Tuesday, December 29, 2009

10 Dumbest quotes of the decade

There were a lot of dumb things said in the 2000s. These are the winners, based on their feculent combination of overweening confidence and total empirical misassessment:
  1. "Stocks are now in the midst of a one-time-only rise to much higher ground--to the neighborhood of 36,000 on the Dow Jones Industrial average." - James K. Glassman, November 2000
  2. "One of my highest priorities is to restore investor confidence in Enron. This should result in a significantly higher stock price." - Enron CEO Kenneth Lay, 21 August 2001
  3. "Don't worry, it's a slam dunk." - CIA Director George Tenet, referring to the intelligence indicating that Saddam Hussein had WMDs, 21 December 2002
  4. "It's hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would to take to conduct the war itself and secure the surrender of Saddam's security forces and his army. Hard to imagine." - U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, 28 February 2003
  5. "There is no presence of American infidels in the city of Baghdad" - Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf (AKA "Comical Ali," AKA "Baghdad Bob"), 7 April 2003
  6. "You go to war with the army you have." - U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, 8 December 2004
  7. "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job." - U.S. President George W. Bush, addressing FEMA coordinator Mike Brown, as the New Orleans levees are failing, 31 August 2005
  8. "The fundamentals of the economy are strong." - U.S. Senator John McCain, 15 September 2008 (the day Lehman Brothers collapsed)
  9. "All of 'em, any of 'em that have been in front of me over all these years." - Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, unable to name a single newspaper or magazine she reads, interview with Katie Couric, CBS News, 1 October 2008
  10. "This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity." - U.S. President Barack H. Obama, describing the Afghan war, 17 August 2009

Friday, December 18, 2009

Designing appropriate responses to the security threat posed by climate change

Determining the appropriate policy response to the security threats posed by climate change requires properly identifying the nature of the threat, so that the correct sort of security knowledge and technology can be mobilized to counter the threat. Critics of the “securitization” of the climate change impacts debate are not entirely wrong that the debate itself, if misconceived, has the potential to misdirect security resources away from the security platforms in most urgent need of shoring up in the face of climate change.

Specifically, the security platforms in most urgent need of attention in the face of the climate change threat are ones related to vital systems and population security, and only secondarily to sovereign state security. The most immediate security threats posed by climate change will involve acute insults to and chronic compromising of critical infrastructure, including energy production and delivery systems, transportation networks, agriculture, and water supplies. Just as severe will be the threats to population security, above all to public health and economic well-being, some of which will happen because of the direct effects of a hotter, more volatile climate, and some of which will be a second-order result of the damaging effects of climate change on critical infrastructure.

These climate-related threats to vital systems and population security should be the highest priorities for governments. This means redoubling investment in the technology designed to address these threats: improving preparedness, resiliency, and redundancy in the case of vital systems; and more effective development programs in the case of population security, including investment in biosurveillance, health care delivery programs, and programs to improve economic growth. In addition, a great deal of attention should be paid to ensure that the anticipatory adaptations, by both the private sector and governments, focus on delivering Pareto-efficient benefits, rather than simply on redistributing the risks and threats associated with climate change.

In the longer run (toward the second half of this century) the threats to vital systems and population security may become so severe that they indeed begin to seriously impact sovereign state security of large, populous nations. Already we have the foretaste of that future by examining the fate of small island nations. These pioneers of the brave new climate future only show to the economically and technologically more advanced nations the image of their own future. Mass refugee crises and environmentally failed states, each of which for different reasons may seem to necessitate the intervention of armed forces, will become an increasingly pressing possibility as the century advances. And the environmental conditions under which these armed forces will be forced to operate will be increasingly harsh.

It is thus crucial that security analysts be able to correctly characterize the different threats posed by climate change, and above all not to assume that the military should be the primary vehicle for addressing these threats. Using soldiers to improve civilian preparedness and the resiliency of vital systems not only is obviously inefficient, but also is likely to be ineffective. Likewise, asking the military to address the ongoing climate change threat to the health and well-being of the population will not work well. Nor does it make sense only to invest in upgrading military response capacity at the expense of improving vital systems security and population security technologies. The armed forces are only well-suited for dealing with climate change threats once they have cascaded into sovereign state security threats. Ultimately, using the military to address vital systems and population security threats is as inefficient as using emergency rooms to provide primary care, and to invest in military systems as a way to deal with the climate change threat, at the expense of improving public health and the resiliency of critical infrastructure, is akin toa state that neglects to provide primary care, only to deal with a much more dire and expensive crisis in emergency rooms. It is therefore crucial that security planners learn to correctly identify and differentiate the different sorts of threat posed by climate change, and design and fund threat-appropriate responses, rather that assuming that a single class of preparation will be sufficient.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Why Copenhagen will go nowhere

Gwynne Dyer explains why the Copenhagen climate summit will go nowhere:
Everybody involved knows what the one really fair and effective deal would look like, although they feel doomed to settle for something much worse. In this case, the fair and effective deal would take full account of the history, and it would look like this.

It would require the rich, industrialised countries to take really deep cuts in their emissions: 40 percent by 2020, say, and another 40 percent by 2035. The developing countries would cap the growth in their emissions at a level not much higher than where they are now—but they must be allowed to go on growing their economies, which means that they will need more energy.

All that extra energy has to be clean, or else they will break through the cap. They will therefore have to get their new energy from wind farms or solar arrays or nuclear plants, all of which are more expensive than the cheap coal-fired power plants they rely on now. Who pays the difference in the cost? The rich countries do, by technology transfers and direct subsidies.

What makes this lopsided deal fair is the history behind it. Emissions in the developed countries have stabilised or declined slightly (except for Canada, where they continue to soar), but they are still at a very high level. Indeed, what has made these countries rich is burning fossil fuels for the past 150-200 years—and in doing so, they have taken up almost all the available space.

In the early 19th century, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air was 280 parts per million. It is now 390 ppm, and four-fifths of that extra CO2 was put there by the ancestors of the one billion people who live in the developed countries. The point of no return, after which we risk runaway warming, is a rise in average global temperature of two degrees Celsius. That is equivalent to 450 ppm of carbon dioxide.

All we have left to play with is the distance between 390 ppm and 450 ppm, and on a business-as-usual basis we’ll cover it in less than 30 years. All the economic growth of rapidly developing countries like China, India, and Brazil—3-4 billion people—has to fit into that narrow band of 60 ppm that the developed countries left for them.

That is why the post-Kyoto deal must be lopsided—but it is still politically impossible to sell that deal to people in the developed countries, most of whom are (wilfully) ignorant of that history.
Dyer, like virtually all liberals on this topic, fails to grasp the nettle here. The truth is that a two-thirds reduction in global emissions, which has got to be the long-term goal, means -- indeed, requires -- a radical revolution in economic expectations: it will mean not just smaller cars, but less travel, less air conditioning (in an ever hotter world, ugh), less heating, less housing, less clothing, less meat, less procreation... in general, it means LESS.

Such a shift would entail a most profound political transformation: for at least the last sixty years, and arguably the last two hundred, modern governments (of whatever ideological stripe, from Lenin to Hitler to Thatcher) have staked their claims to legitimacy on the premise and promise of delivering MORE. This ideology of endless growth -- call it "development" or "modernization" or whatever you'd like -- is the common assumption across all political systems; it is the fundament of how modern societies and polities understand what we are all about.

The Republicans are alas not wrong when they say that a serious effort to restrain greenhouse gases means a full-scale assault on "the American way of life." Few climate-change liberals are actually willing to admit this openly, even to themselves. (Nick Stern's line that, "Oh, it's only going to cost us 1% of GDP" is just hooey.)

Abandoning the ideology of endless growth means nothing less than a revolution in the meaning of government and society. Pace Dwyer, that is the real reason why it is "politically impossible to sell that deal to people in the developed countries" -- not because the masses are "wilfully ignorant of history," but because elites (political and economic) have no idea how to legitimate themselves absent the promise of endless growth.

