Monday, November 30, 2009

Sticker Shock?

As it turns out, an "autographed" copy of "Going Rogue" isn't worth the price.1 (via LGM)
1. If you ask, "How does that distinguish it from the standard version", well, um, I dunno.

If You Burn Through Your Allowance, And Then Some....

How many times should mom and dad simply hand you more money? Paul Krugman argues,
One [job creation or preservation] measure would be another round of aid to beleaguered state and local governments, which have seen their tax receipts plunge and which, unlike the federal government, can’t borrow to cover a temporary shortfall. More aid would help avoid both a drastic worsening of public services (especially education) and the elimination of hundreds of thousands of jobs.
And he's right. And it may be a fair retort that "this is not the time to raise taxes". But at the same time, I don't approve of simply handing more money to the states without demanding a change in the status quo.

A lot of the problems states are facing arise from tax policies that are short-sighted and regressive, and a lot of states have been (and will continue) to make things worse by shifting part or all of the cost of present programs onto future budgets, or by selling off forms of revenue generation (e.g., lotteries, roads, parking meters, prisons, bond issues, etc.) to balance this year's budget on the backs of future generations. It really makes me want to issue a parental, "You should have planned for this before you spent all your money," lecture.

If more federal aid is offered to the states, it should have clear strings attached: tax reforms likely to create and sustain a balanced budget starting in, let's say, 2011. The CBO can crunch the numbers.

The Moral Imperative of Running Up Debt

If you assume a benefit to your children and grandchildren, it would be morally wrong not to leave them the debts associated with your indulgences:
It is possible that the Afghanistan War is a bad idea; if so, the remedy is to end the war, not to raise taxes. If it is a good idea, the benefits will accrue to the inhabitants of the future, who will be protected from terrorists and other baddies, not us. We perform a benefit for the future, and we charge them for our costs; what is there to object to?
See? There's no justification for paying for war - you either end it, or assume that it will bring about good results for future generations and pass the cost on to them! You don't need their permission or consent, and it's legitimate to work off of assumption because, quite obviously, we have no way of knowing how the war in Afghanistan will turn out for future generations. But no matter how you slice it, it would be just plain wrong to expect war proponents to help finance the war - maybe it would be just to tax war opponents, for failing to stop the war, but not the proponents with their demands for unlimited deficit spending and sacrifice by others.
Deficit spending for what is in effect a capital investment — as opposed to spending on current consumption — is justified. If the War Tax is imposed, we simply transfer additional wealth from ourselves — including the soldiers and others already making the sacrifices — to the future.
Assuming for the moment that is correct.... Leaving future generations a better world, at our own expense? The horror!

And how can it not be a capital investment to burn through billions of dollars in munitions to blow up billions of dollars in infrastructure? Oh, I see, it's "in effect" a capital investment, even though it's not actually a capital investment, so even though we're destroying wealth we should nonetheless treat the war as an investment or a wealth-creating activity. It's even better than the Robert Samuelson / Fred Hiatt-type arguments of "we can afford it" and "deficit spending for wars is okay 'because wars end'" - we have a moral imperative to run up the deficit so as to not let future generations leech off of our lack of sacrifice. It's only those things that provably help people that must be paid for with new taxes.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Such Ingratitude

Tom Friedman's latest reminds me of the days when the Times Ombudsman defended the paper's coverage of Middle East issues by claiming that they received roughly equal amounts of criticism from both sides. No, being criticized by both sides doesn't automatically mean you're fair, balanced or accurate. Sometimes it means that everybody but you can see serious fault in your argument.
Yes, after two decades in which U.S. foreign policy has been largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny — in Bosnia, Darfur, Kuwait, Somalia, Lebanon, Kurdistan, post-earthquake Pakistan, post-tsunami Indonesia, Iraq and Afghanistan — a narrative that says America is dedicated to keeping Muslims down is thriving.
What say you, Glenn Greenwald?
Six months into the war, Friedman proudly proclaimed that "the real truth" was that we invaded Iraq to take out our "big stick" and tell them to "Suck On This," to take a 2-by-4 across their heads, and that we attacked them "because we could." In his 2003 explanation with Charlie Rose, did he even mention what he now claims was the war's "primary" purpose: "to destroy two tyrannical regimes ... and to work with Afghans and Iraqis to build a different kind of politics"? No. In a very rare moment of candor for this rank war-loving propagandist, he announced very clearly the real purpose of the war, only for him to now turn around and accuse Muslims of being blind and hateful because they heard his message loud and clear, and because they don't express enough gratitude for all the gracious Freedom Bombs we've dropped - and continue to drop - on their homes, their villages, their families, their children and their society. Apparently, they heard deranged, chest-beating bellowing like this from America's Top Foreign Policy Expert and took it seriously....
Well, let's hear a balancing comment from the other side of the political spectrum. Dan Larison?
One of the most irritating things I have noticed during the last decade has been the whining from American pundits about how ungrateful the world’s Muslims have been in response to our alleged beneficence on their behalf. The grimly amusing part of this is that the whining pundits accept the assumptions of pan-Islamists, but put them to different, limited use: Muslims everywhere must feel gratitude for any assistance we have ever rendered to a Muslim population. Of course, if our policies have ever adversely affected a Muslim population, Muslims everywhere should not think that they have any particular interest in this, but should instead resist the siren song of pan-Islamism.
And perhaps that illustrates my original point - sometimes when you're criticized from both ends of the political spectrum, and perhaps particularly where your critics are making the same point, it could be that you're wrong.

Friedman's conclusion seems narcissistic, a wish to place his words into President Obama's mouth:
"Whenever something like Fort Hood happens you say, 'This is not Islam.' I believe that. But you keep telling us what Islam isn't. You need to tell us what it is and show us how its positive interpretations are being promoted in your schools and mosques. If this is not Islam, then why is it that a million Muslims will pour into the streets to protest Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, but not one will take to the streets to protest Muslim suicide bombers who blow up other Muslims, real people, created in the image of God? You need to explain that to us — and to yourselves."
Did you get that? Friedman doesn't believe that Islam is the source of all evil, but the problem is that everybody else needs to be told that it's not - including Muslims. And he wants to put that attitude into President Obama's mouth.

Please refresh my memory. When has Thomas Friedman ever complained when a Western-backed military has crushed a largely secular Arabic government or movement, even when it was obviously going to be replaced by an Islamic alternative? Where does he remind us of the benighted, enlightened regimes of Saddam Hussein and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, before they were toppled? (Wait, you say they were despots? But they weren't religious, so how can that be?) When has he ever taken notice of peaceful protest by Arabs in his columns, and if you can find an example how much impact did it have on his proposed "solution" to the issue they were protesting? Where can I find a single column in which he refuted the calumny that the secular Palestinian Authority and fudamentalist Islamist Hamas were "the same thing"?

How many times has he ignored exactly the type of statement he demands, likely rationalizing it away as insincere, not representative, or whatever else it takes to avoid changing his mind about Islam (even as he pretends that only others need persuasion)? Outside of the context of Islam, has he ever conflated the acts of any other people, individual or collective, secular or religious, with the dominant religious beliefs of their society - or would he reject such a conflation as bigoted?

I'm also curious - what was the last march Thomas Friedman attended, to demonstrate the supposedly peaceful, progressive nature of whatever opinions or positions he holds? (My bet is that he's never marched for anything, unless it was in college as part of an effort to impress a girl.)

Friedman seems to be offended that the Islamic world doesn't share his positive view of Western interventions and invasions in their nations. Perhaps he should reflect on that, as he seemed to be in the "candy and flowers" crowd at the start of the war: If you believe you are doing something because it's right, do it because it's right. But if you're going it because you expect or need gratitude, you're probably doing it for the wrong reasons.

Update: Another take on Friedman:
It's curious that while accusing Muslims of buying into an imaginary narrative, Friedman himself buys into an imaginary alternative one: the romantic idea that US foreign policy is altruistic – "dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny". That is nonsense. US foreign policy, like that of other countries, is based primarily on its perceptions of its own interests.

The kind of self-righteousness seen in Friedman's column – puzzling over Muslims' apparent ungratefulness towards the US – is not only simplistic but actively harmful, Walt says. It "makes it harder for Americans to figure out why their country is so unpopular and makes us less likely to consider different (and more effective) approaches".

