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June 29, 2010
The folly of letting the international investor community make public policy
Posted by Teresa at 04:00 PM *

First, read the Paul Krugman column Patrick sidelighted as “The intellectual phoniness of ‘hard-headed’ ‘fiscal realism.’

Onward to today’s story in the NYTimes: In Ireland, a Picture of the High Cost of Austerity:

DUBLIN — As Europe’s major economies focus on belt-tightening, they are following the path of Ireland. But the once thriving nation is struggling, with no sign of a rapid turnaround in sight.

Nearly two years ago, an economic collapse forced Ireland to cut public spending and raise taxes, the type of austerity measures that financial markets are now pressing on most advanced industrial nations.

“When our public finance situation blew wide open, the dominant consideration was ensuring that there was international investor confidence in Ireland so we could continue to borrow,” said Alan Barrett, chief economist at the Economic and Social Research Institute of Ireland. “A lot of the argument was, ‘Let’s get this over with quickly.’ ”

Rather than being rewarded for its actions, though, Ireland is being penalized. Its downturn has certainly been sharper than if the government had spent more to keep people working. Lacking stimulus money, the Irish economy shrank 7.1 percent last year and remains in recession.

Joblessness in this country of 4.5 million is above 13 percent, and the ranks of the long-term unemployed—those out of work for a year or more—have more than doubled, to 5.3 percent.

Now, the Irish are being warned of more pain to come.

“The facts are that there is no easy way to cut deficits,” Prime Minister Brian Cowen said in an interview. “Those who claim there’s an easier way or a soft option—that’s not the real world.”

Malarkey. In the real real world, the one based on facts, deficit-driven austerity budgets are not the only way to deal with economic downturn, and there’s solid evidence that they do more damage than good.
Despite its strenuous efforts, Ireland has been thrust into the same ignominious category as Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain. It now pays a hefty three percentage points more than Germany on its benchmark bonds, in part because investors fear that the austerity program, by retarding growth and so far failing to reduce borrowing, will make it harder for Dublin to pay its bills rather than easier.

Other European nations, including Britain and Germany, are following Ireland’s lead, arguing that the only way to restore growth is to convince investors and their own people that government borrowing will shrink.

The Group of 20 leaders set that in writing this weekend, vowing to make deficit reduction the top priority despite warnings from President Obama that too much austerity could choke a global recovery and warnings from a few economists about the possibility of a much sharper 1930s style downturn. …

At bottom, this isn’t terribly complicated. In a capitalistic system, your neighbor’s prosperity becomes your own, and their downturns and recessions likewise become yours, because we all sell goods and services to each other. The point of economic stimulus programs is to get prosperity started again. If you can do that, it’ll generate vastly more real wealth than you spent on the stimulus program.
Politicians [in Ireland] have raised taxes and cut salaries for nurses, professors and other public workers by up to 20 percent. About 30 billion euros ($37 billion) is being poured into zombie banks like Anglo Irish, which was nationalized after lavishing loans on developers.

The budget went from surpluses in 2006 and 2007 to a staggering deficit of 14.3 percent of gross domestic product last year—worse than Greece. It continues to deteriorate. Drained of cash after an American-style housing boom went bust, Ireland has had to borrow billions; its once ultralow debt could rise to 77 percent of G.D.P. this year.

There’s money enough to bail out horrendously mismanaged banks—in effect paying a huge retroactive subsidy to the cynical and in some cases criminally negligent housing and mortgage industries that were the beneficiaries of the banks’ loans—but there’s not enough money to get your business’s customers working and earning again?

Don’t you believe it.

Note: If there’s anything I keep wishing the economic bloggers would explain in terms comprehensible to the general public, it’s that taxes are not the only way that government policies can cost them money.

F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre (presumed)
Posted by Teresa at 09:26 AM * 23 comments

It’s a sad story. From the NY Daily News:

A Brooklyn man suffering from depression killed himself by setting fire to his apartment Friday, police sources said.

The 59-year-old victim had been telling his Bensonhurst neighbors he no longer wanted to live. On Thursday, he was taken to Coney Island Hospital after police learned he had e-mailed someone close to him a goodbye letter, sources said.

It was not immediately clear why he was released from the hospital. The next morning, fire officials said, the man set two fires inside his cluttered 70th St. apartment and was found dead.

