Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Plato's Republic (Book I-II)

By Plato

In general, the first two books of Plato’s Republic are a discussion about the definition of justice. It doesn’t seem like a clear answer is arrived at, but through discussion, Plato examines whether it is simply always doing what’s right – repaying debts, etc. Another suggestion is that it is giving people what they deserve – good deeds to good people and evil deeds to evil people. They talk about why someone would want to be just, and whether injustice might be more beneficial, if you can avoid being caught, because it allows you to lie, steal, and cheat to get more than your share.

Book I
Book I begins with Socrates’ getting into a conversation with an old man named Cephalus. They discuss aging and decide that the difficulties and unhappiness of old age can be countered in part with wealth, but more important is having a good nature.

From there, Socrates begins a discussion about the definition of justice that goes throughout this book and next. The first argument is given by Cephalus’ son, Polemarchus. Polemarchus suggests that justice is about doing the right thing both in word and deed. However, Socrates’ finds a loophole – while this definition would suggest it is always just to repay a debt, you can imagine a situation in which your friend lent you a weapon, and then came to get it back to you when he was angry or acting crazy – it would be wrong to give your friend back the weapon, even though by not giving it back, you aren’t repaying the debt.

After that Polemarchus tries another tact – that justice may mean giving people what they deserve – i.e. doing good to good people and bad to bad people. However, Socrates points out that a just or good person can’t do bad things, so if a good person tried to carry out justice by doing something bad to a bad person, then the good person would no longer be good.

Then another person, Thrasymachus, enters the conversation and argues that the definition of justice is whatever is in the interest of the stronger. This means that the government or those in powers make laws in their own interests and the subjects have to do it. If subjects break the law, it is unjust. Socrates disagrees, saying that if the leader accidently gave an order that would result in his own harm, then the subjects are being commanded to do the leader injury, not do what’s in his interest. Also, he says that rulers actually do what’s in the interest of his subjects, not himself.

Thrasymachus continues that, in any case, injustice is more beneficial than justice. Injustice allows you to cheat and steal and get more wealth, pleasure, and power. In this way justice is the loser to injustice. Socrates disagrees, saying that the unjust can’t work together for common purposes, and it fragments the soul of the person. He argues that justice gives you a just soul and helps you live well and acquire knowledge. He says justice is the excellence of the soul and injustice the defect of the soul.

Book II
Now the same discussion is continued, but Glaucon carries on Thrasymachus’ argument. He says that people who are unjust but have a reputation for justice seem like they’d be the best off, because they get the spoils of injustice without anyone disliking them. He argues that if a person could be invisible, they would definitely steal, cheat, and do other unjust things. He suggests that people like to do injustice, but they don’t like injustice to be done to them, and that this is the basis for laws. People make laws that restrict their own ability to cheat/steal, etc. because this also inhibits the ability of others to cheat, steal, and otherwise be unjust towards him. Law is really the only thing holding people back from doing bad things.

After this, Socrates begins talking about the government. He says that cities/governments are not a contract, but a natural occurance, based on the need of people to cooperate and trade with one another.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Political Contributions

The question of ethical political financial contributions is interesting and complicated. But ignoring that for the moment, I just wanted to share a fun quote from the book "Analyzing Politics" by Kenneth Shepsle:

"Interest groups often contribute money to legislative campaigns in an attempt to influence legislative outcoms. Bank executive Charles H. Keating, Jr. , prosecuted for his role in the savings and loan crisis of the 1980's, was asked about the 1.4 million in campaign contributions he gave to five senators, all members of the Senate Banking Committee, who came to be known as "the Keating Five." Keating replied:

One question, among the many raised in recent weeks, had to do with whether my financial support in any way influenced several political figures to take up my cause. I want to say in the most forceful way I can: I certainly hope so."

To be fair, this reasoning does make sense as part of the rational choice theory for political analysis.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Aristotle's Politics (Books I-III)

By Aristotle

Aristotle’s Politics, as the name suggests, detail Aristotles ideas about politics – he talks about different types of rule and constitutions and what he thinks is the best form of government. It’s pretty amazing how much this book, written in 300-something B.C. has so much to say that’s relevant to society more than 2000 years later.

In general, Aristotle’s method is based on the idea that the universe is rational and that each thing in it has a distinct purpose and function. He believes that a person can use reason to figure out the purpose of a thing – this is done by looking at its origin and its characteristics to figure out the end for which it exists. Aristotle considers the end result of the growth of something is its Nature.

He starts the Politics by talking about human nature and the city. He believes that the end result of growth of relationships among people is the city. Human nature can help to discern the purpose of the city – in this case, since the nature of a person is to reason and live a virtuous and good life, then the city exists to help people achieve this goal. The city allows a person to exercise sociability, debate justice, and fully exercise his virtue.

A somewhat surprising issue that Aristotle attacks early in the Politics is the issue of slavery. He acknowledges that some believe it’s just and others believe it is not just. His conclusion is that it is just in the case that a person is a ‘natural slave’ – someone who is naturally better suited to being ruled rather than ruling. He acknowledges, however, that is it difficult to determine whether a particular person is a natural slave.

In developing evidence on the nature of various human relationships, he describes different types of relationships – husband and wife, father and children, and master and slave. Aristotle acknowledges that men, women, children, and slaves all have a capacity for ‘goodness’ and virtue (otherwise they could not be obedient and ruled well), but that there are different types of virtue for each of these.

In general, he notes that the person who is in charge of the management of the household should focus on acquiring the materials needed for the family and arrange for the materials to be used properly. He argues that the goal of acquiring currency for its own sake as well as usury (money-lending) are unnatural.

In Book II, Aristotle looks at the underlying principles of a government regime/constitution and determines whether the regime lives up to the principles its meant to uphold.

Arisotle makes an interesting argument about the importance of education to prevent conflict and crime. Though some people suggest crime would be limited if all things were shared, Aristotle notes that some people commit crimes not because they are needy, but because they want more than they need or because they just enjoy stealing. These issues can only be addressed through education – not only general education, but education about laws and the constution.

He further disagrees with the idea that the city should aim to achieve unity – either by sharing property, or, as Plato suggests, sharing women and children in common. He notes that people take better care of their private belongings than of public goods, and they’re less likely to commit crimes against relatives. He argues that sharing children in common would not result in each person feeling that every child belongs to them, but rather believing that they are only 1/1000 of a father to each child (in a city with 1000 people), and therefore any one child is not really their responsibility.

He further argues that diversity is necessary in the city, because this is how the city becomes self-sufficient – many people each carrying out different roles and trading and working with each other.

Throughout this section, Aristotle re-iterates the importance of using written laws, rather than human discretion, in ruling a city.

In Book III, Aristotle focuses on the definition of a citizen, of virtue, and of different types of good and bad constitutions/governments. Aristitotle defines a citizen as someone who has a share in ruling the city, at least for some period of time. This reflects Aristotle’s view that the role of the city is to promote the ‘good life,’ so that those who are contributing to this goal are the true citizens. It also reflects Aristotle’s belief that not everyone is fit to rule – i.e. laborers and others can’t rule and therefore can’t be citizens.

Aristotle explains in a bit more detail how he views virtue – he believes the virtue of a good person is to lead him to his ultimate happiness, while the virtue of a good citizen is to preserve the constitution. Only in the best constitution will the virtue of the good person and the good citizen be the same. He compares this to sailors, where each member of the crew need to exceed at his particular skill/virtue in sailing, but also in the overall goal of keeping the ship safe.

