March 31, 2005

Two Quick Points

Two interesting points from Dean Baker's Economic Reporting Review this week. First, about falling birthrates:
There is no plausible scenario in which lower birth rates will reduce human capital in any meaningful sense. At present only a minority of the U.S. population receives a college education and a very small minority gets a post-graduate education. The percentage of the world’s population that receives an advanced education is tiny. It will be easy to get as many skilled workers as necessary by providing higher education to a larger portion of the population, even if the population were to decline substantially from current levels.
Makes sense. I've never quite understood how our lives are supposed to suck in any meaningful sense if birth rates start declining. Assuming we can afford all the pension stuff, which it seems we probably can. Or how about a population decline, which is already expected in a number of countries (Russia, Japan, etc.)? Fewer people on a fixed amount of land means standards of living go up, no?

Well, that, plus all sorts of quality of life indicators go up too—my bus is less crowded in the morning, less congestion, less pollution, more living space. (Come to think of it, in the future, if the population ever did start declining, I would imagine you'd have an influx of people moving into the now-more-attractive cities, the reverse of what you see now, meaning that urban property prices would continue to rise). Plus, more importantly, the labor pool shrinks, so the capital/labor ratio rises, and productivity and wages go up. And crappy jobs go unfilled. Maybe there's something else I haven't thought of... The more serious question, at any rate, is what we can expect the macroeconomic effects of telepathy and flying cars will be. Pretty goddamn massive, I would imagine.
-- Brad Plumer 7:55 PM || ||
Cloud Of Unknowing

Rory Stewart's long essay in the London Review of Books is very much worth reading, if only for the following point. Everyone knows, or should know, that foreigners understand very little about how Iraq works—which is frustrating when we consider that much of the debate over whether to set a withdrawal date or not depends on what the Sunni "opinion on the street" really is. But, as Stewart points out, foreigners aren't the only ones who are ignorant:
Things are not much better when organisations rely on middle-class or English-speaking Iraqis for information. It is not only Ahmed Chalabi who proved to have little idea about the situation in Iraq. Saddam’s regime worked hard to fragment and isolate the population. Religious sheikhs in Karbala do not know how to assess the influence of a tribal sheikh; Baghdad intellectuals don’t understand the status of the mirjaiya, the most senior Shia clerics, such as Sistani. Giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to engineers and doctors in Basra to speak on behalf of Marsh Arabs is like hiring a London investment banker to represent the unemployed in Glasgow.
Useful bit of humility.

UPDATE: Also, count me in as thinking Stewart's grim assessment below is probably the most likely outcome for Iraq (which is what I sort of hinted at in this post):
But I am most sympathetic to Parenti’s account of street-level violence, one which implies that the outcome might not be a grand civil war between monolithic blocs of Shia, Sunni or Kurd, but anarchy at a localised level, with conflict between different armed factions, none of which wants visible or formal political power. The government may control the major cities, but rural areas will be marked by continual violence, disrupting people’s lives, enforcing traditional social codes, preventing the delivery of basic services. In other words, an Iraqi democracy could resemble democratic pre-Musharraf Pakistan, or the longest continuous democracy in Latin America: Colombia.
-- Brad Plumer 5:59 PM || ||
What's Wrong With The UN?

I was trying to write something about the Kofi Annan debate ("should he resign or no?"), but it's not coming out quite right, and I'm getting tangled up in a few IR theory things, or what we can call "naïve IR theory things," which is obviously the theme for this blog today. So, here they are, in jumbled order:

1. The usual liberal internationalist view is that well-designed international institutions make violent conflict among states less likely. This happens because all of the partners in the institution, among other things, develop shared norms, share information (which seems like it ought to prevent war), perhaps begin to share a common identity, and have more to lose by conflict (namely, the breakup of the institution). The problem is that it's hard to figure out which way the causal arrow points. You could just as plausibly argue that pre-existing congeniality among states leads those states to sign up for X institution. Also, two states will never join an institution if they think there's a chance of conflict with each other.

2. Economic, etc., interdependency means that states have a lot to lose from going to war with each other. It's easier and vastly more profitable nowadays for the U.S. to trade with Canada than to storm Ottawa, rape Canadian women and children, and force all able-bodied men to work in our coal mines. On the other hand, this fact is only likely to restrain the U.S. (or others) if the relevant businessmen actually have the ear of the war-makers. In the U.S., they obviously do, though that's not always the case. British and German businessmen in the 1910's were pretty clearly aware that Norman Angell was right and Great Power war would be an economic disaster. On the other hand, no one was listening to them. (It also wasn't the case for the U.S. in Iraq, or at least some business voices were overridden in favor of others.)

3. It seems to me that the ideal international organizations (sort of like the ideal liberal government, oddly enough) will be able to solve certain collective action problems around the world without becoming too centralized or concentrating governing power too heavily in any one place. Incidentally, the current tug-of-war over the UN and Kofi Annan seems mostly focused on deciding where that center of gravity should sit. But that seems like exactly the wrong way to look at it.
-- Brad Plumer 2:57 PM || ||
Wisdom of George W.

It's not enough that he's the president, no. George W. Bush can actually teach us how to make better small talk in our lives. Fascinating. Personally, I try to vary my greetings up now and again. Usually just sit down one otherwise boring night and hash out how I'm going to greet people that will add a little more pizzazz than "how are you?" So for a while now, it's been a genial "howdy." (Though the lilt's important here, it's more of a "how-dy.") Corny, yeah, but what can you do. But it's time for a change. I've always enjoyed the old days when castle guards would hail each other with a "well met!" but that seems hard to pull off 'round the office. Anyway...
-- Brad Plumer 2:21 PM || ||
Why Hegemony?

This post is apropos of nothing, really, I'm just kicking around some naïve ideas about international relations (because, uh, I'm too lazy to actually read up on the subject). So here we go. In the 1930s, as they say, Japan started expanding aggressively around the Pacific, seizing territories and resources so that it could be self-sufficient. Why? So that it could capably fight the inevitable war against the United States, of course. But was there any particular reason to think that war with the U.S. was in fact inevitable? No, but it was just assumed that that's what powerful nations do—go to war. And sure enough, the prophecy came true: Japan's aggressive expansion did in fact trigger a war.

At any rate, it's commonplace today to say that the U.S. is dominant in the world. What I think doesn't get asked enough, though, is what all this dominance is actually for? Some policymakers (and maybe theorists) seem to look at American hegemony in the context of those inevitable wars among great powers, as Japan did. Eventually, the thinking goes, we're going to square off against China or Russia or whatnot, and when we do, we want to be ready. Or, better yet, we want to be so damn powerful that we deter that inevitable conflict from ever happening. This first reason for pursuing dominance, I think, is going to lead to a particular sort of dominance.

A second alternative is to say that the U.S. ought to maintain its prime position in the world because that's the most stable configuration of states. Even if we might not ever in fact go to war with China or Russia, or even need to worry about that, we still need to worry about their increased capacity for local action. If their share of world power increases from X percent to X+Y percent, they can cause instability, or exacerbate existing world problems. (As, say, China seems to be doing in Iran and Sudan.)

A third reason for the U.S. to maintain hegemony, which I think is the reason that people like Anne-Marie Slaughter like to focus on, is that it can be used to promote good. Only in a world dominated by the United States can we get international regimes like the WTO or the World Bank that solve collective action problems on economic matters. Only in a world dominated by the United States can we create structures that strengthen the ability of other states to build health, education, law enforcement institutions. Or whatever. The point is that hegemony is only a means to a larger, somewhat utopian end. If this is the reason you prefer, then you shouldn't mind if the U.S. creates or participates in the sort of multilateral institutions that restrain American action, so long as that decrease in freedom comes with an increase in X good.

So okay. It's always worth asking why one thinks the United States needs to maintain its prime position in the world, why it needs to dominate the globe. I've sketched out three possible reasons above, and obviously someone can believe a combination of all or some of them, though usually one will be emphasized. The Pentagon's recently-released National Defense Strategy, I think, emphasizes reason #2, which partly explains its hostility to "international fora". John Bolton probably hews closely to some mangled version of reason #1—i.e. the 1930s Japan theory—which is why he sounds so crazy to liberal internationalists, who mostly prefer to emphasize reason #3 (although they don't always acknowledge it).

Er, at least that's what I think about that for now. Friends often tell me that my IR "theories" are silly and horribly facile, so maybe it's worth studying this stuff in more depth before dithering on any further. But so it goes...
-- Brad Plumer 3:41 AM || ||

March 30, 2005

Democracy Arsenal

This new blog looks very, very cool.
-- Brad Plumer 4:20 PM || ||
Kill, Kill, Kill

Since I've still got a little partisan mania left over from the post down below, I thought I'd link to an excellent New York Post piece about how Chuck Schumer is kicking ass as DSCC chair. "When Schumer speaks to Democratic senators during their regular private lunches, his enthusiasm and determination to take the fight aggressively to Republicans in the 2006 elections has gone over well." Yes, just like that.

The debate over putting up pro-life candidates (like Bob Casey, Jr., in PA) is a tricky one, though. It's easy to look at the big picture and think that electing a bunch of popular anti-choice Democrats will at the very least create a Democratic majority to keep Roe v. Wade safe from the hands of activist judges. That's important, true, but there are also a good number of smaller, under-the-radar, issues here—like the fact that there are only a handful of nonmetropolitan abortion providers around nowadays—that really do depend on not electing more pro-life candidates.
-- Brad Plumer 2:05 PM || ||
Condom Enforcement

I don't know a whole lot about Africa, and I certainly don't know a whole lot about stopping the spread of AIDS. But reading over Nick Kristof's column this morning on how the lack of decent condom policies in Africa has helped fuel the spread of AIDS, a quirky (and harsh) solution occurred to me. Why not make it illegal—punishable by jail time—for men to have sex without a condom, at least in their first encounter with a given partner?

