January 31, 2005


So it was a poorly-kept office secret for a good long while, but I suppose there's no harm in announcing it now. As of today I'm no longer a lowly editorial fellow (read: "glorified intern") at Mother Jones, but will be staying on as an Assistant Editor here. That's exciting news for me, and it should squelch the very odd rumors that I'm moving elsewhere (at least for the time being). In practical terms, though, it might well mean that this personal blog has to taper off for a few days while I get adjusted. Probably not, but we'll see. Anyway, a big ol' "grazie!" to loyal readers of this site (and of MoJo), as well as all those who've sent links this way. Much appreciated!
-- Brad Plumer 8:36 PM || ||
Women, Freedom, Corruption

Here are two fascinating stories about women and their slowly changing roles in the Islamic political world. Well, fascinating but sadly rather thin. I'd like to see a lot more reporting on the topic.

Meanwhile, it's a bit distressing that the interim Iraqi ministries simply lost upwards of $9 billion over an eight-month period last year. Whoops! Hey, this is the sort of thing that quickly erodes popular support for that fuzzy post-election national-unity feeling—and if anyone can tell me how "freedom on the march" will solve the problem, I'd like to hear it.
-- Brad Plumer 8:07 PM || ||
How To Help Squatters

In a recent and rather brilliant Left2Right post, Elizabeth Anderson argued that libertarian-style "natural property rights" were incompatible with quality capitalism. As an example, she cited Hernando de Soto's work on squatters in the Third World, who all own their own land, but have no way of converting their property into capital. Fair enough, and as far as Anderson's argument goes, nothing further need be said about this. But one also wonders how to fix the squatter problem. So here we go. As I understand it, De Soto claims that we simply need to put in place some sort of legal regime that gives those squatters formal property rights—so that people can start mortgaging their homes and whatnot and get on with the business of, um, business. Capitalism for everyone!

Or perhaps not?

Just the other day, John Gravois wrote an interesting Slate piece about how de Soto's ideas haven't actually helped all that much in the Third World:
In various parts of the Third World, newly legalized squatters on the outskirts of cities are discovering that a property title supplies little of the benefit de Soto projects. Government studies out of de Soto's native Peru suggest that titles don't actually increase access to credit much after all. Out of the 200,313 Lima households awarded land titles in 1998 and 1999, only about 24 percent had gotten any kind of financing by 2002—and in that group, financing from private banks was almost nil. In other words, the only capital infusion—which was itself modest—was coming from the state.
-- Brad Plumer 12:46 AM || ||
Oil, Oil, Everywhere

"If only we could fix the world's problems… then all the world's problems would be fixed!" I don't know who first used that quote to describe Thomas Friedman, but it cracks me up every time. Here's yet another variation on the theme, from his column today:
I am a geo-green. The geo-greens believe that, going forward, if we put all our focus on reducing the price of oil - by conservation, by developing renewable and alternative energies and by expanding nuclear power - we will force more reform than by any other strategy. You give me $18-a-barrel oil and I will give you political and economic reform from Algeria to Iran. All these regimes have huge population bubbles and too few jobs. They make up the gap with oil revenues. Shrink the oil revenue and they will have to open up their economies and their schools and liberate their women so that their people can compete. It is that simple.
Really? It doesn't seem that simple. Hard numbers would help the debate here, and I don't have them, so I'm sorry in advance, but here's a rough case for skepticism. Most of the big advances on conservation and renewable energy will have to come from the United States. Not surprisingly, it will take years and years, or decades and decades. If that. (It's not immediately obvious that sensible alternative energy resources exist, though I'm cautiously leaning towards nuclear power.) Meanwhile, those massive developing countries—India and China especially—are pushing full steam ahead and demanding ever more oil themselves. They're certainly not going to be too thrilled with conservation or more expensive alternative energies for an even longer while. And after that? Hopefully we'll start seeing other emerging economies—Indonesia or Thailand or Congo—kick off China-like growth spurts, which means another wave of perilously high demand and high prices (especially as reserves start to dwindle).

So even if geo-greens ran the world, it would take a long, long time to hammer down the price of oil, and who knows what the Middle East will look like by then. Geo-greenism is a worthwhile goal—like all of Friedman's "Dude, I've got this unstoppable vision!" columns—but, um, we might want to think of a back-up plan too.
-- Brad Plumer 12:42 AM || ||

January 30, 2005

What Terrorist Media?

It seems that the big bad Arab media boogeymen, al-Jazeerah and al-Arabiyah, both put a relatively positive spin on Iraq's elections today. No one in the piece comes right out and says it, but it sure seems like criticism from the U.S. and other Westerners pressured the two stations into moderating their coverage. Nakle el-Hage of al-Arabiyah says, "There was a fear that some broadcasters will overdo coverage of violence, but we chose not to play that game." Heh, sure they did.

Regardless, this should give some ammo to those unnamed State Department Arabists who think the U.S. should be working with the Arab media, rather than censoring it. Right on. Al-Jazeerah's coverage today, if it was indeed positive, will go a long, long way towards hyping free elections in the broader Middle East. Especially since "[Arabs] are glued to their TV screens."
-- Brad Plumer 8:48 PM || ||
Insurgents, Elections, Development, Oh My!

There's no way I can link to every last thing written about Iraq today, but Newsweek's reporting team has a truly outstanding cover story on the insurgency, as well as the harvest of intelligence we've reaped from failed suicide bomber Ahmed Abdullah al-Shayiah. Some of the revelations—such as the fact that the U.S. pissed off potentially friendly tribal leaders in the early days of war, or the theory that some of the Sunni insurgents really might be willing to make peace—will be familiar to readers of this blog.

Other points are quite new, though, such as their take on the mysterious fact that Iraqi Baathist insurgents suddenly made peace with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi sometime around mid-September. Or the fact that the U.S. military could've easily disrupted the Baathist insurgency's infrastructure early on, if only we hadn't been so focused on hunting down foreign fighters. The whole thing's long, but well worth reading, and suggests that one election won't be nearly enough to win this battle.

Also, Fareed Zakaria is equally excellent with his pre-emptive take on the elections. "Elections are not democracy," he says, and yeah, it's obvious, but worth belaboring. Most crucially, Iraq needs to "create a non-oil-based economy and government." Word. Word! Iraq's economic development doesn't get a lot of coverage, but it really should—for starters, there ought to be more of a debate over whether neo-liberalism-style development is appropriate for Iraq. Robert Looney of the Naval Postgraduate School has done some stellar work on this topic, and I do hope that the State Department's thinking seriously about this. Iraq's first proconsul, Jay Garner, was fired for opposing the rapid (and mostly illegal) privatization and liberalization of Iraq's industries—but we haven't heard much about this issue since. Naomi Klein of The Nation gets into it from time to time, but she's a bit too shrill for me.

Oh, and the question I wanted to ask: When did Newsweek get so damned good?
-- Brad Plumer 7:57 PM || ||
Can't... help... jubilant... feeling...

Okay, I'll admit it—I've been swept up in the election fervor! From a rational standpoint, yes it's true that elections won't change much, and it's true that all the big problems still lie ahead. It's also generally true, as Swopa rightly points out, that these "one-man one vote" elections owe as much to Ayatollah Ali Sistani's agitating as to George W. Bush's foreign policy vision. But screw all that for now! How can this not be pretty fucking amazing:

Anyway, I'll have more later. The analysis below—written while a bit, um, tipsy late last night—still holds up. See also Kevin Drum's rough breakdown of the expected representation in the new Iraqi legislature. I'm also very pleasantly surprised that we haven't seen more feuding between the religious Shi'ites and the neo-Baathists around Allawi and Shaalan. But then, there are still millions of ballots yet to be counted, so keep crossing the fingers...
-- Brad Plumer 5:57 PM || ||

Gather round friends, and hear a tale of woe and misery: the tragedy of being a young investigative reporter for a small independent magazine with few resources or contacts, scant experience, and an office thousands of miles away from Washington. Well, okay, perhaps that's too much buildup. But the lament is real: for the last month I've been working diligently on a story about the lack of coordination between those intelligence programs that track WMDs and such. Clever, huh? Well sure. But as it turns out, I see that the GAO has just released a new report (PDF) on this very topic. Needless to say, they've done a bang-up job—given that they're, y'know, the frickin' GAO. Grrr.

Oddly enough, though, the report is curiously mute on the topic of whether or not the new National Intelligence Director will be able to get everybody onto the same page. (Isn't that what he or she is supposed to do after all—coordinate stuff?) But odds are probably not, especially after Rumsfeld and Duncan Hunter essentially neutered the new position. Oh well. Through the grapevine, I've also heard that having a coherent WMD policy from the White House would help matters. Uh-huh.
-- Brad Plumer 5:23 AM || ||
What's At Stake In Iraq's Elections?

