Ben A. Ben H. Doug Later
Most of the handouts in my Vietnamese class seem to be published in France or America, but you can always spot the "native" ones. On a recent "matching/fill-in-the-blank" exercise, the last question was "____ praise Uncle Ho." Answer: "Eternally" [11/6/02 15:00]
Golden Phonebook

Yes, it's exactly that orthogonal relationship to reality that distinguishes Scarry, and should mark the eventual golden phonebook winner. Chomsky, for example, would have cited fallacious examples to link Iraqi and American policy. Scarry doesn't even gesture in this direction. Awesome!
[11/6/02 12:39]
Couple things.

Politics. Mixed feelings about the election, and very subdued feelings since I don't follow American politics much here in France (I hear it has something to do with a "House" and a "Senate"). Not that I want to discuss any of these, but I dislike the GOP for (1) its overly pro-big-business, pro-rich-people policies, (2) its screw-you foreign policy attitude, (3) its anti-environment policies. So I'd lament the GOP victories if I thought the Dems were a good alternative. Maybe they are, who knows. Their campaign, however, seems not to have been based on opposition to (1), (2) and (3), but on the infantile argument "You were rich under Clinton, now you're poorer! So vote for us and be rich again!" Even if I agreed 100% with a candidate's policies, I could never, ever, ever -- out of simple self-respect -- vote for him if he tried that line on me. What are you suggesting, Mr. Gephardt? That the government force people to start paying $1,000 for NASDAQ tulip bulbs again?

Scarry article. On a second reading I saw an aspect of it that you have to respect, or at least acknowledge. Most America-haters, when writing about Iraq, start off with a pro-forma "Saddam is evil, has gassed thousands of his subjects directly, and killed millions in his pointless wars, BUT ..." sort of introduction. Scarry isn't so mealy-mouthed -- she's cut for good and all the line that connected her own personal universe to the real one. (Yes, that would be the red line.) She might as well be describing a dispute between Ontario and Saskatchewan.
[11/6/02 06:12]
Civic duty

Speaking of, it appears that the night is trending Republican. Romney has scored a massive victory (by Massachusetts GOP standards), Sununu beat Shaheen, and Jeb has just finished a cakewalk. Peculiar.

[11/5/02 23:30]
We've all spent too much time together. As I read Doug's post about Homi Bhabhas euphonious name, I began to hum it to the very same Falco tune Ben A. alluded to. It's particularly weird, since Homi Bhabha doesn't scan in a particularly obscure way.

I just returned from the office after exercising my civic duty. As usual, out of the enormous ballot, I could identify only one truly competitive election. This year, it is the race for State Senate, which featured the startling "Public Urination - You Decide!" ad I mentioned several days ago. Liz Kreuger, butch, hard-left lesbian bears the Democrat standard against vapid professional small-time politician and spoiled heir Andew Eristoff. In fairness to Eristoff's cleverness, I should note that he has managed as a Republican in New York to get himself elected to a series of minor offices -- mainly by spending a lot of time and money touting his rather leftish stands on social issues. Evidence of his ideological disguise stood unmistakably on the corner outside my polliing station. The campaign worker handing out Eristoff literature was a three-hundred pound main wearing a dress, lipstick and earings. "If he -- i mean she -- can support Eristoff, then I suppose he isn't *that* kind of Republican," think the enlightened co-op owners whose worries about higher taxes have tempted them to consider the Dark Side.

A few steps away, a slender young man flacked for Ms. Kreuger. I took the literature and, in recognition of her brave stand on public urination, I asked the man if I could make water on him. This being New York, he not only obliged but when I tried to leave asked me for my number.

OK, that didn't happen. But it could have!
[11/5/02 19:21]
Homi don't play that

As yes. Doctor Professor His Eminence Bhabha is surely in the running for the Golden Phonebook. I am dead serious about this: I want to announce an award, hold a ceremony, and deliver a big gilt yellopages. It's a great agitprop event, and I am desolated that I didn't think of it when we were on the Salient.

Moving from use to mention, you're right that the good doctor possesses tremendous euphony. It seems like Homi Bhaba would scan particularly well to the rhythm of 'rock me amadeus.' Homi Bhabha, Homi Bhabha; Homi Bhabha, Homi BHAbha; Homi Bhabha Homi Bhabha, oooooo Homi Bhabha! (Homi Bhabha, Homi Bhabha). Mesmerizing.
[11/5/02 16:34]
Ben A., I wish you wouldn't put up links like that. It's bad for my blood pressure and my productivity.