Here in the U.S., I could see all sorts of problems with this sort of policy, not least in that it might make it harder for women to bring rape charges to court ("Yes, your honor, I was coerced into sex even though we, um, used a condom..." is a legitimate argument, but it might not carry water with everyone). But over in Africa, the problem seems so horrific that something drastic needs to happen. One prostitute told Kristof that "that truck drivers pay $1 for sex with a condom or $4 for sex without." Well, what if the price was upped to $4 plus a stint in prison? How many truck drivers would make that offer? Probably the sort of thing that would never pass into law, but still...
-- Brad Plumer 1:53 PM || ||
The DeLay Disease

"Liberals To Target DeLay in Ads," the headline says. "Hooray!," thinks I, "they're finally going to go hard after this bullshit." But no, that's not what they're doing at all. See for yourself:
The Campaign for America's Future, backed by labor and other liberal leaders, plans to announce today that DeLay will be featured in television ads in at least four Republican House districts. The group said it is buying a 30-second ad in DeLay's suburban Houston district that shows a man wearing cuff links and a Rolex watch, and washing his hands.

"Tom DeLay: He'd like to wash his hands of corruption," the announcer says before recounting charges against the majority leader. "Tom DeLay can't wash his hands of corruption," the ad concludes. "But Congress can certainly wash its hands of Tom DeLay."

The group also plans ads designed to put pressure on Republican members to "stand with DeLay or decency."
I'm sorry, say again? Other Republicans will get a chance to "wash their hands" of DeLay? Ha ha! Cute, but no. Look, last year no one was offering Senate Democrats a chance to "wash their hands" of Tom Daschle. Quite the opposite—the phrase "Daschle Democrats" spread far and wide across the airwaves, during the big push to paint the entire minority party as one giant ball of pure, black-hearted obstructionism. It was dirty, it was lame, it was disgusting, but that's how the fucking game goes. *No one* gets out of here alive!

Seriously, it's useless, entirely useless trying to turn Tom DeLay into a big lightning rod for all the outrage against the House's excesses these days. If that's what happens, he'll be purged in a minute's notice and then absolutely nothing will change. The GOP will just find someone else to do what DeLay does. Roy Blunt can do what DeLay does. The K Street stovepipe will still pump along. The rule-bending and committee-abusing will still go on. House Democrats will still be cut out of the decision-making process. DeLay's just the symptom of a larger disease, and that's how he ought to be treated and portrayed. Hm? Please, please get this right so I don't have to spend all my time being a shrill partisan hack. Thanks.
-- Brad Plumer 3:15 AM || ||

March 29, 2005

The Harith al-Dhari Dance

Holy criminy am I behind on my news reading. Anyway, via some obscure little website known as the New York Times, I see that Sheikh Harith al-Dhari, of the influential Association of Muslim Scholars, has made the Americans an offer they really shouldn't refuse: He'll call off his Sunni attack dogs if the U.S. sets a withdrawal date. Splendid! Even if he has made this offer many times before… splendid! Though before we get too gushy, let's take a closer look.

First thing one does when someone makes an offer like this is scrunch the eyes and ask, "Uh, what does this fellow really want?" Here, it seems, al-Dhari might have a couple motives for extending the olive branch:
  1. He, like many Muslims in Iraq, is genuinely offended by the U.S. presence there, and fears that we'll never leave. He wants a date and a promise. That's a pretty reasonable concern given that the U.S. is, you know, building a slew of permanent bases around the country. So this is the most charitable interpretation.
  2. Al-Dhari wants to make himself the undisputed political leader of the Sunnis. As the Times notes, during Saddam Hussein's era, the Sunnis never coalesced into a single communal identity the way the Shiites and Kurds did. By positioning himself as "The man who forced the U.S. out," al-Dhari could gain a good deal of political power and unite his Arab co-religionists once and for all, "Return of the King"-style.
  3. Al-Dhari wants more leverage if "his" Sunni peers ever do decide to take part in the negotiations over the future of Iraq. That is, if the U.S. were to plan a withdrawal and AMS and other rural/religious Sunnis were then to take part in writing the Iraqi constitution, al-Dhari could always threaten to kick the insurgency back into high gear if he didn't get his demands. Sort of like the Kurds can always threaten to take their 100,000 pesh fighters and secede from Iraq if they don't get their demands. But with the U.S. leaving, such threats from al-Dhari would carry a lot more force.
  4. This is the first step in a slippery slope towards faster U.S. withdrawal. That is, say the U.S. strikes a deal with al-Dhari and declares that we'll withdraw in two years (say). Now imagine the insurgency doesn't actually let up over the next (say) three months. Al-Dhari can say that he's working in good faith to stem the insurgents, but the U.S. will just have to speed up the withdrawal if they want to see any progress...
None of these possibilities, though, are good reasons for the U.S. not to take al-Dhari up on his offer. Even if the Association of Muslim Scholars only represents or speaks for a fraction of the insurgency—and I think they do—it seems obvious that their participation in the new government will help turn a wide swath of Sunni sympathizers against the insurgents. Setting a withdrawal date could spark that change of heart.

On the other hand, I also wonder what al-Dhari's "offer" would really entail. One of the radical Sunni clerics in Baghdad interpreted it this way: "We do not insist that the Americans withdraw at once, as long as they stay in their bases and cease to marginalize our political life." Stay in their bases? That would be unacceptable to the U.S. Without the ability to go out and patrol around, the occupation forces would have no way of breaking up insurgent sanctuaries, which means the insurgents would grow considerably stronger. (Though the foreign jihadists probably couldn't build Afghanistan-style training camps; not so long as the U.S. Air Force can bomb anything that moves.)

Nor, for that matter, would the coalition forces have any way of slowing the ongoing crime wave, or deterring the hundreds of small militias, gangs, and tribal forces rampaging the streets. (Right now, it's these amateur thugs, and not the organized insurgency, that are doing the bulk of the damage in Iraq and undermining the legitimacy of the new government.) Iraq would very quickly start to look like Afghanistan, under the rule of gun—moreso than it is now. Look at how the British are "keeping order" down in Basra for a good example of this.

If there's any way of juggling all of these concerns, the U.S. should of course try to pursue the withdrawal option. But it doesn't look easy. Keep in mind, too, that according to some Iraqi experts on the Sunnis, like Rashid al-Khuyun, many of the al-Anbar tribesmen want nothing to do with a new unified Iraqi government. They despised Saddam Hussein (well, those aside from Saddam's own Al-bu Nasir tribe and its immediate allies) and it's likely that they will despise any Shi'ite-Kurdish government. Now, many observers expect that as soon as the "moderate" Sunnis like Harith al-Dhari come on board and join the government, then the only people left to fight against will be ex-Baathists and foreign jihadis. But that might not be true. The problem is no one really knows which Sunnis want what.
-- Brad Plumer 10:23 PM || ||
I Ask Because I'm Ignorant

Quick request: Does anyone know of a good, pretty thorough introduction—i.e. book/article/series of articles—on game theory? Maybe this question is clumsy and imprecise, like asking if anyone knows a good introduction to "policy," but I have no idea because frankly I know jack crap about the topic. So a good intro, preferably with an economics focus? It can be math-intensive, I can take it, but also wouldn't mind something a bit, um, lighter. (The last two math classes I took were on... algebraic combinatorics and differential geometry, but that was well over a year ago and I'm quite rusty.)

Feel free to comment or my e-mail's listed over to the right. Thanks in advance!
-- Brad Plumer 3:40 PM || ||
Fear Not Of Medicare

Matthew Yglesias makes a very good point here:
Medicare policy is not only complicated, and difficult, but deadly boring. Devising a workable proposal that would control spiraling costs in a smart way would be very hard. In fact, it would be beyond the capacity of pretty much every pundit in town. Indeed, I doubt that 85 percent of the bloviators out there could even comprehend a reasonable proposal if it was put before them. 90 percent of the remainder are simply too lazy to do it.

Politicians fail to implement such reforms for a bunch of reasons, but one important reason among them is that it's genuinely hard to figure out what we should do. Rather than acknowledge any of this, however, the opinion elite prefers to simply call for "courage" and "pain."
Yes, yes, the next pundit who points out, without solutions, that politicians are too cowardly to fix Medicare ought to be strung up by his or her (well, usually his) thumbs. *Dusts off hands.* So that takes care of that. The next step, then, is even more important: Stop the op-ed gang from spilling more ink arguing that Medicare is some over-gorged monster entitlement that needs both drastic gutting and hacking into bits (just one won't do) lest it bloat out of control and suffocate the whole economy.

That's sad and, I think, misguided. If anything, Medicare should be the model of what's right with health care in America, and a basis for how to address broader health care issues (the two are connected issues, after all). And, yes, I'm serious. Consider: The program has controlled costs far better than the private sector over the past two decades. Its administrative overhead is tiny. Enrollees love it, even though they get relatively modest benefit packages. And so on. The big "criticisms" of Medicare in vogue among the Beltway—"oh no it doesn't encourage enough private competition!"—are sometimes vaguely interesting, but the best of them usually involve tweaks rather than a fundamental reworking of the system's structure. (Back in the late '90s, when pundits actually were coming up with interesting proposals for Medicare, Matt Miller wrote up a good proposal for introducing "premium support" into the program, though I think the way Medicare already employs the private sector (except for drug coverage) is the right place to start. More on that some other time.)