Christopher Albritton has some top-notch reporting on the run-up to the Iraqi elections (now underway), along with good explanatory material. His prediction: The United Iraqi List—the Shi'ite List "blessed" by Ayatollah Sistani—will win a plurality, but Iyad Allawi will keep his prime minister job. That's pretty significant if true: the prime minister will be an extraordinarily powerful position, serving as commander-in-chief of the armed forces (or "armed" forces if you prefer), and if I'm not mistaken, will appoint the National Security Advisor, who will keep his (or her) job for five years.

As a bonus, I thought I'd add a bit more context as to what happens after the elections. In theory, the Transitional Administrative Law—the interim constitution that governs this whole process—outlines the mechanisms by which the newly-elected National Assembly selects a Presidential Council and the Prime Minister. In practice, the TAL is very vague about a lot of this stuff, so who knows how the legislature will handle it. But here goes.

First, the National Assembly will select the three-person Presidential Council, which needs to be approved by a two-thirds vote. Essentially that means that the two major Shiite parties, along with the Kurds, will get to pick these people behind the scenes. I'm guessing that it will be something like Jalal Talabani (a Kurdish leader), Hussein Shahrastani (a Shi'ite close to Sistani), and Ghazi al-Yawer (a secular Sunni). In other words, it will be the same crew that was originally handpicked by the U.S. to lead the interim government. The Presidential Council gets to confirm all judicial nominations, and is allowed to veto any legislation passed by the National Assembly, who can only override it with a two-thirds vote. It's quite powerful.

So in all likelihood, the new government is going to be more of the same. The same folks who ran the interim government. The same folks who earned the distrust of ordinary Iraqis for getting too cozy with the Americans. None of this, mind you, is necessarily a bad thing, but it's telling. By the way, from Albritton's reporting, it very much sounds like the Shi'ites are ready to repudiate the interim constitution as a basis for Iraqi law if the constitutional drafting process gets too bogged down. That could lead to a lot of trouble, as I suggested a while ago.

Anyway, this is all speculation and obviously we'll see what happens in a few days, but it's instructive to note that high or low Sunni turnout doesn't fundamentally change the dynamic at work here. High turnout will obviously "bless" the new government and give it some legitimacy, but if the Sunnis feel like they're being overridden and marginalized within the National Assembly by the expatriate parties, as is highly possible, then the danger is that they'll become even more disillusioned with this thing called "democracy". It's one thing to get screwed by a political process imposed from without. It's another to get screwed by a political process that you joined precisely in order not to get screwed.

Oh, and when I say "we'll see what happens in a few days," I mean it literally. The ballots will be counted in multiple centers over the course of two or three days. Um, in theory that means the country should have like nine times as many vote-counting monitors as normal. In reality there are far, far less. Oy...
-- Brad Plumer 5:03 AM || ||
Taxation Without Recrimination

As Brad Delong says, this Elizabeth Anderson post—in which she deploys Hayek to smash the idea that pre-tax income is in any way a matter of desert—is quite brilliant. But her earlier post on the subject might be even better, in which she argues that natural property rights are incompatible with thriving capitalism. The woman's a force of nature!

Only one quibble: I'm not entirely swayed by her argument that a successful capitalist system needs limited liability corporations, at least of the sort constructed by our legal system. Sure we have them, and they work, and most (all?) liberal economies do it this way, but couldn't we get a similar result through the private insurance market? Surely there are "natural" ways to acquire limited liability, no?
-- Brad Plumer 4:44 AM || ||

January 29, 2005

Blogged Out, Elections, etc.

As you can see, no posts today -- I picked up Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell this morning and the perfidious beast lured me away from the joys of the internet. (And what a massive beast too; I like to think I read fast, but the whole thing took upwards of eight hours, easily.) More on that later. In the meantime, I'm off to Berkeley for dinner and hoping to catch And You Will Us Them By The Trail Of The Dead downtown later... So farewell for now little blog!

Oh, and not much to report on the Iraqi election front. It's still worrisome. Still crossing my fingers. And I'm still baffled as to how anyone could possibly interpret tomorrow's events as a success or a failure. Let's face it, we could see 80 percent of Sunnis turn out to vote tomorrow, and Iraq will still be teetering on the edge of catastrophe. Alternatively, election day could be a bloody disaster, marred by bombings left and right, with miserable turnout, and Iraq could still conceivably glide along towards relative stability in the end. Or whatnot. So I don't really care about whether the elections are a "sham" or a "historic moment" or whatever other armchair narrative we decide to impose tomorrow. It only matters where they'll eventually lead Iraq -- and that seems deeply unknowable at this point, regardless of the outcome in the short term. Oy.

MORE: Nadezhda has some further thoughts.
-- Brad Plumer 8:31 PM || ||
Now 50% More Relevant!

Happy find! Scooping up a two-day-old San Francisco Chronicle off the floor of the bus this evening, I chanced upon this article about great band names. Their favorites, alas, are a bit weak. Just the other day, a co-worker into the punk-rock scene related a truly brilliant band name: Nebuchadnezzar's Pez Dispenser. Top that!

On a related note, Ezra Klein's totally off-base when he says that blogs are shallow and useless. Er, no. "Nebuchadnezzar's Pez Dispenser", people! Seriously now. Leave other classics of the genre in comments...
-- Brad Plumer 2:25 AM || ||

January 28, 2005

Successful Elections?

Andrew Sullivan asks: "How do we tell if the Iraqi elections are a success?" Oh, I dunno, maybe if less than a thousand people die? How's that for a goalpost?

Sorry, but what more do you want? And what kind of question is this, anyways? It's completely unanswerable. No, high turnout will not constitute a "success," as Sullivan seems to think. Democracies aren't created in a day, and that goes triple for Iraq. Do remember, there's still a thorny constitutional process awaiting the country, one that could easily result in overreach, mistrust, and violence. There's still an extremely volatile situation in Kirkuk that's more than capable of igniting a large-scale war. There's still a massive Baathist insurgency that shows no signs of abating. And there are still fanatical Shiites and fanatical Kurds and fanatical Sunnis all ready to clamor for power at the margins and cause havoc at a moment's notice. The elections won't change any of that.

So we just won't know. The fewer people dead on Sunday the better, but that's about it. Yes, it will be rousing, yes it will be inspiring, yes we'll all hopefully see plenty of images of brave Iraqis defying unimaginable danger and literally risking their lives to cast a vote. But by any sensible standard, there's no way we'll be able to sit back on Sunday evening and say "that was a success" or "that failed".
-- Brad Plumer 6:18 PM || ||
Whoever Chases Charlatans...

It had to happen sooner or later. The dangerous and not-very-well-paid job of stalking Roger Kimball has unofficially been outsourced! Kriston Capps takes up the proud tradition (begun here and here, and taken to a fierce new level here) in a great post on the sexual liberation movement. I should just add that while it may sometimes seem like these academic leftists are stupid, they're all too often not, and arguing against them requires a bit more effort than Kimball mustered up.

Oh, and while we're at it, the same goes for politicians—even the reputed dim bulbs like Jim Inhofe and Barbara Boxer are in fact quite intelligent. I bring this up only because a few days ago a couple of bloggers were mocking Ted Kennedy's proposal to expand Medicare to all uninsured Americans. Criminy. The man's been thinking seriously about public policy for longer than I've been alive; his proposals are at least worth a hearing. A Ted Kennedy-designed world might not be my ideal, but it certainly wouldn't send the country into chaos and ruin either. Though I do agree that the man's a political catastrophe...
-- Brad Plumer 1:14 PM || ||
Truly Ironic

In an undisclosed location last night, Alanis Morissette's "Ironic" was playing. A friend began railing (briefly) against the much-lamented fact that none of the situations in the song are, in fact, ironic. Yes, we've all heard that before, etc. etc. But listening to the damn thing again, I realized the complaint is not wholly true. This bit of the song strikes me as fairly ironic:
Mr. Play It Safe was afraid to fly
He packed his suitcase and kissed his kids good-bye
He waited his whole damn life to take that flight
And as the plane crashed down he thought
'Well isn't this nice...'
Airplane crashes don't happen very often, so sure, this counts as "poignantly contrary to what was expected." But that's about it. At any rate, I was also wondering if there was a literary term to describe the other bits of the song. "Traffic jam when you're already late"—normally we would just say, "well, that sucks, but it's not quite ironic." But perhaps there's some obscure Greek term for this situation.
-- Brad Plumer 1:01 PM || ||
Framing The Health Care Debate

I see the president is swinging back into action with his proposal for Health Savings Accounts and other health care goodies. Beh. Hopefully we've all seen the basic arguments against these ideas by now (for a refresher see this or this). No need to rehash the talking points just yet.

But if we're going to have a big health care debate—and I hope we do!—let's put a few ground rules in place. There are three distinct "big dilemmas" at issue here: covering the uninsured, controlling health care costs, and improving the quality of care. They all need to be looked at separately, and in general they all require somewhat distinct policy approaches.