I gather the “presumed” isn’t because they’re not sure he’s dead, but rather because they’re still figuring out who he really was. As Andy Porter wrote in File 770:
The body, burned beyond recognition, was discovered in the author’s apartment in the Coney Island area of Brooklyn on Friday, June 25th. The Medical Examiner told me that they hoped to find some record of dental or other medical work, and failing that, would likely contact British authorities. If you can provide any useful information, contact the office of the NYC Office of Chief Medical Examiner.

Google searches reveal McIntyre—there are questions whether that is his real name—to be highly secretive about his real identity.

I wouldn’t know about his alleged secretiveness, but I can speak to his lack of day-to-day social ties. Right after 9/11, every NYC group and community was constantly, informally checking to see whether anyone was missing. In the New York-area SF community, MacIntyre was the last person I know of who was confirmed to be okay, and the confirmation came a month or two after the attacks.

He was an odd bird but a decent writer, and I’m truly sorry he died as he did.

June 24, 2010
WRONG WRONG WRONGITY WRONG
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 02:42 PM * 208 comments

Those of our readers who are not living under a rock or in the US* may be aware that the World (Football†) Cup is currently gripping much of the planet. It’s certainly a matter of great interest here in the Netherlands, where the country is drenched in orange. Entire rows of houses have clubbed together to present a unified front. Banners flutter above the streets, strung from eaves to lampposts.

After a rather pathetic showing on the day of the first Dutch game, a couple of my colleagues seem to have got into the swing of things in their personal appearance as well. I was chatting to one of them in the kitchen, admiring his well-matched combination of an orange T-shirt and orange button-down shirt. “So where are you going to watch the match?” I asked.

“In an Irish pub in Utrecht,” he replied. (Note, in the pictures on the site, that he won’t be alone in that.)

I don’t even recall doing it, but suddenly I found that my hands were on my head and my eyes were wide. “You’re. Wearing. Orange. To. An. Irish. Pub.”

“Yeah,” he replied, entirely confused by the fact that I was convulsively running my fingers through my hair.

Now, in my conscious mind I knew it was just an Irish theme pub. But my maiden name is Foley, and I was raised among the Irish-Americans‡. It has taken me three years to understand that orange can be a “good” color.

And something inside me is still screaming.


* I’m kidding! I know there are at least three Americans following the US team as it moves into the last sixteen; they were flooding my Twitter stream during the last nail-biting match.
† You can call it soccer if you want.
‡ For clarity: we were West Coast Irish-Americans who never even considered getting involved in the politics of a country our ancestors had left, on any deeper level than choice of color to wear on March 17.

June 17, 2010
Open thread 142
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 04:12 PM *

I see that the law that instituted my alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley, was signed on March 23, 1868. That makes the school 142 years old, and thus tenuously relevant to this thread.

Despite the temptation to burst into one song or another*, I really have very little standing to talk about Berkeley as an institution. For me, it was partly important as the stage on which my adolescent dramas could be played out; I wonder, sometimes, how I managed to learn anything between the storms of emotion and the wasted hours. (And yet I did, and use it even now.)

But that’s how the history of these things is made, I guess. I’ve studied, in one way or another, at four universities with a combined age of 1213 years. I once worked in a company older than the issuer of the passport I held at the time. I’m currently a citizen of two countries with centuries of history between them, and a member of an institution that counts in millennia.

And what strikes me most about all these years I’m looking back on is how much of them was spent doing something else than adding to the vast sweep of history and legacy†. In many ways, the thing that lasts is like a nautilus shell: it’s lovely, but it’s not what the nautilus thought was really important at the time.


* Note in how few accents this song works, since it requires “carry”, “Harry” and “ferry” to rhyme. Note, as well, what a mishmash of lyrical and musical styles it is. I often wonder how many songs died, were buried, then dug up, and sewn together to make it in advance of whatever musical thunderstorm animates college ditties.

† It particularly strikes me how much time seems to have been spent screwing up said legacies.

(breadcrumb trail back to Open thread 141)

June 15, 2010
“Both unjustified and unjustifiable”
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 02:03 PM * 141 comments

I am not naturally a fan of the current British prime minister. But I admire him today.

You see, Lord Saville’s report1 on Bloody Sunday was issued today. I’ve only read the news stories and skimmed the principal conclusions section of the document itself.

(That, by the way, is detailed and extensive, delving into the geography and history of the area, the events leading up to and following the shootings, and a close scrutiny of the day itself. The individual soldiers—whose names have not been released; they are referred to by code—are each dealt with, and their actions and probabilities of guilt described with due consideration.)

