Monday, October 31, 2005

Where is everybody?

Claim your spot on the Modo Blog Frappr Map. You can use a pseudonym, it's anonymous.

Alito's the Nominee

Check out this Red State post for a good overview of three of Alito's more interesting rulings.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Colin Powell's Promise to Arab Leaders

In the spring of 2004, US-Arab relations were rocked by the Abu Ghraib scandal. Then-Secretary Powell made this assurance to Arab leaders:

But even in the midst of their disappointment, the secretary told the Arab leaders he met to "watch America. Watch how we deal with this. Watch how America will do the right thing. Watch what a nation of values and character, a nation that believes in justice, does to right this kind of wrong. Watch how a nation such as ours will not tolerate such actions."

"I told them that they will see a free press and an independent Congress at work," he continued. "They will see a Defense Department led by Secretary (Donald) Rumsfeld that will launch multiple investigations to get to the facts. Above all, they will see a president -- our president, President Bush -- determined to find out where responsibility and accountability lie. And justice will be done. The world will see that we are still a nation with a moral code that defines our national character."

Iraqis have not been impressed by the US response to Lynndie England's 3-year sentence, or Sabrina Harman's 4 month sentence. But the US government should not be judged solely, or mostly, by how it metes out justice--more important is how its policies and practice of handling of prisoners has changed.

The military has made some substantive procedural changes that are reasonable and humane. They've better codified the boundaries of interrogation and taken some authority away from the interrogator. They've clarified the proper use of police dogs, and instituted a better prisoner tracking system to prevent 'ghost detainees'--the poorly documented ones that are most likely to be abused.

At the higher echelons, the story is less rosy. This is highlighted by recent political battles over banning torture.

While I think that the legal argument that combatants without a national affiliation do not have the right to claim Geneva Convention protection has some merits (based on the text of the Conventions themselves, by which non-uniformed fighters are specifically not covered), I also believe that on balance it is in our interest to voluntarily bestow those rights on prisoners the US takes in combat regardless. Doing so has value in strengthening our relationships with allies and with the local population in the countries where we're engaged in counterinsurgency.

However, the administration continues to insist on what amounts to the right to torture detainees, while refusing to call it that.

Over a year and a half after the Abu Ghraib story broke, it is an ongoing mark of shame for America. Colin Powell's early optimism has been thwarted by an incompetent and unprincipled administration that compounded the problem by overestimating the short-term intelligence gains of torture and underestimating its long-term political costs.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Victory Means Exit Strategy?

Bloggers like to compile lists of hippocritical quotes, like these prominent Republicans' Clinton-era warnings about the Balkans(Link):

"Victory means exit strategy and it's important for the president to explain to us what the exit strategy is."
--GW Bush, Houston Chronicle on April 9, 1999

"There are no clarified rules of engagement. There is no timetable. There is no legitimate definition of victory. There is no contingency plan for mission creep. There is no clear funding program. There is no agenda to bolster our overextended military. There is no explanation defining what vital national interests are at stake. There was no strategic plan for war when the president started this thing, and there still is no plan today."
--Tom Delay, April 1999

"No goal, no objective, not until we have those things and a compelling case is made, then I say, back out of it, because innocent people are going to die for nothing. That's why I'm against it."
--Sean Hannity, explaining why he wanted the US to immediately withdraw from the Balkans

More recently, of course, Democrats have been calling for an exit strategy from Iraq.

I don't think the idea of an 'exit strategy' usually makes much sense. It's often argued that deadlines for withdrawal are counterproductive because it gives the enemy a date it knows it only needs to survive beyond. But that's only part of a larger problem that managing theater-level operations through the political decision-making process is bound to produce inefficiency, inertia, and ill-informed choices: witness the botched Iranian embassy hostage rescue attempt.

True, the decision to withdraw is a question of geopolitical strategy which should be debated at high levels, but it is a binary question--we either withdraw today or we don't. Once committed to withdrawal, the actual process should be administered by commanders on the ground as much as possible, who require flexibility and freedom to act on changing situations. The need for this flexibility precludes much detail in an 'exit strategy' making the concept itself of limited value.