At any rate, the Medicare model needs a bit of polish, yes, but the basic model itself is sounder than people think. It's not broken. Of course its costs will rise over the next few decades—the country is aging, people want more health care, what does one expect?—but that's something we can certainly pay for if we so choose. A key part of the debate, then, should be over whether we do want to so choose or not.

Oh, and one other thing: A few months ago, Ted Kennedy proposed that we expand Medicare for all Americans. Like quite a few of Kennedy's ideas, this was actually a good one, but because it was Ted Kennedy, "moderate" opinion leaders assumed there was something scandalously wrong with the proposal and steered clear or recoiled in disgust. Too bad. Yale professor Jacob Hacker has put out a more modest version (pdf) of this idea, and his is very good too. But these things are never going to get discussed sensibly so long as wholesale "bashing" of Medicare (as antiquated, as out of control) remains cool.
-- Brad Plumer 3:26 AM || ||
Bureaucracy Always Wins

Not going to get into the merits of the new "Future Combat Systems" proposal that the Pentagon's cooking up right now. That's a post for another day. For now, there are far, far more urgent matters to attend to, namely Kevin Drum's misguided praise for Donald Rumsfeld:
But whatever else you can say about Don Rumsfeld, one of his undoubted virtues is that he possesses the kind of bullheadedness it takes to force change on a recalcitrant military bureaucracy.
But no! He doesn't! He can't! Okay, deep breath. Recall back to 2001. Rumsfeld swept into the Pentagon expecting to usher in the newfangled "Revolution in Military Affairs." New weapons, new management priorities, new missions, all of these very cool things were supposed to help Rumsfeld and his gang restructure and revamp the Pentagon's budget and take the military in a bold new direction. New, new, new. And indeed, Rumsfeld and Stephen Cambone and the rest ended up angering a lot of the top military personnel and marching all over various finely-polished boot toes, so naturally, the press assumed that the civilian leadership was actually carrying out all those sweeping changes.

Sadly, 'twas not to be. Last fall, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments took a look (PDF) at the FY2005 budget and found that "the administration's defense plan fairly closely resembles those of the previous years, and the plan it inherited from the Clinton administration." There was a heap more money for missile defense and a few other nifty high-tech gadgets, but that's about it, nothing else had really changed. Each of the services (Army, Navy, Air Force), it seems, managed quite nicely to resist the budget axe, halting the revolution in its tracks. Rumsfeld fought the bureaucracy and the bureaucracy won.
-- Brad Plumer 3:04 AM || ||

March 28, 2005

The Joys of PDF

Since Blogger doesn't really work for me here at the office, here's some good afternoon reading...

From RAND: How Goes the "War on Drugs"? (Not very well, it seems.)

From Survival: Five Bad Options for Iraq

And on a non-war note, I forget who linked to it first, but this post on depression, motherhood, and the social construction of mental illness is easily the best thing I've read all day. So, enjoy!

UPDATE: Ah yes, clearing out the DocuTicker backlogs. In honor of M.G.M. vs. Grokster today, here's a grand one: "The Political, Social and Economic Benefits of Peer-to-Peer Communications Networks" (PDF). Long study, but the 7-page issue brief in front is worth reading... Right, then. I'm going to go log on Kazaa and, um, take a peek around.
-- Brad Plumer 4:55 PM || ||
Objectively Pro-Starbucks

Scandal! Julie Saltman admits to liking Starbucks. But secretly, I agree with her. Yay Starbucks! They pay their workers well, so we're not talking about the Wal-Mart of coffee beaneries, and I can allay my bleeding-heart guilt for a bit (just a bit). Plus, their regular run-of-the-mill coffee has far, far more caffeine than any of the competition, except for maybe the old days of McDonald's (from what I remember, McD's used to superheat their water to eke more caffeine out of the beans, but that ended when a lady burned her thighs and (rightly) filed suit). So for someone like me, who would inject caffeine directly if I could, ends up drinking 4-5 cups a day before 2pm, and has poor tastebuds, it's a fantastic deal!

Um, I guess in theory it's a bit ridiculous to see two of them across the street from each other, as was the case when I lived in Harlem a few years ago, but whatever, most of the independent cafes that Starbucks cluster-bombs into submission are small, cramped, and pay peas for wages. And yes, yes, those "inspirational" slogans creep me out and the music is often grating (I love Norah Jones too, but come on...) but sorry, the caffeine quotient wins me over every time.
-- Brad Plumer 3:36 AM || ||
Watch the Ministries!

Although, having second thoughts about the post below… I'm also a bit wary of Allawi running Interior, by way of making a more important point about Iraq.

Basically, there's an aspect of this great nation-building scheme in Iraq that no one pays attention to. At the moment, Iraq's Ministries of Defense and Interior are supposed to be neutral technocratic organizations. The reasons for this are pretty clear-cut: back in the old days, the ministries were all run by Baathist military officers handpicked by Saddam and friends, which created the nerve center for Iraq's old military state.

The alternative, today, is to fill the ministries with career civil service officers who are independent, professional civilians. Unfortunately, right now, the Ministry of Interior is a pretty corrupt place—Falah al-Naqib (right), an Allawi ally and ex-Baathist, has installed his cousins and brothers and former associates in high positions. From what I've heard, it's not a transparent, well-functioning place at all. No wonder the UIA Shiites are pissed and want to clear it out once they come to power. Of course, the Shiites might just make things worse; it's hard to say.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defense is doing better (the Defense Minister isn't allowed to give his cronies plum positions)—though international expertise is still very much needed in training and structuring the ministry's civil service ranks. Again, you want the place run by civilians, with a clear chain of command from military leaders up to the civilian Defense Minister to the security cabinet. You want the security forces divided equally among different security ministers, so that there's no one all-powerful minister. You want to establish quite clearly the limits and checks on executive war power. I'm not sure all of this has been done; there's been scandalously little reporting on the matter. But it's probably even more important, as far as the future of Iraq is concerned, than getting those security forces trained.
-- Brad Plumer 3:24 AM || ||
Civil War Fears

The Boston Globe reports that the violence in Iraq has lately been revolving less and less around the Sunni insurgency we've all come to know and love, and more and more around ethnic/sectarian violence: Sunnis v. Shiites and Kurds. Sunni sheikhs are calling for inter-Iraqi war. Shiite death squads are doing what death squads do. And then there's Kirkuk... Fuck. And yes, these are the critical signs to watch, even more than headlines saying "Americans kill X insurgents" or "Guerillas blow up Y Marines."

Also wonder if it might not be best for Iyad Allawi to have his way and keep running Iraq's security forces, rather than handing the Ministry of Interior over to the Shiites, who would probably get those Shiite militias more heavily involved in counterinsurgency. Y'know, on the assumption that internecine death-squadding is not a good thing.
-- Brad Plumer 3:16 AM || ||
Faith-Based Blunders

Right then, a late night Easter Sunday post... Sadly, Rich Lowry is mostly correct in his riff on why today's Democrats are still struggling with the religion issue:
Dean, who used to be famously uncomfortable talking about religion, is trying his best. But the effort behind his trying shows, which gives his religious references an off-key feel. A few weeks ago Dean compared Republicans to the rules-obsessed Pharisees and the Sadducees, pretty deep biblical allusions for someone who not too long ago thought the Book of Job was in the New Testament. You can imagine the briefing for Dean prior to this statement: "Mr. Chairman, it's pronounced — now repeat after me — 'sad'ue-seez, sad'-ue-seez.' Got it?"
That's wince-inducing, because it's right on target. Look, friends, there's very much an open question as to whether Democrats actually need to expand their outreach towards religious voters (who already, note, make up some 80 percent of the Democratic electorate)—many think yes, many think no. Nevertheless, the Democrats seem to have settled on "yes" lately, in which case they may as well go about this the right way. It's not the case that the Democrats need to "get religion," in the sense that largely secular politicians like Dean need to start talking about it more and making the "right" allusions and looking comfortable doing it. It's that the Democrats need to find candidates and public figures who actually are religious people, in the sense that they have political worldviews informed by faith.

Here's what I mean. In 2004, as we all know, John Kerry ran for president. It was clear that he had policies and ideas and a sense of how to govern. (Hold the guffaws, please.) It was also clear, at least to those not warped by Kerry-hatred, that he was a man of strong faith. What wasn't clear, though, even to me, was whether or not his faith actually informed his policies and ideas and sense of how to govern. In truth, probably not. During one of the debates, when Kerry quoted James 2 and said, "What does it mean, my brother, to say you have faith if there are no deeds?," he was obviously trying to put the fight against poverty in religious terms, and that's noble enough. But people aren't dumb: it looked to many like he was tacking a biblical quote on to a worldview he had arrived at long ago. (That's what I assumed.) There's a big difference.

Now it's easy to retort here by saying: "Well, Bush fakes his faith too!" Maybe he does, I don't know. But even if he's faking it, he's obviously convinced a lot of people. The answer isn't for Democrats to try to "fake it" better, but to get the real thing. Obviously, here on the largely secular internet, that scares a lot of people—many of the DailyKos posts offer a legion of tips on how to "fake it"—but genuine liberal faith has existed in the past. Look no further than Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement.

The other retort here is that we don't want religious Democrats—i.e. Dems whose politics are sincerely informed by religion—because those folks would be scary theocrats. That's wrong, though, and I'll give an example. Around this fine internet community, I almost always start off my blog-reading days by clicking on over to Body and Soul, and I know of no more powerful expression of liberal faith than on that site. I actually have no idea what religion Jeanne follows (if any), or how frequently she attends church or whatever, but that just doesn't matter. The point is that it's obvious that her compassion and moral sensitivity—for lack, unfortunately, of a better term—genuinely comes from something larger than individual preferences or party ideology or some abstract philosophy. And, I think, that makes much of her writing inspiring even to someone like me, who hasn't gone to church in years and may well never go back and certainly doesn't think you need faith to have morality. Still, I find her writing quite inspiring. And I know more than a few people in real life, liberal people, who have a similar outlook.

