Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Bush and the NSC's Non-Strategy

I'm with Matthew Yglesias- the NSC's "victory strategy" for Iraq isn't about strategy at all, but about containing the political fallout of the war. There are any number of specific examples (just look under the "progress" sections for any number of cherry-picked indicators of progress), but the best evidence is that every single challenge that they bring up have absolutely nothing to do with US actions or their fallout, despite everybody and his dog noticing that there have been counterproductive US activities. They are about the "ruthless enemy", the "inhospitable neighbourhood", Saddam's "vicious tyranny", and (most bizarrely) "Sunnis coming to terms with the reality that their community no longer monopolizes power in Iraq".

(You know what other community had to come to terms with that? THE TUTSI IN RWANDA. That didn't end well.)

The descriptions of progress are all predicated with "our [buzzword-filled] strategy is working"... they never mention setbacks and never describe anything as a problem to be solved.

The "challenges" they do mention are laughably generalized and impossible: "building political movements based on issues and platforms, instead of identity", for example, is not only near-impossible, but ignores the fact that the "issues and platforms" will be about forced Islamicization!

Hell, according to this document, the United States doesn't actually know who they're fighting! Yes, they lay out the "enemy's strategy", but how can we believe this when one of the challenges that is stated is "getting an accurate picture of this enemy [and] understanding its makeup and weaknesses?" This admission of ignorance makes it sound like the terrorists' agenda is being made up out of whole cloth!

(Which it probably is.)

The "enemy lines of action" section is filled with convenient justifications for the United States' current strategy, and breathes not a word about the classic terrorist tactic of provoking an overreaction to turn people against the government.

The very first bulletpoint in the section is about the enemy "weakening the Coalition's resolve, and our resolve at home". This bleating has been the defense of every repressive regime in history. It's a cliche, and they're falling right into it!

I've said it before, I'll say it again:

Somewhere in Pakistan, Osama Bin Laden is laughing his ass off.

Bad Politics, Bad Policy

Is Hillary Clinton deliberately trying to alienate the 18-25 demographic?

Yes, kids shouldn't be playing violent video games any more than they should be watching violent movies. The fact that this bill singles out games, however, brings back strong memories of the Comics Code Authority and the movie censorship of the past. It smacks of politicians trying to exploit parents, and all it will do is alienate game consumers (who are likely to behave as single-issue voters in this case) without swaying parents (who have other things to worry about.)

(If Sen. Clinton wants to fix something that screws with teenagers' values and identity, she should look to commercials, rather than video games. The unrealistic expectations born and bred of advertising do more harm to more young people per day than violent games will do per decade.)

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Elephant in the Room

Over at Americablog:

Hope to see you soon in Iraq. The weather is warm. Wish you were here. And if you elect a conservative pro-Bush government next month, you very likely will be.

Signed, George
See title. The biggest understated fear that Canadians have is that the Conservatives will, in the interests of good relations with the United States, send Canadian troops to Iraq (or Iran, or wherever else the United States goes next.) Canadians are very aware that they came very close to being involved in the last war. They're aware Canada stayed out due to stridently anti-war public opinion- along with Chretien's willingness to support that opinion in the face of pressure by Americans, Canadian pro-Bush conservatives and those Canadian elites that don't give a damn about anything but access to the American market.

They have good reason to believe this. Conservative leader Stephen Harper (along with former leader Stockwell Day) are not only stridently pro-American, but went to the extent of criticizing Chretien's decision in the Wall Street Journal and claiming that Chretien's views were not in line with Canadian views on Fox News. Whether this may have been true at the time (it wasn't), it certainly doesn't cut him any slack now.

And therein lies the problem: for better or worse, the Conservatives are seen as Republicans without the drawl. Canadians who would have voted for Republicans would vote for the Conservatives, but those who would never vote for Republicans and dislike (or actively loathe) George W. Bush are going to be a tough sell, even with the Liberal party so transparently vulnerable.

The only way that Harper will be able to break through this is if he has his own "Sistah Soulja" moment with Bush. He needs to hammer George W. Bush hard, and disassociate himself with the Republicans as drastically as possible in both words and deeds. Yes, that will probably tick off Republicans and probably Republican-sympathetic voters, but he's got their vote anyway, and Harper must ensure that Canadians don't associate him with George and his ruinous war.

Absent that, no matter how weak the Liberals are, there is no possibility that Harper will govern Canada.

Here they go again..

It's official: the Canadian government fell, and an election has been called for Jan. 23.

The dynamic this time is going to be interesting.

The Liberals have been largely ineffective and are hobbled by scandal, but appear to have (with a key caveat) the most popular policy positions.

The Conservatives, having never governed in their current incarnation, can claim uncorruptability, but their socially conservative supporters have made many Canadians distrust them and fear that their policies will be equally conservative.

