12 December, 2009

Obama team falling back into old habits on Iran?

Iran expert Gary Sick participated in a simulated negotiation over Iran's nuclear ambitions and is unhappy with how closely the simulations resemble real life:

The goal of the American team was to assemble a consensus for new sanctions against Iran. The Iran team, on the other hand, felt confident that the US and its allies could not put together a package that would hurt us in any serious way, and that was indeed the case. By the end of the game, the Americans had driven away all their ostensible allies, and wasted immense time and effort, while Iran was better off than it had been at the beginning.

This was only a simulation, of course. But the moves of the US team were quite similar to the strategy actually employed by the United States over the course of the past three administrations. The pursuit of sanctions in this game, as in the real world, became an end in itself, with little impact on Iran or its ability to continue enrichment. The United States can (and in fact already has) put together a reasonable set of sanctions. These efforts may please the Israelis, the GCC states and other allies as a show of determination. But will they stop Iran?

He thinks they won't, and that after the deal to swap uranium fell apart in October, both sides have retreated into their respective corners. That is certainly the path of least resistance, and one of the biggest tests of Obama's foreign policy as articulated so brilliantly in his Nobel speech will be whether or not he and his team can overcome that inertia.

(h/t to the Dish for the link)


11 December, 2009

Kermit takes a stand


Song for the new year

This new track from Kid Cudi and New York electro-rockers MGMT really hits the New Years vibe with the champagne/streamers aesthetic and its debaucherous-yet-wistful take on the ongoing search for happiness and fulfillment. Its been in my head all day, and I especially like the contrast of the party atmosphere and melancholy lyrics, finished off with the knife blade of regret at the end. Very New Years' Eve.

"Tell me what you know about dreams, dreams/...
You don’t really care about the trials of tomorrow/
Rather lay awake in a bed full of sorrow..."

05 December, 2009

It's Official

Greg Mankiw endorses Lady Gaga:

I am bit embarrassed to admit this, but the answer is Lady Gaga. Her music reminds me Blondie, which I enjoyed back in my student days. I particularly like the Lady Gaga song Bad Romance.
What can I say? The man has good taste.

02 December, 2009


You may have heard about the president's speech outlining his plans for the ongoing war in Afghanistan. The speech was pretty classic Obama - he presented the extremes of both sides, explained why each, although well-intentioned, is mistaken, and then stakes out a thoughtful, moderate middle option. I also thought he did a good job laying out the different phases of the effort - military, civilian, and broader engagement with Pakistan.

In that sense, I found the address reassuring. I felt after hearing Obama lay out his reasoning that he had been exposed to and forced to consider the arguments in favor of a more-or-less immediate withdrawal. I never thought he would choose that course, in large part because he has been so consistent about escalating in Afghanistan from the beginning of his campaign, but I also think his decision to place a fairly firm and fairly short time limit on our involvement reveals his recognition that the benefits likely to accrue from that escalation are limited and amount to damage-control.

In a piece I've had up on my browser for a while and have been meaning to post, Spencer Ackerman delves under the hood of how Obama's decision making process has progressed, and why.

Sullivan thinks that Obama is placing the ball in the hawks court by given their most beloved tactic - a surge - a chance to work. If it does, great, and if it doesn't, its failure would be the most eloquent argument in favor of withdrawal.

But what does "work" mean? Like in Iraq, the goalposts have been moved so many times (not to mention that the situation is always changing) that "victory", "success" and "work" have little intrinsic meaning left. Obama, to his credit, narrowed down our goals from an incoherent, rudderless nation-building project to 1) rolling back Taliban gains and 2) destroying Al Qaida. But Marc Lynch argues that there is little in Afghanistan that is critical to our national security interests:

Obama needed to demonstrate that Afghanistan matters enough to American vital national interests to justify the escalation. He settled upon al-Qaeda as the reason. This makes sense for an American audience, I suppose... But it's not satisfying analytically. Al-Qaeda is not really active in Afghanistan anymore, and it is not equivalent with the Taliban (either the Afghan or Pakistani variants). Al-Qaeda Central still matters, but the decentralized network and ideological narrative around the world no longer depends on it. Nothing the U.S. does or does not do in Afghanistan will defeat al-Qaeda -- the failure of that movement will happen for its own reasons, if it happens (as it already largely has in the Arab world).

Moreso than the fact that Al-Qaeda is mostly not in Afghanistan any more (because they could always return after we leave) is the fact that our most potent weapon against them is not a massive occupying force. Most of the fight against al-Qaeda progresses based on the clandestine work of the CIA, which uses its intelligence to pinpoint and disrupt Qaeda operatives. This work could be continued and indeed escalated with a fraction of the number of military we have in Afghanistan.

Most of the troops, then, are not concerned with al-Qaeda. They are concerned with fighting the Taliban, building various infrastructure projects, training the Afghan military and police, and in general trying to build a semi-coherent, semi-democratic, semi-functioning state. But why - this seems to have nothing to do with al-Qaeda. Of course the argument then is that by building Afghanistan we are undermining potential support for al-Qaeda, since any "failed state" could be used as a "safe haven" for Qaeda training.

But, as Lynch again points out, the logic of this is absurd and dangerous. This would mean that it is in the US's vital national security interest to occupy and rebuild any and all "ungoverned" space in the world. After all, once Afghanistan is as functional as, say, Egypt, then al-Qaeda can simply move to, say, Somalia, and we'll have to follow them there with a 100,000+ NATO presence. Clearly that's not possible or desirable, and no sane person believes we should do that. While ungoverned spaces are a problem, they are a problem that the international community is going to have to learn to address with much more nimble means - better and better-shared intelligence, better law enforcement cooperation, and, when necessary, pinpoint military strikes.

Why then does that crazy logic apply to Afghanistan - especially when most deadly Qaeda attacks were planned and staged from Europe rather than Central Asia? The depressing answer is simply: because we're already there. And I think that Obama combines a recognition of the absurdity of our occupation with a truly deep-seated desire to deliver a blow to al-Qaeda from which it will not soon recover. He knows that pulling out immediately is simply not a real option - it would do real damage to his already precarious domestic agenda, weaken his credibility with the military leadership, and leave many of our allies in the lurch, both in Afghanistan and in NATO.

Instead, his approach is the patented cautious, incremental Obama. To the left, he says: we'll be leaving by the end of my term. To the right he says: I'm committed to salvaging what can be salvaged and I'm going to give our military all the tools to do it. To the Afghan government he says: we're not going to be here for much longer to cover your ass.

It could be a disaster, and if it is, Obama will be a one-term president. But it could look like this: by mid-2012 our troops have left a weak but functioning Iraq, they are mostly deployed away from a corrupt but stable Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden sits in US custody. I think thats the best we're going to get out of this mess.

Contra a "protestant ethic"

A long time ago, in a country far, far away, the incomparable Max Weber developed what would become a very influential theory regarding the impact of religion on economic performance. The idea, for those not familiar with it, came to be known as the "protestant ethic" and centered on the contention that the values of protestantism - puritanicalism, a focus on saving, a fetish for work and a phobia of leisure time, an emphasis on individual autonomy and a disrespect for hierarchies - provided a more receptive environment for the success of capitalism than other religions. He argued that this ethic explained the predominance of protestants in the wealthy elites, as well as the shift of global economic dominance away from Catholic France and Spain and towards protestant Britain and Germany.

While this has always seemed more or less plausible, I am pretty skeptical of cultural explanations for sharp divergences in human behavior across societies. All this is to say that Tyler Cowen has linked to a paper that finds that, contra Weber, protestantism has had no effect on economic development. Discuss!

16 November, 2009

The nine nations of China

In honor of President Obama's first trip to China, Fallows links to a helpful multimedia presentation of China's "nine nations" - the nine very, very different regions that underly the modern fiction of a culturally homogenous Han China. Check it out, its fun and informative.

My favorite section is on the South Sea region, home to the perennial Cantonese rebel, Hong Kong:

The South Sea coast is China’s Back Door, far enough from the centers of power that nobody will notice if you bend a few rules. As locals put it, “The sky is broad and the emperor is far away.” Officials who were exiled to Yueh, as this land was once known, found it a fearful place whose inhabitants spoke strange dialects—Cantonese, mainly—and feasted on snakes, cats, and monkeys. But its clan-based villages, lush jungles, and rocky inlets offered ideal shelter for smugglers and secret societies to flourish. Unlike their staid northern cousins, these freebooters learned to take risks and profit from them. Other Chinese regard southerners as clever, sharp, and a bit slippery. But as rebels and renegades, emigrants and entrepreneurs, they infuse much needed flexibility and creativity into an otherwise rigid system.

