Towards A Good Samaritan World

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Nato writes in a comment thread:

In Obama I see a man who seems to leave his attempts to balance between epistemic humility and the need for action out in the open. That is to say, his subtlety does not appear to just be an attempt to remain a cipher until it's clear which way the political winds blow.

Perhaps I am projecting here, but I will say that onto no other recent candidates was I able to project such positive interpretations as these. (my italics)

Ya think? From Obama's book, via Brothers Judd:

"I am new enough on the national political scene," [Obama] writes in the book's prologue, "to serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views."

But Americans will figure out that they're just projecting before they put this suave neophyte into the White House.


From Iraqi blogger Hammorabi:

Through out the history we read about revolutions at their induction, climax and decline. Almost all of these revolutions are based on mounting pressure by tyranny or a party in power. At the end a new state formed making certain correction yet not suitable for every one.

The revolution of Imam Hussein is the only one which will never end and will remain active and vivid at its climax against all tyrants and oppressors. Imam Hussein is a symbol for freedom and dignity not for one nation or religion or school but for all mankind at any time.

Imam Hussein is the son of the daughter of Prophet Mohammad (peace be up on them) and the son of Imam Ali (PBUH). More than 1400 years ago he refused to give allegiance to the tyrant of the time Yazid Bin Moawiyah who inherited power from his father by a decree before his death in Damascus. Yazid was dissipated, perverted, cruel tyrant. Right after proclamation of power he sent militant messengers to Madena and asked the most important peoples and chiefs of tribes to acknowledge his leadership as the Caliph or be killed. Almost all of them accepted but Imam Hussein. Some of them tried to convince Imam Hussein to do the same. Imam Hussein refused and he felt that giving such an allegiance from a person like his-good-self will be a very big mistake as it may pave a way for similar and even worse things in future. One has to know that Imam Hussein was the only son of a daughter of a Prophet on the face of the earth at the time...

They forced Imam Hussein to pull towards Kerbala about 60 KM south west of Kuffa. They prevented him and his children from water. They requested that he will submit his will completely to OBZ. Imam Hussein refused and asked them to leave him and his family to go somewhere else but they insisted not to leave him. On the day of 10th of Moharam there was an uneven battle between Imam Hussein and his few followers and Yazid's army which was ten of thousands. Imam Hussein and his followers were all killed and their tents burnt in the most horrific way especially for his children and women who were then taken as prisoners. Along the way towards Damascus the wicked army raised the heads of Imam Hussein, his sons, his brother, and his followers in front of the caravan of children and women. Along that way the children and women were therefore forced to see the heads of their beloved ones through out the way...

Imam Hussein blood will stay recording victory over all tyrants in the history of mankind. It is a revolution that will never end.

If there is anything one may learn from Imam Hussein, is his resolution and determination about the principles, dignity, and freedom from becoming handicapped by inferior limitations. It is the victory of the oppressed over the oppressors and the blood against the swords.

Imam Hussein will stay the candle or the light that shows the right way against going astray when darkness deeply-set.

Peace be up on you Imam Hussein and all those who killed with you on the 10th day of Moharam. May Allah included us with you on the Day of Judgment and be our intercessor at that day by Allah's will.

Resembles the Christian story a bit, no? Though with some important differences: (a) Imam Hussein is not an incarnation of God, (b) no body of teachings associated with Imam Hussein is not mentioned here (but there might be some that I haven't heard of), (c) there is no resurrection... and actually, I'm a bit puzzled as to what is meant by "the victory of the oppressed over the oppressors" in this case. The anti-tyrant rhetoric is impressive, though.

The Christian religion provides a good basis for a democratic society because of its emphasis on equality and its skepticism about coercion ("turn the other cheek"). The Hindu religion provides a good basis for a democratic society because of its ethos of nonviolence and tolerance. The Shia religion may be a good basis for democracy because of its animus against tyrants. If so, Shia democracies may have their own peculiar dynamics, just as India's democracy has distinct differences from that of America and other Christian countries, reflect the different religious-ethical foundations of their society.

Whether Judaism and secularism provide strong bases for democracy is less clear, because Israel and western Europe inherited their democracies from the Christian West: the Jews because they lived in the Christian West before founding Israel, the Europeans because they were the Christian West at the time that they democratized, and then lost their faith. (Of course many Israelis were Middle Eastern Jews before they went to Israel, but the European Jews were sufficient in number to determine the political character of the society.)

