Okay, as per the promissory note below, I flipped through our office copy of Esquire and lo!, it was very cheerful indeed. Benjamin Wallace-Wells may think female boxing is brutal and hopeless, but his fashion counterparts in New York have some very good things to say about female wrestling from the 1950's: "They made almost no money, lived as vagabonds, performed dangerous stunts, and often faced bizarre sexual manipulation." Okay, maybe not. Moving on... this one bit, part of a mock retrospective of the 21st century, rung true:
By early 2005, every American had a blog. These blogs evolved into an incendiary form of 'new journalism' that aggressively covered previously unreported issues. The issues included the growth of the blogosphere, the future of blogging, blogging's relationship to other media, what blogging reflected about society, the unblogged lifestyles of certain blogging celebrities, why the mainstream media refused to recognize blogging as a legitimate news source, and potential cast changes on The O.C. It was an exhilarating time for anyone who knew how to type.
Nyuk nyuk. And then it's a few short flips through "The New Laws of Fashion" (e.g. "18. Be suspicious of the guy in the State U. sweatshirt." Too true!) and we're all done! Oh, okay, one more fashion tip that can't be understated: "25. Short socks are for Englishmen and Italian bus drivers—you are neither." Thank you.
As they say, there comes a time in every young boy's life when he has to hock—and hock shamelessly—the magazine for which he works. So on with it! Most of the March/April issue of Mother Jones is behind a subscriber firewall, alas, but two quite good articles are available online and play on themes oft-mentioned 'round these parts. The first, by Josh Hammer, looks into the whole "bases in Iraq" issue and dredges up considerable evidence that, um, yes, we're actually building them:
Take, for example, Camp Victory North, a sprawling base near Baghdad International Airport, which the U.S. military seized just before the ouster of Saddam Hussein in April 2003. Over the past year, KBR contractors have built a small American city where about 14,000 troops are living, many hunkered down inside sturdy, wooden, air-conditioned bungalows called SEA (for Southeast Asia) huts, replicas of those used by troops in Vietnam. There's a Burger King, a gym, the country's biggest PX—and, of course, a separate compound for KBR workers, who handle both construction and logistical support. Although Camp Victory North remains a work in progress today, when complete, the complex will be twice the size of Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo—currently one of the largest overseas posts built since the Vietnam War.
Such a heavy footprint seems counterproductive, given the growing antipathy felt by most Iraqis toward the U.S. military occupation. Yet Camp Victory North appears to be a harbinger of America's future in Iraq. Over the past year, the Pentagon has reportedly been building up to 14 "enduring" bases across the country—long-term encampments that could house as many as 100,000 troops indefinitely. John Pike, a military analyst who runs the research group GlobalSecurity.org, has identified a dozen of these bases, including three large facilities in and around Baghdad: the Green Zone, Camp Victory North, and Camp al-Rasheed, the site of Iraq’s former military airport. Also listed are Camp Cook, just north of Baghdad, a former Republican Guard "military city" that has been converted into a giant U.S. camp; Balad Airbase, north of Baghdad; Camp Anaconda, a 15-square-mile facility near Balad that housed 17,000 soldiers as of May 2004 and was being expanded for an additional 3,000; and Camp Marez, next to Mosul Airport, where, in December, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the base's dining tent, killing 13 U.S. troops and four KBR contractors eating lunch alongside the soldiers.
At these bases, KBR, a Halliburton subsidiary that works in cooperation with the Army Corps of Engineers, has been extending runways, improving security perimeters, and installing a variety of structures ranging from rigid-wall huts to aircraft hangars. Although the Pentagon considers most of the construction to be "temporary"—designed to last up to three years—similar facilities have remained in place for much longer at other "enduring" American bases, including Kosovo's Camp Bondsteel, which opened in 1999, and Eagle Base in Tuzla, Bosnia, in place since the mid-1990s.
Needless to say, it's fairly difficult to convince Iraqis that we're leaving someday in the face of all this. Maybe the "reasonable" hawks out there think this is all a bunch of conspiracy-mongering, but conspiracies have a lot of currency around the region in question. Also, on the Social Security front, Barbara Dreyfus' profile of Jose Pinera—the Chilean labor minister who privatized the country's pension system—deserves a quick read. It's pure ad hominem, alas, but still, you have to love this: "He saw as his biggest obstacle the 'tenacious belief that Social Security could and should be an effective vehicle for the redistribution of wealth.'" Ah yes, now we're getting to the heart of the matter.
Anyway, that's as far as I've waded into it, but I'm sure there's other good stuff. Needless to say, Emily Bazelon's feature story on new evidence of torture 'migrating' needs to be read—it's next on the list! Then I'll go read something cheerful for a change.
Since Rick Perlstein's book on Barry Goldwater seems to be such a hot topic these days, it's probably worth pointing out this long Perlstein essay on what he thinks the Democrats should do to win in the long-term. Rather unsurprisingly, he thinks they need a Goldwater moment of their own, built around economic populism. Ho hum, yeah, but some of the responses and critiques he got were a bit more provocative.
Not being a student of the period—and not having read the book!—I don't have a whole lot to add, except to lament the fact that LBJ had to get bogged down in the Vietnam War. The Democrats had crushed—crushed!—the conservative movement after 1964, and presumably they could have gone on for ages. People like to note that Richard Nixon proved to be a pretty liberal fellow, but his appointments to the Court (Burger, Blackmun, Powell, Rehnquist) certainly set back the growing liberal consensus on guaranteeing economic rights. Humphrey or a second-term LBJ or even Robert F. Kennedy would have pushed much further, and odds are the Goldwater movement would have had to wander around in the wilderness for a lot longer. So even their 16-year "exile" from American politics (from Goldwater's defeat to Reagan's election), during which America became a lot more progressive, was less progressive than it might have been. They were lucky, and the Democrats unlucky for imploding, but the price of exile could have been much, much worse.
By the way, John Kenneth Galbraith seems to think that JFK would have pulled the U.S. out of the Vietnam. Oh how fun alternate history might have looked.
Sickening. If there's some sort of bright lining here, it's that this could turn into a "Luxor Hotel" moment, where Iraqis get so turned off by all the bloodshed that they withdraw all support for the insurgency. Except that, near as anyone can tell, most Iraqis are already sickened by the violence, don't support the insurgency, and just want it all to end. So I'm afraid the end result will just be to scare away new recruits from the National Guard. By the way, it's awfully hard to kill 100-plus people with a car bomb, unless you have a really, really big bomb. So it seems like there could be an al-Qaqaa connection here, though it probably doesn't do much good to revisit that debate at this point.
Well we've classified the Islamists already, so we may as well classify the feminists too. On the question of what, exactly, "Third Wave feminism" is, here's an interesting interview piece on the subject from long ago by Tamara Straus. The Big Question: "Can a Third Wave that tries to push forward urgent feminist issues -- such as national heath care and child care as well as the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment -- also champion girlie power with its penchant for adolescent role playing?" That's not what I thought Third Wave feminism was about, but I guess I was wrong.
So the Sunday before last, I decided to expand on this old "Sorry, But No" post (and this) and write a short article for Mother Jones on, among other things, why Democrats shouldn't compromise on Social Security. It's up now, but sadly, in the interim MattYglesias and Josh Marshall hammered home the point far better and far more eloquently than I did. Oh well. Must... adjust... to blinding pace of blogosphere. Or start writing about things the bigger bumblebees aren't swarming around.
A few extra points, though, on this topic. Even if the GOP finally decides to abandon its idea of financing private accounts through payroll taxes, it still seems like a bad idea for the Democrats to compromise on add-on private accounts, at least for now. For one, this sort of thing can very easily get mangled in the legislative process, as the Medicare bill did. Even if it didn't, though, the privatizers certainly aren't going away, and as long as there's a massive budget deficit, Social Security is in grave, grave danger down the road. If we did get add-on private accounts for retirement, they likely would be financed at best in a revenue-neutral way. Fine, but there are still the deficits. Just five years down the road, things look even more desperate—those CBO ten-year budget projections start showing what happens when we need to dip into the Trust Fund to pay our retirees. Suddenly the deficits look more and more like an unsustainable burden, and Republicans start calling for Social Security benefits to be cut (or for payroll taxes to be diverted into the now-existing private accounts). Likely we'd hear cries of, "We already have personal retirement accounts, so why not expand those and slash SS benefits?" And in the face of massive budget deficits, those calls might sound more reasonable than they do now. So insisting on the reality of the Trust Fund, I think, is the major priority here, and judging from the polls, I'm not sure Democrats have yet won that battle. Happily, at least, Joe Biden has the cannon pointing in the right direction.
The rather humdrum point, I guess, is that the Social Security fight could turn into a decade-long chess match, and a win against privatization now doesn't mean a win forever. Reclaiming one of the branches of government would obviously help things, but it's not likely that that will happen for at least another four years. Sad but true.