The seperatist Bloc Quebecois owns Quebec, period. Little more needs to be said about that. They don't run outside that province, so cannot form a government, but dominate the one they do run in.

It's the NDP that really throws this thing off. Arguably they have been the most successful party of the last Parliament- the "NDP budget" that they negotiated with the Liberals was actually more popular than the Liberal budget that preceded it, and NDP leader Jack Layton is easily the most popular leader of the four parties. The "caveat" I mentioned above helps them as well: many (if not a majority of) Canadians are perfectly comfortable with the idea of an NDP/Liberal coalition, with the centrist Liberals providing fiscal responsibility and the leftist NDP ensuring that Paul Martin doesn't govern as a Liberal In Name Only.

The problem, though, is that there's no way for people to actually vote for this coalition, and there is a distinct possibility that NDP votes could lead to victories by Conservative candidates. So many small "l" liberal voters are faced with a dilemma: do they vote for the Liberals, despite the problems of that party, or do they vote for the NDP and possibly hand the government to the Conservatives, who can count on a geographically concentrated base of support that inflates their seat numbers in a way that neither the NDP or Liberals can enjoy?

How people decide that question, as well as the traditional question of centrists choosing between the Conservatives and Liberals, will determine what kind of government Canada has in January.

Friday, November 25, 2005

The Moral Case Against Torture- With Nazis!

Over at his similarly titled blog entry, Kevin Drum relates a frustration with the discussion of torture:

.Over at Unfogged, Ogged picks up on my biggest frustration with the current state of the torture debate: namely that it's almost impossible to convincingly make the moral case against torture to anyone who's not already predisposed to think it's immoral. Stripped to its core, I realize that the only real argument I have against torture is "But don't you see that it's wrong? Don't you?" And that's just immensely frustrating, because if you don't see it then I have no ammunition left.
Well, no, not if you aren't willing to assert any sort of universal basis for morality and/or ethics. You can't call something "wrong" if you can't define "wrong" in a way that both you and the person you're talking with agree on. That's made difficult by the fact that, for many, their moral outlook is less a case of conscious decision and philosophy than a learned set of sometimes-contradictory rules.

That's one of the reason why political theory and philosophy are important, so that you can precisely define where you stand and what your assumptions are...and, more importantly, correctly identify the same stances and assumptions in your opponent or listener. Most people's rule sets do roughly follow some sort of moral and philisophical guideline, even if it's contradictory and they're unaware of it. If you know those guidelines, you can get past Kevin's barrier.

I wish I could do better. In the end, though, the strongest argument I can make is the one Dick Durbin made: if you didn't know better when you hear about U.S. practices in the war on terror, you'd think we were talking about Nazi Germany or Stalin's Soviet Union — and a big part of the reason that we judge those regimes to have been immoral was because of their use of routine, state sanctioned torture. Is that really the company we want to keep?
The unstated problem with the comparison between the United States and Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany is that although people (almost) universally find the latter two morally outrageous, they very rarely can agree as to why, outside of the issue of genocide. Some hate them because they're (supposedly both) socialist, some hate them because they're totalitarian, some hate the nazis because they're fascists (and define that as extremely right-wing), some hate Stalin because he's internationalist, some hate the Nazis because they're nationalists... there are simply too many possible reasons to hate both that extend far beyond "they killed a lot of people".

That matters, because on those things that they don't consider as important or as objectionable, they aren't going to accept any attempt to equate the United States with, say, Stalin's Soviet Union. Someone who believes the ends justify the means, but disagrees with Stalin's ends (or even the degree of violence , without condemning the act itself) are simply not going to accept the comparison. They'll believe that since the United States cannot be equated on some grounds, the United States cannot be equated, PERIOD.

It's like the idea that Vietnam and Iraq can't be compared because one is jungle and the other is desert. Yes, that IS a difference- the point of contention is whether it's a substantial one. Since that meta-debate is rarely acknowledged and never engaged, it means that you end up with the same old situation...

...two people yelling past each other.

Edit: Although I can understand why Avedon Carol would say "just keep repeating 'torture is wrong'", I'm deeply skeptical as to whether it'd help. It's far more likely to simply cause others to dig in their heels, and considering that the pro-torture position is the easy one, that's not likely to win any converts.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Copyright laws and you

Those who are long-time readers (I mean, really long time) know that I'm irritated by the stifling effect that IP laws inevitably have on creativity.

That the creator of this needs to hide behind a pseudonym is a more eloquent argument than I could ever make. I'd never paid attention to the mash-up scene before: I'm a convert now.

It's called "American Edit", it's brilliant, and it would probably be a very good idea to download it as soon as possible.

Ok, maybe I'm wrong here..

