December 31, 2004

Bring On The Deductions

Thank you! I sort of hinted at this long ago, but Adam O'Neill of the Lowest Deep gets at the issue more clearly. Democrats should happily endorse the elimination of the local/state tax deduction on progressivity grounds.

The one fear is that, without the deduction, high-income folks in blue states would start clamoring even harder to lower state taxes—and given that these people tend to have a lot of sway, it could lead to a real shrinkage of blue-state government. On the other hand, the elimination of the state/local deduction would likely come in tandem with a whole bunch of other goodies for wealthy blue-state folks—like the elimination of the AMT—so maybe they wouldn't lash out too strongly. And if they do, well, they can blame the Republicans that raised their taxes. California as a whole may lean blue, but it also raised more money for Bush than any other state but Texas.
-- Brad Plumer 4:22 PM || ||
Retirement Ages

Brad DeLong wants to keep Social Security away from Congress' grubby little paws:
...I'm attracted to the Federal Reserve model. Get the cabinet secretaries out as Trustees of Social Security. Replace them with guys appointed for fourteen-year terms. Mandate that they keep the system in actuarial balance--just like the Federal Reserve has a mandate to preserve price stability. And have them raise and lower the retirement age a bit at a time as the fortunes of the system wane and wax.
Fair enough. His commenters also (sort of) bring up a point I've always liked -- differential retirement ages. The standard argument, after all, is that longer life expectancies will enable us to raise the retirement age with some fairness. But only some people will benefit here. I, for instance, sit at my desk all day and either search around on google or talk on the phone. If I retired at the age of 70 or later, assuming I live that long, it wouldn't be a huge deal. A coal miner, meanwhile, probably ought to retire at the age of 55 or so—modern medicine might help him or her deal with arthritis and other disabilities, but eventually the body wears out and you can't heave around a pickaxe all day. Meanwhile, that manual laborer isn't going to get retrained for a desk job at that late age, so where does that leave him?

So some people retire later, some people retire earlier. How does this all shake out? Based on this chart, the overwhelming majority of workers seem to have jobs with relatively low physical stress (management or office). So they would all get raised retirement ages and Social Security would be on even sturdier footing without forcing the coal miners to keep heaving their pickaxes at the age of 70. Hm? On the other hand, this downplays the importance of mental stress, so maybe it would never fly, I don't know.
-- Brad Plumer 3:23 PM || ||
Incentives For Justice

The other day I mentioned some odd incentives at work in the U.S. criminal justice system. After a little more reading on the subject, I came across another instance that isn't exactly earth-shattering, but interesting nonetheless.

During the 1990s (all data here) in New York City, misdemeanor arrests increased by about 56 percent, thanks in large part to the "broken windows" style of policing. Over that same time, felony arrests only slowly declined by about 17 percent. However, felony indictments declined much, much more quickly, by about 46 percent. In other words, the "overcharges," or felony arrests that did not result in indictment and/or conviction, absolutely exploded.

This held true for all types of cases. The indictment rate for violent felony arrests declined from 35 to 24 percent. The indictment rate for felony drug arrests went from 57 percent to 40 percent. Why? One obvious answer is that actual reported felonies declined by 52 percent during this time, so fewer felonies were actually being committed. Drug dealers also moved underground—so it was a lot harder for police to engage in "buy and bust" sting operations, which result in high indictment rates (since the officer is both complainant and witness.) So while arrests stayed at roughly the same level, the quality of arrests declined quite rapidly.

Now the problem here is that officers had every incentive to maintain the rate of felony arrests. After all, a police station that isn't arresting as many people will quickly get accused of not doing anything. Even though it's not arresting as many people because, well, it did it's job well. Success is deadly. So they continue to make felony arrests, even though there are fewer felons, or the felons are harder to find.

This wouldn't seem like a big deal, but overcharging clogs up and drains resources from the justice system. The detainees in question go in jail for longer periods (and often can't pay the much higher bail). Already overworked prosecutors have to spend time reviewing these cases before reducing or dismissing them. The whole thing leaves everybody worse off. But a rather simple change in the incentive system here could fix the problem pretty quickly, it seems.
-- Brad Plumer 2:14 PM || ||
The Next Disaster

Oh great. Here's some more disaster stuff to worry about. Personally, my natural disaster of choice for sleepless nights is the supervolcano. Yes, the supervolcano -- the last known explosion nearly wiped out mankind! More specifically, we ought to worry about the supervolcano underneath Yellowstone National Park, which is long overdue for an eruption. I saw a Discovery Channel documentary on this little bugger recently, and scientists now know for sure that the supervolcano chamber is filling up. Dum dum dum. Ominous! Asteroids and New York-destroying tidal waves, after all, are a matter of "if", not "when." The supervolcano, though, is a matter of "when".
-- Brad Plumer 4:48 AM || ||
Quantifying Revolution II

One more thought on the possibility of revolution in Tehran. The key thing to note is that Iran today doesn't at all resemble Iran in 1979. During the last days of the Shah, his army was facing defections of over 1,000 a day, according to Ken Pollack. Khamane'i's security forces today suffer no such thing. Back in December of 1978, meanwhile, the demonstrations had grown to over 9 million people. The 2002-2003 protests in Iran, meanwhile, amounted to no more than a couple thousand students. Most importantly, though, the Shah abdicated in 1979 because he refused to crack down hard on the Iranian protestors. Khamane'i and the hardliners are considerably more ruthless. So while I'd rather not be pessimistic, all signs point that way for now.
-- Brad Plumer 4:36 AM || ||
Quantifying Revolution

While digging around the internet, I came across this interesting paper by Mark Katz on why some democratic revolutions succeed and others fail. Big excerpt:
Certain theorists, including Crane Brinton and Timothy Wickham-Crowley, have argued that the role of the armed forces is the key factor in deciding whether a nondemocratic revolution succeeds or fails. If the armed forces protect the ancien regime, then the revolutionary opposition is unable to seize power. If, however, the armed forces do not protect the ancien regime, then the revolutionaries usually do come to power. I will argue that just as in attempts at nondemocratic revolution, the role played by the military is also a key factor in determining the outcome of democratic revolution. When the military is willing to use force to protect the ancien regime, democratic revolutionaries cannot prevail. It is only the refusal of the armed forces to use force that allows democratic revolutionaries to succeed.

What, then, determines whether the armed forces of an authoritarian regime will use force to suppress a democratic revolutionary movement? Using a comparison of the cases mentioned, I will argue that the decision by the armed forces not to protect an authoritarian regime is not the result of a democratic conversion on the part of the military as a whole, but that it results instead from an overwhelming desire to prevent conflict within the military. Thus, if even a small number of key commanders defect to the democratic opposition, this can neutralize the armed forces as a whole, even though most military leaders may be wary of, or even hostile toward, democratization. But if these key defections to the democratic opposition do not occur and the military remains unified, it is able to crush easily the democratic revolutionaries.
Now since the obvious case of concern here is Iran, let's talk Iran. The Iranian military really has three branches here. There's the Armed Forces proper, for one. By all accounts, it's pretty loyal—though some analysts think that a downturn in the economy could provoke dissent. Next we have Iran's Revolutionary Guard (the Pasdaran), which was created in 1979 to protect the Revolution and enforce Islamic codes. After the army, these folks are perhaps the weakest link. In 1994 the Pasdaran showed a wee bit of disloyalty, when anti-clerical riots broke out in Ghazvin, and a number of Pasdaran and Army Commanders refused to suppress the crowds. Furthermore, I believe a number of Revolutionary Guardsmen voted for Khatami in 1997.

Anyways, after Ghazvin, the hardliners in Tehran began relying mostly on the basiji--volunteer groups of vigilantes to maintain domestic order. This is the third group, funded mostly by religious charities. I'm not sure, but I don't think Ayatollah Khameini has direct control over the basiji. I believe they are mostly controlled by the Combatant Clergy Association, a conservative party which forms the largest bloc in parliament. Nevertheless, these are the folks who cracked down on student protestors in 2002-2003, when Khamene'i feared the army wouldn't comply.

Anyways, the key here, I think, is that there are so many overlapping armed forces that someone is bound to crack down on a revolutionary movement. In Tiananmen back in 1989, as Nick Kristof reported, the 38th Army refused to fight the protestors, but it also refused to defend the protestors. So Beijing just brought in the provincial 27th Army to open fire on the square. Had the 38th Army been more aggressive in its defense, the revolution might have worked. But they weren't.

Something similar seems the likely fate for Iran (albeit for different reasons) at least in the near future: Protests will break out, perhaps one branch of the military (the IRGC) averts its eyes, but the other branches—particularly the basiji brigades—come in and crush the rebellion. This isn't a technical analysis by any means; I'm just pointing out that with fractured and overlapping military forces, Iran doesn't resemble, say, Philippines circa 1986 all that much.
-- Brad Plumer 4:33 AM || ||

December 30, 2004

Should Bush Debate Bin Laden?