Monday, January 29, 2007

Ralph Peters on the complexities of handling the Sunni-Shia divide:

And now, in the worst American tradition, we're in danger of grabbing at short-term gains at an exorbitant strategic price: Defaulting to our old habit of backing hard-line regimes, we've dropped all pressure on the Saudis and Egyptians to reform their political systems.

Want to recruit more terrorists for another 9/11? Give Sunni Arab regimes a renewed blank check to shut down all opposition.

True, Shia terrorists have attacked us in the Middle East. But the Sunni terrorists attack us globally - and on our own soil. Shia extremists think regionally, while Sunni fanatics have universal ambitions.

Yes, Iran is the immediate strategic problem - but it's a far more complex matter than the kiss-the-Saudis'-sandals crowd accepts. A violent rogue with a nuclear-weapons program, Iran backs terrorists in Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan.

Yet Iran also happens to be America's natural ally in the region.

We're in a race against time. The Iranian people have tried religious rule - now they're sick and tired of it. They want to move on. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's allies lost the last round of elections and the mullahs are getting nervous about his excesses. Iranians want change, but don't know how to get it - and we can't impose it.

Could the Khomeinist regime fall before apocalyptic ayatollahs get the bomb? There's no more pressing strategic question.

If we find it necessary to attack Iran's nuclear program, it's going to be a long and messy process. A thorough effort would kill a lot of Iranians - alienating even the most liberal-minded members of a highly nationalistic population.

Stopping the bad Iranians would cost us the good Iranians. There's no good solution.

The tragedy here is that Iran is farther along in its political development than our Arab "friends." The states to which we're inclined to turn may still have Sunni versions of the Khomeini revolution ahead of them.

Fundamentalist, anti-American regimes could hatch in exactly the baskets where we're tempted to park our strategic eggs.

The idea of avoiding being on good terms with Saudi Arabia in order not to make anti-Saudi radicals hate us strikes me as a dubious one. But we should talk to Teheran, or at least be ready to do so immediately when Ahmadinejad falls-- or if we can find some way to talk around him. Jim Webb was right about one thing, at least.


A Guardian writer is worried about "power vacuum" in the US:

And there, from afar, is the unique problem with an American presidential election race that has, for all practical purposes, started already. Many times past, you juggle the possibilities and see at least one firm peg to hang a few calculations on. After Clinton, Gore; after Reagan, daddy Bush; after Carter, Mondale. There was always a favoured succession somewhere. But this time, on either side, there is not only no evident succession, but also no continuing consensus of conviction. All contestants welcome, and the theme that happens to hit a chord can produce an American idol. The power of the party machines is feebler than ever, because they have no favourite candidate. The direction the country must take, once a heartily despised president departs, is unsettled going on totally uncharted.

It's a vacuum to register with unease. Maybe Britain, in its more fevered moments, is desperate for Blair to go, for Brown to come, for leadership to define and renew and exert itself. The supposed problems of drift are vividly sketched in ubiquitous print. But here's the great power, where most things begin, with two vacant, swilling years to go - and nobody has a blind idea what comes next.

This seems wrong. The Republican front-runner is John McCain; the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton. Jim Webb and Barack Obama are too inexperienced and have a lot of vulnerabilities. John Edwards will probably turn out to be just another lawyer joke. Meanwhile, on the right, Giuliani won't be able to get past his stances on social issues, and no one else is heavyweight enough to close the lead with McCain. Of course there's some suspense, and that's what makes politics fun. But it will probably be McCain vs. Hillary in 2008.

Also, the "heartily despised" is gratuitous. Yes, Bush's job approval is in the low-30s, but one can disagree with a president while despising him-- or, for that matter, agree with him and despise him. People approved of Clinton as a politician while despising his personal ethics. And Kerry got a lot of supporter from people who despised him-- see

Sunday, January 28, 2007


The commend thread inspired more thoughts about epistemology...