...but saying that blowing up news stations that disagree with you is fine and dandy is not going to help the cause of democracy much. Whether by Bush's friends, or by the man himself.

Even Putin just arrested them.

Then again, the fact that Blair made talking about the whole thing a violation of the Official Secrets Act doesn't help much, either. Free tip to Mr. Blair: doing that is going to make it sound, well, official, and you don't want to do that when it's Bush saying "let's blow up journalists who don't toe the line!"

Friday, November 18, 2005

A Digression on Gaming

I know I rarely discuss things outside politics, but I was struck by this comment by Roger Ebert in his "Answer Man" column, and felt like bringing it up.

Q. I've been a gamer since I was very young, and I haven't been satisfied with most of the movies based on video games, with the exception of the first 'Mortal Kombat' and 'Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.' These were successful as films because they did not try to be a tribute to the game, but films in their own right.

I have not seen 'Doom,' but don't plan to, nor do I think that it's fair to say that it pleases all gamers. Some of us appreciate film, too. That said, I was surprised at your denial of video games as a worthwhile use of your time. Are you implying that books and film are better mediums, or just better uses of your time?

Films and books have their scabs, as do games, but there are beautiful examples of video games out there -- see 'Shadow of the Colossus,' 'Rez' or the forthcoming 'PeaceMaker.'

A. I believe books and films are better mediums, and better uses of my time. But how can I say that when I admit I am unfamiliar with video games? Because I have recently seen classic films by Fassbinder, Ozu, Herzog, Scorsese and Kurosawa, and have recently read novels by Dickens, Cormac McCarthy, Bellow, Nabokov and Hugo, and if there were video games in the same league, someone somewhere who was familiar with the best work in all three mediums would have made a convincing argument in their defense.
This comment honestly surprised me. That it has been said by a film critic, for one, as their medium had been dismissed as unserious and unimportant for decades before it gained what recognition it has... and some people still dismiss it compared to other artforms. It was even more suprising coming from Roger Ebert, considering his love of animation, which is another artform that has been generally dismissed as unimportant trifles for children.

That it's a clear logical fallacy also surprised me. This sort of basic argument from authority (if it were important, somebody in authority would have told me) is beneath Roger. The simple possibility that the argument in games' defense doesn't exist because nobody Roger knows has made it yet does not mean that it has not been made, and cannot be made, and that it were somehow incorrect in both cases. If you extended this logic to its conclusion, there could be no new art forms, because everybody would be referring to a lack of an authoritative argument, including the authorities that could make it!.

If he had said "I don't have the time to check", that would be lazy, but true. Trying to make a blanket statement based on this sort of reasoning smacks of intentional know-nothingism, however, and is truly disappointing. It's especially disappointing because the games cited actually are excellent examples of what the medium can do: Rez is an work of narrative ambiguity, symbolism, and synaesthesia that has the additional benefit of being a lot of fun to play, and Shadow of the Collossus is one of the most subtle, minimalist, yet effective examinations of moral ambiguity, power and futility, responsibility, and even (to a certain extent) viewer intersubjectivity I've ever experienced. It's also visually arresting; the game takes its name from the enormous (hundreds of feet tall) stone creatures that the main character is tracking down and destroying, and the sense of scale takes ones breath away.

(I'd say more, but don't want to spoil anything. I will say that the ending of that game features some of the most tragically brilliant moments in narrative fiction, and yes, I'm serious.)

David Cage's Fahrenheit is a great example of the possibilities of gaming as well, although being self-consciously cinematic in presentation. Ebert brought up Kurosawa? I'd argue that it out-Rashomons Rashomon.

The two playable characters in the game (to simplify it tremendously) are a possibly insane (or possibly innocent) fugitive who has unwittingly committed a murder and the police officer trying to catch him. Often the decisions made by the one affects the other, and having to play both sides forces players to balance their sympathies between fundamental antagonists in a way that is difficult in to replicate in any other medium, due to the greater involvement gamers have with the protagonists. In Rashomon viewers are forced to choose who to believe; in Fahrenheit viewers are forced to try to reconcile themselves with being both. I am an enormous fan of Kurosawa, but I think Cage has done something important too.

And these are just games that are popular right this second (except for Rez). There are a ton of other examples. It's a pity that Roger is so unwilling to try new things, because I feel that with this past generation, gaming really came into its own. At the very least, the best games are better than 99% of what one sees at the theatre nowadays. If Roger could give 3-1/2 stars to Anaconda, I think he might just find some value in Shadow of the Colossus.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

A followup on intelligence

I hadn't got around to watching the BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares until recently, but it brought up something relevant to my earlier discussion of intelligence agencies: outsiders' desire for relevance and insight.

