Saturday, December 30, 2006

Dead

A Rabbi was eulogizing at the funeral of a prominent Hollywood producer, and was asked to say one nice thing about him. The Rabbi thought for a moment, then said: "he's dead."

I feel roughly the same way about Saddam Hussein. I have no idea whether his execution will quell the violence in Iraq (I'm skeptical). But you can add him to the list of folks I'm not sorry to see dead.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Is Hagel Out?

I thought Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) would make a run for the White House (but lose in the primary), but I would not have been too surprised if he skipped it. What would surprise is if he doesn't run to retain his senate seat. But according to some local sources, Hagel may be doing just that--neither running for President, nor Senate re-election.

If true, this puts the Nebraska Senate seat back into play (admittedly as a second-tier opportunity).

Hagel was one of my favorite Republican's in the Senate, due to his ever-scarcer (in Washington, anyway) independent streak. It'll be interesting to see what he says or does without the specter of re-election or promotion constraining him over these next few years.

Via Kos.

The comments at the Swingstate Project have some projections on who will run to replace Hagel, and points out that, depending on whether Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE) decides to go for the GOP nod, we may have a renewed chance to pick up the Nebraska 2nd district in 2008.

Deadbroke

Solangel Maldonado has a really great post up on "deadbeat" Black father that I found fascinating. It really cuts against the grain of the prevailing discussion of absent Black fathers, and adds some really important depth to the discussion.

Professor Maldonado notes that many of the Black fathers who don't pay child support are less "deadbeat" than "deadbroke." A massive portion of child support arrears come from fathers making less than $10,000/year. While this doesn't obviate the harm, it does perhaps signal that many of these "absent" fathers don't pay child support because they can't, not because they're actively trying to avoid a role in their child's life.

This becomes more clear in the second part of Maldonado's post, which requires a long excerpt because it's really good:
Further, although the majority of poor, nonresident Black fathers do not make formal child support payments, many are quite involved in their children's lives and make in-kind and nonfinancial contributions to their children. For example, they buy diapers, baby formula, groceries, toys, and baby furniture. One may wonder why these fathers do not simply pay child support instead, however minimal. There are a number of reasons. The items a father brings to his children are tangible evidence of his efforts to provide for them despite his dire circumstances. As such, the items have greater significance, visibility, and durability than cash payments which often disappear almost immediately as bills are paid or, in the case of children receiving public assistance, are used to reimburse the government for benefits it has provided the children.

Deadbroke Black fathers also make nonfinancial contributions--they often take care of their children in ways traditionally associated with motherhood. Because these men are often unemployed (or underemployed), they are available to take their children to school, to the doctor, and to watch them while their mothers work or run errands. Many researchers, myself included, have been surprised to learn that many "absent" Black fathers see their children not only on weekends, as divorced middle-class fathers often do, but often see them almost daily.

The law does not recognize these contributions. They do not count under our current definition of child support. Maybe they should. American society is alarmed at the high percentage of absent fathers—those who have little or no contact with their children. Studies suggest that children with absent fathers are more likely than children with involved fathers to perform poorly in school, to have low self-esteem, to become pregnant at an early age, to abuse drugs, and to engage in delinquent behavior. These children also feel rejected and often blame themselves for their fathers' disappearance. Although, as Professor Dorothy Roberts has noted, policymakers have treated paternal absence "as a distinctly Black problem," recent studies have found that poor, nonresident Black fathers are more involved with their children than are nonresident white or Latino fathers. Many men with child support arrears, however, are compelled to hide from their children because they fear detection by child support enforcement officials and possible incarceration. If society wants to encourage more Black men to remain a part of their children's lives, we must address an unintended effect of aggressive child support enforcement policies—they drive poor fathers away from their children.

Notably, many Black mothers seem to recognize the nonmonetary contributions that poor Black fathers make. They often do not pursue poor Black fathers for child support and focus instead on securing fathers' presence and involvement with their children. Some Black mothers fear that pursuing deadbroke fathers for payments that they cannot make will discourage them from seeing their children and from contributing at all. As one Black mother stated: "I don't care about the child support. Just see the child."

