June 30, 2005

Time: The Final Frontier

No kidding. This has always puzzled me too:
Calculations by Dr. Juan Maldacena of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and by others have shown how an extra dimension of space can pop mathematically into being almost like magic, the way the illusion of three dimensions can appear in the holograms on bank cards. But string theorists admit they don't know how to do the same thing for time yet.
As usual, comments with special insight into the origins of the universe should be kept under 3,000 characters.
-- Brad Plumer 11:02 PM || ||
When Roman Empires Collapse

"Are we talking a broadly seamless transition from centralised Roman control via local barbarian kingdoms to the medieval world, or something rather less comfortable?" Yes, good question. Here's a crack at the answer.
-- Brad Plumer 4:41 PM || ||
Beyond Unions

Lots that could be said about Ruth Milkman's op-ed on labor unions in the New York Times today, but let's start with this sentence: "Employers have abandoned the paternalistic job security measures, pensions and fringe benefits of which they boasted a few years ago." That's quite right, but it also seems to oversimplify the story of how firms have restructured and reorganized quite drastically over the past 30 years, as well as how that change has affected job security, mobility, and overall economic inequality in America. This story's obviously a complicated one, but I think it needs to be spelled out briefly, because Milkman's claim that workers are in the same plight they were back in 1935 strikes me as misleading in fairly important ways.

In 1935—in fact, through the post-World War II era and up to the mid-1970s, American industry was largely organized along mass-production lines. Large firms dominated, growth depended mostly on market stability and expansion, and, in the workplace, control was divvied up between unions and management. Labor negotiated wages and benefits, agitated for better working conditions and grievance procedures, leaving management to the planning and decision making. For unionized workers, wages and advancement were determined largely by seniority, and workers often stayed with a single firm. (Lay-offs would happen, especially for those low on the union totem pole, but many would be quickly re-hired by the same firm during a recovery.) For higher-level workers, too, promotion within a firm was quite common. Most workers started at an entry-level position, acquired a lot of firm-specific knowledge and skills, would learn on the job, would train for higher positions, and would receive a fatter paycheck with each promotion. For workers of all skill levels in these firms, job security was solid and the pay was good. (Obviously, as Ed Kilgore has noted, the 1950s and 1960s was terrible for those who didn't get to latch onto the new industrial bonanza, but leave that somewhat aside.) The large firms, on the other hand, were quite constrained: it was difficult to fire workers, it wasn't easy to cut pay (since pay was linked with one's rigorously-defined position), and it was more difficult to hire from the outside than to promote from within. In this sense, then, mobility was a relatively natural process—workers could "advance" fairly easily within their firms, whether they were unskilled or skilled.

Eventually, of course, American firms decided that they could no longer afford this practice. In the mid-1970s, productivity growth was sagging, and bold new managerial models became all the rage. Many companies decided that they couldn't maintain their rigid "internal labor markets," or the job security and well-defined job classifications that went with them, and decided that labor flexibility was the yellow brick road to competitiveness. This theory applied to both high-skilled workers and low-skilled workers, although the latter were hurt far more, and businesses' attempts to create more "flexibility" among low-wage workers have been much-aided by the loosening of labor legislation over the last three decades. Meanwhile, the weakening of internal labor markets has had a major effect on mobility, wage growth, and inequality: Median wage growth by mid-career fell by 21 percent in recent years; there are now 40 percent fewer workers in the central part of the wage growth distribution; etc., etc. (See this book for a long string of evidence that insecurity has increased and mobility declined over the past 30 years.)

At the same time, not all businesses emphasize finding profits by cutting wages—i.e. avoiding unions, subcontracting, making better use of unskilled workers—so maniacally. Some firms emphasize innovation as the path to success, and focus on investing in workers, having employees perform a variety of tasks, offering new incentives to workers, etc.—which can in turn lead to high wages, job security, and a decent shot at advancement and upward mobility. Of course, you have to be lucky enough to get those jobs. In practice, many firms use both methods of organization—the "high road" and the "low road," which means that if you're on the high end, life is still pretty good. If not, then not. (One argument for raising the minimum wage is that it will give more firms incentive to take the "high road" invest in more of its workers, since "low road" practices, like subcontracting and rapid hiring and firing will become less profitable.)

At any rate, as one can see, there's a rather vicious "two-tiered" system being put into effect within firms. I've been reading a new book from the Russell Sage Foundation, Moving Up or Moving On, which finds that low-earners do much better if they "move on" to different employers rather than "move up" in the same firm. It's not quite like the old days. Stronger unions would ameliorate many of the ill-effects here—especially declining wages—but not all; things wouldn't go back to the post-WWII "glory days" by any means. Meanwhile, although I've argued in the past that the education gap doesn't explain the rise in economic inequality over the past few decades, it is the case that the change in firm structure has affected workers of different education differently. Firms no longer invest quite as much in on-the-job training—why bother, if a worker isn't going to be with the firm for life, as used to be the case? To remedy this problem, policy wonks usually propose variants on worker training or education. Meanwhile, Timothy Bartik has proposed "labor-demand policies"—government incentives to "induce employers to provide more or better jobs"—which seem promising.

One other key question is, To what extent has the change in firm structure been dictated by actual economic necessity—by the "market"—and to what extent by changes in the legal landscape? Changes in labor regulation have obviously had an effect, but it's also not entirely obvious that American firms could have continued to thrive with the more restrictive labor policies of the 1950s and 60s. Maybe they could have; I just don't know. Same with the deregulation of unionized industries since the 1970s—to what extent has this affected mobility and wages? And to what extent was it necessary? Meanwhile, the shift in governance towards shareholder control, and the greater emphasis on the short-term "bottom line," has also affected how firms operate. This is a difficult story to untangle, and I'm not up to it right now.

At any rate, while unions are not obsolete by any means, it's not clear that they alone can counteract the various trends that have caused businesses to reorganize and restructure in ways that have, quite dramatically, increased job instability and decreased mobility over the past thirty years. On the other hand, one hugely important thing unions can do, as Matt Yglesias pointed out in a post that disappeared somehow, is provide a counterbalance in Washington D.C. in the push for more labor-friendly government policies, and defeat the business lobbyists. I've discussed before how the AFL-CIO is badly overmatched on the lobbying front nowadays, and it's a real problem.
-- Brad Plumer 4:17 PM || ||

June 29, 2005

Iraq and 9/11... Again!

Not this again. The National Review's Andrew McCarthy is demanding that liberals answer his questions about the connections between Iraq and 9/11. Okay, fine, let's take a look at his first question:
Ahmed Hikmat Shakir — the Iraqi Intelligence operative who facilitated a 9/11 hijacker into Malaysia and was in attendance at the Kuala Lampur meeting with two of the hijackers, and other conspirators, at what is roundly acknowledged to be the initial 9/11 planning session in January 2000? Who was arrested after the 9/11 attacks in possession of contact information for several known terrorists? Who managed to make his way out of Jordanian custody over our objections after the 9/11 attacks because of special pleading by Saddam’s regime?
Oh yes, this was hot news last summer, and much-trumpeted by 9/11 Commissioner John Lehman. Initially, it was thought that Shakir was a colonel in Saddam's Fedayeen. Bam! Smoking gun! But no, as Walter Pincus reported in the Washington Post, that line of thinking seemed to be a case of conflated names. On the one hand, we had Ahmad Hikmat Shakir Azzawi, an Iraqi national and known al-Qaeda greeter in Malaysia. Meanwhile, Iraqi military documents, unearthed in 2003, had revealed the existence of Lt. Col. Hikmat Shakir Ahmad, a member of Saddam's Fedayeen. The same person? It doesn't seem so, despite the similar names. Newsday also reported that the CIA had concluded "long ago" that the al-Qaeda greeter was not an officer in Iraq's army. This stuff was all in the 9/11 Commission report as well.

Okay, so far none of this contradicts what McCarthy's saying. He isn't claiming this Kuala Lumpur greeter was Fedayeen, but rather an "Iraqi intelligence operative." Well okay, a follow-up article by Knight-Ridder's Jonathan Landay reported that Shakir, the greeter in Kuala Lumpur, had been "employed with the aid of an Iraqi intelligence officer." Presumably that's what McCarthy means when he says "Iraqi Intelligence Operative." On the other hand, Landay also noted: "There's no evidence that Ahmad Hikmat Shakir attended the meeting [with two of the 9/11 hijackers, planner Ramzi Binalshibh, and mastermind Tawfiz al Atash]." And Newsweek had reported previously that this Kuala Lumpur greeter had been employed at too low a level—by the Iraqi embassy in Malaysia—to be involved with Saddam Hussein's Mukhabarat. So it's hard to say just what, exactly, this greeter's role was in the attacks, or how complicit Saddam Hussein was in all this.