Aritstotle argues that the best constitutions are those that involve people sharing in ruling and being ruled – this is a government of equals where the goal of the government is the common interest – constitutions that fit this description are kingship, aristocracy, and polity. In contrast, in a bad constitution, the goal of the government is the self-interest of those that are ruling – bad constitutions include tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. As mentioned before, he belives that all citizens should participate in judicial and deliberate office, but only some (those with more virtue) should be allowed to hold higher offices. The reasoning for allowing the multitude to participate is that as a whole they have more virtue, wealth, etc. than any one person. Though Aristotle believes people should share in ruling and being ruled, because he believes that virtue is important for ruling, he concedes that if there is one person that is much more virtuous than everyone else, then it is correct for that person to be made king.

Aristotle goes into detail about the idea of justice and equality. Justice is equality to those that are equal and inequality to those that are unequal. He believes that many people are confused about equality, because they have a hard time judging something that affects themselves. He says that rich people believe that because people are unequal in wealth, they are unequal in everything. Others believe that because people are equal in free birth, they are equal in everything. Aristotle explains that in the city, it is just for people to get an equivalent of what they contribute to the goal of the city – i.e. the extent that they help to rule and promote the ‘good life.’

Government in the Real World

I'm not sure if anyone reads the book descriptions I write and post on the blog (I know that last one was really long...) but some of the political analysis books talk about discrepencies between what the president or congress wants, what they fund, and what the bureaucracy actually does. There was a great space example in the news today, so I thought I'd share:

(Florida Today) January 25, 2010
Five years ago, Congress ordered NASA to come up with a way to spot, catalog and track asteroids big enough to cause widespread regional damage -- meaning a space rock big enough to level a major city. As with so many other orders from Washington, Congress provided no money for the expanded asteroid hunt. NASA was to divert funds from other projects to field a system by 2010 and use it to document 90 percent of all near-Earth objects wider than 140 meters across. NASA hasn't done it.

Just thought it was nice to have some indication that the reading I'm doing has a connection to the real world. (Even if the implication is that the government doesn't work smoothly the way we'd like...)

Analyzing Politics: Rationality Behavior and Institutions

By Kenneth A. Shepsle and Mark S. Bonchek

This week’s political analysis book was “Analyzing Politics: Rationality, Behavior, and Institutions” by Kenneth A. Shepsle and Mark S. Bonchek. The book goes into detail about the rational choice model for analyzing politics. Many of the concepts in the book are things that I’ve learned in the context of past economics courses, and though some people refer to the rational choice model as the economic model of politics, in chapter one the authors are quick to dispute this belief and claim the model purely for politics. The book touches on a wide variety of topics, from models of individual choice, issues with groups choice, strategic behavior, cooperation and public goods, on to a discussion of a variety of institutions, both U.S. and foreign.

Part I: Introduction
Part one begins by explaining the origins of rational choice theory. The authors note that before WWII, political analysis was based on detailed descriptions of events and judgments about what should have been done. Since WWII, political analysis has evolved to focus on explanation and analysis of events – looking at which items are particularly important and trying to understand why things happened the way they did. It defines the model of rational choice as one in which “individuals act in accordance with their preferences for outcomes and their beliefs about the effectiveness of various actions available to them.” In other words, people use their understanding of the world and beliefs about the consequences of their actions to make decisions that will result in achieving their preferences and maximizing their utility. Of course, people aren’t always sure what actions will actually result in the outcomes they prefer, and to take into account this uncertainty, rational choice uses the concept of expected utility – essentially the product of the uncertainty and utility associated with the possible outcomes of a particular choice.

Part II: Group Choice
In Part II, the focus moves from individual choice to group choice. The major finding is that even if individuals honestly reveal their preferences, it is possible for group preferences to be incoherent – if the procedures for voting (simple plurality, round-robin, run-off) are changed, then the resulting group preference that is expressed can be different. (Normally, with an individual, if person A prefers A to B and prefers B to C, then he also prefers A to C. When groups vote, this type of rule doesn’t always hold – that’s what make the result incoherent.) This situation allows voting to result in Condorcet’s Paradox, in which voting is cyclical, and any currently winning group choice could be beat if pitted against another possible outcome. The problem of incoherent group choice is formally defined in Arrow’s Theorem, which states, “There exists no mechanism for translating the preferences of rational individuals into a coherent group preference that simultaneously satisfies basic conditions for fairly making group decisions.” Essentially, there is no way to design a voting procedure to be sure you have a coherent group preference result without resulting to tyranny (i.e. everyone defers to one leader) or some other unfair method. This means that there is no method of majority rule that can guarantee coherent group choice – so much for democratic voting!

The section continues by giving some exceptions. One is Black’s Single-Peakedness Theorem, which basically says that if there is an alternative that no individual in the group ranks as worst, then majority rule can generate transitive (coherent) group preferences. Sen extends this to say that as long as there is one item that no individual chooses to rank top, middle, or bottom, then there can be coherent group preferences. For example, Black developed his theory by noticing that in Northern Ireland the Protestants preferred an agreement linking them to England to the Status Quo, but preferred the status quo to having Northern Ireland become part of the Republic of Ireland. Catholics preferred becoming part of the Republic of Ireland to the Status Quo, but preferred the Status Quo to an agreement linking them to England. In this case, a decision to stick with the Status Quo would be a stable equilibrium – no majority would want to move from that point. The authors show methods of creating special models to show graphically this “single-peakedness” condition. This is used to show that the median choice is the stable solution. At the median preference, there is no majority that would prefer to move the decision to another spot. However, moving to multi-dimentional spatial analysis, (except under very rare conditions where alternating preferences are symmetric) they show that the equilibrium is lost and Condorcet’s cycling can occur again.

The one-dimensional analysis helps to explain why in two-candidate races it is common for the candidates to position themselves towards the middle of the political spectrum. If the political spectrum is imagined as a line, then a candidate wants to be as close to the middle as possible, while not crossing past the other candidate –this allowing them to capture all the votes to the left of middle (if they’re liberal), since even people on the far end (very liberal) prefer someone slightly left of center to someone slightly right of center. It can also be shown why if a third candidate can enter a race, candidates will be farther from the center. In the case where a third candidate could enter, the two main candidates would want to be sure there weren’t sufficient votes between them for a moderate to come and take the moderate votes, but they also want to be sure that they aren’t so far from the edge of the line that a third party candidate could come in slightly to the left of them (for a liberal candidate) and take a majority of the more extreme candidates.
Two Candidates (no entry allowed): L----------lr----------R – Candidates place themselves near center to capture most possible votes
Two Candidates (entry allowed): L------l------r------R – Candidates arrange themselves so that a third candidate cannot place themselves on the line in a way that results in the third candidate getting a plurality of the votes.

Median voting can also be shown to apply to legislative voting – again causing the median preference to be the stable solution. Also, where bills are written in committees, the committee median preference will be the agreed-upon bill. Then if a bill is brought from committee to the house or senate under closed rules (no voting allowed), then Congress will have choose the committee median, as long as it is closer to the Congress median than the Status Quo. Under open rules, the committee bill will be amended until it is the same as the Congress median preference.

