October 31, 2004

Surcharge this

Fucking banks. That's all I have to say. That's all I want to say. Though maybe I should add that four years of studying this sort of stuff at a private university has not helped me figure out how to avoid the piles of fees, surcharges, and penalties in my monthly balance report. What my degree is good for, I can't tell you, though apparently I'm not the only one to be suckered by Bank of America.
-- Brad Plumer 3:18 PM || ||
OBL Game Theory

I'm genuinely glad to see that bin Laden's message isn't having much effect on American voting strategies. As I wrote on Friday, the idea that we should try to figure out who bin Laden's endorsing, and then vote for the other candidate, is preposterous. If OBL says "Jump!" and we all duck, that's not much different from the case where he says "Jump!" and we all, in fact, jump.
-- Brad Plumer 3:09 PM || ||
Iraq: Not Quite Norway

I'm a bit surprised that Slate never asked Daniel Gross for his opinion on the upcoming election. For my money, he's the best writer they've got (along with Fred Kaplan) -- always interesting, always digging up fun or useful little business/economic tales, facts, studies, whatever. So it's with a bit of reluctance that I have to disagree with his take on why Iraqi should create a Norway-style oil fund:
The Norwegian economy remains heavily dependent on oil (though much less than the Saudi economy): Petroleum industries account for about 17 percent of Norwegian GDP and a hefty 45 percent of exports. But the rapid growth of the fund means Norway won't suffer massively if the oil market suddenly tanks or if production begins to dwindle. (In 30 years, Norway has pumped about 29 percent of its total reserves.) In a land of high taxes, the fund functions as a substitute for national savings. When the government runs deficits, it's allowed to transfer cash out of the funds. Unlike many other oil-dependent economies—like Russia and Saudi Arabia—Norway won't have to alter spending habits dramatically if revenues suddenly decline.

Of course, Iraq isn't directly analogous to Norway—any more than it is directly analogous to Alaska. And I'm sure most Iraqis would rather have a dividend check than see their oil wealth pile up in a vast investment pool. But Iraq has endured enough internal and external shocks in the past few decades. Maybe the shattered nation needs a fiscal shock absorber more than a gift certificate.
Note that Norway's oil fund doesn't pay direct dividends to the country's citizens like Alaska's does, but opts for long-term public investments. But is that what Iraq needs right now? In the short- and medium-term, you're probably just going to want to send oil money directly to Iraqis, both to lift incomes and give those who are disgruntled some sort of "stake" in the country's security.

In the long term, of course, a Norway style fund is a great idea. But that's no guarantee it can happen. In an old issue of Foreign Affairs, Nancy Birdsall and Arvind Subramian pointed out that plenty of countries have tried to replicate Norway's success, to no avail. Governments in Venezuela, Azerbaijan, and Chad have too often raided the oil-trust fund; you have to imagine that this sort of thing could easily happen in Iraq, especially if the government decided it needed to authorize some emergency defense spending. Norway doesn't have this problem because it's a peaceful country with strong democratic institutions and an ingrained respect for the rule of law. Until that sort of thing becomes the norm in Iraq, the country's probably better off just giving the proceeds directly to the people. If the government wants to make public investments, it can tax those proceeds after they've been distributed, and be held accountable like other democratic governments.

One caveat: Gross argues that having the government manage the volatility in the price of oil would be more effective than having households manage it. (Since the government can use the trust fund as a massive savings account, to spend when prices are low, and save when prices are high.) Again, true in Norway, but true elsewhere? Again, Birdsall and Subramian note that in countries like Indonesia and Nigeria, governments splurged on idiotic investments during times of high oil prices, leaving them poor and deficit-ridden when oil prices fell. I think Birdsall and Subramian overstate their case when they say that households always manage volatility better than the government (in the '90s, the U.S. government was doing a much better job of saving money than households were; and the two are equally bad today), but their thesis is probably true for developing countries.
-- Brad Plumer 3:03 PM || ||

October 29, 2004

Bush's Dead-End in Central Asia

Does Krauthammer have a point?
In 2001, we had nothing [in Afghanistan]. What had the Clinton administration left in place? No plausible military plan. Virtually no intelligence. No local infrastructure. No neighboring bases. The Afghan Northern Alliance was fractured and weak. And Pakistan was actively supporting the bad guys.

Within days of Sept. 11, the clueless airhead president that inhabits Michael Moore's films and Tina Brown's dinner parties had done this: forced Pakistan into alliance with us, isolated the Taliban, secured military cooperation from Afghanistan's northern neighbors, and authorized a radical war plan involving just a handful of Americans on the ground, using high technology and local militias to utterly rout the Taliban.
Leave aside the fact that some people in Clinton's administration—especially Gen. Anthony Zinni—were working on isolating Afghanistan and securing cooperation from its neighbors, including Uzbekistan. The initial post-9/11 steps that Bush took were truly revolutionary. It's true that many of them were also fairly uncontroversial—most Democrats supported an invasion of Afghanistan—and the military successes owed largely to the competence of the Special Forces and the stunning capabilities of our Air Force, both of which were developed under the Clinton administration. (For all of Rumsfeld's talk about a "revolution" in military affairs, he hasn't taken us very far beyond William Cohen's changes in the mid-1990s.) Still, I think you can give Bush credit, and acknowledge that his refusal to get bogged down by NATO early on, and his decision to strike Kabul before winter settled in, were crucial steps that a Democratic administration might not have taken.

The transformation of Pakistan, furthermore, was a very big deal. Again, Zinni was the first guy to recognize that Musharraf was an invaluable ally. But the point is that Clinton never really followed up on this line of thought (although he made some decent initial steps), while Bush did. In late 2001, the Bush administration used the threat of nuclear war with India to push Pakistan into the pro-American column. Cynical, yes, but effective. The Bush administration also put pressure on Musharraf to clean out Pakistan's intelligence services, a gamble that appears to have worked out. I'm not sure a Democratic administration would have been quite so bold. So again, I'll readily give Bush credit for all this, and recognize that Gore might not have done things so well.

On the other hand, look at where we are now, and what lies ahead, in the region. Afghanistan needs more foreign aid and probably a greater peacekeeping force. In Pakistan, we have yet to interview A.Q. Khan about his nuclear proliferation ring. We still haven't made any headway on the Kashmir issue, which, I would wager, is one of the biggest sources of Islamic radicalism in the region. Musharraf's regime is hanging by a thread, and he quite probably spends too much of his political capital chasing down high-value al Qaeda targets in Waziristan (in the service of Bush's re-election campaign) rather than reforming homegrown radicalism and tackling nuclear proliferation threats. So yes, give credit for what Bush did in Central Asia thus far. But the election is about the future, not the past, and it's clear that the current White House has hit a dead end.
-- Brad Plumer 5:47 PM || ||

October 28, 2004

When Bloggers Attack

I don't like doing blogger navel-gazing, mainly because a) neither of my two blogs are all that popular, and b) uh, I have better things to do. But Jim Rutenberg's much-discussed piece about bloggers criticizing news outlets is kind of silly. Rutenberg lists plenty of examples of bloggers insulting the media, but no actual criticism. The Daily Howler isn't exactly a model of civility, but Bob Somerby does make good points and harps on real lapses in media coverage. From the Times profile, though, you'd think he was nothing more than a little infant hurling insults left and right.

I don't think this is an accident. (And no, it's not because journalists are "scared" of bloggers or whatnot.) The New York Times has simply never had much interest in looking closely at instances of factual criticism—because that would involve sorting out competing claims and figuring out what's actually true. Within the structure of news reporting, the only way to depict a controversy is by printing competing claims—and there's nothing more controversial than competing claims that are also insulting. "Criticism" here is exactly equivalent to "charges being bandied about", the harsher the better. Unfortunately, the "blogosphere" really can descend into shouting matches from time to time, but that's not—or it shouldn't be—what's valuable about it.
-- Brad Plumer 6:59 PM || ||
What Kerry can do in Iraq

My new Mother Jones article on the Democrat's chances of success is here. It's a long one, but hopefully worth it. Here's the opening:
The question everyone seems to be asking these days is what John Kerry would do in Iraq, if elected. How would he prevent the country from imploding? How would he get us out of this mess? Thus far, Kerry's "plan" for Iraq—asking our European allies to help us out, speeding up training of Iraqi forces, relying less on American contractors—has garnered a tepid response. Critics have been quick to note that Kerry has basically promised to do more or less what the Bush administration is already doing, only somehow to do it better. As Tony Karon, a columnist for Time, recently wrote, "It's hard to disagree with Vice President Cheney's sneer that Kerry and Edwards have simply packaged the administration's current efforts as their own plan."