No, really. Osama bin Laden, as most people know, just released his latest string of broadcast tapes, in which he denounced elections in Iraq and Palestine, as well as the itsy-bitsy political reforms in Saudi Arabia. President Bush responded directly, noting that bin Laden's "vision of the world is where people don't participate in democracy." As the New York Times points out, this is the first time Bush has done such a thing, and his staff has agonized over whether he even should:
His aides have said it would be a strategic error to respond to every one of Mr. bin Laden's tape-recorded threats, or to seem to elevate his status by putting him in a long-distance debate with the president.
That's one consideration, certainly, though I don't know how much more elevated bin Laden could get in the eyes of his fans. In the Arab world at least, I wonder if it's Bush who might get a status boost by debating Bin Laden. Maybe.

So what would happen if Bush and bin Laden started debating "publicly"? It depends, I think, on the audience. In Iraq, I don't think this stuff matters much. When Bin Laden denounces democracy, he's speaking for the Sunni Arabs, who have a lot to lose by participating in democracy anyways. Sure, he's pissing off the Shiites, but the Shiites and bin Laden were never going to be best friends anyways. One interesting point, though, as Dan Darling noted, was that bin Laden expressed sympathy for the Kurds who were gassed in Halabja. Seems like bin Laden wants to curry favor with the Kurds just in case democracy doesn't work out and the Kurds feel threatened by Shia hegemony in Iraq. In that case, bin Laden could perhaps try to incite long-standing Kurdish feelings of betrayal towards the U.S. I don't know how probable this is, but it's something to worry about.

Now what about the rest of the world? In his speech today, Bush pitted his vision of democracy against bin Laden's vision of a global caliphate. One hope is that, by publicly taking the side of democracy and defining himself against bin Laden, Bush can push bin Laden towards even more strident anti-democratic rhetoric. Make OBL sound like the raving lunatic he really is, and allow al Qaeda to equate itself with the forces of autocracy, and hence, discredit itself. Especially in Palestine, wherein bin Laden denounced elections (or at least Mahmoud Abbas). That's one happy possibility.

The other possibility, though, is that the reverse will happen. That is, democracy will become associated with Bushism (rather than the converse), and the already rather glowing reputation of bin Laden throughout the world will help discredit democracy as an extension of American imperialism. In other words, in a public debate of this sort, OBL manages to discredit Bush's ideals precisely because they come from Bush. That's not such a happy outcome.S
-- Brad Plumer 7:14 PM || ||
It's Good To Be Bankrupt

Did Argentina rebound from its 2001 financial crisis by ignoring IMF advice? The New York Times says yes. Brad Setser says not quite. Indeed, at a very cursory glance, it's hard to blame the IMF here. They thought that if Argentina told all its external creditors to bugger off, bad things would happen. As it turned out, bad things didn't happen, because a whole new batch of creditors lined up to do business and loan out money. But the IMF can't very well give advice based on the premise that there will always be more suckers. Can it? Even if "always more suckers" seems to be the reality for nations that actually do default, that's no way to run an international finance regime.
-- Brad Plumer 4:26 PM || ||
Here Comes Democracy

Over at Brookings, Tamara Cofman Wittes' has a lot to say in her latest, long-ish essay about joint Euro-American efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East. Here are some of the best points:

1) The various Middle East Initiatives now underway do a lot of good, but one thing they don't do is provide security guarantees to various Arab states, like the Helsinki accords did. So Arab leaders are understandably a bit cagey about the whole thing.

2) Western governments need to make economic aid conditional on political reform somehow. They haven't really figured this out yet. Arab leaders, hence, can get away with "controlled liberalization" and not much reform. This will continue on indefinitely until the U.S. and Europe get their shit figured out.

3) "The West" is not all of one mind on Arab reform. Europeans, for instance, worry mostly about poor and uneducated Arabs migrating to Europe and stirring up trouble. The U.S. worries mostly about terrorism. But those two concerns aren't at all the same. Economic development alone can help stem the former, but the latter problem really requires the spread of actual democracy and better human rights.

4) In fact, economic reform alone might actually produce more international terrorism in the short term, by creating "economic dislocation and exaggerated income disparity." That seems about right. I'd add that one of the most striking features of both the 9/11 terrorists and the bulk of Palestinians who joined the two intifadas was that they weren't poor, or uneducated, or backwards in any relevant social sense. Most of them, though, shared a sense of relative poverty—the sense that their talents were under-appreciated or under-deployed. In many ways, it's the white-collar victims of outsourcing who start blowing stuff up. Not a great analogy, but still.

5) Here's a Catch-22. Arab despots tend to restrict all forums for political organization but one: mosques. So naturally, Islamists are the best-developed political groups in the Arab world. Those same Arab despots then use this fact to argue against free elections, lest the Islamists take power. Sneaky bastards.

6) There are really two types of Arab liberals. First, those who protest and clamor for attention and swell the hearts of bloggers everywhere and usually get thrown in prison. These are a minority in the Arab world, though still a potential catalyst for change. Second, there are those pragmatic professionals—doctors, businessmen, lawyers—who try to effect change within civil society itself. Wittes argues that the challenge here is for the West to "support those liberals who are working for change within their existing systems, but in a way that doesn't end up legitimizing the system itself." Conversely, the West will want to support liberal activists, but not to the point where they simply oppose the regime and end up in jail. It's delicate.

7) Both the United States and Europe could use its own assimilated Muslim immigrants as a voice for moderation. But obviously that means not pissing off those constituencies at home.
-- Brad Plumer 2:21 PM || ||

December 29, 2004

Incentives, Incentives

It's a few days old, but do read Brent Staples New York Times op-ed about the incentives that politicians have to keep the prison population as large as possible. It's also disturbing to note that, while unions and private prison corporations may have their differences, both have obvious reasons for keeping prisons as full as possible. It would be nice to get the free market to put downward pressure on the prison population for a change—what about a market for private parole overseers, with incentives to keep as many parolees as it can out of trouble?
-- Brad Plumer 10:04 PM || ||
Gouge Away

Speaking of natural disasters, Don Boudreaux of Café Hayek has a really interesting post (and follow-up) in defense of price gouging:
Even if you're concerned only with 'the poor,' therefore, the correct question is not "are the poor less able to pay higher prices than lower prices for staple goods?’ The answer to this question is all too obvious: yes.

The relevant question instead is "are the poor less able to pay higher market prices than they are able to pay to take advantage of the other methods of rationing that necessarily replace higher prices?" The answer to this question isn’t at all obvious.
See also this relevant Economist article from a few weeks back. In Iraq, the price of gas is kept artificially low—almost zero, in fact. This doesn't help the poor or needy at all; instead gas gets leaked into the black market for much higher prices, and chronic shortages tend to hurt the poor the most (who are less able to afford to wait in long lines).

As a third alternative, someone could probably set up some sort of disasters futures market to prepare for problems like these, but I have no idea how you would go about doing that.
-- Brad Plumer 9:33 PM || ||
The "Stinginess" Question

I'm not really following the debate about whether the U.S. has been too "stingy" in delivering aid to Indonesia, Sri Lanka, etc. As I recall, disaster aid usually comes in waves, and tends to get upped over time as the scope of the tragedy becomes clearer. But hey, if cheap potshots at Bush force the administration to pony up more aid, so much the better. The U.S. can always do more than it actually does, and putting upward pressure on the aid amounts is always a good thing.

Meanwhile, though, I think Juan Cole had it right—the president could have gained a lot of traction in the Muslim world by zipping on over to Aceh, Indonesia, and pledging his support. But McQ at QandO finds this suggestion ridiculous:
Nor does [Cole] mention that the people of the region couldn't care less where Bush is or has stayed, as long as we help them. This is all simply a wonderful opportunity to again engage in a little gratuitous criticism of the man the left loves to hate.
"Couldn't care less"? What? Wasn't the president's entire re-election campaign based on those few moments when Bush stood at Ground Zero and spoke into a megaphone? Of course these symbolic gestures matter. They mattered on 9/11 and they matter now. Letting all of Indonesia know that the president of the richest and most powerful country in the world is personally concerned about the disaster—that seems like a pretty fucking big deal.
-- Brad Plumer 9:27 PM || ||
Buying The Farm

Andrew Samwick doesn't favor agricultural subsidies, really, but he says something odd in this post. In response to a statistic noting that "nearly 70 percent of the subsidies go to the top 10 percent of agricultural producers," he asks how much these 10 percent of farms actually produce:
If it is about 70 percent, then we would figure that there is probably nothing perverse about the way the subsidies are being doled out.
But that doesn't seem like a good way to evaluate a distribution at all!

Let's imagine I have 10 farmers in my imaginary country, none of them receiving subsidies. One farmer, Farmer Joe, produces 70 percent of the country's food. But for various reasons, he also turns massive profits while doing so. Now the other nine farmers produce the other 30 percent of the country's food, but they are all in danger of going bankrupt, or are exceedingly poor. Clearly, giving 70 percent of all agricultural subsidies to Farmer Joe is somewhat frivolous here. Not only that, but it ends up being harmful—you get overproduction of food, spur environmental waste, promote poor farm management, and indirectly hurt Third World farmers.

Now my imaginary world sounds very similar to the real world, where farms are expected to pull in a record net cash income of $73.7 billion in 2004—most of that going to the top 10 percent. And yet agricultural subsidies continue to rise. So while I'm not sure exactly how to measure the efficiency of subsidies, doing it like Professor Samwick did above seems to miss something. The rest of his post is quite interesting, though.
-- Brad Plumer 6:11 PM || ||
Blog vs. World

I'm confused.