But while we're on the subject, if we can make the West prize retroactive, I nominate Homi Bhabha for 2001.
Here's a reprint of a Times article about his move to Harvard, which mentions his second-place showing in the Bad Writing Contest of the journal Philosophy and Literature, for the following sentence:

"If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to `normalize' formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality."

What's more, he has the world's best name. For me it's like a song I can't get out of my head; sometimes I'll go around all day saying "Homi Bhabha Homi Bhabha Homi Bhabha." [11/5/02 15:32]
The West prize?

I propose a yearly contest to select the Harvard professor who has done the most to intellectually embarrass the insitution. Extra points to those who speculate bizarrely outside their area of scholarly expertise. I think
this entry puts Elaine 'Magnets cause Aircrashes' Scarry in the early lead.

The award will be a Cambridge phone book in honor of William F. Buckley's famous remark. [11/5/02 14:46]
War of the Worlds

The battle against Al Queda reminds me of a flying saucer movie (or perhaps, a very successful game of Civilization)-- killer robots against guys with side arms. So long as we donít trust war command to John Travolta, we should be okay.

Also, Doug, let me affirm your affirmation. That's a great, great album. Take a look at the first Ben Folds LP as well.
[11/5/02 11:16]

It appears that the explosion in Yemem of a car in which 6 Al-Qaeda operatives were riding was not the result of using a Ford Pinto as a bombing vehicle. Instead, CNN reports that a US drone fired a missile at the car. My colleague asked how the U.S. knew they were the car. I think it was the vanity plates, "LK-DUH", that gave them away.
[11/4/02 19:17]
Check this out: an unreservedly positive observation! No althoughs, howevers, or buts! Not even an ironic preface stating how the federal government requires all homepages to declare their owners' favorite bands and the degree to which they rock!

I was just listening to Ben Folds Five's "Whatever And Ever Amen", and they ROCK! BIG TIME! The non-melancholy songs especially. That record makes me want to join a band and bum around the midwest playing college towns. Astonishing given how little that idea would appeal to me under normal circumstances.
[11/4/02 18:37]
To the victor go the spoils?

Of course, Doug, French foreign policy in Iraq, no less than French foreign policy in Central and West Africa, doggedly pursues the interests of French industry. We can chalk it up to Gallic dastardliness, or we can take a more historical view and postulate the cause as the confluence of the tradition of raison d'etat and state ownership of certain key industries. Privitization has nullified the latter condition, but old habits die hard, and enarquism guarantees an interpenetration of government and business elites far beyond anything in the Anglo-Saxon world.

I won't deny that the disposition of Iraqi oil assets occupies a central place in the negotiations of the U.S. and France. However, on the U.S. side I can say with some confidence that Team Bush, in spite of its petroleum industry connections, is not carrying water for the American oil industry. Rather, I think that we are mediating between two intransigent countries with competing interests: the French and the Russians. Like the French, the Russian state and its business oligarchs are deeply intertwined. And like the French oil industry, the Russian oil industry has concluded contracts with Saddam's regime and has hopes of making further inroads in a post-Saddamite Iraq. Team Bush has been notably more friendly to (what Al Gore would call) Big Oil than the prior administration, but it has subordinated to oil interests mainly environmental and regulatory policies, not foreign policy. If Team Bush really pursued a foreign policy hostage to the oil interests, why do we still have sanctions on Iran and Sudan (on the latter, to the point of harrassing a non-American-domiciled company like Anadarko)? Why do we alone (or, more precisely, alone with the British) still have a vigorously enforced Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, criminalizing bribery of foreign officials by American citizens, which, sadly, represents a non-trivial barrier to getting oil contracts in the developing world? Why have we been pushing (ok, to be fair under both Clinton and Bush) the U.S. oil companies to commit to the wildly uneconomical Baku-Ceyhan pipeline route? Here is a case where the Bush ties to Big Oil have led to Big Oil taking one for the team -- pushing for a more expensive pipeline route to serve U.S. foreign policy interests of weakening Iran and strengthening Turkey. In the case of Ecuador, Team Bush did threaten to exclude Ecuador from ATPA if it didn't resolve taxation issues with American oil companies operating there, but even that action was tardy due to fears that it might retard Ecuadorean cooperation with the "Drug War." In neighboring Colombia, the Bush administration has moved ahead with providing assistance to the Colombian military in order to protect the much-bombed Cano Limon pipeline. To be fair, though, FARC is a nasty terrorist organization that the administration has long been eager to help the Colombians suppress. The oil angle is more a way to make the intevention palatable to *Congress* than a primary motivation of the policy.

