Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Most Exciting Superhero Since "Too Much Coffee Man"

I don't know how the concept ever occurred to them, but....
Movie star and politician Arnold Schwarzenegger is developing a TV show and comic book with Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee.

The Austrian-born star told Entertainment Weekly that the project would be called The Governator.

A Squared Entertainment, which will help produce the show, said it would focus on a superhero living a double life as an ordinary family man.
By night he would be an "ordinary family man"... perhaps under a name like Harry Tasker. By day he would be a suit-wearing, pencil-pushing, bureaucratic hero who would occasionally get angry and attempt to bypass the legislature but otherwise not solve even one difficult problem.
"I will use my incredibly dull superpowered scissors to chop through this red tape. It's stuck. Why isn't my scissors working?"
In a menacing voice:
"You don't bring soda water to a tea party."

Perhaps he can enlist somebody like Michele Bachmann to play his sidekick, "Nutwing".

Monday, March 28, 2011

Pay No Attention to the Woman Behind the Curtain

Powerful, one might say overwhelming evidence of cheating behind D.C.'s improvement in standardized test scores under Michelle Rhee.
McGraw-Hill's practice is to flag only the most extreme examples of erasures. To be flagged, a classroom had to have so many wrong-to-right erasures that the average for each student was 4 standard deviations higher than the average for all D.C. students in that grade on that test. In layman's terms, that means a classroom corrected its answers so much more often than the rest of the district that it could have occurred roughly one in 30,000 times by chance. D.C. classrooms corrected answers much more often.

In 2008, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) — the D.C. equivalent of a state education department –– asked McGraw-Hill to do erasure analysis in part because some schools registered high percentage point gains in proficiency rates on the April 2008 tests.

Among the 96 schools that were then flagged for wrong-to-right erasures were eight of the 10 campuses where Rhee handed out so-called TEAM awards "to recognize, reward and retain high-performing educators and support staff," as the district's website says. Noyes was one of these.
When questioned about the evidence of cheating and her administration's apparent indifference to the issue and disinterest in conducting a meaningful investigation?
When reached by telephone, Rhee said she is no longer the chancellor and declined to comment further.
What about the current D.C. administration?
D.C. officials declined to let USA TODAY visit schools or talk to principals, including Adell Cothorne, the principal who succeeded Ryan at Noyes for the 2010-11 school year.
Typical of government, and unfortunately it increasingly appears to also be typical of Rhee, the taking of responsibility and the acceptance of consequences for ineptitude are important for others but not for themselves. Self-adulation based upon exaggerated or even false claims of accomplishment, on the other hand, are par for the course.

Paging Nelson Mandela... As Played by Morgan Freeman

Although on rare occasion assuring us that he doesn't see the solution to the world's problems as lying in the hands of "magic men", Thomas Friedman sure does like his magic men.
The final thing Iraq teaches us is that while external arbiters may be necessary, they are not sufficient. We’re leaving Iraq at the end of the year. Only Iraqis can sustain their democracy after we depart. The same will be true for all the other Arab peoples hoping to make this transition to self-rule. They need to grow their own arbiters — their own Arab Nelson Mandelas. That is, Shiite, Sunni and tribal leaders who stand up and say to each other what Mandela’s character said about South African whites in the movie “Invictus”: “We have to surprise them with restraint and generosity.”
So we don't need this Mandala - we need this Mandela? No, I don't want to overstate Mandela's ties to leaders like Castro and Qaddafi, nor to underestimate his important contribution to post-apartheid South Africa. But I do want to emphasize that he is a man, flawed like any other man, and that if you confuse the real man with a film depiction and his real words with those penned by a screenwriter you are likely to end up revealing yourself as having a superficial, celebrity-driven understanding of some of the key issues Friedman repeatedly pretends to be analyzing - issues on which, in some circles and despite what often seems like a concerted effort to establish the opposite, he's regarded as an expert.

Let's take a look at the lessons Friedman claims we learned in Iraq:
First, we learned that when you removed the authoritarian lid the tensions between Iraqi Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis erupted as each faction tested the other’s power in a low-grade civil war. But we also learned that alongside that war many Iraqis expressed an equally powerful yearning to live together as citizens.
Right. Because prior to Iraq the world had never seen anything like that before in a multi-ethnic society under authoritarian rule. Remove the "authoritarian lid" from a nation like Czechoslovakia and the idea that the nation might split on an ethnic basis is unthinkable. Remove the "authoritarian lid" from a nation like Yugoslavia and it's all peace, love and understanding. Remove the "authoritarian lid" from a nation like colonial India, and it's unthinkable that it would be ethnically partitioned. (And I'm only scratching the surface with these examples.) This was completely new.
For all of the murderous efforts by Al Qaeda to trigger a full-scale civil war in Iraq, it never happened.
But for the massive occupying force and the efforts it made to separate ethnic groups from each other, and to protect the Kurdish population and effectively turn it into a state within a state, there would be no ambiguity for Friedman to spin into his denial of history, or his attempt to suggest that the only reason for a "full scale" civil war would be meddling by al-Qaeda.
What was crucial in keeping the low-grade civil war in Iraq from exploding, what was crucial in their writing of their own Constitution for how to live together, and what was crucial in helping Iraqis manage multiple fair elections was that they had a credible neutral arbiter throughout this transition: the U.S.
Neutral in what sense? The sense of a Model T Ford - "We're neutral about the color of car you choose, be it black, black or black." Contrary to Friedman's suggestion, U.S. forces will not be quitting Iraq by the end of the year, and it's a safe bet that a sufficient force will remain in place for the indefinite future to attempt to preempt a return to civil war, any attempts at succession, or any efforts to violently overthrow the government. Even coming almost eight years after Bush's similar proclamation, Friedman's suggestion of "Mission Accomplished" remains premature.

Friedman suggests that a neutral arbiter is necessary to ensure a transition from authoritarianism to a more democratic regime, suggesting that the U.S. served that role in Iraq and that the Egyptian military is serving that role in Egypt. He rhetorically asks, "Who will play that role in Libya? In Syria? In Yemen?" Friedman doesn't want that role to be filled by the U.S., at least outside of Iraq, so he suggests, that the nations of the Middle East "need to grow their own arbiters — their own Arab Nelson Mandelas." (As played by Morgan Freeman.) This raises an interesting question, what would have happened had Mandela been imprisoned in a nation that had no history of democracy (flawed, though it was), and no democratic institutions?1 Can Friedman come up with a magic man who has come out of a quarter-century of imprisonment as a "terrorist" and "enemy of the state", and peacefully assumed power not to expand a society's existing democracy but to totally reinvent a kingdom or dictatorship into a progressive democracy? Because that would take some real magic.
1. Or, resorting to another oft-referenced archetype, if Gandhi had not been British-educated, and had not come to power in a British colony in which the institutions of government were not destroyed by the colonial power on its way out the door?

Strategizing Without Overthinking

Tom Ricks is continuing to emphasize a nation's limited ability to achieve strategic clarity before going to war:
These notes I get from military officers demanding clarity of goals and stated strategic purposes puzzle me. The nature of war is ambiguity and uncertainty. I worry that such demands are really a fancy form of shirking.
Ricks believes that the intervention was a necessary and appropriate for humanitarian reasons. If you accept, as he does, that but for President Obama's decision to proceed with the intervention "we would indeed probably now be looking at Benghazi as [President Obama's] Srebrenica", you can state that your goal is to stop that from happening and that, although you haven't given much thought to how you might extricate the U.S. military after the intervention, the cause is sufficiently urgent to justify the risk and expense of a long-term military commitment. But you should be prepared to explain either how you anticipate extricating the military from its commitment or that it's an open-ended military commitment.

The President has, in my opinion somewhat belatedly, spoken on the intervention:
The U.S. "exit strategy" as such appears to be to try to hand off as much responsibility as possible for the continued military intervention to "our NATO allies", which seems to translate into Britain and France. The President states that we're "offering support to the Libyan opposition"; but that appears to be an understatement. It isn't clear to me what degree of regime change is going to end the intervention, but it does seem clear that the present goal is to send a very clear message that it won't end while Qaddafi remains in power.

