Tina K. Russell

June 24, 2009

Missing the point

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Tina Russell @ 1:20 pm

Op-Ed Contributor – The Koran and the Ballot Box – NYTimes.com
Yet in the current demonstrations we are witnessing not just the end of the first stage of the Iranian democratic experiment, but the collapse of the structural underpinnings of the entire Islamic approach to modern political self-rule. Islam’s categorical imperative for both traditional and fundamentalist Muslims —“commanding right and forbidding wrong” — is being transformed.

This imperative appears repeatedly in the Koran. Historically, it has been understood as a check on the corrupting, restive and libidinous side of the human soul. For modern Islamic militants, it is a war cry as well — a justification of the morals police in Saudi Arabia and Iran, of the young men who harass “improperly” attired Muslim women from Cairo to Copenhagen. It is the primary theological reason that Ayatollah Khamenei will try to stop a democratic triumph in his country, since real democracy would allow men, not God and his faithful guardians, the mullahs, to determine right and wrong.

Oh, shut your pie hole already! Khamenei isn’t transparently grasping at power for religious reasons; it’s because he’s a cynical despot who’s abandoned his legitimacy for the faint hope of longevity. Indeed, a fundamental tenant of Shiism is the concept of a divine mandate to rule; opposition to Iran’s rulers shouldn’t be interpreted automatically as opposition to the Islamic system. I would imagine that in the minds of many protestors, Khamenei just lost his divine right to rule. (After all, I doubt those shouting “Allahu Akbar!”—God is great—in defiance of the government are secular liberals.)

I doubt Khamenei is acting out of fear for the future of Islam; I think he’s acting out of fear for the future of Khamenei.

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February 1, 2009

Of G-men and G-strings

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Tina Russell @ 1:22 pm

News: Local | “Morrisette plans to try new anti-strip club legislation” | The Register-Guard
SALEM — Sick of seeing Oregon cities stuck with no way to keep strip clubs out of their downtowns, state Sen. Bill Morrisette is asking lawmakers to consider allowing cities to decide where sexually oriented businesses can open up shop.

Morrisette, a Democrat from Springfield, said his hometown’s fight to keep strip club Shakers Bar and Grill out of its core inspired him to create the resolution.

Oregon’s Constitution protects sex shops as a form of free speech, meaning they may open in any commercial zone. Morrisette said he wants lawmakers to put before voters a constitutional amendment to give cities more control.

This idea has been bouncing around Oregon for-freaking-ever and I’m absolutely sick of it. If such a law were in place, segregating sex shops into specialized “seedy zones,” at what point would an establishment become a “sex shop”? What if a bookstore started selling too much erotica? What if a bar hired a belly dancer? And, as the article notes, what would become of strip clubs already outside of legislated no-strip zones? Would they be forced to move, or would they be grandfathered in? It looks like an overreach to me.

I think this campaign amounts to putting a delicate pasty on the exposed nipple of Oregon’s problems. Sex shops don’t exist in a vacuum; if men are lonely and want to pay for an extended cocktease, legislation isn’t really going to change that. What it will do is make the factors everyone complains about worse. Restricted to their own, sealed, self-reinforcing neighborhoods, sex clubs will hardly be able to overcome their own stereotypes of being single-minded, exploitative, and appealing only to men. It’s not going to matter that there are men and women who strip artfully and on their own terms, that exotic dancing is an art form that goes back over a hundred years, that erotica can be written gracefully and tastefully and read by perfectly intelligent people. If all “sex shops” are penned into erotic ghettos, it’s only going to magnify their worst aspects, as only the stereotypical clientèle will be unafraid to go there.

If anything is going to reform the Oregon sex industry, it’s, well, exposure. How will strippers bargain for better working conditions if the state has pushed their business out of sight and out of mind? If it’s true that sex clubs only attract thugs, how will it help to place them where only thugs would go? (How would someone intending to run a club well get the opportunity to do so?) And what of the soccer mom who wants a subtle book of erotica to pleasure herself with after she’s put the kids to bed? What of the college student who wants a vibrator to help her get through the stress of midterms? Why mandate that they would have to go to unsafe red-light districts instead of someplace downtown that might take them seriously? How could the culture of erotica be changed to serve everyone—to address its legitimate criticisms—if it’s mandated by government that it wallow in its own filth?

