April 29, 2005

When Intellectuals Attack

Praktike had a really good post about Robert Kaplan's new Atlantic cover story, on the coming war with China. In the grand style of bloggers everywhere, I'll offer the "money quote" while still exhorting you to "read the whole thing":
But the main question begged by and not answered in the piece is: Why We Would Fight China, a question that is above PACOM's collective paygrade and therefore not asked by Kaplan. I have to say that it would be deeply unfortunate and downright foolish if America and China backed themselves both into a "second Cold War," as Kaplan puts it. It could only be the result of a mutual miscalculation. There's no doubt that we should be prepared militarily, and we shouldn't be naive in scrutinizing Chinese intentions.... [But] U.S. policy ought to be about finding ways to create a win-win situation in Asia rather than on blundering into a pointless new Cold War that can only make everyone poorer and stupider. We shouldn't be afraid of China, but rather we should be afraid that U.S. China policy will be determined by people who think in zero-sum terms.
Indeed, Kaplan's main problem seems to be that he thinks all our relationships with other countries need to be zero-sum. More on that some other time. But praktike's post reminded me of a National Interest essay by David Lampton of CSIS from two years ago (sorry, Nexis-only) where he noted that, in the past, Chinese intellectuals used to crank out very Kaplan-esque books that touted the coming conflict with America, such as China Can Say No (1996) and Unrestricted Warfare (1997). Or, I should say, John Mearsheimer-esque books, since he's the big proponent of the "inevitable war with China" thesis here in America. But lately, Lampton says, "[t]he fashion among Chinese intellectuals is to talk about 'win-win,' rather than 'zero-sum' thinking." So one of the factors that may well prove crucial on both sides of the Pacific is what sorts of intellectuals and strategic thinkers actually end up influencing government policy.

Unfortunately, this is always a tricky thing to figure out. Clearly some intellectuals do end up shaping government policy—most histories of the neo-cons will attest to that—but from a distance, it's often impossible to tell where the real centers of influence actually are. For instance, I read lots of essays about France that quote all sorts of French political tracts to make a point about this or that new French ideology emerging, but obviously the only books that matter are those that actually affect the way the Paris government thinks about stuff. And no one can say which ones do. Likewise, I have no way of telling, and Lampton doesn't say, whether Unrestricted Warfare actually had any influence beyond a small circle of Chinese academics, or whether these new 'win-win' intellectuals have Hu Jintao's ear. Nor, for that matter, do I know whether the White House and Pentagon are more likely to be thinking along the lines of John Mearsheimer or, say, Tom Barnett (who is extremely dovish on China), or whether they even care about what any of these thinkers are saying. But that seems awfully important to figure out.

...the worst possibility, of course, is that rising military hawkishness towards China is being driven by the Pentagon's need to justify buying a bunch of high-tech new equipment. i.e. "We really want these new nuclear subs, but Congress will never go for it. But they might if we start talking about the coming war with Beijing..." Obviously it's not quite as flagrant as that, but at least subconsciously that might be what's happening.

MORE: fascinating stuff on China from praktike, who happens to know everything about everything, apparently.
-- Brad Plumer 8:37 PM || ||
Constitution's All A State Of Mind

Apropos of nothing, really, comes this fun passage from Cass Sunstein's The Second Bill of Rights:
It is interesting to ask here whether there is a connection between social and economic rights [i.e. enshrined in a country's constitution] and government policy. An extensive study gives some partial answers, indicating that such rights can have real effects. Many constitutions promise help for those who are unemployed, disabled, or simply poor, and a constitutional right of this kind is strongly connected with larger transfer payments for such people, even if we control for other variables that might confound the analysis.

On the other hand, a constitutional right to education is associated with lower expenditures for public education. The right to health services has a positive association with public health expenditures, but the association is weak and not statistically significant.
He's right, that is interesting. Sunstein also makes a good point about constitutions abroad. With our hallowed Constitution, and whenever Americans consider amendments and such, we tend to think of them solely in terms of their real-world effects. "What will this amendment do, how will it translate into concrete law?" But Sunstein points out that many other countries think constitutions ought to include principles that aren't necessarily supposed to be applied rigorously and strictly enforced by the courts, but merely express national aspirations.

So, for instance, when Sunstein was advising Ukraine on drawing up a new constitution in the '80s, several drafters wanted to include a provision requiring that the press be objective. Obviously, from an American point of view, this seems insane: How the fuck are the courts going to define "objective"? What will be considered "opinionated"? But no, the Ukrainians just wanted to express an aspiration of sorts: that Ukraine would be the sort of country where journalists try their hardest to be objective and truthful.

To veer off sharply on yet another tangent, this might be a good way of thinking about Arab constitutions, where there's often a lot of wrangling over whether there should be a provision saying "Islam is the sole source of legislation," or "Islam is a source of legislation." To me, this debate seems somewhat meaningless, because the extent to which sharia does, in fact, end up dictating law depends largely on how the courts are set up, how legislatures choose to interpret the provision, etc. Devil's all in the implementation. But going off Sunstein, the constitutional culture also seems important to consider—whether people view their constitution as a strict "law of the land" or a document that includes, among other things, an expression of national aspirations and identity.
-- Brad Plumer 4:18 AM || ||

Didn't bother watching the big press conference tonight, but reading over the transcript, what is this all about?: "There will be no price gouging at gas pumps in America." Is this something that's thought to be a problem? And when did our president turn into such a consumer-rights champion? Heck, even I'm in favor of "price-gouging," for reasons more or less outlined here. But back to the issue at hand: Is Bush now thinking about price controls on gasoline? Egad, maybe everyone should stop giving the prez a hard time about his man date with Abdullah before he does something truly rash.
-- Brad Plumer 3:59 AM || ||
Is Eugenics Obsolete?

Pam Spaulding has a gruesome post on the history of forced sterilization in America that's very much worth reading. Though it might be a little unfair for her to imply that the "American Taliban," i.e. the pro-life right was behind this movement. After all, the infamously pro-eugenics Buck v. Bell decision that Pam quotes was written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, a lifelong atheist. And as the wingnuts never tire of pointing out, Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, was one of the biggest proponents of forced sterilization, arguing in the 1920s that "the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective."

Like it or not, it was the secular elites of that era who were largely touting sterilization, worried as they were that the educated class wasn't self-reproducing enough. On the other side of the ledger was Theodore Roosevelt, who promoted "positive eugenics," i.e. exhorting educated women to start cranking out more babies. (He even included this his 1906 SOTU address.) The David Brooks of his time, you could say.

Now in The Empty Cradle, Phillip Longman worried that subreplacement fertility rates among the educated classes could mean "the social seeds for eugenics are still alive" (presumably through genetic engineering). Fortunately, though, I don't think the modern political climate is at all favorable to this sort of thing. Conservatives are so committed to the "culture of life" that it would be nigh-unthinkable for them to promote any sort of eugenics program. Right-wing intellectuals worried about either cultural decline or falling birthrates (the two main rationales for eugenics) tend to fall into two camps: the Sam Huntington-types who want to limit immigration to preserve Anglo-Saxon Protestant purity here in America; and the David Brooks-set, who just want women to return to the hearth and pump out lots and lots of babies. On the left, there's the Longman camp, which thinks the answer is to craft policies that allow women to work and have as many kids as they want; along with a growing liberal disability-rights movement, whose aims, I think, were nicely summarized in this wonderful essay by Michael Berube:
I criticized the high abortion rate for fetuses with Down syndrome, but unlike those who rely on various invocations of divine authority to dictate the terms of life to others, I would rather decrease the abortion rate by means of persuasion than by means of state coercion.
At any rate, this is all by way of saying that eugenics movements are on much weaker grounds today than ever before, and not just because they were so thoroughly discredited after the horrors of Nazi population programs, but because there simply aren't any major political movements thinking even remotely along those lines. The proposed solutions to cultural decline or falling birthrates or defective births have mostly been staked out elsewhere.
-- Brad Plumer 3:55 AM || ||
John Bolton, Anti-Bully

Suzanne Nossel has some great posts on UN reform and John Bolton. I think it's time to lay out the hard-headed Republican case against Bolton, or better yet, what we can call the "Norm Coleman" case, even though Norm Coleman doesn't think this way. But he should.

The other day Dan Bartlett told reporters, "A vote for John Bolton will be a vote for change at the United Nations." That's plainly ludicrous; just ask, what sort of change? John Bolton has absolutely no ideas at this score, and neither do his backers. For all the screaming and table-pounding over the very serious flaws and abuses at the UN—from its ass-backwards Commission on Human Rights to raping children in the Congo—not one prominent conservative has put forward any actual ideas for shaking up the UN. Instead they send Bolton. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Look, folks, I hate baseball—hate it, think it's a stupid sport with faux athletes who go on the IR for minor scratches, and it has silly rules. I had to pretend to like it for two years while dating my last girlfriend; basically, it pisses me off. Nevertheless, no sensible person would appoint me MLB Commissioner to enact "reform." I may know what I loathe about the game, but I wouldn't have the first goddamn clue about how to make it better. So it goes with Bolton and UN.

