Sunday, December 17, 2006

Seeking a Foreign Policy Strategy

Here's another fine Post column by another Tufts University academic. Daniel Drezner (who, by the way, has a fine blog) discusses various proposals for an overarching organizing principle for US foreign policy. I have to note once again that his summary of the Fukuyama position looks strikingly like my own position. Have I become a neoconservative? Help!? Damn you for your sensibleness, Fukuyama!

Culture Studies

The Washington Post has an interesting column today on the role of culture in political and economic development, written by the head of the Culture Matters Research Project at Tufts University, where they have been surveying global cultural practices and how they affect developing nations.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Brits Have Had Enough

CSM reports that Britain is abandoning the phrase "war on terror", and looks into the general muck-up Bush and Blair have made of British-American relations. If there's anyone Bush has screwed over more than America, it's Britain. Somewhere deep in his heart, Tony Blair has to know what an incredible mistake he made casting his lot with Bush. So much for the "Special Relationship". It may be some time before we see that meme revived.

Also a TimesOnline column by Matthew Parris gives probably the best assessment of the Baker report I've seen so far. Parris notes that most of the recommendations in the report are bunk and have no hope of success. That, he says, was never the point. There is no success to be had anymore. But this is a plan that responds to both success and failure in exactly the same way: withdrawing the troops. Quote:
The plan itself won’t work. As the BBC’s eloquent and curiously underrated Washington correspondent, Justin Webb, put it on the radio this week, “it is the tone” not the detail of Baker’s report that is important and new.

That’s true. The tone says: “We’ve lost.” The tone says: “We should have seen this coming.” The tone says: “All we can do now is play a losing hand.” General Sir Mike Jackson, former Chief of the General Staff, missed the point magnificently this week when he worried aloud that the trouble with a set deadline (of 2008) was that we might have to quit without having achieved our war aims. Poor, upright, soldierly Sir Mike has not realised that that is the whole idea.

But Mr Baker has, and furious neocons realise it too. The term realpolitik has become a cliché in media treatment of the ISG report this week but the irony is this: Baker’s conclusions are anything but realistic: they represent unrealism of the most fanciful kind. His route map is to La-la Land. He knows it. His report is the sugar. The pill is Defeat.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Insurance Industry as Environmental Activist

The Washington Post has a good story insurance adjustments for climate change. The author could have done a better job of parsing out how much this is actually focused on climate change and how much is just a reaction to the insurance industry getting pasted by Katrina (or whether and to what extent those are actually different stories). I'm also a little curious as to why the insurance industry refuses to offer insurance at all to high risk areas rather than just raise prices to cover the increased risk. Risk markets are, in general, pretty interesting stuff. I'm looking forward to my insurance course next semester.

Having recently visited the Outer Banks in North Carolina, I find it a little shocking that the insurance industry is just now waking up to the fact that it is a disaster waiting to happen. It is essentially just a big sand bar sitting off the coast that people have built houses on. I can't say I have a lot of sympathy for people who view one of those houses as a good vehicle for retirement investment. Might as well take that money to Vegas...

Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Other Side of Hugo Chavez

Hugo Chávez played into American caricatures with his anti-Bush campaign at the UN, but it bothered me in the aftermath of the speech to hear certain US officials and commentators refer to him as some sort of tyrant or dictator. We would do well to recall the he is, in fact, wildly popular in Venezuela. Current polls have him beating his opponent in tomorrow's election by a 2-1 margin. Like most South American countries Venezuela suffers from an immensely unequal division of wealth (the article cites one claim that the poverty rate in Venezuela is 70%). Chávez has redirected oil wealth to provide education, health care, and basic sustenance for the nation's many impoverished citizens. It's far from clear whether Chávez's policies will accomplish much in the long term, but he has at least taken steps to address the problem, which itself represents a change from past leadership.

In posts past I've wondered what is the proper means to address the lingering impacts of colonialism in South America and other developing regions. Even a hardened libertarian like Nozick calls for redistributive policies where an allocation of resources was achieved through means not consonant with Lockean justice in acquisition. Until the recent wave of populist leaders was elected in South America redistribution of this sort was likely impossible as the wealthy by and large controlled the levers of power. Now that it is possible, the West and the international development institutions (the UN, IMF, World Bank) appear to have little interest in providing assistance, guidance, and advice in this process. This sort of pure redistribution is heretical to modern economic principles, but I think we need to recognize these situations as a special case, one where the general principles don't apply well (which is why all these populist leaders were elected in the first place). I don't know if what Chávez is doing is right, but if it's not I wish we could respond with constructive criticism rather than blanket condemnations...

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

More Fukuyama and Neocon Theory

Back in June I posted on a Francis Fukuyama appearance at the Miller Center. Greg Djerejian has a post on a London Review of Books review by Stephen Holmes of Fukuyama's After the Neocons (and he includes a fairly lengthy excerpt of the review). As I noted in my previous post, I find Fukuyama's account of what he views to the be the real neocon thesis to be fairly compelling. Quoting from Holmes:
The thesis is that democracy is the most effective antidote to the kind of Islamic radicalism that hit the US on 9/11. Its exponents begin with the premise that tyranny cannot tolerate the public expression of social resentment that its abuses naturally produce. To preserve its grip, tyranny must therefore crush even modest stirrings of opposition, repressing dissidents and critics, with unstinting ferocity if need be. In the age of globalisation, however, repressed rebellions do not simply die out. They splash uncontrollably across international borders and have violent repercussions abroad. Middle Eastern rebellions have been so savagely and effectively repressed that rebels have been driven to experiment with an indirect strategy to overthrow local tyrannies and seize power. They have travelled abroad and targeted those they see as the global sponsors of their local autocrats.
Fukuyama goes on to describe how the Bush administration's policy in Iraq and the in the Middle East generally has strayed from the neocon theory in critical ways (for example that their actual approach to promoting democracy in the Middle East was foolish and ineffective).

There is some merit to the theory as Fukuyama presents it. I think it stops at least one step too soon, however. There are geopolitical (and probably socioeconomic) considerations driving anti-Americanism that pass beyond redirected frustration with local tyrants. Palestine is an obvious example, but there are others. These issues need to be dealt with as well, and part of the value of democratization is to bring those issues to the forefront and provide a venue for them to be addressed. The Fukuyama's theory is laudable in that it perceives that the focus of this conflict should be on people, rather than states, and that non-democratic states can serve as roadblocks to us reaching the people. But I think his analysis of what is driving those people falls short. Democracy is a step in the process, not the endgame.

The conflict this summer in Lebanon provides a good example of this. When Israel mounted its offensive on Lebanon, this was an issue the US needed to address if we were serious about dealing with terrorism's root causes. But because we were insulated from popular opinion by the tyrannical governments of our Middle Eastern "allies", and because the administration does not see addressing popular political concerns as part of the neocon mission statement, we completely failed to confront the issue.

It is not good enough to push for democracy, then simply abandon the governments that result from that democratic process as we've done in Palestine and Lebanon. Grievances that arise from a legitimate democratic process should be taken seriously. And to the extent that there is actual merit behind those grievances we need to take steps to address them in order to buy the political capital we need to credibly dismiss those grievances that don't have merit. I'm not sure Fukuyama's neocon theory is any better than the Bush administration's theory on that point.

Posner on Friedman, Libertarianism, Dogmatism

I've been meaning to blog this for the past week, but better late than never, I guess. Over on the Becker-Posner blog, Richard Posner has a nice comment on Milton Friedman's passing. In it he discusses Friedman's influence and liberal economics, and takes a position I find myself largely in agreement with. Frieman's greatest contribution, Posner says, was to hammer home the point that, in general, people are better at representing their own interests than third parties (i.e. the government) are. But, Posner argues, there are exceptions to this general rule (and Posner gives an example of one), and Friedman failed to recognize them. Friedman's market efficiency advocacy became a dogma in which he was too deeply personally invested.

Additionally, Posner takes issue with Friedman's theory (shared with Friedrich Hayek) about the correlation between economic and political freedom. He looks at China and India as counterexamples running in opposite directions (and also mentions European social democracies).

