Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Da Vinci Code: Why Now?

Why is The Da Vinci Code so popular? I had the misfortune of first experiencing it as a book on tape, which renders it ridiculous, perhaps because Dan Brown's adjective-laden descriptive prose doesn't hold up to being spoken out loud.

More interesting than the story, I think, is the book itself as a phenomenon. Sloppily written suspense tales based on the Magdelene mystery have been written before; why does this premise strike a chord at this moment in history?

There are a number of strands of cultural change going on right now in the US, that The Da Vinci Code pulls together. The most visible is the worldwide surge in religious involvement--among Evangelical denominations particularly. This trend may not need exposition, but in brief it is seen in the expansion of megachurches and the growing importance of fundamentalist Christian voters as a bloc.

A related phenomenon is the way in which decline of the ascendence of the secular humanist worldview has occurred, namely, disenfranchisement of a generation of young adults with a radically pluralistic morality. I think it was Napoleon who once said that to understand a man, you have to know what was going on in the world when he was 20 years old. The generation shaped by September 11, 2001 will be much more confident passing moral judgements based in absolute principles than the generation forged in the moral disillusionment of Vietnam and Watergate and reacting against McCarthyism and totalitarianism. No system of morality that leaves a hint of room permitting Islamism is tolerable. Rooting absolute principles requires a source of authority--today religion seems preferred over political ideologies.

This is not to say that secular institutions are losing significant power or influence, but that secular sources of knowledge have lost some of the authority that they had. In the 1960s, it was reasonable to think that rational application of human organizations could eliminate poverty and cancer in a generation; today such notions seem hoplessly naive.

The third trend is a crisis of feminism. So-called "Liberal Feminism"--the brand of feminism focused on attaining equal political and economic rights for women--has achieved a large swath of its goals in the 20th century, but as Cathi Hanauer has shown, the project of "liberal feminism" has proven more complex than initially envisioned. Using Kegan's terms, we might say that post-feminist America has developed the holding environment to help women achieve the Institutional Self, but not to support them once they've gotten there. Men and women need to try to make meaning of its unfinished work within their own families and relationships, but they are reluctant to reject its ideals of equal pay for equal work and opposition to sex discrimination, and rightly so. As they re-negotiate roles and identities, they identify with dominant cultural metaphors, simultaneously taking mythical figures as role models and projecting themselves onto them. The figure of Mary Magdalene admits of so many powerful interpretations--forgiven woman sinner, strong woman companion misunderstood as harlot, early church mother--that she is a good choice for such meaning-making.

The Da Vinci Code had the second highest box-office opening ever despite aweful reviews. It may be a coincidence that a movie about the supression of the truth that Mary Magdalene was Jesus' wife and a chuch leader is wildly popular at a moment that religous discourse is ascending, secular discourse is losing authority, and feminism's project is leaving women wrestling with questions of family, workplace, identity and priorities. But I doubt it.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Speech and Debate: No Immunity from Corruption or the Constitution

Arguments that the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution does not cover bribery often invoke existing caselaw that has found that it applies to activities directly involved in legislating (even speeches and press releases outside the halls of Congress), and since taking a bribe is not inherent in lawmaking that the FBI's raid on Mr. Jefferson's offices is not prohibited. Outside the Beltway makes this argument well.

However, I think this argument addresses the wrong question. It is off the mark to imply that some contend that bribery should not be investigated and prosecuted. The issue at hand is whether the raid itself interfered with an activity inherent in lawmaking, and I would argue that it did: privacy of the legislator's office. Members of Congress need assurance of confidentiality of the many sensitive materials that their work exposes them to--both personal communications in the daily business of politics, and information about national security or delicate foreign relations issues they handle. The Supreme Court has clearly considered Speech and Debate to include written documents, and that must include those held in congressional offices.

Subpoena, rather than search and seizure, should be the preferred method of obtaining evidence to investigate congressional corruption. Forcibly obtaining documents by midnight raid creates and atmosphere of siege, and will encourage congressional offices to take pre-emptive countermeasures that may make corruption investigations more difficult to undertake in the future.

