — er — "Court" controversy.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Professor Krebs Sez: Play It Cool with Moderate Moslem Leaders

This seems well argued to me: anti-American/anti-Western sentiment has reached such a fever pitch in the Islamic world that support of any kind from U.S. or European governments actually hurts the political aspirations of moderate Moslem leaders in Islamic democracies.

Professor Krebs's proposed solution: pull back from folks like Nawaz Sharif so they can carve out an ideological space for themselves that is distinct from both Islamic extremism and Western liberalism. If we appear to like a candidate too much, his hopes are dashed.

Krebs acknowledges that there's a bit of a paradox here: if our object is to win hearts and minds, it's hard to make meaningful progress by maintaining a cold and critical distance. But he argues that it's a paradox with a way out: you give the Sharifs of the world time to establish themselves and sell their moderate position on the relationship between Islam and state. Then you can do the glad-handing and relationship-building.

Sounds to me like an interesting long-term strategy, but it makes me a bit uncomfortable, too. After all, it's not in America's nature — Katrina, excepted — to sit back and hope in the face of a crisis. That's what Krebs would suggest: hope folks like Sharif emerge and flourish in these states' democratic processes, hope they can put forward a moderate agenda that will enable long-term normalization of relations with the West, hope they don't go off the deep-end themselves. A lot of hoping, to be sure. Maybe we can advance our hope a little with some back-channel support, maybe the occasional discreet wink/nod encrypted into the critical rhetoric?

On the other hand — and this might initially come across as patronizing or politically incorrect, but hear me out and I hope it won't — the West's frustrating dealings with the Islamic world sure seem a lot like what a parent faces with a difficult adolescent child. Bring down the hammer, and you make the kid hate you. You can go the other route and try to be the kid's best friend, but he doesn't want any part of you. A teenager needs to — and in fact is entitled to — define who he is. There's a point in his development where the only way he knows how to do that is to rebel against the parents — the standard he knows, and the standard he's had thrust upon him (fairly or unfairly) since he was born.

Like the teenager, Islamic states are entitled to figure it out for themselves. They're entitled to self-determination. They're at the point now where they only now what they don't want. They're rejectionist and reactionary. As Krebs notes, even the moderates know that they don't want their societies to turn into The West All Over Again — But Steeple-Free and with Minarets! And so long as Whatever These States Come Up With meets some bare-minimum standards and is able to function, if not flourish, in the larger world, we should be content. It's not our place to command the Islamic world to conform to our image, any more than a parent should insist that a child make the same choices. So maybe it does make sense to give the societies that are best positioned to figure it out — the ostensibly democratic Islamic states — the time and space to fashion a distinct, constructive identity for themselves. Krebs proposes this approach as a matter of political expediency for the West; I wonder if it simply isn't the right thing to do.

And maybe it's just our job, in the interim, to keep the Pakistans, Iraqs, and Indonesias from breaking the neighbors' windows, crashing the car, and — God/Allah help us — pulling the geopolitical equivalent of a Columbine. On this last part, Krebs does not offer any advice. So it goes.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

GPS Navigation Devices/Am I Missing Something Here?

I just got the TomTom GO 720 for Christmas, and I think it's terrific. I do worry that my ability to feel my way from Point A to Point B will atrophy, just as I no longer remember phone numbers (they're recorded digitally in contacts), email addresses (they auto-complete), or anything else (I send emails to myself). But the point of this sort of technology is to free up my mind for the sort of exercises we do here: philosophizing, argument, irrational rants — the sort of thing computers can't do for us.

But I'm afield a bit of the reason for my post, which is this: I've heard from more than one person that I need to be careful about leaving the TomTom in the car. They're hot properties around Boston, and there have been a lot of broken-window thefts of portable nav devices. This got me thinking — shouldn't GPS nav devices be the one thing a person can't steal? When it's powered up and running, at any given time 5 or more satellites know exactly where my TomTom is. So if someone smashes out the window of my Prius and makes off with it, shouldn't somebody — TomTom seems a good candidate — be able to find it for me, the minute the thief turns it on and receives a signal?

There must be some complication here that my simple mind hasn't grasped. Or maybe theft control is one of the hundred or more ancillary services TomTom and Garmin supply at additional cost. Is it? Shouldn't it be?