The other danger, I think, occurred to me while reading this Washington Post article, where Harold Ickes says that "he is fearful that a compromise plan may yet allow the president to turn Social Security from a program identified with Democrats to one identified with Republicans." That's a real potential problem. Privatizers have a massive coalition that will hammer on this issue for the next twenty years or more. All the defenders have, really, is the fact that Democrats take pride in Social Security as the party's strongest and most popular program. As such, I really do think that helps them stay united and defend the issue with such vigor—it's not just the principle of social insurance at stake, it's a matter of partisan pride and honor. In the long term, it seems, it's best if that pride and honor stays with the party that also happens to be committed to the idea of social insurance.
The Weekly Standardtakes on the Iran issue, effectively saying, "It seems unlikely negotiations will work, so why bother even trying?" The silliness here should be apparent. Look, I've seen lots of conservatives argue that negotiations will probably fail—and they might be onto something—but no one has yet made a convincing case for why we shouldn't try. Hawks in the White House seems to have two arguments for not trying. One, that it would somehow "legitimate" the Iranian regime. This baffles me. Is there anyone on earth that holds both that the Iranian regime is illegitimate and that it would somehow magically become more legitimate if the U.S. negotiated with it? Are the protestors and demonstrators going to somehow give up all hope of reform if the U.S. enters talks with Tehran? Maybe in the short term, but as we've seen with Egypt, it's a lot easier for the U.S. to give support to the opposition in allied regimes than it is to give support to protestors in enemy regimes. An Iran that agreed to a "grand bargain" with the U.S.—if such a bargain happened—would be far more likely to undertake political reform down the road.
The other rationale, apparently, is that negotiating with Tehran—offering incentives for the regime to disarm—would somehow "reward" the mullahs for bad behavior. Really, of course, it would be rewarding the mullahs for good behavior that preceded bad behavior. But that's hardly unheard of. Prior to 1979, Egypt was more or less committed to the destruction of Israel. After the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, the U.S. started sending Cairo various forms of aid, in part as a reward, and in part to ensure that the treaty lasted. In a sense, yes, we were rewarding Egypt for its original bad behavior, i.e. committing to the destruction of Israel in the first place, but that doesn't seem like a terribly big deal.
UPDATE: Ah, it appears that now the White House will try after all... partial kudos to them! But they're still not willing to enter talks directly. Why?
I don't have much of a nose for political strategy, much less for What The Democrats Should Do To Win Lots and Lots of Elections, but Ed Kilgore's explanation of "values voters" in the south seemed interesting:
My own (and generally, the DLC's) definition of "values voters" is quite different. They are people who: (a) don't [much] trust politicians, and want to know they care about something larger than themselves, their party, and the interest groups that support them; (b) don't much trust government, and instinctively gravitate towards candidates who seem to care about the role that civic and religious institutions can play in public life; (c) don't much trust elites, whom they suspect do not and cannot commit themselves to any particular set of moral absolutes; (d) don't much like the general direction of contemporary culture (even if they are attracted to it as consumers), and want to know public officials treat that concern with respect and a limited agenda to do something about it; (e) are exquisitely sensitive about respect for particular values like patriotism, parenting and work; and (f) have a communitarian bent when it comes to cultural issues, and dislike those who view them strictly through the prism of the irresistable march towards absolute and universal individual rights without regard to social implications.
This certainly doesn't jibe with my experience of "values voters"—most of whom I would say are fairly out of reach of the Democratic Party—but having met only a small subset of the population of the entire United States of America, I guess I could be wrong. More interestingly, though, you know what this sounds like? A call for the Democrats to start adopting communitarian stances on things. Down to the letter. As it happens, I have a never-been-opened copy of Amitai Etizioni's The Communitarian Reader on my bookshelf, so let's crack it open and see what they have to say about all this.
Ah... A quick glance at the TOC reveals a nifty essay on how New Urbanism strengthens communities, a piece on "Boston's Ten Point Coalition: A Faith-Based Approach to Fighting Crime in the Inner City", and uh, hmm… a call for "Peer Marriage." Well, apart from the last (tentatively), much of this seems like stuff the Democrats shouldn't have to reach very far to promote—New Urbanism is undeniably cool, after all. As an added bonus, many of the leading liberal movements nowadays (even the online ones) seem built around a semi-communitarian ethic anyway, so if Kilgore's right, there's not a huge gap in sensibility here. It just hasn't quite been articulated yet. Still, guess I'll check out this communitarianism stuff a bit more; it sort of gives me the creeps at times, but maybe it's the wave of the future.
In the New York Times today, Daniel Altman suggests one way to decrease medical costs: let old people die off earlier. No, really:
For the last few decades, the share of Medicare costs incurred by patients in their last year of life has stayed at about 28 percent, said Dr. Gail R. Wilensky, a senior fellow at Project HOPE who previously ran Medicare and Medicaid. Thus end-of-life care hasn't contributed unduly of late to Medicare's problems. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be part of the solution. "If you take the assumption that you want to go where the money is, it's a reasonable place to look," Dr. Wilensky said.
End-of-life care may also be a useful focus because, in some cases, efforts to prolong life may end up only prolonging suffering. In such cases, reducing pain may be a better use of resources than heroic attempts to save lives.
Rationing health care is, of course, hardly a new idea, but this particular debate never gets much attention. One of the concepts implicit here—though not mentioned in Altman's piece—is the notion of quality-adjusted life years (QALYs), a metric that help us compare the cost-effectiveness of certain treatments. Some treatments obviously are very cost-effective at adding QALYs, like vaccinations. Others—like the sort of expensive "Hail Mary" treatments used on seniors at their lifes' end—may cost more and yield fewer QALYs. Thanks to shiny new medical technology, we can extend people's lives longer and longer, but you don't get quite as many QALYs for your buck. You can think of it—and I saw this graphed out somewhere in Health Affairs once—as a supply curve. The U.S. is very high up on the curve, higher than any other country, and pays a lot more for each additional QALY, but in the end doesn't get very many more QALYs for its buck.
In a sense, this is just a technical way of saying what Altman's describing: The U.S. spends much more on expensive end-of-life treatments that buys maybe a few more months (or whatever) of not-very-high-quality life.
So there's a simple economics question here that has a lot—a lot—of moral significance: How far up the QALY curve do we want to go? Britain, as I recall, caps public funding at some price X per QALY. Say it's $30,000 ( I really don't remember). So if you go in for expensive surgery that's expected to cost, say, $300,000 but is expected to extend your life by 10 quality-adjusted life years, that's fine. On the other hand, if some procedure costs $20,000 and is only expected to extend your life by a month, then the government won't pay for it. No one else has gone this route, I think, but at some point we may need to consider it. Private companies, too, may need to start considering it. The other question—at least for publicly-funded programs like Medicare—is whether wealthy people will be allowed to pay out-of-pocket for treatments that go over the cap (they can in Britain).
Remind me to put on the swopadamus hat more often. Last week I suggested—speculated, really—that some of the Southern Shi'ite provinces in Iraq could ask for autonomy or quasi-independence if they thought the new central government wasn't delivering the goods on matters concerning religious governance. (Southern Iraq is very conservative, and though not theocratic per se, the most popular political groups down there—SCIRI and Al-Sadr Movement—have theocratic leanings.)
Anyway, score one for speculation: the New York Times' James Glanz reports today that the South—especially Basra—may indeed try to pursue greater autonomy. Not the sort of place I'd want to live, but there you go. Two concerns, though. Will the South agree to share its considerable oil wealth? If the Kurds are gobbling up the oil in Kirkuk and other northern sites, and the radical Shi'ites take the southern fields, the slice of oil pie for the Sunnis and "mainstream" Shi'ites gets smaller and smaller.
Second concern: A few days ago Hannah Allam reported that renegade Shi'ite militias are hunting down and assassinating ex-Baathists in the south. Most of these vigilantes hail from the Badr Brigades, SCIRI's armed wing. The Baathists, meanwhile, are starting to strike back with hits on prominent Shi'ites. Now this sounds like small-time gangster stuff, and partly it is, but what happens if/when SCIRI starts running southern Iraq (they've already won a number of key provincial elections)? Suddenly the gangster stuff looks more and more like state-sanctioned target killings—the sort of thing likely to trigger larger war.
A few weeks ago, Richard Posner thought about health insurance and decided that we ought to a) abolish Medicare and b) require everyone—no matter how healthy, how sick, how rich, how poor—to buy health insurance. (Presumably subsidies would be available.) Let's leave aside a) for now. Some of his commenters focused on b) and argued that mandatory insurance would be untenable, but judging from Posner's response, I don't think they quite got to the core of the problem.
First, some commenters pointed out that you can't compare mandatory health insurance with, say, mandatory auto insurance, because the former's harder to enforce. You can always take away someone's driver's license. But can you take away someone's right to hospital care? This is a real problem that Posner doesn't seem to think through—are you going to slap financial penalties down on someone who doesn't buy insurance and then suddenly needs to get (very expensive) health care? No, that's ridiculous. It's not at all like "punish[ing] people for not paying taxes," as Posner says.