Now when Republicans like Norm Coleman talk about "reforming" the UN, I suspect that what they really want is to reduce the UN into nothing more than an instrument for legitimizing U.S. policy. (All this talk about Oil-for-Food is, I think, a red herring.) In other words, giving American unilateralism the blessed shroud of international approval. Fair enough; that's certainly not what I think the UN is merely for, but if you truly believe American hard power is the primary force for good in the world, and one of our main weaknesses is obstructionism by a slew of other ragtag countries around the globe, then this is a reasonable (if wrong-headed) view. In that case, however, I think Suzanne showed, in her essay "Retail Diplomacy," that the U.S. really can coerce other countries into following its unilateral lead, but it takes just a little patience, effort, and ego-stroking. The whole essay is marvelous, but take a look at this section on how we could be using a bit of bilateral strong-arming to further our multilateral goals:
In A Dangerous Place, an account of his experience as U.S. Ambassador to the UN in the mid-1970s, Daniel Patrick Moynihan suggested that the United States use its bilateral ties to advance multilateral priorities. Absent other compelling bilateral goals, Moynihan argued, the U.S. Ambassador to Togo, for example, should make it his or her number one objective to secure that country's backing on key matters in the UN and other forums. By mobilizing support in this way, he suggested, the United States might have headed off the “Zionism Is Racism” resolution that sent U.S.-UN relations into a decades-long downward spiral.

Unfortunately, Moynihan's proposal went nowhere. Multilateral issues remain a sidebar at best to bilateral relationships. Ambassadors have no incentive to push remote and contentious multilateral issues that have little direct bearing on their day-to-day jobs. …Though the United States has unparalleled capacity to wage effective campaigns on the global stage via its network of diplomats, this machinery rarely kicks into gear….

During the UN dues negotiations, the U.S. delegation repeatedly learned after the fact of loans, debt forgiveness and other concessions made to countries that actively opposed the reform process. At the end of a long and contentious meeting with the Singaporean delegation, one of their diplomats pulled from his briefcase a press report announcing a U.S.-Singapore free trade agreement. “This is what matters”, he said, dismissing the importance of the dues issue while stead-fastly maintaining his country's refusal to pay more. Without a ledger, Singapore's recalcitrance at the UN had no impact on their favorable treatment at the hands of the U.S. Trade Representative. Had the matters simply been raised together, the free trade cooperation would have provided leverage on the dues issue even without an explicit quid pro quo. Allies and enemies alike know that the United States does not keep track of its bilateral relationships in this way, however, and thus rest assured that opposing the United States in multilateral forums will rarely trigger repercussions in the bilateral relationship.
Notice that what Moynihan's proposing is basically an advanced form of bullying. But it's bullying all the same. The United States doesn't give up anything, nor is it fundamentally constrained by, for instance, having our Singapore ambassador say to his counterpart, "Nice free trade deal you want there. Be a real shame if anything happened to it. Oh hey, by the way, let's talk about UN dues." This is the Norm Coleman dream, is it not?

But it's clear that John Bolton has neither the patience nor the temperament nor the people skills to conduct this sort of smooth diplomatic arm-cranking. It's not just because he's opposed to multilateralism and diplomacy; it's more because he's ill-mannered and lazy. Indeed, the White House has always been appallingly lazy on this front. The hawk party likes to bitch about how Turkey's opposition to the war in Iraq may have cost us the peace, since we never had Marine divisions sweep in through the north and pacify the Sunni cities in al-Anbar. Fine, but note that we "lost" Turkey mainly through sheer laziness and ineptitude. As Glenn Kessler and Mike Allen have reported, during the run-up to the first Gulf War Sec. State James Baker made five personal visits to Turkey, and George H.W. Bush called Turkey's leader 55 to 60 times. By contrast, in 2003 Colin Powell didn't visit Ankara once, and Bush the younger made all of three calls to Erdogan. Not surprisingly, we lost Turkey.

So yes, the bottom line: John Bolton will hurt America's ability to be a global bully. In other words, he likely won't even be good at the one thing he's supposed to be good at.
-- Brad Plumer 3:44 AM || ||

April 28, 2005

Career Suicide

I tend to rank the Slate columnists as follows: Daniel Gross, Dahlia Lithwick, Tim Noah, Fred Kaplan, and then a pretty big gap down to the rest. And then another long, long gap down to Christopher Hitchens. Which is just my way of saying two things: 1) I'm confident I'll never be hired by Slate, and 2) I'm very, very excited that Dan Gross has started up his own blog.
-- Brad Plumer 3:23 PM || ||
Free the Drug Market!

The usual complaint about the Republican "free market" approach to economic policy is that, in practice, it doesn't tend to be all that free. And more to the point, it doesn't seem like most corporations even want a truly "free" market. When companies like United are being bailed out to the tune of billions of dollars by the federal government, it's safe to say that corporations need government just as much as the reverse. So when I hear that the Chamber of Commerce wants to do things like pare down the Family Medical Leave Act, on account of it costing too much and being too much government intervention and hampering all that economic potential just ready to explode in an unfettered marketplace, well, excuse me while I roll my eyes and snort a bit.

So the "free market" is not always what it seems, and if we can be honest about how dependent companies already are on government support, it will lead to less freaking out about certain proposed government interventions. Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research outlines one such proposal today. As we know, health care costs are chugging on upwards. And much of that upward-chug is driven by obscenely high drug prices. But, as Baker points out: "It is not difficult to find ways to reduce drug prices, since the reason that prescription drugs are expensive is that the government grants pharmaceutical companies patent monopolies." A few reforms, Baker argues, could solve a lot of our cost problems: We simply junk those patent monopolies and instead expand public funding for biomedical research:
The potential savings to the country and the government from having drugs sold at free market prices are enormous. The CMS estimates that the country will spend $521 billion on drugs in 2014. This figure could fall to approximately $160 billion, if drugs were sold in a competitive market. The savings accruing to the federal government alone would be approximately $140 billion a year by 2014, several times more than the additional research spending needed to replace the patent supported research by the pharmaceutical industry.
Now it's true that relying on public spending for research isn't "free market" in the ideal sense of the word, but neither are government-supported patent monopolies! The relevant question here is: which particular method of government meddling will keep costs down and lead to more innovation? Frankly, patent-protected pharmaceutical companies don't appear to be doing all that much innovating on their own; as Marcia Angell once pointed out: "Of the seventy-eight drugs approved by the FDA in 2002, only seventeen contained new active ingredients, and only seven of these were classified by the FDA as improvements over older drugs." If the Baker approach really can yield serious savings, there's certainly no ideological reason not to do it—it's simply swapping one form of government intervention for another, more efficient one.

(Note: Yeah, this post first appeared at MoJo; usually I never cross-post, but I tend to get really smart comments on health care here and wanted to see what you all had to say. So... fire at will.)
-- Brad Plumer 3:06 PM || ||
Smarter Technocrats

Even if Iraq turns out okay—by which I mean, we forget about the hundreds of thousands dead and content ourselves with the fact that Zarqawi gets killed and people can vote and 99.7% of Iraqi lawmakers don't get assassinated in their homes—even if all that happens, I think it's safe to say that very few people in the U.S. would have the appetite for more full-on empire. Apart from a few delusional warbloggers, no one sane could think that victory in Iraq, if it comes, will be anything other than a snatched-from-the-jaws-of-defeat affair. So I'm not sure why Vivek Chibber writes, in the last issue of Boston Review, that Niall Ferguson's empire-advocacy work "reflects a widening current of opinion among American intellectuals, including its liberal wing."

Nevertheless, his takedown of Colossus is very, very good, and deflates a lot of delusions about Britain's grand colonial experiment in India and elsewhere, including the notion that the market and economic reforms in the various colonies were unequivocally a good thing. (And especially Ferguson's appalling contention that the famines in late 19th century India, which left at least 23 million dead, were due to "environmental" rather than egregious mismanagement.)

The rejoinder here might be, "Well, look, yes, Britain caused a lot of famines back in the day, and yes, Britain mismanaged its colonies by turning them into subjugated markets for its exports and yes, Britain wasn't very good at channeling investment and development money to the Third World, but hey, we know so much more about economics nowadays. We'd never make those mistakes." But, of course, even today we as human beings still don't seem to know a whole lot about how to make developing countries grow, and it's very likely that economists still have key pieces of macroeconomics wrong, just as they seemed to have things fairly wrong prior to the Great Depression, and just as they seemed to prior to the great stagflation under Carter. Certainly, as Robert Looney has written over and over again, the consensus neoliberal prescriptions for Iraq turned out to be disastrous in the short-term. And that's just the most obvious example. Our technocrats today are pretty good, certainly better than colonial Britain's did, but they don't seem to be perfect quite yet—if they'll ever be.
-- Brad Plumer 1:07 PM || ||

April 27, 2005

Ogogle Goes Public

And one for the annals of "awesome but useless crap." Lately I've become a terrible, nigh-incompetent typist, unable to spell anything, and the only thing that saves me from writing complete jibberish fulltime is Microsoft Word's blessed AutoCorrect function. Sadly, Firefox's URL field doesn't have anything comparable. But Google does! And I don't mean the actual search engine (i.e. "Did you mean: Pitbulls wearing panties" Ah yes, yes I did...). No, I mean that you can type all sorts of appalling variations of "www.google.com" into your browser and still get to where you want to be. Greatest hits include:
All work, and no doubt there are more. But what I'd really like to see them add to the roster are http://www.googl.ecom and http://www.googlec.om, since those are the two that trip me up the most. On the other hand, they're taking away any incentive for me to learn to type better! Though from what I understand of the various theories of phonics out there, learning how to spell correctly is far more important for learning how to read than for writing well. Phew.
-- Brad Plumer 9:35 PM || ||
Radio Silence

Why no posts lately? Ah, life has been busy, work hectic, trying to do a bunch of research on family and sick leave, which will probably be good for a post or five later on. But now I'm going off to see Kung Fu Hustle, so no time to write. Instead, I'll kick things over quickly to three of my favorite conservative bloggers:

Victor of Dead Parrots summons up a bunch of statistics to argue that the U.S. medical system isn't as horrible as all that. Interesting stuff. To be honest, I agree with the brunt of what he's saying—the fact that we have lower life expectancies and whatnot doesn't say anything all that useful about our health care system, though it does help call into question the (common) notion that the U.S. is getting something extra-super-special for a system that has outlandishly high costs and leaves 45 million people uninsured. Which, I guess, is only my bitchy way of saying that if the situation was reversed, and U.S. life expectancies were top o' the OECD, we'd certainly be hearing about all the premature deaths socialized medicine was "causing" abroad.

