Monday, December 31, 2007

Picture of the Year

Impact of Global Warming on California

AP prognosticates on the impact of climate change in California:
California is defined by its scenery, from the mountains that enchanted John Muir to the wine country and beaches that define its culture around the world.

But as scientists try to forecast how global warming might affect the nation's most geographically diverse state, they envision a landscape that could look quite different by the end of this century, if not sooner.

Where celebrities, surfers and wannabes mingle on Malibu's world-famous beaches, there may be only sea walls defending fading mansions from the encroaching Pacific. In Northern California, tourists could have to drive farther north or to the cool edge of the Pacific to find what is left of the region's signature wine country.

Abandoned ski lifts might dangle above snowless trails more suitable for mountain biking even during much of the winter. In the deserts, Joshua trees that once extended their tangled, shaggy arms into the sky by the thousands may have all but disappeared.

"We need to be attentive to the fact that changes are going to occur, whether it's sea level rising or increased temperatures, droughts and potentially increased fires," said Lisa Sloan, a scientist who directs the Climate Change and Impacts Laboratory at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "These things are going to be happening."

Among the earliest and most noticeable casualties is expected to be California's ski season.

Snow is expected to fall for a shorter period and melt more quickly. That could shorten the ski season by a month even in wetter areas and perhaps end it in others.

Whether from short-term drought or long-term changes, the ski season already has begun to shrivel in Southern California, ringed by mountain ranges that cradle several winter resorts.


Because California has myriad microclimates, covering an area a third larger than Italy, predicting what will happen by the end of the century is a challenge.

But through a series of interviews with scientists who are studying the phenomenon, a general description of the state's future emerges.

By the end of the century, temperatures are predicted to increase by 3 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit statewide. That could translate into even less rainfall across the southern half of the state, already under pressure from the increased frequency of wildfires and relentless population growth.

Small mammals, reptiles and colonies of wildflowers in the deserts east of Los Angeles are accustomed to periodic three-year dry spells. But they might not be able to withstand the 10-year drought cycles that could become commonplace as the planet warms.

Scientists already are considering relocating Joshua tree seedlings to areas where the plants, a hallmark of the high desert and namesake of a national park, might survive climate change.

"They could be wiped out of California depending on how quickly the change happens," said Cameron Barrows, who studies the effects of climate change for the Center for Conservation Biology in Riverside.

Farther north, where wet, cold winters are crucial for the water supply of the entire state, warmer temperatures will lead to more rain than snow in the Sierra Nevada and faster melting in the spring.

Because 35 percent of the state's water supply is stored annually in the Sierra snowpack, changes to that hydrologic system will lead to far-reaching consequences for California and its ever-growing population.

Some transformations already are apparent, from the Sierra high country to the great valleys that have made California the nation's top agricultural state.

The snow line is receding, as it is in many other alpine regions around the world. Throughout the 400-mile-long Sierra, trees are under stress, leading scientists to speculate that the mix of flora could change significantly as the climate warms. The death rate of fir and pine trees has accelerated over the past two decades.

In the central and southern Sierra, the giant sequoias that are among the biggest living things on Earth might be imperiled.

"I suspect as things get warmer, we'll start seeing sequoias just die on their feet where their foliage turns brown," said Nate Stephenson, a U.S. Geological Survey ecologist who is studying the effects of climate change in the Sierra Nevada. "Even if they don't die of drought stress, just think of the wildfires. If you dry out that vegetation, they're going to be so much more flammable."

Changes in the mountain snowpack could lead to expensive water disputes between cities and farmers. Without consistent water from rivers draining the melting snow, farmers in the Central and Salinas valleys could lose as much as a quarter of their water supply.

Any drastic changes to the state's $30 billion agriculture industry would have national implications, since California's fertile valleys provide half the country's fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists' study.

"Obviously, it's going to mean that choices are going to be made about who's going to get the water," said Brian Nowicki, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz.


Among the biggest unknowns is what will happen along California's coast as the world's ice sheets and glaciers melt. One scenario suggests the sea level could rise by more than 20 feet.

Will the rising sea swamp the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, the nation's busiest harbor complex, turning them into a series of saltwater lakes? Will funky Ocean Beach, an island of liberalism in conservative San Diego County, become, literally, its own island?

Among the more sobering projections is what is in store for marine life.

The upwelling season, the time when nutrient-rich water is brought from the ocean's depths to the surface, nourishes one of the world's richest marine environments.

That period, from late spring until early fall, is expected to become weaker earlier in the season and more intense later. Upwelling along the Southern California coast will become weaker overall.

As a result, sea lions, blue whales and other marine mammals that follow these systems up and down the coast are expected to decline.

The changing sea will present trouble for much of the state's land-dwelling population, too. A sea level rise of 3 to 6 feet would inundate the airports in San Francisco and Oakland. Many of the state's beaches would shrink.

"If you raise sea level by a foot, you push a cliff back 100 feet," said Jeff Severinghaus, professor of geosciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. "There will be a lot of houses that will fall into the ocean."

Sunday, December 30, 2007


John Robb has written a suggestive scenario on how the US could end up privatizing virtually everything over the next couple of decades. Even security could end up as privatized as health care is now. As I wrote to John this morning, I think his scenario can be extended by considering the parallel experience that the Russia went through as the Soviet Union collapsed in the face of a disastrous war of choice in the middle east.

The legal & economic dynamics of the Soviet collapse ensured that the most valuable assets of the Soviet economy (factories, mines, oil fields, etc) wound up in the hands of well-connected members of the old nomenklatura elite, while the mass of the Soviet population — both white collar workers and proletarians — experienced a catastrophic loss of income, personal status, and national pride. For the vast majority of Soviet citizens the obscene enrichment of former nomenklatura elites and black marketeers appeared as the essence of the new liberal capitalism vaunted by Yeltsin and his economic advisors such as Jeffrey Sachs. Only by understanding this historical context can one make sense of why post-Soviet Russia, despite having the formal aspect of a democracy, did not end up generating the sorts of political norms necessary to support liberal democracy. Instead, we ended up with Putinism, which indeed the majority of Russians rightly see as highly preferable to the kleptocratic chaos of the 1990s.

The political implications of the Russian case apply equally well to Robb's Club-for-Growth-wet-dream scenario of radical privatization of all government activity in the United States. If such a radical privatization takes place, cui bono? Can there be any doubt that those who will walk away with the assets will be the new class of hyper-wealthy financiers--hedge fundies and private equity types? The little guy (and by this I mean the bottom 99% of the population) will get nothing out of this process, except a more insecure, unstable existence.

What would such a restructuring of risk mean for American democracy? Modern democracy depends upon the allegiance of ordinary citizens who see opportunities for advancement, in both material and status terms, within the context of legal and electoral institutions. (This is why all modern democracies are obsessed with maintaining stable economic growth.) Where such opportunities are perceived to be stable and reliable, elites and voters alike will tend to defend the long-run integrity of democratic institutions when they are threatened, rather than opt to subvert them to gain short-term payoffs. On the other hand, political economies in which all gains go to a few well-placed elites and life is increasingly uncertain for the many, the norms of stability and fair play which are required for liberal democracy to function evaporate. Formal democratic institutions may survive as a legitimation mechanism, but they will command little respect or real power.

In short, Robb's scenario suggests the effective end of meaningful democracy in the United States. If that happens then Americans in 2025 will become as cynical about our political institutions as Russians today are about Western democratic ideals. And when that happens, the prospect for a fascist takeover of the United States, appropriately wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross, will be more than likely.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Predictions for 2008--and 2012, too!

Small Precuations went on the record years ago with the observation that Bush will go down in history as "the Lyndon Johnson of the right": that is, as a President who, by pushing for the maximalist ambitions of his party's base, exposed the problems of the underlying political vision of that base, and, specifically, by embroiling the country in an endless land war in Asia, destroyed the dominant political coalition of the previous generation which he had inherited.