Until we abandon the ideology of endless growth, there will be no popular will to significantly curb GHG emissions, nor any elite will to do.

Eventually, of course, the ideology of endless growth will give way, as all ideologies eventually do. But personally, I doubt that it will happen voluntarily. Rather, as the impact of global warming starts to become severe, smashing cities and dessicating countrysides, it will make further growth impossible. What will replace it will be a focus on saving what we can of what we have left.

Happily, I also doubt that any of this will happen in my lifetime (then again, I don't give myself that much time), but I think it's very possible that this transformation will begin to take place toward the end of the century.

Then again, if humanity has kept burning coal/oil in a BAU manner for another half century, then the amount of baked-in climate change the planet will be in for is truly scary to contemplate.

Louis XIV famously remarked, "Après moi, le déluge." Our generation is rendering this prediction literal.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

An open letter to so-called 'climate change skeptics'

As I've been posting recently on climate change-related issues, I've been getting a lot of flak from wingnuts who are claiming that climate change is a cult, some kind of a modern environmentalist religion, bent on encouraging reckless and unnecessary governmental interventions into the economy and society. More recently, the denialists have felt emboldened by the revelation that a few scientists at the Hadley climate research unit in Britain have been fooling around with some of their data. They claim that this represents the "nail in the coffin of anthropogenic climate change". They claim, further, that it is they, the climate change deniers, who are in fact the true bearers of the properly skeptical scientific method, whereas all the thousands of other actual scientists who have been involved in climate research for decades are just a bunch of socialist conspirators.

Now, in general it's a waste of time to argue with people who are ignorant, insane, or deliberately mendacious -- which are really the only three possible ways to explain these opinions. But since this political movement is feeling its oats this week, I think it's worth writing an open letter to the self-styled "climate change skeptics." Here goes:
I should begin by confessing: I was a skeptic for many many years myself -- for most of the 1990s, in fact. I just didn't think that the puny human race could possibly affect something as mighty as the planetary climate. Could we humans actually be a geologic force? It seemed absurd on its face.

Then I sat down and actually read the third IPCC report (2001). Have any of you high-minded "skeptics" have actually read any of the IPCC Reports, or any other serious climate science studies? (Or do you learn all your "science" from the op-ed pages of the WSJ and talk radio? Just askin'.) If not, I recommend it. Because I have to tell you, it's impossible to read that report and come away unconvinced that our fossil fuel-based civilization faces anything other than a very serious long-term problem with the climate.

In truth, I would mainly feel sorry for you skeptics, if your political effect weren't so pernicious. It's like you're a bunch of kids sitting on the beach who've built a huge sand castle at the water's edge at low tide. Along comes another kid who says -- hey, you guys are going to have a serious problem when the tide comes in. It's not "dogma" or "religion" on his part that makes him say that. Nor does it make you clever to argue that the parents disagree about just how high the tide is going to be; or to holler about the local fisherman lied last week about the tidal schedule; or to tell your little brother, who's crying about the impending doom to his castle, that a "tidal wave" isn't actually caused by tides; or even to observe that the local tides have been a lot lower than expected the last few days. All those sorts of argument -- which are precisely the kind that you deniers generally make -- is mere sophistry, and it would be simply laughable if the problem weren't so serious.

But it is serious, and you guys are a bunch of ostriches.

Let's be absolutely direct: the statement that human civilization faces a very serious long-term climate problem isn't a matter of dogma, and it isn't religion -- even if, as you rightly point out, some people treat it as such. Rather, it's simply a matter of reading the evidence. That evidence is incredibly broad-based, and has been produced by literally thousands of scientists working in more than a dozen fields, ranging from atmospheric chemistry to glaciology to palynology to ecology to archaeology.

Are there some liars and frauds among these? No doubt. Are there a few individual credentialed scientists who deny the theory of climate change wholesale? No doubt. But that proves literally nothing about the collective body of evidence -- a body which points entirely in the same direction, even if all the precise feedback mechanisms of this incredibly complex thing called "the climate" are not fully understood in all their interrelated detail.

The bottom line is simple: if humans keep pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at the rising rate we're doing now, then the planet's climate is going to change as radically as it did at the end of the Pleistocene. Will that mean the end of homo sapiens? Highly unlikely. Will it mean the end of modern civilization? Almost certainly.

Now, with that said, there's plenty of room for debate about what is to be done about this challenge, who should do it, how fast it needs to be done, and so on. I'm actually with Bjorn Lomborg (and if you don't know who he is and what he says, then you don't even belong in this conversation) on a lot of his criticism of the more alarmist wing of the climate change debate.

But to deny the fact of anthropogenic climate change itself is criminally insane or ignorant.
In truth, allowing deniers to have a voice in the policy debate about what to do about climate change makes as much sense as allowing Christian Scientists to have a voice in health care reform. Alas, there's a huge constituency that desperately wants to believe that climate change science is bunk, because they (very rightly, in my opinion) realize that dealing seriously with GHG emissions will require dismantling or at least radically scaling back their fossil-fuel-intensive way of life. But that motivation doesn't make their beliefs honorable, much less correct.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The lived experience of climate change

What will be the lived human experience of climate change? To date, most answers to this question have tended to succumb to one of two characteristic kinds of cognitive biases. The first sort of bias is to assume that the impact will unfold gradually and steadily, perhaps even below a level at which it will be noticeable within a single human lifetime. Humans have developed this bias on the basis of several millennia of an unusually stable global climate. Insofar as the climate has changed in the last four or five thousand years, the shifts have been minor and slow, barely noticeable as such to the inhabitants at the time. For example, the Little Age, which lasted about from AD 1450-1850 made some marginal farmland less cultivatable (most notably killing off the Norse settlement in Greenland), but was not formally observed by those who lived through the period, but instead was only reconstructed by paleoclimatologists in the twentieth century.

However, recent climate science has shown definitively two fundamental facts. The first is that the rate of increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is unprecedented, perhaps in the entire geological history of the earth, and that such atmospheric shifts have in the past always resulted in a radically changed climate on the earth. The prospects are alarming: should humans burn all remain fossil fuels over the course of the next couple of hundred years (or if warming of the arctic tundra incites a feedback mechanism releasing large amounts of methane), then absent some radical carbon sequestration or geoengineering, CO2 atmospheric carbon levels will reach levels that have not been seen since the Eocene (~50 million years ago) – when sea levels were 150 feet higher and palm trees shaded crocodiles on Alaska’s North Slope.

The second important recent scientific discovery is that the climate stability of the last five or six millennia is in fact relatively unusual. During many phases of the last two hundred thousand years since homo sapiens emerged there have been wild swings in the climate from century to century or even decade to decade. Despite this history, however, scientists (including the IPCC scenarios) tend to forecast incipient climate change as a steady, continuous (albeit perhaps rapid) ascent to a hotter and more hydrologically active Earth. We see this in innumerable steadily upward sloping curves that show increases in carbon load, temperature, rainfall, and so on. Only rarely is it considered that in fact the lived human experience of these changes may be something quite different.

In meteorological terms, it may be reasonable to depict climate change as a steady progression towards a warmer Earth. In fact, the lived human experience of climate change is likely not to be one of steady continuous change, but rather will take the form of a series of bone-jarring discontinuities: climate change will be experience as a series of sudden "events" that radically destabilize existing physical infrastructure, political institutions, and human lives, in each case producing sudden phase shifts from one state to another, akin to the physical shift that H2O experiences at 0°C from ice to water, or at 100°C from water to vapor. Stewart Brand quotes me on this point in his new Whole Earth Discipline:
"While a single extreme event may be relatively easy to withstand, a second in succession is likely to be far more devastating, as normal resiliency measures are built to deal with one but not multiple consecutive extreme events." Governments, [Gilman] concludes, "will experience climate change not as a smooth transformation, but rather as a series of radical discontinuities—as a series of bewildering 'oh shit' events. Environmentally failed states are a nontrivial possibility."
The severity and rapid succession of these weather events are likely to test the systems that support our nations like nothing we have seen in modern history.