Meanwhile, Steve Verdon has a conservative health care proposal worth discussing. Of particular interest, though, is that graph he puts up, showing that per capita health care spending has increased in proportion to the decline of out-of-pocket spending. It seems awfully important to try to figure out which factor is causing which here. (I mean, it could be the case that spending is going up because people have to pay less out-of-pocket and hence have less restraint, going to the doctor's for the slightest sniffle and whatnot. Or the reverse could be true, and people can't afford to pay as much out-of-pocket simply because costs are going up for other reasons.)

Finally, John Kalb picks apart my proposal for a party-oriented politics here in America. Oddly, John suggests that stronger parties wouldn't necessarily increase turnout by noting that "voter turnout's been steadily dropping all over the world, even in places like France, where party bosses are extremely important." Well, okay, but in France's 2002 presidential election, turnout was still nearly 80 percent. I'd love to see that sort of "decline" here in America!

It's also true, as John points out, that stronger, more centralized political parties would open the door for Tom DeLay-style abuse by party bosses. But my hope is that, if parties rather than individuals become the dominant unit in American politics, then scandals or corruption by any one politician, especially party leaders, would have repercussions for the party as a whole. That seems to be what's going on in Canada with the Liberals, though correct me if I'm wrong there. By contrast, here in the United States, Tom DeLay answers only to his small district in Texas, despite the fact that what he does very much affects the entire country. He is House Majority Leader, after all. Now yes, in the coming months the DeLay scandals may well bog down the whole party, but that's the way it should always be.
-- Brad Plumer 9:31 PM || ||

April 26, 2005

What's So Special About Montana

You have to flip all the way to the back of the latest Time issue for it, past Ann Coulter and everything, but this short piece on why Montana is turning Democratic, or at least vaguely blue-ish, is worth the flip:
The outlaw Montana that I moved to 15 years ago and that my Eastern friends had apprehensions about--many of them quickly dismissed once they visited and fired a few rounds from the target pistols I own or took a pickup down to a local bar with a poker table in its back room--is setting like the evening sun. Ragged former cow towns like Bozeman are turning into suburbanized high-tech meccas for Ph.D.s who like to go rafting and snowboarding. These immigrants have brought with them an exotic culture of dining spots that feature formal wine lists, bookstores that sell titles besides the Bible, sports that don't center on the killing of animals and taverns whose air is as clean and clear as the expensive vodka in their martinis.

But the old-timers are turning bluer too--perhaps as a result of choking on the polluted air that issues from the state's assorted smelters, refineries, pulp mills, oil and gas wells and non-emission-controlled exhaust pipes. The inevitable legacy of almost everyone doing pretty much anything he wished is a huge environmental mess, from the copper mines of Butte, where the water table is thick with heavy metals, to the asbestos mines of Libby, where laborers are dying in large numbers from chronic respiratory ailments. No wonder Montanans legalized medical marijuana last fall. The stuff is said to ease the pain of battling cancer, and up in Libby at least, that pain is great.
That all seems to jibe with what David Sirota wrote in his retrospective on Brian Schweitzer's kickass gubenatorial campaign. Now what I'd be curious to know is if these trends are unfolding in any other Upper-Midwestern states. Are environmental issues cropping up in North Dakota or Wyoming? Are any other towns up there turning into "high-tech meccas for Ph.D.s who like to go rafting and snowboarding"? Could Boise turn into the next Bozeman? I'm not sure why it's just Montana of all places that seems to be turning more liberal.

MORE: Is it... the Mormon factor? So says Matt Singer.
-- Brad Plumer 8:03 PM || ||
Cleaning Up Congress

Very good article from USA Today about how DeLay's little lobbyist-paid trips are only the coughs and hacks of a much, much larger disease:
The new analysis of 5,410 trips in the past five years by about 600 members of the House and Senate was conducted by PoliticalMoneyLine, an online service that provides campaign-finance and lobbying data.

It found that $8.8 million of the travel expenses were paid for by tax-exempt and other groups whose funding sources aren't public. DeLay is under fire in part because one such group, the National Center for Public Policy Research, paid for a trip to Britain in 2000 that may have been at least partly paid for by a lobbyist, which is against House rules.

While ethics rules require lawmakers to try to find out and disclose who is paying for their trips, they often fail to do so, said Larry Noble of the Center for Responsive Politics, an ethics watchdog group. "It has become a 'don't ask, don't tell' system," Noble said.

He said it is curious that the rules don't allow lobbyists to pay for trips but permit their employers to do so. "The fiction is that the same conflict doesn't exist when the lobbyist's employer, a corporation or a trade association, pays for the travel and the lobbyist goes along," Noble said.
Yes, why are the rules structured like that? Look, if DeLay in fact let Abramoff pay for his junkets and trips abroad, then he's guilty of some clear violations here. Case closed. But imagine if some corporation or trade group that employed Abramoff had paid for the junkets instead—technically, that would've been "legal," but that still would've been wrong, and corrupt, and—oh here it comes—bad for America.

So here's the larger point: Yes, I'd like to see DeLay's ethics violations translate into trouble for Tom DeLay. More than that, I'd like to see DeLay's ethics violations translate into trouble for the GOP as a whole, tangled as the party in K Street's long and slithery tentacles. Hey, what can I say, I'm a vicious partisan and I think the Republican majority is doing this country a lot of harm. So shoot me. But even more than that, and perhaps most important of all, I'd like to see a larger conversation take place about the role of money in politics, period.

If all that comes of these DeLay scandals is that the Majority Leader gets ousted, and the Republicans suffer a serious election-day defeat, that will be cool, but won't change much, fundamentally speaking. Democrats certainly aren't above cozying up to lobbyists and trade associations, or voting for corporate whore bills, or basking in the day-to-day corruption that beams down like black light on Congress. (In fact, according to PML, they've taken more privately-financed trips than Republicans since 2000.) So the new motto should be: Better ethics all around, please. And not just that, but better rules, tighter restrictions, real finance reform. Let's have a wider separation of K Street and state. Realistically, it looks like that the GOP will have to be ousted before any of that can ever happen, given that DeLay seems hell-bent on turning the ethics committee into a bunch of impotent partisan lackeys. But even after that's accomplished, let's not lose sight of the ultimate goal here.

UPDATE: Haha, yes, more like this. Watch the little rats scurry away!
-- Brad Plumer 6:41 PM || ||
Pick a Metric, Any Metric

Steve Verdon has an interesting post on the problems with using life expectancy as a measure of the "goodness" of any given health care system. I agree, it's somewhat problematic. Lots of things affect life expectancy, and just because the numbers are low isn't proof that the health care system sucks. That reminds me of an interesting study once mentioned by Phillip Longman:
In a recent issue of Health Affairs, three researchers from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation examined scores of studies dating back to the 1970s on what factors cause people to die prematurely. They reported that genetic predispositions account for 30 percent of premature deaths; social circumstances, 15 percent; environmental exposures, 5 percent; behavioral patterns, 40 percent; and shortfalls in medical care, 10 percent. As they note, these proportions are easily misinterpreted. Ultimately, nearly everyone's health is determined by a combination of factors. For example, while only about 2 percent of human diseases are caused by inherited genetic mutations alone, nearly everyone carries various genetic dispositions that, when combined with a hazardous environment or unhealthy lifestyle, can contribute to ill health. But this only underscores the relatively small role medicine plays in preventing premature death.
So yes, if we really wanted to boost life expectancy here in the U.S., we probably ought to focus more on those "social circumstances"—especially reducing poverty—along with getting people to exercise more and eat healthier stuff. (We might also want to try a bit of genetic engineering, though I won't wade into that right now.) Meanwhile, improving health care access for the poor and otherwise uninsured would certainly be a grand thing, and would probably save lives, but in the grand scheme of things probably wouldn't boost our life expectancy numbers up to the level of our OECD competitors.