So what if 'exit strategy' refers more to the pre-invasion idea of what conditions will trigger a withdrawal? Well, this war falls in a long line of wars that prove the maxim that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. If the tactical plans are so unreliable, strategic plans can only be more so. We know now that most of the assumptions about the post-war situation were way off, so any plan based on them would be worthless.

Usually, I think people calling for exit strategies are making proxy criticisms of an adminstration for embarking on a war for values the critic does not share. In the 90s, conservatives opposed the precedent of humanitarian military action, fearing we would get bogged down in costly actions that don't further our national interest, and exhaust ourselves. The president felt that the burden was not great enough to outweigh his value of a world community that does not tolerate genocide.

Liberals opposed invading Iraq when they perceived diplomatic channels as being potentially effective for achieving the stated goals of the war. Conservatives felt that the danger to the region and the world of the precedent of allowing a rogue state to ignore UN resolutions and develop WMD was greater than the cost of invasion and occupation.

It would be nice if we could have a public discourse on these real differences in value/cost perspectives rather than proxy debates about who wants an exit strategy when.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Iraq War Blowback

After the mujahadeen helped drive Soviet forces out of Afghanistan in the 1980s, they distributed their Islamist ideology and their technical knowledge all over the globe. The Afghan war amounted to a catalyst for the formation of a global Islamist militant community, by concentrating like-minded militants in one place, where they networked and trained together. Peter Bergen and Alec Reynolds argue that Iraq may serve a similar function for the next generation of Islamists:

Several factors could make blowback from the Iraq war even more dangerous than the fallout from Afghanistan. Foreign fighters started to arrive in Iraq even before Saddam's regime fell. They have conducted most of the suicide bombings--including some that have delivered strategic successes such as the withdrawal of the UN...

Fighters in Iraq are more battle hardened than the Afghan Arabs, who fought demoralized Soviet army conscripts. They are testing themselves against arguably the best army in history, acquiring skills in their battles against coalition forces that will be far more useful for future terrorist operations than those their counterparts learned during the 1980s.

Mastering how to make improvised explosive devices or how to conduct suicide operations is more relevant to urban terrorism than the conventional guerrilla tactics used against the Red Army. U.S. military commanders say that techniques perfected in Iraq have been adopted by militants in Afghanistan.

It would be Pyrrhic indeed if after strenuous efforts we finally pacify Iraq, only to find that international Islamist organizations had been replenished with veterans of that very war.

I think we are very close to the point where our continued presence in Iraq does more harm than good. Whenever we choose to withdraw, there will be some who feel it is too early; that can't be helped. But if we linger too long, we may find ourselves proving the old medical adage, "the longer you stay, the longer you stay."

Conservative Judicial Activism

The Right is more in favor of judicial activism than it likes to admit to itself. ChargingRINO cites John Danforth:

They [the Religious Right]- they want a political judge. They want a judicial activist. This business about judicial conservatism and somebody who decides the law, that's baloney. I mean, that's what they should want. That - that is what the judge should be, somebody who interprets the law and not makes it. But forget about that. I mean, these people are just as activist as the People For the American Way and all those organizations."

It is possible to believe, as I do, that Roe stands on shaky legal reasoning, and still feel that future abortion cases ought to be decided on the basis of the facts of those cases themselves, rather than as an excuse to overturn a questionable piece of established law.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously asserted that "general propositions do not decide concrete cases." Neither do faulty precedents decide future cases.

Conservatives are fond of saying that they want Justices who will simply interpret the constitution as they find it. I would go one step further and seek Justices who interpret the constitution and established case law as they find it. The proper remedy for an activist judiciary is not new reverse activism, but legislative action.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

TX and VT Healthcare Polls: Common Ground

Texas and Vermont are not often mentioned in the same sentence. But recent polls on consumer healthcare preferences show that the iconically Red State Texas and the poster-child Blue State Vermont aren't that far apart in health care policy priorities.