The documentary discussed (among other things) the idea that the Soviet Union was supporting terrorism around the world back during the Cold War- an idea championed by neoconservatives as proof that the Cold War really was a Manichean conflict between Absolute Good (the United States) and Absolute Evil (the Soviet Union), and that the forces of darkness were intertwined in everything they did. They thought they had proof of it in Claire Sterling's book "The Terror Network". Unfortunately, Sterling's "proof" was largely the result of CIA black propaganda- that is, information that is covertly published by an intelligence agency that purports to be from its enemies.

This highlights a major problem: outsiders want information, and can in turn gain the ear of the powerful. Even if an intelligence agency isn't ideologically driven (or isn't ideologically driven enough for outsiders) the simple fact of secrecy and the difficulty of analyzing intelligence can lead to enormous problems, because outsiders can take what information is available publicly and draw wildly erroneous conclusions from it. This is especially likely when they're looking for proof of something, rather than trying to interpret the data on its own terms. If intelligence agencies are manipulating the openly-available data, then the whole thing can become disastrous, because said agency simply cannot correct the outsiders on their mistakes.

We also saw this with the "stovepiping" of intelligence to the White House in the Iraq runup, and that showed an interaction effect that can exist. If outsiders gain the ear of politicians and convince them that the intelligence is wrong, this can provide a powerful unstated incentive for intelligence agencies to walk the line, an incentive that the agency and its analysts will obey in fear of the risk of losing their relevance. This is probably what happened at the CIA; aside from the direct pressure that almost certainly existed (but which no career-minded professional would EVER admit to) there would be this powerful indirect pressure. Analysts aren't superhuman. Maybe not all will bend, but enough will bend, and the individuals who say "no" will not speak for the organization.

As I said, intelligence agencies are a dangerous but necessary tool; covert ops are even more so. The most dangerous actor, however, can be the outsider with an axe to grind and an ear to bend. At least intelligence agencies are supposed to speak truth to power. Richard Perle sure as hell doesn't need to.

Drum on Secrecy

No, this isn't about bongos, but your friend and mine Kevin Drum, who points out the biggest problem with the "nobody disagreed about the WMDs" defense: secrecy.

One final word on this: the issue here is not who was right and who was wrong, or even whether the overall weight of the evidence was sufficient to justify the war. It would have been perfectly reasonable for the White House to present all the evidence pro and con and then use that evidence to make the strongest possible case for war. But that's not what they did. Instead, they suppressed any evidence that might have thrown doubt on their arguments, making it impossible for the public to evaluate what they were saying. In fact, by abusing the classification process to keep these dissents secret, they even made it impossible for senators who knew the truth to say anything about it in public.
Ok, in order to understand why this is important, stop and think about what an intelligence agency actually is, and what it does. It finds out secrets, and has to protect how it does it so that it can find out more. Because these things are secrets, an intelligence agency wants to keep it close to their chest.

The problem, though, is that there isn't one intelligence agency, there's TONS of them, and some are more powerful than others. They need other agencies' intelligence to be effective, and if one agency has the most intelligence, it gets to have the biggest say about the conditions under which it's shared and poses the greatest threat of cutting the whole thing off.

That most powerful agency is, naturally, the CIA (or NSA, depending on what kind of intelligence you're talking about). They're the most powerful, so they are the sellers in a buyer's market, and know it. A lot of the intelligence that's out there comes through them, and if other agencies have problems with the quality of the work or the analysis, they're going to shut the hell up about it in public, or the intelligence flow will get shut off. This isn't just a political problem; a shutoff can become a threat to national security for smaller countries dependent on the US. So they aren't going to disagree.

Thus, saying "everybody agrees" is irrelevant, because either the information they get is coming from the CIA/NSA already, or they're going to be publicly silent about their concerns for fear of repercussions at the hands of the Americans.

(The greatest exceptions to this rule are probably the British, who are masters as HUMINT (human intelligence), and the Israelis, where the Mossad's intelligence gathering abilities are legendary. Neither, however, had any reason to dissent, and may well have done the same thing to the Americans.)

Naturally, this isn't as big a problem as it sounds like, because intelligence agencies are certainly going to discuss and debate privately over intelligence, in order to serve their vital role of speaking truth to power. When they become politicized, however, and the "truth to power" role gets submerged in a pool of ends-justifies-means ideology, they become dangerous; if this happens concurrently with politicians moving in that direction, it becomes extremely dangerous. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, stopping a ideologically driven intelligence agency in the service of similarly ideologically driven politicians from being able to say whatever it wants to say, and if it's the big player, that includes other countries' intelligence agencies and the politicians they serve.

The media and public are near-helpless in this situation to do a damned thing, at least until the mistake becomes obvious to everyone. There will always be some sort of official "oversight" that supports the ideology in question (witness the intelligence committee and it's report), creating easy rhetorical cover for fellow-travellers, and national security is a goldmine of opportunities for draping oneself in the flag. The end result is what we have now.