In fact, not only at the first-order level of changes to the weather, but also (perhaps even more so) at the level of second order impacts, the changes being wrought on by global climate are likely to take the form of abrupt, phase shifts. For example, at the first-order level of the weather, a coastline may remain more or less stable and constant for decades, and then suddenly and permanently shift abruptly back by hundreds of meters in the aftermath of s single massive storm surge. At the second-order level, likewise, a civilization may remain more or less stable, even in the face of repeated weather-related crisis, before finally tipping over into full-blown collapse. As Brand explains:
Repetition knocks you down; duration kills you. Complex societies can handle drought, but not multi-decade drought. That's the historic civilization killer, says archaeologist Brian Fagan. It brought down the ancient empires of West Asia and Central America. When the rains fail, agriculture fails, the cities convulse and empty, and what’s left of the society builds shacks in the ruins of its former glory. In this century the effects of rising sea levels, catastrophic as they may be, could look temporary and fixable compared to the effects of permanent drought.
If one sort of cognitive bias is to assume that climate change will be experienced as a steady, progressive event, then an equally pernicious cognitive error is to assume that the impact of climate change will be sudden and extreme, involving the total collapse of human civilization virtually overnight, such as that depicted in the (alas, quite silly) movie “The Day After Tomorrow”. As with the previous sort of cognitive error, this view does contain a kernel of truth, as a corrective to the cognitive bias that assumes that climate change will be a smooth, gradual process, one that will give individuals, corporations, and governments plenty of time to plan and adjust. However, the image of human civilization flipping wholesale from our currently allegedly stable climax state to a globally synchronized civilizational collapse is deeply misleading, at two levels.

In the first place, as population ecologists have long known, collapse usually is not an overnight event where a population moves from a climax state to total annihilation. Rather, collapse more typically happens as a phased process, taking the form of what be might described, to invert the phrase of Stephen J. Gould, as a series of "punctuated equilibria." For example, the environmentally-induced "collapse" of New Orleans is in the process of taking place in just such a phased manner. The first crisis took place with Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, which destroyed half the city, of which only a fraction was rebuilt. Today, New Orleans has restablized as a smaller, less complex urban environment. However, when the inevitable next major hurricane hits, again a major portion of the city is all but certain to be destroyed, of which again only a portion (if any) will be rebuilt. And this cycle may repeat itself several times before the city is eventually abandoned altogether. Each of these hurricanes forms a "punctuation mark" that marks a phase shift to a new (lower) level of organizational complexity and size, which itself will remains largely stable until the next punctuating event. And of course, in the meanwhile, life continues more or less normally in the rest of the United States, albeit with significant impact on surrounding communities that are absorbing climate refugees from Louisiana.
The second way in which the specter of radical and total collapse is misleading is that it usually assumes that the impact will take place uniformly, that is, that civilizational collapse will affect everyone equally everywhere. Nothing could be further from the truth. William Gibson is often quoted as saying, "The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed" and he's absolutely right. But what's less frequently remarked is that this insight applies not just to the cool gizmos and innovative forms of social organization and other similar romantic objects of futurists, but just as much to the nasty impacts of burgeoning global public bads, including those produced by climate change. Thus the victims of vast cyclones in the Ganges and Irrawaddy deltas, or unending droughts in Yemen and Darfur, or cataclysmic brushfires in Australia are all "living the future" just as surely as the whiz kids of Silicon Valley or Bangalore.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Movies of the decade

My top ten movies of the decade, based purely on how much of an emotional impact they had on me:
  1. United 93 An almost perfect movie that imagines what it was like inside the one hijacked 9/11 flight that missed its target. The closing sequence, not despite but because of its inexorability, is perhaps the most physically powerful scene I've ever experienced in the movies. I was completely overcome.
  2. The Lives of Others Three hours of shots of interiors and dialog, with virtually no action whatsoever, that nonetheless offers a riveting recreation of the psychology of a police state, from the point of view of a true believer in the system who is nonetheless a humanist.
  3. Children of Men What if the experience of life inside the Gaza Strip became the pervasive future, in a world with no children, and therefore no hope for the future? The dystopia is so comprehensive that even the redemptive moment feels merely like a prelude to worse horrors.
  4. In the Mood for Love A sad and beautiful account of the possibility of romance in the shadow of life's disappointments. Subtly erotic, with an endless parade of beautiful outfits for Maggie Cheung.
  5. Waltz with Bashir An animated Israeli movie about the difficulty of working through memories of extreme trauma. The animation induces in the audience the same sense of dissociation from the depicted events that the characters in the film experience as they try to remember what they went through as young soldiers in South Lebanon, in the run-up to the Ariel Sharon-sponsored massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
  6. Borat Vile, obscene, politically incorrect -- and utterly hilarious.
  7. The Diving Bell & the Butterfly Grim yet oddly humorous first-person account of what it is like to lose all one's physical capacities while maintaining an intact mind.
  8. Memento A classic film noir that puts you in the hero's no-memory shoes by being narrated backward. Carrie-Anne Moss does a brilliant turn as the femme fatale.
  9. Sideways Side-splittingly funny account of a couple of odd-bedfellow friends going on a joint bender in opposite directions.
  10. Downfall The definitive view from inside Hitler's bunker (in odd ways parallel to United 93's reimagining of a hellish scene from the inside). Bruno Ganz gives the performance of the decade as Hitler.
For a longer list, check out this one from the Times (of which I've seen about half).

Monday, November 02, 2009

Not with a bang, but in a rolling boil....

Tim Flannery summarizes James Lovelock's prediction as to how continued greenhouse gas emissions will impact human civilization:
Lovelock has spent most of his career trying to understand the consequences of increased greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. In his latest book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning, he argues that Earth's system of self-regulation is being overwhelmed by greenhouse gas pollution and that Earth will soon jump from its current cool, stable state into a dramatically hotter one. All climatologists acknowledge the existence of such climatic jumps—as occurred for example at the end of the last ice age. But chaos theory dictates that the scale and timing of such leaps are inherently unpredictable, which means that they cannot be incorporated into the computer models of Earth's climate system that such scientists use to project future climate change. Yet this is precisely what Lovelock attempts to do—using his own computer modeling—in The Vanishing Face of Gaia. A new climatic jump, he concludes, will occur within the next few years or decades, and will involve an abrupt increase in average global surface temperature of 9 degrees Celsius—from 15 to 24 degrees Celsius (59 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit). Such a shift, he contends, will trigger the collapse of our global civilization and the near extinction of humanity.
This will be a temperature jump greater than that while occurred at the start of the Holocene (the end of the last Ice Age), but with humans now overwhelmingly sedentary, our capacity to move in response to the northward shift of climate zones is much less than it was for our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Abrupt change in the weather will be followed somewhat more slowly, but perhaps even more devastatingly, by the melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets and consequently rising sea levels. Even under Lovelock's most dire scenario, this process will unfold over several hundred years, albeit mainly in the form of statis followed by sudden shifts in coastlines after storm surges. Florida will shrink like this:
Long before sea levels rise 50 meters, however, half of Bangladesh (home to 150m+ people) will go underwater:
Where will those 100m people go?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Modernization theory never dies

Steve Coll, the President of the New America Foundation, a liberal think tank, trots out the classic liberal reason for neoimperial projects, namely, we have to bring modernity to the barbarians. You think I exaggerate? Here he is, verbatim:
United States has a vital national security interest in a stable, modernizing South Asia. Pakistan, India, all of South Asia -- a billion and a half people are on the cusp of joining modern Asia in a march to prosperity, political normalcy and stability.

If Pakistan blows up, if the Taliban succeed in radicalizing local populations, then this region will be chronically unstable for years to come.