I should note that I don’t patronize sex shops, I’ve never been to a strip club, and I don’t read or watch pornography. I’m simply angry when any culture is attacked over legitimate concerns, and then forced to be unable to address them. For all I know, all of Oregon’s strip clubs are as bad as they say. What if somebody wanted to start a better one, though, with wider appeal, with different kinds of bodies, with more innate reverence for sexuality? Why limit them to an area where gathering a clientèle for such a place would be impossible?

Perhaps the best comeback to this sort of idea was on Michael Moore’s late-nineties TV show, The Awful Truth. One episode covered a New York City ordinance, under Rudy Giuliani, saying that all sex-related stores had to contain 60% non-sex-related items. (I’m not sure how well that ever did, or if it’s still around.) As a stunt, Moore and his crew set up a shop of their own, containing 60% Rudy Giuliani memorabilia and 40% sex toys. It was brilliant.

January 1, 2009

Panopticonomics

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 6:14 pm

Letters – 8th Annual Year in Ideas – NYTimes.com
Robert Skidelsky argues that the “failure” of the efficient-market hypothesis over the last year proves that laissez-faire economics is dead and Keynesian economics should be the foundation of a new economic structure. But the efficient-market hypothesis, as defined by its inventor, Prof. Eugene Fama of the University of Chicago, states an “efficient” securities market is one in which, given the available information, actual prices at every point in time represent very good estimates of intrinsic values.

What has become clear over the last months is that the market did not have all the information to correctly set prices. The government’s role should be to ensure that the markets are supplied all the information to ensure their efficiency — not to pursue its current path of eliminating the market function via subsidies and political meddling.

BOB RAYMOND
Stamford, Conn.

Hmm! As an admirer of Keynes I do tend to favor all that fancy government meddling when times are tough. That is an interesting viewpoint, though. Markets can’t function when information is terrible, and a good responsibility for government would be that of bursting obvious bubbles before they grow too big.

(By the way, next time we’re in such a bubble—oh, those days seem so quaint—remember not to believe anyone when they insist that this time is different…)

(Incidentally, how many of our recent crises began with naïvely believing information that was obviously bad but fitted what we wanted to hear? I’m going to guess all of them.)

(One more thought… perhaps the God that governs the universe has a counterpart in high finance, but he’s a highly vengeful, cynical god who’s kind of a cosmic con artist that we constantly need to stay ahead of. Oh! There I go, revealing my secrets…)

November 23, 2008

Our elected officials

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Tina Russell @ 11:47 pm

Via Daily Kos:

US officials flunk test of American history, economics, civics – Yahoo! News
WASHINGTON (AFP) – US elected officials scored abysmally on a test measuring their civic knowledge, with an average grade of just 44 percent, the group that organized the exam said Thursday.

Ordinary citizens did not fare much better, scoring just 49 percent correct on the 33 exam questions compiled by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI).

“It is disturbing enough that the general public failed ISI’s civic literacy test, but when you consider the even more dismal scores of elected officials, you have to be concerned,” said Josiah Bunting, chairman of the National Civic Literacy Board at ISI.

This is really disturbing. Anyway, you can take the test here, and see aggregate results here. Some of the questions are pretty hard, but most are fairly basic and all represent a good grounding in civic issues. I’m also going to post my results here, but only to show you that I am awesome.

(Actually, it’s a bit scary. I don’t like to think that I’m that much smarter than the people I elect! What do I elect them for, then?)

September 14, 2008

Government jobs, the IRS, Washington, DC, and… XML

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 5:08 pm

Op-Ed Contributor – To Change Washington, Move Some of the Government Out – Op-Ed – NYTimes.com
Three years ago, I suggested the idea of moving the headquarters of the Internal Revenue Service to New Orleans, thinking that a federal campus there, providing some 7,000 stable, well-paying jobs, could anchor redevelopment after Hurricane Katrina. Such a move could still be a boon to recovery in New Orleans. And the same could be done for regions like the Midwest, where car makers and other industrial employers are contracting.

The best candidates for relocation would be departments like Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs, which are more involved in operating government than in making policy.

Good ideas are supposed to come from Presidential candidates, but sometimes, they just seem to bubble up out of nowhere. I was impressed upon reading this idea. It’s just… good.

The writer also mentions how the prohibitive costs of living in DC deter bright, young professionals from working there. I mean, come on. No offense to the city—all I remember of which from my childhood visit were vendors selling hot dogs for obscene prices outside the Smithsonian, though to be fair, bilking tourists is an international hobby—but would you, given the choice, move to DC? I mean, maybe you would if you wanted a job near the center of power, which is not the IRS. I mean, if I worked for the IRS, I’d want it to be in a city I love. Does anybody love DC?

