Towards A Good Samaritan World

Sunday, January 29, 2006


With a possible war with Iran on the horizon, the humanitarian calculus in Iraq, in hindsight, looks pretty easy. A few tens of thousands were killed in the war, compared to a few hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) killed under Saddam, including hundreds of thousands of children who perished because of America's own sanctions. If the war resulted in net lives lost, one would have to weigh the value of those lost lives against the value of freedom for other Iraqis. But you don't even have to worry about that trade-off because the war probably resulted in net lives saved rather than lost. It was expensive. One can argue about the opportunity cost: maybe we could have done more good by intervening somewhere else, or just by shrinking the deficit. And there's the issue of sovereignty, and whether the precedent of removing a "sovereign" tyrant is good or bad. But to believe that the war was a net negative in humanitarian terms is just ignorance.

In Iran, we have to face the grave question that we didn't (really) have to face in Iraq: Are we willing to kill, on a large scale, for our safety, our principles, our civilization? Everyone looks back on World War II now with pride, because those deaths are in the past and as a result, don't seem quite real. If we had to do it today, in the same cause, would we? Of course, Hitler did a lot of conquering before we intervened, which makes him different than the contemporary rulers of Iran. But it is not to our credit that Hitler did a lot of conquering before we intervened. That's why the Holocaust was almost completely successful.

Long ago, Tamurlane, the conqueror, built a pyramid (it is said) of 100,000 skulls at Isfahan, in Iran. There is a tendency to assume that the times in which such things happened are gone forever, but perhaps we assume this too easily. A re-run of Tamurlane's conquest of Isfahan would, I think, be better-- morally better-- than a nuclear sequel of the Holocaust. Whatever we're willing to do, we should start rumbling about it, the sooner the better. You'd rather threaten to do a bit more than you're willing to do, than a bit less, because your enemy might believe your threat, and back down.

Nothing would make me sadder than for the ancient and fascinating culture of Persia to vanish into the night, because of my country's actions. I would be haunted by the knowledge of what we had done long afterwards, and many other Americans I think. Yet it does not follow that this would be wrong. In some ways, military annihilation by the superpower would be a fitting end for Iran. For centuries, Iranians have celebrated ten days of silence every year in remembrance of Karbala, the place where Imam Hussein, the rightful leader of Islam, was killed by the troops of the caliph-usurper. Suicidal holy war lies at the heart of Iranian Shiism, as the Iranians spectacularly demonstrated in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, when hundreds of thousands of Iranians went to the front in search of "martyrdom." Now Iran, or rather its leadership speaking on its behalf, is bent on a path towards national martyrdom. If we make it clear that we're ready to help them out with that, they may decide they didn't want it so much anyway.

Monday, January 23, 2006


The new leader of the Tories doesn't sound like a right-winger by the standards of US politics:

What I'm trying to do is straightforward. I want to put the Conservative Party back in the mainstream of political debate. Only if we do that will we show ourselves relevant to the concerns and aspirations of modern Britain...

Today we need to show how our values and principles are the best way to meet the aspirations of a new generation who demand social justice for all as well as high standards of living for themselves; who care about their quality of life as well as the quantity of money in their pockets.

I'm fired by a determination to improve the environment we leave to our children. But I believe that we'll do that only if we harness the ingenuity of the market for green ends.

Our mission should be to end poverty at home and abroad - but we will achieve that only through Conservative principles of encouraging enterprise, helping people to independence, and giving them the tools to climb the ladder from poverty to wealth...

First, I believe that the more you trust people, the stronger they and society become. So, for example, my response to the urgent need to restore respect in society is the opposite of Tony Blair's top-down government initiatives.

I want to set free the voluntary organisations and social enterprises that have the knowledge and the commitment to turn our communities around.

Second, I believe passionately that we're all in this together - that we have a shared responsibility for our shared future. There isn't a single challenge we face that isn't best addressed by asking not just what government can do, but what individuals, families, business and the voluntary sector can do.

So in education, for example, while we want to give head-teachers more freedom to run their schools, and ask all parents to take responsibility for their children's education, we also believe that government should show leadership in areas where it can make a decisive difference: synthetic phonics to teach literacy properly; setting by ability to stretch the brightest pupils.

David Cameron is trying to restore credibility to a Conservative party in a country where the political temperature is well to the right of that in the US. His message ends up sounding center-left by US standards. In the US, the issue is not the market-- opposition to the market is a political cul-de-sac in the US, though it does throw up occasional stupid populist laws like the Maryland Wal-Mart law-- but whether the environment, poverty and social justice should be talked about at all.

If Democrats follow David Cameron's lead, they could talk about their issues while making it clear that they're friendly to market capitalism. And of course, Cameron is right: the means of market capitalism are by far the best way to serve the end of poverty reduction, which, in turn, is the best way to improve the environment.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

This is unexpected news, considering the source:

Iraq has now consolidated a crude electoral democracy.