That isn't quite fair. True, there are few good options left in Iraq, and a Kerry approach isn't likely to differ all that drastically from the current one. And true, Kerry's one supposed trump card—bringing in allied troops—isn't likely to happen. But the options available to a Kerry administration would go far beyond merely cozying up to France and Germany. From negotiating security deals with Iraq's neighbors to shaking up the reconstruction process, Kerry would find himself in a position to do a few things that the Bush administration hasn't done. It won't be easy, and there's certainly a chance that he could fail. But Kerry has a shot at fixing Iraq, and it's is time to take a look at what a Kerry plan would really entail.
Update: Many, many thanks to Kevin Drum and Matthew Yglesias for linking. Matt brings up a great point I didn't really address: What if the new government asks the U.S. to leave? (Although, to be honest, I actually did decide to address that point before I decided to cut it. Heh.) My half-informed guess is that: a) it's highly unlikely that a new government would feel confident enough about Iraq's security to ask the U.S. to leave. This is especially true if members of parties forming the interim government win a decent plurality in the January elections. And b) by stressing he has no long-term designs on Iraq, Kerry might be able to convince a Shiite-dominated government to let the U.S. remain, albeit in a role geared more towards mediating inter-Iraqi conflict. This is also true if Kerry can convince Tehran to cooperate in stabilizing Iraq. But obviously I don't know for sure, and if the Iraqi government asked Kerry to pull out, that could be bad, especially if the central government doesn't have the resources to defend itself against whatever insurgency continues to flourish.
-- Brad Plumer 1:10 PM || ||

October 27, 2004

Kerry and the First Gulf War

Joe Biden on why some Democrats, even hawkish Democrats, opposed the first Gulf War:
"We didn't trust the old man," Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware, recounted in explaining why even some hawkish Democrats, including former Senators Sam Nunn of Georgia , voted against the first President Bush in 1991. They were worried about where such a war would stop, what would happen in Kuwait, whether the conflict might spill into Iran.

"When it was over," Mr. Biden recalled, "I said, 'Well, we should have voted for it, if we'd known he was going to do it that way.'"
The "we don't trust the man in charge" excuse is probably more valid than commonly thought. After all, if you think the commander-in-chief is incompetent, or mendacious, or planning a broader war, then why would you give that commander-in-chief the authority to go to war? Wouldn't that be wholly irresponsible?

It's also worth noting that the first Gulf War was really quite the radical concept. Thanks to hindsight, the decision to attack Saddam Hussein seems like a no-brainer now -- if anything, most people would remark on how slow we were to respond, and how lucky we were that Saddam stopped short of invading Saudi Arabia before we could prepare a counteroffensive.

But that's hindsight. At the time, military intervention was a fairly unexpected move -- not even Colin Powell, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs, thought we'd go to war over Kuwait. We'd never done anything comparable, ever. He wasn't alone—then-Secretary of State James Baker was skeptical too. The pro-war camp consisted mainly of Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. But even then, no one knew what would happen, or how far the war would go, or what the price of playing peacekeeper in Iraq would be. You could say that Kerry was on the wrong side history. And he was. Still, this wasn't just some kneejerk reaction out of left field.
-- Brad Plumer 11:55 PM || ||

I'm one of those squishy liberals who thinks that our central banks should focus on lowering the unemployment rate as well as reducing inflation. (And I really don't think we should be gunning for pure price stability.) But Alex Tabarrok makes a good argument for having a "nasty central banker" who cares only about tamping down inflation:
A nasty central banker cares only about reducing inflation and not at all about reducing unemployment (think fat-cat Republican living off fixed income bonds). Precisely because a nasty central banker won't juice the economy to reduce unemployment, the nasty central banker can credibly commit to keep inflation low. The public believes the promise and safely plans for low inflation. Unemployment is the same in both scenarios - because the central bank can never systematically surprise the public with higher than expected inflation - but inflation itself is lower with the nasty central banker and thus the public is better off.
Now I'd be surprised if this was actually true in practice, but it's hard to see a flaw in the logic.
-- Brad Plumer 8:59 PM || ||
Healthy Mae

Several readers (by which I mean two, and hey, that's enough for me!) have written in (over, um, a long-ish time frame) asking what I think about Bill Frist's proposal for a "Healthy Mae"—a private alternative to Kerry's health reinsurance plan. After all, isn't that a clever, sensible solution to a complex problem? Alas, Frist hasn't given out many details for his plan, but here's what I suspect will happen.

Frist has in mind a secondary insurance market, with Healthy Mae doing what Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae do in the mortgage market. Those two firms buy up mortgages from banks, package a bunch of them together, and sell them as tradable securities to investors. The idea is that, by freeing up liquidity, banks will have more money to lend to homeowners, that they can lend at a lower rate, and that they can take more risks on low-income homeowners. In turn, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae make money because they're endorsed by the government, and for some reason can borrow at a spectacularly low rate (their bonds have lower yields than any save for the U.S. Treasury). Oh, and if Fannie and Freddie fail, most investors expect that U.S. taxpayers will bail them out, even though the companies' debt offerings clearly say this is not the case.

Right then. So a Healthy Mae would probably buy up insurance policies, bundle them up, and sell them off to investors. This would thereby free up liquidity held by insurance companies, who would presumably have incentive to offer lower premiums, and cover the sickest of the sick, since Healthy Mae would be take responsibility for the most catastrophic illnesses, and presumably it would be large enough and supported enough by the government to take these shocks.

Let me state clearly: If it worked, this would be far, far preferable than John Kerry's idea of using the U.S. government (and taxpayer money) to cover catastrophic costs. But "if it worked" is the key phrase. Would Healthy Mae lower premiums? Doubtful. A study by Wayne Passmore of the Federal Reserve found that Freddie and Fannie lower mortgage rates by only the slimmest of margins (7 basis points). I don't know what that would translate into as far as insurance premiums go, but it would be tough to beat the 10 percent reductions that most economists think Kerry's plan will offer.

More importantly, would Healthy Mae induce insurance companies to cover the sickest of the sick? The short answer: I don't know. The long answer: Seems dubious. The trick is in what sorts of carrots and sticks you have for insurance companies. Unfortunately, the Republican party has shown itself willing at every step of the way to give wide, wide latitude towards insurance companies. A Healthy Mae policy crafted by Bill Frist and Tom DeLay would likely be a boon to insurance companies and Healthy Mae shareholders first, and a health care policy second. It would be all carrot and no stick. Plus, there's always the risk that taxpayers will have to bail out the whole system if Healthy Mae gets, um, sick. But if that's the case, why not make the federal government the ultimate risk pooler in the first place? That's what Kerry's planning to do. I don't think it's a perfect option, but I don't trust the Republican Party to craft a workable private-sector option, either. And judging from the outcry over Medicare Plan B, I imagine no one else really trusts the Republicans either.
-- Brad Plumer 5:12 PM || ||
The Kerry Cabinet

Laura Rozen drags up the odds-on favorites for spots in a Kerry administration. So many names, so few positions. Have to say I'm a bit disappointed not to see Anthony Zinni on that list, even for a deputy spot somewhere.

Anyways, of all those slots Defense is going to be the hardest position to fill. I'm not sold on putting in a Republican Senator, like John McCain or John Warner, purely for decorative purposes. A Secretary of Defense should be someone who a) has executive experience of some kind; b) works well with military commanders, unlike Les Aspin or William Cohen; and c) has a coherent and strong vision for the future of national defense. There are probably other considerations, but those are the big ones.

Personally, I think William Perry fits the bill—his idea of using military relationships to shape regional landscapes was a radical one, and would work well with a Holbrooke or Biden-led State Department. (Perry's predecessor, William Cohen, seemed mostly clueless on how to use his evolving military, and he mostly ended up stymieing Madeline Albright's brand of "coercive democracy.) But barring Perry or Zinni I'm not sure who would be a good fit. Gary Hart perhaps. He obviously saw the terror threat coming long before most; though he also tends to have a soft spot for rogue states and dictators. (I know there's supposed to be a big debate about whether our main threats come from rogue states or non-state actors; the answer, of course, is "both," and Hart is sort of on the opposite extreme from, say, Paul Wolfowitz in this question.)

As a side note, this whole debate over who will serve in the Kerry cabinet really underscores the importance of winning the presidency. Democrats have only held the presidency for 12 of the last 36 years, and their administrative bench is a lot less deep than the Republicans. When Bush came to office in 2000, he had a whole slew of competent officials to choose from. Unfortunately, Cheney, Wolfowitz and Rice had disproportionate sway over the process, and so we got a lot of missile-defense buffs, Iran-Contra throwbacks and other ideologues. But there was at least a deep roster available, and the Democrats sort of lack that.
-- Brad Plumer 2:27 PM || ||
No, really, John Kerry for President

Looking through the Slate endorsements, I notice that no one really likes Kerry, though most of the staff is voting for him anyways. Big shock, I know. Anyways, I can't say I'm entirely unsympathetic here: My first choice Democrat would have been Wesley Clark, warts and all—although right before the NH primaries I decided to back Howard Dean, after Clark proved to be a wholly inept campaigner. But I certainly never even considered Kerry back then, who seemed "dull" or "pompous" or "wooden" or whatever. (Don't blame me; the media told me to think it!)

In the past few months, though, I've grown to like Kerry, quite a bit. I'm not going to write a formal endorsement for president—mostly because, uh, I've already voted and it's not much of a surprise whom I would endorse—but if I did, I'd want to make it mainly pro-Kerry rather than anti-Bush. Why? Two big reasons.

