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Best ... Argument ... Ever

From the GOP's proposed speech to be delivered to your over-50 constituents about the need to phase-out Social Security:

Let me leave you with a question: Why should young people who will retire around the year 2035 be forced to live with a system that was invented in 1935, especially when that system is in such deep trouble? So many things have since changed then. When Social Security was created the Golden Gate Bridge didn’t exist and neither did Mount Rushmore. You couldn’t see the Wizard of Oz because it hadn’t been filmed and Cheerios hadn’t been introduced as a breakfast cereal. Americans in 1935 couldn’t imagine our world of cell phones, computers, or landing a man on the moon—and that was more than 30 years ago! Times have changed, even if the values behind Social Security haven’t. Young people ought to have a chance to do it differently than their grandparents. So let’s press our leaders for this change now, and start putting money into personal accounts as soon as possible.
So . . . my benefits should be cut dramatically while I'm forced to work my whole life paying off trillions in debt . . . because we now have a bridge across the San Francisco Bay? Awesome.

I also note an interesting piece of polling data included in the GOP game plan. They say you should ask the old folks to raise their hands if they think the economy will grow as rapidly (or more) over the next 75 years as it has over the past 75 years. According to the GOP planners, people who say "yes" are likely to support ending Social Security. Interestingly, if the economy grows as quickly over the next 75 years as it has over the past 75 years, Social Security isn't even close to being in trouble -- it'll be running huge surplus from now 'till the end of time. Nobody really thinks the economy will grow that fast, since population growth will slow down. If, despite slower population growth, we do see that kind of growth, we're all going to be stinking rich on a per capita basis irrespective of what we do with Social Security, which would be pretty cool. At any rate, it's good to know that popular support for the Republican plan is intimately tied to people having beliefs about the future that, according to the two parties' shared premises, are totally false.

January 31, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (64) | TrackBack

Why Personalization Didn't Work

Word has come down from VRWC High Command that "Social Security Choice" is now non-operative, joining its long-departed cousin "Social Security Privatization" on the ash heap of history. The new plan is "Social Security Personalization." Yes, personalization. Google reveals that until this blessed day "personalization" seems to have been a term of art in the world of Web design. Not a very successful one, either. See, for example, "Why Personalization Hasn't Worked":

Personalization hasn't worked because most people don't have a compelling reason to personalize. It hasn't worked because the cost of doing it well usually significantly outweighs the benefits it delivers. It hasn't worked because managers have seen it as some Holy Grail of content management.
That sounds about right to me.

January 31, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack

What Could Stop Globalization

From the CIA's National Intelligence Council report on the world in 2020:

The process of globalization, powerful as it is, could be substantially slowed or even stopped. Short of a major global conflict, which we regard as improbable, another large-scale development that we believe could stop globalization would be a pandemic. However, other catastrophic developments, such as terrorist attacks, could slow its speed.

Some experts believe it is only a matter of time before a new pandemic appears, such as the 1918–1919 influenza virus that killed an estimated 20 million worldwide. Such a pandemic in megacities of the developing world with poor health-care systems—in Sub-Saharan Africa, China, India, Bangladesh or Pakistan—would be devastating and could spread rapidly throughout the world. Globalization would be endangered if the death toll rose into the millions in several major countries and the spread of the disease put a halt to global travel and trade during an extended period, prompting governments to expend enormous resources on overwhelmed health sectors. On the positive side of the ledger, the response to SARS showed that international surveillance and control mechanisms are becoming more adept at containing diseases, and new developments in biotechnologies hold the promise of continued improvement.

A slow-down could result from a pervasive sense of economic and physical insecurity that led governments to put controls on the flow of capital, goods, people, and technology that stalled economic growth. Such a situation could come about in response to terrorist attacks killing tens or even hundreds of thousands in several US cities or in Europe or to widespread cyber attacks on information technology. Border controls and restrictions on technology exchanges would increase economic transaction costs and hinder innovation and economic growth. Other developments that could stimulate similar restrictive policies include a popular backlash against globalization prompted, perhaps, by white collar rejection of outsourcing in the wealthy countries and/or resistance in poor countries whose peoples saw themselves as victims of globalization.
It seems to me that the only relevant data point we have on this is the Victorian Globalization period that was ended by World War One and the ensuing twenty five year period of devastation. This, I assume, is what leads the NIC to conclude that "a major global conflict" globalization will basically continue, either faster or slower. But when assessing why they "regard as improbable" such a conflict, they prominently cite the growing economic interdependence produced by globalization. This argument was, I believe, prominent in the pre-world war one period, in which authors argued (correctly, as it turns out) that war between the great powers would have disastrous consequences for all and that, therefore (incorrectly) the powers would avoid it. And of course, military conflict between the great powers was unlikely in the early 20th century. it didn't happen in 1900 or 1901 or 1902 or 1903 or 1904 or 1905 or 1906 or 1907 or 1908 or 1909 or 1910 or 1911 or 1912 or 1913. And then one day, well. . . .