Second, it was as easy to enforce as auto insurance. That doesn't solve the problem: Around 12-14 percent of drivers are uninsured, according to the Insurance Research Council. Even New Jersey, which has particularly severe penalties for driving without insurance, has around 10 percent of its drivers uninsured—which partly explains why NJ's rates are so damn high for the law-abiding crowd.
The other problem is this. Let's say you require everyone to buy insurance, and they actually do. Now how do you get insurance companies to offer affordable rates to everyone? Posner says: "[R]equire each insurance company to insure, at premiums only moderately above the market level." Ah yes, ye olde magic wand. Sure, the government could force the industry to compress the rates like this—so that insurance companies offer similar prices for people with a wide variety of risk factors (from the very healthy to the very sick)—but in response, insurance companies then tend to increase their average rates or reduce benefits. The former means that very healthy people are more likely to skip out on health insurance .The latter just plain sucks. New York, New Jersey, and I think Vermont have all suffered these problems. (To avoid this, the federal government could always subsidize the costs for catastrophic care, but if Posner thought this was a smart idea he would've voted for John Kerry!)
Alternatively, you can give everyone a different subsidy to purchase insurance, where the size of one's subsidy would depend on one's risk factors—so people more likely to get sick get a bigger tax credit or whatnot to buy insurance, since their insurance is going to be more expensive. But it's awfully hard to use risk adjustment instruments on a single individual. (It's a lot easier to do it with large groups of people.) The other hassle here is that different companies and markets treat and price different risk factors differently, so people will start hopping about from plan to plan, especially healthy people who are trying to find the lowest rates. This tends to destabilize the risk pool and creates inequalities in rates across different markets. Daniel Davies explained it all some time ago in his timeless classic, "Blame it on Fatty." Now if you wanted to force people to stay in certain markets, you could stop the carousel from spinning, but that would mean death to the open market.
Now I'm tired and it's very late, so I'm not going to go on and on, but happily this fable has a moral: it's very, very difficult to regulate the private insurance industry. It would be great if Posner's scheme could work, but it's going to involve a byzantine regulatory structure that would make any libertarian balk. So start balking!
A new variation on Pascal's Wager: "The basic premise is that God is good and benevolent. He does not harm you if you are a good person who does no evil. On the other hand, the Devil, who defied even God, may do just that. So, it makes sense to constantly show respect to him to avoid his wrath."
Whoa. Egyptian President Husni Mubarak just declared that he was going to hold multi-candidate presidential elections—very good news indeed! (Previously, only one candidate was selected by parliament and then the public got to vote 'yay' or 'nay'.)
The key, of course, will be to see whether he lets everyone run, or whether parliament can still screen candidates they don't like. The Muslim Brotherhood, the massive and massively popular mainstream Islamist group, is still banned from politics. I'd expect that to be the key debate in the coming months—and here's an old and rather anguished post on why, even though it might be terrible, Mubarak should let the Islamists run.
Two things to add though. First, I still don't believe Mubarak has genuine reform in mind: it looks an awful lot like he's planning to hold semi-free elections merely to appease the opposition and get their minds off rebellion. One of the things learned from Iraq is that even imperfect elections can deflate a lot of anger—at least in the short term. So the Bush administration, which can take credit for this if they'd like, ought to keep up the pressure for more reform. Second thing to add, both Issandr el-Amrani and Jonathan Edelstein think Mubarak would win even in a completely free and fair election, since "the incumbent president, even if unpopular, nearly always wins the first multi-party election due to logistical and administrative advantages." So in that case...
MORE: In a related vein, see Amr Hamzawy's briefing on Egypt: "Government reform policies stop short of introducing substantial changes into the political power structure and the restrictive patterns of political participation prevailing in the country. Government officials have a good command of democracy-based rhetoric and know how to celebrate cosmetic changes as if they were major events on the road to democratization."
This recently-leaked Congressional Research Service briefing on madrassahs (the Islamic religious schools that help spread extremism) gives a good overview of a somewhat misunderstood subject. One issue though: some people express concern that the "rote memorization" techniques used in the schools don't prepare students for the "modern workforce". Probably true, but sometimes I think I'd have a better memory if I had to learn more things by rote as a child (we had to learn some things—it was a Catholic school after all—but not that much). The Chinese memory palace also seems eternally useful for the modern workforce; let's bring it back.
UPDATE: Non-PDF version of the report found here, at the excellent TerrorWiki.
So here's a bit of grossness. After sleeping only about ten hours over the past three days, coupled with some, ah, poor lifestyle choices during nights out, my epiglottis has swollen to the point that it's hanging way down and actually resting on my tongue. Just sitting there, happy as can be. Some day this blog will acquire a digital camera and we can check these things out firsthand, but for now, take my word for it—it's creepy.
I have a great deal of respect for Iran analyst Ray Takeyh. He's extremely smart, keeps up-to-date on just about everything going on in Iran, and he's always been helpful whenever I've called to ask for his expertise on this or that. But that aside, it's hard to deny that he's a good deal more sanguine about some of Iran's hardline leadership than most people. So I'd take some of the analysis in his big new Foreign Affairspiece, coauthored with Ken Pollack, with a tiny grain of salt. Are there really as many Iranian pragmatist willing to cut a deal with the U.S. as the authors think?
For instance, they quote defense minister Ali Shamkhani as saying that "nuclear weapons will turn us [i.e. Iran] into a threat to others that could be exploited in a dangerous way to harm our relations with the countries of the region." Fine, he sounds wonderful, but he also seems like something of a bit player here—many analysts think deputy defense minister Ahmad Vahidi, the former Qods force commander with links to al Qaeda, really has the ear of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei. And hey, let's say Shamkhani's not as irrelevant as rumored; you can find just as many quotes in which he's playing the part of bellicose warmonger, like the time he threatened to launch a pre-emptive strike on U.S. forces in Iraq. There's so much posturing and charade among Iranian leaders, they say so many different things, that it's easy to cherry-pick quotes and come up with the narrative you want. As I say, I think Takeyh does great work, and he certainly could be right, but Iranian politics are so complex and rife with ambiguity, and it's easy simply to see what you want to see.
Personally I'm a lot more skeptical about the influence of the "pragmatists" in Tehran—though I can't read Persian and I've never been to Iran, so take this with massive salt truck dumps. But the really crucial point is this: Even if you're like me and think Iran is dominated by hardliners and are skeptical that engagement will work, the Pollack/Takeyh engagement approach still seems like precisely the best option. What does it hurt to try? Why wouldn't you try? At best, it succeeds, Iran disarms its nuclear program and starts focusing on economic development, and we've bribed off some evil dudes but also achieved our goals. Happy days. At worst, we find out for sure that negotiating won't work. But there's no downside to engagement—that the White House seems to be rejecting this path purely for moral reasons is actually crazy. I don't know any other way of putting it.
MORE: Greg Djerejian thinks Bush grasps all this. Eh, I'll believe it when I see any deviation from the do-nothing policy of the last two years. Also, from an economic standpoint, I wonder how appealing the carrot of U.S. foreign investment in Iran really is. If I'm reading Brad Setser correctly, most of this investment would be financed by Chinese and East Asian central banks. But China could just as easily start saving less and investing directly in Iran (say, in its oil infrastructure). Who needs the U.S.?
Just a quick jump into the Wal-Mart fray. Kevin Drum thinks that the era of big box retailers is here to stay, and if that means that we no longer get the variety of a bunch of little "mom and pop" stores down the street, well, too bad. Max Sawicky isn't too happy with this state of affairs, but he still says, "In economics the trade-off between cost and uniformity on the one side, and variety on the other, is basic."
But does Wal-Mart kill variety? Most of the "mom and pop" stores I know just sell basic junk that isn't any more exciting than what you find in Wal-Mart (often it's less exciting). The interesting stores, meanwhile, don't really compete with Wal-Mart—stores selling antiques, or "local history" stuff, or prints, or offbeat clothing. When the dust settles, I would imagine Wal-Mart adds variety, by forcing its small competitors to specialize or die. Assuming, of course, that some specialize. Perhaps Wal-Mart even helps some of its small competitors by giving consumers more time and money to do "specialty" shopping. (Location might help too: people do their basic shopping at Wal-Mart, head out to the car, spot some other small store in the plaza that looks interesting, and pop in for a look.) On the other hand, you might see this effect more in cities than in suburban areas. There's also the internet to compensate for, say, the dingy used music place shutting down—though we'll certainly all miss the record store girl!
UPDATE: To be clear, obviously this isn't the biggest Wal-Mart issue around, but Nathan Newman, et. al. have already covered the (vastly) more important wage/unionization/workplace regulation angles. No disagreement there. Just thought I'd add another 1/2-cent point.
A word of caution. This is going to be one of those posts that tries to put forward some reasonable, above-the-fray skepticism about Iraq. The problem is that I'm of course a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, my party preferences are no secret, and I have no credibility with regards to staying above the fray. So this post is going to sound like pure partisan hackery. Sigh. Oh well, let's get on with the dirty work…
The other day, David Ignatius wrote a column about Lebanon that included this quote, jumped on by war supporters all across the internet:
"It's strange for me to say it, but this process of change [in Lebanon] has started because of the American invasion of Iraq," explains [anti-Syrian leader Walid] Jumblatt. "I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world." Jumblatt says this spark of democratic revolt is spreading. "The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it."