Intelligence agencies are a necessary tool. We should never, ever forget, however, that they are a potentially dangerous one.

A thought experiment (Edit: Jeff Goldstein thinks the founding fathers are pussies!)

Courtesy of The Poor Man's ongoing forays into complete barking madness on the right (as well as other sources, but I'll stick to TPM), a post from Instapundit defending Bush's McCarthyist speechon Veteran's day:

The White House needs to go on the offensive here in a big way -- and Bush needs to be very plain that this is all about Democratic politicans pandering to the antiwar base, that it's deeply dishonest, and that it hurts our troops abroad.

And yes, he should question their patriotism. Because they're acting unpatriotically.

The desire of so many on the left to relive the Vietnam era is Karl Rove's secret weapon.
Bolding mine, and here's why. Now, I'll move aside from Instapundit's pathetic attempt to spin Bush's comment into being about politically opportunism among Democrats.

(Free hint: he never mentioned political opportunism, and that's because this wasn't about political opportunism, and if your definition disagrees with the president's then you NEED TO STATE THAT in a post broadly agreeing with him.)

Instead, I'll look at that last, bolded line.

Stop and think about it. If there were blogs back during Vietnam, if the development of the computer had gone a little faster and the Internet had still risen as a side effect of ARPA's work (if somewhat faster), does anybody honestly believe that any of the conservative bloggers out there, including Glenn, would be doing anything but loudly supporting the war? Every overinflated count of VC dead, every irrelevant statistic, every backhanded admission that victory was impossible, every DoD obfuscation, every bleating about "police actions", every political justification... does anybody think that Glenn 'n Co wouldn't be defending the war with everything they had?

The Vietnam war was far more popular at this point in its lifespan than the Iraqi occupation is, and at that point the United States had a real enemy that was a real superpower that was pushing an ideology a lot of people that wouldn't ever vote for Republicans found very appealing.

Glenn would be calling for a bureau of censorship, I'm absolutely sure of it.

Glenn, it's not that the left wants to relive the Vietnam era. There's no "want" about it- they think they are, because the same style of governmental logic is being used, with a far worse president than Nixon at the helm. The side that wants to relive it is yours, because you want to win the war that you lost. Not the war in Vietnam: the war for "hearts and minds" in America.

Pity that it seems that you've already lost. The president wouldn't have needed to engage in such desperate acts of flagwaving were his administration not going down in flames. You're arguing from weakness: never a good place to be.

Oh, and by the by?

You don't get to define patriotism, and neither does the president, and neither does this idiot. The position has existed since before the war began that the intelligence was unsound and that the "consensus" was a mythical artifact of selective quotation and political pressure. That those of us who believe it disagree with you doesn't not make us unpatriotic (even if that mattered... what happens when the critic isn't American? Are they enemies of the state?) and that Democrats are finally figuring out that they were hoodwinked doesn't make them unpatriotic.

It makes them something even more dangerous to the president:

Someone who's willing to admit they made a mistake.

Edit: Wow, that was fast. Upon skimming the comment thread of the post by the aforementioned idiot (sorry, Jeff, but if you act like one, you get called one), I find out that he started calling a liberal critic using the pseudonym "early" a "pussy" for not using his real name, and implied that everybody who does use a pseudonym is a "pussy" too.

Quick question: who wrote the federalist papers, and did they use their real names?

Give up?

Answer: Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay... and no, they used the pseudonym "Publius".

Guess what, Jeff? You just called Hamilton, Madison and Jay pussies!

I don't know about you folks, but that sounds pretty unpatriotic to me. Maybe you should be a little more considerate of the values that are supposed to make the United States different, and less about "pandering to the base", like your buddy Glenn is accusing the Dems of doing.

America: We Leave the Bodies to Rot

I'm sure that black Americans will love the fact that their government apparently doesn't care about finding the rotting corpses in New Orleans:

On Oct 3 the search for bodies in NOLA was called off despite the knowledge that bodies remained in unsearched homes in NOLA's 9th Ward (see previous post) The plan was for people to call 911 if they found a body despite the fact that people were not even allowed into the 9th ward. On October 12th, parts of the 9th Ward were opened for a "look and leave." The death toll rose as bodies were found. And the lower 9th ward, perhaps the most devastated area of NOLA, will not open to residents until December...

...It is a disgrace that this is happening in America. This is the country that took great pains to recover every little bit of human remains at Ground Zero after 9/11. Now we won't even bother to search homes in which we know bodies remain. This is not a matter of time or resources. The authorities simply chose not to take the time or allocate the resources to Do the Right Thing.
And more disgraceful is they are getting away with it. I have seen no reports of this other than 2 on CNN. Yet given the dozens of links and comments from my previous post I know people do care and were shocked to learn of this.
From Scout Prime.