I tend to share Posner's caution with respect to market dogmatism. I feel the need every now and again to point out that this is not necessarily the same as being a market skeptic. Posner certainly is not a market skeptic; he's a legal pioneer precisely for his tendency to bring economic arguments into legal analysis. I'll take this opportunity to duck behind his cover to note that I am a great fan of distributed solutions to many problems, and markets are a wonderful form of distributive problem-solving. But I tend to doubt that there are any one-size-fits-all solutions to human social problems, and dogmatism for any particular solution will sometimes run amiss.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Public Service Announcement

I've mentioned this to a couple people, but here's your reminder: watch Battlestar Galactica. It's awesome. Download it, rent it, buy it, whatever (it starts with a miniseries, then seasons 1 & 2, season 3 is on the air now). It's a well-written drama with a strong political bent (but not in the obnoxious, preachy Star Trek style) and a surprisingly good cast. And it's dark. Really dark. I love it.

ps. After watching several other good TV serials and miniseries (Firefly, The Wire, Band of Brothers, and yes even Lost) I get the feeling that a creative shift is taking place with the good story-telling moving from cinema to TV. There's just so much more you can do with 20 hours a year for 5-6 years compared to 2 hours, and maybe another 2 hours a couple years later if you're lucky. HBO showed the audience was out there (Sopranos, The Wire, etc.) and download sales and soaring DVD revenues have provided the money for movie-like production quality (Firefly cost $1m per episode to make and I have to imagine Galactica costs more than that).

The Modern Communicational Environment

Hey just thought I'd link to this talk at MIT. It is a discussion with Yochai Benkler and Henry Jenkins about the networked society. I just wanted something to watch over dinner but I ended up watching the whole thing. I had heard of both of them before so I figure they must be pretty big. Whenever I watch this sort of thing I think I ought to be an expert on the future of communication. I don't know whether its my ideas regarding culture, or perhaps my generational perspective, but I never feel people fully grasp the potential of change in the informational structure of society. I always wish I was there to answer the questions. In any case these guys are interesting.

Oh yeah. Check this quote out. It rocks.

"He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation."

- Thomas Jefferson, from a Letter to Isaac McPherson, August 13, 1813

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Russ Bows Out

Following in Mark Warner's footsteps, Russ Feingold has decided not to run for president. I'm not shocked. I have the distinct feeling already that this is a two man(/woman) race between Clinton and Obama. And if Obama doesn't run, there is a strong possibility that Clinton won't face any significant challenge. Feingold was a huge favorite among the online progessive community (Kos et al), but didn't have the money, national profile, or inside connections to be a realistic rival to Clinton. In the event that Obama doesn't run, it's probably best that Feingold is out to help facilitate the creation of the "anyone but Hillary" bloc around a more realistic candidate. But he's still my hero.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Rawlsian Justice

I want to respond mostly on the topic of Rawls and his theory, but I'd like to briefly address the normative effect of civic institutions. I think institutions can create a much broader range of norms than simple expectation. The U.S. constitution provides a fine example of the sort of impact that civic institutions can have. You can look at the debate over the war on terror detainees and habeus corpus. Modern Americans have instincts about this that I don't think most people would have had in 1787. A lot of our popular conceptions about due process come from our institutions. Consider net neutrality. Right now both sides are advancing plausible moral values-based arguments for their positions. In the next year or two Congress is going to rule thumbs or thumbs down on net neutrality. My guess is that 10-15 years from now if someone raises the moral argument of the losing side of this debate (whichever way Congress goes) our instict will be to reject it (and similarly to accept the winning side's argument). We rely on our political and legal processes to help navigate through the innumerable moral and ethical dilemmas of modern society and to provide some sense of resolution to these sorts of questions. Consequently there are many more norm-setting opportunities for civic institutions than mere expectation.

Moving on to Rawls then. First, it's important to note that Rawls is not a utilitarian. In fact, in A Theory of Justice utilitarianism is the bogeyman against which Rawls argues his case. On the first page he writes:
Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others. It does not allow that the sacrifices imposed on a few are outweighed by the larger sum of advantages enjoyed by the many.
There is, however, an element of utilitarianism in Rawls's Original Position. The objective of the Original Position contractors is supposedly to maximize their likely outcome in society. This is sort of utilitarian, with a curveball thrown in (the veil of ignorance blinds them to exactly what represents utility to them as individuals).

But Rawls's excursion into utilitarianism, in my humble view, is a mistake. I don't think he actually meant it. It really doesn't follow from his justifications of why we should have the Original Position that it should necessarily be a maximizing exercise, nor does his output from the Original Position (the two principles) reflect a maximizing approach. A maximizing approach would produce, as Henry noted, basically whatever principles would maximize the average amount of primary goods (Rawls's stand-in for utility) for everyone. Instead what Rawls claims the Original Position contractors will embrace is a maximin approach (maximizing the amount of primary goods provided to the least well off member of society). You can see this in the difference principle (part of Rawls's second principle of justice): social and economic inequalities are permissible only if they are to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society. This would make no sense as output from the Original Position as Rawls proposes it. So something doesn't fit here, and I think there has to be a better explanation linking Rawls's fundamental premises to his two principles of justice.

Rawls's entire argument is motivated by his conception of justice as fairness. At this point I think I need to try to flesh out the basic Rawlsian argument (I am, of course, skipping over many, many details). Rawls views the benefits of social cooperation as the product of everyone acquiescing to a social ordering that allows for and facilitates that social cooperation. Those benefits should therefore be allocated in such a manner as to ensure such cooperation, resulting in what Rawls calls a well-ordered society. This requires that "(1) everyone accepts and knows that the others accept the same principles of justice, and (2) the basic social institutions generally satisfy and are generally known to satisfy these principles." Lacking a well-ordered society various factions will vie for the power to reorder the state to fit their own needs, and the resulting instability will hinder social cooperation and deny everyone its benefits. Rawls conceives of the Original Position in order to satisfy condition (1) above; to create principles of justice that everyone can accept. In the Original Position our theoretical contractors will evaluate the question of social justice in a completely unbiased manner and generate broadly acceptable principles of social justice. He appears to assume (initially!) that what people will all accept will be principles designed to produce the greatest average outcome.

So far, so good. But there's a problem here, one that Rawls acknowledges (and that informs his choice of the maximin approach), but that he strangely does not allow to alter the conceptual setup of the Original Position. There are certain social outcomes that people will simply not accept, no matter how well conceived the principles of justice are. A utilitarian principle (which is what the Original Position as Rawls proposes it would produce) could, for example, result in some people being made slaves in order to improve the overall average utility of the society. No matter what their Original Position alter-ego might have thought, the actual slaves could never recognize this principle as just, and consequently you would not have a stable, well-ordered state.

So the instruction to the Original Position contractors really ought not to be to maximize the average amount of primary goods, but rather to devise principles of justice that everyone can agree to. Of course, that was what we created the bloody thing for anyways. How should that be approached? We can assume (without too much controversy, I think) that the people least likely to agree to any principle of justice will be those who gain the least benefit from it. Hence the maximin approach. These least well off people should certainly agree to a principle that would maximize their welfare.

A first blush approach to maximin would be to simply be divide the social benefit in equal shares. However, as Rawls recognizes, that only makes sense if the social benefit is fixed and unchangeable. But we know that the benefits of social cooperation are not fixed, that by providing people with incentives we can get them to produce greater social benefits. This requires allowances for some inequality so that we can provide those incentives for increased cooperation. Of course, if those greater benefits only go to the well off, we have gained nothing from a maximin approach. Increasing the size of the pie is only beneficial to the extent that some of the increase goes to the least well off. And so we arrive at the difference principle: inequalities that in some way benefit the least well off are acceptable, those that don't are not. And you hopefully by now can see why I say that I don't believe Rawls took the utilitarian aspect of the Original Position very seriously.

Now, with my Rawlsian primer complete let me address your comments more directly. I read your argument to be compatible, in principle, with Rawls's difference principle. It is a 'rising tide lifts all boats' argument. In essence any inequality produced by a free market will operate to the benefit of the least well off. The difference principle would only limit market inequalities or justify redistributive policies to the extent that this is not true. Of course, the other part of the second principle, fair equality of opportunity would also support redistributive policies (public education, for example) that would conflict with your position.

Rawls writes at length about economics in the latter part of A Theory of Justice (which I have not read). Scanning through it, Rawls does not engage in serious discussion regarding exact details of market structure and regulations (and in fact brushes this off to some extent as being dependent on "the traditions, institutions, and social forces of each country, and its particular historical circumstances" and some evaluation of the impact of various policies in practice). But it is clear that he believes that some baseline minimum standard needs to be maintained through redistributive policies to protect against the "contingencies of the market". Beyond that "it may be perfectly fair that the rest of total income be settled by the price system, assuming that it is moderately efficient and free from monopolistic restrictions, and unreasonable externalities have been eliminated."

Rawls also hints at another objection related to the quote at the top of my post regarding the inviolability of individual rights. While he does conceive of the maximin principle being based on long run expectations, he would not allow the justice of particular groups of people to be sacrificed to long term generalized gains. There would need to some line-drawing to determine what is an acceptable short term sacrifice in the long term interests of those least well off, and those sacrifices that treat those people as means to achieve some remote end. This also harkens back to the motivation for the maximin approach. Outcomes that are bad enough to cause social unrest (those that the victims cannot possibly regard as being the products of a just society) need to be avoided even if temporary and in the long run interest of everyone.