1) Iraq. Hopefully I'll have a long piece up tomorrow on the Mother Jones site that looks at what Kerry can do in Iraq. (I'm racing through the final edits as we speak.) Not just the usual niceties about competence and allies, but laying out some actual steps open to him, and a look at some of the good ideas he's put forward. Could he fail? Of course. Iraq's a disaster and it's getting worse. But if anyone's going to make the most of a bad situation, I think it's going to be Kerry.

2) Problem solving. Throughout the campaign, Kerry has put forward a number of clever ideas. His health care reinsurance plan is one of the best around—and it was certainly better than that of any other Democrat. Yes, the Republicans will probably kill this idea "sight unseen." But I'm just impressed by the mere fact that Kerry put forward a detailed, intricate plan that addressed two major health care problems—the erosion of employer-based insurance, and the bottom-line pressure on insurance companies to ditch the sickest. Kerry (er, and his policy shop) has figured out a good way to fix both problems.

To me, that indicates a candidate who can a) identify a complex problem, and b) propose a smart, sensible solution. The thing is, any number of unforeseen problems will arise over the next four years, and we want a candidate who knows how to do steps a) and b). That, I think, is the clearest difference between these two candidates. Kerry sees a problem and wonders how he can fix it. Bush sees a problem and wonders how he can use it as an excuse to do what he's wanted to do all along.

I'd mention a few other big considerations, but they've been covered elsewhere. Spencer Ackerman has noted that Kerry has exactly the right ideas for combating militant Islam and its offshoots. One thing I'd add is that Kerry is willing to fire and replace staffers and advisers when they aren't getting the job done. Ask Jim Jordan or Joe Lockhart. That, I think, is crucial. I'll be the first to note the benefits of Bush-like loyalty—it probably helps promote healthy risk-taking—but that principle has been taken much too far in recent months. Kerry has the confidence to shake up the status quo. He's the right candidate, and I'm happy to vote for him.
-- Brad Plumer 1:29 AM || ||

October 26, 2004


After four days away from the computer, I came back to find my Bloglines account stuffed to the gills with unread blog entries, newspaper clippings, and the like. It's a bit overwhelming; and now I'm hesitant to add yet another blog to the newsreader. But I can't help it -- Global Guerillas is such a cool site: "Networked organizations, infrastructure disruption, and the emerging marketplace of violence." Yeow!

(Oh, and speaking of blogrolling, I really can't thank Ezra Klein enough for linking to this site; and on multiple occasions to boot!)
-- Brad Plumer 6:26 PM || ||
Just don't call it a puppet government

The Los Angeles Times reports something that's been in the cards for awhile -- the United States is trying to ensure that its preferred parties -- the parties in the Iraqi interim government --win a majority in the January elections. As Spencer Ackerman writes, this is a problem insofar as the interim parties don't necessarily represent the Shia majority in Iraq, and have been denounced by prominent Sunni groups.

This brings up a question about the set-up of the January elections. I don't know anyone who thinks the unicameral legislative model is a good idea. As things are structured right now, parties will run on a unified list system. That means that each political party or group of parties will run a list of candidates, and if that list gets, say, 35 percent of the vote, then the top candidates on the list are selected to fill 35 percent of National Assembly seats. As designed, this system is quite clearly set up to do one of two things: a) ensure that the Shia majority get a majority of seats in the Senate, or b) allow the United States to back a consolidated slate of candidates and manipulate the election. The president has indicated that he would allow an elected government dominated by Shiite fundamentalists, but the vice-president and other Pentagon officials seem to prefer option b). So it's either hostile Islamic majority or unpopular puppet government. Take your pick.

A third option would have been to create a bicameral legislature, with a lower house based on proportional representation, and an upper house with strong minority protection -- something similar to our very own House and Senate. This would have ensured a Shia majority while allowing Sunnis and Kurds to maintain a strong voice and veto power. (Law professor Alec Walen sketched out this possibility back in 2003.) Unfortunately this was never considered, which means that either the Bush administration figured they could install their own preferred leaders in Iraq, or else they just never gave the actual workings of Iraqi democracy much thought.
-- Brad Plumer 2:56 PM || ||
No Savage Love

Driving through the California hinterlands yesterday, I was listening to Savage Nation, and couldn't help but notice that Mr. Savage really hates Bush. Not just sort of dislikes. Not just has problems with. Loathes. Especially for all the fuck-ups in Iraq—he was ranting on about the 50 dead Iraqi guards in particular. Of course, he's not planning to vote for Kerry (not a communist, you see), and he'll probably swing the lever for Bush in the end, but he's not happy in the slightest. Kudos, I guess, for being a non-partisan toxic slimeball.
-- Brad Plumer 1:31 PM || ||
High-Value Targets

I've got a lot of news catching-up to do, so apologies if I link to stuff that everyone's already talked about, but criminy, this little paragraph from last Friday's Post was absolutely damning:
Bush conducts the war on terrorism above all as a global hunt for a cast of evil men he knows by name and photograph. He tracks progress in daily half-hour meetings that Richard A. Falkenrath, who sometimes attended them before departing recently as deputy homeland security adviser, described as "extremely granular, about individual guys." Frances Fragos Townsend, who took the post of White House counterterrorism and homeland security adviser in May, said in an interview that Bush's strategy -- now, as in the war's first days -- is to "decapitate the beast."
And this, of course, is the present administration mindset towards Iraq, where Zarqawi's reputation has been inflated to "Freedom-Hater #1" (Dr. Evil, alas, was taken), despite actual evidence that he's not a grand terrorist mastermind. A lunatic, yes, and a dangerous one, but also only a small part of a much larger problem. Focusing obsessively on one mastermind can be a bit, shall we say, counterproductive. (Although if you they catch him, it's of course a big boon for a president seeking re-election.)

Now if this was just Bush playing with his little terrorist voodoo dolls, that would be one thing. But from everything I've heard from people in Iraq, the "capture the baddies!" mindset filters down to all levels of the military, and leads to an approach that handles Iraq like a video game—stomp all the henchmen, get to the main boss, and then VROOOP: level complete! Judging from the latest IRI poll, that approach doesn't seem to be working at all. Don't get me wrong, in individual situations, I've been extremely and sincerely impressed with how our military has fared in Iraq. (Here's a great example.) But the larger strategy is all wrong, and the Post points its finger in exactly the right direction.
-- Brad Plumer 8:21 AM || ||
Hiatus Ended!

Was away all weekend (and Friday... and Monday...), haven't so much as touched a keyboard, and now I'm finally getting caught up on news and whatnot. I should get back in the swing of things tomorrow.

However, I did manage to see a Discovery Channel documentary on this little fella during the weekend. Who knew Yellowstone was a ticking timebomb? Not me.
-- Brad Plumer 2:59 AM || ||

October 22, 2004

Don't fear direct elections!

Silliness from David Broder:
But direct election, however appealing, has plenty of problems built into it. When Congress debated it after George Wallace threatened electoral deadlock with his third-party candidacy in 1968, opposition came from small states, whose senators feared they would be overlooked by the candidates, and from urban constituencies, who feared diminution of their power to swing big blocs of electoral votes through the unit rule.

A bigger problem, Best and others argue, could be the effect on the two-party system. Most proposals for direct election specify a minimum percentage for victory -- usually 40 percent or 45 percent -- with a runoff between the top two contenders if no one reaches that threshold.

But as soon as you introduce the possibility of a runoff, you create an incentive for minor parties to form, in hopes of bargaining for favors or policy concessions from the runoff opponents. In such a system, a John McCain might have continued running after the primaries of 2000 to extract a promise from Bush to sign campaign-finance reform, or a Howard Dean this year in hopes of swaying John Kerry's policy on Iraq.
I think I debunked (or at least put a fist-sized dent into) most of the arguments against direct elections here. Small states are overlooked by candidates under the current system, and this whole idea that small-state interests need "protecting" is hogwash.

As for the two-party system falling apart, that's also hogwash. We don't need runoff voting. If a president gets a popular vote plurality of 36 percent, so be it. In the early days of the republic, we had plenty of presidents with skimpy pluralities who did just fine for themselves. This idea that a president needs a large or majority popular vote total to earn himself a "mandate" for ruling is nonsense. Did Lincoln have it? (No, 39.8%) Did Woodrow Wilson have it? (No, 41.8%) Heck, did George W. Bush have it? But they were all "strong" and forceful presidents.

So forget instant runoffs. But that aside, this idea that third parties could "bargain" with runoff opponents is also peculiar. Let's assume John McCain tried to extract a promise from Bush to sign campaign finance reform in 2000. In order for this to work, we would have to assume that there are a large number of voters who would only vote for Bush if he supported campaign finance. We would also have to assume that both Bush and McCain were fully aware of these voters, and realized they were important enough to sway the election. But if those assumptions were true, and the voters were that important, wouldn't Bush support campaign finance anyways, regardless of what McCain did? If there's a sizeable single-issue voting bloc whose views can be reasonably accommodated, then candidates are going to pay attention to that bloc no matter what. I don't see why this would drastically change if we abolished the electoral college.