In the end, though, the politics here are murky to me. Maybe some of the quite-obviously-strained religious positioning by Dean and other Democrats will work. Maybe not. It would be helpful to know whom exactly, the Democrats are trying to reach that they can't reach in any other way. Moderate Catholics and evangelicals, presumably. Okay, but I can't imagine there's any subset of these voters that won't vote Democrat until they hear Howard Dean make a few more biblical allusions. Most people are bright enough to see whether a politician's worldview is sincerely informed by faith or not; faking this stuff is hard.

It's right to think that moderate religious voters don't vote solely on "religious issues" (which tends nowadays to mean abortion, gay marriage, etc.), but it's also right to think these voters might want to see a politician guided by a faith larger than him/herself. Dean, Kerry, Edwards—these folks just couldn't do that. Maybe Bill Clinton could, I don't remember. But let's please, please stop using Clinton as the model everyone should follow. Dude was a supremely gifted speaker campaigning in a uniquely peaceful era who happened to win two bizarre three-way elections. Look to the present, please.

Oh! P.S. Speaking personally, no, I actually don't think the Democrats need to get more faith-savvy to win elections, at least not in the short term. There are many paths to victory, other swing voters to capture, etc. In the long-term, though, and as a matter of building a broad-based coalition of Americans for various progressive reforms, they might, especially as the stigma against voting Republican gradually fades away among Hispanics and African-Americans. But that's another post entirely.
-- Brad Plumer 3:04 AM || ||

March 27, 2005

Privatization and Immigration

Fun headline from yesterday's Washington Post: "Conservatives Split on Debate Over Curbing Illegal Immigration." Well fun headline if you like watching GOP infighting. Or if you're interested in immigration. Or if you think "curbing" is a bizarre word. Otherwise, maybe not all that fun. Moving on, though, there seems to be some real confusion about immigration from some of my fellow Californians:
House Rules Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) got a jolt during his 2004 reelection campaign, when radio hosts in his outer Los Angeles district decided to make him a "political human sacrifice" for his immigration views, Dreier said, accusing him, among other things, of advocating Social Security benefits for illegal immigrants.

"I said to myself, nobody's going to believe I want to give Social Security checks to people who are here illegally," Dreier recalls.
Let's clear this up. Most immigrants—and because it's California, "immigrants" means "Mexican/Central American immigrants", mostly—don't receive Social Security, of course. How's that? Because most of them end up moving back to Mexico (or Central America) before they retire. Now, it's true that immigrants from Europe, etc., can work here a number of years, pay payroll taxes, and when they retire receive some contribution from the United States in the form of a pension check, even if they move back home. Not Mexico or Central America, though, because we've never signed totalization agreements with those countries.

So, many Mexican/Central American immigrants who work here shell out taxes for Social Security, but never get a single cent back. (The U.S. Treasury has no way of keeping track of the actual figures here, but it's a lot of money.) Same goes for those much-maligned illegal immigrants who happen to pay payroll taxes (though many don't, since they're for obvious reasons kept off payroll). Spelled out real slow for the kids in Dreier's hood: Border-hopping immigrants strengthen the system, not weaken it. That's why boosting immigration, which is great for many other reasons, improves Social Security's long-term balance.

Now there's an interesting question as to how this will all change if privatization ever passes. Presumably, the instant you start putting money into a private account, that money is yours. Entonces, most Mexican immigrants will actually start receiving something from Social Security—namely, the amount they accumulate in their private accounts—even if they never receive retirement benefits.

Alas, the White House is still too Cowardly Lion-ish to put forward an actual plan on Social Security, so I can't figure out how the actual mechanisms would work here, but it seems that under privatization, immigrants put a bigger drain on the system than they do now, get more out of it, and there's a very real possibility that illegal immigrants could get private accounts as well (with false documents, say). Those aren't reasons the why I oppose privatization, obviously, but I dunno, maybe folks in Dreier's district might like to hear about all this.
-- Brad Plumer 5:01 PM || ||
Reasons For Fudging

American military leaders in Iraq are, understandably enough, trying to play up the successes of Iyad Allawi's security forces against that dastardly Sunni insurgency. But Swopa notices some interesting ulterior motives to all of this: If and when the Shiite majority finally forms a government and comes to power, they're probably going to start purging elements of the current Allawi regime. U.S. leaders would rather this didn't happen, since he's our buddy and all, so they're trying to convince Iraqis that Allawi's security forces are entirely crucial for victory against the baddies. More to the point, the U.S. is worried that the Shiites will sweep in and put in place their own militias as the backbone of Iraq's new security service. Which could mean sectarian violence, etc. etc. So it's hype for Allawi's crew!

That all seems plausible. On a related note, last week I wrote up a quick article for MoJo on why we really ought to have better metrics on Iraqi troop training. That's still very true, but nevertheless, it seems there could be a number of political reasons for the U.S. not to put out that sort of hard data. Perhaps, for instance, the Pentagon wants to have the final say over when the U.S. stays or leaves, and if there was concrete statistical proof that Iraq was actually stabilizing, the Pentagon would lose control over when to leave. Or, alternatively, the U.S. is trying to navigate inter-Iraqi politics, as per Swopa, and good, hard facts would only interfere with our propaganda abilities. Very tricky.
-- Brad Plumer 4:23 AM || ||
Regime Change, Syria Edition

Aha! So it looks like the Bush administration is trying to reach out to the political opposition in Syria, perhaps preparing for the possibility that Bashar Assad's regime might, ahem, topple one of these days. Or, also likely, if the hawkish Syria reports streaming out of neo-con think tanks like WINEP are any indication, perhaps the Bush administration is trying to figure out ways to promote a nifty little coup in Damascus. Oy. But okay, let's do this...

In an ideal world, there's little I'd like more than to see Bashar's regime fall. It's corrupt, it's ruthless, it sucks. Sadly, though, we don't live in an ideal world, and the collapse of the Alawite ruling party would, at least right now, very likely bring violence among various sectarian groups, infighting among the security services, revenge against the former regime, blood and guts on the streets, etc. etc. (In 1983, when former president Hafiz al-Assad fell gravely ill, militias took to the street ready to go to war over who would succeed him. Luckily Hafiz recovered and averted a crisis, but that's your foreshadowing...) Not only that, but the U.S. knows next nothing about the internal workings of Syria; its politics, social dynamics, ethnic rivalries, the popularity of Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, etc. To put things in perspective, recall how wonderfully little the U.S. knew about the inner structure of Iraq; and even there we at least had exile groups like the INC and INA, not to mention our Kurdish pals, giving us some information. In Syria, nothing.

Basically, a coup would be a disaster, and it's not at all clear that the Syria Reform Party, which is the group we're reaching out to, could rise from the ashes here and lead Syria into a bold new era of pro-American democratic nirvana. More likely, the Islamists in the Muslim Brotherhood—whose Syrian branch is far more radicalized than the Egyptian version (and, quite honestly, poorer and less well-educated)—would take power, though before that happens, the possibility of civil war or serious interconfessional violence seems like a safe bet. Unless we can get actual intelligence telling us otherwise, it's a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad idea. You know?

Right then. So how does one go about promoting reform in Damascus? Wish I knew. But a few thoughts...

It's worth noting, I think, that the Bush administration shouldn't treat Syria as at all analogous to Jordan or Egypt or Bahrain, etc. The latter countries, note, have all liberalized their economies to some extent, but more importantly, they've all provided at least some venues for a political opposition. True, the political opposition is managed, mostly impotent, and channeled off into harmless holding pens, but the opposition exists. It gets to bitch. And eventually, in theory, that opposition could come to power by fairly peaceful means. Syria, by contrast, is far more authoritarian, and the ruling 'Alawi sect hasn't shared power with any other ethnic or political group (except for parts of the minority Christian community, but even then, not really).

Suffice to say that the largely Sunni opposition in Syria is mighty pissed off. Effective political reform, then, won't simply be a matter of legalizing political parties and holding freer elections, as it more or less is in, say, Bahrain and Qatar. Nor will it be a more incremental matter of building civil society, legalizing political parties, and revamping the constitution, as is probably the case in Jordan and Egypt. No, Syria's even further back on the progress scale, and over the last four years Bashar has proven that he doesn't know how to open the door to reform without the Sunni opposition storming the streets and demanding that he open the flood-gates. He doesn't know how to gently co-opt the opposition as Egypt and Jordan have, to some extent, done. (Obviously the regimes Egypt and Jordan don't wear kid gloves here, and both have cracked down ruthlessly on their own Islamists and opponents; but there's a real difference here.)

So the alternatives to political reform are all-out bloody revolution, or, perhaps, China-style economic liberalization without political change. On the latter front, though, Bashar has had a difficult time carrying out the economic changes he promised in 2000 (and again last year), either because of inter-government power struggles, or because of corruption, or because Bashar is ineffective, or because the ruling Alawites genuinely fear giving other ethnic/sectarian groups a slice of the economic pie, or some or all of those things. Meanwhile, privatizing Syria's economy will lead to, quite understandably, a lot of domestic turmoil. It's very possible that right now, with Syrians of all stripes rallying around Bashar and against the United States, the Syrian president might have more leeway to undertake reforms, but I wonder.