THe Russians have a further beef in that they are owed somewhere between $8bio and $12bio in overdue bilateral loans. Moscow complains that the Germans and French press them for prompt repayment of Paris Club debt while preventing Iraq from earning enough to repay Russia. The French rightly fear that since Iraq doesn't have the cash to repay Russia, the postwar settlement might include some kind of oil-contract-for-debt swap, to the detriment of French oil companies.

Sure, we're bargaining with the French over sordid business advantage. But it is the French who have dragged us into it. Our interest is to start the Middle East rollback, and that means haggling over oil contracts, we'll do it.
[11/2/02 17:50]
So Dao is at this moment fulfilling her bridesmaidenly duties in (refreshingly sniper-free) Washington D.C. The bride is that non-Minnesotan with the distinct Minnesotan accent whom I mentioned in a post on my old web log. I adore White Pam (this is what we call her, to distinguish her from Asian Pam) but I took a pass on the wedding because, what with Dao doing all these girly things with the bridal team, I'd be left to spend a lot of boring time alone there. But now that I think about it, sitting here wasting time at my computer, eating a bowl of ramen noodles for dinner, that's not a very compelling argument. In truth it's a mixture of that, plus the five hundred dollar airfare, plus I'm sick of travelling, plus I'd have to hear people say the name of the husband, whom I also adore, insofar as I can adore someone whom I've only met once, except that his name, or at least the nickname by which he's universally known, is "Hutch".

Also, Dao, I have gotten some work done here. Honestly.

At the risk of turning this website into a fist-pumping chorus of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!", I now offer some critical punditry about France. To judge by the French media, and to a lesser extent by American media, you'd think that these interminable "discussions" about the U.N. Iraq resolution hinged on details of political philosophy. "Ambassador Roquefort, I believe your conception of sovereignty falls prey to a Hobbesian fallacy." "Au contraire, Hutch, it is firmly grounded in the theory of jus ad bellum." That kind of thing. Whereas, what's actually happening is that Hutch and Roquefort are sitting in some gilt-marble bar in the 8th arrondissement trying to agree how to split up Iraq's oil among BP, TotalFinaElf, and the U.S. oil companies. I know that you, Ben and Ben, already know this, but it's incredible how few other people do. Le Monde has scrupulously avoided mentioning the prolific deals that French companies have made with Saddam. It wasn't until about a week ago that I saw a reference to TotalFinaElf's huge oil contract with Saddam, and even that was literally a parenthetical comment. Now my guess is that the Americans are driving too hard a bargain, because our oil industry exerts so much control over the Bush administration. (Surely I'm not automatically a "conspiracy theorist" if I think big business is too influential there!) The French people and the French media, however, seem to be under the impression that there is no bargaining going on at all. Their U.N. mission is simply standing up for libert?, ?galit?, fraternit?.

In a relatively benign way, France is like an Arab autocracy, in that its rulers pursue their own selfish interests while paying off the clergy/intelligentsia/media to spin moralistic tales for public consumption that have nothing to do with political reality. The sheiks pay the imams to get the populace so riled up about the foreign infidels that it ignores, for example, that half the GDP is going towards the shieks' whiskey and whores. Meanwhile, the French ruling class coddles the professors and journalists who propagate fables of pure-noble-France-versus-money-grubbing-America, while the ruling class holds on to its riches. (Despite what you might think, in France, the richest 5% of the population own 40% of the wealth (source).) Of course, the French situation is far less worrisome, since their fables are not filling people with murderous hatred.

Ceterum censeo Islam pax est.

[11/2/02 16:36]
Last Ball-Hog Metaphor

I admit that I derive a guilty thrill when the administration expresses open contempt for international boondoggle institutions. The NGOs behind the ICC and Kyoto sneer at Americans, our tradition of representative government, and, by extension me. So right back atcha,
Ms. Gunawardena-Vaught.