To a considerable degree the dispute here has to be an empirical one. Your claim about charitable giving could be interpreted as a counter to many of Rawls's arguments. Suffice it say I find the claim that charity could completely replace redistributive policy somewhat dubious. There would also be arguments about the existence and degree of market failures, of anticompetitive strategic behavior, externalization of costs, collective action problems, behavioral critiques, etc. I think there would also have to be discussion as to the general degree of churn in markets and the degree to which it is possible and probable that some proportion of people would fall through the cracks, including but not limited to those who are disabled or suffer serious health ailments and impairments or possess limited natural talents and abilities. I don't see us resolving such issues at this moment, but to the extent any such problems exist they would suggest a conflict between a minimal state and Rawls's difference principle.

Friday, November 10, 2006


Before I get started addressing your major points I would just like to note that I disagree with your view of Locke. Though Nozick may lean on Locke, this only indicates that Nozick is poised for a fall, as, I assure you, Locke is not leaning back (I must note that this statement is predicated upon my limited knowledge of Nozick's arguments). Also, the State of Nature does not characterize human behavior. It is a legal structure: the absence of any formal agreements. I would discuss this further but it probably isn't relevant enough here to justify the time.

I will not properly counter your suggestion that public institutions are good tools for cultural transformation. This is a very complicated issue and I don't think I have the time now to do it justice. I will make a few general statements that may give you some sense as to what points I think are important in this regard.

You point out that there is a relationship between culture and institutions. I can't argue. To do so would be absurd. In fact, there are things which we call institutions that are obviously nothing but culture (here of course I am using a much broader definition of institution than just public institutions). Hell, I could make a pretty decent argument that all institutions are primarily culture (I first began to grasp the potential complexity of this topic when I tried to carefully define culture and its aspects, institutions and their types, got two pages in, and still had not worked out a satisfactory framework). Once these particulars where hashed out I'm pretty sure I could make a good case for my point. But in doing so I would have to elaborate most of my theory of culture; and I know from experience that I can't do that in brief. So I'm not going to try here.

When I think about examples of public institutions that have a strong cultural complement it seems that these are primarily institutions that were created because the cultural 'institution' already existed (an example here would be marriage). So that’s one point. Public institutions often have cultural counterparts, but it is usually the culture that brings about the public institutions rather than vice versa.

Another point would be that public institutions are only good at creating an inferior sort of gross culture. I did indicate, unintentionally, that institutions can create norms. This is true. But a norm in this sense is a very feeble sort of culture. It is a simple expectation. I can modify a rat's behavior by establishing the norm that it will be fed every day at 9AM, but even for rats this is not a very impressive utilization of their brainpower. In the modern use of the word 'culture' such ideas are dominant. You could have a culture that hates blacks, or favors democracy, or values punctuality, etc. This is culture as merely a set of irrational preferences. It is definitely true that such things can be an important part of a culture, and that they can have major impacts on people's behavior. It is also true that there are many examples of public institutions having succeeded in changing these aspects of culture. This is not however a part of what gives a culture 'richness'. You cannot develop a meaningful appreciation for Shakespeare, Hume, or Darwin, with posters and PSAs. These things are deep and thought provoking. They utilize the human mind's capacity for nuance, intuition, and rationality. I think that they are infinitely more powerful as means for improving social outcomes than mere propaganda. I also think that to not use these sorts of culture is to squander the potential of the human mind. This potential is infinite. Propaganda is a cop out. It is what we resort to in order to control people when we can't figure out how to make proper use of them. Human intelligence is a hindrance when you want to manage society from the top down like a block of clay (as, in a non-rich culture, the idle brain power is bound to bring about all manner of wickedness), but it is a great asset when you approach society at the fine structure level and try to change it from the bottom up.

I do not think that I could be said to fetishize an ideal culture. I do talk about a rich culture, a healthy culture, a natural culture, etc. but there are infinitely many cultures which would be worthy of these appellations. These are cultures that are of sufficient complexity to utilize the potential of the human brain, that contain the notions necessary to maintain the well-being of their hosts, and that in other ways resemble the cultures that coevolved with the human body. The methods I suggest for improving culture have less to do with the contents of culture than with how it is transmitted. I certainly believe that the contents of a particular culture have a huge impact on its ability to improve human well-being, but any healthy culture is better than none. In any case, the problem is much less important in modern times. So long as the culture we create includes an understanding of the value of rationality, free information, and self-determination, it will naturally accumulate the best and most valuable ideas (since we have so many available ideas and such facility in the distribution of information).

Your argument against the idea that government is increasing is an empirical one. Facts require a lot more effort to generate than ideas. So I'm not going to argue this thoroughly. I don't have the time. Here's my gut reaction (and there are more nerve ending in my gut than in my brain you know). You address the issue from a legal perspective. You certainly are in a better position to make this judgment than I. And from what I do know about the actions of the courts your assessment seems justified. This is encouraging. I'm tempted to vote republican just to get more Chicago school libertarians onto the Supreme Court. But I think this is really an elite movement. It is an ideological battle being waged by a group of intellectuals (and hooray for them). But I think its pretty crazy to argue that the trend in government over the last century is not decidedly up. Government spending as a percentage of GDP has certainly increased dramatically. I don't have any hard figures, but I bet that the quantity of legislation has increased (both in aggregate and in pages issued annually). I'm pretty sure the size of the federal register has grown over the period. What is more difficult to measure, but perhaps more meaningful is the change in people's attitude toward government. Whenever there is a problem today it is automatically assumed that we should turn to government for the solution. When government regulates and prohibits, modern Americans see this as natural and unsurprising. I think we have a much more submissive attitude toward government than we did a century ago.

Your closing paragraph addresses what is probably the core of the difference between the understanding of the modern liberal and the classical liberal. I will use a few different approaches to describe how libertarianism is an appropriate model for guiding social policy working from your comments.

Rawls derives his principles of justice from what he calls the Original Position. Where we assume that we are choosing the structure of rules of the world into which we are going to be born prior to having any knowledge as to what our initial physical or social condition will be. In this way we will not be biased by any particular class assumptions. I think this is a fine way to assess social welfare. It appears to be roughly equivalent to a judgment based on utilitarianism, if by that term we mean the greatest satisfaction to the most people. Another way of stating this principle would then be to maximize the happiness of the average person. This seems to fit the Rawlsian problem. In the Original Position my expectation is that I will be the average person (in statistics that is the very definition of 'expectation') and so I seek, by arranging the rules of society, to maximize my expected happiness as such. That's all fine. Where I would disagree with Rawls is in the supposition that using the redistributive and regulatory powers of government will enhance the common welfare. From the Original Position I would choose a libertarian structure. Let me give a couple of examples.

Would I choose a rule structure that supports the existence of unions? Certainly not. I must consider what impact it would have on me as a random member of society. The only circumstance in which I would be benefited would be if I happened to be a member of a union during the first generation or so of that union's existence. If I am a member after the union has been long established, the economic inefficiencies of the union's existence will have already eroded my well being sufficiently to negate any benefits it might provide. If I am not a member of a particular union, it harms me in at least two ways and quite possibly more. The union harms me because I, as a consumer, must pay more for, and hence consume less of, the product that the unionized industry produces. In the long run the inefficiencies of the unionized labor market further harm everyone by reducing overall economic output. If I am an unemployed laborer in the unionized industry, I am harmed because the union impairs my opportunity to find employment by offering my services at a more competitive rate. If I have invested in an industry prior to its unionization, the value of my fixed capitol will be reduced by the appearance of the union. So, since a union only benefits a small group of people for a short period of time it would be irrational to create rules supporting unionization from the Original Position.

Would I support government-financed distributions of wealth to the poor? No. Admittedly, in the first generation or so this policy will enhance my well being if I happen to be poor, but if I should be born at some later date I would be better off without it. The policy will reduce capitol investment by removing wealth from the people who have a sufficient quantity to invest (and who largely have such sums because they are skilled at allocating capitol efficiently). It will imply annual structural costs involved in administering the taxation and distribution system. It will dramatically reduce the incentive of my parents and their parents to strive to improve their economic standing. As the allocation of a dollar is a production order, it will, in essence, transfer the direction of the economy from those who have established economic prowess to those who have demonstrated economic incompetence. These forces will both further degrade my relative economic standing and will put a drag on the development of the economy as a whole. A five percent increase in my share of the total wealth of the economy at the cost of a half percent reduction in economic growth is not a good long-term trade off. Rationally, I would prefer the situation where I have more real wealth, even if inequality is higher.

Those are the sorts of arguments I would make against Rawls's principles of justice. I don't think his principles follow from his idea of the Original Position. Superficially policies of economic equalization seem like a good idea, but in the long run they are detrimental even to those they are intended to benefit.

