Saturday, April 30, 2005

more on Kaplan

Oh yes, and lets not forget Mr. Kaplan’s shock that Bush failed to mention the disgruntled Sunni’s in his catalogue of who we are fighting in Iraq. K agrees that it is mainly former regime holdouts and Jihadists, but feels it an unforgivable lapse in nuance that Mr. Bush failed to mention the plain garden variety Sunni tribesmen that don’t particularly like the fact that, at 20% of the population, the Sunnis will no longer call the shots in a new democratic Iraq. Notice the sly way he puts it: "driven by Sunni fears." They are worried that the Shiites won’t treat them right, you see.

Now that is a nice circumlocution. No need to ask if there is any basis to these fears. No need to actually catalogue any mistreatment of the Sunnis by the new government. You just have to refer to their ‘fears’ that they might be. So, having no choice in the face of such fears they do what any other reasonable group with such fears might do and launch a campaign of murdering civilians, a great many of whom are Sunnis too.

He cites Sunni fears because there is no actual mistreatment. The fact is that the Shiites and Kurds have acted with amazing forbearance and the holdout Sunnis that Mr. Kaplan is so solicitous of aren’t even a majority in their own minority. And what does it mean to point out that some of the Sunnis fighting now were not in Sadaam’s regime? Have they made any demands? Have they put forward any constructive proposals for constitutional reform or safeguards for Sunni interests? Can you remind yourself how extraordinary that is, to be fighting without any list of demands? How can you fight without saying what it is that you want? Of course they do say one thing they want, the Americans and other international forces out. Is there any reason to think that if they got what they wanted, the removal of American troops, they would do anything other than set up a new dictatorship of a Sunni strongman? That is when you fight without making a list of demands for the kind of government you want: when the kind of government you want is so morally unacceptable that it can’t be defended in public. Not even with the UN crowd.

So what if some or even most of them did not serve in the former regime? A lot of Clansmen spent the real civil war behind the lines and only decided to join the fight when it could be waged against civilians instead of armed men. Does that make them somehow more legitimate? Here again in his ignorance of some details I think bush has grasped the nettle better than his more informed intellectual critics: we are fighting for democracy against people that want a dictatorship. We cannot give up just because the people that want to rule their society by force are willing to murder.

Politicians and Intellectuals

For the most part, what we intellectuals ‘consume’ from policy is confirmation of our own belief system. We have all taken a big lifetime pay-cut to seek after truth. But truth very quickly and inevitable becomes ‘our truth,’ a set of propositions we are committed to proving. Moreover, the propositions we are proving are ones that are not easily disconfirmable—if they were, they would not be the provenance of intellectuals but of professionals and technocrats. For most policies, the consumer gets something tangible and measurable. They get a bridge or an education or an unemployment benefit or farm subsidy. For the intellectual he gets the satisfaction of seeing his belief system defended. Notice, that the great thing about the intellectual as client in politics is that you can pay him off even better when you loose the vote than when you win it.

If you are trying to please a constituent interested in having the highway in front of his store improved you do little for yourself by sending him a reproduction of your impassioned floor speech denouncing the rival politician that got the money to go to improve a different highway in a different district (or extreme environmentalist that got the funds diverted to a different concern altogether—though in that case there may be some ideological satisfaction involved from being about to explain one’s hardships on the basis of actions by ideological opponents—loosing to a politician with the same desire to distribute tangible goods to his constituents is just admitting you aren’t as good at is as he is, rather than being the victim of an evil ideology). Since politicians never have to compromise with other politicians to deliver for their intellectual constituents they are free to make unreasonable demands and vilify their opponents. Indeed, vilifying their opponents may be part of the ‘good’ they are delivering.

