Horny Frogs

May 24, 2011

As I count down to a long overdue vacation next week, I find myself in the bind of needing to close an excessive number of open loops while lacking even remotely sufficient focus to do so effectively.  Quelle tragédie.  But it is hard to feel as though I’m having a bad week when I compare my circumstances to those of Dominique Strauss-Kahn.  Prudence and fairness demand that I preface my remarks by noting that any allegations against the Monsieur remain to be proven before a court of law, and I’m sure that I’m not aware of all the relevant facts of the case.  From a legal perspective, DSK is entitled to a presumption of innocence with respect to the charges brought against him.

The issue that has captured my interest, however, is how an ordinary citizen, considering what he or she has come to know about the affair, forms an intuition about whether the alleged criminal “did it” or “didn’t do it.”  Or, to be a bit more provocative: to what extent are the accused entitled to a presumption of innocence in the court of public opinion?  I’m not really going to discuss the important question of whether media outlets bias their coverage in a way that sways public opinion (it’s inevitable that some will) or whether there’s a feedback loop between public opinion and the outcome of a particular legal process.  I just want to focus on one of the key distinctions between Citizen and Juror.  The Juror is supposed to arrive at trial with a blank slate.  The Citizen has no such obligation.  Under what circumstances does the Citizen form an intuition about the likely guilt or innocence of an alleged criminal?  When is that intuition reliable?  When do Citizens develop conviction in that intuition, given that they clearly aren’t privy to all the details of the proceedings?

To tip my hand: I rapidly formed a very strong intuition that DSK did something wrong to that maid.  What I believe to be my intuitive heuristics are relatively simple.  (I’m going to use ‘powerful’ and ‘powerless’ colloquially here, but since we’re discussing intuition I’ll allow my Readers to make sense of the shorthand.)  First, powerful people in cushy settings are usually forgiven their indiscretions.  Second, a powerless person usually faces highly asymmetric downside risk if he or she challenges a powerful person.  Third, powerful people usually have the means to create compelling positive alternatives for the powerless (i.e., the proverbial “hush money”).  These three prior beliefs about the world suggest to me that it’s highly unlikely that an allegation of the sort in this case would ever have seen the light of day.  If there had been meaningful uncertainty about whether or not a crime had occurred, perhaps the maid wouldn’t have reported it for fear of losing her job, or the hotel would have found a way to cover it up, or DSK’s people would have arranged for a discreet apology in the form of former Presidents.  In the state of the world where this didn’t happen, this framework would tell me that there’s likely to be very little ambiguity about what actually came to pass.

Putting aside the questions of power and privilege for a moment, I’d add as a fourth heuristic that allegations of sexual assault can be extremely costly from the perspective of the accuser, and I believe it’s widely understood that these crimes are generally under-reported as a result.  So I’m also intuitively more likely to believe the accuser in a case of sexual assault than I would be in, say, a commercial dispute.

I have a number of intelligent friends whose prior beliefs about the world are similar to mine, yet led them to an entirely different framework for assessing the likely merits of the case.  In their view, it is so improbable that a case of this nature would have been made public, the most likely explanation is that it was the work of a careful international conspiracy.  DSK is a powerful figure, after all, and the IMF has certainly not made any friends in certain parts of the world.  Wouldn’t he be likely to have enemies who were capable of orchestrating a set-up whose objective was not to have him convicted but to have him functionally removed from public life for the foreseeable future?  I can accept this as a reasonable starting point, even though it completely contradicts my own intuition.

As responsible Jurors as well as Citizens, it is essential to re-evaluate such intuitions in light of whatever evidence becomes available for consideration.  To the extent that corroborating details can be found, I think it would strengthen my (already pretty high) belief in my intuition, but it might or might not weaken the beliefs of those holding a conspiracy theory view (after all, what is a good conspiracy without corroborating evidence?).  But, if there were ever findings of mysterious liaisons between this maid and a Eurocrat in some shadowy back alley… that would dramatically lower my belief in my interpretation.

