The Closet Moderate: 2009

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Hot air

I don't normally involve myself in the fine points of reducing carbon dioxide output -- asking me what carbon tax I prefer is like asking me which rope I'd prefer to be hanged with (sisal, for the record) -- but I'm intrigued by this week's tête-à-tête between Paul Krugman and James Hansen. It seems to illustrate the difference between social scientists and science scientists fairly well.

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It's definitely a New York Times type of disagreement, in that both men are proposing to tax the American people, they just disagree on the best way to do it. The plan currently proposed by the Obama administration is to create an artificial market in carbon dioxide using what's called a "cap-and-trade" system. That is, the government invents a limit on the amount of that gas that we may produce, and creates permits that allow us to create it. They then give out these permits -- mostly gratis -- to the more important campaign donors in swing states. The permits may then be traded among the various companies that need to let out some CO2. This is what the Democrats in Congress call "a free market".

Hansen, a "climatologist," wrote an op-ed in the New York Times on Sunday suggesting that this system has been ineffective wherever it's been tried. As Hansen writes, "[c]onsider the perverse effect cap and trade has on altruistic actions. Say you decide to buy a small, high-efficiency car. That reduces your emissions, but not your country’s. Instead it allows somebody else to buy a bigger S.U.V. — because the total emissions are set by the cap." I'm not big on altruism, as such, but Hansen is correct that this system would mean that any individual action would not necessarily give you anything to feel good about. And if there's one thing the environmental movement demands, it's feeling good about themselves.

Hansen proposed instead a "fee and dividend." As he describes it:
Under this approach, a gradually rising carbon fee would be collected at the mine or port of entry for each fossil fuel (coal, oil and gas). The fee would be uniform, a certain number of dollars per ton of carbon dioxide in the fuel. The public would not directly pay any fee, but the price of goods would rise in proportion to how much carbon-emitting fuel is used in their production.

Good so far, but here's the kicker:
All of the collected fees would then be distributed to the public. Prudent people would use their dividend wisely, adjusting their lifestyle, choice of vehicle and so on. Those who do better than average in choosing less-polluting goods would receive more in the dividend than they pay in added costs.

Yeah, that's right: the government doesn't get to keep the money. Clearly, the Second Coming of Keynes would have to inveigh against this assault on central planning. Sure enough, he does not disappoint, stating that Hansen "hasn’t made any effort to understand the economics of emissions control." Meow!

Krugman continues, telling us that the result is the same either way:
A tax puts a price on emissions, leading to less pollution. Cap and trade puts a quantitative limit on emissions, but from the point of view of any individual, emitting requires that you buy more permits (or forgo the sale of permits, if you have an excess), so the incentives are the same as if you faced a tax. Contrary to what Hansen seems to believe, the incentives for individual action to reduce emissions are the same under the two systems.


The difference, as this bloggard points out, is that Krugman assumes we live in the fantasy world of economists, where there are no transaction costs and no corruption. The House cap-and-trade bill already would distort this artificial market by passing out free permits to important interest groups. Would a rational anti-carbon bill really give $60 billion to coal companies? Given that coal is made of carbon, this seems counter-productive from an environmental point of view. Further, the auction system would require the creation of a whole new bureaucracy, and would remove more money from the economy by not refunding the cost of the permits to the people.

Hansen's plan would tax all carbon dioxide in fuels at the same rate and at the same time (either at extraction or at importation). It would take Congress a few years to distort that effect, while cap-and-trade comes pre-distorted for your campaign fund-raising pleasure. Fee and dividend would then give the money back to the people where they, not some central planner, could decide its best use for themselves. One of these proposals sees an imperfect world and imposes a simple solution; the other picks a complex solution, and assumes a simple world. I'm inclined to see this as the difference between a hard science, which must deal with the absolutes of a physical world (pace East Anglia) and a soft science, which fudges the world to fit its theories.


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Monday, December 07, 2009

Advertising Disaster

Tim Fernholz's article about the AfPak escalation reminded me of a soda I used to drink when I was a lad. Commercial below:


Text:
Wanna tour the planet? Grab a 20 oz. Surge (SUUUUURGE!) Play "Surge Around the World" and you and your buds can win four days with a fully-loaded jet to go to Athens, Rome, Tokyo, or almost anywhere you like!
That advertisement could be a recruiting ad if you just fuck around with the numbers and listed destinations. Now, depending on how shameless you think the board at Coca-Cola Inc. is, they're either thankful that they didn't have to deal with the PR nightmare or sad that they missed out on all the free marketing. Either way, it was a soda ahead of its time.

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THIS FUCKING GUY OH MY GOD

and this is what I did to your daughter's boobs
I don't like Thomas Friedman, and I'm pretty up front about that. I don't know the guy personally, but he strikes me as one of those folks who had a moment of excellence a while back, and since then has become some sort of human alchemical process through which information is transformed into idiocy. I wouldn't consider it a problem if the NYT didn't afford him a mechanism for turning his personal stupidity into our collective stupidity. I'm a fan of Bill Clinton, but even he thinks T-Fried is a "gifted journalist."

Now I know what you're thinking: this Statler fellow is just some grumpy Muppet named after a hotel, out to make Thomas Friedman his Fozzie Bear. And that's all true, as far as it goes. But let me make my case to you, as briefly as I can:The prosecution rests.

[Photo: on Meet the Press, Thomas Friedman, a three-time Pulitzer winner and NYT op-ed columnist, explains how his date with your daughter went.]

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Thursday, December 03, 2009

On Language (II)

Low-hanging fruit

1. Goals that are easily achievable and don't require a lot of effort.

I don't know about you, but whenever I hear this phrase it seems to carry a mild stigma. It's as if reaching for ripe, succulent fruits within easy reach is some how a demeaning activity for modern humans. I think it's worth noting that when no less a pantheon than the Gods of Olympus wanted to punish Tantalus for either trying to feed his dismembered son to them or sharing divine ambrosia with other mortals (accounts vary), they rewarded his culinary impertinence by banishing him to a place where low-hanging fruit was perpetually just out of reach. From his fate we get the verb "to tantalize," a verb that's frequently used by the same wordy folks who disdain the very idea of easy food.

Anthropologically speaking, any Homo Erectus who was too good for low-hanging fruit got his balls chewed off by a leopard that wasn't as picky. So the next time you make a fat joke about your fat friend and somebody throws that "low-hanging fruit" shit in your face, remember this: you're an heir to a proud human tradition. They're going to be eaten by lions.

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Mysteries of Modern Medicine

I'm a bit amazed that we haven't managed to cure breast cancer yet. Off the top of my head, I can't think of a single anti-breast group out there. Simply put, the entire human race, independent of color, creed or sexual orientation, is objectively pro-boob.

Maybe, maybe there's some troglodyte fashionista out there who objects to breasts because they ruin the waifish silhouette he's trying to achieve, but that seems to suggest he's rather bad at his job and his views should be discounted. (Protip: don't design for women if you can't deal with female anatomy!) You could also make a case for the mythical Amazons, who supposedly cut or burned off their right breast so that it wouldn't obstruct their draw when using a bow. However, every artistic representation of Amazons depicts them with both breasts, suggesting one of two things:
  • Artists are pro-boob, willing to indulge in a little artistic license (see: Wonder Woman)
  • The whole a-mazon (without breasts) etymology is just another example of the ugly trope that a strong woman must therefore be less feminine
If I were to bet on the origins of a rumor about a mythical society of woman-warriors, I'd bet on the latter option. But I wouldn't do that, because that would be dumb. Anyway, to recap: the entire human race likes breasts, and breast cancer reduces overall breast prevalence. And yet we haven't cured it.

Come on, everybody!

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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

A Speech of Necessity

After a lengthy review process, President Obama has authorized an additional 30,000 troops for the Afghanistan war. I harp on this constantly, but there are two countervailing pressures affecting this decision. Hamid Karzai is famously corrupt, and the obvious method to coerce him into shaping up is to threaten to leave him to the Taliban's tender mercies. That said, to get Afghans to buy into our nation-building process we need to convince them that we'll be there to defend them from the Taliban until such time as the Afghan security forces are ready to take over. Clearly, these two ideas are in tension.