The 1968 Election: A Precedent?
Assuming this is a correct general analysis, it suggests that the 2008 election may have strong parallels to the election of 1968, the election which determined LBJ's successor. In that election, the defining issue was what to do about the needless, immoral war that President Johnson had presided over. The Texan president was massively unpopular, and the struggle among the Democrats to succeed him was between the establishment candidate, Hubert Humphrey, who represented the moneyed wing of the party, and who vowed to carry on the President's legacy, and Eugene McCarthy, who represented the animal instincts of the party base and who in many ways repudiated the sitting President. This struggle infamously culminated in the disastrous party convention in Chicago, at which the Democrats ultimately settled on the establishment candidate, Humphrey.

On the other side of the aisle, the party of opposition, the GOP, had to choose between an anti-war candidate of change (George Romney) and a scheming, unlikable man whose candidacy was rooted in claims of experience based on eight years as an understudy in the White House a decade earlier (Richard Nixon). Nixon generally managed to be evasive about what his real position was that epoch's land war in Asia, namely Vietnam.

In the general election in 1968, Nixon of course beat Humphrey handily, partly aided by a third party candidate splitting the vote. Once in office, he chose to continue the war that his Democratic predecessor had begun, while in general driving the opposition Democrats into deranged paroxysms of loathing. Four years later, the party establishment having been completely discredited, the Democrats gave in to the base’s desire for a candidate that represented their true feelings, nominating George McGovern, who was then eviscerated in the general election by the Nixon, despite his personal unpopularity. Of course by 1972, Nixon wasn't merely unlikable; he was an outright political criminal.

Will History Rhyme in 2008?
Certainly the Republicans in 2008 seem to be having the same struggle over the soul of their party that the Democrats did in 1968. They are currently ripping themselves apart trying to decide between candidates who represent the moneyed wing of the party, who vow to carry on the President's legacy (e.g. Mitt Romney, Rudy Guiliani), and ones who represent the animal instincts of the party base and who in many ways repudiate the sitting President (e.g. Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul).

Prediction #1: My guess is that the GOP of 2008 will ultimately reach the same conclusion that the Democrats did in 1968, and go with the establishment candidate, Romney (or, outside chance, McCain).

In the meanwhile, the Democrats in 2008 have to choose between a clear anti-war candidate, Barack Obama, and a scheming, unlikable woman whose candidacy is rooted in claims of experience based on eight years as an understudy in the White House a decade earlier, and who inspires intense loathing among Republicans—that is, Hillary Clinton. In another odd parallel to 1968, Clinton seems to be generally getting away with the Nixonian strategy of being evasive about what her real position is on this epoch's land war in Asia, namely Iraq/Afghanistan, while questioning the experience of her competitor.

Prediction #2: Just as Nixon prevailed among the Republicans in 1968, so Clinton will grab the nomination the Democrats in 2008.

Prediction #3: In a Romney-v-Clinton general election next year, Clinton will win handily (possibly aided by a third party candidate splitting the vote!).

Prediction #4: Once in office, I have little doubt that Clinton will choose the Nixonian route of continuing the Asian land war that her Republican predecessor has begun, while in general (again, like Nixon) driving the opposition into deranged paroxysms of loathing.

And 2012?
Prediction #5: If all this happens, moreover, it seems likely that the Republicans, their party establishment completely discredited, will in 2012 give in to the base's desire for a candidate that represented their true feelings, and actually nominate a real candidate of the religious right—who Clinton will then eviscerate in the general election despite her personal unpopularity.

It remains to be seen whether Clinton will also replicate Nixon's other political traits. What we know for sure is that it wouldn't come as a surprise to a lot of people on the right.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Nationalism vs. Cosmopolitanism

Charles Simic, with pointed observations on Serbian nationalism in the late 1980s, that are more than relevant to today's pro-torture GOP:

Of course, I was naive. I didn't realize the immense prestige that inhumanity and brutality have among nationalists. I also didn't grasp to what degree they are impervious to reason. To point out the inevitable consequences of their actions didn't make the slightest impression on them, since they refused to believe in cause and effect.

The infuriating aspect of every nationalism is that it doesn't understand that it is a mirror image of some other nationalism, and that most of its pronouncements have been heard in other places and at other times. Smug in their own ethnocentricity, indifferent to the cultural, religious, and political concerns of their neighbors, all they [need is] a leader to lead them into disaster.

.Along the same lines of reasoning, there's a helpfully reductionist article in the current World Policy Journal that argues that the red-state/blue-state divide is actually a nationalist/cosmopolitanist divide, and in fact is a division that cleaves the heart of every modern polity.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Reagan lesson

Kevin Drum gets the historical context for the Iranian NIE just right:
There may have been multiple reasons why Iran shut down its bomb program, but I think you'd have to do some pretty serious special pleading to argue that our invasion of Iraq wasn't one of them. And if that's the case, it's pretty good evidence that sticks have a place in foreign policy, just as Hillary says.

This isn't an argument that the Iraq war was a good idea. It's an argument that once Bush made the decision to go to war, it was foolish not to take advantage of one of the resulting upsides. Iran was pretty clearly spooked after we crushed Saddam with such stunning ease, and was pretty clearly ready to do a deal with us. But the Bush administration was so blinded by its own world historical importance, and so dominated by triumphant neocon ideologues, that it refused to see the deal that was in front of its own face.

Compare this to Ronald Reagan and the Soviet Union. It's true that the playground story of how Reagan stared down the Soviets and brought down the wall is tiresome: there were lots of reasons the Soviet Union fell, among them internal bleeding from the Afghanistan war, the mid-80s collapse in oil prices, and the ascension of Mikhail Gorbachev. Still, we now know that Reagan's defense buildup and enthusiasm for SDI was also part of it. But unlike Bush, Reagan was smart enough to take yes for an answer. When the other guy blinked, Reagan ignored the hawks in his own administration and signed the INF treaty with Gorbachev in 1987. Four years later both the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain were gone.

Bush did the opposite. He wasn't willing to push back against Dick Cheney and the rest of the hawks in his administration, and so the chance to do a deal with Iran passed. But the chance was there, and if I were Hillary Clinton I'd argue that the threat of force was part of the reason. The only thing missing was a president smart enough to take advantage of it.
This is a point Small Precautions has made repeatedly over the years: the neocons fundamentally misunderstood the Cold War at the time, and even more fundamentally misunderstood why the Cold War ended. Reagan's primary credit for "winning" the Cold War was not primarily in his militarist build-up, but in actually believing Gorbachev when Gorbachev said he wanted to end the conflict. In doing this, he ran squarely against his neocon advisors, some of whom actually resigned in protest because they thought Reagan was going soft and being duped by the Russians. The Team B guys got the Cold War totally wrong, and then took credit for winning it, when it fact their intransigience was the primary obstacle to us actually securing victory. Alas, Bush is not nearly the man that Reagan was, and instead of listening to the sincere offers of motion in his favor, he pursued the maximalist visions of ideological rollback against the Iranians being promoted by the same Team B idiots.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Nice gig

From Craigslist, an job opening:
Limo Driver / Bodyguard

$20 per hour. Cash. You'll drive fun people in provided private limo.

Will average 15 to 30 hours per month, usually weekend nights. Primarily in Santa Rosa and to North Bay locales. Average work hours will be 8 PM to 2 AM with some nights up to 4 AM.

Candidate should be over 21, have clean driving record and professional, yet rugged and intimidating appearance. Knowledge and fluency in the Russian language a plus, but not required.
Fun people, indeed!