So while it certainly is unlikely, I wouldn't be too sure. The confidence we can have in avoiding major great power conflict and continuing the beneficial integration of the world has a great deal to do with the extent to which the world's political leaders understand how bad the consequences of renewed confict would be.

January 31, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (44) | TrackBack

Prebuttal

I assume Nancy Pelosi handled domestic issues in her SOTU prebuttal, but I like what Harry Reid had to say on the national security front. Obviously, it's going to be hard for Democrats to get a hearing on this for a week or so until the elections afterglow wears off, but you've got to keep at it nonetheless.

January 31, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (81) | TrackBack

Oil and Democracy

Ted Barlow tells you what you need to know about the economics of the 19th century whale oil industry. Speaking of which, someone desperately needs to teach Tom Friedman about the economics of the 21st century fossile oil industry before the ideas pimped in his latest column and many other recent writings become a mainstream staple of anti-Bush criticism. There are very good reasons not to like the Republican Party's energy policies, but virtually nothing about yesterday's argument makes sense.

For one thing, as Brad Plumer writes, this idea, like so many Friedman ideas, seems to suffer from an acute case of the "Friedman magic policy wand" syndrome. There's no real reason to think there's any way to accomplish what he thinks we should be accomplishing, and even if it could be accomplished, the time frame for getting it all done would be much longer than it would take to produce the sort of results he's looking for. More to the point, in many ways, if a crash conservation program succeeded in drastically reducing demand and lowering the price of crude, the result would be an increase in demand and a resumption of rising prices. This is roughly what happened during the 1980s and it's more-or-less written into the fabric of capitalism.

The assumption that impoverishment naturally leads autocratic governments to reform themselves in hopes of boosting economic growth, meanwhile, is strikingly lacking in empirical support. North Korea would be racing headlong toward freedom if this were right. And oil-poor Arab states like Egypt and Syria would be bastions of democracy rather than Egypt and Syria. Last but by no means least, in addition to the policy lag between the time when we implement our conservation program and we actually see $18 barrels of oil, the lag between when the Saudi and Kuwaiti governments start reforming their education system and when the newly-educated cadres take over the country would be enormous. The United States is currently governered primarily by people educated in the 1960s and looks set to continue to be so governered by quite some time now. Such is like. We Millenials will have our day, but it's going to be a long time off. The No Child Left Behind kids won't be running things until the 2040s.

And then there's the point that the dogmatic belief that an absence of secular education is a primary source of terrorist motivation seems to be way off base. Some jihadis went to madrassas (primarily in Southeast Asia) or were products of whatever it is they do in the Saudi school system, but many had technical educations of just the sort that a self-consciously modernizing regime would provide, often in the west. Now I think it would be equally silly to conclude from this that technical education leads to terrorism (though the MIT kids do have an affinity for pranks that involve blowing things up) but the lines of causation here are pretty confusing.

Back to oil. There's a very respectable case to be made that we ought to be trying to promote oil conservation in the United States and it doesn't involve any odd geopolitical theories. Oil causes a lot of pollution. It has, in other words, significant negative externalities. Right now, it's not taxed at a level commensurate with those externalities. If we did tax it proportionally to the real social cost of burning oil the price (to consumers) would rise, and with it interests in more fuel efficient vehicles (already, makers of hybrid cars are plausibly arguing that if you drive frequently it's worth it to shell out more up front in order to save on fuel) which will improve air quality. Better air quality would be an excellent thing. If it should happen to have some beneficial spillover effects on national security, so much the better, but I wouldn't count on it, and I certainly wouldn't go around promising it to people.

January 31, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (73) | TrackBack

Promises Promises

Justin Logan notes that some of the subjects of America's Central Asian buddies seem to be making the mistake of taking the president's firey rhetoric to heart, which will doubtless land us in a sticky situation. I seem to recall having been taught in my eleventh grade U.S. history class that the Eisenhower administration had similarly given rhetorical hints to the people of Eastern Europe that we would support them if they tried to overthrow their Communist masters only to wind up (sensibly, in light of the USSR's nuclear arsenal) abandoning the Hungarians when they actually gave it a shot. Is that true or have I been misinformed?

