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Archive for November, 2010

Downfall tells the story of the final weeks in Hitler’s bunker mainly through the eyes of Traudl Junge, a secretary to the senior staff. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel skillfully guides us through the menace. Perhaps the most difficult task in presenting a film on the final days of World War II is avoiding caricatures of Hitler, Braun, Goebbels, and the senior officers of Nazi Germany. Hirschbiegel presents people dealing with the impending defeat of the Third Reich in individual ways. Though they all hover between delusion and despair, they react to the slowly sinking ship of state as individuals.

The performances of the film were those of Bruno Ganz, Ulrich Matthes, Corinna Harfouch, and Juliane Köhler respectively as Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, Magda Goebbels, and Eva Braun. The scenes where Hitler and Gobbels display casual brutality to “international Jewry” and the German people alike are striking. Joseph and Magda Goebbels poisoning their six children, feeling and unfeeling at the same time, is yet another memorable scene. Eva Braun’s insistence on dancing as Berlin is hit with Russian artillery defines fiddling while Rome burns. Even knowing the contours of who would do what to whom did not serve as preparation for this film.

The unreality of the bunker is demonstrated in numerous ways, the chandeliers of the bunker compared with the rubble of the city above, the neatly pressed uniforms of the generals in the bunker as opposed to the war weary uniforms of the generals directing Berlins defense, and the champagne and formal dinners of the bunker contrast against the debris strewn streets and mounting chaos above. As the film progresses the line between the bunker Berlin and the war torn Berlin blurs. As the Russian army advances the untarnished bunker world slowly comes into contact with the world of the war. By the end, the front line has advanced and the bunker line has receded entirely. The war has enveloped the bunker.

Hirschbiegel manages to animate a moment in history with flesh and blood people. Not monsters, not demons, but people. People in the grip of their own downfall.

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The Houses of Parliament, Sunset, Claude Monet (1903)

PMQs was the most nerve-racking, discombobulating, nail-biting, bowel-moving, terror-inspiring, courage-draining experience in my prime ministerial life, without question. You know that scene in Marathon Man where the evil Nazi doctor played by Laurence Olivier drills through Dustin Hoffman’s teeth? At around 11.45 on Wednesday mornings, I would have swapped 30 minutes of PMQs for 30 minutes of that.
— Tony Blair on Prime Minister’s Questions (A Journey via the Scotsman)

Prime Minister’s Questions is famous. For thirty minutes each week the PM is grilled by fellow MPs on any topic. Issues large and small come up, from the future of British Afghanistan policy to joining an MP in congratulating the local museum on record visitor numbers. On occasion a US version of PMQs is proposed. During the 2008 camapign, John McCain proposed a parallel in the US (BBC). And Obama held a Q&A session with House Republicans in January; the 90 minute session pleased Democrats as it allowed Obama to hit back at aggressive Republican messaging (Atlantic, Newsweek). The exchange prompted an online petition to demand Question Time in the US. Would a PMQs equivalent bolster American democracy?

PMQs certainly has its drawbacks. “Punch and Judy” politics is the standard criticism (BBC). That is, PMQs serves more as political theater than an opportunity to hold the executive to account. The PM and Opposition Leader posture and point score rather than scrutinize issues deeply. Geared toward getting a juicy sound bite on the evening news, PMQs is more about campaigning than good government.

There is a far less well known parliamentary exchange that passes my favored good government test (read, built for policy wonks). David Cameron ran its two and a half hour course on Thursday (BBC). The twice yearly Prime Ministerial appearance before the Liaison Committee. The news summaries do not quite do the occasion justice. Sure there was some posturing and point scoring, but far, far less than in PMQs. Members of the Committee had the opportunity to ask follow up questions and interrupt the PM’s answers. Also, the Chair could guide the discussion through a coherent series of subject areas. Thus higher education funding was followed by questions on government science policy that intersected with the issue just discussed.

In PMQs the Speaker doing the moderating keeps order and calls on MPs, little else. In contrast to the Speaker’s institutional hands off approach to steering the PM towards the topic at hand, the Chair of the Liaison Committee could bring the PM nearer to the mark of the question being posed. There’s a big difference in exchanges when you’re trying to place a sound bite versus trying to answer a question. Unlike PMQs, it was difficult for me to spot any planted questions in the Liaison Committee; softballs were relatively rare compared to the ease of some PMQ questions. How difficult is it to join a colleague in congratulating the local museum? As an exercise government oversight writ large, the Liaison Committee sessions succeed where PMQs comes up short.