If you're interesting in more reading about The Speech and AfPak broadly, read these folks. While you read, I'll drink.


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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Essential Reading

I write a lot about war, but every now and then someone writes something that makes me feel bad for even trying to talk about that subject. On particularly bad days, I find two examples of that sort of writing:

Paul Staniland on COIN doctrine


Prof. Stephen Walt on the hazards of occupation


Paul and Prof. Walt lay out, in stark detail, the problems with our approach to the AfPak muddle. Even if you don't read anything else on this topic, and that includes my blog posts, read these articles.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

100 jobs saved in East Dakota's 10th district!

Recovery.gov, your clearing house for made up statistics, has been listing thousands of jobs saved in places that do not exist. I know the conspiracy-minded among you will instantly leap to the facile conclusion that the government has secret Congressional districts it is hiding from us. Some others of you may believe the government was just making up jobs data and wasn't even smart enough to consult Wikipedia when fabricating their data. The truth is more subtle, but still disappointing.

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To start with, let's consider the explanation for this balls-up. As the ABC News article says,
"We report what the recipients submit to us," said Ed Pound, Communications Director for the Board. Pound told ABC News the board receives declarations from the recipients - state governments, federal agencies and universities - of stimulus money about what program is being funded.
Pound, who also serves as Tsar of Irrational and Transcendental Numbers, gives us a hint at the rigorous methodology behind the administration's ciphering. They ask people how many jobs they've "saved," add up the total, and pass it on to us as being straight from the hand of God Obama.

Consider what other government agency is so trusting. Does the IRS take your word for it at tax time? Does airport security let you through unsearched if you promise you're no terrorist? Does the EPA let you go on your merry way if you pinky swear that pollution isn't from your factory? Of course not. Leviathan doesn't take your word for shit.

All of these "saved" jobs numbers (a dubious prospect in itself) are based on the say-so of people who have just been handed a big sack of government money. What do you expect they will say, that it didn't work? They're not likely to get more Sacajaweas that way.

The flaw in this methodology cannot have been hidden from the administration's senses. Obama may be a naïf in foreign policy, but the people who run his domestic bureaucracies know a whopper when they hear one. And when they heard that we've spent $1.5 million to create 1/3 of a job in the 69th district of the northern Mariana Islands, they should've smelled a rat. Passing on information you know to be false may not be as bad as making it up, but it's not the Hope sandwich we were told to expect.


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Monday, November 09, 2009

This Week in Stupid

I usually stick to political idiocy for this section, but today's winner is a Joe Posnanski article about the New York Yankees.

Mr. Posnanski is a Kansas City Royals fan and Zach Greinke booster. He's a fabulous writer and his eloquent case for Greinke as Cy Young recipient sold me completely. That said, he nurses a peculiar resentment toward the Bronx Bombers.

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The New York Yankees enjoy a tremendous financial advantage over almost every other team in Major League Baseball. This year, their payroll came in a solid $50,000,000 higher than the runner-up New York Mets, whose W-L record this year made them strong contenders for the 2009 "Rudy Giuliani Money For Nothing" award (est. 2008). Posnanski correctly points out that this grants the Yankees a tremendous inherent advantage. Granted.

Then he undermines that very point by admitting that the nature of baseball obscures dominance. If the Yankees spend lots of money but don't crowd out other teams, then I'd like to be reminded what the problem is. The Yankees dropped a series to the Washington Natinals, lost the first 8 games of the season series to the Boston Red Sox, and otherwise lost games they ought to have won. Of course, they also won a whole lot of games and eventually the World Series. Or, as Joe puts it:
That team will roll through the playoffs without facing an elimination game or anything resembling real drama — though there will be constant efforts to make it SEEM like there’s drama.
Sure, I'm a Yankees fan, but I think Joe was watching another ALCS. Games 2 and 3 went to the 11th and 13th inning, respectively. Game 5 was decided by a single run, and the Angels had a chance to even the series and force #7 until Kazmir lost them #6. Additionally, the Angels made a number of decisive baserunning errors that erased runners in scoring position--errors that very well might have changed the outcomes of those games.

Also, even if we accept everything about Joe's argument, it still doesn't follow that the Yankees are bad for baseball. On the contrary, the amount of hate the Yankees attract is good for baseball. In addition to sold out stadia and comfortable underdog narratives, hating the Yankees is an easy point of entry into baseball for casual fans. The Red Sox Nation may not have any idea who Alex Gonzales--their starting SS--is, but they know (and hate) Alex Rodriguez.

If the Yankees won every World Series every year, Posnanski might have a point. While I enjoyed the run from 1996-2000, that had more to do with my early Yankees fandom, watching the hopeless teams of the late 80's and early 90's as they stunk up the joint. After that legacy of futility, four World Series titles felt like justice, not dominance. As it stands, the Yankees don't win every year. Instead, they're crucible in which romantic notions about the Great American Game are tested. For those who cling to such things, victory over the Yankees isn't some trivial statistical inevitability, it's a validation of their hope and faith.

Finally, fandom is not so much a choice as a habit or instinct, one that we then invent justifications for. He doesn't like the Yankees. I do, and while I'm probably being unfair, I think many of Posnanski's cavils stem from the fact that he is a Kansas City Royals fan. The Yankees, to him, are a team with 27 World Series titles and 40 American League pennants. They are emblematic of a system that places enormous obstacles between his team and the World Series. As a 27-year-old Yankees fan, I have to say that 22 of those titles mean almost nothing to me. For me, watching the Yankees is about watching Pettitte, Jeter, Posada and Rivera play baseball. It's about a thread that connects me to memories of hot summers as a 13-year-old kid in New Jersey, watching Mariano set up Wetteland. That sense of continuity is more important to me than the World Series.

The trophy is nice, though.


This Week in Stupid Archives:

Michael Gerson

Eliott Abrams
Leon Wieseltier
Max Boot

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Friday, November 06, 2009

Insert Additional COIN(s)

On a fundamental level, what bothers me about the wars we're embroiled in are the echoes of the "civilizing mission" that surround them. In Iraq, that tone was explicit. We were attempting to transform the country into a modern democracy by force of arms. That idea was rank hubris, but at the time it sounded appealing to a country habituated to the idea of a global crusade a bereft of one for a whole decade.

In Afghanistan, it's more of an undertone. But the objectives and metrics the Obama administration has developed to measure success in Afghanistan and Pakistan are ambitious:
Objective 3b. Promote a more capable, accountable, and effective government in Afghanistan that serves the Afghan people and can eventually function, especially regarding internal security, with limited international support.
Objective 2a. Assist efforts to enhance civilian control and stable constitutional government in Pakistan.
And some sample metrics from Objective 2a:
1. Progress towards Pakistan's civilian government and judicial system becoming stable and free of military involvement
2. Pakistan's actions to take necessary steps to ensure economic and financial stability, job creation, and growth
3. Support for human rights
The regional transformation strategy pursued by Bush was explicitly missionary: they hate us for who we are, so let's make them like us. With bombs. And while I've highlighted what I consider to be the most ambitious objectives and metrics, they do constitute an attempt to define (no thanks to Holbrooke) what success would look like in the region.

In other words, the Bush administration followed an underpants gnomes strategy of regional transformation:

1. Chaos.
2. …
3. Democracy!

The main difference under Obama seems to be that we think we’ve figured out step 2: counterinsurgency. More after the jump.

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I’m just not sure how feasible it is to draw a line between the methods of counterinsurgency and the goals we’re trying to achieve in Afghanistan. If we leave and the Taliban comes back (probable) AND they decide renew their lease with Al-Qaeda (possible) that would be a problem. That said, I tend to think that one of the factors that helped move 9/11 from Bruckheimer plot to terrorist plot was our decision to ignore Afghanistan for a decade after providing the mujahideen with weapons and purpose. Regardless of what particular decision we arrive at, I doubt we’re going to dismiss the threats emanating from that part of world.