Agonising about "why they hate us" – as Friedman and many others in the US do – is never going to be productive so long as it is framed within the notion of an altruistic foreign policy, but once self-interest is recognised, the picture becomes clearer.

Where Have We Heard This Story Before....

Wikipedia declares that rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated. A web designer comments,
I suspect we’re observing a case of diminishing returns. When Wikipedia started, there was just one page so it’s initial growth was exponential. However, now there are 3 million articles in English alone; how easy is it for contributors to find a topic that hasn’t already been covered in considerable depth?

In addition, Wikipedia has evolved from a free-for-all into a more secure information resource. In the early days, it lured spammers and vandals who added or modified a significant number of pages. Those activities have been mostly banished, so frivolous updates are far less likely.
Basically, the pattern works like this: An online collaborative project, open to everybody, begins with pretty much a blank slate and volunteers can do pretty much what they want. Opportunists take advantage of the situation, and the free-for-all environment leads to some very low quality work, and the handful of staff members overseeing the project are overwhelmed.

So staff implements rules on who can edit, and where, and delegates more responsibility for the quality of the project to volunteer editors. The volunteers have little or no say in the direction of the project, and are subject to being overruled by various real or ad hoc committees, community votes or individual staff members. People who have "created" parts of the project don't like changes made by newcomers, newcomers find their work quickly modified or deleted by others, newcomers are suspected of wanting to abuse the project, senior editors are accused of various forms of abuse or conspiracy, and the project's initial fun and energy dissipates into drudgery.

Meanwhile, the owners or founders may appear to have little or no vision of the future of the project - it is to stay pretty much the way it is, even as it's obviously faltering or failing, and editors are expected to pretend that the Internet stands still.

Whether we're talking 80, 90 or 100%, I can't presently think of an online collaborative project of this nature that hasn't followed a similar path.

Friday, November 27, 2009

As Much As The Next Guy....

Michael Gerson shares this gem:
I dislike media bias as much as the next conservative. But I don't believe that journalistic objectivity is a fraud. I was a journalist for a time, at a once-great, now-diminished newsmagazine. I've seen good men and women work according to a set of professional standards I respect -- standards that serve the public. Professional journalism is not like the buggy-whip industry, outdated by economic progress, to be mourned but not missed. This profession has a social value that is currently not reflected in its market value.
Amazingly, Gerson's entire column lamenting the decline of journalism, concluding with the assertion that conservatives dislike media bias, fails to even mention Fox News.

More to the point, Gerson used to work for the Bush Administration whose contempt for the media seems fairly characterized as one of the many knives in the back of professional journalism. By way of example, has Gerson already forgotten Talon News and Jeff Gannon? Down the memory hole....

Soylent Green... In Reverse?

I'm skeptical of the time frame, particularly if we're talking about getting something with realistic taste and texture, but artificial ("in vitro") meat is on the horizon:
In-Vitro Meat - aka tank steak, sci fi sausage, petri pork, beaker bacon, Frankenburger, vat-grown veal, laboratory lamb, synthetic shmeat, trans-ham, factory filet, test tube tuna, cultured chicken, or any other moniker that can seduce the shopper's stomach - will appear in 3-10 years as a cheaper, healthier, "greener" protein that's easily manufactured in a metropolis.
So it's green, but not so soylent:
Humans are animals, so every hipster will try Cannibalism. Perhaps we'll just eat people we don't like, as author Iain M. Banks predicted in his short story, "The State of the Art" with diners feasting on "Stewed Idi Amin." But I imagine passionate lovers literally eating each other, growing sausages from their co-mingled tissues overnight in tabletop appliances similar to bread-making machines. And of course, masturbatory gourmands will simply gobble their own meat.
An image that would probably still have Charlton Heston shouting an alarm, although "People are made out of it" doesn't have quite the same ring.

Less Junk, More Charity

George Will makes some good points on Christmas consumerism.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Diplomacy as Speed Chess?

Roger Cohen's impatience is bringing out his inner (and outer) Kissinger:
I found myself seated next to Henry Kissinger at a New York dinner and asked him how he thought President Barack Obama was doing.

"He reminds me of a chess grandmaster who has played his opening in six simultaneous games," Kissinger said. "But he hasn’t completed a single game and I’d like to see him finish one."
Cohen bought into Kissinger's analogy without asking the appropriate follow-up questions, "How many chess games did you finish during your first ten months, whether as National Security Advisor or Secretary of State? And how many key matches did you and Nixon win?" In one particularly memorable multi-year game, the Vietnam War, the Kissinger team pulled an "illegal war in Cambodia and Laos" gambit, attempted an end-game that revolved around the Paris Peace Accords and "peace with honor", and shortly thereafter was checkmated. Maybe Kissinger there's a reason Kissinger chose the word "finish" instead of "win".

Kissinger could respond that these issues are hard, many will take years to wrap up, and it may take many more years before it's clear who won or lost a particular match. And that would be a fair response, but for the fact that it undermines his analogy. It's fun to drop bon mots, but it's hard to imagine that Kissinger didn't know he was pushing for an impatient response to problems that can only be resolved through care and patience - and perhaps not even then. (How well did Kissinger's policies work to unify Cyprus? Does he still want Cyprus under Turkish control?)

Cohen eagerly accepts the role of the impatient American:
I thought that wasn’t a bad image for Obama’s international gambits, and then here, at the first Halifax International Security Forum, I heard a similar observation from one participant: "We’ve had the set-up, but is there a middle game?" Or, put another way, can this probing, intelligent president close anything?
Cohen should know better, and probably does. Most likely, though, he doesn't care about the half-dozen high stakes games President Obama is working through. Most likely he cares about one, maybe two, and he's less concerned that Obama can't "close" than he is that Obama will choose to close in a manner inconsistent with his own preconceptions of how the matter should be handled.

Cohen also misses the boat with his comment on Obama's talk of a world without nuclear weapons,
It’s an idea with resonance, and may provide some moral suasion over countries contemplating pursuit of a bomb, but I can’t help recalling that the worlds of 1914 and 1939 were worlds without nukes. No thanks to that.
To bring up the subject is something of a red herring, given that even if Obama makes progress toward reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world, I know of nobody with the slightest sense that he will eliminate nuclear weapons during his Presidency - at best it would take decades. But he should consider also that the present world is nothing like 1914 or 1939. Now granted, should Russia or China start acting in a militarily threatening manner to the United States or each other, possession of nuclear weapons by all parties does deter transforming a cold war into a hot war. But the U.S. can presently militarily crush any nation it chooses... except for those with nuclear weapons.

Does Cohen believes that détente can be achieved between any two nuclear-armed nations? Clearly not. The present danger is that an otherwise militarily weak nuclear-armed state might use its weapons in a war with a neighbor, might lose control of its nuclear arsenal in a coup, or might sell or trade its knowledge, components, or even a nuclear device in exchange for cash or weapons. That's the danger Obama is attempting to address.

On Russia, Cohen offers a conclusion that sounds like it was lifted from a corporation's annual report: "I don’t believe Obama has yet shifted the basic confrontational optic of a resurgent Russia emerging from the humiliation of imperial collapse." Cohen sees Russia as having two conflicting approaches to the world: one comes from Dmitri Medvedev, and "The other perspective is called Vladimir Putin." (Ah, memories.) Is Cohen arguing that Obama needs to take a hard line with Russia and somehow force it to act against its perceived best interest on foreign national policies, such as its relations with Iran - with the probability that Russia will respond by saying no? Is he arguing that the U.S. should give up on diplomacy with Russia, and just let Russia do what it wants? Seriously, what's his point? As Cohen knows, we have no military option against Russia.

On Afghanistan, Cohen is critical that while Obama showed "clarity" in March by sending a lot more troops, he is presently showing "uncertainty" because he didn't immediately agree to send tens of thousands of troops to Afghanistan seven months later. I'm not going to dig through Cohen's past writings to try to determine if he wrote something similar about Bush during the former administration's seven years of malign neglect of the Afghan war, but it's worth noting that by way of comparison Obama is running laps around the mediocre record of his predecessor. No, the real fear isn't that Obama's indecisive - it's that he won't commit to endless war:
I worry now that Obama’s quest for perfect calibration will yield a less than resounding fudge where the tenacious message of a troop increase is undermined by talk of exit timing. That’s not how you break the will of an enemy.
How many times in its history has Afghanistan been the subject of an invasion attempt, invasion, or occupation? How many times in its history has it been successfully pacified, even when occupied by a superpower? Cohen truly believes that if Obama doesn't remind the Afghan people that we'll eventually pack up and go home, they somehow won't remember centuries of history - that the foreign occupier always packs up and goes home? Or that they have failed to notice that the same holds true in regard to any modern military engagement involving a long-term occupation in which the occupying power didn't engage in a massive population transfer into the occupied territory? Come on.