And the conclusions are damning.

The firing by soldiers of 1 PARA on Bloody Sunday caused the deaths of 13 people and injury to a similar number, none of whom was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury. What happened on Bloody Sunday strengthened the Provisional IRA, increased nationalist resentment and hostility towards the Army and exacerbated the violent conflict of the years that followed. Bloody Sunday was a tragedy for the bereaved and the wounded, and a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland.

This is in marked contrast to the first report on the day, the Widgery Report. That was issued 11 weeks after the deaths, and has long been held to be a whitewash. It blamed the organizers of the march2, insinuated things about the victims in direct contradiction of the evidence3, and asserted that “There is no reason to suppose that the soldiers would have opened fire if they had not been fired upon first.”

Lord Saville’s investigation was first mooted in 1998, in response to the provision of additional evidence by the government of the Republic of Ireland. It’s widely held that the British government’s willingness to reexamine the events of January 30, 1972 was a key ingredient in bringing about the subsequent Good Friday Agreement (pdf). But it didn’t turn out to be a cheap thing, or a quick one. It took a decade and cost the thick end of £200 million. Cameron himself was not a fan of it due to the expense.

And yet he stood up in the Commons and gave a statement the like of which I never expect to hear from a US President about, say, Abu Ghraib.

What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.

Gosh.

…these are shocking conclusions to read and shocking words to have to say. But Mr Speaker, you do not defend the British Army by defending the indefensible.

We do not honour all those who have served with such distinction in keeping the peace and upholding the rule of law in Northern Ireland by hiding from the truth.

Wow.

Some members of our armed forces acted wrongly. The government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces and for that, on behalf of the government, indeed, on behalf of our country, I am deeply sorry.

Dude.

The inevitable arguments have already started. What about prosecutions? asks one side. What about the things the British Army did well in Northern Ireland, and the casualties they suffered? asks the other. It’s still the messy, bitter, grievous situation it’s always been, though with much less lead flying than used to be the case.

Nonetheless, the world has more truthful words in it, and more courageous ones, than it did yesterday. And that’s a good thing.


  1. That link there goes to a page that allows you to download or search the full 5,000 page report, or read the principal conclusions online.
  2. Point one of the Widgery Report: “There would have been no deaths in Londonderry on 30 January if those who organised the illegal march had not thereby created a highly dangerous situation in which a clash between demonstrators and the security forces was almost inevitable.”
    Contrast that with this from Saville: “4.33 In our view the organisers of the civil rights march bear no responsibility for the deaths and injuries on Bloody Sunday. Although those who organised the march must have realised that there was probably going to be trouble from rioters, they had no reason to believe and did not believe that this was likely to result in death or injury from unjustified firing by soldiers.”
  3. Widgery point 10: “None of the deceased or wounded is proved to have been shot whilst handling a firearm or bomb. Some are wholly acquitted of complicity in such action; but there is a strong suspicion that some others had been firing weapons or handling bombs in the course of the afternoon and that yet others had been closely supporting them.”

June 10, 2010
Safari 5
Posted by Avram Grumer at 09:41 PM * 38 comments

Everyone’s heard about Apple’s release of the iPhone G4 on Monday, but less attention was paid to the release of Safari 5. The biggest deal with that is Safari’s new extensions architecture. Apple’s planning to host a gallery of vetted extensions this summer, but until then, if you want to live dangerously, you can check out what people have cooked up at the Safari Extensions Tumblr blog.

June 05, 2010
A Waltz Played in 4/4 Time
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 07:18 PM *

I’ve been hoping for some time that FiveThirtyEight.com would have a look at Wednesday’s Dutch elections. Although I really enjoy reading Peter Paul Koch’s analyses over at Quirksmode, I wondered what the the internet’s go-to guys on poll interpretation would do with the numbers. There’s so much to discuss, both in terms of content and methodology (particularly since the Netherlands has no electoral districts).

Well, 538 tackled the story today. Unfortunately, it covered almost none of the ground I was hoping for. Indeed, the article by Dan Berman starts to go wrong in the title: Is a Stable Government in the Netherlands Coming? There are several reasons that made me wince.

  1. It makes the Netherlands sound like it’s in the same kind of trouble as, say, Thailand. A country with an “unstable government” is one where the people are taking to the streets, where the army is considering taking over, where the Bastille is on the verge of being stormed. It is not the peaceful, stable place I live in, where a long-serving Prime Minster has, probably for the last time in his career, failed to keep his coalition together for the maximum time between elections.