One might argue that there is a threshold of poverty below which one experiences such an acute level of suffering that its intensity would weigh down the average well being so much that we must do something to alleviate it. Sure; of course. But it seems ridiculous to me to suppose that we need government to provide this support. Honestly, people aren't monsters. Even in the presence of extensive government support systems Americans contribute hundreds of billions of dollars to charity every year. I have to imagine that if people kept a much larger portion of their income, and if they did not expect that the government would take care of every problem under the sun, they would probably be even more generous. Even if they weren't, I sincerely believe that, had our government not become so interventionist over the past century, our current output would be several times what it is today, so that even if people only contributed the same amount that they currently do, as a percent of GDP, it would at least equal, in real terms, what is currently provided to the poor through government programs and private charity (and the want this money would serve would be less intense).

I think the fear that, if the government did not provide all of its supports and regulations, we would experience a humanitarian disaster is just a scare tactic used by people with a relatively extreme class warfare agenda. Kids may have to work in sweatshops in the third world out of economic necessity, but this would never happen in modern America. Nobody, anywhere in the world, would accept such a situation if they had the economic wherewithal to avoid it. There is a stage in economic development when atrocious conditions are common. But it replaces a preexisting state in which atrocious conditions are universal. Dickens may have been miserable when he was a boy, but he grew up to be a famous author. That could never have happened before the industrial revolution. Had he been born two hundred years before, no one today would ever have heard of him. He would have been just another miserable boy, just like every other boy in the world. The point is that liberal policies had been so successful by his time that people finally realized that it was actually possible for many people to not be miserable. We like to think that we're very superior. We imagine that people in the past thought it was wonderful to work a hundred hours a week and to live in piss reeking hovels. But I think that in this we are mistaken. We think that we wised up, passed laws against living like that, and moved on. But perhaps the economic development that followed naturally from the adoption of liberalized policies had already largely done away with those things and all we did was ban the vestigial remains of ways of life that had once been universal. I believe that this is the case. I believe that the most rapid way to eliminate terrible living conditions is to allow the market to operate unhindered.

That is a very important point. Liberal institutions did not create child labor. They did not cause people to have long working hours or low wages. Liberal institutions were the very force that made these things so uncommon that what remained of such practices began to appear abominable. It is a wonderful thing that the wealth that liberalism had created made people's moral sentiments more gentle and sensitive. If this should cause them to aid and succor those who still must suffer this is a very good thing. But if this should cause them to destroy the very system which is creating the wealth necessary to lift others out of poverty, then it is a genuine tragedy.

It goes without saying today that people work fewer hours, for greater wages, and under better conditions than they did in the past because we have passed regulatory laws to make it so. This belief is nonsensical. These laws would have no effect if the physical wealth that make this standard of living possible had not already been brought into existence by liberal policy. We could go and pass such laws in Afghanistan or North Korea but that would not make people better off. Laws do not improve living standards, wealth does. It is an indisputable fact that prior to the time when we began passing laws to constrain working conditions, wages had been going up, hours worked had been going down, and working conditions had been getting better for centuries. There can be no reasonable doubt that this trend would have continued on its own throughout the twentieth century in the absence of any interference. From my perspective, it is obvious that, in each of these regards, the average worker today would be better off had no paternalist regulations been created.

I could go on in this vein indefinitely. I guess the point is that the argument between liberals and statists is not what ends we should aim towards but what means will best achieve our ends. Liberals do not believe that poverty is good. They do not loathe children. I might like to bring down the welfare state, but in doing so I would intend to promote social welfare. I have come to despise communism, but this does not mean that I do not value community. I once thought that Jesus was a communist. After all, he said that everyone should give their wealth to those less fortunate than themselves. But this is not equivalent to communism. There is a vast gulf between suggesting that charitable action is righteous and emptying people's wallets into the basket at gunpoint. I don't recall Jesus saying anything about 'overthrow thy neighbor'. I guess that's a diversion. What I'm trying to say is that I believe in libertarianism for entirely pragmatic reasons. It may happen to be true that freedom is a pleasure in itself. That liberty is an ennobling and dignifying status. But I did not come to embrace liberalism for such reasons. I honestly believe that it is the best system for enhancing the well being of every person in society.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

An Ideal Culture

With the respect to the Nozick thing, I have similar criticisms. It is, of course, a thought experiment, which gives Nozick some license to set the rules. And the rule he sets, near as I can tell, is that people will behave in exactly the manner Nozick needs them to in order for him to make his theory work. They are generally virtuous in a state of nature and generally respect everyone else's rights (borrowing heavily from Locke on this point). They misbehave just enough for Nozick to justify the evolution of a minimalist state (through an immaculately rights-preserving process), and not one ounce more. It's all very convenient, very shoddy. None of his assumptions or suppositions about the way people will behave in his model are discussed or defended, it's just delivered as "this is what will happen". Well, if we're all willing to buy these 1001 assumptions and conditions, then yes, this is a fine theory. I'm not a fan. Apparently it's a pretty well-known book in the field though...

Moving on to the meat of the discussion: democratic process. Your main thrust is that culture is the significant element, rather than institutional structure. I have a hard time disagreeing with that, and the archives of this blog will show that I've made the exact same argument with respect to democratization numerous times. However, as you note in your final paragraph, there is a symbiotic relationship between culture and social institutions. Institutions are products of culture, but also vessels and conveyors of culture. Properly understood an institution includes not just the bells and whistles, but social understanding the underlies it. Institutions, as you note, express and establish norms. And given the general chaos of cultural "progress", institutions may serve as one of the best means of trying to place a twig in the river to redirect the flow (to the degree that it can be consciously directed at all, which I assume to be a fairly small degree). I'm not sure that institutional objectives and cultural objectives can be cleanly divided.

I think it's also important not to fetishize an ideal culture, as that may prove as illusory as a true state of nature. One of the most powerful insights of our founding fathers was that people are flawed and will always be so, and that institutions of government must be built to withstand imperfection. I'm not suggesting that those institutions could survive total cultural collapse, but rather that they can be built with certain tolerances, and even built to provide some self-correcting mechanisms that will feed back into civic culture.

Also, I have to take issue with slippery slope argument against non-minimal states. Frankly, the regulatory tide has generally been receding in the US for the past 25 years or more. There has been a strong push towards deregulation in many areas, particularly the traditional regulated industries (power, gas, telecom), as well as in some populist areas (welfare reform). The judiciary has been overrun by Chicago school libertarians and antitrust regulation has been rendered virtually non-existent. I don't see a slippery slope at all. We careened towards libertarian excess in the first couple decades of the 20th Century (known in legal circles as the Lochner era), then over-corrected through the middle part of the century, and I think are now trying to establish some sort of balance.

Finally, I think you should be careful in assuming that if there were an ideal culture it would be a libertarian one. I think a strong argument can be advanced that the best approach to social justice and social institutions would be something along the lines of Rawls's two principles of justice (although I don't think Rawls has made that argument). I find it to be a far better fit for our intuitions about justice than a libertarian institutional structure. According to a theory like Nozick's, if A is born with every possible advantage and goes on to great success, fame, wealth, and power while B is born with every possible disadvantage and ekes out a miserable existence before succumbing to a preventable disease, then A deserved everything he received and B was entitled to nothing more. This Nozick would call this justice. Rawls would cry injustice, and frankly I think so would most people. And I think that even if people took Confucius's advice and acquired knowledge and insight, they would probably still agree with Rawls. It seems quite plausible to me that even if we had a state of remarkably educated, diligent, civic-minded, and rational people, you might find that it is still a non-minimal state.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Libertarianism and Paternalism

It is clear to me that there is much involved in a system of torts. I do not claim that the many systematic and idiosyncratic determinations that must be made under such a system are easily made or have obvious outcomes. I acknowledge that the very existence of a system of legal protection requires a great deal of value-laden judgment. Of course the rights of both parties are at stake in a tort judgment. I only mentioned those of the victim because I was highlighting the injustice of that particular situation, where the tortfeasor seems secure in his rights.

As far as Nozick's ideas go, they do sound odd. I will say a thing or two based upon my limited understanding of them, let me know if I'm off the mark.