God I miss Hong Kong.

05 November, 2009

Obesity epidemic as national security threat (Spencer bait II)

Over at the Atlantic Business Channel, Derek Thompson lists three reasons why skeptics should support a soda tax:

1) The Sin Reason
Sugary beverages account for up to 15 percent of the calories consumed by children, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. The authors wrote that "sugar-sweetened beverages ... may be the single largest driver of the obesity epidemic."

2) The Market Reason
There's a simple reason why sugary drinks and junk food are contributing to the country's obesity epidemic. They're very, very cheap... Raising the price of sodas, which plummeted relative to overall inflation in the last 30 years, strikes me as a responsible way to incent consumers to make healthier choices.

3) The Deficit Reason
But let's say it doesn't change anybody's eating preferences. Let's say Americans keep paying a couple cents more for the same amount of Pepsi. Well then fine, I say, at least they're helping to pay down the federal deficit. I hear the argument that a sales tax on soda (or alcohol) would be regressive, taking a larger percentage of poorer people's income and striking at the less fortunate demographic that is more likely to buy lots of soda in the first place. But health care reform would use those billions of dollars -- a 3 cent tax per 12-ounce serving could generate $24 billion in four years -- to pay for Medicaid and health care subsidies for less fortunate Americans, anyway.

I should say that out of those, I find (3) to be most persuasive. Thompson makes the under-appreciated point that those of us who want to see more aggressive spending on progressive social investments should be concerned less with the progressivity of any particular tax and more with the progressivity of the public sector as a whole. That means if the only way to eventually pay for, say, a single payer health system is through more consumption-side taxes, then liberals should take that deal. This broadly describes the equilibrium in many European countries, where very progressive public sectors are financed by regressive VATs.

But that point is really just an incidental set-up to the real point of this post which is an all-important 4th reason to support a soda tax:

The latest Army statistics show a stunning 75 percent of military-age youth are ineligible to join the military because they are overweight, can't pass entrance exams, have dropped out of high school or had run-ins with the law.

So many young people between the prime recruiting ages of 17 and 24 cannot meet minimum standards that a group of retired military leaders is calling for more investment in early childhood education to combat the insidious effects of junk food and inadequate education."We've never had this problem of young people being obese like we have today," said Gen. John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Fighting obesity isn't just about diabetes and the ability to wear sporty, slim cut attire any more. It has become critical to our very national security.

Kierkegaard, Despair, and Modern Happiness

Check out this article in the NYTimes by still-Kierkegaard Library curator at St. Olaf, Gordon Marino.

04 November, 2009

The slow revolution

Today was an important day in Iran's history - 13 Aban, the anniversary of the day that Islamicist students stormed the US embassy in Tehran and began a hostage crisis that would last 444 days. While this day has usually been marked in Iran by state-sponsored anti-US protests, today was a little different:

The pro-reform movement, again spreading news largely through social media, has once again turned out in what appears to be impressive force in an apparently deliberate attempt to embarrass the regime on one of its most mythologically potent days. Watching most of the news coverage of the past couple months, there's been a sense that the moment has passed, the movement has been surpressed and the momentum has died. In reality however, what we appear to be seeing is a long-term, cyclical pacing that eerily mirrors the 1979 revolution. Remember, it was more than a year, between 1978 and 1979, from when the protests started to when the Shah finally took his leave of Iran.

The reformists are not going away. The regime has missed its chance to crush them decisively, and it threw away its chance to co-opt them by allowing a run-off. The end result is still unpredictable, but Iran is a polity in tremendous flux, even when the movement isn't visible in the form of protestors and tear gas. Thats important to keep in mind when talking about the ongoing negotiating process - what kind of decisions is this regime capable of coming to at a moment like this? I am not among those who think that this should cause us to back off our policy of engagement, however - we must not do the regime that favor . The hard line elements of the revolution have always used noisy confrontation with the west to shore up support and justify draconian measures. Obama's open hand has thrown them off balance.

31 October, 2009

Ezra vs. the Public Option

Actually, this is quite a good post by Ezra and expresses well my own qualms about the public option:

This also illuminates one of the more problematic inconsistencies in the health-care debate. Insurers have been blamed for, among other things, doing too much to discriminate against bad health-care risks and refusing to pay for care far too often. They've been blamed, in other words, for saying "no." But they've also been blamed for doing too little to control costs.

But that is how they control costs. We saw this in the late-'90s, when tightly managed care brought cost growth down to the 4 percent range but also triggered a public backlash (it did not, however, appear to hurt health outcomes). Insofar as the public option has been presented as a big part of the answer to our health-care woes, it's been in part because it won't do the things that make insurers unpopular (the saying "no"), and in part because it will control costs. But the only way to make both those things true at once is to give the public option pricing power along the lines of Medicare, which it doesn't have in either the House or Senate bills.

29 October, 2009

Iran deal wobbling

After postponing a decision that was supposed to come last Friday, today Iran seems to have further dampened expectations for a nuclear deal. The original deal - which Iran informally agreed to several weeks ago - was that the majority of Iran's nuclear materials would be shipped out of the country and returned in the form of non-weaponizable fuel rods. This would allow Iran to maintain its nuclear program and avoid further sanctions, while giving the coup government one less issue on its plate as it tries to tamp down ongoing internal opposition to the regime. And in the eyes of the international community, it would represent a temporary moratorium on Iran's nuclear weapons development, a window that would allow for further negotiations to develop.

Now, however, Iran has counter-proposed that their nuclear fuels only be shipped off in batches, and not beginning until they have actually received the incoming fuel rods, due to arrive in a years time. If this report is true, it would be unacceptable for the international community, since the primary benefit of the deal for the west would be the immediate removal of the nuclear materials from Iran's possession. This could be Iran's way of saying that the deal is off, or it could be a desperate, last minute negotiating ploy.

At this point, I wouldn't be surprised if the deal went either way. On balance, the deal is probably a bit better for the Iranians than it is for the western powers, whom I think are eager enough to engage Iran that they are willing to offer a generous opening bid. As it is currently structured, Iran makes no long term commitment and achieves several big benefits in exchange for one medium-sized cost - it gets fuel rods, the avoidance of further sanctions, and the high ground in exchange for a temporary delay in its nuclear capabilities. To my mind, it would make sense for the beleaguered Iranian ruling regime to cut this deal and kick the can down the road for a bit while they focus on internal affairs.

That said, governments do not always make the most rational decisions - especially governments as unstable and under as much pressure as this one appears to be. There could be various reasons why Khamenei backs away from a deal such as this. He may have calculated or he may have been assured that the Russians and the Chinese won't back harsher sanctions. He may think that harsher sanctions would actually rally support for the regime internally. He may be eager to test President Obama's reactions to Iranian gamesmanship. He may be especially wary of upsetting his hardline allies with anything that looks like he is selling out Iran's nuclear program to the west.

It could go either way at this point, but either way the result should be an interesting data point. Iran might back down and go along with deal, which could either signal a shrewd tactical retreat or a newfound willingness to deal with the outside world - or some measure of both. And if it happens that Iran has strung out western negotiators only to blow up the deal at the last moment, that might indicate that Zakaria is right that Iran is too committed to a confrontational stance and too devoted to its nuclear program to ever give it up. And whether or not these negotiations lead anywhere, the United States and its allies will both know more and be in a stronger position to act after having pursued them in good faith.

27 October, 2009

Spencer bait

Ta-Nehisi Coates lays it on thick for Ezra Klein:

I was going to wait until all of this was settled to say this, but the Lowery-esque starbursts are over-fucking-whelming: I've found Ezra indispensable over the past few months. Gasbags who run off at the lip about how bloggers don't report, and how bloggers are ruining journalism, need to sit the fuck down, shut the fuck up, read this dude and take notes on how to not suck at your job.

I don't ever want to brag about not reading--but I've basically stopped reading newspaper stories in this case, for Ezra's blog. (Along with Jonathan Cohn, by the way.) I'm sure part of that is because we're on the same side. But the other part is that I just find him his writing clearer, his reporting just as good, and his insights much sharper than anything else I've seen.

