Wednesday, May 28, 2008

How will evangelicals vote this Fall?

Mike Huckabee makes some intriguing observations about what could be the most important electoral story of the Fall:

What do you think is going to happen with the evangelical vote in the fall?

The key is what John McCain does. I don't think the evangelicals can be taken for granted, and in fact, I would caution anybody to not assume that the evangelicals will go and vote Republican this fall, for two reasons. First of all, Obama has done a very, very masterful job of positioning himself as a person of faith...

Secondly, John McCain has got to be very clear and talking to the evangelicals, and beyond the evangelicals, it's really a broader base than that, the Catholics, and the social conservatives, not all of whom are ... evangelicals but who really do firmly believe in some issues.

If a candidate can't and won't articulate clearly to them, [they] won't necessarily be counted on.

Do you think Obama is an evangelical?

I don't know that I would call him an evangelical, but I think he's certainly a Christian, he openly declares his Christian faith, and I think some Republicans who try to dismiss that are making a big mistake, and they'll be very naïve if they think they can just assume that all of the faith vote is going to automatically go Republican this year. It is not.

A lot if polls are showing that there are a number of evangelical white voters who are willing to go shopping this fall. They're not necessarily just sold.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Gas price map

Interesting map of country-by-country gas price differences.

Class action climate change litigation?

My friend Stephan Faris has an interesting piece in the Atlantic on some class action lawyers who think they may be able to win lawsuits against Big Oil for their contribution to climate change. The linchpin of the case is that Big Oil, like Big Tobacco, stand accused, in what is transparently true, of conspiring to cover up the scientific consensus about the harmfulness of carbon emissions.

It's a classic form of American madness: when a well-organized, well-funded special interest manages to block the public interest in Congress, private litigation becomes a substitute for public legislation. The problem with this approach, as the Big Tobacco settlement clearly showed, is that, while we may end up with is a sensible "policy"--namely to price in the negative externalities via what amounts effectively to a higher tax--we execute it idiotically, by allowing some private lawyers take a huge cut of that tax for themselves.

One way to look at this, therefore, is that these trial lawyers are acting, de facto, as an entrepreneurial form of tax farmers. A modern American update on a feudal practice.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Climate crises look like political crises

Looking at the way the post-cyclone crisis is playing out in Burma is provides textbook-quality evidence of the thesis that the environmental crisis of climate change will manifest itself in the form of crises of political economy.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Political futures markets

Current punting at the Iowa Electronic Markets puts Obama's chances against McCain at 60 percent, but the spread has been widening as Obama has consolidated his hold on the Democratic nomination.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Getting out of Iraq

Tom Powers, in a depressing review, thinks we can't get out of Iraq or Afghanistan until we have a President and a people ready to concede, at least tacitly, that we have been defeated--something he does not think either Obama or McCain is likely to do.

As he makes his case, he also observes that the much-maligned intelligence agencies' failures really has to be attributed to the political leadership, which demanded that intelligence reports delivered up the chain conform with political imperatives. Money:

Lesson Number Two emerged that autumn back at the Pentagon, where Rossmiller was a rising member of the Office of Iraq Analysis. In the months running up to the Iraqi elections in December 2005, Rossmiller and other DIA analysts all predicted that Iraqis were going to "vote identity" and the winners would be Shiite Islamists, who were already running the government. President Bush and the US ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, publicly predicted the opposite—secularists were gaining, the Sunnis were going to vote this time, a genuine "national unity government" would end sectarian strife, the corner would be turned as the war entered its fourth year.

Rossmiller soon realized that this was not simply a difference of opinion. Nobody dared to tell the President he was wrong, either to his face or in an official report. This timidity ran right down the chain of command from the White House to Rumsfeld to the director of the DIA, ever downward level by level until it reached the analysts actually working the data. "You're being too pessimistic," they were told. "We can't pass this up the chain.... We need to make sure we're not too far off message with this." Some analysts protested and watched their careers sputter; most retreated into bitter humor. Reports were rewritten to support official hope. On the very eve of the Iraqi election a briefing was concocted to "report" that Islamists were worrying about a late surge by some administration favorite, as if a roomful of nodding heads at a briefing in the Pentagon were somehow going to carry the election in Iraq. Watching this exercise in magical thinking and self-delusion convinced Rossmiller that under Rumsfeld intelligence itself was "still broken" nearly three years into the war—an expensive charade to find or predict whatever the White House wanted.