If you ask me, it seems that economic liberalization could happen if Syria and the U.S. worked together—just as the U.S. and China have worked together over the past twenty years to moderately good effect. Maybe that's the way to go. There's no real reason why Syria and the U.S. should be foes. But getting friendly with Bashar is not going to happen, of course. Not with this White House. So instead it seems we'll get more U.S. saber-rattling, which may do nothing but push Bashar to tighten his grip even further on Syria. Josh Landis, a Syria expert who's doing some grand reporting from Damascus, seems to think that Bashar is quite strong and going about the grand game of consolidating his power very nicely, thank you. So the muddled "regime change" strategy the White House is no doubt tossing on the grill right now could end up being the same failed sort of thing we've tried before—see e.g. North Korea, Iran, Libya. (Yes, yes, so we disarmed Libya. Political reforms, though? Nope.) There's not a clear answer here, though, not in the slightest.

UPDATE: Sources? Do I have any? Do I use any? Do I just talk out of my ass? Well, yes. But for a bunch of good scholarly references on Syria, see this page. A bit of a slog, most of it, but quality stuff.

Continue reading "Regime Change, Syria Edition"
-- Brad Plumer 4:10 AM || ||

March 26, 2005

Single-Parent Families

Of course it's bad for a kid to grow up in a single-parent family, right? Er, no. "[T]he great majority of children brought up in single-parent families do well. In particular, differences in well-being between children from divorced and those from intact families, tend, on average, to be moderate to small." This and more fascinating research from Trish Wilson here.
-- Brad Plumer 5:12 PM || ||
Will Advertising Just Please Die?

I'm not planning on posting too much today—at least that's the plan—because I have to sack through the new three-gazillion page biography of John Kenneth Galbraith so that I can review it, get that over with, and never have to worry about it again. As they say in Richard III, "Cursed be the heart that had the heart to do it!" Or something. Anyway, back on task... I have a short attention span, so I was clicking around the New Yorker's site a few minutes ago, and found a fun article by Ken Auletta on the decline of advertising. Do read.

But I wonder… at least within some industries, like the pharmaceutical industry, critics have blamed the lack of any real drug innovation on the rise of advertising. Something like, of the 78 drugs the FDA approved in 2002, only a handful had new active ingredients, and only a smaller handful were real improvements over older drugs. The rest were just variations on existing themes. But of course, it doesn't matter so long as the big drug companies can market the shit out of their "me-too" drugs. Profits will still rise, even without innovation, so what do they care?

But let's say Auletta's right and eventually advertising will reach a point of seriously diminishing returns. It's just too hard for a company to distinguish itself these days, what with billions of TV channels, media over-saturation, the ability of consumers to enjoy media without commercials (TiVo, .mp3 pirating, etc.) (There's a question of whether advertisers will be able to track consumers' internet habits and win them over that way, but Auletta quotes Yahoo's chief of sales dashing this hope a bit. Besides, eventually you'd still get over-saturation.)

Anyway, if that's all true, perhaps a day will come when real innovation is clearly the best way to capture the market and make profits—since you can only fight to parity, at best, on the marketing front—and hence R&D spending will rise once more. Happy thought! Alternatively, though, it could be the case that companies will continue to delude themselves into thinking that they can win the great advertising rat race, and so they all pour even more money into ads, even though that's not money well spent (i.e. they would be better off allocating resources to R&D). The answer, then, is that firms are irrational in some respects and hence, more government R&D spending is necessary. Bah. There are probably clever economic models that get at all this, but I don't know where to get them, or how to use them. Back to Galbraith...
-- Brad Plumer 5:00 PM || ||
Two Republican Strategies

Aha! Josh Marshall finds potential hypocrisy among the GOP:
Grover Norquist, quoted in the Post: "Advocates of using federal power to keep this woman [i.e. who do you think?] alive need to seriously study the polling data that's come out on this. I think that a lot of conservative leaders assumed there was broader support for saying that they wanted to have the federal government save this woman's life."

If this is really about 'sav[ing] this woman's life' why look at the polling data?
Except this isn't true hypocrisy, because it's Grover Norquist, and Grover Norquist just doesn't care. Sex, divorce, pulling plugs on vegetative patients, whatever, Norquist has always been fine with it! The issues concern him only insofar as they encroach on his ability to assemble a GOP majority that can cut lots and lots of taxes. And right now, it seems, he's worried that the Terry Schiavo case is encroaching—which... is interesting.

From what I remember of Gang of Five, Nina Easton's book about the conservative movement, Norquist's view has always been that the vast majority of the country basically agrees with various Republican views, and the key to victory is holding together enough constituencies to get to 51 percent on election day. And so, the reasoning goes, the GOP shouldn't try to do anything, like try to shove a feeding tube down Terry Schiavo's throat, that might upset other constituents in that majority (like small government conservatives). Basically, polling data and coalition-juggling are everything.

Meanwhile, other Republican leaders—Easton used Bill Kristol as an example here, though I think it applies better to others today—believe that conservative views don't have any sort of majority in this country. So they need to convince and persuade a lot of people to come to their side, which is of course a long-term project. And sometimes, it seems, that strategy involves taking a hugely unpopular stand, if only to reinforce the view that the GOP stands up for what it believes in, no matter the cost. Even if most voters don't share that perception now, eventually they'll forget about this whole Schiavo incident, but remember that Republicans stood firm. At least that's the theory. (In other words, I don't think it's merely the case that the GOP leadership got dragged haplessly this fray by a bunch of extra-frothy religious conservatives, as the big Post story today suggests; to some extent they know what they're doing, or think they know.)
-- Brad Plumer 1:34 PM || ||

March 25, 2005

Half-Formed Inquiry

Just a quick thought while I try to shuffle off this mortal coil of work this afternoon. Ezra Klein recently read The System—David Broder's classic account of the failure of health care reform in 1993—and concluded that the system is, in fact, not conducive to large-scale reform. That certainly wasn't the impression I got when I read the book a while back; it mostly just seemed that the Clintons flubbed a major policy debate, and Ira Magaziner utterly screwed the pooch in his efforts to craft reform legislation. Likewise, looking at the phase-out debate today, there's no systematic reason why the privatizers should be flailing. They could have gone about this project all differently and be in a strong position right now to phase out Social Security as desired. But they didn't, so they're not. In the interests of hackdom, I won't say what those alternative steps that they could've taken are, at least not until the Republicans are firmly entrenched in minority status come 2007.

But here's what I'd like to know. Back in 1993, of course, a few Republicans did have their own alternative plans for health care, but slowly retracted them once they decided that it was in their best interest to obstruct at all costs, a position that hardened around January '94. Bob Dole even decided to vote against his own health care proposal (the one co-sponsored with Chaffee pere) to this end. But did the media ever put pressure on them to offer a serious alternative plan? In '94, Dole and the GOP started chanting over and over that there was no health care crisis in America, even though most Americans disagreed. Did the TV talking heads ever accuse Bob Dole of sticking his head in the sand, carping and carping without any real ideas of his own?

Looking through Nexis, I can't find much. There's Howard Kurtz slamming the attack dogs for offering "no alternative" on 2/13/94. Interestingly, on 2/2/94 William Schneider got on CNN to say that if the Republicans kept digging their heels in the dirt, they'd run the danger of looking like "obstructionists." (Quoth Schneider: "So they're in a bind.") But the GOP, of course, didn't suffer any backlash for being obstructionists—which offers a sound example for any Democrat today thinking about offering a compromise on Social Security for political reasons.

Anyway, I'll have to go through this in more detail later (or, if someone wants to beat me to the punch, go for it) and hopefully write something up for MoJo, but I'd like to know a) if the media was urging the GOP in 1994 to compromise as heavily as they're urging the Democrats to compromise today, and b) if there was a similarly heavy urging, how did the GOP manage to beat the obstructionist rap in '94?

UPDATE: Heh. From US News & World Report, 2/7/94:
Yet Clinton himself enjoys some significant political advantages as the battle begins. As he demonstrated last week, the president can command public attention in ways that no opponent can begin to match. And his sympathy for the fears of ordinary Americans connects with voters and echoes their own concerns. For that reason, many Republican strategists are aghast at the new line of some GOP leaders that there is ''no crisis" in the health care system. That argument, says Vin Weber, a former GOP congressman, ''just reinforces the image of flint-hearted Republicans," the same image that helped cost George Bush the 1992 election. Celinda Lake agrees: ''I hope we get every Republican candidate saying there is no crisis -- on tape."
-- Brad Plumer 4:53 PM || ||
Rape Trial

Julie Saltman notices that, in certain legal circles, it's still cool to claim that some women are "just asking" for rape. Important issue, so go read. Also of related interest (not directly related, though it was prompted by one of Julie's links) might be a post I wrote at MoJo this morning, expressing a bit of unease over the emerging Democratic "compromise" on abortion. Was planning to do a longer post on this, but will settle on the short version for now.
-- Brad Plumer 1:32 PM || ||

Okay, thanks to Roxanne (whose blog has a freaky new logo), let's all do the map fun:

Growing up in Asia obviously helps out a lot here, though if I count countries I've actually lived in for a decent amount of time, I can only claim Japan (14 years), New Zealand (one month) and Ireland (three months). Well, plus the motherland. Also, I really ought to get more Southern Hemisphere action.

On the other hand, I'll refrain from doing a similar map with the United States, since I really haven't visited a lot of places here. Plus, I'm always uncertain whether the fact that I've driven through Nebraska (and maybe stopped at a local diner for some mashed potato-oriented dinner) really counts as "visiting". Certainly I was trying to speed through the state as quickly as possible.
-- Brad Plumer 1:18 PM || ||
More Vowels Please

Someone forget to send me my special issue blogger tea leaves for Kyrgyzstan, so, you know, I have no way of predicting what's going to happen there now that the revolution's come to town. Robert Mayer has some interesting things to say, though, both a bit of optimism as well as evidence that the opposition leaders—interim PM Kurmanbek Bakiyev and Felix Kulov—may turn out to be no less hardline than the outgoing guy. But so it goes.