Another question that has plagued me is: why do some powerful people take such huge personal and professional risks for the sake of a little action?  I can’t imagine risking a lifetime’s worth of work and influence for something so fleeting… but I’d imagine neither could have a younger version of DSK.


Tuesday: Haikus and Mysteries XIX/XX

May 17, 2011

a pair of robots
dance to exhaustion–a bug
but how they jitter

their spent, steaming frames
were not built for this, no–but
let them be repaired

Today’s mystery: Roseanne.  Brilliant!

Jameson on the Rocks

May 16, 2011

The past few weeks have been rather Busy for your humble correspondent, which is not to say that they have been Unpleasant but rather that they have allowed precious little time for reflection and synthesis.  I can’t tell when I’ll be able to resume a more regular schedule, but rest assured that I will feel at least some pangs of guilt the next time an evening is spent with America’s Next Top Model on DVR instead of with my Dear Readers.

During one of these recent Busy weeks, I had the pleasure of taking a brief business trip to Dublin, a place I last visited as a student just under a decade ago.  It was a treat to be back, not least of all because I now had the novel combination of comfortable lodging and disposable personal income.  I realized that this was the first time I had revisited an international travel destination after any meaningful gap, so it was impossible to resist the temptation to compare notes with my memories and seek out familiar streets and sights.  I was pleased to have retained enough of a sense of the geography to project that typical city-kid confidence and purpose even in aimless wandering; within an hour of my first adventure outside the hotel, I was asked for directions by American tourists.  (My guess would have been correct, but I punted.)

I don’t at all mean to downplay the distinctiveness of Dublin, but my overarching conclusion was that it felt vaguely more “American” than I had remembered.  Some of the parallels were superficial and amusing (e.g., gourmet burger franchises, white people with dreadlocks) but others more ominous (e.g., foreclosed houses, moth-balled construction projects).  I remember how shocked I and my fellow American students were at the lack of conspicuous obesity that is such a hallmark of travel within the States.  Based on my extremely non-scientific observation from a few hours of walking and pubbing, however, I’d posit that the gap has narrowed as the Irish, perhaps, have widened.

And of course there was the economy.  During my summer as a student, the Celtic Tiger was somewhat wobbly on the back of the post-Dot Com global contraction (particularly in IT, which had become one of the country’s strengths) but it was still fundamentally sound.  Now… well, even the cab drivers wanted to chat about negative home equity.  My reception at the border could only have been more palpably chilly if instead of describing my profession as “Finance” I had opted for “Smothering Cute Animals.”  Young Americans are often wise to pretend to be Canadian if they happen to be abroad during moments of geopolitical instability.  I think from now on I may offer something squishy and believable in lieu of my actual business purpose; aren’t I, after all, part of the new media by virtue of this site?

I haven’t studied Ireland’s public finances (it’s hard enough to analyze enterprises that aren’t run by politicians) but the contours of their situation will be familiar to most observers of the developed world: gross misallocation (in hindsight!) of capital to housing and construction, whose asset values kept rising until they didn’t; insufficient capital to absorb losses at highly-leveraged financial institutions; sudden structural dislocations in labor markets; prohibitively expensive entitlements but no dry powder for countercyclical fiscal policy; etc etc.  Some sort of rationalization is inevitable, but I don’t have a view on when or what will trigger it, or how it will play out in practice.

I would, however, caution against counting Ireland out.  In my occasional conversations with businesspeople and with Joe Soap (again, an extremely non-scientific set of data) I was struck by how not-angry it seemed that people were about the situation.  Their tones were generally sober and pragmatic – certainly not optimistic – but inflected with a sense of collective responsibility.  The narrative was not that the country was screwed by, take your pick: greedy bankers, incompetent government, reckless consumers, or some other Other.  It was more like that the country had had a grand old bender and now everyone needed to clean themselves up.  Assuming that my reading is fair, this wouldn’t change the vast scale of the problems that Ireland (and many of the world’s governments, i.e., people) have ahead, but it would give me more hope that a solution might be reached there before it’s reached in a country where folks take to the barricades to protect the social entitlements that they refuse to pay for.

