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Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Joe Barsugli points out a potentially dangerous casual comment in my blog entry on Condoms and AIDS. I wrote that I vaguely remembered that spermicides kill HIV potentially preventing infection even if condoms leak. Joe writes

"... your info on spermicides (Nonoxynol-9) is out of date. It is currently thought that N9 increases the chance of HIV transmission (because of irritation), at least for anal sex."

Joe is an atmospheric scientist, so he isn't an officially qualified expert.

More generally I think I should remind the reader that these are random thoughts. No one should make important health decisions based on the top of the head thoughts of an economist or even, I suppose, the informed comments of an atmospheric scientist.

Anyway thanks Joe.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Looks like the Ayatollah Ali Sistani fan clubhouse is getting crowded. My reading of the latest lead editorial of the Washington Post is "We agree with Sistani and disagree with Bush".

Just hope the guy remembers who took time out from his busy schedule of procrastinating to tell him that Caspian Sturgeon have scales.
Random thoughts on the corporate income tax.

Why do we have a corporate income tax at all ? There is a debate as to whether it would be better to eliminate double taxation of dividends or to expense investment. The corporate income tax is the combination of double taxation of dividends and taxation of reinvested profits. If there is a debate as to which part of it is more aweful, why not just eliminate it ?

pro forma disclaimer
[I understand perfectly well that a huge tax proposal is a terrible idea here and now (meaning here on planet earth and so long as human nature is human nature). Also I know that there is a huge literature on the topic which I should read and haven't.]

I think that we have a corporate income tax because people think of corporations as very rich individuals. The argument that owners of small businesses are richer on average than shareholders of large corporations has never convinced ordinary people.

There is a theoretical public finance argument (Diamond and Mirrlees) that the corportate income tax rate should be 1-epsilon. The proof is mathematically correct, of course, but it assumes that corporations are profit maximizing machines. That is, it is assumed that executive compensation is like any other cost. To apply the result to the real world, it is necessary to decide what corporations really maximize.

I am going to imagine starting almost fresh. We want to take money from corporations. Is there a series of arguments that leads us to taxing profits plus wages and salaries of employees up to a ceiling as opposed to something else ? Notice I have snuck FICA in with the corporate income tax.

The corporation has a cash flow from sales. A tax on sales would be very silly because the merger of two corporations eliminates sales from one to the other and we don't want corporations to merge for tax reasons. The closest thing to a tax on all cash flow which makes any sense is a value added tax.

Replacing the corporate income tax with a value added tax would be a bad idea. The value added tax creates an incentive to reduce the scale of production. This is not at all what we want. In particular people want jobs. We like it when corporations hire someone and payi him his marginal product. This has 0 effect on profits and increases value added. It should not be punished by the tax system. Some of us value equality and think that executives are way overpaid. OK so how about a tax on value added and a subsidy on employment ? That is tax value added and give back $Wbar per employee where wbar is total aggregate wage and salary income divided by the number of employees. This means an incentive to hire someone and pay him less than the average wage and a disincentive to pay more. OK OK I got greedy and asked for a huge progressive shift.

Of course this is still no good. It no longer penalizes employment but it penalizes investment (as does the corporate income tax). I think a good modification is to subsidize investment in mechanical equipment not including transportation equipment. This is an existing NIPA category so it is currently measured. Certainly once tax treatment of mechanical equipment, transportation equipment and structures are totally different, there will be creative redefinition.

Hve I gotten back to the corporate income tax ? Well no, there is symmetric treatment of debt and equity. There is no deduction (for tax purposes) of the cost of stock options. The indirect tax on employment has become wildly progressive instead of being regressive as is the current payroll tax.

Let's see two changes.
a) the corporation raises genius execs salary from 1 million to 2 million. With the current system, other things equal (including genius' work effort) this reduces tax liabilities. Whith the proposal it has no effect. Do we want to take less money from corporations because they raised someone's salary from huge to immense ?
b) The corporation is a monopoly and it has chosen the price to maximize profits. Thus it maximizes after tax profits. If it cuts production increases and sales and costs increase equally. This has 0 effect on profits and corporate income tax liabilities. It increases the payroll and thus increases payroll tax liabilities. Thus it is punished. Under the plan there should be no effect on tax liabilities. Do we want to punish monopolies for cutting prices ?
I am trying to figure why the post below didn't appear in Matther Yglesias' track back from his interesting argument on good incentive effects of taxes called taxation and distribution. There mr cyberpace and Matt's blog program is that clear enough ?

Saturday, January 17, 2004

Matthew Yglesias has a post on how progressive taxation can improve the pre tax distribution of income. Now, for a long time, I have been meaning to write a semi scholarly paper on beneficial incentive effects of taxes, thus I am even more than usually peeved at being shown up by a philosophy concentrator half my age.

Yglesias' point is that progressive taxes give firms an incentive to distribute their payroll equally. He notes as evidence that in the 50's with high income taxes and no great society programs, the US income distribution was much more equal than it is now. I add that high tax countries have much more equal pre-tax income distributions than the US does.

I think the argument is clearly sound. The magnitude of the effect is hard to estimate, but it is hard not to believe that there is some such effect. The closest thing I know to this argument in the Economics literature is an article by Macdonald and Solow in the AER in 1984 which Yglesias probably didn't read in nursery school. To me a point is that, even with very strong assumptions, economic theory suggests that no tax market outcomes are Pareto efficient which is a very weak result compared to welfare maximizing.

There are many reasons why incentive effects of taxes might be welfare improving. Actually most of the other arguments imply that taxes can be part of a Pareto improving intervention.

1) also in the post if executive compensation is inefficiently high because there are imperfect mechanisms to enforce shareholder rights, then the effect of taxes on executive compensation can bring the economy towards the efficient outcome.

2) When people talk about economic incentives they often use phrases like "selling out" (at least they used to). This implies that people believe that there is a choice between doing something socially useful and making money. It contrasts wildly with the idea that the social value of work is equal to its market return.

Imagine for a second that the people who say "selling out" are not totally confused. Let's say that they know of cases in which they can chose between helping society and making money (examples below). Thus greed and altruism compete. Progressive taxation weakens the greed motive. This can be good.