Tradition. If one takes the foundationalist view of epistemology-- that certain truths are "foundational," i.e. known a priori or directly from experience, while other true beliefs are discovered by deduction or induction from the foundational ones-- knowledge becomes possible in principle, but in practice the justification-chains from our everyday beliefs back to foundational beliefs are not feasible for an individual to perform. In real life, knowledge is a social phenomenon: we rely on a myriad of sources-- books, newspapers, other people's reports-- in order to form our belief-systems, without undertaking, or being capable of undertaking, a thorough, independent evaluation of the trustworthiness of these sources: implicitly, half-consciously. Self-conscious rationalism, along the lines of Descartes' "doubting everything," adopts a more individualistic epistemology: it insists that we cannot simply believe what we're told, we must test it, confirm or disconfirm it, for ourselves. But this epistemic individualism can only be adopted selectively, because our minds/lifetimes are radically inadequate to the task of proving/justifying even the belief-system that is minimal for sanity. Also, the greatest genius would not be capable of recognizing and culling all the beliefs that he had inherited or absorbed uncritically from others. Every rationalist will display many beliefs that are obvious local/contemporary prejudices from the point of view of those who come after, and no doubt also-- if only they could observe his work-- those who came before. This is not to do say that rationalists have not done us much good; they did so because tradition could react to and/or absorb them, like the grain of sand in an oyster creating a pearl. The rationalist style of exposition of a subject from first principles is an admirable exercise that often enhances knowledge, and even the rationalist ethos has its place; but it should never be applied without a certain irony.

Another reason to respect tradition has to do with the human life-cycle. The perspective of the young is inherently biased, as they know only the early phases of a human life; the perspective of the old a bit better, but they too are biased, since inasmuch as the interests of their young selves went against the interests of their older selves, they are biased in favor of the latter. Moreover, there is in youth a sense of wonder which is a true wisdom, which the old maintain with difficulty. Ideas about how a human life ought to be lived are best dealt with in a forum that includes representatives of the several stages of the life-cycle, and that is what tradition is: it is a conversation among the generations, honed in the course of centuries.

Finally, a respect for a tradition reflects an awareness that for most people, the ratio of the unsaid to the said is a hundred to one; any old tradition probably has more and richer justifications than are likely to be articulated at any given time. If a tradition seems odd or inconvenient, it may indeed be obsolete, or have been a bad idea from the beginning, but it is generally wiser to adhere to the tradition for some time and look for unrecognized reasons behind it, rather than abandoning it immediately.

Revelation. Why would God reveal His word to man directly, rather than letting man figure out the truth for himself? If he does, how would He do it exactly? And why doesn't He do it more often?

I won't try to give a complete answer to those questions, but I think the discussion of "explanation" with respect to physical/scientific and mental/non-scientific observation/knowledge leads into the question of revelation. Basically, revelation is needed because while we can establish agreement through evidence and argument as far as the "public" issues of the natural sciences extend, but when it comes to that which we experience "privately," i.e. in the mind, proof through evidence and argument is hostage to different subjects' willingness and capacity to accept portrayals or characterizations of their private experience, and to the somewhat feeble and unreliable power of words to convey inner experience through empathy and metaphor. The mental life matters more; indeed the physical world in a sense matters not at all, and it is permitted to us to regard it as merely the parchment for us to write our stories on; but about the mental life it is much harder to advance our knowledge. We might simply never figure out enough on our own. A quarrel among natural scientists can be resolved by a clear demonstration of fact, but when the theme pertains to the experiences of the human mind or soul, there is no way to resolve the quarrel, and we will stray down false paths; our work is in vain.

How can revelation help? If we cannot unravel the truth on our own, perhaps we can still recognize it when we hear it. Or, if we cannot recognize it fully, we can hear enough of it to be fascinated, to be invited deeper into contemplation upon it. Our comprehension of a revealed truth can only be limited, but here we can help one another, provided that many individuals' limited comprehension of it persuades them to accept it as the truth. In that case, the believers can assist one another and deepen one another's understanding. And precisely because the truth is entire and perfect this does not lead to a syncretistic muddle like ancient paganism, but instead, to the Church.

So what is this truth, entire and perfect? Not the Bible. The Bible is historically contingent: it is a collection of writings, on holy themes and much of it written by holy people. The authors of it had free will and could have chosen not to write, or to write something different, and other holy writers could have written things that would have been included: if that had occurred, we would have a different Bible but the same Church. The message, the truth entire and perfect, is the Good News, the Gospel.

By this conception, revelation inspires belief because a believer recognizes the truth of revelation, which thenceforth is confirmed by his faculties: it does not imply that the believer should override his faculties in order to be in agreement with the Bible. On the contrary, to do so is to commit the sin of dishonesty, and also to impair one's capacity to understand-- to really read-- the Bible, and the traditions of the Christian faith.

The epistemologies of tradition and revelation are conceptually quite separate, but a certain kind of individualistic rationalism is the enemy of both. The sociality of knowledge, the need for tradition, may be deduced from a commonsense recognition of human cognitive limitations; the revelation of the Gospel cannot. The mental habits of one who has learned to accept tradition-- deference even if only provisional, a willingness to wait for insight about opaque passages rather than rejecting them, an assumption that the texts and rituals have hidden meanings and justifications, a persistence in searching for these-- will equip a person to approach revelation with an appropriate attitude.