January 31, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (28) | TrackBack

Really

The Daily Times of Pakistan reports:

The Musharraf regime is “unlikely to evolve into a long-term ally in the war on terrorism,” though the United States should seek to “prevent Pakistan from descending into chaos in the short term,” according to the Cato Institute, a leading liberal think tank.
Given the, um, interesting description of Cato there and the fact that I hadn't seem them argue any such thing, I was skeptical. The magic of Google, however, reveals all (PDF) and I think it's pretty persuasive:
Policymakers should consider an alternate interpretation of Pakistan’s behavior. Since 9/11, Musharraf has been opportunistic. He responded to political and military pressure from the United States by ending his country’s alliance with the Taliban and other radical Islamic groups, taking steps to liberalize his country’s political and economic system, and opening the road to an accord with India over Kashmir. But there are no signs that Musharraf and his political and military allies have made a strategic choice to ally themselves with U.S. long-term goals in the war on terrorism by destroying the political and military infrastructure of the radical and violent anti-American Islamic groups in Pakistan. It is highly probable that Musharraf is not strong enough to do so. From that perspective, the partnership with the United States and Musharraf’s willingness to negotiate with India over Kashmir are nothing more than short-term moves aimed at winning U.S. assistance and preventing India from emerging as Washington’s main ally in the region.

If this alternate interpretation is correct, the current American relationship with Pakistan is, at best, a short-term alliance of necessity. Over the medium and long term, U.S. policymakers should distance themselves from Musharraf’s regime, seek out ways to cultivate liberal secular reforms in Pakistan, and engage in more constructive relations with India.

Such a policy shift would reflect present-day reality: Westernized and secular India is a stable democracy and a rising regional power, not a de facto client of the Soviet Union, as it was widely presumed to be during the Cold War. With the Cold War order long since dismantled, the United States has a clear interest in establishing strong ties with India, whose political, economic, and military clout places the country in a position to counterbalance even an increasingly assertive China. As the world’s largest democracy and an important bilateral trading partner with the United States, India, not Pakistan, should be the focus of long-term U.S. policy in the region.
I'm not sure that "cultivat[ing] liberal secular reforms in Pakistan" has much promise, but I think this is generally right. I wonder if anyone else remembers having watched General Musharraf's address sometime in the week after 9/11 explaining that he was going to side with the USA. It was obvious from the look on his face and the tone of his voice that this was a man who was scared shitless. Pakistan had been playing a dangerous game for years, and it had just blown up in the faces of several thousand people in Lower Manhattan. If he didn't get his shit together, there was going to be hell to pay. The result was a very useful tactical alliance for the United States. But that moment is passed, and it's time to put US policy in South Asia back in line with the fundamental realities. We may not see eye to eye on the Social Security calculator, but I love Cato's foreign and defense policy stuff. I'm with them on this, too. And outsourcing. Remember outsourcing? Ah, those were the days. . . .

January 31, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (20) | TrackBack

Muddling Through

Henry Farrell takes a few wacks at "rightwing technophiles" who think progress, progress, progress will solve all our problems, ecological and otherwise. Jim Henley helpfully explains why people think this way: They seem to have almost always been right in the past. This, I think, is the really interesting issue raised by Collapse and it's unfortunate that Diamond didn't make it more explicit. The striking thing about something like the now-extinct Greenland Norse community is that it didn't die out after fourty years or something. It died out after four hundred years. The United States Constitution, meanwhile, is just a bit more than 200 years old. Industrial society is rather younger than that.

I don't think Diamond's lessons of the past have a great deal to teach us about the specific problems of the present other than that deforestation is a more serious issue than I had understood (fortunately, this is not an out-of-control problem anywhere in the developed world, and it's very clear how developing countries could stop it if they wanted to). What they do teach us to be somewhat cautious in making the inference from "we've always muddled through before" to "we'll always muddle through again." After all, the consequences of a global ecological catastrophe would be very bad and it's worth trying pretty hard to avoid it. As I said in my original Collapse posts, I think the essence of the problem is at the nexus of energy supply and global warming issues. The people who worry about climate change think the world ought to move toward releasing much less carbon into the atmosphere. There does not, however, seem to me to be any realistic way to continue having the sort of global economic growth that could put a significant dent in world poverty that doesn't involve releasing much more carbon into the atmosphere. On top of that, the world does not appear to contain nearly enough easily accessible oil to continue fueling the growing demand of India and China, much less to power India/China style growth in the rest of the developing world unless somehow the US-Europe-Japan axis magically starts not needing oil. All the realistic solutions to the oil problem, however, involve either huge increases in carbon emissions (because your hydrogen cars are getting their electricity from coal) or in nuclear waste storage (because your hydrogen cars are getting their electricity from nuclear plants) neither of which is appealing.