I agree. Klein's prose can get too cutesy, but on the topic of health reform especially I have not seen more determined, detailed, and substantive reporting anywhere else.

25 October, 2009

Mercenary companies and the law

A friend of mine (and recent JD) has published an article in the Jurist on Closing the Loophole that keeps private military companies from falling under the jurisdiction of kind of humanitarian laws that regulates our voluntary military. This short opinion article on the way forward for the law and sovereignty is backed up by quite a bit of research and publication on this subject by Ms. Maffai, so it's worth a gander. She highlights not only Blackwater's conviction, but also those problems that have seen even less legal sanction, including companies running prisons and licensed-to-kill "police" in South America. Check out her link to the UN Draft International Convention on this problem, on which she also worked.

24 October, 2009

Tolstoy as a liberal humanist

My comment on the liberal vs tragic humanism post got too long to be a comment so...here it is.

Elliot's post on liberal/tragic humanism reminded me of some recent perusing of Tolstoy for the Aesthetics class I'm teaching. (Don't worry, a literary giant writing on the value of art might not sound relevant...but it is.)

First let me just say that I think Tolstoy can be read as a humanist, despite his frequent use of religious language. Tolstoy uses "religion" to mean 'shared values,' and "Christian" to mean 'shared values of love for all men'...SO if we understand that, we can see how Tolstoy means to talk about the progress of man, not the vindication of certain church's views. I guess what I think is interesting here is that Tolstoy provides us with an example of a person who doesn't fail to understand "that irrationality and myth making is an abiding, necessary, and often very meaningful part of our natures" (mostly because he doesn't fully reject them), but who does harbor an implausibly utopian vision of human nature.

Tolstoy talks about art as, at its best, realizing and revealing the shared values of a culture: it is a vehicle for moving a culture forward into a new age. Art does this, not so much by showing us new ideas, but by clarifying for us what our shared values are now, so we can grow up and move on, so we can build on these values for a new future.

Sure, this is a pretty romantic vision of art - but of course Tolstoy thinks only a few artists ever succeed in doing something like this (Picasso? Bob Dylan?). Whether he's right about the vehicle for human progress is not the relevant point though. The salience his views have for our discussion is that he exhibits an impressive faith in humanity for growth from within; a real belief that human progress comes out of our own struggle, it's not dictated or planned from above.

Why does his picture still seem foolishly utopian then? I think this liberal/tragic humanist distinction picks out the very problem my students quickly recognized: Tolstoy assumes that whatever shared values the ideal artist picks out as representative of her society are GOOD values...and with each growth into a new age of civilization, these values improve. Tolstoy has left behind the idea that history progresses because of some heavenly plan, but kept the belief that progress, not regress, characterizes the movement from one age to another.

I don't think I can agree that human nature is fundamentally only odious...but I'm not sure that is what Elliot or tragic humanists are suggesting. Regardless, what Tolstoy is missing is intuitively clear: human nature, and widely shared human values, are not always morally good or good for us. Thus, the movement of history is not always progression. Whether the periods of regression are part of the downfall of man or part of the larger story of ultimate betterment of the human condition remains to be seen.

Cultures Different from Ours

Norway releases a list of every Norwegian's 2008 income and wealth. This is some pretty awesome data, but it's interesting to see how privacy norms vary across countries. The US, for example, is pretty strict about getting access to person-level Census data, which doesn't even have names attached. They're afraid that someone could guess who you are through seeing where you live, how many children you have, etc. To work with it, you have to go into a room that nothing comes in or out of except your statistical results. Japan keeps the records in a locked warehouse and essentially throws away the key.

So what drives these differences? The US could never get away with doing what Norway's doing--would Tea Partiers revolt? But in Norway those opposed just lodge polite complaints.

23 October, 2009

Friday tab dump

There's too much shit cluttering my browser:

  • A little while back, I said that "sanctions by themselves won't achieve much of anything, but they can have a beneficial impact when presented as a suite of positive and negative incentives. Provided - and this is the key - that that suite of incentives lead to real negotiations." Well, it certainly looks like the Obama administration's efforts to cultivate the support of Russia, China, and France for harsher sanctions on Iran, combined with Obama's personal outreach to the Iranians, has indeed led to real negotiations. Iran seems close to a deal that would ship most of its uranium out of the country, where it would be processed into non-weaponizable fuel and then returned. However, today Iran stalled for time - probably in response to its delicate balancing act at home - and a final answer is expected next week.
  • John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee since the departure of Joe Biden, has taken on an out-sized role in implementing Obama's foreign policy - most importantly by convincing Hamid Karzai to accept a run-off election in Afghanistan. Is the groundwork being laid for a post-Clinton secretariat of State? Or is Obama just using all tools at his disposal?
  • Remember when we debated whether it was appropriate to impute to radical Islamism a strain of nihilism? Well, here is a fascinating argument that the true predecessor of Islamic terrorism was secular Anarchist terrorism. And how did we defeat Anarchist terrorism? Hint: not through a global war.
  • Fareed Zakaria on why deterrance will be the best policy for dealing with Iran. He argues that a nuclear Iran is quite likely since a military response will certainly not prevent it and a policy of engagement, while it should be tried, is realistically not too likely to work. And when it happens, the same strategy that maintained global order while holding back Soviet expansion should be how we deal with it: "we must stop exaggerating the Iranian threat. By hyping it, we only provide Iran with 'free power,' in Leslie Gelb's apt phrase. This is an insecure Third World country with a GDP that is one 40th the size of America's, a dysfunctional economy, a divided political class, and a government facing mass unrest at home...Deterrence worked with madmen like Mao, and with thugs like Stalin, and it will work with the calculating autocrats of Tehran. The Iranian regime has amply demonstrated over the past four months that it is interested in hanging on to power at all costs, jailing mullahs and ignoring its own clerical elite. These are not the actions of religious rulers about to commit mass suicide."
  • Obama looking to be very involved in crafting the upcoming Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) that will define US nuclear policy going forward. Ambinder, with some great reporting, delineates the fault lines between Obama, who is serious about reducing our stockpiles and who is against the further development of nuclear weapons, and the Pentagon, which wants to continue violating our obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and wasting taxpayer money by developing fun new nuclear playthings.
  • Polish and Czech leaders are rallying behind the administration's new missile defense arrangements after an awkward transition.
  • Joe Biden knows how to respond to the likes of Dick Cheney: "Who cares?"

liberal v. tragic humanism

Terry Eagleton has an enjoyable essay out in which he, inter alia, addresses the phenomenon of "new atheism" as preached by the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. That is, an atheism that is more properly understood as rabidly anti-theism, and which believes in a crusade against the religious impulse rather than just a recognition of its limitations. Hitchen's brand of atheism has long bothered me, and I think Eagleton has a good explanation of why. Anti-theism has at its heart a naivete about the human condition. Not only does it not understand that irrationality and myth making is an abiding, necessary, and often very meaningful part of our natures, it has very facile and utopian views about the extent to which our supernatural impulses can be extricated through the application of rational analysis. In that way, it shares the flaws and dangers of all ideologies that believe that man can and should be "perfected".

That doesn't mean that we must embrace religion to be fully human, and Eagleton, like myself, still considers himself a humanist. Thus, his division between "liberal" humanism (a term that may admittedly spark confusion due to its seemingly redundant nature) and "tragic" humanism:

The distinction between Hitchens or Dawkins and those like myself comes down in the end to one between liberal humanism and tragic humanism. There are those who hold that if we can only shake off a poisonous legacy of myth and superstition, we can be free. Such a hope in my own view is itself a myth, though a generous-spirited one. Tragic humanism shares liberal humanism’s vision of the free flourishing of humanity, but holds that attaining it is possible only by confronting the very worst. The only affirmation of humanity ultimately worth having is one that, like the disillusioned post-Restoration Milton, seriously wonders whether humanity is worth saving in the first place, and understands Swift’s king of Brobdingnag with his vision of the human species as an odious race of vermin. Tragic humanism, whether in its socialist, Christian, or psychoanalytic varieties, holds that only by a process of self-dispossession and radical remaking can humanity come into its own. There are no guarantees that such a transfigured future will ever be born. But it might arrive a little earlier if liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals got out of its way.