Geo-economic risks

The pessimistic take:
Today you have the following: trade protectionism and asset protectionism (the increasing restrictions to foreign direct investments in the United States); hedgy and trigger-happy investors and rising geopolitical risks; the risk of a disorderly fall in the U.S. dollar that is now sharply weakening; a slush of financial and credit derivatives that are a black box of opaque financial innovation that no one truly understands; increasingly risky investment strategies based on growing levels of leverage (i.e. the ability to multiply risk bets by borrowing a lot to finance such bets); frothy markets where years of easy money created bubbles galore—the latest in housing—that have now started to burst; greater opacity and lack of transparency as there is no supervision or regulation of the activities of many highly leveraged and opaque financial institutions; risk management techniques in financial institutions that fail to truly test the risk of large losses in extremely rare events (such as a major market meltdown like in 1987 or in 1998 at the time of the near collapse of Long-Term Capital Management, then the biggest U.S. hedge fund); risk-hedging strategies that—like in 1987—can hedge nothing once everyone is rushing to the doors and dumping assets at the same time (with this summer’s liquidity crunch a perfect example of the vulnerabilities associated with the poor management of liquidity risk); a housing market whose rout has already triggered systemic effects through the subprime carnage; and the fact that subprime mortgages had been pooled in mortgage-backed securities and that these in turn were repackaged in other risky, complex, and illiquid securities (the various tranches of collateralized debt obligations) that were then given a misleadingly high rating by the rating agencies.
Don't let anyone get away with acting surprised if the meltdown comes....

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Hunter's Point

Small Precautions doesn't usually comment on local Bay Area issues, but this fantastic video about life in the Aitch Pee is an occasion:
There's been a full-blown gang war going on in the Western Addition, with virtually no attention, and no besmirching of San Francisco's limpid image.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Climate Change & Human Development

The United Nations has just issued its annual Human Development Report. This one deals with the impact of climate change on human development (answer: somewhere between "really bad" and "utterly catastrophic").

I haven't read the report in detail, but the key takeaway seems to be that the authors insist that the technological and economic capacity to head off the worst of climate change's negative human impacts already exists, but that deploying this capacity will only take place if people in rich countries reflect more on "social justice and human rights across countries and generations," and commit themselves to "collective action based on shared values and a shared vision."

If that's what it's going to take to prevent the worst from happening, then I'm afraid the worst is bound to happen.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Seeing Bangladesh's future in Sidr's aftermath

The New York Times has a revealing piece today about the impact of Supercyclone Sidr on Bangladesh. The death toll currently stands at 3500, and is likely to rise to perhaps 10,000 -- worse than 9/11, but relative progress compared to the impact of past storms of this size in Bangladesh, such as the 1970 Bhola Cyclone, which killed upwards of half a million people, or Cyclone Gorky, which in 1991 claimed some 140,000 lives.

The fact that the immediate death toll from Sidr is an order of magnitude less than similar typhoons from the past is a testament to the effectiveness of an early warning system that has been installed, and the improved communications infrastructure throughout Bangladesh. (For example, mass text messages over cell phones warned seaside villagers to flee days in advance of the storm.)

As much as this improved warning system is to be appreciated, it does nothing to alter the calamitous underlying trend facing Bangladesh; that is: an exploding population in dire poverty in one of the most storm-vulnerable places on earth. While people are not dying in immediate droves, the economic catastrophe of the storm is worse than ever. Global warming is eroding the massive Gangeatic delta that Bangladesh straddles, and is increasing the force and perhaps likelihood of storms.

Here, in other words, is Bangladesh's future: it will receive better early warnings about threats that it can do nothing to avoid. People will pile into shelters, but how do they pick up the pieces? By 2040, the 200,000,000 Bangladeshis may become the object of a more or less continuous relief operation. The concept of "development" under these circumstances becomes something of a joke in poor taste.

Monday, November 19, 2007

No End in Sight

Last night I watched "No End in Sight," the infuriating documentary about the catastrophe in Iraq. It's an infuriating movie at two levels, one intentional, the other not.

The intentionally infuriating aspect of the movie has to do with the central narrative, which focuses in particular on the Bush regime's complete lack of planning for the postwar situation in Iraq, and on the decisions that were made, especially by Paul Bremer and his cronies, in the early days after the fall of Baghdad. What comes across quite clearly is that the planning of the postwar was non-existent, beginning with the fateful decision not to use nearly enough troops. General Eric Shinseki, who had extensive experience from the Balkans in dealing with occupation and reconstruction efforts, was fired by Donald Rumsfeld for suggesting that it would take "several hundred thousand" troops to secure the country. With not enough troops in the country, the United States did nothing to stop the complete collapse of order in the wake of Saddam's ouster, immediately destroying US credibility as a liberator. Worst of all, the decisions to engage in radical de-baathification, which destroyed Iraq's civil service at a stroke, and to disband the Iraqi army, which immediately ended the employment of half a million armed and angry men, were made by unilaterally by Bremer (perhaps in consultation with Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, though apparently not with Bush), without any consultation with local Iraqis, with Americans in Iraq, or with anyone who knew anything at all about occupation and reconstruction efforts. The movie argues, in effect, that these decisions precipitated the catastrophe that Iraq has become. What's most galling is not the moral anguish of those who tried to avoid these mistakes, but rather the complete insouciance of those who did make the decisions, who apparently feel not an ounce of remorse.

The unintentionally infuriating part of "No End in Sight," however, is that it subtly perpetuates the dominant narrative of what we might call the McCain-Clinton consensus on Iraq. This consensus holds that the problems the United States faces in Iraq are entirely the result of execution errors by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al. This is the narrative that Hillary Clinton in particular has promoted (as did Kerry in 2004), since it is the only one that can justify her war authorization vote in 2002 on substantive grounds. "Yes Iraq is a catastrophe," she and others who participate in this consensus argue, "but it didn't need to have turned out that way!" While such a rationalization may be politically convenient for presidential candidates who seek the nomination of a party that has turned against this war, it is catastrophically wrong. In fact, as David Halberstam observed posthumously in the August issue of Vanity Fair:
It is hard for me to believe that anyone who knew anything about Vietnam, or for that matter the Algerian war, which directly followed Indochina for the French, couldn't see that going into Iraq was, in effect, punching our fist into the largest hornet's nest in the world. As in Vietnam, our military superiority is neutralized by political vulnerabilities. The borders are wide open. We operate quite predictably on marginal military intelligence. The adversary knows exactly where we are at all times, as we do not know where he is. Their weaponry fits an asymmetrical war, and they have the capacity to blend into the daily flow of Iraqi life, as we cannot. Our allies—the good Iraqi people the president likes to talk about—appear to be more and more ambivalent about the idea of a Christian, Caucasian liberation, and they do not seem to share many of our geopolitical goals.
As Small Precautions has argued for years, in fact the real miracle is that things didn’t turn out worse in Iraq than they have (though they may).

Something close to the reverse of the argument put forth by the movie is in fact the case. There were many experts who knew full well that “punching the hornet’s nest” was likely to turn out catastrophically. The war would have been impossible to sell to the American people, Bush and Cheney knew, if an honest reckoning was made of what the postwar situation was likely to be like. The American people would most likely never have accepted the war if the President had told them what reconstruction experts were saying, namely that (at best) the war would cost a trillion dollars and require a ten year occupation of half a million troops. Those who began to suggest such things, like Shinseki, were fired.

Wolfowitz went to Congress on February 27, 2003 and told them with a straight face, "There has been a good deal of comment—some of it quite outlandish—about what our postwar requirements might be in Iraq. Some of the higher end predictions we have been hearing recently, such as the notion that it will take several hundred thousand US troops to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq, are wildly off the mark. It is hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam's security forces and his army—hard to imagine." A month later, Wolfowitz declared, "We are dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction and relatively soon." These were things that had to be said in order to make the war acceptable to the American public.

Serious planning for the postwar would have revealed the absurdity and fatuity of such claims. In fact, the most charitable possible interpretation of Wolfowitz's statements (and similar ones by Rice, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bush and countless pundits) is that they were not so much lying as intentionally trying to avoid facing the truth about the hornet's next they had already decided to punch. Serious planning for the postwar would have created such a shock as to the real expected costs, that it would have precluded the ability to wage it in the first place. What's more, who needed planning, since Saddam was just a Stalinist thug whose removal would free the Iraqi economy and society to organize and finance its own reconstruction. All of this, which is the crucial political lesson the American people need to draw from the war, "No End in Sight" does nothing to illuminate.