This is why foreign policy is the ultimate fountain of ‘distributive politics’ for politicians hoping to cater to intellectuals. They are able to deliver an endless supply of self-righteous condemnations of opposing believe systems with even less concern than in arenas like education, where something might actually have to be done at the end of the day. In foreign policy one can moralize, escape responsibility for the policies chosen by the national government (since, after all, in this case the people doing the choosing aren’t even other legislators but the President), and not even have to worry about your constituents suffering for your decisions. the only people hurt are usually people that can’t vote in the first place.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Power Use

How ironic that Kaplan’s criticism of Bush’s press conference performance and statements on Iraq and North Korea is entitled “Power Failure” after Kaplan’s thesis that the President’s answers disclose a misunderstanding of power. The real failure in this regard is Kaplan’s.

Kaplan’s analysis of the President’s demand for six party talks instead of sitting down one on one is that the President fails to understand that the US is the only country with the power to give the North Koreans what they want: security guarantees. “does he really not understand why the North Koreans want one-on-one talks? Is he really blind to the power politics of the situation—to the power that the North Koreans are trying to amass by going nuclear and to the power that they see in the United States as the one country that can provide those security guarantees?”

Doe Kaplan really think the North Koreans are only pursuing these weapons because they are afraid of the US? That part of the reason they are afraid of the US is because they do things that should make them afraid of us and that they would like to go on doing if they could only get US assurances of their security or be able to guarantee it with the ability to blackmail us and our allies with nuclear weapons? And is he really so blind to the fact that power is based on having something the other side needs? And that in addition to security guarantees from the US the North Koreans need practically everything? And that they get practically everything for the other parties in the six party talks?

The only way the North Koreans will ever be brought to heal is if the nations that enable them—China and to a lesser extent Russia, Japan and South Korea—step up to their responsibilities and cut their pets off. The only way to make them do that is to make the other powers sit down and agree to do so. The whole idea that Bush wants six power talks because he thinks that five people telling you to play nice is better than one is laughable. The reason he wants them is to make others responsible. In any case, even if one believed like Kaplan that the only thing motivating the North Korea’s was their fear of us, what difference does that make? Why does that require that there be bilateral talks with the US and the North Korea’s? Can’t the security guarantee’s that supposedly motivate the course of action they embarked on so long before Bush was on the scene be given in the context of six party talks? Indeed, if they were really so mistrustful of the US—and I can only consider the mistrust of such scum a badge of honor—wouldn't’t they

I am so indignant that Kaplan has the temerity to blame Bush for this situation because finally someone hand the guts to point out the plane facts—that this is an evil regime. I am made physically ill at the suggestion that we can only have peace with dictators if we agree speak in a kind of code that doesn't’t call murder, depravity and evil by their names and that anyone who dares to do so has brought whatever vile regimes like the North Koreans do to us on themselves. I am sure that if Kaplan had been around during the interwar years he would have castigated Churchill for stoking Hitler’s insecurities by calling attention to his atrocities. Appeasement of the kind that Kaplan advocates is what got us into this mess.

The real criticism of Bush is not that he is unwilling to truck down to North Korea’s demands and give him a security guarantee. It is that Bush hasn’t been hard enough on China. It is only China that has any real leverage. If the US did give North Korea security guarantees would that change anything? They started their program while Clinton was in the White House and sold it to us the first time for billions in aid. Did the North Korea’s fear that Clinton was going to invade them because of their human rights violations? Did Clinton’s actions in Kosovo, based on humanitarian considerations, cause the North Korea’s to be afraid? Force them to develop a nuclear program out of concerns of being invaded by the great crusader from Hope?

The North Korea’s want the weapons because they give them power. They might be willing to sign agreements to get rid of them in exchange for yet more billions in aid. But those agreements will never be worth anything until they are backed up by something the North Korea’s really fear.

The real flaw in Bush’s performance

This is the real failure of the Bush policy. Having the six party talks at least puts the people with the power to actually force them to change their behavior in the same room together. But to really change the North Korea’s he has to pressure their enablers. First and foremost this means the Chinese. The security guarantees against a hypothetical future US invasion that Kaplan believes the North Korea’s are worried are worth a lot less than the fact that North Korea can hardly feed itself, hardly keep its lights on for a day without the Chinese.