The question is, how should this non-financial (or non-traditional) support be harnassed. Obviously, it's really important, and if we are to take seriously the claim that absent fathers is a real problem for young Black children, then we need to remove obstacles towards parents seeing their kids (while obviously not swinging too far in relieving them of their support obligations). This is difficult, but a good first step would be recognizing the actual dynamic between "absent" Black fathers and their children and writing policy accordingly. I suspect that, as in so many matters of race, the current plans are dictated less by the reality and more by the stereotypes.

Still Waiting

While I shed no tears over Saddam Hussein's impending execution, there still remains that other terrorist-guy (you know--the one who attacked us on 9/11) that we have neither found dead or alive. CNN correspondent Ed Henry decided to inquire on the subject, and here was the answer he got from a Bush administration flack:
HENRY: You know, going back to September 2001, the president said, dead or alive, we're going to get him. Still don't have him. I know you are saying there's successes on the war on terror, and there have been. That's a failure.

TOWNSEND: Well, I'm not sure -- it's a success that hasn't occurred yet. I don't know that I view that as a failure.

As Steve Benen (subbing in at The Washington Monthly) puts it:
A "success that hasn't occurred yet"? By that logic, practically nothing could ever be characterized as failure. Indeed, I'm not sure why the Bush gang hasn't thought of this sooner.

"Budget deficits are just surpluses that haven't occurred yet."

"Global warming is just global cooling that hasn't occurred yet."

"Stagnant wages are just raises that haven't occurred yet."

"The civil war in Iraq is just peace that hasn't occurred yet."

And the Bush administration is just an Obama administration that hasn't occurred yet.

Back Home (Amazingly)

So I ended up making it home last night. Early, in fact. But don't let that fool you: It was absolutely wild getting back here. Let my sketch it out for you.

Originally, our travel schedule looked like this:

12/29: Aspen --> Denver --> Baltimore

By the end, our travel route actually went like this:

12/28: Vail (Eagle County) --> Denver --> Washington (Dulles)

Along the way, we were booked and/or on standby for no less than 6 flights involving 5 airports.

But, with some skill and a fair bit of luck (we made standby on both legs of our route, including one flight which we got on the list 15 minutes prior to departure), we ended up getting home several hours earlier than anyone had hoped.

Oh, and the skiing went well, thanks.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

I Don't Care If I Ever Get Back!

Well, no. That's a lie. I do care. But I may not have a choice. Aspen and Denver are bracing for some major storms, and I have no idea if I'll be able to make it home.

In theory, though, tomorrow is the travel day (we're leaving a day early to try to beat the storm). So I may not be posting until Friday.

If You Don't Have Anything Nice To Say...

I'm going to try something here at The Debate Link. I'm a Democrat. And I will almost certainly be voting Democrat come 2008. But in this space, I am going to make a serious effort to say something nice about all the major Republican contenders for the Presidential nomination (assuming I know more than a cursory amount about them). I also challenge other bloggers--conservative and liberal--to do the same for their political opponents on the 2008 ledger. We'll say the big name conservatives are McCain, Giuliani, Romney, Brownback, and Hagel. And the big name liberals are Gore, Clinton, Edwards, Obama, and Clark (obviously, personal biases infect this list, so feel free to add or subtract based on your own knowledge). Compliments have to be serious--no backhanders ("he's not as psycho as Pat Robertson!").

***

John McCain: I do believe that, once in office, he'll be the principled character that ran in 2000 (and was floated as a Kerry running mate in 2004). He's expressed willingness to take on the base, and I believe that as President he will act because he thinks what he's doing is right, not because he thinks it will be to a political advantage.

Rudy Giuliani: Obviously, his 9/11 leadership was important. I also think he is a geniune social liberal, and will reverse the GOP's propensity towards anti-gay demonization (among other issues) as President.