What's sad is that there's probably no malice in this. It's just the horrible byproduct of the systemic short attention span. NOLA was a big event at the time, a real ratings machine... but now the people have moved on to chattering about that crazed woman on Trading Spouses, and their leaders to chattering about Bush's approval ratings.

Warhol was right, and we're living in his time, but he got it neatly reversed. He said that everybody gets their 15 minutes. He's wrong. Most people get nothing. What happened is that unless you're in the business of fame (ie: politics and entertainment), all you can get is 15 minutes.

That, and that this isn't television we're talking about, it's everybody.

(Link cred: Atrios.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The dumbest thing I've ever heard the president say

Honestly, this takes the cake:

President Bush prodded China on Wednesday to grant more political freedom to its 1.3 billion people and held up archrival Taiwan as a society that successfully moved from repression to democracy as it opened its economy.

In remarks sure to rile Beijing, Bush suggested China should follow Taiwan's path.

"Modern Taiwan is free and democratic and prosperous. By embracing freedom at all levels, Taiwan has delivered prosperity to its people and created a free and democratic Chinese society," the president said.
Is he INSANE? Is he deliberately trying to piss off the Chinese government and stir up Chinese nationalism?

I mean, Bush has said some dumb things. Really, really dumb things. He's legendary for it. Precious few, however, could start World War III... this is on the order of Reagan's "we're launching" comment, and that was a joke.

Actually, I kind of hope it was a mistake. I hope he is ignorant. I hope he doesn't realize that the government of a China bereft of ideological foundations and tiptoeing around the edges of fiscal calamity is going to be looking for other means of reinforcing its identity. I hope he doesn't realize that praising Taiwan as an example for the Chinese to follow is infinitely worse than a thousand Koizumi shrine visits.

(That this statement has followed on the heels of such a visit isn't exactly the best timing, by the by.)

I hope he's just stupid, because the alternative is that he's quite aware of the repercussions of what he just said, and said it anyway. That he doesn't care, or is deliberately provoking a Chinese response. That'd be far worse.

Hu Jintao isn't the only state leader whose domestic problems make foreign scapegoating look really, really attractive.

Edit: A nice succinct summary by watching the detectives:

"Thanks, asshole".

Strange Agreement

Matthew Yglesias points to a Tom Oliphant column discussing the curious fact that Bush appears not to care whether or not Iraq had WMDs- that in justifying the war now, he says that "he would have invaded Iraq even if he had known it posed no threat."

This is a kind of strange point of agreement between the president and his critics. We're saying Bush was committed to the invade-Iraq policy, never mind the evidence, and that this attitude led him to dramatically overstate the threat in a variety of ways. Bush, in essence, concedes the point that, for him, evidence regarding the scope and imminence of the threat was besides the point.
It's part of that weird disconnect in the Republican party that's going on right now- Bush and his defenders seem to be saying different things. The defenders are saying "we didn't know, nobody knew, but we have to stay the course for freedom and whatnot", while criticizing the anti-war types for defeatism and being willing to let Iraq burn. It's not the most accurate claim (people DID say it was nonsense back in 2002), but it can at least be defended.

Were Bush able to stick to this talking point, he'd be able to shore up his weaknesses and burnish his strengths. By telling an unpleasant truth and admitting to a mistake, he'd make people more confident that he's telling the truth about other things. After all, the perception that he's a liar is rooted in the belief that he simply cannot admit that he has done anything wrong- that his "resolve" has gone absolutely berserk and become dangerous. Admit to a mistake and resolve to fix it and you keep the positive reaction to the resolve and shed the negative perception of zealotry.

(Yes, I'm aware that you're never supposed to admit to a mistake in politics. There are exceptions, and this is one of them.)

That he simply can't do this when every other Republican is doing so (aside from the serious loons) only confirms the perception. He really is unable to admit to a mistake, and really is a zealot. Either that, or he's so frightened of what he's done that he won't admit to anything in fear of the consequences. Both of these are really, really bad traits in a leader, and I think people subconsciously understand that.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Another good bit on trade

Oddly enough, it's not the actual post in this TPMCafe post that struck me, but one of the responses.

The issue is Wal-Mart. David Sirota (the big anti-trade boogieman in these debates, and oh boy is he being treated like it by trade's defenders) points out that documentaries like "Wal-Mart: the high cost of low prices" show that low prices for consumers aren't always a good thing. The response, from Jason Furman?

Some people on the left verge on paranoia in blaming trade for absolutely everything that ills us. Now trade is being blamed for the low wages at Wal-Mart.
Huh? Trade has certainly hurt many steel and textile workers, but how are service sector employees at Wal-Mart hurt by trade?

