Wednesday, June 29, 2005

New category for 'Iraqi Insurgents'?

Linked in the title above is an interesting post from Bilmon noting a shift in the terms Bush used in his speech last night to refer to the opposition forces in Iraqi. Whereas formerly these forces were lumped together as simply 'dead-enders', or 'terrorists,' or (my personal favorite) 'anti-Iraqi forces,' in last night's speech there was a more subtle differentiation between 'terrorists,' former-Baathists, 'criminal elements,' and finally, 'Iraqi insurgents.' For which, Bilmon suggests, we might read 'negotiating partners.' Given the admission--from Donald Rumsfeld, of all people--that the US has held talks w/ leaders of some insurgent groups, the change in language may signal that the Bush administration really does have, or is working on, and exit strategy for Iraq. At best this could involve incorporating some insurgents in a broader political process. At worst this could involve a sell-out of the current government and the resinstallation of a Baathist/Sunni strongman. I doubt the news that US officials are talkng with insurgents makes anyone in the 'sovereign' Iraqi government feel very good.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Scary Supreme Court Decision

With all the talk about the future ideological balance of the U.S. Supreme Court these days, most people seem to focus on issues like public religious displays, abortion rights, gay rights, etc. But another recent decision that truly scares me is the recent Kelo vs. New London (Connecticut) judgment that states and municipalities can take people's homes through eminent domain and then give them to private developers. For once, I find myself in agreement with the ultra-conservatives on the Court, who dissented from the ruling. Behind all the cultural issues that occupy so much attention, the Supreme Court is really a bastion for elite interests behind the scenes. The supposed "liberals" on the Court really aren't that liberal, in my view, and it is a shame there are no truly progressive voices there...it is a shame that we have to depend on a few wacko right-wing, defend-private-property-at-all-costs justices like Scalia and Thomas to offer any resistance at all to wealthy, business interests at the Court (at least in this case...there's plenty of other issues where they are promoting corporate power).

But it is reassuring to know that there are some voices from the left out there condeming the Kelo decision, such as Ralph Nader, who also recently co-authored a Villanova Law Review article outlining an alternative proposal. "The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Kelo v City of New London mocks common sense, tarnishes constitutional law and is an affront to fundamental fairness," writes Nader in a press release. Mokhiber and Weismann, two of the leading journalists fighting corporate power, have also given a succinct analysis critical of the decision.

Some liberals do seem to support the decision, arguing that the Court made the right ruling on the legal merits and/or that it is important to preserve the legal right of governments to take or regulate private property for public ends. (For an example, see this rather lengthy post on the DailyKos blog...but also note the rather antagonistic reactions he's getting from lots of people commenting, who are themselves mostly self-described political liberals or progressives.) In my view, this is a gut-check progressive populist issue...do we stand with the ordinary small homeowners or the big powerful private companies? We do need to preserve some right for the state to regulate or even in rare cases take private property, with just compensation, for PUBLIC USE (as stated in the Constitution)...but we cannot let it be so open-ended that corrupt politicians can collaborate with powerful private interests to hurt the little people. I fear this could really come back to haunt us when we try to convince people that liberals/progressives are on the side of the ordinary man/woman, unless we make a STRONG STAND for common sense and justice. Well, that's my view. Any others?

Monday, June 27, 2005

Is the all-volunteer army a failure?

'Yes,' say many observers of the current recruiting crisis and the chaos in Iraq, such as Bob Herbert and Armando at Daily Kos (a site sporting a new, spectacularly ugly design). Sure, the all-volunteer force worked great for the short-term combat of Desert Shield/Storm, but for drawn-out conflicts like the one in Iraq, it's unworkable. The recommendation of Herbert and others is a draft, which would ensure the viability of our armed forces while--and this is a key side-benefit--making it much more difficult for politicians to order our troops into combat. I have a certain amount of sympathy for the idea of a draft that would more equitably spread the pain of conflict among the American people. But the situation in Iraq is hardly a good test of the concept of a volunteer army.

First, because the operations there have been so incompetently planned and executed by the Pentagon, and people inside and outside the military are beginning to see just how bad a cock-up Iraq has been. Who would want to risk their life in an operation run by idiots? Second, the moral case for the war and the sacrifices it requires was never made to the American people. Instead of asking for sacrifice in the service of vital national interests, the Bush administration told us how easy everything would be and asked us to continue shopping. What reasons war supporters gave for beginning the war and occupation have turned out to be at least misguided, some probably out-and-out lies. Given no opportunity to debate the war with a full realization of its potential costs, groping for information about the dangers of action or inaction in an environment intentionally clouded by thick clouds of half-truths and spin, it's hardly surprising that Americans are not more willing to risk their lives, and those of ones they love, in Iraq.

