following leaders

29 January 2009

0.2:

Fifty-five Bostonians, including the president of Harvard, A. Lawrence Lowell, signed a petition accusing Brandeis of lacking the “judicial temperament.” It was the kind of campaign that could get people muttering that if those guys didn’t like Brandeis, maybe he was no good.

teotaw-brandeis-chart

One of Brandeis’s allies drew up a chart pointing out that the fifty-five anti-Brandeisians all belonged to the same clubs, worked in the same State Street banks, and lived in the same neighborhoods. As Walter Lippmann wrote, “All the smoke of ill-repute which had been gathered around Mr. Brandeis originated in the group psychology of these gentlemen and because they are men of influence it seemed ominous. But it is smoke without any fire except that of personal or group antagonism.”

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2.0:

What is this thing?

We often describe LittleSis as an involuntary facebook for powerful people, in that the database includes information on the various relationships of politicians, CEOs, and their friends — what boards they sit on, where they work, who they give money to. All of this information is public record, but it is scattered across a wide range of websites and resources. LittleSis is an attempt to organize it in a way that meaningfully exposes the social networks that wield disproportionate influence over this country’s public policy.

I’m not sure if you can create maps, graphs, trees, and charts on Little Sis right now, but hopefully it will be possible to do things like this in the future.


corruption update

13 January 2009

A quick follow-up to the Baltimore post: the mayor has now been indicted too.


you win

10 January 2009

Obama has youtube, FDR had the radio, but Calvin Coolidge, whose conversational skills were legendary, was the first president on sound film.
Vodpod videos no longer available.


gaming shows

9 January 2009

I hadn’t watched Wheel of Fortune in years, but I caught a bit of an episode last night. Apparently the special prize panels have gone way up in value relative to the other panels, which still range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.* One panel showed a million dollars; a contestant won it. Or would have won it had he not then spun a “lose a turn” and lost his chance to solve the puzzle.

At that point, inspired by the financial innovations of the recent past, I thought: wouldn’t all three contestants ultimately win more if they agreed to fail to solve the puzzle until it came back to the guy with the million dollar panel, who would win and give a share of the prize to the other two? I’m sure that would be against the rules; that’s why I say I was inspired by recent financial history.

In the end, the potential million dollar guy never got another chance at that puzzle, and the panel, having been lifted from the wheel, was put out of reach for the rest of the episode.

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*Hey remember when the contestants used to select various items from a rotating display – usually showing home furnishings and the like – until they used up their prize money? That was a long time ago.


Baltimore, apple core

9 January 2009

I couldn’t help but think of the redevelopment and politics subplot in The Wire when I read this (via):

A Baltimore grand jury indicted a city councilwoman and a developer with close ties to Mayor Sheila Dixon Wednesday on bribery charges related to tax breaks for luxury buildings under construction on the city waterfront.

The indictments of Councilwoman Helen L. Holton and developer Ronald H. Lipscomb are the most prominent charges to emerge from a wide-ranging probe by the Maryland state prosecutor into corruption at Baltimore City Hall, an investigation that included the search of the mayor’s home last summer.

Prosecutors say Holton, head of a committee that oversees tax incentives, approved tax breaks worth millions of dollars for projects involving Lipscomb at Inner Harbor East, after Lipscomb paid $12,500 for a political survey for Holton last year.

Holton, first elected in 1995, was charged with perjury, for failing to list the payment on her annual financial disclosure statement, and with misusing her office. She said in a statement issued by her lawyers that she was “disappointed” in the grand jury’s decision and would continue in office while the legal proceedings continue.

The development stunned City Council members, who have been in recess for the past month, and fueled speculation that the nearly three-year investigation might be reaching its climax. The current grand jury expires Friday and to date the probe has seemed to focus on contracts and hearings held by Dixon when she was the president of the City Council and on her relationship with Lipscomb.


counts of corruption, 2

9 January 2009

Noonan, as I wrote below, decided not to attempt to compare levels of corruption across time and space. His explanation is worth quoting at length, as it gets into a lot of the problems surrounding attempts to quantify corruption. (Note that he describes the practice of indexing corruption to numbers of convictions as a “mistake.”)