Another issue dealing with group choice is the opportunity for individuals to use strategic behavior. In undertaking strategic or sophisticated voting, an individual uses rational foresight – i.e. thinks about what is likely to happen in the future – and uses this knowledge to possibly vote against their own preferences to get a preferred outcome. Sophisticated voting includes thinking ahead about how others are going to vote in the future to decide how you should vote – this method is called backwards induction in game theory. This type of logic is used when Congressmembers make their decisions about voting based on an understanding of the chances the president will veto a particular bill – i.e a Congressmember may dislike a popular bill, but vote for it anyway, knowing that the president has already decided to veto. Strategic voting doesn’t involve working backwards from other people’s actions, but rather is based on changing your vote to minimize the chances of getting either your most- and least-preferred outcome. This is the type of thinking that occurs when individuals whose first choice In an election is a third party candidate recognize that their preferred candidate is unlikely to win and instead vote for their second choice candidate, to help minimize the chances that their least-liked candidate would win. (Like a Nader fan voting for Gore to avoid having Bush.) This kind of strategic activity can also take place on a larger level in Congress – a policy entrepreneur may change the framework with which an issue is discussed to hide their true motives and gain more support.

It was previously mentioned in section one that voting methods matter, and the last part of section two expands on what this means for the electoral system. It details lots of types of electoral systems, including: simple plurality (like U.S. elections), plurality run-off, ranking all preferences, allowing multiple votes per person, and a number of others. In general, Duverger’s law shows that electoral systems based on simple plurality, like the U.S. system, tend to be associated with two-party rule, and that proportional representation, where representatives are given seats proportional to the percentage of the national vote that they won, are associated with multiple parties.

Part III: Cooperation, Collective Action, and Public Goods
Part III of the book covers cooperation, collective action, and public goods. It starts out by discussing simple two-person cooperation using the Prisoner’s Dilemma example from game theory. Though the equilibrium solution in the Prisoner’s Dilemma is for each participant to choose not to cooperate, there are methods in which cooperation can be reached. One was identified by Axelrod, who suggested that if the game is infinitely repeated (you have lots of opportunities for cooperation with the same person over time) then the ‘shadow of the future’ (i.e. the knowledge that you’ll probably have more opportunities to cooperate) makes you more likely to cooperate now. He also suggests the best strategy is a ‘tit for tat’ strategy, in which you begin by cooperating, but then copy whatever the other player did in the previous game. Another method for getting cooperation is actually changing the game’s pay-out with internalized values. For example, if the two criminals in the prisoners dilemma were taught that it isn’t right to squeal, they may value staying quiet higher than would be expected based on economic benefit. Similarly, external enforcement can change the payout – if you know that snitching will result in punishment from some outside force (the mafia boss) – choosing to stay quiet may be more valuable than it otherwise seems. In society, we try to enforce cooperation through laws, contracts, and other things, but it is difficult because enforcement is costly and imperfect – you might not want to pay the fees to bring someone to court and you can’t be sure (even if you’re ‘right’) that the judge will rule in your favor.

The issue of collective action takes cooperation to the next level. In groups it’s difficult to get people to cooperate because it is possible for them to be a ‘free rider’ – i.e. to benefit from everyone elses actions without actually contributing. One theory suggests that its easier to get participation if a person believes their participation is essential to achieving the goal. Mancer Olson suggests that people join groups because of the by-products available only to members – information, discounts, materials, etc. Some groups may form because political entrepreneurs identify a latent group and help to organize them – for example, a Congress member might help to pass laws to make it easier for labor unions to form in a particular area. It’s also possible that some people join groups just because they enjoy the group or believe in its cause, though evidence suggests that this is done more often for non-economic groups, like environmental groups, than for groups such as labor unions.

Applying the issue of collective action to voting seems to makes voting in national elections seem irrational – the impact of one vote and personal benefit of voting are unlikely to outweigh the costs of getting to the voting booth. The book suggests that people vote not because of this cost-benefit trade-off, but rather because they enjoy it, or other factors (like social pressure) encourage them to do so.

The final chapter in Part III discusses public goods, externalities, and the commons. Public goods are those defined as non-excludable – you can’t stop others from using/enjoying it, and non-rivalrous – just because one person is using it doesn’t mean that another person can’t use it – it isn’t “used up”. Examples include lighthouses, the ocean, or national security. The private market undersupplies these items, since there is no way to force users to pay for them (since they’re non-excludable). This means that governments are often the suppliers of public goods. However, for a good to be provided, it is likely necessary for someone to push the government to do so. Interestingly, it is often not the consumers of these goods that push governments to provide them, but rather the private producers. For example, it is often the concrete industry, not drivers, that is the main group pushing for new and better roads. In cases where the government does not pay for private producers, like in the area of basic science research, the provision of goods is often ineffiecient because of the political process. Science funding is sent to many different areas of the United States to satisfy Congressmen rather than to only those areas with the most cutting-edge labs or best qualified scientists.

Externalities and Commons are examples of other items with public goods properties. Externalities are the extra goods (or bads) that are produced as a by-product of activity and are not paid for by the producer – pollution is a classic example. The government can choose to remedy the production of externalities with taxes (on ‘bads’), subsidies (on ‘goods’), or through privatization schemes – like cap and trade on pollution emissions. Issues of the commons – parks, fishing areas, etc. – is similar to that of other public goods and externalities. To avoid over-fishing, the government likely needs to implement a scheme to provide permits or monitor fisherman to limit the size of the catch.

Part IV: Institutions
The final section of the book was about institutions. In general, it noted that institutions all allow the division of labor and focus on particular issues (jurisdictions), which allows the creation of experts in particular areas. Institutions also develop procedures and rules to help them perform repeated tasks more efficiently. Within each institution discussed, the book examines how rational choice can be used to understand how that institutions comes to the decisions it does.

The first institution that is looked at is the legislature, and how individual legislators make decisions. The book notes that though all legislators are accountable to constituents, but that some see themselves as ‘delegates,’ there simply to represent their constituents interests, while others believe they are ‘trustees,’ chosen to go to Congress and do what they believe is the ‘right’ thing. Either way, it is important to note that legislatures have heterogeneous (different) preferences.

Going back to earlier discussions about cooperation, it is possible to apply the issues of group decision making to voting within Congress. Since many issues are multi-dimensional, it is possible to get cycles in voting, and incoherent preferences. Another interesting aspect of legislators decision-making is their greater interest in some areas than others. Representatives of coastal areas may be very interested in maritime law, while a representative from Wyoming is not. However, Congressmemeber only have one vote per bill, regardless of the issue. Also complicating this is the fact that they only have limited information on what instrumental actions will actually lead to their preferred outcomes (i.e. which policy will actually ‘work’), and the fact that whatever choice they make needs to be carried out by the bureaucracy which may or may not comply exactly with their choice.

One coping mechanism has been for Congressmen to split up into committees. This allows them to focus on the area in which they are particularly interested. They also become experts in this area and are better able to judge the likely effect of various policy actions. Committees are also in charge of monitoring compliance of the bureaucracy. Some committees are very specialized, such as agriculture, fishing, or others, and these committees often are not representative of Congress overall. This is important, because as mentioned in section two, under closed rule, a committee can impose its particular preferences on the group (within some bounds). However, since these issues are so specialized, this often isn’t an issue for members of the wider group. There are also more general committees, such as the Finance Committee or the Foreign Affairs Committee, and membership for these committees is chosen to be more representative of the Congress as a whole, avoiding the important and wide-ranging issues from being controlled by a non-representative group.