Kaiser found that among Texans, 81% felt increasing the number of Americans covered by insurance was "Very Important" while AARP found that 78% of Vermonters thought that reducing the number of uninsured Vermonters was "Very Important" or "Extremely Important."

The Vermont study interestingly found that 66% of respondants strongly agreed that the state should ensure a certain baseline level of healthcare for each Vermonter. What that base should be, though, was not defined. The Texas study did not address this question, but another study by NPR/Kennedy School in 2002 found 52% of Texans favor national insurance coverage, with particular support among Hispanics.

There are certain to be real differences between what type of healthcare systems the two states would develop over time, but it is interesting that two states with such different general political cultures should look so similar when polled regarding goals for the healthcare industry.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Why is it so important to torture?

The NY Times op/ed page opines on the Bush administration proposal to change McCain's anti-torture amendment to allow the CIA to abuse prisoners:

President Bush's threat to veto the entire military budget over this issue was bizarre enough by itself, considering that the amendment has the support of more than two dozen former military leaders, including Colin Powell. They know that torture doesn't produce reliable intelligence and endangers Americans' lives.

But Mr. Cheney's proposal was even more ludicrous. It would give the president the power to allow government agencies outside the Defense Department (the administration has in mind the C.I.A.) to mistreat and torture prisoners as long as that behavior was part of "counterterrorism operations conducted abroad" and they were not American citizens. That would neatly legalize the illegal prisons the C.I.A. is said to be operating around the world and obviate the need for the torture outsourcing known as extraordinary rendition. It also raises disturbing questions about Iraq, which the Bush administration has falsely labeled a counterterrorism operation.

Phillip Carter points out that a big problem with torture is that any evidence obtained in such a way would be excluded from war crimes trials or any international tribunals. The specter of tainted evidence makes the prosecution of people like Saddam Hussein and his ilk much more difficult.

Darius Rejali reports that the main case that pro-torture apologists cite is the French victory in Algiers. But now that the Algerian archives are open, it appears that it was better informant penetration of the local settlers rather than information gained through torture that carried the day. There is no good evidence I could find, or that Mr Rejali could find, to recommend torture above other methods of intelligence gathering. Given its significant downsides, institutionalized torture is not only unwise, but it ought to lead a nation into pariah status as surely as possession of illegal weapons of mass destruction.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Scowcroft and the Other GOP

Brent Scowcroft has been grumbling quietly in the background about the Iraq War, and with good reason. Amy Davidson interviewed Jeff Goldberg about his article in the current New Yorker about the Scowcroft/Bush 43 split. Here's a telling quote:

Are the conservatives turning against the neoconservatives?

They’ve been doing so for some time. Just read George Will. Their complaint is that neoconservatives aren’t conservative; they’re liberals with guns. Conservatives tend to take Scowcroft’s more jaundiced view of human nature. Paul Wolfowitz, on the other hand, is a liberal, but a liberal who believes that transformation can be brought about by force, not just persuasion. Obviously, there are other breaches within the Republican Party, on the Harriet Miers nomination, on spending, and on and on.

They're liberals with guns.

The enlightenment/liberal political project has long seen its ultimate end as a world government--from the League of Nations, to the UN, to the EU. The purpose is noble enough--to sublimate human conflicts from war into political/legal discourse. As Joseph Ellis notes, the greatest success story of channelling regional discord from potential war into a stance of 'agree to disagree' political tumult was the adoption of the US Constitution.

But Russell Kirk, intellectual father of 20th century conservatism, clearly enshrines "recognition of the need to cultivate affection for the multiplicity and variety of traditional life and custom, in opposition to the narrow and reductionist ideologies of equalitarian and utilitarian social schemes" (Link) as one of the bedrock principles of conservatism. A policy of serially injecting democracy into traditional societies from the outside is not consistant with a comprehensive conservative outlook. And a liberal certainly would not be so cavalier about the use of force. The neoconservatives have managed to combine the worst tendencies of each end of the political spectrum.

GW Bush is not a conservative, he is an evangelical; American political, economic, religious and cultural norms are his gospel. As president, he has the military means to be a crusader. We need to check any other adventures into Syria or Iran, before his disjointed and ungrounded policies do more harm.

