Thursday, March 27, 2008

The birth pangs of a new Iraq?

Bush yesterday described the spiraling violence in Basra as "a very positive moment in the development of a sovereign nation." An eerie echoe of Condi's infamous line about how Israel's destruction of Southern Lebanon and subsequent defeat in its 2006 war against Hezbollah represented "the birth pangs of a new Middle East."

For a different view, check out John Robb's view of the situation.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The coming battle over how to remember the Iraq War

In the course of making a very interesting conservative case for Obama, Andrew Bacevich makes the following trenchant observation about the importance of the coming historiographical battle over the meaning of the Iraq War:

As an episode in modern military history, Iraq qualifies at best as a very small war. Yet the ripples from this small war will extend far into the future, with remembrance of the event likely to have greater significance than the event itself. How Americans choose to incorporate Iraq into the nation’s historical narrative will either affirm our post-Cold War trajectory toward empire or create opportunities to set a saner course.

The neoconservatives understand this. If history renders a negative verdict on Iraq, that judgment will discredit the doctrine of preventive war. The "freedom agenda" will command as much authority as the domino theory. Advocates of "World War IV" will be treated with the derision they deserve. The claim that open-ended "global war" offers the proper antidote to Islamic radicalism will become subject to long overdue reconsideration....

History's judgment of the Iraq War will affect matters well beyond the realm of foreign policy. As was true over 40 years ago when the issue was Vietnam, how we remember Iraq will have large political and even cultural implications.

As part of the larger global war on terrorism, Iraq has provided a pretext for expanding further the already bloated prerogatives of the presidency. To see the Iraq War as anything but misguided, unnecessary, and an abject failure is to play into the hands of the fear-mongers who insist that when it comes to national security all Americans (members of Congress included) should defer to the judgment of the executive branch. Only the president, we are told, can "keep us safe." Seeing the war as the debacle it has become refutes that notion and provides a first step toward restoring a semblance of balance among the three branches of government.

This underscores something Small Precautions has hammered on about for years, namely the fact that conservatives appear to understand better than liberals the importance of dominating the narrative about critical episodes in the past. Because liberals and liberal interpretations of the past dominate the historical profession, conservatives operate their own counter-knowledge industry that is explicitly designed to challenge liberal understandings of critical historical episodes that can be seen as precedents for policies that conservatives like or dislike. (For example, that the New Deal was "class warfare"; that liberals "lost China"; that what's wrong with our country's culture is a product of "the Sixties"; that the liberal welfare state was responsible for the economic malaise of the 1970s; that Reagan never raised taxes; that Bill Clinton was asleep at the switch in the 1990s, and thus responsible for 9/11; etc.) Already, as we've noted repeatedly, they are setting the stage to claim that the Iraq War was a great success until the Democrats came in and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. The constantly prattling on about the "success" of the surge is meant exactly for that.

What's crucial to understand about the right-winger approach to the battle to dominate the public's historical memories of critical episodes is more informed by a marketing sensibility than by any scientific or objective sense about trying to represent the past accurately on fairly. These guys are vulgar postmodernists through and through, and believe that whatever the majority of the people believe about the past is in fact the effective truth about the past. Their marketing sensibility teaches them to develop short, accessible messages about the key "lessons" from the past, and then (crucial point) to keep repeating these simple messages over and over again. In practical terms, this means that conservatives have little interest in publishing monographs or articles in peer-reviewed journals; rather, their goal is to publish op-ed pieces or to provide talking points for conservative television pundits.

It's hard to overstate how alien this perspective is for most professional historians. For them, the point of the exercise is typically to develop subtle, nuanced position that encompasses the complexity and multiplicity of the past. There is also an abiding desire among professional historians to "get the past right" and to understand the past on its own terms, not simply as it applies to the present. For conservatives, the past is of little if any interest in its own right. Indeed, the questions that conservatives ask about the past in venues like the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, the Weekly Standard, or the National Review (all of which often publish articles on historical topics) are almost always explicitly in the service of an immediate policy objective.