-- Brad Plumer 4:33 AM || ||
Theologian sick of faith-based campaigning

Amen to this. The best reason to keep religion out of politics is that religion ends up getting dragged through the political mud, rather than the other way around.
-- Brad Plumer 4:14 AM || ||
More on tuition freezes

Robert Archibald and David Feldman bring up a solid argument against tuition freezes. (See my discussion below.) The problem, according to them, is that universities facing price controls tend to raid their own financial aid budget in order to hold down increases in list-price tuition. That's a valid concern, especially since what students pay after financial aid is a much more important (and less often-cited) figure than what the sticker price is.

But I have a hard time believing that states couldn't force universities to cut down on frivolities if they really tried. How hard would it be to say, "Look, you need to cut costs, and we're not letting you touch the financial aid budget or cut faculty salaries. So ditch your football team, or fire a dean, or cut your psychology program, or something." Of course, I'm assuming that a) there are "extras" that can be cut and b) cutting these "extras" is actually cost-effective. (Some sports teams, for instance, bring in more money than they cost.) But still, prove me wrong!

Archibald and Feldman, on the other hand, want to see more financial aid targeted at low and middle-income families:
Kerry could achieve a worthier goal -- increased access to higher education -- at far smaller fiscal cost by funneling money into larger federal Pell Grants or by enlarging the matching grant program that encourages states to augment their own aid budgets. Aid could be extended further into the middle class by raising the income thresholds at which families can qualify.
That's fine, but I'm not sure they have the economics right. You'd have to go pretty far up the food chain before you find families who aren't struggling to pay for higher education. How massive is this grant program going to be? (Massive.) How much extra cash does the federal government have to spend? (None.) I think I'll try to pick up Archibald's book on the subject, but he certainly hasn't convinced me that effective price controls are impossible or that we can afford, over the long term, an aid-heavy higher-education policy.

-- Brad Plumer 4:09 AM || ||

Timothy Burke has an elegant defense of Jacques Derrida up on his site. The entire essay is well worth reading, but this section in particular struck me:
Derrida I just sort of shrugged at, and asked, "What’s the big deal?" One of the things that came out of the ensuing conversation was that you sort of had to be there at the right time and place for Derrida’s work to be intellectually transformative, that he was an intervention in the truest sense of the term. I think that’s about right. Just as many of Marx’s critics scarcely recognize the degree to which Marx produced much of the common social and historical frame of reference and vocabulary that the critics themselves use, so too do many of Derrida’s critics fail to recognize how much Derrida and his associated helped to normalize certain propositions about interpretation and communication that we do not specifically attribute any longer to them.
Long-time Hum Dee Dum readers (um… yeah) will surely remember that I had a similar little epiphany a while back—that Derrida gave us muddy and recondite means to pin down what is now, alas, rather obvious. That still seems right. The big doff idea—that any structure and system of signs cannot ever be fully self-enclosed—only becomes truly profound when you see what has been done with it. And even that is an accumulation of inches.

Another way to look at Derrida, I think, is that reading his works makes for a good workout. Mental gymnastics, that sort of thing. Derrida doesn't really teach you to think, but he certainly teaches you to ruminate, and that is certainly valuable. Donald Davidson once hit it on the head when he said that the trouble with philosophy is that it is hard to improve intelligibility while retaining the excitement. Derrida opted for the excitement, but I think that matters too.
-- Brad Plumer 3:49 AM || ||
Oh that conservative military

The New York Times files yet another report on soldiers and their political preferences. I should say that I find this all fascinating, really I do, but it's hard to derive some ultimate significance from the fact that the military leans one way or the other. (Or that parts of the military lean one way or the other.) Michelle Malkin and other conservative seem to get a kick out of the fact that X percent of soldiers support Bush. But that doesn't really validate Bush, at least not in any rational sense. The military has always been largely Republican, and that pre-existing fact tends to pressure a lot of new soldiers into becoming Republican. And since political affiliation is extremely path dependent, that leaning tends to get magnified over time.

Here's an example. I have a friend, call him, oh I don't know, "Thad". Thad went to a liberal arts college, read a lot of heart-rending books about the oppression of women and minorities, had a lot of smart liberal friends, and so Thad became a liberal himself. Now imagine Thad starts reading and thinking a lot about politics. Because he started out as a liberal, or with liberal leanings, he tends to read more liberal source material than conservative source material. He comes across a lot of anti-Bush stuff, and maybe Thad's not quite so, uh, vociferous as say Paul Krugman, but he feels like the anti-Bush stuff is more right than not. When Thad reads the newspaper, he tends to remember and over-emphasize the anti-Bush stuff, and either forget or shrug off the anti-Kerry stuff. Maybe he does so only slightly, but it adds up over time. And so it goes, as little bits of liberal information continue to stick to Thad's brain, creating a rather cumulative worldview. When you ask Thad why he supports the Democrats, he rattles off all sorts of cogent and well-reasoned arguments. It sounds like he's really thought hard about this. But of course much of it only comes from his living in his own personal echo chamber—something he can't help, no matter how widely read or open-minded he tries to be.

Now swap out "liberal" for "conservative" in the above account, and swap out "small college" for "boot camp," and you have a reasonable account of the Republican armed forces. Most of these soldiers, I'm guessing, don't come in from a hard day's worth of trading bullets with insurgents, only to sit down and deliberate over their political philosophy, their stances on various national security issues, and the all-important question of how their war experience informs their electoral choice. Or if they do that, they often do so ingenuously, since many of them will only let their experience confirm their initial Republican leanings—the path dependency effect. And many of them no doubt have initial Republican leanings only because the military was Republican when they got there. Pure chance.

Now that doesn't make their political leanings invalid—like I said, this is how most of us choose sides, regardless of how rationally we can defend our positions. What's interesting, though, are the soldiers who experience enough cognitive dissonance from the war to actually switch sides. Or the soldiers who struggle with that cognitive dissonance and don't switch sides. But we have no way of knowing who's doing that.
-- Brad Plumer 3:08 AM || ||
Faster Democracy

In retrospect, one of the reasons that the Afghanistan elections seemed to go so well was that the major parties all had time to negotiate with each other. Or to put it more precisely, there was one odds-on favorite—Hamid Karzai—who, along with U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, was very, very good at forming coalitions and exchanging favors.

Iraq, by contrast, seems to have a lot of catching up to do:
But the scene in the capital is marked by an absence of campaigning and public appearances. The big political parties, like Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, have been mostly inert. Only a handful of campaign signs have been spotted around the capital, and the Independent Iraqi Election Commission has done little to announce its presence, though voter registration is set to begin Nov. 1.

Some party leaders say they are waiting for the security situation to improve before they meet with allies, hold public meetings and campaign openly. Some say that they have long lists of candidates, from places as ridden by turmoil as Falluja, who are ready to stand for office. The bargaining and horse-trading, they say, has already begun, but behind doors.
Here's the thing. If elections in Iraq are marred by violence and voter fraud, that's not a big deal. Really! Transitional elections have always been chaotic. Technically speaking, South Africa's 1994 election was a disaster—pre-election violence was high, KwaZulu/Natal province degenerated into anarchy for a few days—but the country basically turned out just fine.

What's really important here is the process of negotiation—the major ruling parties need to come to some understanding over a constitution, a mode of governing, power-sharing, etc. etc. Now in South Africa, that negotiation process had begun as far back as 1991, when Mandela and de Klerk where drafting a constitution, repealing apartheid laws, and discussing the workings of a unity government. It took three years to get those structures hammered out before elections could take place.

None of this groundwork is being laid in Iraq. The "horse-trading" described above is largely of the localized sort, and it's not real democratic bargaining; rather, it's the sort of thing that would be perfectly fine if Iraq was only electing a president—I vote for you, you give me an aqueduct, life is good. But Iraq's not voting for a president. It's trying to elect parties that are eventually expected to come together, draft a constitution, and resolve some pretty major disputes--the sort that make apartheid look like a playground squabble. You don't fix all that by letting Sunni tribal leaders swap a few favors here and there. You do that by getting all the major political actors together and actually talking about the future of the country. Before elections take place. That's why the loya jirga sessions in Afghanistan were so crucial.

By contrast, the interim Iraqi National Conference, which was elected in late August, was unfairly stacked with all the U.S.-backed parties—al-Dawa, SCIRI, INC, INA, KDP, PUK. Needless to say, these folks don't quite see eye-to-eye with the Sadrs, the Sistanis, or the Barzanis of Iraq. Meanwhile, the country's fabled proto-constitution, the Transition Administrative Law was sketched out by Bremer and a bunch of tin-ear exiles. There's been no democratic process. There's been no real negotiation among major party members. There's been no Constitutional Convention or loya jirga type forum for discussion. And now we just expect that whatever mix of tribal leaders, militants and fundamentalist clerics that get elected will simply sit down and work out their differences quietly and peacefully?

