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23 April 2010


Matins: "Social scientists do counterinsurgency" — an important overview by Nicholas Lemann. Effective measures are very important, of course; and General Petraeus, among others, reminds us that thinking big is rarely effective. Beyond trying to decide how to respond to terrorism, however, there lies the problem of sovereign integrity: of the four Middle-East nations that are currently on the boil, the only one strong enough to suppress terrorism is Iran, perhaps our most mortal enemy.

For Americans, the gravest terrorist threat right now is halfway across the world, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. On paper, in all three countries, the experts’ conceptual model works. Lesser terrorist groups remain violent but seem gradually to lose force, and greater ones rise to the level of political participation. At least some elements of the Taliban have been talking with the Afghan government, with the United States looking on approvingly. In Iraq, during the recent elections, some Sunni groups set off bombs near polling places, but others won parliamentary seats. Yet this proof of concept does not solve the United States’ terrorism problem. Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan all have pro-American governments that are weak. They don’t have firm control over the area within their borders, and they lack the sort of legitimacy that would make terrorism untempting. Now that General Petraeus is the head of the Central Command and has authority over American troops in the region, our forces could practice all that he has preached, achieve positive results, and still be unable to leave, because there is no national authority that can be effective against terrorism.

Long ago, great powers that had vital interests far away simply set up colonies. That wound up being one of the leading causes of terrorism. Then, as an alternative to colonialism, great powers supported dictatorial client states. That, too, often led to terrorism. During the Bush Administration, creating democracies (by force if necessary) in the Middle East was supposed to serve American interests, but, once again, the result was to increase terrorism. Even if all terrorism turns out to be local, effective, long-running counterterrorism has to be national. States still matter most. And finding trustworthy partner states in the region of the world where suicide bombers are killing Americans is so hard that it makes fighting terrorism look easy.

Lauds: A word on that fringe theatre in London that has sent two productions to Broadway — showing in theatres on opposite sides of West 48th Street. David Babani and the (Menier) Chocolate Factory. (LA Times; via Arts Journal)

"David has grand dreams and then he actually fulfills them, that's the most impressive thing about him," says Neil Patrick Harris, who starred in Jonathan Larson's "tick, tick... BOOM!" for Babani and then directed a Chocolate Factory production of "The Expert at the Card Table," which also played Los Angeles and Las Vegas. "He's serious, enthusiastic, wildly collaborative and yet he's a scrapper. He gets it done."

In fact, Babani has been so successful that he has drawn some of the theater's biggest names to work at the Chocolate Factory, including Trevor Nunn, who directed "Night Music" and will return for a revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Aspects of Love." Harold Prince and Susan Stroman are co-directing next month's premiere of "Paradise Found," based on the music of Johann Strauss.

Not too shabby for a teenage theater nerd and university dropout. Babani spent vacations and holidays in Los Angeles visiting British relatives — a tradition that which would lead him to a couple of semesters, at age 7, in Scottsdale, Ariz. Those events have informed some of the choices that have brought Babani to an influential position in the theater.

Prime: Since it's Friday, we're only too happy to let Michael Lewis itemize, with his trademark clarity and coherence, three game-changing effects of the SEC's Goldman Sachs case. His peroration will be widely cited:

Indeed, the social effects of the SEC’s action will almost certainly be greater than the narrow legal ones. Just as there was a time when people could smoke on airplanes, or drive drunk without guilt, there was a time when a Wall Street bond trader could work with a short seller to create a bond to fail, trick and bribe the ratings companies into blessing the bond, then sell the bond to a slow-witted German without having to worry if anyone would ever know, or care, what he’d just done.

The part that we especially like, though, is Mr Lewis's clear-headed appraisal of the ACA problem, which amounts to recognizing that there is an ACA problem, sticking to Goldman's coattails like a bad smell. (Bloomberg; via Felix Salmon)

But what’s interesting here is what you appear to take for granted: that ACA has no talent for evaluating the bonds picked by Paulson. After all, if ACA was doing its job it wouldn’t have cared one way or the other what Paulson (then a little-known hedge fund manager) was up to. ACA would have known which bonds were good and which were bad, and picked the good ones.

In their anxiety about Paulson’s motives we can all glimpse their incompetence. They want to know that Paulson has an interest in picking the good ones because they themselves have no clue which ones they are.

But if a CDO manager had no independent ability to select the bonds inside a CDO what, please explain to us, was his financial function? Why did you select ACA to manage your deal?

Tierce: Two economists at Emory, Andrew Francis and Hugo Mialon, have developed a thesis that social tolerance of homosexuality correlates to low rates of HIV infection. If this is true, then the social price of religious opposition to homosexuality increases sharply. (via Marginal Revolution)

We propose two theories that may explain these results. First, tolerance may raise the number of men who "come out of the closet" and enter the pool of homosexual partners. That is, general social acceptance of gays may lower the stigma, harassment, and other social costs associated with homosexuality and induce some men who have had exclusively female partners or no partners at all to adopt homosexual identity and start having male partners. These men, who are at the extensive margin of homosexual behavior, are extremely unlikely to have HIV. That is, they are "low-risk" individuals. Hence, as low-risk individuals enter the pool of partners, the overall rate of HIV transmission decreases. This is consistent with the logic of the "more sex can be safer sex" theory developed by Kremer (1996). See Landsburg (2006) for an interesting exposition of Kremer's theory.