What's particularly depressing about this obsession with trade is not that it's misguided, but that it diverts well-intentioned progressive energy away from issues that could make a much bigger difference for workers at places like Wal-Mart.
It's not that post that grabbed me, though, but one of the responses:

Jason, the real point that is illustrated by your last post is that you are not really doing a very good job of stepping back from your point of view long enough to see the other side of the argument.You say Now trade is being blamed for the low wages at Wal-Mart. Huh? Trade has certainly hurt many steel and textile workers, but how are service sector employees at Wal-Mart hurt by trade? and I can't help but wonder if you even thought about it before you typed it.
The point is that there's an awful lot of workers who now have no other choice than taking a low wage job at Walmart. Walmart has used the power of corporate-centric trade policy and decimated portions of the economy ranging from small mom and pop owned businesses to all manner of US based manufacturering operations which have had no choice but to offshore in order to "compete" (in the rush to the bottom.)
Wal-Mart benefits from being the Lowest Common Denominator for employment, but there is (or should be) a tension between having this role and being so absolutely ubiquitous. The pool of unskilled labour with no other options should have dwindled enough that Wal-Mart's workers would have leverage, and Wal-Mart would have to choose between its rampant expansion and paying higher prices.

That isn't happening, because that pool is huge and growing. The question is why, and if the "why" is trade, that should be engaged fairly.


Well, I may have spoke too soon. Over on Maxspeak, L. Josh Bivens points out that a lot of economists understand exactly what trade can do to wages:

At the risk of sounding unbearably obnoxious, I'm going to help Gene figure out the net impact of trade of the majority of American workers, because, it turns out that trade textbooks tell us precisely how to assess this. The most straightforward explanation is called the
Stolper-Samuelson Theorem, and it says, in a nutshell, that expanded trade harms, in absolute (not just relative) terms, and permanently (not just through tough "transitions"), the incomes of a nation's "scarce" factor of production." The scarce factor" in the US is generally considered to be workers without a college degree.* This is a little non-intuitive, but these workers are scarce in the US because the ratio of them to degreed workers is lower than the equivalent ratio in our trading partners.

There was a big debate about this in the economics profession in the early 1990s. Not one single economist argued about the direction of trade's effect -- it was universally agreed that it was negative for these workers. Some said that trade's effect was small, even very small. Some said it was large. But again, there was absolute unanimity that the net effect of trade on these workers was negative, and that trade had exacerbated inequality.
(He goes on to say that "This is actually the best-case scenario for maximizing the 'winners' from trade. Original versions of Stolper-Samuelson predicted that all workers would lose out to capital-owners from expanded trade."

The problem isn't that the theory isn't there, then. The problem is that too many economists (if, I guess, not all) seem to shrug their shoulders and go back to chasing efficiency. They aren't affected by this, the people who pay attention to what they're saying aren't affected by this, and, to be blunt, the people that they are even aware exist aren't affected by this, just the invisible unwashed hordes.

Which is fine, if they admit that they do have a bias in that direction, but instead we tend to hear that anybody who doesn't share this focus is a "dirty, unwashed hippy communist" or, more damning, "just doesn't understand economics".

Which just goes to show you that, the evolution "debate" aside, science (especially social science) is rarely as cut-and-dried as one would believe.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005


Kevin Drum's written a lot of good posts today, but one stands out: his post on the meaning and importance of economic growth. He highlights something that has been bugging me for a while: that it's not average growth that matters, but median growth.

Over at TPMCafe, Gene Sperling is defending his new book, The Pro-Growth Progressive, from a determined onslaught led by the redoubtable David Sirota. Unfortunately, amid all the fireworks over the meaning of fair trade, the meaning of progressive, and the meaning of straw man, there hasn't been time yet to discuss the meaning of the most important word of all: growth.

If I could have one wish in arguments about the economy, it would be for the default definition of "growth" to be changed. Normally, it's taken to mean overall GDP growth, and it's certainly true that steady GDP growth is a good thing. But really, what's the point of economic growth if all the extra money is going to Donald Trump and the average guy is just treading water? What's the value of growth like that?

If I had to choose one single thing as the most important determinant of a genuinely strong economy, it would be median wage growth. After all, if median wages are increasing smartly, it's a sure bet that the economy as a whole is growing too and everyone — including Donald Trump — is doing well. It's quite possible to have strong GDP growth that still leaves two-thirds of the country stagnant — which is roughly what's happened for the past 30 years — but it's almost impossible to have strong median wage growth and not also have a booming economy.

I'd argue that headline writers should stop paying so much attention to inflation rates, GDP growth rates, and unemployment rates — as important as they are — and spend more time highlighting median wage growth. That's the single biggest sign of a healthy economy.This is one of the most annoying ways that the neo-liberals tend to misinterpret the arguments of their left-wing counterparts, and is the big blind spot in neo-classical economics: the problem of distribution.