But if it meant gratuituous insults to our allies, I'd be willing to renouce that pleasure. Open disrepect, as Doug notes, does not lay the foundation for effective joint action. I am not at all persuaded however, that conciliation would yield anything like accord on Israel, North Korea, Iraq, or Taiwan. From time immemorial, or at least since the 70s, European govenrnments (France, Sweden) have shown absolute willingness to deal with the most corrupt and miserable regimes. I just don't see a world in which American moralism means anything to them. If we gave them the ball, they'd pass it to the other team.
[11/2/02 13:10]
"They Cannot Buy It Now"

Re: Filboid Studge, I commend to you both another Saki story, "The Toys of Peace," which contains the best literary representation of John Stuart Mill I have ever found.

[11/2/02 12:39]

Industrial Conflict Training

Doug, I'm surprised you find "trick-or-treat" un-Gallic. It strikes me as a miniaturized version of French industrial relations. Give in to my selfish demands, or I'll make mischief. Aren't French farmers past masters at extorting subsidies from the state with the threat of nasty tricks, like dumping tomatoes on the highway? A disappointed treat-seeking child might only manage to hurl an egg or too, but his actions differ from those of the farmers in quantity, not in quality. No, French political economy is just one big round of "Strike-or-raise." "Trick-or-treat" seems more out of place as an *American* tradition, given our real or rhetorical commitment to self-reliance, property rights, and absence of acute class warfare.
[11/2/02 11:46]
Some unrelated spewage.

(1) You know I love Bernie, but I have to say her choice of culture events seems to be such that I wouldn't put such uncritical trust in it. Wasn't she behind that concert that was so bad it drove you to kill John Cage, and the "update" of that Racine play involving people playing badminton and defecating on stage, and maybe even that Pierre Boulez concert we went to once? (Talk about clapping like trained seals ... )

Filboid Studge reference. Can't find it with "Ph".

(2) Three groups of kids came by last night for "bonbon(s?) ou malheur(s?)". I gave them kit-kats. Just doing my bit for the Empire ... but actually, call me an anti-globalization luddite if you will, it does seem kind of wrong. French people shouldn't do this! They should be more ... French! I'm ashamed to say I feel like that ultra-gallic culture-champion Musee-d'Orsay functionary in my Vietnamese class who expressed how disappointed he was to have found all the people in Saigon wearing jeans and baseball caps. (Instead of lining up to bow to him in conical hats?)

(3) It would be wrong to have a web log and not mention with sadness the untimely passing of Jam Master Jay. [11/1/02 05:34]
Sorry, guys, I'm fed up with my browsers doing an idiotic job of table layout and putting gobs of whitespace into our posts, so I'm switching over to a "one-column" format, meaning we should only make full-width posts. I put so much work into the two-column program that it pains me not to use it, but I hadn't tested it with long posts and I didn't know that browsers (both Microsoft's and Netscape's) would handle them so stupidly. I could, with a lot of effort, make the code rigidly specify the height of each cell, but that would mean making the site fixed-width and fixed-font-size, which I don't want to do.

Let me know what you think.
[11/1/02 05:11]

Since we seem to have agreed on the explanatory power of sports metaphors, I'll use one to characterize the Kremerata Baltica concert I saw at Carnegie Hall this week: a head-fake. The first head-fake came from Bernie, whose idea it was to attend the concert in the first place. Alas, the long arm of the Law School reached out and snatched her back a day earlier than anticipated, leaving me to go there alone. Now, I had trusted Bernie, as the musically trained half of the team, to look into the details of the concert, and amidst all the sound and fury of the trading floor I gathered these to be, "Gidon Kremer and his string orchestra, Mendelssohn violin concerto, another Mendelssohn piece, couple of extra goodies."

That brings us to the second head fake. Kremer indeed played the Mendelssohn concerto. No, not the E major concerto (the one you know), but the D minor concerto, which he composed when at 14 years of age and which one would only perform to be able to say that one had done so. Unfortunately, the second-fiddle concerto was the highlight of the evening.