It seems very odd to suggest that a liberal state is the natural outcome of anarchy. I have often said that either anarchy does not exist or we are living in it right now. People are so accustomed to living under a large impersonal state that they are unaccustomed to think of what government fundamentally is. As I have said before, and as you are surely already aware, government is merely superiority of force. If gangsters have the run of a city and the official authorities are powerless to contradict their decrees, then the 'authorities' are no longer sovereign, and the gangsters are a government unto themselves. Advocates of anarchy, in suggesting the abolition of government, either fail to understand what, fundamentally, government is, or are making the absurd assertion that it is possible to do away with the physical inequality of parties and the resulting power differential. Anyplace where there are two people there is government. The point of this is that anarchy is either an insubstantial philosophical construct or it is universal. Assuming the former, Nozick's assertion is merely a theoretical exercise; assuming the latter, Nozick's assertion is disproved by the repeated evidence of history. Why on earth would power groups, in the absence of formal government, restrict themselves to selling their protection, when they could quite easily force defenseless parties into a state of clientage and then extract whatever portion of the client's production they desired? They wouldn't. The evidence of history shows quite clearly that they haven't. As for such power groups being rights protecting… lol. There is certainly no guarantee that governments will be good.

As far as using defaults in existing programs. I'm all for it. I may doubt that a program is the most effective way to achieve the ends aimed at, but so long as we're going to do it we ought to do it as well as we know how in order to minimize the loss we incur by not following the optimal path. I do think that, in the context of the programs he mentioned, Sunstein's defaults would cause them to realize their ends more effectively. If you sell defaults as a way of making intervention more effective I won't argue. It is only when they are sold as a way of making intervention not intervention that I object.

When I said that "[determining a rational set of defaults] through the auspices of modern democratic government virtually guarantees that we will botch the process", I was speaking in very broad terms. I was talking about culture as a default. It is definitely the government's role to create defaults within the proper sphere of government. I am only talking about government setting defaults in private decision making. When it does this, I call it 'intervention', and I think it a mistake.

Your next point is very important: "a state will always be subject to pressures (of varying intensities) to do non-libertarian things. The state will always have the power to do those things; it is inherent in being a state. That power cannot be ignored, and there is no structural way to make it go away". Absolutely (my discussion of the constitution was not suggesting that a constitution could protect an ideal of government; I was just noting that the idea of defaults provides an interesting insight into why constitutions have any effect at all). One might say that good government is not a state of law and institutional organization, but rather a state of culture. No set of laws can cause a culturally destitute people to govern themselves well and no rule can be so detrimental as to prevent a culturally rich people from doing so. This is why I have lost interest in practical politics. What is the point of struggling for changes in laws when what really matters in not the virtues of government but the virtues of the people? This idea is highlighted in the ridiculous programs of 'democratization'. There are groups of people who are culturally democratic, and with such groups no power can hold them back from democracy. There are other groups who lack the cultural prerequisites for democracy and who will not become properly democratic no matter how hard you shove the institutions of democracy down their throats. This goes back to the recognition that government is power. We tend to confuse government with institutions, but if the institutions do not have the support of the people they do not have power and thus have nothing to do with government.

That idea is at the heart of my political philosophy. Good government is the product of a strong culture. It is a recursive model of societal improvement:

The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the kingdom, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.

Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their persons were cultivated. Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their states were rightly governed. Their states being rightly governed, the whole kingdom was made tranquil and happy.

Confucius, The Great Learning

This is why my own investigations focus not on how to impose change on people externally but rather on what culture is and how it is transmitted. This, I think, is the road to improvement. If we can understand why some groups of people spontaneously generate wealth, creativity, and good governance, while others seem trapped in a state of degradation, then we might actively promote the welfare of mankind.

Finally, I do not agree that such policies as redistributive taxation and financial regulation reduce people's clamoring for more intervention. In fact I think such policies lead to more regulation. I believe that these policies result in outcomes that are the opposite of their intended aims. So if redistributive taxation makes people poorer and financial regulation makes markets more dangerous, then obviously you enter into an unstable feedback loop. One might call it a slippery slope. The more you intervene, the worse the problem becomes, and the more people demand intervention. I think this sums up the story of twentieth century governance nicely. Take the war on drugs as an example. The more effort they put into fighting the drug trade the more valuable drugs become. The more valuable drugs become, the stronger become those who traffic in drugs and the more difficult it becomes to stop them. So the harder you fight the problem the more virulent it becomes (and the harder you try to fight it, ad infinitum). An argument that supplements this perfectly sufficient point is that interventionist concessions create a norm. Interventions give people a sense of entitlement and this begets greater expectations of future paternalism.

A Response on Libertarian Paternalism

First off, I have to admit to not watching the video, although I believe I listened to an audio file of the same lecture (or a similar one by Sunstein) some time ago. Henry's post hits pretty close to some stuff my political theory course has been covering (particularly Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia), and that I discussed briefly with V recently (hopefully he'll chime in). I'm going to respond in chunks, hopefully it won't fragment the discussion too badly.
In the case of the car accident loss being left where it fell, the government is clearly failing to protect the rights of the victim. The goal of the government (under the aforementioned philosophy) is to secure individual's rights to life, liberty, and property. It would be ludicrous to suppose that this could be accomplished without torts (or likewise without the use of police power to try to prevent wrongful conduct)
Even accepting that a tort system is a necessity, this still leaves a huge range of determinations to be made with respect to process and defaults. Default legal burdens of proof and persuasion, burden-shifting rules, rules of evidence and courtroom procedures, etc. And to suggest that only the victim's rights are implicated neglects the fact that the tortfeasor's property rights are equally implicated. A faulty or unfair process could easily result in an unjust invasion of his rights. Protecting everyone's rights is a complicated business, packed with value-laden judgments.

In fact, one of my (many) objection's to Nozick's theory is that he imagines there will be numerous regimes of justice developed by individuals and associations in the state of nature, and he is indifferent to which one prevails (which would occur through economic competition of the associations). Any rights-protecting regime is apparently as good as any other in his view. But process can be slanted heavily to favor particular groups and actions, and it seems to me fairly important that there be a conscious and rational effort to create the "best" system, rather than the one most appealing to those with the greatest economic power.
I sincerely believe that the principle is merely a backdoor approach to regulation, and that his use of the word libertarianism is a usurpation of the term (this is the slippery-slope argument that Sunstein says is silly). Many of his examples involve at least some components which are involuntary and do not allow for choice. My second point along this line is a much more interesting one. Can such policies really be implemented (meaningfully) without imposing upon the liberty of the parties involved?
Sunstein's argument is fairly limited in this regard. I don't think he wants to get into the argument about whether or not programs like the 401k program should exist, but rather given that it already does exist wouldn't it be smarter to set the defaults in a manner that will produce the socially optimal result? We can get into the topic of what optimality means (and I will below), but let's assume Congress created the 401k program for some purpose and that purpose can be furthered by adjusting the default as Sunstein suggests. It would be a paternalistic change to an existing regime that creates no additional burden with respect to interfering in anyone's rights and that produces a better outcome. That seems fairly unobjectionable.
So it makes sense that we would be better off providing people with a rationally determined set of defaults to prevent their credulity mechanism from accepting a bunch of random crap. But this is harder than it sounds. I mean the 'determining a rational set of defaults' part. It can be done, but it requires a great deal of thoughtfulness, trepidation, and investigation. From my point of view, doing so through the auspices of modern democratic government virtually guarantees that we will botch the process.
Modern American government warrants a healthy dose of cynicism, but this is more like nihilism. Our institutional system is a bit of mess, and in my view needs some significant reform. But that stands entirely aside from the discussion of libertarianism as far as I can tell. Even the classic night watchman government requires a structure of governance. And if that system of governance sucks, you kiss your night watchman government goodbye in short order.

This, in fact, has always been my biggest objection to libertarian theory. I simply cannot see how a libertarian government could ever remain so for any appreciable length of time. The initial structure of the government will not bind it in libertarian form, even if you had a constitution without amendment procedures. It was not a constitutional amendment that allowed the development of the administrative state in the US, but judicial interpretation. And it wasn't just uppity judges responsible for that (although I'm not sure it would be significant to my argument even if it were), but intense political pressure placed on them by political branches motivated by quite serious concerns about social stability and unrest (and rising socialist sentiment). Whether it's a Great Depression and populist outrage or rent-seeking businesses and other economically powerful interests, a state will always be subject to pressures (of varying intensities) to do non-libertarian things. The state will always have the power to do those things; it is inherent in being a state. That power cannot be ignored, and there is no structural way to make it go away. It just sits there begging to be used.

I have a strong suspicion that some of the policies necessary to keep those pressures at bay (to the greatest degree possible) are themselves non-libertarian (e.g. some level of redistributive tax policy and regulation political speech financing, etc.). In the end, I tend to believe that our rights (which may or may not be limited only to life, liberty, and property) are likely best protected by a state that overtly recognizes the threat of instability and subversion of state power and is structured to best address that threat, even if that structure is not a strictly libertarian one. The state may need to be more powerful and far reaching than a night watchman state in order to be a stable, free-standing system. What good is the night watchman if it ends up being overthrown by communists or turning into a plutocracy?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Defaults and "Libertarian Paternalism"

I just watched a lecture by Cass Sunstein titled 'Libertarian Paternalism is Not an Oxymoron'. I'm not so sure. It seems to me that there is something important in the idea of libertarianism that is anti-meddling. It also seems that there is something fishy about Cass's idea of Libertarian Paternalism.