That sounds wonderful, and it certainly makes it seem like the Iraq invasion had all sorts of nice second-order "spillover" effects around the Middle East. I'd love for that to be true. But here's the thing: Jumblatt is neither a historian nor a political scientist. He could easily be dead wrong about this. People get historical causes wrong all the time—more often, it seems, than they get them right—and sometimes even purposefully so. (Mightn't Jumblatt have "invented" this sort of narrative to serve other purposes? I don't know, but it's not unheard of.) In the world of punditry it's fine to take a quote like this and then proclaim that the Iraq war was necessary and/or sufficient and/or the best way to spark democratic movements in places like Lebanon, but a bit more is needed to figure out what's really happening here.
On a related note, as I noted over the weekend, the wave of post-Iraq democratic reforms in the Middle East don't seem to be any more earth-shattering than some of the reforms that predated even 9/11, so it's not obvious to me how big a role Iraq or even Bush are playing here. (On the bright side for Iraq-hawks, this could also mean that even if Iraq imploded, it wouldn't necessarily "set back" whatever reformist wave exists elsewhere.)
Praktike has a great post on the vagueness around the term "Islamist". Historically, I think Chanad's right in that the term was originally coined by French scholars to denote movements born "out of modernity (not as a reaction to it) … specifically concerned with taking control over the State, rather than perceived social piety." But alas, a term like "Islamist" will always fall prey to ambiguity—that's the nature of one-word terms with broad root words—so while it would be great if everyone could get on the same page and use the term in the same way, that probably won't happen. It's time, I think, to start using compound terms that will help us get our concepts straight. (This is true in general—as soon as a term starts getting fuzzy, it's time to go compound.)
For starters, let's say there are "Radical Islamists". This group includes al-Qaeda, many Wahhabists, Hamas, the now-nearly-defunct Al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya in Egypt, and a whole slew of other terrorist groups and jihadists. These movements have largely revolutionary political aims, seeking to take total control of the State usually by working outside the existing political process—as you'd expect, violence is the preferred option. The new political order will be governed by religious authorities and institute strict sharia. No exceptions. No happy protections for minorities or non-Muslims. No wearing suits and ties. No. No. No. Needless to say, these folks are mostly by-the-letter fundamentalists when it comes to the Qur'an, though some of the interpretations of jihad are rather, er, interesting. See Mark Gould for more on this.
"Political Islamists" or even "Mainstream Islamists" are usually willing to work within the existing political process to achieve its ends. As Chanad says, they're born of nationalism and modernity, rather than strict reactions to both. Hamas is starting to move into this category, as is Hizbullah, and political groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan definitely belong here. These folks are also fundamentalists, and would like to see a strict sharia state set up, but a few exceptions can pop up here and there. Democratic institutions can be allowed—you don't have to have direct rule by religious authorities, but rulers should certainly consult those authorities, and they better not deviate too far from Islamic law. There's some question on whether mainstream Islamists would allow some human rights—would, for instance, the Muslim Brotherhood force sharia on Egypt's 4.5 million Coptic Christians? Jamaat-e-Islami, from what briefly I know, seems to take more progressive stances on a few things out of necessity—they need those female votes!—but religion usually bends to political necessity sooner or later.
Let's see. Then you have "Islamic Conservatives," who don't qualify as "Islamists" mainly because they seem to care more about implementing the social/cultural values of Islam rather than building a thoroughly Islamic political order. Many of the Shi'ites in Iraq seem to fall under this category—Ibrahim Jaaferi, maybe even Ayatollah Sistani—although many Shi'ite leaders are mainstream Islamists, and it's not always clear what's what. You can draw a close analogy to the Christian Right here in the United States. And much like the Christian Right, they're not strict fundamentalists, they do a lot of picking and choosing, and it's not the biggest deal in the world if they don't get a strict Islamic state. The government should, however, seek to promote Islamic values at all times and consult with religious authorities, and Islam should be a major guiding force in writing laws. Conservatives are usually willing to compromise on human rights and the rule of law, though mileage varies—whether the Iraqi Shiites will allow, say, a Christian to testify against a Muslim in court is an open question.
Note: If you took a poll of all the Muslims around the Middle East, I'd bet that the vast majority are Islamic Conservatives. In fact, I think the various orders of Sufism practiced in northern Iraq by the Kurds tend to fall under this heading, and Kurdish "secularism" tends to get overrated. (Though it's true that the Kurdish educated and ruling classes appear to be largely secular.) Anyway, the point here is that it's hard to predict how Islamic Conservative voters will vote, because they have a variety of concerns beyond implementing strict sharia. Sometimes they'll vote on "moral values", but sometimes they'll vote on economics, or national security. You can see where I'm going with this....
On the lighter side are the "Islamic Modernists," similar to the "freestyle evangelicals" here in the United States. They're less fundamentalist, tend to believe that the Qur'an implicitly supports women's rights and a variety of other minority protections, and aren't big on imposing sharia or rule by anything other than the good ol' Lockean social contract. I can't think of anyone in Iraq who falls under this category, but you see this around the Middle East in groups like Al-Wasat, which was a breakaway group from the Muslim Brotherhood. These groups are pretty rare though.
By the way, plenty of secular leaders can be devout Muslims in private. You could compare these folks to American politicians like Bill Clinton, but they seem even more remarkable to me since Islam puts a much greater emphasis on the public sphere than does Christianity.
Anyway, that's my broad classification, and it seems to work for me, though with the understanding that lines get blurry. I don't know a whole lot about movements outside of the Middle East, so there could be exceptions here. In particular, some sects of the Deobandi trend, particularly in India, have very puritanical interpretations of Islam but actively avoid politics. Weird. Though obviously other Deobandi groups—like, I dunno, the Taliban?—see things differently.
One of the downsides to not having a campaign season any more is that certain issues no longer get talked about—nuclear proliferation, for instance. One of the upsides, though, is that we can start talking about other issues in a sane and rational manner. Afghanistan, for instance. It always seemed bizarre to me that any criticism of the current state of Afghanistan would be hailed and met with variations of this reply: "Well, they're doing better than under the Taliban, it's a 'Stone Age' country to begin with, and you have unrealistic standards of progress!" That's not right. I could toss a few crackers at the homeless guy hanging around the BART station, and he'd certainly be better off, but that's no way to evaluate my homelessness policy.
So the questions are "How much better off do we think is ideal?" and "How much do we want to spend?" On the first question, no one seems to have a good answer for Afghanistan—"better off" roughly means "no longer a threat to the United States". On that front, a cursory glance at the news suggests that, yes, the Taliban is rapidly fading out of existence—except, perhaps, in the Pakistan border regions, though that seems to be more of a Pakistan problem than an Afghanistan problem, if these sorts of distinctions mean anything. On the other hand, Pankaj Mishra makes the case that the still-not-disarmed militias and warlords in Afghanistan pose a very large long-term threat to the country's stability, as does the much-discussed poppy trade. The upcoming parliamentary elections could, potentially, make this problem worse: The major warlords are the only ones with the resources to organize actually parties, so they'll likely win a lot of seats, and hence legitimize their rather corrupt and brutal reigns. There's also the possibility of intra-party bickering over election results—this wasn't a problem during the presidential election because Hamid Karzai was the undisputed front-runner, but that won't be the case now.
The point, though, is that we don't know what this all means. No one—no intelligence agency—seems to have connected the dots and said, "Raging militias will eventually lead to X which will lead to Y which could well lead to bombs blowing up in the United States of America." So on the face it just doesn't seem like a huge problem that we're devoting relatively scant resources to Afghanistan. Liberals can hue and cry all day over whether, for instance, aerial poppy eradication raids will lead to an Afghan farmers' revolt, but it's hard to convince anyone that this is a real problem for the United States. Yet we ought to be figuring out if it's a real problem for the United States, and do it in a way that the main question is not "How wonderful does the progress in Afghanistan make President Bush look?" but rather "What's the best policy for Afghanistan?" The whole "better than the Taliban line" obviously works wonders for the former, but not the latter.
"I believe the earth is flat. Also, elves live under my bed. But listen bub, what does any of this have to do with my very interesting theories about Michael Moore? Little punk... don't you have a country to go betray or something? Yeah, that's what I thought."
Anne Appelbaum pooh-poohs the Summers critics who think sexism is a problem:
Outside of a handful of institutions, the evidence of unthinking discrimination is slim too. It is true, of course, that men continue to earn more than women -- approximately $1 for every 75 cents that women make. But economists such as June O'Neill or Harvard's Claudia Goldin, who have accounted for different job choices, hours worked and time taken off for raising children, have concluded that it is these factors, not discrimination, that account for most of the difference.