And why does that matter to the United States? Not least because there are more than 100 nuclear weapons already finished and extant in this region. But this is a region that, like Southeast Asia and Latin America, has the opportunity to stabilize, gel, integrate economically and march toward modernity.
As always, that "march to modernity" is depicted as basically a historical inevitability as long as some disease of the transition process is not allowed to go untreated, which we can do by surgically removing the tumor of anti-modern forces.
The Taliban are essentially all that stands in the way of that project. It's more complicated than that, because the Taliban are a creature of dysfunctional Pakistani security services and lots of other unsolved problems. But the United States has a vital national interest in making sure that the Taliban do not destabilize South Asia.
Farcical, I know, but this is literally the EXACT SAME argument that liberals made for escalating in Vietnam during the 1960s: just a small nudge and these people will arrive at the promised land of modernity -- that is, become just "like us" -- and we'll never have to worry about conflict with them ever again. We know how that worked out last time. (For more on that history, read here and here.)

Hat tip: RM.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The project in Afghanistan

Question: what do you get when you cross Don Quixote and Sisyphus? The answer: General Stanley A. McChrystal!

Dexter Filkins, in his nearly hagiographical profile of Gen. McChrystal, summarizes the aims underpinning McChrystal's call for more troops for Afghanistan as follows:
What McChrystal is proposing is not a temporary, Iraq-style surge — a rapid influx of American troops followed by a withdrawal. McChrystal’s plan is a blueprint for an extensive American commitment to build a modern state in Afghanistan, where one has never existed, and to bring order to a place famous for the empires it has exhausted. Even under the best of circumstances, this effort would most likely last many more years, cost hundreds of billions of dollars and entail the deaths of many more American women and men.
In other words, the goal is to turn the most socially and politically devastated country on earth, one rife with hostile religious fanatics, into a kind of Asian Switzerland. No duh that's going to take a lot more troops and resources.

Let's be blunt: this is completely insane as an objective--insane in the same way that jumping out of an airplane with no chute is insane. Nation-building of this sort has never succeeded anywhere, and not for lack of trying. What's more, if that's the objective, then the resource commitments that McChrystal is asking for are bathetically modest. The 40,000 extra troops that McChrystal wants aren't going to come anywhere close to doing the trick.

There's an entirely different alternative, of course, which is to redefine US and NATO objectives in Afghanistan, and to match the resources to meet that redefined objective. Here's one thumbnail alternative: pull back from local commitments, work on developing intelligence sources, and make it clear that we will kill from afar anyone we can see consorting with known bad guys. It ain't very humanitarian, but at least it's a project that can succeed and won't bankrupt the nation.

Friday, October 09, 2009


A few times over the last year, I've asked whether Obama might end up in the role of an American Gorbachev, graciously ushering his country to a lesser global role.

Today, Glenn Beck points out that the last sitting head of state to win the Nobel Peace Prize was... Mikhail Gorbachev.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

More on the politics of deviant globalization

I am reading Stephen Ellis's fantastic paper (sub req.) on the evolution of "West Africa's International Drug Trade," one of the most detailed and insightful analyses I've seen of the social, economic, political, and historical contexts for the rise of deviant globalization.

The paper is worth reading in its entirety, but I'd like to take this chance to riff on some of the political themes that Ellis alludes to but does not develop fully. Ellis notes that deviant globalization thrives in political contexts where there is "ineffective policing, governments who have a reputation for venality, and a relative lack of international attention" (p. 194). The point is deeper than merely the banal insight that corruption and crime go hand in hand. Rather, there is a broader political context for deviant globalization, in that black market economies both reinforce and are reinforced by "local authorities operating unofficial networks of governance rooted in local social realities" (p. 195).

Generalizing these insights, we can observe that deviant globalization undermines the authority of the central state by focusing the production and reproduction of political capital on local rather than national-level institutions. This is precisely why the UN Office of Drug Control, for example, argues that crime "hinders development." But this is true only if we insist on conceiving of "development" in the mainstream sense that pervades the thinking of the United Nations, the US government, and most "development" NGOs. In this mainstream sense, which has a hoary intellectual history, "development" is predicated on (if not, indeed, coterminous with) the extension of centralized state authority.

Of course, that mainstream conception of "development" is at odds with the ambitions of locals (and not just elites) for whom the central state does often literally less than nothing for them. The empowering of the centralized state is, for many deviant globalizers, simply a way to improve the capacity of remote elites to rob them. And while that might strike the UN as a laudable definition of development, you can understand why, say, Afghan opium farmers would take quite a different view of what "development" means.

For most poor people, insofar as "development" means anything, it is not about state authority per se, but rather about more practical matters like earning money and getting social services such as education, infrastructure, health care, etc. Among mainstream developmentalists, however, the myth still is that the state is the institution that delivers such services, but the truth is that the post-structural adjustment state (that is, most Third World states today) is at best intermittantly effective at delivering such services.

In most places, the rolled-back post-neoliberal state has been the reality for so long that people's political ambitions are no longer focused on state-building or state-capture (except, perhaps, to take over the rents that accrue to running a kleptocratic state). Over the last 20-30 years, what has collapsed is a grassroots belief that a "modernizing" or "developmental" state will be the primary vehicle for improving the lives of the masses. A state-centric conception of development may still animate some elites in Washington, New York, or London, but in most of the rest of the world, the people have, shall we say, moved on. Having made a virtue of post-SAP necessity, deviant globalizers now actively prefer to operate in "crippled state" environments.

The goal for such actors remains what it ever was: to make a living and to increase their political authority and autonomy. What has changed is the mechanism, and one of the most popular ones has been to join up in illicit economies, where participants can make windfall profits by arbitraging the moral compunctions of the West. This has been going on for so long by now that this alternative mode of "development" (if that term still means anything so redefined) is spawning a set of political commitments that are orthogonal to traditional national ones. Tip O'Neill's famous observation that all politics is local has never been more true than in today's deviantly globalized world.

Finally, one cannot overemphasize what a huge ideological shift this redefinition of development represents -- a complete sea change from the Marx-inspired revolutionary ambitions of yesteryear's underclasses. As Jon Lee Anderson notes in his New Yorker article on Rio's gangs, quoting a former Marxist guerrilla turned politician:
"Nobody wants to make revolution anymore. What these people with the guns want today is their immediate share of the consumption culture. It's so childish, and morally childish, and they kill like children too--like in a kid's war game" If they ever acquired an ideology, they could threaten the state, he said. "For now they are a totally entropic and anarchic group of young people who have figured out how to get what they want, which is basically, clothing cars and respect."

Indeed what has happened in Rio applies, in varying degrees, throughout Latin America--most notably in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Colombia. Two decades after the collapse of Communism, the region's Marxist guerillas have disappeared, only to be replaced by violent drug mafias.
So, to end this long post with another thought that could be the subject for an equally lengthy post, the answer the question "Who won the Cold War?" is that the gangsters did.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Quote of the Day

Gore Vidal, speaking in Britain, explains how Obama misunderstands today's GOP:
Obama believes the Republican Party is a party when in fact it's a mindset, like Hitler Youth, based on hatred — religious hatred, racial hatred. When you foreigners hear the word 'conservative' you think of kindly old men hunting foxes. They're not, they’re fascists.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How international relations have changed

I just re-read Susan Strange’s The Retreat of the State: The Diffusion of Power in the World Economy, conceived and written in 1989-1993, first published in 1996, and now in its 12th reprinting. It stands up remarkably well as a description of the way that authority has been ebbing away from sovereign actors toward (on the one hand) big businesses, bankers, and accountants, and (on the other) nongovernmental organizations and criminals. Strange's basic argument for why international relations must take into account sub-national actors strikes me as having been largely validated by the events of the last decade and a half:
State power is declining. It is less effective on those basic matters that the market, left to itself, has never been able to provide – security against violence, stable money for trade and investment, a clear system of law and the means to enforce it, and a sufficiency of public goods like drains, water supplies, infrastructures for transport and communications…. Many states are coming to be deficient in these fundamentals. Their deficiency is not made good by greater activity in marginal matters, matters that are optional for society [such as greater regulatory meddling or social legislation].
I recommend the book warmly.