It is clear why such effects don't appear in standard simple economics models. According to standard simple assumptions, economic agents are totally selfish so they balance greed and laziness not greed, laziness and altruism. No one really believes people are selfish, but economists tend to assume that it is usually a relatively harmless assumption when considering behavior in response to taxes.

So the promised examples. How can income maximizing work and social welfare maximizing work differ ? The simplest case (which I really honestly thought of on my own long ago) is that doing something for a poor person can be worth more utils and fewer dollars than doing something similar for a rich person. Consider two doctors, one works in Beverly Hills, the other treats homeless people. The first should certainly have a higher income. Most people would guess that the second does more for human health. If you think homeless people are un helpable think of some other underserved group.
This is close the Yglesias' argument. The basic problem with the market is that the happiness of a rich person counts for more in dollars than the happiness of a poor person. This means that how much you help people (in utils) and how much money you make are different. This means that there is a conflict between the desire to help people and the desire to make money. This means that the incentive effects of taxes can be good.

Now more extreme examples. One way in which greed can be bad and even Pareto inefficient is if it leads to corruption of public officials. Now is the corruption is achieved with bribes, taxes are no help as bribes are not reported. What about the revolving door ? In the model public policy is distorted by bribes paid in the form of high wage jobs (implicitly) promised to the public officials after they retire. I don't for a minute address the question of whether this model has anything to do with reality (perish the thought). If public officials had any shame about selling out and taxes were highly progressive, this form of corruption wouldn't work.

It is often hard to prosecute fraud. Also breach of implicit contracts is legal but may have bad economic effects similar those due to, well, breach of contract. If there are implicit contracts greed is not so good. That is, at least, it is not the efficiency maximizing incentive

For all of the greed vs laziness vs altruism arguments it is impossible to evaluate the sign of the effect on welfare of the incentive effects of taxes without knowing which of the two choices (greed vs altruism or greed vs laziness) is more elastic. I sure guess that the bad incentive effects are stronger than the good ones (I'm lazy as mud). However, the good effects are completely ignored in most welfare calculations.

There are other cases in which incentive effects of taxes can be desirable.

One is if there is dissipative signalling. This is a Harvard topic (do to A Michael Spence who went on to be dean of the FAS). In a simple model, students learn nothing useful at university but go there to prove they are smart enough to get through it without too much effort. It is possible two write a model in which it is rational to go to university even though nothing useful is taught (job market signalling) The level of pointless and exhausting signalling (showing off) required to convince employers that one is smart is endogenous. Progressive taxation implies that less effort is wasted on signalling. It is possible to write models in which progressive taxation is Pareto improving.

Now greed is not the only problem here. Many of Dean Spence's former students don't show off for money.

I am sure there are many other examples.

Brad De Long has a long excerpt from the meeting where Bush appears to have decided to eliminate double taxation of dividends. The clinching argument seems to have been that eliminating double taxation of dividends will cause stock prices to rise (true) and so will improve corporate balance sheets (among other effects) and so will cause increased investment (other things equal) and so is a demand stimulous.

I think there is something general here about how economists can trick non economists with pseudo theory. The phrase in my mind is cherry picking economic theory. Brad has written about this and Krugman has written a lot about this (under heading the accidental theorist).

I think it is possible to help non economists protect themselves.

How do you Know an economist is snowing you ?

A) Never buy an economic argument without numbers attached. A key form of innumeracy is to pay attention to the sign of an effect but not have a clue as to it's magnitude. It is tempting to imagine that if say a policy has 10 good effects and 1 bad effect it is good. This is not arithmetic. I think a defence against an economists snow job is

Economist "eliminating double taxation of dividends will have an imediate positive effect on demand because it will cause an increase in stock prices which will improve corporate balance sheets and cause increased investment"

Pres. "That is a fascinating argument. Do you have a back of the envelope calculation on how many billions more investment there should be in 2003 ?"

Economist "uhm well no"

Pres. "I see. So you don't take that argument seriously at all but just pulled it out of your hat to wow me. You tried to snow me. That's one strike. Two more and you are fired"

B) If anyone mentions only one channel from policy to economic outcomes he is probably hiding something.

Economist "eliminating double taxation of dividends will have an imediate positive effect on demand because it will cause an increase in stock prices which will improve corporate balance sheets and cause increased investment"

Pres. "That is a fascinating argument. Is there any other way in which double taxation of dividends might affect investment. For example is relatively favorable treatment for reinvested profits an incentive to re invest more ?"

a) Economist "There is no other effect at all"

Pres. " You are trying to snow me. That's one strike. Two more and you are fired"

b) Economist "the other effects all imply more investment"

Pres. "Explain"

Economist "Well it is good for going public" (Hubbard could do better)

P You are trying to snow me ...

Economist) well you might imagine that taxing dividends is an incentive to reinvest but, you know, sooner or later the corporation has to pay dividends to get money to its shareholders so taxing dividends is really neutral (this is like argument that corporate income tax has no distortionary effects in the first place but hey wait ...).

Pres. Can't corporations buy back shares ? Why did DEC shares have positive value when their annual reports opened DEC paid no dividend last year, DEC has never paid a dividend, DEC will never pay a dividend ? You are trying to snow me ...

C) Is the economist assuming that economic agents are even more clueless than you ?

P. The last step from the balance sheet to investment makes the implicit assumption that the link between balance sheets and investment is automatic and it doesn't matter why the balance sheet improved. I should know more about this (I am just guessing) but don't balance sheet effects have something to do with banks willingness to lend and investors willingness to buy bonds ? That is something to do with being good for creditors who are after the same pie as shareholders ? Wouldn't something which makes it better for firms to pay dividends make it less good for them to keep liquid assets ? Isn't this a problem for banks and bondholders ? Are you assuming that banks just look at the share price and don't try to figure out why it has changed ?

Well in this case P is clearly flailing.

Economist "Sir you are clearly totally befuddled. I can explain it all very clearly. I will write up a 5 page explanation of why that argument is silly for tomorrow"

Pres. "I see. So you don't take that argument seriously at all but just pulled it out of your hat to wow me. You tried to snow me. That's one strike. Two more and you are fired"

D) is the economist assuming that everyone who is not an economist knows things that he and his smart fellow economists are still debating and have infinite mathematical abilities ?

yes always. Live with it but ask "what would happen if people weren't as smart as you are assuming".

E) So Paul what do you think of this neat argument Glenn just made ?