Maybe someone who knows more about economics can help me out here, but this doesn't seem to be Goldin's position at all! She's argued that gender 'as such' is declining in significance when it comes to the workplace, true. She's also noted—in her "pollution theory of discrimination"—that discrimination against women isn't driven so much by a desire not to interact with women (as is the case with racial discrimination), but rather a fear that women could reduce the prestige of a male-dominated occupation. To wit: "Men are averse to having women enter their occupation when women's productivity is not observable and verifiable to all."
In sum, discrimination does exist, and the best way to erase its lingering and historically-based effects is to issue credentials for various occupations (so that women can "prove" that their productivity is up to snuff). At any rate, I can't find anything Goldin's written on the university—I'm not sure her work can "prove" that the evidence of unthinking discrimination is slim.
Moreover, plenty of other researchers have found that motherhood and hours worked can't account for the entire gender wage gap. So "slim" evidence? It's not like this is something people just make up for the fun of it.
I haven't heard anyone ask what's wrong with the Democrats in a good three or four hours, so I'm glad I chanced upon Harold Meyerson's column explaining that Dems need to, of all things, win back the white working-class vote. Shocking:
Democrats win when they deliver prosperity and security for working Americans, and in today's capitalism, those have become increasingly unattainable goals. Which is why, as they only now gear up their think tanks, Democrats need to promote alternatives to the kind of shareholder-driven capitalism into which our system has descended, to the detriment of millions of underpaid, insecure workers. They need to side with Main Street over Wall Street. Like the conservatives 40 years ago, the Democrats need to offend their own elites to build an America that reflects their best values, and in which working people can and do count on them for support.
As an arch-organizational philosophy, I could stomach this. But no one ever seems to be able to explain what "sid[ing] with Main Street over Wall Street" would actually look like. Does it mean bundling together a bunch of obscure and somewhat wonky rules and regulations to check corporate excess—governance reform, energy regulation, etc. Color me skeptical on the politics of this. Who gets excited over Sarbanes-Oxley?
Or, do Dems take one particularly poignant issue, like predatory lending, and beat on it till the cows stop mooing? Again, how exciting is this? I'm all in favor of bringing back usury laws and having federally mandated lending rates—on the merits, that would help reduce a good deal of bankruptcy and debt in this country—but it's not the sort of thing I'm going to jump up on stage with and rally the working class crowds.
Or do Dems take "sid[ing] with Main Street" literally, taking a knee-jerk and rather strident stance against all corporations, even if they don't really mean it? Bash the insurance companies providing overly high malpractice premiums! String up Choice Point and other credit-rating clearinghouses! Kill, kill, kill! Hm, I like it, but there's this: one of the key polling points I've seen of late is that most Americans don't believe Democrats favor pro-growth policies for America. That seems like a real problem to me—and maybe there's a long-term battle to be fought wherein Dems convince everyone that economic growth isn't all its cracked up to be, but hey, even I would need convincing—and snarling at corporations would only fuel that perception.
Hm, what else? I'm not saying Meyerson's vision is unworkable—coming up with this stuff is hard work!—just trying to think through the possibilities. Personally, I'm against "economic populism" as a political strategy. I prefer something along the lines of Eliot Spitzer's outlook on things: use regulation to correct market failures and get the capitalist system working more efficiently. That's a cumbersome message, but speechwriters can have at it. Also, I'd prefer a set of policies that reduced "economic risk" while promoting more of the sort of risk-taking that makes capitalism so marvelously vibrant. For instance, universal health care would help cushion your family against a job loss, but it would also encourage you to move jobs, relocate, seek a bold new career for which you might be more suited, without being chained down by the fear that comes with switching jobs and possibly losing your coverage. The end result, in theory, is a more dynamic economic world. What's more: It's populist, but it doesn't sound populist.
Reading Paul Samuelson's op-ed in the Post reminds me that much of the hand-wringing over escalating health care costs is rather silly. Health care costs, of course, aren't rising because of some insidious inflation mechanism that's making all our favorite treatments magically become more expensive. Nor are they really rising because we're aging as a population—that's a part of it, but only a small part. No, health care costs are rising primarily because new and new treatments are coming to the market, and people are choosing to spend a lot of money on them.
The way things are going, in the future people are going to be choosing to spend X percent of their income on health care. X will get larger and larger over time, by choice. So let's say X is 40 percent. From one standpoint, it really doesn't make a difference whether you pay 40 percent of your income for private health care, or 40 percent of your income in taxes that then go to government-administered health care. I mean, yes, in one sense it makes a difference: If you think the free market is a better way of delivering health care, you'll endorse option 1; otherwise, you'll endorse option 2. But in the end, you're still paying 40 percent of your income. We're in no sense "controlling health care costs" by slashing programs like Medicare and letting people pay out-of-pocket.
Now you could say that this is an imperfect point, and it is. I could argue that I shouldn't, for instance, have to pay 40 percent of my income for some retiree's health care now, when I'm still a healthy young buck, even though I would willingly pay 40 percent of my income later on for my own personal health care—be it via Medicare or private insurance. Fine. Then the appropriate thing to do is start pre-funding a health care system for our retirement. Still, there are lot of ways in which it's disingenuous to say, "Oh no! America's doomed! We're going to have to raise taxes massively in the future in order to afford things we'd be spending a good chunk of our income on anyway!"
CRIMINY: Yes, Yes, I meant Robert Samuelson, newspaper columnist and noted conflator of Social Security and Medicare crises. Not Paul Samuelson, Nobel laureate. Special thanks to the self-correcting power of the blogosphere.
Since this is something I should know more about, let's talk about Supreme Court Justices. Orin Kerr lists the four likely replacements for the soon-to-be-retired William Rehnquist:
1) Michael W. McConnell of the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, 2) John G. Roberts of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, 3) J. Harvie Wilkinson III of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and 4) J. Michael Luttig of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Mentioned as "[a]nother possible candidate" is Samuel A. Alito of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
Let's take this below the fold... To start, here's a dossier on some of the nominees by Jeffrey Rosen in the New Republic. Rosen's approaching this from a rather peculiar stance—namely, that liberals shouldn't get too hung up on whether a Bush nominee likes Roe v. Wade or not. Some of these conservatives, after all, may be pro-life yet still have a deep respect for precedent. Plus, there are all sorts of other views to consider: whether a judge wants to limit Congressional regulation of interstate commerce, for instance, and roll back the entire New Deal. Some of the relevant statutes here—minimum wage laws, workplace safety regulations, discrimination laws, environmental protections—are at least as important as Roe, and certainly more important (I think) than the question of whether prayer should be allowed in school or whether vouchers can be used for religious schools. Anyway, the nominees...
First, McConnell [all blockquotes are from Rosen]:
Michael McConnell, 49. U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. McConnell is the most respected conservative legal scholar of his generation, and liberals and moderates throughout the legal academy would enthusiastically support his nomination. Liberal interest groups, unfortunately, would aggressively oppose it because he is personally pro-life and is also a vocal and effective critic of Roe. As usual, though, a single-minded focus on Roe would be misguided: McConnell has a deep respect for precedent. More than anyone else in the country, McConnell is responsible for persuading the Supreme Court to abandon the rigid church-state separationism that prevailed during the 1970s, arguing instead that the state should be neutral toward religion. As a result, he supports school vouchers, but, unlike Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Rehnquist, he argued that graduation prayers in public schools were unconstitutional even before the Court struck them down in 1992. On federalism, McConnell's record is especially encouraging. More than the other candidates on Bush's short list, McConnell believes that judges should defer to Congress's power to define illegal discrimination. His definitive studies of the original understanding of the Fourteenth Amendment have convinced him that its framers intended Congress, not the Court, to define and enforce protection of civil rights. As a result, McConnell has criticized conservative justices for holding that Congress may not define discrimination more expansively than the Court. In questions of economic rights, McConnell seems similarly concerned about judicial restraint: In a 1987 article titled "federalism: evaluating the founders design," he strongly criticized a leader of the Constitution in Exile movement, arguing that, whatever the initial intention of the interstate commerce clause, the dream of resurrecting long-forgotten limits on federal power is unrealistic: The "vision that the Supreme Court, having been informed of the founders' intentions now has in its power to restore the original constitutional scheme, is fanciful, and would not necessarily be desirable even if it were less so." For those who care about deference to Congress, McConnell's nomination would be especially welcome.
As a counterpoint to all this gushing, Shakespeare's Sister thinks McConnell has shown "disregard, and in fact contempt, for key civil rights principles," though I'm not convinced here. We're not getting a liberal judge, remember—any Bush nominee is going to be repugnant in some way—and McConnell seems (tentatively) like an okay pick here.