That's so, because of headfake number three. The second Mendelssohn piece was composed by Mr. Vladimir Mendelssohn, no relation to Felix. This was, as you may have guessed, a modern piece, occupying the traditional modern piece spoiler position: second-to-last. If it were first, you would show up late; if it were last, you would leave early. So the ardent champions of modern music, insistent that concertgoers should ingest their fill of Philboid Studge, always program concerts with the aggressively modern pieces in the second-to-last position.

The piece interested me insofar as it neatly embodied the most basic modern music cliches. Without melody, it consisted of vaguely creepy noodling that would not have been out of place in a B-level horror movie. The pianist had to leave his bench, pick up a mallet and bang directly on the strings; the cellists had to beat on their instruments like drums. For some reason, modern composers believe the ordinary properties of instruments insufficient for the expression of their genius, and otherwise talented pianists are forced to clamber around and inside the pianos like plumbers or air-conditioner repairmen. There was a vibraphone. Need I say more?

[10/31/02 19:30]
"Ballhog" (which by the way makes a much better book title than Hardt and Negri's Empire (click there to see Harvard University Press describe its book as "a new Communist Manifesto" (and you wonder why I don't contribute?))) is just a metaphor, and like all tacos it breaks apart at some point. But I think that point is much later than my critics say.

Ben A., you're right that my beef with Bush's foreign policy is largely its style. I used the word "comportment" not to be fancy-schmancy, but to refer at once to actions and style. It's not any particular Bush decision that's screwed us (relatively), it's the overall cumulative effect of the decisions plus the contemptuous attitude. They add up to a clear message to everyone (which means, as Ben A. correctly notes, to continental Europe): You're a bunch of losers not even worth passing the ball to.

My friend John, who definitely sides with the Bens on this issue, asks "what specific American acts are inexcusable". I can only say: the ones Ben A. listed (minus Durban; nobody could be blamed for bailing on that oratorical pogrom), plus our overall dismissive manner towards allies, which is palpable even if I can't cite instances of it. Now I'm sure that John, being a lawyer, can explain a hundred reason why each document we boodied was terribly flawed. And most of his explanations would surely be compelling. But it's the eye-rolling, I'm-outta-here Bush administration attitude that lingers. Couldn't we stay at the table and keep trying to hammer out an agreement, on Kyoto, on the ICC? And not just, as Ben A. says, for show, for warm fuzzies, but because an intelligent common policy on these issues would be good?

"But what does it matter," I hear several of you saying. "We can still beat anyone who messes with us, even one-on-five." Doubtless. But it's a shallow worldview that scores a policy's value solely on whether it would let us ultimately beat certain countries in all-out war, and ignores everything else. Indulge me in some "what-if" scenarios about a world where we didn't antagonize Europe, and together we formed a solid enlightened bloc.

Israel-Palestine: The U.S. and Europe agree that the conflict between their respective clients must be ended, and their mutual goodwill lets them reach an agreement along these lines: the border goes from here to there, the Palestinians are on such and such a statehood track, and if either of our clients attacks across the border, we pledge to stop funding it and work to isolate it until it comes into line.

Iraq: The Europeans know Saddam's evil. They are now, by hypothesis, free of resentment towards the U.S. And with the Palestine conflict going into remission, everyone is less concerned about "backlash", "instability", "the Arab street", etc. So we all get ready to kick Saddam's ass under the U.N. banner. Saddam, faced with opponents in Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait (which have let us use their territory since the U.N. has authorized it, and their populations are somewhat less worked up about the Zionists), unable to play his opponents each other, may even flee into hiding before our troops move in.

North Korea: With Saddam Hussein disposed of, we'd have a freer hand to deal with these loonies, militarily, if necessary. (I am I alone in finding this situation as scary as Iraq?)

Taiwan: China does not approach Europe with a tawdry deal along the lines of "if you look the other way when we take back Taiwan, and convince the U.S. not to retaliate, we'll buy fifty Super-Camembert fighter planes at inflated prices", and the Europeans, no longer resentful of the U.S., and unable to use the argument "Well, they were amoral first", do not agree. [I admit this speculation is pretty out-there, but I mean it to stand for any of a hundred terrible things that nasty governments would be less tempted to do if there were a just, solid, and effective world police force.]

All in all this a rosy scenario, but not quite impossible ... unless we continue to act like a ball-hog. [10/31/02 16:43]
Deficient in Fakery?

