Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

The Great Questions of Blogging

Brad DeLong may have stepped into a hornet’s nest. No, not in this post on Kerry’s health plan, but in this post on punctuation. Brad takes exception to the title of a recent book on punctuation, “Eats, Shoots and Leaves,” writing

First of all, there definitely needs to be a comma after “Shoots”. Do we, after all, wish to live in a world in which the sentence, “I would like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God”, [sic] is grammatical?

The final comma in a list before the “and” or “or” is an important banisher of confusion, ambiguity, and general silliness.

(Note that the “sic” is mine and refers to the comma; more on this below.) Now, I happen to agree that a comma belongs before the final “and”, precisely because it can never lead the reader astray and is sometimes useful. Having heard the author, Lynne Truss, on Fresh Air a while ago, I know the book title is an intentional punctuation pun. The joke was something along the lines of the difference between a panda bear that walks into a bar, gets angry (an angry bear, if you will), then eats, shoots [a gun], and leaves, as compared to a panda in its natural habitat where for the most part he simply eats [bamboo] shoots and leaves.

But in highlighting one comma-flaw, Brad may have committed another: the placement of the comma outside the quotation mark. This has long been a pet peeve of mine because I think the comma should be outside the closing quote, but after some checking, I became convinced that the rules clearly say it belongs inside the quotation marks. This is counterintuitive, because the quotation is generally a free-standing concept and so should be fully enclosed in quotation marks, and only then offset from the rest of the sentence. I’ve reached a modest moral compromise in which I stick to my principles, placing the comma outside the quotation marks, when the quoted item is a single word. But when a phrase or sentence is quoted, I follow the rules and put the punctuation inside the quotes.

The logic of this compromise is that in the former case, the quotes are serving in lieu of more complex typography such as italics or bold face, a remnant from the days of yore when word processors were not widely available. For example, were the book title at the end of the first paragraph underlined rather than in quotation marks, then the comma immediately following the title would not also be underlined. So why should it be inside the quotation marks, which are basically used as a substitute for underlining?

Another difficult punctuation issue is the parenthetic: does the period go before or after the closing “)”? (Or should that be … after the closing “)?”?)+ The unambiguous case is when the parenthetic is a self-contained sentence, separate from any other sentence. Then the sentence endmark belongs inside the parentheses. Unlike with quote marks, this conforms with intution: here’s an aside in parentheses and, as the reader can clearly tell from the period located inside the parentheses, it’s a full sentence.

More complicated is the sentence-ending parenthetic that is itself a full sentence. I thought that I usually put the period after the final “)”, but then I did a quick search of the archives and found this in one of my posts:

I’ve been pretty busy lately, which explains the dearth of in-depth posts about economics and policy (I made a modest attempt to rectify this in this post.)

Here’s an excerpt from one of Kash’s posts:

It’s a good list, heavy on the institutional issues that have been increasingly emphasized by development economists over the past decade (though I’m not sure I’ve ever seen “mentality” enumerated as a separate institutional requirement).

So I do not follow, at least not consistently, the rule I thought I followed. Kash, however, apparently does.

Final thought: ending a sentence with a preposition, yea or nea?


+ For fun, try getting the punctuation on this part of the sentence right. There’s a parenthetic, and it’s a question about quotation markes. The parenthetic question ends with a quoted “)?” but since there’s a question there, a question mark is then appended, followed by a closing parenthesis, yielding the extremely awkward string


Moreover, the first four characters of that string are also a quote. I used italics to distinguish the quoted punctuation from the puncuation that is part of the sentence, but that was just a guess. Alternatively, I could use single quotes, but that would lead to even less visually appealing strings like ‘”)?”‘?). Yikes.

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Navel-Gazing at The NYT

Many other blogs are covering the Times‘ ongoing mea culpa process for basically accepting and reprinting White House spin on WMD in the run-up to the Iraq War. For example, in his latest bit, Editor Daniel Okrent writes

To anyone who read the paper between September 2002 and June 2003, the impression that Saddam Hussein possessed, or was acquiring, a frightening arsenal of W.M.D. seemed unmistakable. Except, of course, it appears to have been mistaken.

… Some of The Times’s coverage in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq was credulous; much of it was inappropriately italicized by lavish front-page display and heavy-breathing headlines; and several fine articles by David Johnston, James Risen and others that provided perspective or challenged information in the faulty stories were played as quietly as a lullaby.

This piece is a follow-up to an earlier unsigned piece by “The Editors.” In response to the first piece, many observers pointed out that the editors failed to mention the most egregious spin-recycler by name, Judith “From Chalabi’s Mouth to Your Eyes” Miller. For more on Miller, see Franklin Foer’s New Yorker New York Magazine story, “The Source of the Trouble.