However, there are also two particular ways in which the book strikes me as notably dated, and not just because she won the methodological argument about making the discipline of IR more inclusive.

First, it’s striking how large the shadow of Communism looms in the book. Throughout the book, centrally planned socialist alternatives remain alive as a counterpoint to the emergent global political economy. Were the same book to be written today, no one would bother to make such contrasts. When she was writing the book in 1994-5, however, centrally planned socialism remained the conceptual elephant in the room, albeit less for its threatening aspect than for its putrescent stench. A student reading the book for the first time today, for whom centrally planned socialism exists only as a discredited anachronism in places like Cuba and North Korea, will doubtless wonder why Strange keeps contrasting the emergent system she is describing to a mode of political economy which today seems as dead as feudalism.

The second shadow that looms over the book (in this case, cast not from the past but from the future) is the rise of China, the prospect of which appears nowhere in the book. When discussing possible objections to her thesis, Strange acknowledges that East Asian state-led development may be an exception to her argument. Her referent countries, however, are limited to the (then so-called) "Asian Tigers," that is Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore -- which she rightly dismisses as exceptions produced by the Cold War. But the notion that mainland China might soon emerge as a worldbeating economic player, still led by the centralized political power of the Communist Party, remains completely unforeseen. Here the dating is obvious: no one today could write about the relationship between the balance of power between states and non-states without including an extensive discussion of the Chinese example. For Strange in 1995, however, China warrants only a couple of passing mentions, most of which are in reference to the historical importance of the Chinese Triad gangs.

None of this is to take away from Strange’s book, which as I say remains largely correct, as well as beautifully and concisely written. But it does show how much the world has changed in the last fifteen years.

What to remember about 9/11

From John Robb, fighting words (in several senses):
The only portion of the American national security system that actually worked on 9/11 was.... drum roll please.... the formation of spontaneous civilian militias. From the counter-attack on the one plane that didn't hit its intended target to militias that evacuated people in NYC. The hideously expensive agencies and departments did nothing (which is one of the reasons, as perverse as it sounds, we went to war in Iraq: to decisively prove the utility of these agencies and departments before a global audience).

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Collapsitarian quote of the day

John Michael Greer, author of The Long Descent and the most thoughtful of the collapsitarians, fisks a recent debate in The Guardian about whether the end of industrial civilization is nigh.

His conclusion is that, yes, the end is certainly nigh, and that we who are alive today should appreciate our unique privilege at living in this historical moment, and not the ones that came before or will come later. Money:
We are not going to have a future better than the present: not in our lifetimes, and not in those of our grandchildren's grandchildren. We collectively closed the door on that possibility decades ago, and none of the rapidly narrowing range of choices still open to us now offers any way of changing that....

We do no one a favor, least of all ourselves, by trying to sugarcoat that very unpalatable reality. Nor do we gain anything by playing the fox to industrial civilization's grapes, and insisting that the extraordinary gifts the recent past has given us are sour because they are about to pass out of our reach. During the age that is coming to an end, the billion or so of us who have lived in the industrial world have enjoyed comforts and opportunities that our species had never known before and almost certainly will never know again. Those could never have been anything but temporary, they were distributed no more fairly than anything else passed around by human hands, and a wiser species would likely have had more common sense than to launch itself on the trajectory we followed, but it's as distorting to dismiss the extraordinary achievements of our age as it would be to ignore the terrible cost for those achievements that will be paid by us and our descendants.
Stoicism rather than fatalism seems like the order of the day.

Twittering instead of blogging

If you're wondering where the blogging has gone, it's mainly migrated to Twitter. You can follow me at http://twitter.com/nils_gilman.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Deviant Globalization Journal: Kidney Market

CNN claims ten percent of kidneys globally are trafficked illicitly:

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The Station Fire

Amazing time-lapse footage of the San Gabriels from the L.A. Basin:

Monday, August 31, 2009

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Whose side of modernity are the Taliban on?

Apposite to my screed the other day about the stupidities derived from using modernization theory to understand the Afghan situation, here we have an important article about how Pakistani efforts to "restabilize" the Swat Valley in Pakistan, which had been run by the Taliban until the recent Pakistani army offensive, are being hampered because the "landowners are still in exile."

Reading the article, it's quite clear that what the Pakistani regime wants is to reestablish the feudal land tenure system, whereas what the Taliban stands for (economically) is the dethroning of these "traditional elites." Without belaboring the point, it's quite clear that the Taliban is hardly a "traditional" force, and the Pakistani army certainly should not be assumed to be unambiguously on the side of "modernity."

The more general point is that whenever"the language of modernity/modernization" gets deployed as an alleged explanatory vehicle, it's almost always obscuring a (usually confused) ideological agenda. "Modern" is assumed to be good and desirable (though the actualy substantive content can vary) whereas its opposite is bad. But even a cursory glance at the Taliban should give pause to such analysis.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The pervasiveness of modernization theory

This post is pretty narrowly associated with my academic interests, but one of the things that continues to stun me about modernization theory is how it just won't go away. It's been attacked, discredited and destroyed in more ways than Robert Deniro in Cape Fear, and yet likewise, it seems almost impossible to kill off. Not only does it still get a respectible hearing in the Establishment foreign policy press, it also continues to explicitly inform policymaking in the many critical theaters. Specifically, the militarized nation-building projects the U.S. is pursuing in both Afghanistan and Iraq remain deeply indebted to a theory that one would long ago have thought was not just dismantled intellectually but also discredited politically.

And yet, you can't excape arrant nonsense like this, from Michael Daxner's contribution to the latest issue of the eminently mainstream if wonkishly liberal World Policy Journal:
As a whole, Afghans want their collective integrity and dignity restored; they want and need the traumas from 30 years of terrible violence to be eased with food, justice, and employment. They want their long efforts toward modernity revived. Indeed, though it may be difficult for Westerners to imagine that Afghanistan even remotely resembles a modern nation, there have been significant attempts to modernize the state and society stretching back nearly a century from King Amanullah Khan, who assumed the throne in 1919, through President Daoud Khan, who initiated progressive rule from 1973 to 1978, and on through the Soviet occupation. Even the last 30 years of war effectively continued the process of modernizing the country--in its own rather cynical, but apparently irreversible, way. Stinger missiles, sattelite phones, guerrilla warfare tactics, and the ever-present Toyota Hi-Lux (a 4x4 vehicle favored by the Taliban) are all vestiges of this modern era. We must understand that decades of conflict have created enormous tensions between traditional lifestyles and modern attitudes.
Where to begin? Note first the condescending attitude toward the reader, that dresses up misleading platitudes as profundities that we probably just don't get. Then consider the embedded assumption that there is a "collective" Afghan people, who have a single discernable will. (That would be the "nation" that the coalition forces are supposedly helping to "build.") Then there's the assumption that what this collective will desires is some quantum Daxner calls "modernity," which is not only the desired future of this supposedly unitary Afghan people, but also, oddly, part of Afghanistan's past, which we detect in residual form in "Stinger missiles, satellite phones, and guerrilla warfare."

Those menacing "vestiges" do not cause the author to question whether there might, in fact, have been something not so great about those anterior modernizing efforts, from the ecologically disastrous dam-building of the 1950s, through the sanguinary Soviet occupation, down to the galvanzing discipline of the Taliban. Failing that, Daxner assumes that the opposite of modernity must be "tradition," thus failing to grasp the nature of the forces who oppose what he calls "modernity."

In fact, virtually the reverse of all these assumptions is closer to the truth about Afghanistan. First, the Taliban are not a "traditional" group in any sense of the word. They are an artifact and output of the horrors the country has experienced over the last 50 years--a reaction, quite specifically, to the manifold and inevitable failures of the various awful modernizing projects that Daxner speaks of with bizarre reverence. In other words, while the Taliban is undoubtedly vicious, culturally retrograde, and completely disdainful of all the pieties of liberal humanitarianism, we should not let this obscure the fact that they are also adamantly opposed to "traditional" tribal leadership, and by some measures (not unrelatedly) the most effective centralizing political force that Afghanistan has ever experienced.