I'm suspicious of Eagleton's talk of "radical remaking", but I generally take his point. Humanism and liberalism can get far too optimistic for me, and conservatism usually has too much of religion, fatalism, moralism, and dogmatism to really get at what humanity is about. There is a need to recognize the tragedy of our "self-dispossession" and really own our fundamentally odious natures (which religion excels at, but whose medicine is worse than the disease), but at the same time affirm the agency, beauty and freedom of humanity. "Tragic humanism" gets close for me.

22 October, 2009

"White Americans do not realize how black they are"

Andrew Sullivan has a moving little riposte from a Briton's perspective to Pat Buchanan's assertion that white Americans are right to feel that they are losing their country (I write "they" because it sickens me to think that Buchanan is imputing this feeling of loss to me):

From its very beginning, after all, America was a profoundly black country as well.

This took a while for an Englishman to grasp upon arriving here, because it's so easy to carry with you all the subconscious cultural baggage you grew up with. England, after all, is deeply Anglo-Saxon. It makes some sense to refer to England's roots and ethnic identity as white, its language as English, its inheritance as a deep mixture of Northern European peoples - the Angles and the Saxons and the Normans and the Celts. And superficially, English-speaking white Americans might seem in the same cultural boat as white English people, dealing with a relatively new multiculturalism in an increasingly diverse and multi-racial society. And at first blush, you almost sink into that lazy and stupid assumption, especially if you arrive in Boston, as I did, and carried all the usual European prejudices, as I did.

The English, lulled by their marination in American pop culture from infancy, and beguiled by the same language, can live out their days in this country never actually noting that it is an alien land - stranger than you might have ever imagined, crueler than you realized, but somehow also more inspiring than you ever thought possible. This is the America I am trying to make my home, after 25 years. It is not the America of Pat Buchanan's or John Derbyshire's fantasies.

It struck me almost at once, if only in the music I heard all around me - and then in so many other linguistic, cultural, rhetorical, spiritual ways: white Americans do not realize how black they are. Even their whiteness is partly scavenged from the fear of - and attraction to - its opposite. Even something as stereotypically white as American Catholicism, I discovered to my amazement, was also black from the very start. (Yes, those Maryland slaves. If you've never been to a Gospel Mass in an ancient black Catholic parish, try it some time.)

I was surprised to see Ta-Nehisi, who is usually so dismissive of any kind of racial generalizations, nod his head at this. I think this is such an insightful, and a bit startling, observation because it approaches our racial heterogeneity from a rather different angle than most pontificating on the idea of our "melting pot". Instead of "whiteness" serving as the default cultural setting which then magnanimously "lets in" other, alien, immigrating peoples, in this view "whiteness" has never been dominant, let alone pure. Indeed, it has never been "white". It flips us from living in a white country with problems incorporating black people to living in a country of black people, some of whom continue strenuously pretending that they are white. Or simply continue assuming it.

It takes an outsider to point out what should be obvious - our music(s), our food(s), our language(s) have come a long, long way from this cartoon version of anglo-saxonism that Buchanan asserts is "traditional" culture. But more than that, that version was never traditional American culture. Its a fantasy cooked up and peddled by sad reactionaries who are too insecure to realize and embrace that our fundamental "blackness" - code for "otherness" - is brilliant, vital and beautiful. And it is - American culture's magnetism speaks for itself.

This is just too much...

I couldn't believe that someone went ahead and did it. They made a full-scale MMORTS centered around Obama-hate.

Actually, I'm not hip to the real ins and outs of the game, and I have no intention of ever approaching it. I follow a good bit of online gaming news, and had heard of many small time attempts at Obama-bashing games, but never on this level until now.

The creators claim it's not all about hating Obama and thwarting his imaginary coup, because they're releasing a scenario about hunting down Bush in Texas soon. Turns out they're Ron Paul worshippers, and in the midst of the battle raging for the heart and soul of America, Paul is the cool and not un-Messianic voice of reason about to be elected president. The creators are remaining low-key, however, afraid of a violent backlash no doubt.

Sometimes all one can do is shake one's head and "close current tab."

UPDATE: Here's the link to the site carrying this odd duck: http://www.usofearth.com/

15 October, 2009

Oren on the outs?

Looks like my old professor turned Israeli ambassador is drawing a lot of fire for his hard-line views and, ahem, undiplomatic style. It's funny - in class he didn't strike me as crazy or even really conservative. I remember one class in particular in which a discussion about Israel's military tactics against Hizbollah turned into a sort of object lesson in the dangers of relying over-much on a military solution to what is, in essence, a political problem. Maybe he's just adapting himself to the general ethic of unreasonableness that has been the m.o. of the Netenyahu government. Or maybe he was just really good, as a teacher, at playing down his personal views - not at all a bad trait.

12 October, 2009

Song of the indiscrete unit of time measurement

Can't get this one out of my head:

Gotta love the delightful weirdness of the Swedes.

01 October, 2009

Tab dump

'Cause there's too much good stuff to write about in depth. If y'all haven't noticed, I'm trying to focus more exclusively on foreign affairs in a sustained way.

  • Iranian opposition leader Mousavi disagrees with yours truly, says sanctions will hurt the opposition. Turns out lots of people disagree with me. I guess my position is still that sanctions have had a marginal impact in Iran - although I would be open to the counterfactual that no sanctions would have us in a better overall position right now - but that the word "marginal" is the key. Sanctions by themselves won't achieve much of anything, but they can have a beneficial impact when presented as a suite of positive and negative incentives. Provided - and this is the key - that that suite of incentives lead to real negotiations. That remains to be seen. And it should be said, with regard to Mousavi's comments above, that bolstering the opposition is not our current first-order concern; halting or regulating Iran's nuclear program is. It has appeared for a long time that these goals would be complementary; it appears they might now be in tension.
  • Echoing an argument Eremita and I have had several times, Wen Liao argues that the Dalai Lama's political strategy is not advancing the cause of Tibetan rights or autonomy. Obama once again plays the cold-eyed realist by refusing to meet with His Holiness. If there's one thing he ain't, its naive.
  • Daniel Levy is bullish on Obama's long-term strategy for restarting meaningful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Or, as he points out, the three parallel negotiations that will lead to a comprehensive deal: American-Israeli negotiations, American-Palestinian negotiations, and American-Arab negotiations. Levy is a smart, smart guy, but I think he is trying very hard to put a good face on things - Netanyahu's intrasigence, Palestinian intransigence/incoherence, American domestic crises, and the inherent mind-bending complexity of simultaneous, three-way parallel negotiations make me very depressed about Obama's chances. But hey, Yes We Can.
  • Another smart Zakaria column on the right's "phony realism": "There is a phony realism brandished on the right these days that says no one will ever cooperate with America. Russia and China have their own interests, and any attempt to find common ground is naive. We might as well all hold hands and sing 'Kumbaya.' Now, of course countries have their own interests, which are often in conflict. But they also often share some common interests. A central task of diplomacy is to explore those areas of agreement, build on them, and thus create a more stable world. That's why we have treaties on everything from trade to taxation, adhered to by most nations for their collective benefit." Exactly - this is great, simple explanation of why I think a realist outlook on international affairs (ie international relations is based on the interplay of national interests) leads, in a globalized age, to an embrace of a certain clear-eyed liberal internationalism - on pragmatic grounds.
  • Perhaps the least-talked about facet of our efforts in Afghanistan: the role of the India-Pakistan rivalry. The extent to which Pakistan sees everything through the lens of how it affects its position vis-a-vis India is, in general, not well understood enough when talking about "AfPak" strategy.
  • And finally, one piece of domestic news (albeit one that could affect our international negotiations): the EPA declares that, in the absence of a climate-change bill out of Congress, it will impose far harsher regulations on emitters of carbon than previously thought. Question of the day: is this socialism or fascism?

30 September, 2009

W.T.F.-a taste of home

I was slightly amused but disappointed that the link to the blog of unfortunate corporate slogans isn't working anymore.

26 September, 2009

We are doomed, cont'd

According to the National Journal (h/t Greenwald), a group of "congressional and political insiders" asked to rank the writers or commentators that most shape their own worldview listed as their top three:

1. Tom Friedman
2. David Brooks
3. Charles Krauthammer

Jesus Christ. Just in case you've forgotten, here's a sample of what passes for insightful commentary in the fairy tale world of the above commentariat:

God save us all - you gotta give Cheney credit at least for not seriously contemplating "hitting Pakistan".