Next up, Roberts:
John Roberts, 49. U.S. Court of Appeals for the Washington, D.C., Circuit. Top of his class at Harvard Law School and a former law clerk for Rehnquist, Roberts is one of the most impressive appellate lawyers around today. Liberal groups object to the fact that, in 1990, as a deputy solicitor general, Roberts signed a brief in a case involving abortion-financing that called, in a footnote, for Roe v. Wade to be overturned. But it would be absurd to Bork him for this: Overturning Roe was the Bush administration's position at the time, and Roberts, as an advocate, also represented liberal positions, arguing in favor of affirmative action, against broad protections for property rights, and on behalf of prisoners' rights. In little more than a year on the bench, he has won the respect of his liberal and conservative colleagues but has not had enough cases to develop a clear record on questions involving the Constitution in Exile. On the positive side, Roberts joined Judge Merrick Garland's opinion allowing a former employee to sue the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority for disability discrimination. He pointedly declined to join the unsettling dissent of Judge David Sentelle, a partisan of the Constitution in Exile, who argued that Congress had no power to condition the receipt of federal transportation funds on the Metro's willingness to waive its immunity from lawsuits. In another case, however, Roberts joined Sentelle in questioning whether the Endangered Species Act is constitutional under Congress's power to regulate interstate commerce. The regulation in question prevented developers from building on private lands in order to protect a rare species of toad, and Roberts noted with deadpan wit that "the hapless toad ... for reasons of its own, lives its entire life in California," and therefore could not affect interstate commerce. Nevertheless, Roberts appears willing to draw sensible lines: He said that he might be willing to sustain the constitutionality of the Endangered Species Act on other grounds. All in all, an extremely able lawyer whose committed conservatism seems to be leavened by a judicious temperament.
Eh, seems untested. Could be more radical than he's let on thus far. Not my first choice.
Onward. Let's hear from J. Harvey Wilkinson III:
J. Harvie Wilkinson III, 60. U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The former chief judge of the Fourth Circuit clerked for Justice Lewis Powell, and this courtly conservative intellectual has long demonstrated Powell's sensitivity to judicial overreach. When he joined his colleagues in striking down part of the Violence Against Women Act as impossible to justify under Congress's power to regulate interstate commerce, he added a concurrence confessing his concerns about what he candidly called "conservative judicial activism": If the federalism revolution leads to the "wholesale invalidation of environmental, civil rights, and business regulation," he warned, then the new conservative judicial activists would be just as discredited as their liberal activist predecessors. The next year, Wilkinson showed his commitment to judicial restraint, upholding Congress's power to apply the Endangered Species Act to the protection of red wolves over Luttig's dissent. Wilkinson has written several important essays and scholarly articles trying to work out a principled conservative jurisprudence. In the most recent, he argues that the Court can best protect democracy by enforcing structural boundaries between Congress and the states and among the branches of the federal government, rather than by stringently upholding individual rights. Wilkinson also proved in the case of Yaser Hamdi, whom Bush designated an "enemy combatant," that he is willing to enforce judicial oversight of executive power--the central question in the war on terrorism. He has always insisted that the Court can bring the nation together by taking judicial restraint seriously, and his nomination could be a unifying gesture in a polarized time.
Well, he's 11 years older than the other two, which is a plus. All in all, seems like a sensible figure—though I'd like to know more about how firmly he adheres to precedent. On federalism: I may be in the liberal minority here, but striking down the Violence Against Women Act (in United States v. Morrison) isn't an unforgiveable thing per se. (I'll explain this some other time—but the standards the Court was trying to construct limits on what counted as "economic activity" (without making it merely a matter of degree) seemed reasonable enough, even if I don't agree with them.)
Onto Michael Luttig:
Michael Luttig, 50. U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Conservatives view Luttig as a "conservative's conservative" because of his willingness to take federalism to its logical conclusion. In a closely watched case, he dissented from his colleague J. Harvie Wilkinson's decision to uphold the application of the Endangered Species Act to red wolves. (Luttig said that protecting red wolves isn't a commercial activity and therefore Congress has no power to regulate it; Wilkinson objected that Luttig's narrow vision of congressional power would "place in peril the entire federal regulatory scheme for wildlife and natural resource conservation.") Because of the red wolves case, liberals fear that Luttig would put the Constitution in Exile into overdrive. But Luttig's commitment to judicial principle is combined with a respect for judicial precedent: "At the end of the day, other than conscience, it is only analytical rigor, and the accountability that such renders possible, that can restrain a judiciary that serves for life and at the pleasure of no one," Luttig wrote in 2001. In 1998, for example, Luttig wrote an opinion faithfully applying the Supreme Court's reversal of a ban on partial-birth abortions, a decision with which he personally disagreed. Luttig has also shown an open-minded willingness to infer new constitutional rights from old precedents: Disagreeing again with conservative colleagues, he held that there is a constitutional right for people who have been convicted of serious crimes to have access to DNA evidence that might prove their innocence. As a Supreme Court justice, of course, Luttig would be free to rewrite precedents rather than be bound by them. But, if analytical rigor and precedent-based reasoning remain as touchstones of his jurisprudence, he might prove to be an independent and impressive justice.
Hm, kind of mixed on this, and I don't like Rosen's use of "might" at the end there. Shakespeare's Sister, who's also doing research, says that Luttig's one of the more aggressive conservatives out there. Barring further evidence, I'd say no to this one.
Both Rosen and the bard's sister, by the way, say that Kerr's fifth selection, Samuel Alito, Jr., is a Scalia clone willing to apply "the logic of the Constitution in Exile for all its worth." Thanks, but we like our New Deal state just fine. A big ol' thumbs down here.
So after the broad (and amateur-ish) overview, Harvey Wilkinson III and Michael W. McConnell seem acceptable to me—keeping in mind that we're not going to fall in love with any Bush nominee, period. Some people might say that, because the nominee will merely replace the conservative Rehnquist, it doesn't really matter how far to the right the new guy (or gal) is. Horsecrap, sez I. Democrats would do well to make a stand right away, even if the GOP whips itself into a frenzy over "unconstitutional" filibusters (oh, whatever). If the Dems let someone like Alito through the first time around, it seems entirely feasible that the president will only be emboldened to push through someone even more radical on the next round. Need to show unwavering resolve in a time of change!
Interesting passage from an old Washington Postarticle on U.S. plans to try to reduce the number of soldiers in Iraq during the upcoming troop rotation next month:
The last major U.S. troop rotation occurred a year ago, when commanders, as now, were feeling upbeat after a milestone event -- the capture of ousted president Saddam Hussein in December 2003. But within several months, U.S. forces were embroiled in simultaneous Shiite and Sunni uprisings and confronting a burgeoning insurgency.
U.S. military officers say there was a decline in the quality of U.S. intelligence on the insurgency last spring as a result of the turnover of forces. To prevent similar slippage this time, the 18th Airborne Corps' intelligence unit arranged for a longer handover period with its counterpart in the departing 3rd Corps. Additionally, more than 60 intelligence analysts from other military centers were brought in last summer and will help bridge this period.
We (by which I mean "we reading the newspapers") still don't know if intelligence on the insurgency is getting better or worse. They're still launching 50-60 attacks per day. James Glanz reported the other day that insurgents have been very smart about attacking key infrastructure spots in or around Baghdad—no doubt because many of the Baathists in the insurgency fighting still know how all of the pipes and grids connect. I also wouldn't be entirely surprised if there were insurgent "moles" currently working in some of the Iraqi ministries. Presumably this is the logic behind the Shi'ite scheme to purge the government of anyone who even smells like a Baathist. But without better intelligence there's no way to know where sound policy ends and paranoid "Baath-baiting" begins. Off course, there's also the possibility that this Newsweekreport is right and Iranians, rather than ex-Baathists, are the ones planting moles.
It's not as memorable as "Have you, at last, no sense of decency left?", but Iyad Allawi recently told the AP that too much Baathification would "throw the country into problems, severe problems." Seems likely to me. In the Wall Street Journal recently, Greg Jaffe noted that one of the new "pop-up" militias—many of which are being used by the U.S. for security—is being run by General Adnan Thavit, the uncle of outgoing Interior Minister. For those keeping score, that minister is Falah al-Naqib, an ex-Baathist likely (I think?) to find himself on the business end of a Baathist purge by the new government. Gen. Thavit's militia may well follow him out, if it comes to that.
UPDATE: ...oh, wait, never mind. The Belmont Club says we're winning, and insurgents are big fat losers, so ignore all the foreboding evidence above. Indeed, it's time we ask ourselves: "Why bother reading newspapers when you can just read blogs?" Er, make that "blogs that link to newspapers." Oh whatever.
If, like me, you have little to no idea what would actually happen if the baht appreciated against the dollar ("baht?"), you probably find Brad Setser's blog mostly over your head. Still, from time to time he connects the financial markets and their funny ways to topics I do know a bit about, and the results are always illuminating. So I thought I'd highlight a couple of his recent posts that might be of wider interest.
First, we've all heard the conservative argument that financial markets won't mind if we borrow trillions to privatize Social Security, since we're just taking on a bit—well, okay, a lot—of short-term debt now in exchange for lowering our even more massive debt far, far in the future (i.e. our "implicit liabilities"). The markets, bless their hearts, will understand. Bogus, says Mr. Setser:
If the markets care about implicit liabilities, they sure are not showing it. The prescription drug benefit, as Paul Krugman and others (including many conservatives) have pointed out, created a larger "implicit liability" than the current "implicit liability" associated with the Social Security system... I don't think there is much evidence that the markets penalized the US government for the increase it the government's implicit liability.
