Sunday, July 17, 2005

As a result of certain recent events, I happen to have been strategically placed to witness the United Kingdom's reaction to the recent bombings of the London transport system. A few observations:

  • The reputation of the BBC notwithstanding, I found the political bias of British television news to be comparable to that of American network news--and hence, quite possibly more in line with its intended audience's views, given the generally more left-leaning British body politic. Of course, the bombing itself may have shifted the tenor of the reporting I saw--it was for the most part resolutely unsparing in its portrayal of the act and its perpetrators as evil and horrible, and only occasionally drifted into soft-on-Islamist-extremism hand-wringing.

  • It has often been noted that British journalists are much less deferential to their interview subjects than their American counterparts. And it's true that their questions are often delivered in an antagonistic, skeptical tone, casting doubt on each premise that the interviewee has been summoned to defend. In fact, though, the confrontational displays I saw were all just a cleverly disguised version of the American softball style: the interviewer mimicked a caricature of the interviewee's opponents, threw out a few lame challenges in that voice, and let the interviewee demolish them. This format naturally pleases everyone involved: the interviewer ends up looking tough, the interviewee looks clever and articulate, and the gullible audience imagines it's just seen a lively debate.

  • An illustration of the difference between American and European attitudes towards authority: I saw a discussion of civil liberties in the wake of 7/7 (as they call the bombing there) in which an outspoken civil liberties advocate suggested that perhaps the proposed budget for a national ID card system might be better spent on more police. How many American civil liberties activists have ever advocated such a thing, even right after 9/11?

  • One of the oddest aspects of the coverage was the enormous attention devoted to the supposedly terrifying possibility, later confirmed, that the bombings were the work of "suicide bombers". At first, I thought the prospect highly unlikely. After all, the use of suicide bombers makes a certain amount of sense when attacking targets that are well-defended against more conventional tactics--say, when the only way to breach the security around a Marine base is to drive a truck into it and detonate it immediately, or when a highly alert population will recognize and flee any package that's not in anyone's immediate possession. The London train and bus bombings, on the other hand, hit soft targets that would have been equally vulnerable to timed or remotely-triggered package bombs. I can personally vouch for the fact that many crowded trains in the UK have luggage racks where large bags sit far away from their owners--possibly miles away, for all anybody can tell. Of course, all that may soon change. But I suspect that any terrorist campaign that results in the British being as vigilant and preoccupied with security as Israelis already are, would be judged a resounding victory for the terrorists.

    The suicide bombing tactic, on the other hand, has many disadvantages. For one, extra effort has to be made to cultivate and indoctrinate operatives until they can be relied upon to "push the button" when the time comes. They must also be trained to appear completely normal, to avoid suspicion, for some substantial time interval immediately prior to blowing themselves to smithereens. Moreover, soon after their training and indoctrination have been completed, they are quite emphatically eliminated in a manner that renders them categorically unavailable for use in future operations. In the process, their bodies become rich sources of information for investigators--indeed, several of the London bombers were apparently identified by documents they still carried in their pockets when they attacked. Obviously, the sooner the perpetrators are identified, the sooner their activities can be traced, and their colleagues and mentors investigated.

    Presumably, the reason for opting for suicide bombers in this case was their predicted psychological impact, and judging by the recent reporting, this strategy has been quite effective so far. However, I expect that its shock value will wear off fairly quickly, as it becomes clear that impressionable fanatics willing to die at their leader's request are simply not all that hard to find. After all, so far, more citizens of Western countries have killed themselves because an odd-looking elderly man told them they would thereby meet an alien spaceship associated with a comet, than have done so because someone told them they would thereby enjoy 72 virgins in paradise.
  • Tuesday, July 05, 2005

    In honor of my honeymoon, this blog will now observe two weeks of silence.

    Friday, July 01, 2005

    Speaking of the real estate bubble, The Volokh Conspiracy's Todd Zywicki has an, er, interesting take on "exotic mortgages" such as "interest only" mortgages, where the purchaser spends a few years only paying interest on the mortgage, before actually beginning to pay down the principal and acquire equity in the home. The problem with paying down the principal on your mortgage, he writes, is that it "would increase the covariance of your human wealth with your home equity"--that is, it causes you to invest in the same locale where you earn your income, increasing your vulnerability to a local economic downturn. (A bad local economy might cost you both your job and a chunk of the property value of your home.) Zywicki's solution: "we want to encourage individuals to minimize their principal payments on their houses and instead to diversify that money into financial assets that will diversity [sic] away from the risk associated with human capital."

    Well, there's a perfectly reasonable, long-accepted way for households to "minimize their principal payments on their houses and instead to diversify that money into financial assets that will diversity [sic] away from the risk associated with human capital." It's called, "renting". Holders of interest-only mortgages, on the other hand, pay a premium--usually a hefty one--over the market rent for the same property. That premium in effect purchases an option to buy the house at a later date at a fixed price. (After all, until the mortgage-holders start paying the principal, they don't actually own any equity in the house.) This option is purely speculative: it amounts to a bet that the same house will be more expensive to buy once the principal payments start. If house prices stay constant, then the difference between the interest paid and the cost to rent an equivalent house during the "interest only" period will have been completely wasted.

    It's true that a mortgage is always an investment on margin, and hence at least partly speculative. But option plays such as interest-free mortgages are purely speculative, and one wonders what ordinary householders are doing engaging in them--or what supposedly economics-savvy law professors like Zywicki are doing endorsing them.
    It's amusing to see conservatives taking a brief breather from fulminating against the Imperial Judiciary (a favorite hobby of mine, too, as readers well know) to lambaste the Supreme Court's recent failure of Imperial will in the Kelo decision. Apparently, when it comes to the municipal government requiring you to sell your house to a developer, it's just fine, say conservatives, for the Supreme Court to run roughshod over elected, democratically accountable representatives of the public. I've long predicted that control of the nominations process would give conservatives Strange New Respect for judicial tyranny. It's always fun to be proven right.

    But Marty Lederman and Nicole Garnett of SCOTUSBlog raise an interesting question: why has this particular ruling--which was completely in line with precedent, and hardly unexpected--aroused such righteous ire from conservatives?

    To me, the answer is obvious: real estate is the cultural-financial obsession of the moment, the way stocks were eight years ago. For the Supreme Court to rule at this time that the government can take away your house--that is, not just your life savings, but your hot investment, your ticket to riches, your chance at an early, cushy retirement--is threatening in a way that it wouldn't have been, say, ten years ago. After all, the law still requires that "just compensation" be paid to the the owner of confiscated property. In normal times, that would no doubt be enough to ease any worries. But today, when everyone assumes that the real estate price elevator only goes in one direction--that is, up--the current market value of a home hardly seems like "just compensation". Why, who knows how soon the price of that confiscated home will be double, triple, quadruple what it is now?