I hate to be shrill, but this plan sucks. So when someone like Josh Chafetz starts complaining that Kerry doesn't lust after democracy the way Bush does, I want to scream. "Democracy" isn't something you flip on with a light switch. Lust alone doesn't cut it. This is a delicate process, especially in a place like Iraq, and if you push it too far too fast, you can cause the whole country to topple.
-- Brad Plumer 2:28 AM || ||

October 21, 2004

Zinni for Defense?

Is Gen. Anthony Zinni going to get a spot in a Kerry administration? If not, why not? The man really knows what he's talking about:
What is the role of the military beyond that point? Right now the military in Iraq has been stuck with this baby. In Somalia it was stuck with that baby. In Vietnam it was stuck with that baby. And it's going to continue to be that way. And what we have to ask ourselves now is, is there something that the military needs to change into that involves its movement into this area of the political, the economic, the information management? If the others, those wearing suits, can't come in and solve the problem-can't bring the resources, the expertise, and the organization-and we're going to continue to get stuck with it, you have one or two choices. Either they get the capability and it's demanded of them, and we learn how to partner to get it done, or the military finally decides to change into something else beyond the breaking and the killing.

What could this mean? It could mean civil affairs changes from just being a tactical organization doing basic humanitarian care and interaction with the civilian population, to actually being capable of reconstructing nations. That we will have people in uniform that are educated in the disciplines of economics, political structure, and we're actually going to go in and do that. We're actually going to be the governors. The CINCs that are the proconsuls will truly be proconsuls and given that authority to do it; that you will set regional policy. This is scary stuff. I know in the five-sided building if this echoes over there-they hate me anyway, but they probably would be shaking in their boots to think this. But either get the people on the scene that can do it, get them there when they need to be there, give them the resources and the training, create the interoperability that's necessary-or validate the military mission to do it. In my mind, that's the most important question we have now.
That speech was given in 2003, but Zinni's been thinking about these things for a long time. If Dana Priest's wonderful book, The Mission, can be believed, Zinni saw the writing on the wall in Central Asia years before anyone else, and understood how important it was to: a) encircle and deal with Afghanistan, b) enlist Perez Musharraf as a key ally against militant fundamentalists, and c) balance reforming Central Asian nations (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Armenia) with preventing them from becoming failed states. His idea of CINCs acting as proconsuls who "transform" their regions is pretty radical, but it's also born of extensive experience and hard thinking on these issues, and he certainly can't be dismissed offhand.
-- Brad Plumer 5:11 PM || ||
Time for a tuition freeze

Public university tuition rose an average of 10.5 percent this year, far faster than inflation. Now in the past, tuition hikes generally don't mean students are actually paying all that much more. As USA Today found earlier this year, students pay an average of just 27 percent of the nominal tuition price, thanks to tax breaks, federal grants, and the like. But how sustainable is this state of affairs? If an economic downturn strikes, or states have to put more of their resources into Medicaid and other safety net programs, public universities get the shaft, and we see a spike in tuition—a spike that usually dwarfs the effect of grants and federal subsidies. Students get screwed. &tc. That seems to be what's happening now.

So maybe it's time to ask why university prices are rising so quickly. The College Board lists the following as culprits for the increase in costs: "Shrinking endowments, big increases in health insurance costs for campus employees, and anemic higher education spending by states."

Well of course they say that.

Let me step back from the liberal line here (okay, at least the Democratic line) and say that more public funding for universities might not be the answer, or at least not the only answer. It's time to consider serious tuition freezes that keep costs down. As it stands, too many public universities are dishing out too much money for, let's face it, frivolities. Sports teams, diversity programs, posh dorms—these are all nice to have, believe me, but not when college is becoming unaffordable, and weighing down state budgets. Does every public university really need to jockey for a spot on the US News & World Report rankings? No, of course not. Drastic tuition freezes would force some schools to specialize, or focus more on academics and technical training. I can't see anything wrong with that, especially if it allows more low-income (and even more middle-class) students to afford a decent education

Illinois is trying out something of the sort (kind of), and it will be interesting to see how their universities fare.

I should note that I'm open to persuasion on this issue. Peter J. Orszag and Thomas J. Kane of Brookings have argued that lower public appropriations have led to a decline in public school quality, and suggest better financing methods are the answer. But you could also argue (and they acknowledge this point) that public universities haven't really made a long-term commitment to becoming more efficient. On the other hand, Orszag and Kane note that, while slight reductions in state spending can spur universities to cut administrative overhead and improve efficiency, drastic reductions haven't had quite the same effect. So it's not impossible, but it's tricky.
-- Brad Plumer 4:54 PM || ||
Ready for things to get bad in Iraq?

Christopher Albritton reports that violence in Mosul is getting worse and worse. There are some reports that Abu Musab Zarqawi may be in Mosul already (he reportedly has safe houses there and in Baqubah), and if his men can turn the city into a second Fallujah, it would be an out and out nightmare. The city has six times as many people as Fallujah, easily, and it's already a source of contention between Kurds and Arabs. As with Kirkuk, many Kurds were driven out of the city during the 1990s, replaced by an influx of strongly pro-Saddam Sunnis. The Kurds would certainly like to take it (and its oil fields) back -- the U.S. had to force Kurdish peshmerga troops out of the city in the early days of the war. Meanwhile, the State Department has done nothing to resolve claims disputes in the city (they've paid minimal attention to Kirkuk). You've also got Turkomen, Christians, Armenians, Shiiites, Yezidis all over the city. If there's one place where the insurgents could provoke ethnic violence, this is it.

The U.S. military took extra special care to secure Mosul all last year -- this is where much-vaunted Maj. Gen. David Petraeus made a name for himself. But over the past few months, the 101st Airborne was rotated out for a smaller force, and now they've got primarily U.S. National Guardsmen and reservists patrolling the city, along with Iraqi National Guard forces. Like I said above, get ready for things to get bad.
-- Brad Plumer 3:11 PM || ||
The British are coming!

With all this hand-wringing over Tony Blair's decision to send 700 British troops up to Fallujah, no one's even stopped to ask how effective the British actually are. John Burns in the New York Times had a rather fawning piece on Sunday noting that the British have taken a light-handed approach down South -- fighting defensively for the most part, targeting their aid projects to the poor districts, holding local elections, and leaving tribal and religious governing structures mostly in place:
"When Sadr's people kicked off, we could have jumped in with big boots and killed 400 to 500 people, but we couldn't have defeated them, because they would have melted away into the side streets, and we'd have created another Najaf," Colonel Donnelly said. "We've got to find a solution here that is based on nonviolence, or we'll be here for years and years."

Now this of course sounds good, and plays to our notion that Americans are clumsy, heavy-handed barbarians while the British are smarter and world-weary (Burns actually says "world-weary"), but I'm not sure everyone agrees that the British approach is working. I was recently talking with an insurgency expert coming back from Iraq (no, not Bruce Hoffman) who noted that the British were not even doing "minimal policing," as has been claimed—rather, they were simply surrendering whole towns over to Shiite fundamentalists. "Establishing a quasi-theocracy" was the way he put it. Now maybe that's the best we can hope for in Iraq. But the British certainly haven't found that much-sought after middle ground between choking and hugging. And their approach certainly won't work in Fallujah.

For present purposes, this doesn't matter much, because I doubt the British will be used significantly in Anbar (this seems like a symbolic move, an election stunt, more than anything else). Still, there seems to be a tendency to treat the British as "effective" occupiers, and that's probably not the case at all.

Update: Okay, now I see. The British are going to do some police work elsewhere in the Sunni triangle order to free up American soldiers to assault Fallujah. The point above still stands, though its topical relevance is I suppose diminished.
-- Brad Plumer 11:13 AM || ||

October 20, 2004


One of my hobbies is making electronic music, and it seems to me that the changes in the blogosphere over the past three years or so resemble the changes in the rave/electronic music scene in the early 1990s. When it started, we were all dancing in abandoned warehouses, under the radar of the authorities, and there was lots of PLUR-talk (Peace Love Unity and Respect). But then the parties got bigger, more people started to notice, and some people started to make money, which made some others jealous, or competitive. (A short history for non-ravers can be found here.)
Guess who.
-- Brad Plumer 2:31 PM || ||
When in Georgia...

So I wrote this little Senate race update for Mother Jones yesterday (not worth reading; it's been done elsewhere and better), and today the Denise Majette campaign called me to have a little word about my assessment of the Isakson-Majette race. Like everyone else in the known universe, I said that the Republican Isakson would crush Majette—it's Georgia, it's Zell Miller's seat, what can you do. Anyways, that didn't seem to be their problem.

Their problem was with me writing that, hey, on the bright side, Isakson's voting record suggests a strong pro-choice agenda, and maybe he won't be such a wingnut after all. But no. The Majette campaign insisted that, quite the contrary, Isakson goes to bed at night cursing abortion doctors by name, and they e-mailed me the fact sheet to prove it. Doesn't that seem, well, odd? Here the Dems are going out of their way to paint their opponent as a pro-life stalwart—something Isakson himself has tried to emphasize—rather than try to let all of Georgia knows that "psst, this guy votes for federally funded abortions!" I guess I don't understand the strategy here at all, especially for a campaign that's, what, 10-15 points down?
-- Brad Plumer 1:42 AM || ||
Iranians for Bush?