25 September, 2009

An Iran bombshell

In an announcement that is closely tied to the sanctions debate, this morning Western leaders called a hasty press conference to announce that they had indisputable intelligence of a secret Iranian nuclear site. Obama, Brown, Sarkozy all stood together, with Merkel offering her support and the Russians also condemning the revelation. This proof of deception, coupled with a strong show of unity by many of the major players, should further put Tehran on the defensive before the start of the presidential-level negotiations.

Marc Lynch's take at Foreign Policy is here: "The public disclosure puts Iran on the back foot ahead of those talks, and appears to have encouraged Russia to more seriously consider supporting such sanctions (that, plus the missile defense decision probably). This has to change Iranian calculations -- indeed, the perception that the sanctions are now more likely is precisely what may lead the Iranians to make more concessions to avoid them."

Iran expert Gary Sick thinks that this is a move that will make war less likely, and a negotiated settlement more.

But I think the best round up of how we got here comes from the Daily Dish:

And so you see the Obama mojo again. Look at the moves of the last month. He scraps the missile defense in Eastern Europe, pleasing Russia, and moves the focus of defense to the Mediterranean, pleasing Israel.

He pwns Ahmadinejad at the UN by being the first president of the US to preside over the resolution to enforce nuclear non-proliferation.

He corrals the rhetorical support of the developing world, isolating Tehran still further. He hangs back a little and allows Brown and Sarkozy to do the heavy hitting on NoKo and Iran this past week, again revealing that the desire to curtail Ahmadinejad's nukes is not only an American project.

And then, this morning ... kapow!

He busts Ahmadinejad in a air-tight case that focuses on active Iranian deception. All this, of course, may still not be enough. Putin's position remains opaque; and China is still not on the full wagon. But can anyone say that the isolation of Iran has weakened under Obama?

If you add to the mix the critical factor of the Green Revolution, then the West's position vis-a-vis Iran has improved immensely in the last eight months. And if you believe that Obama's Cairo speech was at least a positive factor in helping bring that about - then the promise of the Obama era in American foreign policy begins to take shape.

24 September, 2009


I was set off this evening by a prolonged discussion on US economic sanctions on Iran. Now my knowledge of the intricacies of a sanction policy is minimal. I have a broad idea of the intended effects and reasons for their being imposed in the first place.

I'm wondering what some of my learned colleagues have to say about the matter.

From what I can tell, they are not having the regime-changing effect they were intended to have. The economic sanctions are meant (in my mind), to influence the rulers of a country toward certain actions by holding out to them that it will harm their position if they don't comply. Their people, we are meant to see, will so vociferously assail their leaders to bend and accept change that they will have no choice. Or at least that's a possible scenario.

On the other hand, what seems to be happening in Iran is that Ahmadinejad and others are using the sanctions as an example of how the US is meddling and imposing its imperialistic will on them, while simultaneously the sanctions affect not the ruling class, but cause economic stress to those already most strapped within Iranian society.

Please, clarify for me if I'm drawing unfair or improper inferences.

23 September, 2009

We are doomed

If this isn't a sign of the apocalypse I don't know what is:

Smoot-Hawley it aint

James Fallows is a great source for all things China-related (and airplane-related, but mostly China), and I should link to him more. Here's his take on the recent spat over US tariffs on Chinese tires. Basically, chill out:

There is too much going on, on too many other fronts, involving affairs of incomparably greater consequence between China and America, for this to have been more than a contained, specific dispute -- contained in both duration and sweep. This was clear at the time and should have buffered the shock-horror tone of the stories. Why this matters: because of the boy-who-cried-wolf principle. There are issues between China and the outside world in which a small disagreement could spiral into a very dangerous confrontation. Many of these involve Taiwan, for reasons to be spelled out another time. But tire tariffs, agree with them or not, were never going to set off a global economic confrontation.

As usual, "The Economist" is the primary offender. (Fallows' old but tremendously entertaining takedown of "The Economist" is here.)

News from the 64th UN General Assembly

  • Obama delivered a 41 minute speech to the General Assembly, which, in stark contrast to his predecessor, drew repeated applause. The overarching theme was a cliche (though not unimportant) call for renewed multilateralism. More interesting were Obama's stated priorities for the US and the world: nuclear non-proliferation, resolution of Middle Eastern conflicts, a coordinated response to disasters such as Darfur, and concrete action on global climate change.
  • Obama met with Russian President Medvedev; the Russians are apparently signaling that they are willing to reverse their position on Iran sanctions.
  • Obama antes up on his administration's no-settlement push; the quoted response of Israel's Foreign Minister is strikingly sanguine. Is Netanyahu resigned to making the tough choice on settlements, or are they hoping to string Obama along for as long as possible but stop short of an actual change in policy? I'm going with the latter.
  • The crisis in Honduras hits the UN, with the Honduran coup government remaining internationally isolated after deposed president Zelaya surreptitiously returned to the country several days ago. He's currently holed up in the Brazilian embassy, and the coup leaders are in a tight spot. Violating Brazilian territorial integrity by storming the embassy would be a disaster; but with Zelaya there rallying supporters, the situation is growing more unstable by the minute. They will be forced to negotiate from a weakened position, exactly what they were trying to avoid by keeping Zelaya out of the country. I don't think its an exaggeration to say this is a seminal moment for Latin American democracy. Militaries and radical opposition groups around the continent will be watching to see how much the US, OAS, and UN let Michiletti get away with.

19 September, 2009

Right decision, wrong way?

In Fareed Zakaria's newest column, the self-styled realist par excellence agrees with me: "By canceling plans to station antiballistic-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Re-public, President Obama has traded fantasy for reality."

However, he also thinks that Obama botched the execution, and needlessly pissed off our Polish and Czech allies. I'm sympathetic to that charge, especially since the administration's execution has seemed a bit off on a number of occasions. (Think Clinton's "reset button" fiasco.) Zakaria cites the fact that the administration announced its decision on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland, which is admittedly a bit of a douche in the face, in the technical jargon of foreign policy wonks.

But when Zakaria says that "the Obama administration did the right thing for the right reasons, in the wrong way. It needs to fix the fallout and move on" he's overstating the case. Yes, the administration should have put this announcement off to a less symbolic date. But even if it had, I don't see the Polish and Czech leadership being any less pissed off. The crux of the matter is that those leaders spent a lot of their political capital pushing this ill-advised missile defense on their citizenry, which was and remains very skeptical of the idea. An American president going back on Bush's unfortunate assurance was going to be deeply embarrassing to the Eastern European leadership no matter how soft the pitch.

Now, that's not to apologize too much for Obama's early tone-deafness. This could have been smoother, and I think the administration has to recognize that and will go out of its way to provide other kinds of assurances to the Eastern Europeans. But in general, this dissonance is an inevitable product of Bush having made an unsustainable promise that had to be walked back, and only in a very minor way the product of how Obama has handled it.

17 September, 2009

Ah sweet realism

Good news today regarding the Obama administration's desire to move to a more realist, interest-based foreign policy rather than one of faux-moralistic neoconservative sabre-rattling. Obama, backed by SecDef Gates and apparent unanimous approval of the Joint Chiefs, has decided to stop a long-range ballistic missile defense program whose ostensible purpose would have been to shield Europe from missiles from Iran.

However, given Iran's decreasing interest in long-range missiles, more likely focus on the Middle East rather than Europe, the lack of evidence that the shield would actually work, and the fact that it wouldn't be deployed until 2018, its been obvious for a while that the true purpose of the shield was quite different. Since the shield would have been based in Eastern Europe, those ex-Soviet satellite states saw it as a way of committing the US to their defense in the case of further Russian imposition into their internal affairs. It makes sense why Poland and others would want us to do that, but its much less clear why we would want to do that. We need to be able to work with Russia on some of the most important issues of the moment - two primary ones being a coordinated policy against Iran and North Korea's nuclear programs.

Neoconservatives have been very, very bad about making cost-benefit analyses in the realm of foreign affairs, and this is another example. Pissing Russia off to make a self-righteous statement about its interference in Eastern Europe is a large cost. And its benefit - maintaining our strong relationship with set of medium-important allies and providing deterrence against an Iranian offensive - can be gotten in other ways. In fact, the alternative missile shield being proposed will do the latter better, sooner, and cheaper, by focusing on the short- and medium- range missiles that Iran is actually producing and stationing the defense much closer to Iran itself, in Turkey and the Balkans.

Obama's decision is just the kind of sober, considered, responsible and delicately-calibered judgment that know-nothing Republicans love to demagogue to the detriment of our national security.