    The headline is particularly annoying because it fits into a pervasive narrative that is only ostensibly about the Netherlands (and, indeed, Europe). Our “socialist” system is doomed, notwithstanding the global financial crisis. We’re on the verge of either mandating the hijab or crushing the Muslim community (I think it’s the latter, this week). Our decision to tolerate and monitor soft drugs and prostitution rather than push them underground makes Amsterdam a “cesspool of corruption and crime”. And now our government is unstable, probably because of all of the above factors. Alas that we are not like America, which has no problems with its economy, its treatment of immigrants, drugs, sex, or politics!

    I rant. I know this. But I also know that plenty of people will read the headline and connect it to the narrative I’ve sketched above. None of that farrago reflects the reality of Dutch life; it’s all about affirming a particular view of American culture. And the provocative headline fits in very nicely, however much the body of the article is actually relevant to the situation at hand.

    The kindest thing I can say about it is that it was written with a tin ear.

  2. It’s factually wrong, even in the limited sense that Berman means it. He sees the fall of Balkenende’s fourth administration as a bad thing for the Netherlands as well as for the Prime Minister.

    In reality, it just means that the country wants to choose a new direction, a new set of solutions to its current challenges. The mechanism for doing so in the Netherlands is different than in the US. One aspect of that difference is that one doesn’t have to wait for a year divisible by four to throw the bastards out. That’s not in- or unstability. It’s the approved process.

  3. The question expects a “yes” answer, but frankly, it’s not likely.

    The three-party coalitions (scroll down) that are even possible if the polls are correct are not very solid. Apart from the forbidden coalition (for historical reasons, the three central parties may not form a government), the choices require the right wing (VVD) to find common ground with the left (PvdA/Labour, and possibly the Socialists as well), or else to rely on Wilders and the PVV. Even the best of these options includes some deep divisions between participating parties. I wouldn’t put money on any of them lasting to full term. And a four-party coalition is even less stable.

    The smart money here says that the next government will be slow to form and quick to run into trouble.

The article itself isn’t bad in the assembly of facts it lays out, though its few links bias toward non-Dutch and non-expert sources such as the Guardian and Wikipedia. (There are specific factual niggles: it’s not clear from the text that Fortuyn was assassinated before an election. Balkenende’s portrayed as switching coalition partners “at will”, but there was an election between his second and third administrations, which means that it wasn’t his will that formed Balkenende III.) But it reminds me of a waltz played in 4/4 time: the notes are right, but they don’t mean what they should.

The place this really becomes a problem is in the conclusion and prediction of what will happen next. It very much oversimplifies the mechanics of forming a coalition. There’s no acknowledgement that incompatible platforms (or a simple refusal to work with each other) can doom a mathematically possible coalition. Nor is there any mention of the existence of a forbidden coalition, or the requirement that the new government include at least one party that increased its seats in the election. The only divergence from the assumption that the simplest coalition to hit the winning number gets the prize is a mention that Wilders may be too unreliable to sit in government.

That’s a pity, because coalition-forming is a fascinating part of Dutch politics. The intricacies and complexities of the process for forming a government here would make a wonderful article on 538.com.

Instead, I refer you once again to PPK, who does have a complex and nuanced prediction of how the Netherlands will deal with forming a coalition if the election goes as the polls says it will.

June 03, 2010
Pasta with walnut arugula lemon pesto
Posted by Teresa at 09:29 PM * 146 comments

1/2 C. walnuts
1 pint fresh baby arugula, tightly packed
4 healthy garlic cloves
a lot of olive oil*
salt, black pepper, white pepper
1 large lemon
2 C. finely grated hard sharp cheese

Throw your walnuts dry into a frying pan and toast, stirring constantly, until they smell like toasted walnuts. Immediately remove the pan from the fire and the walnuts from the pan. As soon as they’re cool enough to handle, rub the walnuts lightly between your hands to remove as much of the skin as will yield without a fight.

If your food processor is as small as mine, you now reduce the walnuts to particles that look like fine sand, then set them aside until after you’ve pulverized the arugula. This isn’t the fastest way to make pesto, but it does allow you to write recipes that call for an unspecified amount of olive oil.

Set a pot of water on to boil, peel the garlic cloves, grate the zest off the lemon, juice the lemon, and grate the cheese. I used a mixture of cheeses that was about two-thirds fresh Parmesan, and one-third Le Maréchal, which Patrick bought this past weekend because our grocery was giving out yummy free samples.