From the New York Times.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006


I hate it, but the last names of the three leading contenders for leadership of the Republican House majority-- Blunt, Boehner and Shadegg-- remind me of the sorts of names J.R.R. Tolkien gave to captains of his Orc armies. I'm for Shadegg, the most Orc-like of the three.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The Economist anticipates that the American economy is in for a period of slow growth. Their arguments don't make much sense.

[Greenspan] is leaving behind the biggest economic imbalances in American history...

It is true that the economy has shown amazing resilience in the face of the bursting in 2000-01 of the biggest stockmarket bubble in history, of terrorist attacks and of a tripling of oil prices...

But the main reason why America's growth has remained strong in recent years has been a massive monetary stimulus. The Fed held real interest rates negative for several years, and even today real rates remain low. Thanks to globalisation, new technology and that vaunted flexibility, which have all helped to reduce the prices of many goods, cheap money has not spilled into traditional inflation, but into rising asset prices instead—first equities and now housing...

By borrowing against capital gains on their homes, households have been able to consume more than they earn.

What's wrong with that? Is there some immutable a priori reason that people should consume only their wage earnings and not their capital gains? To do so would not be rational. If my assets increase in value, my lifetime resources increase, and I will smooth my consumption, and thus consume more in the present. Naturally.

Robust consumer spending has boosted GDP growth, but at the cost of a negative personal saving rate, a growing burden of household debt and a huge current-account deficit.

Americans earn high internal rates of return by buying homes. In a sense, this is saving behavior, even if it doesn't show up in personal savings rate statistics. More household debt is offset by more valuable household assets.

As a result of weaker job creation than usual and sluggish real wage growth, American incomes have increased much more slowly than in previous recoveries.

I would attribute this to globalization, which alters the relative returns to different factors of production. Globally, labor is much more abundant, and capital scarcer, than in the United States. Accordingly, globalization, in the form of outsourcing or immigration, lowers the return to labor (here), but increases the return to capital (here-- in capital-scarce countries, the opposite). Nothing necessarily wrong with that. However, it will have negative implications for equity if, as is likely, capital is less equitably distributed than labor. That's why Social Security reform is such a brilliant idea: it would capitalize the working class. But I digress.

In recent months Mr Greenspan himself has given warnings that house prices may fall, and that this in turn could cause consumer spending to slow.

It's wise of Mr. Greenspan to give these warnings. But housing prices are more likely not to fall, considering that, historically, they hardly ever do. More likely, they'll stagnate. That, too, might lead to slower (growth in) consumption. But this doesn't mean the economy slows. Business investment could pick up the slack. In fact, business investment is due for a recovery, having been slow lately, during a time of booming profits.

In addition, he suggests that foreigners will eventually become less eager to finance the current-account deficit. Central banks in Asia and oil-producing countries have so far been happy to buy dollar assets in order to hold down their own currencies. However, there is a limit to their willingness to keep accumulating dollar reserves.

Now the current-account deficit is not well-understood by economists. I think that it is best interpreted as a demand for dollars by foreigners to serve the traditional functions of money-- a store of value, a medium of exchange, and a unit of account. With international trade expanding, with foreign incomes rising, there's no reason to expect this demand to decline. Even if central banks shift into euros, the private sector will probably take up the slack.

But what if the dollar did slide? Why, then US exports would be more competitive abroad, and US goods would be more competitive with imports at home! We'd have an export- and import-substitution-led boom! Nothing to fear here, folks.

When house-price rises flatten off, and therefore the room for further equity withdrawal dries up, consumer spending will stumble. Given that consumer spending and residential construction have accounted for 90% of GDP growth in recent years, it is hard to see how this can occur without a sharp slowdown in the economy.

No, it's not. Other sectors, such as business or the external sector, could accelerate. Which is likely to happen.

[Bernanke] is likely to continue the current asymmetric policy of never raising interest rates to curb rising asset prices, but always cutting rates after prices fall.

How is this "asymmetric?" It's not as if interest rates never go up. They go up when the economy starts to expand. It's "asymmetric," I suppose, in that the Fed acquiesces in the long-run upward trend of asset prices. But asset prices should trend upwards, because they are becoming more valuable. That's part of economic growth.

It's safe to say that The Economist has persistently underestimated the American economy for a decade. In some ways, the most revealing word in this article is when they say the economy has been "amazingly" resilient. Amazing to whom? To The Economist, of course, because of their habitual unwarranted pessimism. Maybe The Economist should get used to the resilience of the American economy already.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006


Andrew Sullivan weighs in for Alito (even though there's an anti-Alito ad on his site):

I've long been a believer in deference to presidential court appointees (check TNR archives and way back in the 80s, I wrote one of the first pieces outraged by the Borking of Bork). I have a marginally less expansive view of executive power in wartime than Alito, and probably despise Roe vs Wade more than he does, but these are quibbles. He seems perfectly fine to me: the kind of uber-nerd you want on SCOTUS. He reminds me of Milhous on the Simpsons, all growed up.