While they’re in a reflective mood, the Times Editors might want to take a look at Elisabeth Bumiller, who today decided to devote an entire story, 900 words, to comparing the bikes that the presidential candidates ride, concluding insightfully that

“… maybe as a sideshow to the presidential debates Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry should have a bike race, which would add new meaning to political spin.”

And yes, that’s from the hard news section, not the Style section. While they’re taking a look at Bumiller’s alleged work, perhaps they should look for a mirror, for it is the editors who agreed to print this triviality. Link to “story” via Pandagon.


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Kerry’s Campaign

Now you don’t have to just take my word for it that Kerry’s playing it smart. Bill Clinton thinks so too:

May 28, 2004 | New York — Former President Clinton said Thursday that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry is smart not to comment daily on every development in Iraq because “he recognizes that he’s not the president.”

Speaking at his office in Harlem, Clinton said he didn’t think the Massachusetts senator was running “too safe a campaign” as some political strategists have suggested. Among the criticism is that Kerry is failing to exploit increasing skepticism about President Bush’s handling of the war.


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Personal Saving

Personal income headed in the right direction in April — up 0.4% in real terms according to today’s BEA report. This is not particularly surprising, since we already know that employment growth was strong in April, but it’s good news nonetheless. Interestingly, consumers did not spend all of this increase in income. In fact, they seem to be slowly increasing their saving. The savings rate has crept up to 2.4% from well under 2.0% last year. Is this the long-awaited retrenching of household finances?


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Comparing 2004 and 1994

In 1994 two of the three branches of government in the US were led by Democrats. Their position as the minority opposition party united the Republican party like never before, under the leadership of Newt Gingrich. Conservative voters were furious about Democratic initiatives in 1993 and 1994, and mobilized in an unprecedented way to work for the defeat of Democrats. The result was a resounding defeat for the Democratic party.

In 2004 all three branches of government are controled by the Republican party. The position of Democrats as the country’s minority party has united them to an unusual degree. Increasing numbers of mainstream voters are angry at the incompentent failures of the worst president ever. Liberal and progressive voters (I’m not sure which of those two groups is to the left of which) are being mobilized in an unprecedented way to work to defeat Republicans at all levels.

Will the result be similar to 1994, except with Republicans on the losing end? House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer thinks it might be. I hope he’s right.


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This is why a subscription to is not a bad idea. In addition to the article on the media’s culpability in the Iraq war that AB mentioned below, Sydney Blumenthal has an excellent piece in about the Chalabi story. In it Blumenthal writes some beautiful poetry about the justice slowly being wrought in Washington right now:

Washington, which was just weeks ago in the grip of neoconservative orthodoxy and absolute belief in Bush’s inevitability and righteousness, is now in the throes of agonizing events and being ripped apart by investigations. Things fall apart; all that was hidden is revealed; all sacred exposed as profane: the military, loyal and lumbering, betrayed and embittered; the general in the field, Lt. Gen. Sanchez, disgraced and cashiered; and the most respected retired generals training their artillery on those who have ill-used the troops, still dying in the field; the intelligence agencies, a nautilus of chambers, abused and angry, its retired operatives plying their craft with the press corps, seeping dangerous truths; the press, hesitatingly and wobbly, investigating its own falsehoods; the neocons, publicly redoubling their passionate intensity, defending their hero and deceiver Chalabi, privately squabbling, anxiously awaiting the footsteps of FBI agents; Colin Powell, once the most acclaimed man in America, embarked on an endless quest to restore his reputation, damaged above all by his failure of nerve; everyone in the line of fire motioning toward the chain of command, spiraling upward and sideways, until the finger pointing in a phalanx is directed at the hollow crown.


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Gmail and Drunken Nixon

I’ve been using Gmail for about a week and I really like the interface, which is substantially different from Hotmail and Yahoo — as it needs to be if Google is to induce people to give up their old email addresses. And apparently the free market agrees: Gmail accounts are selling for up to $150 on eBay (they should be free for everybody sometime this summer) and I received one email offering me $40.00 for an account.

As you may have heard, some privacy advocates are upset about Gmail because it uses the same technology that underlies Google Ads to scan emails and place context-sensitive ads next to emails. Personally, I don’t care. Yahoo and Hotmail also have robots scan the emails in an effort to filter out spam, so it’s really nothing new. And if I have to look at ads then I may as well look at ones related to the things I read and write about.