Hat tip to Charging RINO

Thursday, October 20, 2005

China in Perspective

The impending economic hegemony of China has been widely predicted, and Secretary John Snow has been working hard to convince China to revalue its currency in an effort to stem the US/China trade deficit. Indeed, as The Economist reports, China has made large strides in the past 10 years, solving many of the problems of transition to markets that, for instance, Russia, has not.

The number of state firms has tumbled from over 300,000 to 150,000 in the past decade.

This has been offset by rapid growth in the private sector. The OECD estimates that in 2003 private companies accounted for 63% of China's business-sector output (which in turn accounts for 94% of GDP). This compares with 54% in 1998 and virtually nothing in the 1970s. If you add in “collective” enterprises, which are officially controlled by local government but in practice operate more like private firms, the private sector's share was 71% in 2003 (see chart). By now it is probably close to three-quarters. Nevertheless, that still leaves state enterprises' share of output well above that in OECD countries.

That being said, at the start of the 1990s China's central planning authorities regulated the distribution of aobut 600 commodities, while the Soviet Union regulated over 100 times that number, so the scale of central planning was much less in China to begin with.

China's 2004 GDP was about $1.6 trillion, compared with the US's $11.7 trillion. The US growth rate was 4.4% last year, compared with China's 8.5% average annual real GDP growth in the past 4 years. These figures make it sound like the US economy is really falling behind China. But here are a few reasons to temper predictions of America's eclipse by China:

-Another way of comparing US and Chinese economies is to note that 10 years ago China's GDP was one tenth of the US GDP, and last year it was one seventh--hardly an economic realignment.

-China's economy is about the same size as Brazil's ($1.5 trillion with a 5.1% growth rate).

-Economists generally agree that the bilateral trade deficit (the difference between what two specific countries export to each other) is much less important than a given country's total trade deficit. What matters is if a country is net positive or negative for foreign capital, and this is determined much more by domestic savings rates than by presence or lack of protectionist policies.

-Time Asia reports that "62% of the [China's] export growth over the past decade came from Chinese subsidiaries of multinationals headquartered elsewhere in the world—in Asia, Europe, and America."

-Other "Asian Tiger" economies like Japan and Taiwan seemed indomitable during the 1970s and 1980s, but faltered in the 1990s, largely due to reliance on easily-withdrawn foreign investment and loose credit policies from their central banks--somewhat similar conditions exist in China now, with government capital readily available to multiple inefficient state firms.

Clearly China is a growing player in the global economic scene, but harmful policies (i.e. protectionist tariffs and regulation) will result if we allow ourselves to get carried away with economic alarmism and facile ideas about 'giant sucking sounds' to the East, rather than carefully considering trade policy.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Paglia on Frank

Robert Birnbaum interviewed Camille Paglia in The Morning News and here's what she had to say about the notion that people voted against their best economic interests in the last presidential election:

RB: I take it you agree with Thomas Frank’s [What’s the Matter With Kansas] notion of what he calls an “age of derangement,” that working people are voting against their interests?

CP: I totally reject that formulation.

RB: Really?

CP: The idea that working people are voting against their interests seems to me—I’m sorry, I find that to be one of the most condescending, twisted things that has now taken root. It’s now in the media everywhere. That is twisted.


CP: The people are voting against their interests? Who knows that? Tom Frank knows that? Tom Frank knows what is in the people’s best interest? It’s an outrage.

RB: Yes, he gets to say that. If people need health care and jobs and housing and he points out that in specific circumstances, such as in Topeka where the Republican administration granted huge concessions to Boeing and Boeing pulled out when they thought they had a better deal elsewhere, costing 4,000 jobs, that’s clearly not in the interest of working people.