Cohen also seems to believe that every leader in the world wants to be Obama's best friend, and that they're all stinging at perceived slights:
In Europe, a more modest reset attempt has been compromised with political leaders (if not the public) by a perception of cool distance, underscored when Obama did not show at 20th-anniversary celebrations of the Berlin Wall’s fall. Feelings are particularly strong in Paris, where mutterings about Obama’s “Carterization” are heard. President Nicolas Sarkozy, who ushered France back to NATO’s integrated military command structure, and shattered political taboos dictating coolness toward America, has seen his hopes for a special relationship evaporate.
(Ah, memories.) It sounds like he's describing junior high school. "Angela threw a big party but Barack said he was too busy to come. All of Angela's friends are mad at him. Nicolas offered Barack a BFF bracelet, and Barack told him 'I don't want to be your best friend,' and now Nicolas doesn't like him any more and called him a loser." Again, come on.

Anne Applebaum has a better take on what's involved in Europe, noting that there's nothing close to a European consensus or European decision-maker with whom Obama can work on the key issues of the day, and she correctly notes that nations like China are going to pursue their own foreign policy interests, although her conclusion (while suitable for an editorial) seems overblown:
Europe might have a new phone number, but when Obama calls, the person on the other end of the line will still be unable to act. "Europe" will not be a unified entity capable of coordinating a unified policy in Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, the Middle East or anywhere else anytime soon. Europe cannot, in short, become America's full partner in foreign policy....

This does mean that the Obama administration has a problem, however: Having come to office promising to work with allies, it may soon discover that there are no allies with which to work. Europe is still our best hope, because Europeans share most of our values. But organizing sanctions with a divided Europe - never mind a military operation - will continue to be a major chore. China, meanwhile, is acquiring vast foreign interests, trading in Africa and South America as well as Asia, along with a vast army to match. But China appears uninterested in joining an international campaign against terrorism, nuclear proliferation or anything else.

Global military and security thus look set to remain in the hands of the United States, whether the United States wants it or not. Halfway through his presidency, George W. Bush found he had to drop unilateralism in favor of diplomacy. Now one wonders: At some point in his presidency, will Obama find he has to drop diplomacy in favor of unilateralism, too?
Cohen seems to be operating under the conceit that U.S. foreign policy interests are everybody's interests, and thus that it's absurd that Obama can't handshake his way to consensus - that it's somehow Obama's failure. He underestimates the effect of Bush's unilateralism, which if anything caused our traditional allies to become quite accustomed to saying "no". He disregards the fact that foreign nations have their own issues to worry about, and their most pressing issues may not be the same as ours. He also overlooks the fact that there can sometimes be a political gain to a politician, even in an allied nation, for standing up to U.S. pressure.

I also like this one:
In Israel-Palestine, Obama underestimated the damage of the past decade and has been outmaneuvered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
No, what happened was that Obama overestimated the resiliency of the U.S. economy, and severely underestimated his own party's willingness to address serious domestic issues such as stimulating economic recovery or passing a healthcare reform bill, and has had to expend significant political capital on those issues. Netanyahu, ever an opportunist, recognized that he could say "no" to the Obama Administration without consequence, as the Obama Administration is not presently positioned to impose a consequence. Is it a great shame that a Democratically controlled Congress doesn't have the President's back on key domestic and foreign policy issues? Absolutely. But what does Cohen expect President Obama to do about that?

Cohen has a sense of how skewed perspectives are in Israel, but compare and contrast Benny Morris who describes Obama as "a man who has, in the international arena, shown a proclivity for indecision (except when it comes to Israeli settlements in the West Bank)." Even with the retreat from his earlier demands for a mere freeze on new construction within those settlements, developed in knowing violation of international law, Morris sees Obama as having taken a hard line against Israel. (Meanwhile, Morris argues that an Israeli attack on Iran could bring chaos to the region, then turns around and suggests that it's the responsibility of the U.S. to bomb Iran so Israel doesn't have to, or at least to give it a green light and a massive infusion of high tech weaponry. Morris is definitely a person who brings to mind the phrase, "With friends like these....") It's also worth observing that Cohen sounds an awful lot like Pat Buchanan.1

It's worth remembering that Cohen very recently argued that the time for achieving a bona fide peace, with a two state solution, started to vanish under President Clinton and was squandered under Bush.2
Obama, who has his Nobel already, should ratchet expectations downward. Stop talking about peace. Banish the word. Start talking about détente. That’s what Lieberman wants; that’s what Hamas says it wants; that’s the end point of Netanyahu’s evasions.
Peace is unattainable, Netanyahu's evasive, and all of this arose before Obama took office, yet it's somehow Obama's fault that his proposal for peace talks isn't working out. Or perhaps Cohen is now of the position that U.S. Presidents should pretend that the Israel-Palestine conflict is irrelevant to U.S. foreign policy interests, and give neither time nor effort to resolving it. Even a grandmaster will have difficulty ending a match, at least in a positive way, if Cohen is correct that he inherited a board where his only pieces are a king and a pawn while his opponent has retained most of his pieces.

The only thing Cohen offers that could approximate as a proposed solution is that Obama spend more time talking about "human rights and freedom". Does Cohen believe that in the prism of junior high school through which he views Europe, that will dissuade Nicolas Sarcozy from comparing Obama to Carter?


1. Dan Larison offers a response to Pat Buchanan's arguments here.

2. You want to talk ineffectual? Or "dithering"? How about G.W. and his "road map" to nowhere?

Monday, November 23, 2009

What If They're Not Planning to Run as Republicans?

Ross Douthat doesn't believe that Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin represent the future of the Republican Party... although he apparently likes them better than anything else he sees.
This means that there are substantial political rewards awaiting the politician who becomes the voice of an intellectually vigorous conservatism. It probably won’t be Mike Huckabee or Sarah Palin.
Probably? What potential does Douthat see that either Palin or Huckabee is suddenly going to become intellectually curious?
If Republicans are lucky, though, it will be somebody who shares their charisma — but who prefers the responsibilities of leadership to the pleasures of celebrity.
No, if Republicans are lucky they won't be looking at a Palin/Huckabee ticket on a Conservative Party ticket, Douthat himself having all-but-blessed abandoning the Republican Party in the name of ideological purity, even when the third party candidate offers nothing of substance.

Huckabee chooses celebrity because that's the only way he can remain relevant. If you listen to him speak, he's clearly thinking about running for President, trying to stir up anti-incumbent sentiments with talk of "flushing the toilet" (no party reference attached), and making a case that people should quit their day jobs before running for President. Palin seems content to rake in the bucks, literally capitalizing on the fact that you can fool some of the people all of the time. Her habit of quitting whenever the going gets tough probably does disqualify her as a presidential candidate, but what if she throws her weight behind Huckabee? If necessary, on a "flush 'em all" Conservative party ticket?

I know Douthat sees no benefit in trying to enforce ideological purity at the Presidential level, but he just might get his wish for a "scapegoat-priest-king" in the form of Pastor Mike. And really, if the first three potential Republican Party leaders that come to his mind are "Huckabee, Palin, and... I got nothing", his party has a problem.

Update: While Palin wouldn't rule out running with Glenn Beck, Beck has scoffed at the notion of a Palin/Beck ticket as opposed to Beck/Palin. How could Palin not have seen that coming?

What Does Samuelson Think Insurance Is For?

Robert Samuelson feigns concern for the pocketbooks of our nation's youth - concern belied by his "blank check for wars he likes" - on the ground that an insurance mandate will cause healthier people to subsidize people who are less healthy. Specifically young people, who are a statistically healthier group, will effectively subsidize older people who are not yet on Medicare, a statistically less healthy group.

It's difficult in light of his history to view Samuelson's positions as genuine, as opposed to wedge politics - Samuelson has been a consistent opponent of reform while not once endorsing a viable alternative. He pretends to care about universality and cost control, yet rejects out of hand the tried and proved programs from other nations that do both, instead preferring a status quo even he appears to know is not sustainable - at least when he's talking about Medicare.