But to accept the claims of revelation requires a certain boldness that is at odds with the epistemology of tradition. In this respect, perhaps, the Christian has more in common with the rationalist than with the traditionalist. Or is it that European rationalism's impetuosity, assurance, and optimism-- in contrast to the tentative twilight philosophies of Greco-Roman antiquity-- is an emulation, an echo, of Christianity?

Friday, January 26, 2007


Another dismissive, contemptuous review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. (Hat tip: Brothers Judd.)

Until recently, western atheism had waited patiently, believing that belief in God would simply die out. But now, a whiff of panic is evident. Far from dying out, belief in God has rebounded, and seems set to exercise still greater influence in both the public and private spheres. The God Delusion expresses this deep anxiety, partly reflecting an intense distaste for religion. Yet there is something deeper here, often overlooked in the heat of debate. The anxiety is that the coherence of atheism itself is at stake. Might the unexpected resurgence of religion persuade many that atheism itself is fatally flawed as a worldview?

That's what Dawkins is worried about. The shrill, aggressive rhetoric of his God Delusion masks a deep insecurity about the public credibility of atheism. The God Delusion seems more designed to reassure atheists whose faith is faltering than to engage fairly or rigorously with religious believers, and others seeking for truth. (Might this be because the writer is himself an atheist whose faith is faltering?) Religious believers will be dismayed by its ritual stereotyping of religion, and will find its manifest lack of fairness a significant disincentive to take its arguments and concerns seriously. Seekers after truth who would not consider themselves religious may also find themselves shocked by Dawkins' aggressive rhetoric, his substitution of personal creedal statements for objective engagement with evidence, his hectoring and bullying tone towards "dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads," and his utter determination to find nothing but fault with religion of any kind...

Space is limited, so let's look his two core arguments -- that religion can be explained away on scientific grounds, and that religion leads to violence. Dawkins dogmatically insists that religious belief is "blind trust," which refuses to take due account of evidence, or subject itself to examination. So why do people believe in God, when there is no God to believe in? For Dawkins, religion is simply the accidental and unnecessary outcome of biological or psychological processes. His arguments for this bold assertion are actually quite weak, and rest on an astonishingly superficial engagement with scientific studies.

For example, consider this important argument in The God Delusion. Since belief in God is utterly irrational (one of Dawkins' core beliefs, by the way), there has to be some biological or psychological way of explaining why so many people -- in fact, by far the greater part of the world's population -- fall victim to such a delusion. One of the explanations that Dawkins offers is that believing in God is like being infected with a contagious virus, which spreads throughout entire populations. Yet the analogy -- belief in God is like a virus -- seems to then assume ontological substance. Belief in God is a virus of the mind. Yet biological viruses are not merely hypothesized; they can be identified, observed, and their structure and mode of operation determined. Yet this hypothetical "virus of the mind" is an essentially polemical construction, devised to discredit ideas that Dawkins does not like.

So are all ideas viruses of the mind? Dawkins draws an absolute distinction between rational, scientific and evidence-based ideas, and spurious, irrational notions -- such as religious beliefs. The latter, not the former, count as mental viruses. But who decides what is "rational" and "scientific"? Dawkins does not see this as a problem, believing that he can easily categorize such ideas, separating the sheep from the goats.

Except it all turns out to be horribly complicated, losing the simplicity and elegance that marks a great idea. For instance, every worldview -- religious or secular -- ends up falling into the category of "belief systems," precisely because it cannot be proved. That is simply the nature of worldviews, and everyone knows it. It prevents nobody from holding a worldview in the first place, and doing so with complete intellectual integrity in the second. In the end, Dawkins' idea simply implodes, falling victim to his own subjective judgement of what is rational and true. It's not an idea that is taken seriously within the scientific community, and can safely be disregarded.

The flaw in atheism-- or, more specifically, physicalist reductionism-- is that it consists at its heart of a groundless ontological claim: that nothing exists but "force and matter," matter and energy, stuff intelligible by physics. God, souls, ideas, thoughts, are all either denied or asserted to be reducible to a physicalist basis. This ontological claim is not usually justified, and how could it be? It is awfully hard to prove a negative, to prove the non-existence of something.