So put a grain of salt on those life expectancy graphs. But do notice: It's still extremely hard to find statistics that cast the U.S. health care system in a favorable light. My favorite metric is the one used by the WHO, which tries to measure three goals: good health, responsiveness to health expectations, and fairness of financial contribution. For good health, the WHO looks at disability-adjusted life years (i.e. years without disability) rather than life expectancy. The surveys on responsiveness, meanwhile, try to control for different cultural interpretations of what constitutes "good health" and "quality care". And even here, the United States regularly does dismally among developed nations—32nd in good health, 15th in responsiveness, 54th in fairness, and 37th in overall performance. Now you could say, "Hey, that's not fair, the U.S. would be doing pretty well were it not for the fairness part," but that's an awfully odd thing to bracket off like that.

Again, you can poke holes in just about any statistic used. There are all sorts of contortions and mitigating factors and things not considered. Tech Central Station runs clever articles like this all the time ("Well perhaps this number can be explained by this, or perhaps this, or perhaps, or perhaps...") But at some point the pro-U.S. health care faction really ought to make at least some statistical case that our health care system, as a whole, does pretty well for itself. Because from what I can tell, in ranking after ranking and chart after chart, it falters.
-- Brad Plumer 1:38 PM || ||
Showdown In The Caspian: Part I

A few days ago, during Condoleeza Rice's visit to Moscow, the news reports all gave the impression that the relationship between the U.S. and Russia was more or less sound, except for a few relatively minor concerns (securing loose nuclear material, Putin's creeping authoritarianism). In other words, here are two natural allies with a few, shall we say, differences of opinion.

Fair enough, though not much attention seems to be paid to the thumb wrestling going on over oil and natural gas down in the Caucasus areas. Could this region turn into the source of greater disputes between Russia and the United States, especially as oil continues to grow scarcer and the great powers are forced to jockey for waning resources? Maybe. I don't know. But it sure seems like an important region to understand, so after a bit of googling and reading up, I'm going to try to put together a little primer on the Great Game being played out in the Caucasus region between our two favorite Cold War adversaries. Feel free to point out any mistakes, and I'll patch it up.

First, a map will come in handy here:

Yeah, that's the ticket. Now as we would expect, Russia under Vladimir Putin is surely trying to ascend to great power status once again. And the road back involves oil. Lots of it. Oil and gas account for about two-thirds of Russia's export revenue and a quarter of its GDP. And most importantly, Russia's trying to dominate the oil-transport game, fighting to make sure that any oil or gas that comes out of the resource-rich Caspian area goes through Russia first. And when I say "resource-rich", I mean resource-fucking-rich: the Soviet republics surrounding the Caspian are all told sitting on up to 200 billion barrels of oil—nearly as much as Saudi Arabia's 250 billion. So the Russian pipelines will do two things in the coming years: a) provide Moscow with a nice chunk of revenue, and b) maintain Russia's influence over the oil producing republics down south.

Naturally, the U.S. feels a bit uneasy about Russia having a monopoly on oil transport—ideally we'd like to construct pipelines that go from the Caucus oil and gas producers directly to the Black Sea and Turkey. As you can see in the map above, that means going through Azerbaijan and Georgia. Hence, the multi-billion dollar BTC pipeline, which runs from Baku, Azerbaijan, to Tblisi, Georgia, to Ceyhan, Turkey, as follows:

Not surprisingly, the U.S. has lavished aid on Georgia for the past ten years—about $800 million—and has been involved in training the Georgian military forces. Russia, meanwhile, has tried to maintain its influence over the region by keeping its forces in the northern autonomous regions of Georgia, including Adzharia, and has shelled out a good deal of aid to two of Georgia's more rebellious provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. (When Georgia tried to invade Abkhazia in 1993, for instance, Russia helped repulse the Georgian force.) The U.S., understandably, is worried that the rebel provinces will stage attacks on the BTC pipeline, or sabotage it, and has prepared the Georgian army for this possibility.

I haven't said anything about the much-lauded "rose revolution" that toppled Eduard Shevardnadze in December of 2003. It's no secret that the rise of Mikhail Saakashvili was perfect for the United States—here was a leader who would keep Georgia stable, oppose Russian influence in the region, and call for Russia to withdraw its troops from Abkhazia. A leader who would keep the BTC pipeline safe. Of course the U.S. backed him; they'd be stupid not to. But in the grand scheme of things, I don't think Saakashvili will change the larger dynamic much.

Then there's Azerbaijan. If you don't want to pipe Caspian oil and gas through Russia or Iran, it has to flow through Azerbaijan. The BTC pipeline starts in Baku. So the U.S. doesn't try to rock the boat here; the ruling Aliyev dynasty is brutal, having stolen election after election, including most recently the younger Aliyev's sham ascendancy to power in 2003, where security forces beat protestors, and over 300 were hospitalized. But that doesn't matter: what truly matters is that the elder Aliyev signed a $7.4 billion contract with 10 oil companies back in 1994, including BP, Unocal, and Pennzoil. Needless to say, after the 2003 election, Richard Armitage in the State Department quickly made the call to congratulate Aliyev. Warmly. Okay, map-time again!

Again, Russia is none too pleased with U.S. influence in Azerbaijan, and has sought to aid and arm the country's longstanding neighbor and enemy, Armenia, as well as the disputed province of Nagorno-Karabakh (that little inset region), which was the source of a five-year war between the two countries. (The U.S., for its part, has been warming towards Armenia in recent years, offering greater economic and military aid.) Is it possible that Russia is hoping to stir up trouble in the region, of the sort that will make the BTC pipeline too unstable to use, forcing the oil to flow back through Russia? Maybe. Maybe not.

Recently, it seems that Russia has resigned itself to the BTC pipeline's existence, and may even start investing in it. (More of a concern to oil investors is Iran, which could very well use its terrorist network to sabotage the pipeline. Who knows? Rumors spread like avian flu. Certainly Russia and Iran wouldn't shed too many tears if the BTC were sabotaged and an alternative pipeline, going through Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and then down through Iran to the Persian Gulf became the main outlet for Caspian oil and gas.) But it's awfully remarkable how one need only follow the pipelines to figure out how and why the great powers are acting in the way they are.

Anyway, this is only a rough overview of what's going on west of the Caspian. There's also a whole horde of interesting stuff about pipelines east of the Caspian, involving Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Russia, the U.S., and—dum, dum—China. But I'll save all that for another post.
-- Brad Plumer 3:01 AM || ||

April 25, 2005

Japan's Secret Weapon: Health

These Angry Bear charts are cool in their own right—bottom line, the U.S. doesn't get much in the way of health outcomes for all its health care spending—but what's going on with Japan? According to the graphs, they smoke far and away the most of any developed country, but nevertheless they still have the longest life expectancy at birth. (And I'd add here that non-smoking Japanese people are far more likely to be exposed to secondhand smoke than those in many other countries—I'm not even sure that they've entirely banned it on airplanes yet.)

One clue is that Japan's also the least obese of developed nations, though that seems like something that could be caused by high smoking rates. Certainly I'm not aware of any mass exercise craze that's caught on in Japan. I'm also not convinced they have the, uh, soundest health care practices around. (Fun horror anecdote: When one of my younger brothers was about, oh, ten or so, he got a schoolmate's tooth lodged in his head, and the Japanese doctor ended up putting a massive metal clamp on the wound for a few weeks, before realizing oops, that wasn't really what he wanted to do at all.)

So what's their secret? Genetics, I guess. Still bizarre.
-- Brad Plumer 3:39 PM || ||
Bring Back the Machines?

Ezra's post on third parties brings to mind, tangentially, a topic I've wanted to discuss for awhile but never got around to: namely, the pros and cons of having a "party-based" system of politics versus a "candidate-based" one. Here in the United States, of course, we tend to elect candidates rather than parties, as opposed to many proportional representation systems where you basically vote for a party, which in turn chooses the candidates. Obviously there's some overlap, but the basic distinction holds.

Now one of the interesting things about the candidate-system is that "emotional" or "values-based" issues acquire, I think, more saliency during elections. I've discussed this before in the course of wondering why Europe and Canada don't have the death penalty, despite overwhelming support for the measure among their populations. A rough explanation goes like this: Here in the U.S., a candidate running for higher office can use support or opposition to issues like the death penalty to say something about him or herself as a candidate. It's something of a personal statement, as both Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton more or less proved. In Europe, the death penalty is merely one of any number of issues to consider when voting, so if party elites want to put it aside, they won't necessarily suffer at the polls—in the way that an American politician might by looking "weak on crime," or personally soft, or any of those other intangible character traits that can sink a candidacy.

Now I'd love to see us move to a system of proportional representation here in the United States, or at least a partial one. But that won't happen anytime soon. An alternative, then, would be to strengthen the two political parties here, either by rejiggering campaign finance (i.e. decreasing the limit you can give to individual candidates and raising the amount on you can give parties) or some other method. Give parties free airtime to allocate as they choose, perhaps. We can discuss that later. But the advantages of party-based politics are well worth considering.