Pressuring the Chinese is something the administration has so far been unwilling to do, at least publicly. Until they do nothing the administration does or does not do will make any difference. I think the solution is straightforward. The Chinese are aiming missiles at Taiwan. Give Taiwan nuclear missiles unless the North Korea’s come clean. This would be the only thing we could do that would hurt the Chinese without costing us much money or trade. It would force the Chinese to either get the North Korea”s to come around or allow us to do something that I think would be good to do anyway. And in opposing it the Chinese would be forced to justify their own placements of offensive nuclear missiles aimed at the very people they are supposedly hoping to ‘liberate’.

The fact that North Korea can’t go without Chinese support for an afternoon without a power failure is the real pressure point. And the failure of the Bush administration to make the Chinese pay for their support of this vile regime in the same way he holds regimes that give aid and comfort to Islamic terrorists is the real power failure of the Bush administration.

Leo--Could we drop the War Thing?

Future historians forced to rely on Hollywood movies to recontruct the concerns of 21st Century Americans would be justified in identifying the cheif threat to the security of ordinary Americans was neo-Nazi cabals ensconsed in the highest reaches of government. There would certainly be little evidence to suppor the contention that some Americans were worried about Muslim terrorists. A young maverick assistent prof looking for tenure will advance the bizarre thesis that there was such a thing as Islamic terrorists and that for a few years Americans were prone to cite terrorism from these groups as their chief security concern--neo-Nazis didn't even make the list. He will build this iconoclastic thesis on the slim reed of a single documentary by one Michael Moore, which claimed to examine the greatest single attack on the leading country in the 21st century in its history.

His collegues will make some prefuctory comments to the effect of admiring his enginuety in coming up with this thesis but then proceed to dismantle his argument. The weight of the cellioud evidence is overwhelming on the side of the Nazi-corporate nexus at the heart of the US government. Can our young scholar cite a single additional piece of evidence supporting his argument? Is it really plausible that an industry that survives on market revenues and revels in any excuse to explode things on screen would ignore WWIII happening in front of it. Why would an industry facing competitive pressures serving a religious and intensly patriotic market bother to mine the exploits of Greek pedophiles from 2,500 years ago ignore a subject with such dramatic possibilities and ready made interest from their customers?

Say what you will about the biases 1940s film makers brought to thier treatments of WWII, you must credit them with having noticed that WWII was happening. To an economist at the time that fact would have seemed an instantiation of a sort of universal law--a market driven industry will have no choice but to make movies about what its customers care about, regardless of the ideological convictions of the film makers themselves. Otherwise, someone would make films closer to the concerns of the ticket buying public and steal market share from them. Not happening. Go through your local video store at any time in the last four years and try to convince a Martian that the chief security issue confronting Americans is terrorism. Outside of a few documentaries exposing American perfidity--grabbing oil on the pretext of fighting terrorism, say--there is no evidence that such a thing as an Islamic terrorist exists.

The most striking cases of this can be seen when Hollywood adapts a novel. Islamic terrorists, no matter how central to the plot, are invariably changed to evil right-wingers. Such was the fate of Clancey's "The Sum of All Fears".

This Hollywood aversion to certain kinds of controversy is not limited to books about terrorism. "The Bonfire of the Vanities" was adapted straight to the screen except for the theme of the entire book--race. (even more bizarrely from the entertainment perspective, they also took out the endlessly entertaining America hating, alcoholic English journalist and changed him into a generic Bruce Willis smart ass)

It's like taking the War out of War and Peace. Anna Kirenina--great book, but could we not make them adulters? Brothers Karamozov--great murder mistery once you get rid of all that God stuff. "The Possesed"--are people going to want to sit through all that 19th century radical politics? Why spoil a great male bonding movie?

It can't be just fear of ethnic protest that makes Hollywood avoid its most interesting and marketable topics. It seems that a public that is willing to pay to see things blown up by military men would be only more willing to pay if these pyrotechnics involves story lines with some relevance to their lives. Its like we are living in one of those communist countries where they could only make historical movies--anything that happened under the current regime was too sensitive. Of course we can make movies set in our own times as long as the villians are strictly re-animated Nurenburg defendents (defendants from the Tokyo trials need not apply).