Intelligence organizations cannot be more effective than their political commanders. Intelligence organizations, as a matter of practice, want to know where the bodies (or WMDs, as the case may be) are buried, and want to tell the political leadership what they know. In many cases, however, the political leadership simply doesn't want to hear it, and in those cases intelligence organizations will always fail, as the craeer intelligence officers will do what they must to meet the needs of the politicals.

This is why the U.S. intelligence community's failure to predict the fall of Soviet Communism is actually worse than its failure to realize that Saddam had no WMDs. Seeing economic decrepitude of (and ebbing ideological commitment to) the Soviet system should have been something intelligence officers could have figured out, and moreover it would have been a message that the political leadership in Washington might have accepted. The intelligence community simply missed the boat on this one, unforgivably. Luckily for the U.S., the surprise was upside, and so no heads ended up rolling.

In the case of Iraqi WMDs, on the other hand, only one answer was politically acceptable to the Bush White House, namely that Saddam possessed such weapons. Given the combination of the White House's insistance that they reach a politically helpful conclusion and the fiendish difficulty of proving a negative (namely Saddam's lack of WMDs), it was virtually inevitable that the intelligence agencies would conclude that he probably did have them. But the key point is that this failure was ultimately a political failure, not an intelligence failure as such.


The importance of narratives and framing is pretty much the political marketing cliche of the decade. Yet Kevin Drum manages to use the concept to draw what is, I think, a pithy, accurate, and important distinction between right-wingers and progressives:
Left and right tend to rely on different narratives. Liberals traffic heavily in guilt and personal tragedy. Conservatives specialize in fear and self-interest.
This comments produced two insights for me about why the right has done better than the left at dominating political narratives. First, it's a basic political truth, at least in the U.S., that political narratives work better when they contain an element of hope, and a spur to hopeful action. Unfortunately, guilt and personal tragedy, the two liberal narrative tropes that Kevin identifies, are hard to tether to a call for hopeful action. Same goes for fear, of course, but right-wingers at least have a narrative of personal self-interest which is easy enough to place in a discourse of hope.

The second insight is that the two pairs of narrative elements relate to each other in very different ways. For liberals, the rhetorical move from personal tragedy to guilt seems natural enough (hence the cliche of "liberal guilt"). Right-wingers, however, tend to reject that connection. By contrast, the connection between fear and self-interest is organic, not just to conservatives, but to liberals as well. Liberals may reject the logical basis for the fear-mongering, but they never doubt the rhetorical relationship between fear and self-interest. What this means is that right-wing narratives can appeal more easily to progressives than can progressive narratives to right-wingers. In other words, right-wing narratives have easier political cross-over appeal than do progressive narratives.

At least, that used to be true, until conservatives actually got to run the country for six years, and proceeded to bring us to defeat and ruin. No amount of right-wing narrative coherence has been able to overcome that obstacle.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Religion and the welfare state

Ross Douthat comments on between religion and happiness in Europe and the United States, noting that
the benefits of belonging to a religious community are greater in the U.S. than in Europe in part because our welfare state is smaller, and religious participation provides both tangible and intangible forms of security that are more valuable in a society where the free market is more freewheeling and the welfare state weaker.

I think that's right, and would add the following historical context. People and society need a safety and support net. In Europe, for centuries, that net was offered by the Church. But for many reasons the Europeans grew disillusioned with the Church as a provider of such services. These reasons included religious wars, but even more important, I think, was the undue political influence wielded by unelected church elders, particularly in countries with Established churches. And so anti-Establishmentarian Europeans quite self-consciously built up welfare state institutions as an alternative to church power. it's no coincidence, for example, that Bismarck paired the building of the first state-sponsored workman's comp programs with the Kulturkampf, a vicious anti-Catholic campaign.

In America, the formal disestablishment of religion meant that religious leaders have rarely exercised much if any secular power, which in turn has meant that religion had few political enemies who would be interested in systematically undercutting the church's basis of support by replacing welfare function traditionally offered by the church with similar services offered by the government.

