2012 - %3, March

Chinese "Occupy" Obama's Google+ Page

| Thu Mar. 1, 2012 2:05 PM EST
President Barack Obama reaching out a hand to Chinese President Hu Jintao

A crack appeared recently in the Great Firewall of Chinawhere the government blocks Facebook and Twitter and censors search terms like "democracy", "human rights", and "dictatorship". Google noticed early last week that Chinese netizens started accessing its social network Google+ and almost immediately began inundating President Obama's page, Reuters reported yesterday. In what seemed like a mad scramble, commenters posted as early as 5:00 a.m. in China to be one of the 500 comments Google allows on each post. Google says it had not implemented any changes that would have allowed for access, which suggests that Chinese web users may have found a censorship loophole by surfing the internet on their cell phones rather than personal computers.

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Will We Invade Iran Someday?

| Thu Mar. 1, 2012 1:49 PM EST

It's never been clear to me that we could actually do a substantial amount of damage to Iran's nuclear program merely by engaging in a few days of bombing runs. Even eight years ago, the best guess among national security types seemed to be that it would take a couple of weeks of concentrated effort, and it must be harder by now. I guess we could still do it, but surely we're talking about a fairly long-term mission. Several weeks at best, maybe even months.

But even if I'm wrong about that, Robert Wright argues that the inevitable endgame for all this is a ground invasion anyway:

According to experts I've talked to, Iran would probably react to bombing not by burying its nuclear facilities deeper, but by dispersing them much more widely....So even if we were willing to make additional bombing runs on an annual basis ("mowing the lawn," as some call it), we could never be confident that Iran wasn't producing a nuclear weapon. The only path to such confidence would be to invade the country and seize the instruments of state.

Would we actually do that? Probably. In justifying the initial bombing, President Obama will have driven home how unacceptable an Iran with nuclear weapons is, thus establishing as a kind of doctrine that America will never let Iran acquire them....Doctrines can be abandoned, of course, but only at some political cost. And this one would be an especially unlikely orphan when you have a president who (being a Democrat) is insecure about his national security credentials and, on top of that, is insecure about his pro-Israel credentials. Of course, if Obama loses in November, then, one or two years down the road, it won't be the creator of this doctrine who is in the White House. But in the event of a Republican presidency, adherence to such a doctrine is pretty much assured anyway.

Maybe so — though this begs the question of how we'd launch a ground invasion. We've already pulled out of Iraq, and within a few years we'll be out of Afghanistan too. So where do we launch this ground invasion from? Marine landings via the Arabian Sea? That would be a helluva job even for the biggest navy in the world. It seems like there's a missing step or three here. How is this all supposed to play out in the end?

Andrew Breitbart, Force of Nature, Dead at 43

| Thu Mar. 1, 2012 1:24 PM EST

Conservative gadfly Andrew Breitbart died suddenly today of natural causes, age 43. Oddly enough, I actually have a memory of him. I happened to sit next to him once a few years ago on a panel set up by a friend who was teaching a journalism class, and as near as I could tell he was keeping up about four or five streams of independent thought at once. He had his laptop open, and was (a) watching a baseball game—really watching, it seemed, (b) reading the news, (c) updating his website, and (d) responding very cogently and intelligently to questions from the students. There may have been some emailing and messaging going on, too, but I'm not sure. Just following the panel discussion sucked up most of my attention.

Pretty remarkable. Obviously I didn't care much for his politics or his tactics, but I think he was one of those rare people who really could multitask productively without losing effectiveness at any of his individual tasks. Whatever else you can say about him, he was a force of nature.

Bread and Circuses in Modern Rome

| Thu Mar. 1, 2012 12:56 PM EST

Why did Olympia Snowe suddenly decide to quit the Senate? Jonathan Weisman provides this take:

Georgia Chomas, a cousin of the senator who described herself as more like a sister, said social conservatives and Tea Party activists in Maine were hounding her at home, while party leaders in Washington had her hemmed in and steered the legislative agenda away from the matters she cared about. 

“There was a constant, constant struggle to accommodate everyone, and a lot of pressure on her from the extreme right,” Ms. Chomas said from her real estate office in Auburn, Me. “And she just can’t go there.”

It's easy to say that this is suicidal behavior on the part of tea partiers. They've hounded out a senator who's more moderate than they'd like, but her replacement is highly likely to be a Democrat, which just makes things even worse from their point of view.

But it's not just tea partiers. The left base of the Democratic Party is up in arms over the reemergence of Bob Kerrey in Nebraska, and the story there is pretty much the same. Sure, he's infuriating, but if he doesn't run a Republican is almost sure to win the seat. No matter what kind of lefty politics you have, it's hard to see how that's an improvement.