Stuff the arugula into the food processor along with the lemon zest, the garlic, and enough olive oil to get everything to cooperate. Turn the processor to “smite hem in pecys” and let ‘er rip.

Pause. Add the salt, pepper, and pepper. Process a bit to get them mixed in, and add more if needed. Meanwhile, if the water is boiling, add the pasta. As it happens, I used fusilli col buco, but almost any pasta would do.

The arugula has now been radically reduced in volume, so repatriate the walnuts. Add more olive oil. Process, adding yet more olive oil if necessary to keep things moving. When the texture is already right for pesto, add the lemon juice anyway, because the cheese is going to soak up liquid.

If the pasta is cooked, take it off the fire and drain it. Add the cheese to the sauce. It’s quite a lot of cheese—more than pesto would normally use. If you aren’t cooking for Patrick, you can add less. Process just until mixed, then readjust the seasonings again if necessary. Toss the pasta with the sauce. Eat happily.

[Recipe Index]

June 01, 2010
Evidence and Exclusions
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 09:14 AM *

Something fundamental has changed in China’s legal system. Like most discussions of the law, my explanation starts with a story.

A man named Zhao Zuohai quarreled with his neighbor, who then disappeared. Eighteen months later, a decomposed and headless body was found. After an interrogation that seems to have involved beatings, firecrackers, and being forced to drink water spiced with chili, Zhao confessed to murder. He was convicted and sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted, but while he was in jail, his wife divorced him and several of his children were adopted.

And then, nearly a decade later, the neighbor turned up alive and well.

Mr. Zhao has been awarded compensation, and three policemen have been arrested, according to Xinhua. But this case, along with other recent events, appears to have struck a nerve in China. Five bodies of the Chinese justice system have just issued new rules to address the matter, and they’re getting some attention worldwide.

The BBC headline is typical of most Western reporting I’ve seen: China bans evidence from torture. It’s easy to leap from that to the conclusion that China has just banned torture. But, as the BBC article states, “Laws banning torture are already in place, but analysts say they are widely disregarded.” A close reading of the details shows that the change is less dramatic, but more revolutionary.

According to the China Daily (which follows Xinhua), two sets of regulations were issued on Sunday, May 30:

One rule is highly theoretical: it sets out an evidentiary standard for capital cases. It states the principle that “the facts must be determined according to evidence”, replacing the former requirement that convictions must be “based on facts and judged according to law”.

The other is more practical, dealing with what kind of evidence is admissible in criminal trials as a whole. As the China Daily article says, “facts and evidence must be indubitable and sufficient, and evidence in doubt or obtained illegally must be excluded.” Evidence obtained through torture (which is illegal) is inadmissible under that clause, as is anonymous evidence, testimony “made under violence or threat”, unqualified expert witness testimony, and unsubstantiated conjecture. Defendants can request an investigation into whether the evidence against them was properly obtained.

This second regulation defines what an American would call the exclusionary rule. The main role of the exclusionary rule in Western jurisprudence is to reduce the temptation of authorities to break the law and violate citizens’ rights in pursuit of evidence by making said evidence useless in court. I’d rate it as middling effective, on the whole, but even its worst incarnation is better than its absence.

Apparently, and rather astonishingly, there was no such thing in the Chinese legal system before Sunday. According Bian Jianlin, the law professor quoted in the China Daily article, “no previous law or regulation clearly stated that when evidence may have been acquired through forced confession it must be excluded”. Even with the NYT article as confirmation, I’m having trouble believing this; I’d almost be relieved to hear that I was wrong.

Mind you, there are plenty of loopholes left. Officials don’t always follow the stated laws (or the prohibition on torture would be enough). Also, I don’t see anything about fruit of the poisonous tree: evidence obtained using illegally obtained evidence. So one could still use inadmissible techniques to generate leads to admissible evidence. And statistics-driven policing is global, motivating and excusing the breaking and bending of rules.

But coming from societies where we’ve had the exclusionary rule long enough to take it for granted, where Jack Bauer and DCI Gene Hunt get a kind of sneaking respect for transgressing it, it’s refreshing to see one of the foundations of our legal systems reaffirmed, rediscovered, reestablished.


I am not a lawyer. I am not an expert on international relations. I am not an expert on China, Chinese law, or American jurisprudence. I know just enough to be dangerous. Fear me, but don’t rely on me.

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