I also think the structural realities of the situation have outpaced the strategy. I want to focus on three main problems:
  • Incentives
  • Inertia
  • Integrity
I don’t see what incentives we, as an occupying power, can offer to the regional players. For one thing, our occupation isn’t really of the indefinite variety. We’re not going to be in Afghanistan forever. Someday the Americans will be gone, and I doubt we’ll be offering our Afghan friends the ability to start over in the United States if things go south. Put another way, the downside risk inherent in cooperation is huge and there’s relatively little upside. You get to be a big man while we’re there and hope that after we’re gone, we’ve built a state that can keep the Taliban from coming for your thumbs.

Of course, if we defeat the Taliban that won’t be a problem. Unfortunately, the Taliban is not just an Afghan problem. Because the Taliban has a network of support in Pakistan, we have to add another layer of complexity. In addition to defeating the Afghan Taliban, we have to convince Pakistan to help us root them out on their side of the border. The Pakistani military and ISI both have an established strategic orientation (towards India), and both are extremely powerful institutions in Pakistan. They’re probably not all that thrilled about Objective 2a, either. Beyond that, it’s not clear to me that a strong Afghan state is in Pakistan’s interests. The Afghan War costs the US a lot of money and requires the expenditure of significant amounts of political capital. If you’re a regional player who’s not sold on US war aims, isn’t waiting us out the right call?

But let’s be optimistic for a moment and assume we can generate Pakistani buy-in and defeat the Taliban on both sides of the border. We then have to confront the issue of state building in Afghanistan. Essentially, if those gains are going to stick we’ll need a Afghan state that can co-opt the factions within Afghanistan. That’s why the corruption surrounding Karzai’s re-election is so problematic for COIN in Afghanistan. Without legitimacy, there’s reason to doubt the idea of a cohesive Afghan state taking shape around Karzai. Without effective security forces, there’s no way for Karzai to punish defection. We could witness an effective COIN campaign that stabilizes the country, only to see that situation rolled back after we leave.


Of course, adherence to those metrics necessarily includes the possibility that our efforts in Afghanistan may not measure up. That could be the foundation for “withdrawal with honor,” or however it is we're dressing up failure these days.

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COIN-Operated War(s)

Post-WWII, the US military has been, by and large, an organization built to deter and defeat potential "peer competitors." That's a fancy term IR/FoPo folks throw around that means, basically, "nations that think they might be able to take us." Specifically, it refers to nations that are both wealthy and populous enough to sustain a war effort against a great power.

And from 1941 to 1991, that--the peer competitors thing--was the fundamental premise underlying US grand strategy. Most other needs were subordinated to the overriding strategic imperatives of defeating the Third Reich, and, post-1945, containing the USSR. While the collapse of the USSR fundamentally altered the structure of international relations and the strategic environment, a certain amount of institutional inertia ensured that the Cold War order persisted.

Below the jump I'll talk about ways in which that changed as a result of the Iraq War and the implications it has for American national security debate moving forward.

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So, with all the standard caveats about the Iraq War, it did place our armed forces, specifically the US Army, in a situation where fundamental assumptions about the utility and application of military force had to be re-examined. In 2005-06, the war was taking a sharp turn for the worse, and it became clear that we needed a new approach. Spencer Ackerman's series, Rise of the Counterinsurgents is required reading here. Long story short, the tremendous boondoggle of Iraq elevated a group of military thinkers to prominence. They implemented a counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq that helped contain* the tide of violence, and their success legitimized the theory.

Now the debate centers around whether or not that sort of strategy can be modified to suit our strategic goals in Afghanistan. Gen. McChrystal wants 40,000 more troops to wage a counterinsurgency, while Vice-President Biden favors a counterterrorism approach involving fewer troops. Both of these arguments take for granted the idea, pronounced by Obama on the campaign trail, that Afghanistan is a "war of necessity." The idea runs like this: we have to win in Afghanistan or the Taliban comes back. If the Taliban comes back, Al-Qaeda comes back. If Al-Qaeda comes back, sooner or later we get another 9/11. The McChrystal/Biden disagreement is about whether it's better to address the underlying conditions that create terrorism or just murder terrorists.

The problem that I have with both sides of the debate is that, at the moment, they seem agnostic to costs and probabilities.

Let's take the area of universal agreement: we don't want another 9/11. At the time, 9/11 seemed like something completely impossible. I was listening to reports on the radio and just couldn't believe it was happening. The assumption shared by me, the Bush administration, and American security community at large--that this couldn't fucking happen--is no longer operative. As hard as it is to believe in 2009, "grand terrorism" was a major blind spot in '00-'01. I have to believe that our inability to take the threat seriously was a major enabler of 9/11.


But neither side of the current debate admits much of a possibility that "taking the threat seriously" involves anything other than a protracted commitment in Afghanistan. I've already talked about this issue, but I'll get into in more depth in the next couple posts.

*Obviously, there were other factors involved. The de facto segregation of religious groups that had occurred as a result of the flareups of '05-'06 reduced the opportunities for and gains from intergroup violence.

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Thursday, November 05, 2009

Wanna Hear My Master Plan / Here Is My Master Plan


I'm a big nerd, and, as a result many of my childhood friends are nerds. Actually, I think the causation flows the other way, but you get the point. My co-bloggard, Waldorf, famously pioneered an expression that he uses whenever he's in the process of fucking you over in some nerdy contest: I'm doing you a favor.

Of course, it's enraging. When confronting a major setback in any endeavor, the last thing you want to hear from the guy who inflicted it is that it's actually a blessing in disguise.

I'm mentioning this because I want to recap the essential strategic incoherence of the Iraq War. In 2003 I was still an undergraduate, nose buried in Waltz, Clausewitz, Mearsheimer, Wendt, you name it. There were a number of theories circulating on campus about why we were invading Iraq, from the geostrategic (control of oil reserves) to the downright nutty (the 9/11 truthers). Six years later, the most baffling aspect of the Iraq War is that none of the explanations really make sense in light of our actions. We didn't behave like a resource-seeking imperial power, nor did we find the WMDs that formed the foundation of the preventive case for war. (See also: The Terminator Teaches Just War Theory for more on the difference between preventive and preemptive war.)

I've settled on the idea that maybe, just maybe, the Bush folks actually believed their own bullshit about regional transformation. More after the jump.

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On the most basic level, there was a case to be made for Iraq as a proving ground for a regional transformation strategy. Saddam Hussein was an oppressive dictator who maintained himself in power by servicing an ethnic minority within Iraq (Sunnis). If they did take this idea seriously, I imagine the bet was something like, "we knock off Saddam, earn the gratitude of--and are greeted as liberators by--the Shi'ite majority, and use them as the building blocks of a new Iraq."

Groovy.

The problem is that there are a lot of complicating factors. First of all, war is an ugly undertaking that destroys lives and livelihoods. When you blow up someone's house or kill their child, even if it's accidental, "I'm doing you a favor" is not going to cut it. In fact, asking someone to see anything beyond "you blew up my house, you fuckmook" is ridiculous. (I'm looking at you Elliott Abrams.) Perhaps the RMA and the promise of Future Combat Systems had seduced us into believing that we could fight a war with so little collateral damage that it wouldn't provoke that sort of response, but even if that were true, there are other problems.

History, for one. You can have the best of intentions, and still fail at regional transformation because, let's face it, you're a bunch of white guys running the show and this region in particular has had a number of bad experiences with white guys running the show. Asking people to give you the benefit of the doubt--no, really, we're not the British and the British we brought with us are here for your own good--is a tall order when the entirety of their modern history involves grappling with the problems caused by people who look a whole lot like us.

On the plus side, Iraqi nationalism has never been strong. After WWI, Faisal was made King of Syria and Iraq as repayment for his father's (Sharif Hussein of Mecca) decision to lead an Arab revolt against the Ottomans (in other words, the plot of Lawrence of Arabia). In 1920, Faisal was kicked out of Syria by the French, who had taken over the mandate of Syria after the Conference of San Remo. In 1921, the British appointed Faisal King of Iraq, a place where he was almost completely unknown. They played "God Save the Queen" at his coronation, because there wasn't an Iraqi anthem.