The privledge of Speech and Debate, broadly conceived, stemmed from the English Bill of Rights as a response to Tudor monarchs' intimidation of members of parliament. Let us hope that we don't confuse the legitimacy of investigating corruption with the illegitimacy of violating a Constitutional clause and a principle of government that ensures that the bills passed by Congress are not just a rubber stamp for the will of the Executive.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Hybrid Cars: The Indirect Solution to Oil Prices?

The Quaker Economist recently posted an article arguing that the benefit of hybrid cars is not in the short-term fuel economy they provide, but as a technological springboard to developing small enough, efficient enough battery car systems that will permit plug-in cars in the medium-term future.

I had previously argued that alternative fuels per se would not be the answer to the current energy crisis. That is, we must be clear if a given energy system is truly a novel energy source, or just a novel distribution system. For instance, hydrogen is really a novel distribution system, since there is no obviously most efficient means of production, so the administration's prior promises to extensively research hydrogen was not probably the best policy strategy. A fuel like biodiesel however has already a distribution system to plug into, and constitutes a bridge technology from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.

The possibility of plug-in battery cars evolving from hybrid cars fits this analysis nicely as well. While battery cars would not themselves solve the demand for energy, by allowing oil-run plants to compete against nuclear, hydro, and other sources, overall energy costs would be expected to decline. As newer, cheaper means of electricity production are developed, plants with the innovations can be simply added to the existing power grid, without significant changes to the vehicles themselves. And this without the massive infrastructure investment required by a hydrogen fuel system.

That being said, I do not believe that the government should significantly subsidize hybrid car consumption. It is absurd for the federal government to support buying a hybrid SUV that gets worse milage than a non-hybrid sedan. Any federal incentives should be based on milage alone, for the government's goal is properly a more short-term effect of reducing national oil consumption. Hybrids have enough traction in the market that auto companies should be allowed to compete for smaller and more efficient designs with minimal government market distortion.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Lessons from China on Dealing with Africa

The US needs to relearn how to win friends and influence nations, and the Chinese experience in Africa holds good lessons, according to a recent American Foreign Policy Council report.

How does China obtain resources, build trade, and win African nations to its side? In January, Beijing released an official China-Africa policy white paper, a document remarkable for the broad range of issues it covers. The white paper offers some clues into Beijing's strategy in Africa. First, China is dramatically boosting its aid and economic support to Africa-aid it can provide with few strings, at the same time as international financial institutions, like the World Bank, increasingly link aid disbursements in the developing world to good governance and anticorruption initiatives.

Chinese aid to the continent has become more sophisticated. While China once focused on large buildings-sports stadiums in Gambia and Sierra Leone, for example-it has increasingly used aid to support infrastructure creation that then also helps Chinese companies, and to directly woo African elites. In 2002, China gave $1.8 billion in development aid to its African allies. (Beijing has since then stopped officially reporting its aid, making a complete and accurate tally impossible.)

China has also used debt relief to assist African nations, effectively turning loans into grants. Since 2000, Beijing has taken significant steps to cancel the debt of 31 African countries. In 2000, China wrote off $1.2 billion in African debt; in 2003 it forgave another $750 million. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has proclaimed that "China's exemplary endeavor to ease African countries' debt problem is indeed a true expression of solidarity and commitment." Debt relief has been an excellent public relations tool for Beijing because it not only garners popular support but also allows for two positive press events: the first to provide the loan, the second to relieve the debt.

In addition to increased aid, China's outreach includes efforts to boost its soft power in Africa. This is evident in a growing focus on promoting Chinese cultural and language studies on the continent. In 2003, 1,793 African students studied in China, representing one-third of total foreign students that year. Indeed, China plans to train some 10,000 Africans per year, including many future African opinion leaders who once might have trained in the West.

Beijing also seeks to establish "Confucius Institutes" in Africa-programs at leading local universities, funded by Beijing and devoted to China studies and Chinese language training. Already, in Asia, Confucius Institutes have proved effective in encouraging graduate students to focus on China studies and, ultimately, to study in China. Meanwhile, Chinese medical schools and physicians train African doctors and provide medicine and equipment free of charge to African countries.