Now, academic historians can lament that all day, and perhaps as a position of intellectual integrity, it's the best approach to take. However, if professional historians wish to challenge right-wing interpretations of the past, they will need to learn to challenge the wingers not so much on interpretive as on marketing grounds. They will need to learn the virtues of simplicity and repetition, and they will need to be willing to take on historiographical topics for no other reason than to create and constantly nurture a usable liberal past, and to challenge the dishonest, partial and immortal claims about the past that are routinely trotted out on TV and in the papers by the right-wing machinists.

Anatol Lieven, on a McCain Presidency

I doubt Lieven's opening gambit that a McCain presidency could make us nostalgic for the Bush years, but there's no doubt that it will be a foreign policy disaster if McCain is elected the next President of the United States.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Epidemiological free riders

The New York Times has an infuriating story about a recent outbreak of measles in San Diego, centered around a group of families who refused to get vaccinated against the disease. In all, a dozen kids got sick.

Now, if all dozen of these kids were from the families that had refused the vaccine, one wouldn't have much cause for a beef. These parents are recklessly endangering their own children based on a misinformed sense of the dangers associated with vaccines. But it's a free country, after ll, and people have a right within limits to endanger their own children. (A hard-hearted person might describe this as permitting Darwinian principles to do their work.)

But the thing is, it's not just their own children these jerks are endangering. A quarter of all those who got sick were children too young to receive the vaccine. I think the families of the sick babies should seriously consider lawsuits against the families of those who refused the vaccines and thus knowingly endangered their fellow citizens. The key word here is "knowingly" -- these people know that they are endangering others through their inaction--the very definition of negligence. The story quotes one parent of an unvaccinated child as saying, "I refuse to sacrifice my children for the greater good."

Legal animus aside, the real story here is about what is best described as "epidemiological free-riding," and how to prevent it. For most diseases, the percent of the general population that needs to be vaccinated in order to prevent epidemic outbreaks is around 80%. That is, if that percentage is reached, then the virus or bacteria cannot find enough unimmunized hosts to break out into a large, self-sustaining chain of infections.

This of course is what creates the opportunity for free-riding. Since you don't actually need to vaccinate the whole population in order to prevent epidemics, people have an incentive to avoid the immunization themselves and get the rest of the population to take the shots. As long as that 80% target is hit, the remaining 20% can avoid the pain and potential (though usually tiny) risks associated with getting the vaccine, while still accruing all the epidemiological benefits of having the mass of the population vaccinated. Of course, if everyone (or even just a quarter of the population) takes this selfish view, then the epidemiological benefits evaporate. The right way to look at this situation is that those who refuse vaccinates are the epidemiological equivalent of people who dodge taxes but still use public services like streets, or people who pirate software, expecting paying users, in essence, to sponsor them. Except epidemiological free riding is much more pernicious: tax dodgers and software pirates merely impose some additional financial costs on their fellow citizens, whereas these vaccine dodgers endanger the actual physical well-being of their fellow citizens.

There are two ways to deal with this problem. One way is to mandate vaccines. That's the way it's done in virtually all developed countries. In the United States, though, such requirements are often considered intolerable violations of personal liberty. The other way--one that respects personal liberty more, but also demands more personal responsibility--is to hold the unimmunized liable for the damage they inflict on their fellow citizens through their negligence. Of course, that at minimum involves civil lawsuits, which in turn means bringing those dreaded "trial lawyers" into the equation. (This underscores the way that trial lawyers are in fact an necessary safety feature in a society dedicated to personal liberty--something that the anti-trial lawyer political faction never quite manage to recognize. But that's a topic for a different blog post.)

As I see it, I think mandating vaccinations is perfectly reasonable even with a very narrow (that is, classically liberal) understanding of the proper scope of the state. As Thomas Jefferson famously remarked, "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts as are injurious to others," that is, such acts by others as either "pick my pocket or break my leg." Well, this is a classic instance where the acts (or non-acts) of others have the potential to "break my leg," and that therefore should certainly be seen as a reasonable domain of state legislation. And if the state refuses to do its duty, then it's up to the trial lawyers to put things right.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Why I basically like Petreaus

I've always had a soft spot for Gen. Petreaus, not just for his noble effort to salvage the Iraqi catastrophe, but also for his commitment to truth even in a situation where lies are demanded, and not least for the actual relative efficacity of his policies.