The next institution examined was the bureaucracy and intergovernmental relations. The book offered three theories on how the bureaucracy functions. The first theory sees the bureaucracy as budget-maximizing, and the legislature as a passive sponsor. The bureaucrats use information about their own costs and the legislature’s demand to maximize their own budget and get the most ‘on-the-job consumption’ (nice offices, trips, etc.) or at least prestige, that’s possible. This results in over production of the bureaucratic good. The second theory suggests that bureaucrats and legislators have some knowledge about each others’ cost and demand, and use this to bargain over the correct budget level, but that uncertainty can result in over production or under production of the bureaucratic good. The third theory suggest that the legislature is the principle and the bureaucracy their agent, so that Congress can monitor what the bureaucracy does. Though there may still be some bureaucratic drift (i.e. the bureaucracy doesn’t do exactly as they’re told), this results in closer alliance between legislative demand and bureaucratic supply. In addition to bureaucratic drift, it is also possible for the oversight committee and the bureaucracy to ‘drift together,’ and this situation will ‘snap back’ to the median if the representation on the legislative oversight committee changes.

Rather than discuss the presidency, prime minister position, or some other specific leader, the book discusses leadership in general. In general, the leader is representing a group and needs to have the support of that group. As long as the leader maintains support, he/she usually has the power to set the agenda (which we saw previously can affect the outcome of a vote). Even if not asked, a person may become a leader by bringing together a latent group, as was discussed previously with regard to collective action. In any case, it’s important for a leader to gain a reputation – this may be done by showing a willingness to punish early in his/her tenure to gain compliance without having to actually punish anyone later on, thus retaining the support of the group.

Courts and Judges represented an interesting case for rational choice theory, since judges and supreme court justices do not run for election (they serve life terms) and they don’t have performance pay. It is suggested that judges are instead motivated by the prospect of career-enhancement, prestige, or a general enjoyment of the job (so the job is more like consumption than production). The book also suggests that judges may be thought of as ‘legislators in robes’ who are motivated by the ability to influence policy. It’s impossible for judges to avoid incorporating their own values to some extent. Even if judges don’t often ‘make policy,’ legislators and bureaucrats take into account the role of the court in deciding how extreme the policies they make and implement should be, so the threat of the court over-turning a policy may be enough to affect policy.

The final chapter in the book applies rational choice theory to governments outside the United States. They show that electoral arrangements have a large affect on voting outcomes, as discussed in part two of the book. In simple plurality elections, compromises are made before the election, and there are often only two parties. In proportional representation, many parties may be elected, and coalitions are likely to be formed after election.

In places with proportional elections, the legislatures elects the ‘government’ – the prime minister and ministers of various departments. Based on the various groups within legislatures, the make-up of the government can vary. The incidence of different types of governments since 1945 is: Single party majority rule (.134), multiple party majority (.5), single party minority (.238), multiple party minority (.128). The book suggests that the choice of how to form a government may be affected by office-seeking parties, who wish to maximize the number of offices to which its members are assigned. Another possibility is based on policy-seeking groups who aim to create a coalition as close as possible to their ideal policies. The book lays out these decisions using spatial modeling, similar to that used in section two.

Overall, the idea of this book was to layout the various issues associated with the rational choice theory – considerations when trying to understand group choice, difficulties of collective actions, and the provision of public goods. The book ends by applying these various considerations and methods to political institutions both within the U.S. and without.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Going to see a Space Shuttle Launch!

More exciting travel developments this week! Since I have so much studying to do for my comprehensive exams, I've been trying to avoid planning weekend trips, but an opportunity presented itself that was too good to pass up.

Here's what happened: The NASA Administrator invited the GW Space Policy Institute students on a VIP tour of the Feb. 7th Shuttle launch. Each of the students gets to bring a 'plus-one' with them, and my co-worker Tommy, who is a current SPI student, offered to sign me up as his plus-one. That means I'd get to go on a VIP tour of the facilities, see the shuttle up close, watch the launch from a special location, and all that fun stuff. Also, since there's a big group going, I don't really have to organize anything - just get myself to Florida (and roundtrip tickets to Orlando were $150!) and then just stick with the group. There are only five shuttle launches left, including this one, so who knows if this opportunity would come up again?

I convinced Jeff to come too - he won't go on the VIP tour of NASA, but he will get to hang out on Cocoa Beach all weekend, so it wasn't too hard to convince him.

Reception Week

I definitely continued the trend of getting out and about this week, mostly in a series of work-related receptions and happy hours. On Tuesday night I got together with co-workers in an informal happy hour with some of the members of our Board of Directors. I ended up chatting with a board member who had been the ambassador to Finland. She was really interesting and intelligent, and I felt like I learned a lot about Scandanavia - did you know kids in Sweden don't have to attend school until they're seven years old?

On Wednesday, I went to the official reception for the board of directors - that was also really fun, with lots of the usual suspects in the DC Space Policy world. The event was at the Canadian Embassy, which has a great view of the Capitol building, and was a really nice location.

Thursday was pretty enjoyable all day. I was back at the Canadian Embassy at 10am to attend an event about Space Security which turned out to have some really interesting speakers. From there, I went straight to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Administration (JAXA) DC offices to see a presentation on what JAXA is planning for 2010. The presentation was pretty interesting, and it was followed by lots and lots of sushi, which was amazing. I realized that I need to start attending many more JAXA activities.

Thursday evening, my company was hosting a space-related young professionals happy hour. The space policy community is not all that big, so most of the people there were familiar faces, though I did meet a few new people as well. The bar had a pool table, I'm not very good, but I figure the longer it takes me to get the balls in, the more pool-playing-time I'm getting for my money, right? After the happy hour, a few of us went out dancing, which is another thing I haven't done in a while. Overall, Thursday was a fun-packed day.

Of course, with all the excitement this week, it's been difficult to focus on all the reading and work I need to do for class... so I guess that will be the focus of my weekend, instead.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Outta the House

Theres lots of work (and reading) to do and the weather's not that great, but Jeff and I have still managed to get out of the house and have fun quite a bit in the last week.

Last Tuesday we drove to Baltimore to meet up with his parents for dinner. We had some great food at Tabrizi's - the eggplant appetizer was incredible.

On Wednesday, we went to our (mostly) weekly happy hour to catch up with friends and enjoy cheap appetizers and $5 martinis. In the future we're going to start trying new locations, so I'll have to actually look at the menu. (At Beacon, our usual place, I've got my order down pat - Cosmo and Spinach and Artichoke Dip. Yum.)

Thursday we went to Rebecca and John's apartment for dinner. Rebecca is a friend from UMD - we had a class together and took the metro back to the city together all semester. Rebecca made chicken and rice with asparagus, which was great. It was the first time the four of us had hung out, and it was a really fun night - I'm hoping to get together with them again soon.

Friday night was a really late dinner at Il Mulino with Al and Beth. We took advantage of restaurant week to get dinner at this normally very expensive place. One interesting thing they do is bring tons of appetizers to your table as free starters - we had spicy sautéed eggplant, Parmesan cheese, bruschetta, and of course, bread. It definitely requires some self-restraint if you want actually want to save room for your meal.

Saturday Jeff and I had a pizza party at home and watched the Raven's game. Maybe that doesn't count since we didn't leave the house. And considering how the game went, maybe it's best to just forget the whole thing.

Football was much better on Sunday when we watched the Vikings game in Baltimore with Tim, Rachel, and Ransom. They weren't quite as excited as I was (still not quite over the Raven's game the night before), but as a consolation we had great BBQ lunch at a restaurant near Tim and Rachel's house.

Monday was our monthly book club meeting - with all of the reading I'm doing for the comps, I didn't quite make it through the book club book (actually didn't quite start it...) but Jeff and I hosted and I cooked, so I think that counts as my contribution to the discussion. :)

Hopefully things will continue to be as exciting this week - I'm really excited about a space young professionals happy hour my work is hosting on Thursday - should be fun!