This is one reason why the religious right has played a very dangerous game over the last generation in becoming an active, partisan political force. It has very much increased the incentive of many politically active Americans to do things that can usurp the bases of support for these political competitors. In much the same way that Republicans support tort reform as a way of undercutting the financial support of a key democratic constituency (trial lawyers), Democrats have every incentive to support reforms that will fundamentally undermine the appeal of religious right organizations, since these organizations are political enemies. And that's ultimately a more dangerous game for the religious institutions than it is for the Democratic party. It's not hard to imagine, for example, a major effort by Democratic activists to pull the nonprofit status from any church whose preachers or officers take partisan political positions, or use the pulpit to promote political outcomes.

Quote of the day

David Brooks:
Go to Capitol Hill—Republican senators know they’re fucked.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Climate Change as Catch-22 at a Civilizational Scale

I've been meaning to blog this piece for many months and a long plane ride finally allowed me to get to it. Six months ago, the Center for a New American Security and the Center for Strategic and International Studies published a landmark paper on "The Foreign Policy and National Security Implications of Global Climate Change." The effort was the result of a deep collaboration between high-level former US intelligence officials, climate scientists, and economists, and the reading is extremely sobering.

These are sober serious people, and what they conclude is that, "Unchecked climate change equals the world depicted by Mad Max, only hotter, with no beaches, and perhaps with even more chaos. While such a characterization may seem extreme, a careful and thorough examination of all the many potential consequences associated with global climate change is profoundly disquieting. The collapse and chaos associated with extreme climate change futures would destabilize virtually every aspect of modern life. The only comparable experience for many in the group was considering what the aftermath of a U.S.-Soviet nuclear exchange might have entailed during the height of the Cold War."

The conclusions of the report are based on three main scenarios:
  1. The expected climate change scenario considered in this report, with an average global temperature increase of 1.3°C by 2040, can be reasonably taken as a basis for national planning.... National security implications include: heightened internal and cross-border tensions caused by large-scale migrations; conflict sparked by resource scarcity, particularly in the weak and failing states of Africa; increased disease proliferation, which will have economic consequences; and some geopolitical reordering as nations adjust to shifts in resources and prevalence of disease. Across the board, the ways in which societies react to climate change will refract through underlying social, political, and economic factors.
  2. In the case of severe climate change, corresponding to an average increase in global temperature of 2.6°C by 2040, massive nonlinear events in the global environment give rise to massive nonlinear societal events. In this scenario... nations around the world will be overwhelmed by the scale of change and pernicious challenges, such as pandemic disease. The internal cohesion of nations will be under great stress, including in the United States, both as a result of a dramatic rise in migration and changes in agricultural patterns and water availability. The flooding of coastal communities around the world, especially in the Netherlands, the United States, South Asia, and China, has the potential to challenge regional and even national identities. Armed conflict between nations over resources, such as the Nile and its tributaries, is likely and nuclear war is possible. The social consequences range from increased religious fervor to outright chaos. In this scenario, climate change provokes a permanent shift in the relationship of humankind to nature.
  3. The catastrophic scenario, with average global temperatures increasing by 5.6°C by 2100, finds strong and surprising intersections between the two great security threats of the day— global climate change and international terrorism waged by Islamist extremists. This catastrophic scenario would pose almost inconceivable challenges as human society struggled to adapt. It is by far the most difficult future to visualize without straining credulity. The scenario notes that understanding climate change in light of the other great threat of our age, terrorism, can be illuminating. Although distinct in nature, both threats are linked to energy use in the industrialized world, and, indeed, the solutions to both depend on transforming the world’s energy economy—America's energy economy in particular. The security community must come to grips with these linkages, because dealing with only one of these threats in isolation is likely to exacerbate the other, while dealing with them together can provide important synergies.
In addition to these high-level conclusions, the authors also affirm three points that Small Precautions has been making for years on this topic:
  1. It's the underdeveloped who will suffer first and most: "Poor and underdeveloped areas are likely to have fewer resources and less stamina to deal with climate change... Some of the nations and people of these regions lack the resilience to deal with modest—let alone profound—disturbances to local conditions. In contrast, wealthier societies have more resources, incentives, and capabilities to deploy, to offset, or to mitigate at least some of the more modest consequences of climate change."
  2. Anyone who thinks that climate change will produce significant localized winners are kidding themselves: "A few countries may benefit from climate change in the short term, but there will be no 'winners.' Any location on Earth is potentially vulnerable to the cascading and reinforcing negative effects of global climate change. While growing seasons might lengthen in some areas, or frozen seaways might open to new maritime traffic in others, the negative offsetting consequences—such as a collapse of ocean systems and their fisheries—could easily negate any perceived local or national advantages. Unchecked global climate change will disrupt a dynamic ecological equilibrium in ways that are difficult to predict. The new ecosystem is likely to be unstable and in continual flux for decades or longer. Today's 'winner' could be tomorrow’s big-time loser."
  3. The impact of climate change will be experienced less as environmental catastrophe than as political and social catastrophe: "In the wake of disasters government authorities frequently attract popular wrath either for neglect or for intrusive efforts to minimize or prevent damage. Social conflict on some scale is routine during and after disasters.... Societies with little in the way of safety net… easily succumb to banditry, ethnic and religious violence, and even outright civil war under the stress of acute drought. Restraint and civility can quickly perish when confronted with imperious necessity.... Religious turbulence has long been a normal social reaction to nature's shocks. Throughout history most people understood plagues, hurricanes, droughts, and so forth as divinely ordained or the work of evil people with supernatural powers. Hence extraordinary natural shocks often brought heightened religiosity, either in the form of more intense devotion to traditional religions or more defections to innovative religions or cults. There is rarely a shortage of people charismatic and persuasive enough to make a convincing case (for those ready to be convinced) that any extraordinary event is a sign that religious reform is needed. It would be interesting to know whether the Katrina disaster brought an upsurge in religiosity along the Gulf Coast. In any case, if the future holds more serious extreme weather events it seems likely that the most extreme will generate new forms of religion and intensified commitment to old ones."
One way in which I may disagree with the report is the way it raises the specter of mass migration as the sharp end of the stick for how climate change will affect global stability. The paper notes that, "In all three scenarios it was projected that rising sea levels in Central America, South Asia, and Southeast Asia and the associated disappearance of low lying coastal lands could conceivably lead to massive migrations—potentially involving hundreds of millions of people. These dramatic movements of people and the possible disruptions involved could easily trigger major security concerns and spike regional tensions. In some scenarios, the number of people forced to move in the coming decades could dwarf previous historical migrations. The more severe scenarios suggest the prospect of perhaps billions of people over the medium or longer term being forced to relocate."