Now McCarthy thinks that liberals should be "moving heaven and earth to find out the answer." Well, maybe we should. On the other hand, maybe the Bush administration could just tell us. As Spencer Ackerman pointed out at the time, the government has Tawfiz al-Atash, one of the guys at the Malaysia meeting, in custody. You would think for all the waterboarding at their disposal, they could've cleared this mystery up by now. And if it's the smoking gun McCarthy thinks it might be, then why hasn't the White House released anything? I can't imagine they'd keep this stuff secret if it was that spectacular. And keep in mind, that Stephen Hayes—the chief driver behind this story—has called Shakir "the strongest indication that Saddam and al Qaeda may have worked together on September 11." This is the Holy Grail for Iraq-9/11 buffs; so why won't the president offer them a swig? Because it's all a crock of shit maybe?

Meanwhile, McCarthy's claim that Jordan released Shakir from custody "because of special pleading by Saddam’s regime" is a little tendentious. Hayes originally reported that U.S. intelligence officials disagreed over whether Iraq's demands for Shakir's release were simply "pro forma" or something that "reflected an interest… at the highest levels of Saddam Hussein's regime." In the end, according to Hayes, the CIA agreed to let Shakir go, because the Jordanians were convinced he was a member of Iraqi intelligence and wanted to "flip" him. But the Jordanians' main evidence here seemed to be that Shakir was good at counterinterrogation techniques, which, as Dan Darling pointed out, Shakir could've picked up from any number of places besides Iraq. Again, murky, murky. So back to the main point: it seems that the White House could clear up quite a bit with regards to that Kuala Lumpur meeting, no? So why don't they?

update: Hey, maybe the Shakir story is what has Robin Hayes in a twist! By the way, my favorite Rep. Hayes story has to be this one, where the gentleman from North Carolina called his colleagues "hand-wringing bed-wetters" when they expressed a bit of, um, unease over the purchase of the C-130J, a transport airplane with "so many flaws that it cannot fly its intended combat missions." (That dud is also, I think, the plane featured proudly atop Hayes' hyper-patriotic homepage.) Say what you will, but this brave warrior would never leave a wounded defense contract behind.
-- Brad Plumer 10:57 PM || ||
Psychics Everywhere

Hard to believe anyone would take the time to actually 'debunk' the hucksters who give out psychic readings, but this essay's still a fun read. "Apart from all these ploys, the psychic has other things working in his or her favour. For instance, we all have a tendency to remember claims that are correct and forget those that aren't." Devious. Early in my teenage life I called one of those 1-900 telephone psychics with every intention of hanging up rudely before my first three free minutes expired, but my medium on the other end just stalled for time, asking the sort of long, drawn-out questions about information she could have easily Googled nowadays. Come to think of it, phone psychics probably do use Google nowadays. To be fair, though, being a phone psychic is probably much harder than doing it in person.
-- Brad Plumer 9:46 PM || ||
All the Klan's Men

David Cunningham's Boston Globe piece on the social- and class-based origins of the Ku Klux Klan is very much worth reading.
-- Brad Plumer 8:10 PM || ||
The Case For Withdrawal

Matt Yglesias raises a good point about Iraq: Is our goal a stable Iraq in the sense of a central government with more-or-less a monopoly on violence that we can then leave, or is our goal to hunt down and kill every last terrorist in the country? My guess is that the White House's ideal is a stable Iraq with a central government that has more-or-less a monopoly on violence, but also one whose government can and will cooperate with American counterterrorist forces to hunt down al-Qaeda in Iraq, Baathist remnants, and other assorted terrorists in the "Sunni triangle" for years to come. Again, the White House won't tell us, but I'm guessing the broader aim is not so much a large and permanent occupation, but something akin to what Robert Kaplan has called the "supremacy by stealth" model—Iraq would very much resemble Columbia, with a quasi-permanent U.S. "advisory" team and maybe a number of Special Forces units in Iraq. Just a guess.

Meanwhile, over at Tapped, Matt makes the strong case for setting a timetable to withdraw from Iraq as a way to achieve, presumably, a stable Iraq whose government has more-or-less a monopoly on violence. All his points sound reasonable in the abstract, and I can't say with confidence that he's wrong, but here are a few reasons for doubting the timetable strategy.

First, Matt claims that the U.S. presence currently allows "Shiite and Kurdish leaders [to] pursue counterproductive maximalist agendas while counting on the U.S. Army to keep them in power." Well, okay, but they're not pursuing maximalist agendas, really. The leaders compromised on a new government, finally. Ayatollah Sistani is talking about a new district voting system that would give the Sunnis greater electoral representation. The government agreed to a drafting committee with the Sunnis. Talks and negotiations have been rocky, sure, but not nearly as intractable as many expected, and that's how democracy tends to work.

More to the point, that's how it should work: Drafting a constitution and agreeing to government is a tricky business, and far better that all the parties involved take time to hash out the difficult issues now than hastily agree to some unstable power-sharing system thrown together in the hopes of staving off conflict. I can't think of many successful constitutions that have been tossed together in this way. The latter scenario fairly resembles what happened in Angola in 1992—a truce and hastily agreed-upon elections that each side thought it would win—and that led to ten more years of civil war. (Kevin Drum's analogy to the California budget doesn't seem to fit here.) Meanwhile, it's hard to imagine that contentious issues like Kirkuk would get resolved peacefully just because the U.S. wasn't there. The theory that people will happily compromise on issues like resource control and historic lands all because the threat of unchecked war looms is, to say the least, an odd one. Although, in fairness, I don't see how Kirkuk will ever get resolved peacefully, occupation or no.

Matt's next point: "Arab governments acknowledge that a total breakdown in Iraq would be bad for them, but they're reluctant to take action and strong public stances because doing so is unpopular. They'd rather shift the responsibility to the United States." That's a good point, but the question is what, exactly, could they be doing that they're not doing now? Perhaps there's a scenario in which the U.S. starts withdrawing and the other Arab states all pressure Syria to cut off support for its respective insurgents. If, in fact, Bashar Assad can do anything about the Syrian terrorist network, this would be a good thing, but then the question is how big a deal foreign fighters and money are to the insurgency. Meanwhile, whatever benefits flow from greater neighbor involvement need to be weighed against the fact that domestic intelligence against the insurgency would likely dry up. It seems likely that you'd see far fewer native Iraqis willing to snitch on Zarqawi and the rest if the U.S. was on its way out—as seemed to be the case with the British in Aden. Finally, it's worth noting that one of the biggest sources of insecurity, the rampant organized and unorganized crime, will almost certainly increase, and increase dramtically, without the Army around. (Although I've seen more than one analyst note that, right now, the military just doesn't have the troops to handle this particular problem anyway.)

Then there's the John Derbyshire/William Saletan argument that if the U.S. would just set a timetable for withdrawing it would somehow "concentrate" the minds of those Iraqi troops-in-training, break the culture of dependency, and motivate them to shape up in a hurry. Eh, wasn't that the idea behind "Vietnamization"—that if the ARVN were forced to fend for themselves, they would take responsibility for themselves? It's a point that sounds really quite enticing in the abstract, but it's a lot to gamble on. That's why if we do draw down, I think we'll probably have to modify our goals and aim for "managed anarchy" and rule by roving militias rather than a stable Iraq whose central government has a monopoly on violence.

The big asymmetry here, meanwhile, is that of the two gambles—keeping troops indefinitely and setting a timetable for withdrawal—the "stay the course" option seems reversible, at least in theory, if things aren't going well around, say, fall of 2006. If the U.S. starts withdrawing and all hell breaks loose, I imagine it will be virtually impossible to send troops back, which could look very, very bad come midterm election time. That factor, I think, will make all the difference for the White House.
-- Brad Plumer 3:44 PM || ||
Assume the Position

Now and again, trawling around conservative blogs, I come across Chris Muir's "Day by Day" cartoon, which isn't too shabby—it would be much funnier if I was a right-winger and didn't hate freedom so much, but what can you do. Still, there's something that's always bothered me about Muir's otherwise-deft illustrations, and it didn't really dawn until I saw today's episode:

The woman's pose in the last two frames is truly bizarre. Go find a person roughly two inches taller than you, put your left elbow on his or her right shoulder, and then try to hold a conversation. Not the main point, sure, but still odd that a cartoonist thinks that that's something people do; also odd that the guy on the left actually interpreted this as an intimate gesture...