And it's not just because he's got a Ph.D. in history, although I can't help thinking that's part of why he's usually so right on.

What Obama's up against

If members of the Obama team (and Democrats generally) think that the attacks coming from the Clinton team are harsh, then they are definitely not ready for prime time. If you want a foretaste of how nasty the general campaign will be, check this:

This video will have a million views by the weekend, and it captures the majority view of the GOP. (Moreover, viewed purely technically -- that is, as propaganda -- the video is undeniably brilliant.)

The question now is how Obama will respond. This is in the same vein as swift-boating and other calumnous attacks on the very strengths of a candidate: what such attacks really test is a candidate's ability to fight back. The nagging doubt all along about Obama has been his willingness to fight when called out.

The moment of course is tricky, since he's still in a primary battle with Hillary. But it's basically a campaign he's won by now, which means he should feel free (indeed obligated) to respond to this attack in force and with numbers. Hillary's side won't score innings by attacking his counterattack (unless, of course, his counterattack is ham-fisted--in which case Hillary is the least of his worries). What Obama need to realize is that to not respond will have even more dire consequences than whatever the backlash against the response.

it goes without saying, of course, that in this case Obama ought to "respond" through the usual proxies...

Why you have to like Huckabee

Huckabee is a superstitious ignoramus, but he's not a hater. Of all the Republican candidates running in the primaries, he seemed by far the most decent and human of the lot. That basic human decency was on display today when he went on Fox and defended not just Obama's relationship with his pastor, Rev. Wright, but even the allegedly "inflamatory" comments of Rev. Wright himself.

As easy as it is for those of us who are white, to look back and say "That's a terrible statement!"...I grew up in a very segregated south. And I think that you have to cut some slack -- and I'm gonna be probably the only Conservative in America who's gonna say something like this, but I'm just tellin' you -- we've gotta cut some slack to people who grew up being called names, being told "you have to sit in the balcony when you go to the movie. You have to go to the back door to go into the restaurant. And you can't sit out there with everyone else. There's a separate waiting room in the doctor's office. Here's where you sit on the bus..." And you know what? Sometimes people do have a chip on their shoulder and resentment. And you have to just say, I probably would too. I probably would too. In fact, I may have had more of a chip on my shoulder had it been me.
I thought Obama's speech yesterday was great. So great, indeed, that I can't help but wonder whether someone so sensitive to historical and racial nuance can possibly become President of this country. Here's my old advisor, David Hollinger, on the speech:
It was one of the most important and thoughtful speeches by a presidential candidate in recent memory. Obama offered sympathy and legitimacy to a variety of group-specific complaints without fostering the politics of competitive victimization. This is no small accomplishment in a political campaign where journalists and campaign operatives have encouraged us to decide whether racism or sexism is worse in our society, and whether electing a woman or a black scores the greatest triumph over historic injustices. Obama called attention to the painful history of anti-black racism, but he did not denounce white people as a group. This may sound too simple a point to matter, but it has great political potential. One reason so many white people are put off by Wright’s remarks is that they know full well that insofar as his attack is directed at them, it is outrageously unjustified. Obama shows he understands racism and its historical legacies, but he is willing to give credit where credit is due in overcoming racism.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Scientology as a subject of cyberterrorism

Anonymous declares war on Scientology


"Convicted? Never convicted."

Offered without comment:

"If there's one thing I know how to do," a friend once told me, after one of those long, grappa-fueled nights of ping-pong that make the rest of life seem like such an enigma, "It's how to have a good time."

Over the years, this friend has explained to me many things: what different drugs are like ("if you must choose just one: mushrooms"), how to bake a chicken (salt, pepper, nothing else), the only way to actually finish writing a book (feverishly, in a remote cabin), and how good family life could be (his toddler-age children fetch beers from the fridge).

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

"You Can't Make It Up" Dept

Here's a company that specializes in making accessories for legos that the Lego company itself doesn't. They've got a line that depicts Mujahideen warriors. Check it:

For slightly different tastes, as you'll notice on the far left, above, they also have Waffen SS figures.