Whether or not an all-volunteer force can fight a long just war, run w/ reasonable competence, fought in defense of truly vital national interests, and entered into only as a last resort after a full and fair debate over the war's merits, remains to be seen. (The historical evidence is mixed, I would say: numbers of volunteers tailed off markedly after the first years of the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War; in World War II a draft was swiftly implemented, even as plenty of volunteers presented themselves as well.) Iraq tells us only that an all-volunteer force will find it difficult to sustain a long-term combat commitment entered into without a full debate, with constantly shifting goals, with poor planning and incompetent leadership, and with only a hazy notion of the vital national interests at stake.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Progressive Christian Lobbying Group

A web-only report from Rob Garver at the American Prospect on the Christian Alliance for Progress (CAP), a group dedicated to rescuing Christianity from the religious right. The group's website asks supporters to sign its "Jacksonville Declaration," addressed to the right:
“We must tell you now that you do not speak for us, or for our politics. We say ‘No’ to the ways you are using the name and language of Christianity to advance what we see as extremist political goals. We do not support your agenda to erode the separation of church and state, to blur the vital distinction between your interpretation of Christianity and our shared democratic institutions. Moreover, we do not accept what seems to be your understanding of Christian values. We reject a Christianity co-opted by any government and used as a tool to ostracize, to subjugate, or to condone bigotry, greed and injustice.”

Monday, June 13, 2005

Mission Improbable?

As I was driving across the Plains the other day, I heard a fascinating report on National Public Radio news about two Washington Post reporters who were embedded in Iraq on each side of some American troops who were working with and training their Iraqi counterparts. Here is the print version of their report, which nicely reveals the age-old difficulties of trying to train locals as a strategy of imperial rule...the condescension, the mutual misunderstanding, the farce of the whole endeavor.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Bush administration Nixonism at its finest

Deep Throat/Mark Felt was acting as part of a group of bureaucrats resisting the political operatives of the Nixon administration? Karl Rove got his start working as an agent of 'rat-fucker' Donald Segretti? This and more in Sidney Blumenthal's essay in the Guardian. His main point is one I've thought about before: the Bush administration is the return of Nixonism. Only this time, no liberal domestic policies.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Ah, the glamorous politics of 1972...

I'm not sure if this post belongs in the movie web log or the politics web log? Oh well--I'll put it in both. It's none of my work, either, just a charming stroll down memory lane with Carol Joynt, contributing to Harry Shearer's blog at that bastion of effete Hollywood liberalism, the Huffington Post. It's rather long, but it's worth it to read the whole thing. A sample:
Soon enough Jeb [Magruder, of Watergate fame] quit the White House to go to work for the infamous Committee to Re-Elect the President, where he was deputy director of the campaign. I quit UPI to move to New York to work for Time. We kept in touch. As far as I was concerned, he remained a good source. In the summer of 1972, Warren Beatty staged a lollapalooza fundraiser for democratic presidential nominee George McGovern at Madison Square Garden. I was assigned to cover it. After the event there was a celebrity-crammed party at the Four Seasons Restaurant. The party is memorable to me for many reasons. One was the once in a lifetime moment in which a flirtatious Jack Nicholson, coming face to face with me in a hallway between the Grill and the Pool room, said, "Are you looking for me?" to which I replied to Jack Nicholson, "No, I'm looking for Warren Beatty," and walked away. Oblivious to anything but my job, I wanted Beatty to tell me how much money had been raised. "Call me in the morning at the Carlyle," he said when I found him. "But not before noon."

Monday, June 06, 2005

Tear down Abu Ghraib?

It's hardly news that the Bush administration is not fulfilling its pledges in Iraq, but with calls from US Senators and others for the dismantling of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, I wonder what happened with Bush's pledge to tear down Abu Ghraib? This pledge was a significant part of the administration's reaction to the prisoner abuse scandal. More than a year later, and as far as I know the prison is still in use by US forces. Not only that, but it's become the target for raids by groups of insurgents, indicating that it is still a symbol of US occupation and mistreatment of Iraqis. It's breathtaking how easily the administration ignores its own promises once the attention of voters and reporters is turned the other way.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Economics of Culture

While writing the previous post, it occurred to me that the phrase 'economics of culture' was worth some elaboration. Here, then, is a rather meandering attempt to unpack the phrase... Culture is a famously vague term, meaning to some the total of everyday practices ('everything you don't have to think about when you wake up in the morning,' a former professor of mine defined it as). To others, culture designates a much narrower category of elite literary and artistic production, below which are various levels of popular culture, sub-cultures, or non-cultures. But in either case, the creation and dissemination of 'culture' in any society must be economically viable. In order to survive in the memory of a society, cultural products must have a large enough group of people who recognize a product as having a value worth propagating, preserving, and imitating.