So recall tool kit for not getting snowed by economists

A) ask for a back of the envelope calculation. No calculation means he hasn't thought about the issue. Doens't want to say means he was counting on your innumeracy. Actually ask for two back of the envelope calculations with explanations of why the results are so different. If the results aren't markedly different he is cheating.

B) Ask for list of important channels of effects of policy. There will be more than one and they won't all point the same way.

C) Read the Lucas critique paper. It really isn't that hard. If the guy is an economist he has considered it and if he doesn't want to say how it is related he is cheating.

E) Finally (obviously) you want debate pro and con so you can use one economist to demystify the other.

Back to history. It seems part of the problem was that O'Neill was not willing and able to debate Hubbard on the balance sheet channel argument. It should have been easy to show that the argument needed more work before it was used as the basis of policy formulation.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Red alert.

There is one danger to Iraq that Ayatollah Sistani sure won't do anything about -- the imposition of Islamic law.

I am amazed to read (and amazed I missed) that the US established Iraqi governing council suddenly passed an "order decreeing abolition of Iraq's uniform civil codes in favor of religious law" meaning Sharia for moslems. Iraqi women protest. Western newspapers except for the lefty Financial times (not joking about lefty) ignore the news.

Al Qaeda attacks us so we go to war to replace a gender neutral civil code with Sharia ???

The decree does not have legal force because Bremer has not co signed.

I consider to share Matthew Yglesias’ view that Ayatollah Sistani is one of the few reasons to have any hope for the future of Iraq. Therefore, I think it is important that we try to help him out when we can.

Oddly I dare suggest that I might have something to tell the Ayatollah about whether Caspian Sturgeon is Halal. Ayatollah Sistani does not seem to be sure whether Caspian Sturgeon have scales. Now I have personally eaten part of a sturgeon and I recall that it had extremely large scales (causing the pattern on the side of the sturgeon).

In spite of a background in biology I was unsure whether Caspian sturgeon might be a scale-less species. I turns out that Caspian sturgeon is just a generic term for 3 species, including Beluga sturgeon, and that they have scutes. So what are “scutes” ? I actually remember the word as the name of a Drosophilla mutant. Indeed google seemed pretty fixed on the Drosophilla mutant but hyperdictionary makes it clear that, in the context of fish and presumably halal, a scute is a kind of scale.

Thus IMHO moslems can eat caviar with no haram done.

Mark Kleiman

"I suggested a while ago that politicians ought to be more willing to change their views in the face of new evidence, and should be more frank about having done so. A reader comments with an aphorism I wish I'd said (and probably will):

There are only three types of people who maintain complete consistency on complex subjects in the face of changing evidence: the stupid, the dishonest, and the insane. We require our politicians to be one of the three."

Who ever thought we would hit the trifecta ?

Well actually I'm not yet convinced that Bush is insane.

The worlds newest profession

Hey get a load of those sims. a snippet "on eBay. The high-end rate for Sims "prostitutes," about 500,000 simoleans, fetches about $15." Note this is for cyber sex.

Even more alarmingly, "Everquest, the most popular of the games among Americans, has 430,000 subscribers who spend an average of 20 hours a week in a vast medieval kingdom. (Its addictive quality has earned it the nickname Evercrack.) ".

Now I have 3 points to make as an economist.

1) I have never been in Sim city or Everquest. I control my habit by a simple rule. I never pay anything for any web event. To date, the total spending on my web addiction was when someone else [name supressed to protect the overgenerous] paid to buy out adds on this site.

2) How the hell can US productivity be growing so fast if people are doing things like spending 20 hours a week in Everquest ? My guess is that some of that time si spent by people in cubicles who should be working. My explanation is that it doesn't really matter how much office work office workers do (the dramatic effects of downsizing and de layering on productivity also suggest this).

3) Haven't various smart people been wondering why college educated men are dropping out of the labor force like flies ?

The only guess that made sense to me is some kind of wealth effect. Their wages have gotten very high and many got out of stock before the bubble burst, so now they can afford a year long unpaid vacation or early retirement on savings. This was hard to reconcile with heavy consumer indebtedness.

Now I have a new theory. The American overeducated male work force is being decimated by cybercrack. The guys are so busy playing on the web that they just don't have time to look for work. And this is just the beginning. Scary thought no ?

So I figure we need a new role playing game. Cyberholics anonymous.

Hi I'm Robert W. and I'm a cyberholic.
Briefer on O'Neill. I do not think he is backing down. I think that he is just stating a fact when he claims that his statements about Bush in early 2001 and Iraq were overinterpreted. I even thought that before he said it. I write this because I think it is clearly true.

Aside from the question of truth, bitter partisan enemies of G W Bush (like me) would help the cause by being very nice to O'Neill. He is an angry man who has the goods on Bush. Guys you want him to stay more angry with Bush than with you. Calling him a coward is not only stating a falsehood it risks pissing him off.

[edited spellling]

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

The O’Neill book (technically written by Suskind).

It is remarkable how quickly discussion of the book (except by Brad DeLong) has become discussion of the first point on the agenda of the first Bush cabinet meeting (Iraq). I hope journalists take their job more seriously than I take my little hobby and have actually read some of the book. I admit I am writing about comments about comments about a 60 minutes interview. The narrowness might be due to my ignorance.

I have the sense that the issue has become either

Dem Spin: Was Bush strangely obsessed with Saddam Hussein long before 9/11 causing the US response to 9/11 to be directed in large part to an evil regime which had nothing to do with 9/11 ?
(suggested answer yes)

Republican Spin: Did Bush declare an intention to invade Iraq (as opposed to an intention to change the regime by some means) in his first cabinet meeting. (suggested answer no).

Everything after that first cabinet meeting is to be considered once it is cleared up whose spin is unspun (on the 12th of never that is).

My suspicion is that this is because I am not the only one who can’t wait to read the book before talking about what it says.

On that narrow issue I have some thoughts. On the Dem spin, I think the answer is obviously yes and everyone who follows the news knows that it is yes and knew it before O’Neill appeared on 60 minutes. This is an example of something recently mentioned by (I think) Josh Marshall (maybe in this context). A scoop is when a public figure says something everyone knows is true but which no prominent official has admitted. Also see “In front of your nose” by George Orwell.