(People who live in DC are hereby advised to tell me why I shouldn’t be so cynical. A good response will get its own blog post!)

Besides, I can imagine that DC is full of pencil-pushing day jobs. Why not move them away from where there’s an excess, and move them to places where they’re needed? Then again, DC isn’t exactly economically fluorishing. Perhaps these government jobs should move where they’re needed… uh… to DC.

Come to think of it, this has all just fallen apart in my head. If this idea would be a good jobs initiative, why isn’t DC awash in more jobs than it can handle? I looked on Wikipedia and found—in a well-cited article and a section within that uses the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the DC Department of Employment Services as its sources for these facts—that “As of May 2008, the Washington Metropolitan Area had an unemployment rate of 3.5%; the lowest rate among the 40 largest metro areas in the nation. It is also lower than the national average unemployment rate during the same period of 5.2%.” (source here, PDF) And yet, the rates within the city vary wildly: “in May 2008, unemployment ranged from 1.7% in affluent Ward 3 in upper Northwest D.C. to 17.2% in poorer Ward 8 in Southeast.” (source here, PDF) So, DC has a lot of jobs, but they aren’t spread out very evenly. Of course, I need to know (sadly) if that’s unusual for a US city, and where the problems are.

So, maybe DC should be sending some of its jobs into different areas. Obviously, though, they wouldn’t want to hire unqualified people simply to improve a neighborhood’s beleaguered economy; on the other hand, what if the people in the poor areas are caught in a cycle of poverty and poor education? What if they’ve worked hard and played by the rules and still come up short? I don’t know any of that. I like to boast about my first-year economics education (mainly, it serves to make me sad that so many world leaders and at least one candidate for President—hint: the old guy, who favors drilling and does not understand that introducing slightly more oil into the international market after a ten-year wait will have no effect now and a negligible one then), but I can’t tell you jack-squat about how to measure the availability of jobs across communities and how discrepancies typically come about (other than the usual scientific advice of “take everything in context”).

This is (wow, I’m on a tangent) all part of why I feel it would be excellent for all government data to be available in easily-interoperable data markup formats, like XML, that would encode the results and methodology of all government surveys in a uniform way. Then, armchair sociologists like me could have a go at the data and detect trends that even the most hard-working member of the Beltway fishbowl might miss. And, economic policies of politicians would have to stand up to serious scrutiny from citizens, able to see every direct and indirect effect in its full context. So, we’d get to see how the effects of bold plans—like, say, moving the IRS to New Orleans—would play out in cold, hard, interoperable data.

(That’s a suggestion to government web designers everywhere: just give us the data! We’ll get to work right away on doing cool things with it. Right-o!)

August 18, 2008

Safe for democracy

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 3:54 pm

Memo From Somalia – Anarchy-Cursed Nation Looks to Bottom-Up Rule – NYTimes.com
Many Somalis have grown suspicious of a strong central government, especially after the dark years of Maj. Gen. Mohammed Siad Barre, the dictator who ruled from 1969 to 1991. “The state has never had any legitimacy,” said Tobias Hagmann, a Somalia scholar at the University of Zurich.

Clan-based warlords toppled General Siad Barre, then turned on one another. In some places, limited local governments sprouted to fill the authority vacuum. They called themselves “administrations” and provided some services, like resolving property disputes or trying theft suspects in courts based on Islamic and customary Somali law.

By the early 2000s, several of those local courts began to gain strength, and in 2006 they united under an Islamist banner to fight warlords being paid by the Central Intelligence Agency. The Islamic courts won and disarmed and pacified much of south-central Somalia, following their own version of the building block approach. But the United States and Ethiopia considered the Islamic courts a terrorist threat, so the United States helped Ethiopia invade Somalia.

The result today is an ascendant Islamist guerrilla force, a wounded and divided transitional government and an increasingly impatient Ethiopia. Stir in Somalia’s war profiteers, including gunrunners and importers of expired baby formula, and the country seems to be a recipe for long-term disaster.

I strongly condemn any attempt to bring religion into government, as such a confluence spoils both institutions almost past the point of salvage. That said, I’m also not a fan of any attempt of ours to force other countries to adopt our way of government. I hope that, in time, the people of Somalia will see that Sharia law, while in some ways useful, is inhumane and hopelessly outmoded. I also hope that, in time, those who run our government here at home will recognize Somalia’s very real need for law and order, something that’s not being brought by Ethopian tanks backed by United States money.