Mitt Romney: The stances he's taken on gay rights while running in Massachusetts are textbook what I want to see out of Republican. Hopefully, that will translate to similar moderation once he's through the GOP primary.

Chuck Hagel: He's one of the few Republicans I still think has credible foreign policy instincts, which is important and something I respect. He was one of the earliest GOP Senators to really step out of the Bush administration line on Iraq.

Sam Brownback: No brainer. Sam's work on human rights issues and genocide has been nothing short of spectacular.

Any conservative (or fellow liberal) blogs going to take me up on this offer?

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Settlement Issue

The New York Times reports that Israel plans to build a new settlement in the West Bank, the first new one approved in a decade. To be fair, Israel claims that the settlement was approved decades ago, but had been used as an army training base previously and was only now being converted. The settlement would contain about 30 houses, but possibly would expand somewhat via "natural growth."

Two thoughts:

First, buried deep in the story is the news that two Israeli teenagers were seriously wounded in a Palestinian rocket strike on Sderot, a town in Israel proper near the Gaza border. This highlights one of the reasons pro-Israel writers get really frustrated by coverage of the conflict. There are very few ethical frameworks in which the deliberate--and successful--attempt to harm two innocent teenagers via rocket attack is of less moral concern than is the building of a few dozen houses in the desert. This doesn't require us to discount the manner in which settlements pose an obstacle to peace. Even if we take the expressed Palestinian position that these settlements constitute "theft," robbery is less serious a crime than attempted murder. The rocket strike was not only a deliberate attempt to kill or maim innocent civilians, but it was done with the express motivation of sabotaging the peace process. It deserves more than three paragraphs of coverage. And when it is buried like it is here, and makes Jews around the world--myself included--feel like anti-Semitic violence (I completely and utterly reject that deliberate violence targeted at Israeli civilians is anything but anti-Semitic) is something the world simply does not care about.

Second, on the decision itself. On face, it is a spectacularly stupid and wrongheaded move. However, there may be some method to the madness.
One Israeli official hinted that the new settlement might be part of a deal with Jewish settlers to get their tacit acceptance of the removal of illegal settlement outposts from the West Bank.

I'm not sure what to do with this data point. If this is true, and if it plays out exactly as planned, then it might be worthwhile. But those are two big "ifs" (and the "might" is fuzzy too). I'm not convinced that such a trade will be made. And if it isn't, then the decision loses any and all justification and becomes something that everyone--pro-Israel commentators included--ought to condemn.

Update: Marty Peretz claims that the Jordan Valley (where this settlement is being built) has few to no Arab residents outside Jericho. I have no idea if that's true--I have heard it is sparsely populated. He also argues (plausibly, to my ear) that Jordan privately demands that Israel remain in control of its border with the West Bank, lest the new Palestine destablize the kingdom (which is ruled by a minority family but is majority Palestinian).

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Somalia Status

The UN is calling for a halt to combat in Somalia.

That's the UN's job, and I don't begrudge them for it.

But I have to wonder (and I feel like a jerk for asking): Is this a case where we might want to Just Give War a Chance?

Stemming from Edward Luttwak's 1999 Foreign Affairs article, the "give war a chance" argument is one of those claims you feel like a really terrible person making, but probably has some substance behind it. Fundamentally, the piece argues that prematurely stopping conflicts (through cease-fires and the like) artificially "freezes" combatants at a point where both sides feel like there is something left "on the table." So both sides use the time out to re-arm and re-group, and then start fighting afresh, creating an endless cycle of violence-ceasefire-violence. Luttwak argues that we should instead let conflicts burn themselves out naturally. This, he argues, creates stability by removing the incentive for further conflict, because both sides will have come to the conclusion that they have gotten all the can via armed fighting.

Somalia hasn't had a unified government since 1991 and has been locked in a low-grade anarchic civil war ever since. Stopping the conflict now likely will prevent any side from gaining a clear victory (Ethiopia's support for the provisional government has been crucial, but given enough time Eritrea will probably jump in to support the Islamist fighters). This is a rare opportunity for one side to score a major victory, possibly paving the way for permanent stabilization.