Sunstein says that there must be some default in any government decision. I guess that's true, but he reads a lot more into this than I think is warranted. First he mentions the notion that a no fault law regarding an auto accident is not an instance of government non-intervention, but rather an instance of the government granting privilege. The driver who caused the accident is not forced to compensate the innocent driver, yet the innocent driver is restrained from demanding compensation on his own. Sunstein later compares this to the presumption that an employer can fire an employee when and as they wish unless the specific employment contract states otherwise. He specifically says that this is not an instance of government non-intervention, but rather an entitlement granted to the employer by the government. Since what here appears to be non-action by the government is really a form of pro-business action, the question of whether or not the government should intervene is nonsensical. It is a 'mystification', as Sunstein notes in the Q&A. Since inaction is really a form of covert intervention the question of whether or not to intervene is trivial. We can only argue how we ought to intervene.

This seems to advocate a point of view that I find abhorrent. It suggests that life, liberty, and property are not fundamental rights to be protected but privileges to be granted at the pleasure of government. I would much prefer a philosophy of government in which the fundamental goal of governance is to secure these rights as firmly as possible. Under this assumption there is a default response to each of the situations mentioned in that last paragraph which is obvious and, I think, optimal. In the case of the car accident loss being left where it fell, the government is clearly failing to protect the rights of the victim. The goal of the government (under the aforementioned philosophy) is to secure individual's rights to life, liberty, and property. It would be ludicrous to suppose that this could be accomplished without torts (or likewise without the use of police power to try to prevent wrongful conduct). But in the latter case (that of job security), it is clearly in the interest of the liberty rights of both parties (and very likely the property right of the employer) that they be allowed to structure their contract as they see fit. Within the bounds of this minimalist framework we can do away with the absurd (or so it seems to me) nullification of the concept of non-intervention. Non-intervention would be to adhere to the principle of maximizing individual enjoyment of the rights to life, liberty, and property.

Rather than carry on in this line I will discuss the obvious objection to my discussion thus far. Sunstein is not proposing that we remove people's contract rights, but rather that we impose default contract structures that can then be negotiated away from. First I will say that this is at times quite fuzzy (e.g. the job security argument i.e. I thought that defaults weren't entitlements) in his expression. I sincerely believe that the principle is merely a backdoor approach to regulation, and that his use of the word libertarianism is a usurpation of the term (this is the slippery-slope argument that Sunstein says is silly). Many of his examples involve at least some components which are involuntary and do not allow for choice. My second point along this line is a much more interesting one. Can such policies really be implemented (meaningfully) without imposing upon the liberty of the parties involved? What if I own a business that has never had any sort of structured savings plan? If the government mandates that employees be defaulted into a certain sort of plan, would I not be obligated to set up such a plan? If not, is the program really being meaningfully implemented? Or, say that the government requires that the default employment contract include a provision supplying job security. What does this mean? Either the employer's liberty is unaffected, meaning that they have just as much right to opt out of the default as the employee does, or, only the employee has this right (i.e. the employee has the right to demand a contract with job security) and the 'default' infringes upon rights the employer previously enjoyed. If the employer can just opt out of the default, then nothing is changed and the default is not meaningful.

I also think that Cass glosses over the argument that the 'science' of what makes a good decision is controversial. The sciences (mostly social sciences ) from which these recommendations come, tend to be consensus sciences in which group think is common and people with an agenda can easily push the herd toward a predetermined position. Sunstein thinks that it will be easy to tell when personal interests are involved or when the science is fuzzy. I doubt this.

I don't think that the underlying idea of defaults is bad. There is no doubt that people do tend to stick with defaults. I think that the phenomenon originates in the inherent credulity of cultural animals. The evolution of culture is, or rather was during the course of human evolution (i.e. several thousand years ago and earlier), an ongoing numerical optimization (by randomized search) of a highly chaotic system with regard to the contents of behavioral instruction. The powers of this computational process dwarf those of the human mind. So it would be shocking if the human mind did not possess mechanisms to keep it from rejecting the output of that process: received culture (i.e. defaults). It is also perfectly reasonable to suggest that, given that we no longer live in a culture shaped by the evolutionary process, these mechanisms are defunct. So it makes sense that we would be better off providing people with a rationally determined set of defaults to prevent their credulity mechanism from accepting a bunch of random crap. But this is harder than it sounds. I mean the 'determining a rational set of defaults' part. It can be done, but it requires a great deal of thoughtfulness, trepidation, and investigation. From my point of view, doing so through the auspices of modern democratic government virtually guarantees that we will botch the process.

I think a great example of rational default setting is the creation and adoption of the U.S. Constitution. It's hard to figure out what it is that makes a Constitution distinct from the body of ordinary law if it contains a provision for its own amendment. The real distinction of the Constitution is that it is the supreme default of the land. It has all of the power of social proof behind it. I have said before that I think it is very much a rationally conceived document. So it's a rational default. The tragedy is what the Supreme Court has done to the constitution. They have dismembered our glorious default. It is far easier for a small group of highly educated individuals to overcome their preference for the default than for a great big congress and a huge unruly populace to do the same. So whenever a significant proportion of the population want to change the Constitution, it almost always ends up being easier to have the court skew its interpretation than to get congress to change the actual wording. This path of least resistance is the weakness that undermines the constitutional fortress. The justices have been smart enough to overcome the default but not wise enough to understand why they shouldn't.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Some Nifty Essays

I told Joe recently that I have been making an effort to learn to program in a language called Lisp. This sort of autodidactic project requires a lot of scouring the infosphere for material. Tonight I happened upon some essays by Paul Graham that I have found extremely diverting. I'm sure you're all very busy but if you happen to have some time for pleasure reading you might enqueue an essay or two.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Pakistan: Democracy Strikes Again!

Here, apparently, is the answer to my Musharraf question. Pervez Musharraf, "President" of Pakistan, who took power in a coup and has never faced a real election will be up for a vote in 2007. Musharraf is broadly unpopular, and appears to be throwing in his lot with Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, a major Islamic party, in a bid to have a realistic shot at reelection. This is why he essentially signed a peace treaty with the Taliban (who JUI helped create). Likely it is also why he brought out the stone age story, to explain that his cooperation with the Americans was coerced. He doesn't have to worry about undercutting support for anti-Taliban action, because he has already bailed on it himself.

The truly surreal part of this story is the lack of reaction from the US. Pakistan announces a truce with the Taliban and says they won't bother Osama Bin Laden if he doesn't bother them (and according to the Telegraph one of the key negotiators for the truce was none other than the infamous Mullah Omar). What does the White House say? That Musharraf and Bush are "on the hunt together". Only slightly less surreal was having a meeting between two heads of state where one, when asked about a high profile diplomatic tiff between the two nations, responded to the questions by stating that his book deal prohibited him from answering. That has to be a first. On the topic of the truce Bush says that he looked into Musharraf's eyes (I am serious!) when Musharraf told him he didn't cave to the Taliban and was convinced. No comment on Mullah Omar or the general who said they weren't going after Bin Laden anymore.

This is all very interesting in the geopolitical sense (i.e. Musharraf has gotten away with murder these past five years, and nothing seems to touch him), but I think really comes back to another of the major contradictions of the Bush administration: they have put an immense focus on global democratization while at the same time disdaining efforts to win over foreign voters. Their approach to foreign policy is entirely limited to trying to browbeat foreign leaders (many of them unelected) into cooperation while steadfastly refusing to engage the concerns and complaints of common people throughout the Middle East and South Asia. That can work, to some extent, for a while. But if you succeed in democratization you will learn that those opinions matter a great deal. We saw Hamas elected in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Muqtada al-Sadr's party in Iraq, Amadinejad in Iran, and now we're seeing Musharraf cater to Islamists in Pakistan. If there were elections in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in the Middle East, I expect we'd see exactly the same results. We are pushing for democracy at the same time that we advance policies that could not be better designed to inflame opinion against us. I begin to wonder if these guys understand what democracy means...

I tend to support the idea of democratization simply because it will have the impact of forcing our hand in dealing with these issues. For now we can find pliant leaders and ignore the issues of the Islamic street. But I doubt there will be any serious progress in the war on terror until those issues are dealt with, and by having governments elected that will advance these issues more forcefully the US will have little choice but to address them. Funny, but I doubt that was what the neocons had in mind...

Saturday, September 23, 2006

What Is Musharraf Up To?