The first issue, covering the 44 million uninsured, is the easiest to get a handle on; it simply requires a lot of money. Period. Now some methods of expanding coverage are obviously more expensive than others, and the differences often comes down to "targeting". Here's what I mean: If a proposal to expand coverage ends up attracting a lot of people who already have coverage, then it will obviously require a lot more money to cover X number of previously uninsured people. For instance, a recent paper by Jonathan Gruber suggested that simply expanding Medicaid was the most cost-effective way of covering 3 million previously uninsured people, because it attracted the fewest outsiders. Unfortunately, Medicaid targets so well because it sets up various bureaucratic barriers to entry and administrative hassles, so much so that many Americans eligible for Medicaid do not, in fact, enroll in Medicaid. There are a whole legion of other problems with the program, but I won't get into that now. You get the idea.

The second problem, controlling costs, is the one that attracts all the attention. But as you would guess, it's extremely difficult to accomplish. Bush has suggested tort reform for starters. Blah blah, we can debate this all day, but the only number that counts is $26.8 billion—that's the amount in health care spending that would be saved over the next decade by malpractice reform, as estimated by the Lewin Group. Since total health care spending is estimated to be about $29 trillion over that time, we're talking about a rounding error here. It's a non-solution.

What else? Conservatives like to flog "high deductible" insurance policies—policies with low premiums that force people to pay more costs out-of-pocket (up to the first $X, after which insurance kicks in). They're a big part of Bush's vision. The idea here is that if we're all shelling out our own money for care, we're more likely to be cost-conscious and less likely to get frivolous stuff we don't need, like wheelchairs with racing stripes or what have you. Er, maybe. More likely, though, high deductible policies simply force low-income families to cut back on care, even some necessary care. Everyone else carries on. Let's face it, if you make $100,000 a year, you're not going to skip a visit to get a "second opinion" just because you'll have to pay out of pocket. Not all people are equally price-sensitive.

Another option: President Bush is now talking about all this great new technology that will transform the industry and save us billions. Whatever. Politicians have been yapping on about the tech revolution in health care for ages. I wouldn't hold my breath for this one. Most of these changes will have to be mandated by the government, since as Phillip Longman nicely illustrated recently, most health care providers have very little incentive to take on expensive IT reforms that may not result in true savings for decades. Soviet-style innovation all the way down.

Meanwhile, many of the liberal "solutions" for controlling costs are no better. Re-importation of drugs seems sensible enough, and it will help a lot of people, but we really shouldn't be relying on other countries to control our health care costs. It's ludicrous. Meanwhile, cracking down on pharmaceutical companies via price controls doesn't seem any more efficient to me than simply expanding drug insurance coverage. Less efficient maybe.

So controlling costs is really quite tough. But here's one proposal I like touting. One of the reasons health care spending in the U.S. is so high, at least when compared to the rest of the world, has to do with wages. Health professionals must be recruited from the same talent pool used by other insanely high-paying industries (law, finance, etc.). That drives up wages and hence, since health care is very labor-intensive, overall costs. We could fix this rather easily, though, by promoting true free trade and lowering the quotas and professional licensing requirements that prevent many foreign doctors from coming to America. Voila!

Okay, then. I haven't even touched on how to improve health care quality. To be honest, that seems like the most hopeless problem of all. It's probably true that fully socialized medicine would only depress medical innovation. But it's also true, as Longman's piece demonstrated, that the free market doesn't deliver quality care either—mainly because customers simply don't put a high value on quality, even if they have loads of information about services available to them. So something in between is necessary. But what?

Continue reading "Framing The Health Care Debate"
-- Brad Plumer 4:07 AM || ||

January 27, 2005

Ways And Means

In the upcoming issue of the New Republic, Michael Crowley writes that Rep. Bill Thomas (R-CA)—the man who called a Social Security privatization a "dead horse"—may not be so fainthearted after all. To wit: "Thomas may be mercurial, arrogant, obnoxious, outspoken, and highly off-message. But, when this White House wants something, Thomas delivers." Seems about right, though it's a bit disturbing to find that some Democratic staffers and aides were downright exuberant after Thomas made his remarks. Suckers.

Anyway, that's not the main point here—the main point is the following passage, which I found interesting in an "Isn't Congress cool?" sort of way:
Few people remember now, but there was a time when the House Ways and Means chairman was a figure of titanic significance--often second in power only to the president himself. In January 1963, the committee's Democratic chairman, Wilbur Mills, was featured on the cover of Time magazine. (Mills was powerful enough to block, almost singlehandedly, the creation of Medicare for several years.) The next great Ways and Means chairman was another Democrat, Dan Rostenkowski, a Washington institution known as much for his steak-and-martini consumption as for being at the center of such epic Capitol battles as the 1983 Social Security reform, the 1986 tax reform, and the 1993 Clinton budget plan.

When Republicans took control of the House in 1994, they imposed six-year term limits on the chairmanships of Ways and Means and every other committee. Chairmen today simply don't have the time to establish themselves as warlords like Mills, who served for 18 years, and Rostenkowski, who served for 14. It takes a few years to make a legislative mark--or to get your face among the political-celebrity caricatures that adorn the walls of the Palm steakhouse.
-- Brad Plumer 7:31 PM || ||
Fiddling With Retirement Ages

Edward Gramlich makes the liberal case for Social Security plus private accounts. If there was a possible universe in which Democrats could hope to see anything so rational come out of a compromise with the Bush administration, then I'd be advocating a compromise. But there is no such possible universe.

Meanwhile, Gramlich argues that raising the retirement age against wouldn't be too unfair to those with physically demanding jobs:
That's a bad rap. The retirement age would rise very slowly, about a year every decade. The main impact would be felt by workers in their 20s and 30s today. The share of workers who work in physically demanding occupations is falling every year and is going to be very low by the time they retire. I would still permit people to retire early and get reduced benefits. They're probably going to get a benefit cut, whatever happens.
The share of workers is falling? Er, depends what you mean by "physically demanding". Usually we think coal-mining, heavy manufacturing, that sort of burly stuff. But in an important sense, many service jobs are quite physically demanding. Waiting tables is physically demanding. Doing housekeeping at a hotel is physically demanding. Heck, standing at a cashier all day and absorbing a barrage of snarls and complaints is pretty physically demanding. I've done all those things before, and I found them exhausting, even as an able-bodied teenager. Obviously there's still a world of difference between that and heaving a pick-axe in a mineshaft all day, and I see Gramlich's point, but an extra year of housekeeping at the age of 68 is nothing to sniff at. (And no, I don't want to hear about how life was so much more strenuous back in the 1850s. Come on now.)

Speaking of which, I recently found this paper (PDF) by Jonathan Gruber and Courtney Coile suggesting that increasing incentives to work "would significantly reduce the exit rate of older workers from the labor force." That's something we should start looking into.
-- Brad Plumer 3:39 PM || ||
Oh, That Other Site

Yeah, I haven't been writing up a storm around these parts lately. Life has been busy. Or hectic. Or both! But as ever, wonderful political stuff happens over at Mother Jones' fine new blog, so do check us out. I'll be back to stalk Roger Kimball a bit later on.
-- Brad Plumer 2:20 PM || ||
All Is Blog

A rather cryptic hint from David Weman sent me to the Fistful of Euros award page, where I've been nominated for Best Non-European weblog. That's the good news! The bad news is that I'm firmly in last place, and at the risk of playing Ralph Nader to a worthier contender. So I'm throwing my support behind Chez Nadezhda. Chez Nadezhda's great! If you vote for them, all your wildest dreams will come true! Not to mention the fact that its proprietors—the mysterious (and mysteriously prolific) praktike and nadezhda—also run another great blog with, it must be said, a terrible name.

…I do have to say, though, that one of the other non-European contenders—One Good Thing—is quite amusing, sporting post titles like "Not All Sequels End With 'Electric Bugaloo'" or "Great Moments In Tampon History."
-- Brad Plumer 2:19 PM || ||

January 26, 2005

Homelessness And Insanity

Glenn Reynolds raises an important issue in this post about mental illness and homelessness, and collects a number of good anecdotes, but it seems like there's still a bit of misinformation floating about. Let's start with the numbers. It's very difficult to know how many homeless people are mentally ill: estimates range pretty widely, often as high as 50 percent or so. Often these numbers measure different things—how ill is mentally ill? is a meth addict mentally ill? perhaps he may as well be, perhaps not—and obviously we would recommend different solutions for different levels of mental illness.

But we can pin a few things down with fair precision—the 1992 Federal Task Force on Homelessness and Severe Mental Illness pegged the number of homeless people requiring time in an institution at only 5-7 percent. I haven't come across any other numbers on this, and I'll assume it's pretty reliable. So yes, the de-institutionalization movement certainly turned a lot of people out onto the streets, and I'd agree that it was done poorly, but that's very different from saying that it caused the current epidemic of homeless people. And it's very different from saying we should fill the mental hospitals back up as a means of tackling homelessness.