First, context: I clicked on Instapundit this morning only to find a gigantic kerfluffle. Some columnist for some Minnesota paper wrote a column attacking PowerLineBlog. The PowerLine dudes wrote back and got the better of the argument, though it wasn't much more than a silly little schoolyard fight.

So far, so good. But then we're treated to reams of pondering over the meaning of it all. Some Instapundit reader says the whole thing shows "how 'out-of-market msm has become in its methodology of reporting." Another reader marks it as a "milestone for how far the Internet has come." And more, indeed.

What I'm confused about is why this has any special meaning. Seems to me that some guy has a forum for writing stuff, so he wrote stuff, other people had a forum for writing stuff, so they wrote stuff in response, and one argument happened to be better than the other. There's no reason the roles couldn't have been reversed. It's true that the print columnist gets paid for his output, but bloggers are starting to get paid for their output too—it's just a newer and less-developed market.

Meanwhile, there are huge barriers to entry to writing a print column, but barriers to entry are cropping up around blogs, too. It's not entirely true that anyone who's good can rise to the top—the fact that praktike and nadezhda, Joshua Landis and Andrew Samwick get fewer readers than the wholly banal Betsy's Page—and fewer by orders of magnitude—means something less than meritocratic is afoot. Much of this is capricious—Instapundit links to Betsy's Page a lot while none of the big bloggers happen to have the same special fondness for praktike/nadezhda. (Though they should!)

Speaking personally, my blog happens to have more than 10 readers because a big, established blogger (Ezra Klein) was kind enough to link here a few months ago; but if, say, he had happened to find my text formatting hard to read, he might never have linked. Tough luck! But I don't think that would make me more or less interesting or witty or charming or what have you.

Then there's the whole editing business. It's true that mainstream journalism is edited and blogs are not. But that doesn't really mean anything. Some people need a lot of editing—I certainly do—and some people are more or less fine without it. Editing doesn't automatically make someone a better or worse writer. It depends. So this whole spat is very silly, but it's ultimately a spat between writers who happen to work in two different media, not a battle between the media themselves.
-- Brad Plumer 5:33 PM || ||

December 28, 2004

The Christian Right is Right

Everything Nicholas Kristof says here makes sense:
Liberals traditionally were the bleeding hearts, while conservatives regarded foreign aid, in the words of Jesse Helms, as "money down a rat hole." That's changing. "One cannot understand international relations today without comprehending the new faith-based movement," Allen Hertzke writes in "Freeing God's Children," a book about evangelicals leaping into human rights causes.

Sure enough, looking at the most important national issues - Iraq, terrorism, budget deficits - I can see why liberals feel suicidal. Moreover, the Christian right's ventures abroad strike me as deeply misguided in some areas: "pro-life" policies lead to women dying in botched abortions, and squeamishness about condoms leads to teenagers dying of AIDS. The conservatives' cutoff of money for the U.N. Population Fund has meant less contraception, more abortions and more mothers dying in childbirth.

But the biggest obstacle to American engagement on international issues has been a lack of constituency for them, and that may be changing - if both sides can hold their noses and cooperate. Frankly, Democrats aren't going to accomplish much on their own over the next four years, but by working with the likes of Mr. Brownback they might register real progress on sex trafficking, an African-American history museum, malaria and immigration reform. That would be a much better use of the next four years than sulking.
My only quibble would be that Kristof downplays the large role that secular groups have played in these ventures. But other than that, give this an "indeed" and pass it on.
-- Brad Plumer 9:32 PM || ||
Nightmare Scenarios in Iraq

What are the nightmare scenarios for Iraq? That is, what are some of the worst things we can reasonably expect to happen after the elections? Some kind of full-scale civil war—either between Sunni Arabs and Kurds or between Sunnis and Shiites—would obviously be catastrophic. On the former, Spencer Ackerman notes that towns like Mosul, Hawija, and Kirkuk are quickly turning into flashpoints for ethnic tension between (Sunni) Arabs and Kurds.

I'd add that there have been almost no positive steps towards easing the conflict between the two ethnic groups, which dates back to the 1990s, when Saddam Hussein expulsed the Kurds from Kirkuk and enticed Arabs into emigrating to the province en masse. The Iraqi Property Claims Commission, set up to resolve the disputes here, has only just begun adjudicating a handful of the thousands of outstanding property claims. I have no idea why the Bush administration didn't make this a higher priority sooner, but the results won't be pretty.

Meanwhile, Matt Yglesias has another, quite valid concern—that "the elections will cause various 'inside the process' elements to start fighting with one another." This too seems increasingly likely, especially since the elections won't have many international monitors present. The possibility of fraud—and, more likely, possible accusations of fraud—could create chaos very quickly.

Long ago I discussed the possibility that, with some 2 million absentee ballots being tallied in Jordan—whose king favors Ayad Allawi—the possibility of election fraud remains ripe. Even though Allawi may be an honorable man and would never think of tampering with ballots in Jordan (right?), the perception that this could happen will still exist. So if Allawi's Iraqi List does better than expected on the strength of absentee voting, expect a lot of protests and anti-Jordanian rhetoric. (Especially from Ahmed Chalabi, who has his own long-running feud with the Hashemite Kingdom.) Conversely, if Allawi's list fares worse than expected, we could see Allawi, Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan, and other secular ex-Baathists pointing fingers at Syria and Iran for meddling in the election. Either event would cause havoc.

Now what about infighting between religious Shiites? Hannah Allam recently filed an excellent report on the bickering within the Iraqi United Alliance, the top Shiite political list, between theocrats, quietists and secularists. I've talked about this before, and I still think that in a perfectly democratic Iraq, the quietists and secularists would carry the day.

But obviously there may not be a "perfectly democratic Iraq". So here's another nightmare scenario. Let's say the Shiites win a 70 percent majority in the January election. The more militant and fundamentalist Sunni Arabs in Iraq remain marginalized from government, represented only by a handful of secular candidates. So the insurgency continues on. At this point, the new Shiite-dominated National Assembly asks the United States to start drawing down its troops—both because of pressure from people like Moqtada al-Sadr, and because the Shiites think that they can defeat the Sunnis on their own.

The problem is that to defeat the Sunnis, the Shiites will need to give militias like the Badr Corps a prominent role. (In any civil war scenario, I assume the Kurds would take Kirkuk and Mosul, declare autonomy, and leave the Arabs in the South to duke it out on their own.) Now Badr Corps is the military wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which tends to favor Iran-style theocracy. Meanwhile, in any civil war between Sunnis and Shiites, the Shiites will probably appeal to Iran for help, a state of affairs which again favors those Shiites aligned with radical elements in the Iranian Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guard) and intelligence services.

The point here is that any prolonged conflict between Shiites and Sunnis—even if it never blossoms into full-scale civil war—inevitably strengthens the more radical and pro-Iranian elements within the Shiite-dominated government. So while the probability of an Iraqi theocracy remains low at the moment, it becomes higher so long as the Shiites have to fight their own war against the Sunnis. The converse, I think, is also true. At the moment, Shiite leaders are preaching restraint. But a smart Shiite theocrat might play up civil war against the Sunnis in order to strengthen his or her own radical hand.
-- Brad Plumer 4:29 PM || ||

December 27, 2004

Did Shakespeare Have Any Imagination?

Lately I've been poking through Stephen Greenblatt's new biography of Shakespeare, Will in the World, and while I enjoy it quite a bit, I'm afraid the whole project seems ridiculous to me. Greenblatt's basic premise is that Shakespeare borrowed heavily from his life experiences to create his plays—which makes for some interesting conjecture (Falstaff = Robert Greene!), but it also downplays Shakespeare's actual inventive abilities.

Greenblatt's premise, by the way, was first put forward by James Joyce, via Stephen Dedalus, in the library chapter of Ulysses (Scylla and Charybdis, I think). "He proves by algebra that Hamlet's grandfather is Shakespeare's grandson…" or something like that. The theory, of course, works much better as a gloss on Ulysses—which actually did rely heavily on Joyce's own biography, and in which we can find closer one-to-one correspondences between the novel's characters and real-life persons. But even that sort of analysis (Buck Mulligan = Oliver Gogarty!) always seemed horribly reductive: surely there are at least as many non-autobiographical elements of Ulysses as there are autobiographical elements.

With Shakespeare, perhaps more so. Falstaff from Henry IV might have been based on Robert Greene; but he could have just as easily been based on 5 people, or 100, or no one in particular. The Dark Lady of the Sonnets may not have ever existed as a real person. Why not? That's what imagination is for.
-- Brad Plumer 4:21 PM || ||
Good Out of Bad

Kriston at Begging to Differ has an interesting post up about how relief efforts in Sri Lanka and Indonesia might actually help quell the ongoing civil wars in those countries. On account of catastrophe bringing countries closer together. Let's hope so. He's also got some good thoughts on how the UN could help countries prepare for tragedies like this one.

On a side note, his post didn't seem "blasé" at all, as he feared. As I wrote below, I used to track these disasters for a living, so I'm a bit unfazed by stuff like this, sadly enough. But even if I wasn't, I don't think I'd see any harm in a bit of detached analysis—outside of giving $50 or whatever to the Red Cross (ahem), there's not a whole lot else to do...
-- Brad Plumer 4:38 AM || ||
Brevity, Legality, Ethics

This blog—my blog—isn't a real blog. It's not a real blog because I lack all decency and can't just link to an article without comment, or with only a brief comment. A post doesn't feel like a post unless I've heaped on hundreds of additional words—and all because some misguided English teacher once told me that droning on was the soul of wit.