Monday, April 04, 2005

Gay marriage

Libertarian Jane Galt makes an interesting argument about gay marriage that largely parallels my own thinking. She makes a point that I have made myself, but she uses economic thinking. She argues that saying, "Letting gay people marry is not going to change my decision about getting married," is wrong because "you" might not be the marginal case. Just as in many situations in economics where an incentive might not change the behavior of the typical person but might have an effect at someone at one extreme or another of the distribution the same may be true of Gay marriage. A change in the minimum wage might not make you fire anyone but then your business might not, indeed probably is not, the marginal case.

She brings in the examples of welfare benefits and its effect on marriage in poor communities. The argument is more or less the same one that a lot of neo-conservatives made in the '90s about changing social rules on the basis of thier effect on the upper-middle-class while failing to take into account that an arrangment that might work well for the group making the rules could have disasterous effects on those farther down in the distribution of income, intellegence and education. This is really the argument at the center of Murray's book, Losing Ground. The framing in terms of economics and marginal effects is a real contribution, I think.

The other really nice thing about the post (and it is a very long one) is her citing of an argument made by G. K. Chesterton. He argues that those who see no need whatever for a social institution are precisely the people who have no business getting rid of it. Her setup and the quote itself are both worth reproducing at lenght:

"But as G.K. Chesterton points out, people who don't see the use of a social institution are the last people who should be allowed to reform it:

'In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."
This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.'

Now, of course, this can turn into a sort of precautionary principle that prevents reform from ever happening. That would be bad; all sorts of things need changing all the time, because society and our environment change. But as a matter of principle, it is probably a bad idea to let someone go mucking around with social arrangements, such as the way we treat unwed parenthood, if their idea about that institution is that "it just growed". You don't have to be a rock-ribbed conservative to recognise that there is something of an evolutionary process in society: institutional features are not necessarily the best possible arrangement, but they have been selected for a certain amount of fitness.

It might also be, of course, that the feature is what evolutionary biologists call a spandrel. It's a term taken from architecture; spandrels are the pretty little spaces between vaulted arches. They are not designed for; they are a useless, but pretty, side effect of the physical properties of arches. In evolutionary biology, spandrel is some feature which is not selected for, but appears as a byproduct of other traits that are selected for. Belly buttons are a neat place to put piercings, but they're not there because of that; they're a byproduct of mammalian reproduction.

However, and architect will be happy to tell you that if you try to rip out the spandrel, you might easily bring down the building."

That whole way of thinking should be kept in mind when thinking about social reform. The fact that you can't imagine what purpose is served by such and such a rule is precisely why you should be careful about doing away with it. It is evidence not that the arrangment is useless (though it well might be) but that you don't understand the process that brought it about.

Of course the problem with social arrangements like marriage is precisely that people do think they understand the process that brought them about--religion. In former times people had these strange ideas about the Bible and Preists having some sort of supernatural insight into God's laws and people adopted them in much the same way that people earlier adopted practices like animal sacrifice. If the process that enforces practices like hetrosexual marriage are the products of the same process that inspecting lamb entrails before battle then we understand and reject the process that brought it about and feel perfectly free to discard the social arrangement.

That is why I think the evolutionary analogy is so useful in her argument (again one I have made many times). The very thing that makes ancient social arrangments suspect on process grounds--their association with ancient reasoning systems which no have credibility (at least among an influential subsection of the population)--ends up being what should make us reluctant to discard them willy-nilly on evolutionary grounds. Old arrangments are ones that have been selected for. Ultimately, she is saying that the religious arguments butressing social arrangements like marriage are artifactual.

I think the "spandrel" terminology is quite useful here. It focuses on a body of knowledge and a bit of experience that we all find accessible. The interesting thing is that it also cuts both ways. The arguments of environmentalists also have the spandrel idea in them. The argument against allowing species to go extinct because we can see no apparent use for them is precisely what should make us nervous about allowing them to go extinct.