What I have resisted is a temptation almost equally irresistible–to  quantify. Modern moral argument, not to mention sociology and criminology, depends heavily on quotable numbers. When the subject is bribery, an economic transaction, it seems that numbers should be available. Tourists and journalists are very free in judging that a society is “corrupt” or “very corrupt.” Historians and political scientists have not been far behind them. Surely, it may be supposed, the confident judgements that have often been made rest on a foundation of figures.

Quantification is conceivable. It has never been systematically attempted. There are no existing sets of figures by which one could conclude that the Roman Empire, for example, was more or less corrupt that the British Empire or the United States. In the absence of this kind of data it is wrong, I believe, to create an illusory certainty by using comparative terms.

Judgment about corruption in a society need not rest on a statistical basis. But with bribery several factors operate to make unquantified judgment difficult.

First,* the act is criminal and consensual; the victim where there is one is not made aware of the arrangement as it affects his case; consequently a number of acts of bribery remain secret and undiscovered.

Second, accusations of bribery are often politically motivated or are made in order to satisfy certain social or psychic needs; one cannot judge from the accusation along whether acts of bribery have actually occurred.

Third, the amount of legal attention bribery receives is misleading. One society may be uncensorious of most reciprocities with its officeholders; there may be no legal response to them a all, and the appearance will be given of integrity everywhere. A different society may define bribes, legislate against bribetakers, and prosecute bribery in such a way as to suggest that the crime is ubiquitous. A common mistake is to use the number of laws enacted or convictions obtained as an index of corruption.

Fourth, some critics have strong inclinations to exaggerate the corruption of their own day, and others have strong inclinations to denigrate past times or aliens or members of another race, religion, or class. Their criticisms will then be used as evidence that corruption is worse now or worse then, or worse with certain groups than others. Impassioned complaint will function as though it were hard evidence.

Fifth, there is the fallacy of the perfectly corrupt man–the belief that vices are linked and that unless a man is thoroughly corrupt in every aspect he can be no bribetaker or bribegiver. Moral judgment is held at bay by the kindly family man or illustrious genius who is also a taker or giver of bribes. Francis Bacon, Samuel Pepys, Warren Hastings are not merely respectable; they are heroes–respectively the founders, in the view of their admirers, of British science, the British navy, and British India. Bacon was a bribee by the law as actually enforced; Pepys a bribee by his own measure; Hastings a bribee by the law that was being made. Apologists by the score have hesitated to give their bribetaking its proper name. As for bribers, judgment has always been even more charitable, the underlying assumption being that they are the victims of extortion. When the persons involved have been preeminently just, judgment has often been entirely suspended. Who thinks of Thomas Becket or John Quincy Adams as giving bribes? The fallacy of the perfectly corrupt man prevents seeing bribery in transactions which, measured by at least one of the standards in use in their own time, were corrupt although executed by men of otherwise eminent virtue.

Finally, there is great difficulty in accepting a society’s own standards when one approaches the society as a traveler or as a historian. Bribes are a species of reciprocity. Human life is full of reciprocities. The particular reciprocities that count as bribes in particular cultures are distinguished by intentionality, form, and context. What is a bribe depends on the cultural treatment of the constituent elements. The observer outside the culture, like the cynic or rigorist within it, is inclined to see the conventional differences as arbitrary and to reduce all reciprocities of a given kind to bribes–to treat, say, any gift to an officeholder as a bribe. Doing so, the outsider imposes his own standard and reaches a judgment that is unreasonable if the culture’s own norms are used.

These major reasons for mistake–the rarity of proof of actual bribery; the abundance of accusations; the misleading impressions given by legal activity in its regard; prejudices of many kinds; the fallacy of the perfectly corrupt man; and the reductionism that eliminates conventions and looks only at function–mean that broad generalizations about the amount of bribery in a society must be made with caution and with caveats and without great confidence in their reliability.

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*I’ve broken items 1-4 on this list into separate paragraphs for easier reading.