So Pervez Musharraf claims that Dick Armitage told a Pakistani general that the US would bomb Pakistan back to the stone age if they didn't cooperate in the war on terror. Armitage now denies it, George Bush say if it happened it was Colin Powell's fault. My question is: why on earth is Musharraf disclosing this? As the story linked above notes, it hurts him badly on the domestic front. It is impossible for him to claim to be helping the US on a principled basis now. And while capitulating to US threats might have been a wise policy choice it is politically indefensible. The Islamic extremists in Pakistan have already tried to assassinate Musharraf (more than once). It is hard to imagine him wanting to pour more fuel on that fire.

I can only come up with two possible explanations: a) he is selling his book or b) looking for an excuse to resist cooperating with the US. Certainly he has succeeded at moving copies of his book with this claim, but I don't buy that as a real explanation. I look at this in conjunction with the news clip I posted a couple weeks ago about Pakistan bailing on the hunt for Al Qaeda as possibly representing a major repositioning for Musharraf and Pakistan. When the US comes and starts leaning on Musharraf to buck up and kill some terrorists he will now respond, "well hey guys, I'd love to cooperate, but I'm so unpopular now (and so by the way are you Americans) because of this 'stone age' thing I really can't afford to help. But have fun storming the castle!" Maybe that's not it, but there's something going on here. Musharraf is not so stupid as to not realize political price he would pay for going public on this. Somewhere there's a payoff for him...

Friday, September 22, 2006

'Decline and Fall of the American Empire' Watch

I'm sure Henry will appreciate this excerpt from a CSM story on US troop commitments in Iraq:
About 500,000 soldiers are currently in the Army. Plans call for it to increase to about 512,000 in the foreseeable future. But even reaching that level may take time. Growing beyond that, if authorized, would take even longer. And the need is pressing now, note experts.

Short of obligatory national service, moves such as opening the US military to foreigners with no US ties, but who wish to move toward US residence or citizenship, might be necessary for the Army to grow in a reasonable amount of time.
Bring on the barbarian mercenaries!

A Healthy Immigration Dialogue?

I find immigration to be an exceedingly difficult topic to discuss. It's an important topic in America, and even more so in Europe, and one that critically needs to be addressed. Yet it tends to morph economic and cultural insecurity into ethnic and racial prejudice such that it can become difficult to sort real policy concerns out from the age-old appeal of virulent immigrant-bashing. America has a singular record with respect to immigration, having been built on the back of waves of European immigration, yet even here hatred and discrimination against immigrants has a long and deep history.

We all need to be concerned with the problem of integration, as discussed in this CSM column today. As my Fallows post noted below this relates, among other things, to security issues. In Europe, awash in Muslim immigrants while the white population declines, it also calls national identities and the basic social fabric into question. So here's the challenge: we need to start to identify what constitutes healthy integration, and what factors influence it, and how to promote it, without descending into irrational discrimination, and hopefully without creating an overly adversarial relationship with our immigrant populations. And America needs to lead the way and create an example for Europe. As hot a topic as immigration is here, it is far worse in Europe, and that difference will only be exacerbated as time goes on.

Right now I have little faith in the people driving the dialogue in the US. The people with passion on immigration today (think Sensenbrenner) tend to walk a fine line with respect to anti-immigrant prejudice, generally not displaying it openly, but pandering to it in their supporters. I would very much like to see a counterpoint, acknowledging the seriousness of the issue, willing to act on it, even if some of the steps are difficult, but promoting an inclusive dialogue that respects the interests of immigrants and the unique cultures and viewpoints they can contribute to society.

Monday, September 18, 2006

A Government That Doesn't Believe In Government

One of the defining contradictions of the Bush administration and the current Republican Congress is that they have tried to accomplish so much through government while simultaneously not believing in the efficacy of government (a rhetorical holdover from the party's former libertarian streak). How else can the immense patronage system that they've assembled over the past 8 years be explained? Michael Brown, the K Street Project, and now this remarkable story of the Iraq reconstruction team. I don't know that the reconstruction could have worked under any circumstances, but it certainly doesn't help to staff key positions with young party apparatchiks with no experience or education in the subject areas they are managing. Instead of creating stability and law and order and a functional constitutional structure they were busy instituting a flat tax, privatizing government assets, running an anti-smoking campaign, and modernizing Iraq's stock exchange. They turned the Green Zone into a luxury resort while the country went to hell around them. This whole mess is going to go down as a disaster of epic proportions...

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A 9/11 Post

I'm reposting this from a forum where I wrote it in response to a posting of this NPR essay by Frank Miller:

Sadly I think Miller had the right of it before the attacks. It is about the ideas. Strip the United States of the ideas of Madison, Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams, and I will have no attachment to the flag. To the extent I currently have some attachment to it, it is because I believe that it still represents those ideas. I don't believe that lines on a map convey some magic value, or that there is some genetic reason why Americans are more valuable than anyone else. What binds us together and gives us value is our shared belief in concepts about justice, liberty, and equality, government and social institutions; the Enlightenment ideals of Locke, Jefferson, and Madison. When those concepts take a back seat to the flag and patriotism, we have lost something important, and become less than we were.

A nation is the wrong scope in which to view Franklin's hang together/hang separately quote. Our world has gone global. There is no country that can close off the world or effectively protect itself from what happens outside it. It was not a nation state that attacked us, nor will a lone nation state protect us. Globalized business, fueled by multinational corporations, modern transportation, and electronic communications, has limited the role of the nation state in trade and economics, and terrorism has done the same for security and violence. For there is now no border and no army that can stop violence. Violence and instability can spread by interpersonal networks, and even by the simple conveyance of ideas and ideals.

For better or worse, Mankind is in this together, and together we will succeed or together we will fail. We can choose between global brotherhood and global chaos. The more borders we erect, the more boundaries we create, the more sides we choose and groups we vilify, the more separate we see ourselves from others in our minds and in reality, the less the secure our civilization will be. Because our civilization is those ideas of Madison, Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin, and we will not spread them by building walls, and they will not take hold at the point of a gun, nor can we even protect those ideals in our own nation when we put that nation before them.

Our ideals are our civilization and also its most powerful weapons. The shrinking of the world, its growing interdependence and interconnectedness grants us an overpowering advantage. When given a fair chance those ideals will triumph (and always have) because they represent the best products of Mankind's unique ability to rationally reflect upon his own place in the world. They are not the result of a particular culture or historical heritage, but of the essence of what divides Man from the beasts. And when they spread to another people or another corner of the globe, we have won the most decisive victory possible, because they are now us.

Patriotism to a nation state will not spread our ideals, but it can blind us to our kinship and our shared interests and shared fate with those outside our border. When we choose to cheer for our team rather than our ideals we not only fail to spread those ideals, but we make them unpalatable to anyone on another team. Even the most appealing ideals can be poisonous when packaged in arrogance, pride, and inequity.

There is yet a place for nations and for force of arms. There are threats to be countered, villains to be neutralized. But the state must be an instrument of our ideals, and not the reverse. The state serves our will, and, if our civilization is to endure, we must serve our shared ideals. There is indeed something precious in our civilization, and indeed something perishable. It is not vulnerable to bombs and missiles, but it is vulnerable to our own disloyalty. Terrorism is not a threat to us because it sheds our blood, but because it can cause us to forget who we are and what we hold dear.

Well No Fucking Shit

I have to admit that I thought there was good reason to believe that Iraq had WMD's in 2002 (although I was fairly certain the US had no good evidence to establish that fact). But as far as I was aware there was not a single respectable expert who believed that Saddam was in cahoots with Al Qaeda. That line of BS was constructed from whole cloth. But now we have a CIA report to tell us what we already should have known. Surprise, surprise, Saddam and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi were not bosom buddies. At what point does this entire house of cards simply collapse?

And in other news, a US military officer reports that Anbar province has been lost. Col. Pete Devlin came to the unremarkable conclusion that the conflict is fundamentally political, and on the political front we have been soundly outflanked. The same story also reports that Afghanistan is spinning out of control, and that a WaPo column notes that Islamic extremists are running strategic circles around the West. At this point our failure and our futility could hardly be made more complete. I can only wonder what, if anything, the United States had learned from all of this...

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Pakistan Waves the White Flag

I just wanted to put a link up here after discussing this topic with V over the weekend. Pakistan signs peace deal with pro-Taliban militants. Some choice excerpts:
In a move that some say appears 'a total capitulation' to pro-Taliban forces, Pakistan signed a peace deal with tribal leaders in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan Tuesday, and is withdrawing military forces in exchange for promises that militant tribal groups there will not engage in terrorist activities.

The New York Times reports that the deal "is widely viewed as a face-saving retreat for the Pakistani Army, which has taken a heavy battering at the hands of the mountain tribesmen and militants, who are allied with the Taliban and Al Qaeda."