As a result, there wasn't an Iraqi nation per se. Instead, there were three tribes: Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurd. The Iraqi Ba'ath Party, of which Saddam Hussein was an excrescence, was nationalist and pan-Arabist in ideology but tribalist in practice. That tribalism and the way it became entwined with government resources would prove to be a major stumbling block for the US. When we toppled Saddam and purged the Iraqi army, we ruined the lives of a whole bunch of people who had guns, connections, and grudges. Also, once ejected from power, the intra-tribal security arrangements became an important check on the ambitions of an aggrieved majority. Thus, it was very hard for individuals to defect from the greater tribal alignment as they'd forfeit their security guarantees.


All of these factors militated against a regional transformation strategy. It's not rocket science, nor is the idea that all of this is 20/20 hindsight at work persuasive. A quick examination of other ethnically-divided countries in chaos (the former Yugoslavia, which was still in our rearview mirror, for one) would've revealed similar patterns of inter-tribal violence. That alone* should've led to a reassessment of our "I'm doing you a favor" approach to the invasion of Iraq.

*Or, whatever, they could've read a little of the work done by Stathis Kalyvas.

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It's Something Wrong With The Way I Think

There's an infuriating tendency in American politics to read ourselves into the national narratives of other countries. In the wake of the Russian invasion of Georgia, Sen. McCain told us that "we are all Georgians." The entire fucking Vietnam War owes its sorry history to the fact that we wrote ourselves into a struggle for national unification. Yeah, Ho Chi Minh was a ferocious pinko, but he grafted communism onto a nationalist platform. Back in the day, that sort of strategy wasn't all that unusual. No less a conservative than Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini appropriated the rhetoric of the Iranian socialists to stoke the fires of the Iranian Revolution (he later had them all locked up, exiled, or killed because he was that kind a motherfucker).

The most egregious example of this is the consensus view of American involvement in the fall of the USSR. Let me be clear, we did make life hard for the Soviets. However, we didn't cause the USSR to fall because we spent a metric fuckton of taxpayer dollars on an unworkable missile defense system. Sure, it was a factor. But you know what mattered more? The internal social, economic and political state of the USSR. Without getting too granular, the combination of glasnost and perestroika, Yeltsin, the Afghan War, falling oil prices and a truly defunct industrial base all played a rather more significant role in the Soviet collapse.

In other words, we didn't win the Cold War, and our belief to the contrary is part of the reason for our present troubles. More after the jump.

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I'll admit up front that it's an oversimplification, but I think it's an illuminating one. There are a couple of trends that flowed from the end of the Cold War that did lead us into our current ratfuck:

1. The belief that the Star Wars program brought down the USSR entrenched the idea that military force (and defense spending) was the only tool we needed to solve major security problems. Defense contractors were, of course, only too happy to encourage this idea. Anyway, from that belief stems the neoconservative idea that "throwing a dinky country up against the wall to show the world we mean business" is a useful way to interact with the world. As we learned to our chagrin, this isn't true. War is a tremendously complex and uncertain undertaking, there are a whole lot of countries in the world, and many of them are willing to play the odds. A decade on, we're slowly finding our way back to equilibrium, hampered by the fact that we're involved in all these wars now.

2. When you win a war, the expectation is that you reap some reward from it--the spoils of war. Unfortunately, we didn't win the Cold War, in the same way that the guy who doesn't suffer alcohol poisoning in a drinking contest doesn't so much win as "not lose." Since the Cold War had been framed as a contest for dominance and the US was the only superpower left standing, it was understood that we were in charge now. And that's true, as far as it goes. While unipolarity ensured that nobody was going to fuck with us, it didn't mean we could dictate to other sovereign nations. Quite the contrary. Without the threat of the USSR, many of the countries that had once been in the US camp were happy to go their own way.

At the same time, the threat environment shifted drastically. To draw an inexact parallel, when we finally shot Pablo Escobar, we didn't end the drug problem, we just fractured it into a million tiny pieces. Many national security issues that had been overshadowed by Soviet Menace (love that term) moved to the fore. Having built our diplomatic corps and armed forces to counter a superpower threat, we were sort of unprepared for asymmetric conflict. I have my doubts about the utility of counterinsurgency in our current conflicts, but no doubts that it's going to become an increasingly important part of our national security toobox if it's not discredited and discarded due to failures in Afghanistan.


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How We Do

“You can call us anything you want,” Cashman said. “You also have to call us world champions."

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Rocket/Condom Convergance

The Future of Rocket Technology:



The Future of Condom Technology:

gnarly

Potential for Deep-Impact-based porn flick, featuring giant space vulva that threatens Earth? Off the charts. Tagline: "Seriously, Capt. Spurgeon*, use a rubber."

*Actual name of Robert Duvall's role in Deep Impact.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Fuck Joe Lieberman 2: This Time, For Real


In the wake of Joe Lieberman's latest knives-out-in-the-Senate moment, I'd like to take a moment to link to a classic Statler rant from late '08, "Fuck Joe Lieberman."

If you haven't heard, Joe, ably voiced by the insurance lobby in this episode, said today that he'd join a GOP filibuster on the healthcare bill if it included any sort of public option. In other words, Joe, in search of political relevance, has combined his two previous feats (McCain-related betrayal of Democratic Party, putting his finger in Harry Reid's eye) into a single showstopper.

Tim Fernholz at TAPPED has a great take on Joe's Judas moment, entitled "At Least Pretend To Know What You're Talking About, Lieberman."

On the more applicable life-lesson front, I'll just say that when you let schmucks push you around, they keep pushing you around. Half of Reid's constituents think he's weak, and 84% of his base favors a public option. Now might be the time to grow a pair and let 'em drop, Harry.

Plus, nobody likes getting pushed around by Joe Lieberman. Seriously, fuck that guy.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

On Language

to screw the pooch (v)

1. to screw up; to fail in dramatic and ignominious fashion

I'm kind of fascinated by this phrase, because it's both so evocative and almost completely without stigma. The motivating idea is that you've gone so wrong while executing a fairly basic human activity that you're earnestly humping away at the family dog. You'd think a casual mention of bestiality in public would provoke a great deal of shock, but it's almost quaint, the sort of thing you could drop into a conversation with grandma.

Compare:

"Wow, Jim, you really screwed the pooch in that Raytheon meeting."

with

"Jim, let me explain your performance in that Raytheon meeting with a quick visual analogy: what I was expecting was a crisp Powerpoint presentation. What I got was an eyeful of your dick as you used it to violate a canine, repeatedly."

Shocking.

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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Klosterman Revisited

A long time ago, I wrote something critical about Chuck Klosterman. You can't slag on soccer like this without agitating the blogosphere:
To say you love soccer is to say you believe in enforced equality more than you believe in the value of competition and the capacity of the human spirit. I would sooner have my kid deal crystal meth than play soccer.
Today, while I remain sentimentally attached to the term "Klosterfuck," I'm man enough to admit that I didn't have all the information. I recently finished reading Fargo Rock City, Klosterman's ode to the metal bands of the 1980s.

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Fargo Rock City has two things going for it. First, it's sincere. CK is responding to the retrospective condemnation heaped on his childhood heroes by a critical establishment that neither appreciates nor understands the joys of brainless rock and roll. Occasionally that defensive posture leads him into dangerous waters, as it does when he clumsily tries to argue that 80s metal wasn't sexist. The strongest part of the book is the epilogue, where he grapples with the subjectivity of music criticism and the way that same tendency skews his own work.*

That's the second thing that makes the book great. Chuck's voice is so strong that you're always aware that these are his thoughts. To his credit (and in marked contrast to the soccer quote above) he never dresses them up with sham objectivity. In other words, there's room for disagreement without having to defend your position on "enforced equality" or other bullshit terms. It's a fairly simple premise: Chuck Klosterman loves 80s metal and he's going to explain why. What you do with that is up to you.