-- Brad Plumer 1:39 PM || ||
Fetus in Fetu

Well this is un-freakin'-real. I'm sure there's a clever culture-of-life joke out there just waiting to be unleashed, but those sketches are too disorienting to bring anything to mind. Hey, this was also the plot of a Stephen King novel, wasn't it? Only the "twin brother"—mostly some teeth, eyes, a hank of hair—in that instance was lodged in the back of the guy's brain? Can't quite conjure up with the title right now, but that one was nightmare-inducing, for sure.
-- Brad Plumer 4:22 AM || ||
Why Family Leave

Ruth Franklin's cover story on motherhood in the New Republic this week is really quite good: wide-ranging, contentious, the whole deal. Not surprisingly, one more-or-less unstated current throughout the piece is that theses motherhood woes could be infinitely reduced if men actually pitched in once in a while; no shit, right, but no one has even begun to figure out how to do this. Sweden, for example, has tried various financial incentives to encourage dads to take parental leave, but as far as I know, it hasn't even come close to correcting the imbalance. Worth noting, I suppose, that many of these problems may not be policy problems per se. That aside, though, this passage from Franklin's piece struck me as a fairly obvious policy problem:
Unfortunately, what women want and what employers want are not entirely the same. … Opting out [i.e., for motherhood] is relatively easy for women who can afford it, but opting in--returning to work--is more difficult. In the study conducted by Hewlett and Buck Luce, only three-quarters of women who wanted to rejoin the workforce were able to do so, and only 40 percent returned full-time. (Tellingly, 93 percent of the women who took time off wanted to return at some point to their careers.) When they do return, women who have opted out can be penalized by a cut in earning power of more than one-third.
As it turns out, Heather Boushey of CEPR has been doing a lot of work on this very subject, and recently put out a study showing that scheduling flexibility—that is, allowing workers to set or alter their schedules—and anticipated paid leave for family caregiving, have either positive effects or little to no effects on wages. (Other types of workplace flexibility, like part-time work, obviously do have a huge effect on wages.) Currently, of course, there is nothing of the sort being offered. Even the Family and Medical Leave Act, a policy which helped catapult Bill Clinton into office in 1992 by giving him the support of married women—the first time in over a decade that any Democratic candidate had won this group (hint, hint)—even that only requires employers to offer 12 weeks of unpaid leave, and even that still leaves 43 percent of workers, those in small businesses, uncovered. And yes, business groups are trying to roll back the FMLA. No wonder, etc.

At any rate, that's all obvious, and something good liberals such as Nancy Folbre have been harping on for years. (Democrats, in their infinite wisdom, did everything they could to shy away from the issue in 2004. I notice that Anna Greenberg did a poll finding that only 19 percent of married women cited "women's rights" as a reason to vote for Kerry. Hm, I wonder why...) The feminist case for reform here speaks for itself. One interesting thing to wonder, though, is whether businesses will start coming around to the "family-friendly" side eventually. Perhaps. The Institute for Women's Policy Research recently put out a report arguing that providing seven paid "sick leave" days per year would yield a net savings to business of $28 billion, thanks to higher productivity and whatnot. I'm sure the Chamber of Commerce will be on hand to quibble over the figures here, but the principle is at least out there and reasonable.

On the broader scale, businesses are going to have to start grappling with the reality that, as a nation, we're investing a ton in female education—women have more undergraduate degrees than men, etc.—and not getting as much "payoff" as we could be, thanks to the fact that the workplace is basically structured to prevent women from reaching their full potential, work-wise. Franklin cites two economists who note: "Indeed, companies that can develop policies and practices to tap into the female talent pool will enjoy a substantial competitive advantage." Smart point, and while I'll admit that conservatives usually have good reason to be wary of the "conservative" case for X left-wing policy, in this instance I think that case is actually a good one.
-- Brad Plumer 3:41 AM || ||
Cordesman on Iraq

Anthony Cordesman's recommendations for Iraq certainly deserve a serious look. Love or hate his conclusions, the man knows what he's talking about. As it happens, Cordesman's of the "stay the course, be patient, and take the 50-50 chance at winning this thing" camp, only without the air-headed optimism that you see from the Cheney administration. (Another person against early withdrawal or timetables? Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abul Ghait, along with a bevy of other Arab analysts who are worried about regional collapse.) I think I'm of this camp too, though with the caveat that let's cut the bullshit here: if we have genuine reason to think that staying the course won't produce a stable, democratic, peaceful Iraq—or hell, just a stable Iraq—then the sooner we realize that the better.

In that case, it will be time to move on, I honestly think, to Daniel Byman's plan for a targeted draw-down, along with a severe narrowing of goals. Instead of a peaceful democracy we'll shoot for managed anarchy; instead of a well-trained and professional national Iraqi security force we'll have Afghanistan-style rule by militia—so long as the oil keeps flowing, the major terrorist training camps are disrupted, and there's no large-scale civil war. We'll be cruel and heartless bastards, and we'll have failed Iraq utterly, but at least we won't be getting thousands of troops killed for a project that's hopeless. The question, though, is at what point do you decide that staying the course is in fact hopeless and Byman's semi-withdrawal plan is the least bad option for Iraq? Well, here's the thing: I can't tell. You can't tell. I'm not even sure Congress can tell. The person best-positioned to make that call is, most likely, the president himself, after a series of serious and wholly non-deluded conversations with his top military leaders and advisors. In other words, we're fucked.

Unless, of course, Bush's air-headed optimism somehow turns out to be right. Quite the gamble.

...similar wishful thinking from Herbert Meyer, a senior intelligence official in the Reagan administration.
-- Brad Plumer 3:02 AM || ||

June 28, 2005

The Sun Still Rises

While everyone's huffing and puffing about China, the May issue of the American Prospect had a nifty little story about Japan that offers a nice counterbalance. Not only is Japan not in poor economic health, claims Eamonn Fingleton, it's doing perfectly fine these days, with a strong manufacturing sector, the largest current-account surplus in the world (although I'm not sure that's always such a good thing), a leading position in certain very-key industries, and its citizens are affluent in a way most countries can only dream about. So why, then, do we get all these scare stories about Japan's permanent depression? Ah, the ol' Tokyo propaganda:
In short, the "lost decade" story was a hoax. The Western media were duped by a total reversal in Japan’s public-relations program. Whereas Japan had once aggressively emphasized both its real and imaginary strengths, that emphasis switched in the 1990s to a highly counterintuitive “bad news” strategy.
Very devious! Of course, the one strike against Japan—and Fingleton doesn't discuss this—is that the country is aging rapidly, and unwilling to take on new immigrants. That could end up hurting, although I'm somewhat skeptical that the "aging society" problem is, in fact, as big a problem as it's made out to be. Meanwhile, let's not forget that China's aging pretty rapidly too, and will probably reach some geriatric point long before it reaches Western levels of productivity, which means it will be much less-equipped to deal with its swarms of seniors than Japan will. On the other hand, the benefit of being an authoritarian country like China is that it can use brute force to handle its aging society: coerce young couples into having lots of babies, say, or cutting senior citizens off from their pensions. Russia has been experimenting with the latter, to rather brutal effect.
-- Brad Plumer 3:53 PM || ||

Yikes. Diane Ravitch is none too keen on a trend of late—namely, politics seeping into mathematics:
Partisans of social-justice mathematics advocate an explicitly political agenda in the classroom. A new textbook, "Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers," shows how problem solving, ethnomathematics and political action can be merged. Among its topics are: "Sweatshop Accounting," with units on poverty, globalization and the unequal distribution of wealth. Another topic, drawn directly from ethnomathematics, is "Chicanos Have Math in Their Blood." …. The theory behind the book is that "teaching math in a neutral manner is not possible." Teachers are supposed to vary the teaching of mathematics in relation to their students' race, sex, ethnicity and community.
Huh. Well, I don't have any trouble with elementary kids teaching about sweatshops, poverty, and unequal distribution of wealth—the earlier the better! On the other hand, I'm not convinced that there's any better way to teach mathematics than just drill numbers and rules into your students' heads, the strict, boring, and wholly unethnic way. Anecdotally, this seems true, and yes, even of minorities—an ex-girlfriend of mine was a fourth grade teacher in a poor, all-minority school in Redwood City this past year, and she taught multiplication via the old-fashioned method, with a "finish 60 problems in 60 seconds" drill (and you have to keep taking the test over and over until you can finish; drudgery!), which seemed to work very well. But I'd be curious to hear evidence to the contrary. (By the way, nothing breaks my heart like the phrase, "As long as kids know how to use a calculator, they're fine.")

One thing I don't think is so silly, though, is the whole self-esteem factor. For some odd reason, people who struggle with math often say, "I'm just not a math person"—something you never hear with any other academic skill. ("I'm just not a writing person"? "I'm just not a reading comprehension person"?) That ain't right! So something like "Chicanos Have Math in Their Blood" seems, at least on the surface, like a perfectly good use of time and resources.
-- Brad Plumer 1:47 PM || ||
Secular Support

Interesting sidenote on the Ten Commandments monument. According to the latest Pew Poll, support for the Ten Commandments is, as you'd expect, overwhelming among Americans—which is certainly why many liberals would rather just let this go, avoid being branded as militant religion-haters, and fight more important battles elsewhere. What's interesting, though, is that even among "seculars"—i.e. atheists, agnostics, non-believers—only 48 percent think the display is "improper". No real point here, that's just smaller than I would've thought.
-- Brad Plumer 12:53 PM || ||

June 27, 2005

Brand X

More flooding the zone from SCOTUSblog on the Grokster decision. Susan Crawford tells us not to worry about Grokster, which "gives certainty to tech companies." Worry instead about the Brand X decision, which "takes it away":
In BrandX, Justice Thomas gets very confused about the internet and ends up essentially announcing that everything a user does online is an "information service" being offered by the access provider. DNS, email (even if some other provider is making it available), applications, you name it -- they're all included in this package. And the FCC can make rules about these information services under its broad "ancillary jurisdiction."