I find Ben Hís argument credible, but for a moment, letís assume that concerns over unilateralism represent more than cynical maneuverings against American power. This leaves us with the need to evaluate the diplomacy of the Bush administration. Or as you put it Doug, their ďinexcusable international comportment.Ē

Well, only a partisan would describe the administrationís approach as ideal Ė every one hating you provides prima facie evidence of diplomatic failure. And letís just state at the outset that Ďeveryoneí means the continental Europeans. Thereís no evidence Iíve seen that a similar tizzy afflicts China, Russia, Japan, or India. At worst, America has alienated 1.8 (+/- 0.5) great powers.

But thatís bad enough. So the question I have is, why? What are the injuries and usurpations that have made Germany and France so eager to oppose American direction on Iraq? Here are the decisions usually depicted as the core of arrogant unilateralism Ė pulling out of the ABM treaty, forsaking Kyoto, pulling out of Durban, refusing to sign the bioweapons ban, and, heaven help us, seeking immunity from the international criminal court.

Examined closely, this list seems a thin gruel to nourish such a grievance. The ABM treaty is a dead letter, as the Russians were happily bought off. Kyoto would never, never have made it past the senate, so hanging the rejection on Bush seems unfair. What remains is a litany of crackpot nostrums peddled by troublemaking NGOs. If French and German ire arises from the content of American policy on these issues, bad feeling was unavoidable. America will not buy diplomatic serenity if the price is tailoring policy to please the editorial page of Le Monde.

Itís entirely possible, however, that the problem was not content, but style, and that a peremptory diplomacy generated needless ill will. If, indeed, glad-handling and Important Meetings for consultation in Bonn would have brought everyone on board, then it was criminally foolish not to expend that effort. For this reason it is hard to believe no such attempt was made.

Hereís my speculation. I think the attempts were made, and hundreds of wig-tip-hours expended on conciliation of all kinds. The effort was there, but it didnít take. And the reason it didnít take is because, at heart, the administration holds this tomfoolery in contempt. They regard institutions like the ICC and treaties like the bioweapons ban as silly at best, pernicious at worst, and canít compartmentalize well enough to maintain the veneer of respectful consideration. Basically, we have a group deficient in fakery. And as welcome a change as it may be, itís a real problem
[10/30/02 11:15]
The Point Guard as Metaphor

Doug, you make a serious point, meriting a sober response. But first I'm going to extend your analogy to absurd lengths!

No one likes a ball hog: but I think in international affairs we face a choice between a mid 90s Nick Van Exel and Jason Williams.

Let me elaborate. You may recall Van Exel (in his lakers and nuggets days) as an *insane* one-on-five offensive freelancer. Given that he was (ha!) nominally a point guard, these antics did more than usual to infuriate coaches and alienate teammates. But here's the thing: the man had the goods. He was, and is, a tremendously gifted and creative player, and a joy to watch.

Jason Williams, by contrast, is that saddest of basketball phemomena: the deluded white guy. We have all seen it, the scrawny white kid who constructs a false model of black culture (how could it be anything but false -- he's never met any black people)and then tries to live up to it.

So with Jason Williams. He too is a freelancer, but for all his vaunted (and real skills) he couldn't put it together. In the playoffs two years ago, the Kings typically benched him in the 4th quarter so that his self-indulgent stylings wouldn't torpedo the season. Now he, his needless flash, off-balance three-pointers, and generally unreliable play have been shipped to the Memphis Grizzlies.

Perhaps, we, the United States are Nick Van Exel, but if so the rest of the world is surely Jason Williams. Perhaps the United States should be playing as a calm disciplined point guard (Maurice Cheeks?): distributing the ball getting everyone involved. But even Maurice Cheeks can't do much with a roster full of Jason Willams. They won't run his plays, and will heave it up as soon as the ball touches their hands. Thus, Maurice sadly begins to look for his own shot...
[10/29/02 10:30]
Doug, do you really think the Europeans want the ball? Or is ball-hogging a convenient charge with which to dog and demoralize a rival? The Europeans haven't a clue about basketball; they wouldn't know what to do with the ball, they'd rather being playing soccer, and they feel like yelling about ball-hogging might make that happen.