16 September, 2009

I couldn't have said it better myself

Max Baucus' stunning admission here.

14 September, 2009

One more point on torture

In Sullivan' essay mentioned below, he describes the torture-through-prolonged-sleep-deprivation of Mohammed al-Qahtani this way:

During Qahtani’s interrogations, his refusal to drink and many days of sleep deprivation brought his heartbeat down to dangerously low levels; but even after he was urgently hospitalized for a day for dehydration to prevent his death, sleep deprivation continued—and was continuously used even as he physically deteriorated. An early FBI review of the interrogation of Qahtani found that the cumulative treatment led him to exhibit “behavior consistent with extreme psychological trauma (talking to non-existent people, reportedly hearing voices, crouching in a corner of the cell covered with a sheet for hours on end).” If you believe “extreme psychological trauma” is the same as “severe mental suffering,” then [Bush] ordered the prolonged and brutal torture of Mohammed al-Qahtani.

Now, there are several arguments to be made against torture, which I would think fall into three main categories: legal, moral, and practical. The first is pretty straightforward: does this kind of treatment of prisoners violate our domestic laws and international obligations? The answer is straightforward as well: yes, clearly.

The moral argument is less clear-cut, but anyone wanting to argue that treating a human being in the above fashion is ethically despicable probably has a pretty good case. One of the moral foundations of Western civilization is supposed to be respect for the integrity of human persons, no matter how guilty, and I can't think of an act that more thoroughly debases the very self of a person than does torture.

But what strikes me about the above passage is the practicality element. The argument that torture is not practical has two versions that I see: first, that torture produces a certain amount of quality intelligence that could not be attained through traditional means, but that benefit is outweighed by the deleterious effects of that torture on our credibility and soft power; second, that torture actually produces no intelligence that could not be otherwise obtained and in many cases actually produces lower quality intelligence through false confessions and general incoherence.

The passage above really does violence to the first version, the idea that torture does produce anything of value. By the end of the interrogation, al-Qahtani is talking to non-existent people, hearing voices, and otherwise hallucinating. What kind of intelligence does any one seriously expect a man in that state to provide? Who can read that and seriously think that any tiny needle of true and coherent information that might emerge from that mess would be worth the effort required to dig through the haystack of delerious ramblings of a man driven mad? No wonder the professionals are dismissive.

Not letting torture recede away

Several items worth a read on the torture issue. First, FBI interrogator Ali Soufan - the agent whose legal, traditional interrogation of Abu Zubaydah gave us everything worth knowing that we got from him, and who courageously fought the decision to transfer him to the CIA's torture-interrogation - took to the pages of the New York Times again last week:

PUBLIC bravado aside, the defenders of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques are fast running out of classified documents to hide behind. The three that were released recently by the C.I.A. — the 2004 report by the inspector general and two memos from 2004 and 2005 on intelligence gained from detainees — fail to show that the techniques stopped even a single imminent threat of terrorism...

They show that substantial intelligence was gained from pocket litter (materials found on detainees when they were captured), from playing detainees against one another and from detainees freely giving up information that they assumed their questioners already knew. A computer seized in March 2003 from a Qaeda operative for example, listed names of Qaeda members and money they were to receive.

Soufan ends by arguing that "the professionals in the field are relieved that an ineffective, unreliable, unnecessary and destructive program — one that may have given Al Qaeda a second wind and damaged our country’s reputation — is finished."

And second, over at the Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan is grinding his long-ground and thus extremely sharp axe with a new twist: an open letter to George W. Bush calling on him to publicly renounce his administration's approach to interrogation. His conceit is to vigrously affirm Bush's good faith and appeal to that side of him that may feel that he was misled or pressured by his lawyers, advisers, and vice-president. Will he read it, and if he does, will it move him? Certainly not - but Sullivan does the rest of us a great service by putting the long story of our descent into a torture state into a single, accesible narrative essay, and aggregating all of the publicly-available evidence - memos, testimony, etc - in one spot.

07 September, 2009

Political parties and democracy

Cassady's comments on my previous post opens a bit of a can of worms, so I wanted to explain a bit more in depth what I'm talking about. So sorry for the political sciencey-ness ahead of time. Parties are often maligned along much the same lines that Cassady expresses: that they put the interests of a national entity ahead of the local constituents, and that parties' attempts at internal discipline are draconian attempts to squash the local "will of the people".

We have to be careful when using phrases like "will of the people". The people don't have a single will; as he points out, they have a very fractured set of opinions that overlap in various and often contradictory ways. That is why representative democracy chooses surrogates, as it were, to do the governing in the name of the people. Most people don't follow, understand, or care about the broad swath of particular policy choices. They care very deeply about several, perhaps, and have vague opinions on the others that could be swayed by a charismatic pol or the success of a program they thought would fail.

That fundamental fact - the vagueness of the "will of the people" - is why no modern democracy functions without political parties to simplify or distill, as it were, the essence of a governing philosophy or approach. The exact ways that parties work depends mostly on two factors: the type of legislature (presidential v parliamentary) and the number of parties in the system (a two-party system or a more-than-two-party-system - leaving aside the decidely undemocratic one party systems.) Political scientists have all sorts of debates about why a polity (a jargon word for a political community) evolves a certain number of parties, but its enough to know how they work once established.

In a poly-party system, parties work a bit more along the lines that Cassady likes: they are smaller, more focused on a particular issue or set of issues, and thus more responsive to smaller changes in the will of the electorate, or in their particular slice of the electorate. Usually there are several major parties - like Labor (and now Kadima) and Likud on the left and right in Israel - that can't by themselves form a governing majority, and which must thus form coalitions with a constellation of smaller, usually more radical or single-issue parties. If this kind of arrangment happens in a parliamentary system, which it usually does, then there is a built-in incentive for party, as well as coalition discipline: if the ruling coalition loses a major vote in parliament, then the parliament must immediately call new elections to form a new coalition - the point being, that if a coalition can't pass major legislation, then they have no right being the ruling coalition. Since the least favorite thing for politicians is to risk losing their seat sooner rather than later, there is a strong incentive for the coalition to avoid becoming deadlocked, and for painful compromise to occur.

But in a presidential, two party system such as ours, things are much different. (There are other parties, but they don't hold actual seats in the legislature. "Independent" doesn't count because its not an actual party that can raise money, mobilize voters, develop a platform, etc.) In these systems, parties are almost always competing for the "middle", since they have the extremes of left and right more or less locked down. This is in contrast to multi-party coalitions, which actually end up responding more to the extremes, because the centrist parties need the support of minority parties to govern. To go back to Israel, in the recent elections the centrist Kadima party won the most total votes, but they were not able to form a governing coalition under would-be Prime Minister Tzipi Livni. The chance then passed to right-wing Likud, which was able to gain a majority largely by allying with the far, far right Yisrael Beiteinu party and making its leader, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's Foreign Minister. Thus, to wield power, Likud has to pander to the most extreme elements in its coalition. In our two party system, the far left has no place to go, and so the real action happens at the "center": what will Max Baucus and Kent Conrad do? Can we lure Olympia Snowe to vote against her party again, as she did on the stimulus?

I make that point because Cassady mentioned that party discipline would lead to wild swings between left and right. But in a two party system, its very rare to see those swings because legislation is passed by bringing the centrists on board, and they aren't usually in the mood for wild swings.

Another point he made is that disciplining members that fail to get behind the party line is a betrayal of their local constituents. First of all, local constituents didn't just vote for a random person, they voted for a person who represented a political party and its platform - a person who was likely recruited, often trained, funded and supported with volunteers and campaign materials by a political party to advance its agenda. The local constituents also chose the party and the party invested in those constituents.

But I think its more illustrative to flip that complaint on its head. Instead of seeing it as an individual politician who is being coerced into abandoning his constituents wishes (if that is even what is going on), its just as valid to see it as a tiny minority of politicians betraying the agenda that was robustly chosen by a majority of the American people. Why does Cassady - and many others - consider it the "will of the people" for a man like Max Baucus, who represents less than a million people, to face no consequences for thumbing his nose at a suite of reforms that was heartily approved in November by almost 70 million people, and more than 10 million more people than voted for his ideological opponent?