This is very very big. This means that even though information services like IM and email don't have to pay tariffs or interconnect with others, they may (potentially) have to pay into the universal service fund, be subject to CALEA, provide enhanced 911 services, provide access to the disabled, and be subject to general consumer protection rules -- all the subjects of the FCC's IP-enabled services NPRM. I've blogged about this a good deal elsewhere, but I want the news to be heard here: the FCC is now squarely in charge of all internet-protocol enabled services.
Well… I've been googling around trying to figure out what, exactly, this means in plain English, to a technically-inept American like myself, but frankly, I have no idea. Presumably the decision affects competition in some undefined way. And consumer groups were in Brand X's camp, so that seems good? Uhhh...
-- Brad Plumer 10:24 PM || ||
Thoughts on Ten Commandments

The SCOTUSblog coverage of the Ten Commandments cases is pretty thorough and it would be hard to add anything substantive here. One point though. I'm fairly sympathetic to the view that a government that endorsed a particular belief system, however broadly conceived, would be marginalizing a wide array of people who don't share that belief system. A Muslim or an atheist visiting the Texas State Capitol, seeing the Ten Commandments display, would have good reason to feel uncomfortable, excluded, and perhaps even unwelcome.

But those reasons, I think, have very little to do with the Ten Commandments per se. Take all the statues down and Muslims and atheists will still have good reason to feel excluded or marginalized around the Texas State Capitol, thanks to all sorts of cultural and social factors that are really quite pervasive. By the same token, if those cultural and social factors somehow up and vanished, if Muslims felt accepted by American society and their beliefs considered part of the mainstream, then it's hard to imagine that a Ten Commandments statue would have any effect at all. So it's hard to believe that the monuments are either necessary or sufficient for creating those ill feelings of exclusion. (In fact, I think the same could apply for school prayer—neither necessary nor sufficient to make non-praying kids feel uncomfortable and excluded.) Now perhaps one could stand by the idea that it doesn't matter if these symbols are important or not, the government shouldn't be in the business of promoting any sort of symbol with even the potential for discrimination. Well, fair enough, so long as the anti-monument forces are clear that they're fighting for a principle rather than a practical victory.

Another point worth noting was Douglas Laycock's: "The Congregationalists learned [to keep religion out of politics] when the Unitarians started winning elections." That's right. I'm trying to remember my history here, but wasn't it James Madison, atheist extraordinaire, who argued against the Establishment Clause? His reasoning, I think, was that all the different religious sects in America would act as a check on each other, ensuring that no one religion triumphed, and do it far more effectively than any law on paper ever could.

Something along those lines is still correct today. Right now the religious wars are fought largely between a tiny secularist minority and a tiny evangelical right minority, with the bulk of religious America somewhat apathetically siding with the evangelical right on these issues, just because they too are "religious" in a broad sense. On the other hand, if there was no Establishment Clause, my hunch is that different religious sects would be far, far more wary of each other, they'd all be battling it out over government endorsements of religious symbols, and that, I think, would be more effective at keeping religion out of politics than the current dynamic. Maybe that's wrong. It's also worth noting that that tiny evangelical right minority, the James Dobson crowd and the like, has so watered down its faith in order to appeal to their fellow religious conservatives—transmuting actual theological beliefs and differences into a vague and mushy alliance of "values"—that they've pretty much turned religion into a set of meaningless platitudes. Someday I'll write a long and appropriately disdainful post about how the values evangelicals are the biggest bunch of relativists operating in the world today. But not now.
-- Brad Plumer 10:01 PM || ||
Pro-Therapy and Understanding

In the wake of this puerile Michael Barone column, just one more point about Karl Rove and Afghanistan. Rove's big attack on liberal groups like MoveOn.org, etc., is that they weren't prepared to pummel the Taliban after 9/11—and despite Eli Pariser's dancing around the point, I'm willing to believe that was the case. Fine. In this case, MoveOn was wrong; invading Afghanistan as quickly as possible seems in retrospect the right thing to do: it disrupted al-Qaeda's operations, and it ended up being good for the people of Afghanistan—despite Bush's initial and very vehement insistence that the war on terror would not be about "nation building," it became, in fact, about nation building, which in this instance was good and proper.

But what's forgotten here is that it was also a tremendously good thing to have some people, even a tiny minority, who were digging in their heels against invasion, people who were worried about mass casualties and collateral damage. The U.S. military, to a large extent, went out of its way to avoid civilian casualties during Operation Enduring Freedom. There were horrific accidents, like that much-cited wedding party assault, but our soldiers were far, far more delicate about their bombing raids and attacks than virtually any military has ever been against any country ever. There was no "Highway of Death" as there was during the first Gulf War. For that, I think, you do have to credit the antiwar movement in part, which hamstrung the military in a positive way, and levied a great deal of humanitarian counterforce against the unending beat the war drums during those early days in the "war on terror."

People like to complain that the United States is hampered in its wars and operations because we have to be so delicate, we have to abide by the rules of war, we can't just raze villages and torture whoever we want whenever we want. (Obviously that happens, and it should, but overall there's a lot of restraint here.) But not only is this a good thing from a moral standpoint, it's a good thing strategically as well. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the consensus in the CIA was that the Russians wouldn't get bogged down in a Vietnam-style quagmire because they weren't bound by decency or moderation—they could smash whatever they wanted. Those quagmire predictions turned out to be false, and they were false because the Soviets were so ruthless. (Well, that and the mujahideen were being armed rather handsomely by rogue elements of the CIA.) Point is: the liberals edgy about war immediately after 9/11 may have been wrong, but the pressure they were putting on those who were right was essential. Perhaps it makes good political sense for "moderate" Democrats to turn and denounce our hand-holding Kumbaya brethren on the far left. Personally, I'd rather not be embarrassed by them, and acknowledge that even if the peaceniks shouldn't be running the Pentagon—and won't ever be—they still play a crucial role in any healthy democracy. And I say that as someone who's pretty obviously not a peacenik.
-- Brad Plumer 7:10 PM || ||

June 26, 2005

Preparing for War

Mark Blumenthal, Mystery Pollster, scratches around in the archives and finds... that Democrats reacted to September 11 just like Republicans did, ready to lock and load all the way to Kabul. Well, no kidding. One thing that's interesting to note, though, is that the post-9/11 situation was fairly unique in that we actually had someone to go to war with. After a terrorist attack that left a lot of people wanting to smash and pulverize something back into the Stone Age, it just so happened that there actually was a country we got to go smash and pulverize—a concurrence which, I think, helped George Bush maintain his fantastically high ratings through late 2001 and all through 2002. It was obviously quite satisfying for a lot of people to invade Afghanistan in a way that it wouldn't have been satisfying to hand out indictments or send the CIA off on secret terrorist-hunting missions. But what if there hadn't been an Afghanistan to smash up? Things would've been trickier.

Initially, of course, the Bush administration tried to negotiate with the Taliban and get them to turn over bin Laden, Zawihiri, Abu Zubaydah, and the rest. That didn't work, but if it had worked, and bin Laden had been handed over on a silver platter, there may not have been an invasion at all—judging by Richard Clarke's Against All Enemies, Rumsfeld wasn't all that excited about attacking Afghanistan in the first place—and instead the U.S. would've been sitting around handing out indictments and prosecuting terrorists. True, there still would've been some military action: the U.S. would have almost certainly bombed more al-Qaeda camps in the region, and the Taliban likely would've collapsed eventually after alienating all those Islamic militants it had been counting on to fight the Northern Alliance. But the whole thing might've been much less than the full-scale war we actually got.

Now it's true that indictments and precision attacks on bases wouldn't have been enough for Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Cheney, etc., and in our alternate universe, after the bin Laden trial finished, the administration would have likely fired up the war machine and trained its sights on Saddam Hussein. On the other hand, without a successful Afghanistan invasion under his belt, the president would have had a much harder time making the case that we could succeed against Iraq. The stunning and rapid defeat of the Taliban really was pretty decisive in convincing people that war was no big deal—and much of that credit, as I've said before, goes to Bush, who pushed hard for a seemingly-impossible invasion before winter set in, and avoided getting bogged down by NATO. A more cautious president like Al Gore, I think, might have waited until spring of 2002 to invade, at which point he would have had less public support, and probably a more difficult war to fight on the ground. And that would have meant no Iraq, for sure.

But back to the point: a lot of the unity surrounding the Afghanistan campaign came from the fact that it was a very clear and obvious thing to do in response to 9/11 (although the country was still considered the "graveyard of empires", etc., and few thought the invasion would be easy). We simply didn't have to weigh the dilemmas of, say, attacking a nuclear-armed Pakistan—if Musharraf had been held responsible there would have been much less of a popular consensus behind our next move. That holds true today, I think: if there's another terrorist attack tomorrow, there's not going to be an Afghanistan to attack—even Syria and Iran will be tricky—and without the obvious war option handy, there will be, I think, much less agreement on what to do.
-- Brad Plumer 8:18 PM || ||
A Flag Worth Torching

It's a pity that Mark Steyn's such a swamp-feeding blowhard, because he writes so marvelously well. Take his lavish column on the flag-burning amendment, which expounds on the "I'm okay with dissent; I just think actual dissenters should be rounded up and shot!" theme beloved by right-wingers everywhere. (His version: "I'm okay with dissent, because it helps identify the traitors in our midst more easily!") Vile stuff, but his opposition to the amendment itself can't be improved: "A flag has to be worth torching. When a flag gets burned, that's not a sign of its weakness but of its strength."