While it is certain that such massive migrations will take place, and that they will be profoundly destabilizing both for departing and receiving countries, my own guess is that the more profound security implication of climate change is the destabilization/implosion of the globalized economy, and along with that economy, the global communications and transportation infrastructure which sets our civilizational moment most radically apart from previous human existence. The likeliest long-term implication of climate change—and I am speaking of results likely to come about several centuries from now—is a return to a more locally rooted, less technologically precarious, much less energy-intensive, and largely agricultural form of civilization. The necessary condition for such a return, of course, is a vastly shrunken human population, and the end of anything like the political. Such indeed is the scenario depicted by James Lovelock in his musing on Gaia, where he predicts that by the year 3000, the global human population will be only 100-200 million, clustered at the poles. This implies a 95-99 percent die-off of the human race—comparable to the collapse phases of the "oscillating population explosions" experienced by overgrazing bovine populations on the Argentine pampas in the nineteenth century. As with South American ungulate populations, the path to such population collapse will not be a smooth one, but rather will take place nonlinearly, involving massive famines and plagues that kill huge percentages of the total populations in a period of months, as entire ecosystems collapse.

All this may take place much faster than over a couple of centuries. As even climate skeptic Robert Zubrin points out, if we continue to experience the same sort of carbon-intensive economic development, then by the middle of this century we are likely to activate all known and presumably some unknown feedback loops, and within a few decades reach Eocene carbon dioxide atmospheric concentrations of 2000 ppm—and certain catastrophe. What this implies is that the only way to ecological-environmental doom for modern civilization is by radically reconfiguring our global economy away from a globalized consumer-goods intensive, carbon-intensive, mass-extraction, industrial economy. However, that would mean the end of the global middle class, the end of the experience of mass affluence in the West, and the end of the dream of mass affluence in the developing world. Alas, that too would spell the end of our civilization as we know it, for that too implies the collapse of the global economy, of global interconnectedness, and unification of the globe into a integrated entity. In sum, climate change poses a Catch-22 at the scale of modern civilization itself: if we do nothing, modern civilization will collapse; but the only adequate response requires ending modern civilization.