But as a New Year's Resolution (one of many), that's all going to change! I promise to embrace brevity, starting right here on the ol' blog. So here goes. *Ahem*.

"Do read Judge Alex Kozinski's article in Legal Affairs, touching on the varieties of impropriety in the world of judges. As he says, financial conflicts-of-interest tend to be the least interesting—and often the least important—ethical problems in the judiciary."

How's that?

UPDATE: Okay, fuck, I failed. Just wanted to add that one of the interesting things about analyzing the structure of legal/political institutions—it's called the "political economy", no?—is that you can't really do it with some outcome in mind. You can write a legal opinion, for instance, that aims to achieve some goal of human welfare. But we just don't know if we're increasing the general well-being of the world by writing up stricter ethical guidelines for courts—because we have no idea what kind of legal opinions a more "ethical" court will produce.

At any rate, I wish someone could explain to me—ie., a liberal motivated mostly by welfare principles—why I should even care about the ethical structure of the courts, especially if there's no way of knowing whether, say, forcing judges to write their own opinions would lead to an increase in public well-being. Ah, if only I knew one lick about philosophy, how clear it might all be...
-- Brad Plumer 4:13 AM || ||
The Case for Koranic Justice

From the annals of counter-intuition, here's the New Republic, circa 1980, comparing Islamic and American ideas of justice:
At least in regard to cruelty, it's not at all clear that the system of punishment that has evolved in the West is less barbaric than the grotesque practices of Islam. Skeptical? Ask yourself: would you rather be subjected to a few minutes of intense pain and considerable public humiliation, or to be locked away for two or three years in a prison cell crowded with ill-tempered sociopaths? Would you rather lose a hand or spend 10 years or more in a typical state prison? I have taken my own survey on this matter. I have found no one who does not find the Islamic system hideous. And I have found no one who, given the choices mentioned above, would not prefer its penalties to our own.
If it was my left hand—I'm right-handed—I'd say chop it off! I'm a fairly skinny fellow, and probably wouldn't last much more than five minutes in a "typical state prison". If we were talking about my right hand, though, I'd think about it.

At any rate, Koranic retribution—public flogging, hand-chopping—seems like a much better way of doing criminal justice than our current system, which consists mainly of horrific jails and little rehabilitation. Koranic justice, in addition to being a better deterrent (less abstract than a prison sentence; loss of hand can prevent further crime) and less conducive to recidivism (doesn't corrupt you like prison does), is also much, much cheaper. And just think of all the money we could then spend on schools and health care...
-- Brad Plumer 3:42 AM || ||
Antidote to Aging

In a post below I speculated that China, in order to ease the burdens of its aging population, might simply resort to screwing over its senior citizens and cutting them off from all public assistance. Impossible, you say? Too cruel and unusual? Ah, but it appears that Putin's government in Russia—which enjoys Beijing-like ruthlessness—is now doing something similar: dissolving all public benefits to old people, and offering instead a monthly cash payment. The deuce of it is that this cash payment may not get indexed to inflation, so in a few years time it will become meaningless and Russian seniors will have virtually nothing.
-- Brad Plumer 3:26 AM || ||
Fiscal Conservatives?

I'm greatly enjoying this American Prospect article by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, arguing that despite Bush's victory, the emerging Democratic majority is still, uh, emerging. But one paragraph in particular, on the "centrism" of internet lefties, struck me as a bit fanciful:
Some Republican and hawkish Democratic commentators have branded [groups like MoveOn, etc.] part of the left. New Republic Editor Peter Beinart even compared them to the communist-infiltrated left of the late 1940s that backed Henry Wallace for president. But the outlook of these new, primarily upscale and highly educated activists is Clintonite and center-left rather than left wing. … [L]ike many college-educated liberals, they are also fiscal conservatives. When MoveOn held a poll in January 2004 on what ad the organization should run on the week of Bush’s State of the Union address, its members chose one attacking the Bush administration’s budget deficits.
In this day and age, with yawning budget deficits and a looming current account crisis, sure, anyone with half a brain is a "fiscal conservative," in the sense that they think the insanity must end. But that's a rather narrow definition of fiscal conservative.

Now these definitions are, obviously, always relative to the situation—in another life, with a more liberal Congress at his disposal, Clinton would not have embraced balanced budgets and tight spending restraints. So these labels don't mean much. I suppose we could ask everyone in MoveOn what share of GDP the federal government should take up, and I suspect many of them would position themselves somewhere between the European model (40-60 percent) and the current American model (~18 percent). But again, fiscal conservatism usually manifests itself in individual tradeoffs—"Do you want this program? This program?"—rather than a grand unified vision of how big government should be.

What were left with, I think, is a matter of attitude. Do these new wave of liberals instinctively think that more spending is always the answer, or do they believe that there's merit in keeping tax rates low and investment strong? Or, if the choice comes up, do they believe that balanced budgets provide more economic "oomph" than low marginal tax rates? Right now, opposition to the Bush deficits are a good way to build credibility on attitude (they fooled even Judis and Teixeira!). But a more substantial position on fiscal matters probably won't emerge until the Democrats hoist themselves back in power.
-- Brad Plumer 3:01 AM || ||

December 26, 2004

Our Aging Hegemons

Good Fred Kaplan article on the possible end of American dominance. A friend and I were recently talking about the likelihood that the U.S. would eventually lose its superpower status to either China or Europe. I was somewhat skeptical—for reasons outlined at the end of this post—but my friend was downright bullish on America, arguing that the U.S. had one unbeatable advantage: The Global Baby Bust. U.S. fertility rates are still much more robust than those of China and Europe, she noted, and this disparity will leave our would-be competitors crippled by old people. It's a good argument, but I'm not entirely convinced.

Start with China. It's true that the People's Republic will start aging very quickly, but Beijing also enjoys a rather unique ability to force its citizens to do whatever it wants. If it can coerce each family to have only one baby, as it has done, why not mandate two babies? If it needs more urban workers, why not massive relocation schemes? If pensions and geriatric health care prove too crippling to economic growth, why not just cut the old people off? I don't know how to design policies that force people to make more babies and are harsher on old people, but I'd guess that such schemes would be most likely to succeed in a non-democratic country. Sad but true!

Europe presents a more interesting case. Clearly an aging European society is going to burden their rather extensive welfare state, and Europe is aging faster than America. But they're also better equipped to handle it, thanks to a cheaper and more efficient health care system. To quote Phillip Longman, from the most recent of the Washington Monthly:
[I]n the United States, health-care spending per person 65 and over is more than double what it is in Japan, and more than three times what it is in Great Britain. For all this extra spending, U.S. seniors don't enjoy any advantage in health and well-being. Indeed, at age 60, American women can look forward, on average, to 3.8 fewer years of healthy life than their counterparts in Japan, while American men at the same age share nearly the same disadvantage…

This means that America faces a huge comparative disadvantage when it comes to aging. Only 12 percent of the population of the United States is 65 or older, yet the cost of their health care already amounts to 5 percent of GFP. That's far more than we spend on national defense and equal to about one quarter of all federal spending. By contrast, in Great Britain, where nearly 16 percent of the population is 65 or older, the cost of their health care consumes only 2.8 percent of GDP. Going forward, that means that the United Kingdom can "afford" far more seniors than the United States can…
So the aging global population may actually hurt America the most. Now as I said above, I'm relatively bullish on America, mostly because I believe that the Republican Party will drive the country into the ground over the next decade or so, leading to a progressive revival. In that case, liberals will be able to design a welfare state considerably less intrusive than Europe—after all, we know a lot more now about how to create flexible welfare programs that harness the free market—and the net result will be a social democratic state that still leaves room for dynamic economic growth and innovation. That's the utopian dream, anyway. Now I could be wrong and the GOP could use gerrymandering and the levers of power to stay on top indefinitely. In that case, we better start hording euros and yuan!
-- Brad Plumer 4:39 PM || ||
Massive Flooding

Holy, holy fuck.

The Thai Prime Minister isn't kidding when he says, "Nothing like this has ever happened in our country before." During college I worked as a research assistant at the always-nifty Dartmouth Flood Observatory, tracking floods and flooding around the world—whether caused by heavy rains, earthquakes, tidal waves, whatever. Anyways, one of my jobs was to compile and categorize floods in years past by sifting through news reports, Red Cross data, etc. You get a bit inured to it after awhile, but massive disasters like this one still manage to shock and horrify.

I don't have my old spreadsheets in front of me, but as I recall, floods that killed more than a few hundred people were fairly rare and usually considered a big, big deal. So this earthquake/tidal wave/flood combo, leaving 7,000 13,000 dead and drowned, defies words. Absolutely horrible. What's worse, the bulk of deaths often come after the initial onslaught—especially in Southeast Asia, as flooding spreads disease through the rivers and wells. Let's hope that doesn't happen, and that aid organizations can stem the aftermath. (Now would be a great time to donate to the Red Cross...)