In other words, discipline is so important because without it, the will of the majority of the people that voted for a particular party is held hostage to the whims of several politicians representing a tiny minority of the electorate. Because so many votes - especially very important votes representing the core elements of a party's platform - are decided in a narrow window of maybe five or ten votes (in the Senate), if a party doesn't have some sort of levers to reward or punish its ideological outliers, the agenda will be de facto decided by a handful of the least representative politicians.

This would be true even if you had a relatively rational way of organizing your legislature. The Senate, however, is set up to amplify this problem, with its wildly disproportionate representation and its labyrinthine committee system that allows all sorts of random Senators to veto important legislation for no reason whatsoever. Added to that is the filibuster, which we have decided requires a supermajority for the passage of important legislation. Added to that is a two-house legislature and all the replicated committees. And added to that is an imbalance of discipline - the Republicans are an extremely disciplined party with painful consequences for those who step out of line on important issues. Unless the Democrats make some changes to increase discipline - to the Senate rules, to their internal rules, or hopefully both - the "will of the people" will continue to be undermined by the ability of a tiny minority to dictate the course of policy.

A good first step would be the abolition of the Senate - or perhaps simply its relegation to a purely ceremonial status.

Fired up, ready to go

Where has this Obama been of late? This is some real campaign-style, rally the troops shit:

Fun with health care wonkery

In honor of the news that Max Baucus has finally released his plan for the Senate Finance Committee's version of a health reform bill, I present some interesting and edifying links to health care wonkery, via Frontline. (h/t TPM)

  • First, the Four Basic Models of health care delivery. Every country in the world has one of these, or a mixture of these. Fun Fact! Quintessential badass Otto von Bismarck invented the welfare state as a nation-building mechanism.
  • Next, a side-by-side comparison of the health care systems of five capitalist democracies: Germany, the UK, Japan, Taiwan, and Switzerland.
  • Finally, a series of graphs comparing health statistics of the US and other industrial democracies: health care as % of GDP, life expectancy, infant mortality, and prevalence of high-end technology. (Hint: Japan wins big on this one)
I also liked Frontline's description of the convoluted mishmash of health care delivery systems that is the United States:

These four models should be fairly easy for Americans to understand because we have elements of all of them in our fragmented national health care apparatus. When it comes to treating veterans, we're Britain or Cuba. For Americans over the age of 65 on Medicare, we're Canada. For working Americans who get insurance on the job, we're Germany.

For the 15 percent of the population who have no health insurance, the United States is Cambodia or Burkina Faso or rural India, with access to a doctor available if you can pay the bill out-of-pocket at the time of treatment or if you're sick enough to be admitted to the emergency ward at the public hospital.

The United States is unlike every other country because it maintains so many separate systems for separate classes of people. All the other countries have settled on one model for everybody. This is much simpler than the U.S. system; it's fairer and cheaper, too.

A whole new meaning for "American exceptionalism"...exceptionally cruel and inefficient.

03 September, 2009

Cameron Todd Willingham and the death penalty

There's a lot of talk (h/t Ta-Nehisi) about David Grann's new piece in the New Yorker. It's the story of Death Row convict Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted of triple homicide and arson on the flimsiest of evidence and was put to death before the facts could be set straight. Its an intense and arresting piece of journalism, and anti-death penalty in both an immediate, emotional way and through a more systematic exposure of the flaws inherent in the process. I didn't know this, but apparently while it has often been suspected that innocent people have been killed, it has never been officially established that the state in fact executed a "legally and factually innocent person". Grann thinks this might be the first case in the history of the United States, which Sandra Day O'Connor has claimed would be a "constitutionally intolerable event." The implication being that Willingham's case, if definitively and legally proven to have been the execution of an innocent man, could essentially force the Supreme Court to accept the unconstitutionality of the death penalty.

Which would be a great thing. It seems clear that it makes little sense as policy (the article reveals that, due to increased appeals and other legal fees, executing a man costs the state three times as much as imprisoning him for life) and can only be justified by a sort of communal blood lust - an emotional need for harsh revenge that is, I think, not inappropriate to harbor but which should be tamped down, rather than indulged, by our justice system. Even Barack Obama, in the video Ta-Nehisi shows at the link above, does not try to justify the death penalty (which, to his discredit, he supports) through statistics about deterrence or the like. Instead, he appeals to a vague but powerful notion of upholding communal values - of drawing a sort of bloody line in the sand as a political community that certain acts of transgression will simply be met with death.

But that sort of language seems like its made for people who want to feel morally upright but don't want to look the implications of that righteous indignation in the face. I'm surprised that someone like Obama - who was so intimately exposed to the way that the justice system works against people who can't afford decent lawyers and thus can't master the maze of bureaucratic bullshit that the wealthy and the connected manipulate to their benefit - doesn't recognize the gross injustice that the death penalty represents even for the truly guilty. As Ta-Nehisi puts it so well:

I think there's this presumption that people who are anti-death penalty get there out of some sympathy for criminals, or some wide-eye naivete. Maybe some people get there that way. I came up in an era where young boys thought nothing of killing each other over cheap Starter jackets. I don't have any illusions about the criminal mind. I don't believe in the essential goodness of man--which is exactly why I oppose the death penalty.

Exactly. While I don't want to put words in his mouth, I take that last line to mean that the justice system, while set up to try to be fair, is populated by shockingly imperfect and often venal, lazy, and vicious people. Which is most of us. And we should be honest with ourselves and recognize that if we are to be okay with the death penalty, that means being okay with a system that regularly executes innocent people, and regularly executes people that wouldn't have been executed had they made more money, or had fewer tatoos, or not had death metal posters on their wall (seriously - this was used to sway Willingham's jury). But let's not kid ourselves that its justice.

02 September, 2009

I can't wait to erase MY past!

Came across this little tidbit and had a good laugh.

Then I got to thinking, since I am rapidly approaching the age where (apparently) my past actions and statements apply to me, ought I to start watching my butt a little closer? Heading off to grad school, I now plan to formulate my thesis around the most inflammatory body of critical literature I can find, enter politics, and then protest that my thinking when I wrote my thesis was purely an "academic excercise." Perhaps that's the key to glossing over any past mistake, play it off that you were simply playing devil's advocate for the sake of the argument!

In other news, I'm glad all those videos of me will no longer apply once I reach 25!

27 August, 2009

Max Baucus and party discipline

Yglesias and others have been talking a lot recently about the discrepancy of party discipline between the Republicans and the Democrats. This is nothing new - the Bush administration, for all of its other incompetencies, proved quite capable of whipping the Republican caucus into line (with the major exception of immigration reform), and they never had close to 60 votes in the Senate. I shudder to think of if they had.

Take the health care debate. Chuck Grassley, despite being from a state that overwhelmingly voted for Barack Obama, is much more terrified of upsetting the Republican leadership than his constituents or the Administration. Democrats on the other hand, have winners like Max Baucus, Ben Nelson and Kent Conrad who will bend over backwards for Bush tax cuts but think nothing of flagrantly thumbing their noses at the leadership of their own party.

And sure, they may be personally dispicable human beings, but at bottom it is a problem of incentives. Republican deviants face well funded primary challengers and punishments like losing a prime committee chairmanship, whereas Democrats face none of those things. This is not just bad for Democrats, it is bad for small-d democracy by magnifying the influence of one ideological tendency far beyond its popular support. One of my poli-sci professors liked to say that a healthy democracy requires Stalinist political parties - because parties cannot effectively transfer the will of the electorate into coherent action without strict discipline. And I think this is a major reason why Congress is among our least respected institutions. People can't see how the policy preferences they voted for translate into effective lawmaking. Because it doesn't. Partly because the Senate is really poorly organized, but probably equally as much because the biggest political party in our system can't get its shit together.

Latin America (along with some other parts of the developing world) is a great demonstration of this at the extreme. The extreme lack of party organization and internal discipline endemic to Latin American political systems has led to the extreme volatility and often breakdown of governing coalitions, which leads to military intervention or, more often nowadays, the total inability of the legislature to pass or enact any meaningful legislation, the people taking to the streets, the extra-legal replacement of the president, etc. Thankfully we're not there yet, but this kind of thing is still a serious problem for us.

Two Hour Parking

Here's a policy decision I just can't seem to agree with. La Crosse isn't big. It isn't a teeming metropolitan shopping Mecca. There are, however, more people than there is downtown. Downtown shops and hangouts are frequented by very nearly the same people all the time. I mean, just look at us.