Also note that for all intents and purposes, it's impossible to ban flag-torching. Seriously.
-- Brad Plumer 4:37 PM || ||
Syria in the Crosshairs?

Via mini-praktike, I see that "an international consensus ha[s] emerged blaming Syria for stoking violence in Lebanon, Iraq and against Israelis." Well, true that. Syria is pretty slimy in a lot of ways. But what, pray tell, is the international community going to do about Syria? The article notes, "Rice has not said what other forms of pressure might be applied," presumably because there aren't many other forms of pressure available. We're not going to invade or start bombing. We've already thrust in the sanctions sword to the hilt. Europe, of course, could still slap down its own sanctions, but it's not clear that they want to—France and other EU countries are presumably still wary of getting dragged into a more hardline stance against Syria than they'd prefer—and it's not clear that sanctions would do any good, besides hurting the Syrian people and giving Bashar Assad an excuse to blame the West for all of his problems.

Perhaps the hope is that if Europe makes angry noises about Syria, Bashar will get worried enough to withdraw his intelligence agents from Lebanon, quit assassinating Lebanese opposition figures, and do something about the jihadist corridor leading into Iraq. But Bashar's international position just doesn't look all that weak, and maintaining some shred of control in Lebanon is obviously very important to him. The consensus seems to be that the United States has Syria by the short and curlies these days, but I don't see that at all. Not to stretch the analogy too far, but our Syria policy is starting to resemble our Cuba policy more and more each passing day. See also Fareed Zakaria's important column on the broader theme here.
-- Brad Plumer 3:55 PM || ||

David Fiege makes a very good point. Harsh punishments, for all we know, don't really deter regular crime very well, including burglaries, murders, or other crimes of desperation, or crimes done in the "heat of the moment". But white-collar crime—corporate fraud especially—isn't like that. The criminals know full well what they're doing, have time to plan it out, and think very, very carefully beforehand about the costs and benefits of their actions. The threat of seriously brutal punishment really ought to be able to deter corporate criminals like John Rigas or Dennis Kszlowski. So why not threaten to toss these crooks into ordinary Leavenworth-style prisons, where the soap is always slippery and the guards are always, um, watching over you? That ought to put a stop to corporate fraud real quick.
-- Brad Plumer 3:29 PM || ||
Machine-Gun Barrage, Eh?

The aim, they say, is to respect sexuality; not to debase it by giving in to crass bodily urges and the like. But judging from this Rolling Stone profile of abstinence-only Christian youths, not only do these people have the filthiest of minds, but the poor lads have no hope of ever getting beyond their own base lust:
The Every Man [a popular book series on abstinence] premise is that men are sexual beasts, so sinful by nature that, without God in their lives, they don't stand a chance of resisting temptation in the form of premarital sex, masturbation and straying eyes. …

"Your goal is sexual purity," write Stephen Arterburn and Fred Stoeker. "You are sexually pure when no sexual gratification comes from anyone or anything but your wife." To achieve this, they argue, men must go to a kind of war. Citing Dobson, they note the "fact" that men experience a buildup of sperm demanding "release" approximately every seventy-two hours. For single men, wet dreams, if purged of sexual imagery, can act as "God's natural release valve." (Arterburn and Stoeker believe you can actually train yourself to remove the lust from such dreams.) "Your life is under a withering barrage of machine-gun sexuality that rakes the landscape mercilessly," they report. They encourage making lists of "areas of weakness." They seem particularly concerned with shorts: "nubile sweat-soaked girls in tight nylon shorts"; "female joggers in tight nylon shorts"; "young mothers in shorts, leaning over to pull children out of car seats." To avoid these temptations, men must train themselves to "bounce" their eyes off female curves.
Not to mention the fact that this entire chastity movement is, like pornography, obsessed with women as objects—the "purity ring" given by fathers to their daughters, and returned on wedding day, is the obvious example here. I sound like I'm smirking, perhaps, and I am. This is all very silly. If for some reason I wanted to convince a broad swath of youth that there was nothing more to life—or women!—than sex, thinking about sex, dreaming about sex, worrying about sex, finding sex symbols in everyday life, sex, sex, sex, etc., this is exactly the sort of movement I'd design. Don't think of a white elephant. Oh well, people can do what they want; it's just a little ironic that these young lads are calling their peers "sexed-up heathens." Uh-huh. But the article's wholly engrossing; give it a read.
-- Brad Plumer 3:20 PM || ||

June 25, 2005

Dreaming of Withdrawal

Stygius is probably very right about this: the tide of polls turning sour on Bush and Iraq probably doesn't mean there's some widespread clamor for withdrawal. What it most likely means—insofar as you can translate polls into preferences—is that a lot of Americans really, deep down, want the president or some other authority figure to sit down with them, explain what needs to be done in Iraq—see, for example, Kris Alexander's charts and graphs on this—along with what our military experts think can be done in Iraq, and readjust our priorities if the latter doesn't quite stack up with the former. If a stable, democratic Iraq isn't an achievable goal, then perhaps it's time to proceed to our Afghanization phase. Certainly that's what I'd like someone to explain. On the other hand, I'm not sure anyone in the Bush administration "really" knows what they'd like to achieve—do they plan on keeping bases there indefinitely?, for instance—and there's something quaint and naïve about asking the president to level with us.

One other major problem is that "military leaders" don't even seem to agree on what can physically be done in Iraq. The commander-in-chief thinks all is blossoms and roses. Gen. John Abizaid and Gen. George Casey sound more sober about the insurgency, but admit it will cost a lot of "blood and treasure" to win this thing. And then you have Lt. Gen. John Vines insisting that we need to draw down "relatively soon." Who's right? The top generals may know a lot, but it's not obvious that they know better than the officers lower down, and they might even be wrong. So who's right? No idea. The point is that there doesn't seem to be a "correct" appraisal of Iraq that we could somehow all see clearly if only our leaders would level with us.

Now as it stands, I'm tentatively against what seems to be the Democratic idea of setting a deadline for withdrawal, in part because I do think Iraq would go to hell if we left before certain goals are accomplished (but what are those goals?), and in part because I don't quite buy the argument that announcing withdrawal would "scare" the newly-elected Iraqi government into sweet, sweet compromise rather than engaging in the furious bits of brinksmanship they've been engaging in thus far. That seems wrong. Yes, true, the negotiations between the Sunnis and Shiites have been ugly at times, and will continue to be ugly—hey, they're ugly here in America too—but they haven't been intractable. I don't see how announcing our withdrawal would magically speed things and get a constitution pounded out. More to the point, I'm not sure a series of rapid and hasty compromises by the Shiites, made under the threat of a U.S. withdrawal, will lead to a stable Iraq down the road.

Meanwhile, it seems true that the training of Iraqi security forces needs to be done right and can't be done on a timetable—five to ten years seems to be the timeframe usually given. And I'm also not quite sure the Iraqi government would gain any newfound legitimacy from not having the United States around, or by having the U.S. announce a deadline for departure. Perhaps they'd gain legitimacy among the Sunnis. But then perhaps many Sunnis would hate a Shiite-led government no matter what. At any rate, PM Ibrahim Jaafari seems to be threading the needle here by begging the U.S. to stay in private and pricking against the occupation in public. So that seems to be the trend for the time being; we're in for at least two more years of the same. Still, so long as we insist on staying until the "job is done," without any sort of forceful timetable, it's not unrealistic to think that we're looking at an open-ended occupation that's trying to achieve impossible goals, an occupation that will last until the Army breaks apart. Which is why Daniel Byman's idea of a targeted drawdown, along with narrowing our objectives to pursue some form of "managed anarchy" in Iraq—i.e. avoiding large-scale civil war, deterring a coup, making sure the oil supply isn't disrupted, and preventing Afghanistan-style terrorist camps from forming—might end up being the least bad of a menu of very bad options.
-- Brad Plumer 3:52 PM || ||
Will the Geo-Greens Save Us?

In the New Republic this week, Joseph Braude brings up a new slant on the oil dependence problem; namely, that other Arab countries are running out of oil and thus relying increasingly on imports from Saudi Arabia. And that means, says Braude, that oil-dependent countries could increasingly start to resemble oil-less Jordan, forced to tolerate radical, Saudi-funded Wahhabi clerics and mosques in their country:
[Jordanian King] Abdullah depends on Saudi Arabia for cheap, subsidized oil; he has none of his own. So there are limits to what he can do to stem the flow of Saudi soft power into his country. Hardly a friend of freedom and democracy, Jordan's king is increasingly viewed in Washington as a disappointment on the issue of political reform. If you're a secular liberal and want to start a national party in Amman, you're in for a rough fight. But, when Saudi-backed preachers play politics in the country's mosques--even, at times, campaigning against the king's own pro-Western policies--Abdullah suddenly shows off his tolerance for pluralism....