UPDATE: Matt Yglesias has some perspective from the other direction, linking to a page that claims 138,000 people died from a tsunami in Bangladesh in 1991. I'm almost positive that number's way too high, but it doesn't matter, it's clearly up there in the realm of the horrific. Bangladesh always gets the disaster that keeps on giving, since most of the houses there wash away easily, and the rising waters spread disease. Christ...
-- Brad Plumer 4:38 PM || ||
State-Building 101

In the midst of a defense of Donald Rumsfeld, Deacon over at Power Line sneers at "the modern liberal view that the state can accomplish anything." In other words, let's blame the inherent chaos in Iraq for Iraq's problems, not Rumsfeld's inability to fix everything, shall we? It's not like he's god or anything. Right?

Well, not exactly.

The first step is to admit we have a straw man problem here. Clearly the state can't accomplish everything, and no one ever suggests it can. But the state can still accomplish a good deal more than what we've seen in Iraq. Unemployment has hovered at or around 50 percent for over a year. 50 percent! (Those numbers, by the way, are skewed by rosy employment in the Kurdish provinces.) Yet for the bulk of the occupation, first the Pentagon and later the CPA mostly concentrated on selling off Iraqi industries and privatizing former Baath holdings—a fire-sale of dubious legality, by the way. It was willful anti-statism at its finest. (In fact, Lt. Gen. Jay Garner was sacked for trying to bring back Baathist job-creation programs.)

In the long run, of course, many economists would endorse this approach—even though Argentina seems to have undercut the neoliberal wisdom on economic growth lately—but in the short term, privatization caused a good deal of unemployment and inflation in Iraq. The chaos that ensued scared away all of the foreign investors that were supposed to be attracted by privatization in the first place. Oops! Now none of this is explicitly Rumsfeld's fault, but he also didn't give these problems much thought before the invasion. The Untidy Theory of Freedom was embraced over the more statist concerns of the Future of Iraq project.

The larger point is that, fine, Rumsfeld can be skeptical about the abilities of the state (or a military trustee) to solve all the problems of the world. But it's not likely that this view will make him very good at undertaking massive nation-building projects. The occupation, after all, was an inherently liberal venture—the whole premise of disarming and transforming Iraq was that you can't just let "stuff happen". So I don't see how the anti-statist outlook of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bremer, could ever translate into quality nation-building.

As a side note, I seem to recall that one of the big success stories in Iraq involved Lt. Gen. David Petraeus turning Mosul into one big socialist paradise—bags of money being distributed freely on the street, guaranteed wages for workers, etc. Then it all fell apart when Petraeus's 1st Infantry Division rotated out and National Guard units came in to lightly police the town. Freedom thus reigned. And freedom became a wee bit untidy.

By the by, I don't think Rumsfeld should get a pink slip. Why bother? The confirmation hearings would take months, and a new Defense Secretary probably wouldn't improve much on Rumsfeld. (Especially if Bush chooses loyalty or 9/11 affiliation as his major selection criteria, rather than competence or vision.) The military has more or less adjusted to fighting the insurgency, and while they could probably use better intelligence and more manpower, neither will be forthcoming anytime soon, regardless of who takes Rumsfeld's spot. We've long passed the nation-building component of the occupation, and are settling into the watch-and-hope portion.
-- Brad Plumer 4:37 PM || ||
Nuclear Santa

What better way to cap off the holidays than with this comforting report on A.Q. Khan's still-elusive nuclear network? As it turns out, even though Western intelligence had been tracking Khan for three decades, we overlooked most of his major deals during that time. It would be nice to know why our intelligence failed so badly. Is it that this sort of spy-work is always a mug's game, and that's that? Or are our particular intelligence agencies structurally unsuited for tracking nuclear peddlers? The Times piece cites tension between the U.S. and the IAEA as a stumbling block in all of the ongoing nuclear investigations, but that tension is relatively recent, and it doesn't explain three decades worth of intelligence failures.

Speaking of tension, don't miss senior administration officials (John Bolton, I presume?) offering an interesting reason as to why Americans don't play nice with the IAEA:
Federal officials said they were reluctant to give the I.A.E.A. classified information because the agency is too prone to leaks. The agency has 137 member states, and American officials believe some of them may be using the agency to hunt for nuclear secrets. One senior administration official put it this way: "The cops and the crooks all serve on the agency's board together."
That's plausible—though as we've seen with Iran, the U.S. may also be withholding intelligence in order to maintain a more hawkish stance than the evidence would otherwise warrant. But I'm more than inclined to believe that the IAEA—along with the Non-Proliferation Treaty—is fundamentally flawed: too toothless, too accommodating, too open to leaks and loopholes.

Ideally, the Bush administration would get together with Europe, Japan, and maybe a few other like-minded and wealthy countries, write up a tougher version of the NPT, create a system of sanctions for non-compliance, and then go to town. (Essentially formalizing the sanctions system we already level against rogue nuclear powers.) Meanwhile, we would expand on the Proliferation Security Initiative, get as many European countries in on it as possible, and ignore international law if needed. Nuclear proliferation is too important to be left to the lawyers! Of course, to do all this would involve convincing Europe, Japan, and others that nuclear proliferation actually is their problem too...
-- Brad Plumer 4:44 AM || ||
What Backlash?

Josh Marshall has it right—no Democrat should ever think that supporting Social Security privatization will help him or her build "bipartisan cross-over cred" with conservative voters. Or that they'll lose support among conservatives voters for opposing Bush's elimination plan.

My hunch is that most people simply don't care about the Social Security issue. Insofar as it seems like there's a crisis out there, people want to see it get fixed. But I can't imagine many people getting angry at a Democrat for saying a) there's actually no Social Security crisis so b) we should move on to more important matters. Really! It's an abstract and arcane debate. The majority of Americans wouldn't even choose private accounts for themselves. Opposing Bush's elimination scheme should be an electoral no-brainer.
-- Brad Plumer 4:26 AM || ||
Recollections of Christmas!

I'm spending this year's Christmas with my parents in Colorado, as I've done ever since they moved here. It's all becoming familiar by now: The snow falls lightly, the neighbors put up tasteful lighting (within neighborhood guidelines, of course), and lately Santa has mercifully refrained from giving me wool sweaters with reindeer embroidered across the chest. All in all, it's a nice, pleasant affair. So pleasant, in fact, that I had an urge to dig up photos of the wackier, gaudier Christmas of my childhood in Tokyo… here's Xmas in Hachiko Square:

Now that's more like it! And here are the Christmas lights in Shinjuku, circa 2002:

Beautiful. Just beautiful.
-- Brad Plumer 2:17 AM || ||
Sunni Inclusion

Setting legal concerns aside, the proposal to shoehorn Sunnis into the new National Assembly by fiat is a good one, though it still leaves a few practical problems. It matters a great deal, for instance, what kind of Sunnis get seats in the Assembly. Obviously Taliban-wannabes won't be included—and nor should they be—but it might not be wise to have no fundamentalists at the negotiating table.

Meanwhile, whatever Sunni leaders do get plopped down into the Assembly may not have a good deal of popular legitimacy, especially so long as religious groups like the Association of Muslim Scholars continue to boycott the whole process. Interim president and Sunni tribal leader Ghazi al-Yawer may enjoy a lot of popularity in the polls, but no one should pretend that he or any of his urbane and witty cohorts speak for the country's broad band of Sunni fundamentalists.
-- Brad Plumer 2:02 AM || ||

December 24, 2004

Magic of Private Accounts

Jeff Madrick has some fun facts for us:
Indexing to prices may look sensible to Americans, but the reduction in future benefits from the present plan is likely to be severe. By 2075, under the most commonly accepted economic assumptions, indexing benefits to prices rather than wages would mean that benefits would be nearly 50 percent lower than under the current system. Many privatization plans call for such an adjustment.

Will the magic of private investment accounts make up for the reductions? The answer is no. We can compute how retirees fare if they earned the historical average of 4.6 percent a year (after transaction costs) on a portfolio of stocks and bonds. William Dudley, chief economist of Goldman Sachs, has calculated that benefits for a typical retired one-earner family would come to about 93 percent of the projected benefits from the present Social Security system in 2022. In 2075, the benefits would fall to only 77 percent of present-system benefits.
And more:
To determine how sensitive retirement income is to the rate of investment return, Mr. Dudley worked out some calculations under Reform Model 2. The results are stunning.

If a worker earns just the respectable expected bond rate of 3 percent a year, or 2.7 percent after transactions costs, then the typical one-earner family will retire on only about 58 percent of the projected benefits under current law. If the investor earns zero over time, which may well occur for some investors, the projected retirement benefit is only a little more than 38 percent of the current benefit. These are considerably worse than the projected adjustments needed to bring the present system into balance.
I noted this the other day, but didn't have the numbers to back it up. Under Bush's privatization scheme, there is no way for a worker to choose a "safe" retirement option. Investing your private account in low-risk bonds would net you what amounts to about $460 a month today. Given that the vast majority of Americans don't actually want the risk of private accounts for themselves, this seems pretty relevant, no?