It should go without saying that insurance provides a subsidy to claimants, at the expense of people who don't pay claims. My auto insurance payments subsidize careless drivers. My homeowner's policy subsidizes people who don't feel the need to use smoke detectors, or who live in higher crime neighborhoods. It should go without saying - if you break the pool down into two groups, one that makes few claims and one that makes many, you'll find that the former "subsidizes" the latter. Samuelson would respond,
Auto insurance premiums vary by age; younger drivers pay higher rates because they have more accidents. Homeowners' policies for similar houses cost more in high-crime areas. This is not "discrimination"; it's a reflection of risk and cost differences. Insurers that ignored these differences would soon vanish because they'd suffer heavy losses and lose customers.
Yet still, insurance companies shift the cost of risk to safer neighborhoods and drivers. When they don't, state regulators often compel them to surcharge one set of customers in order to subsidize another, or to write policies for home and car owners in neighborhoods they would prefer not to touch. Maybe in the name of consistency Samuelson would argue that insurance companies should be free to refuse to insure inner city homes and drivers, or refuse to participate in state pools that insure high risk drivers, but that's not the country in which we live.

In Samuelson's mind, a healthy fifty-year-old would pay four or five times as much for health insurance as would a twenty-five-year-old with a costly chronic illness, just by virtue of his age. Why is that fair? It's still the healthy subsidizing the sick. Yet if you look at it that way, doesn't it reveal the absurdity of Samuelson's position? If premiums are to be tied to how much a person is expected to consume in health care services, why shouldn't that sickly person pay ten, twenty times what a healthy person would pay, consistent with her level of consumption?
On health insurance, we may choose to override some risk adjustments (say, for preexisting medical conditions) for public policy reasons. But the case for making age one of these exceptions is weak.
And yet... Samuelson can't articulate it. It's to be assumed. It's simply posited as "unfair" that younger people should, as a class, subsidize older people. A public policy analysis would look at costs and benefits, return on investment, etc. - or, accepting Samuelson's thesis, would propose alternative forms of funding that would not render health insurance unaffordable to people once they hit forty-five or fifty simply by virtue of their age. As policy analysts go, Samuelson drinks not from a deep well, but from a puddle.
Working Americans -- the young and middle-aged -- already pay a huge part of the health costs of the elderly through Medicare and Medicaid. These will grow with an aging population and surging health spending. Either taxes will rise or other public services will fall. Already, all governments spend 2.4 times as much per capita on the elderly as on children, reports Julia Isaacs of the Brookings Institution. Why increase the imbalance?
Leaving aside for a moment that we're not talking about the elderly, there's an obvious answer: we all get older. There are obvious rejoinders: people who don't have school aged children, or who send their kids to private schools, still pay taxes that support public schools. We fund police and fire services from broad taxes, as opposed to billing the person who utilizes emergency services.

Further, what's wrong with raising taxes to pay for health care? People above the age of forty typically earn a lot more than younger workers, so if you passed a tax to subsidize healthcare premiums you could shift some of that burden back onto older workers. Or implement a tax to recoup some of the cost of the wars Samuelson endorses, and give ourselves more latitude to pay for the social programs he supposedly opposes on the basis of their cost. A tax would also have the added benefit of minimizing or eliminating the disincentive for young people to enroll, based upon the difference between the cost of insurance and the penalty for not enrolling. Oh... but we have to pass reform without new taxes because, even if the net effect is the same or better, people like Samuelson insist upon it.

Do you think for a moment that "elderly", almost sixty-five-year-old Samuelson, who could easily pay his own way, has ever turned down a subsidy for the sake of the younger generation? Do you think he personally rejects Medicare? Or do you think he's in that special class of people who takes everything he can get - "sacrifice is for other people". I don't believe for a minute that he actually cares about deficit spending (he's admitted as much), the young subsidizing the old, the poor subsidizing the rich.... Is there somewhere I can find evidence to the contrary?

The Public Option

Josh Marshall's a smart guy, but I think he's about as wrong as wrong can be on the public option.
Now, there are many people who look at this and say that the bill(s) under discussion are so anemic that they're maybe not worth fighting for at all. And that's certainly a legitimate opinion. But I think there's another question. Considering how down to the wire this is, is it really worth holding up everything else contained in the bill when the point of contention, the public option, is as measly as it is?
The same thing probably could have been argued about the first version of Social Security or the first version of Medicare - "It's measly, so what's the big deal if it doesn't pass." Well, whether you like or hate the current version of those programs, I don't think you're apt to argue that they're "no big deal". People like David Frum and Martin Feldstein wouldn't be telling us that any public option, no matter how "measly", will inexorably bring about the end of private health insurance if the opponents of the public option shared Marshall's perspective. It's easy to hobble the public option, version 1, but it's very difficult to stop the public option from later being made viable.

Marshall follows up with a valid point about "up and down" votes, but I think he's jumping the gun:
If you go back to the earlier part of this decade when the cloture/filibuster issue became a big deal, largely on the Supreme Court nominations front, the right made a big push on the outside about the issue of allowing up or down votes (i.e., 51 vote majorities) simply as a matter of principle
So why not do that right now? Because the bill is advancing without that type of push. The best time to call for an "up or down vote", and to press people to "allow an up or down vote" is when the bill's up for final passage. Do that too soon and not only do you give opponents of the bill time to prepare and rehearse rebuttals, you risk inspiring a yawn from the media on the fourth, fifth or sixth round of voting when you want the headline to be, "Health reform opponents block up or down vote."


It's worth noting that research is being done on the usefulness of homework and, with the appropriate caveat that this is a newspaper article and not the actual research, here's a brief summary.
There's little evidence to show that homework is effective among primary-school-aged children – except for those who are performing below their peers.

Many homework experts live by the “10-minute rule”: Kids shouldn't do more than 10 minutes of homework for each grade they're in. That means a student in Grade 1 would do no more than 10 minutes, while a student in Grade 4 would do no more than 40 minutes. High-school students could do up to two hours a night. Spending more than two hours is not associated with higher academic achievement, concluded a 2006 Duke University study led by Harris Cooper, a homework expert and professor in the department of psychology and neuroscience.

Homework should reinforce what a child has already learned, be presented in a clear, manageable way and be engaging.
The question is, do politicians who impose "mandatory homework" policies on the early grades care if it actually helps, or do they want to diminish kids' home lives for the sake of looking like they're "doing something", even if it's not productive and potentially counter-productive?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Jobs, Jobs and More Jobs?

The government's response to periods of high unemployment traditionally involves extending unemployment benefits. Currently, with maximum extensions, an unemployed person can qualify for up to 99 weeks of benefits. Needless to say, this strains the notion of unemployment insurance as any sort of (compulsory) premium-based insurance.

The structure of unemployment insurance, consistent with the larger structure of our society, is predicated upon a job being something that you get from somebody else. Our nation gives great lip service to entrepreneurship, but very little support for entrepreneurs. One of the benefits of meaningful health reform is that entrepreneurs would be able to obtain affordable insurance, something that ties a lot of workers to their jobs particularly after the age of forty. Entrepreneurs are blessed with the full burden of government regulations and the tax system - self-employment taxes to take the place of the employer's matching taxes. They don't get the tax breaks, credits, etc., handed out like candy to big businesses for "creating jobs". Health insurance comes into play again if they try to add employees, as they attempt to attract workers who want the same quality of coverage they can obtain through group plans offered by larger or governmental employers. It's tough.

Meanwhile, your unemployment benefits may be reduced or terminated if you attempt to start your own business, meaning that for most unemployed workers there's a disincentive to try to make their own work.

Is this sane? Somehow we transformed from a nation where "anybody can get rich" by starting a business to a nation where "everybody expects to get rich" by punching a clock. Pretty much anybody in the nation can recite the bromide, "You don't get rich working for somebody else," er, unless you're a professional athlete or banker, but it doesn't appear to have been internalized. A great many people truly seem to believe that they can work a $10/hour job year after year, and then one day, magically, they'll become multi-millionaires.

At the same time, we're in an era where it's relatively cheap and easy to market a new business through the Internet - if you still keep a copy, take a look at the Yellow Pages, to get a sense of how many businesses have dramatically reduced their investment or abandoned that expensive, traditional medium in favor of websites and online marketing. There are numerous programs available that make it possible to make money through online ventures, and numerous online ventures that help you market products to a national audience. Why aren't we teaching people how to take full advantage of these new opportunities?

