Monday, February 12, 2007

Fool me twice

It has been truly sickening and horrifying to watch the rollout of the Bush Administration's apparently planned war against Iran. You literally couldn't do more than these guys have to undermine their credibility by making such a reckless and false case for war in Iraq, followed by such stunning incompetence in the execution of the war. And you couldn't have more clearly demonstrated to the press that they should not simply be court stenographers, repeating what they're told as if it had any claim on being believed. Yet it is all happening again, with vague, undocumented, and less than credible assertions getting front page play all over the place.

Isn't it a little strange that, with the U.S. troops predominantly fighting Sunnis, the Bush Administration is blaming the Iranians? I'm not convinced Bush knows that the Iranians actually support the Shiites in Iraq, who control the government there and actually are fighting against the Sunnis, but you'd think others, including the press, would keep this point more clearly in mind.

I suspect that, if the Administration wanted to make a case for war against Saudi Arabia, it could come up with something fifty times stronger than what they are throwing at the Iranians, given the Saudis' position in the Iraqi civil war and where we stand in the middle of it. How many times have American troops been attacked with Saudi-supplied weapons, which of course need not have come directly from the Saudi government?

The nightmare that happens twice can be powerful artistically - think Hitchcock's Vertigo - but it is nauseating to live through.

UPDATE: As detailed here, Michael Gordon, the New York Times "reporter" who wrote Saturday's breathless, unsourced, and undocumented front-page story, both (a) was Judy Miller's co-author on some of the most egregiously false stories from the Iraq war run-up, and (b) is an avowed public supporter of the "surge."

Sunday, February 11, 2007

New and old music

It's nice, and even downright encouraging, to see a pleasant little indie band like the Shins in the Billboard Top Ten - # 8 this week, after being # 2 last week. I like the album and have played it a number of times, although it seems to shut the door on the thought that the Shins might actually make it to the top ranks artistically. Hard to see why it took them so long (about the same time between this album & the previous one as between Sergeant Pepper and With the Beatles). But still, albums I'd actually listen to don't often land so high on the charts. Leaving aside Dylan's latest, which though tame is a tribute not just to his 1960s career but to the fact that Love & Theft (released in 2001) was so good.

Other recent listens show my vintage a bit more, I guess. I had never gotten a CD of the Clash's first album, although I had a tape for years & recall walking around the Bronx with my brother back in the day so he could find an import copy (this being before the US release). Still great. Stevie Wonder's Innervisions, another 1970s album I'd never gotten as a CD, is also pretty good if a bit more dated. The Velvet Underground Live 1993 is disappointingly tame. It's certainly odd to hear these guys strike up, say, Venus in Furs & hear the crowd cheering as if it had been some Top Ten hit of their youth instead of selling 2,000 copies or whatever. I decided to try the 1993 live album because the Velvets' three live double albums from 1969-70 (Quine, Max's, 1969) are all so great, but in those days they actually owned the songs rather than being a covers/revival band.

Law reviews vs. economics journals

One thing economists are always amazed about, when they talk to law professors, is the way that law review publication is handled. Leaving aside the special-topic faculty-edited journals (e.g., Tax Law Review at NYU, Journal of Legal Studies at the U of Chicago), the law reviews are of course student-edited. More specifically, by second-years who have newly been selected to editorial positions. Important decisions, in terms of junior law profs' careers, what gets read, who has the buzz, etc., then end up being made by these individuals, who, with no criticism intended, are not very far along yet in terms of the background needed to recognize serious, good, or important work.

Lucky for me, I've almost completely stayed out of the law reviews' way for almost a decade, what with books and invited pieces. But at the end of this month, when the new boards have been installed, I'm planning to submit "Beyond the Pro-Consumption Tax Consensus," significantly revised for greater clarity and readability since I posted it on SSRN (and linked it here) about a month ago. I actually do feel that this is an important article in the tax policy lit, and also a good one. We will see if this view ends up being shared by the people who get to decide.

Knowing that you have law review readers making publication decisions can have bad effects. It can simply be boring to have to go through the ABC's of ideas that your main target audience will already know about. But okay, it's actually a good discipline, up to a point, to force yourself to communicate more broadly. The problem is that it creates over-long detours. Sometimes it means you can't make an interesting & significant side-point since it would take 5 pages to set the stage for it. Worse is the incentive to have to sell articles' conclusions as extra-significant, and to tart them up in stupid ways so people who don't know the field that well will think they should publish it. "This is the first article to show that 1 + 1 = 2, a point that will transform the law and economics of arithmetic." One strategy I've heard about is putting these claims in the version you send out, then taking it out before publication so that your peers won't laugh at you.

Another bad incentive, the man bites dog scenario, isn't limited to law reviews. Perhaps it's even more true for professionally edited economics journals. If you can devise a study showing that 1 + 1 actually equals 3, you're in clover. The moment you get that finding from your regressions, but only if you get that result, you know you have a publishable paper. (Econ journals won't publish a paper confirming that 1 + 1 = 2.) Luckily, most reputable empirical economists are honorable, plus they do have to worry about reviewers asking for back up data runs.

Rare instance of thinking that the law reviews sometimes aren't as bad came from last Thursday's Tax Policy Colloquium at NYU, where Dhammika Dharmapala presented a paper (co-authored with Mihir Desai) finding that well-managed firms get more of a boost in stock price from tax savings than do poorly-managed firms, suggesting the possibility that the market expects the managers in poorly managed firms to loot or dissipate more of the tax savings. In some ways, the theoretical story wasn't that strong (since the effect would depend, not on total looting or waste, but on extra marginal looting or waste when extra tax savings emerge). Also, one could criticize the methodologies used for two key empirical components of the analysis. First, they tried to identify tax planning via gaps between tax and book income. But deliberate and systematic gaps between the two can reflect either tax planning or earnings management. It was unclear that their methodology for identifying the latter could do the job well enough. (Which is not to say that the authors overlooked a better way of doing it - the point is simply that they're very hard to distinguish). Second, the paper's proxy for well-managed firms, which was higher-than-average ownership by institutional investors, was theoretically questionable since it's unclear how much these investors actually improve governance. This device also causes big endogeneity problems (i.e., we might be picking up some aspect of how the institutional investors pick firms or directly influence stock prices).

In the paper as it stands, Dharmapala & Desai mention a robustness check for their governance finding, which is that the results are the same if one uses a governance measure relating to institutional mechanisms for managerial entrenchment. This, in general, is the really good thing about their paper - questionable though the results seem since they are so distantly and indirectly related to the underlying things of interest, the results are not only statistically significant but apparently quite robust to alternative specifications. So something has to lie behind their findings, and although we spent much of Thursday at the colloquium spinning alternative stories that would explain the data, in the end they really seem to have something.

But back to the law reviews versus econ journals. The authors may actually agree with us about the better way to test for well-managed firms, via the entrenchment measures that don't give rise to comparably serious endogeneity problems. But the reviewers at the journal that will likely be publishing the paper made them switch.

Not a problem one ordinarily has with student law review editors, with whom it's often more a matter of negotiating over whether you need a footnote for the claim made in passing that 1 + 1 = 2. So score one for the law review process.