CP: You can find a lot of local stories of misery—the mill towns outside of Boston and everywhere. But Frank’s animus is against capitalism. OK? And here’s my point—you can’t just go around—and I could make the same point about upstate New York, which has been declining. Carrier, IBM, the shoe factories that my family came to work in, closing. GE, all kinds of stories, but the point is the people are not voting against their interest. Their interest is capitalism. This is my objection. In my view, comparing the evidence of the 20th century, that socialism in a nation ultimately does lead to economic stagnation and eventually of the creative impulse, in terms of new technology and other things. And that capitalism, despite all its failures, despite the fact that it’s Darwinian, has indeed produced a high standard of living. And, here’s the big one for me, as a feminist: It is capitalism that has enabled the emergence of the modern independent woman, for the first time free from fathers and brothers and husbands—a woman who can be self-sustaining. Now, I do believe—I am a Democrat, I am not a Republican, I do believe that because capitalism is Darwinian that it requires a strong safety net, that the government needs to provide certain things... So what I am saying is, how dare Thomas Frank decide what is—the people who are voting Republican believe that capitalism, despite the misery of individual places, they still believe that capitalism provides the best chance for small entrepreneurs to have an idea, put it into motion and eventually make a killing. Even if you are not rich you see other people getting rich and you want a system that can produce rich people.

RB: Sure, but it’s a chimera. They have been sold that bill of goods. They believe they can do that but they can’t—

CP: But—

RB: Hold on a second. Your point that a significant social security, as the consensus has produced in Europe and Scandinavia, leads to stagnation—

CP: Forty percent of a paycheck over there is taken by the government. The government does everything. People rely on the government to do everything. And I do believe there is a slow decline in creativity that is observable in Europe over the last 40 years.

Until the Democrats realize that Americans by and large really do believe in capitalism, and that their party is perceived as being too closely tied to groups who use special interests issues like environmentalism and anti-globalization as cover for anti-capitalist sentiments, they will have a lot of difficulty getting credibility in Kansas.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Is the 17th Amendment Outdated?

The 17th Amendment provides for direct election of US Senators by the electorate, changing the original constitutional procedure for their election by state legislatures. Has it been a success? With Medicaid shifting cost burdens to states, and highway bills used as leverage to force states to adopt laws that the federal government would not otherwise be able to pass on its own jurisdiction, it seems that states' powers are constantly being eroded by end-runs around the constitution. The states' check on federal power now is only through the Supreme Court, rather than through the constant political mechanism that legislature appointment of senators provided.

How did we get here? John W. Dean writes that the two main conventional-wisdom reasons for its enactment--the Progressive movement and confusion with the state-legislature system--are inadequate.

Professor Zywicki basically demolishes both these explanations. He contends, first, that explaining the Seventeenth Amendment as part of the Progressive Movement is weak, at best. After all, nothing else from that movement (such as referendums and recalls) was adopted as part of the Constitution. He also points out that revisionist history indicates the Progressive Movement was not driven as much by efforts to aid the less fortunate as once was thought (and as it claimed) - so that direct democracy as an empowerment of the poor might not have been one of its true goals.

What about the "corruption and deadlock" explanation? Zywicki's analysis shows that, in fact, the corruption was nominal, and infrequent. In addition, he points out that the deadlock problem could have been easily solved by legislation that would have required only a plurality to elect a Senator - a far easier remedy than the burdensome process of amending the Constitution that led to the Seventeenth Amendment.

Fortuntely, Professor Zywicki offers an explanation for the Amendment's enactment that makes much more sense. He contends that the true backers of the Seventeenth Amendment were special interests, which had had great difficultly influencing the system when state legislatures controlled the Senate. (Recall that it had been set up by the Framers precisely to thwart them.) They hoped direct elections would increase their control, since they would let them appeal directly to the electorate, as well as provide their essential political fuel - money.

Increasing the directness of a democracy is not always good, or permanently good. In the early 20th century it may have made sense to cut out local political party machines by directly electing senators, but today it's the national special interests who have the most well oiled machines.

If you cruise the internet for repeal-the-17th sites, you will find many references to the fact that the federal government has grown in scope since the amendment was passed. I think this argument misses the mark. The growth in welfare programs and regulatory control of sectors of the economy are not due to the Senate's sudden newfound freedom from state legislatures--these programs originated with Presidents are were passed by both houses of congress, in response to changing national expectations of what government's role should be. These things would have happened with or without the 17th.