If we're facing additional years of prolonged unemployment perhaps, rather than perpetuating the status quo, we should examine how we might boost entrepreneurship, lift the burdens on entrepreneurs as their businesses take off, and try to invigorate the economy from the bottom up. At a bare minimum, don't take away a would-be entrepreneur's modest unemployment benefits (or COBRA subsidy) if she dares to start a business that actually generates revenue. I can't imagine the equation where it's better to keep a prospective entrepreneur idle for up to 99 weeks because there aren't enough jobs, than it is to encourage them to get started with their own business ideas on day one.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Artisanal Kraft Foods Products?

A chocolate connoisseur lays out his hope that, should Kraft foods take over Cadbury, they won't lay waste to an artisanal chocolate maker, in the manner that Hershey's buyout has affected Scharffen Berger:
But luckily, long before this year’s announcement by Hershey that it was closing the Berkeley plant and consolidating Scharffen Berger production in Illinois, I discovered an alternative [to the discontinued 82 percent bar]. Green & Black’s, an English brand, was readily available in New York, and if its 85 percent bar didn’t have quite the flavor bouquet that Scharffen Berger 82 packed back in its heyday, it came very close, and the mouth feel was arguably better.

Interestingly, Green & Black’s had also been started by small entrepreneurs and then acquired in 2005 by a giant firm. But its new parent, Cadbury, vowed to let it operate as a stand-alone unit. Judging from my research, which has been basically confined to unwrapping the foil of countless bars and plunging in, Cadbury has been true to its word.
Here's the deal. Quite some time ago Kraft purchased another British sweets manufacturer, Callard & Bowsers. Then they killed off Callard & Bowser's dessert nougat - too complicated to make, too small a market... not worth it, right? Ultimately they killed off the remaining traditional products, such as treacle and liquorice toffee... and now, no longer in Kraft's hands, all the brand is really known for is Altoids.

If the sale goes through, my suggestion to connoisseurs: Stock up on your favorites.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

David Frum's Slippery Slope

People who are knowledgeable about the world's various national healthcare plans are aware that private insurance plays a significant role in any number of them. Even in Canada, the land from which Frum emigrated, people use supplemental insurance policies - often provided by their employers - to supplement Medicare. And yet....
The Dems are willing to accept that the plan won’t be offered in all states. They are willing to allow private insurance to coexist alongside the government-plan for many years to come. They are willing for the government-plan to retain many features of private insurance – premiums will be based on the allowed risk factors, not on “ability to pay.” They know that all those concessions will gradually erode. The key thing: establish the government-run plan now. Drive private insurers out of the market gradually. Shift only slowly from insurance-like finance to tax finance.
What is it that Frum sees as so special - so especially bad - about the U.S. health insurance system that if the government gets so much as a toe in the door everybody in the nation will recognize the superiority of a national plan and press their legislators to expand the program to allow them to enroll?

Next, he breaks out the crack pipe, arguing that Obama could have easily passed a modest healthcare bill:
“I continue to support the public option personally and will work for it to be established later. For now, my priorities are (1) insurance reform, to outlaw the practices that most offend Americans, and (2) to create exchanges like those created by Gov. Romney in Massachusetts so that individuals and small businesses can buy insurance at the same favorable prices paid by large employers. We’re going to have an individual mandate to buy insurance – and subsidies to help those who can’t. We’re going to shift regulation of health insurance from the states to the federal government, so that we can write a single, predictable set of rules, rather than 50 different rules that allow lobbyists in places like New Jersey to push insurance prices up and up and up.”

Republicans could never have said no to that. He would have pushed his program through in a week.
Okay, let's set aside for the moment the fact that numerous high-ranking Republicans have announced that they want to defeat health reform to hurt President Obama. Let's look instead at what the Republicans call a health reform bill. Let's look first for the biggest of the insurance company "practices that most offend Americans" - denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions, and revoking people's policies when they get sick. Their "plan" creates "high risk pools" but doesn't require that insurance companies insure the sick. For revocation, they offer a nebulous, undefined third party review process.1 Will the review process be an insurance industry rubber stamp? My cynical side says that if it were intended to be anything but, Boehner would have included some specifics.

The Republicans claim, "The GOP plan prohibits an insurer from canceling a policy unless a person commits fraud or conceals material facts about a health condition." Which is great, except that those are the exact grounds insurance companies assert even when they wrongfully terminate people's health insurance coverage. The Republicans think that the termination letters insurers send out say, "We've decided you cost too much, so we're walking away from our legally binding contract of insurance"?

The Republicans also include their standard "race to the bottom" proposal for "buying insurance across state lines". That's the opposite of Frum's notion of a national set of regulations. As I've previously noted,
There is, of course, no reason that insurance companies cannot enter additional states, offering plans in those states, right now. The impediment is that to set up health coverage you need to create a network of participating doctors, clinics and hospitals who accept your plan.
The Republican proposal isn't about an out-of-state insurer writing new plans in your state - it's about insurers from your state relocating to the states with the least regulation so that they can strip away benefits required by your state's laws and work out of states with minimal regulatory oversight. What does the CBO have to say about the GOP proposal?
By 2019, CBO and JCT estimate, the number of nonelderly people without health insurance would be reduced by about 3 million relative to current law, leaving about 52 million nonelderly residents uninsured. The share of legal nonelderly residents with insurance coverage in 2019 would be about 83 percent, roughly in line with the current share.
Further, "in the large group market, which represents nearly 80 percent of total private premiums, the amendment would lower average insurance premiums in 2016 by zero to 3 percent compared with amounts under current law, according to CBO's estimates." Wow. Almost nobody gets insured, and the cost savings are at best near zero. Did Frum fail to notice that Boehner's bill has no mandate? That it bears no resemblance to Frum's dream bill?

I mean, seriously, if the Republicans could back a sensible set of reforms and pass them within a week, why haven't they written up the Frum Bill (or something similar) instead of Boehner's bill, seemingly designed to reform next to nothing? Further, contrary to Frum's suggestion, Obama has effectively said that he'll sign any healthcare reform bill that gets through Congress, even if it doesn't include a public option. The Republicans can still write up that Frum bill that could supposedly pass in a week - why are they instead declaring a "holy war" against healthcare reform?

Frum appears to live in an alternate universe where he's still a prominent member of the Republican Party. Instead he's shouting from a soapbox, "The Republicans truly are reasonable - and if given a chance they'll agree with me" even as he's been marginalized and excluded. Yet he still hasn't quite embraced honest debate, such that he might gain credibility with anybody else.

A Misguided Prosecution Comes To An End

The government has thrown in the towel and abandoned its appeal of the Lori Drew conviction. As I wrote a year ago,
If the verdict does not stand, and there's a good chance that it will not, the shameless grandstanding by U.S. Attorney Thomas P. O'Brien will have expanded the injustice. It will have given Megan Meier's family the false sense that Lori Drew would go to prison for crimes that should never have been charged. Oh, probably O'Brien will harrumph about how he was right, about how Drew is evil incarnate, and how either the trial court or appellate court has unreasonably second-guessed the good men and women of the jury. Such a reaction would be consistent with what this prosecution is about - the furtherance of Mr. O'Brien's personal and political goals.
So now I await commentary from Mr. O'Brien.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

His Master's Voice

Yesterday I commented on the irresponsible "leaders" of the Republican Party. Today, Michael Gerson regurgitates the party memo that, as a commenter in that thread and the Daily Show point out, have transformed Geraldo Rivera into the voice of reason, reinforcing my impression of him as a dim-witted water carrier, slavishly providing an echo chamber for whatever anti-Obama insanity his "leaders" care to spew.

I am so sorry to hear that George W. Bush, Gerson's former lord and master, put the country in peril through the trials of John Walker Lindh, José Padilla, Richard Reid, Zacharias Moussaui.... It's fortunate for us that they made up for it by capturing Osama Bin Laden and the perpetrator of the anthrax attacks, so we could all be safe.

Update: The NonSequitur had me wondering if Gerson deserved a more substantial response to his blather - one that at least pretends he's a serious columnist. Gerson answers for himself with today's regurgitation of the (previously discussed) Republican Party talking points on "dithering" - no, he does not.