If we think that any government that brings religion into governing is beyond the pale, we may want to consider that the government-in-exile of Tibet, which which deep Western sympathies rightly lie. The Dalai Lama is the head of the church and the head of state, and his succession is achieved through reincarnation. That means he’s been in power for centuries; I can’t think of any dictators that can top that. China has no right to impose their system of government on Tibet, just as we have no right to impose our system of government in Somalia; and if we were sincere about democracy being the right way, the peaceful way, the only way, then we would accept it when other countries elect leaders we don’t like (say, in Chile, in Nicaragua, in Palestine, etc.).

Don’t get me wrong; I think that democracy, be it American-style presidential or European-style pariamentary (or that interesting… thing they have in France) is the best thing ever to happen to systems of government, and I hope every country in the world sees that before long. I think a government is only made legitimate by the uncoerced consent of the people. However, we ought to be leading by example, showing the greatness of democracy and why foreign leaders should trust in their people. Instead, we’ve worked hard building an unfortunate image of the US as a bully, tarnishing the image of democracy by making moderate opposition leaders targets of public humiliation (a common slur is that reformers in the developing world are too “pro-Western”) and raising an obvious question: if democracy is so great, why has it created a country that clearly does not respect the rights of foreigners?

I think they’re wrong; I think we do respect the rights of foreigners. But, we must show that with concrete action to replace our bellicose chest-beating and military arrogance.

July 23, 2008

Rearranging the org chart on the Titanic

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 12:23 pm

Op-Ed Contributor – The Risk of Too Much Oversight – Op-Ed – NYTimes.com
To appreciate the challenge we face, it is important to remember that the Sept. 11 terrorist attack was a classic “low-probability, high-consequence” event. In the pre-9/11 era, if experts had generated a list of risks to our country — various terrorist attacks, hurricanes, contagious diseases and so on — they probably would have concluded that terrorists flying planes into skyscrapers and government buildings was unlikely, in light of the security and logistical obstacles the terrorists would have to overcome. While those experts would have acknowledged that such an attack would have grave results, before 9/11, relatively few people worried about such low-probability, high-consequence security events. After 9/11, however, many people began thinking about a broad range of such attacks.

Not surprisingly, when people started to focus on bad things that might happen to us, they identified a seemingly infinite catalogue of worrisome possibilities: nuclear, chemical and biological terrorist attacks delivered by planes, ships, cars or other mechanisms; conventional explosives on mass transit systems; gunmen in public places; cyber attacks on computer and communication networks; and natural hazards like earthquakes and hurricanes. This is just a sliver of the ever-evolving list of homeland security concerns.

But resources are limited and it’s not possible to do everything, so we need to think carefully about the risk: the likelihood of the event and the consequences if it were to occur. Ideally, we would be able to rationally rank homeland security risks, and resources would follow. Though some prioritizing efforts are under way, the process has been made unnecessarily difficult.

I’m glad that this person recognizes the danger in what Bruce Scheier calls “movie plot” security (that is, the monastic delineation of everything that might happen). Prioritization would be an improvement, but I’m not sure it would still be the best.

Perhaps the DHS could organize all possible threats into broad strokes–like hijackings, bombings of population centers, espionage, infrastructural attacks, etc–and ensure that the related agencies are doing their jobs. That is, it would be impossible for the DHS to pick one plot–say, Snidely Whiplash blowing up a dam–out of a hat in time to prevent one in progress. But, the agencies responsible for the dam could be responsible for ensuring the structure is resilient and the security is sound. In turn, Homeland Security could make sure that this work is taking place and proceeding well.

You cannot predict every terrorist attack, but every terrorist needs tools to carry them out, and those common threads–a train station, an airplane, a dam–can be secured to ensure such plots, known or yet to be invented, could be prevented. In the meantime, experts at the DHS could watch the terrorist chatter like hawks, and indeed prioritize the likely methods and trouble spots for the benefit of other agencies. The DHS could in turn check that these agencies are fulfilling their responsibilities, and send liason officers to offer support and expertise.

Turf wars are common in government, and my impression is that the DHS tries to be a jack of all trades, ensnaring them further in multi-front battles. A support organization at the nexus of government security matters could be more effective than one lording over government with a heavy hand. An agency with the CIA and FBI whispering in its ear may be more effective than one fumbling to interlocute or aspiring to the status of a third player. Then again, I may have misinterpreted how the DHS works. I simply doubt that their reputation as a staggering and understaffed bureaucracy is entirely unfounded, and we’re all stinging from the department’s first major test: Hurricane Katrina.

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