In short, it seems certain that we are living in the dying days of a golden age. And like everyone who lives in a golden age, we have no anticipation that it is soon to come to an end—indeed, the false sense of civilizational immortality is a defining characteristic of "golden age" mentalities. Americans stand, I suppose, in more or less the same position as Romans in 150 AD. Like the Romans in second century Rome, the personal culture of Americans after two centuries of relative peace and prosperity is focused on sybaritic pleasure, while the collective culture engages in sophisticated lamentations about the political corruptions attendant on imperial life. Like the Romans, we remain worry vaguely about the barbarians, but in fact have little if any sense that the very basis of our civilization is disappearing beneath our feet. It remains unimaginable for us that the world as we know it, over the coming centuries, will disappear. And yet that is exactly what seems set to take place: the long-term outcome of fouling the collective human nest will be the end of our incredibly rich and centralized commercial and intellectual world.

Finally, let me close this depressing post with one final ironic observation: if this analysis is anywhere close to correct, then—contrary to the self-congratulatory clichés of modernization theory—it is we in the cosseted seats of civilization that are living in the past, while it is the benighted and poor in the deltas of the Mississippi (Hurricane Katrina), the Ganges-Brahmaputra (Cyclone Sidr), and the Irrawaddy (Cyclone Nargis) who are tasting the future of the human race most directly.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The coming climate change catastrophe (Burma edition)

The Cyclone Nargis tragedy in Burma--whose death toll now looks set to reach at least 60,000--unfortunately confirms the two key points we've spent the last few years making about the impact of climate change. The first point is that the places that will suffer most from climate change are places that combine a vulnerability to acute weather-related disaster with poor institutions and infrastructure. Burma, of course, is a text-book example of the latter: an unresponsive authoritarian government, lousy roads and hospitals, nonexistent emergency response, isolation from the international community, and so on. (For more on the security-related implications of climate change, see here.)

The second point is that the impact of climate change will be reported in the newspapers less in terms of environmental crisis, and more in terms of political or social crisis. Such is exactly the coverage we're seeing coming out of Burma. (A small statistical proof: if you search Google News for "Cyclone Nargis" and "climate change" you get 35 hits; if you "Cyclone Nargis" and "dictatorship," on the other hand, you get 129 hits.) While some excellent reports have emerged showing how the humanitarian disaster caused by Nargis takes places at the intersection of natural and political disaster, most reporting on Nargis has resolutely ignored the larger story of how Nargis, like Sidr, offers a baleful portent of what a changing climate future will look like.

The reason for this style of reporting is obvious enough. Most journalism tends to focus on proximate not ultimate causes, because it's an easier story to tell, especially for visual media. Moreover, because any given weather event, no matter how catastrophic, is not attributable to climate change, it's much easier to focus on villains who are obviously human, such as in this case the junta in Rangoon. However, it's also worth noting that the Western press's decision to narrate the Nargis tragedy as a story of villainous local rulers also implicitly exculpates greenhouse gas emitters from joint liability or responsibility for the disaster.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Grand Old Party

Frank Rich puts his finger on the dirtiest open secret of American partisan politics:

The elephant in the room of our politics is rarely acknowledged: In the 21st century, the so-called party of Lincoln does not have a single African-American among its collective 247 senators and representatives in Washington. Yes, there are appointees like Clarence Thomas and Condi Rice, but, as we learned during the Mark Foley scandal, even gay men may hold more G.O.P. positions of power than blacks.

A near half-century after the civil rights acts of the 1960s, this is quite an achievement. Yet the holier-than-thou politicians and pundits on the right passing shrill moral judgment over every Democratic racial skirmish are almost never asked to confront or even acknowledge the racial dysfunction in their own house. In our mainstream political culture, this de facto apartheid is simply accepted as an intractable given, unworthy of notice, and just too embarrassing to mention aloud in polite Beltway company. Those who dare are instantly accused of “political correctness” or “reverse racism.”

An all-white Congressional delegation doesn’t happen by accident. It’s the legacy of race cards that have been dealt since the birth of the Southern strategy in the Nixon era. No one knows this better than Mr. McCain....

Thursday, May 01, 2008

I guess CNN is stepping up its competition with Fox News

CNN is selling a pretty interesting T-shirt:

I don't know whether to be reassured or not by the fact that, apparently, this new strategy is only in beta.

Hat tip: LC.