What's more, pace Daxner, Afghanistan is not a nation in any meaningful sense of the term (e.g. a people who imagine themselves as forming a single community). In fact, other than a sliver of once and future expats (and, ahem, the Taliban), there's virtually no one in the country that actually wants an effective, unified central government. Rather, Afghanistan is a multiethnic land run by warlords whose power bases reside in the control of various local resources (poppies, timber, fruit), from which they extract rents and in exchange for which they deliver (more or less capriciously) various kinds of political goods to the local populace, including education, infrastructure, security, and justice. No one with any power wants the country converted into some Asiatic version of Switzerland, which is apparently Daxner's fantasy.

All this has sharp implications for policy. It's true that the occupiers are not universally scorned. After all, they provide a resource stream from which rents can be extracted. But the interest in effecting the changes that these humanitarian "development" moneys are supposedly trying to bring about is minimal at best. For this reason, any political alliances we may form can only be tactical. Trying to produce a politics based on parliamentary democracy is worse than simply a waste of time: it is actually likely to make the overall situation more combustible. In general, trying to judge success or failure in Afghanistan according to a yardstick defined by an idealized fantasy of the West will only lead to the wrongs kinds of conclusions about what is relevant to American or NATO security concerns in the region.

Of course, if you see the world through the lens of modernization theory, you'll never get any of those insights. Which is why it's so scary that, despite everything, despite half a century of everything, modernization theory continues to occupy Washington's mind like some horrible intellectual golem.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

McNamara: A Knave, not a Fool

Robert Strange McNamara died last week, and with his passing virtually all the major policy players involved in the conception and implementation of the U.S.'s initial strategy in Vietnam have now died.

McNamara occupies a special place in the history of the War, first as the Defense Secretary who oversaw the escalation from 1961-1967, and much later (much much later), and almost as famously, for his public self-flagellation over what he called in his 1995 book In Retrospect the "wrong, terribly wrong" nature of the War.

For some time in the mid-1960s, the Vietnam War was often known as "McNamara's War." There was a good reason for this. One of the most disturbing things about the Vietnam War was the way it appeared to be a grotesque apotheosis of instrumental rationality bereft of all moral grounding: McNamara's decisions about strategy and tactics for killing millions of peasants were cost-benefited, game-theorized, and run through all the latest and most rigorous forms of algorithmic analysis. This approach to the War belonged entirely to McNamara, the former Ford Motor Company CEO and "whiz kid," who more than anyone else embodied what David Halberstam called, in one of journalism's most witheringly ironic phrases, "the best and the brightest." Whatever one's critiques of War, one would have been hard pressed to deny the stringently "rational" nature of the War.

I came to McNamara as a young historian of American ideas and foreign policy during McNamara's heyday, so my revulsion from McNamara was not viscerally bound up with the immediate politics of the War. Instead, it had more to do with McNamara's insidious effort to rehabilitate his moral reputation late in life with the publication of In Retropsect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, and even more with Errol Morris's brilliant but flawed movie, "The Fog of War." I say "flawed" because Morris bought McNamara's self-perception that his late-in-life alleged mea culpa constituted some kind of "moral seriousnessness" on McNamara's part.

It did nothing of the sort. On the contrary, to his dying day McNamara never understood the moral nature of what he had done in Vietnam. The "lessons" he drew from his experiences running the Vietnam War were all operational, instrumental lessons--lessons about how to improve cognition, decision-making processes. If only we had had better information about the enemy, McNamara begs, or better communication channels with the enemy, then it all would have turned out so much better. In sum, McNamara's desperate plea in both "The Fog of War" and In Retrospect is for people to perceive his role in the War as the result of foolishness, not knavery.

In fact, however, the essential moral crime of Vietnam was not that it was operationally mishandled, but that it was evil--it was evil for the United States to kill millions of peasants on the other side of the world over an ideological dispute. Full stop. And that core moral point is one that McNamara never, ever copped to.

Yes, a better operational approach might have made some marginal difference. But the fundamental problem was not an operational but a moral one. As someone once remarked about Samuel Huntington, who suffered from the same moral blindness as McNamara, he "lost the capacity to distinguish between genocide and urbanization."

When pressed by skeptical boomer interviewers, McNamara insisted that he was not asking for forgiveness, that he was not apologizing. Indeed he was not. Because to ask for foregiveness, or to apologize in a serious way, would have meant acknowledging the moral weight of his crimes--something he never did. His much quoted phrase about the War being "wrong, terribly wrong" was widely misinterpreted as an (all-too-belated) moral reckoning. But it was no such thing. In fact, what McNamara meant by this phrase was that, in his mind, the whole war was the result of a misunderstanding. The only surprise about the fact that the Vietnamese reacted to this interpretation with polite skepticism... is the fact that they were polite.

McNamara was knave, not a fool. Or perhaps he was a fool, too, but above all and to his end he was a self-serving, morally unserious knave.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The difficulty with writing about apocalypse

I read Matthew Glass's Ultimatum this weekend. Only so-so. What's weak about it, as a scenario exercise, is that Glass creates his imaginary future by running forward a rather extreme set of climate numbers, and the most optimistic numbers about Chinese growth, but otherwise holding everything entirely static. Thus, despite the fact that vast evacuations of costal areas are now necessary (something he portrays only from the Olympian heights of the White House war room) and the Chinese economy is now twice the size of the U.S.'s, political alignments both domestically and globally are unaltered. How realistic is that?

What makes it so hard to prognosticate a couple of decades out, on virtually any subject, is that there are so many moving variables that one has to consider. Things Glass doesn't bother to consider, for example, is how radical genetic engineering may fundamentally change conceptions of practices of life; how major shifts in geopolitical alignments can take place very quickly (France-German, 1945-1951; U.S.-China in 1971; U.S.-Iran in 1979; U.S.-Russia in 1989, etc.); how aging populations may fundamentally change immigration politics; how coming egenry shortages are going to fundamentally shift adaptation options; and so on.

The result is that the book reads like a Bolshie Brit's fantasy about what it would be like if a belligerent version of Obama had been elected President in 2033, and then appointed Bill Kristol as his Secretary of State.

However, within that structurally weak frame, the novel is quite illuminating about how lefty Brits view American and Chinese politics today, and why ever getting an emissions deal done will be impossibly difficult.

Finally, Glass never considers that as the catastrophe happens, it may not even really be perceived as a catastrophe at all. That's the key insight of J.G. Ballard in The Drowned World.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Right wing extremists

Remember that DHS report on the threat posed by domestic "right wing extremists" -- you know, the one that got the, well, right wing extremists so up in arms (if you'll pardon the expression)? Turns out to have been pretty prescient. First in Kansas, now in DC.

More here.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

The Underground, Underwater

From the Washington Post this morning:

When anti-narcotics agents first heard that drug cartels were building an armada of submarines to transport cocaine, they thought it was a joke. Now U.S. law enforcement officials say that more than a third of the cocaine smuggled into the United States from Colombia travels in submersibles.

An experimental oddity just two years ago, these strange semi-submarines are the cutting edge of drug trafficking today. They ferry hundreds of tons of cocaine for powerful Mexican cartels that are taking over the Pacific Ocean route for most northbound shipments, according to the Colombian navy.

The sub-builders are even trying to develop a remote-controlled model, officials say.

"That means no crew. That means just cocaine, or whatever, inside the boat," said Michael Braun, a former chief of operations at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration..."This is definitely the next generation of smuggling conveyance," said Joseph Ruddy, an assistant U.S. attorney in Tampa who prosecutes narco-mariners.

I am in the middle of reading a book called "Wired for War" which looks at the evolution of armed and autonomous robots in military operations. The author, mostly, looks at it from the perspective of established armed forces, but one can hardly ignore the more criminal possibilities. I know that martyrdom is portrayed as a virtue in reporting of terrorist operations, but that has to be a tough recruiting pitch. The assault on Islam by neo-cons was a failure, but I wonder if --when personal sacrifice is no longer a barrier to entry-- our current policy of peace through understanding will turn out to be yet another example of “fighting the last war.”