(Speaking of which, if the vast majority of Americans don't want private accounts for themselves, how exactly will Bush's little scheme unfold in practice? Will Americans who opt out of private accounts still receive benefit cuts? And if not, then aren't we merely making the current system more expensive?)
-- Brad Plumer 2:39 PM || ||
Church and State in Iraq

Hm, digging even deeper through the IRI poll, it looks like about half of all Iraqis want to see a separation of church and state. Kurdish respondents probably skew these numbers, but it's still pretty impressive. Unfortunately, "impressive" is pretty much it. Without a well-constructed constitution and an independent judiciary, mere sentiments about a secular state won't necessarily translate into an actual secular state. Modest encroachments on the church/state wall can appear pretty quickly, especially since 52 percent of Iraqis would prefer to vote for a "faith-based" party. You start by teaching kids about intelligent design and go from there...

On the other hand, plenty of European countries never separated church from state, and many of those became more secular over time. I guess religions become more radical when out of power, or when marginalized, and become either more moderate or more "corrupted" by politics when in power. Reuel Marc Gerecht cited this fact as a reason for letting Sunni fundamentalists form political parties in Egypt, Algeria, etc.

On a related front, it's interesting to see that Iraqis are mostly hoping for leaders that can improve the economic situation in Iraq. (Security and terrorism rank rather low on Iraqis' list of overall priorities, although when asked specifically about security issues, the overwhelming majority (57 percent) ranked full or partial withdrawal of American troops as their first or second priority.)

At any rate, we know that there will be parties focusing on economic populism. And we know there will be religious parties, supporting various degrees of theocracy. But we don't know how the two categories will intersect. In the United States you have an economic populist party that's largely secular in outlook, and an economic elitist party that's largely religious in outlook. Obviously you can have economic populists who are religious—see the Christian Democrats in Europe [Oops!--too much eggnog for me, Christian Democrats obviously aren't economic populists... any other examples?]. But parties that focus on economic elitism—creating a favorable business climate, say—tend to lean heavily on either religion or nationalism, though. This is either because being religious (or nationalistic) leads you to accept a good deal of privation than you otherwise would, or because leaders use religion (or nationalism) as an "opiate of the masses". Weber or Marx, your pick. Of course, none of this matters much right now, but it's interesting, and relevant for understanding how an Islamic democracy will function.
-- Brad Plumer 1:40 PM || ||
Vague Reply

Well that's odd. The IRI has a new poll on Iraqi public opinion out. In general, Iraqis have more confidence in the interim government and Iyad Allawi now than they did in September, and optimism is unbelievably high in non-Sunni areas (and unbelievably dismal in Sunni areas and Kirkuk). But that's not what's odd. What's odd is that, of those who do not intend to vote in the upcoming elections, over 74 percent gave "no answer" for their reason. (12 percent cited the "security situation", 6 percent "don't trust elections process," 3.2 percent "don't know about parties or candidates", 2 percent cite some higher authority.) But "no answer"?

Perhaps the pollsters framed the question badly. Perhaps Sunnis don't want to appear bigoted by saying nasty things about Shiites. Or perhaps those who don't intend to vote have very vague reasons for it—a general sense of ill-boding, uncertainty about the new government—and haven't actually rallied around concrete, well-expressed grievances. That seems like good news—in theory we'd only see large-scale sectarian conflict or civil war if all of the "dead-enders" had very specific reasons for fighting. (Is that how civil war works?) But I don't really know.
-- Brad Plumer 1:07 PM || ||
"Nuance" in Abortion

I'm not sure if it got promoted to the main page or not, but this Daily Kos diary discusses the possibility that abortion is not, in fact, as emotionally traumatic an experience for women as commonly thought. That hasn't been my experience—or rather, the experience of those I know—but I'm not going to generalize from such a tiny set of people.

Anyways, as the LA Times recently noted, a debate is supposedly raging on about how big a deal to make of the emotional trauma of abortion—acknowledging that abortion is "icky", as Atrios once rather derisively put it. Obviously there's no sense in simply making abortion A Grave and Serious Thing that needs to be talked about with downcast eyes. In fact, as Kameron over at Alas a Blog explained, stashing the whole issue up in the attic can do a great deal of harm to the pro-choice movement.

But even beyond that, I'm beginning to think that Sarah Blustain may have gotten it wrong, and that taking a "softer tone" on abortion may not be the trump card she thinks. Yes, quite a few women do suffer some emotional trauma after abortion. But that's not a problem with abortion per se. A lot of everyday events can turn out badly—being short in middle school can be traumatic (believe me)—and while no one wants to trivialize that reality, accentuating the negatives never really helps. Ideally, abortion services in the U.S. would provide more consulting and support services—as in Britain, France, Finland, etc. where a woman needs to see two doctors beforehand—but in a health care system like ours, this would only make abortion more unaffordable. (As well, for various cultural reasons, American doctors would probably lean more heavily towards dissuasion than they should, optimally.)

Anyways, I suspect that most of the "nuance" in message here wouldn't be aimed at people who have actual experience with abortion, or know someone who has. It would have to be aimed at people who have no experience at all with abortion.

By and large, these are the people who need reassurance—and unfortunately, it's hard to see how addressing their fears and concerns would lead at all to better abortion policy. (I'm obviously excluding here those who oppose abortion for religious reasons—I just don't see how to arrive at any sort of common ground with these people.) So I'm not sure the Democrats even could go down Blustain's road without ceding actual, substantive ground to pro-life opponents—plumping for overly strict parental notification laws, say, or caviling on senselessly about partial-birth abortion. Or worse.

So Atrios and Blustain really just disagree about audience—are we comforting the experienced or pandering to the ignorant? More focused polling could settle this question pretty quickly.
-- Brad Plumer 1:00 PM || ||

December 23, 2004

Worker-to-Retiree Ratios

Perhaps the easiest way for Social Security eliminationists to explain the whole "crisis" concept is to point out that the program use to have 50 workers for every retiree, and soon it will have only two workers per retiree. Max Sawicky gets technical and explains that this fact isn't as dire as it seems. Indeed, this ratio business is an odd way of arguing. We also use to have X farmers for every American that eats food, and now we have Y farmers/eater, where Y <<< X. But we didn't force every American to grow his or her own food, and things turned out fine. As America gets wiser and wealthier, we can do more with less—the pie's big enough for everyone.
-- Brad Plumer 4:45 PM || ||
Grand Strategy for the Second Term

In Foreign Affairs next month, John Lewis Gaddis looks at foreign policy in Bush's second term, and concludes that the president needs to "persuade[] the world that it [is] better off with the United States as its dominant power than with anyone else." It's not a bad idea, but it's the sort of crystal ball that seems heavily clouded by the war in Iraq. Over the next four years, in all likelihood, there simply won't be a lot of opportunities for the United States to flex its military strength in a way that could make our allies uncomfortable. As much as the Weekly Standard would like us to elbow our way into Syria, it won't happen—Iraq is going to bog the U.S. down for at least another year, maybe more if elections prove chaotic, and the public appears far more skeptical about U.S. military strength now than they have in a long while.

No, the real challenge over the next four years will be to persuade our allies that they should be concerned about the things we're concerned about. The President will inevitably need to convince Europe and Japan why they should worry about a nuclear Iran, and why the benefits of a real threat of sanctions against Tehran would outweigh any short-term trade benefits they enjoy right now. Ditto for democracy in the Middle East—in order for any real liberalization scheme to move forward, the EU will need to understand why they should value a stronger push towards political reform.

It's a much bigger problem. Notice that, in Europe at least, only France and Germany are really opposed of U.S. power per se. But nearly every country in Europe values a different set of foreign policy goals than the U.S. does.
-- Brad Plumer 4:23 PM || ||
No Social Security Crisis?

After a few days of traveling and Christmas-related activities, I've been trying to catch up on all the news. Garance Franke-Ruta's long TAPPED post on Social Security caught my eye especially, and deserves a read. Look, it's all well and good to say that there's no Social Security crisis—and believe me, I'll happily help pitch the tents and watch the towers here—but that message misses one key point. It's within the power of Bush and future presidents to create an imminent crisis by defaulting on the tranche of bonds owed to the Trust Fund. Doing so, assuredly, would amount to a massive transfer of wealth from lower to upper classes, but it's not that impossible to do—if anything, investors would welcome the move, because it would diminish the federal government's long-term deficits, and probably keep interest rates down.

Any Democratic strategy vis-à-vis Social Security, I think, needs to hone in on this possibility. Personally, I think Democrats should start the assault by clamoring to put the Trust Fund completely off-budget (something John McCain proposed in 2000), so as to reveal the full size of the General Fund deficit.

I wrote a piece outlining this strategy for Mother Jones, but my editors wanted to hold off on it until January, which is fine by me, because I think it could use some refining. The point is, playing defense on Social Security is really a four-step process, involving a) noting there is no crisis in Social Security, b) there is a cataclysmic crisis in the General Fund, c) unscrupulous Washington politicians could paper over the General Fund crisis by looting the Social Security Trust Fund, d) the key is to take the Trust Fund out of the grubby hands of those unscrupulous politicians. Political strategists with the skill and inclination can create the proper metaphors for all this. Meanwhile, they can tie in points about tax cuts for the rich, wild-eyed pork spending, and the need to invest into the future into this strategic backbone as they see fit. After that, they can start attacking the whole idea of private accounts in value terms, and then propose something of their own.