The real lessons that this country must learn from Iraq (for if we fail to do so, it will mean the end of American power) are realism about the limits of American power, the limitations of military force, and the need to be willing to make deals with unsavory characters if you’re going to deal with difficult parts of the world. The United States must (re)learn how to assess its geopolitical options rationally--not instinctually or ideologically. "No End in Sight" does nothing to advance these insights, and indeed perpetuates the American post-Cold War myth that the the United States can achieve imperial hegemony. Halberstam gets to the nub of the issue in understanding that behind the poor decisions of the Bush administration lies a fundamental misapprehension of recent history, and in particular, the meaning of the end of the Cold War:
What went wrong in the current administration, not just in the immediate miscalculation of Iraq but in the larger sense of misreading the historical moment we now live in. It is that the president and the men around him—most particularly the vice president—simply misunderstood what the collapse of the Soviet empire meant for America in national-security terms. Rumsfeld and Cheney are genuine triumphalists. Steeped in the culture of the Cold War and the benefits it always presented to their side in domestic political terms, they genuinely believed that we were infinitely more powerful as a nation throughout the world once the Soviet empire collapsed.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Break Through

I had the pleasure last week of attending a talk by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger, the authors of what may be the most significant book on environmentalism of the last several years, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. Their argument, in a nutshell, is that American environmentalism's main mode of discourse, namely catastrophism, is fundamentally counterproductive since it causes people to despair and turn inward, and that therefore if we want to actually galvanize people to take action on environmental matters, we need to stop talking as if there is an unbreakable choice between environmental catastrophe and limited growth.

Their views on this have been shaped by years of polling research in many countries, and above all in North America, which has convinced them that the way the American environmental movement has gone about its business since the 1970s has been worse that ineffective. As a simple matter of political rhetoric, I think their argument is not only profound, but virtually unimpeachable. Americans never have and never will respond politically to be being told they are sinners who must repent, in this case, from the sin of consumerism. Even more, the Chinese will never accept that they too should restrain their growth, as if freezing the current wealth levels of different countries is remotely fair.

I chatted briefly with Michael after the talk, and handed him my paper, which he had some kind words about on his blog yesterday:
Gilman, Doug Randall, and Peter Schwartz come to very similar conclusions about how the political reactions to climate change might divide the environmental community, just as immigration reform and Cape Wind divided the Sierra Club.
[C]limate change may form the basis for a new set of political coalitions and oppositions that do not fit within the [traditional left-right] political paradigm. One possibility is that political coalitions and parties may be reformed around different attitudes to social risk-sharing, with one faction opting for having the state take an activist approach to mitigating a variety of "big" security risks (military, terrorist, environmental) and another coalition forming around allowing people to fend for themselves, with a less intrusive but also less protective state. The recent debate in the Sierra Club over the organization's stance on immigration presages such a formation, as does the current debate in Europe about "repatriation" of immigrants.
The initial reaction from some people to Break Through was that we constructed a straw man, as though to say, Come on, there's hardly any environmentalists any more who are anti-growth, limits-based, NIMBY, or anti-immigrant.

These claims were often followed, without any apparent sense of irony, by the insistence that technology can't solve our problems, there are natural limits to economic growth, and there's not enough room on lifeboat Earth for everyone to live the way we live in the developed world.

Having spent the last month traveling around the country on book tour, Ted and I have been struck that the biggest objection audiences have to our book is our contention that there's room for all 7 billion of us Earthlings to live prosperous, free and fulfilled lives. We point out that this won't be the case if we continue on the current fossil fuel trajectory -- hence the need for a politics that gets us off it -- but if we move to a clean energy economy, live mostly in cities, and begin to restore the nonhuman ecosystems we depend on, there's no reason to believe the levels of prosperity we enjoy shouldn't be achieved by everyone.

Ever since Malthus in the early 19th Century (and likely well before that) people have been predicting that we're going to run out of food. Their calculations are always impeccable. The problem is that they're based on existing technologies. And technological innovation is what our species excels at.

The new political fault line we see shaping up is between a large politics (what we call "greatness") characterized by a vision for growth, development, globalization, and non-zero sum thinking (i.e., "win-win") -- and a small politics characterized by NIMBYism, anti-immigrant attitudes, the resistance to what GBN calls "social risk-sharing," and the sense that there's only so much planet Earth to go around.

Which side will prevail? GBN says it's uncertain. "While ecosystems have always been dynamic and changing (and subject to collapse), the scientific ability to track such collapses, and the media visibility of such collapses, is far greater than it has ever been. How the global public will react to such collapses is largely unknown."

GBN makes the very good point that as human systems collapse, humans "rely upon primary loyalties (families, neighborhoods, religious organizations, gangs) for daily survival.... Those unwilling or unable to profit from the chaos will radiate outward through refugee flows, exporting social conflicts to adjacent locales."

What I thought was missing from the GBN analysis was an acknowledgment of the fairly extensive research of how discourses of collapse and apocalypse feed the small, authoritarian, and NIMBY political reaction -- not the expansive, democratic, and ecological one.
I think that critique of our work from last year is fair. We could have sharpened the analysis by suggesting that political discourses themselves are semi-independent variables that help determine political outcomes. One thing I learned from Nordhaus and Schellenberger is that an important indicator to watch for is the optimism or pessimism of the political narrative about climate. (People have been ignoring jeremiads since, well, Jeremiah.)

If I have a criticism of Nordhaus and Schellenberger, it is not on the substantive matter of how the politics of environmentalism should be framed. I agree strongly with them that environmentalism is most likely to succeed as a political matter if it is not positioned as a matter of restriction, but rather as an opportunity. Nor do I disagree in the slightest that from a policy perspective, it would be fantastic for the US federal government to initiate a major push to create infrastructure that can provide a "platform for green innovation" (modeled after, for example, the federal investment in the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s-40s, the Interstate system in the 1950s-60s, or the Internet in the 1970s-1980s) -- which would provide enormous business opportunities. Finally, I also agree that any viable solution to the global warming challenge must include a calculus for how we can get the rest of the world rich, too. If the solution requires keeping the Indians and Chinese down, it won't work.

Rather, what I disagree with them about is whether what they propose, even if seized upon by a visionary politician who sells it to the American and global public, can happen fast enough to save the planet from environmental catastrophe. Embedded in their work is a faith in the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC), that is, the idea that environmental values begin to appear as people hit a certain level of income. They seem to argue that with better framing of the political discourse, we may be able to bring down the price point at which people begin to value more environmentally-friendly policies and consumer habits. There are three main criticisms of the EKC idea. First, it's not clear that people actually do value environmentally-friendly policies as they get richer -- it's just clear that they start to insist that these polluting industries get moved overseas. Yes, the Taiwanese cleaned up as they got wealthier, but they did so by shipping their nastiest facotires across the Straits to China. The Chinese really have no such option, and in any event, even if they did, it wouldn't reduce the global pollutant load for them to do so as they got richer. Second, it seems that the income-threshold at which people start to care about greenhouse gas emissions may be somewhere around $75K per family. Needless to say, China's nowhere close to that, and the amount of pollution it will emit before it gets there is staggering, and likely catastrophic at a planetary level. Third, and most profoundly, the theory of the EKC rests on a general theory of modernization, and specifically on the notion that modernization spells convergence in terms of political values. Readers of this blog probably don't need to be told how skeptical I am of such theories, in particular the idea that people's social and political values are somehow a dependent variable in relation to their economic status, or that political liberalism is the foreordained outcome of the modernization process.

With that said, I think the Nordhaus and Schellenberger have written a great book, one that points the right way forward, even if it may not be enough to save us.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

5 catastrophe scenarios for the US economy

New York magazine has a pretty dire reading of how the US economy could go down in flames. People will call it a black swan when it happens, but it's anything but. The funniest bit is this:

The bulls will tell you that foreign governments understand the American economy is the key to global economic health, and that they'll suck it up and take it when we devalue their debt. To which Schiff offers another analogy. Imagine if five people were washed up on a desert island: four Asians and an American. In splitting up their duties, one Asian says he'll fish; another will hunt, another will look for firewood, and another will cook. The American assigns himself the job of eating.

"The modern economist looks at this situation and says the American is key to the whole thing," says Schiff. "Because without him to eat, the four Asians would be unemployed."