For starters, political parties are in theory less susceptible to the demands of special interest money. If candidates receive most of their funding from on high, in the form of, say, some Democratic or Republican election committee money, then they're obviously less likely to seek out local sources of funding that could carry certain strings attached. Funneling money through the party somewhat shields candidates from any undue influence—basically, it's much harder for a large party, raking in money from all sorts of sources, to be corrupted than it is for any one individual candidate.

Second, I think a stronger party-oriented system would allow the two parties to pick and choose the best candidates for office, rather than those who can raise the most money on their own. Whenever we talk about "money in politics," campaign contributions matter to some extent, but I think even more pernicious is the fact that most political candidates need to be, ex ante, very wealthy people. Quite naturally, that leads to legislation—like the bankruptcy bill or estate tax repeal—that's biased towards the wealthy. Many members of Congress no doubt genuinely think the estate tax is horrible because they all have wealthy friends who complain about how horrible it is. Again, if individual candidates were limited as to how much money they could raise, but parties weren't, then this effect would be somewhat reduced.

Third, and this one's the most important, a party-based mode of politics would be more likely to increase voter turn-out, I think. Theoretically, this makes sense. If elections were about voting "Republican" or "Democrat," voters need less information on which to base their choice, and it's easier to decide. You don't have to think, "Well, I like Nancy Pelosi, but I'm not sure what Barbara Boxer stands for, and oh, crumbs, now I also have to have an opinion on the president. What's he all about?" No, instead voting is like picking teams, and party loyalty would rise. Obviously some people will continue to vote split-tickets or independently, and that's fine, but for the bulk of undecideds or non-voters, it becomes easier. You know what the parties stand for and you have a strong reason to go vote.

Seems silly? Well, I have in mind something like the lay of the land back in the 19th century, when powerful party machines would work to organize voters, get people to the polls, employ thousands of election-day workers, and turn-out was far, far higher (among those eligible male voters) than it is today. There were downsides to the machine system, sure, but I think those kinks can be worked out.

Again, I'm not sure exactly how you'd bring back those party machines—this is just sort of a rough sketch—but a whole bunch of other advantages fall from it. I'd rather that elections were about organization rather than marketing. The demise of the new breed of political consultants whose sole aim is to "sell" their candidate is surely something to be welcomed. Read this American Prospect article: "In a 1989 survey, 44 percent of political consultants interviewed re ported that their candidates were uninvolved in setting the issue priorities in their own campaigns, and 66 percent reported candidates to be uninvolved in determining the tactics." Yes, I'd rather have candidates set their priorities based on dictates from on high than on the demands of a glossy personal advertising campaign set by Joe Consultant.

So that's a rough outline of what I'd like to see. The downsides should also be noted. Strong party loyalties could well increase partisanship. Maybe. Also, we'd be less likely to see "maverick" Senators and Congresspersons, since parties would have a greater ability to punish rogue elements by denying re-election funds. Then again, it might force parties to become more pragmatic, embracing their roles as large coalitions of diverse elements—especially since each party would be responsible for its own political image, and would need to win in different regions of the country. So, for instance, in Rhode Island Lincoln Chaffee would need to answer for the Republican Party as a whole, he couldn't just say, "Well, yes, they're a bit crazy, but me, I'm Lincoln Chaffee, I'm personally a moderate." That constraint could end up moderating both parties. I don't know, I'm still trying to work this out, but that's the basic idea.
-- Brad Plumer 2:38 PM || ||

Echidne catches the entire Supreme Court in an act of mortal, mortal sin. I always knew they were the sort...
-- Brad Plumer 1:08 AM || ||
Fit And Fat Is The Way To Go

Tom Maguire has some perceptive comments about that recent CDC study showing that "overweight" people live longer than "those of normal weight." Weight, it seems, doesn't necessarily correlate with how much you exercise, and many "overweight" people are quite, quite fit—like our jog-happy president. That could explain the odd results. So put down that Cinnabon, David Brooks!
-- Brad Plumer 1:04 AM || ||
You And What Army?

So as we know, the secular Shiites and Kurds in Baghdad are probably conspiring to hold up the formation of a new government, so as to run down the clock on Ibrahim Jaaferi—who's too much of an Islamist for their liking. Well, fair enough. But now the U.S. is sending in the big guns to hurry things up: "Rice and Cheney Are Said to Push Iraqi Politicians on Stalemate."

Uh, okay. And the Iraqis are supposed to care why, exactly? Are we going to withhold aid if they don't get their act together? Tell them they're an embarrassment to democracy in the Middle East? Threaten to withdraw our troops? No, no, and uh, no. Prez. Jalal Talabani probably got on the phone with Rice, nodded a bit, "uh-huh, uh-huh," and hung up. Sorry lady, I'm making the most important decisions of my life here, and I'll take my sweet goddamn time if I have to. Thanks! Surely the White House knows all this? Unless the Rice/Cheney plea was for our domestic consumption here in the U.S.A.—to make it look like the White House is "doing something" about the uptick in insurgent attacks of late. Maybe.

UPDATE: Also, as Swopa noted a few days back, you would think the White House would be happy that Jaaferi's candidacy going down in flames thanks to the cabinet gridlock. That seems plausible. So perhaps Rice's "hurry up" was more of an explicit *wink wink* at Talabani. Or, conversely, the White House thinks the Allawi/Talabani stalemate gambit will just enrage the religious Shiites in the UIA to the point where they secede from government altogether. Ah, Iraqi politics...
-- Brad Plumer 12:43 AM || ||
The Sociology of GOP Implosion

There's been a lot of talk of late about whether or not the unwieldy Republican alliance—between social conservatives and lib. free marketeers—is ever going to crack up. Business groups, it seems, are none too happy right now with Kim Jong Bill's maniacal drive forward on the "nuclear option," which, if enacted, would help the GOP stock the federal benches with a few more gay-bashers and uterus-confiscators, but the ensuing nuclear fall-out would essentially kill Big Business's grand hope of ramming through any more favorable legislation through Congress. Or at least that's the story. (In truth, I wonder what exactly Big Biz is still hoping to get passed. The energy bill? More tax cuts?)

Anyway, it's hard to tell if a crack-up is truly imminent or not, but for fun—and maybe even a side of edification—it's worth revisiting the concluding chapter from Lewis Coser's classic, The Functions of Social Conflict, to try to figure out when intra-group conflict does and does not rip groups apart at the seams. Some grand passages:
Internal social conflicts which concern goals, values or interests that do not contradict the basic assumptions upon which the relationship is founded tend to be positively functional for the social structure. Such conflicts tend to make possible the readjustment of norms and power relations within groups in accordance with the felt needs of its individual members or subgroups.

Internal conflicts in which the contending parties no longer share the basic values upon which the legitimacy of the social system rests threaten to disrupt the structure.
To be honest, I think the first paragraph better describes the tension within the GOP—they're fighting over "goals, values, or interests," and not fundamental assumptions (whatever that might mean). So down goes the Crack-Up Thermometer. But this next passage is worthy of a few contemplative strokes of the chin:
Closely knit groups in which there exists a high frequency of interaction and high personality involvement of the members have a tendency to suppress conflict. While they provide frequent occasions for hostility... the acting out of such feelings is sensed as a danger to such intimate relationships...

If conflict breaks out in a group that has consistently tried to prevent expression of hostile feelings, it will be particularly intense for two reasons: First, because the conflict does not merely aim at resolving the immediate issue which led to its outbreak; all accumulated grievances which were denied expression previously are apt to emerge at this occasion. Second, because the total personality involvement of the group members makes for mobilization of all sentiments in the conduct of the struggle.
Does that describe the current GOP coalition? Without a doubt it has been very personality driven, somewhat unified around the cult of Bush and Rove—recall, for instance, back in early 2001 when the coalition of estate-tax repealers were willing to back the president no matter what he did or decided. This is Mark Schmitt's thesis: that the GOP has become so centralized, such a command-and-control operation, that collapse will come swift and severe.

On the other hand! We've seen no sign that the current tensions between the libertarian and social conservative wings of the party are escalating their conflict beyond "resolving the immediate issue which led to its outbreak," which Coser thinks is crucial for a serious rift to occur. Nor do these Republican battles seem particularly more emotional than usual intra-party conflicts. Down goes the thermometer. And onwards:
Groups which are engaged in continued struggle tend to lay claim on the total personality involvement of their members so that internal conflict would tend to mobilize all energies and affects of the members. Hence such groups are unlikely to tolerate more than limited departures from the group unity. In such groups there is a tendency to suppress conflict; where it occurs, it leads the group to break up through splits or through forced withdrawal of dissenters.
Hmmmmm, now this could be a problem for the Republican Party, which has so thoroughly mobilized itself against the "liberal movement"—see Tom DeLay's recent "Wah wah, I'm an embattled figure" remarks—no one would pretend this is a party that's not in "continued struggle." So perhaps this is where the pressure for a crack-up will come. If Coser's right, then so long as the GOP defines itself as a majority opposition party, rather than a governing party, it will run the danger of a nasty split or "forced withdrawal of dissenters." (Which has started to happen to a small degree.) Of course, the Democrats run the exact same risk, as they've definitely "mobilize[d] all energies and affects of the members" towards a single purpose—defeating their enemies.