Juan Cole, a proponent of the intervention, has penned an "open letter to the left" that overlooks, in my opinion, both the fundamental reasons to be concerned about the commitment and that those concerns should not be presumed to be borne of political ideology or to be predicated upon anything other than a reasonable analysis of the situation, its knowns and unknowns.
Among reasons given by critics for rejecting the intervention are:

1. Absolute pacifism (the use of force is always wrong)

2. Absolute anti-imperialism (all interventions in world affairs by outsiders are wrong).

3. Anti-military pragmatism: a belief that no social problems can ever usefully be resolved by use of military force.
Cole admits that almost nobody fits into his first category. The question thus becomes, as Scott Lemiux suggests, how representative are his second and third categories and why no mention of other possibilities? You can reject the notion that this is somehow an exercise in imperialism - you can even reject the concept that U.S. imperialism would be a bad thing - and accept that some problems can be addressed, if imperfectly, through military force, while nonetheless questioning the wisdom of a specific military venture. As John Casey notes, Juan Cole supported the war in Iraq. The circumstances of the action in Libya and the magnitude of the intervention to date are markedly different than those the U.S. faced in deciding whether to enter the Iraq War, but between the underestimated difficulty of that war and the duration and cost of occupation, it's not unreasonable to worry about getting sucked into something much more complicated than what was initially suggested as a planned "no fly zone".

In retrospect, while looking at the same facts, it's possible to argue that George H.W. Bush's decision to end the first Gulf War while leaving Hussein in power was either one of the most cowardly acts of a modern President or one of the most insightful. You can take the position that to depose Hussein would have split the coalition and, although Hussein's defeat would have been inevitable, would have required a massive investment of money, cost a lot of lives, and would have required a lengthy military occupation. Actually, that's the position that George H.W. Bush's administration took - and while you can argue "It still would have been worth it," on the whole they were correct. You can also argue that his approach - supposedly being duped into letting Hussein militarily crush a Shiite uprising, then trying to lock Hussein in a box while his country suffered - created a great deal of human suffering while effectively shifting responsibility for "finishing the job" to a future President. There's truth in that critique, as well. It's not a phenomenon unique to the Presidency, but sometimes no matter what choice you make "you can't win". (And "if you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.")

Some advocates of intervention make an assertion that, between the improvement in Qaddafi's military position, his rhetoric about taking revenge against those who rose against him, and now-documented facts about his military strategy (e.g., indiscriminately shelling the occupants of rebel-held cities) we were on the verge of a humanitarian disaster. That the rapid shift of facts on the ground necessitated immediate action. That, unlike situations like Rwanda in which air strikes would have been useless to stop the violence and a full understanding of the situation is said to have come too late for a meaningful intervention, air strikes actually could stop the advances of Qaddafi's forces and stop the shelling of and potential slaughter in major civilian centers. I expect that will be the case the President lays out tomorrow. I also expect that the delay in the President's making a speech is that he didn't want to address the public before there was a firm plan for a hand-off of responsibility for the continued intervention, or perhaps with the hand-off already a fait accompli.

Juan Cole writes,
Assuming that NATO’s UN-authorized mission in Libya really is limited (it is hoping for 90 days), and that a foreign military occupation is avoided, the intervention is probably a good thing on the whole, however distasteful it is to have Nicolas Sarkozy grandstanding.
Let's assume that at the end of 90 days Qaddafi is out of power and neither his successor nor the rebel factions are actively engaged in warfare. How is military occupation avoided? If the country remains divided, would you not expect the national government to at some point seek to unify it? How will reunification occur, and why should we expect in the absence of any form of occupation that it will be peaceful? Why should we not be concerned that each side will violently purge its territory of anybody it believes is loyal to the other side? If those questions cannot be answered, Cole is with Ricks - the situation was urgent enough to intervene without having an exit plan - but he's using a theoretical 90-day time table to avoid admitting the possibility that the incursion could turn out to be much more complicated and much more long-term than NATO hopes. While it's true that the worst-case scenarios almost never come true, on the whole it seems to me that the "candy and flowers" faction doesn't fare much better. Hope for the best, plan for the worst.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

What Would Be a "Successful" Outcome in Libya

Many people have observed that the coalition going into Libya has not articulated what "success" would look like. You can find optimistic recitations of what might constitute success from people like Juan Cole, but there are no publicly stated official goals or benchmarks beyond addressing immediate humanitarian concerns.

That silence leaves me uncharacteristically cynical.1 That is, it was not at all long ago that Qaddafi was being fĂȘted by the leaders [added: and would-be leaders] of nations that now want him ousted. He was a poster child for "victory in the war on terror", a rehabilitated character who was opening his country up to foreign investment. But really, he was the same old Qaddafi and everybody knew it (and he was happy to provide occasional reminders "just in case"). I heard a war crimes prosecutor explaining why Qaddafi hadn't been charged along with Charles Taylor for war crimes in Sierra Leone. Qaddafi's public rehabilitation was a leading factor. Qaddafi's mistake, perhaps understandable given how much he had been able to get away with since having been declared "reformed", was that the embarrassment brought about by his actions would again make him persona non grata and subject to removal by military force.

For the engineers of the intervention, what do I believe an unstated "acceptable outcome", perhaps even "preferred outcome" of this intervention to be? For somebody within Qaddafi's regime to oust him (whether by convincing him to go into exile or through "wet work"), and to promise to the west that Libya's new leadership will honor its contracts with western companies, tone down the embarrassing behavior, and add a few layers of velvet to its iron fisted domestic rule. If in six months the new leader has kept the first two promises, I expect the response to be a shrug, "Well, two out of three ain't bad."
1. Yes, I know, it's not uncharacteristic. Let's call that sentence an exercise in poetic licence.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Shoot First, Ask Questions Later?

Compare and contrast David Brooks:
More important, the nations have not really defined what they hope to achieve.

Is the coalition trying to depose Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi? Are coalition forces trying to halt Qaddafi’s advances or weaken his government? Would the coalition allow Qaddafi to win so long as he didn’t massacre more civilians? Is it trying to create a partitioned Libya? Are we there to help the democratic tide across the region?
And Max Boot:
FOR weeks, I’ve argued that the United States and our allies should impose a no-fly zone over Libya and mount airstrikes to stop Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s advance against the embattled rebels. Last week, the United Nations Security Council authorized precisely those actions. Over the weekend, missile strikes began.

I should be elated, right? Instead, I can’t stop worrying about everything that could go wrong.... The question is whether this will be enough to stop [Qaddafi's] attacks....

Will the rebels be able to root out Qaddafi loyalists? If not, are we prepared to use Western ground forces? So far President Obama has ruled out that option, which runs the danger of a protracted stalemate. Colonel Qaddafi could simply cling to power, while international support for the whole operation frays.

Even if Colonel Qaddafi steps down — an outcome that I believe we must now seek but that hasn’t been declared as a formal aim — the problems hardly end.
That is, even if you're an informed, ardent supporter of the intervention and would support it as a unilateral military venture, there is no reason to believe that that you'll have any sense of what happens next. As Tom Ricks recently stated,
As for the American military, let's knock off the muttering in the ranks about clear goals and exit strategies. Fellas, you need to understand this is not a football game but a soccer match. For the last 10 years, our generals have talked about the need to become adaptable, to live with ambiguity. Well, this is it. The international consensus changes every day, so our operations need to change with it. Such is the nature of war, as Clausewitz reminds us. Better Obama's cautious ambiguity than Bush's false clarity. Going into Iraq, scooping up the WMD, and getting out by September 2003 -- now that was a nice clear plan. And a dangerously foolish one, too.
Granted, Bush's approach could have been an "exit strategy" had he been prepared to admit on September 1, 2003 that his strategy was a complete failure, accept defeat and go home. But as Ricks suggests, I don't think many people would accept that as a good exit strategy.

I'm nowhere near as pollyannaish about war as Max Boot - the stuff that he worries about after wars start is stuff I believe should be addressed beforehand. Even granting that the strategy may have to change, or may turn out to have been misguided, I believe that absent extraordinary circumstances the U.S. should not enter a war of choice without a clear strategy. (For wars of choice, can such extraordinary circumstances ever arise?) If you can't form a coherent strategy for achieving your desired goals, you need to reconsider either your strategy or goals before committing to war.