Were the US to adopt a mechanism for holding the presidency directly accountable to Congress, I’d look towards the Liaison Committee as a model rather than PMQs.

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The Tianhe-1A computer in Tianjin (NYT)

Bush says he had introduced then-Russian President Putin to his Scottish terrier, Barney, on a visit to the U.S. presidential retreat, Camp David.

Putin returned the favor when Bush visited Russia and Putin was giving him a tour of the grounds of his dacha.

“A big black Labrador came charging across the lawn. With a twinkle in his eye, Vladimir said, ‘Bigger, stronger, faster than Barney,'” Bush writes. A copy of the book was obtained by Reuters

Bush says he later told the story to the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, who replied: “You’re lucky he only showed you his dog.” Reuters

A bit of healthy competition is fine, but there’s something childish about constantly obsessing over who’s top dog. Insert a little jingoism into the mix and you’ve got a recipe for never-ending conflict. The reporting about China’s constructing the world’s fastest supercomputer has undertones of this potentially incendiary mix of one-upmanship and wounded national pride. China’s “wresting” the title from the US, the US having been “dethroned” or “displaced”. Status anxiety abounds in the headlines. With the construction of Tianhe-1A, we are urged to worry that China now has the bigger dog.

To ease the paranoia of the status conscious, the US still has 275 of the world’s 500 fastest supercomputers compared to China’s 42 of the fastest 500 (BBC). Apparently, supercomputer construction is heavily trailed, compilations of which computer will be fastest are aware of who’s where on the list months in advance (TR). In fact, the New York Times reported on “China’s aggressive commitment to science and technology”, as represented by Tianhe-1A, in May (NYT). Furthermore, America is set to have the fastest supercomputer title again in 2012 (TR).

Several reasons are offered for fretting about China’s emergence as a “supercomputing power”; supercomputers serve as symbols of scientific prowess, as entree to high value added industries, as tools for complex research and design, and as magnets for top engineering and scientific talent (CNN).

Sputnik and the Roadrunner say, "Beep beep!"

So should we be celebrating China’s supercomputing achievements or is it time to gear up for another space race? In part the answer hinges on whether one views China as a potential strategic adversary or a potential strategic partner. I’m inclined towards being intensely relaxed and conveying congratulations to China on the achievement, 2.57 petaflops is a lot of computing power. Isn’t it good for the world that this additional resources is available, wherever it happens to be geographically?

Were a cure for a new disease discovered in China it’d be seen by the ever status conscious as “Chinese scientists make bold new discovery” rather than “Chinese scientists make bold new discovery” – or my preference, “Scientists make bold new discovery”. If this kind of unhealthy competition gets out of hand, the 21st century will look a lot like the 20th century.

Perhaps it is ever the cosmopolitan’s lament, born in a world of tribes yearning for a world of humans.

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The Night Watch, Rembrandt (1642)

Leona Helmsley’s notorious remark fits the world of corporate tax avoidance well. Sociological Images highlights a BusinessWeek article outlining a particular scheme multinationals employ to avoid billions in US and foreign taxes.

I’m pretty much in agreement with Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.” Whether you believe in a minimal night watchman state or a generous welfare state, taxes are indispensable to providing public goods. Or perhaps more precisely, compulsory taxation resolves the free riding problem. BusinessWeek identifies Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Forest Laboratories as companies that use this particular tax avoidance structure called the Double Irish or the Dutch Sandwich.

In Google’s case, it generally works like this: When a company in Europe, the Middle East, or Africa purchases a search ad through Google, it sends the money to Google Ireland. The Irish government taxes corporate profits at 12.5 percent, but Google mostly escapes that tax because its earnings don’t stay in the Dublin office, which reported a pretax profit of less than 1 percent of revenues in 2008.

Irish law makes it difficult for Google to send the money directly to Bermuda without incurring a large tax hit, so the payment makes a brief detour through the Netherlands, since Ireland doesn’t tax certain payments to companies in other European Union states. Once the money is in the Netherlands, Google can take advantage of generous Dutch tax laws. Its subsidiary there, Google Netherlands Holdings, is just a shell (it has no employees) and passes on about 99.8 percent of what it collects to Bermuda. (The subsidiary managed in Bermuda is technically an Irish company, hence the “Double Irish” nickname.)