On the other hand, this is what the markets can expect thanks to privatization: "If you hold a 10 year bond, or even a 30 year bond with a residual maturity of 25 years, the cash flows of the proposed reform are negative until after your bond matures, and the reform would involve a substantial increase in Treasury issuance and the overall stock of Treasuries in the market while the bond you hold is outstanding." Heh. In other words, a big "F— you."
Second, here's his interesting take on what the U.S. current account/trade deficits mean for the grand rivalry between America and China: "Will China want to finance the US government, through the purchases of Treasuries, as US seeks implement a strategy intended to contain China's regional, if not global, ambitions? Or will [China] prefer to step up its own direct investment in the production of the world's oil and other commodities, even if that means investing in places that the US labels pariahs?" It's a good counter to Thomas Barnett's view that more "economic connectivity" will make China and the U.S. cozy bedfellows from now until eternity. (And hey, as a budding realist on great power conflict, I'm obliged to find Setser's scenario "extremely plausible"!)
I've always wondered how much the great Official Announcement Kabuki Dance really matters. That is, when administration officials say words like "no hostile intent," is that really all that different from saying "we do not intend to invade"? When China and the White House put out carefully-phrased—oh-so-carefully-phrased—statements on Taiwan, are they actually saying anything or just going through tedious formalities?
Ah, but now we find that it does makes a difference to North Korea, who apparently monitors this stuff full-time. Fascinating catch by the Post's Glenn Kessler. Note also that Powell and Rumsfeld were very, very specific about including or excluding particular phrases like "no hostile intent", though it doesn't appear that they're fully aware of how closely North Korea follows this stuff.
Michael Tomasky's point on how contemporary Democrats have no overriding philosophy is well-taken. As something of a side-issue, I'm reading Richard Parker's very thorough (and very interesting) new biography of J.K. Galbraith right now, and it sort of strikes me that there aren't very many Galbraith-type figures hanging around the Democratic party establishment these days. You've got very wonky, technocratic figures hanging around the think tanks, but must of these folks tend to stay above the partisan fray, and try to figure out specific solutions to specific problems rather than applying a larger worldview. Now maybe this is liberalism's strength, as Jon Chait puts it, but it also means that the Democrats fall prone to infighting when two solutions (and their advocates) clash—in a way that Republicans simply don't.
So where does Galbraith fit in? Well, I'm not very far in the biography (he's just falling under the spell of Keynes and Hitler hasn't even invaded Poland yet), so I'm not sure. But here you have someone who first thinks of very wonky solutions to specific problems (i.e. agricultural mishaps during the Depression), but also draws up a wider philosophy about—I think—the mechanics of power and the problems with economic inequality. And he laid it all out in layman's terms. Oh yeah, and he had a lot of influence over various Democratic administrations (Truman, Kennedy, Johnson).
Offhand I can't think of many thinkers fitting that role for the Democrats today. A number of liberal academics, perhaps, could fill that role—Jacob Hacker's thinking on economic risk should get far more attention than it appears to have received—but they tend to be marginalized in favor of people like Peter Diamond, Jason Furman, etc. Brilliant people, and they've both done invaluable work on Social Security, but as far as I know neither have the economic philosophy thing down pat. Maybe I have this wrong—I obviously don't hang out with Democratic insiders much—but that's how it appears from the outside. By the by, tremendous thinking on Democratic political philosophy gets done in the pages of my former employer, Boston Review. Everyone should be reading through its archives.
The real question is: What exactly do the Republicans have that creates conservative "philosophy"? And, more importantly, why does it lead to such terrible policy outcomes?
Here's a fascinating glimpse into the fascinating world of fascinatingly high-powered internships that translate into money, fame, power, and the all-important payoff known only as "even more money, fame, and power." But alas, the glimpse is for subscribers of the Wall Street Journal only, so you get nothing. Instead, let me pooh-pooh all of this internship talk, and note that during my college career, I spent my off-terms variously as a CVS clerk, a Barnes and Noble clerk, a front-desk clerk at a hotel, a minimum-wage sailing teacher, a math/writing teacher for inner-city high school kids, and a data-monkey at a flood observatory. (Often two of those things in the same off-term. As Professor B says, 80 hour weeks suck.)
In fact, the only thing I ever did even remotely resembling a high-powered internship was working as a full-time fact-checker for the #1 Travel Book in the Country. (Really, check out the acknowledgments page and everything.) And now look at me! Stumbling back home from a Sunday night out, slightly drunk off cheap red wine, and… blogging!
Via Dan Drezner, not only are the Iraqi insurgents beginning to negotiate with the Americans, they're talking about rolling out the welcome mat:
Insurgent representative Abu Mohammed says the nationalists would even tolerate U.S. bases on Iraqi soil. "We don't mind if the invader becomes a guest," he says, suggesting a situation akin to the U.S. military presence in Germany and Japan.
Heh. I dare anyone to tell me they saw that coming. Odds are, though, Abu Mohammed doesn't speak for most insurgents. Anyway, even the slightest prospect of negotiating is encouraging, though I'm still unconvinced that the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS)—the strident religious council now entering into talks with the Americans—has absolute sway over all of the nationalist Sunnis out there. In addition to the "hard-core Baathists" and the "hard-core Islamists" like Zarqawi who won't ever surrender, there may well be a sizeable number of "hard-core separatists" among many of the tribal-based insurgents out there, who refuse to join any sort of new government. Many of the more virulent Sunni clerics, too, may break with the AMS if they feel they're being "sold out". But I'm still working on this theory and trying to get in touch with scholars who can help me out (or swat me down).
But that, plus a quote from Dan, remind me of something. Dan says: "[I[f memory serves, the Sunnis made similar noises about participating in the political process after Hussein's capture." That's very true, and it's something that's slipped my mind for awhile. After Saddam got hoisted out of his spider-hole, a new Sunni group called the "State Council for the Sunnis" formed, made up of Sufis, Salafis, and some members of the Muslim Brotherhood. In other words, lots of Sunni fundamentalists who didn't necessarily want to take over Iraq or impose an Islamic state, but hated the occupation. The council wanted a say in goings-on within the interim government—and in April they tried to negotiate a truce in Fallujah but were rebuffed (by who?). Eventually the council started feuding with the more influential Association of Muslim Scholars and then just sort of vanished off the map.
But I don't know what this all means for the present situation. It's weird.
The Financial Times is reporting that Shi'ites and Kurds are now bickering over the provision in Iraq's interim constitution that effectively lets any three provinces veto the final constitution. Obviously the provision protects the Kurds (who control three provinces) from overt domination by the majority Shi'a, but it also kills the chance of any sort of centralized government—even a moderately effective centralized government—from forming in Baghdad. Now it's unlikely this impasse leads to civil war, but it's also hard to see how the Shi'ites can convince the Kurds to abandon the veto rule. The Kurds can always take their 100,000-strong peshmerga militia and just secede from Iraq, taking the oil-rich city of Kirkuk with them. Then there's a real mess on everyone's hands.
Here's another scenario: Let's say the veto rule stays. Now after a period of negotiating and deliberating, it becomes clear that the Shi'ite ruling coalition can't quite create the strong Islamic state that some of them would like. Too much caviling from the secular kids in the Shi'ite coalition, too many howls of protest from the Sunnis. So… a bunch of the more fundamentalist Shi'ites decide that what's good for the Kurds is good for them, and decide to cordon off some of the southern Iraqi provinces—Basra, Wasit, Maysam, etc.—to turn them into a mini, semi-autonomous theocracy.
It's not inconceivable that the Shiite secessionists would have popular support: both SCIRI and the Sadrists, the two major "theocratic" groups, recently won the local elections in a number of those provinces. In this case, Baghdad would have to grant them a good deal of autonomy, otherwise the secessionists could just veto the constitution. Plus, these folks would likely have sizeable militias to enforce their claims. (True, it would be odd for SCIRI's Badr Corps to link up with Sadr's Mahdi Army, but stranger things have happened…)
You can see where this is going. Once you grant autonomy to one part of the country, everyone wants in on the game. That's not necessarily a bad thing, except that the provinces don't divide up neatly along sectarian lines, so there's bound to be messy exoduses, fleeing refugees, and violence. Plus, they'll all be eyeing each other's oil fields...
Oy... what is wrong with our media? ThisNewsweek piece on Sen. Lindsey Graham's (R-SC) secret plan to privatize Social Security is horrible. First, there's this passage, on the merits of wage-indexing:
When the Social Security Administration figures out a new retiree’s initial benefit, it uses a formula based on the real (inflation-adjusted) growth in wages during that worker’s career. First implemented in 1977, this is called wage-indexing and it means that the benefits Social Security has promised to future retirees will be higher in real terms than those paid to today’s retirees — that is, they would be higher if the system could pay full benefits, which as of 2042, it won’t be able to, according to the Social Security Trustees.