*He also memorably trashes the idea that your revealed preferences as a 17 year old are indicative of some deeper truth of your being. When you were 17, you were a pain in the ass and that's about it.

[x-posted to FTB]

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Robert Gates Regulates

So, before I use the termination of the F-22 program to talk about larger issues related to defense procurement, I'd like to ask our readership how many F-15s they think have been shot down, in total.

Zero.

That's right, nobody has ever managed to so much as shoot the wing off a F-15 jet. Our air superiority is so complete that referring to it as "superiority" seems like something of a misnomer. It's like priding yourself on being the best singer in a world of mutes, or being the best wrestler on a team of quadriplegics. It's not that you're the best, it's that everybody else lacks the tools to even compete with you. When the F-15 entered service in 1972, people were still dying of smallpox. In Europe. In the 37 years since then, the F-15 has never been shot down. Moreover, nobody's really had the moxie to even try. Col. Cesar Rodriguez (Ret.) had the most air-to-air kills of any active pilot in the USAF when he retired two years ago with a total of 3. That's two kills shy of the 5 kills required to earn the title "ace" and not a patch on the ace-of-aces, Major Dick Bong, who shot down 40 planes before slamming an experimental aircraft into some North Hollywood pinkos on the same day we bombed Hiroshima.

Aside: let's take a moment to process that--on a day when the leading story was "Japan's shit totally fucking ruined by world-historical bombing" the LA Times also thought that the second most important thing we needed to know that day was that a hardass named "Dick Bong" had plowed a furrow into Southern California using his eerily cock-shaped plane.

Anyway, it took a man as crazy as Saddam Hussein to challenge American aerial hegemony, and in 1991 the IrAF was on the the receiving end of a red-assed beating so severe that the Iraqi pilots took their planes and fled to Iran. It should be noted that the Iran-Iraq War had just ended in 1988, and featured the gassing of some 100,000 Iranians by Iraqi forces. In other words, they fled into the arms of the enemy rather than fight the USAF.

So, given our overwhelming advantage why did SecDef Gates and President Obama have to fight so hard to end the funding for the F-22 at 187 planes?

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The answer is both structural and political.

Structurally, defense contractors rely on congressional approval to fund their projects and making it as painful as possible for congress to cancel them is just sound business strategy. Accordingly, parts for the F-22 are manufactured or assembled in over 40 states. Yes, that's horribly inefficient, but Lockheed Martin can just pass the cost of those inefficiencies on to the American taxpayer. That accounts for part of the >$300m/plane pricetag and the caviling of numerous representatives when Gates announced his intention to end the program.

Additionally, the RFP for the F-22 went out in 1986. You know what was still around in 1986? That's right, the USSR. The F-22 was intended counter to the Soviet Sukhoi Su-27. The Su-27 was itself intended to counter the F-15 and F/A 18 Hornet. Such is the logic of arms races. In April 1991, a few short months before the fall of the Soviet Union, the Lockheed Martin F-22 design won the contract. The F-22 was first deployed in 2005, over a decade after it's raison d'etre had, well, stopped existing.

A related factor is the enduring political myth that runaway US defense spending was instrumental in causing the collapse of the USSR. Proponents of the "Ronald Reagan and SDI ruined the USSR" myth argue that it was our escalation of the arms race that was the proximate cause of the fall of the Soviet Union. (That fable hints at a larger issue of Americans inserting themselves into what are fundamentally national narratives of other countries, often to our detriment.) As a result, defense spending is often politically invisible, unless it's about to be cut. At that point, the interests of defense contractors and the narrative of "more $$$ = safer" align, and the catchy hook of "Sellin' out 'Merica" by the Jee Oh Pee begins to echo in the media. Yes, that happens even when overall defense spending is still increasing. Democrats, who live in fear of being seen as "soft on defense," generally are unwilling to take on the entrenched interests around this issue, cleverly avoiding being called wimps by actually being wimps.


In the end, the F-22 was a plane we didn't need, designed for a war we never fought against an adversary that no longer exists. Despite all that, Robert Gates still had to give a major speech that was half history lesson and half fist to the groin of the defense industry just to halt production at 187 planes.

[Photo: A cloud braves airplane skin temperatures measured in hundreds of degrees just to hang out briefly with an F-22 Raptor.]

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Thursday, August 06, 2009

This Week In Stupid


Michael Gerson, "Death of a Doctrine," The Washington Post

In the linked article, Michael Gerson, a G. W. Bush speechwriter, opens with a shameless generalization about a new generation of Americans and proceeds to misunderstand diplomacy, foreign policy, and history.

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...[T]he administration does have a doctrine. The defining principle of President Obama's foreign policy is engagement with America's adversaries.
This argument is just crap, and should be identified as such. The idea that "talking to adversaries" is a foreign policy doctrine is roughly equivalent to arguing that "employing soldiers" and "having guns" are national security doctrines. Only after 8 years of vapid "tell [nation] to knock that [expletive] off" foreign policy and profound intellectual laxity on the part of the Washington Post could such an argument stake a claim to editorial page real estate.

The problem is not engagement itself -- which was, after all, attempted in various forms by the previous administration.
Let's just let that claim sink in for a little while. It's takes serious chutzpah to imply anything resembling an equivalence between the "various forms" of GWB's engagement (hectoring, invasion, etc.) and Obama's foreign policy.

There are a few larger points here that needs to be addressed, though. In the two paragraphs that precede the excepted quote, Gerson lists the various supposed failures of Obama's foreign policy to date, including a statement by North Korea that he takes at face value. Embedded in those paragraphs are a couple of classic GOP ruses:

First of all, the right loves to scare people by assuming that the statements of dictators are a) sincere and truthful communications and b) going to be acted on tomorrow. Nothing the DPRK says should be taken as writ. Yes, they threatened us with a "storm of nuclear retaliation." If you go back a couple of entries, they mocked the Secretary of State for wearing frumpy clothes because she called them out on their adolescent antics. When we accept statements made by the DPRK without reflection, we're doing ourselves a disservice and inflating their sense of importance. In Iran--according to most GOP leaders, a nation of mad mullahs who can't be reasoned with--we've just witnessed the unfolding of some non-insane political drama. Khamenei is, contrary to what we'd expect, making a rational (if brutal) attempt to manipulate events and institutions in order to stay in power.

Gerson also attempts to lay every unfortunate event in recent months on Obama's doorstep, as if they were a-historical occurrences. In truth, the current state of affairs with North Korea and Iran owes a lot to the early Bush attempts to roll back Clinton-era engagement. And, it turns out, people don't just magically forget the past. As Gerson justly points out in later paragraphs, the regimes have come to rely on anti-American sentiment as a prop. Notably, he fails to explore how that state of affairs came to be.

The final and most tendentious claim is that any diplomatic overture that fails to produce immediate and outrageously positive outcomes for the United States is a failure. Citing a P.J. Crowley statement, he argues:

"Hard-liners on both sides have dominated that relationship and made it very difficult for the United States and Iran to come together and have a serious conversation." But can the lack of a serious conversation with Iran -- or with North Korea -- now credibly be blamed on the previous administration? Obama's diplomatic hand has been extended for a while now. Fists remain clenched.

The reason for the truculence of these regimes, according to Gerson, is that they care only for the maintenance of their own corrupt prerogatives and have no regard for their external image or interests. On a far less extreme level, that's correct. States take actions in service to their national interest, which is defined in part by powerful domestic constituencies. But even Iran and the DPRK have a stake in the international system. The DPRK needs to have powerful states listen when it throws a nuclear tantrum, and Iran depends on revenues from its oil exports. Those are potential leverage points around which we could craft a policy. The central problem lies not with the nature of the regimes (although that is a problem), but in getting other powerful international actors (China, Russia) to go along with our policy.

Seven months is not enough time to undo 8 years of incompetence. So, yes, it can be blamed on the previous administration.

But again, the larger question is--aside from the frustrating and incremental progress of diplomacy--what are our options? Should we just get in there and fuck them up, Conan-style? Well, we tried that, Conan is a movie, and Thulsa Doom didn't have nuclear weapons (Kim Jong Il can totally turn into a snake, though). It didn't work.