On the Republican spin the answer is clearly no as, for example, O’Neill claims. Regime change does not logically imply an invasion. Hypothetically it could have been achieved by a coup or a popular uprising. Hypothetically it could have been achieved because Saddam and all the Ba’athists decided to retire. I think it is already known that the discussion of what to do about Iraq was based in part on belief (or feigned belief) in the possibility of a coup or uprising.

This means that some lefty bloggers who “interpret” O’Neill as having said that Bush had decided to invade by Feb 2001 and lied to the American people misinterpreted him. It also means that the hypothesis that O’Neill has caved under pressure is premature. His clarifications are clearly really clarifications not retractions (so far).

I actually disagree with Brad on one point. He said (more or less) that Clinton’s policy consisted of containment … and hoping really hard that Saddam would be overthrown by a coup or popular uprising. I think the Clinton administration attempted to arrange a coup in a covert operation that seems to have stayed, at least, low profile. My understanding is that part of the basis for State dept and CIA suspicion of Ahmad Chalabi is that he claimed that with money etc. he could arrange a coup and failed to deliver even much of an attempted coup.

If this vague memory of mine corresponds to reality, it is relevant to the 1st Cabinet meeting issue. The reason is that the frustrations of the Clinton administration should have made it clear that it was unlikely that the Iraqi regime could be changed within four years without an invasion. I think this is clearly true. This means that the decision Saddam Hussein must go is, in practice, equivalent to the decision to invade, although Bush probably didn’t think so. My guess is that the relatively well informed understood this and that they were only pretending to consider a coup or uprising as other than very improbable to postpone the showdown between hawks and doves.

In any case, O’Neill’s original point is valid and striking. The fact that the no 1 item on the agenda of Bush’s first cabinet meeting was Saddam Hussein means that Bush had an unhealthy obsession with Saddam Hussein which he hadn’t shared with the American people.

Also I think it is fair to say that the Bush administration assertion that disarmament means regime change was incoherent. Notice this has nothing to do with O’Neill or what they were saying in private or anything like that. It is a clear contradiction in terms. At the time, two interpretations were possible, that it was a climb down or that it had nothing to do with Bush administration decisions. O’Neill’s evidence makes it seem more likely that the second interpretation is correct. The clearly nonsensical statement would, in that case, be an attempt to deceive, among others, the American people. Still the nonsense has long been in front of our noses.

Well the point was supposed to be that there is way too much focus on the first cabinet meeting and not say on economic policy about which O’Neill knows a good bit more.
Speaking of nonsense, I am amazed that the Bush administration still argues that Saddam Hussein was given a last chance to disarm and chose not to take it. That is clearly a totally crazy claim. He couldn’t take the chance to disarm, because he had no where nearly enough chemical and biological weapons. Imagine if Saddam had revealed then destroyed everything found in Iraq since the invasion (including long buried shells which might contain blister agent). There is no way that this would have convinced me, let alone Bush, that he had disarmed. Remember we really believed that he had tons of chemical and biological weapons (at least I sure did). If, in fact, he doesn’t have the arms in question, he can’t disarm
I remain a fan of Ayatollah Ali Husaini Sistani. As far as I can tell the link leads to an authentic web page he sponsors.

Now it is very odd that Paul Bremer has trouble communicating directly with Sistani. I just asked him what he thought of various electoral systems designed to prevent tyranny of the majority.

I got the link from the always wonderful Matthew Yglesias
who points out the q and a page. Why doesn't the vatican have something like that ?

Anyway not only is Ali Sistani wired and accessible, he also is the one in favor of attempting true democracy now. Maybe I am so enthused because he seems to be the only person in the universe who has managed to make George Bush compromise on anything.

Bremer is trying to spin their disagrement as Sistani is an advocate for the Shiites and he (Bremer) is aiming for balance, but the now withdrawn CPO-IGC proposal was for fake democracy in which the US nominates people who nominate committees to hold "caucuses" to send delegates back to the center. These would not be the sort of caucuses they are having in Iowa.

To me it is fairly clear that the reaon the Bush administration does not want elections in Iraq before the elections here is that they want to keep the power for a while. That is, I think the technical problem of making voter lists in a country where almost everyone has a ration card is a fake issue. Also the tyranny of the majority risk can be avoided with a bit of gerrymandering (nothing extreme like the did in Texas would be needed).

Bremer and the people telling him what to do (Bush ? more likely Cheney) clearly want to hold onto their not democratically based power in Iraq for a while. I think this might be best, but it is strange that a grand Ayatollah is arguing for true democracy now and the US for democracy later. It is not strange that Sistani seems to be speaking frankly and the CPO to be spinning like crazy.

The current proposal to have real elections in Baghdad and the Shiite South but not in the rest of the country is so crazy I didn't even imagine it as a joke. How could they come up with such an idea

1) there really is a census problem in Kurdish controlled areas.

Might be part of it. They don't have ration cards

2) have real elections in part of the country but not the rest is a compromise. They don't want a confrontation with Sistani but would be humiliated by giving in.

This is so dumb that it might be right. The point is that the Bush administration has never compromised before. Maybe just the thought of not getting their way on something is tying them into knots.

3) They believe that Sistani cares only about Shi'ites so this will be fine and dandy with him.

This seems to me to be buying into their own spin. They make a tactical argument to impugn the motives of someone who disagrees with them, then convince themselves. Sounds like the Bush administration to me.

4) What must be avoided at all costs are votes in the Sunni triangle where the Ba'ath party has strong support.

This would mean that the Bush administration does not accept democracy. If some people would vote for the wrong party, they must not be allowed to vote. This is disturbing because the Ba'ath party would not win an election or anything. It seems to be unacceptable to the Bush administration to have *any* Iraqi legislators who attack Bush. I don't think it's a good idea to keep the problem underground by blocking democratic representation for the, to put it very gently, misguided Iraqis who are nostalgic for Saddam. For one thing I think I am more confident than the Bush administration that they are few in number.

Anyway if I weren't an atheist I would thank God for Ayatollah Sistani.
I realise that Kleiman quoted Suellentrop in full. Suellentrop's reply to many criticisms is

"I was obviously too oblique, given the number of readers in the Fray (and my inbox) that have objected to this piece. My point was simply that Wesley Clark's statements aren't being treated like Howard Dean's statements.