Interesting news. Hassan Rowhani, head of the Security Council in Iran, has publicly endorsed President Bush. Or has he? AFP claims that Rowhani said "it makes no difference." AFP's version jibes better with everything I know about Iran -- and this wouldn't be the first time Iranian remarks were misinterpreted -- but hey let's play the game. Let's pretend that Rowhani really has endorsed Bush, and see what that would mean.

Rowhani, as we know, represents Khameini and the hardliners on the council, though he is generally considered a 'pragmatic conservative'. What does that mean? It means he couldn't care less about democracy (he once suggested the death penalty for student protestors), but he favors some sort of accommodation with the West. Supposedly. On the other hand, Rowhani has close ties with one Ahmed Chalabi, so he probably has quite a bit experience jerking the United States around. Rowhani has promised a million times over to secure Iran's borders, and of course he's done no such thing. So his idea of engagement might not be our idea of engagement.

Now here's where things get interesting. Rowhani was the one who rejected John Kerry's offer of a "grand bargain" over Tehran's nukes. It was Hossein Mousavian, another foreign-policy bigwig on the Council and Iran's delegate to the IAEA, who came out and said that Iran would at least consider Kerry's offer. So even though Mousavian has already swatted down all sorts of European-backed deals, he's hinted that he'd play ball with the United States, potentially. That, I think, is significant. It means there is probably some nontrivial faction on the security council interested in real dialogue with the U.S. Rowhani, meanwhile, who knows perfectly well that Bush will never bargain with Tehran, and also knows that he can play Bush for a fool, has said he'd favor a Republican re-election. That too is significant, because it would mean there is some nontrivial faction on the council that thinks (with good reason) it can jerk the United States around without fear of retaliation.

Now that makes for good intrigue! Too bad the AFP is probably right and Rowhani was simply misquoted.

Update: Matthew Yglesias makes a similar point, only better. I should note, though, that there are probably three main factions operating in Tehran: 1) Accomodationists like Khatami who want to move closer to the West because that's where the future of Iran lies; 2) hardliners who don't trust the United States and would prefer to develop nukes and manipulate the White House, though they'd probably seek engagement if it was in their best security interests; and 3) the neoconservative lunatics who want to ban foreign investment, end all economic reform, bolster the Islamic regime, and actively confront the United States.

If we want to talk about Tehran's election interests (dubious, I know), then: The neoconservatives, I imagine, would love Bush because his aggressive posturing and "regime change" rhetoric strengthens their hand at home. Hardliners like Mousaviani, meanwhile, would probably prefer Bush because they can outmaneuver him as they've done for the last four years, but they'd also be amenable to a Kerry engagement policy, if done right. The key, of course, is to figure out who's who. If Iran's Security Council is being run by a bunch of neoconservatives we're in big trouble.
-- Brad Plumer 1:27 AM || ||

October 19, 2004

Franks on "outsourcing" Tora Bora

A few days ago I thought about writing a long post about Tora Bora, but I see this "Tommy Franks" fellow has beat me to it, in the pages of the New York Times no less. On the merits, he's more or less right: Kerry's line on "outsourcing" Tora Bora is deeply misleading at best. (Though I think I'll still write my long Tora Bora post, because Franks is also being misleading, at least if you compare his Times op-ed to the his account in American Soldier.)

That said, Franks goes waaay off the reservation towards the end of his piece:
As we planned for potential military action in Iraq and conducted counterterrorist operations in several other countries in the region, Afghanistan remained a center of focus. Neither attention nor manpower was diverted from Afghanistan to Iraq. When we started Operation Iraqi Freedom we had about 9,500 troops in Afghanistan, and by the time we finished major combat operations in Iraq last May we had more than 10,000 troops in Afghanistan.
False. The issue of course was that Special Forces units and CIA operatives were diverted, not just soldiers in general. Richard Clarke hammered on this point back when he was all the rage, and this old USA Today article pretty much summarizes matters for anyone who doesn't have the talking points down pat. Franks should know better. Franks does know better. And that, I'm afraid, is a wee bit troubling.
-- Brad Plumer 4:10 AM || ||
No politics in the foxhole...

This is the most sensible thing I've ever read, if it's true. Is it true? I'll ask around.

Written by a Fox News correspondent too. My oh my.
-- Brad Plumer 3:40 AM || ||

October 18, 2004

Separation of Defense and State

Dana Priest's The Mission is now in paperback, and it's really worth a read. No, better yet, it's worth serious thought, especially among Democrats who think foreign policy is just a matter of more diplomacy and less grunting.

I'm only about 40 pages into the thing, but the basic premise, it seems, is this: During the 1990s, Clinton let the military do whatever the hell it wanted, because he knew they all thought he was a big fruitcake. Since military spending remained high, and funding for the State Department had been cut by 20 percent in the 70s and 80s, the armed forces ended up handling most of America's foreign diplomacy. The Commanders-in-Chiefs didn't always like the "harebrained" peacekeeping missions Clinton sent them on (Somalia, Kosovo, etc.), but once they got there they used all of the resources at their disposal, and wielded massive political authority.

Now this approach gets interesting when you consider the Gulf region. When Donald Rumsfeld first came to power, he wanted to stop his military commanders from maintaining their frequent liaisons with Gulf leaders; the military commanders, by contrast, thought these relationships were absolutely necessary to keep tabs on the Middle East. Rumsfeld didn't understand that the military was not simply "bogged down" in diplomatic entanglements—rather, this was the only way diplomacy had been conducted during the Clinton years, and it couldn't be easily altered. Much of this changed, of course, after September 11, but there was still a struggle within the Defense Department over what role it should play as far as peacekeeping and other traditional State Department roles.

If John Kerry comes to office, he's going to need to sit down and think long and hard about the proper relationship between Defense and State. From what I've heard, John Negroponte and Robert Blackwill have got the two cooperating reasonably well in Iraq these days. But the Bush administration, of course, has no idea where diplomacy ends and the military begins, and that's apparent everywhere—from Iran to North Korea and back. Part of this stems from the personal makeup of the administration, I think: Donald Rumsfeld was picked primarily as a "counterweight" to Colin Powell (who in turn was picked because he put a moderate face on a distinctly immoderate foreign policy crew)—not because the two would collaborate well together. (Things would have been very different if we had Rich Armitage heading Defense.)

But of course, the Clinton approach—ignore your military and let them do whatever they feel like doing—doesn't work either. For all the liberal plaudits the Clinton administration gets nowadays for being a slick negotiator, he almost always turned to his armed forces first for solutions to international problems. Hence you get million dollar missiles fired into ten dollar tents, but never an integrated military/diplomatic solution to anything. (North Korea was a big exception here, but I'm not sure why.)

Anyways, that's all vague as can be—but hey, I'm only 40 pages in! More when I finish the book.
-- Brad Plumer 5:08 PM || ||
Data Points

I don't recall this New York Times article getting much play when it came out a few days ago:
In the annual global competitiveness rankings of the World Economic Forum, released on Wednesday, Finland was the world's most competitive economy, and Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Iceland were 3rd, 5th, 6th and 10th, respectively.

In the "Doing Business'' report, released by the World Bank, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden were ranked near the top as well. The United States was ranked No. 2 on both lists.
So, ahem, weren't we (ie: we right-thinking individuals) all concerned that those social democratic states, with their elephantine welfare systems, are terrible places to do business. Or not competitive. Or something?

One cavil: The Times coverage doesn't really distinguish between types of welfare regimes. If you look closely at the actual report, though, you see that European states with a corporatist welfare state (France, Germany, Belgium, Austria) don't do nearly as well on the world stage. Meanwhile, some liberal states do very well (The United States and Canada, for instance), while others do quite poorly—Ireland, which has among the lowest taxes of any EU country, ranks only 30th on the list. Chile, meanwhile, ranks 22nd, the best of any Latin American country, even after being "bogged down" by rigorous labor legislation and generous safety nets. (On the other hand, the country has also privatized its Social Security system, sending domestic savings through the roof—25 percent last time I checked. So who knows.)

I'll have to play around with the list some more. This doesn't prove one thing or the other. (Ireland, for instance, has made out pretty well ever since it introduced the 10 percent corporate tax rate in the '80s.) But golly, it sure adds a pretty significant set of data points to the welfare v. competitiveness debate.
-- Brad Plumer 4:10 PM || ||
Nukes and the Balance of Power

I want to plug this interview with Graham Allison, nuke-worrier extraordinaire, done by one of my former colleagues. Allison makes exactly the right point: nuclear weapons are "really the only existential threat to America". Unfortunately I haven't read his book yet, so I don't know what he recommends to do about Iran and North Korea. I've suggested before (as others have) that we might not be able to stop Iran from going nuclear, and we might have to learn to live with that—in particular, by creating a defense alliance among the Gulf States to contain Iran.