At an April conference of the pro-Saudi Salafi movement in Amman, local and foreign preachers, including a guest from Saudi Arabia, spoke out against Jews, Christians, Shia, feminism, and globalization. Sheik Muhammad Nasr denounced the latter as a "scourge" and an "American-led plot to disrupt Muslim unity." These sentiments aren't exactly simpatico to an authoritarian state with a ubiquitous queen, a warm peace with Israel, a large urban Christian community, a Shia refugee population, and membership in the World Trade Organization. Yet the clerics who delivered these tirades were left alone by the government. .... Salafi clerics are staunchly backed by Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia is indispensable to the Jordanian economy.
The solution here seems to be to help promote energy independence among countries like Egypt, Yemen, Syria—which also happen to be fantastic sites for solar and wind energy projects. Sounds good, although I do wonder how this will all work in practice… Presumably greater energy independence among Arab nations won't lower global demand by nearly enough to tighten the petrodollar spigots flowing into Saudi Arabia—especially with China and India growing without bound, and the Republican regime in the United States hostile towards energy independence. That means that the House of Saud will always be rich enough to fund a growing network of radical mosques around the Middle East, no matter what other Arab countries do. (At least until X years far into the future when they run out of oil altogether.)

So okay, let's say Jordan wasn't dependent on Saudi crude, but the Saudi-funded mosques and clerics were still there. What, exactly, could King Abdullah do about it that he can't do now? Somehow stop money from crossing his borders? Um... Actually crack down on the Islamists? That gets rid of the hostile Wahhabi problem but would, presumably, inflame the sort of ill feelings that led to things like the rise of al Qaeda, no? I just have a hard time understanding why the rise of Wahhabism around the region is a problem that could be mitigated somewhat if only other countries weren't so beholden to Saudi oil supplies.
-- Brad Plumer 2:24 PM || ||

June 24, 2005


Oh no! It's not just liberals who are the terror-loving traitors. It's the president too:
Jenna and Barbara Bush, the president's party-hopping 22-year-old daughters, said Wednesday their father has shown them the importance of moderation and restraint.
Karl is not going to be pleased...
-- Brad Plumer 5:21 PM || ||
False and Not-So-False Problems

In the category of "fascinating stuff I wish I knew more about, but hey, maybe it turns out I don't really need to after all"—er, yes, that's a category—is this paper by Peter Westen on free will and determinism: "I argue… that the relationship between free will and determinism is a false problem, that is, a problem that we are incapable of resolving, even in theory. The proper response to a false problem… is to stop thinking about it." Duh, okay. Actually, his punches seem to land pretty solidly, but what do I know? And also, why is this sort of thing published in a law journal rather than peer-reviewed for a philosophy journal? Doesn't that make it suspect from the start?

Somewhat relatedly, while waiting for the bus this morning I saw a headline in the SF Examiner showing the chap who cloned Dolly declaring that we need to slow down the stem cell-push so that we can have a proper "debate over when life begins." Now we hear this line a lot from people like Leon Kass—that everyone needs to slow down and take a breath so that we have time to think about the ethical issues. Really? Are there any ethical issues surrounding stem-cells that haven't been debated to death already and might somehow get resolved or clarified in the next year or two if bio-ethicists could just get a little breathing room to think harder about them? It doesn't seem so. It comes down to: "clump of cells: rights or no rights?" which has been scoured pretty thoroughly and isn't any closer to getting resolved. On the other hand, I can think of a number of issues with regard to the genetic enhancement of human beings that probably haven't been wracked over nearly as thoroughly, and are actually capable of being clarified. So it's probably best to train our attention on those issues, and fast, before Gattaca descends upon us.
-- Brad Plumer 2:56 PM || ||

June 23, 2005


This is pretty clearly the proper way to think about the issue.
-- Brad Plumer 3:19 AM || ||
Easy Saudi Marks

Okay, frankly, I'm losing interest in this Dick Durbin story. Yes, in my ideal world, most Americans would agree that chaining someone to the floor and letting them shit all over themselves is not the way to treat other human beings, but apparently that's too much to ask. What really keeps me up at night is the fact that we have complete fucking idiots running Congress:
Asked what the next step for Durbin would be, an aide to Frist told FOX News, "Well, when you say something that appears all over Al Jazeera, you have a lot of work to do."
Now I've seen drones like Hugh Hewitt and Glenn Reynolds engage in this sort of mindlessness about al-Jazeera before, but that's fine, it's expected of people who don't know anything about the Middle East and, frankly, aren't much interested. Bill Frist and his merry band of Oompa-Loompas, however, should know better. You know, given that we're fighting The Most Important War Ever over in the region and all. It might help to know, for instance, that Zarqawi and his goons despise al-Jazeerah for hurting their cause. It might help to know that al-Jazeerah is one of the few forums in the Arab world for legitimate debate about the future of democratic reform. But no, it seems the top priority for Frist and company is to undercut al-Jazeerah to the point where the only major news network left in the Middle East will be everyone's favorite Saudi propaganda outlet, al-Arabiyya. You know, if I were in the pocket of King Fahd this would be my strategy too. Except I'm not.
-- Brad Plumer 3:10 AM || ||
Paris Is Burning!

So I intend to blog about Curtis Cate's new Nietzsche biography without ever discussing either a) Nietzsche himself or b) any of his ideas. With that out of the way, here's yet another extraneous passage from the book:
By this time [i.e. May 1871], Fritz was seriously upset by the bloody turmoil in Paris, where a band of revolutionary "patriots," outraged by Adolfe Thiers's and his bourgeois government's meek acceptance of Bismarck's peace terms, had occupied the city hall and many other public buildings. The Communards... had chosen this inopportune moment to establish a new proletarian regime... It seemed, from newspaper reports reaching Basel, as though all of Paris was on fire... and now came news that the Louvre, with its priceless library and art collections, was ablaze... The news left Nietzsche absolutely shattered.
Well, who wouldn't be shattered? Watching the poor rise up and torch the Louvre is a scary experience! Interestingly, though, here in the United States we've never really had these sorts of class-related riots and rebellions, that is, the sort that threaten the actual seat of government. Sure, there were all sorts of violent outbursts by the working classes in the 19th century, and again in the 1930s and 1960s, but never anything that threatened Washington D.C. in the way that Paris was upended multiple times over the past three centuries, or even in the way London was threatened in the 1880s.

But so what? Well, some economists have argued that widespread social unrest tends to lead to increased income redistribution and greater democratization, that the latter are responses to the former. But presumably you need the right sort of social unrest. The scary sort. And one of the things that helps foster truly scary rioting is urban density. Indeed, according to this paper, across OECD countries "there is a significant positive effect of density on redistribution: 38.6 percent." So one theory might be that America, thanks to its lower population density, was able to avoid the sort of nation-threatening riots that helps bring about the expansion of the welfare state.

Of course, the alternate explanation, as given by the second paper linked there, is that greater density increases empathy for the poor—a person is more likely to support a larger welfare state if he or she lives near, say, the slums; in America, it's easier to get away from the poor than it is in Europe—which in turn increases support for income redistribution. Another possible explanation is that our "open frontier" somehow made lots of people in America feel like rugged individuals and thus less likely to support the nanny state than were their French counterparts. Another explanation is that this is all bunk and there are an infinite number of reasons why the U.S. never developed a European-style welfare state. But that's no fun. And who knows, maybe it really was because we never had the, um, Nietzsche-esque fear of the proletarian put into us.
-- Brad Plumer 3:02 AM || ||

June 22, 2005

It's Official

The rumors are wrong. A Uruguayan 10-centisimo coin does not work as a substitute for an American quarter in Coke machines. Neither does a Japanese 10-yen for that matter. I feel so lied to...
-- Brad Plumer 8:42 PM || ||
Far From Ideal

More on Uzbekistan. Daniel Nexon of the new and excellent Duck of Minerva says it's time to cut Karimov loose. Nathan Hamm's not so sure. Duck of Minerva makes an impressive case, but I think I'm still with Nathan on this one. I do agree that "ugly" actions—like, say, cozying up to Uzbekistan—can hurt America's legitimacy and moral authority around the world, and that's bad. But I'm not convinced that all ugly actions are the same—every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Our undying support for Husni Mubarak's regime in Egypt, for instance, obviously has real costs and makes people hate the United States—to the point where they're blowing up our skyscrapers. That's terrible. But support for Uzbekistan isn't like that. As Nathan has pointed out before, it's not at all clear that most Uzbeks are chafing at the bit and hate the United States for supporting Karimov. (In fact, they don't seem to give us much thought at all.)