Perhaps it's because Dean is the front-runner and therefore his statements are receiving a higher degree of scrutiny. (That's my guess, by the way.) Or perhaps it's because Clark's supporters are right, and the fact that he was a general inoculates him somewhat from this kind of criticism.

Is Clark really the "electable Dean," or does he just seem that way because he's being judged by a different standard for now? "

This does not respond to the criticisms. Blatantly false paraphrases are not "closer scrutiny". The degree of close scrutiny required to fix what Clark did and did not say is evidently too much for Suellentrop.

The introduction to the original article clearly
states that it is an article about Clark's loose lips not how Clark's statements could be distorted (which is what it is). Suellentrop wrote "But Clark has the same propensity for speaking imprecisely off the cuff." note the claim that Clark spoke imprecisely NOT that some irresponsible journalist might paraphrase imprecisely.

If Suellentrop's post to "The Fray" is seriously considered and not imprecise or off the cuff, then I stand by my view that he is a disgrace to journalism. The post does not concede that he misconstrued Clark's statements. It certainly does not state that his article was meant as a parody of bad journalism. This is the only way that the article can be defended as is shown by the fact that people who are clearly trying to be nice to Suellentrop can only defend him by charitably interpreting his much different defence as equivalent to saying "I wrote an aweful article on purpose as a parody."
Six quotes overheard in New Hampshire.
By Chris Suellentrop
Posted Monday, Jan. 12, 2004, at 5:47 PM PT

[I am late on this and I am quoting Slate without permission. It seems that Chris Suellentrop has gotten a lot of attention very quickly. This article is harshly criticized by Joshua Micah Marshall, Mark Kleiman and Kevin Drum, among, I suspect many others. I would like to join the chorus. The article is almost comically dishonest. I fear that Suellentrop will benefit from the notoriety, but I do think that Slate should consider raising its editorial standards to something positive. Needless to say, Drum, Kleiman and Marshall do a better (and much briefer) job than I do. Drum notes that some of his commenters claim that the Suellentrop article was comically dishonest not almost comically dishonest, because it was meant as a parody of bad journalism. Also, I just now looked up Kleiman's post to get a permalink and found that he has added an update to that effect.

My comments in brackets]

Whether it's true or not, Gen. Wesley Clark's rise in the polls in New Hampshire is being partly attributed to some voters having "cold feet" about former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, especially Dean's penchant for making statements that are quickly seized upon by Fox News or the Republican Party as evidence of unpatriotic disloyalty. But Clark has the same propensity for speaking imprecisely off the cuff. Here are some statements I heard him make last week during my trip with him in New Hampshire:

Bush was "warned" about 9/11? "President Bush didn't do his job as commander in chief in the early months of his administration. He was warned that the greatest threat to the United States of America was Osama Bin Laden, yet on the 11th of September in 2001, the United States had no plan for dealing with the threat posed by Osama Bin Laden. The ship of state was on autopilot. There were good CIA officers and FBI officers and everybody doing what they'd been taught to do, but the essential leadership process of putting focus on the resources of the United States, and giving these agencies a real target and a mission, it wasn't done. At least, I think that's what the evidence will show if we ever get the results of this presidential commission, and if they've asked the right questions." (Jan. 6, McKelvie Middle School, Bedford.)

[Here the paraphrase is ?Bush was ?warned? about 9/11?. The quote is ?He was warned that the greatest threat to the United States of America was Osama Bin Laden? The paraphrase quotes one word, yes one word out of context. The Bush administration (in the Person of Rice) was specifically told that Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda would be it?s biggest foreign policy problem. Shortening this to Bush was warned is perfectly reasonable. The completely unjustified substitution of ? 9/11? for ?Osama Bin Laden? would make the reader to lazy to read the actual quote think that Clark had claimed that Bush had a much more specific warning (about a specific day). The distortion is so blatant that the article is actually useful, at least, if there is anyone who takes Slate seriously. Clearly this misquote tells us that Clark is well informed and addresses a very important issue and that Suellentrop and the editors of Slate are either either honest idiots or dishonest idiots (or someone parodying dishonest idiots)]

Bush "never intended" to get Osama Bin Laden? "We bombed Afghanistan, we missed Osama Bin Laden, partly because the president never intended to put the resources in to get Osama Bin Laden. All along, right after 9/11, they'd made their mind up, I guess, that we were going to go after Saddam Hussein. That's what people in the Pentagon told me. And they capped the resources, stopped the commitment to Afghanistan, and started shifting to prepare to go after Saddam Hussein." (Jan. 6, McKelvie Middle School, Bedford.)

[Again the paraphrase grossly and obviously distorts the quote. This time it quotes 2 words not one. Clarks claim is that resources were withdrawn from Afganistan as part of building up to Iraq. Again this is demonstrably true (and obvious). The paraphrase would be accurate if Clark had claimed that bush had put no, 0 (zero) resources into getting Bin Laden. It should be obvious to anyone who reads the quote that Clark said no such thing.]

There wasn't a single terrorist in Iraq before the war? "The president was not and has not been held accountable yet for misleading the American people. He is continuing to associate Saddam, Iraq, and the problem of terrorism. Yet the only terrorists that are in Iraq are the people that have come there to attack us." (Jan. 7, Town House, Peterborough.)

[Here I think the paraphrase is accurate if harsh. It is a criticism of the word ?only? which justifies the word single. I think Clark?s substantive claim is accurate and important. To be precise, ?the only? should be ?the vast majority? and Clark should have mentioned Ansar Al Islam in the part of Iraq not controlled by Saddam Hussein. ]

Fifty-five million voters are "ill-informed" dupes of the Christian right? "Now, there's one party in America that's made the United Nations the enemy. And I don't know how many of you have ever read that series of books that's published by the Christian right that's called the "Left Behind" series? Probably nobody's read it up here. But don't feel bad, I'm not recommending it to you. I'm just telling you that according to the book cover that I saw in the airport, 55 million copies have been printed. And in it, the Antichrist is the United Nations. And so there's this huge, ill-informed body of sentiment out there that's just grinding away against the United Nations." (Jan. 7, Fuller Elementary School, Keene.)