In the end, the United States is on the right side of a savage imbalance in wealth and power, and any foreign policy that doesn't lead to us hemorrhaging money and lives is certainly an improvement. Regardless of what Gerson thinks.

This Week in Stupid Archives:

Eliott Abrams
Leon Wieseltier
Max Boot

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Monday, July 27, 2009

The Hazards of Vice-Presidential Time Travel

Senators brace for the arrival of Biden_1
Vice President Joe Biden on the need for the U.S. not to overplay its hand with Moscow:
It is never smart to embarrass an individual or a country when they're dealing with significant loss of face. My dad used to put it another way: Never put another man in a corner where the only way out is over you. It just is not smart.
Vice President Joe Biden on domestic difficulties that are affecting Russian foreign policy:
The reality is the Russians are where they are. They have a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years, they're in a situation where the world is changing before them and they're clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable.
I want to stress that these are quotes from the same WSJ interview, presented in reverse chronological order.

To me, this interview suggests that the moment we invent time travel our first priority should be to keep that technology away from Joe Biden. The only alternative is to accept a reality in which every moment of gaffe-prone Biden-space is filled with future Joe Biden arriving through a temporal hole to tackle past Joe Biden before he can commit a gaffe.

In extreme cases, the cross-temporal tackling may prove to be a gaffe in and of itself, and necessitate stacking distimed Biden interventions several deep: Biden_0 is about to make a gaffe, but Biden_1 arrives from the future to tackle him. Unfortunately, this act produces its own regrettable consequences, and thus Biden_2 is forced to travel back to time 0 in order to stop Biden_1 before he can make the situation worse. Eventually, we'd have to set up a government agency a la Men in Black for the sole purpose of regulating Bidennic irregularities in the timestream.

Our own present can barely handle the negative externalities associated with a single Joe Biden--we dare not inflict more than one on it.

[Photo: Sen. Joe Biden speaks while Sen. Patrick Leahy braces for the imminent arrival of Biden_1.]

h/t: Drezner

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Code of the Schoolyard


I had a college professor who explained the specific way IR scholars use the terms "anarchy" and "hierarchy" as follows:

I went to Catholic school, and we had a nun who would watch over us as recess, Sister Mary--she would twist your ear good and hard if she caught you up to no good. When Sister Mary was on the playground we had hierarchy. If a bully acted up, you could go to her and she would twist, Lord, how she would twist his ear. But when she stepped away for a smoke, we had anarchy. The powerful did what they pleased and the rest of us had to stay out of their way.

Apt, no? Lately, though, we've seen the schoolyard manifest itself more in terms of rhetoric than structure.

Secretary of State Clinton on the DPRK:
What we've seen is this constant demand for attention, and maybe it's the mother in me or the experience that I've had with small children and unruly teenagers and people who are demanding attention. Don't give it to them. They don't deserve it.

The North Korean Foreign Ministry
:
We cannot but regard Mrs. Clinton as a funny lady as she likes to utter such rhetoric, unaware of the elementary etiquette in the international community. Sometimes she looks like a primary schoolgirl and sometimes a pensioner going shopping.
Proving, if nothing else, that busting on pastel pantsuits is a sport for all seasons.

Fun Fact [Not Actually A Fact]: In 1952, a combined DPRK/Chinese task force first developed "the People's Elbow" for use in the Korean War [proof above]. In 2005, an IP suit brought on behalf of Chairman Mao's embalmed corpse forced Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson to retire his signature move.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Expanding waste

My latest gripe about American governance concerns the stimulus. No, not that it's too big -- that's a lost cause -- nor that it's taking too long -- the only thing government can do quickly is tax you or jail you -- but rather the quality of the spending. Look at the stuff they're spending money on: job retraining, which we now know is worthless; plugging holes in states' budgets, which only delays the states' legislators comeuppance for their spendthrift ways; and of course the big government favorite, more welfare.

What will be left in three or four years to show for this money? Nothing. Compare that with the spending of the O.G. of stimulus, FDR. When Roosevelt and his allies in Congress opened up the public fisc, they were just as good at spending as Obama and the modern-day Democrats. But look at what they spent it on: roads, schools, post offices, and other government buildings. They may not have been necessary, but at least the government had something to show for it when they were through. Like many of our tens of readers out there, I went to school in a WPA-built building that was both functional and attractive. And what's more, the New Deal jobs might have been make-work jobs, but at least they encouraged work. I prefer make-work to make-sloth.

So, what's the point? What awesome project should our deficit trillions fund? What would be both useless and spectacular, a joy to future generations? The answer is obvious ...
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...a summer capital.

The answer came to me as I read Holy Cow, a travelogue by an Australian in India. The author, Sarah MacDonald, described visiting the city of Simla, which was once the summer capital of British India, a place to which the Raj retreated from the summer heat of Calcutta. Eleven hundred miles away in the Himalayas, Simla provided a welcome relief from the god-awful summer heat of the Ganges Delta.

It made me think: what other capital is beastly hot during the summer? Exactly -- anyone who has lived in D.C. can see the logic of this immediately. So why not extend Interstate 66 up into the hills of West Virginia and found there, somewhere around Hardy County, a new city. Build a little capitol, little President's house, little train station, little lobbyists' offices, and all that. They could do it up in Victorian style, like a quiet small city that gets invaded by a plague of politicians every summer. They could even found a college there, or a branch of WVU, maybe, so that there would be people there in the other nine months.

It sounds crazy, but if they're going to spend billions trillions, at least spend them on something that will last and might even serve a purpose. Let's not forget that our real capital was built in a new location where no city existed. And, after a hundred years or so, it became quite livable. And just as our first, working capital was named after our first President, let's name our second, unnecessary capital after the President who made unnecessary spending a part of the American Dream. Instead of sweating it out in malarial Washington, let's have our next stimulus bill passed from the breezy heights of Roosevelt, West Virginia.




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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Jay-Z and the New American Century

I bet you guys didn't think there was any overlap between IR and hip-hop. You were wrong. Below, two great posts on the feud between Jay-Z and the Game, and its implications for American foreign policy:
And Lynch rounds up the reactions here.

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Monday, July 13, 2009

Currency rebels

Matthew Yglesias's blog brought this news item to my attention:

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — State vendors and contractors could use their government-issued IOUs to pay state taxes, fees and liens under a bill approved by an Assembly committee.

The Business and Professions Committee unanimously passed the bill by Assemblyman Joel Anderson during its first legislative hearing Tuesday. The bill requires the state to accept its own IOUs as payment for money owed to the government.

Anderson, a Republican from La Mesa, says the measure would help businesses and others being paid with IOUs. The state began issuing the warrants last week as lawmakers struggle to close a $26.3 billion deficit.

As a professional lawyer and amateur hard-money enthusiast, my mind immediately went to this provision of our federal Constitution:
No State shall ... coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts....
So, unless those IOUs are redeemable in specie, this law is clearly unconstitutional. The only things California can take as payment for taxes are U.S. dollars, gold, or silver. By passing this bill, the California legislators will violate their oath of office.
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To emit a bill of credit, according to our Supreme Court in Craig v. Missouri, "conveys to the mind the idea of issuing paper intended to circulate through the community for its ordinary purposes, as money, which paper is redeemable at a future day." That is, for the state to write an IOU, allow it to circulate, and accept it as payment.

You can see why this is a part of the constitution. Imagine every state having its own money. Not only would it add ridiculous hassle to interstate commerce, but it would allow any state in a tight spot to inflate its own currency and degrade the wealth of its citizens. It's like if Italy stayed in the EU, but kept printing lira. Madness!

I once told one of my fellow bloggards that California would eventually have to be crushed by the rest of the Union, but I never imagined that its treason would begin with something as mundane as a dispute over legal tender.


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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Content-free

This column by Daniel Gross is completetely useless. Summary: forecasts are inaccurate, please write me a check for doing nothing. Die in a fire.