Businessweek charts how the scheme works.

via BusinessWeek

Every relevant authority should mobilize to dismantle this devious dodge of corporate responsibilities. Corporations reap tremendous benefits from the societies in which they operate. From physical infrastructure, like roads and rails, to social infrastructure, like law enforcement and an educated workforce, corporations rely on the services provided by the state. One economics professor estimates the losses to the US are $60 billion annually (BW). To put that figure into context, the president’s 2011 budget request for

  • the State Department – $57 billion
  • the Department of Education – $50 billion
  • the Department of Energy – $30 billion
  • NASA – $18 billion(WallStats)

The Businessweek article concludes,

The government has made halting steps to change the rules that let multinationals shift income overseas. In 2009 the Treasury Dept. proposed levying taxes on certain payments between U.S. companies’ foreign subsidiaries, potentially including Google’s transfers from Ireland to Bermuda. The idea was dropped after Congress and Treasury officials were lobbied by companies including General Electric (GE), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), and Starbucks (SBUX), according to federal disclosures compiled by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. In February the Obama Administration proposed measures to curb companies’ ability to shift profits offshore, but they’ve largely stalled.

“The system is broken, and I think it needs to be scrapped,” says Reuven S. Avi-Yonah, director of the international tax program at the University of Michigan Law School. “Companies are getting away with murder.”

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I have been following the discussion on Four Loko over at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen. Four Loko is a drink that mixes alcohol and caffeine, raising concerns because “caffeine masks the effects of the alcohol, keeping consumers from realizing just how intoxicated they are” (NYT). Doctors cite incidents of alcohol poisoning and deaths related to Four Loko (over)consumption. The issue of what, if anything, should be done about Four Loko opens a window onto a larger question: What role should the government play in promoting public health?

Apparently, according to libertarian lights, the government should play a limited or tightly circumscribed role in relation to public health. As the title might suggest, I’m pretty skeptical of these libertarian arguments. Libertarians foreground the individual’s unfettered choice. Caveat emptor reigns in libertopia. But where individuals are embedded in communities with vast asymmetries of information and expertise, buyer beware seems a hollow guide. While individual choice is an important value, it isn’t the only important value. Health is a primary good, “something that rational beings want whatever else they want, because it is vital to the experienced quality of individual lives and to the ability to carry out or achieve whatever projects or aims an individual might have” (SEP). I’d suggest keeping sanctions in proportion to harms is a more pragmatic guide to public health policy questions. This leads me to agree with libertarians in some areas and disagree with them in others. So, a war on drugs resulting in incarcerations of a scandalously large number of citizens – disproportionate. Ticketing of drivers who don’t obey seat belt laws – proportionate.

Overall, I view promoting public health is a legitimate state interest. High disease burdens mean a great deal of individual and community suffering. Libertarian outlooks tend towards a kind of indifference to disease burdens I find troubling – which isn’t to say that policymakers should overreact to public health challenges. Proportional sanctions means that blanket bans need evidence commensurate with their wide scope; severe sanctions, like mass incarceration, require even more evidence to support the argument that severe harms are being prevented. And I’d advise strongly against policy contrary to scientifically robust evidence like the UK drug classification system’s recategorizing marijuana from a Class C to Class B drug (BBC).

Regalia of our new overlords?

Given the distribution of diseases afflicting Americans, junk food, corn syrup, salt, saturated fat, and alcohol all deserve the attention of public health experts. I doubt the articles in the Lancet, JAMA, or NEJM stem from a dictatorial impulse in the medical profession; you’d be hard pressed to make megolomaniacs out of the editors of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Government should be able to act upon health professionals’ findings. The menu of policy options thereafter is manifold. I’d suggest taxing those things that are contributing significantly to the disease burden – a minimum price per unit of alcohol would be a good start. If you are going to trade away your primary good of health, it should come at a premium. The government can support public health campaigns that advise the public, thus informing, encouraging, and advertising healthy choices – remember, the sugar water peddlers are spending tens of millions to convince the public to consume their empty calories. Others suggest “stop fast-food outlets opening near schools, restrict advertising of products high in fat, salt or sugar, and limit sponsorship of sports events by fast-food producers” (Guardian). Why shouldn’t the government act, proportionately, in striving for a healthy citizenry?