It's important to note, I think, that it wasn't merely budget pressures or the concerns over patient's rights—as immortalized in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest—that led to state hospitals turning people out in droves. The development of new psychoactive medicines also played a big part; doctors had little idea that medication alone doesn't suffice for treatment. At the same time, psychiatry was looking more favorably at early forms of community-based treatment. In the 1960s, federal aid finally became available to the mentally ill, and community mental health centers were set up. So the country at least had the basis for a new form of treatment, one that really was far more appropriate for a good number of the mentally ill, many of whom now can enjoy relative freedom (as compared to being locked in a hospital).

The problem, of course, was that not all communities kept these services in place—the quality of these shelters and homes vary from region to region, and there's a pretty dire need for more aggressive case management. There's also a dire need for mental health services in prisons: a small, much too small, percentage of mentally ill prisoners receive treatment, even though many of these people are locked up precisely because that's the quickest way to get them into treatment. (You are far more likely to be locked up in prison for disorderly conduct if you're mentally ill, period.)

So it's a complex topic, as you'd expect, and I've brushed over it all far too quickly. Glenn's right in that there really is a resistance to recognizing that some homeless people are simply intractable, and can't be helped by even the most aggressive case management. At some point, institutionalization becomes the only option. But there are also a lot of intermediate steps between an open shelter and a hospital bed, and saying, as Jeff Jarvis does, that "the real issue isn't homelessness… [i]t's insanity," badly elides all that.
-- Brad Plumer 6:39 PM || ||
Iraqi Humor Watch

Today's cartoon, via Iraqi Press Monitor, is kind of odd:
CARTOON: (Al-Sabah) – A man addresses a lady. He doesn’t ask "Do you know how much I love you?" Instead, he asks "Do you know how much I vote for you?" The cartoonist refers to the fact that Iraqis are overwhelmed by the elections, and are forgetting everything except the elections – now their main concern.
Hmmm... On a related note, readers will know that I'm extremely pessimistic about the future of Iraq, have about 100 doomsday scenarios I worry about, and think it's utterly sickening that we haven't been able to secure the country and are sending hundreds if not thousands of Iraqis off to their deaths on Sunday. Still, stories like this—along with the thousands of election workers and millions of voters who are getting out and trying to strive for democracy—really are inspiring. That should go without saying, but sometimes it gets lost in all the (justified) carping and hand-wringing.
-- Brad Plumer 3:35 PM || ||
Tenured Radicals

I never thought I'd say this, but I really wish the New Criterion would go back to its derivative warblogging days. Don't get me wrong, it's marvelous that Roger Kimball just got his copy of Philosophy for Beginners in the mail. And it's marvelous that he wants to blog all about it. I just wish he would read up a wee bit more before he started bashing academics. We've already looked at his thoughts on science, and now here's the latest, taking on the notion of "truth"—a proud philosophical tradition that started with Plato and ended with, um, Nietzsche apparently. Why end there? Who knows? Kimball suggests that "the school of impatience"—which I take to mean "the leftist academy"—is preventing us from asking the question, "What is truth?" nowadays. He also sneers at "many educated people" for being "deeply impressed" with Nietzsche. Again, perhaps this means leftists, but I'm not sure.

By the by, if you see Richard Rorty—who is both a leftist and an academic—running around telling people that 20th century analytic philosophers are mainly concerned with whether "our beliefs about the world... are somehow isomorphic to the pre-existing contours of reality", well, please tell him to stop. It's just so hard to rag on professors when they're not acting like little buffoons.

UPDATE: Crikey! He's already got another one up about "the perils of sexual liberation." The man moves quickly. Well, this is going to be a full time job keeping up.
-- Brad Plumer 12:33 PM || ||
Trouble In Computerland

It seems my lovable Dell laptop, Nessie, has become quite, quite sluggish of late. So sluggish, in fact, that I suspect foul play—some sort of bug or ad-software-thing or spyware or whatever the technical term is. In short, pests! Anyway, while I may have qualms about spraying DDT on humans, I certainly have no qualms about spraying it on my computer. Is there anything anyone can recommend? I tried googling around and found something called "AdAware", but I don't want to download something that will only make the problem worse, ala introducing rats into Australia.

And yes, I use Mozilla and all that. Yes, I'm considering getting a Mac when Nessie finally dies on me. Etc.
-- Brad Plumer 12:20 PM || ||

January 25, 2005

DDT Reconsidered

It's not a subject I know a whole lot about, but Asheesh Siddique has an interesting dissent from the growing Nick Kristof-inspired consensus that we should start spraying DDT all over the place to combat malaria. Asheesh cites this study on the adverse affects of pesticides, which seems convincing enough, though "may not be worth the risk" is the key hedge here. I do, however, like his alternative:
Kristof makes no mention in his op-ed about the main source of malarial mosquitoes: standing water. A really tough anti-malaria strategy in poor countries would actually focus on the problem of water quality management and reforming the often abominable (or non-existent) sewage systems and waste water treatment programs found throughout the underdeveloped world.
This seems like something we ought to do anyways, no? Perhaps a combination of selective DDT use and broader developmental goals? Anyways, I'm open to persuasion, though the case for DDT still sounds pretty powerful to me. Realistically, the World Bank, etc., isn't going to help create thousands of waste water treatment plants overnight, and in the meantime, a lot of lives need saving.
-- Brad Plumer 4:54 PM || ||
Fun With Iraqi Constitutions

Matt Yglesias rightly notes that even if the Sunnis do get a hand in writing the new Iraqi constitution, the entire process is so riddled with veto points that any real reform seems utterly hopeless. Stalemate, frustration, and war is still a realistic option.

Anyway, I'm still working on a longer post about the Iraqi constitution, but let me just add a few things.

At this point, it's very likely that the Shi'ites will win upwards of 75 percent of the seats in the National Assembly, thanks to low Sunni turnout. If this happens, they can actually legally change the ratification rule (Articles 60 and 61) in the Transitional Administrative Law that allows 3 of Iraq's 18 provinces to nullify a written constitution. There's one veto point down. With a three-fourths majority, the Shi'ites could also reduce the number of votes needed to make amendments to the constitution by changing article 3A. (Ordinary laws, by the way, are very easy to pass as far as I can tell, see Articles 36 and 37.) So there's another veto point down.

Now this means, naturally enough, that the Shi'ites could run roughshod over the Kurds and Sunnis and write up and pass whatever constitution they damn well please. That's a real danger—the world is full of politicians who try to reach too far. Alternatively, though, the Shi'ites could realize that they really can't afford to piss the Sunnis off—and here the U.S. could threaten withdrawal to provide some pressure—and they all work together on a constitution that's now fairly pliable. (The Shi'ites could, for instance, offer to create an upper chamber, ala the U.S. Senate, that affords minority protection to Kurds and Sunnis, in exchange for abolishing the much-too molasses-like ratification and amendment rules.)

Oh, and there's another fun aspect to all of this. Ayatollah Ali Sistani—who will continue to exercise a very large influence over the Shi'ites—still thinks that the new National Assembly ought not to be bound by Iraq's interim constitution, the TAL. And as far as I know, the UN more or less accepted this view when it blessed the June handover. It's tough to know what to make of this. In the event of a stalemate, the Shi'ites could theoretically just throw away the interim constitution, since its legitimacy is pretty dubious. So Matt's not necessarily right when he says that "the status quo would just leave [the current interim government] in charge." That's legally true only if everyone's bound by the TAL, but Sistani is quite obviously not of that opinion.
-- Brad Plumer 2:49 PM || ||
Breakaway Blog

Ezra Klein goes eponymous! As if eponymity wasn't already cool enough.

He's already kicking up dust with a post about labor. Suffice to say, I'm going to refrain from telling everyone that they really ought to pay attention to labor, and simply link to this essay from my former employers, about reviving unions. One part struck me -- one of those elitist and naive West Coast liberals who never really talks about unions -- as a bit eye-opening:
we continue to operate, in most of our work, on the assumption that unions are accepted and valued as part of this country's economic and political life -- a partner in a system of industrial relations. We see ourselves as supporters and beneficiaries of the very system that has rejected us. As a result, we interpret each new assault on unions and workers' rights as an isolated problem attributable to bad employers, economic change, and disloyal politicians, instead of viewing each gesture as part of a systematic effort to destroy us. Focusing on individual battles, we are blind to the war raging all around us. So we allow employers to open non-union facilities, out-source and subcontract union work, and viciously oppose our organizing, while establishing "cooperative" relationships with these same employers in the ever-declining unionized segments of their work force. And we act surprised, hurt, and confused when the Dunlop Commission's report describes an economy with worker "representation" but no unions. Yet we refuse to publicly criticize and break with our "friends" who drafted and supported a report that offers ammunition to enemies who want to gut collective bargaining.
Indeed. Anyways, I've strayed from the original point, which was: Ezra Klein has a cool new blog.
-- Brad Plumer 12:13 PM || ||

January 24, 2005

A National Labor Party?