January 31, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (45) | TrackBack

This Fire Is Out of Control

Whether or not you think the untamed fires of freedom are genuinely spreading, there's no doubt that the hype about The Arcade Fire is. Saw them play a show tonight and I was seriously skeptical that they -- or anyone for that matter -- could live up to the hype. But they do. I bought my ticket back in early December at the listed price of $13. Walking over to the 9:30 club, I was offered $60 for it -- a nice $47 profit. Needless to say, I didn't sell. In retrospect, however, if the tickets had gone on sale for $47 in December, I wouldn't have bought one, even though I was happy to incur a $47 opportunity cost to see the show. Similarly, if back before I bought my ticket someone had said, "hey, I'll give you 47 bucks if you promise not to see the Arcade Fire on January 30," I probably would have taken him up on the offer. This is, I think, a typical pattern of preferences, though a highly irrational one in a formal sense.

At any rate, since DC is lame I believe this is near the end of the tour, but if the band happens to be coming to a town near you in the future, definitely check it out. Their album, I think, is very good, though not exactly The Greatest Thing Ever as some have implied. The live show, however, is truly superb, the best I've seen in quite some time.

January 31, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (43) | TrackBack

The Second Election

Kieran Healy has a smart post on the prospects that Iraqi democracy will genuinely consolidate itself over the years, i.e., develop into a situation where you have not one election, but two (or three) complete with the peaceful alternation of power and so forth. The prospects aren't great but, honestly, given the nature of the ancien régime and the torments of the quasi-anarchic present, I'm not sure Iraqis need to find themselves living in a fully functioning democracy to wind up better off in the long term. Which reminds me to point out that we should be seeing the real democratic (or not, depending on how it turns out) action in Afghanistan soon after they hold their parliamentary elections. The troubles with the Afghan presidential election were basically subsumed in Hamid Karzai's overwhelming popularity. The parliamentary election should be the first opportunity for real politics in which we get to see if Karzai's opponents are willing to act as a democratic opposition party or will be more inclined to take advantage of Afghanistan's extraordinarily weak state apparatus to simply evade (or subvert) the law and possibly resist through force of arms.

Similarly, the most interesting thing to watch as the Transitional National Assembly tries to put a cabinet (and the confusing institution of the Presidency Council) together will be less who forms the government, than who forms the opposition. So far, the inclination in Iraq has been for all forces "inside the political process" to band together in the interests of fighting the insurgency. That's an understandable reaction to the circumstances, and it would be understandable if it persisted. Nevertheless, to really move toward democracy it's pretty essential that you have a peaceful, democratic opposition not just an insurgency. I think it's pretty likely that we won't get one. Instead we'll see a broad coalition of all the major factional elites trying to establish a pluralistic, but non-democratic regime capable of combatting the insurgency. Something roughly akin to what you see in Lebanon.

Based on the pure humanitarian calculus, that seems like a "good enough" outcome, even if one might hope for something better. I don't think it's especially important for critics of the war to deny that things may well wind up this way. As I've argued many times in the past, the fact that a given venture costing several hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives managed to accomplish some good things for many people is insufficient to justify the venture. The money and manpower we've deployed in Iraq could have been used to bring about regime change in Burma or to provide clean drinking waters to millions of people or to halt genocide in Darfur or to block the Iranian nuclear program or any number of other things.

If Iraq winds up in an okay state, all those opportunity costs will be forgotten and war opponents will (unjustly) appear to have been discredited by events. That's wrong, but I could live with it. It would be better, certainly, then us achieving public vindication by a spiral in which things get worse and worse. Speaking reality-based, war proponents have been thoroughly discredited ever since the national security case (WMD plus al-Qaeda ties) fell apart a long, long time ago. Anyone who actually proposed an undertaking on this scale for purely humanitarian purposes would be laughed out of the room, and rightly so. Beyond that, the odds of real success remain long, and even if we do succeed the humanitarian benefits of the massive increase in the Iraqi death rate caused by this adventure seem questionable.

January 30, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (36) | TrackBack