At the same time, as Ricks suggests, no matter how well-constructed the strategy and plan for invasion and occupation, it's war. Some element of the best laid plan will turn out to have been wishful thinking and anticipating the end game will inevitably involve a lot of luck.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Ross Douthat: "Don't Know Much About History"

After writing a pretty decent column (save for his inability to state an opinion) on the lack of a case for military intervention in Libya, Ross Douthat follows up by falling flat on his face. President Obama, he tells us, "has delivered a clinic in the liberal way of war", with the issue not being an unwillingness to go to war but that he wants to go to war "in the most multilateral, least cowboyish fashion imaginable."
In its opening phase, at least, our war in Libya looks like the beau ideal of a liberal internationalist intervention. It was blessed by the United Nations Security Council. It was endorsed by the Arab League. It was pushed by the diplomats at Hillary Clinton’s State Department, rather than the military men at Robert Gates’s Pentagon. Its humanitarian purpose is much clearer than its connection to American national security. And it was initiated not by the U.S. Marines or the Air Force, but by the fighter jets of the French Republic.
In other words, the Obama Administration followed about 99% of the strategy followed by George H.W. Bush in the first Gulf War, the liberation of Kuwait. Build as large a coalition as possible, get U.N. approval, have both French and Arab military involvement, etc. For that matter, it's not far off from where G.W. was in launching the war in Afghanistan, which involved troops from many nations, or in his effort to get both U.N. and Congressional approval and to build as large a coalition as possible for his adventure in Iraq. When Douthat purports,
This is an intervention straight from Bill Clinton’s 1990s playbook, in other words, and a stark departure from the Bush administration’s more unilateralist methods. There are no “coalitions of the willing” here, no dismissive references to “Old Europe,” no “you are with us or you are with the terrorists.”
He misses the point. G.W. wanted to go to war in Iraq with the same type of coalition he was able to muster for Afghanistan, and the same type of coalition his father was able to muster the first time around. The notion of the "coalition of the willing" was meant first to convey that the U.S. was not actually acting alone, and presumably to attempt to shame or otherwise influence those nations that decided not to join the war effort. As Colin Powell put it in 2003,
We now have a coalition of the willing that includes some 30 nations who have publicly said they could be included in such a listing.... And there are 15 other nations, who, for one reason or another do not wish to be publicly named but will be supporting the coalition.
The existence of a coalition was important to G.W. - his administration repeatedly bragged about the number of nations that were involved.

Douthat tells us that the "liberal" way of war... coalition-building that "spreads the burden of military action, sustains rather than weakens our alliances, and takes the edge off the world’s instinctive anti-Americanism" (um... this "instinctive anti-Americanism" is the relative unpopularity of the U.S. in the Muslim world? Because I've not found the developed world to be anti-American in any sense that's meaningful here - as illustrated by the actual coalitions that went into Iraq the first time around, and went into Afghanistan after 9/11. Douthat may not get out much, but when I've been overseas or south of the border people have been able to distinguish "America" from "the current President and his foreign policy.") Douthat announces,
But there are major problems with this approach to war as well. Because liberal wars depend on constant consensus-building within the (so-called) international community, they tend to be fought by committee, at a glacial pace, and with a caution that shades into tactical incompetence. And because their connection to the national interest is often tangential at best, they’re often fought with one hand behind our back and an eye on the exits, rather than with the full commitment that victory can require.
So a "conservative" war would look like Ronald Reagan's liberation of the tiny island nation of Grenada, but not even slightly like Ronald Reagan's intervention in Lebanon? And just like in every war since WWII, Republican Presidents would take a no holds barred approach to war - which is why we bombed the Red River dams in North Vietnam and took a "nuke 'em till they glow" approach in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? And my, how can we forget the tactial brilliance behind Nixon's "victory with honor" in Vietnam, or G.W.'s total victory over insurgencies in its two wars - at least if a Republican starts it, no U.S. war will ever again last as long as the Vietnam War, right? And that's why President Obama has defined a clear exit strategy for the present intervention in Libya? Please, Ross, tell us more.
These problems dogged American foreign policy throughout the 1990s, the previous high tide of liberal interventionism. In Somalia, the public soured on our humanitarian mission as soon as it became clear that we would be taking casualties as well as dispensing relief supplies.
Somalia? So George H.W. Bush's decision to send troops into Somalia is an example of "liberal internationalist intervention"? Just like the first Gulf War (which as we know involved many months of diplomatic and tactical build-up)?
In the former Yugoslavia, NATO imposed a no-flight zone in 1993, but it took two years of hapless peacekeeping and diplomatic wrangling, during which the war proceeded unabated, before American air strikes finally paved the way for a negotiated peace.
Okay, so Douthat's argument here is that the U.S. should have gone "cowboy", unilaterally invaded and occupied Yugoslavia, and that the end result would have been a faster, stronger peace?
Our 1999 intervention in Kosovo offers an even starker cautionary tale. The NATO bombing campaign helped topple Slobodan Milosevic and midwifed an independent Kosovo. But by raising the stakes for both Milosevic and his Kosovo Liberation Army foes, the West’s intervention probably inspired more bloodletting and ethnic cleansing in the short term, exacerbating the very humanitarian crisis it was intended to forestall.
So, again, the answer would have been a unilateral military invasion, to heck with diplomacy and military coalitions? Seriously, did somebody else write his column last Monday? I'm familiar with the arguments made by factions on both the political left and right that intervention in Kosovo was misguided, counterproductive and illegal. But I fail to see how Kosovo supports Douthat's present notion that it's better to go full cowboy. And that's before I consider that, despite Douthat's sniveling about their liberalism, the outcomes of the interventions in the former Yugoslavia came about in far less time, at far lower cost, and much more in line with U.S. interests than G.W.'s still unfinished war in Iraq.

Douthat complains that members of the coalition going into Libya have different goals, and different conceptions of what military action might look like. Well, no kidding. Given that Douthat was implying that Europeans tend toward "instinctive anti-Americanism" and make a habit of "carping at the United States from the sidelines", he should be the last person to expect a U.S.-European coalition to be of one mind, and when you throw in the Arab League you're pretty much guaranteed that you're going to have open dissent on some of your strategic and tactical decisions. Is Douthat arguing that it would have been better to tell the Arab League, "Sorry, we're not interested in your participation or opinions," and tell the French, "Sorry, but we're not interested in having you share the cost and burdens of this war, or put your pilots' lives at risk when we can instead send in our own jets"? If not, does he even have a point? Wait... I guess the following is his point:
And the time it took to build a multilateral coalition enabled Qaddafi to consolidate his position on the ground, to the point where any cease-fire would leave him in control of most of the country.
Okay, so Douthat believes that the Obama Administration should have intervened more quickly in a war that, a mere week ago, Douthat was telling us didn't warrant U.S. intervention, in order to prevent Qaddafi from potentially prevailing in a civil war that Douthat didn't deem relevant to our nation's interests, because that's what any good "conservative" would have done? Well then, take it away Speaker Boehner:
The President is the commander-in-chief, but the Administration has a responsibility to define for the American people, the Congress, and our troops what the mission in Libya is, better explain what America’s role is in achieving that mission, and make clear how it will be accomplished. Before any further military commitments are made, the Administration must do a better job of communicating to the American people and to Congress about our mission in Libya and how it will be achieved.
That's right - the Republican position is basically that the President didn't spend enough time debating intervention, explaining the goals of the intervention and how they would be accomplished, involving Congress in his decision-making process, or articulating an exit strategy. If the official Republican position is that Obama is being a cowboy, does that mean that Douthat is wrong, does it mean that Boehner wants to imperil the intervention by causing the type of delay and committee-based decision-making that Douthat decries even though he would support the action were the President a Republican, or does it mean that within the context of Douthat's conceit the Republican Party is even more squishy and liberal on war than the Democratic Party?

Update: Did some sort of memo get circulated: "Depict Obama as a multilateralist, and tell people that's bad"? Because today David Brooks is on the case, raising a lot of the same points as Douthat.
Yet today, as an impeccably crafted multilateral force intervenes in Libya, certain old feelings are coming back to the surface. These feelings have been buried since the 1990s, when multilateral efforts failed in Kosovo, Rwanda and Iraq.
In the context of the first Gulf War and Kosovo, it would be interesting to know how Brooks defines "failure". Perhaps as, "Succeeding in achieving the stated political and military goals"? And this is to be compared to the rousing success in the second Iraq War, with "success" defined in a similarly counter-intuitive manner? As for Rwanda, the reason intervention failed to stop the slaughter in that nation was because it didn't happen. Funny thing.