Chris Bowers' rant about liberals who downplay the importance of unions deserves to be taken seriously. Most forceful of all is this quote:
The fact of the matter is this: one of the main reasons Democrats are losing elections is because it is okay to be pro-environment and anti-labor, it is okay to be pro-Roe and anti-labor, it is okay to be anti-war and anti-labor, it is okay to be anti-patriot act and anti-labor, but it is never okay to be pro-labor and anti-any of these other things.
I've heard and read a lot of different "plans" for saving the Democratic party over the past few months, but one article that really struck me as feasible was Michael Lind's "Mapquest.dem" in the last issue of The American Prospect. The basic idea was that the Democratic party simply could not remain a national party while maintaining as its core New England liberalism—which he characterized by "reformism, intellectual elitism, and anti-militarism." This strain of liberal culture produces a lot of good, and is a driving force for progressive change, but it has never formed the basis of a national political majority. So he offers an alternative:
A majority Democratic Party would be defined, in contrast, by its regional wings: northeastern Democrats, West Coast Democrats, Great Plains Democrats, midwestern Democrats, and even some southern Democrats. The regional factions would agree on a brief national platform that is chiefly economic. But they would be free to express their regional differences in the areas of values and foreign policy.
You can see how this ties in with Chris Bowers' post. Under Lind's model, it would be okay for a Democratic candidate to be pro-labor and anti-Roe, or pro-labor and anti-environment, or pro-labor and pro-war, but not really anti-labor and any of those things. It's a very different way of doing business. And it's not clear that cultural liberalism would even suffer—especially since "reformism" would no longer be equated with intellectual elitism. And it's equally likely that economic gains among lower and middle classes could temper some of the cultural battles we now see played out.

Anyways, nothing revolutionary here, this is all just a concrete way of spelling out the "economic populism" advice offered by Thomas Frank and countless others. For a variety of reasons listed here, I'm not at all convinced that this is the way to go, but it's worth spelling out all the same.

UPDATE: Nathan Newman claims the problem isn't Democratic politicians so much as liberal pundits and the Democrats' "non-labor base of voters", who pretty much ignore all things labor. True enough. But again, a Lind-style national party centered on labor would pretty much force these folks to get with the program or leave and form some sort of Left Libertarian party.
-- Brad Plumer 3:01 PM || ||
Ken Pollack Speaks

Hey, cool! My interview with Kenneth Pollack from last month is now online. The key thing here is that Pollack doesn't really rule out any approach to Iran, but figures we might as well try them all, starting with the least risky (negotiations) and moving on to the most treacherous (bombing) if necessary and feasible. Obvious, maybe, but why isn't anyone doing it? He's got a bunch of other good insights too.
-- Brad Plumer 1:44 PM || ||
Iraqi Shi'ites Going Secular

File this story under "I frickin' told you so two months ago."

(Okay, not really. File it under "I'll gladly trumpet whatever New York Times story supports my pre-existing views on Iraq." But whatever! Let me also add the key caveat: In the event of a civil war the radical Shi'ites will assume a much more powerful position, since they control all the Shi'ite militias.)

Also, I'd like to take this opportunity to say that I was absolutely, utterly, positively wrong about one thing: The effect of absentee ballots in Iraq. A little while ago, my conspiracy theory du jour concerned all those absentee ballots that were supposedly going to be counted in Jordan—a hotbed of pro-Allawi, anti-Chalabi sentiment. Chaos and disputes would follow! So thought I. But I never bothered to fact check the numbers; instead I just assumed that there would literally be a million absentee ballots, and they would all make a big difference in this election. Sadly, no. As Juan Cole points out, absentee voting will end up being paltry, barely making a dent in the overall voting numbers. Turns out Iraqis abroad didn't feel like registering. Oh well, time for a new crazy fear with which to whittle away the days. Any suggestions?
-- Brad Plumer 1:40 AM || ||

January 23, 2005

High Culture "Takes On" Science

Here are the rules. If you're going to spend untold hours of your life whining about "postmodern science," first you need to do the following:
  1. Read what Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerbend actually wrote. Browsing through the "summaries" you found via Google doesn't count. Just read the books—they're not very long, don't worry.
  2. Understand that you just might not be the first person to "debunk" Karl Popper's idea that all scientific theories must be falsifiable. Sad but true.
  3. Name your targets! Are there real, flesh-and-blood people with actual influence advocating postmodern science? Awesome. But for Christ's sake, name them. Fluttering your hands around in the air and talking about "leftists in the academy" doesn't count.
Anyways, Roger Kimball inveighs against "scientific irrationalism," but the term strikes me as vague and misleading. This isn't really my field, but it seems that with regards to science, a person could believe that a) the ontology of science is subjective, b) the epistemology of science is subjective, c) both, or d) neither.

Kuhn seems more like a) than c) to me—since for him there are still perfectly good and objective reasons for choosing one particular scientific paradigm over another. Not that the kids at the New Criterion are interested in this sort of debate, but there you go...
-- Brad Plumer 9:17 PM || ||
Inflate Away!

Okay, I'll admit, I've never understand the problem with grade inflation. Sure it seems hokey and filthy, but doesn't it all get recalibrated eventually? Here's what I mean. Let's say there was no grade inflation, and professors gave out A's for outstanding work, B's for great work, C's for average work, and so on. If everyone agreed to and understood this standard, then we'd all know—and by "we" I mean employers, graduate schools, peers who listen to the kid brag about his GPA—that 2.0 means you're an average student, 3.0 means you're really quite smart, while 4.0 means you're hot shit.

Not let's start inflating. A is for outstanding work, A- is for great work, B+ is for average work, B is for mediocre work. Again, eventually everyone's going to catch on, and a 4.0 GPA still means hot shit, a 3.5 GPA will mean you're kind of smart but not all that smart, 3.0 means mediocre, etc. etc. Unless everyone's getting an A in every single class, there's still a distinction to be made.

In a given class, two kids may get A's even though one kid worked much harder than another. So in that sense, as Andrew Samwick says, the distribution of grades really is compressed. But over a full college lifetime—36 courses or so—the smarter (or, okay, we won't say "smarter," but "more classroom-adept") kid will likely get A's more consistently, no? And the difference between a 4.0 and a 3.8 will be much more significant than it once was.

Anyways, Professor Samwick has some more smart thoughts on this—and isn't quite so cavalier about inflation. As a bit of additional anecdotal experience, though, I didn't think the standards at Dartmouth varied that much from department to department. I majored in both English (which you would expect to be inflated and fluffy) and Mathematics (supposedly cold and ruthless), and never felt like I earned an easy A or an unfair B+ or what have you. Plus, this stuff sort of depends. Kids gravitate towards departments where they're likely to excel. I had an intensely difficult time in my Computer Science classes—spending all-nighter after all-nighter in the lab—when some people could just crank out code. By contrast, some people just don't get literary criticism. So guess where we end up spending most of our time?

Continue reading "Inflate Away!"
-- Brad Plumer 5:24 PM || ||
No Silver Bullet

Anyone following the occupation in Iraq knows that we haven't been able to whip up the Iraqi security forces into battle-ready shape. And most of us know that the U.S. won't be able to leave until we get that accomplished. So, naturally enough, we all want to see some sort of new and improved plan for getting the training done. Some bright idea. Something. Anything.

The problem, though, is that whatever new approach the Pentagon comes up with will be distinguished mostly by minor technical changes (varying up the training courses, finding new ways of integrating competent Iraqis in new units, etc.), rather than any sort of Bold New Method. As such, I don't really feel competent to judge whether the military's latest idea—to put more Iraqis out on the street, in place of American patrols—will actually work or not. The devil's all in the details. Prima facie, yeah, it could work. Or the new Iraqi patrols could just scatter and retreat and fail to fight like they've always done, in which case we'd be right back at square one, needing to send American troops back into the street.

But at this point, what else can be done? Condoleeza Rice was rightly horsewhipped by the Senate for not getting the Iraqi troops trained, but it's not as if there's some obvious way to do things out there, and she's just not doing it because she's an evil and dumb conservative. No, no. It's simply all fucked.

-- Brad Plumer 5:03 PM || ||
Lazy Krugman

It's hardly the main point, but yikes, Jim Glass really did catch Paul Krugman in a bit of shadiness. Oh well. Back to the actual debate...
-- Brad Plumer 4:08 AM || ||
Our Secret Paramilitary

How exciting. It appears that the Pentagon has been secretly taking over the CIA's old paramilitary and covert operations role all this while. And they just plain forgot to tell anyone. Oops! Oy. I'd work up more outrage and froth, but it's late and I'm tired... Oh, and look. They trotted out Gen. "My God can beat up your God" to handle it all.

UPDATE: Okay, fuck it. A little analysis. Yes, at a brief glance, the Pentagon's move makes a lot of sense—and the 9/11 Commission backed it, so how bad can it be? Most of these covert operations really require, well, military capabilities, and it seems a bit silly for the U.S. to have two separate-but-parallel groups that can conduct these sorts of adventures. So the Pentagon may as well do it. In the old, Cold War days, the military was never really agile enough to carry out covert work, but the times and the troops they are a-changing. Nowadays, the Pentagon has about 10,000 Special Forces ready to do crazy shit, compared to about 700 or so "covert operators" in the CIA.