Calling Obama the "Undecider"... as contrasted with G.W. whose self-appellation as "a decider" made him the punch line of countless jokes? Telling Obama he's the opposite to the lousy President who put Afghanistan on a back burner so he could pursue a war of choice in Iraq, let things deteriorate until Obama took over and brought marked improvements in the situation, and created a context for the "urgency" - or, more accurately, the possibility of stabilizing the situation - Gerson didn't feel during any of the seven years of Bush Administration neglect? Gerson intends that as an insult?
"As an analogy," says David Kilcullen, an expert on counterinsurgency strategy, "you have a building on fire, and it's got a bunch of firemen inside. There are not enough firemen to put it out. You have to send in more or you have to leave.
The effing place has been on fire for eight years, seven of which passed under the malign neglect of his former lord and master, and Gerson only just noticed? The only thing I can say in Gerson's favor is that he may be the first regurgitator of the memo to use a synonym for "dither", rather than being "that obvious".

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Perils of Democracy

When I watch the Obama Administration forming its policy on Afghanistan, I'm reminded of the Bush Administration (and, well, every administration I've seen in my lifetime) - Push back the date for decisions that may cause blowback such that any negative consequence, that is anything that might hurt the incumbent President in the polls, occurs after reelection (or after his successor takes office).

I suspect that Obama will order an approach that he believes will improve the situation in Afghanistan, but with the idea of wrapping up major military operations by mid-2011. At that time he can begin withdrawing troops without fear of a Najibullah-type collapse of the Karzai government before the election. His Republican opponent will have to decide if he wants to run on a platform of re-escalating and perpetuating the war, or effectively endorsing Obama's policies - and I suspect that in a national election there's a lot more danger to a politician who does the former.

This is hardly unique to the U.S. - there are issues around the globe that could be resolved if elected leaders spent less time worrying about getting reelected and more time worrying about what's truly in the best interest of their country and countrymen. And no, I'm not calling for the abolition of democracy - a cure far worse than the disease. And I would probably be arguing against human nature if I were to ask politicians to treat the public as if it has the knowledge, respect and maturity to accept that it can take years to see the benefits of good policy choices, and that a significant short-term price tag (figurative or literal) can be a small price to pay for those benefits.

Alas, I'm dreaming of a world without lobbyists, and in which people would treat the notion of "Sarah Palin, 2012" as a joke, and where it would be laughable to conceive of people like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck as thought or opinion leaders. I don't mean to single out the political right, but it's difficult to think of a current "thought leader" or "political leader" on the left who offers so little substance yet is taken seriously by the media and the majority of the members of a major political party. People are people, and history tells us that the political left is far from immune from the dubious charms of similar "leaders".

In the Washington Post's tepid "America's Next Great Pundit" contest, a Nobel Prize winning scientist asked why our nation doesn't make an effort to separate science from partisanship, recreating the Office of Technology Assessment to try to "help Congress arrive at a common starting point for complicated legislation". Why not? Because the facts, or scientific consensus, frequently aren't politically convenient. Consider, for example, the British Government's decision to appoint a genuine scientist to advise it on drug issues, only to be embarrassed when he pointed out that much of the hysteria surrounding ecstasy and marijuana were exactly that. So he was fired.

Armed conflicts pose a similar problem, with proponents of war eagerly declaring any action with which they disagree to be a sign of weakness, empowering the enemy. We of course see that in pretty much every pro-war analysis of the War in Afghanistan. And, as Roger Cohen's column on Israel-Palestine implies, it's an argument that can lead to self-destructive behaviors that drag out a problem to the point that the best and easiest solutions may no longer be viable. When things are going well, the politicians respond to the popular sentiment that "Things are going well so why do we need to make any sacrifice," and when things aren't going well they respond to the sentiment, "Why do they deserve anything?" And the problem drags on for years, decades, potentially even for centuries.

As the experience of Britain in the Republic of Ireland indicates, the form of government can change dramatically without any significant impact on how the government responds to a serious issue, problem or conflict. Perhaps it's true that we get the government that we deserve - small-minded, foolish, vengeful, irrational, selfish, short-sighted... just like all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Once Again, Robert Samuelson's Part of the Problem

A while back I commented on Robert Samuelson's mendacity on healthcare reform. No surprise, he's at it again. He is again insisting that reform - the only form of reform he will support - would make the system more expensive. No, once again that doesn't mean he advocates reforms along the lines of those imposed by pretty much every other industrialized nation, which would unquestionably reduce the cost of medical care. It means that he supports the broken status quo, with the highest cost, highest inflation, and a performance record that is on the whole surprisingly poor (even if it's pretty darn good for people with health insurance plans as good as Samuelson's).

He also takes the rather childish tack of branding the House bill, that Obama did not author, as "Obamacare",1 and insisting that this is "Obama's health-care plan". Last I checked, the Senate hadn't yet ruined the healthcare reform bill passed its own version of the bill, and we were a long way from voting on a bill post-reconciliation. Yet apparently Samuelson was visited by a time traveler who is privy to that final piece of legislation, and who passed along the secret that Obama will personally author it.

Typical of one of Fred Hiatt's crew, Samuelson whines (seemingly endlessly) about how providing healthcare to Americans is a luxury we can't afford - it's better that people be denied care than that we enact a sensible tax policy, reconsider Fred Hiatt's endorsement for endless wars, etc. - the only portion of the budget that can be cut, after all, is that for social services. Never mind that the status quo is failing, and that its failure is accelerating with employers increasingly reducing the health benefits they offer, passing along a greater share of costs to employees, or both. There are endless wars to fight, darnit, and something's gotta give.

But then, remember, this is the same Robert Samuelson who once argued that people only hate Bush because his policies are so darn successful. He doesn't exactly have a track record of sound, objective judgment.

Update: The NonSequitur reminds us of another gem from Samuelson:
A possible war with Iraq raises many unknowns, but “can we afford it?” is not one of them. People inevitably ask that question, forgetting that the United States has become so wealthy it can wage war almost with pocket change. A war with Iraq would probably cost less than 1 percent of national income (gross domestic product). Americans have grown accustomed to fighting with little economic upset and sacrifice.
and, at a later date,
But I am certain — now as then — that budget consequences should occupy a minor spot in our debates. It’s not that the costs are unimportant; it’s simply that they’re overshadowed by other considerations that are so much more important.

1. I recognize that some supporters of healthcare reform also use the term "Obamacare"... and perhaps the label can be coopted from the propaganda machine that created it, but I personally don't think it's a good term for supporters to use.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Okay, So Where Are The Good Arguments?

I keep reading editorials on Afghanistan, hoping to come across a good argument for why the war should continue. The closest I've come is, "We should stick it out a bit longer so we can truly say we gave it our best shot". Not very compelling. More often, it's a regurgitation of silly, tired arguments like this:
  • "The Taliban cannot rely on the support of a nationalist mass-movement.... The locals are wary and weary. They feel as if they have been at war for ever, and they only wish that it would stop.... Most locals are ready to rally to the support of any side which looked as if it could win and thus bring the bloodshed to an end. If it seemed that whatever the cost, Nato was on for the long game, the West would gain a cautious and growing respect. But every time there is a rumour that we might pull out, the locals rush to reinsure themselves with the Taliban."

    All we have to do to "win" is let a population completely weary of war know that we'll stay and perpetuate the war forever, then they'll support us. (Got a problem with that?) Moreover, given a choice between the Taliban, some sort of Sharia-based Islamic government, or the corrupt, western-backed Karzai regime, who says they prefer our version of the end game?

  • "Nato tactics are also evolving. There is still a need for more helicopters, better equipment and above all, more men."

    No sh..., er, kidding. And you know what? Next year we will truthfully be able to say the same thing. And the year after, and the year after, and... every year for as long as the war continues.

  • "It is part of a wider civilising mission. The Karzai government's difficulties are well-publicised. Corruption is bad; so is ballot-stuffing. But neither is unknown, even in supposedly more advanced countries: think Illinois in 1960."

    If you think that "Illinois in 1960" is a fair comparison to "Afghanistan in 2009", you've pretty much given up any pretense that you're arguing from fact or logic. The author's notion that Karzai's government is the best in Afghanistan's history raises the question, what was the second-best? Najibullah's? Isn't this called "daming Karzai with faint praise"?

    Also, that part about civilizing... is it just Afghanistan? What does that mean? Teaching them that their interpretation of Islam and Sharia law is backward, that they need to treat women as equals, that... seriously? And should we tell them that - "We're here until you behave like civilized people, by our definition"? Because that type of condescension is sure to help our cause....