Edit: Okay, that was a little harsh. Second-degree burns in a fire.

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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Relegation

Michael Jackson is dead, so by order of our mainstream media headmasters, we've all forgotten about the rebellion in Iran for a few days. While we wait for the return of actual news, I thought I'd write about something else for us to argue about: professional sports.

Specifically, I've been thinking about the system of promotion and relegation used in leagues in other countries. In, for example, English soccer, the three worst teams in the top-level league are sent down to the second-level league, being replaced by the three best teams of the second-level league. It's sort of a free market of sports, and it surprises me that we've never adopted it in the United States.

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The system would work best, I believe, in sports where the difference in win percentage between the best and worst teams is largest. In such a league, the last half of the season holds little excitement for the fans of the worst teams, because they've already been effectively eliminated from contention. Look (at right) at the year-end standings for the National Basketball Association's 2008-09 season. If you lived in, say, Washington, would you have any reason to pay for tickets to a Wizards-Clippers game? Hell no. There's nothing on the line. But, if one or both of those teams had to win to stay in the NBA, there might be some incentive to root for them even when they're terrible.

There are all sorts of incentives at work in a promotion/relegation system. Owners would have to spend money on talented players, or risk falling into a lower league with less revenue and television coverage. No more could cheap bastards like Donald Sterling be confident of playing in the premier basketball league. Conversely, there would be great incentives for lower-tier teams to compete, and for fans of those teams to turn out and for local television stations to cover them.

Further, consider the benefits to a lower barrier to entry in owning a sports team. If a new entry in some low-level league had the chance of moving up, owners wouldn't have to put down hundreds of millions for an expansion franchise. And that new franchise would spring up in a city where people wanted it (or else it would quickly go out of business,) not where the NBA owners thought it should go. Fans' attendance would determine the teams' location, not the owners' self-interest.

I imagine a system where the worst team in the Eastern Conference and the worst in the Western would be relegated. Two teams from minor leagues would take their places, one in a western city, one in an eastern city. There would have to be better organization of basketball's other leagues for to work (current minor league basketball has many teams fold, move, or change leagues each year) and a disaffiliation of minor-league teams from NBA teams, to prevent anyone from owning two teams in the same league, but for the sake of argument, let's imagine that the somewhat misnamed Premier Basketball League would be the second-level eastern league, and the NBA Development League would be the western second-level. At the end of the 2008-2009 season, the Washington Wizards and the Sacramento Kings would be relegated, and the Rochester Razorsharks and Colorado 14ers (scheduled to relocate to Texas before next season) would be promoted.

Does that make sense? Are there more basketball fans in Rochester, New York than in Washington, D.C.? If not, the Razorsharks will not be able to keep up, and will be relegated, and the Wizard will dominate the PBA and be promoted. But the system provides the best way of gauging whether a city truly contains the number of fans needed to keep its franchise afloat. And small cities don't necessarily lose out: it's a lot easier to get a San Fransisco 49ers ticket than it it to get a Green Bay Packers ticket. So, let's have markets in everything, and go Razorsharks!


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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

News Feed

I'm not sure our reader(s) have noticed it, but for a little while now, the Closet Moderate has featured a news feed, consisting of the last three blog posts on other blogs that each of us has chosen to highlight for your further edification. So far, only three of us bloggards are actually doing this, but we hope to expand particiaption in the future. Meanwhile, enjoy the Closet Moderate Censored News.

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Monday, June 22, 2009

Re: Two Questions on Iran

As concerns the first question on my earlier post, it seems pretty clear that the answer is yes.

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Friday, June 19, 2009

Ayatollah Ali "All In" Khamenei Speaks

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei gave an ominous sermon as part of Friday prayers, which marks an escalation of tensions between the Supreme Leader and the protesters. In the speech, Khamenei makes a case for the integrity of the electoral process, arguing that there are mechanisms in place to assure the validity of results. The problem? It's about, oh, five days too late for that argument to persuade anyone. Given that, the ending phrase, "who would be responsible if something happened?" feels like a promise of future brutality, complete with an insinuation that it would somehow be the protester's fault if they happened to get beaten, arrested or killed.

I think it's still premature to assume that Khamenei has the political support to engage in mass repression of the Iranian people. The protests have been nonviolent, and so far they seem to be primarily a threat to the President. However, by doubling down on the election results today, Khamenei seems to tying his own fate to that of Ahmadinejad. That strikes me as puzzling. On the one hand, it means that any attack on the election is implicitly striking at the heart of the Revolution, which may give Khamenei a freer hand when dealing with the protesters. However, it also seems to increase the risk that the Council of Experts will decide that Khamenei is part of the problem, and that by dismissing the two people at the center of this scandal they can return order to the country.

The protests planned for tomorrow will clarify a few things:

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First, are the Iranian power elite thinking about outcomes or processes? The protests have achieved a national scale, and any effective repression would have to be similarly broad. While that might produce a favorable outcome in the short term, I tend to think it will do a lot more to accelerate the process of destabilization. It will be a defining moment for millions of Iranians and will further divide the state from society.

Khamenei has one potential way out of this trap without surrendering either his position or (much of) his legitimacy: using the Basij as a provocation. If he can use the paramilitaries to incite violence and chaos in the street, the Revolutionary Guard can be called in to restore order. Although the Basij are known to be loyal to the government, the reports of locals hunting them at night could easily be used to justify paramilitary attacks on demonstrators. Khamenei can achieve his goals while posing as a law-and-order figure rather than a brutal, self-interested cleric.

The second question is whether or not it's possible to stem this tide. From what I've read, a simple procedural trick has created a new environment in Iran. It will take time and determination to roll that back, assuming it can be done. Token repression could be counter productive. As Juan Cole and others have pointed out, every death provides another opportunity to march and indeed, such marches have already happened at Mousavi's request.

I tend to disagree with Clemons about the outcomes in Iran. I think that a true revolution is off the table. That would require the ulama to essentially commit political suicide, which doesn't happen all that often. However, a recognition that it is the will of the people that Mousavi serve as President would go a long way towards resolving the situation. Khamenei will probably have to be replaced with another conservative cleric who will act as a check on reformist ambitions. By doubling down on the election results today, he's talked himself out of a compromise. Any backpedaling will look too much like capitulation, and it's hard to be the Supreme Leader after you've been so visibly rebuffed by the people. Of course, the other option is blood in the streets.


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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Two questions on Iran

My fellow bloggards have already written on the Iran situation, so I'll try not to duplicate their work. Instead, I have two questions to think about: (1) was the election result falsified, and (2) how should that question affect America's response to the protesters.

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First: Was it rigged? Did Mahmoud Ahmadinejad actually win, as the Iranian government claims, or did one of his opponents defeat him? According to the twittering classes, the answer is yes. Bloggards have certainly picked up on this interpretation of the data, and Iran's behavior in releasing the results tends to reinforce the suspicion of fraud. Certainly, it would not surprise me that an undemocratic state did not live up to the Western style of elections.

But what facts do we have? Sadly, Iran is not the most forthcoming of governments -- they don't appear to have enacted a Freedom of Information Fatwa -- but based on that information that was released people were claiming fraud from the first day after the election. Still, that "evidence" of fraud was fairly easily debunked by Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com. Even so, the more obvious problems of voter fraud and voter intimidation seem pretty clearly to have swelled Ahmadinejad's totals and reduced Mousavi's, respectively. Ultimately, I'd have to answer this first question "I don't know," since the evidence is not available for examination by enlightened bloggards like us.

Second: Does it matter? This is the real question: how should the truth or untruth of the fraud allegations change the response of the United States? Let us, for the moment, take the Iranian government at its word and assume that every vote was counted accurately and the landslide Ahmadinejad victory really happened. Should this fact allay President Obama's "deep concerns" about the result? The fact is, even if the election followed every rule in the Iranian statute book, it was still a fraud. The mullahs rejected the bids of half the candidates who wanted to run. Even if a free vote were allowed on all candidates, the President's power in Iran is illusory. Real power rests in the hands of a man who does not even pretend to be elected, Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader. This is the true illegitimacy of Iran's elections.