So that's the glance. Now for the hard gaze. Like the 9/11 Commission, I think the Pentagon might be better off trying to work with the CIA, rather than around 'em, creating joint teams for these sorts of adventures. The CIA really does know what it's doing here, and it sounds like the Pentagon is still sending fucking Keystone Kops into danger zones, the sort of thing that gets people killed. Turf wars being what they are, of course, CIA-Pentagon cooperation will never happen, but it should. Those crazy kids all worked together wonderfully in Afghanistan, and that's a good model for success.

Right. And then we get into the accountability and oversight problems—which, um, pretty much eclipse everything else. Jennifer Kibbe delved deep into this in last year's Foreign Affairs. Basically, military covert operations don't require nearly as much congressional oversight, if any. And under international law, covert military operators would have "combatant" status, which raises all sorts of thorny issues. So this all needs to be straightened out, and now, before we start seeing Special Forces run amok, without supervision, in all corners of the earth. So the fact that Rumsfeld carried this out without telling Congress is really, really disturbing.

DOUBLE UPDATE: Wow, check out the crazy jackass running the whole show! Turns out that Special Forces in Iraq are not amused by the new Pentagon covert squad: "These guys can't set up networks and run agents and recruit tribal elders." Another: "The guy actually put us in danger." Oy.
-- Brad Plumer 4:00 AM || ||
When State Pensions Attack

Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to privatize California's pension plan for state employees and teachers. I'll be watching this story closely because a) Now that I live in California I should probably pay attention to what goes on here, and b) it has ramifications for the future of other public pension programs. Hint, hint, nudge nudge. As Stephen Moore of the pro-privatization Club for Growth says, "If California moves from a traditional defined-benefit pension plan to a 401(k)-style defined contribution plan, the nation is likely to follow." The stakes are high!

Here's one thing I don't quite get, though. Critics of the California state pension system complain that CALPERS gets very political with its investments, often meddling in boardrooms and whatnot. Now Tyler Cowen argues that this is one reason why we should think twice about investing the Social Security Trust Fund in equities.

Okay, but can't Congress quite easily pass laws to avoid this sort of meddling? They could, for instance, bar any and all Social Security stocks from voting in boardrooms. Or they could set explicit fiduciary standards saying that whatever independent investment board managed the Trust Fund follow a policy that was solely for the economic well-being of Social Security, and not for any other social or political objective. (The so-called "sole purpose" doctrine.) Now it appears that CALPERS follows a similar standard, but either the standards aren't written explicitly enough, or something shady is going on. Or am I just naïve and fiduciary standards aren't worth the paper they're printed on?

One more thing: Yes, if the government invested the Trust Fund in equities, it could be pressured into "activist" investing, as Tyler Cowen fears. But couldn't the exact same thing happen under Bush's privatization plan? As Rep. Bill Thomas helpfully explained, these are "personal" accounts, not "private" accounts, so there's nothing really stopping the government from monkeying around with the index of equities in which our "personal" accounts will be invested. If the government wanted to punish tobacco companies, for instance, it could pretty easily mandate that no private account carry tobacco stocks. So what the deuce is the difference?
-- Brad Plumer 3:48 AM || ||
Semantics of Social Security

Two semi-snarky, semi-serious comments on this Mike Allen piece about the semantics of Social Security. First, we have conservatives trying to pretend that they don't really want to "privatize" Social Security:
"Semantics are very important," House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.)said last week when a reporter asked about "private" accounts. "They're personal accounts, not private accounts. No one is advocating privatizing Social Security."
Um. So they're private accounts that can be raided by the government? No, really, in what sense aren't these accounts private? Who else has access to them? Are they subject to heavy oversight? Hm.

Oh, and then we get this part:
Democrats have their own linguistic problem: They want to banish the term "crisis." Democratic Party leaders are urging members to discuss future Social Security shortfalls as a "challenge" rather than a crisis, and assert that Bush is trying to manufacture a crisis to justify making changes that many Democrats say are unnecessary.
Friends, I'm sorry, but no. The word "challenge" sounds ridiculous. Reminds me of the old joke about p.c. nuts trying to use the term "vertically challenged" to refer to short people. Hey, why don't we just mock the term "crisis"? As in: "There goes the president with his 'crisis' talk again!" Or something about Chicken Little Republicans. Just please remember, the boy who cried wolf got eaten because everyone laughed at him. Just saying...
-- Brad Plumer 3:35 AM || ||

It's come to my attention that the RSS feed for MoJo Blog doesn't actually work. I'll see if I can alert our hard-working tech staff, but in the meantime, this feed apparently does the trick for hundreds of other loyal readers. Alas, it doesn't display signature lines, so you'll have no idea who wrote which post, but by all means, feel free to attribute anything eloquent and incisive to me.

In other news, I'm finally adding a blogroll, down to the right. I don't read a lot of off-the-beaten-track blogs, so by all means, feel free to suggest something (suggest your own if I've omitted it).
-- Brad Plumer 2:54 AM || ||
Homosexuality: An American Ideal

So says David Brooks:
...the core ideals of this country, articulated by Jefferson, Walt Whitman, Lincoln, F.D.R., Truman, J.F.K., Reagan and now Bush.
Good for him for throwing Whitman into the mix! I wonder if Brooks enjoyed this passage from Leaves of Grass as much as I did:
I remember I saw only that man who passionately clung to me,
Again we wander, we love, we separate again,
Again he holds me by the hand, I must not go,
I see him close beside me with silent lips sad and tremulous.
(from "Once I Pass'd Through A Populous City")
Beautiful! (By the way, the rest of Brooks' column wasn't all that bad, though naturally misguided. I'll try to come up with a less juvenile response tomorrow...)
-- Brad Plumer 2:51 AM || ||
How Many F-151s....

With all this talk about Israel potentially launching air strikes against Iran's nuclear program, I'd like to see some one try to settle a rather key question here: Could Israel even strike Iran? I took up this subject on Friday over at Mother Jones, based on what I've been told by several Iran analysts. Upshot: Right now it just doesn't seem like Israel has the capacity to conduct days or even weeks worth of bombing from 1000 miles away. Perhaps they could do it if they refueled their short-range strike fighters over Iraq, but it would be pretty obvious who was helping them out, and in that case we may as well have just done the whole thing ourselves.

At any rate, Ted Barlow apparently heard the same thing from Ray Takeyh and Ken Pollack, though down in the comments to Ted's post, Gary Farber offered a dissenting view:

A couple of comments on niggling points: "According to Pollack, they only have 25 appropriate planes."

This is true if we’re talking about an attack this month. But the Israelis are taking possession of two new F-16Is per month until, as currently planned, their order of 102 of this plane is filled (it’s always possible the order could be extended or added to, as well). So their technical ability to hit Iran is constantly on the increase.

Seems convincing enough—though this shouldn't be a hard dispute for some enterprising reporter to settle. Regardless, air strikes are a bad, bad idea. Our WMD intelligence remains awful, we'd (or Israel would) no doubt miss some key targets, we'd likely hit a lot of civilian targets (since many of the facilities are in civilian areas), retribution in Iraq would be swift and severe, the nationalist furor would probably set Iran's democratic revolution back decades, etc. etc. So no way, no day. No shape, no form. Of course, if the White House ever decided to actually negotiate with Iran, then they would have to leave the threat of air strikes open, which means they'd have to pretend to be actually crazy enough to try something so utterly, well, crazy. Ah, diplomacy...

By the way, this strikes me as good news—former president Akbar Hashem Rafsanjani is planning to run in Iran's June elections. I know the minutiae of Iranian politics isn't all that exciting, but dammit, it's important. No, really. It's true, there will be no reformist candidates running this time around. But Rafsanjani is at least something of a pragmatic hardliner—as Ken Pollack nicely illustrated, he's shifty and he'll do whatever it takes to save his own political skin, but he's not totally averse to negotiating with the U.S. (or economic reform). If he gets elected, we might be able to sit down with Tehran and strike a deal. By contrast, if a neoconservative like Ali Larijani (here's more wackiness from this dude) gets elected, then who knows, maybe we'll have to start thinking about air strikes.

-- Brad Plumer 2:46 AM || ||

January 22, 2005


Bush's speechwriter, Michael Gerson, tries to explain the president's foreign policy vision:
Bush's speech appeared to put the United States on a course in which moralism and idealism, rather than realpolitik, form the philosophical foundations of foreign policy. But White House officials said that is a misreading of how Bush operates. "His goals are deeply idealistic," Gerson said. "His methods are deeply realistic. In fact, that was one of the themes of the speech, that this traditional divide between realism and idealism is no longer adequate for the conduct of American foreign policy."
Fair enough. I tend to think that criticizing Bush for being "too idealistic" misses the point, obscuring the man's real flaws. In fact, I'd go even further and say there isn't any serious divide between "realists" and "idealists" among major American thinkers and politicians. (Fringe paleocons like Pat Buchanan don't count, and the Republican isolationists in the House have shown so pliable that they don't really count either.)

