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.

Tea -- or Whiskey?

Among the many stupidities of the "tea party" astroturf campaign, perhaps the most annoying to me (as a historian) is that they've picked the wrong historical allusion. As everyone ought to know, the Boston Tea Party (and the American revolution more generally) was not a tax revolt per se, but rather was a revolt against taxation without representation.

By contrast, Obama's proposal to raise taxes (on the top 5% of Americans, to 1990s levels) is not being done without those being taxed having representation. The current crop of protesters had their chance to put forward candidates and vote in the 2008, and they lost.

In fact, the current protests are less like the Boston Tea Party than like the Whiskey Rebellion, when protests erupted in Appalachia over the decision of the (legally-elected) federal government to raises taxes in order to deal with a national fiscal and economic crisis (sound familiar?). 

This decision infuriated whiskey-producing farmers and led to a rebellion, which Washington put down by personally leading a large militia out to Western Pennsylvania to demonstrate the authority of the federal government.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Taliban as modernizers

One of the greatest misconceptions of the War formerly known as Global-on-Terror was that theTaliban  in Afghanistan (now also in Pakistan) was somehow a backward and "medieval" anti-modern sect. This misonception was largely driven by a focus on the rhetorical content of their ideology, with its emphasis on Koranic scripture, and their barbaric, profoundly anti-liberal attitude toward women, in particular.

In fact, the Taliban is much better conceived as the most effective and revolutionary modernizing force that this region has ever seen. The central social and economic fact of life in Pakistan is its unreformed, feudal economic system, with a tiny absentee landlord class literally lording it over a vast, impoverished peasantry which often suffers under the yoke of bonded labor. After independence from Britain in 1947, Pakistan never engaged in any kind of land reform, and the result is vast social and economic resentments in the countryside -- which the Taliban is now exploiting.

The Taliban's appeal, first in Afghanistan and now in Pakistan, has been to challenge this social system in the countryside. As John Robb puts it, the Taliban's "plausible promise" is to deliver "economic and social justice through land distribution and sharia courts." This doesn't need to be centrally organized in a classic 20th century command-and-control insurgency, because modern technology allows political entrepreneurs throughout the Western subcontinent to tap into local resentments.

But this also suggests why the U.S. faces has few reasonable political options in Pakistan. One faction we could partner with is the Taliban itself, which is what a replay of the allegedly successful strategy in Iraq would entail. This seems implausible, not so much because of the Taliban's barbarism (which we could surely learn to ignore) but more because of their refusal to give up Bin Laden and Zawahiri. It's one thing to propose partnering up with the Saddam-sympathizing Sunni leadership in Western Iraq, once Saddam is deposed and dead. It's another thing to propose partnering with the Osama-sheltering Taliban. 

Another option might be the Pakistani military, which was our main partner for a long time. The Pakistani military has long been considered the most "modern" faction in Pakistani life, and the kind of institution the U.S. could do business with. There are a number of challenges with this option, though. First, and perhaps least important, the Pakistani military is a fundamentally anti-democratic institution -- not just in that it often overthrows elected regimes, but also in its basic orientation toward popular control. Second, the military is increasingly Islamist and anti-American in its sympathies, particularly in the middle ranks, where the legacy of Zia's post-1971 push to Islamicize the Pakistani military. Third, the Pakistani military is clearly playing a double-game with the U.S. It wants to keep getting the multi-billion dollar military aid grants from the U.S., and to do this it needs to keep fighting the Taliban -- but also not to succeed in defeating the Taliban, which would also cause the U.S. money to dry up.

Which brings us to the apparently obvious third option, which is the official U.S. policy, namely to support the legally elected "democratic" government of Pakistan, now led by Benazir Bhutto's widower, Ali Zardari. Alas, the problem with these people is that they in fact represent the landlord classes. So-called "democratic" politics in Pakistan is generally a contest between feudal elites from Punjab versus feudal elites from the Sindh (the northern and southern reaches of the Indus valley). Neither group, obviously, has any interest in addressing the fundamental social resentments of the countryside, and the result is that these resentments have continued to fester for several generations. What happens when such social resentments are ignored is that eventually a political entrepreneur arises who can exploit them. And that exploiter is the Taliban. Thinking that a guy like Zardari, once described as the most corrupt man on earth, is going to address this social question is absurd.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Bushies' Monte Cassino moment?

One way to look at the shifting debate over torture in this country is to see the Bushies as having been, almost continuously, backpeddling -- engaged in a carefully planned series of retreats to previously prepared lines of defense, much akin to the Nazi defense of Italy against the Aliies during WW II.

Line 1
During Bush's first term, the line of defense was: "We do not torture. There was no torture! You've got nothing to prosecute us for. Nothing!"

Then the Abu Ghraib pictures happened. 

And with it fell that first and most robust line of defense.

Line 2
Over the course of Bush's second term, the Bushies' main line of defense was: "OK, yeah, sometimes we torture. But it's our POLICY not to torture. You can't prosecute political leaders for what a few 'bad apples' do!"

Now the OLC memos have come out.

After a bitter last stand by some brave footsoldiers, it's clear that this line of defense is being abandoned, and the Bushies are scrambling to assume their positions at the third line of defense, which they have been carefully preparing for some time.