Back in the day — by which I mean five or six years ago — you had guys like Karl Rove defending RINOs like Lincoln Chafee because he knew that Republicans were lucky to have anyone on their side from a blue state like Rhode Island. Further back, William F. Buckley famously urged conservatives to support "the most conservative candidate who is electable." Political pros still think this way, I assume, but they're being overwhelmed by the party bases. This cost Republicans pretty dearly in the 2010 Senate race, where they lost at least three winnable seats because they nominated unelectable crackpots.

I dunno. Maybe we've reached a point where we're all so bored and so fundamentally satisfied with things that we don't really care all that much about winning anymore. What we want out of politics is entertainment, and insisting on gladiator-like duels to the death, egged on by howling mobs, is pretty entertaining. It all beats me.

The Unintended Consequences of Oprah's Book Club

| Thu Mar. 1, 2012 12:07 PM EST

Via Tyler Cowen, the economics profession has finally answered one of today's most burning questions: did Oprah's book club really get Americans to read more? Answer: No. It got them to buy more books endorsed by Oprah, but fewer of everyone else's books. Craig Garthwaite of the Kellogg School explains:

In the 12 weeks following an endorsement, weekly adult fiction book sales decreased by a statistically significant 2.5 percent....All of the estimates show greater sales decreases, suggesting that a Club endorsement had a business stealing effect....Following an endorsement, the sales of classics rose by 3.5 percent []. In contrast, there were statistically significant decreases for mysteries and action/adventure novels. Romances also saw a sales decline....These estimates demonstrate that while the endorsements had no effect or even decreased overall sales, they caused a substantial shift in the types of books being purchased.

So what happened?

Club selections were longer and more difficult than the bestselling titles in the genres that were popular among consumers likely to respond to the endorsement. Assuming that longer and more difficult books will take more time to read, the difference in estimated grade level combined with the genre-level sales shifts help explain the pattern of aggregate sales declines in the main results....Taken together, these estimates suggest that the difficulty of the endorsed titles contributes to the aggregate sales decline.

Roger that. While millions of Oprah fans were pretending to slog their way through Faulkner and Tolstoy, they were too drained to read their usual light fare. So the beach reading genres suffered. And if my cynical view is correct, the net effect was to reduce the total amount of reading among America's households. We read less crap, but probably didn't make up for it by actually reading the doorstops endorsed by Oprah. Most of us probably plowed our way through a chapter or two, then slowed down to a page here and there, and finally gave up in exhaustion. But I admit that this is a dim view. Perhaps Garthwaite's next paper should tackle the question of whether people who bought Oprah's recommended books actually read them.

Batsheva Dance Company's Aggressive Art

| Thu Mar. 1, 2012 8:00 AM EST
Batsheva Dance Company

The Israeli contemporary dance company Batsheva has enthralled audiences internationally with its visceral choreography and raw style of movement. Its director, Ohad Naharin, is one of the most renowned choreographers today, his works regularly commissioned by the fanciest opera ballets in the world. 

But the company is facing a less-than-warm welcome in many of the stops on its current five-week North American tour on account of the fact that it's partially backed by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which funds a "Brand Israel" campaign to send artists overseas in order to "show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war." In response, protesters have been gearing up to picket outside theaters as the tour heads to the East Coast and Canada. Outside the show in San Francisco on Saturday night, a group of activists with signs and fliers waylaid fans heading inside. Contending that Batsheva was shilling for the Israeli government by whitewashing its cultural image, one protestor likened their campaign to the boycotting that ended apartheid in South Africa. Batsheva's communications department told me that "Batsheva's core is art and creation, and as such does not represent governmental policies."

I'm a big fan of Naharin. The first work I saw of his–Minus 16–blew my mind. His work careens between extremes, both physical and emotional, but he also plays with space and silence, both between bodies and within them. The movement vocabulary he created, called Gaga, is about "moving from sensation" rather than from received ideas of moves or shapes. His dancers, who collaborate actively in his choreography, improvise without mirrors, instead working from metaphors he suggests. This process creates a quality that is raw rather than showy:  

The hour-long piece they are touring, Max, is more understated than many of his other works, which walk the knife edge between violence and rapture, but it is unmistakably Naharin. Lacking any defined narrative, the piece segues from scenes of struggle to silliness to pure movement compositions. The dancers, clothed simply in tank tops and briefs, perform endless series of schizophrenic but seamless movements, whether in silent unison, to a heavy beat, or on top of an eerie baritone. Torsos seem to melt from the inside as arms float and palms are sucked inwards to freeze at the waist. Dancers cut arcs with their legs, then crumple to the floor.

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Texas Farmer Takes On TransCanada

| Thu Mar. 1, 2012 7:00 AM EST
Red'Arc Farm in Direct, Texas

The debate over the Keystone XL pipeline has moved from the White House to a farm in Texas. Third-generation farmer Julia Trigg Crawford is engaged in a court battle over whether TransCanada, the company that wants to build the massive pipeline from Canada to Texas, has a right to declare eminent domain on a portion of her family's farm.