So, amateur social science tells us that the Republican Party is probably safe for now. What else you got?
-- Brad Plumer 12:12 AM || ||

April 24, 2005

Energy of the Future

I must've missed this when it came out, but take a look at Sam Jaffe's year-old piece in the Washington Monthly, "Independence Way." Is it possible that we're closer to alternative energy than we think?
Two new technologies, however, have the potential to make ethanol fuels much more practical. The first is a method for producing ethanol not from corn kernels, but from the plant's stalk, roots and leaves, known as cellulosic material... [A] second technology could make cellulosic ethanol the basis for a viable hydrogen transportation system...
Very interesting. The hope is that cellulosic ethanol can become energy efficient—i.e., it doesn't take more energy to make than it gives out, as traditional ethanol does—and cheaper than gasoline, so it wouldn't require lavish subsidies. Both seem possible. (Also promising: it seems that the cellulosic ethanol could be made from switchgrass, which could be harvested in areas unsuitable for food farming, so we wouldn't have to burn all our edible corn.) Meanwhile, last week Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel unveiled the world's first ethanol-hydrogen fueling-station in Illinois, which probably didn't work along the lines of what Jaffe describes above, but promising all the same...
-- Brad Plumer 6:11 PM || ||
The Taxman Cometh... Not

Max Sawicky's paper on "The Crisis in U.S. Tax Enforcement" is very good and well worth reading. Three points especially seem worth a highlight. First, according to the latest estimates, about $353 billion in taxes went unpaid in 2001. If all of these taxes could be recovered, we essentially wouldn't have a deficit problem over the next ten years.

Second, the IRS, as many know, is woefully underfunded, but Max really highlights just how underfunded the agency really is, and how both population growth and the development of ever-more-sophisticated financial instruments are only going to compound the problem in the future:
There is little dispute that the workload of the IRS has been increasing more rapidly than its organizational capacity. The number of tax returns has increased steadily, partially due to a growing population and economy. There is also evidence, however, that returns have increased faster than population growth, in the form of more returns for unmarried persons and for children. Another dimension adding to the increased IRS workload involves high-income persons and the growth of pass-through entities (as noted above). Still another factor straining IRS capacity is the multiplication of highly complex and specialized financial instruments. The estimated overall increase in workload between 1992 and 2002 is 16%.
Third, poor people putting in bogus claims for the Earned Income Tax Credit are simply not the problem here, even though they're the ones that garner much of the attention whenever this subject comes up. EITC overclaims only account for around $9 billion of the tax gap—peanuts in the grand scheme of things. Moreover, many of these faulty claims are likely the result of honest mistakes rather than cheating: 40 percent of all low-income taxpayers have never even heard of the EITC, and it's possible that a good number of folks are missing out on the tax credit or claiming too little. So by all means, clean this mess up, but let's not lose sight of the bigger picture: Contrast EITC shenanigans with corporate tax evasion, which is both bigger and much, much less likely to be the result of an honest mistake or confusion.

Okay, actually there were four points. The crucial one: Many enforcement measures that could be put in place—cross-checking tax information, sending out Tax Delinquency Investigation notices by mail, correspondence audits (i.e., the less-fearsome sort of audit), criminal prosecution, tax preparation assistance, better withholding—all of these things would recover far more in unpaid taxes than they cost to implement. Sometimes ludicrously so: Sending out Tax Delinquency Investigation notices by mail, for instance, costs 31 cents apiece, while the average return is over $12,000.

Sadly, the IRS has been tarred and feathered over the years, so people resist these sorts of enforcement moves. So here's one way to think about it: when it comes time to close the deficit, there's going to be a tradeoff between bulking up the IRS to nab delinquents and tax cheats, or levying even heavier tax increases than would otherwise be necessary. You choose.
-- Brad Plumer 6:05 PM || ||
Eyes of Children

In the course of reviewing Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, John Updike wonders why so many novelists are seeing the world through the eyes of children:
This reader’s heart slightly sank when he realized that he was going to spend more than three hundred pages in the company of an unhappy, partially wised-up nine-year-old.

The novel, traditionally a mirror held up to the Western bourgeoisie, to teach its members how to shave, dress, and behave, has focused on adult moral choices and their consequences. With some brilliant exceptions like Dickens and Mark Twain and Henry James, novelists have not taken children seriously enough to make them protagonists. However sensitive and observant, the ordinary child lacks property and the capacity for sexual engagement; he exists, therefore, on the margins of the social contract—a rider, as it were, on the imperatives and compromises of others.

Yet in recent years a number of young novelists—Stephen Millhauser and Jonathan Lethem, for two—have devoted their most ambitious and energetic efforts to detailing the fervent hobbies and the intoxicating overdoses on popular culture, the estrangement and the dependence that characterize contemporary American childhood.

Childhood’s new viability as novelistic ground may signal a shift in the very nature of being a human being, considered anthropologically as a recipient and continuer of tribal myths, beliefs, and strictures. Older novelists up through Joyce, Proust, and Hemingway portrayed the pained shedding of this traditional baggage; the newer novelists, having inherited almost no set beliefs from their liberal, distracted middle-class parents, see childhood as the place where one invents the baggage—totems, rituals, lessons to live by—of a solitary one-person tribe.
Seems plausible enough. And yeah, I'm browsing through reviews of Foer's new book, so that I can arm myself with sound opinions on the offchance I get invited to a cocktail party. (As for reviews: The Slate folks are good, the New York Press is hackish.) The one minor, nitpicky thing that bothered me about EL&IC was that, sometime in late 2002 (in novel time), the protagonist logs on the internet and randomly finds a picture of an American soldier getting beheaded in Iraq. Which, obviously, is impossible. I wouldn't mind so much, but at that point in the novel, this is the only clue you have as to how much time has elapsed since 9/11. So a news junkie would say, "Ah! a clue!" and assume it's 2004. But no, later on you're told it's not. Annoying.
-- Brad Plumer 5:11 PM || ||
"Race to the Bottom": Euro Edition

One of the more depressing aspects of federalism here in the United States is that states tend to compete with each other in a "race to the bottom" on offering various welfare benefits, so as to avoid attracting all sorts of immigrants and other low-income folks who flock to the more generous states. (As I discussed here, research shows that this effect is both real and pretty strong.) Among other things, that explains why converting programs like Medicaid into block grants can be so pernicious, at least if you think health care is a good thing. (If you don't, block-grant to your heart's content!)

Anyway, this is sort of random for 2 am, but I've sometimes wondered if the same thing could start to happen in the EU, as various countries become more and more integrated, and immigration flows become easier and easier. Chistopher Caldwell suggests this might be going on already:
Swedes have lately grown attentive to their neighbors' policies on immigration. They note that Finland's tight immigration policies have resulted in lower social burdens. But ever since the Öresund bridge brought Malmö within commuting distance of Copenhagen, it is to Denmark that Swedes have looked with most anxiety. There, the rise of the anti-immigration Danish People's party--which has never entered government but has thoroughly spooked the other parties of left and right--has succeeded in winning passage of Europe's most stringent laws on immigration. Denmark now restricts asylum admissions, welfare payments, and citizenship and residency permits for reasons of family unification. Danes under 25 who marry foreigners no longer have the right to bring their spouses into the country. Many such half-Danish couples now live in Malmö.

Denmark's crackdown has left Swedes wondering what is to stop everyone in the E.U. from coming to the most generous welfare state, even if such worries are couched in human-rights language. Shortly after Denmark passed these laws in 2002, Sweden's Social Democratic integration minister complained that the policies were inhumane. The Danish People's party leader, Pia Kj rsgaard, replied to the Swedes in a newsletter: "If they want to turn Stockholm, Göteborg, and Malmö into Scandinavian versions of Beirut . . . then that is up to them."
Huh. This paper, meanwhile, which sadly I can't read in full, argues that EU states are definitely acting as if there's a "race to the bottom," because they're all worried about attracting immigrants (especially, ahem, swarthy immigrants) to their generous welfare states, but that there's little empirical evidence that they really need to be doing so. And another Danish economist, Torben Andersen, maintains that "there is nothing... which supports the view that it is impossible to maintain the welfare state when economies integrate," though some rejiggering of the way benefits are financed might be in order. Very interesting!
-- Brad Plumer 4:46 AM || ||
The Nation Locks and Loads

Sasha Abramsky has an interesting article in The Nation asking whether the Democrats should give up their gun control stance in order to make gains in the West and Southwest. Well, yes, probably. Gun crime is a problem here in America, but not so big a problem that it's worth losing election after election over and failing to make any gains on, say, health care or declining wages or whatnot.

Looking at the FBI statistics, there were 1.4 million reported violent crimes in 2000—30 percent of which were robberies, 62 percent aggravated assaults, 7 percent rape, 1 percent willful killings. Assume this is probably underreported (the Uniform Crime Reports are usually awful), especially the rapes, but still. Of these, about one-quarter (27 percent) of all violent crimes involved a firearm used by the criminal. So whipping out the old calculator, it would appear that something like 99.8 percent of all Americans did not face a violent crime involving a gun that year. Further, it seems that gun crime has been declining as a percentage of total violent crime over the past decade.