Friday, October 26, 2007

Black Swans of the Future

Over at Global Guerillas, John Robb has some interesting comments about global security and peak oil. But he kinda wound me up this morning with his off-the-cuff suggestion that the current mortgage crisis exhibits all the hallmarks of a black swan (that is, an event that defies prediction, but it is usually obvious in hindsight):
The financial carnage -- hedge fund failures, bank runs, credit tightening, and potentially a recession -- due to the current mortgage crisis demonstrates (yet again) that very smart people can do incredibly stupid things. For all of the insight, experience, and knowledge we gained through previous financial failures, we still walked blithely into the gaping maw of the delinquencies, defaults, and outsized bailouts that characterize a financial black swan.
I think this is a total misreading of the current mortgage situation. In fact, many people over the last few years have observed -- often in the same breath -- that (1) the relaxation of credit terms for the poor invariably winds up in a credit crisis, and (2) the global housing market was exhibiting every sign of a bubble. The only thing that might arguably have been a surprise is how badly people had priced the CDOs, and how illiquid the markets for these vehicles were. (Even that was pretty obvious to the folks involved in creating those products.) That's the triple play that led to this summer's financial crisis: lax credit terms for the poor, a housing bubble, and untested financialization. Anyone could have -- and a lot of people did -- predict that this mix was unlikely to have a happy ending. So, let's not call it a black swan when what we have here instead is the classic American mix of privatization of profit and socialization of costs. The charade of acting like all this was unpredictable is simply a ruse to make the bailout of bankers politically palatable.

What other future alleged Black Swans can we debunk in advance? Let me put on the record some other big, bad events that we can already see coming, and that no one ought to get away with acting shocked about when they do:
* A rapid, messy collapse in the US dollar
* A major inflationary episode in China
* A major global recession, deepened by populist anti-trade reactions
* The detonation of a nuclear device in a major global port
* All four of the above simultaneously....

When these things happen, some people will be tempted to call them Black Swans. They will base that claim narrowly, citing the particular way the event was precipitated, and the fact that certain smart were caught with their pants down, as "proof" that the event in question was "unpredictable."

But as overall categories of happening, I think these -- like the long-predicted popping of the housing bubble -- are not black swans, but more like "inevitable surprises." The particular way in which the event will come about will be unpredictable and revealing of mass complacency, but the chance that at least one of these events will take place in the next decade strikes me as better than even. In fact, the wonder with all of those events is that they haven't happened already. Of course they'll take people by surprise when they happen, but that doesn't mean they are surprising in the stricter epistemological sense that Taleb uses the term "Black Swan."

Bottom line: Just because the public or some individual is complacent, doesn't mean that the bad stuff that happens to them was a Black Swan.

U.S. housing slump = disaster for Mexican economy

Here is an important and underreported story: the housing slump in the U.S. is causing economic catastrophe in Mexico.

Housing starts have long considered the best single indicator of future economic growth -- it employs a bunch of people, who cycle money through the economy, and it creates a lot of demand for building materials, which has multiplier effects on the wider economy. (It's also a harbinger of inflationary pressure.) All this has led people to ask, "How is it that a collapse in the construction industry over the last year, brought on by the popping of the housing bubble, hasn't rippled out to the rest of the economy?"

Well, the article above provides a partial answer to the mystery. It turns out that the construction slump has rippled out to the rest of the economy -- it's just that "the rest of the economy" is in Mexico. The reasoning goes like this: Mexicans (legal and otherwise) overwhelming dominate the rank and file of building trade in the United States. These construction workers never spent more than the minimum necessary here to keep body and soul together, and instead remitted as much money as possible back home to Mexico. As the construction workers have lost work, they've stopped sending remittances home, with disastrous consequences in Mexico. However, they still have to spend the minimum here in the U.S. to keep themselves together, and so the collapse has had little impact on US consumer demand. To put it a little more technically: all the marginal consumer-side costs of the U.S. construction slump are being felt in Mexico, not in the U.S.

This helps explain half the mystery of why the construction slump hasn't hurt the economy more -- the consumer-side part of the story. The part that's still a mystery, however, is why the construction slump isn't causing more of a collapse in supplier industries (metals, concrete, electrical cable, Home Depot, etc).

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Precarious Living, Dhaka

The Dhaka slums... definitely ready for that next typhoon.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

What would the French say?

I was driving along a road in northern Virginia on Thursday when I saw this giant political advertisement, which pretty much sums up what the Republicans have done to the country for the last six years:In case you think this is a joke, here's this guy's campaign site.

If this posting makes no sense to you, this link may help.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Comando Vermelho video

A great video on one of the gangs in the Rio de Janiero slums that is directly challenging the police power of the state.

Money line: "First is God, then my gun."

Best movie line ever: "I'm gonna get medieval on your ass"

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Arctic sea ice update

It's the end of the summer in the Arctic, and guess what? Sea ice is a third lower than ever before recorded. But you know what they say: in every crisis, an opportunity.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Hurricane Humberto

Hurricane Humberto isn't making much news, because it's only a Category 1 storm, and it's not expected to cause all that much damage. But there's a wrinkly to the Humberto story that's worth paying attention to:
Texans went to bed Wednesday night expecting to be struck by a tropical storm. They awoke to find they'd been hit by a hurricane instead.

The stunningly fast buildup of what became Hurricane Humberto shocked scientists, some of whom said there was nothing like it in the historical record.

In just 18 hours, Humberto strengthened from a tropical depression with 35-mph winds to a Category 1 hurricane with 85-mph winds before crashing ashore. It did not grow into a hurricane until after midnight.

"That has never before happened" in the more than 150 years scientists have been tracking hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean, said James Franklin, a senior specialist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
"That's never before happened...": words worth thinking about. The truth is that the consequences of such a rapid warming as we are imposing on the planet via GHG emissions are really unknown. All sorts of things that are "outside the realm of the possible" within current climate models are going to happen.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Who are the real "traitors"?

Glenn Greenwald has an acute column up about the MoveOn advert that rhymes General Petreaus's name with "Betray Us," in which he points out the deep hypocrisy of those on the right who claim it is outrageous to use such a word.
The only difference this time... is that it [the "traitor" rhetoric] is being directed at the side that typically wields such accusatory rhetoric, rather than by them.
This is absolutely correct. Accusing Democrats not just of cowardice or dereliction of duty but of betrayal, traitorship, and treason has been a central staple of the Right's political rhetoric and energy for seventy five years (since March 4, 1933, specifically).

But ask yourself: who is the real traitor: the person who sees that the country has only bad choices before it, acknowledges this, and is willing to make the painful and difficult decision? Or the person who insists on continuing to squander the blood of young Americans, the fortunes of our treasury, and the ability of the country to act in its own interests in other arenas -- merely to retain a prayer of salvaging his own personal reputation?

I tend to agree with Juan Cole that Petreaus is a good soldier stuck in a terrible position, trying to salvage a disaster. With that said, I think it is not wrong to call his political masters in the White House (and the GOP generally) traitors. They are traitors, that is, if by "traitor" we understand someone who knowingly betrays the interests of his country in order to promote his own interests.

At this point only a knave or a fool would fail to realize that staying on in Iraq is contrary to the national interest. The only reason that Bush and the GOP continue to do so is to retain hope that their political reputation can be salvaged. And that, I believe, can rightly be called treasonous.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The oblique nature of the impact of climate change

One of the things I've hammered on about this year regarding the impact of climate change is how many of the impacts of climate change will not be reported in the newspaper as impacts of climate change, but rather as political or social crises. In fact, there has even been an explicit push to stop people from even trying to connect political crises to climate change. When UN Secretary General Ban Moon-Ki argued in June (citing the arguments my friend Stephan Faris made in the Atlantic Monthly last year) that climate change was exacerbating resource conflicts in Darfur that drive the slaughter going on there, Idean Salehyan shot back in Foreign Policy that blaming the situation in Darfur on climate change in effect was letting the politicians in Khartoum off the hook. You can judge Salehyan's arguments on their merits, but what is certain is that insofar as people embrace his perspective that proximate political causes should always have explanatory and moral priority over background long duree causal factors like climate change, it will be impossible to really create any political consensus about the impact of climate change.