Neo-classicists don't care about distribution, except in that they care about efficiency. They're concerned with how the market can distribute resources to maximize efficient usage. This is a fine and worthy goal, as the growth of an economy eventually benefits everybody to some degree. The problem is that if you ignore distribution, you end up in situations where average income can rise, but median income can dip or remain stagnant... especially when inflation or interest rates get factored in.

(The median consumer, I'd wager, is far more likely to be a net debtor than a net creditor, and thus high interests rates would lead to a growing gap between median and average income.)

This wouldn't be so much of a problem if neo-classicists said the problem was unimportant, but they don't. They simply ignore it, or pretend it doesn't exist. Then, of course, they wonder why they're seen as apologists for power, and why the comparative advantage that they hold so dear is savaged so viciously.

The real question for the cynic, of course, is whether they care.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Intelligent Design won?

See here.

Revisiting a topic that exposed Kansas to nationwide ridicule six years ago, the state Board of Education approved science standards for public schools Tuesday that cast doubt on the theory of evolution.

The board's 6-4 vote, expected for months, was a victory for intelligent design advocates who helped draft the standards. Intelligent design holds that the universe is so complex that it must have been created by a higher power.

Critics of the proposed language charged that it was an attempt to inject creationism into public schools in violation of the separation between church and state.

The board's vote is likely to heap fresh national criticism on Kansas and cause many scientists to see the state as backward. Current state standards treat evolution as well-established — a view also held by national science groups.

The new standards will be used to develop student tests measuring how well schools teach science. Decisions about what's taught in classrooms will remain with 300 local school boards, but some educators fear pressure will increase in some communities to teach less about evolution or more about creationism or intelligent design.
"National" criticism is only if they're lucky. It's more likely to be international, although aspiring biologists worldwide are probably more than a little happy about the news. That much of the United States seems poised to refuse to believe the biological equivalent of gravity has got to make the job hunt easier.

Friday, November 04, 2005


Apparently a majority of Americans now support impeaching Bush "if he did not tell the truth about his reasons for going to war with Iraq", according to Zogby. 51% of likely voters support impeachment, 53% of all adults.

Not sure if this is an outlier or not--Zogby has been criticized for that before--but it's still striking.

What else is striking is how weak the Bush White House seems to be now. It's still got three years left, but it feels already like the whole thing is effectively over. I can almost understand why the American public favors impeachment (aside from how utterly appropriate it is)...there's this sense in the air that the party is over and that Bush really just needs to go. Republicans are already starting to distance themselves from him, Democrats are clearly no longer afraid of him (even while they're still afraid of his supporters), and the cult of personality, as Paul Krugman pointed out, is long dead.

Even Alito appears to be simply a way of trying to keep the base happy and curry support by angering liberals.

On the other hand, maybe things will change when/if the troops leave Iraq.

Thursday, November 03, 2005


What the hell is going on in Paris?

Rioting youths opened fire on police and set dozens of vehicles ablaze in a seventh night of violence in Paris.

In escalating unrest, shots were fired at police and firefighters, while gangs besieged a police station, set fire to a car showroom and threw petrol bombs.

At least 15 people were arrested and nine injured across north-east Paris.

France's government is facing mounting criticism of its handling of the riots, triggered by the deaths last week of two teenagers of African origin.

Bouna Traore, aged 15 and Zyed Benna, 17, were electrocuted at an electricity sub-station. Local people say they were fleeing police during a disturbance, a claim the authorities deny.

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy met with the boys' families on Thursday, as a criminal investigation and an internal police inquiry into their deaths were opened....

...Mr Sarkozy has caused controversy by labelling the rioters as "scum" and saying many of the suburbs need "industrial cleaning", but Mr de Villepin has preached a more conciliatory message, urging ministers not to "stigmatise" vast areas....

...French politicians are facing up to the reality that many of the mainly immigrant populations in cities have long been in a state of chronic tension, says the BBC's European Affairs correspondent William Horsley.

Immigrants and their offspring make up 10% of France's population, but many are without French citizenship and the right to vote. They also suffer the highest rate of unemployment, and their relations with the police are generally difficult or hostile, our correspondent says.
France needs to recognize that its growing Muslim minority is not going anywhere, and that things like unofficial job discrimination are simply not acceptable. Yes, French Muslims (as well as any ethnic group, majority, minority or otherwise) should make efforts to avoid insularity and xenophobia, but these two things are interrelated.

After all, in the end, I think all Frenchmen (and -women) can get together and agree on the one thing that really matters:

they, really, really don't like Dubya.

And if you've got shared interests, that's the first step towards a fruitful relationship!