  • "[Soldiers fighting this war] have also made an essential contribution to all our safety. It is not necessary to believe in a relentless clash of civilisations to recognise that there is a problem with Islam. By no means all 1.3 billion Muslims hate the West and they do not all live in failed states. But there is a lot of anger and a lot of failure, especially in Pakistan. Although the West needs effective diplomacy in order to build up alliances with the Muslim world, diplomacy is not enough. The West cannot afford to display weakness. If we let Afghanistan slip through nerveless fingers, we would not only lose it to the terrorists. Pakistan would be in jeopardy and so would our standing throughout the region. The West will only be seen as a reliable friend if it is also a reliable foe."

    That's a jumbled mishmash of thoughts, concluding with a platitudinous attempt at a bon mot. ("You gotta be cruel to be kind, in the right measure, cruel to be kind, it's a very good sign...."

    I don't think we can doubt that the war in Afghanistan has disrupted al-Qaeda activity in Afghanistan, but it can hardly be said that al-Qaeda was defeated in Afghanistan, can't survive without Afghanistan, or can't recruit and flourish in other parts of the region and world. It's also fair to say that they're using the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as recruiting tools. So once al-Qaeda was displaced from Afghanistan, what part of the war has made us safer? For that matter, were their training camps to return, and for some reason the West decided not to blast them to smithereens, would we in fact be less safe than we are with their present activities in Pakistan or Somalia?

    Who in their right mind thinks that our activities in the region, dating back to our support for ousting the Soviets from Afghanistan, have stabilized that country or warmed its people to the U.S.? Does the author believe that U.S.-Pakistan relations are headed in the right direction?

    Further, hasn't the overblown argument that "our enemy won't respect us unless we fight forever" proved wrong in... pretty much every context? What makes this one special, even if you pretend that ending the war in Afghanistan would mean ending military operations in the region, which of course it does not. Other than staying involved in a permanent war and occupation, the author sees no way to earn respect from Arabs and Muslims?

  • "The soldiers I talk to who have served in Afghanistan all know about the cost. They have seen it. But they are unanimous in their belief that it is a price worth paying. The rest of us can make our contribution by demanding that they are given the tools they need to finish the job."

    Let's flash back to something this yutz said earlier in his commentary.... "A majority of the public wants to withdraw from Afghanistan. A majority of the public is wrong.... thank God that we are a representative democracy, not a plebiscitary one" - Unless you take the plebiscite from a subsample, assumed to support your view, in which case how dare you question their wisdom?

Is there anyone presenting a good case for staying in Afghanistan? To me that means (a) a clear statement of what we're capable of achieving, and (b) an explanation of how it will be achieved. Wishful thinking is great, but my mind keeps going back to Burgess Meredith.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Raw Diehl?

Again cheerleading a significant, long-term escalation of the war in Afghanistan, Jackson Diehl asks,
All that time, no one accused George W. Bush of dithering. So why does Barack Obama keep hearing the taunt as he deliberates about Afghanistan -- and why do even some who sympathize with his dilemma find it hard to shake the feeling that this commander in chief lacks resolve?
If you look at the people who are accusing President Obama of dithering, the answer is self-evident. Is there one among them who is not a staunch advocate of endless war in Afghanistan? They hope that their silly, hypocritical accusations of "dithering" (think Dick Cheney) will somehow embarrass him into doing what they want, and making Obama less likely to impose reasonable demands on Karzai's administration or have a clear end-game in mind before escalating the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

Diehl shows his cards with this claim,
One part of the answer is easy: Bush was renowned for summoning plenty of resolve, and not enough critical thinking. No one questioned that Bush's heart was in his bid for "victory" in Iraq.
He defines "resolve" as the willingness to make a war last forever if it means avoiding admitting a mistake, but (at least in relation to Bush) not as the resolve to commit the troops or forces necessary to win. Which leads us back to the real Diehl: he wants more troops not because there's a plan for victory, or a reasonable likelihood of victory, but because he favors the perpetuation of the war until his unarticulated fantasy version of "victory" is achieved.

(It would be interesting to read an analysis of how all of the pro-war pundits and commentators miraculously settled on a somewhat unusual word, "dithering", to describe Obama's failure to immediately dispatch tens of thousands of troops to Afghanistan upon the request of General McChrystal, despite the vast improvement his administration has already brought about in Afghanistan following seven years of malignant neglect by Bush and Cheney.)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Human Rights and Withdrawal from Afghanistan

A contrarian view of the human rights impact of continuing the war in Afghanistan, but given the author it's not one to easily dismiss: a woman who "was elected to Afghanistan"s parliament in 2005 and kicked out in 2007 by the warlords".
Eight years ago, women's rights were used as one of the excuses to start this war. But today, Afghanistan is still facing a women's rights catastrophe. Life for most Afghan women resembles a type of hell that is never reflected in the Western mainstream media.

In 2001, the U.S. helped return to power the worst misogynist criminals, such as the Northern Alliance warlords and druglords. These men ought to be considered a photocopy of the Taliban. The only difference is that the Northern Alliance warlords wear suits and ties and cover their faces with the mask of democracy while they occupy government positions. But they are responsible for much of the disaster today in Afghanistan, thanks to the U.S. support they enjoy.

The U.S. and its allies are getting ready to offer power to the medieval Taliban by creating an imaginary category called the "moderate Taliban" and inviting them to join the government. A man who was near the top of the list of most-wanted terrorists eight years ago, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, has been invited to join the government.
I wish the ideas were better developed, rather than fitting within the @800 word limit of an op/ed column, but if I were to infer why she favors withdrawal it's likely because U.S. policy seems likely to cement in place a corrupt, misogynistic government.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Should We Withdraw from Afghanistan

The Guardian offers essays on continuation of the war in Afghanistan, arguing both sides of the question (from a British perspective). The argument to stay first observes the effect of seven years of the Bush Administration's neglect and incompetence:
By 2008, the situation had deteriorated so far that, with the Taliban established in outlying districts of the city, friends in Kabul who had returned in 2002 were wondering where to go if forced to flee again.
Things have since improved:
Now, finally, with Barack Obama in the White House and an American military which, for all its faults, has shown an impressive ability to learn (or relearn), we have in place the strategy that we should have had years ago. It depends on restricting the air strikes and the indiscriminate firepower, deploying troops to protect the population rather than treating them as a neutral terrain on which to hunt insurgents, training local troops, creating secure physical space for commerce, political space for some kind of process potentially leading to the eventual creation of a broadly legitimate government structure linked to broader regional initiatives.
That sounds good, right?
But will this strategy work?

Probably not.
To put it mildly, ouch. (Read the editorial for a list of everything that has gone wrong, that we're unlikely to be able to right.)
The human rights argument is weak, too. It is almost certain that any stable Afghanistan is going to be much more conservative, much more anti-western and much more authoritarian than we would like. Better than a Taliban-run state perhaps but more like Saudi Arabia than Sweden. A continued commitment will not guarantee girls the right to go to school across the entire country.

So why fight then? Why send more young men to their deaths? Why spend more money that could be used for hospitals, schools or saving banks?

For the simple reason that we owe it to the Afghans to try to make the new strategy work. Every death is a tragedy, but the price in lives and money is not an exorbitant one given the size, wealth and military history of the UK. After years of errors, we finally have a chance to do something right. In two or three years, we will know if there is a chance that the strategy can succeed. If it does, we can be proud. If it doesn't, at least we are unlikely to have made things worse. More important, we can at least honestly say to the Afghan people that we did our best.
Within the context of a strategy that does not depend upon Hamad Karzai (or his successor) being honest, competent or helpful, with the moderate goal of creating a society that's "merely" extremely oppressive to women as opposed to extraordinarily oppressive... conceding the narrow scope of what we're likely to achieve is a bitter pill. I don't think that argument is likely to persuade anybody who doesn't have a sense of how atrocious life became for women under the Taliban, but I can understand why the author, familiar with that history, wants to give it one more honest effort before we give up.

No More Subsidies?

Thomas Friedman, in a shallow analysis of the intractable Israel-Palestine conflict, concludes,
If the status quo is this tolerable for the parties, then I say, let them enjoy it. I just don’t want to subsidize it or anesthetize it anymore.
No more subsidies? To either side?