As I was trying to figure out why this is so, it occurred to me that the impact of climate change can perhaps best be thought of as an inversion of the genius marketing slogan of the chemical company BASF: "We don't make a lot of the products you buy. We make a lot of the products you buy better." In the case of climate change, you might say, "Climate change doesn't make problems. It makes a lot of the problems you have worse." And that seems to about right for describing the impact of climate change in Darfur, and also underscores why climate change, short of the most catastrophic scenarios, is unlikely to be a big problem in places which are otherwise politically, socially, and economically healthy. In places that are already stressed, however, climate change will ratchet up the leverage, and in some instances will function as the proverbial last straw, precipitating political, social, and economic collapses, that will be reported as such.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Anne-Louise, 1923-2007

My grandmother died today, or maybe it was tomorrow, I don't know.

The last time I saw her was in 2005 in Copenhagen. I saw her half a dozen times since I moved back from Europe ten years ago, and I was acutely conscious every time I departed from her that this was very possibly going to be the last time I would see her, and I tried for that reason to make a mental image of the moment. So the last time was at her flat, overlooking the Oresund, and we sat and had tea and talked about my children and my work. She quickly became tired, so I had to go.

It's self-indulgent to feel existential when someone close to you dies. Or perhaps the self-indulgence of the existentialists was to go around cultivating as a constant personal style that feeling you have when someone close to you dies. Still, the existentialists have all the good quotes that describe the feeling of limitation that death brings home, and also the struggle to deny those limitations. One of my favorite expressions of this, which for some reason came to me today, is from Paul Bowles's The Sheltering Sky:
Because we don't know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps 20. And yet it all seems limitless.
It all seems limitless, but it's not. Which is why the most important thing is to keep one's own moral compass in good order every day, and without exceptions. Because soon it will all be over, and all that will matter, really, is whether you maintained that compass. And one thing I can say without the slightest equivocation is that keeping such compass was something my grandmother did as effectively as anyone I have known, and she did so without ever being sanctimonious.

Requiescat in pace, Mormor.

Times gets my story, two days later

Following on my posting from three days ago, the Times of London, a Rupert Murdoch outfit, explains the "revisionism" that lies behinds Bush's claims about Vietnam. It's Sorley and Moyar alright, as well as their various readers in Bush regime. Money:

In Triumph Forsaken, published last year, the historian Mark Moyar claimed that South Vietnam could have survived had the Americans not acquiesced in the overthrow of President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, plunging the country into an “extended period of instability and weakness”.

Moyar is now working on a book about the second half of the war, in which he argues: “In the offensive of 1975, the North Vietnamese are moving around huge conventional forces that would have been pulverised by our air power.” By then, however, Hanoi was well aware that America was turning against the war and doubted that the US military would be able to act decisively.

Supporters of the Iraq war have also been delving into Lewis Sorley’s book, A Better War, which was rereleased in paperback this year. The war, Sorley wrote, “was being won on the ground even as it was being lost at the peace table and the US Congress”.

Needless to say, the Murdoch outfit doesn't bother to point out that these two "revisionists" aren't really scholars, just like herbologists aren't really doctors.

The thing to understand about these sorts of "revisionists" is that they start with a contemporary political axe to grind, and then go find a historical "revision" to make that will support that contemporary political agenda. That doesn't make their claims about the past necessarily wrong, but it does mean that they are going into the research inclined to cherry-pick evidence in order to support their thesis -- a thesis motivated not by an understanding of the past en soi, but rather by contemporary political concerns.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Hurricane tracks

A beautiful image of the global storm tracks of typhoons, worldwide, 1980-2005:

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Vietnam/Iraq analogy and the historical profession

Bush operatives are announcing that the President plans to make a major foreign policy speech next week in which he will, like Giuliani in last month's Foreign Affairs, claim that the lesson of the Vietnam War for today's war in Iraq is that we must stay the course:

"Here at home, some can argue our withdrawal from Vietnam carried no price to American credibility -- but the terrorists see things differently," Bush plans to tell a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, according to speech excerpts released late Tuesday by the White House.

Bush will argue that the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam had dire consequences for the people in that region and so would a withdrawal from Iraq.

"Three decades later, there is a legitimate debate about how we got into the Vietnam War and how we left," Bush will say. "Whatever your position in that debate, one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like 'boat people,' 're-education camps,' and 'killing fields.'"

Where does Bush get this stuff from, you might well ask. Certainly, the vast majority of mainstream professional historians scoff at these views of Vietnam. The LA Times article, for example, cites Bob Dallek's sputtering reaction:

Historian Robert Dallek, who has written about the comparisons of Iraq to Vietnam, accused Bush of twisting history. "It just boggles my mind, the distortions I feel are perpetrated here by the president," he said in a telephone interview.

"We were in Vietnam for 10 years. We dropped more bombs on Vietnam than we did in all of World War II in every theater. We lost 58,700 American lives, the second-greatest loss of lives in a foreign conflict. And we couldn't work our will," he said.

"What is Bush suggesting? That we didn't fight hard enough, stay long enough? That's nonsense. It's a distortion," he continued.

Dallek of course is right that what Bush is saying is arrant historical nonsense, motivated by a desire to lay political blame for the disaster on his opponents. Dallek is also right that "the disaster is the consequence of going in, not getting out." But I am afraid that these points are largely irrelevant.

What's critical here is that Bush is drawing his history not from the professional historians, but from an alternative, parallel universe of historical knowledge. Specifically, the two works that lie in the background to Bush's "lessons of Vietnam" are A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam by Lewis Sorley, whose job is as a Member of Board of Governors at the Reagan Ranch; and Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965 by Mark Moyar, who currently serves as an adjunct instructor at the Marine Corps college in Quantico, having been unable to secure regular academic appointment.

The epistemic community of professional academic historians tends to dismiss the knowledges expressed in these works with words like "amateur," "unrigorous," "journalistic," "hack" and so on. In fact, what Dallek's fulminating animadversions suggest is that the scholarly community does not really understand that works such as these are best understood as (asymmetric) competitors for the hearts and minds of the American public. Dalek's comments reminded me of the helpless hand-wringing at the dinner I attended at the Society for History of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) last year. "How could we [professional diplomatic historians] have let the Iraq war happen?" one historian asked, in all seriousness. Embedded in her rhetorical question was the assumption that it was the historians assembled in that hall that were the actual arbiters of the nation's understanding of its own historical past. What she misunderstood (or perhaps did not know) was that she and her professional peers are neither the only nor (arguably) the most influential producers of knowledge about this nation's past.

To dismiss writers like Sorley and Moyar as producers of somehow sub-legitimate forms of knowledge is thus to miss the point. In fact, they are members of an alternative history movement, one which produces knowledge that is at least as impactful on popular and policy-maker conceptions of the past as anything produced in the academy. This alternative history industry occupies a similar epistemic place relative to professional historians that the holistic medicine movement does to the doctors in the AMA: we professional historians may view the ideas expressed in these books as crackpot quackery, but this professional opinion doesn't stop millions of people from rejecting the professionals' diagnoses, and instead adopting the quacks' recommendations.

What's more, these counter-historians understand, perhaps at a deeper level than most professional historians, that defining popular conceptions of key historical events is crucial for enabling current policy-making. (In this case, winning the political battle to stay in Iraq all but requires redefining in the American popular imagination what it means to fight an endless land war in Asia -- an image currently defined by the "quagmire" image of the Vietnam War.) The American Right realized in the 1980s that they had lost control of academic producers of historical knowledge. Academic historians were no longer producing historical knowledge that was usable by the Right. What the Right needed to do, therefore, was to set up a parallel knowledge production industry. While rehearsing the history of right-wing think tanks and their wingnut funders would take a long time, suffice it to say that the historical knowledge which fuels the political agenda of the American Right is today only rarely produced by academic historians. Instead, most of the historical knowledge circulating on the Right has been produced by knowledge entrepreneurs from outside the academy, working in think tanks, for opinion journals, and "independently."