CLARIFICATION: Oops. Obviously Bush can't default on the Trust Fund bonds, that was sloppy on my part. But unless he drastically cuts the deficit over the next four years (a General Fund deficit that will reach $800 billion in 2008 less payroll taxes), he's making it increasingly likely that the federal government will either have to default on the Trust Fund in 2016 or risk borrowing over and above a multi-trillion debt and risking a financial crisis. (Assuming we haven't had one already.) Either way, putting the General Fund off-budget assures that no funny business ensures.
-- Brad Plumer 4:10 PM || ||

December 21, 2004

Parole and Recidivism

Interesting statistic on prisons and prisoners. According to a 2002 Department of Justice study on recidivism, of the 51.8 percent of ex-convicts who returned to prison, more than half (26.4 percent) are sent back not for committing a new crime, but rather for violating one or more conditions of their parole. (Which includes technical violations, like failing to secure a job, or what have you.)

I'd like to look into this more, but it's my understanding that parole agencies tend to be wildly underfunded relative to the rest of the corrections system, no? And not only that, but they tend to come under a lot of pressure from the public—especially after Willie Horton, no one wants to be the parole officer who "let one get away". So it would stand to reason that parole officers and post-release supervisors tend to hit the red button and send their violators back to prison immediately, rather than seek out some alternative form of treatment.

This also seems like a relatively simple problem to fix—or at least improve.
-- Brad Plumer 6:40 PM || ||
Harry Reid, Fig Leaf

My colleague Jeff Fleischer knows considerably more than I do about politics, but I'm going to have to disagree with his argument that Democrats don't have an abortion problem. (I know, I know, two dudes discussion abortion, what could be more enlightening? See also this male-heavy discussion on Left2Right.) I've had a decent number of discussions with pro-lifers since the election, and even among those who don't hate the Democrats, none of them were reassured by the fact that John Kerry personally opposes abortion. His whole straddle came off as, well, a straddle. Not one could understand how he could be so carefree about something that obviously was important to his faith. He didn't seem that way to me, but there you go.

Pointing to Harry Reid, meanwhile, doesn't strike me as proof that the party is inclusive. It strikes me as mere symbolism—everyone knows we'd prefer Harry Reid to be pro-choice, and everyone knows that the Democrats would never let Reid get too far with his pro-life views. The party may accept Harry Reid, the person, but they will never give his views the time of day, and would actively oppose him if they had to. It doesn't fool me (which is why I'm not at all nervous about Reid as Minority Leader). I don't see why it would fool anyone else.

Anyways, this is just a roundabout way of saying that if the party really wants to reassure more people on the abortion issue, something more solid is needed. Sarah Blustein's deservedly-lauded essay suggests that the party needs to address the fact that a good number of women—pro-choice women—are uncomfortable with the actual act of abortion. For her, there's a personal dimension here that gets lost in the larger "it's my body" vs. "it's murder" frame—and moreover, it's a dimension that can be addressed without sacrificing actual, substantive positions. On the other hand, Kameron over at Alas, a Blog, points out the real danger in over-emphasizing abortion's "ickiness". I don't think it's either/or, but she has a point—it's hard to reach out your hand without getting yanked over to the other side.
-- Brad Plumer 6:26 PM || ||
Bogged Down

During my junior year in high school in a far, far away land (Japan, to be precise!), I remember often leaving lunchtime early to sneak over to the library to use their Internet Device. This being 1997, the Internet Device was spectacularly slow, but I desperately needed to check the day's hockey scores (thanks to the time zone difference, lunch time was the perfect hour for this). Anyways, since no one had told me about ESPN, I used The Sporting News for all my needs, and with the creaky little machine our school fielded, it would take upwards of 10 minutes just to load the scoreboard. Anyways, the NHL is on strike now, but somehow the internets have strangely reverted to their earlier, much slower ways today.
-- Brad Plumer 5:30 PM || ||
Moral Equivalence

Knight Ridder, 12/20/04:
Harsh interrogation methods of Iraqi prisoners went "beyond the bounds of standard FBI practice," the FBI's top official in Iraq said in a memo released Monday. … A June 25 memo from an FBI agent to Director Robert Mueller, which was also released Monday, said individuals "were engaged in a cover-up of abuses."

The agent included a report from an unnamed witness of "numerous physical abuse incidents of Iraqi civilians" including "strangulation, beatings, placement of lit cigarettes into the detainees' ear openings and unauthorized interrogations."
Jeff Jacoby, 11/1/02:

In June, the BBC interviewed "Kamal," a former Iraqi torturer now confined in a Kurdish prison in the north. "If someone didn't break, they'd bring in the family," Kamal explained. "They'd bring the son in front of his parents, who were handcuffed or tied and they'd start with simple tortures such as cigarette burns and then if his father didn't confess they'd start using more serious methods."
Who will be the first member of Congress to stand up and say, "We do not let this happen here in the United Fucking States of America"?
-- Brad Plumer 1:24 PM || ||
A Slogan, Not a Frame

I'll have a longer commentary piece coming out today on the one Social Security reform I think Democrats should get behind. (And worry not, it stays true to the "no crisis!" roots.) But for now, I want to go on the attack. Now as I explained on MoJo this morning, the oh-so-unpopular president needs to be tethered—just chained down—to privatization, just like Clinton was to health care. So we need a name for his little plan. Personally, I'd prefer not to put Social Security in the title, since the program has a bad reputation (alas!) and should be resuscitated in other circles, far away from the offensive. So what do we call it? The Bush Retirement Plan? The Bush Pension Fraud? The Bush-Will-Ensure-You'll-Never-Get-Laid-Because-Grandma-Will-Move-In-With-You Scheme? (That one is all praktike.)

Where's the Sloganator when you need it?
-- Brad Plumer 1:06 PM || ||

Oh dear...
-- Brad Plumer 12:20 AM || ||

December 20, 2004

The Buck Stops Here

At last! A grand unified theory of the Bush presidency:
When Bush says someone is trying to get him to "negotiate with myself in public," which he says a lot, it has always been my understanding that he means he doesn't have to consider an argument with which he doesn't agree. Now, though, I suspect that, at least in this case, he means something more. He's saying that he doesn't have to consider reality. It isn't his job to do "this hard thing." That's somebody else's job—in this instance, Congress: "I don't get to write the law."

What "I" get to do, as president, is make promises that I know perfectly well can never be kept, and then to make Congress break those promises for me. I don't have to change "the principles I believe in" because I know more responsible people in the government will violate them and take the blame.
I was going to write something about this the other day, but decided it was too obvious. Apparently not. The president cannot be allowed to distance himself from Social Security Abolition. No way, no day. This is Bush's idea, Bush's scheme. Bush wants to drum up a fake crisis. Bush wants to propose a needless and badly designed change. Bush, Bush, Bush. Remember, in 1994, Republicans never stopped calling health care reform by its infamous name: the Clinton Health Plan. And guess what? Voters were overwhelmingly in favor of health care reform. They were much less in favor of the Clinton Health Plan. It's sad to remember, but lesson learned.
-- Brad Plumer 7:34 PM || ||
Lust For Writers

Curtis Sittenfeld calls attention to a very real asymmetry:
The thing about groupie stories, and this is especially true of the salacious ones, is that they always seem to feature men in the starring roles. What I've been wondering lately is, has any woman writer -- ever, anywhere -- had a groupie? Does, say, Barbara Kingsolver get phone numbers after the bookstore closes? Do 20-year-old boys throw their boxer shorts at Toni Morrison? And finally, if women do indeed have groupies, might I acquire some for myself?

Based on conversations with editors, booksellers and fellow writers, I've come to believe women can have groupies, or at least there are plenty of female writers who strike the fancy of male readers. The catch is that typically these women fall into one -- or both -- of two categories: either the woman is very attractive or she writes a lot about sex….

Basically, I'm not convinced that female writers can transcend their hotness, that they can elicit lust based on literary prowess alone -- not because they're women, that is, but because they're writers.
Which brings us to the all-important topic of blogosphere lust. I've noticed, from trawling around internet comment boards, that Wonkette gets a fair amount of groupies—mostly based on the (admittedly rather adorable) cartoon picture on her banner. But maybe that doesn't count.

From personal experience, I'll admit I've long, long had a genuine literary crush on Joan Didion, and with all due respect, I just don't think physical lust is the reason. Oh, hell. While I'm at it, I'll add Flannery O'Connor and Elizabeth Bowen—and I don't even know what they look like! (Though obviously I'm going to go find out now.) So there.
-- Brad Plumer 7:32 PM || ||
The Two-Blog Trap

Owing to too much drinking and not enough transcribing this weekend, I'm swamped for work today—trying to dash off a bit on Social Security before the holidays. So there might be nothing to see here this morning! But there's a lot to see over on the MoJo blog. So go read the MoJo blog! Greatest hits this morning include this on why we need to reform disability insurance and this on why Social Security Abolition really is forced gambling, rather than an expansion of choice.
-- Brad Plumer 2:02 PM || ||
Switching to Price Indexing

Adam O'Neill's absolutely right -- there are 'good' and 'bad' ways of indexing Social Security benefits to inflation. But the plan put forward by Bush's Social Security Commission -- the so-called Model 2 plan that gets everyone agog -- follows precisely the 'bad' course, so that's the one we should all be complaining about. Robert Greenstein explains -- and he certainly understands the various ways you can switch to price indexing.