Ann Althouse also supports Alito, and she links to a poll showing that 40 percent of Democrats, and 38 percent of self-identified liberals, support Alito's confirmation.

This makes me wonder if the liberal judicial philosophy has become politically as well as intellectually untenable. A lot of people don't like to be "wingers" and will break with the party line on one issue. For a lot of otherwise-liberals, that issue may be courts. They oppose the Iraq war and tax cuts for the rich, but having judges enforce democratically-made law, rather than reading their personal policy preferences into a "living Constitution," makes sense.

If so, this may be the sunset of the liberal judiciary.


If Russia intended to strike a blow against the Ukrainian government by cutting off gas supplies, their plan apparently worked:

The Ukrainian parliament has sacked its government due to the gas price row with Russia, as the European Commission tries to soothe fresh worries over EU gas supplies.

Two hundred and fifty out of 450 Ukrainian members voted against prime minister Yuri Yekhanourov's cabinet on Tuesday (10 January), Reuters and BBC report.

President Viktor Yushchenko is seeking legal advice to keep the government in place until the March general elections.

He said "This decision will be shown to be unconstitutional" while visiting Kazakhstan.

Opposition parties brought the motion of no confidence after Kiev agreed to pay Russia $95 per 1,000 cubic metres instead of the previous $50 on 4 January.

There may be more substance to Russia's informal empire over the post-Soviet sphere than meets the eye. Talleyrand once remarked: "Russia is never as strong as it looks. Russia is never as weak as it looks."

Monday, January 09, 2006


I watched the movie "Munich" on Saturday, which was unfavorably reviewed by Roger Simon. I'd say it's not great, but good, and the meme that it's just another Hollywood-liberal poke at the war on terror seems unfair, even if the main character is disillusioned in the end. The Israeli assassins seem human, even to some extent sympathetic; one is horrified by their dilemma, not them. A Palestinian terrorists' ode to the "home" that his people have lost is moving. I found the portrayal of a prosperous-sleepy Europe, in the shadows of which other peoples are fighting their fierce wars, poignant.

Friday, January 06, 2006


Russia is expanding and militarizing its influence in Central Asia and the Caspian region:

Russia is seeking to rapidly consolidate the strategic gains it made in Central Asia during 2005...

Despite the dramatic decline in its influence, the United States remains a powerful geopolitical force in Central Asia, underscored by the continuing presence of US forces at the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan. To keep the United States on the defensive, Russian planners have developed a multi-faceted blueprint to significantly expand Moscow’s strategic reach in Central Asia, as well as tighten tactical coordination with other regional players, especially China and India...

In connection with the already considerable expansion of its strategic presence in Central Asia, Russia has either begun to conduct, or has announced a series of exercises designed to unite its own forces with those of Central Asian allies under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), another multi-lateral organization that Moscow wants to enhance... Observers note that Russia and perhaps India are seeking to transform the SCO into a true strategic and military alliance, whereas China has openly advocated that it concentrate on trade and economics.

Why does Russia want power? We know why George W. Bush wants to increase American power: to spread freedom. Why does Russia want power? Is there a resource exploitation motive? Are they concerned for national security-- perhaps with subversion of the current territory of the federation by minority independence movements? Or is there some 21st-century variation of the "Russian Idea" that they wish to extend? If so, are there any Russian writers articulating it?

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Harold Meyerson is predicting that Republicans will resort to anti-immigrant populism in 2006.

Hopefully the Republicans are smart enough to see that this is a trap. A lot of people may be worried about immigration, but that won't translate into votes, because people feel dirty voting for nativist creepy-crawlies. May Pat Buchanan's career serve as a cautionary tale. The House borders bill is a political loser.


The New York Times makes the case.

A democratic society cannot long survive if whistle-blowers are criminally punished for revealing what those in power don't want the public to know - especially if it's unethical, illegal or unconstitutional behavior by top officials.

So the Times asserts, with no evidence whatsoever. This statement is a preposterous exaggeration. The United States was far more secretive in World War II and the Cold War than now, and democracy arguably survived. Britain's Official Secrets Act is more illiberal than anything America has ever had, and it's been a democratic society for a long time. That doesn't mean government secrecy is good, though. There's a perennial trade-off between the value of state secrets in enabling the government to pursue our enemies more effectively, and the value of better public information about the government's activities. If the Times feels this trade-off should be pushed more in the direction of public information, I'm sympathetic.