Again, I don't want to downplay gun crime, and no doubt I'd be less glib if someone I knew or loved had been shot to death, but it's hard to say that this is a worse problem than long-term Republican dominance. It's also pretty easy to see why an excessive gun control stance is a net electoral loser for Democrats. Especially when you factor in, as Abramsky does, all those Westerners who would vote liberal were it not for the gun issue.

Also: my admittedly-not-very-good understand of all this is that gun regulation doesn't do a whole lot of good, but the smartest regulations—background checks at gun shows, safety locks on all new handguns, registration of firearms—are pretty widely backed by the public (i.e. 80 percent or more). But the only way Democrats are ever going to get away with proposing such a thing is if they can convince the public that these measures aren't just the first step on the way to total gun confiscation. This might involve picking the right presidential candidate—and John Kerry wasn't it; let's face it, for all his nifty hunting photo-ops, no one believed this was a man who would be terribly upset if the ATF came and took away everyone's rifle here in America—or maybe it involves something else. But yeah, it's a trust issue.
-- Brad Plumer 4:33 AM || ||

April 23, 2005

The Spitzer Effect

Thomas Frank asks, "What's the Matter with Liberals?" He probably thinks he's prescribing that Democrats do more economic populism stuff, as usual, but his essay suggests something more interesting: Democrats should use policy proposals, etc., not for the sake of proposing policies, but as a way of positioning themselves. Oftentimes that entails saying something you don't quite mean. Oftentimes it means not worrying too much about the substance of a proposal, or its gritty details, but what sort of message the act of proposing actually sends. As Mark Schmitt likes to say: "It's not what you say about the issues, it's what the issues say about you."

Anyway, that line of thinking is pretty standard by now. But I want to point out that this seems like something Eliot Spitzer has done extremely well in New York. As Irwin Stelzer points out in the Weekly Standard, Spitzer's crusade against Wall Street, despite doing quite a bit of good, has still been somewhat weasel-y and hypocritical. He never actually takes the companies he's attacking to court -- never actually brings them down. No, that would cause too much chaos and economic instability. Instead, he merely threatens them with prosecution, and then accepts a settlement. Collects his scalp, and moves on. In a sense, Spitzer's AG career hasn't truly been about reforming Wall Street, it's been a non-stop election campaign in which Spitzer positions himself as a Wall Street reformer. Now the danger here is that when Spitzer actually gets to office, he'll be all politics and no policy, ala George W. Bush. (Or, god help us, Bill Frist.) But it's hard to deny that that's how the game is played.

UPDATE: Okay, okay. This post was somewhat unfair to Spitzer, who's obviously done a lot to bloody the financial industry's nose (and before that, noses of gun manufacturers, lenders, tobacco companies, etc). I don't want to begrudge that. And even his halfway tactics and settlements have forced Wall Street to clean itself up to some extent. But still, it's a valid question: why does Spitzer always offer such generous settlements? Why doesn't he try to slap criminal charges on some of these mutual fund hucksters? Why didn't he go after Sanford Weill in 2002? (Because Weill was a big player in New York Democratic circles? Because it would've upset the multi-million dollar settlement that brought Spitzer such fame and acclaim in late 2002? Because the AG wanted to be able to proclaim that there were big reforms underway at Wall Street, even if there weren't, necessarily?)

Daniel Gross wrote an essay on this subject a year ago, focusing on the fact that Spitzer passed up a prime opportunity to set a precedent for prosecuting market-timing, with Richard Strong of Strong Capital Management. Gross' explanation, I think, is right on:
So, why isn't Spitzer driving tougher bargains? Cases involving capital markets and securities trading are complex. Trying to persuade a jury that market-timing is criminal and not merely sleazy would be particularly difficult. As we've seen with Dennis Kozlowski and Frank Quattrone, prosecutors run the risk of an acquittal or a hung jury. Easier to declare victory, cash the settlement check, and move on. What's more, the wheels of white-collar justice turn remarkably slowly. The trial of the executives accused of perpetrating a massive fraud against HFS (now Cendant) in 1997 is just getting under way. Spitzer, who's on the fast track for the 2006 governor's race, doesn't want to be filing discovery motions when he could be shaking hands in Utica.
Yep. Spitzer's done some seriously good work, and I should've made that clearer. No one was taking on the financial industry until he showed up. No one. But I don't think it's unfair to say that he's had his eye primarily on the governor's mansion in Albany, rather than on cleaning up Wall Street. I still have yet to hear an "honest" explanation for why he didn't go after Carl McCall, prominent New York Democrat and head of the NYSE Compensation Committee who signed off on Richard Grasso's fat bonanza. Surely not for political reasons, right? Oh no, surely not. Hey, if I still lived in New York I'd vote for Spitzer in a heartbeat, but from what I can tell, he's not half the crusader people say he is.
-- Brad Plumer 4:08 PM || ||
Laws of Nations

In this month's Policy Review, Peter Berkowitz goes through the pros and cons of international law. It's a bit of a pox-on-both-houses approach, but I think that's the right one here. "Liberal internationalists exaggerate the power of universal principles and forget or suppress the limitations on the ability of individuals and states to set aside self-interest." Yep. But also: "Meanwhile, liberal nationalists exaggerate the role of self-interest and forget or suppress the universalizing pressure of liberalism's internal logic."
-- Brad Plumer 3:51 PM || ||
What's the Matter with Ann Coulter?

So I finally got to read Time Magazine's big cover story on Ann Coulter. It's true, the story glosses over many of her faults—a courtesy they would have not afforded, say, Michael Moore. But unlike many liberal bloggers, I'm only slightly concerned that the story fails to depict Coulter as a hate-filled blond fascist. In fact, no, I'm not concerned at all. For one, how many people are going to slog through a 5,000 word story on Coulter unless they already know who Coulter is and have a strong opinion about her? I don't think there are a lot of minds out there to be changed, so the story's effect on the poor defenseless "masses" doesn't seem to be all that pressing an issue to me. [EDIT: Okay, okay, as pointed out in comments, my "I'm not concerned at all" remark is probably much too flippant and there are good reasons to fear that the Time cover will give Coulter the sort of credibility among "undecideds" that she so richly does not deserve. With that out of the way, onto what's below...]

Second, though, I don't consider myself part of the poor defenseless masses, so I found the story interesting, mainly because, already knowing about Coulter's vicious hackishness, I could actually learn something new from the article: namely, that Ann Coulter probably isn't a hate-filled fascist. Really.

So let's try to figure out Ann Coulter.

First, a story. When I was in third grade (living in Japan at the time), the Denver Broncos got crushed by the 49ers in the Superbowl 55-10. Since our teacher was a football fan, we listened to the game in class, and many people cheered when the Broncos got mauled except for one kid who was originally from Denver, Chris Chamberlain. Chris had been hyping the Broncos all week, so at recess, naturally, kids started to taunt him. 55-10! Ha ha! I didn't really understand football, so at first I stayed out of it, but after awhile, it was kind of fun to see him get riled up over the whole thing. So I started in. "John Elway throws like a girl!" I didn't even know who John Elway was, but that was the way the taunts went, so I played along. After awhile, I came up with even more clever and vicious ways to insult the Broncos, pushing it further and further, not because I understood what I was doing, not because I hated the Broncos, but because that was the playground game, and it was a way to join in.

This, I think, is essentially what Ann Coulter has done with her life. She saw that there was a game of insulting liberals to be played, a way to take sides, and she took it and ran with it. There were already talking points in this little war between two ideologies, and she took them and pushed further, making them even more vicious, not because she entirely understood what she was doing, but because it was a way of joining in. "John Elway throws like a girl!" And the more reaction she got, the more fun she was having, and the more vicious and bitter her insults would become. Having so much fun, in fact, that she doesn't even notice when she crosses the bounds of decency. "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity."

One should note that there's a massive difference between Michael Moore and Ann Coulter, and it's not just that the latter has wished for the mass murder of journalists. (Though that part's important, and Digby explained why.) Moore has many faults, but at bottom, he's striving for at least some understanding of the way the world works. There's some shred of intellectual curiosity there. The most interesting thing about Bowling For Columbine was that Moore couldn't quite settle on a conclusion—the movie noted, somewhat uncomfortably, that other countries without strict gun laws don't have nearly as much violence as the United States, so maybe gun control isn't the answer. Now granted, Moore is too blinded by certain liberal dogmas, too in love with clever images and bloviating, and too full of himself, ever to do anything intellectually valuable. (From what I've heard about his brief stint at my magazine, Mother Jones, his ego really is off the wall.) But there's at least a small part of him that's concerned with being right rather than merely winning.

With Coulter, there's no such constraint. Read Slander and it quickly becomes obvious that she has zero curiosity about the way the world works. No, she sees a game being played, thinks she understands the rules of attack, and simply wants to be better at it than anyone else. I believe John Cloud when he writes that Coulter is a very loyal and dedicated friend, and that some of her best friends are liberals. Why shouldn't they be? She knows when she's off-camera and no longer has to play the game. And yes, at times she finds the whole thing very funny, just as I once found vicious Bronco attacks very funny. She can't hate liberals, because frankly, she's too dumb and lacks too much understanding to understand what hatred really entails.