The problem, of course, is that this is highly speculative, and the collateral we'd place on that bet is a rather nasty war in a country that has endured far too much of it already.

So I don't know. But I thought it was worth throwing out there.

UPDATE: More on the situation from FPWatch and Security Dilemmas.

Pro Flip

I am not a John Kerry booster. Sure, I voted for him in 2004--and I won't say it was only because the alternative was so unappealing (though he was). But I don't think he is anything more than an average politician, and I would be quite happy if he stayed pat and put in his Senate position and let his higher ambitions wither away.

That being said: this is a great editorial. I believe it was Bill Maher who asked when changing one's mind in response to new evidence became a bad thing, and Kerry does a stellar job ramming home the point.
There's something much worse than being accused of "flip-flopping": refusing to flip when it's obvious that your course of action is a flop.

I say this to President Bush as someone who learned the hard way how embracing the world's complexity can be twisted into a crude political shorthand. Barbed words can make for great politics. But with U.S. troops in Iraq in the middle of an escalating civil war, this is no time for politics. Refusing to change course for fear of the political fallout is not only dangerous -- it is immoral.

I'd rather explain a change of position any day than look a parent in the eye and tell them that their son or daughter had to die so that a broken policy could live.

Actually, as it progresses, the editorial gets less compelling and more preachy (classic Kerry). But even still, it makes a really important point. "Consistency," as a wise man said "is the hobgoblin of small minds." President Bush is so afraid of being wrong that he refuses to be right: he persistently refused to put us on the right course on Iraq, and now I fear there is no right course. By itself, this is merely an example of poor leadership. But the real sin is how this vice was, through clever ads and cheap soundbites, turned into a virtue--a model to which all politicians were supposed to aspire. John Kerry lost because he was effectively "tarred" as a leader who would not stay the course. Today, of course, that translates to being tarred for being a leader who may have still given us a chance at victory.

Ezra Klein with the link.

You Go gURL!

Every once in awhile (okay, compulsively), I check my sitemeter hit stats. It tells me how many people are visiting my site, but also where they are coming from. Most of the time it's Google or The Moderate Voice, but checking the list is usually the fastest way I find out if I've picked up a link from another blog.

Every once in a while, though, the link comes from a message board or forum. Curiousity gets the best of me, and I follow the link. The kink comes when the board requires registration. Most of the time, I'll do it, which means I am member of some very weird forums.

Which is to explain why, as of tonight, I am a brand new member of gURL, "a leading online community and content site for teenage girls." Kind of awkward. But that's what it takes to see what the populace is writing about me.

Cooperation Makes It Happen!

I'm finishing off "The Evolution of Cooperation" by Robert Axelrod while I'm in Aspen. It's somewhat of a miracle that I'm even reading the book. My friend (and former guest-blogger) Greg Ihrie lent it to me a few weeks ago, but I never got around to reading more than a few pages. I was planning on giving it back, with apologies, before I left for Aspen, but I got back from dinner late the night before and we just agreed I'd give it to him when I returned from skiing. So, on a lark I brought it with me. And wouldn't you know it, but it's quite good!

Axelrod discusses how cooperation can develop via the lens of game theory--specifically, the prisoner's dilemma. For those of you who don't know, I'll try to explain the dilemma briefly. For the rest of you who know about game theory, skip to the stars.

The prisoner's dilemma modeled off the following scenario:
Two criminals are arrested for a crime they committed together and put in separate rooms, where they cannot communicate. Both prisoners are told that if neither squeals (i.e., they both cooperate with each other), then they'll only be able to be convicted of a minor crime and each will get a small sentence. If, however, one prisoner rats out the other (i.e., one defects), and the other stays silent (cooperates), then the rat will be released immediately, while the sucker gets hit with a harsh jail time. If both rat each other out (both defect), then both will be sentenced to moderately long (longer then the minor charge, but shorter than the sucker's sentence) terms in jail.