[The offensive word ?dupes? is added in the paraphrase. It does not appear in the quote. If Clark had said the number of ill informed voters is 55 million, he would almost certainly be wrong (the number is much higher and I include myself and certainly Suellentrop). Clark is commenting on a book. Suellentrop does not address the contents of the book. ]

Does Islam need an Enlightenment or just "Young men in an Islamic culture cannot get married until they can support a family. No job, no marriage. No marriage, unhappy young men. They get real angry, they feel real frustrated, they feel real powerless. And a certain number of them are being exploited in the mosques by this recruiting network." (Jan. 8, Havenwoods Heritage Heights senior center, Concord.)

[Here the paraphrase sounds absurd because Suellentrop includes the word ?just? which is in no way justified by the quote. Clark made an interesting point addressing an important issue (he might have added that polygyny implies lots of bachelors). The claim that he considers this the one and only cause of Islamic terrorism is completely unfounded. ]

President Bush doesn't even want to find Bin Laden? "Newsweek magazine says he's in the mountains of western Pakistan. And I guess if Newsweek could find him there, we could, too, if we wanted to." (Jan. 8, Havenwoods Heritage Heights senior center, Concord.)

[Arguably this might bring us up to 2 of 6 cases which are not disgraces to journalism (or parodies of disgraces to journalism). The quote does not imply the paraphrase. I think Clark should have added ?bad enough? or something. Of course he might have explained more in the next sentence.
It is, of course, very easy to distort the meaning of statements by cutting one or two sentences out of context. The fact that Suellentrop goes on to ?paraphrase? the brief quotes would have been a red flag to any serious editor. I think it is extraordinary that Suellentrop?s dishonesty is obvious to me even though I have no independent source of information on Clark?s statements.

At first I thought the article might be useful as an example of bad journalism, but now I am not sure. I think the real problems with bad journalism are much more subtle. I hope that journalism this awful will have an effect only on the reputation of Suellentrop and Slate. ]

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

I know this is very late and pretty Italian focused but…

I am amazed at the reaction of Italian politicians and the Corriere Della Sera to the “motivazione” of the sentence of the appeals court of Palermo which absolved Giulio Andreotti of “associazione mafiosa”. According to an article in the July 25 2003 La Repubblica, the appeals court made it very clear that they concluded that Andreotti had been an ally of the mafia until 1980 and that, therefore, his acquittal was, in substance, based on the statute of limitations not innocence in the ordinary sense of the word. Somehow, this has not prevented Italian politicians generally from treating the sentence as a vindication. Even more bizarrely, Italy’s other leading serious newspaper, La Corriere della Sera does not seem to have seen fit to report on the “motivazione della sentenza” at all. This is bizarre. It is the finding of fact of the highest court to have considered the case. Also, although Andreotti could appeal to the highest court of appeal (cassazione) to clear his name, as far as I know, he has not done so, being (as far as I know) satisfied with a acquittal on the grounds of the statute of limitations.

I quote some from La Repubblica 25 April 2003.
The first part of the article notes that the appeals court concluded that after 1980 Andreotti did not help the mafia. Then the article continues with what appears to be a direct quote from the “motivazione della sentenza”.

”Fino agli anni '80 però il giudizio dei giudici è durissimo. "Il senatore Andreotti ha avuto piena consapevolezza che i suoi sodali siciliani intrattenevano amichevoli rapporti con alcuni boss mafiosi, ha, quindi, - scrivono i giudici - a sua volta coltivato amichevoli relazioni con gli stessi boss, ha palesato agli stessi una disponibilità non meramente fittizia, ha loro chiesto favori, li ha incontrati". “

The motivazione does seem clear enough (if correctly quoted). I translate the last sentence in my quotation of the article as well as I can. My effort at translation is in square brackets. I can’t gurarantee that I am accurately translating La Repubblica or (certainly) that La Repubblica is accurately quoting the explanation (motivazione) of the verdict.

[Senatore Andreotti was fully aware that his Sicilian allies maintained a friendly relationship with some Mafia capi, had, therefore, in turn cultivated a friendly relationship with the same capi, he made clear to them a willingness to be helpful which was not merely fake, he asked them favours, he met them]

This seems quite damning to me. For some reason it has been almost completely overlooked by Italian politicians and commentators. I personally believe that it is an accurate quotation. I haven’t checked it, but I would imagine that, if it had been a misquotation, Andreotti would have sued La Repubblica. I have seen no reference to such a suit in my search as described below.

To me the really weird thing is that the Corriere della Sera does not seem to have reported on the explanation of the verdict (motivazione della sentenza) at all.
Andreotti in Corsera

I searched for the word Andreotti in the Corriere della Sera and found on the 2nd of May 2003 the report on the verdict. Here note that the court seems to have said that it doesn’t have to consider alleged crimes committed bifore 1982 because of the statute of limitations. This might imply that the findings of fact quoted in the article in La Repubblica from the motivazione have less legal standing than statements about crimes the court considered itself required to judge.

Mafia, Andreotti assolto anche in appello

SENTENZA - La Corte presieduta da Salvatore Scaduti ha emesso la sentenza con cui conferma quella di primo grado, che aveva assolto Andreotti con la formula «perché il fatto non sussiste», dopo poco più di otto ore di camera di consiglio: i giudici si erano ritirati per decidere questa mattina alle 9.45. La Corte ha ritenuto «di non doversi procedere» per il reato associativo a causa della prescrizione e ha dunque confermato l'assoluzione pronunciata dal Tribunale tre anni fa. I pm Daniela Giglio e Annamaria Leone avevano chiesto la condanna dell'ex presidente del Consiglio a 10 anni di reclusione.

IL DISPOSITIVO - I giudici hanno diviso il capo d'imputazione in due parti: per i fatti precedenti al 1982, per il quale il senatore a vita era accusato di associazione per delinquere, e quello per il quale è stato accusato di associazione mafiosa. Per la prima imputazione i giudici hanno dichiarato prescritto il reato, mentre per l'accusa di associazione mafiosa hanno confermato l'assoluzione. Il presidente Salvatore Scaduti, durante la lettura dei dispositivo, non ha mai citato la parola assoluzione. Per questo motivo, l' avvocato Giulia Bongiorno, difensore di Andreotti, ha subito gridato in aula «assolto, assolto».

Notice that the verdict does not explicitly include a finding of fact relative to events prior to 1982 (when the law was changed). Andreotti was acquitted for crimes allegedly committed before 1982 because of the statute of limitations.