Beyond that, Brooks offers the platitudinous observations that a truly multilateral operation requires the involved parties to agree on certain key issues, and that disagreements can arise. He suggests that multilateralism can result in "obsess[ion] about the diplomatic process and ignore the realities on the ground" - I would love to hear about the unilateral wars that neither involved concern about diplomacy nor overlooked any realities on the ground - I doubt Brooks could produce a single example. And, oh no, people are overlooking "the realities" in Libya:
Who are the rebels we are supporting? How weak is the Qaddafi government? How will Libyans react to a Western bombing campaign? Why should we think a no-fly zone will protect civilians when they never have in the past?
The sort of tough questions to which we had solid answers prior to every unilateral military intervention in our nation's history? Where's the reality-based community when you need it? And wow... multilateral military ventures are slow to adapt to changing circumstances? So he's saying that, unlike unilateral ventures, the nations in a multilateral venture might be inclined to declare "mission accomplished", ignore the facts on the ground, and stubbornly adhere to failed policies until they're on the verge of total failure? Fascinating stuff.

Brooks tells us that when multinational forces attack or invade a country, its "defenders will be fighting for land, home, God and country". With unilateral interventions, he thinks the defenders will put down their arms and throw ticker tape parades for the invaders? Hey... that worked for us in Iraq and Israel in Gaza, right? Or is he under the impression that unilateral military actions only occur in the context of two (Godless?) nation states fighting in a third state's territory.

Brooks also repeats Douthat's claim that multilateral interventions involve slow build-ups (because you can apparently teleport military hardware into a war zone, no need even for a staging area, if you act unilaterally).

Update 2: Apparently Douthat's extensive discussion of unilateral action vs. multilateral action and associated criticism of the President's approach was irrelevant to the point he was trying to make. His intent "was to push back against the conceit that the form of a war can vindicate its strategy — that what matters most in warfare is whether you’re 'part of U.N. Security Council approved action'" with approval of the Arab league and the idea that a White House claim of "multilateralism is sufficient to prove that our Libyan venture is far more responsible than the invasion of Iraq".

He again strips the "coalition of the willing", as well as G.W.'s many efforts to get explicit UN sanction for war (before declaring that he was authorized under existing resolutions) from history in order to tell us that, for Iraq, "it’s easy to imagine a more multilateral invasion ending in even greater disaster". Were he to examine the facts he might realize that the reason G.W. wasn't able to build a larger coalition was that the nations that refused to join thought the war was a terrible idea - deferring to the larger international community, including the rest of the world's significant military powers, would have kept the U.S. out of that war. So, once again, his disregard of history undermines his point.

Obviously I'm not going to take issue with Douthat's present argument that "the more important question... is not whether this war is multilateral but whether it is wise", but if that was intended to be his point he sure did a good job of hiding it behind his "irrelevant" gripes about the problems caused by multilateralism. One would think that a column discussing the wisdom of war might include words like "wise", "unwise" or "wisdom".

Which Type of College Degree Program To Drop Out Of....

The New York Times shares the opinions of Harvard drop-out Bill Gates and Reed College drop-out Steve Jobs, who respectively urge students to pursue "work-related learning" and "technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities". Before, I assume, dropping out to start multi-billion dollar companies. I agree with Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, that they're both right, although my rationale is a bit different.

I know some people in the engineering and tech fields who are avid readers, interested in ideas, like the arts... and others for whom the liberal arts and humanities are beneath their interest, a waste of time. It's in no small part a matter of personality, and those (presumably like Bill Gates) who see little value in the liberal arts shouldn't be pressed to take course after course in the vain hope that they'll wake up and learn to like those subjects. If things don't click, it's a waste of everybody's time (not to mention tuition money). Some people will develop a greater interest in the arts and humanities as they mature, others won't. There's room in our society and workplaces for that personality type - and apparently lots of room for it at Microsoft.

What has Microsoft done very well over the years? Leverage the ideas of others into its products? Microsoft is largely evolutionary, while Apple tries to be revolutionary. Both are important, but the latter is more likely to emerge from somebody with Steve Jobs' mindset than Bill Gates'. While Trachtenberg justifiably praises Gates' philanthropy, his recent statements suggest that he endorses a colorless "work-related learning", "test, measure and retest" approach to education starting at the earliest grades. I'm skeptical that his own children would attend a school that offers a KIPP-style learning environment - if not, perhaps he recognizes that the rich have luxuries that the poor do not, and among those luxuries are allowing their children to explore, experiment, play, paint and develop at their own pace. (But if so, that's not the sort of thing you would expect him to say out loud.)

On Budget Issues, Thomas Friedman Misses the Mark

Thomas Friedman laments that as the world suffers at the whim of "the two most merciless forces on earth: the market and Mother Nature", we're not doing enough to balance the budget. His initial point is correct, although obvious: the two political parties prefer to play politics while putting off the hard work involved with fixing, or at least trying to fix, some of our nation's more pressing problems. But let's be honest for a moment: one of the reasons the budget deficit is so large is because of "the market" - thanks to a severe, protracted recession and painfully slow recovery, tax revenues are significantly reduced. I'm not sure if Friedman truly means to make the case that we need to cut the budget to the core to avoid significant deficits, even if that means prolonging, worsening, or triggering a second dip in the recession and jobless recovery, but that appears to be the theory he's pushing.

Friedman also appears to be arguing that, with enough planning, we can anticipate any unexpected development and avoid its least pleasant consequences. So if we create an alternative energy policy and "Saudi Arabia is destabilized", we'll barely feel the impact of $200/bbl oil. Or if Congress passes climate change legislation we'll somehow be able to avoid having "Mother Nature hit[] some internal climate tipping point" that could shake the world's economy (and maybe prevent hurricanes and earthquakes). Real life is, of course, much more complicated.

Friedman believes that the President could do more to define an agenda for the future, push specific proposals and educate the public. And he's correct. Would that cause any legislation to be passed on any of the issues Friedman declares to be urgent? Nope. And while the President's policies and approach to the issues often (and unsurprisingly) do appear to be shaped by opinion polls, it's disingenuous to argue that people "voted for Obama to change the polls not read the polls". First, the polls reflect what people want. Second, when powerful interests align themselves against what the people want (e.g., a public option) people like, dare I say Thomas Friedman, seem more inclined to align themselves with the powerful interests than with the will of the people.

Let's be specific for a moment. Thomas Friedman wants a new energy policy. That policy has been defined in his columns as a gas tax of between 50 cents and $1 per gallon. That appears to be the beginning and end of his conception of policy reform. It won't affect him, because he can easily afford to fill the tank of his Lexus SUV (while patting himself on the back for owning a hybrid, and ignoring the fact that his household energy consumption probably matches that of a number of small towns, even given due consideration to his use of solar panels and geothermal heating in his gargantuan mansion). But it's not his personal consumption that actually bothers me, or even the concept of a higher gas tax. (We should have implemented a higher gas tax decades ago, when the rest of the world was doing so, resulting in adaptation over time rather than a shock to the system.) It's the fact that his proposed cure is a regressive tax, one that would have no meaningful impact on himself or his lavish lifestyle but would create significant hardship for most Americans.

So what does Thomas Friedman want our nation to do? He identifies "things we need to invest more in — like education and infrastructure" and "things we need to reduce, like entitlements and defense spending." How does Friedman propose fixing things? With "serious, sensible, Simpson-Bowles-like budget cuts and tax increases". Um... except the Simpson-Bowles proposal was neither serious nor sensible. It was focused on ideological fixes - like capping revenues - accompanied by the notion that you could cap spending on certain programs and avoid exceeding those caps by means left undefined.

Let's be honest for a moment here. Social Security is not in crisis. It's the target of an ideological war. The long-term budget picture for Social Security can be fixed for additional decades with some relatively modest adjustments to the tax rate, retirement age, and benefits levels. Although it's fun to pretend otherwise, we have to keep in mind that as we push the retirement age up we're likely to push a growing population of older workers into the Social Security disability system years before they qualify for retirement benefits - we need to be careful not to find ourselves rearranging the deck chairs and potentially increasing costs to the taxpayer. But the big hurdle is that it's now a favorite right-wing talking point that the Social Security trust fund "doesn't exist", to put it mildly, making it awkward for the Republicans to sign on to a simple adjustment. Similarly, even if we pretend that Richard "Suck on This" Friedman is interested in meaningful cuts,1 military budget cuts aren't going to balance the budget.