By the by, this longer World Affairs essay on "Democratic prospects in Central Asia," might be of interest (short summary: they're bleak, those prospects), though annoyingly the author doesn't get into specifics about each country.
-- Brad Plumer 12:46 PM || ||
What's Sharon Thinking?

Admittedly, I don't write about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a whole lot, not for lack of interest or even for fear of inviting a shitstorm. It's just that trying to make predictions or analyze what's going to happen next, or whatever else pundits are supposed to do, really requires following Israeli (and Palestinian) politics fairly obsessively. And there's no time for that, at least in these quarters. So the only other option is: "Well, they've been fighting for so long, you know, and these latest developments sure look promising but gosh, who knows..." and I'd rather not run that sort of blog.

But it's fair and semi-banal to say that the key question over the next few months, as the peace process supposedly unfolds, will be: What does Ariel Sharon want? (Indeed, even though far more profiles of Mahmoud Abbas have been written lately, he seems like the less enigmatic figure here.) Some say Sharon has no interest in giving the Palestinians any more than 50 percent of the West Bank, and that his unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was an obvious ploy toward this end. Others think he's a pragmatist who isn't all that keen on the big Zionist dream. And still others think he's just a flunkey for George W. Bush and will do whatever the U.S. wants him to do, really. All of these theories sound plausible to me, just like a lot of theories about George Bush might sound plausible to a German who doesn't really pick through the Washington Post each and every day, but, um, who knows...

Anyway, that was all a longer-than-necessary preface for linking to this new MERIP essay on Israel-Palestine by Gary Sussman that's worth a peek. Sussman thinks Sharon is trying to get to stage two of the "road map"—creating a provisional Palestinian state that includes up to 80 percent of the West Bank—but will then try to avoid going any further. The devious hope here is that reaching step two will essentially reduce the conflict to a humdrum dispute over borders (there are, after all, dozens of such disputes all over the world) rather than the national liberation issue it is today. So, Sharon wins. Okay, we've heard this before, but then Sussman goes the extra step, suggesting that Sharon is also actively trying to create a situation wherein Palestine merges with Jordan. My understanding is that Sharon's vision on this isn't entirely implausible, especially if Jordan ever hops on the Bush-doctrine bandwagon, and opens the gates of democracy to its Palestinian majority. Then we'll see what's up.

Er, so read the piece.
-- Brad Plumer 3:36 AM || ||

March 24, 2005

Grammar Police

Reading Lawrence Kaplan on Iraq reminded me of an odd grammar puzzle. Sez Kaplan:
The question, then… is, when and if things turn out well in Iraq, will journalists even be able to recognize it?
Why do people say "if and when"? (Or, in Kaplan's case, "when and if".) "If..." and "when..." are two entirely different logical/grammatical constructs, and the whole point of saying "if" is that there might not be a "when." Clearly both won't always pertain, so it should be "if or when." But people don't say that. Why?

UPDATE: Good cases for and against in comments. For the record, that lord of usage, H.W. Fowler, said back in 1908: "This formula has enjoyed more popularity than it deserves," and then dissects it. Splendid! Meanwhile, the olumbia Guide to Standard English says that charges of "faulty parallelism" against the phrase are "unwarranted". (But why?) You could also argue that it's a redundant way of speaking. My solution: Use "in the event that..."
-- Brad Plumer 5:43 PM || ||
Regular Folks

Tony Blair's taking some heat over in Britain. And let this be a lesson to politicians everywhere to never, ever appear on daytime TV:
Marion Baxter, a nurse, asked [Tony Blair], point blank, if he would be prepared to clean patients' backsides for $9 an hour. On another issue, Maria Hutchings, a homemaker, advanced on him across the studio, proclaiming, "That's rubbish, Tony." Debra Kroll, a midwife, told him, "We asked you not to go to war," and demanded an apology for invading Iraq. (He did not give one.)
Cheers to Debra and Maria! But I think Marion here is being a tad unfair. All things being equal, one would prefer Tony Blair not to be prepared to clean patients' backsides, since he ought to have his mind focused on the task at hand, i.e. running the country. Meanwhile, I do a lot of editing here in the office during the day, and right now I'm not at all prepared to teach a classroom full of 4th graders—even though I've done that sort of thing before—but that doesn't mean I don't care about teachers, or that I can't write and think about education. Nor does it mean I can't relate to teachers. Basically, it means nothing at all.

Anyway, this whole notion that leaders must be regular folks or have the common touch seems a bit overrated. Certainly policymakers shouldn't be just regular folks, at least to the extent that they're thinking about policy and balancing a whole bunch of competing demands and abstract concerns. A prime minister or president, on the other hand, maybe needs to convince voters and/or the daytime TV crowd that he/she has their best interests at heart, and maybe saying "Yes, I'm ready to wipe some asses!" is the best way to do that, but really, it's an odd way to prove you care.
-- Brad Plumer 1:13 PM || ||
Health Care Verdict

Okay, okay, so I've finished reading through the CAP's "Plan for a Healthy America." See my preliminary comments in the two posts below. Basically, this is a Frankenstein approach—trying to patch together Medicaid, employer-based coverage, and expand the FEHB—that has a lot of serious flaws. That said, the system we have right now has a lot of serious flaws. Worse flaws, in fact. So if the CAP's plan passed into law, and if it could be implemented for a mere $100-$160 billion a year, then the United States would have a much, much better health care system than the one we currently have. Monumentally better. Astronomically better. Et cetera. (And for those gulping hard at the costs, don't be delusional: any plan that involves covering America's 50 million uninsured is going to cost at least $100 billion, minimum. There's no way around that, no matter what the president has told you.)

Now, that may seem like a good thing. Who doesn't love better health care than what we have now? And indeed, the CAP's plan is more likely to pass than any single-payer proposal, since it's less radical. So, the argument might go, even if the single-payer approach might be better overall—just assume this for the sake of argument—liberals should prefer to get something enacted than to dream big and get nothing, right? Well, maybe. On the other hand, if the CAP plan ever passed, that would effectively kill any hope of ever enacting a truly radical and comprehensive health care reform plan. From here on out, the U.S. health care system would be based on Medicaid, Medicare, employer-based coverage, and individual tax credits. In other words, a mess. So it might be better to "dream big" rather than "go realistic." But if you wait for perfection, in the meantime 50 million people suffer without health insurance. 50 million...

Then there are the politics of simply proposing this sort of thing. Should the Democrats start touting this approach as "their" plan for health care? Can they win elections this way? Better yet, are they more likely to win elections by flogging the CAP plan, or by flogging a big, starry-eyed truly radical reform? That I can't answer, though I'd love to hear someone try.
-- Brad Plumer 3:25 AM || ||
Prevention Means Socialism

Yes, I'm acting like a nerdy health care wonk. I am a nerdy health care wonk, though. Anyhow, now that that's out of the way, there was one part of the CAP's big health care plan, namely, the part discussing how to entice health providers to place a greater emphasis on preventive care, that was very, very, interesting:
The U.S. health insurance system now focuses on treating diseases instead of reducing their incidence in the first place. With no guarantee that enrollees will remain in their plans, insurers have little incentive to invest in keeping enrollees healthy over time.

We propose a new model for preventive care and health promotion. Coverage for preventive services would be carved out of private health insurance and financed through a new nationwide preventive benefit. A process for determining and updating the core preventive services would be established, based on recommendations from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.... Physicians and other providers would continue to deliver both preventive and other medical services as they do today, but they would be reimbursed for preventive services by the new benefit.
Would this work? Actually, I'm having a hard time figuring out what, exactly, is being proposed here. Are they suggesting that most medical services would be paid for via insurance purchased on the private market, but preventive services would be paid for by the government, financed via taxes? In other words, everyone gets coverage that's half single-payer and half "market-based"? Maybe I misunderstand. (Hey, I never said I was a smart health care wonk!) If so, that's awfully novel, and oh-so intriguing. By the by, read Philip Longman's old essay on why the private market cannot provide good preventive care (though CAP gave the gist of the argument in that first paragraph quoted above).
-- Brad Plumer 3:13 AM || ||
CAP Tackles Health Care

The Center for American Progress has just put out a spanking new proposal for a new national health care system. Kudos to them on getting this out there. But looking it over, it's the sort of mostly-modest thing I once believed in—i.e. rejigger the current system by expanding Medicaid and offering tax credits to individuals, who can then purchase private insurance under an imposed community rating system (here, the FEHB).

Unfortunately, the CAP wants to keep employer-based coverage as well. If we're really going to think big about health care, then employer-based coverage should probably just be nuked, since a) it isn't all that portable and b) the tax subsidies required to finance employer-based insurance are breathtakingly regressive. Now I suspect that, over time, the CAP system would just induce employers to scale back their coverage for workers, and let their employees get tax credits to pay for health insurance on their own. That seems fine in theory, though in practice the transition will get very messy. (CAP proposes reinsurance to cover the cost of the transition; for instance if all the healthy people left IBM's plan, leaving the company holding the bag for the sick and decrepit.)

Anyway, as I said, I once believed in this sort of "save the private insurance market" type of system. But a month ago, in a long broadside against Richard Posner for suggesting a (somewhat) similarly-structured proposal, I kind of changed my mind. My newer stance was that I don't think you can realistically get private insurance companies to compress their rates and make the premiums "fair" to everyone. Even more crucially, I don't think the government can possibly require everyone to purchase insurance—the youngest and healthiest are always going to try their damndest to weasel out of the whole thing, and as is the case with auto insurance, a large number of them will probably succeed, thus screwing over everyone else.