This isn't about any of the objects of American policy, it's about us, America, the subject. We are too powerful, and complaints about American unilateralism represent a tool to deligitimize and traduce our power.
[10/29/02 15:20]
So Ben A., in the past you have disagreed with me about (what I describe as) the Bush administration's inexcusable international comportment. You seemed more or less dismissive of the need for international cooperation. Could this be just because, understandably, you want to tell the sanctimonious "Empire America" critics and UN idolators to get bent? If so, I want to offer another description of America, a label that captures the Bush administration's behavior better than the woefully off-target "Empire". America has become a ball-hog. We're still on the same team as the world's other enlightened nations, we have Michael-Jordan-level game, but we don't play like Michael Jordan, we play like that jerk on your pick-up team who never passes and gets triple-teamed and yet attempts three-pointers even while you're camped out alone under the basket. When this guy says "Okay, now you four go stand over there while I drive the lane," is it any wonder nobody listens? [10/29/02 04:23]

I haven't noticed any abatement in noise recently. I can't stand the clangor of rickety trucks that drag poorly secured containers. The truck hits a bump, the container smashes against the bed of the trailer, and for all I can tell a group of esteemed visitors from the Gulf has just set off a bomb. The irritation of those kinds of sudden booms is much more damaging to one's mental health now than before September 11th.

I fear, though, that Bloomberg has other fish to fry. The city has a $1bio budget gap for the 4th quarter (and this compared to what at its writing was considered an austerity budget). The Bloomberg News service had a headline today about several banks here preparing their staffs for "the year of the zero bonus." You can scratch that source of tax revenues. I suspect there is some tight relationship between the 3-year rolling-average managing directors' bonus at Goldman and the price of a 6-room co-op, so it would stand to reason that real estate is going to get hit. We may soon pine for the days when maladorous street fairs and poorly muffled motorcycles were the gravamen of our complaints.
[10/28/02 12:07]
You're perfectly welcome to like street fairs, Ben A. I don't mind them that much. The "externality" I found most annoying in New York was the noise. I hear Bloomberg is cracking down on this ... true? Motorcycles were the worst -- I think the city should simply confiscate forever any motorcycle not having a heavy-duty muffler. And it seems like they're jackhammering the streets constantly. My question is, if you're going to rip up the street every other week to install new sewers or cables, why not dispense with the asphalt entirely? Why not just make streets out of interlocking trapdoors? The whole concept of "street level" in Manhattan is, as Ben H. once said, an arbitrary convention anyway.

"Ataraxia" is not an acceptable Scrabble word, you're right. (It joins "Lemuret" and "Moteling" on my list of shame.) But the O.E.D., great as it is, sometimes leaves out cool words. My friend's physical copy left out "
koro", the Southeast Asian psychological disorder of fearing that your genitals will retract into your body cavity. I always think of this word when I go swimming at the pool where, as I've mentioned, speedo-style suits are mandatory. [10/28/02 11:16]

I'd like to see a Cambridge street fair. Knowing the people's republic, it would be thronged with various kinds of protesters rather than shoppers. The city council would decree that only zeppoli made with organic, cruelty-free ingredients could be sold. Price controls would be slapped on the bootleg CD-sellers. Ken Reeves and a band of regulators would patrol in order to make sure the ethnic food booths "look like Cambridge."
[10/28/02 11:00]
In this group, is it curmudgeonly to admit that I *like* streets fairs. Or at least, ones not on my street... [10/28/02 10:18]
You are basically describing the generic collective action problem. Mancur Olson wrote the seminal paper on this, I think. Some small group of agents create very large negative externalities that are spread thinly across a larger group of agents. For any one agent to to protest requires more work that the individual utility gain he is likely to get (the action would have a large uncapturable positive externality spread across this same large group of agents). In this case you need an "entrepreneurial" policy maker who will try to galvanize a coalition on the basis of this issue. [10/28/02 06:52]
Enough waffling, Ben, tell us what you really think about street fairs!

You may remember that when I lived on Sullivan Street I had to contend with the Feast of St. Calzone or whatever it is that moves in for a week or two in June. Literally on my doorstep. It's a novel spectacle for a day, but then even I began to feel the sort of anger you express. I sucked it up, having chosen to live in a historically Italian neighborhood, but I don't think that you, living in (forgive me) the blandest part of Manhattan, should have to.