Earlier this week, TransCanada announced that it intends to move forward with the portion of the Keystone XL pipeline that extends from Oklahoma down to Texas. This 485-mile-long portion of the pipeline doesn't cross international borders, which means it won't need approval from the State Department or President Obama. But it does cross right through Red'Arc Farm, which Crawford and her family own.

The farm is in Direct, Texas, a small town about 20 miles northwest of Paris (city notable for it's own 65-foot-tall replica of the Eiffel Tower, complete with a cowboy hat on top). Along with her father, sister, and brother, Crawford, 53, tends to her soybeans, wheat, corn, orchards, and cattle on this 600-acre property where the Red River and Bois d'Arc Creek meet. Her grandfather bought the land in 1948, and Crawford currently lives in the farmhouse.

Back in 2008, the family got notice that TransCanada was interested in running a pipeline through a 30-acre pasture area. Crawford says they were first offered $7,000 for use of the land, though the figure later increased to $20,000. The Crawfords weren't entirely opposed to having a pipeline run through the farm since there are several others running through the county. "Pipelines are not foreign here," Crawford says. But then an initial archeological assessment of the property conducted by a firm the company hired found that the portion of the pasture the company was first interested in was full of artifacts left by the Caddo, a local American Indian tribe. That was not a big surprise to Crawford. "I pick up pieces of pottery all the time when I walk the dogs," she says. She keeps the bits of pottery and arrowheads she finds in a large jar.

So the company proposed an alternate route through another corner of the same pasture, hoping to avoid the archeological site. But according to the next inspection the archeological firm undertook, there were no artifacts in this new corner. That the second dig turned up nothing made Crawford suspicious, and she decided to get an independent survey of the site—which again turned up quite a few artifacts. She hoped that the reports would force TransCanada to pick a new route, but she says the company insisted on going right through the pasture. "They said if you don't sign the easement we have the right to condemn the land and take it through eminent domain," she said.

She had other concerns about the pipeline, like the repercussions of a spill or the impact building the line might have on her ability to use the pasture. She says she tried to talk to the local contact person for the company and asked for concessions like thicker pipe metal, deeper burial, and assurance that her family would be compensated if the pipeline spilled into the creek they use for irrigation. The company didn't offer any concessions, she says, and instead took the Crawfords to court last fall to claim eminent domain on the property. (The company has taken a similar tack with landowners in Nebraska as well.)

Diet Soda, the Silent Killer?

| Thu Mar. 1, 2012 7:00 AM EST
Vintage diet sodas from the '60s and '70s

What is this thing called diet soda? Here are the ingredients of one of the best-selling brands, Diet Pepsi:

CARBONATED WATER, CARAMEL COLOR, ASPARTAME, PHOSPHORIC ACID, POTASSIUM BENZOATE (PRESERVES FRESHNESS), CAFFEINE, CITRIC ACID, NATURAL FLAVOR

My favorite line on that list is the "preserves freshness" that follows potassium benzoate. The freshness of what, precisely? The caramel color? Not likely—caramel color for most colas comes from a chemical reaction between sugar, ammonia, and sulfites at high temperatures. Or maybe it's the phosphoric acid? Or the least plentiful ingredient of all, the unspecified "natural flavor"? In plain English, diet soda is artificially blackened water tarted up with synthetic chemicals. That anyone ponies up cash for such a thing surely counts as one of the food industry's greatest marketing triumphs.

Personal Income Revised Upward — Way Upward

| Thu Mar. 1, 2012 1:06 AM EST

The BEA announced today that GDP in the fourth quarter of 2011 went up 3.0%, not 2.8%. That's good news, but nothing super special. It's a pretty small correction, really.

However, the BEA also announced a correction to its estimate of income growth, and it was considerably more spectacular. Over at his official blog, Mark Doms, the chief economist at the Department of Commerce, provides his take on this:

While the upward revision to GDP was welcome news, there was even better news in revisions to the income data....Personal income growth was revised upward, from 0.8% to 3.2% in Q3, and from 2.6% and 3.2% in Q4.

As consumer spending wasn’t revised, this extra income implies that the personal saving rate was also revised upward in both quarters: from 3.9% to 4.6% in Q3, and from 3.7% to 4.5% in Q4.

These revisions to income and savings are significant because of the story they tell about the sustainability of the recent strength of consumer spending. The old story line was that some of the growth we saw in consumer spending in the second half of last year was fueled by a decrease in the saving rate. A challenge we then faced was the sustainability of future growth (since one can only lower the saving rate for so long). Today’s data show that the saving rate didn’t fall much and that the growth was instead fueled by higher incomes. I realize this is getting into the weeds a bit, but it really is quite good and important economic news.

This is good news. If growth is being driven by consumers spending down their savings, that's unsustainable. This is yet another sign that the economy may really be on the mend this time around.