And yet, the police are stepping up enforcement of two-hour parking by enacting an electronic tagging system of monitoring those spaces. Business owners have apparently been clamoring for more strict enforcement in the name of freeing up parking for customers. I don't entirely get it.

I spend a lot of time in the downtown area, and at all different times of day. There are two parking ramps quite centrally located--albeit one is taken up for the first few floors by private hotel parking. The whole area is about 5 blocks long down 3rd and 4th streets, and roughly the same wide by Main, State, and Cass. After that? There's nothing to see, do, or buy. When I head downtown, I am able to find a good parking spot near my destination--on the street--with little effort. Maybe 40% of the time I have to loop around and look on a different street that is perhaps a block away from where I'm going. Not too shabby. Certain streets fill up at certain times. Pearl Street is hugely busy around 12, but clears out shortly after 1 rolls around. Depending on the night, the streets are full of bar goers, and if you didn't walk or come down early, you'll probably be parking in the ramps. Big deal.

My issue with the policy is really with the assumption that by not having open parking spots immediately in front of your shop, you're somehow losing business left and right. This is highlighted by the ordinance that states cars may only be parked for two hours a day (in areas marked as such) on the same city block. If I'm parked at the end of the street, and move my car back one spot after my two hours, that's illegal. If I, however, pull my car around the corner one spot, I'm on a new street and in the clear. This is asinine to me.

When I think to myself, "oh shit, I've got to move my car!" One of two things happens. 1, I go out and find plenty of parking along the same stretch I've already been on--in which case all the stores have their frontages open ANYWAY. Or, 2, I drive around a block or two and hit up a new spot or the ramp. Elliot deftly points out that in the time it takes to circle the block, one could easily park in the King Street ramp and walk to the coffee shop, so there's really not much of a difference.

I guess I'm looking at this from the angle that when there's parking downtown, there's parking. Great. It's slow, people are at work, it's either not yet lunch or it has already passed, and the people who are there just to tour Greater La Crosse go untroubled. When there's no parking on the streets downtown, you go to the ramp, or circle the Pearl Street or Main Street blocks, and you undoubtedly find a spot in short order. In this case, everyone's downtown, business is booming, and everyone's happy.

I cannot seriously think that people who arrive at their destination but find the one spot immediately in front of the store occupied give up all hope and desire of shopping that day and go home. The policy is just inefficient and buying new equipment potentially wasteful. Rather than spend the money, they should just consistently apply the current rules so that the new, higher fines actually pose a deterrent--not to mention earn more money for the city until people figure out not to break the parking ordinance.

18 August, 2009

Captain Ineffective

Anyone who has spent almost any time around me recently probably knows that my favorite target for cynical bitching is Senator Max Baucus (D-Montana), who is for some reason in charge of negotiating the entire nation's health care reform. And while it should be noted that the root of the problems are largely structural in nature, Baucus is still a raging dbag and this is still pretty funny. (h/t Yglesias)

13 August, 2009

Non-profit Investigative Journalism

With a little prompt from Eremita, I'd like to share something you may or may not know about that I was introduced to via WPR a few days ago.

It appears that investigative reporting isn't entirely an extinct art form, as Mother Jones Magazine adroitly points out. From what I can tell after only a few days avid reading, they take great care and pride in being as fact-based as possible in their large articles, like this one, something of an expose' of the Fiji Water corporation. Elliot--many of the articles read very similar to Harper's, in my mind.

Their blogs are blogs, contributed to by many on their staff, and deal with the issues many of the big name blogs already do. Still, they're worth a look.

On the whole, I'd say they lean a little to the left, with pieces decrying our favorite conservative talkingheads. However, once in awhile they seem to take a bite out of the left--however tenatively.

I leave it to you to decide.

31 July, 2009

Socialism and analogies

Last night Guadalupe, Cassady and I went to a health care reform panel discussion, which included a political analyst, a political scientist, an "economist", a small business woman, the founder of a local clinic, and a government bureaucrat. It was a mostly really informative discussion, and I got the most comprehensive comparison I have been exposed to of the current plans being considered as well as those not being considered in a very wonky yet understandable presentation. The "economist" did not represent his profession well, however - he simply asserted that there was no problem and that a public option "made no sense" but then provided no reasoning whatsoever. Unless you find sneering a convincing argument.

Afterwards I mentioned that I thought it was funny to imagine what would happen if the same people who talked about government involvement in healthcare in such apocalyptic terms were to be consistent and apply their reasoning to a socialized Defense department. Our competing private national defense insurance plans may be wildly inefficient, covering only certain threats ("We cover all inter-continental ballistic missiles, but not domestic dirty bombs") and responsive only to wealthy areas of the nation (if poor people would just get off their asses, then they too could get national defense!). But though imperfect, this system of defense is nothing compared to the horrors of having a bureaucrat in Washington, DC making your defense decisions for you!

But snark aside, Tina Dupuy at the Huffington Post (h/t Yglesias) has an interesting article on the history of fire-fighting, which until the Civil War was run as a private enterprise. What happened was basically that opposing gangs competed to be the first to a fire and expand their turf - which then led to literal battles and sabatoge between the outfits. She also imagines how this debate might play out today:

Yet if we had to have the "conversation" about the firefighting industry today, we'd have socialism-phobic South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint on the TV every chance he could get saying things like, "Do you want a government bureaucrat between you and the safety of your home?"

Rep. John Boehner of Ohio would hold press conferences and ask, "Do you want your firefighting to be like going to the DMV? Do you want Uncle Sam to come breaking down your door every time some Washington fat cat says there's a fire?"


28 July, 2009

Every day is a good day for a ground war in Asia

You may have heard that the Senate recently voted to discontinue funding for the F-22 fighter jet. The outrageously expensive plane was deemed unnecessary by the Air Force, and killing it became a personal cause for Bob Gates, who, after all, the Defense Secretary. A straightforward policy issue, you say? Well, actually, the influence of defense contractors, particularly with a certain subset of senators, made it a hard-fought vote, and a bit of a symbolic cause for those seeking a more rational defense policy.

Well, no one ever accused John Cornyn (R-Texas) of rationality. See Ackerman for the news that Cornyn said first that we needed the F-22 to fight, um, India, and then clarified that he actually meant China. Ah, the world is so big with so many lines drawn on it, and all those brown people look too much the same. But actually for all his buffoonery, Cornyn fits right in with a lot of the right wing/ neo-con thinking on China, articulated most prominently by Bob Kagan. They see international relations as a zero-sum game and massive wars between great powers as an inevitable outcome of international competition. And, much like was the case with Iraq, there is a significant contingent of non-cynical human rights crusaders making common cause with them to seek an aggressive line against China for the purpose of disincentivizing abuses.

As for the first argument, it is simply untrue that we somehow don't have any agency over whether there will be conflict or not. Declaring preemptively that conflict is inevitable is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it prevents us from cooperating on extremely important issues like climate change and negotiations with North Korea. Cooperating doesn't only address the specific issue being cooperated on; the very act of cooperating - of communicating regularly, pooling resources and efforts, engaging in respectful disagreements and debates over tactics - inherently improves relations and makes peaceful relationships more likely. That is the foundation of liberal internationalism: relations can be positive-sum if both sides work to make it so, and thus the goal should be to set up institutions that maximize positive-sum interaction (i.e. joint peacekeeping missions instead of endless proxy wars, freer trade instead of escalating trade wars, joint anti-piracy actions instead of bucaneering, treaties regulating nuclear materials rather than nuclear holocaust).

As for those motivated by human rights (Eremita and I had a spirited discussion on this subject after seeing Star Trek, itself a liberal internationalist treatise of sorts) I think the hard truth is that increasing tensions with China through threats, public snubs, or punishments like revoking Most Favored Nation status will only make the situation worse, while punishing lots of innocent people. It is not a good thing that China's treatment of Tibetan peoples is probably tantamount to genocide, that its ethnic minorities such as the Uighurs undergo Jim Crow-like treatment, and that the government does not rule with the consent of the governed. But none of that will be helped by snubbing its leaders at the Olympic games, building awesomer fighter jets, or ostracizing it by excluding it from a League of Democracies. Beyond that, war with China, over Taiwan or anything else, would be a humanitarian disaster that would certainly result in much worse rights abuses.

As for US-China relations in real time, see this Tim Fernholtz post on the Strategic and Economic Dialogue going on as we speak. The top three issues being discussed are economic coordination, an agreement on a climate change framework, and cooperation on North Korea.