Walt was over here last month giving a math paper at the University of Nancy and he told me about this game-theory puzzle that seems to crop up all the time -- the agent/principal problem. E.g. how can shareholders (the principal) compensate the C.E.O. (their agent) so that his interests align with their own? It seems to me there must be a similarly broad class of problems of which street fairs are an example. I'm sure a name already exists for it, but until someone tells me it let's call it the "nuisance threshold problem". Phenomena that are overall utility losses may continue to occur because their beneficiaries gain enough that they'll put their own work into propagating them. Like the street-fair organizers who presumably buy treats for local officials to keep the system in place, like the motorcycle enthusiasts who threaten officials who discuss noise pollution. The utility losers (average people like us) may far outnumber the winners, and the sum of our lost utility may far outweigh the winners' gain, but individually none of us crosses the nuisance threshold at which we actually do something about the problem.

I would greatly respect anyone who worked toward practical solutions to this class of problems.
[10/28/02 05:19]

Another damn "street fair" took over Third Avenue today. The bile may have gone to my head, but it feels like this is about the tenth street fair in my neighborhood this season. I loath these temporary souks that tie up traffic, peddle worthless trinkets and nasty theme food, and leave filth in their wake. New Yorkers are notoriously querulous about any activity or policy change that affects them in even a tangential way, which makes it very difficult to understand why they tolerate street fairs. Under the windows of half-million dollar co-ops, Albanian drifters send up noxious plumes of frying zeppoli odor. Stalls selling bootleg CDs blast generic pop at ear-splitting volume. A sea of cars stretches up the avenue, idling up a cloud of choking exhaust as they wait to take a detour around the tumor of petty commerce (A remembered scene: an ambulance wails, entombed in bumper-to-bumper mess of cars held up by a street fair hard by NYU Medical Center. That street fair might have literally killed someone). And yet, I hear hardly a whisper of complaint from the very people who wail a pitiful threnody about their lost "light and air" should a developer moot a plan to add, two blocks distant, a moderately sized building to Manhattan's squeezed housing stock. It puzzles me. At least one person shares my view: my brother, who has for some time served on his Community Board, has struggled to limit street fairs in his area. According to him, though, it is indeed a lonely fight.

I particularly pity the merchants who pay hundreds of dollars per square foot for space on the thoroughfare hijacked by the street fair hustlers. Their storefronts lie obscured, their stores pervaded by the odor and din of the fair, their trade diverted or driven away. On the corner of 33rd and 3rd, a nice pizza place recently opened. The proprietor must have spend tens of thousands outfitting it, tangled with the authorities over zoning, propitiated petty bureaucrats to obtain the right licenses, installed all sorts of technology to make his ovens safe and pollution-free; and today, directly in front of his entrace, some cousin of a carny barker has set up a dirty, smelly stand selling... Italian food!

The same street fair vendors appear at nearly all the fairs, an itinerant horde of shady hucksters selling all manner of weird knick-knacks, having in common only their flimsiness and sketchy provenance. One guy who shows up regularly at the fairs in my neighborhood sells "dental and surgical supplies." I'm not sure what health care professional would shop for bargains on hemostats at booth on Third Avenue, and I shudder to think what the non-professionals do with such gear.

Street fairs constitute an arbitrage at the expense of taxpaying residents and businesses. The way it works is that neighborhood non-profits have the right to petition the community board for a street fair slot. Perhaps this right descends to us from the days when a local charity or church might put on a tag sale or bake sale to raise money. But it's become an industrial scale scheme. Our Lady of Perpetual Nuisance doesn't actually run the street fair. It secures the slot from the Community Board and then "partners" with a company that organizes street fairs. The nature of the partnership is that the the promotor pays a flat fee (usually risibly small, like $3000-$5000) to Our Lady of Perpetual Nuisance and in turn sells booth space to the usual assortment of small-trader degenerates. So for a handful of dollars, the community organization sells away the peace, quiet and cleanliness of the community it purports to serve. The wasted time of cars caught in street-fair produced traffic, the offended noses of apartment owners on the avenue, the lost commerce of legitimate business, the lost sales tax (do you think those little booths observe the sales tax as scrupulously as fixed businesses with everything to lose?) total up to a gigantic multiple of that $3000. I, for one, would prefer a chance to be extorted directly by the community organizations. I would fork over cash in exchange for their promise *not* to exercise their street fair prerogative .
[10/27/02 18:18]



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