I'm not so sure that's the right strategy anymore. One of the things the U.S. has tried to do in the Middle East over the past 20 years is to create a balance of power in the Middle East. First Iraq would be our counterweight to Iran. Then Saudi Arabia was a counterweight to Iraq. Then Turkey was a counterweight to Iran. Now Iraq again. etc. Sometimes it proves useful—the State Department played India and Pakistan off each other masterfully in 2002 to secure Pakistan's cooperation.

But in the long term, it's unstable. We've created a region that looks very much like Europe, circa 1914, and no one seems to realize it. Iranian leaders—and here I mean both hardliners and Khatami-line moderates—certainly worry about threats from the United States, but they worry just as much about Sunni radicalism from Saudi Arabia, a hegemonic Iraq, and the rise of Pakistan. Unless we do something to defuse that state of affairs—and creating a Gulf State deterrent certainly isn't that—states will always have reason to pursue nukes.
-- Brad Plumer 1:56 PM || ||
Hearts 'n' Minds: Homegrown Imam edition

European universities have come up with a slick new approach to spreading moderate Islam: breed a new generation of Western-trained Muslim clerics:
The goal of the European Institute for Human Sciences, as the coeducational school is known, is an urgent one shared by political leaders and intelligence and law enforcement authorities across the Continent.

They believe that the growing Muslim population of Europe must stanch the migration of Muslim clerics who often are self-appointed, unfamiliar with the West, beholden to foreign interests and in the most extreme cases, full of hate and capable of terrorist acts. To that end, they say, a homegrown breed of imams must be created.
While it's worth noting that a number of Western-trained Islamic fundamentalists became extremely radicalized because of their experiences in Europe (Sayeed Qutb, for one), the EIHC obviously might be on to something. It's also worth noting that some of the most innovative approaches to waging an ideological war against militant Islam will probably come from Europe over the next few years. France, Britain, Germany--all of them have radical clerics in their midst, and while making arrests and spying on immigrants have their place, no doubt, the only viable solutions are all of the "hearts and minds" variety.
-- Brad Plumer 3:17 AM || ||

October 17, 2004

Are the Ten Commandments relevant?

The Supreme Court is going to hear arguments for and against displaying the Ten Commandments on government property. Rod Smolla at Slate rounds up the major issues involved, and summarizes what sounds to me like the most forceful argument in favor of displaying the Ten Commandments:
The cultural push to defend the Ten Commandments has … lots to do with the larger perceived value of the Ten Commandments as artifacts of history and culture—expressions of elemental moral precepts that inform our law and build our sense of shared values and community.
Fair enough, but here's a question: what on earth do the Ten Commandments have to do with law and government, especially American law and government? Look at the actual commandments in question:

1. "Thou shall not worship any other god but me." This certainly isn't a law, in the sense of being a constitutional principle or an enacted legislation, in the United States, or anywhere in the world, even Iran or Saudi Arabia. (Though some nations come close.) Leave aside the fact that, practically speaking, this could never be an enforceable law, and just note that the United States was founded specifically to break this law.

2. "Thou shall not make graven images." Again, not a law, not a government precept, and never will be. Does anyone, evangelical or otherwise, want to get into the practice of making Baal statues punishable in any way?

3. "Thou shall not take the name of God in vain." Again, the Constitution is set up specifically to break this law.

4. "Thou shall not break the Sabbath." Not a law, never will be. Now maybe this commandment builds our sense of shared values and community—kicking back and watching Sunday football is a pretty American pastime. But I don't think anyone wants to make the argument that Americans who work on Sunday somehow don't share "our values".

5. "Thou shall not dishonor your parents." Certainly not a law in any meaningful sense. Also note that this commandment is less a part of American values and community than it is in many non-Judeo-Christian counties—China, for instance. Youth rebellion seems to play a far bigger role in the United States than almost anywhere else.

6. "Thou shall not murder." Now this is a law! But it's also a law that's found in almost every single country on the face of the earth, Christian or otherwise. Odds are, it was a law or firm moral precept long before Moses ever came down from the mountain.

7. "Thou shall not commit adultery." Ah, here we go. Technically, we could make this a law, although it's none too likely. And I suppose we used to back in the day. More on this below.

8. "Thou shall not steal." See #6. Confucians, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, pagan Greeks all frown upon theft. This doesn't much depend on the Ten Commandments.

9. "Thou shall not bear false witness." Another universal law. Not at all dependent on the Ten Commandments. It was the most important part of the Code of Hammurabi, in fact—and the Babylonians took perjury a lot more seriously.

10. "Thou shall not covet." I have no idea how you could make this a law. Besides, isn't coveting sort of the engine of good old-fashioned economic growth? I do believe our shared, free-market values actually depend on breaking the tenth commandment.

So what do we have? Four commandments (1, 2, 3, 10) directly contradict either the Constitution or American society. Three commandments (6, 8, 9) are certainly reflected in American law, but are not necessary for those laws to exist. Two commandments (4, 5) represent at best only fringe aspects of our culture, and certainly can't form as the basis for law. So that leaves number 7, the adultery issue. Very well. Let's ask those who wish to display the commandments whether they want to criminalize adultery or not. And if not, what relevance do the commandments have at all for American law, values, or community?
-- Brad Plumer 6:55 PM || ||

A propos of, um, nothing really, I do want to recommend Joshua Landis' Syria Comment. Syria's not the most pressing issue in the world these days, I know, but Landis goes in-depth (really in-depth) into the sort of political and cultural issues that matter across the Middle East. Start with this long post touching on the Islamization of the Baathist movement and go from there.
-- Brad Plumer 6:30 PM || ||
National priorities

Over the past few weeks The Detroit News has done a great job of sketching out the consequences of our budget priorities over the last four years.

First, the supply side round-up: The Bush tax cuts have benefited the wealthy. The estate tax repeal has benefited the wealthy. Tax cuts to help stockholders increase their earnings have benefited the wealthy. Tax cuts for horse owners (really!) have benefited the wealthy.

So some people have made out quite well. Now, on the other side of the ledger: Federally subsidized child care has been slashed, leaving many families unable to lift themselves out of poverty. Meals on Wheels is no longer rolling. Programs to help low-income families heat their homes have dried up. Public housing programs have dried up. Families, seniors, and disabled people need to wait years to qualify for Section 8 rent assistance. Programs to police public housing have been eliminated, fanning the rise of crime in low-income neighborhoods. A job creation program for low-income seniors is being hacked up. And dwindling financial aid means that students can no longer afford to go to public universities.
-- Brad Plumer 6:13 PM || ||

October 15, 2004

What's Nader's deal?

Songwriter Steve Earle, of all people, sizes Ralph Nader up perfectly:
I never drank the Nader Kool-Aid. I don’t like Ralph Nader as a candidate, nothing against him personally. But he basically, to me, is just as addicted to being right as George W. Bush is, in his own way.

-- Brad Plumer 1:27 AM || ||

October 13, 2004

Domestic debate

Worst moment of the debate: "Senator Kerry keeps mentioning John McCain, but McCain's supporting me!! He's mine!! Mine!!" Holy hell.

So who won? Well gosh, I certainly don't know how to score these things. To be fair, Kerry was a lot more dishonest in this debate than he has been in previous debates. Mostly on little things, but still. On Affirmative action: How exactly do you set government policy for affirmative action without quotas? On gun control: The AK-47 was never covered under the assault rifle ban. On outsourcing and Chinese currency manipulation: Kerry either doesn't know what he's talking about or pandering, and hopefully the former. On education: NCLB doesn't necessarily need more money, though it certainly needs to be properly implemented. And so on.

That said, Kerry has always been right on the four biggies: health care, the deficit, the minimum wage, and inequality. Bush, meanwhile, outright lied about health care. Yes, Kerry's program puts more children into Medicaid, and yes Medicaid badly needs revamping, but Kerry's absolutely right: Under Bush's "do-nothing" plan many of these children will eventually end up receiving some sort of government-funded care at a higher cost to taxpayers. And Kerry's health care proposals certainly don't alter doctor-patient relationships in any way shape or form. So that's that. Meanwhile, Bush is not at all credible on the deficit—Hey why hasn't he vetoed a single spending bill?; or on wage inequality—his minimum wage proposal would allow states to opt out, which is entirely worthless.

So on the merits, a clear win for Kerry; but he made too many gaffes and distorted too many facts to get a free pass from the media this time around, I think. Although Bush's bin Laden line will no doubt get some play, I guess. So... should we call it a draw?

Update: Mais non say the polls, Kerry wins by a nose! Well, whatever. What good are pundits anyway?
-- Brad Plumer 11:24 PM || ||
Luskin, Debates, Social Security

This is easily the most dishonest thing I have read all day. However, Donald Luskin does raise one valid point: It's not accurate to talk about the transition costs for privatizing social security as a "cost" per se. It's true the government would have to spend anywhere from $7 trillion to $8 trillion over a number of years in order to meet its current Social Security obligations while also allowing workers to divert some of their payroll taxes into private accounts. In the long run, though, assuming that privatization saves money, the government will recoup its losses. From an accounting perspective, there's no difference whether you spend those trillions now or later.