Meanwhile, sure, there's a whole barricade of human rights and liberal groups out there blasting the United States for siding with Karimov and his torture chambers. But let's face it: as much as I respect these groups, they're not going to stop criticizing the United States for moral hypocrisy anytime soon. That's not to say they're wrong, it's just that these aren't the sort of "swing voters" who will start to consider the United States the world's shining beacon or morality all because we disengage from Uzbekistan. (There's a useful point about incentives to be made here.) So how much legitimacy do we actually lose from supporting Uzbekistan? Daniel Nexon might well be right that it's a lot; I just want to see the evidence.

Onto Nexon's more important point: If Uzbekistan's really in danger of sidling up closer to China (and he argues that this potential sidling is probably overblown), then that just proves that we never had much leverage over Karimov in the first place. Well, that's true, and as Nathan says it seems unlikely that we'll be able to shove Uzbekistan down the democracy path anytime soon. Still, engagement could lead to all sorts of minor little pushes and nudges behind the scenes: aid and cooperation with Uzbek NGOs and civil society groups, for instance. And then there's military cooperation which, as Joseph Braude explains here, can at least get you a few steps closer to democratization, by promoting transparency in defense planning and democratic control of security forces. (Steven Cook has done some thinking along these lines too.) Just because we don't have much leverage over Karimov, and can't "force" him to, say, hold free elections, doesn't mean nothing positive can come out of friendly engagement. In theory. Of course, if Karimov's intent on scuttling the Uzbekistan-U.S. relationship, as he seems to be, then there's no sense chasing after him. Engagement doesn't mean frantic pandering. Foreign affairs are ugly but they don't need to be pathetic.

Last note: I am worried about the United States getting dragged into Uzbekistan's internal conflicts. If there is, as Nathan says, a risk of the country "collapsing into a chaotic civil war," one would prefer that the U.S. had nothing to do with it. On the other hand, who are we kidding? If civil war did happen, the U.S. would get involved like it or not, so it may as well stick around for the time being, preparing for that possibility.
-- Brad Plumer 2:54 PM || ||
Democracy, Please

Over at TPMCafe, Petey brings up my favorite pasttime—hammering away at just how un-democratic the electoral institutions of the United States really are—and points out that these un-democratic institutions also happen to be hurting the large-d Democrats. "Red" states, for instance, get disproportionate representation in the Senate, the electoral college, etc. etc. Yes it's a real shame, though believe me, the fortunes of the Democratic Party is not what keeps me up at night. Nevertheless, Petey also notes that the likelihood of real electoral reform, which would include: abolishing the Electoral College, experimenting with proportional representation, giving the hundreds of thousands of citizens living in our nation's capital some sort of political standing, maybe even passing a constitutional amendment guaranteeing—oh I dunno—the right to vote, maybe... sadly, the likelihood of those sorts of major changes happening is nil.

For the most part I agree, although I still intend to clamor for this stuff at every turn. One should also note that not all electoral reform is out of reach; smaller stuff at the margins is certainly possible. For example, if we can just disabuse little states of the notion that they benefit from the Electoral College (they don't), maybe we can get that monstrosity abolished. Meanwhile, it's often forgotten that single-member House districts didn't become a federal requirement until the 1960s—there's no reason we can't reverse the trend and start electing representatives on a statewide basis. And some state -level experiments—like doing away with bicameral legislatures, which are really quite ridiculous when you think about it—could be tried. Heck, one day liberals might even get to install a few Supreme Court Justices who don't believe that the whole purpose of Equal Protection Clause is to deny minorities political representation. One can hope! So yeah, there are incremental things to be done, although I agree, even those aren't easy.

Nevertheless, there's one major blight to our democratic system that is both entirely shameful and easy to fix. It has to do with prisoners and voting rights. Ideally, one day I'd like to see all prisoners given the right to vote—yes, even while they're in prison. (The picture on the right is a Canadian prisoner voting in 2004.) But that's so whoppingly pie-in-the-sky that I'll settle for a constitutional amendment that guarantees ex-felons, at least, the right to vote. That 1.4 million Americans who have repaid their debt to society cannot vote is not something that should stand.

Nevertheless, many people are opposed to even that, and while I think they're wrong, I don't think they're unreasonable. What is unreasonable, however, is this: despite the fact that prisoners can't vote, they are still counted for census and reapportionment purposes to swell and fatten House districts. Going back to the partisan theme here, since prisoners are usually shipped from heavily minority urban areas to prisons located in overwhelmingly white rural areas, this, shall we say, benefits one party more than the other. Republican State Sen. Dale Volker in New York, for instance, gets to count the 11,000 Attica prisoners as part of his district, despite the fact that they certainly aren't allowed to vote for him, or anyone else for that matter. Effectively, the whole scam redistributes power away from urban communities.

This sort of practice, of course, isn't new. It's exactly what Southerners did with slaves prior to emancipation—the slaves would be counted in the census as part of the population (each slave counted as three-fifths of a person), so as to give Southern stats more House seats and more Electoral College votes, but those slaves could not, of course cast a vote. Now regardless of how you feel about giving prisoners the right to vote, there is nothing even remotely approaching a principled argument in favor of counting the 2.5 million disenfranchised prisoners for census and reapportionment purposes. It has to end. And just this one tiny, simple, wholly defensible reform would make the United States at least a wee bit more democratic. Hey, change has to start somewhere.
-- Brad Plumer 4:30 AM || ||

June 21, 2005

The Abridged Sith

Hilarious: "I got a threshold, Jedi. I got a threshold for the abuse I'll take. And right now I'm a race car and you got me in the red."

Via Unfogged.
-- Brad Plumer 4:21 PM || ||
Masters of War

During the 1950s, Herman Kahn was part of the RAND Corporation's cadre of hyper-rational authorities on nuclear war, who was paid to ask, "what if?" What if the Soviet Union lobbed a few nuke-studded missiles our way? What if they struck first? Second? His book on the subject was based on two assertions: "The first is that nuclear war is possible; the second is that it is winnable," and churned the stomachs of many readers for the calm manner in which he laid out the aftermath of nuclear winter:
The most infamous pages in "On Thermonuclear War" concern survivability. What makes nuclear war different, Kahn points out, is not the number of dead; it's a new element—the problem of the postwar environment. In Kahn's view, the dangers of radioactivity are exaggerated. Fallout will make life less pleasant and cause inconvenience, but there is plenty of unpleasantness and inconvenience in the world already. "War is a terrible thing; but so is peace," he says. More babies might have birth defects after a nuclear war, but four per cent of babies have birth defects anyway. Whether we can tolerate a slightly higher percentage of defective children is a question of trade-offs. "It might well turn out," Kahn suggests, "that U.S. decision makers would be willing, among other things, to accept the high risk of an additional one percent of our children being born deformed if that meant not giving up Europe to Soviet Russia."

The book proposes a system for labelling contaminated food so that older people will eat the food that is more radioactive, on the theory that "most of these people would die of other causes before they got cancer."
Of course, the whole purpose of his book was less to inform than simply to exist, to have certain illocutionary effects. In order for deterrence to be a credible strategy, the Soviet Union had to believe that we were actually crazy enough to fight—and accept the costs of—the worst of nuclear apocalypses, and that's where thinkers like Kahn came in. Reading about his life and thought, it's impossible to believe that there weren't people genuinely crazy enough to try to win a nuclear war. Which was, I suppose, what they wanted Moscow to believe. (I believe Mao Tse-Tung once made a similar threat, noting that if 200 million Americans died in an atomic exchange, that would mean the end of the United States; 200 million dead Chinese would be a mere blip on the radar.)

Now the interesting, and maybe less appalling, question is whether a similar deterrence strategy could work today, against terrorism. What if the United States made it clear that September 11-type attacks were no big deal. What if the general tenor of national security discourse ran: "Okay, well even 12,000 or 20,000 dead is tragic, but life will go on, and society won't collapse." Would that change anything? Say I'm a terrorist trying to achieve X amount of terror; ideally I'd like to do it in the cheapest way possible—perhaps by exploding a suicide bomb in a mall. But if I know that American society is perfectly willing to absorb a minor attack like that, then the stakes are raised. A bomb in a mall would be useless. To achieve X amount of terror, I would have to go blow up a chlorine tank or something. Or try to get my hands on a nuclear suitcase. If America had a cavalier attitude towards terrorist attacks—rather than the fairly frantic one we do have—would that persuade some terrorists to try to up the ante and think up even more deadly attacks, or it would it discourage some terrorists from even trying? ("What's the point, Americans can't be terrorized.") There may be some terrorists who would like to set off a nuclear bomb in Times Square regardless of our opinion on the matter; but surely there are some terrorists who respond to incentives, no?
-- Brad Plumer 1:03 PM || ||
An All-Purpose What?

Since the two health care posts below took a few perhaps undeserved swipes at doctors, I should say that today's physicians are really quite excellent by historical standards. I've been reading Curtis Cate's new biography of Nietzsche, which had this gruesome little tidbit about Dr Joseph Wiel, one of the foremost "gastric" specialists in 19th century Germany:
After carefully examining Nietzsche's belly [dude had ulcers], he decided that his patient was suffering from 'chronic stomach catarrah.' The cure he prescribed involved an early morning use of cold-water-injecting clyster—that all-purpose instrument of anal torture which Moliere had so mercilessly lampooned in several of his comedies. Next, the amiable Dr Wiel prescribed a dietary regime of four small meals a day, almost exclusively composed of meat. They were preceded in the morning by some Carlsbad fruit salts and accompanied for the midday and evening meals by a glass of Bordeaux wine. And, as an ultimate refinement, the application to the earlobe of blood-sucking leetches!
Sad to say, it didn't work.
-- Brad Plumer 4:13 AM || ||
"You Tell Him."