The other two entitlement programs are, of course, Medicare and Medicaid. The issue with them is much less "can we afford the status quo" and much more, "if health care inflation continues at present levels, these programs will quickly become unaffordable." The measures that we could take to lower present spending, which is absurdly high when you compare both spending and results to other developed nations, could extend the viability of Medicare and Medicaid for a number of years, but inflation will still catch up with us. So how do you tackle inflation?

The Simpson-Bowles approach, again, is to say "We're going to cap spending" and "We're going to impose consequences if the cap is exceeded." That's not "serious" - it's meaningless twaddle. We're not going to wish our way out of inflation, nor are the nation's senior citizens and their families going to sit quietly when the "spending cap" is reached and benefits are cut.

Medical inflation is a difficult issue. It's not going to go away with Simpson-Bowles-style evasions and gimmickry. Nor was Simpson-Bowles particularly concerned with rebuilding the nation's infrastructure2 or spending more on education.3 Other than perhaps it's regressive nature, what does Friedman actually like about the Simpson-Bowles approach?
1. Within the same column, in the context of climate change, political instability and high food and fuel prices, "the world needs a strong America more than ever" - would Friedman have us believe that he's speaking only of economic strength?

2. When asked about their lack of proposed infrastructure investment, Simpson and Bowles explained "infrastructure was indeed a problem in need of upgrade, and... the solution is to reduce the deficit in order to free up the necessary funds to tackle the problem, rather than adding it to existing spending".

3. Simpson and Bowles proposed cutting federal spending on education.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Facebook Wants to Eat Everybody's Lunch... And Vice Versa

Apparently we're verging on a world in which everybody is on AOL and, as websites are difficult to make, everybody is making free pages on Geocities. Or something like that.
My nephew’s wife was frustrated. The “easy-to-use” site-builder software she was using to make the church camp website with was any but. To make matters worse, their “free” hosting service came with a price—banner ads that randomly appeared on the site....

So in desperation, she turned to her Facebook friends to ask if anyone knew of a free and easy-to-use website builder—one without ads. A well-meaning friend [suggested Facebook and] even offered to set the page up for her.
The author perceives a battle for the future between Facebook and Google, with Facebook trying to bring everybody onto its servers, using its platform and programs for most or all of their online needs, and that they will leverage the information they glean about their users to offer a network of targeted ads that will compete with Google's AdWords and AdSense.
Is Google nervous? You bet they are. And here’s why. When you search using Google, all they know about you is your IP address, so all Google can tell that website owner is: “The seven people who visited your website were from Ohio.”

But Facebook can say: “Here are the names of the people that ‘liked’ your content, how old they are, what college they went to, what music they listen to, what books they read, how many children they have, who their other friends are …” It’s a marketer’s dream! Think Google isn’t nervous? Think again.
In reality, Google has a lot more information than that to work with - thanks to cookies and web beacons in its ads, unless you've opted out, it knows many of the sites you've visited. If you use Gmail it knows your contacts (and is pretty capable at figuring out which are important). If you surf while logged into your Google account, it knows even more. Google's efforts at social networking have faltered, but they're not about to give up. If they can't find a way to take the traffic away from Facebook, expect them to focus on ways to take the profit out of Facebook. Seriously. And while Facebook has a lot of members, let's not pretend that it has current or meaningful information about the majority of them that would allow the type of granularity and accuracy in ad targeting that this type of article suggests.

And speaking of those profits, there are a couple of huge companies that deserve mention. The Gates Foundation is developing mini social networks for college communities - via a Facebook app that presumably will ultimately work on competitors' social networks, or perhaps as a stand-alone on your (Microsoft OS-powered) cell phone or tablet.

And while Apple's logo may have a bite out of it, don't get the wrong idea. It would just as soon reduce Facebook to app status - and take a 30% cut of any Facebook dollars you buy through the app. That may sound a lot like the 30% Facebook wants to take from companies that use its platform, and in many ways it is - except Apple is happy to let you pay in cash. You don't have to buy "Apple dollars" to get what you want through an App, although you can bank credit in your iTunes account, and can send your friends iTunes gift certificates. And with its push toward licensing software by the user instead of by the Machine, Apple is paving the way toward your being able to have your favorite app at your fingertips, no matter what device you're on, and if that app would benefit from having some files stored on your device that's easily (and invisibly) achieved. Facebook has lots of eyeballs, but if they can distribute it as widely Apple has a better platform. Apple also has lots of verified, individualized information about its customers, and already owns an ad platform and network.

Then, of course, there's "the next big thing". The company you presently underestimate or haven't yet heard of, or which may not even exist, that could be "the next big thing" a few years from now.

Yes, web apps are going to significantly transform the world wide web as we know it, and a lot of content that is presently available for free will be shifted into web apps. A lot of information that is presently difficult to monetize is also likely to end up incorporated into web apps with some form of fee or advertising attached. And you'll probably need a web app to determine what web apps you need - and that a handful of web apps become dominant, even if they're simply containers that help you manage and use other web apps. That won't kill off the web - it's likely to transform the web, and make some parts of it better and other parts of it worse (or should I say "less useful").

At this point I'm still not willing to jump on the "Facebook will rule the world" bandwagon, despite its potential (and the descriptions of various vaporware projects that could help it become dominant), nor am I willing to write off its potential. To the extent that Google is "nervous", it should be - and not just because of Facebook - but Google's a lot like Microsoft, and it can survive decades of (at this point imagined) bad business decisions, emergence of fierce competitors, and (again, imagined) decline.

Frankly, given how the Internet is transforming our lives and jobs, you and I should probably be a lot more nervous about the future than Google. There are lots of powerful interests that will be happy to eat our lunch, and individual people are not well-positioned to push back.

A Craigslist Version of Groupon?

One of the interesting things about the battle to "take on Groupon" is how much money is being thrown at LivingSocial and at any number of competing concepts. People see the amount of money being tossed as Groupon and projected valuations and all they see are dollar signs.

But then I think, what was it that sucked billions of dollars out of the newspaper classified ad business? Was it another multi-billion dollar venture, or was it a plucky little start-up that (while now worth a lot of money) killed a newspaper industry cash cow while operating on a relative shoestring?

The difficult part of creating such a competitor to sites like Groupon would be to find an inexpensive way to verify the deals posted - pranking would quickly undermine such a service - but if you can find a cheap way to verify deals you would be in a good spot to knock out the multi-billion dollar "deal of the day" sites with your inexpensive, more inclusive alternative.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Tea Party Echoes of "Clinging to Guns and Religion"

According to former Member of Congress Tom Davis (R-VA) on Real Time,
Bill, what has happened is people aren't voting their pocketbook. They're voting culture. They're voting how they feel about gays, how they feel about God. They're voting Guns. They're not voting economic because they don't see their interests bound up economically. They see it, how does the world look at them.
Right-winger Dana Loesch agreed on the social issues, but disagreed on economics.

Couldn't the Davis comments be paraphrased as, oh, I don't know...
You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
Oh, right - then-Candidate Obama recognized the influence of economics, so it would appear that he was more in agreement with Loesch than with Davis. Or perhaps I should say, she with him.

In fairness to Davis, although I expect that old habits die hard and most Members of Congress spend years avoiding making statements that might be confused with candor, it's easier to be honest when you are no longer running for office. In fairness to Loesch, she seems to be way outside of her depths.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Cancel the Backscatter Order

Due to a "calculation error" (i.e., incompetence), the radiation levels produced by backscatter X-ray body scanners was underestimated by a factor of ten. Back when the lower radiation level was being touted, we were being assured that the backscatter machine was no less safe than the millimeter-wave technology machines. Now we know that's false. So let's stick with millimeter-wave. Not only safer for passengers, but as millimeter-wave produces even better virtual strip search images it should provide for more accurate screening. And, of course, there's the issue of how well the backscatter machines will be maintained.

If we're going to pretend that the backscatter order is about anything other than handing billions of dollars to a well-connected company, it's time to cancel the order for new backscatter machines. But then....

I guess it's worth asking, have we confirmed that these machines actually would catch an "underwear bomber"? Because if they would not, what's their point again? (And yes, those questions are rhetorical, as if the machines actually would catch an "underwear bomber" their manufacturers and the TSA would be bragging up a storm rather than making nebulous statements about things being "unclear".)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Why Stay in a Bad Job....