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Imperial State Crown (via Wikipedia)

In a discussion of the Second Amendment and America’s aversion to gun control, a constitutional law professor remarked that every country has its anachronisms. The announcement of the engagement of Prince William to Kate Middleton underscores a very British anachronism: the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha the House of Windsor.

In royal weddings we have the union of celebrity culture and constitutional monarchy. The British press is awash in coverage of every minute detail: who will design the wedding dress, how did he propose, is it Kate or Catherine, what were the previous Queen Catherines like? The Financial Times, the Independent and the Guardian avoid giving themselves over entirely to the story. These three papers decide to lead with the news of the day, Ireland, Ireland, and the Prime Minister’s u-turn on a vanity appointment. The other papers devote themselves in great measure to the future royal wedding. Not to pick on the British press exclusively, I hear royal engagement news led the three US network newscasts as well.

Commoners cheering the aristocracy represents a triumph of dynastic rebranding as clever as Geroge V’s royal proclamation of 1917, ditching the German Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in favor of the English-sounding House of Windsor. The resilience of the monarchy despite the 20th century decline of deference amazes. Salic law and patrilineal primogeniture still governing the selection of the head of state – in 2010. The fact that there is such a class of people called the commoners – in 2010. As Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” You’d think comment that wouldn’t apply to the medieval surely.

Celebrity culture has its faults. But if you want to read about Brangelina, go for it. However, when the travails of a particular family so closely intersect with the office of head of state in a manner unchecked and uncheckable by the citizenry, then we have problems. Births, marriages, and divorces take on a new, or very very old, state dimension. The intimate details of a family life becoming state business. As for Will and Kate themselves, I wish them well. But with respect to the hereditary monarchy, this is one context where I’m a republican (as in being for a republic).

That and royals aren’t good architecture music critics.

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Frontispiece of "Leviathan," Abraham Bosse (via Wikipedia)


“What will future generations condemn us for?” Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah asked in the pages of the Washington Post in September. He offered four answers. The US prison system, citing for instance the fact that with 4% of the world’s population the US holds 25% of the the world’s prisoners. He further highlights the well documented abuse that occurs in US prisons as speaking ill of our generation. Appiah then discusses agricultural practices, poor animal welfare may make future generations regard us with scorn. Third, Appiah reviews our treatment of the elderly, sequestering our elders in homes as indicative of “feel[ing] no filial obligations to [our] inconvenient elders”. Finally, he discusses environmental degradation, despoiling the riches of the earth for our short term gain leaving future generations in the lurch.

Appiah urges us to think of the question we pose about past atrocities, he urges us to be more introspective when we ask, “What were people thinking?” Appiah’s analysis came to mind when reading a post about the death penalty at Democracy in America, Death and innocence. After reviewing some polling evidence, R.M. writes,

So there seems to be a significant number of Americans who believe the death-penalty system costs innocent people their lives, but who nevertheless want to keep it around and even expand it. If one believes the death penalty is an effective deterrent against crime (I don’t) or that it is the only proper punishment for certain heinous crimes, then I guess the deaths of a few wrongfully-convicted prisoners can be considered collateral damage, a necessary sacrifice in order to achieve a greater good. But we don’t usually think about the death penalty in such an abstract manner. Usually we think about it in relation to specific cases and crimes.

Saturn Devouring His Son, Francisco Goya


That it is necessary to express revulsion at the execution of the innocent in 2010 is a disgrace. The executions of the innocent as “collateral damage” for the supposed good of executing the guilty, the moral bankruptcy of the position is as self evident as the moral bankruptcy of slavery. Whether in the cotton fields or in the criminal justice system, human sacrifice constructed in such a manner is abominable.

Though I must admit, I wasn’t going to be receptive to this utilitarian argument. Immediately we confront the perils of consequentialist ethics and the virtues of deontological ethics. Executions, like slavery or torture, are an affront to human dignity, demeaning all involved, the executed and the executioner, the slave and the slaveholder, the tortured and the torturer.

In my view, human dignity requires that the death penalty be abolished. America will be a more praiseworthy nation when it realizes that value. Like Justice Blackmun, firmly asserting that, “From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.” (Callins v. James)

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