Also tucked inside Quadagno's book is a fun Lyndon Johnson anecdote that's too good not to share. Here's LBJ, right after the passage of Medicare, trying to win over the American Medical Association and persuade doctors to support the new measure:
On July 3 Lyndon Johnson agreed to meet with AMA officials who had come to complain about socialized medicine. ... As the doctors sat around the table, waiting politely for the president to speak, Johnson gave them the "treatment." He first told the assembled physicians, "Your country needs your help. Your President needs your help." Would they be willing to serve in Vietnam, treating wounded civilians? When the doctors immediately responded that they would, Johnson told an aide to get the press. In front of assembled reporters, the president praised the doctors' willingness to help the Vietnamese. Then when reporters, primed by aides, asked the physicians if they would support Medicare, Johnson replied indignantly, "Of course they'll support the law of the land." Turning to AMA president James Appel, he said, "You tell him." "Of course we will," Appel meekly replied. A few weeks later the AMA publicly announced its intention to support Medicare.
The "treatment." Ha. Very slick. Of course, doctors still loathed Medicare for quite some time, at least until they found out that they could run up their costs and fees and still get reimbursed, thanks to the lax cost controls set up by the initial bill. A junior Halliburton in every hospital, that's what it was.
-- Brad Plumer 3:54 AM || ||
Who Killed National Health Insurance?

So it only took me, oh, two whole months, but I finally got around to finishing Jill Quadagno's excellent book, One Nation Uninsured: Why the U.S. Has No National Health Insurance. It's a little thin on the details—sadly, no in-depth explanation as to why the Clinton health care reform spluttered out in here—but it gives a useful historical overview of the struggle over national health care. Fun, fun. But let's cut to the chase: Why doesn't the United States have universal health insurance, when just about every other OECD country does? Well, after reading the book, here are six big theories:

1. Fear of socialism: Maybe Americans are different from our neighbors abroad and have a special dislike for state-run programs. There's something to this: opponents of national health care have made a lot of headway by raising the specter of socialism against various attempts at reform: from their defeat of the AALL campaign in the 1910s to the AMA's mobilization against Harry Truman's national health care plan in the 1940s to the backlash against "government-run" HillaryCare in the 1990s. (Even John Kerry's health care reform got tarred with the "government takeover" brush last year, and it was scary enough that he needed to respond.) But why then, Quadagno asks, did Medicare pass, when it too was labeled "statist"? One answer might be that the mid-1960s was a relatively unique time when federal intervention had won newfound legitimacy—thanks to the passage of the Civil Rights Acts—and the specter of socialism was no longer as strong as it was in, say, the 1950s. So it's a theory to keep in mind.

2. Weak labor movement: The labor movement here in the United States has been, on average, much weaker than that in other countries. For one, it has never really had its own party. (By European standards, the Democrats are a sad-sack excuse for a labor party, and that's even more true historically.) Meanwhile, union infighting during the first half of the 20th century meant that there was never a unified labor movement for national health care; union leaders like George Meany and Samuel Gompers preferred to secure health care benefits through collective bargaining agreements with large corporations, rather than going through Congress. Meanwhile, in the late 1960s, the AFL-CIO got too distracted and failed to back Ted Kennedy's national health care proposal to the hilt, and in the 1990s was too embittered by the NAFTA battle to support Clinton fully. On the other hand, when organized labor threw its full weight behind disability insurance and Medicare, both got both passed, so perhaps a more focused labor movement would have brought national health insurance to this country. Perhaps.

3. Racial politics. This is probably a major reason why the United States has a less redistributive welfare state overall than other OECD countries (see Alesina, Glaeser and Sacerdote). And it helps explain the failure of health care reform too. The main factor here is that Southern Democrats from the 1930s through 1960s were unwilling to support any health care program that was run by the federal government; after all, that would put Congress in a position to enforce racial integration in hospitals. Couldn't have that. (Notably, the Southern Democrats did not block disability insurance in 1956, which was designed to be run by state health departments.)

4. Structural explanations: Quadagno doesn't really discuss this one, but as we know, it's hard to get stuff passed in the United States: we've got a lot of checks and balances in Congress. Meanwhile, let's not forget that our representatives are elected by winning pluralities in geographically-based districts. As such, they have infinitely more incentive to favor spending programs that are geographically targeted and local—yes, the sweet smell of pork—rather than universal benefits that affect the entire country. That means that Congress as a whole will be, by design, less concerned with national health care. But heh, longtime readers are probably sick of hearing me harp on this subject, so I'll let it go for now.

5. Path dependency: Ah yes, "path dependency" is a big one, and Quadagno only touches on this briefly. There are certain "accidental" features of history which have sent the United States down certain paths that then became ingrained over time. For example, the fact that we happen to have an 18th century-era constitution obsessed with property rights—something few, if any, of the other OECD countries have—meant that our courts have traditionally been more hostile towards welfare states than those abroad. And small differences can accumulate over time. During the Progressive Era, the Supreme Court helped to constrain pushes for broad-based social insurance, which in turn helped private insurers step in and fill the void, and those private insurers metastasized and grew powerful over time, thus opposing national health care.

Meanwhile, the "accidental" fact of World War II led many companies to compete for workers by offering health benefits—since wages were frozen during the war—which in turn enticed unions into trying to bargain for better benefits directly rather than push for a national health program. And the passage of Medicare in 1966 helped siphon off senior citizens who might otherwise have been a powerful ally in a push for, say, comprehensive single-payer health care in the 1970s. Certain policies and accidents of history create strange, and sometimes enduring, legacies.

6. Special Interests: This is Quadagno's preferred explanation. "[E]ach attempt to guarantee universal coverage has been resisted by powerful special interests who have used every weapon on hand to keep the financing of health services a private endeavor." First it was doctors, then it was the insurance industry, now it includes the pharmaceutical industry. Only when these interests have been divided and conquered has real health care reform passed. Insurance companies supported disability insurance over the protests of the AMA. Both hospital administrators and insurers again left the AMA hung out to dry in the Medicare battle. But in the 1970s, the insurers gained new allies—including the National Federation of Independent Businesses—to thwart reform. I like this explanation: As I've said before, the only way I see national health care getting passed today is if reformers split the opposition. Maybe placate large businesses and Big Pharma while attacking private insurance. Or something. But you can't go up against everyone at once: that's what Clinton tried to do and got himself kicked in the teeth.

Now the sad part is that nearly all of these factors are alive and well today, except perhaps racially-based opposition to universal health care. (And I'm not even sure about that one: nativism and hostility towards immigrants, after all, played a huge role in both the battle over Clinton health care and welfare reform.) So the prospects for national health care look severely daunting, and unlike some liberals, I don't think it's possible to wait around for a health care crisis to hit—in fact, I don't think that crisis will ever hit; even if premiums do skyrocket out of control and businesses start pushing their employees off of their plans, I'm guessing that demand for comprehensive change will likely be diverted by piecemeal reforms enacted by Congress. Throw the rabble a scrap or two and they'll stop clamoring for revolution. But really, single-payer won't magically appear one day; reform will only come after a long, hard slog right through the obstacles listed above.
-- Brad Plumer 3:50 AM || ||

June 20, 2005

Realists on Uzbekistan

Curzon makes the case for continued engagement with Uzbekistan, and is none too happy with the fact that relations between Tashkent and Washington seem to be taking a turn for the worse. The argument here seems plausible (here's Nathan Hamm's version); as far as I can tell, there doesn't seem any major downside to engaging Karimov—besides upsetting those who hate "hypocrisy" in U.S. foreign policy—and it's not like the Uzbek government will stop boiling prisoners citizens alive now that we've shuttered up our airbase there. Plus, there's a decent fear that if we don't maintain a relationship with Uzbekistan, China will, which means we can kiss any hope of reform goodbye. Our military ties, at least, give us some leverage over Karimov, no? So yes, it's a tough country to work with, and yes, our Uzbekistan policy is never going to be pretty, but engagement seems like a better stance than total isolation. (That said, there's always room for improvement—we certainly don't need to send terrorism suspects to Uzbekistan to be tortured, etc.)

But that said, after reading this article, it seems that the main trend going on right now is that it's Uzbekistan who's souring on America, rather than vice versa. In that case, if Karimov's so paranoid about the United States fomenting revolutions around Central Asia, there doesn't seem to be any reason for the Bush administration to go well out of its way to reassure him. But I don't know. Of course, it never helps when both the Pentagon and State Department are pushing forward two wildly different Uzbekistan policies at the moment. Egad.
-- Brad Plumer 7:52 PM || ||