So, should the United States support the protests? Should they enourage a democratic revolution? Whether this election was "stolen" or not, the answer is yes. This election is a fraud, any way you look at it, and the young people of Iran, having lived their whole lives under Islamic theocracy, are sick of it. All the free peoples of the world should endorse their quest for democracy. Even if it requires us to use Twitter.



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Ahmadinejad as an actor

Following up on my blogmate's posts on Iran, I'd like to throw in that we shouldn't be automatically assuming that Ahmadinejad's destiny is stuck to Khamenei's. Not only is there an outcome where Khamenei retains power but Ahmadinejad doesn't, I think there's also a plausible outcome where Ahmadinejad retains power but Khamenei doesn't. As Statler pointed out, the military holds a lot of power in this situation, and Ahmadinejad is apparently quite close with the military. As long as we're baselessly speculating on the situation, we might as well baselessly speculate about the possibility that Ahmadinejad will seize or attempt to seize actual control of the country from Khamenei; even if that doesn't happen, the idea that it could might change Khamenei's actions. This gives an additional reading to Ahmadinejad's upcoming trip to Russia; it could be a way for Ahmadinejad to credibly commit to not staging a coup against Khamenei and thus giving Khamenei more room to maneuver.





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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

“Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force.”

If you're still interested in the unfolding Iranian situation, I wanted to recommend this Noah Millman article. Noah points out the relevant question, which is, essentially, "whither the Iranian military?"

So far, we've seen some violence perpetrated against civilians by the Basij, a pro-government militia. Depending on the level of coordination between the Basij and the government, that brutality could be read in one of two ways: either it's a signal from the government that they're not going to tolerate much more of this shit, or it's just some pro-government nuts shooting at protesters because, seriously, who the fuck are they to protest a sham election?

We still don't know where the Iranian military will come down, and that will probably determine the outcome of this struggle. My feeling is that there will be a moderate lull as both camps aggressively court military leaders (in Iran, the military is nominally controlled by the Supreme Leader) and assess more generally whether they have the political support to take action against their enemies.

There are strong cases to be made on either side, mostly rooted in the demographics of the Iranian population. More after the jump.

[+]More

70% of the Iranian population is under 30. That means that they're too young to have lived through the events of 1979. That simple demographic fact may give Khamenei pause. If he chooses to use the most extreme measures at his disposal, he'll alienate a significant portion of the Iranian population for a very, very long time. To forestall an unfavorable election result, he'll essentially write the Revolution's death warrant. It's also very hard to point to an internal or external enemy to justify that sort of brutality. After all, these people are supporting a political process approved by the regime, not trying to overthrow the government. So I think the best option for Khamenei and Ahmedinejad is to ignore the protests and hope things settle down, then settle scores with the reformers behind closed doors.

Mousavi has a similar but opposite problem. The people he needs to sway in order to unseat Khamenei are the old guard, survivors of the Revolution and the Iran/Iraq war. They're almost certainly reluctant to countenance even the appearance of being dictated to by a young, uppity public. Mousavi probably can't afford to quell the protests, as they're his only defense against the will of the Supreme Leader.

As always, the military is the wild card in this confrontation. If they come down on the side of the Supreme Leader it will be immediately obvious. You can read Ahmedinejad's trip to Russia as either a "business as usual" signal, or an attempt to distance him from a brutal campaign of repression. I tend to think that state power, remorselessly applied, will always carry the day against popular demonstrations. Whether that happens is dependent on the level of institutional autonomy the military possesses, the sort of personal relationships that exist between military and political elites, and whether the military is willing to commit itself to indefinitely repressing a seething populace.

In any case, this is a potentially defining moment in Iran's history.


Apparently, the Basij are fiercely loyal to Khamenei.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

Dateline Iran: Shit => Fan

So, this weekend some serious shenanigans went down in Iran. Before I get into the "literature" review, I'll try to lay out the timeline as I understand it:

June 12th

Mousavi is informed by the interior ministry that he is the winner of the election and that he needs to prepare a victory speech. He is urged to refrain from bragging or otherwise alienating conservative elements within the Iranian political elite. Supreme Leader Khamenei may or may not have flipped the fuck out when informed of the results, and may or may not have told the interior ministry to call it for Ahmedinejad. IRNA (state news) calls it for Ahmedinejad. The interior ministry is surrounded by concrete blockades and soldiers.

June 13th

Supreme Leader Khamenei bypasses the traditional 3-day certification period and congratulates Ahmedinejad on his victory the day after the polls close, calling for everyone to unite behind the winner. Facebook goes dark and text messaging service is blocked. Foreign correspondents are harassed or expelled. Twitter, Iranian bloggers and leaks from within the Iranian government become the main sources of information about what's going on. Mousavi is rumored to be under house arrest.

In other words, shit got real. Real fast. There's so much going on that covering it all in one blog entry is kind of impossible, so I'll outsource this to my sources and you can draw your own conclusions after the jump.

[+]More

So, for more on what's going on in Iran, including mass resignations at the university, storming of a student dormitory with tear gas, demonstrations in the street, gunfire at said demonstrations, and other signs of chaos, I recommend reading the following blogs:

Attackerman (Spencer Ackerman), The Daily Dish (Andrew Sullivan), Nico Pitney @ HuffPo, Gary Sick (Columbia Professor), Informed Comment (Juan Cole), and Daniel Drezner. I also highly recommend 538's article on why the election results are almost certainly fraudulent.

So what's the takeaway? Honestly, not much at this point. This game is being played on two levels, that are interconnected in a way that's impossible for a non-expert (me) to unravel. However, there are a couple of things I'd like to say. Ahmedinejad's quip that Mousavi "ran a traffic light and got a ticket" indicates pretty clearly that the election results were unacceptable to powerful members of the clergy, and so they changed the outcome. In other words, this is coup carried out by the conservative faction within Iran against the reform wing. At the same time, the popular will was thwarted in a particularly bald and shameless way, provoking a response from the populace. So that leaves two questions as yet unanswered:

1. Can Mousavi use the popular resistance to the attempted coup to push through an outcome that's favorable to him and to reform politicians, and how does he define that outcome? Can his movement be bought off with offices, delaying the final confrontation for an additional cycle, or will he double down and try to win the office he was elected to? Are those even things he's in a position to do, or is he in so much danger that he has to essentially suck it up?

2. When it comes to Khamenei, what are his acceptable outcomes and how far is he willing to go to preserve them? If Mousavi proves intractable, will Khamenei fully unleash the machinery of state power against him and his supporters, or is that a bridge too far for the interests he represents?

As I said, I have no idea what the answers to these questions are, but I suspect they're at the heart of what will transpire in Iran over the next few days. The courage of those Iranians who have taken to the streets is beyond reproach, but ultimately this will be resolved by compromises (or lack thereof) among the Iranian political elite. Given the chaos, the opaque nature of the Iranian political process, and the attempted news blackout, it seems likely that we'll discover these things after they occur.

And, of course, we have the usual suspects tripping all over themselves to make the case that Ahmedinejad won fair and square. What happens to the neoconservative agenda if the face of the Iranian regime is something other than a bombastic, holocaust-denying caricature of the middle eastern autocrat? Nothing good, I'll wager.

One final note: the Obama administration has wisely kept the focus on US interests, and refrained from commenting on the internal politics of Iran. The fact that we have essentially zero leverage in a situation that impacts almost every major US foreign policy goal in the region is a testament to two things: the usefulness of bilateral relationships and the abject failure of decades of US policy with regard to Iran. If we had some pre-existing relationship with the Iranian leadership, we might be able to do something. As it is, we have to sit back and watch as THE country that shares a border with both Afghanistan and Iraq descends into chaos. Also, Iran is a major oil producer, and this will almost certainly produce a spike in oil prices, which is a very bad thing in the middle of a global recession.

GOOD SHOW EVERYBODY. DRINKS ALL AROUND.


"Ahmedinejad called us dust, we showed him a sandstorm." - Twitter, 6/15/09

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