So I'm not convinced that you can control costs by letting individuals buy health insurance in the open market, no matter how you approach it. More to the point, I'm not sure it's a good idea even to try to ratchet down health care costs. (If Americans want better care, why not pay for it?) As David Cutler has tried to convince us, "paying for performance" may well be the better way to go, though I'm not sure Cutler has exactly the right approach here. In the end, though, more and more I'm thinking that single-payer is the only way to do this. My socialist urgings get the better of me. "Third way" solutions are nice, and there are some benefits of a private insurance market that might be worth preserving if we can, but it doesn't look like we can. Anyway, I'm sort of rambling. I'll look over the proposal in more depth and try to get some more coherent thoughts down on paper.

UPDATE: Criticisms aside, I'm very pleased that CAP notices that here in America we have three distinct "big problems" as far as health care goes: covering the uninsured, managing health care costs, and improving the quality of our care. (See here for an earlier post on this point.) Most proposals out there just take a stab at controlling costs, or just aim to cover the uninsured, but in reality you have to run around all the bases or it's not a homerun.
-- Brad Plumer 3:03 AM || ||

March 23, 2005

How To Exit Iraq

New article up by me, over at Mother Jones, on why we need better statistics if we're ever going to craft a decent exit strategy for Iraq. So take a break from SS madness and go read! Sadly, I haven't been able to reach anyone at the Pentagon who can explain to me why the Iraq Weekly Status Reports have been so fucked up, or why they constantly change their troop categories from month to month. It's a bit ridiculous, though.
-- Brad Plumer 2:53 PM || ||
Social Security: Now Healthier Than Ever!

Hm. I'm taking a look at the new Trustees' Report over at MoJo, but check out this very important graph below:

Notice anything? Look at the blue line! The long-term balance of the program has actually improved from last year to this year. Indeed, as the Trustees' report itself says, "After 2030, however, the annual balances [for Social Security] in this year's report are larger." Now the media will focus on the fact that the Trust Fund expiration date has moved from 2042 to 2041, but that's a meaningless number. No, the graph above says it all. Even with a bit of assumption-fiddling from the Trustees, and a shake of doom-'n'-glooming, Social Security has actually gotten healthier from last year to this year.
-- Brad Plumer 1:32 PM || ||
Better Living Through Data-Crunching

Max and Matt say get the wonk knives ready! The 2005 Trustees' report on Social Security is due out tomorrow, and liberal number-crunchers everywhere will be poring over the data tables, looking for signs that the books have been unduly cooked so as to make the program's long-term health look really, really dire. Dire projections, of course, favor the privatizers and their "crisis"-mongering. The main reason for suspicion: five of the six current Trustees are pro-privatization hacks.

But okay, are there any grounds for concern that these folks would actually cook the books? Well, maybe. Earlier today, I stumbled across this site by Bruce Webb, suggesting that book-cooking has perhaps gone on for some time. His numbers are a bit confusing, but they seem perfectly sound, and the basic story is this: ever since the Bush administration came to office in 2001, the Social Security Trustees' have been projecting lower and lower future growth each year, even though actual economic growth has recently been increasing at a faster-than-expected clip. In other words, the Trustees' "intermediate cost" predictions—i.e. the ones everyone uses—are proven too pessimistic each year by actual facts on the ground, but nevertheless the reports continue to be even more pessimistic about future growth.

To offer another example, in 2003 the Trustees "intermediate projections"—i.e. the ones in which the program goes slightly out of balance in 2042—projected 2.1 percent growth in 2005. Okay, seems a bit low, but whatever. But the next year, the Trustees' revised that prediction downward to 1.8 percent growth for 2005, even though the economy had obviously been humming along quite nicely.

So there seems to be some funny business, though I'll be happy to hear a plausible explanation for all of this.
-- Brad Plumer 3:25 AM || ||
Questioning the ICC

Here's a little conundrum I've been wondering about lately. The conventional wisdom on Iraq—or at least the CW we Bush-bashers find, ahem, rather convenient—is that Paul Bremer's rapid "de-Baathification" was a big fat mistake. The U.S. purged too many high-level and mid-level Baathists, disbanded the Army much too quickly, and basically filled the ranks of the insurgency with pissed-off former management. Right? Right.

Okay, but now consider an institution like the International Criminal Court, which is also rather convenient for us Bush-bashers to love. But look, if the ICC was the primary and most commonly-used structure for trying former war criminals, its rigid rules probably would have led to a similar purge of a huge number of high- and mid-level Baathists, along with prosecution of hordes of Iraqi army officers (which would have led to the same utter lack of competent Iraqi Security Forces we see today.) Perhaps.

Or heck, take a better example: After Japan surrendered in 1945, the American occupation under MacArthur decided it didn't really want to prosecute that many high-level Japanese officials—only a select few truly rotten apples—because all those dastardly politicians and military officers and planners were actually needed to run Japan. So the U.S. and ten other nations set up a very ad hoc tribunal, held the Tokyo trials for a scant 28 Japanese war criminals, and dispatched a swift victor's justice. And they didn't really go much further. (Look at how many bad guys they let off scot free!) Looking at the ICC's charter, you could argue that the overseers of the Tokyo trials were indeed "unwilling or unable to genuinely carry out the investigation or prosecution," at which point the ICC would have had to step in. But the Tokyo trials worked because the U.S. was unwilling to go all the way.

My point, I guess, is that oftentimes there are sound pragmatic reasons not to punish defeated states too thoroughly and to forgive violations of international law, and when that happens, the crude practice of "victor's justice" and ad hoc tribunals can get the job done pretty well. Strict rules for war crimes prosecution, on the other hand, can be somewhat inflexible, ill-suited to the realities of war and peace. Again, I think. Note that this isn't the usual criticism of the ICC, that it would restrain American might (I don't think it would), but rather than it would hinder the ability for post-conflict reconciliation. Sometimes forgiveness is the way to go.

Admittedly, I've glossed over a lot of details about the ICC and war crimes tribunals, mainly because I'm somewhat ignorant, so this could all be quite wrong. But it's still, worth thinking about. My vague, vague, vague sense is that it's hard to make a principled case for the ICC that would actually reflect the reality of international relations. Nevertheless, it seems a fully-functioning ICC would provide for a nice tool to adjudicate certain conflicts, and the court would sit alongside a lot of other, more haphazard and ad hoc tools that would also be used just as frequently. But it's still a good tool! One of the benefits of the ICC, for instance, is that it would have an already-established infrastructure, so it would cost less to do your run-of-the-mill prosecutions (don't need to set up a brand new court each time). But more flexibility seems necessary, unless I'm misinterpreting something, which is possible.

(Also, there's a strong counter-argument here. If leaders of the future knew that they were more likely to be prosecuted under a strict and inflexible ICC regime, they would be less likely to violate international law in the first place. So you swap the benefit of forgiveness for the benefit of deterrence. Something tells me we had a similar debate to this a few weeks ago, over bankruptcy laws… Personally, I think deterrence is overrated—and also, the strict threat of prosecution may make many war criminals more reluctant to surrender, as was the case with Serbia, no?)
-- Brad Plumer 3:02 AM || ||
Who's Afraid Indeed

My genuine, heartfelt sympathies go out to Jay Mathews, who proposes today in the Washington Post that we lure "intelligent design" into the classroom so as to crush it by the awesome force of reason and logic. Heh heh heh. Ho ho ho! Ah, I remember the time, not too long ago, that I was a young neophyte guest-blogging for the Washington Monthly, putting forward a very similar "clever" idea. Rest assured, the abuse I got for even suggesting such a thing—much of it from scientists far, far smarter than I, and much of it wholly, painfully correct—was swift and merciless. So I don't envy Mathews one bit.

(And yes, yes, I've seen the light, no ID for the classroom. It's all well and good to suggest that teachers could just weigh evolution against ID in a reasoned and thoroughgoing way and thus show the latter to be wholly deficient; in practice, though, this is unlikely to happen. Reason prevails less often than we'd like to imagine. Et cetera. Oh, and go visit Panda's Thumb!)
-- Brad Plumer 3:00 AM || ||

March 22, 2005

Scapegoat Time!

Given a choice between dishonest hacks and dirty lobbyists, I guess I'll side with the former, but only barely. Look, I'm glad David Brooks finally flared his nostrils and took a whiff of the ol' stench o' corruption wafting out of the Republican-controlled House. But his much-beloved op-ed today is an utter hack job, chalking all that GOP sleaze up to a small "cadre of daring and original thinkers": Jack Abramoff, Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist.

Uh-huh. No doubt Brooks is now scratching his head wondering how a few "bad apples" could possibly have hijacked a party that, left to its own devices, would otherwise be pursuing noble aims like the "ownership society" and "national greatness." No doubt Brooks is already casting an agon in his head that pits the above-the-fray White House against the rogue "cadre" of money-grubbing lobbyists who—say it ain't so!—sullied the conservative movement. And no doubt, a few years hence—long after DeLay has been ousted and Abramoff sacked—we'll see Brooks once more writing the exact same damn column, wondering how a party so obsessed with making sweet love to big business keeps finding itself steeped in scandal and corruption. Yeah, I wonder.
-- Brad Plumer 4:00 AM || ||
The Sound of Two Billion Feet Dragging

Oh man, did I call it or what? Yeah, yeah, so it wasn't the most out-on-a-limb prediction ever, but still. (Hey, most of my "analyses" and predictions fall apart within minutes, so I need a little confidence boost here...)