As noted above the appeals court went on to write a 1.520 page long explanation of the verdict. Such an explanation (motivazione) is required by the Italian constitution. According to La Repubblica, the court appears to have concluded that Andreotti was an ally of the Mafia before 1980, so his acquittal is, in substance, due to the statute of limitations and not do to innocence of monstrous crimes as the word innocence is used outside of courts.

So what more did the Corriere della Sera have to say about Andreotti. Since 2 May 2003 the name “Andreotti” has appeared in 20 articles in the Corriere della Sera. I don’t see how they could discuss the motivazione of the acquittal by the Palermo appeals court without using the name Andreotti.

None of the articles seems to note the court’s finding that Andreotti was a friend of the mafia.

Here they are in reverse chronological order.

20 Berlusconi: «I pm non ricorrano in Cassazione» - L'intervento del presidente del Consiglio a «Radio anch'io»

Reference to Andreotti: “Berlusconi ha preso spunto dalla sentenza di assoluzione di Giulio Andreotti, criticando «la pervicacia dei suoi accusatori» che sono ricorsi in appello dopo la sentenza di proscioglimento di primo grado.” (Berlusconi criticizes the prosecutors for appealing the original absolution of Andreotti).

19 Violini (e stecche) di onorevoli cantori -

Reference to Andreotti:” Ma non ci era stato spiegato per anni, da Tortora a Contrada, da Andreotti a Previti, che non bastavano le testimonianze dirette e …” Ironic general comment about how strong the burden of proof seems to be for some well known defendents.

18 Il Csm difende i giudici dalle accuse del premier - Documento votato a maggioranza, contrari i membri della Cdl

Reference to Andreotti:“Il documento è stato approvato dopo l’apertura di una pratica a tutela del magistrati di Milano (processi Imi-Sir/Lodo Mondadori), di Palermo (processo Andreotti) e dei pm che indagano sul caso Telekom-Serbia dopo le accuse di politicizzazione rivolte loro da Berlusconi.”

The top disciplinary and administrative body of the judicial branch responds to the accusations made by the prime minister against judges (see 20 above).

17 Melania Mazzucco conquista la notte dello Strega - Diretta televisiva per «Porta a porta», con Bruno Vespa

Reference to Andreotti: “Assente Giulio Andreotti, raucedine e febbre,”
Andreotti is ill and doesn’t appear on a TV talk show honoring an author.

Sandro Ciotti

A collecton of photos with no text. I have no idea why the search for Andreotti turned this up.

15 Fini: «Carraro se ne vada, è meglio per tutti» - Sport e politica sono sempre più intrecciati

Reference to Andreotti:IL CLUB - Oggi verrà inaugurato il Roma Club Montecitorio, che segue l’esempio di Inter e Milan. Al senatore a vita Giulio Andreotti verrà offerta la presidenza onoraria.
Andreotti is named honorary president of a soccer club named after the lower house of parliament.

14 Berlusconi: «I giudici matti». Replica di Ciampi - Intervista alla Voce di Rimini e alla rivista inglese «The Spectator»

References to Andreotti: ha commentato l'accusa ad Andreotti di essere un mafioso.
And : se secondo lui Giulio Andreotti sia un mafioso, Berlusconi infatti risponde: «Ma no, ma no. Andreotti è troppo intelligente. Guardate, Andreotti non è mio amico. Lui è di sinistra. Hanno creato questa menzogna per dimostrare …

The prime minister says that magistrates are all crazy as shown by the fact that they accused Andreotti of being a mafiosa. He also claims that Andreotti is a leftist.

13 «E Saddam scambiò il cardinale per una spia» - LA STORIA - Il raìs segreto

References to Andreotti: “ci furono sempre forti riserve da parte dell'allora ministro degli Esteri, Giulio Andreotti, il quale favoriva un folto gruppo di industriali italiani che commerciavano con l'Iran a scapito delle relazioni con l'Iraq».” Andreotti was opposed to friendly relations with Iraq during the Iran Iraq war.

I 25 anni di pontificato di Giovanni Paolo II

More photos

11 Ulivo ed Svp vincono a Trento, Bolzano e Trieste - Il centrosinistra si impone nelle provinciali

Reference to Carlo Andreotti Not Giulio Andreotti

10 «Assolvete Andreotti per il delitto Pecorelli» - La sentenza attesa per domani in serata

29 ottobre 2003

This is mostly an artiche about another trial. The reference to the trial in Palermo is
NUOVO SCONTRO - A 10 anni dall'inizio della vicenda giudiziaria, a Palermo, a carico di Giulio Andreotti, senatore a vita e sette volte presidente del Consiglio, accusato di mafia e assolto in primo e secondo grado, l'iter non si è ancora concluso. Un nuovo scontro si profila tra l'accusa e la difesa. La Procura generale di Palermo si appresta a depositare ricorso, a 24 ore dai termini previsti per legge, alla sentenza di assoluzione emessa dai giudici della I sezione della Corte di appello del capoluogo siciliano nel maggio scorso.

A report that the prosecution is appealing the acquittal by the appeals court. There is no reference to the motivazione of the sentence which was discussed in La Repubblica 3 months earlier

9 Andreotti: «Sul caso le impronte di Violante» - Incontro con il senatore dopo lassoluzione
Categoria: Primo Piano > CRONACHE
Pubblicato il: 31 ottobre 2003

All about the other trial (in Perugina) a very sympathetic interview.

8 Delitto Pecorelli, la Cassazione assolve Andreotti - La decisione cancella la condanna anche di Tano Badalamenti
La sentenza annulla la condanna a 24 anni come mandante dell'omicidio. Oggi la telefonata di Ciampi al senatore a vita
Pubblicato il: 31 ottobre 2003

Again about the other trial. No references to Palermo.

7 Caso Andreotti, lite fra i poli sul ruolo di Violante - Il senatore a vita ha ricevuto una telefonata da Ciampi
1 Nov 2003

Here the “defendant” in the political debite is Luciano Violante (leader of the ex communists in the lower house) accused by Andreotti of falsely accusing Andreotti. This is mainly part of the reaction to the acquittal in the other trial but there is no reference to the motivazione of the sentence of the appeals court in Palermo.