Ireland, here we come!

Exciting development from last week - Jeff and I booked a trip to Ireland with my brother and his wife. We'll fly into Dublin and stay for six days in a villa at a resort/spa about an hour outside town. We'll have a car, so I'm anticipating lots of day trips. I've been checking out online travel guides for itinerary ideas already - the Cliffs of Moher, the Ring of Kerry, Blarney Castle, etc.

If you're reading this and have ever been to Ireland, I'd love any recommendations on what to see/ where to go!

And, if you're interested in your own trip to Ireland, this deal on travelzoo really is incredible - it includes the airfare, villa (at the resort), and car rental. The trip requires a group of four to book together, but the base price per person (out of NYC) is only $600. It's a bit more expensive depending on your dates, departure city, etc., but still a pretty great deal!

Interpreting NAFTA: The Science and Art of Political Analysis

Frederick W. Mayer

Interpreting NAFTA: The Science and Art of Political Analysis by Frederick Mayer has a quite similar format to the last political analysis book I read: “Essence of Decision.” In the first chapter, Mayer lays out an analytic framework, and then he alternates narration about the development of NAFTA and political analysis aimed at understanding that history. He divides NAFTA’s development into three sections: deciding to negotiate, the actual international negotiations, and ratifying the agreement in the U.S.

The framework that Mayer lays out is a matrix, with three items on each side. On one axis, he notes that policy interactions can take place on an international, domestic (group), or individual level. The three possible modes of politics he includes are rational choice, institutional process, and symbolic choice. Rational choice is based on each party weighing their options and choosing action that maximizes their utility (objectives). Institutional process focuses on the patterns and rules already in place that affect policy. Symbolic choice focuses on the use of symbols to understand policies. Rather than assuming that each player – individual, domestic, or international can fully gather and analyze all available information, symbolic choice notes that this is not possible, or even logical, much of the time, and that instead, positions are often based on symbolic understandings. Using this matrix, he points out that legitimate political analysis can focus on any of the three levels and use any of the three analytic modes. He argues that the ‘art’ of policy analysis is deciding which of these methods to apply and when.

Deciding to Negotiate
The first issue Mayer addresses is why the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, decided to create a North American Free Trade Agreement at this particular time. He notes that international rational actor theory is often used for International Security issues, which are set up like prisoner’s dilemma games – i.e. the challenge is to figure out how to ensure cooperation in which each individual player has an incentive to defect (and not cooperate). International trade policy is different. If the goal is macro-level economic efficiency gains, then free trade is good for each country, whether or not any other country opens their market or not. So that begs the question – why do you need to draft a treaty to get countries to do what is already in their interest to do? The answer involves looking at domestic politics as well – it may be very politically different to take down trade barriers, but if those barriers are removed in coordination with international efforts, there is more political protection for leaders.

Mayer also talks about the particular time and the leaders involved in making the decision to draft a NAFTA – President Bush was particularly interested in free trade and in improving relations with Mexico. Mexican President, Salinas, was a Harvard-trained economist, a supporter of free trade, and was in the midst of trying to modernize Mexico’s economy. The Canadian Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, actually wasn’t interested in participating at first, but then changed his mind as he determined that it would hurt Canada to be left out of the agreement.

Though the three leaders were interested in drafting a NAFTA, for this to be possible, the U. S. Congress had to give President Bush “Fast Track” Authority (actually just extend fast track, since he already had authority from another negotiation process, but it was set to expire soon). This is a process that gives the president the ability to negotiate the treaty and then provide it to Congress for a simple yes or no vote. Under the fast track rules, Congress is not allowed to add amendments – this prevents them from pulling apart a negotiated agreement. The take-it-or-leave-it vote means that even if there are some sections that aren’t good for their own constituents, if the overall bill is beneficial, they’ll likely still vote for it. Usually a procedural vote, like the one to extend fast track authority,’ would not be a big fight in Congress – trade politics aren’t usually big news items. However, the fight for NAFTA was a bigger deal – Labor groups lobbied members, as did some environmental groups. Bush agreed to include environmental considerations in the bill, and it ‘fast track authority’ was narrowly passed by Congress. Mayer uses this to show the importance of domestic considerations in something that seems like a strictly international policy issue – the decision to negotiate an international treaty.

The next section of the book is about the actual negotiations. There were quite a few sub-groups within the negotiations – energy, automotive, agriculture, etc. Each country would develop a bargaining position by discussing with domestic groups. For example, the U.S. consulted with the big three automakers about their position in the automotive group. The automakers’ preferences directly influenced the ‘rule of origin’ – the percentage of parts in the car that must come from the North America in order for the car to qualify as a North American product. Mayer describes this process as two-level bargaining. First, there is bargaining on the domestic level among interest groups and the national negotiator, and then there is bargaining on the international level among the representatives from each nation. The result of the international negotiation cannot be fully analyzed or understood without also analyzing the domestic negotiation process. This two-level process is particularly interesting in an area like agriculture, which tends to be sensitive. Nationally, a government would like to be as economically efficient as possible. Since the U.S. climate is better for growing corn and the Mexican climate is better for fruits and veggies, like oranges or tomatoes, you might expect an international agreement to open trade and allow this situation to occur. However, the U.S. continues to protect, fairly highly, its Florida orange-growers, for example, despite the inefficiency. It’s interesting to see the competing interests of domestic interest groups and international efforts to lower barriers, and how international negotiations are often used to make a nation do something that is arguably good for itself anyway.

NAFTA took a long time to negotiate, and by the time it was finished, there was a presidential election. As a candidate, Bill Clinton supported NAFTA, but to neutralize criticism, he said that labor and environmental side agreements would also need to be added. When he won the election, these side issues became a new area of international negotiation on the trade agreement. Mayer argues that understanding this domestic situation is essential for understanding why these side agreements exist. The negotiations were lengthy and difficult, in part because trade negotiators weren’t used to dealing with these issues. An interesting occurrence in these negotiations is that the environmental groups split between those who were willing to work with the administration on making side agreements to address environmental concerns and those who felt that no free trade agreement could benefit the environment and just lobbied against it as a whole. It was felt that labor groups would be against the free trade agreement regardless of any concessions given, so labor had much less of a say in the negotiations, and the labor side agreement was weaker than the environmental side agreement. Mayer argues that the results of international negotiation on the side agreements can only be to be examined and understood in the domestic political context.

The final section of the book is on ratification of the treaty. As mentioned above, once NAFTA was finished, it would go to the Congress for a simple yes or no vote, with no amendments allowed. Trade agreements usually didn’t get much press and passage wasn’t too controversial. This was not the case with NAFTA. There was a huge grassroots anti-NAFTA campaign. The author explains that this is particularly difficult to understand in a rational actor framework; analysis of NAFTA generally pointed to net benefits for the nation, though there were some credible arguments that there could be net loss. However, a consensus in the analysis was that whether positive or negative, the magnitude of the effect of NAFTA would be very small. The predicted job gain (or loss) due to NAFTA over ten years was about 200,000 jobs – this is the same number that economists estimate are created naturally in the U.S. in the course of a month. Mayer argues that the opposition to NAFTA was based on symbolic politics. People were provided with imagery through statements like Ross Perot’s famous quote about the ‘sucking sound’ of jobs flowing down to Mexico because of NAFTA. Labor and environmental groups encouraged people to oppose NAFTA. Some conservatives argued that NAFTA would result in the loss of U.S. sovereignty as it gives over control to international markets. These activities generated lots of negative mail about NAFTA being sent to Congressman and led to angry encounters at town-hall meetings.