Line 3
That new line of defense is: "OK, yeah, yeah, torture was our policy. But torture WORKED. You can't prosecute political leaders for doing stuff that worked to keeping the country safe!"

We'll see if that line works.

Line 4
If it doesn't, you can already see the next (and presumably final) line of defense, which is even now being prepared: "OK, yeah, yeah: we do torture, and yeah, doing so was in fact our policy, and yeah, OK, it didn’t work. But we thought in GOOD FAITH that it would work. You can't prosecute political leaders for something that was done in good faith!"

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Quote of the Day

Reinhold Niebuhr, in 1952, with words that should have given pause six years ago:

A democracy can not of course, engage in an explicit preventive war. [However] the power of such a temptation to a nation, long accustomed to expanding possibilities and only recently subjected to frustration, is enhanced by the spiritual aberrations which arise in a situation of intense enmity. The certainty of the foe's continued intransigence seems to be the only fixed fact in an uncertain future.

Nations find it even more difficult than individuals to preserve sanity when confronted with a resolute and unscrupulous foe. Hatred disturbs all residual serenity of spirit and vindictiveness muddies every pool of sanity. In the present situation even the sanest of our statesmen have found it convenient to conform their policies to the public temper of fear and hatred which the most vulgar of our politicians have generated or exploited. Our foreign policy is thus threatened with a kind of apoplectic rigidity and inflexibility. Constant proof is required that the foe is hated with sufficient vigor. Unfortunately the only persuasive proof seems to be the disavowal of precisely those discriminate judgments which are so necessary for an effective conflict with the evil, which we are supposed to abhor.

There is no simple triumph over this spirit of fear and hatred. It is certainly an achievement beyond the resources of a simple idealism. For naive idealists are always so preoccupied with their own virtues that they have no residual awareness of the common characteristics in all human foibles and frailties and could not bear to be reminded that there is a hidden kinship between the vices of the most vicious and the virtues of even the most upright.

(The Irony of American History, p. 146-147)

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Torment of Secrecy

I suspect that this statement by former CIA Director Michael Hayden is a litmus test for how people feel about government secrecy:

There are a lot of things that governments do, that aren't naturally or in the course of events immediately made public.

After all this [torture] began life as a covert action, whose definition is that the hand of the United States government is never acknowledged and the details of the operation are never revealed.

So, I don't think it automatically fits into the class of "the American people need to know."

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Quote of the Day

Herbert Hoover, American Individualism (1922):
This guarding of our individualism against stratification insists not only in preserving in the social solution an equal opportunity for the able and ambitious to rise from the bottom; it also insists that the sons of the successful shall not by any mere right of birth or favor continue to occupy their fathers' places of power against the rise of a new generation in process of coming up from the bottom.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

I love religion

From here, via here:
When Jaaber Hussein signs an agreement with Israel's Chief Rabbis tomorrow, he will be inking the only Arab-Jewish accord sure to be meticulously observed by both sides. The deal will make him the owner for one week of all bread, pasta and beer in Israel - well a huge amount of it anyway. The contract, signed for the past 12 years by the Muslim hotel food manager, is part of the traditional celebrations ahead of the Jewish holiday of Passover. Jews are forbidden by biblical injunction to possess leavened bread, or chametz, during Passover and ironically an Arab is needed to properly observe the holiday. The agreement with Mr Hussein offers a way of complying with religious edicts without having to wastefully destroy massive quantities of food.
Tomorrow, Mr Hussein will put down a cash deposit of $4,800 (some 20,000 shekels or £3,245) for the $150m worth of leavened products he acquires from state companies, the prison service and the national stock of emergency supplies. The deposit will be returned at the end of the holiday, unless he decides to come up with the full value of the products. In that case he could, in theory, keep them all. At the close of the holiday, the foodstuffs purchased by Mr Hussein revert back to their original owners, who have given the Chief Rabbis the power of attorney over their leavened products. "It's a firm, strong agreement done in the best way," Mr Hussein said.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

How, Not Who

Earlier this week we saw this:

Justice Department lawyers concluded in an unpublished opinion earlier this year that the historic D.C. voting rights bill pending in Congress is unconstitutional, according to sources briefed on the issue. But Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who supports the measure, ordered up a second opinion from other lawyers in his department and determined that the legislation would pass muster.
And now this:

The Obama administration is engineering its new bailout initiatives in a way that it believes will allow firms benefiting from the programs to avoid restrictions imposed by Congress, including limits on lavish executive pay, according to government officials...The administration believes it can sidestep the rules because, in many cases, it has decided not to provide federal aid directly to financial companies, the sources said. Instead, the government has set up special entities that act as middlemen, channeling the bailout funds to the firms and, via this two-step process, stripping away the requirement that the restrictions be imposed, according to officials.

Although some experts are questioning the legality of this strategy, the officials said it gives them latitude to determine whether firms should be subject to the congressional restrictions, which would require recipients to turn over ownership stakes to the government, as well as curb executive pay. The administration has decided that the conditions should not apply in at least three of the five initiatives funded by the rescue package.
My ire of the past eight years was on, usually, both the what and the how. In one of these cases I am ok with the what, but the how, in both, is strictly Bush league.