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?