Friday, June 05, 2009

David Carradine, R.I.P.

So David Carradine, who was found dead yesterday in a Thai hotel with a rope around his genitals and neck, apparently died from auto-erotic asphyxiation. Which prompted the director of Thailand's Central Institute of Forensic Science, Pornthip Rojanasunand, to make the following sage pronouncement:
"If you hang yourself by the neck, you don't need so much pressure to kill yourself. Those who get highly sexually aroused tend to forget this fact," Pornthip said.

Friday, May 29, 2009

When you've lost Peggy...

The Republicans are in such serious circular firing squad mode that Peggy Noonan is using the WSJ op-ed page to opine that the movement to derail Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court is populated by "idiots" and juveniles.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Green shoots?

All the perfervid talk of the economy showing some "green shoots" because the second derivative of some key economic variables has turned positive is producing a classic suckers' rally. In order to believe that the economy really has found a bottom, you need to believe all of the following:
  1. That the stock market won't overcorrect to the downside, the way it has in every previous major recession of the last century. Hmmm:
  2. That the real estate market is at or near the bottom. Hmmm:
  3. That the U.S. Fed has the information and tools to thread the needle between deflation and inflation: specifically, that Geithner and the other central bankers will (a) know exactly when to pull back on the massive amounts of liquidity they have injected into the markets, and then (b) actually be technically capable of doing so, and then (c) won't end up yanking the cord too hard.
  4. That the Japanese and the Chinese will keep buying Treasuries, come hell or high water.
  5. That all the various government stimulus bills are actually an efficient allocation mechanism and that there actually exists aggregate global demand such that the stimulus bills bring back jobs and growth in the medium term.
  6. That the intellectual awareness of the benefits of free trade will outweight the populist pressures of democratic polities during a major recession.
  7. That there are no big exogenous shocks, such as a major war in the Middle East, or a return of the swine flu in nastier pandemic form when the season returns in the Fall.
If you believe all that, well, then dive right in! Then again, if any of those propositions seem dubious to you, you might want to wait a little (or a lot) longer.

Bibi v. Barack

The first of presumably many meetings between Obama and Netanyahu happened yesterday, with much chatter ahead of time that Obama was planning on taking a harder line on Israel's ongoing settlement activities in the West Bank, but that he was facing a tough customer for his tough-love approach in Netanyahu, whose overriding goal is to get the U.S. willing to apply a military force against Iran (the diplomatic euphemism is "serious consequences") if Iran doesn't clear back away from militarily useful nuclear activities. So how did it turn out?

The NYTimes piece offers a pretty curious piece of reporting on the matter:
Mr. Netanyahu got his timetable. “We’re not going to have talks forever,” Mr. Obama said of Iran, assuring Mr. Netanyahu that he expected to know by the end of the year whether Iran was making “a good-faith effort to resolve differences.”

But Mr. Obama did not get his settlement freeze. In fact, Mr. Netanyahu told him it would be politically difficult for him to halt the construction of settlements. That is a hurdle to the administration’s broader peace objectives because Israel’s Arab neighbors have characterized a freeze as a precondition for them to establish normal relations....

The two leaders set up working groups to deal with Iran, the Palestinian issue and Israel’s Arab neighbors. The groups will meet periodically, Israeli and American officials said. Agreeing to meet with Israel regularly to discuss the administration’s progress with Tehran keeps the pressure squarely on the United States, analysts said.
The first thing that's striking about this is the presumption that the US-Israel relationship is now adversarial. But what's even weirder is the notion that Israel is somehow capable of "pressuring" the United States. How can Israel, which is the biggest aid recipient of the U.S. and has a population, economy, and military which are each about a 50th of the U.S.'s, "pressure" the U.S.? I suppose there may be an answer to this, but it's one that the pro-Israel crowd typically responds to with puerile screams that anyone who is critical of Israel's policies or wonders why the U.S. has unfailingly backed these policies is an "anti-semite."

The second odd thing about this adversarial framing is the way that mostly unnamed sources allegedly representing both sides claim that their guy got the worse of the exchange:
“I’m asking the question, did our president get suckered?” said Martin S. Indyk [whereas] an Israeli official said [that] “Obama may be slightly less experienced than Netanyahu, but Obama knows exactly everything that the U.S. is doing."
Pretty darn weird. Reminds me a bit of how both Reagan and Gorbachev aids claimed that the other guy was getting suckered during their Reykyavik summit--the one that basically ended the Cold War.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Optimists are never pleasantly surprised

I've made a number of dire predictions on this blog, some of which haven't happened (yet) and some of which have been disturbingly vindicated over the last year--notably the prediction that the money center banks would in one way or another be nationalized.

In general, I would argue that most risk and security managers are overly Gaussian in their sense of what to plan for, refusing toplan for long tail risk -- a point emphasized by the Economist's recent survey of how god-awfully the banking industry did in anticipating how bad the crisis could get:
Even Goldman Sachs, widely regarded as the best manager of risk in the industry, did not foresee quite how bad things could get. The bank's most demanding pre-crisis stress test—known as the "wow," or worst of the worst, test—took the most negative events to have happened in each market since 1998 and assumed that they got 30% worse and all happened at the same time. That still wasn't pessimistic enough.
That still wasn't pessimistic enough....

Monday, May 18, 2009

On regulatory capture, from finance to narcotics

A very useful discussion of how regulatory capture takes place:
Two archetypal scenarios for regulatory capture exist. The first is an underpowered, understaffed regulator working to control a wealthy, concentrated industry. In these situations, the sheer imbalance in resources means that the regulated parties can reward or punish the agency, but not vice versa. Predictably, rational bureaucrats will choose to cater their policies to the benefit of the subjects instead of suffering their wrath – recall, a regulatory job well done rarely carries any significant benefits to its engineers. The Department of Interior’s Minerals Management Service is a perfect example of a body that appears to have fallen prey to this pattern. Even a person of upstanding moral character can understand the difficulty of resisting the repeated entreaties of Exxon and the like for the sake of sticking to an unadulterated scheme of allocating oil and gas exploration rights. Someone sitting at the MMS desk may well wonder if anyone would ever notice a shift away from the prescribed approach towards one that favors the companies they deal with on a day-to-day basis. These incentives to cooperate exist even though the relationship between the regulator and the regulated parties is facially adversarial, with MMS holding rights that producers want but cannot get.

The second standard scenario for regulatory capture takes place when the same agency identifies items to source from the private sector and supervises the production of these items. The Department of Defense springs to mind as an example. The Pentagon almost certainly has the best interests of the Armed Forces in mind when it sets out its procurement goals. The combination of public (“free”) money and a desire to avoid saying one’s coworkers and superiors made a mistake, however, means that projects live on even when they go horribly wrong. Private-sector contractors benefit from bloated budgets for littoral combat ships that suffer from fundamental structural defects (the program has since been scrapped), military officers occasionally pick up a kickback, and the taxpayer ends up footing the bill. The political prominence of the Pentagon aggravates the effects of regulatory capture, since colonels know they can fight off most allegations of inefficiency by claiming that a critic is unwilling to support the troops.
Which raises an interesting question: which of these two archetypal forms does the regulatory capture of the drug enforcement bureaucracy represent? 

My sense is that it's a blended model. On the one hand, it's pretty clear that the current narcotics Prohibition, by providing a basis for extremely high profit margins, represents a pretty satisfactory situation for the drug lords, which is why the "facially adversarial" relationship is actually more symbiotic than it would appear, with the ongoing Prohibition regime also being extremely beneficial to the prison-industrial complex, DEA bureaucrats, enterprising prosecutors, etc. On the other hand, it's also true that the (recently surrendered?) "war on drugs" is a story littered with failures that no one in the anti-drug bureaucracy wants to come clean on, so long as the taxpayers are willing to keep footing the bill; so in that sense, it's also a bit like archetype two.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Dmitry Orlov, commenting on the swine flu:
Another thing that's peculiar is that some nations, notably China and Russia, have banned the import of American pork. Many other countries are following their example. The flu is not spread through eating pork, and so banning it is an economic move and a symbolic gesture rather than a medically motivated public safety measure. But the popular appeal of the symbolism is irresistible: here they have a chance to ban American Swine!