Seth Godin offers something of a challenge to dissatisfied workers:
You might very well be doing a good job. But that doesn't mean you're a linchpin, the one we'll miss. For that, you have to stop thinking about the job and start thinking about your platform, your point of view and your mission.

It's entirely possible you work somewhere that gives you no option but to merely do a job. If that's actually true, I wonder why someone with your potential would stay...
Last year I read Godin's book, Linchpin and found a lot of good ideas. I know that some will read it in the hope that it's a how-to guide, and be disappointed that it's much more a description of a mindset. The concept as presented is at times a bit too personality-oriented, but I think any good manager reading the book can find inspiration for how to improve a workplace and get more from his workers, and any worker whose job includes a creative element can find inspiration for how to make himself more valuable. That said, as I read the book I couldn't help but think back to my last traditional job and how completely out of synch that workplace was with Godin's concept of the linchpin. I won't bore you with examples, but... oh, my. And yes, I got out.

Look, I appreciate how "in this economy" (or any economy) people want to keep their jobs. Or to have another job offer lined up before giving notice. But for professionals I'm finding myself thinking along the lines of Godin, that "the very nature of a job is outmoded". That if you can find ways to make your skills and insights more valuable, you'll do better and be happier outside of a traditional "job" (even if you have a traditional employer and collect a traditional paycheck). Is the path from 'here' to 'there' going to be an easy one? For most people, no, it will involve hard work and risk-taking. But you know what? The boring, mind-numbing traditional jobs will continue to be around for a while, so you have a fall-back position. And if the risk pays off, you won't look back.

And Yet... Everybody Will Still Die

Paul Krugman correctly notes that we can't fix the budget problems created by Medicare and Medicaid simply by cutting spending.
Think of it this way: Congress could, with a stroke of a pen, cut Social Security benefits in half. But it couldn’t do the same with health spending: Medicare can’t suddenly start paying to replace only half a heart valve or mandate that bypass operations stop halfway through.

Limiting health costs, therefore, requires a smarter approach. We need to work harder on prevention, which can be much cheaper than a cure. We need to find innovative ways of managing health care. And, above all, we need to know what works and what doesn’t so that Medicare and Medicaid can say no to expensive procedures with little or no medical benefit. “So-called comparative effectiveness research” is central to any rational attempt to deal with America’s fiscal problems.
He correctly criticizes Mike Huckabee for attempting to perpetuate the tired old line about "death panels", particularly in relation to comparative effectiveness research. Huckabee's comments highlight a contradiction in the Republican stance on Medicare: they want to kill it, for example by replacing Medicare with a voucher system, never mind that you wouldn't be able to obtain meaningful insurance coverage with the voucher - but at the same time want to protect and even to expand it in order to curry favor with older Americans - hence their creation of unfunded drug benefits and prattle about "death panels".

But while Krugman is correct that we need to find ways to bend the cost curve, and that prevention and comparative effectiveness research may be the best way to achieve that, those measures will only go so far. Because we can delay the inevitable, but eventually a lot of us will end up in nursing homes and eventually every single one of us is going to die. The cost of that long-term care will for many people be largely picked up by Medicaid, and the high cost of end-of-life care by Medicare. The end of life counseling that the Republicans distorted into "death panels" might help with the cost of end-of-life care, but I'm skeptical that a significant number of people in our age- and death-phobic society will suddenly embrace the inevitable and eschew expensive treatments. Also, while it's easy to express shock at the extraordinary medical cost for the average person's last year of life, the fact remains that it's usually easier to tell when that "last year" begins in retrospect, and that while you may be able to get people to agree that they would be better served by living out their last year in home hospice care it may be quite another thing to convince them, "And you're already in your last year." Assuming we can accurately make that assessment.

A Weak Case for War

If you follow Eunomia, the recent New York Times columns by Ross Douthat and Anne-Marie Slaughter on the possibility of military intervention in Libya may seem like familiar ground. Slaughter advocates a "no fly zone", an approach challenged by others as inappropriate. Douthat implies that we should be cautious.

Douthat has received quite a bit of praise for his column from those who are skeptical of where a "no fly zone" would lead, and he does a good job of gently laying things out.
Moreover, even with the best-laid plans, warfare is always a uniquely high-risk enterprise — which means that the burden of proof should generally rest with hawks rather than with doves, and seven reasonable-sounding reasons for intervening may not add up to a single convincing case for war.

Advocates of a Libyan intervention don’t seem to have internalized these lessons. They have rallied around a no-flight zone as their Plan A for toppling Qaddafi, but most military analysts seem to think that it will fail to do the job, and there’s no consensus on Plan B. Would we escalate to air strikes? Arm the rebels? Sit back and let Qaddafi claim to have outlasted us?

If we did supply the rebels, who exactly would be receiving our money and munitions? Libya’s internal politics are opaque, to put it mildly. But here’s one disquieting data point, courtesy of the Center for a New American Security’s : Eastern Libya, the locus of the rebellion, sent more foreign fighters per capita to join the Iraqi insurgency than any other region in the Arab world.

And if the civil war dragged on, what then? Twice in the last two decades, in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia, the United States has helped impose a no-flight zone. In both cases, it was just a stepping-stone to further escalation: bombing campaigns, invasion, occupation and nation-building.
Me? I'm feeling less patient. I am frustrated by calls for military action by people whose positions on Libya seem to shift with the wind. In the 1980's, Qaddafi was crazy, and an undisputed supporter of terrorists. In the 1990's he remained a tyrant, kept at arm's length by much of the west, but our interest in him and his regime diminished. In the 2000's, along came G.W. and all of a sudden Qaddafi was redeemed - because he gave up WMD programs that didn't appear to amount to much and allowing western investment - and he was held up by leaders like Bush and Blair like a trophy, "Exhibit A" that the "War on Terror" worked. And then, lo and behold, it turns out that he's still a tyrant and isn't eager to relinquish power to rebel factions and... it seems like we're back in the 80's.

As I've suggested before, sometimes it feels like the loudest voices for military intervention around the world began and ended their study of military conflict by watching episodes of the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers - the good guys go up against opponents who are manifestations of pure evil, defeat them in clean, honorable battle with no collateral damage, and the world is saved! Not even the never-ending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq can change their minds. ("All we're doing" is intervening in a civil war while engaging in an act of war against a nation that hasn't attacked us and shows no interest in doing so - first we bomb their air defenses, then we create a 'no fly zone' and then we win! What could possibly go wrong?")

Look, I can understand the sentiment that all you have to do to bring peace, love, understanding and freedom to a population that lives under a tyrant is to decapitate the regime. It's a perfectly appropriate belief to hold before you expose yourself to enough human and military history to see how things are more likely to turn out. Slaughter suggests that if we don't help defeat Qaddafi, "when Colonel Qaddafi massacres the opposition, young protesters across the Middle East will conclude that when we were asked to support their cause with more than words". Except, you know, sometimes the revolution brings to power somebody like Pol Pot or Rouhollah Khomeini. Frying pans, fires, and all that. So I'm with Douthat here - part of the process of deciding when and where to intervene has to be to look at what's likely to result from your intervention.

By virtue of my own frustration with the "Let's have another war" crowd, I do have a criticism of Douthat. The man simply can't bring himself to take a stand. He trots out the parade of horribles, "All this nasty stuff could happen if we intervene militarily in Libya," but he can't bring himself to state a stronger conclusion than "th[e] case [for war] has not yet been made". He's an opinion columnist, and I guess that does count (in a wishy-washy way) as an opinion. And no, I'm not trying to argue that he needs to rule out any possibility that a case could be made that would inspire him to change his mind. But after laying out a strong argument as to why the case has not been made for military intervention, would it have been too much for him to run with his own argument? To emphatically state that the burden of proof is properly placed on the proponents of the war, that we should not be tricked into excusing their failure to meet that burden by rhetorical flourish or by the type of doctored evidence that was at the heart of the case for the war in Iraq?

Is he afraid that he'll be accused of defending a tyrant, much the way skeptics of the war in Iraq were accused of being happy to let Hussein terrorize his people? If that's the worst that can happen, given his position and the fact that he's a reasonably good writer, he can pen a column explaining why that's a (deliberately) unfair and inflammatory argument. If not... come on, man. Take a stand.