Though businesses and others usually involved in trade agreements were used to lobbying ‘inside the beltway’ – i.e. to Congress and other D.C. oriented groups – they had never before had to launch a campaign for general support. However, as Congressmen saw the negative opinion of their constituents, Congressional votes for NAFTA were disappearing. Proponents of NAFTA launched a national campaign including commercials, grassroots efforts, and intense D.C. lobbying. They got out the message that all of the living presidents and all of the living Nobel Prize winners in economics were in favor of NAFTA – giving credibility to the idea that NAFTA is good for the U.S. They also re-framed the issue as a choice about America’s future – whether to open up trade, face competition, and move forward, or to retreat and become isolated and protectionist. They argued that working with Mexico and encouraging them to modernize their economy was going to have a positive effect on the U.S. In the end, the diagnosis of the opposition as symbolic politics and fighting it by changing the framework and image with which NAFTA was presented (as well as continued lobbying efforts) proved successful, and NAFTA was passed.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Satellites for Disaster Relief - Update

Another cool application to check out - the New York Times has created an application that lets you see before and after satellite images of particular buildings that have been affected. Definitely take a look.

(New York Times) January 14, 2009
View satellite photos from GeoEye that show Port-au-Prince before and after the Jan. 12 earthquake. The after photograph was taken the next day.

Satellites for Natural Disasters

The first satellite images of Haiti since the Earthquake have been released, and there have been a few good articles about how satellites - including both satellite imagery and satellite communications - are extremely important after a natural disaster. This is an issue that's very interesting and important to me - these are the types of satellite applications that are extremely valuable, but that people aren't always aware exist. If you have time to read all the articles, I'd recommend it (and I've provided links), otherwise I've tried to provide some of the highlights of article each here.

How satellites are being used in Haiti
(BBC) January 14, 2010, By Jonathan Amos
This BBC article is particularly good at describing the basic ways that satellite imagery is used and also how satellite imagery becomes available so quickly.

“The first thing an emergency response needs is an up-to-date view of the land affected. Which roads and bridges are still intact? Which remote areas look to have been worst hit? Where is the best place for a base-camp? And if terrestrial communications are down, which satellite assets can be used to co-ordinate the relief effort, not just for phones but to drive computers as well?”

“Many space agencies have signed up to something called the International Charter [on] Space and Major Disasters. It was initiated back in 2000 by Esa, and the French (Cnes) and Canadian (CSA) space agencies; but then quickly acquired other signatories including important US bodies like Noaa and the US Geological Survey. When the Charter is activated, the signatories re-task their satellites to get the data most urgently needed in a devastated region.”

“[Satellite] radar is particular useful because you can detect how the ground has actually moved by comparing data gathered before and after a quake. This type of information will be important in assessing future seismic hazard in the region, so it's not just in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster like this that satellites return on their investment.”

Satellites to the rescue
(MSNBC) January 14, 2010, By Alan Boyle
The MSNBC article is great because it goes beyond the value of satellite remote sensing imagery, and also talks about how satellite communications technology is being used.

“When the rescuers arrive, one of the most immediate needs beyond food, water and medicine is the need to communicate. The quake dealt a heavy blow to Haiti's standard communication links. Here again, satellites are coming to the rescue. Telecoms Sans Frontieres, a French-based international relief organization, was among the first on the scene with BGAN terminals. (The acronym, pronounced "bee-gan", stands for broadband global area network.) The BGAN devices are about as big as a netbook or laptop computer, and provide a mobile hookup for phone or data communication (wireless or wired) through the Inmarsat satellite network. Telecoms Sans Frontieres is hooking up terminals to facilitate communications for U.N. relief workers in Haiti, and will eventually let Haitians make free two-minute phone calls to anywhere in the world.”

“The next stage involves putting down small satellite dishes (known as VSATs, or very small aperture terminals) to beef up the communications networks. Governmental relief operations are already getting VSATs on the scene, and relying upon satellite services donated by satellite operators such as SES World Skies. "Satellite networks play a quintessential role in disaster recovery, when speed is of the essence," Rob Bednarek, the company's president and chief executive officer.”

“Every crisis brings new innovations as well: For example, NetHope is putting together a novel combination of VSAT dishes and WiMax wireless networks to cover Port-au-Prince with a net of connectivity. "First, phone connectivity for setting up voice over Internet, so [relief workers] can begin to communicate. The second thing will be Internet connectivity. That will allow for GIS mapping, it will allow for FTP for photos, it will allow for video. ... It provides a full stack of communication technologies for allowing the teams to coordinate and for assessments to be done."”

Satellite Photos Show Destruction from Haiti Earthquake
( January 14, 2010
This article covers similar ground as the BBC article, giving a bit more detail on how the images are examined.

“By comparing before and after maps, officials can pinpoint areas hit the hardest and proceed to identify passable routes for relief and rescue workers. Additionally, they can help to identify areas that are suitable for setting up aid camps where medical support and shelter can be provided to people.”

Satellite images show devastation after Haiti earthquake
(CNN) January 14, 2010, By Phil Han
CNN has the best before and after images available along with their article, though the article itself only briefly mentions the role of satellites, and mostly focused on how google maps is being used for distribution.

“Search engine giant Google updated its Google Maps imagery of Haiti on Thursday in the hopes it will help aid organizations involved in the recovery and relief effort.”

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Essense of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis

By Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow

The aim of this book is to examine the Cuban Missile Crisis using three different conceptual frameworks. This allows the reader to understand how the various frameworks color the types of questions you ask, what information you need, and how you view the causes of an action. The Cuban missile crisis is used as an example because it was such a complex and important issue in foreign policy and because there is a relative wealth of information that has been released about the events.

The first framework that is used, Model I, is the Rational Actor Model. This model basically thinks of a country as one monolithic decision maker that considers the strategic situation, its own objectives and goals, and then makes a rational decision based on the information. You’re basically thinking of a nation as if it were a person. This is the model that most people use without even realizing it – when you ask “Why did Russia send missiles to Cuba?” you’re inherently thinking of ‘Cuba’ as if it can make decisions or take actions. Using this method to look at the Cuban missile crisis, you might decide that Cuba sent missiles to help to improve its strategic missile position relative to the U.S. – the U.S. had lots of missiles that could reach Russia, but many of Russia’s missiles were shorter range, so the only way to counter the U.S. capability was to build longer-range missiles or to place its shorter-range missiles closer to the U.S. It chose the latter. Asking why the U.S. chose to blockade Cuba in response may lead a Model I analyst to focus on the choice of an option short of all-out attack on Cuba, but strong enough to show Russia (and domestic political rivals) that the U.S. was taking a firm stance. A Model I analyst would see Khrushchev’s decision to remove the missiles as a logical reaction to the credible threat of American action coupled with the superior American conventional and nuclear power.

