Sunday, January 29, 2006

Playing Hardball With India

This is just a follow-up to the previous story about the US pressuring India over Iran. This report goes into a bit more depth on the relationship between the US and India vis a vis this nuclear treaty. Now, of course, Indian leaders are stuck with the problem of trying to look like they weren't cowed by the US if and when they do give in on this issue. I don't understand how this administration has failed to learn, after all this time, that when you want someone to alter their policy you need to leave room for them to change course gracefully. If you present it as a stark choice between the US and the people who voted them into office, they're not going to choose the US...

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Honest Dialogue

I guess it's predictable, but I'm somewhat irked by all of the coverage of the Palestinian elections suggesting that this result somehow signals defeat for the US's policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East. I'm critical of the naivete of that policy for other reasons (primarily the fact that staging elections does not, by itself, make for a stable democratic government). But I don't see that criticism at play here. To the extent that we can successfully create democracy in the Middle East, I'm all for it. It's the implementation that I object to, not the objective. This was an exceptionally clean election, and one that signaled the importance of honest governance to the Palestinian people. Fatah symbolized the sort of corrupt and autocratic government that undermines democracy. Palestinians cleaned house on them, and now reports say that they are cleaning out their leadership. Palestine going forward will have two legitimate political parties, both of whom understand the importance of responsive, uncorrupt government to their voters, rather than deeply corrupt single-party rule. This is huge step forward for democracy in Palestine.

Moreover, I'm troubled by the assertion that because parties are elected in Middle Eastern nations that disfavor American policy (not just in Palestine; Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, and Saudi Arabia as well), this means democracy is bad. I've long thought that the dynamic that the US and Israel have tried to foster in Palestine is absurd. They have rejected talks with Hamas, with Arafat and Fatah, basically with anyone who could legitimately claim to represent the Palestinian people. Instead they would rather hand-pick a representative for Palestine (Abbas) and speak only with him. Indeed, they would frequently grow upset with Abbas for failing to bring the other Palestinians to heel. But how could he? He had no power over them, no democratic legitimacy. Fatah didn't respect him, Hamas didn't respect him, and I doubt the Palestinian people did either. How could he purport to speak on their behalf? How is it supposed to work that an agent in a negotiation is hand-picked by the adversaries of his principals? Under what theory of agency is this legitimate? It's absurd. Even if Israel had reached an agreement with Abbas, it could hardly have been expected to meaningfully bind the Palestinians.

The US and Israel may not like the actual positions of Palestinians, but they cannot hope to produce progress if they refuse to even address them. The important thing in these various elections is not that the party who favors American policy should win, but that the party who accurately represents the views of the voters should win. It's the voters we need to worry about and be engaged with, not politicians. Engaging in dialogue with politicians is important only to the extent that they are effective representatives of their constituents. If the general populace of the Middle East dislikes American policy, that is not a fact that can be swept under the rug based on models of governance. We have had many US-friendly dictators around the Middle East, and it has not solved our problems. In fact it has made them worse by allowing us to ignore legitimate complaints of the general populace. There needs to be honest dialogue, and that can only happen when there are political leaders who can truly represent the interests of their people. To the extent that elections like the one in Palestine produce that, we are all better off.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Nuclear Politics

India is apparently not very happy with the U.S. position on Iran's nuclear policy. I don't know a whole lot about South Asian politics (and apparently neither does the State Department), but I find this to be interesting. It seems that India and Iran are getting on pretty well. One suspects that China may also want to make friends with Iran, as Iran is in need of friends these days, and China could use some oil partners who aren't too far under the sway of the U.S. Russia has also had good relations with Iran, as they've been the ones setting up the Iranian nuclear program. If these guys are willing to back Iran at the U.N., that's a pretty formidable coalition, one that the U.S. and Europe may have a hard time overcoming. This could be very interesting.

Fatah Down in Flames

Holy crap. I always thought Hamas carried a lot of popular support from Palestinians, but I didn't anticipate this. The political fallout will be fascinating. As I've said in the past, I think this is probably for the best. Once Israel gets past its initial shock and revulsion, there will finally be an opportunity for negotiations with the potential for real results.

Update: The Newshour showed some lengthy clips of a Bush press conference where he discussed the election outcome. I hesitate to use the word "nuance" in the same sentence as President Bush, but I thought he did a good job. He put on pressure regarding the whole 'destruction of Israel' thing, but did not vilify Hamas more than necessary and strongly acknowledged the positive role of functional democracy with real competing parties in Palestine. He acknowledged that Hamas maybe could provide better domestic services and was not as corrupt as Fatah and did not give the impression that Palestinians were evil or stupid to elect them. I think that's about the right position to take. Western nations should continue to apply pressure against some of the more repulsive parts of the Hamas platform. But that should be balanced with an acknowledgment that they are the legitimate government that they have made positive contributions to Palestinian society and can continue to do so. Pressure is good. I think I could even get on board with a policy that there be no aid or negotiations until Hamas drops their charter demand for the destruction of Israel. I would probably draw the line, however, at demands that Hamas permanently renounce violence prior to negotiations. For one, I don't think it would happen. For another, I don't think it is fair unless Israel made the same pledge (which would obviously be problematic as regards their policing power in the occupied territories). Also it's not as if Fatah's renunciation of violence ever meant anything. It's no secret that they had a militant wing that continued to carry out attacks. I would hate to see the peace process derailed by a superficial pissing match of that sort. In any case, so far so good. Now we'll have to wait and see how the leadership structure shakes out for Hamas and how this affects the upcoming Israeli elections...