Everyone has certain foreign policy ideals, as well as certain senses of limits, and those differ from person to person, but so what. I don't believe, for instance, that Michael Ledeen wants us to focus on ushering revolution into Iran, while I want the U.S. to negotiate with Tehran over nukes, all because Ledeen's an "idealist" and I'm a "realist". Rather, it's because we have very different empirical takes on the situation -- on the viability of revolution, or on the sinister intentions of Iran's mullahs. In certain possible worlds we could reach factual convergence on these issues without altering our theories of foreign policy.

So there's just not a grand distinction to be made. If we really want to categorize Democrats and Republicans, there are other important continuums -- the degree to which a politician/thinker actually wants to emphasize foreign policy (Bush maybe more so, Kerry maybe less so), or the degree to which politicians/thinkers are actually interested in understanding how the world works -- that are better for distinguishing the two parties.
-- Brad Plumer 3:46 PM || ||
The Democrats Will Rise Again?

While we're on the topic of Southern conservatism, Ed Kilgore wrote a beast of a post about the future of Southern Democrats. Clay Risen's TNR cover story on Phil Bredesen, Tennessee's Democratic governor, makes for a good companion piece. And before anyone starts talking about "winning the South via pocketbook issues," here's a key passage from Risen's profile:
To be sure, Bredesen wasn't just playing the good ol' boy manqué--he talked issues as well. But, what he realized is that, in the South, people won't listen to you on the issues until they are comfortable with you as a person. Or, as Brunson puts it, "Southern voters go through a two-step process. The first is a credentialing filter, which asks if a candidate shares their values. The second is on issues--education, health care, the economy. Bredesen understands you have to go through step one before you even start step two."

Bredesen actively appealed to Republican politicians and voters as well. "Here was a man who was willing to call Republican leaders in a county and say, 'You may not vote for me, but I'd like to pick your brain and share ideas,'" says his 2002 campaign manager, Stuart Brunson. It paid off: Bredesen brought in $22,000 from the Frist family, perhaps the state's leading GOP clan (Senator Bill Frist did not contribute). Even Ted Welch, a Bush "pioneer" and a Republican heavyweight, has nothing but praise for Bredesen. "I admire him," he says. "He will consider both sides and then pull the trigger."

Bredesen's ability to play both the number-cruncher and the small-town boy done good explains his high approval ratings, numbers he has achieved even while embarking on a decidedly unglamorous agenda, cutting the deficit and tackling TennCare. In fact, he seems to be so well-liked that voters trust him to make the right decision, regardless of whether they like the results.
-- Brad Plumer 3:25 PM || ||

January 21, 2005

Chalabi, We Missed You

In the New York Sun, Eli Lake tries to crack the mystery of how con man extraordinnaire Ahmed Chalabi became so popular in Iraq:
One answer is that by campaigning against him, Jordan's monarchy and America's spies gave Mr. Chalabi the legitimacy they insisted he lacked. Mr. Allawi, the CIA, and Jordan favored a strategy that essentially purchased Iraqi security through buying off many of the functionaries of the old Baathist regime. At the time, this rapprochement was sold as the only viable strategy for placating the violent Sunni terrorists who have declared war against the right to vote of their countrymen.

But in the rehabilitation of the Baath Party, many Iraqis became enraged at the prospect of returning to tyranny. It was Mr. Allawi who sent envoys to Syria in August to meet with senior leaders of the insurgency and invited a reconstituted Baath Party to help plan the elections Iraq will hold on January 30. One reason why proceedings of the special court to try Saddam Hussein stopped almost entirely during this period was out of concern it would further incite the decapitators, assassins, and car bombers.
I also wonder whatever happened to that whole "Chalabi-is-an-Iranian-spy" story? Oh well. Meanwhile, it looks like Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Shalan, one of those infamous ex-Baathists in government, is threatening to arrest Chalabi. The incomparable Kathleen Ridolfo of RFE/RL has details. (And I do mean incomparable—she's one of the best Iraq reporters out there.) Yikes. I still think this split between the Baathist-heavy "Iraqi List" and the religious Shi'ite "United Iraqi List"—of which Chalabi is a member—is going to be gruesome. Never mind the insurgency.
-- Brad Plumer 4:40 PM || ||
At Large

William F. Buckley is getting weird these days:
There is — let's demonstrate — a law against murder. But how do you deal with the man who fired the bullet at the cuckolder in mid-stroke, egged on to do so by his daughter, who is suffering from a fatal illness?

Good catch, however, from WFB: Yesterday Bush turned the world into one big Lake Woebegone when he said that every man and woman on earth has "matchless value".
-- Brad Plumer 4:04 PM || ||
Programming Bleg?

I'm not sure if I have any readers who also happen to be extremely web-savvy and altruistic, but it's worth a shot. As you can see, the post below is very long. I'd like to add a little blog feature that lets me expand/collapse long individual posts -- sort of like what Wizbang or Matt Yglesias do. But I have no idea how to go about it in Blogger. This isn't really what I want -- it would make every post collapse. I think this Javascript concept might work -- but I don't have the faintest idea how to implement it.

Anyways, I'd be truly, eternally grateful for any advice. My email's over on the sidebar to the right. Thanks!

UPDATE: Many, many thanks to all who replied and sent me this link especially. It's a little cumbersome, but I like it.
-- Brad Plumer 3:53 AM || ||
Southern Conservatism And Fusionism

Stygius has much, much more on the subject of how the Democrats should build their message, noting that "a top-down imposition of a 'This Is Us' would prove ultimately exclusive." The post goes on to talk about building a more inclusive party in the South—and not through nifty linguistic "code words" imposed from on high.

Anyways, I'm not sure whether I agree or disagree with all this just yet, but it made me want to expand the point below about conservative fusionism, by looking at the evolution of southern conservatism a little more closely. What follows is a very incomplete history, partly based on old research, but most of it sketched out rather quickly. (In other words, only semi-scholarly.) I sort of wish I could tuck it below the fold because it's long-winded, not entirely focused, and certainly won't interest everyone, but what can you do. UPDATE: Ah, good tricks. Click link for full post.

Right, then. The story of southern conservatism traces back, predictably enough, to the Civil War. After the fighting ended, conservatives in the South, finding themselves in a land ravaged by battle and humiliated by Reconstruction, sought solace in the myth of the Lost Cause. The idea was simple enough: those rootless, industrial Yankees had sacked a noble civilization, whose people were genteel, loving and socially stable. One needs merely to leaf through the pages of The Confederate Veteran, a journal of the late 19th century dedicated to preserving the memory of the war:
In the eyes of Southern people all Confederate veterans are heroes. It is you who preserve the traditions and memories of the old-time South—the sunny South, with its beautiful lands and its happy people; the South of chivalrous men and gentle women; the South that will go down in history as the land of plenty and the home of heroes. This beautiful, plentiful, happy South engendered a spirit of chivalry and gallantry for which its men were noted far and near.
After the war, with all that grandeur in ruins, the only solution, really, was to go out and revive the glory of the Old South. Wealthy industrialists, plantation owners, and Confederate veterans all came together to form the political coalition known as the Redeemers, who argued that the best way to resurrect the region was to industrialize, to match the North factory for factory. The New South would preserve the best aspects of the Old South—maintain the etiquette, social hierarchies, and religious piety crucial to civilization—only in modern garb.

Through it all, many Southerners viewed their suffering as a religious trial, a cleansing by fire. After Reconstruction, the South became the most church-going part of the Union, and a number of those churchgoers believed that redemption was imminent, that they need only understand the tragedies of the past to understand God's plan for the future. To be very simplistic about it, this religious worldview set the South in stark contrast with the North. New Englanders such as Emerson and Thoreau put their faith in individualism while castigating the corrupting influence of society. For their part, Southern thinkers preached the corruption of man, and placed their faith in the moral correction of society.

Anyways, eventually the Dixie communal ideal clashed with the heady industrial ethos of the early 20th century. Southern conservatives became ardent critics of the capitalist machine transforming America. They found an eloquent voice here in a famous collection of essays, I'll Take My Stand, written in 1930 by the so-called Agrarians, whose ranks included luminaries such as John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren.

The Agrarians championed small-farm owners, arguing that the ideal society needs to be rooted in the land. They idealized the plantation model and denigrated capitalism for alienating workers from the land and hence, from their sense of history and community. No one, of course, was suggesting that the market economy should be abolished entirely. The Agrarians simply condemned the fanatical devotion to individualism engendered by capitalism. That ceaseless push for self-improvement led to selfishness and irresponsibility, which in turn led to the breakdown of family, community and civic responsibility.