The second framework presented, Model II, is an Organizational Model. The organizational model focuses on what groups – various bureaucracies, offices, etc. were involved, what information they had, what they were already doing, and what they were capable of doing. One of the main ideas in this framework is that the best way to predict what an organization will be doing tomorrow is by looking at what the organization is doing today. It also points out that the information and actions available to a decision-maker are based on what organizations are currently capable of. Therefore, the data gathering on Cuba going on through the CIA efforts and standard protocol for planning air reconnaissance played a big role in what information was available to decision makers, and when. The fact that the U.S. had a large Navy, and in fact already had plans for a Naval blockade drawn up, made the choice of this action possible. The idea that actions aren’t always the result of rational decision-making, but rather the result of normal organizational processes, is particularly interesting and useful for understanding things that don’t seem to make sense under model one. For example, the Russians were very careful to hide the missiles from view and be secretive about their efforts while on the ships on the way to Cuba, but once they were in Cuba, they didn’t make any efforts to camouflage the missiles and they build the missile bases in a way that was identical to Soviet missile bases. This led some, using a Model I framework, to be confused about this action, or even to think that maybe Russia wanted the U.S. to detect the missiles. However, using Model II framework, these actions make more sense. The procedures for shipping were put together by the Soviet intelligence agency, so it makes sense that secrecy was a priority. However, when the ships landed, the Soviet operational military forces in Cuba took over. For them, the priority was to work quickly and finish the bases as soon as possible, since their efforts would have been greatly hindered by trying to work beneath camouflage netting or only work at night, they chose to prioritize speed. They built the missile bases identical to Soviet designs, because they were Soviet soldiers building new bases ‘by the book’ based on all their previous experience – how else would they have built them?

The organizational framework also points out a number of nearly catastrophic events during the crisis that weren’t actions taken by a rational actor, but rather the unfortunate result of multiple organizational processes overlapping in unexpected ways. For example, when Kennedy announced that the USSR was moving missiles into Cuba, he raised the U.S. military readiness level to DEFCON-3, which means that fighter planes were armed with nuclear bombs. During this time, the U.S. continued with a scheduled U-2 flight into the arctic to collect air samples. Unfortunately, the U-2 got off track and ended up in Russian airspace. The Russians sent fighter jets to protect their airspace, and the U.S. (as was policy) sent fighter planes to protect the U-2 aircraft. However, since they were at DEFCON-3, the planes were armed with nuclear warheads. Luckily, the U-2 exited Russian airspace before any fighting took place and before a random collection of normal processes could lead to the U.S. using nuclear bombs over Russian territory. There are quite a few examples of similar near-fatal mistakes caused by organizational processes on both the Russian and U.S. side.

The third framework, Model II, was a Governmental Behavior Model. This model focuses on the individuals that took part in the decision making – who were they, why did they get to take part, what information or biases did they have, and how influential were they in the decision-making process? It focuses on trying to understand the decisions made based on the details of the individuals and the structures for interaction that were in play. It emphasizes that actions may not be the result of one monolithic entity considering its objectives and choosing the most rational action, but rather of many people with different objectives, information, and estimates of outcomes discussing and often compromising on an action that doesn’t precisely match any one person’s thought process. For example, Kennedy put together a committee of advisors, including his national security advisor, the head of the state department, the head of the DoD, and other acting government leaders, but also a former ambassador to Russia, a retired State Department administrator, and others. The unique information, points of view, and past interactions of these various players had a significant effect on the choices made. Using transcripts of tapes of the White House discussions, the book shows the debating and decision-making process, including how various members of the discussion brought up ideas, changed sides, and fused their ideas together. Kennedy nearly chose to carry out an air strike on Cuba rather than a blockade, and even given the blockade option, he and others debated on whether to offer negotiations with Russia or to give them an ultimatum.

Overall, the book stresses that it is important to be aware of the type of framework being used when examining an issue of foreign policy, or even examining decisions made or actions taken by companies or other large groups. While they note that Model I is often useful for a first-effort understanding of an issue, it is often necessary to expand understanding to the operational procedures and political discussions underlying the action.

Comprehensive Exam Studying

On May 24 & 26, 2010 I'll be taking my PhD Comprehensive exams in Political Analysis and in Normative Analysis. To prepare for these exams, I need to read what seems like a million (but is probably more accurately about 30) books in the next few months. Since this is what I'm spending a lot of my time doing, and since it probably helps me to synthesize data, I've decided to start posting summaries of the books that I read as I finish them. Hopefully other people will find these books as interesting as I do!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

San Antonio

On our last full day in Texas, we went on a day trip to San Antonio. We started the day by seeing the Alamo, which was interesting, and about like I remembered it from my visit in 5th grade. Although, when I went then I watched a much sadder movie about it, which we didn't see this time.
From the Alamo, it was a quick walk to the River Walk, which is actually a really pretty area. We had lunch at a Mexican restaurant right on the river and then attempted to walk in a little loop, but somehow kept hitting dead-ends.
On the way home we stopped at Dry Comal Creek Vineyard to do a wine tasting. Apparently Texas wine country is near Austin, so there were a bunch of vineyards we could have visited. Neera had never done a wine tasting, so we thought it'd be worth a try. The owner of the vineyard actually ended up pouring for our tasting, which was pretty cool. There are about 15 wines included in the tasting - it was a good thing we decided to share instead of each getting our own tasting.
As it was, we were pretty ready for a nap by the time it was all over.
For our last night dinner, we got dressed up and went to a semi-fancy restaurant near our condo. The food was really very good, except for the risotto, which was a bit salty, but that didn't seem so bad when the waiter brought us free cookies to make up for it.
Overall, the weekend was a lot of fun. As always, it was great to see Neera and Janet, and this time Shreyas and Dan. They're all really interesting and intelligent people and just really great to be around.

New Year's Day

New Year's Day started pretty slowly - I don't think we made it out of the condo until after noon. Our main sight-seeing destination for the day with the LBJ Presidential Museum. I mis-estimated the distance to the museum a bit, so our short walk turned into a fairly serious 2+ mile hike.

On the bright side, the museum was really good. It's interesting because it's so specific to the president's life, the current events at the time he was in office, and his own personal feelings and writings. In his writings you could see his awareness and frustration that his administration was going to known for the Vietnam War and not for the domestic legislation that he was focused on. The difficulty and personal conflict of being the president and deciding what to do with regard to the war.

One exhibit included an animatronic LBJ telling jokes and stories. He was pretty funny.
I also really liked this exhibit, which included letters and pictures sent to the president.
My favorite was this letter.
After seeing the museum, we walked past the Capitol, which is the largest State Capitol building in the country.
By this time we were on a fairly desperate quest for food, but almost everything seemed to be closed. Luckily we spotted a happy hour at McCormick and Smick's, which had a bunch of things (hummus, spinach and artichoke dip, wings, burgers, etc.) ranging from $2 to $5 each. We ordered a lot of them.
After what turned out to be dinner, we took a walk on South Congress street, to the area called 'SoCo', which was cute and had little restaurants and boutiques, though most were closed or closing by the time we got there.

In the evening we crashed at home, watched 'How to Steal a Million' and ordered a bunch of pizza.

New Year's Eve

Thursday we New Year's Eve, and we started the day by going to the Alamo Drafthouse - it's a movie theater where every other row of seats was removed and replaced with tables, so you can order food during the movie (and they serve beer, too). The model has spread around the U.S., but the Austin location is the original. We saw Avatar in 3D (the second time I'd seen it.) I had some hot wings and a burger with my movie. Everyone enjoyed the movie (though to varying degrees) - Neera mentioned that it's kind of like Pocahontas, but blue, which is fairly accurate.

From there, we went to the flagship Whole Foods store - it's something like 17,000 square feet of Whole Foods grocery store. We got some champagne for that night, some wine and cheese, breakfast foods, and other snacks.

After the groceries were put away at home, we checked out a parade that was going right near our house. It was a little odd and pretty short, so when it was done we had free time before dinner.