Put in simpler terms, the prisoner's dilemma occurs when the T > C > D > S, where T = temptation (you defect when your partner cooperates), C = cooperation (both parties cooperate), D = defection (both parties defect), and S = sucker (you cooperate and your partner defects). Often times, it is expressed in terms of points. In a "T" scenario, you (the defecter) get 5 points while your partner (the sucker) gets 0 (5,0), while in an "S" scenario it is inverted (0,5). If both parties cooperate, both get 3 points (3,3), while if both defect, they each get one point (1,1).

The prisoner's dilemma is used in many fields (prominently in International Relations) to demonstrate why sub-optimal outcomes can occur even among rational actors. Specifically, if the prisoner's dilemma "game" is played only once, rational actors will always choose to defect (thus getting one point each), even though an optimal outcome of mutual cooperation would give them both three. Some people say it is for fear of becoming the sucker (getting zero points, or the harsh prison term), but that's only part of the story. In reality, the reason both parties will defect is because it is always the better option. If you think your partner will defect, then you also should defect because it gives you one point instead of zero. If you think your partner will cooperate, you should still defect because it gives you five points instead of three. This shows why cooperation--even when it is mutually beneficial--can be very difficult to bring into being.

However, this logic only occurs if the game is played one time. If the game is played repeatedly (is iterated) over an indefinite period, then it is possible for cooperation to develop, because one can build trust and thus convince partners to go for the mutually beneficial arrangement (which yields more benefits over the long run), then be stuck in a mutually suboptimal cycle of defections.

***

A prisoner's dilemma "tournament" was devised by which different players would submit strategies and compete against another "player" using their own strategy, the goal being to get the most points possible. So, for example, a player could submit "defect every time", where they would always choose defect. Each strategy faced all the others (plus "random") in a round-robin format.

The winner was called "tit-for-tat." It would always cooperate first, and then thereafter would do whatever move its partner did in the previous cycle. So if the partner defected, it would defect the next term, and if the partner cooperated, it would cooperate the next term. This is an example of what Axelrod called a "nice" strategy, in that it would never be the first to defect--it would only defect in response to the partner defecting previously.

It turns out that "nice" strategies have some interesting qualities (finally, the meat of the post). The first is that the benefits of being nice were pervasively under-estimated--it turned out that the vast majority of top-performing strategies were "nice," far over the proportion of "nice" submitted strategies. Similarly, the bottom of the pack was almost entirely made up of "mean" strategies. This is very counter-intuitive--in a world with a strong assortment of "meanies", not only can "nice" guys survive, but they can thrive.

Axelrod posits that cooperation can occur when players meet each other frequently and the benefit of preserving a future relationship outweigh the benefits of the short-term gain from defecting. So, for example, I'm far more likely to cheat a businessperson I know I'll never see again, than one who I have to work with day in and day out. Axelrod also establishes that such cooperation can develop without conscious thought (as in non-human symbiotic relations where one party could prey on the other), and even between supposed enemies.

This has interesting political implications. First, it implies that the world does not have to be dog-eat-dog. If people see each other and interact frequently, then cooperation becomes the optimal strategy. Specifically, it is an excellent argument for diversity (economic, racial, and otherwise). The short-term benefits of "selling out" another person are only worthwhile if one has no interest in maintaining a positive relationship with them. So, for example, a person who knows no homosexuals pays very little price in supporting their demonization. But if that person is their neighbor or grocer or banker or brother, the costs of defection become significantly higher. Hence, if we want to increase social cooperation between erstwhile feuding groups, it is quite possible--if we are willing to put resources into integrating the communities. The reverse, of course, is also true: if we want to maintain a conflict scenario, it is vitally important that we segregate the parties so they do not often encounter each other and are unlikely to "play the game" with the same person on multiple occasions.