The harm of the 17th amendment is twofold. First, it erodes state autonomy in matters properly reserved to them, such as intra-state transportation and education. A senator will think twice about stepping on state legislators' constitutional toes if he wants another term in Washington.

Secondly, it leaves each senator more beholden to nationally organized special interests than to his/her own constituents. The republic works best when politicians represent the people more than they do special interests, but the concentration of power in just 100 senators popularly elected at large in our current system promotes senatorial vassalage to monied lobbies. One way to cut K Street out of the loop would be to roll back the 17th Amendment.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Avian Flu Update

Here are some highlights from the New England Journal report on the current state of avian flu (Influenza A H5N1).

-Animal to human transmission: Most cases in Asia occurred from contact with live birds, despite many exposures to poultry products. There have been 57 deaths so far since December 2003. There is evidence the virus is beginning to adapt to human hosts.

-Human to human transmission: A number of seroconversions (evidence of virus exposure only on blood test) among household contacts and coworkers, but no serious illnesses directly attributable to H5N1.

-Clinical Features: May have longer incubation period than standard human influenza. Upper respiratory sympoms occasional. Diarrhea, vomiting, and bleeding from nose/gums are also possible. Watery diarrhea is common. Lower respiratory tract sympoms occur early and are very common, with bilateral chest x-ray findings and rapid progression to acute respiratory distress syndrome. Most require ventilatory support and intensive care for multiorgan failure upon admission.

-Mortality: 33%-100% in various inpatient cohorts, with a median death rate of the studies listed at 80%.

-Treatment: No vigorous studies are available. H5N1 is sensitive to oseltamivir and zanamivir in the test tube and in animal models, but there is evidence that we'd need to use higher doses and longer duration of treatment than for standard human influenza.

For more info on influenza in general, see here.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Whither the Mandarin?

The liberal arts-trained, senior civil servant is quickly becoming a creature of the past, writes Michael Lind. He describes how trends in education and politics have eroded the influence of the class of elite public official ("mandarins"), stemming from the rise of four distinct sources of authority:

The mandarin thus is a scapegoat for all of the major forces in contemporary society. The humanist programme of mandarin education is rejected alike by the professional (for whom education is vocational), the positivist (whose task is to expose the power relations that works of literature or history conceal, in preparation for doctrinal instruction in an ideological system), the populist (whose goal is either to replace the classics with a contemporary canon or to reinterpret them to make them "relevant" for today) and the religious believer (for whom the substitution of mandarin humanism for revealed religion was always an enormity). The mandarin is an amateur, to the professional; a statist, to the libertarian; an elitist, to the populist; and a heathen, to the religious believer. What possibly could be worse than a society run by such people?

The answer is a society without them.

Lind describes how the whithering of the professional senior civil servant has led to increasing political spoils appointments, to the detriment of the domestic bureaucracy. This stands in contrast to the intelligence and defense establishments which have largely evaded this trend.

America's unofficial mandarinate, the northeastern establishment, crumbled in the last quarter of the 20th century. The result is a social experiment in today's US as audacious, in its own way, as that of Soviet collectivism: an attempt to have a government without a governing elite. The US ship of state veers now in one direction, now the other. From a distance, one might conclude that the captain is a maniac. But a spyglass reveals that there is no captain or crew at all, only rival gangs of technocrats, ideologues, populists and zealots devoted to Jesus Christ or Adam Smith, each boarding the derelict vessel and capturing the wheel briefly before being tossed overboard.

While I think that the current administration, for all its faults, does lead with more cohesion than the derelict vessel metaphor suggests, I think that seeing the evolution of the US bureaucracy in the last 25 years as the result of a war among the forces of professionalism, positivism, populism, and religion has great explanatory power.

A well-trained, disciplined and professional civil service was the bulwark of the society that gave us the term 'mandarin' for over two thousand years. If we are to abandon having a meritocratic class as a cog in the mechanism of our society, we need to have its roles filled in some other way, or risk going the way of the Qing.