American Swine come in three main varieties: the Hog, the Bankster, and the Neocon. The Hog is often a public safety menace, because factory farming practices result in large groups of immunocompromised animals confined in conditions that are perfect for incubating new diseases. These practices should be banned, and banning American pork around the world seems like a step in the right direction.

The Banksters who have crashed the world financial system through their fraudulent activities should be banned around the world as well. In addition, it would be nice if they were rounded up and herded into capitalist reeducation camps, where, thanks to hard physical labor, daily capitalist indoctrination sessions, and compulsory public self-criticism, they would, over the course of months or years, be reformed into model capitalists, ready to rejoin a free market economy. Perhaps our Chinese friends would be nice enough to send over some advisers, to help us set up these camps.

Unlike the Hogs and the Banksters, the Neocons who illegally murdered, imprisoned and tortured countless civilians across the world should be exported — extradited, that is, to stand trial at an international war crimes tribunal. The list is not that long: Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Gonzales and a few others. All the ones who "were only following orders" are not important enough. The United States government is bound by international treaty to either prosecute or extradite these people. Since prosecution in the US is unlikely to be carried out properly, extradition remains as the only option. President Obama's recent paying of lip service to this being "a nation of laws" is no substitute for action.

Of the three varieties of American Swine, the actual pigs seem like the least troublesome, swine flu notwithstanding. We should certainly do all we can to stay healthy, but in the meantime we should stay focused on doing something about the other two varieties of American Swine.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Thursday, May 07, 2009

The bottom of the housing market?

Doesn't look like we're there yet, according to the number crunchers at Zillow. As shown in the purple line in the graph below, housing prices are continuing to fall at a dramatic rate, and indeed are doing so at an ever faster rate, as depicted by the orange line (e.g. the second derivative is still negative):
At this point, a third of all mortgages are under water, which means that 1 in 5 of all homes in the U.S. are underwater. If you look at housing prices relative to headline inflation over the last thirty years, we're still way overvalued:
Now think about what this means for the holders of all the securities backed by these mortgages (e.g. the banks)... then think of what that means for the real economy.
Former Baltimore Sun reporter and the creator of The Wire (the best TV show ever made), David Simon talks to Congress about the crisis of news reporting:

It's nice to get stuff for free, of course, and it's nice that more people can have their say in new media. And while some of our internet community is rampantly ideological, ridiculously inaccurate and occasionally juvenile, some of it's also quite good, even original. Understand, I'm not making a Luddite argument against the internet and all that it offers. But you do not, in my city, run into bloggers or so-called citizen journalists at City Hall or in the courthouse hallways or at the bars where police officers gather. You don't see them consistently nurturing and then pressing others—pressing sources. You don't see them holding institutions accountable on a daily basis.

Why? Because high-end journalism is a profession. It requires daily full-time commitment by trained men and women who return to the same beats day in and day out. Reporting was the hardest and, in some ways, most gratifying job I ever had. I'm offended to think that anyone anywhere believes American monoliths, as insulated, self-preserving and self-justifying as police departments, school systems, legislatures and chief executives, can be held to gathered facts by amateurs presenting the task—pursuing the task without compensation, training or, for that matter, sufficient standing to make public officials even care who it is they're lying to or who they're withholding information from.

Indeed, the very phrase "citizen journalist" strikes my ear as Orwellian. A neighbor who is a good listener and cares about people is a good neighbor; he is not in any sense a citizen social worker, just as a neighbor with a garden hose and good intentions is not a citizen firefighter. To say so is a heedless insult to trained social workers and firefighters.
Consider this: the LA Times is the only news organization that still has a reporter covering the budget state budget (which is $131 billion this year, including a $40B deficit). If that guy goes, who will be watching to prevent corruption? And obviously the politicians and lobbyists know this too. In other words, you're one reporter away from, in essence, a complete lack of accountability on the part of the government of the sixth biggest economy in the world. As he Simon says elsewhere, I'll stop worrying about the fate of investigative journalism when I see Huffington Post bloggers showing up week after week to the city council meetings of smallish American cities.

So what is to be done? Simon suggests:
But a nonprofit model intrigues, especially if that model allows for locally based ownership and control of news organizations. Anything the government can do in the way of creating nonprofit status for newspapers should be seriously pursued. And further, anything that can be done to create financial or tax-based disincentives for bankrupt or near-bankrupt newspaper chains to transfer or donate unprofitable publications to locally based nonprofits should also be considered.

Lastly, I would urge Congress to consider relaxing certain antitrust prohibitions, so that the Washington Post, the New York Times and various other newspapers can openly discuss protecting copyright from aggregators and plan an industry-wide transition to a paid online subscriber base. Whatever money comes will prove essential to the task of hiring back some of the talent, commitment and institutional memory that has been squandered. Absent this basic and belated acknowledgement that content matters—in fact, content is all—I don't think anything can be done to save high-end professional journalism.
I personally don't think that non-profit is any kind of solution: it already exists, and doesn't seem to be staunching the bleeding. Perhaps there might be some hope if all the newspapers could be given an anti-trust exemption to be allowed to collude on collectively creating a micropayment scheme for news content.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

I guess "rollback" ain't an option either

Containment of the swine flu is no longer an option, according to the WHO. My guess is that the number of cases may abate now as the flue season draws to a close, but it may come back with a vengeance in the Fall. The real question will be whether the public health officials can come up with the right vaccine to beat the mutating virus. That flu infections come in waves is well known.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Cognitive Capture

The idea that Washington is mentally enslaved to Wall Street has a hoary pedigree, and has received any number of articulations, ranging from socialist taunt that the state is the "executive committee of the bourgeoisie"; to the more rigorous concept of (more or less corrupt) regulatory capture; to the fashionable claim that the real reason why Washington won't cut off Wall Street's balls is not a result of "financial capture" (i.e. bribes, ahem, political contributions) but the rather because of some more sloppy kind of "cognitive capture." 

I say "sloppy" because I think this phrase is rarely defined, and in fact is confusing. The concept of "cognitive capture" is already present in psychology, but is used to refer to a different phenomenon altogether, namely the way that, when an individual focuses mental energy on one issue, it can cause her to miss out other important things. Also called "inattention blindness," this explains why, for example, drivers talking on cell phones are more likely to crash. By contrast, the idea of "cognitive capture," as applied to Washington's relationship to Wall Street, signals not that DC policymakers are distracted from or inattentive to Wall Street, but rather that they suffer from a kind of slavish worship of financiers, who they see as the rightful titans of our society whose interests must therefore be identical with those of society.

My old colleague James Kwak is doing signal work in trying to provide the latter thought with a more substantive theoretical basis. Why, Kwak asks, is Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner apparently unable to envision that the economic interests of the country might not be full aligned with the economic interests of Wall Street financiers? Why is he unwilling to consider solutions to the current crisis that would involve dethroning these oligarchs? Invoking Pierre Bourdieu's concept of "cultural capital" to suggest the mechanism by which this mental slavery is achieved, Kwak answers that Geithner has
internalized a worldview in which Wall Street is the central pillar of the American economy, the health of the economy depends on the health of a few major Wall Street banks, the importance of those banks justifies virtually any measures to protect them in their current form, large taxpayer subsidies to banks (and to bankers) are a necessary cost of those measures - and anyone who doesn't understand these principles is a simple populist who just doesn't understand the way the world really works.
This pithily captures the main mental problem in Washington these days: policymakers simply can't imagine any solution that involves the defanging of Wall Street, even though the only meaningful solutions are precisely the ones that do that. The Democrats are every bit as useless as the Republicans on this score.

Read the whole thing.