6 Polemica sulla lettera di Pera ad Andreotti - Il presidente del Senato aveva parlato di «clima feroce»
L'Anm: «Le affermazioni della seconda carica dello Stato mettono in crisi la fiducia dei cittadini nella giustizia»
Categoria: Primo Piano > POLITICA
Pubblicato il: 2 novembre 2003

The national association of magistrates objects to the president of the Senate who wrote a letter to Andreotti denouncing the “political use of justice”. This worries me because the letter is quoted in another article which contains the word Andreotti but which did not show up in the search for Andreotti. I will assume that the article quoting the letter is a side bar and shows up in the search as part of the main article.

5 Andreotti: «Violante ha cercato di incastrarmi» - «Dall'ex presidente dell'Antimafia un'excusatio non petita»
Il senatore a vita accusa il capogruppo Ds: a Palermo non si indagava su Pecorelli: perchè allora inviare lì quella lettera?
Categoria: Primo Piano > POLITICA
Pubblicato il: 6 novembre 2003

Andreotti accuses Violante of trying to frame him again. The reference is mainly to the trial in Perugia. There is no hint in the article that the highest court to have considered the question concluded that Andreotti had been a friend of the mafia. The acquittal of the charge of murder seems to have carried over or the statute of limitations is considered to imply innocence in the ordinary sense of the word.

4 Processo Sme: i giudici, sabato la sentenza - Ultime dichiarazioni spontanee del parlamentare di Forza Italia

Another defendant in another trial, Previtti, accuses his judges rather than defending himself (I am translating Previtti).
Reference to Andreotti: alcune dichiarazioni definite ipocrite che sono state spese in occasione dell'assoluzione di Giulio Andreotti.

3 «Raiot» a teatro, in migliaia per la Guzzanti - I girotondini esultano: siamo tornati

A satirical program is “temporarily” suspended from public TV for legal reasons and so the show is performed in a theatre. Reference to Andreotti: E ovviamente si parla di giustizia («la questione morale va sollevata») e di mafia. Di Andreotti e di Previti (il testo è stato limato fino all’ultimo per evitare querele). Andreotti was mentioned. Care was taken to avoid being sued.

2 «Né potere né denaro». Così parlò Calisto - La caduta del Gran Lattaio

Reference to Andreotti: Democristiano dichiarato, amico di Giulio Andreotti,
The chairman of the board of Parmalat is a friend of Giulio Andreotti.

Norberto Bobbio

More photos

So 20 refences to Andreotti (one with a sidebar). 19 are to Giulio Andreotti and 16 contain text.
Two (15 and 17) present him as an abstractly distinguished person. One (13) refers to his role as foreign minister. Two (8 and 10) report the news that he was absolved in another case by the highest court of appeal. Three (5, 7 and 9) concern his accusations against another politician who he accuses of accusing him unjustly. Five (20,18, 14, 6, 4) concern members of the current majority using the alleged persecution of Andreotti as part of their general case against magistrates who accuse politicians (including in 4 of 5 cases the politician who is quoted). One (2) notes that he was a friend of someone who is in the news for an unrelated reason. One (3) describes the performance in a theatre of a satirical show that risked being considered too hot (politically) for public TV. One (19) is an ironic article alleging that the center right is hypocritical and noting (in the abstract) the very high standard of proof required for accusations against, among others, Andreotti.

None mention the finding of fact by the appeals court of Palermo that "Il senatore Andreotti ha avuto piena consapevolezza che i suoi sodali siciliani intrattenevano amichevoli rapporti con alcuni boss mafiosi, ha, quindi, - scrivono i giudici - a sua volta coltivato amichevoli relazioni con gli stessi boss, ha palesato agli stessi una disponibilità non meramente fittizia, ha loro chiesto favori, li ha incontrati". All of the discussion would make sense only if Andreotti had been found innocent in the ordinary sense of the word, not unpunishable because of the statute of limitations. Andreotti can appeal to to the highest court of appeals in the hope of obtaining a full absolution. It appears that he has chosen not to do so.

Very strikingly most of the accusations which are considered are accusations against the prosecutors accused of persecuting Andreotti.

Monday, January 12, 2004

I repeat as my own statement.

the Italian courts consider Curio Pintus a victim and any suggestion to the contrary in this blog should be disregarded.

I'm still not sure who Curio Pintus is, but anyone who writes a comment on this blog (as he did) gets red carpet treatment.
The following English passage presented between square brackets (which are definitely not to be confused with quotation marks) is presented as is with no guarantees or warrantees whatsoever. Caveat Lector. Neither Curio Pintus nor any other Italian is in any way responsible for any errors or false statements in the passage in square brackets. I do not in any way assert that Curio Pintus ever e-mailed me anything written in Italian with the same or similar meaning.

[Considering clarified my position in the Telekom Serbia affair and having been defined by the Tribunale of Torino (Turin court) as a victim in the case of Marini and others and with the act of that court dated 12/15/03 in which that court proceeds against Marini for criminal defamation and false unsworn testimony considering him a untrustworthy person, I invite you to remove from the site and direct references to my name any reference to that case.

Keeping such notices, which are demonstrated to be untrue, in the site is damaging to my person. Certain that that I have demanded will be taking in serious consideration, awaiting the actions mentioned above I offer good wishes.]

Saturday, January 10, 2004

By the way, who is Curio Pintus ?
It seems that I have another comment. It refers to a post in the archives and seems close to a threat. Oddly my controversial post confined itself to quoting an official transcript of a parliametary committe and a not quite exact quote in a newspaper. In any case, to clarify the matter I post the comment in full

"Ritenendo chiarita la mia posizione nella vicenda Telekom Serbia definita dal Tribunale di Torino quale parte lesa nel procedimento Marini+altri e con la disposizione dello stesso Tribunale in data 15/12/03 nella quale procede contro lo stesso Marini per diffamazione, falso in dichiarazioni considerandolo persona non credibile, Vi invito a togliere dal sito e dal frontespizio del mio nominativo ogni riferimento al caso in oggetto.

Il mantenimento nel sito di dette notizie, dimostrate non veritiere, sono lesive per la mia persona; certo che quanto richiesto venga da Voi preso in buona considerazione, nell'attesa di quanto sopra, porgo distinti saluti


Bottom line is that the Italian courts consider Curio Pintus a victim and any suggestion to the contrary in this blog should be disregarded.