Where the Times argument fails is in the blatant double standard by which they wish to condemn the Valerie Wilson leak while supporting their own leak:

The longest-running of the leak cases involves Valerie Wilson, a covert C.I.A. operative whose identity was leaked to the columnist Robert Novak. The question there was whether the White House was using this information in an attempt to silence Mrs. Wilson's husband, a critic of the Iraq invasion, and in doing so violated a federal law against unmasking a covert operative. There is a world of difference between that case and a current one in which the administration is trying to find the sources of a New York Times report that President Bush secretly authorized spying on American citizens without warrants. The spying report was a classic attempt to give the public information it deserves to have. The Valerie Wilson case began with a cynical effort by the administration to deflect public attention from hyped prewar intelligence on Iraq. The leak inquiry in that case ended up targeting the press, and led to the jailing of a Times reporter.

The "hypoed preward intelligence on Iraq" line has long since been discredited. Joseph Wilson's mission, and the lies he told about it afterwards, were a cynical effort by the CIA to delegitimize a war which they opposed because of the culture of amoral foreign policy "realism" that pervades that agency-- or, if you prefer, because of the CIA's greater wisdom. It doesn't matter. Right or wrong, the CIA wasn't elected to run US foreign policy, and Wilson's mission was a betrayal of the CIA's mandate and, in a small way, an attack on democracy.

The fact that Joe Wilson was set up for the mission by his wife was information that the public needed to know, and we are indebted to the public servant who leaked it. (Begin ironic overstatement) A democracy cannot long survive if government agencies and bureaucracies pursue their own agendas, disregarding or defying the will of elected officials. (End ironic overstatement)


This post is a reminder of why I dislike the term African-Americans. "African-American" ought to refer to recent immigrants from Africa, of which there are relatively few but should be more, not to black Americans who have been here for generations. If you remember that the US has had tremendous white immigration but very little black immigration since the end of the slave trade (not to equate the slave trade with immigration, of course), it's safe to say that the American pedigree of the average black American is much older than that of the average white American. The term "African-American" makes blacks sound like immigrants, when in fact they are, after the Amerindians (not "Native Americans"-- any American-born person is a native American, including whites and blacks), the oldest Americans of all.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006


The Nation's blog thinks that the momentum for impeaching Bush is building. They quote John Dean as saying that "There can be no serious question that warrantless wiretapping, in violation of the law, is impeachable." Maybe, but, Nixon aside, lots of presidents have engaged in warrantless wire-tapping, and not been impeached. Meanwhile, Americans, wisely or not, are on Bush's side on this one:

We are now two weeks into the artificial brouhaha engineered by the Times when it exposed that the National Security Agency (NSA) had been authorized by the President to monitor the international phone calls and emails of terror suspects within the US.

Despite the best efforts of the Times and its backup singers in the mainstream media, this revelation has not resonated as scandalous with the American people. A Rasmussen poll released December 28th revealed that 64% of Americans believe that the NSA should intercept such international communications. This was the majority opinion among Republicans (81%), Democrats (51%) and Independents (57%) alike. A mere 23% thought the NSA should be prohibited from such warrant-less monitoring.

And 68% of respondents said they were following the NSA wiretapping story closely, so the President’s critics cannot blame ignorance for the rejection of their arguments by the citizenry. Indeed, the respondents understood very well that President authorizing such eavesdropping to assess national security threats is not new or unusual -- only 26% were misinformed enough to think that Bush was the first President to do so.

Are the Democrats really crazy enough, if they do retake Congress in 2006, to try to impeach Bush? Talk about misinterpreting a mandate!

If they do, it would be political suicide. Bush would be Reagan to Nixon's Goldwater. The Democrats would delegitimize Watergate's journalistic coup, and would have the odor of fifth-columnists for a generation. And by the way, I'm a bit leery of wiretapping myself, because in the long run I fear our government more than the terrorists, and because, while I trust Bush more or less, there are tight limits to the powers I wish to entrust to future presidents. But to imagine that Democrat-voters in 2006 want to impeach Bush for wiretapping is delusional.

If voters know that this is what Democrats will do with their mandate, Republicans should have an easy time holding Congress this November. So get the word out! ScrappleFace is looking prescient.


If Dick Morris is right that Bush's poll numbers are rising because the Democrats' attacks on Bush's wire-tapping policies are pushing isolationist swing voters back towards Bush-- and about the strength of swing voters generally, Morris estimates 35%-- then that also helps to explain why John Kerry got the Democratic nomination last year. John Kerry was a very isolationist candidate, who condemned almost any kind of intervention in the outside world as iniquitous, and a born-again protectionist to boot.

We should engage with the world because it is right to help our fellow men, and also because it is in our interest. Cheap Chinese goods allow us to achieve high growth with low inflation. Cultural exchange is even more important and enriching, and is not separable from economic relations. That we can live without the rest of the world is a dangerous illusion.