In any case, I hadn’t really noticed the ads, which are much less intrusive than Yahoo’s. Realizing that, I decided to take a conscious look. What did I find? An ad from the New Zealand Herald linking to a story on Richard Nixon:

Five days into the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, with the superpowers on the brink of confrontation, US President Richard Nixon was too drunk to discuss the crisis with British Prime Minister Edward Heath, according to transcripts of tape recordings released yesterday.

Henry Kissinger’s assessment of the President’s condition on the night of October 11, 1973, is contained in more than 20,000 pages of transcripts of Kissinger’s phone calls as National Security Adviser and Secretary of State.

I’m guessing that an email I received with the subject heading “worst president ever” triggered this particular ad. I can’t say whether the charge is true or not (hey, spreading this meets the standards of the New York Times); I certainly don’t remember hearing much about Nixon as a big drinker. But in that era, the press were more discrete about the private lives of presidents (see, e.g., JFK). Anyway, without Gmail’s targeted ads, I would never have seen this, and by extension, nor would most of my readers.

No word from the New Zealand Herald yet on whether Nixon choked on snack foods or fell off of sundry personal transportation devices.


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Worth a Day Pass

James Moore in Salon on the media’s eager swallowing of the neocon/Chalabi tale, hook, line, and sinker, with a particular emphasis on the New York Times’ extraordinary gullibility:

When the full history of the Iraq war is written, one of its most scandalous chapters will be about how American journalists, in particular those at the New York Times, so easily allowed themselves to be manipulated by both dubious sources and untrustworthy White House officials into running stories that misled the nation about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. The Times finally acknowledged its grave errors in an extraordinary and lengthy editors note published Wednesday.

And yes, Judith “From Chalabi’s Mouth to Your Eyes” Miller figures prominently, though not flatteringly.


UPDATE: Here’s a lovely quote from Ms. Miller, on her being proved a lying pawn:

“You know what,” she offered angrily. “I was proved fucking right. That’s what happened. People who disagreed with me were saying, ‘There she goes again.’ But I was proved fucking right.”

Perhaps I should have used “culpability” in lieu of “gullibility” to describe Miller’s and the Times’ role.

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Declare Victory and Go Home

That seems to be the US’s new doctrine in Iraq. First, the US faced a rebellious Falluja, and decided to use force to put the city back under US military control and bring the people responsible for the death and mutilation of the 4 American contractors to justice. After a month-long seige, the US declared victory and left Falluja though the criminals remained free, the center of Falluja remained off-limits to US authority, and Saddam’s army was given control of the city.

Now a similar thing seems to be happening in Najaf. An agreement seems to be in the works to end the US’s military operations there:

NAJAF, Iraq – The U.S.-led coalition agreed Thursday to suspend offensive operations in Najaf after Iraqi leaders struck a deal with radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to end a bloody standoff threatening some of Iraq’s holiest Shiite shrines.

…[The agreement] does not require al-Sadr immediately to disband his militia and surrender to authorities to face charges in the April 2003 assassination of a moderate cleric — key U.S. demands to end the standoff.

So can someone tell me xactly what the US has accomplished with its military offensives over the past 2 months?


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Irwin Kellner of says stagflation is coming back:

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. (CBS.MW) — Don’t look now, but just as inflation is speeding up, the economy is slowing down. Can you say stagflation?

…One way to measure inflation psychology is to compare the yield on the regular 10-year Treasury note with the yield on the inflation-indexed note, known as TIPS, for Treasury Inflation Protected Security. The greater the spread, the more worried investors are about inflation. Currently the spread is almost 2.8 percentage points – the most since 1997. Since this is greater than the current rate of inflation, it shows that investors expect price rises to speed up.

…But how can the Fed ignore not only the widespread signs of slowing – but the fact that the economy is once again running into rather fierce headwinds?

As I pointed out two weeks ago, last year’s stimulants have been replaced by this year’s drags. There’s no tax cut this year, rising long-term rates have all but choked off the re-fi boom, housing is slowing, the dollar is up while the stock market is down, and higher energy costs are sapping buying power.

His concerns about a slowing economy, like mine, are mostly theoretical right now. Despite the occasional recent weak bit of economic data (e.g. this week’s sharp falls in new home sales and durable orders), I think it’s too early to say that we have widespread evidence of a slowdown in the economy. However, I do think that we’ll have more convincing confirmation of a slowing economy by the end of the summer. Put that together with the very real phenomenon of rising inflation and inflation expectations, and those who worry about (slightly) higher inflation and lower growth may not be far off. While I think that “staflation” is an overly dramatic term for what we’ll probably experience, it captures the right idea.


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