What it also tells us is to not despair at the prospect for cooperation even among long-feuding foes. Given the right conditions (conditions which are very possible), cooperation becomes the most stable and most rational course of action for all parties. Of course, there are responses to this analysis (in IR, for example, realists would argue that short-term gains always outweigh long-term ones because a country that is exploited [played for the sucker] in the short-term might not survive to see the long term). But by and large, it is important to remember both that cooperation is quite feasible, and that humans tend to be empirically far too pessimistic about its possibilities for success.

Aspen Report

So today was my first ski day in Aspen (Snowmass, specifically) this year. Unfortunately, my leg was far worse than I thought, and I had to go in early. It's quite frustrating, because while I still can ski, I'm skiing significantly worse than I have at any point in the past four years or so (because I'm loathe to put pressure on my left knee), so runs I loved before now are chores.

Nevertheless, Aspen is a pretty neat place. I'm fortunate enough to have cousins with a ski-in/ski-out condo on Snowmass Mountain, which is wonderful. We also know a fair amount of people who ski here, so there's usually someone to bum around with (although many are significantly better than I am). And of course, the conditions are spectacular. In most years, I can handle about half the double blacks on the mountain (Hanging Valley Glades is my favorite). I went on one double-black (Powderhorn) today. I got down it fine, but much slower than normal for me and with a lot more effort.

The other issue with Aspen is that it feels like (and is) a playground for the hyper-rich. Now, we're reasonably well off ourselves, but a) I really prefer mixed-income arenas (like college) and b) the folks who go to Aspen are, by and large, a few steps above us as well. With people casually talking about private jets and how James Brown sung at their birthday (not to mention some of the houses!), I definitely sometimes feel a little bit out of my league.

On the other hand, I won $40 in poker tonight. So all is well.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Kos and I

Often times, after writing a post describing some instance of right-wing lunacy, I get a comment offering up Daily Kos as a counterexample. I figure now is as good a time as any to tell where I stand on that titan of the left-wing blogosphere.

I resisted putting Kos on my blogroll for quite some time. I didn't want to be associated with "that wing" of the blogosphere--partisan, shrill, and utterly predictable. But even when it wasn't on my blogroll, I still read it fairly frequently--just to keep my finger on the pulse, I said. However, I only read the front pages (never the diarists), so whatever lurks in that morass is pretty much a mystery to me.

In my mind, there are three different types of Kos posts. The first are posts on issues of policy. In terms of equivalent craziness, this is the analogue to the "women shouldn't be allowed to vote" column I just blogged about. But I don't think they write those very often (Iraq, mostly), and I rarely read them when they do. I don't recall any policy post ever reaching the lunacy of women not voting, though.

Indeed, the kind of "go to post" for Kos extremism was his "screw 'em" post after some American mercenaries were lit on fire in Iraq. That, of course, was a hideous sentiment, and I condemn it utterly. That being said, it isn't a policy position (which doesn't make it better, or worse, but different). Also, not to excuse what he said, but Markos was a refugee from El Salvador--a country literal torn apart by a merc-fueled civil war. If I recall correctly, Kos apologized for his post and explained that something in the story had triggered his reflexive animosity towards mercenaries--an animosity I can entirely understand.

But I digress. The next category is posts on political strategy. These, I think, are hit or miss--and I read them as hits or misses. I don't think Kos stands out as either particular savvy or poor in providing strategic political advice for the Democratic Party. It probably wouldn't be enough to read the blog by itself though.

The third category, however, is where Kos really shines. This is on political coverage. It most certainly is not non-partisan. However, in terms of always having the latest polls and data on the horse races, as well as alerting me to races that are not getting media attention but deserve to have an eye kept on them (many of those this year), Kos does a truly magnificent job. It is that service that kept me returning to the site, and that service that eventually compelled to put it on the blogroll.

So, to conclude. There is plenty about Kos I don't like. They are certainly too partisan for my tastes, and they have a tendancy to hold grudges and cheer the literary deaths of even people who could be their friends (i.e., TNR), which I find very distasteful. But they are an unmatched resource for keeping up with the latest polls and inside campaign information. And I've yet to read anything that would be the left-wing equivalent of saying that women shouldn't vote, or that soy makes you gay.