Now it's true that under the Model 2 price-indexing, benefits would continue to rise faster than inflation. Nevertheless, for a given worker with a given earnings history, guaranteed benefits would drop from about 42 percent of preretirement wages (today) down to about 20 percent in 2080. And that 20 percent, note, would be entirely gobbled up by Medicare Plan B premiums, in the absence of health care reform. Note also that under price indexing, we would all receive smaller benefits than if we had simply done nothing and suffered the crappy productivity growth predicted by the Trustee's intermediate projections.
-- Brad Plumer 1:50 AM || ||

December 19, 2004

State of the Prisons

Hm, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes that many states are facing looming fiscal shortfalls in the coming year. This reminds me of something I've wanted to talk about for awhile: prison policy on the state level. (Whoo!)

You'd never know it from the Bush-Dukakis debates of yore, but prison policy is essentially a state concern: of the 2,000,000 people incarcerated nationwide, less than 160,000 are federal prisoners. The rest manage to swell state budgets. Nosing around in this report, meanwhile, it appears that corrections is the only state function that has consistently grown as a percentage of state budgets since 1987 (excluding Medicaid, whose expenditures are set by the federal government). The good news, however, is that a lot of smart, sensible changes to the system—like adequately funding parole programs to reduce recidivism rates—can be handled entirely by the state executive branch. Did everyone get the unilateralism memo? Good. (Unfortunately, sentencing laws are a lot harder to fix--thanks to both federal guidelines and punitive-minded state legislatures.)

Anyways, I don't know what particular advances have been made state to state thus far, but Democratic governors could quite easily get together and focus on a party-wide effort to decrease prison populations in their blue-governed states, via parole reform, community policing, or whatever else governors can get away with, and academic experts can agree on. (Surprisingly, experts can agree on a lot when it comes to reforming prisons; unfortunately no one listens to them.) It's true that crime control is no longer the national concern it was in, say, 1988 or 1992. But popular opinion has very much shifted away from harsher sentencing, and if the Democrats want to keep the mantle of reform, this is as good a place as any to start reforming things. The party's not going to get much of a chance to do stuff on the national level for at least two years, so the states are a good place to coordinate these sorts of efforts.
-- Brad Plumer 7:04 PM || ||
Bait and Switch

Oh, so Bush might be planning a little tax hike on the wealthy, is he?
Two of President Bush's top advisers refused on Sunday to rule out the possibility that wealthy people might have to pay more to help cover the cost of his move to partially privatize Social Security.

Neither Treasury Secretary John Snow nor Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff, would say whether Bush's ideas about overhauling the federal retirement program would include raising the limit on incomes subject to Social Security taxes.
Well, I'm not interested in this "compromise"! And Democrats shouldn't be either. Here are two questions for the president:

1) If tax hikes for the wealth are suddenly on the table, why don't we put them to good use—namely, reducing the much more serious General Fund deficit? Hm?

2) Fuck you and your fake "progressivism"! (Okay, that's not a question.) So long as Bush's Social Security Abolition Plan involves welching on the government's debt to the Trust Fund, there is no way this scheme is progressive in any way, shape, or form. I've seen Arnold Kling try to claim that no, no, borrowing money to pay for Social Security is a lot more progressive than using payroll taxes. Ach. Kling's usually an honest fellow, but this is sorely misguided. A default on the tranche of bonds owed to the Trust Fund in 2016, as Dean Baker points out, would amount to a transfer of more than $1 trillion from the bottom four quintiles to the households in the top 5 percent of the income distribution. If this is part of the Bush agenda, it's a fraud, plain and simple.
-- Brad Plumer 6:36 PM || ||
Person of the Year

Bush as Person of the Year puzzles me, and not just because I dislike the guy. I'm not going to deny that Bush has done a lot of "Person of the Year" type things: revolutionizing foreign policy, invading Iraq, expanding Medicare, ballooning deficits, etc. Good or bad, he's a force.

But none of that happened this year. His 2004 accomplishments include: denying reality in Iraq, failing to get any bills passed, failing to get a budget passed on time, signing an intelligence bill he mostly opposed, and nearly scuttling the efforts of his excellent re-election team with a whiney debate performance. By any substantive measure, 2004 was a lost year for Bush.

By the way, I would've picked either 'Ali al-Sistani (most powerful person in world's #1 hotspot, overpowered Washington, possibly the new face of democratic Islam) or Abdul Qadeer Khan (singlehandedly reshaped geostrategic landscape, underscored power of non-state actors).
-- Brad Plumer 5:24 PM || ||
Stay or Go

An interesting take on the Kristol/Rumsfeld flap, courtesy of Justin Logan:
Rumsfeld wants out of Iraq, and the neocons are scared to death that he'll succeed.
Except at this point, it's hard to figure out how much control Rumsfeld has over troop levels in Iraq anymore. If, over the next few months, Shiite politicians campaign on a "USA Must Go" platform—perhaps spurred on by the threat of Moqtada al-Sadr denouncing elections—and then actually ask the U.S. to leave, then the Bush administration won't have much choice but to draw down troops. On the other hand, if the Shiite leaders realize that the entire competent wing of the Iraqi security force is smaller than the entire Sunni insurgency, and don't like their chances in a real knife-fight, they'll ask the U.S. to stay.

Here's where things get tricky. The Shiite leaders probably can't ask the U.S. loudly and openly to stick around—the backlash from Moqtada and others would be fierce. So perhaps they do it quietly; but in that case, they can't put public pressure on the president to stay in Iraq, and Rumsfeld has the upper hand in making this call behind the scenes. Disaster!

So… enter Iyad Allawi. According to wire reports, the Shia are thinking about keeping him around. Swopa—who usually has a fine ear for these little developments—thinks it's just a sop to keep the wily old Ba'athist from causing havoc in the January elections, and Allawi will never get to sniff a leadership role in the new Iraq. But here's the thing: What if the Shiites know they need the Americans to stay, and want Allawi to make the announcement? He already has a reputation for being a sock puppet, so he wouldn't have to worry about the Sadr backlash. In fact, he might be the only politician who could publicly drive the Bush administration into a corner and force the US to stay, even over the wishes of Rumsfeld.
-- Brad Plumer 3:13 PM || ||
More Legislative Tactics

Jeebus. Matt Yglesias is burning down the house on Social Security today. Anyways, this unity theme—Democrats shouldn't give Republicans even a fig leaf of bipartisanship—is important. I wrote a long post about it last week at Mother Jones, but maybe there are a few more points to add. I've never won a legislative battle in my life, so I don't have definitive "advice" here, but it's instructive to note that, in 1994, the Republicans managed to sink health care by turning it into a referendum on Clinton himself. Something similar could very easily be done today: Ruy Teixeira has noted that Bush is personally quite, quite unpopular among independents and moderates. More specifically, the "vital center" is frowning on the president's handling of the economy 58-37. Isn't there an opening here for Democrats to turn Social Security Abolition into a referendum on the president's entire economic worldview?

Meanwhile, Mark Schmitt has a few more lessons from 1994:
It's not that they opposed every initiative or every nominee. Rather, they found the holes and blew them wide open. They didn't oppose the Clinton health plan, for example. They found flaws in the process, or ideas that were not well-developed, and blew them up until they stood for the whole thing. They took control of the agenda by forcing Clinton to defend the weakest points of his -- or other Democrats' -- proposals. They didn't oppose the 1994 crime bill, for example, they just picked at the idea of "midnight basketball" -- a perfectly successful urban crime-prevention strategy that was funded at $1 million a year in the bill -- until most of the rest of the initiative collapsed.
Seems like sound advice. Over the next few months, a lot of dribs and drabs and trial balloons are going to start emerging, long before an actual proposal is settled. Every poorly-developed idea and procedural miscue should, I think, get hammered.
-- Brad Plumer 2:33 PM || ||
Social Security/Medicare revisited

Tyler Cowen asks an important question about the "borrow now, save later!" plan for Social Security:
If we can borrow all that new money "scot-free," will we truly reduce future expenditures on social security benefits? Or will those funds simply be diverted, either explicitly or implicitly, to finance the Medicare shortfall? Which way would you, as a bondholder, bet?
As I've written before, there are a lot of nitty-gritty reasons to tackle Medicare and spiraling health costs long before we ever touch Social Security. For starters, read Jesse Taylor's post, where he worries that Bush's plan will leave seniors with only 1/3 guaranteed benefits. Sadly, that's nonsense—it will be much less than that. So long as Medicare Part B premiums rise the way they do, and take increasingly large bites out of our Social Security checks, the president's plan will effectively leave retirees with zero guaranteed benefits down the road.

Notice what we can expect to happen on this course. The federal government of the future, nervous about giving its retirees zero guaranteed safety net, will either have to cover Medicare premiums on its own, expand guaranteed benefits again to avoid widespread senior poverty, or do something else costly. Either way, we're pretending to "shrink" Social Security now only to expand it (and/or Medicare) down the road. As a bondholder, I don't think I'd be especially confident in the long-term outlook of the federal government.
-- Brad Plumer 2:08 PM || ||

December 18, 2004

Is Dr. Phil Evil?

I've been waiting my whole frickin' life for this.
-- Brad Plumer 9:10 PM || ||