This "historical knowledge industry" understands that the battle to dominate popular conceptions of key historical events does not take place by getting articles published in peer-reviewed journals, but rather by producing knowledge in formats and venues that reach wide popular audiences as well as the political-appointee community inside the Beltway. It likely pains professional historians to hear this, but the op-ed pages of the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal (as well as relatively unwonky policy journals like Foreign Affairs and The Weekly Standard) are far more influential in defining popular understandings of key episodes in the nation's past than are the articles published in the American Historical Review, the Journal of Cold War Studies or Diplomatic History.

Denying Moyar a teaching spot at a research university may hurt his ego, but it scarcely limits his influence. Indeed, looking at Moyar's Amazon blog for Triumph Foresaken, what's striking is how the book has apparently received not a single positive review from a reputable academic journal, but has received raves from places like The Weekly Standard, New York Sun, The Wall Street Journal (op-ed pages), Marine Corps Gazette, ForeWord Magazine, the National Review, as well as from A-list conservative bloggers like Glenn Reynolds and Powerline. Moyar may by a Rodney Dangerfield in the academy, but he is also a far more effective public intellectual than practically anyone attending SHAFR.

At some point soon I'll try to find time to spell out in detail what all this means, institutionally and methodologically, for academic historians. But the basic point is simple. Professional historians need to wake up to the fact that the commanding historiographical heights are not to be found in our own professional academic journals, but rather are the op-ed pages of America's top newspapers, on talkshows, and in blogs. Maybe it's obvious, but it's worth saying explicitly: if you actually want to affect policy, you need to publish things that policy-makers will read.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Best. Movie. Line. Ever.

"The end of the world is nigh, the game is up":

The future will be like the past

Adam Gopnik, in the course of a business-as-usual-brilliant discussion of Philip K. Dick, has the following astute gloss on Dick's essential insight about the future:
The future will be like the past, in the sense that, no matter how amazing or technologically advanced a society becomes, the basic human rhythm of petty malevolence, sordid moneygrubbing, and official violence, illuminated by occasional bursts of loyalty or desire or tenderness, will go on.
The sense that the future will be like the past, and in particular that the "backward" parts of the world offer a more realistic vision of the future than the "advanced" parts, was the basic message we tried to communicate in our course this Spring on deviant globalization.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Iraq's destruction of all national sense of political proportion

Josh Marshall makes a great point about how the biggest strategic danger of the situation in Iraq is the way it is sucking all the oxygen out of discussions about all the myriad other global challenges facing the U.S.

What is not debatable however is that there is more going on in the world -- more opportunities and more threats -- than what happens in the few hundred mile radius around the ancient capital of Baghdad. There is, as we can see, Russia, which still has a few thousand nuclear warheads which could cause some serious headaches. There's China, a vast economic and potential military power that will bulk larger and larger in our lives over the course of this century. There's Pakistan, India, half a billion people to our south speaking Spanish and Portuguese. The list goes on and on....

In hotspots around the world, there's a vacuum, as the world sort of rushes past us. In many ways this is the greatest danger in Iraq, not that our future as a nation is at stake in staying (as the right would have it) or even that it's necessarily at stake in leaving but that our engagement with the country has fixed us with a dangerous national myopia which is letting many other problems fester unattended for going on a decade.

Josh could further have further pointed out that Iraq is distracting us not just from other overt political challenges, but also from the dangers associated with massive global financial imbalances, and from emerging threats ranging from climate change to engineered biohazards. The measure of Iraq's deformation of the national dialog is not so much that the GOP candidates are falling over themselves to see who can make the most blood-curdling cry for escalation, but rather that none of the leading candidates in either party seem to have much of any foreign policy beyond some position on the so-called GWOT. It's sad, really, how much the sense of policy and political proportion has dribbled away, like a dry wadi, into the Mesopotamian sands.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Picture of the day

Saõ Paulo: an apartment building for the wealthy overlooks a favela, ironically called Paraisópolis (Paradise city):
Photo credit: Luiz Arthur Leirão Vieira (Tuca Vieira). Hat tip: JB.

And here's the view of that same building, from the favela:

And here's the same neighborhood from afar:

Best movie line ever: "Napalm in the morning"

Andrew Sullivan does it, so I think I will too: my favorite movie lines ever.

Here's as good a place to start as any:

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Statistic of the day

Los Angeles cleanup crews removed 27 million square feet of graffiti last year, up from 21 million square feet in 2005, officials said. In other areas of Los Angeles County, 13 million square feet of walls and other surfaces were cleaned, 4 million more than in the previous year, county public works records show.

Learning the wrong historical lessons: Giuliani edition

In his ghost-written piece for Foreign Affairs, Rudy Giuliani compares the situation in Iraq today to that in Vietnam in the early 1970s and draws the following historical lesson:
America must remember one of the lessons of the Vietnam War. Then, as now, we fought a war with the wrong strategy for several years. And then, as now, we corrected course and began to show real progress. Many historians today believe that by about 1972 we and our South Vietnamese partners had succeeded in defeating the Vietcong insurgency and in setting South Vietnam on a path to political self-sufficiency. But America then withdrew its support, allowing the communist North to conquer the South. The consequences were dire, and not only in Vietnam: numerous deaths in places such as the killing fields of Cambodia, a newly energized and expansionist Soviet Union, and a weaker America. The consequences of abandoning Iraq would be worse.
Let's take this apart sentence by sentence. I suppose few people would argue with the assertion that we fought the first years of the Vietnam War with the wrong strategy. The notion that we showed "real progress" in the early 1970s, however, is transparent nonsense. While the death rate for Americans dropped, the political legitimacy of the South Vietnamese government never came anywhere close to stability, and the carnage in the Vietnamese countryside only grew worse. Second, the North Vietnamese ability to impose political terms on Thieu in the South were only becoming more effective. Indeed, they had extracted a concession from the United States that denied South Vietnam's separate sovereignty from the North. When Thieu refused to accept this, Nixon felt compelled to commence the Christmas Bombing of North Vietnam. Rudy's ghostwriters may feel they can assert that by the early 1970s we had succeeded in defeating the North Vietnamese, but without getting into the details, suffice to say that engaging in a massive escalation in Year 7 of a war is an odd choice for a military that feels it has already won. Third, while it's true that American withdrawal of funding accelerated the collapse of the Thieu regime, the conquest of the South by the ARNV would not have happened so quickly if Thieu's regime was not politically collapsed to begin with. Fourth, the implied idea that if only we had stayed things would have turned out better for the United States ignores that dire moral impact that the heedless killing of millions of Asian peasants was having on American political culture, not to mention the fact that the price of the war was bankrupting the country. Fifth, the idea that the Soviet Union was "energized" by the U.S. defeat in Vietnam ignores already well down the path toward economic implosion that would eventually do it in, and shows the way in which the neocon right still doesn't understand that it was containment, not rollback, that won the Cold War. Sixth, the suggestion that "the killing fields of Cambodia" was part of the aftermath of our withdrawal from Vietnam carefully elides the fact that it the U.S. supported Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, who were responsible for those killing fields, whereas it was the Vietnamese Communists who opposed and eventually ousted Pol Pot. Finally, the notion that the consequences of leaving Iraq would be worse than those we faced after leaving Vietnam is (in addition to being bare, unsupported assertion) predicated on the (frankly, criminally insane) assumption that (a) things would have been better if we had stayed in Vietnam past 1973, and (b) that things turned out so bad for us. Wait guys, didn't we win the Cold War after we left Vietnam? Just checking.

I don't normally agree with Greg Djerejian on foreign policy, but his summation of Rudy's position as "Walt Rostow meets the Sopranos" is just right.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The complexity of modern life

A very cool Japanese video that does an amazing job (to the sound of Norwegian electronica) of capturing the insane complexity that subtends that banal everydayness of modern urban life.

Hat tip: AH.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Statistic of the day

From a review of Alan Weisman's The World Without Us:
There is six times more plastic by weight on the sea's surface than there is plankton.
As my grandmother used to say, "Ca va mal finir."