Of course, that's from an accounting perspective. In the real world, piling up massive short- and medium-term deficits could have very real effects on the economy. What those effects are -- higher interest rates, a declining dollar -- I don't know. But I don't think now is really the best time to find out, with deficits already mounting year by year.

So why not instead simply index Social Security payouts to inflation? Currently, initial benefits are calculated based on a worker's average salary, which is then indexed to the average growth in wages over time. But payroll taxes are also indexed to the growth in wages, so it's hard for tax receipts ever to overtake benefit payouts. But if we just went back to the old 1972 rules, when benefits were indexed to the rise in the cost of living, then tax receipts would exceed payouts (since under presidents not named Bush, wages tend to outpace inflation). Voila: fixed system. Note that the only reason the 1972 rules were ever revised was because stagflation in the late 1970s was forcing the system to write ludicrously high benefit checks; but now that the Fed keeps inflation under control, this shouldn't be an issue.
-- Brad Plumer 5:37 PM || ||
Oust Zarqawi?

Like I mentioned a few days ago, a split seems to be forming within the mujahideen shura in Fallujah, and some of the city's residents are getting ready to boot out Abu Musab Zarqawi terrorist group, Monotheism and Jihad. This wouldn't be the first time local insurgents in Fallujah have expelled foreign fighters, but it's obviously a pretty major development.

I'm still not sure about this obsessive focus on Zarqawi though. Karl Vick's reporting in The Washington Post makes Zarqawi out to be some chief mastermind, holding the city hostage, imposing his stringent Wahhabi brand of Islam on a town of otherwise well-meaning and pleasant Fallujans. But even without the foreign fighters, Fallujah has a good number of young Salafist clerics who command large audiences on Friday nights; Zarqawi certainly isn't the only source of militant fundamentalism in the city. Of course, Fallujans all want to talk about Zarqawi because they know the Americans are all focused on Zarqawi, but that doesn't mean Zarqawi's everything. Home-grown insurgents are all over the place: The Albuaisa tribe in particular, which comprises almost a fifth of the city, has sent hundreds of fighters into battle against the U.S. over the last year. These local insurgents certainly aren't as audacious or as well-funded as outside groups like Tawhid al-Jihad, but they're just as determined.

Don't get me wrong, if the U.S. and Allawi's interim government can isolate the foreign lunatics, drive them out, and negotiate a peace treaty with the rest of the city, that's obviously great news. But the cheerleaders should know that Zarqawi is a relatively minor problem, one that will have more significance here at home than in Iraq. The Sunnis still have no real political representation: The largest Sunni political group, the Association of Muslim Scholars, plans to boycott the elections. If, come January, the city feels like it hasn't received a fair shake, there will be no end of insurgents ready to cause havoc.
-- Brad Plumer 1:58 PM || ||

October 12, 2004

Iran: No really, appeased!

Hm, while I was busy considering the pros and cons of a "grand bargain" with Iran, the Bush administration went ahead and decided that the Kerry approach wasn't such a bad idea after all:
The diplomats said that while the administration had not endorsed any incentives for Iran, it was not discouraging Britain, France and Germany from assembling a package that the administration would consider after the American presidential election on Nov. 2, for likely presentation to Tehran later in the month.

But the discussions with the Europeans are also said to include specifics on what sanctions would be sought if Iran turns down any incentives presented by the Europeans, the European and American diplomats said. Because there may not be enough votes for sanctions on the Security Council, sanctions might only be adopted by the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Japan.

The package being discussed would, among other things, let Iran import nuclear fuel from Russia for its reactor at Bushehr, under an agreement in which Russia would then re-import the spent fuel and store it. In return, Iran would suspend its enrichment of 37 tons of yellowcake, which is nearly raw uranium.
Hm, so are they worried about the security concerns surrounding spent fuel? Or did the National Review overstate its case? Who knows? At any rate, kudos to the Bush administration for at least approximating a sane policy. At some point, the U.S. is going to need to sit down with Iran and discuss security issues—how else are you going to get Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. But Bush either won't do that out of principle or can't do that because his Iran team is paralyzed by disagreement. Nevertheless, the current "grand bargain", if it works, (and Russia seems to be willing to push Iran into it) would offer a solid start for further engagement, ideally taken up by a Kerry administration.
-- Brad Plumer 1:52 PM || ||
Iran: Not appeased?

Being the fair-minded individual that I am, sort of, I spent a few minutes trying to read up on some of the arguments against a grand bargain with Iran. (Like I said, I think incremental engagement of the sort advocated by the Council of Foreign Relations Task Force Report would be a better option, but let's go with a grand bargain for now.)

Tom Donnelly of AEI hates it because it reminds him too much of the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea. But as those who were there will tell you, the United States welched on the Framework long before North Korea did. As soon as Kim Jong Il started getting jittery about those "security assurances," he decided -- like any rational leader would do -- to opt for nukes. But by all accounts, the Agreed Framework was more or less the right idea.

So much for that. Henry Skolski's concerns are much more substantial. First, he sensibly notes that the Non-Proliferation Treaty should more state clearly that enrichment and reprocessing are out of bounds. Kerry should also recognize this. Second, light water reactors present real security risks, and nations can easily divert fresh fuel to make nuclear weapons without anyone really noticing. Meanwhile, it's not enough for the U.S. to offer to take back spent fuel—the fuel takes months to cool, and in that time Iran could, again, easily divert it to make weapons.

If Skolski's right on the science, it seems like the only way to deal with Iran is to not let it have any nuclear anything in the first place. Or put its nuclear facilities under extremely close IAEA monitoring and inspections. Bush is trying the first option, by trying to force the UN to place sanctions on Iran. Unfortunately, both Russia and China have opposed sanctions (though Russia sounds like it may cave).

But ignore that. UN sanctions are certainly a good start—if they work—though I don't think it can form the basis of a long-term strategy. The Khomeinists in Iran would almost certainly welcome sanctions as a means of deflecting pressure from the regime, and focusing domestic anger towards the UN. I'm not sure you can deter Iran from wanting nuclear weapons. Even the Khatami-style moderates want a nuclear program, largely as a matter of national prestige. Isolating Iran will only further that desire; so at some point you have to start engaging. If Bush (or Kerry) can get the UN to throw sanctions down, maybe you can go from there. But if not, if sanctions fail, then what? Then maybe the grand bargain becomes the only option, or an option that buys some time. The alternatives—"regime change," an air strike, or an invasion—are not at all viable.
-- Brad Plumer 2:49 AM || ||
Tehran: Appeased!

Looks like Iran wouldn't be so turned off by a Kerry-style grand bargain after all:
Iran would welcome a proposal by John Kerry's running mate for a "great bargain" to solve the dispute over Iran's nuclear program, a senior Iranian official said yesterday.

Iran earlier rejected the proposal, saying it would be "irrational" for Tehran to jeopardize what it says is a purely civilian nuclear program by relying on supplies from abroad. In an apparent policy shift, however, Hossein Mousavian, head of the foreign-policy committee at Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said Iran would review the proposal.
The Bush administration, of course, is interested in no such thing. But lest a grand bargain seem like petty appeasement, it's worth noting that any meaningful dialogue with Iran will have to include the United States at some point. Europe's overtures have gotten nowhere, and no one knows whether Russia is trying to stop Iran's nuclear program or usher it along. The "sabotage" option sounds thrilling, but I don't think we should be basing our Iran policy on this sort of thing. At some point, Washington needs to open a dialogue, whether it be through a Kerry-style grand bargain or my preferred approach: incremental engagement. But the current course just isn't working.

A propos, a telling little anecdote: Sometime ago the famous Iranian reactionary newspaper Kayhan did a feature on the American presidential race, starting off by saying that there was no difference between the two candidates, that they were both hoof and horn of the Great Satan, etc. etc. But the actual language used to describe the candidates was quite revealing. Naturally Bush was depicted in the most brutal of terms: as an idiot, a warmonger, the devil himself. When it came to Kerry, though, Kayhan simply noted that he fought in Vietnam, regretted it, and then had a distinguished Senate career. Coming from the reactionary press, this sort of quiet respect was unprecedented. Like I said, it's telling. CFR analyst Ray Takeyh told me the other day that even among many hardline Iranians there's a sense that the country missed a chance in the 1990s to engage the West, and they don't want to "smack another Clinton in the face."

Now that doesn't prove that engagement will succeed -- though I think it will -- but it does show that a Kerry administration will be more likely to open up some sort of dialogue. Especially since the Bush administration appears gridlocked by infighting over its Iran policy, which has led only to paralysis, which by any standard is even worse than "appeasement".
-- Brad Plumer 1:43 AM || ||
Oh those nukes!

I can hear the third debate now: "We know Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapon-related-programs. What do you think all that stuff we haven't been able to keep track of is?"

Needless to say, I'm also a little worried about Iraqi's nuclear scientists, who seem to remain unemployed and restless. You'd think we could find something to keep them occupied. You think maybe that would be a top priority. You'd think... oh, whatever. I'm too tired for outrage, let alone a crescendo of outrage.
-- Brad Plumer 1:20 AM || ||