Slogans and economic dogma aren’t going to fix the massive structural problems with the world’s economies.  Patience, pragmatism, and a sense of collective responsibility, however, seem like constructive places to start.

Tuesday: Haikus and Mysteries XVIII

May 3, 2011

on television
today history was made
same as usual

Today’s mystery: What was behind the spread of this apocryphal quotation?  How much does the perceived moral authority of the source matter in assessing such a sentiment?

Mission Accomplished

May 2, 2011

I’m not sure why, but it feels a bit tacky to write about the news that Osama bin Laden was finally killed – I think it’s possibly too fresh to be suitable for reflection.  On a personal level, it’s hard to write something that doesn’t sound trite.  The adjectives that leap to mind (cathartic, unifying) are rather obvious, but in this case I don’t think it makes them less apt.

I may come to regret writing this if I’m ever up for a Senate confirmation hearing (heaven forbid) but it has been unusual to feel such a sense of “us vs. them” American-ness.  I’m extremely grateful for the rights and privileges (and, yes, the baggage) that come with being an American, but I tend to feel divorced from the concept of American-ness when it comes to realpolitik.  We’re pretty hard-wired (and/or conditioned) towards tribalism and group identity, so it’s hard for me not to be skeptical when those levers are deployed to exert power over individuals – particularly when they become pretexts for death and destruction.

And yet, as we say in New York, I’m really fucking happy we got the bastard.

I really hope that this moment of national cohesion can be put to constructive use, although I’m certain our political culture will waste no time in defecating all over it.  It would be nice to see the Left retire the conceit that it’s possible (let alone desirable) to always have ethical purity when fighting enemies who don’t.  There have been suggestions that critical intelligence for this mission came from detainees at Guantanamo Bay.  We may never know if this is true, or if so, what methods were used to acquire this intelligence.  The Left should confront the fact that this victory may well have been tainted by connection to Guantanamo.  A certain ideological purity would demand rejection and hand-wringing that, to me, initially seem pretty ridiculous.  It would be nice to see the Right retire the conceit that liberals are all pantywaists who can’t be trusted to make hard calls that put tangible national interests ahead of vague national ideals.  Obama deserves credit for pulling the trigger.  And it would be really, really nice to avoid the fruitless debate over whether Dubya or Obama deserves “more” credit.  The reality is that each pursued policies that had some successes and failures, and that those of us outside the West Wing have no idea how little we probably know about the complexity behind any policy call (let alone a grand strategy).

One extremely constructive step would be to evaluate the size, scope, and cost of our global military ambitions from this position of relative triumph.  We have an extraordinary opportunity to claim this modest victory as a pretext for accelerating our withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq if we think that’s an inevitable outcome, or for doubling down if we think there’s an opportunity to ride momentum for peace-keeping and institution-building.  I have no idea what’s the right answer.  But I do know that we have a clear need to repair our public finances.  It is not at all obvious to me that maintaining a military that is capable of engaging in trillion-dollar campaigns is the smartest way to invest scarce public dollars, relative, say, to education and infrastructure.  I think it is going to be much easier to have a real debate about this now that the abstract need to “get Osama” is off the table.  I doubt this debate will actually happen to a meaningful degree, but at least there is a window for it.

In the meantime: score one for Team America.

Tuesday: Haikus and Mysteries XVII

April 26, 2011

Desperate, shameless pitch:
Please donate to iMentor!
I’ll match two-to-one!

Today’s mystery: What is the least happy day of the week (in London, at least)?   Take a guess!  It’s buried about halfway in.

Fine print: Match applies on contributions received through April 30th, up to some high number that doesn’t render me insolvent.

Tuesday: Haikus and Mysteries XVI

April 19, 2011

a half-assed haiku:
this is seven syllables
followed by five more

Today’s mystery: Blog comment spam.  Thank goodness WordPress protects me from it.  What an interesting business problem.  It’s humbling to see how much of my meager “traffic” comes from spambots naively crawling the web in search of inbound traffic.  Good thing I’m doing this for my own amusement 🙂