Update: Robert Farley comments on the... should I say utilitarian views of the neocons?
Whether they leave the point implicit or explicit, the neocons are reasonably clear about their preferences; we should support the rebels to the extent that we can be certain that they’ll win, and then we should install and support whichever parts of the rebel alliance are most to our liking.
The difficulty comes, of course, when you hitch your wagon to the wrong star - Ahmed Chalabi or, as increasingly appears to be the case, Ahmed Karzai, and the like. It may turn out that, when the shooting is over, there's no part of the "rebel alliance" that's actually to your liking, or deems the person you had hoped would lead and shape the "rebel alliance" into a new government to be wholly unacceptable. And it may be that your anointed leader for the new era is almost as problematic, albeit perhaps in different ways, than the leader you deposed.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Lawyers, Stop Stealing Content!

Google recently implemented an update to its search engine algorithm. The update, commonly known as "Farmer" but also referred to as "Panda", devalues sites and pages that the revised algorithm deems to have little to no unique content. The search engine community refers to the sites the algorithm was intended to affect as "content farms", hence "Farmer": an algorithm update directed at "farms".

I have maintained legal websites for many years, most notably the website I compiled a significant collection of articles for that website. I wrote the majority of the articles myself, and for the most part they offer solid content. (Some would benefit from being revised, expanded or updated; but as they say, there are only so many hours in the day.)

There are two issues you will confront if you publish materials on the Internet:
  • First, you will encounter people who don't understand that copyright law applies to the Internet, and believe that anything online is theirs for the taking.

  • Second, you will encounter many webmasters who don't care about who owns or creates content - the web is theirs for the stealing.

Historically, at least in relation to my site, Google has done a reasonable job of distinguishing the original article from plagiarized copies and slightly modified versions that have been posted around the web. With the "Farmer" update, that is no longer the case. Some of my original articles will no longer appear in the search results unless you go to the last page of the search results and click to "repeat the search with the omitted results included." Afterward they may appear on the first page of search results, but thanks to the extent of plagiarism Google is no longer treating my site as the original publisher. Also, even when my site appears in the regular results, at times it will be outranked by (that is, appear in the list of results below) a page that reproduces my original content.

Here's the kicker: A lot of those websites belong to lawyers and law firms.

And when you look at the lawyer websites that contain plagiarized content, it's rare that it's just the one article. Often they will present, without attribution, may articles or excerpts of articles from my site, other sites, or a combination of sites.

Usually when this happens it's because the law firm hired a web designer who believes that the rest of the Internet is theirs to take or steal. Sometimes the law firm will even pay the designer for hours of time allegedly spent creating the content (when in fact the designer spent only a few minutes stealing it.

But lawyers have no excuses when it comes to respecting copyright laws. And as lawyers know, they're responsible for the acts of their agents (leaving aside for the moment that sometiemes the theft is by the lawyer, not an agent.) Sometimes, knowing full well that they had nothing to do with the creating of the stolen content, lawyers will actually attach their own bylines to the articles. How is it ethical to claim to have authored something that was cribbed from the Internet by somebody else (or... by you)?

So lawyers should watch out.
  1. If your content largely consists of content stolen from other sites, the "Farmer" update may cause your site to plummet in Google's search results;

  2. If you or your web designer have stolen content from other sites, and worse if you purport to have authored that content, you are likely running afoul of your state's rules of professional responsibility.

  3. There are a bunch of honest webmasters who are losing web traffic and money due to the conduct of people like you, and we're mad as H-E-Double Chopsticks. Some of us will file DMCA requests with search engines or your web host to try to have your plagiarized content removed. Some of us have registered copyrights for our content and can seek statutory damages. Some of us are lawyers.

If you did not personally author your website's content it's time to review it. Enter pages from your site into Copyscape and see if the same content appears on other websites. Copy portions of sentences from your pages and paste them into Google (using quotation marks) - for example, if you have a passage on your website,
This tool will guide you through the process of reporting content that you believe warrants removal from Google's services based on applicable laws. Completing this form will help ensure that we have all of the information necessary to investigate your specific inquiry and resolve it as quickly as possible.
You could copy a relatively unique excerpt such as "based on applicable laws. Completing this form will help ensure" and run a Google search to see where else it appears.

If your site includes plagiarized content, take it down. Immediately. Or, better, yesterday. You have no excuse.

Addendum: The same goes for when you're posting articles or answers to questions on sites like Avvo. Don't steal text from other people's articles and pass it off as your own analysis. That's dishonest and unethical - if you have to steal somebody else's words to make yourself appear proficient, how can you argue but that your intent is anything but to mislead potential clients who read the article about your knowledge and experience?

Monday, March 07, 2011

Social Security as a "Welfare Program"

Robert Samuelson could have written a much shorter column than this,
We don't call Social Security "welfare" because it's a pejorative term, and politicians don't want to offend.
Translation: "I want to call Social Security 'welfare' because I consider that term to be pejorative." That interpretation of Samuelson helps explain why he spends so much time and effort trying to tear down Social Security rather than addressing how it might be made (even more) sustainable. Let's take a look at his arguments....

The first argument offered by Samuelson appears to be that Social Security is "welfare" because "Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the main programs for the elderly, exceed 40 percent of federal spending." I thought we were talking about Social Security itself, though, not "Socialsecuritymedicareandmedicaid". The relevant spending figure is that for Social Security, not for Samuelson's personal conception of a three-headed beast. By combining the three, Samuelson gets to avoid admitting that Social Security can be "fixed" with modest adjustments to taxes and benefits, as opposed to the "massive deficits, huge tax increases or draconian reductions in other programs" he sees as necessary to maintain "Socialsecuritymedicareandmedicaid" at present levels with no change in medical inflation. I'm not familiar with any definition of "welfare" that is contingent upon how much a unit of government spends on a particular program.

Samuelson provides a definition for his conception of a "welfare program":
Here is how I define a welfare program: First, it taxes one group to support another group, meaning it's pay-as-you-go and not a contributory scheme where people's own savings pay their later benefits. And second, Congress can constantly alter benefits, reflecting changing needs, economic conditions and politics.
To me, that seems like a bait and switch. After all, Samuelson appears to want to use the term "welfare" as a pejorative, to convey the idea of a wealth transfer from the deserving to the undeserving. The first prong of his definition is more consistent with the Constitution's "General Welfare Clause", Article I, Section 8, Clause 1:
The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;
Now perhaps Samuelson truly believes that government spending that inures to the benefit of the general public, necessarily resulting in a transfer of wealth, is a "welfare program". But while he has devoted countless columns to railing against "Socialsecuritymedicareandmedicaid", I'm having a hard time thinking of a time when he has come down hard against, say, corporate welfare. Or where he has taken the position that we spend far too much taxpayer money on ensuring the safety of food and pharmaceuticals.

In fact, under his definition, it's difficult to conceive of any government spending program that benefits an individual that he would not describe as "welfare" - are there any such programs that are "contributory scheme[s] where people's own savings pay their later benefits"? You paid property taxes for fifteen years, then your kid started school? School is a welfare program! You pay taxes to build and maintain roads in your community? Welfare program! Public parks? Welfare program! Snow removal from public streets and highways? Well, you get the idea. And yes, if we're using the conception of "welfare" found in the General Welfare Clause, those are "welfare programs". But that's not the definition Samuelson wants us to infer - that's not the pejorative.

The second prong of Samuelson's definition, "Congress can constantly alter benefits, reflecting changing needs, economic conditions and politics"? I'm having a difficult time thinking of a single item in the federal budget for which Congress cannot alter spending and policies based upon its perception of "changing needs, economic conditions and politics", whether or not the spending might fall under the General Welfare Clause, Commerce Clause, or... you name it. So how is this aspect of the definition meaningful?

It's possible to make cogent, honest arguments for the reform of Social Security. It's even possible to present the perjorative definition of "welfare" - the one Samuelson sidesteps with his bait-and-switch - and admit that your real objection is to Social Security as a transfer of wealth to people you see as undeserving. It's a shame Samuelson is unable to articulate such an argument.

Oh, Does It?

E.D. Kain writes,
If Democrats truly have set a date to return to Wisconsin, it means they have a plan.
Sometimes it feels like Democratic strategic planning revolves around an odd concept of victory, "We gave them everything they asked for and they took it - our plan is working."