Second, tolerance may cause gay men to shift from risky to less risky sexual behaviors. An intolerant social environment may drive homosexual behavior underground. This type of risky behavior is characterized by anonymous encounters with high-risk individuals in secret, socially disconnected venues. Social acceptance of gays may consequently induce gay men to interact in open and socially mediated venues associated with less risky sexual behaviors. This substitution effect involving those men at the intensive margin of behavior, in turn, decreases the rate of HIV transmission.

Sext: Two of our friends, Patricia Storms and George Snyder, have recently blogged about books in their lives. In Patricia's case, this is a matter of creating an inviting library in her Bloor West Village home (and framing some nifty Penguin-cover postcards). George writes about the well-timed appearance in his life of Michael Holroyd's biography of Lytton Strachey, which came out in 1967.

The Strachey biography, however, arrived at a critical point in my development, and with Bloomsbury in fashion I was off and running.  Virginia Woolf, Dora Carrington, Ottoline and Vanessa, Roger and Duncan and Ralph -- here was the circle of friends I’d been looking for; here was a world in which I belonged, full of sensitive artists and writers who were clever and witty and very accepting of young men who weren’t good at sports, who believed there was nothing wrong with boys who liked men and vice versa.  I was just trying to get comfortable with myself, you understand.  I just wanted to not feel so bad about who I was, or thought I was, or who and what  I thought you thought I was.  Other people seemed to be able to escape the pain of self-consciousness in other ways, lose  themselves in music or movies, dancing or cocktails, by getting high or getting laid or both.  Or some combination thereof.  And I tried all of those too.  But even when I wasn’t capable of reading, too high or too hung over, the physical presence of all those books still felt like the best protection, the most comforting defense.

Nones: How Toomas Ilves, the president of Estonia, grounded like everyone else, drove home from Istanbul. (NYT)

The first couple of Estonia had a smoother ride, albeit not a short one. Mr. Ilves and his 14-member delegation rented a bus to take them home from Turkey. But the security protocols in some countries meant he and his wife had to ride in a separate car much of the time. In each country he passed through he assessed the condition of the roads and of Internet access, and noted that some were markedly better than others. Mr. Ilves was too diplomatic to name names.

To pass the time, he read a book about Estonian literary history, or a collection of essays he also carried written by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin. His wife, Evelin, read, too. At times when he had Internet access, he downloaded newspaper articles to read. He called his office a lot.

“It was all very civilized,” Mr. Ilves noted. He was keenly aware of the change of seasons, moving from the blooming spring of southern Europe to Estonia, where it got colder and less lush.

Vespers: Ken Auletta's essay about Amazon, the big six book publishers, and the "agency model" — occasioned by the arrival of the iPad — would seem to quell any fears that the giants of Siliconia are ever going to do (or do without) the work of conventional publishers. (The New Yorker)

Publishers maintain that digital companies don’t understand the creative process of books. A major publisher said of Amazon, “They don’t know how authors think. It’s not in their DNA.” Neither Amazon, Apple, nor Google has experience in recruiting, nurturing, editing, and marketing writers. The acknowledgments pages of books are an efficiency expert’s nightmare; authors routinely thank editors and publishers for granting an extra year to complete a manuscript, for taking late-night phone calls, for the loan of a summer house. These kinds of gestures are unlikely to be welcomed in cultures built around engineering efficiencies.

Good publishers find and cultivate writers, some of whom do not initially have much commercial promise. They also give advances on royalties, without which most writers of nonfiction could not afford to research new books. The industry produces more than a hundred thousand books a year, seventy per cent of which will not earn back the money that their authors have been advanced; aside from returns, royalty advances are by far publishers’ biggest expense. Although critics argue that traditional book publishing takes too much money from authors, in reality the profits earned by the relatively small percentage of authors whose books make money essentially go to subsidizing less commercially successful writers. The system is inefficient, but it supports a class of professional writers, which might not otherwise exist.

Madeline McIntosh, who is Random House’s president for sales, operations, and digital, has worked for both Amazon and book publishers, and finds the two strikingly different. “I think we, as an industry, do a lot of talking,” she said of publishers. “We expect to have open dialogue. It’s a culture of lunches. Amazon doesn’t play in that culture.” It has “an incredible discipline of answering questions by looking at the math, looking at the numbers, looking at the data. . . . That’s a pretty big culture clash with the word-and-persuasion-driven lunch culture, the author-oriented culture.”

Compline: Garrison Keillor argues that, notwithstanding the claims of sociobiology, young men really ought to text less and talk more. We can only add that the locked-up demeanor of many intelligent young people makes us worry that we're living at the wrong end of the Matrix. (IHT)

People smarter than I have written about the difference in socialization of young men and young women: women wired to form close interpersonal relationships as a step toward romance, intimacy, a stable family life within a tight-knit support system, and men wired to beat other men senseless with clubs and seize the big butt of the wild swine carcass and thereby win the loyalty of the large-breasted, blue-eyed babe who is wired to mate with a winner, not a loser.

All of that is true, I’m sure, but I’m not looking at the big picture here, just the small daily aspects of life, which lend it savor and tunefulness and chewability. That includes free-form, rambling, open-hearted conversation. Sometimes you find it in bars, sometimes on airliners, sometimes after church, at coffee hour. It is fundamental to a sense of belonging in the world. Basic confidence begins here.

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