The kind of socialism Wall Street loves

So, Wall Street paid itself enormous bonuses last year, and of course there's no real chance that they're going to be asked to give any of that back (and they could be, of course, in the form of various confiscatory taxes), despite the fact that the Street finds itself in the position of losing trillions of dollars on bad debts over the next couple of years. The Fed is finally biting the bullet and realizing that American taxpayers are going to have to basically take over a lot of the bad debts.

Officially, the line is that the Fed is "lending" T-bills (the safest sort of security) to banks, and allowing them to use their "riskiest" (e.g. worthless) assets as "collateral." But let's be clear about what this really means -- it means that the United States government is essentially taking over the worst assets. If you abandon the euphemisms, what's happening is simple: the American taxpayer is bailing out the bankers. Main Street is literally being forced to pay for Wall Street's sins.

Now, I don't have any problem with this -- it's a necessary thing (if anything, it's not nearly enough action) in order to keep the global and national economy from going into a world-historical tailspin. What I object to is the fact that the bankers are going to be allowed to keep the huge bonuses they paid themselves while they were busy creating this mess during the upward phase of the cycle in 1999-2006. Here's the bonuses that Wall Street handed out over the last few years:

1999 - 13.4 billion
2000 - 19.5 billion
2001 - 12.8 billion
2002 - 10.1 billion
2003 - 16.2 billion
2004 - 18.6 billion
2005 - 21.5 billion
2006 - 33.9 billion
2007 - 32.0 billion

Shouldn't these bankers be forced to pay some of this back? Ah no, now that would be "socialism," that would be "class warfare." On the other hand, when the US taxpayer is told (not asked) it is going have to pony up $200B, that's just sound monetary policy. This current crisis has the benefit of being highly clarifying regarding what American capitalism is all about: it's about privatizing the profits during the boom times, and socializing the costs during the bust.

It shocks me that, even in an election year, this is not getting any attention.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

How I know I am a crank

Today I know I am a crank because today I agree with Ron Paul, who is (and I am sure would be proud to be described as) the gold standard of cranks.

Today, the US congress voted 404-1 on H.R. 951, which condemns the ongoing Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, holding both Iran and Syria responsible for "sponsoring terror attacks." Additionally, the resolution claims that "those responsible for launching rocket attacks against Israel routinely embed their production facilities and launch sites amongst the Palestinian civilian population, utilizing them as human shields..."

This resolution includes the following defense of the recent Israeli incursions in Gaza: "Whereas the inadvertent inflicting of civilian casualties as a result of defensive military operations aimed at military targets, while deeply regrettable, is not at all morally equivalent to the deliberate targeting of civilian populations as practiced by Hamas and other Gaza-based terrorist groups..."

The only vote against this resolution came from Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX), who also issued a very strong statement explaining why he opposed such a biased pro-Israel statement. Below is Rep. Paul's statement he gave to the House before the vote:

Mr. Speaker I rise in opposition to H. Res. 951, a resolution to condemn Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli civilians. As one who is consistently against war and violence, I obviously do not support the firing of rockets indiscriminately into civilian populations. I believe it is appalling that Palestinians are firing rockets that harm innocent Israelis, just as I believe it is appalling that Israel fires missiles into Palestinian areas where children and other non-combatants are killed and injured.

Unfortunately, legislation such as this is more likely to perpetuate violence in the Middle East than contribute to its abatement. It is our continued involvement and intervention – particularly when it appears to be one-sided – that reduces the incentive for opposing sides to reach a lasting peace agreement.

Additionally, this bill will continue the march toward war with Iran and Syria, as it contains provocative language targeting these countries. The legislation oversimplifies the Israel/Palestine conflict and the larger unrest in the Middle East by simply pointing the finger at Iran and Syria. This is another piece in a steady series of legislation passed in the House that intensifies enmity between the United States and Iran and Syria. My colleagues will recall that we saw a similar steady stream of provocative legislation against Iraq in the years before the US attack on that country.

I strongly believe that we must cease making proclamations involving conflicts that have nothing to do with the United States. We incur the wrath of those who feel slighted while doing very little to slow or stop the violence.
The honest anti-imperialist position -- outnumbered by more than four hundred to one.