At the end of the Time piece, she talks about being unable to convert her Muslim ex-boyfriend, and then laughs loudly and says, "I was just happy he wasn't killing anyone." This isn't hate. This is grubbing for acceptance. It's genuinely pitiful. What we have, folks, is a clown. A clown who desperately just wants the kids to laugh and like her.

Moreover, I think the lesson of Coulter is a lesson more widely applicable. There are all sorts of partisan hacks writing and talking about politics these days. Why, I myself am one of them! And no one is free from dogma and ideology and a subservience to mindless talking points. No one. But even among the most wretched of hacks, you can generally distinguish between the people who are at least nominally interested in understanding how the world works, and what is actually true, and the people who just don't care, and just want to play a game—whether because it's fun in some odd way, or because it helps them "belong," or because they're too dumb to understand the difference. The latter group is dangerous to civil discourse, period, irrespective of how bloodthirsty its rhetoric really is.
-- Brad Plumer 3:15 PM || ||
Are Men Doomed?

My (female, lesbian) housemate often likes to trumpet the latest advances in in vitro fertilization, by way of noting that soon the day will come when men aren't needed anymore. (Supposedly there's now a way of taking 23 chromosomes from one mother, 23 chromosomes from the other mother, doing a little splicing, and making a baby! Or a proto-baby...) "Ha, ha," say I, rather nervously. In truth, it would kind of suck. In the future, there will be all sorts of cool gadgets, like flying cars. Men have been dreaming about flying cars since the Stone Age, and it would be awfully cruel to kill us off before we get to test drive the thing.

Anyway, a future without men is still fun to contemplate. Recently, the big worry seems to be that the Y chromosome is slowly degenerating, and soon—in 125,000 years or so—all men will be sterile mutant freaks. Yikes! Except that in the New York Review of Books, H. Allen Orr, scientist and gladiator, argues that this could never happen:
I'm afraid that this is all just silly. There are several related theories of why most genes on the Y chromosome degenerate and none of them predicts that men will become extinct. To see why not, we need to understand why Y chromosomes degenerate in the first place. All theories of Y degeneration… hinge on an unusual feature of the Y: it doesn't "recombine." … [snipped-out explanation of how chromosomes work.]

This is important because recombination, it turns out, makes it easy for natural selection to get rid of bad mutations. Put conversely, natural selection is somewhat compromised when dealing with chromosomes that don't recombine. All our theories of population genetics thus predict that the Y will slowly but surely accumulate mutations that have slightly bad effects. But the key point is this: the process I have described will not spiral out of control, yielding sterile or absent men, for two reasons. The first is that the evolutionary forces that cause genes on the Y chromosome to degenerate turn out to be very weak; that's why it's taken hundreds of millions of years for our Y to fall into its current state of disrepair. In contrast, the evolutionary forces that maintain male fertility—and that even maintain a 50:50 ratio of males to females in populations—are very strong. The latter, strong forces, overcome the former, weak ones, and males neither become sterile nor disappear.

Second, not all genes on the Y chromosome are created equal. Some, indeed the great majority, originally resided on both the Y and X chromosomes. Natural selection will often tolerate loss of this kind of gene from the Y since there's a "backup" copy on the X that can still perform the gene's functions. Other genes, though, now exist only on the Y. Natural selection will most assuredly not tolerate the loss of this kind of gene since no backup copy sits on the X. The critical point is that most of the male fertility genes now residing on the human Y exist only on that chromosome and there's no way that selection will allow their loss.
So evolution is going to save masculinity! Yay evolution! Also, speaking of which, one thing I've found vaguely interesting is that most of the diseases and disorders that are increasingly afflicting humankind simply aren't the sort of thing that can ever be weeded out by evolution. Alzheimer's obviously sets in only long after a person has reproduced. Same with any number of other genetic diseases that hit the elderly. Dunno how this all ties in—evolution can save the male sex but not rising health care costs? Yeah, that's it.
-- Brad Plumer 2:40 PM || ||

April 22, 2005

Screw The Uninsured

Paul Krugman's column today, on the "cost-shifting" in U.S. health care, is very thought-provoking, but let's highlight just one part:
Yet the cost of providing medical care to those denied private insurance doesn't go away. If individuals are poor, or if medical expenses impoverish them, they are covered by Medicaid. Otherwise, they pay out of pocket or rely on the charity of public hospitals.
Indeed, I've often wanted to make a clever case for covering the uninsured by arguing that society ends up paying for these costs anyway. Surely all that charity and uncompensated care going on right now is coming out of everyone else's pocketbooks eventually, either through increased government spending or hikes in premiums. And surely the fact that the uninsured can't get preventive care when they need it means that they (or someone else) ends up paying far, far more later on for diseases that could've been headed off early.

Sadly, though, after rooting around for numbers on this, neither of these arguments seems particularly compelling.

First, the uncompensated care issue. This interesting paper by Jack Hadley and John Holohan show that the uninsured receive about $34.5 billion per year in "uncompensated care," i.e. care that they receive but do not pay full price for. Of this amount, the federal and state governments eventually ended up paying for about $30.6 billion. So there's not a huge cost-shift onto those with private insurance policies. "Ah, you say, but if the government pays for the vast majority of uncompensated care anyway, through various subsidies and other weirdness, doesn't it make sense just to spend that money on coverage for the uninsured instead?

Well, not quite. It would cost a good deal more than just shifting that $34.5 billion to cover the uninsured. First of all, Hadley and Holohan have noted elsewhere that the uninsured currently receive about $98.9 billion in health care per year, which includes uncompensated care, out-of-pocket costs, and private or public insurance sources. If all of those uninsured people were to be brought in to existing public insurance programs (Medicaid, etc.), then total health care spending would rise by $34 billion. However, total government health care spending would increase by about $100 billion when all is said and done (even after subtracting the drop in subsidies for "uncompensated care")—in part because many people currently with private insurance would drop what they have and then sneak into the newly expanded government program. So most taxpayers would be paying far, far more for the uninsured than they currently do.

Here's another way to look at it: in 2001 the full-year uninsured received $1,253 in care, about half what privately insured people received ($2484). So from all appearances, and as cynical as this sounds, it's much cheaper to keep fifty million Americans uninsured than to spend a little extra and draw them into the program.

Okay, now the other economic argument for covering the uninsured is that, without insurance and hence, without preventive care, these poor folks—and they mostly are poor—are more likely to develop chronic diseases and whatnot that lead to expensive problems later on. So in the end, we as a society pay more by not insuring these folks early on. This sounds good—intuitively, it seems that it's cheaper to treat hypertension or diabetes earlier, rather than pay for hospitalization costs later. But there are a couple of reasons why this argument may not tell the whole story. One, as Phillip Longman has reported, only about 10 percent of all premature deaths in the last 30 years can be attributed to shortfalls in medical care. This doesn't exactly address my question, but it suggests that medicine plays a very small role in preventing serious illness. (Far more effective would be changes in behavior, like more exercise.)

The other possibility is that more preventive care may catch more "pseudo-diseases," i.e. "disease that would never become apparent to patients during their lifetime without testing." In other words, more care can increase costs by catching, say, benign tumors that would otherwise not be a problem. Finally, some hard research: Studies by RAND and economist Louise Russell showing that preventive care doesn't really lower overall health care costs in the aggregate, and may even increase them.

Okay, so this is a long post, but the brunt of it is: there probably isn't a good economic case to be made for covering the uninsured, although I'm obviously open to hearing one. Certainly there's a moral case to be made, and I think a overridingly powerful one, though I'm not sure how effective that's going to actually bringing change about. As Uwe Reinhardt once noted, the last time we had a budget surplus to spend, Americans chose tax cuts over helping the uninsured; no matter what the polls might say, our actual priorities seem pretty clear.
-- Brad Plumer 6:10 PM || ||
Friday Arts Section

Since writing, thinking, or even talking about politics is getting to be a bit of a downer these days, and since I haven't watched any movies or read any novels for awhile, I decided last night to rent and watch The Hidden Fortress and then read Jonathan Safran Foer's new book, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Both highly recommended. The Hidden Fortress was particularly well done, though from what I understand Kurosawa needed to turn this into a "popular" film in order to bankroll some of his riskier stuff, like Rashomon. Much like Melville and all his popular travelogues. Also, for some odd reason everyone in the movie had to be shouting all the time—Princess Yukihime couldn't just say any of her lines, she had to scream them. None of Kurosawa's other films have this sort of hysteria about them, so perhaps this is what passed for popular in 1950s Japan? Or the sound system wasn't very good? Oh well. Interesting note: the two goofy robot-dudes in the Star Wars series are based on the two greedy and giggly peasants in this movie.

As for Foer's book, don't really want to talk about it—suffice to say it's good, and this from someone who found Everything Is Illuminated tediously "clever," much like sitting around at a dinner party where everyone's wearing a funny hat and you're obliged to smile and laugh through the whole thing lest they find out that you really don't know when and when not to laugh. Ahem. But no, the new book's better. And it gives me an opportunity to link to my favorite blog ever, "Attacking the Demi-Puppets." Yes, Foer is one of the demi-puppets here (an "establishment-backed flunkie," a "bubble-boy".) But you really have to read it for awhile—along with the commenters trying desperately to reason with this gang of aspiring writers—to understand its genius.
-- Brad Plumer 1:41 PM || ||