Through these programs and exchanges, China develops trust by investing in long-term relationships with African elites that formerly might have been educated in London or Washington. Beijing is also working to encourage tourism in Africa, partly in an effort to develop cultural ties. The government has approved 16 African countries as outbound destinations for Chinese tourists, including Ethiopia, Kenya, and Zimbabwe. This pushed the number of Africa's Chinese tourists to 110,000 in 2005, a 100 percent increase over 2004, according to Chinese government figures.

In particular, the US cannot afford to lose its status as THE place for the best and brightest in the world to get an education. The brain draw of US universities is the enduring insurance of maintaining innovation, and a widespread deep understanding of American values among the influential classes of other countries.

h/t Simon World

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

GW Bush, First Citzen

I'm afraid the blogging has been sparce with a lot of business to attend to, but this is important stuff I wanted to pass on. A recent copyrighted Boston Globe article detailing GW Bush's practice of writing 'signing statements' when he signs laws, many of which run directly contradictory to the very letter of the law being signed.

March 9, [2006]: Justice Department officials must give reports to Congress by certain dates on how the FBI is using the USA Patriot Act to search homes and secretly seize papers.
Bush's signing statement: The president can order Justice Department officials to withhold any information from Congress if he decides it could impair national security or executive branch operations.

Dec. 30, 2005: US interrogators cannot torture prisoners or otherwise subject them to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.
Bush's signing statement: the president, as commander in chief, can waive the torture ban if he decides that harsh interrogation techniques will assist in preventing terrorist attacks.

Dec. 30: When requested, scientific information ''prepared by government researchers and scientists shall be transmitted [to Congress] uncensored and without delay."
Bush's signing statement: The president can tell researchers to withhold any information from Congress if he decides its disclosure could impair foreign relations, national security, or the workings of the executive branch.

Aug. 8: The Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and its contractors may not fire or otherwise punish an employee whistle-blower who tells Congress about possible wrongdoing.
Bush's signing statement: The president or his appointees will determine whether employees of the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can give information to Congress.

Dec. 23, 2004: Forbids US troops in Colombia from participating in any combat against rebels, except in cases of self-defense. Caps the number of US troops allowed in Colombia at 800.
Bush's signing statement: Only the president, as commander in chief, can place restrictions on the use of US armed forces, so the executive branch will construe the law ''as advisory in nature."

Dec. 17: The new national intelligence director shall recruit and train women and minorities to be spies, analysts, and translators in order to ensure diversity in the intelligence community.
Bush's signing statement: The executive branch shall construe the law in a manner consistent with a constitutional clause guaranteeing ''equal protection" for all. (In 2003, the Bush administration argued against race-conscious affirmative-action programs in a Supreme Court case. The court rejected Bush's view [this is a clear case where the signing statement directly contravenes prior U.S. Supreme Court decisions].)

Oct. 29: Defense Department personnel are prohibited from interfering with the ability of military lawyers to give independent legal advice to their commanders.
Bush's signing statement: All military attorneys are bound to follow legal conclusions reached by the administration's lawyers in the Justice Department and the Pentagon when giving advice to their commanders.

Aug. 5: The military cannot add to its files any illegally gathered intelligence, including information obtained about Americans in violation of the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches.
Bush's signing statement: Only the president, as commander in chief, can tell the military whether or not it can use any specific piece of intelligence.

Nov. 6, 2003: US officials in Iraq cannot prevent an inspector general for the Coalition Provisional Authority from carrying out any investigation. The inspector general must tell Congress if officials refuse to cooperate with his inquiries.
Bush's signing statement: The inspector general ''shall refrain" from investigating anything involving sensitive plans, intelligence, national security, or anything already being investigated by the Pentagon. The inspector cannot tell Congress anything if the president decides that disclosing the information would impair foreign relations, national security, or executive branch operations.

Nov. 5, 2002: Creates an Institute of Education Sciences whose director may conduct and publish research ''without the approval of the secretary [of education] or any other office of the department."
Bush's signing statement: The president has the power to control the actions of all executive branch officials, so ''the director of the Institute of Education Sciences shall [be] subject to the supervision and direction of the secretary of education."

Hat tip to Boston Progressive.

Let your Senator or Representative know if you think this constitutional back door is dangerous and needs to be stopped.