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Best Music Video Ever?

Oh my. I'm not sure if that tops the Total Eclipse video, but it's close...

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Confirmation Process Confirms the Worst

I have paid some attention to the Alito hearings out of professional interest, and this weekend I tried to take a step back and think about what value the hearings have, if any, for the "weakest branch" and for our political system in general. I think the process does have value, but it is not for the reasons that many people might think at first.

First, it is hard to ignore the observation of Senator Arlen Specter that a nominee will answer only as many questions as he or she thinks is necessary to get confirmed. But is that bad? It should not be surprising to anyone that, when the same party controls the Presidency and the Congress, a nominee will be given more latitude and it is really his or her nomination to lose, rather than a burden to prove that the person reaches toward the mainstream. Even where the confirmation process is friendly, it still provides an opportunity to weed out nominees that have bad temperment or really bad judgment, and I think that is the best we can hope for. Judge Alito has good judgment and good temperment, therefore he will be confirmed.

But, some may say, he is really conservative and is bound to overturn important Supreme Court precedent that protects the fundamental rights of citizens. Well, if that were an important value to most people, and if it is true that Judge Alito would in fact work against these things, then he should never have gotten nominated in the first place. The failure, then, is not the confirmation process but the political process that allowed President Bush to appoint him.

Second, no one should accept for a minute that politics does not matter when it comes to judicial decisionmaking. That is to say, the Constitution was not written in such a way that allows individuals to determine the right answer every time, entirely divorced from value. What does "cruel and unusual" mean in an objective sense? "Unreasonable" searches and seizures? Who gets to decide whether the President is "faithfully" executing the laws, and what standard do you apply to decide that? Political leanings, upbringing, morays--these things will always come into play in deciding legal questions. Judges are humans, and the law (in the sense that we talk of it being decided in courtrooms, anyway) is a human creation.

I guess my overarching point is that liberal democrats should assume the worst as far as Judge Alito's conservative views, but it is a little too late to be worrying about that. The best we can hope for is a judge that is humble and willing to recognize that the law is not black and white, and is willing to take other people's views into account. And nothing I saw in the confirmation process gave me too much cause for concern on that score.

Will Judge Alito vote to overturn, or severely cutback on, Roe? Probably. Will he often find himself in agreement with Scalia and Thomas? Probably. But those things would not make him a bad judge, in my view. What matters most to me is that he does not believe the black robe gives him special access to the truth.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

A Reporter's Peril

As a Christian Science Monitor junkie, I just wanted to point out the story of Jill Carroll, a reporter working for CSM in Iraq who has been abducted by insurgents. Her interpreter was killed.

A few days ago I was reading an article in the Atlantic that Ryan gave me written by one of their reporters, Nir Rosen, who has "spent sixteen months in postwar Iraq living mostly among ordinary Iraqis." I was somewhat amazed, at the time, that there were still foreign reporters living outside the green zone in Iraq. Given the poor quality of much of our news reporting I am all the more appreciative of the exceptional bravery and talent of reporters from outfits like CSM and The Atlantic. It takes balls of steel. I salute them all (and their Iraqi associates), and I hope and pray that Ms. Carroll makes it out safely.

p.s. Rosen's article, If America Left Iraq, is an excellent and informative read.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Econfusius say--

(1) Make your cheap products look bad, sell more; and
(2) Echoing Yogi Berra: No one goes to the mall immediately after Christmas anymore, because it's too crowded.

Tim Harford, a columnist for the Financial Times and author of the recently published book the The Undercover Economist, apparently seeking to ride the pop-econ wave of Freakonomics, had this article in yesterday's explaining why Starbucks offers the "short" cappuccino for the person on a budget, but it doesn't want you to find out about it. Here's a hint at what Harford is getting at: he says its the same reason why airports make their ordinary lounge so damn uncomfortable.

And in this piece in FT, Harford attempts to explain that the post-holiday sales are really bad for everyone--and then compares government subsidies to post-holiday sales.

I agree with the theory Harford propounds/summarizes in the first article, although I have some difficulties with the contentions he makes in the second piece. To be sure, there are some instances in which the Government or some other third party "distorts" the market such that, as Harford puts it, "
tremendous amounts of money are spent but the beneficiaries are scarcely better off, if at all." In my view, however, there are clearly instances where subsidies do in fact make people better off: to take a straightforward example, there are certain products (such as cars) the market just does not price well because they generate a positive or negative benefit (pollution, for instance) that is not fully captured by the buying or selling party. The government, through subsidies or taxes--the traditional economist views subsidies and taxes as the same--can adjust the price so that consumption more closely mirrors what one would expect if all the factors were taken into account. (Hank, if you are reading this, and you disagree, please throw your hat in the ring. I would love to read what you have to say on this.)

I also think it is a little shady to analogize post-holiday sales to government hand-outs. For one thing, the post-holiday slash-and-burn pricing could be explained by the fact that stores are trying to unload one season's products at any price above marginal value, or for that matter, below-marginal value, if the product's lifespan is truly limited.