Cultural products can be highly idiosyncratic--the product of unpredictable individual genius, greatly underdetermined by social or economic context. Or they can be produced by groups or individuals who carefully tailor the products to match a perceived demand. There is no predicting which type of cultural product will at any one time, in the present or future, be considered 'good' or 'bad,' which will be popular, which will be favored by elite groups (people with 'good taste'). And the status of a product can change dramatically over time, moving back and forth across from popular to elite, dwelling in both at time, shifting from popularity in one social group to another.

There is, then, a high degree of contingency in individual cultural products, but in general there must also be larger economic and social structures that help determine the overall content of a society's culture. There have been periods of history known for their efflorescence of certain types of cultural products. The new painting styles of the Renaissance, for example, or the development of literary realism in the 19th century. What were the economic and social structures that made such bursts of creativity possible? This question is not only of historical interest, but is at the heart of debates--or at least the moral rather than strictly legal aspects of the debate--over intellectual property rights, file sharing and the music industry.

The proponents of file sharing and digital distribution, such as myself, argue for fewer limits on such technology because it allows for a greater variety of music to reach consumers. If individual artists have fairly simple and inexpensive access to the means of music production and international distribution, they have a greater chance of enrolling a large enough group of fans around the world to support the continued production of their music. The music industry--and many very popular recording artists--argues that file sharing robs artists of their right to control and profit from their creations. In their view, without greater copyright protections (both legal and technological), artists will no longer be able to support themselves through sales of their recordings, and so creativity will be stiffled.

Although, as the 'Rockonomics' paper makes clear, very few recording artists make money through their recordings; most gain income by touring rather than record sales. The musicians losing money because of file sharing are, at most, an elite few at the very top of record sales lists.

Brazil, Gilberto, and Intellectual Property

Two recent items caught my interest in the economics of culture--especially the music business--and show how decentralized, digital music distribution is part of a larger global fight against overly aggressive intellectual property protection. The NPR program Marketplace recently featured a short piece on Brazil's multi-front defense of its national interest against international IP laws. (You can listen to the report through the Marketplace Archives.) In the 1990s Brazil threated to produce its own generic versions of anti-AIDS drugs if pharmaceutical companies didn't lower their prices. The drug makers caved in, and now Brazil has a much more extensive effort to develop alternatives to the intellectual property rights regime favored by such would-be international hegemons like the US and Microsoft.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has switched government computer systems from Microsoft Windows to license-free Linux operating systems and open-source software packages. Programs are also in places to help home computer users obtain open-source software, and to open free open-source computer centers available to the poor. The United Nations will soon consider a Brazilian proposal to limit international copyright laws that, Brazil says, work to funnel money from poorer, developing nations, to the developed world.

The Bush administration protested the UN decision, and in April gave Brazil an ultimatum to either crackdown on copyright infringement in the country or lose US most-favored-nation status, which makes exporting products to the US much easier. Spokesmen for trade groups representing corporations like Microsoft say Brazil's open-source policies will be more costly in the long run, because open-source software is harder to use and requires more customer support. (Oh, if only everything were as user-friendly as Windows!) What usually happens, they contend, is that computer users soon abandon open-source software for bootleg copies of proprietary programs. In their view Brazil's policies are mostly rhetoric, obscuring the fact that Brazil is one of the world's worst violators of international copyright laws.

But computer software and pharmaceuticals are not the only areas where Brazil is encouraging consumers to adopt the open-source model. The Minister of Culture, Gilberto Gil--yes, the musician of 'Girl from Ipenema' fame--is promoting digital music downloading as a way for artists to reach directly to their fans, avoiding involvement with large music companies. Gilberto says that music downloading helps his music spread to new audiences, and he recoups money with his concert appearances. He and other artists are part of a international movement to promote 'Digital Culture.' (For more on Gilberto and Brazil's open-source policies, see this November 2004 feature in Wired, and this January item from Common Dreams.)

This brings me to a fascinating look at the economics of the music industry in a paper by Marie Connolly and Alan B. Krueger of the National Bureau of Economic Research. The paper, titled 'Rockonomics,' is (appropriately) available for download from the NBER website. I first learned of it through a post on Barry Ritholtz's web log The Big Picture. Ritholtz is Chief Market Strategist for money management firm and he posts regularly on the music biz, in addition to other economics topics. I highly recommend his blog, and if you visit be sure to check out some of his less serious 'essays and effluvia' on rock music.

Whether or not the American music industry's current ails are due to file sharing, it's clear from the Rockonomics paper that bands that sign with major labels are pretty much screwed unless they sell millions of records and/or go on tour and sell a lot of t-shirts at their concerts. The paper does not address the advent of low-cost consumer electronics and software that allow for high-quality home recording and independent distribution, but it seems to me that the economics of large-label record production make any way around the established industry very attractive.