Um, yeah. For those wondering what the deuce I'm talking about, read my long-ish weekend post on North Korea, which, if I do say so myself, was a pretty sturdy overview/appraisal of the whole situation, especially now that the New York Times seems to be confirming some of the gritty details.
-- Brad Plumer 3:45 AM || ||
Dignity of a Response

Ugh, very much not interested in reading about the Schiavo case right now. It's "important", I know, and it's the big news of the moment, but… holy fuck. This crap is completely debilitating, and at least now I know that when the apocalypse comes, via GOP diktat, I'll be here, slumped helplessly on my couch, rubbing my eyes in sheer defeat, unable to think of a single goddamn thing to say. Fortunately, though, Dahlia Lithwick has a lot to say, and explains why it's not a good idea to let Congress overrule any state court decision they feel like overruling:
The reason we have courts, the reason we traditionally assign these brutal fact-finding responsibilities to those courts, is that intimate legal custody and life-or-death decisions should not be determined based on popular referenda. They need to be rooted, as much as possible, in rock-solid legal rules.

This is not a slippery-slope case, where it's a short hop from "executing" those in persistent vegetative conditions to killing anyone with a disability. This is a case in which an established right-to-refuse-treatment claim, litigated for years up and down through the appeals courts, is being thwarted by parents with no custodial claim to their child. By stepping in merely to sow doubt as to whom Terri Schiavo's proper custodian might be, rather than creating some new constitutional right to a "culture of life," Congress has simply called the existing legal regime into doubt without establishing a new one. This new law offers no clarity about what the new federal claims might be. It just forum-shops for a more tractable judge.

You can put aside the doctrine of federalism for Terri Schiavo, and the principles of separation of powers, and comity, and of deference to finality and the rule of law. But you'd want to be certain, on the day you do so, that what you're sacrificing them for some concrete legal value that matters a whole lot more. Subordinating a centuries-old culture of law to an amorphous, legally meaningless "culture of life," is not a decision to be taken over a weekend.
Word. (And Dahlia Lithwick is a rock star!) At any rate, I was going to write a whole slew of killer posts on teen sex, gay sex, maybe gay teen sex, abortion, the joys of partisanship (not what you think), and a structural analysis of liberalized autocracies in North Africa. But they'll all have to wait while I go vomit for a few hours.
-- Brad Plumer 12:27 AM || ||

March 21, 2005

Locker Room Talk

White House Chief of Staff Andy Card describes Dina Powell (right), the new diplomacy czar at State: "She is extremely attractive, very competent, well spoken, young, she's got quiet confidence and she is task-oriented. In other words, she gets the job done." Uh-huh.

And here's OMB director Josh Bolten: "You can see people really taken by surprise when this young, attractive, really well-spoken person in both English and Arabic makes a presentation on behalf of the president. That sends a really strong message."

Cold showers, boys! Criminy. In seriousness, though, Dina Powell seems like a great choice for the role—speaks Arabic, wildly popular in Egypt (and no doubt her looks have a lot to do with that)—though it's still true that the best way to address our unpopularity in the Middle East is with, get this, better policies, not better public relations. But oh well. At least Andy Card's happy.
-- Brad Plumer 3:11 PM || ||

Ah, Michael Barone spots a new trend: the "trustfunder left"
Who are the trustfunders? People with enough money not to have to work for a living, or not to have to work very hard. People who can live more or less wherever they want. The "nomadic affluent," as demographic analyst Joel Kotkin calls them.

These people tend to be very liberal politically. Aware that they have done nothing to earn their money, they feel a certain sense of guilt. At the elite private or public high schools they attend, and even more at their colleges and universities, they are propagandized about the evils of capitalism and globalization, and the virtues of environmentalism and pacifism. Patriotism is equated with Hiterlism.
That sounds horrible! But then he cites Kotkin to say: "The heaviest concentration is in the San Francisco Bay area, which, Kotkin says, has the largest percentage of trustfunders of any major metro area in the country." Now I see a lot of people working hard here in this city, so I wonder if this is really true. A quick click over to Kotkin's site reveals what he means by the "nomadic affluent":
[W]ealthy people whose primary residence may be elsewhere but who live downtown to be close to business; or of people 25 to 32 years old who live downtown because of its perceived hipness. These people tend to be affluent, but the trouble is they don't stay around long.
Okay, so he's just talking about hipsters, and more precisely, hipsters who tend to be affluent (so presumably not all of them are). Sure, we have a lot of them here, and they're sort of annoying. But you know, it's possible to be a well-off hipster with a nifty Mission studio and still work hard. (Many do.) Conversely, it's possible to be a hipster without all that much money, as Kotkin seems to allow. But Barone's talking about "trustfunders," which seems to be a somewhat different set of people entirely, and as far as I can tell, he just made up his little category out of thin air. There's also a question, which maybe Kotkin answers somewhere, of how influential these people actually are in the city's electoral numbers. 70 percent of the Bay Area voted for Kerry. Take out all the lazy wealthy people who were brainwashed at Bard and Dartmouth, etc., and you still get a Democratic landslide, trustfunders or no.
-- Brad Plumer 2:01 PM || ||
Two Birds, One Stone

Given that I grew up in Japan and all, occasionally I feel like I should know more about the place. Also, given that I work at Mother Jones and all, occasionally I feel like I should link to its site more. Happily, I can do both by pointing out this piece by Chalmers Johnson on the rise of China and the increasing militarism of Japan. Some of his views are plainly wrong—the North Korea crisis would almost certainly not be solved if the U.S. simply issued a "no hostile intent" pledge—and for some reason he thinks that China will magically become the world's first benevolent hegemon. That said, it's a good overview of goings-on in the Pacific and Johnson's warning that great wars tend to occur when existing great powers fail to adjust to a new great power is well-taken.
-- Brad Plumer 1:36 PM || ||

March 20, 2005

What Next for North Korea?

Quick quiz: Whenever you find yourself trying to defuse a nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula, do you find it most helpful to a) gain the trust of all parties involved, or b) lie to your allies? As a bonus, guess which one the Bush administration would prefer! Today in the Post, Dafna Linzer catches the White House squarely in the act of lying: "In an effort to increase pressure on North Korea, the Bush administration told its Asian allies in briefings earlier this year that Pyongyang had exported nuclear material to Libya. . . But that is not what U.S. intelligence reported, according to two officials with detailed knowledge of the transaction." Morons, all of them. But there's a more pressing question here: what does all this mean for the future of North Korea?

Cheryl Rofer has the backstory here, but basically, over the last few months South Korea and China have found the "six-party talks" with North Korea useless (which they are), and instead wanted to continue their engagement policy with Kim Jong Il. The White House freaked out and concocted a little tale about NK crossing the ultimate "rogue state" red line and selling nuke material to Libya, so as to get SK and China back into the talks with renewed vigor. As it turns out, though, our little ally Pakistan was peddling the nuclear material, not North Korea. (No one of course is talking about regime change in Pakistan, and with good reason!)

Anyway, the conventional take on all this is that such lies will hurt U.S. credibility on future intelligence issues. That's an issue, I think, though it's slightly overblown. The claims about nuke sales to Libya were suspect from the start—lots of experts could see that, the IAEA could see that, and China and South Korea could both see that—and none of the doubts depended on how credible they considered the White House to be.

Very rarely, it seems, does any country simply "trust" another country's intelligence. On the campaign trail, John Kerry told that story about how John F. Kennedy's word alone was good enough to convince De Gaulle that Cuba was harboring missiles. But the story is mostly bullshit. If De Gaulle had actually had serious reservations about responding to Cuba, of course he would've needed to see pictures and proof that the missiles existed. But he didn't care, so it was all moot. Conversely, if the U.S. ever truly has credible evidence that X danger exists, it shouldn't be difficult to share that evidence and whip people into action. For better or worse, the U.S. can still get a lot accomplished with shoddy credibility.

But that's not the main point. At least as far as North Korea's concerned, it's now increasingly clear to everyone involved that the U.S. has no interest in pursuing engagement, regardless of the facts. Now there are reasons to think neither China nor South Korea want to confront North Korea if they don't have to—that is, so long as NK's not doing anything particularly flagrant like selling nuclear material to other countries. Mainly, this is because neither China nor South Korea wants NK to collapse all of a sudden—the resulting economic mess would be disastrous. To avert that scenario, then, both countries have tried to promote economic development and the joys of capitalism in North Korea. The Kaesong Industrial Zone looks like an early success, and Kim Jong Il has more or less approved of its construction, though the U.S. hates it for rather weird and baseless reasons.

Now, my original guess was that U.S. policy towards North Korea in Bush's second term was going to run along the following lines: The White House would continue to pursue those largely useless six-party talks, rattle the saber at North Korea from time to time, offer some half-baked incentives, and generally just get everyone semi-riled-up over Kim Jong Il. But it would essentially be a weak half-measure. The real action would take place elsewhere—with bills like the North Korea Human Rights Act (which many suspect to be a shell game for regime change), by aiding groups working to destabilize North Korea from within, by funding dissidents, and generally just working to keep South Korea and China away from engaging economically with Kim Jong Il.

All of the sudden, however, that may have all changed. In the past, so long as China and South Korea could believe that the U.S. was committed to defusing the North Korea crisis through negotiations, they would all sit down for the six-party talk charade and jabber away uselessly, exactly as the Bush administration wanted. But as it's now clear that the U.S. isn't at all serious about engaging North Korea, and is just pursuing a policy of "Please for the love of god don't help Kim Jong Il carry out economic reforms!", well, it's difficult to see why South Korea and China should take the talks seriously. Indeed, Chinese President Hu Jintao's comments on the subject today were virtually meaningless. (I could be wrong about this, but the safe bet's on more foot-dragging.)

So that means more engagement from the Asian neighbors and less U.S. involvement is likely in the future, it seems. I haven't decided whether that's an improvement over the current policy or not—it all depends no how malignant you think North Korea truly is. I guess we'll see.

Continue reading "What Next for North Korea?"
-- Brad Plumer 7:25 PM || ||