For this new generation of conservatives, the key to combating all that excessive egocentrism in modern society—without descending into socialist dogma—was religion. Oddly enough, I once found a passage by the theologian Karl Barth that pretty much sums up the Southern conception of the religious community:
Thus the Christian approach surpasses both individualism and collectivism. The church knows and recognizes the “interest” of the individual and of the whole, but it resists them both when they want to have the last word. It subordinates them to the being of the citizen, the being of the civil community before the law, over which neither the individuals, nor the “whole” are to hold sway, but which they are to seek after, to find and to serve—always with a view to limiting and preserving human life.
Moreover, Southern conservatives found the ideal of a Christian community at odds with radical egalitarianism. Social stratification—and this meant class more than race—was necessary to stave off the sort of frenzied mass movements that could topple nations.

Now the usual opinion is that the conservative mania for social order was founded on starkly racist attitudes. Indeed, no one can ignore the question of race in any history of southern conservatism. But even that picture isn't so simple. In practice, some of the most vicious proponents of racism were often the Southern Progressives, who worked to encourage economic development in the region while creating the sort of liberal institutions and regulations necessary to maintain a stable community. Progressive Democrats especially benefited from the disfranchisement of black voters, which allowed politicians to avoid dealing with race issues and instead concentrate on industrial progress and the development of the welfare state.

In practice, though, conservatives supported whatever sort of segregation and disfranchisement policies that maintained social order. Whether this support was due to racism or merely a genuine belief in social stability remains a topic for debate. But I think it remains true, even today, that conservative enthusiasm for a social hierarchy cannot be entirely and honestly divorced from the specter of racism.

The happy alliance between social conservatism, the Baptist church and Confederate recidivism lasted only until the Great Depression, at which point the agrarian critique of capitalism lost much of its appeal. Although plenty of conservative Democrats broke ranks with Roosevelt over the New Deal, the majority of Southerners welcomed the sort of government intrusion that brought with it welfare reform and wage hikes. Agrarian thinkers in their university chairs might have bemoaned the extinction of small farms and agricultural communities, but no one else really seemed to mind. In reality, the New South’s economy had never been wholly agrarian, and the widespread use of sharecroppers had always belied the quaint image of the small farmer working his fields with his bare Southern hands. Agrarian conservatism could only be the ideology of a few wistful intellectuals, and never a mass movement.

It was at this point that the Southern Right needed to evolve in order to survive. Hence, conservatives began to align themselves more closely with the free market conservatism espoused by William F. Buckley, Jr. and the writers of the National Review, which rose to prominence in the 1950s. From an organizational standpoint, the National Review was sheer genius, uniting free market libertarians with cultural traditionalists and anticommunist crusaders. Southern Agrarian intellectuals like Donald Davidson were willing to soften their critique of capitalism in order to join Buckley’s tirade against the dissolute morality of modern society.

The publication of Russell Kirk’s wildly popular The Conservative Mind in 1953 helped formalize the Right's transition from anti-capitalists to full-blooded defenders of the traditional social order. Kirk declared himself an enemy of populism and radical change, arguing that drastic liberal reform from on high was dangerous and ill-suited to the concrete needs of everyday people. Most crucially, Kirk managed to help steer southern conservatives away from their natural anti-capitalist tendencies and got them to focus on social stability instead. The Southern right quickly fell into line.

Not that the alliance was easy. Buckley may have found no contradiction between the unrestrained market and social orthodoxy, but Southern conservatives have not always been able to reconcile the two concepts. The "Lost Cause" rallying cry has been slow to fade, and Southern intellectuals have often seen the doctrine of free-market conservatism as a direct attack against Southern culture. In the 1990s, many Southerners threw their support behind paleoconservatives like M.E. Bradford and Pat Buchanan, advocates of isolationism, small business and regional culture.

But in the years since, paleoconservatism has faded as a viable political movement, and with it, the Confederate nationalist strain of Southern conservatism has begun to atrophy. To be sure, the memory of the Civil War and the glorious Old South still lives on—one needs only glance at the flood of Confederacy reenactments and right-wing Southern "history" journals to see this. In 1994, the League of the South was formed as "an activist organization of unreconstructed Southerners pursuing cultural, social, economic and political independence for Dixie."

These are not fringe groups, and conservatives are still motivated by the "Southern ideal". But the phenomenon is dying out, however slowly. In the past decade, massive migration to the South has brought an influx of people who have little interest in Southern culture per se. Conservative strongholds like Georgia and Florida have lately showed an increase in moderate Republicans who care little for principled tax cuts and states' rights, and the number of registered Democrats has increased dramatically in the South over the past few years. The Confederacy is waning, little by little.

It is no surprise, then, that religion has supplanted nationalism as the driving force behind Southern conservatism. The rise of Protestant Fundamentalism in the 1970s induced many Southerners to abandon their historical roots. Whereas the traditional Baptist church arose out of the ashes of the Civil War and served largely to preserve that culture, the now more-prominent Fundamentalist churches preach transcendental truths independent of time and place. As Sam Hill, "the dean of Southern religion historians", has argued, the rise of Fundamentalism is steadily eroding the mythic foundations of traditional Southern culture.

Anyhow, this post has gone on for long enough—This weekend I'll try to write up a second part: "Where is Southern Conservatism Today?" And I haven't really dived into the gritty details of how the GOP, along with conservative intellectuals, managed to unite the various strands of southern conservatism. That too is an interesting story for another time. Here's a good partial examination, by Ramesh Ponnuru.

Continue reading "Southern Conservatism And Fusionism"
-- Brad Plumer 3:50 AM || ||

January 20, 2005

Building A Message

Deep in the bowels of this Mark Schmitt post on George Lakoff, I noticed a few comments worth quoting. First from praktike:
What Democrats need to recognize is that there isn't any "one message to rule them all"--the market for politics is extraordinarily fragmented, and the key to winning is to identify different messages and approaches that resonate with different audiences in such a way that the numbers add up in you favor.
Next from Billmon:
Praktike is quite right, and that's one of the reasons why when the Republicans want strategic communication tips, they don't read books by linguists -- they go to the advertising whores and the PR hacks, who have lots of experience slicing and dicing target markets.
That seems exactly right to me. And it's part of the reason why I'd rather have some "black ops" dude in the DNC Chair, rather than a "public face of the party" like Howard Dean or Martin Frost. I'm just not convinced that the Democrats even need a unified message, or a public face. Part of the question here is strategic. Do you start with some grand overarching narrative and then tailor that message to individual bits of the fragmented political market? Or do you build up a grand narrative out of various targeted appeals? It seems that long ago, the conservative movement did the latter—taking up some of the strong cultural themes lying around in white religious communities, gathering up various pro-market themes, and uniting it all under the aegis of anti-Communism. Granted, nowadays the GOP has one dude who says "freedom" three times a minute and everyone sort of knows that that's the vision, but it didn't start out that way.
-- Brad Plumer 4:49 PM || ||
Inauguration Line

Some, I know, have questioned the global appeal of liberty
Um, who? No really, who? This girl, for one, looks pretty fucking distraught, but I don't think it's "liberty's global appeal" that she's questioning right now.
-- Brad Plumer 12:54 PM || ||

January 19, 2005

The Case For Teaching Creationism, Part II

In the New York Times today, Susan Jacoby has more on evolution:
Perhaps the most insidious effect of the campaign against evolution has been avoidance of the subject by teachers, who, whatever their convictions, want to forestall trouble with fundamentalist parents. Recent surveys of high school biology teachers have found that avoidance of evolution is common among instructors throughout the nation.
Dear reader, let's think pragmatically for a second, evolutionist to evolutionist. If banning "intelligent design" means that no evolution gets taught at all, maybe it's time to reconsider putting them side by side in school. The next essential step, of course, would be for scientists to launch a very forceful and very public campaign against ID. Biology teachers can let their students know all about the arguments in this debate. They can point out the curious fact that all major scientists think ID is a crock of shit, and the theory's only prominent supporters are a few fringe theologists, fradulent mathematicians, and right-wing radio hosts. I say let's ridicule these fools to death. More later...
-- Brad Plumer 3:37 PM || ||
Woo 'Em With Diplomacy

Greg Djerejian thinks thinks that the U.S. ought to explain a few things to the new Iraqi government:
Bush … must increasingly pound in the message that: a) Iraq is already sovereign, is embarking on historical elections, and that a national assembly and consitution will take shape thereafter, b) U.S. forces remain in theater solely to help bring about the successful conclusion of this hugely difficult political process..., c) that no permanent American bases will remain in Iraq, d) Iraq will have its own independent foreign policy (even an anti-Israeli, pro-Iranian one, if that's how things pan out, though I don't think they necessarily will).
Right. The problem is that it's awfully hard to pound on that message when stuff like this is going on:
A prominent Iraqi politician, who is running for the National Assembly as a member of the religious Shiite coalition, told me that the Americans had quietly let the leading candidates know that there were three conditions that they expected the next Iraqi government to meet. "One, it should not be under the influence of Iran," he said. "Two, it should not ask for the withdrawal of American troops. And, three, it should not install an Islamic state."
Really, where do all these crazy Arab conspiracies come from?
-- Brad Plumer 3:06 PM || ||