There was a blue moon on New Year's Eve (the second full moon in a calendar month) - and it looked pretty cool with all the clouds.

It was getting pretty chilly, so we stopped for a drink on the way to the restaurant.
The bar was off the beaten path and had a cute pub-like atmosphere. It was called the Ginger Man Bar.
We had Thai food for dinner - the restaurant was excellent, though I'm blanking on the name at the moment. I had some great mushroom and tofu soup in spicy coconut sauce. After Thai, we stopped home for wine and cheese (and coffee).

Around 11:15 we walked across the Colorado River to see some live music and fireworks, which were being set off over the river as part of Austin's New Year's festival.
The fireworks were good and went on a long time.
After fireworks, we went home, had some champagne, and ended up chatting about everything from science education, to health care, to movies until about four in the morning. It was a great way to start the new year.

Fourth Annual Girl's Trip (+Boys)

Every year I plan a trip to get together with two of my good friends from college - Neera and Janet - because we live in completely different parts of the country, and if we didn't plan a trip, we'd probably never all be in the same place. This year (our 4th get together), we decided to bring along our significant others, so that the guys could meet each other and we could spend some time making sure everybody really gets to know each other.

Based on lots of email discussions, analysis of flight prices, and randomness, we decided to get together for a New Year's Eve long-weekend in Austin, Texas. We rented a fairly big condo downtown, which was really nice, because we could cook food in the kitchen and have a living room to hang out in together. Plus its much cheaper than getting multiple hotel rooms. (In general, it's a great travel tip - almost every city offers rentals, and they're usually a lot cheaper than hotels - especially for longer stays or larger groups.)
We all got in on Wed. Dec. 30th, met up at the airport, rented a van, and found our condo. Despite some initial trepidation about actually finding the keys, entry, etc., everything went pretty smoothly.

By the time we got in we were all starving, so we went on a walk to find food. We came across a place called Manuels on South Congress Street, which had great Mexican food. After dinner, we did a little walking tour of 6th Street - which is a major night-life area in Austin. Austin is the 'Live Music Capital of the World' so it was fun to walk along and hear the different bands playing in each place.

Around Minnesota

During our last three days in Minnesota, Jeff and I mostly hung out with friends and family and saw movies. Here are the highlights:

On Dec. 27th we went to Annette's apartment for lunch and had some of the delicious chicken parmesan that she made. We exchanged gifts - Jeff and I got her some movies, tea, and a water kettle. She got Jeff a sweater and sweatpants, and she gave me two great Audrey Hepburn movies - 'How to Steal a Million' and 'Roman Holiday' - both recommended if you haven't seen them.

That afternoon we saw Avatar at the 3D Imax with my Mom and Dad and Brian and Emily. The graphics were amazing and I enjoyed the movie. Overall, though the graphics and creativity that went into creating the world are pretty amazing, I wasn't that impressed by the story. More on that later if I ever have time to post about it.

That night ended with some Lee-Ann Chins (I know the food's not that good, but I still love it!) and Doctor Who watching - it was Part I of the episode where David Tennant dies/regenerates and a new actor becomes the Doctor. I love Doctor Who, but David Tennant is my favorite doctor, so watching his last episodes is a little bitter-sweet.

I spent a lot of Monday, Dec. 28th lounging around the house and helping my sister sell her things on Craigslist. In the evening, the whole family went out to Tucci Benuch and then to see Sherlock Holmes. The Mall of America theater has D-Box seats, which move around in concert with the action in the movie - so when there's a chase seen or someone falls off a cliff, your chair rumbles or swivels, etc. It was an interesting experience, though I wouldn't want to have it for every movie I saw. Back at home after the movie, Paul Colling dropped by and hung out for a bit - watching TV and chatting.

Tuesday, Dec. 29th was our last full day in Minnesota, and we kept pretty busy. Jeff and I had lunch with Rachel, Carey, and Paul at Old Chicago. The four of us used to hang out all the time in high school, and it feels like that was just yesterday when we hang out. Except Rachel is now pregnant (due in February!) and Carey's a teacher, its hard to deny that we're growing up.
After lunch we went to see Paul's new apartment - he has his own place in Minneapolis, just a couple blocks from Calhoun Square in Uptown. He can walk to a lot of the fun nightlife and city stuff - very cool. But instead of seeing Uptown, we watched a couple episodes of Battlestar Galactica, which I'm trying to get Paul hooked on. I'm pretty sure I've got Carey Ma hooked at this point - it's definitely his kind of show.

In the evening Jeff and I met up with Naomi, Rachel, and Rachel's husband, Drew. We went to TGIFridays and sat at the same table as we sat last time we got together. It was a really fun dinner. The whole day (and whole trip, really) made me wish I could visit Minnesota more often and stay longer when I do - the time really flies by.

Back at home I watched the movie 'Once' with my Mom and Dad, though I was distracted and think I missed a lot of it. My cousin, MacKenzie, came to spend the night (she had seen a late movie in Roseville and didn't want to drive back to Wisconsin). She and my sister and I watched 'In Her Shoes.'

The next morning we pretty much packed and went to the airport, and that was it for the Minnesota trip!

Schell's Brewery

The day after Christmas, my Brother, Emily, Jeff, Tom, and I (Katie had to work), headed to New Ulm, Minnesota to visit Schell's Brewery. The brewery was started 150 years ago, so it's survived quite a while.

We took a tour of the facilities, first. For some reason there are peacocks that live at the Brewery - not usually what you would expect to see during a Minnesota winter.
The old housing and brewery machinery were pretty neat.

After the tour and a short video, we did a tasting. With tastes of about six different beers followed by a full pint of a beer of your choice, if was a lot to take in before lunch.
Emily's cousin and her family were there too - here's a shot of everybody.

I had lots of fun taking pictures in the museum afterwards.
I also loved this poster of German words. Interesting choices to teach.
Emily was able to use her musical magic powers (i.e. ability to read sheet music) to sing this song to us. The lyrics basically ask, "Isn't this a snitzel Bank? Yes, it is a snitzel bank!" (Snitzel is a German meat-dish, but it's not clear what a snitzel bank is...)
We drove into town and had lunch at a German restaurant - I had a reuben sandwich and Jeff had bratwurst and sauerkraut, which was very good. They also had some cool appetizers - like fried sauerkraut balls in cheese.

After the 2-3 hour drive home, we relaxed around at home, re-charged, and then we all went to the Happy Gnome Bar in St. Paul, MN. I'd never been to the Happy Gnome, but it was really cool - lots of fun beer options and a whole bunch of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan beers on tap. Missy Laine, a friend from high school, was having her birthday get together there, so I got to see a bunch of high school friends, which was really nice. Some of the people I hadn't seen in years, and now they're spread out all over the world - Emily is doing Peace Corp in El Salvador, Eric is a chaplain's assistant in the army stationed in Iraq, Abby's a park ranger, Carey Ma is in NYC teaching in Harlem, and Missy is in DC.
After leaving the Happy Gnome, we went to a few bars around Maplewood, right near my house. It's seems a bit odd to go to neighborhood bars with crappy beer where you don't know anybody, but Tom and Brian were pretty psyched about it. Bleachers had karaoke, so my brother and Emily sang something. Then it turned out that Emily is a really good singer (not surprising, since she's really into music and works as a a piano teacher), but it was enough to convince Jeff and I that we shouldn't attempt out 'Dying Cat Duet' (which is what any song we sing comes out sounding like.) Fun night!