Balanced Budget Cowardice

Back in the 1980's, Ronald Reagan ran against the "tax and spend" Democrats, decrying Jimmy Carter's budget deficits. He then got elected, cut taxes, vastly increased government spending and the situation got so far out of control that he signed onto a tax increase. The budget deficit did not come back under control until Bill Clinton's Presidency, which due to a variety of factors (including the dot com bubble) produced a significant budget surplus. Republican partisans argued it was horrible to have a budget surplus, that paying down the nation's debt "too quickly" would result in disaster, and that the best thing to do would be to slash taxes for the wealthy and run the deficit back up. Oh, sure, they offered self-serving projections to indicate that the budget would remain in balance, but their manipulations were obvious - passing tax cuts that expired after ten years, for example.

While the Republican Party was cooking the books to defend this scheme the economy was souring, so you got their "tax cuts are good for any economy" argument - if the economy is strong, tax cuts keep it strong; if it's faltering, tax cuts will help it bounce back; if it's in recession, tax cuts will get us out of recession. The Bush Administration then launched two unfunded wars, Medicare Part D, and... let's admit it, G.W. Bush and his Republican majority spent like drunken sailors. G.W. tactfully described the nation's difficulties and tragedies as his having hit "the trifecta", and he and his party proceeded as if they had carte blanche for deficit spending.

No, I'm not arguing that the Democrats have played no role in the nation's deficit spending. I'm not even going to argue that Republican hypocrisy on the issue is somehow morally culpable. People can look to the facts and see, very easily, that both parties like to spend money. They can also see, without ambiguity, that the Republican Party has no sense of fiscal responsibility. But which party's presidents were in office during the worst run-ups of the nation's debt? It's not even a close question.

Every decade or so, the subject of a federal "balanced budget amendment" comes up. The appeal is simple - pretend that the nation's budget is equivalent to a household budget, pretend that the government's borrowing money in U.S. dollars, a currency it controls, is equivalent to a nation borrowing in a foreign currency or to household debt, pretend that deficits can never serve a useful purpose, and insist that a balanced budget amendment will magically cure all that ails the nation. It's a superficial, dishonest argument - even if you don't judge the federal politicians who demand a balanced budget amendment by their actions, it's very easy to find sound economic reasons why arbitrary caps on government spending, balanced budget requirements at the federal level, and you can look around the world to see what austerity programs are doing for the economies of nations like Ireland and the U.K.

Given the spending record of everybody in Congress, it's not really a surprise that the GOP is handing off their attempt to resurrect the issue to a freshman Senator. Make the tea partiers happy, pretend to be doing something, advance a bunch of policies favored by wealthy supporters, and once again pretend to care about deficit spending. Pretend it's bipartisan because, predictably, Democrats from conservative states and the usual array of opportunists will sign on. And best of all, submit the concept in the form of a non-binding resolution, just in case things go terribly wrong and it actually passes. (The goal here, after all, is not to actually be bound by these restrictions.)

But at the end of the day, the Republican Party knows that while beating the drum on budget deficits can get a segment of their base worked up, and can help them gain votes of people who (unbelievably at this point) continue to judge them by their words instead of their actions, the issue is a loser for them. Were they to win an amendment, they would have to slash and burn pretty much every spending program - and with limits on spending based on GDP we would have to further slash the budget every time the nation entered a recession. Let's not forget, folks, that a big part of the reason the present deficit is so bad is because the economy shrank. The best way to cover that gap is not to cut spending - it's to grow the economy - and repeated rounds of budget cuts during a prolonged recession can reasonably be expected to worsen and prolong that recession. The proposed amendment would also tie the government's hands in times of emergency. Want to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, or conclude that it's necessary to bail out the financial industry to prevent a depression? Too bad, so sad? It's extremely difficult to believe that a U.S. Senator doesn't know how idiotic it would be to impose a balanced budget amendment with no exceptions; it's also obvious that once you include exceptions you'll see them exploited in every budget cycle.

There are measures that could be much more easily passed than a balanced budget amendment, such as a system of automatic tax increases that would be triggered by a deficit in the prior year. There is no reason why the Republican majority in the House of Representatives couldn't pass such a measure right now. If they are going to pretend to care about the deficit, but pull the standard political line that they're too spineless to actually do anything about it, believe me - calls from people like the Koch brothers threatening to work to defeat their members in the next election if they trigger a tax increase is pretty much all the incentive they'll need to find their missing backbones.

But really, if the Republican Party truly is convinced that balanced budgets are a national priority, and that balancing the budget every truly is a necessity for the welfare of the nation, they don't need an Amendment. They don't need legislation. They simply need to decide, as a party, that they have a balanced budget policy and that they're going to stick to it. They can declare that, starting in fiscal year 2012 (or 2014), no Republican who signs onto a budget that involves deficit spending will stand for reelection (or that the deficit will be reduced by 25% per year over four years, followed by balanced budgets, with a similar consequence for violation). They can hold that if a Republican in federal office signs onto a budget in violation of that commitment, that person will face a primary contest and that the primary opponent will be supported by the Republican Party, with not a single endorsement or dollar flowing to the incumbent who broke their commitment to balanced budgets. They can then do just as they've promised, shutting down the government whenever necessary. It'll be an ugly process, but "everybody will thank them for it in the end," right? (Yeah, right....)

Nah, it's easier to pretend to care about deficits, and much easier to talk about balanced budget amendments, while continuing to spend like there's no tomorrow. Consequences? Individual consequences? Those are for suckers.

Update: Paul Krugman offers a capsule summary of deficit spending starting with Reagan.

Update 2: Ezra Klein describes a bizarre example of Senatorial budgetary cowardice:
The letter that Sens. Michael Bennet, Mike Johanns, and 62 of their colleagues sent President Barack Obama asking him to support comprehensive deficit reduction is an odd document....

There are a lot of letters and statements about deficit reduction flying around, but precious little legislation. If the 64 senators who signed this letter wanted to write and vote for a bill, that’d be a pretty “strong signal.” But for 64 senators to instead write letters about how someone else should be making affirmative noises about deficit reduction, well, read closely, that’s a signal of a very different kind.... Obama could be doing more to move public opinion, but on this issue, the empowered actor is the legislative branch, not the executive branch. And the legislative branch should begin acting like it.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

When You Hitch Your Wagon to a Lie Machine....

Although it was Jonathan Capehart's response that first caught my eye, Stephen Stromberg wrote about Mike Huckabee's "slip", suggesting that President Obama grew up in Kenya,
It's the Republican equivalent of a Freudian slip....

This episode demonstrates something more pernicious than the existence of one more Obama conspiracy theorist. It demonstrates the extent to which references to birther-like mythology -- and its less-offensive-but-still-pretty-absurd cousin, the Dinesh D'Souza-inspired speculations about Obama's "Kenyan, anti-colonial worldview" -- have become embedded in conservative political culture. It demonstrates the extent to which Republican politicians feel the need to indulge the portions of the GOP base for whom Obama's "Kenyan" roots matter -- whether by asking for his birth certificate or merely suggesting that this man, who has in many ways lived a quintessentially American life, is nothing like the rest of us in some fundamental, worryingly foreign way.
In context, Stromberg is not describing an actual Freudian slip, but is suggesting that "Huckabee was simply floating around on auto-pilot, mouthing the sorts of things he heard at CPAC."

Capehart is less sympathetic, dismissing that the statement should be described as a "Freudian Slip":
A slip would be saying "Osama" instead of "Obama" when referring to the president. What the former Arkansas governor, who is reportedly thinking about running for the Republican presidential nomination again in 2012, did was inexplicably slide head-first into the far right's nether world of conspiracy and paranoia.
Capehart also notes that Huckabee's spoekesperson "misspoke" and meant to say "Indonesia" instead of "Kenya,
So, then, what about all that stuff about the British and Kenya and Obama's father and grandfather? Oh, nevermind.
Capehart is, of course, correct that this wasn't a Freudian slip and should not be dismissed as one. It means, as Stromberg suggests, that Huckabee is so immersed in a sea of disinformation that he can't see the shore - and that he either doesn't know or doesn't care. Huckabee should have taken full responsibility, not attempting to dismiss his spread of factually incorrect information as having "simply misspoken", but acknowledging that his speculation about the President went far into the realm of lies, delusions and/or fantasy.

I don't think Huckabee is planning a run for President. He's building himself a mansion, and is raking in a ton of money working for outfits like Fox that don't care if his comments are truthful. In fact, some of his paymasters may prefer that his comments about the President not be truthful. If you ask the age old, "Is he stupid or lying" question, what answer is implied when you follow the money?