Who vetted that last sentence? No. Just... no. Even if nothing is done to fix the system, nothing at all, the program can still afford to pay out benefits that are higher in real terms than they are today, in 2042 and in 2052 and in 2062 and... Price-indexing wouldn't just give us benefits smaller than what's "promised". It would give us all smaller benefits than what's payable. What was Newsweek thinking here? In fairness, the SSA Trustees' Report doesn't list payable benefits anywhere, but the Congressional Budget Office does, and people like Dean Baker have done the relevant calculations. on this. These numbers aren't unknowable.
Anyway, enough huffing and puffing. On to Lindsey Graham. Graham thinks he can pay for his privatization plan by lifting the cap on payroll taxes. Newsweek takes his word for it. But what he's saying is false, according to Furman/Greenstein. The Graham Plan is one of the more sensible privatization schemes out there, but it would still reduce total benefits for everyone, increase deficits through at least 2050, and would require trillions in General Fund transfers to Social Security, worsening the budget deficit. As the CBPP analysis has it, raising the cap on payroll taxes wouldn't "avoid the need for extensive borrowing" here. (And Graham isn't proposing to lift the cap completely, so he'd end up raising even less than the already too-meager amount assumed by the Furman/Greenstein paper.) Plus, Newsweek notes that Alan Greenspan suggested that Graham modify his plan by giving low-income people more in guaranteed benefits. A noble goal, to be sure, but it's going to make the plan more costly. Yum, more borrowing.
At any rate, this stuff is all very complex but the point is that there are people out there actually working through all the complexity. Newsweek's reporters ought to know about this, rather than just nodding dumbly when Graham smiles and tells them he "hasn't worked out exact numbers yet."
Something really is going on with the proverbial "Arab street." The automatic assumption that the "Arab street" will always rally to the local king or dictator - if that king or dictator just waves around some bogus threat or insult from "America," "Israel" or "the West" - is no longer valid. Yes, the Iraq invasion probably brought more anti-American terrorists to the surface. But it also certainly brought more pro-democracy advocates to the surface.
What "automatic assumption"? People in the Middle East don't generally rally around Arab regimes because of bogus threats or insults. They support the regimes because if they don't, they get tossed in prison and tortured, or cracked over the heads by security forces financed by American petrodollars. That, by the way, hasn't changed much of late.
That said, I kind of share Friedman's optimism too. If the encouraging signs out of Gaza and the West Bank turn into a permanent peace, if Iraq survives without a civil war, and if Syria can be forced out of Lebanon (and Lebanon can survive without a civil war), well, the Middle East starts looking like a much nicer place. Of course, the ends will have to be pretty damn glorious to justify the means over the past four years.
Finally got around to reading Joseph Braude's essay on Egypt in the New Republic, arguing that it's much too soon to have free presidential elections because the Islamists would win, unseat Husni Mubarak, and then wreak a bunch of unspecified "havoc" all over Egypt. The alternative, Braude suggests, is to somehow magically strengthen the (weakly organized) liberal-democratic movement in Egypt and hope that they can come to power.
Well now. My first reaction is to shake my head—for a long time I've liked the idea, floated by "left-leaning" academics and, of all people, Reuel Marc Gerecht, that we should just uncork these regimes, hold elections, and let the Islamists take over. Let them busy themselves with governing rather than with hating the United States for propping up brutal dictators. Eventually the whole process will soften Islamic radicalism and all will be well. But that's just the theory; the trick is figuring out what would happen in actual, real-life countries. So, to Egypt we go. Ah Egypt... The first thing we'll do, let's look at the institutions. Assume an Islamist group like the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power via constitutional means (i.e. wins the presidential election, lifts the ban on MB as a political party, wins significant seats in the legislature). Suddenly they have legal control of a country with a) a Constitution that can potentially enshrine shari'a (traditional Islamic law) as the law of the land, b) a non-independent judiciary (Anwar Sadat originally made it independent, but it's been subjugated over the years, and I believe Mubarak has given himself the power to create extra-legal courts, and c) a terrible legislative tradition—many of the 50,000 laws are patchwork items, utterly vague, and conflict with each other. There's little rule of law here. (For more background, read Yustina Saleh's study of Egypt's constitution.) Oh, and let's toss in d) as far as I can tell, an Islamist president would still have the power to declare a state of emergency.
So it's not obvious that something even remotely democratic would emerge from a change of presidents. Meanwhile, instituting sharia would offer poor protection for Egypt's sizeable Coptic Christian community. (And by sizeable I mean about 4.5 million people—more than the number of Kurds in Iraq.) Copts, for instance, would have no standing in court against Muslims. And yes, things would be a good deal worse than they are now—the current Supreme Court takes a moderately liberal view on protections for minorities and the implementation of sharia.
On the plus side, however, the U.S. has never cared much for human rights or democracy when it's convenient, and here it might be convenient: Islamist rule could turn Islamic rage away from the United States, at least for awhile. Perhaps moreso if the U.S. was the country that pressured Mubarak into holding the elections in the first place.
After a victory, it's doubtful that the Islamists would maintain their current wide base of support. At the moment, they gain a number of followers by offering a nice network of social services, and blaming all deprivation on the state, but obviously they can't afford to provide services for the entire nation. Plus, many Egyptians back the Islamists less for their positive agenda than for their opposition to Mubarak's ideologically bankrupt regime. (Nazih Ayubi's Political Islam has a lot on this.)
The other possibility is that the Islamists in power would learn to compromise like any good political group, seeking pragmatic solutions to governing rather than inflexibly theological ones. The Muslim Brotherhood has worked closely with liberals and nationalists over the years, and ever since eschewing violence for politics they've become quite flexible. Meanwhile, Mubarak's massive National Democratic Party would remain a large element of the political opposition, and assuming the new Islamist rulers didn't abuse what's left of the rule of law in Egypt—which is a big assumption, obviously—a healthy political rivalry could form.
As well, a hugely neglected issue could arise: The intra-Islamist debates. The Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, has long feuded with the militant salafists in Saudi Arabia, while moderate groups like Hizb al-Wasat—an offshoot of the Brotherhood that somewhat embraces rights for women and Copts—have their own version of Islamist rule. This sort of dialogue would be a grand thing, and frankly, I don't see any other way for it to come about.
So that's the happy view. The unhappy view is that, over time, some Egyptians could grow disillusioned with their new Islamic government—especially if it failed to implement sharia—and seek refuge in even more radical strains of Islam that eventually joined the jihad against the United States. If you read Gilles Kepel's Muslim Extremism in Egypt, it's clear that the radicals can always find ways to declare current rulers illegitimate.
A number of other "X-factors" also start to emerge. It's worth noting that animosity toward the West will be a major pillar in any radical Islamist government, as Joseph Braude argues. And it's not just because of our policies: Many of these folks blame the influence of "decadent" Western culture for the Islamic world's moral decline. I'm not sure how big of an effect this would have, but I don't think Arab resentment towards the U.S. would disappear overnight. At the same time, though, Islamist Egyptians may no longer feel as threatened by the U.S., given that they're no longer ruled by leaders who imitate those decadent and morally corrupt Westerners. (Then again, you have to wonder how much the U.S. could actually support an Islamist regime in Egypt, especially one that repressed the country's 4.5 million Coptic Christians.)
It's also possible that a new Islamist regime could just blame the U.S. for all of its economic woes, and possibly redirect popular frustration in that way. Denouncing the U.S. for its trade policies and economic influence seems like a fruitful avenue here. Who knows? One day you have people like Ayman al-Zawihiri blowing up the World Trade Center to protest America's support for the Mubarak regime. The next, though, you could have new Egyptian Islamists blowing stuff up to protest the "exploitation" of Egypt by the IMF, WTO, etc.
Indeed, one thing that worries me is that the potential belligerence of the Muslim Brotherhood remains very much unknown. In Egypt, the group has certainly tamped down its radical tone over the last decade, mostly trying to effect change via peaceful means like elections. At the same time, another branch of the MB evolved along similar lines in Sudan, but then took part in the 1989 military coup when it looked like they couldn't win the elections. We know how that turned out. Perhaps the comparison's unfair—military coups always produce crappy regimes—but it's hardly trivial.
Still, when all is said and done, what's the alternative here? The Islamists are the only viable political opposition group in Egypt. I'm not sure either the U.S. or Mubarak himself have the ability to help the liberals gain influence. Building up a liberal civil society is really hard work, and a slow, painstaking process. It's also unlikely that Mubarak will instill the rule of law in Egypt before gracefully holding elections and turning over his throne. It takes time to train legislators on how to write intelligent laws, create a working system of judicial review, resolve a lot of constitutional muddles, etc. etc. And meanwhile, thanks to U.S. policies in Israel and Iraq over the past four years, conditions for nurturing moderate Islam are at an absolute nadir. (Thanks President Bush!)
So it's either stay the current course or let the radical Islamists come to power. I say uncork the damn bottle—hold elections and see what happens. The current course does us no good. But it's going to be a nailbiter.