Although Mr. bin Laden is thought to be in the area, Pakistani officials have given mixed signals as to whether he would still be considered a target by government forces. In his blog for ABC News, Brian Ross reports that Pakistani Major General Shaukat Sultan said in an interview that bin Laden "would not be taken into custody, as long as [he] is being like a peaceful citizen."
Unbelievable, isn't it?

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Security Narratives: Fallows to the Rescue

I went on vacation last week, and when I arrived at the airport I (as has become an air travel ritual for me) bought the latest issue of the Atlantic. As we here and liberals elsewhere struggle to find an answer to the neocon security narrative, it seems James Fallows has already come up with the solution. The article, Declaring Victory, is subscriber only, so I'll summarize it here (but you can read Fallows's post-London arrests addendum online). I apologize in advance for the length of this, but it is a blockbuster of an article and I want to do it justice.

Fallows argues that the war on global terror networks is over. Al Qaeda, as a functional organization, has been destroyed. The threat of terrorism has not ended (and might never end), but the threat from a cohesive international organization with operational capacity has passed. What we face now, those inspired by the movement, is a fundamentally different challenge that requires a different approach. We won. So let us celebrate our victory, publicize the thoroughness of the destruction of Al Qaeda, and open a new chapter in our approach to security.

Fallows refers several times to a quote from David Kilcullen, a counter-insurgency expert first for the Australian army, then the Pentagon, and now the State Department:
Does Al Qaeda still constitute an 'existential' threat? I think it does but not for the obvious reasons. ... It is not the people Al Qaeda might kill that is the threat. Our reaction is what can cause the damage. It's Al Qaeda plus our response that creates the existential danger.
So, how did we win? After the US action in Afghanistan Al Qaeda's training camps were dismantled, and their operatives were arrested, detained, and killed by the thousands, including some of top leadership circle. Moreover effective intelligence work by the US monitoring Al Qaeda's communications, travel, and finances has largely closed down the organization's operational capacity. Fallows quotes former DHS official Seth Stodder: "Their command structure is gone, their Afghan sanctuary is gone, their ability to move around and hold meetings is gone, their financial and communications networks have been hit hard." Kilcullen concludes "The Al Qaeda that existed in 2001 simply no longer exists. In 2001 it was a relatively centralized organization, with a planning hub, a propaganda hub, a leadership team, all within a narrow geographic area. All that is gone, because we destroyed it."

With Al Qaeda gone what we have seen instead are attacks by self-starter groups, generally inspired to some degree by Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. But Fallows argues that lacking Al Qaeda's organizational abilities the US is unlikely to face another 9/11-scale attack. This is generally not due to DHS and our increased security focus, which Fallows criticizes (in part on the same principle I raised in this post), but rather due to the structural strengths of American society. Arab and Muslim immigrants to the US assimilate far more effectively and thoroughly than in Europe. While ghettoized European Arabs riot and protest, American Arabs have higher than average incomes, education levels, and business-ownership rates than the American population as a whole. If the primary source of terrorism in the post-Al Qaeda era is indigenous, disaffected Muslims and Arabs, the US can count itself relatively secure. And it is not our paranoia that will protect us--quite the opposite, it is our open and welcoming culture that will provide our security. This, of course, means that we must strive to preserve our openess and welcoming atmosphere, which will necessitate a 180-degree reversal of our current approach to security. We cannot afford to alienate our Arab population through policies like racial profiling. What made sense in a time of organized international terror networks does not make sense now.

Finally, Fallows argues that while the US may have inflamed Muslim opinion against itself, so has Al Qaeda turned off the Muslim public towards them. Even as anti-American sentiment has risen in the Middle East, there has been no corresponding rise in opinion towards Al Qaeda's ideal of Islam. Attacks on Arab civilians by Al Qaeda in Iraq and Jordan soured many Arabs on Al Qaeda. Fallows quotes Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland: "What we see in the polls is that many people would like Bin Laden and Zarqawi to hurt America. But they do not want Bin Laden to rule their children."

So if Al Qaeda is no longer a threat, what does that mean for our security strategy? First it means (not surprisingly) that Iraq is a complete disaster. Bin Laden no longer has the ability to do real damage to the United States, but, Fallows argues, drawing us into a war in Asia that we couldn't win was central to his strategy (although Bin Laden thought the war would be in Afghanistan rather than Iraq). Bin Laden's plan was to do to the Americans what the mujahideen did to the Soviets. In that respect, even in obscurity he continues to hurt us. We're operating according to his playbook. His plan was to engage us in a war where primitive weapons could destroy our domestic morale, economic strength, military reputation, and moral leadership, and Iraq is accomplishing all of these goals. 9/11 was, in the words of one security analyst, "superpower baiting", and we took the bait.

Fallows does not provide any easy answers on Iraq, but he does argue for a broad-reaching rethinking of security. The wartime approach must go. The state of fear created by the metaphor of global war disserves our security interests in every possible respect. As we've seen time and again, overreaction is the fuel on which terrorists feed. But a wartime approach condones and even promotes overreaction. Additionally it frames our options. In a time of war, diplomacy and soft power are always lower priorities. Wartime creates polarization, and, as we saw in Lebanon, desensitizes the policy-making apparatus to the specific relevant details of the diverse groups who oppose us.

Our mission, according to Fallows, is now comprised of three parts: domestic protection, continued pursuit of the remnants of Al Qaeda, and an "all-fronts diplomatic campaign". On the last point, Fallows quotes Dwight Eisenhower's 1958 State of the Union: "The only answer to a regime that wages total cold war is to wage total peace. This means bringing to bear every asset of our personal and national lives upon the task of building the conditions in which security and peace can grow." The soft power resources at our disposal today, Fallows argues, are far greated than we possessed in 1958. We are more ethnically diverse, wealthier, endowed with stronger universities, charities, and NGO's, and our leading companies are integrated into economies around the globe.

Fallows closes with a hypothetical address to the nation:
My fellow Americans, we have achieved something almost no one thought possible five years ago. The nation did not suffer the quick follow-up attacks so many people feared and expected. Our troops found the people who were responsible for the worst attack ever on our soil. We killed many, we captured more, and we placed their leaders in a position where they could not direct the next despicable attack on our people -- and where the conscience of the world's people, of whatever faith, has turned against them for their barbarism. They have been a shame to their own great faith, and ot all other historic standards of decency.

Achieving this victory does not mean the end of threats. Life is never free of dangers. I wish I could tell you that no American will ever again be killed or wounded by a terrorist -- and that no other person on this earth will be either. But I cannot say that, and you could not believe me if I did. Life brings risk -- especially life in an open society, like the one that people of this land have sacrificed for centuries to create.

We have achieved a great victory, and for that we can give thanks -- above all to our troops. We will be at our best if we do not let fear paralyze or obsess us. We will be at our best if we instead optimistically and enthusiastically begin the next chapter in our nation's growth. We will deal with the struggles of our time. These include coping with terrorism, but also recognizing the huge shifts in power and resulting possibilities in Asia, in Latin America, in many other parts of the world. We will recognize the challenges of including the people left behind in the process of global development -- people in the Middle East, in Africa, even in developed countries like our own. The world's scientists have never before had so much to offer, so fast -- and humanity has never needed their discoveries more than we do now, to preserve the environment, ot develop new sources of energy, to improve the quality of people's lives in every corner of the globe, to contain the threats that modern weaponry can put in the hands of individuals or small groups.

The great organizing challenge of our time includes coping with the threat of bombings and with the political extremism that lies behind it. That is one part of this era's duty. But it is not the entirety. History will judge us on our ability to deal with the full range of this era's challenges -- and opportunities. With quiet pride we recognize the victory we have won. And with the determination that has marked us through our nation's history, we continue the pursuit of our American mission, undeterred by the perils that we will face.

Crippled Cell Phones

Here is an absolutely fascinating post I found on the UofC Law Faculty Blog by Professor Randy Picker regarding a new phone that Nokia is introducing that has integrated WiFi/VoIP capability. How awesome would it be to have a phone that can transition seamlessly between the CMRS (Commerical Mobile Retail Services, or cell phone) network and the Internet? Problem is, Nokia is disabling that feature in the US market (or is simply not including it in the phone at all--not clear how Nokia is going to roll this out), presumably because cell phone companies are concerned about the built-in competition it would engender.

Professor Picker asks why the European companies do not have the same concerns about the built-in competition. I would imagine the answer is that, if the companies were left as unregulated as companies in the US, the same thing would happen there.

I wonder whether market discipline will fix this problem. Usually, companies can come up with some bogus paternalistic reason why they have to restrict product choice (like "we are concerned for consumer safety" or "quality would suffer"), but here there is simply no good explanation. Perhaps cell phone companies will raise network security issues or something, but that would be silly.

Anyway, check out the blog post. And the comments are also worth the read.