Friday, August 03, 2007

The left then and now

Hedrick Hertzberg, attending YearlyKos, makes the following acute observation about this generation's antiwar crowd versus the one that protested Vietnam:
I think the difference between today’s left and yesterday’s is partly explained by the difference between the wars that have energized them. Vietnam was, as Bob Dole might say, a “Democrat war.” You couldn’t protest it just by putting your energies into electing Democrats, and of course you couldn’t do it by trying to elect Republicans, who liked the war even more. You had to go to the left of the Dems, and if you hadn’t happened to have already acquired a moral/political compass, you might keep going till you ended up at the feet of Chairman Mao. This war is an all-Republican affair. And this generation, thank God, is perfectly content to stick with Chairman Howard.
The Republicans are trying desperately to turn assign the blame for the Iraq catastrophe more widely (or, ideally, to pin the blame entirely on the "Defeaticrats") but this war is transparently Mr. Bush's war that the effort is almost certainly bound to fail. Indeed the effort to do so seems increasingly farcical, in the "18th Brumaire" sense of the word.

19 million South Asian climate refugees -- THIS YEAR

The AP describes the impact of this year's freakishly heavy South Asian monsoon:
At least 186 people have been killed and 19 million driven from their homes as heavy monsoon rains triggered floods, destroyed crops and submerged roads across a wide swath of northern India and Bangladesh.
William Gibson famously observed in 1999 that, "The future is already here. It's just not very evenly distributed." Most people have taken that statement to be an optimistic reference to the diffusion of high technology. But the same insight applies in a negative way to the arrival of climate change impacts.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Climate of Fear: Bangladesh and India

This article on the impact of climate change in Bangladesh is six months old, but does a nice job of showing how its is the multiple systemic failures in Bangladesh that make it particularly vulnerable to climate change:

Every year these waterways burst their banks as rainwater and ice melt sluice down from the Himalayas towards the Bay of Bengal.

Cyclones and tornadoes pummel the coast annually, bringing further misery to a country slightly larger than England, yet crammed with 145 million people. Local sea levels appear to be rising, and summer temperatures climbing, causing droughts in the north west.

The result is a "perfect storm" of environmental factors that could make Bangladesh the first significant country to be destroyed by climate change. "Bangladesh is in such a difficult position because all these factors — geographical, demographic, political and climatic — have conspired together," said Atiq Rahman, head of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies and an IPCC member. "It is a test case for the rest of the world."

He predicts that if the sea rises by a metre — as some scientists say it will by 2100 — a quarter of Bangladesh will be submerged, forcing 30 to 40 million people from their homes.

As floods have pushed sea- water far inland, contaminating paddy fields and water supplies, thousands of farmers, like Mr Gain, have turned their paddy fields into shrimp farms. They earn more cash, but are less well-off because they no longer have their own food supplies. That leads to malnutrition and disease.

The obvious horror in all this is the looming humanitarian catastrophe. But from an analytical perspective, the really frightening question is: where will all those refugees go? Some will flood into the overcrowded Bangladeshi cities of the North, but many are likely to go (or attempt to go) to India, a country itself acutely vulnerable to climate-related crises. In other words, even aside from the direct impact of climate change on India itself, the impact of climate change on its neighbors is likely to cripple India's growth and stability.

Friday, July 27, 2007

These people are psychotic

The Heritage Foundation just produced a scenario for what will happen if we start bombing Iran -- what they call "a focused but restrained use of mili­tary power."

Short answer: No worries! Good times for all!

Not only will be economic consequences be much less than the doomsayers predict, but the new war will actually have the collateral advantage of providing a policy opening for measures that the pinks and liberals have for so long stymied, such as permitting oil drilling in ANWR and the Gulf waters, and rolling back of energy conservation measures (higher CAFE standards) and environmental regulations (the Clean Air Act). Actually, the thing I found most surprising about the scenario was that these guys didn't seem to realize that another obvious consequence of bombing Iraq is that it will require an abolition of the capital gains tax to tide us through the emergency.

Hat tip: TC.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Climate-change induced conflict

An additional source of conflict that climate change may induce is to open up competition over jurisdictionally ambiguous spaces that previously were so inaccessible as to not really be worth disputing. The Russians are aggressively asserting their claims to vast stretches of the Arctic, not for strategic reasons (as during the Cold War), but because global warming has thinned the ice in the Artic to the point where exploiting hydrocarbons (control over which is the linchpin of contemporary Russian geostrategy) is now or likely soon will be possible. Next up: tearing up the 1959 Antarctica Treaty declaring that continent the sole province of science, so as to exploit the likely stupendous mineral resources of the continent.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Hannah Arendt's view of Evil

I've always been compelled by Arendt's view of evil as depiected in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Here's Amos Alon's excellent gloss on Arendt's view of evil:
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, she still held on to a Kantian notion of radical evil, the evil that, under the Nazis, corrupted the basis of moral law, exploded legal categories, and defied human judgment. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, and in the bitter controversies about it that followed, she insisted that only good had any depth. Good can be radical; evil can never be radical, it can only be extreme, for it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension, yet--and this is the horror!--it can spread like a fungus over the surface of the earth and lay waste the entire world. Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought, for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil.
I agree entirely: evil comes from a failure to think.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Trendhunter: Moustachio vendettas

A truly bizarre story about the "Moustache War of Upper Egypt," but perhaps a leading indicator for something profound, namely the ever-increasing importance of cultural symbolism:
Moustache war shakes southern Egypt

When an elder was kidnapped in a clan dispute in conservative southern Egypt, the al-Arab family's worst fears were soon realised -- they received a package containing his moustache, local media reported on Sunday.

The man himself was returned uninjured, but the use of the new shaving tactic sent shockwaves through the town of Mahrusa, near Luxor, 650km south of Cairo, where a man's honour is measured by the size of his moustache, the al-Gomhuria daily said.

The conflict that started with a coffee-shop brawl swiftly spiralled out of control, with the al-Arab carrying out a humiliating reprisal shave on a leading member of the Fallaheen family, followed by all-out battles with sticks and clubs.

Police and community leaders then intervened, restoring a relative calm to the town, the paper said, with those worst hit by the conflict set to remain indoors for the coming weeks pending the regrowth of their manliness.

I suspect this story awaits its Robert Darnton.

Climate change sparked historical wars in China

I'm not usually convinced by arguments that rely on data-mining historical patterns, since much of historical is contingent and dependent on human agency, but this argument about climate change triggering regional wars in China is striking nonetheless:

Cool periods in China, and the resulting scarcity of resources, are closely linked with a higher frequency of wars over the past 1000 years, according to Chinese researchers.

The research, which compared variations in climate with data from 899 wars in eastern China between 1000 and 1911, was published earlier this month (9 July) in the journal Human Ecology.

The finding that resource scarcity and shrinking agricultural output caused by changes in temperature is a major driver for war also applies to current society, says David Zhang, lead author from the Department of Geography at the University of Hong Kong.

Although Zhang did not analyse any warming periods, he believes extreme climate events ― both cold and hot ― could have a disastrous effect on the earth's ecosystem.

"It is more apparent that colder temperature would cause less crop production. However the ecosystem and agricultural production, once adapted to lower temperature, would surely be disturbed in a higher temperature today," he said.

Zhang believes that changes in ecosystems could lead to social, economic and political change, and could spark off wars. Historically, warfare has been a way of redistributing resources in response to climate change.

Wang Shaowu, from Peking University's Department of Atmospheric Physics, agreed that climate changes played an important role in the switch of dynasties and social revolutions in Chinese history.

He noted that drought and less precipitation, which do not always coincide with cold periods, were also significant factors affecting the agricultural production in countries like China.

According to Zhang, the finding also applies to ancient agricultural societies in other countries. For example, when the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) collapsed, other populated areas like Europe, Japan, Korea and the Ottoman Empire were also experiencing the most turbulent time in their history.

But according to An Chengbang, a research fellow with the Institute of Geography of Lanzhou University, both warming and cooling are long-term trends and the meteorological data collected during the past decades are not enough to accurately predict how global warming might influence agriculture.

Hat tip: MO.