Friday, November 06, 2009


David Brooks offers his own special insight into what independents want, coincidentally what Brooks himself wants:
If I were a politician trying to win back independents, I’d say something like this: When I was a kid, I had a jigsaw puzzle of the U.S. Each state was a piece, and on it there was a drawing showing what people made there. California might have movies; Washington State, apples; New York, fashion or publishing. That puzzle represented an economy that was diverse and deeply rooted.

We’ve lost that. First Wall Street got disproportionately big, then Washington. It’s time to return to fundamentals. No short-term fixes. Government should do what it’s supposed to do: schools, roads, basic research. It should not be picking C.E.O.’s or setting pay or fizzing up the economy with more debt. It should give people the tools to compete, not rig the competition. Lines of restraint have dissolved, and they need to be restored.
But here's the thing: independents aren't a monolith. Like the supporters of the major political parties, you'll find independents who self-describe as liberal, conservative and moderate. You'll find people who choose a libertarian candidate, a Conservative Party candidate, vote Green, or fervently pray that Pat Buchanan will make another run for President. It's inaccurate to assume that independents hover between the two major political parties and that either could score their votes. Among other factions you have:
  • People who for a variety of reasons don't want to associate themselves with a specific political party, but nonetheless always (or almost always) vote for a specific political party;

  • People who either don't have the time or inclination to follow politics - the type of people who argued with sincerity back in 2000 that there was "no difference between Gore and Bush".

  • People who want the Republican Party to move further to the right, or the Democratic Party to move sharply to the left.

  • People who think both parties are corrupt and/or incompetent, even if they have slightly different approaches to paving the road to hell.

But let's play Brooks' game, and assume that independents are looking for... an authoritative parent?
Independents support the party that seems most likely to establish a frame of stability and order, within which they can lead their lives. They can’t always articulate what they want, but they withdraw from any party that threatens turmoil and risk. As always, they’re looking for a safe pair of hands.
That does help explain the level of hysteria that the Republican Parties have been trying to whip up over everything President Obama does. "OMG - he sneezed; he wants everybody to catch Swine Flu! While he takes away your health insurance! That's proof that he supports death panels!" Less sarcastically, as Dan Larison points out in the context of Obama's absence from ceremonies commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall, the attack machine is nothing more than that:
If people are tired of hearing from Obama and tired of him inserting himself into so many things, as we hear so often from the GOP, his absence from Berlin this week should be a welcome sign that Obama is learning that he needs to have priorities in how he uses his time. Just a few weeks ago, we were hearing how outrageous it was for Obama to shirk his duties and go to Copenhagen, and now it is supposed to be outrageous that he is not going on yet another foreign trip.
If Brooks sees the future of the Republican Party as making platitudinous statements about childhood jigsaw puzzles - a cute image, but essentially a false argument that we can somehow return to the simple days before globalization - and the notion that the government shouldn't exercise oversight even over the companies it bails out, and shouldn't be concerned about the executives of the industry that almost brought down the world economy even as regular, hard-working Americans can't find work - or do, but at a fraction of what they previously earned - all the more power to him. Seriously, "Wall Street got too big, so let's bail it out at taxpayer expense but not regulate it or its pay structure"? Not that the Republican Party has done badly in the past by following the Brooks/Barnum approach of never overestimating the intelligence of the American People.

Whether it's the latest party memo, or the inevitable post-election spin, there are any number of editorials about "the center" and how the only way for Obama to win the next election is to stop governing as a centrist and to start running as a Republican. Brooks' entry may not be particularly impressive, but compared to, say, Krauthammer's latest screed or Gerson's drooling on his keyboard.... But still, aren't we really just revisiting Brooks' "lunch period poli sci",
The only real shift between school and adult politics is that the jocks realize they need conservative intellectuals, who are geeks who have decided their fellow intellectuals should never be allowed to run anything and have learned to speak slowly so the jocks will understand them.
With "conservative intellectuals" still meaning "David Brooks, but with the term "independent voters" substituted for "jocks"?

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Afghanistan: In or Out?

George Will is so convinced that the U.S. should withdraw from Iraq, that he comes close to complimenting President Obama:1
On July 24, 2008, in Berlin, Obama stressed the need to "defeat the Taliban." Then, however, he spoke as a "citizen of the world," not as president. Now he is being presidential by reconsidering some implications of the politically calculated rhetoric that helped make him president. He is rightly ignoring those who cannot distinguish thinking from dithering....

Whatever strategy Obama adopts, its success cannot depend on America teaching Afghans to [elect good men]. If he is looking for a strategy that depends on legitimacy in Kabul, he is looking for a unicorn.
Here, Will is correct - Karzai's removed any doubt about how he is going to run Afghanistan, or at least those portions under which he (backed by the U.S. military) actually exercises control, and his priorities are quite different from ours. We cannot afford to hope that Karzai and Afghanistan's government somehow magically reform themselves, and a strategy that depends upon that hope is doomed to fail. (One wonders why it took some people seven years to figure that out, but there you go.)

Remember, back in the day, when the neocons were describing themselves as wanting to move away from realpolitik? How they wanted to build real nations, with real, functional, honest governments, and not simply replace one tyrant with another who was more willing to bend to the will of the U.S.? Is anybody still trying to advance that argument? If so, where can I find an example of their putting that into practice? Isn't it the paleocons who have more consistently advocated against military adventurism, the notion that governments can be magically replaced with U.S.-friendly regimes that are also competent, ethical and democratic? Sneering that the paleocons would install somebody like, you know, Karzai doesn't work so well when it's the neocons who most want U.S. soldiers to shed blood to keep him in power. And when it comes to backing traditional U.S. values, such as the ethical treatment of prisoners captured by the military, once again don't the paleocons have the moral high ground?

Turn the page and see exactly what I mean. Yet another unsigned editorial from Fred Hiatt's editorial board, insisting that we back Karzai:
As President Obama pointedly noted in recognizing Mr. Karzai's reelection a day earlier, "the proof is not going to be in words. It's going to be in deeds." True enough -- but it's also the case that the direction of Mr. Karzai's deeds is going to depend to a large degree on whether he believes he can depend on the United States, its forces and especially its president to back him up.
That's true, but not in the sense the editorial intends. Backed in the manner the Post demands, Karzai will continue to be corrupt and self-dealing, unconcerned with establishing a competent, stable government, and unconcerned with the consequences of electoral corruption that demolish our effort to nudge his nation toward democracy. Isn't that the lesson of the past seven years?
Senior envoys such as Vice President Biden have quarreled with him in private, even as Mr. Obama has held Karzai at arm's length in public. This might have made some sense if there were an alternative to Mr. Karzai. But there is none.
Well, um, yeah, there are alternatives. Sure, Bush and Cheney squandered most of the good ones, and even toyed around with a bad one, but no question there are alternatives.

A fair question, what does Karzai actually bring to the table? He undermines our effort to democratize Afghanistan. He undermines our effort to establish good governance. He happily enriches himself at the expense of his people, aligns himself with warlords and Taliban leaders... Is it enough that he looks good on camera? That he presumably pledged his pliance to the Bush Administration? Karzai depends upon useful idiots like Hiatt, always willing to give him "another chance" because "there aren't any alternatives", rather than insisting that he demonstrate that he's worthy of another chance.

But more to the point, how can Hiatt's and his crew, or any neocon, argue in support of the perpetual, unquestioning support of Karzai without admitting that their concerns about establishing good governance in troubled or lawless nations were a fiction? Because here's the rub: If you truly want an Afghanistan that is less tribal, less radical, less fundamentalist, at least tolerant of women's rights, you need to do a lot better than Karzai. Hoping that he'll change, or not even hoping but insisting that he's our Obi-Wan Kenobi,2 is unlikely to turn out any better than Russia's experiment with Mohammad Najibullah.

I hate to harp on this, but if the best strategy we can come up with for Afghanistan is to prop up Karzai and significantly expand our military presence in order to just tread water, with no strategy for success or even a concept of what success will look like,3 we're not doing favors to anyone... Well, except Karzai. I would detest a future for Afghanistan that involved a resurgent Taliban, but it's unrealistic to expect that the U.S. will tread water indefinitely.
1. Ever since Clinton's election, Will's had something of a pathological need to insult Democrats; even, or perhaps especially, when he criticizes Republicans, he traditionally makes sure to suggest that the Democrats are nonetheless worse.

2. "Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi. You're our only hope."

3. The "Groundhog Day" approach.