The best reason that can be offered is Ockham's razor, but there are two problems with this. First, Ockham's razor isn't very strong, it's just a sort of rule of thumb. Just because Mr. Plum, with the wrench, in the drawing room, is the simplest explanation of Mr. Boddy's murder doesn't necessarily mean that's what actually happened. Second, in order for the simplest explanation to be preferred to more complex ones, it has to be an explanation. But nothing like a complete physical-reductionist explanation of our world and experiences has been offered. That is, rather, promised as something that science will eventually achieve.

At this point, it's clear that the physical-reductionists are nothing but "faith-heads."

Thursday, January 25, 2007


Mickey Kaus argues that "comprehensive immigration reform" and the Iraq War are both "bold, decisive disasters":

Bold, Decisive Disasters: The conventional view of Tuesday's State of the Union speech is this: Bush's invasion of Iraq has turned nightmarish. He got beat in the midterms. He's reacted by changing his approach on the domestic front--reaching across the aisle to make bipartisan, centrist compromises on domestic issues like "comprehensive immigration reform."

But it seems to me the invasion of Iraq and "comprehensive immigration reform" actually have more in common than you might think. Far from being a sensible centrist departure from the sort of grandiose, wishful, rigid thinking that led Bush into Iraq, "comprehensive immigration reform" is of a piece with that thinking. And it's likely to lead to a similar outcome.

I'm in the opposite position from Mickey: I support both immigration reform and the Iraq War. But I also see resemblances between the two: in particular, both are simultaneously (a) ways to deal with intractable problems, and (b) are half-conscious assaults on the idea of "sovereignty" that is the fundamental organizing principle of, and the chief source of injustice in, our world.

Here are ten similarities:

1. They're both ideas Bush had when he came into office...

2. They both have an idealistic basis. Bush was sympathetic to the way Middle East democrats had been frustrated by "realist" foreign policies, and he's clearly sympathetic to the problems of poor immigrants who come to the U.S. to work and feed their families only to be forced to live "in the shadows."

This is key. Critics of the Iraq War don't always acknowledge the "idealistic basis" of the Iraq War; a lot of criticism is of the "blood for oil"/conspiracy-theorist kind. Few critics of the war get as far as "The Iraq War had an idealistic basis, but..."

3. They both seek, in one swoop, to achieve a grand solution to a persistent, difficult problem. No "smallball"! The Iraq Project would begin the transformation of the Middle East, an area that had frustrated president after president. "Comprehensive" immigration reform would, as the name suggests, resolve in one bold bill the centuries-old immigration issue--including a) devising a way to keep out illegal workers while b) providing business with legal immigrant workers, plus c) deciding what to do with illegals who are already here. It would, as Bush said Tuesday, be "conclusive."

Maybe. To my mind, the Iraq War and immigration reform "get the ball rolling" on their respective causes, causes which, if the follow their logical course, will transform the world we live in.

4. In both cases, they envision a complicated, triple-bank shot chain of events happening just as Bush wishes it to happen. Iraqis were going to be grateful to their American liberators, come together in peace and give us a stable "ally in the war on terror." Hispanics, in the happy Rovian scenario behind Bush's immigration plan, would be grateful to Republicans for bringing them out of the shadows, etc., ensuring a large and growing GOP Latino vote for decades to come.

Whether the "visionary" objectives of Iraq/immigration reform are either necessary or sufficient for adopting them is not clear. A "shoot high, settle for less" approach may be at work.

5. Both have an obvious weak spot, depending crucially on pulling off a very difficult administrative feat.

Yes, and neither will work out according to plan. Both involve a revolutionary move against an indefensible status quo: after that, things will spin out of control, that's a given.

6. In both cases, the solution has failed before. We had failed to "stand up" a democracy in Vietnam. We failed to establish a stable, trans-factional governing structures in Lebanon and Somalia. Similarly, the grand, bipartisan Simpson-Mazzoli immigration reform of 1986 had promised, and failed, to establish an effective immigration enforcement mechanism.

But was the Simpson-Mazzoli reform really a failure? Kaus himself quotes Bill Kristol's cogent rebuttal:

7. Both were promoted by Bill Kristol!

8. In both cases, some Bush plan enthusiasts may not really mind a chaotic end result... Similarly, Kristol has said he isn't really bothered that the enforcement parts of the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli law failed:

I'm not cavalier about illegal immigrants. ...[snip]... What damage have they done that's so great in 20 years? The anti-immigration forces said 20 years ago, there was an amnesty, which there sort of was, the Simpson- Mazzoli bill, which was pushed by the anti-immigration people, that Ronald Reagan signed. What's happened that's so terrible in the last 20 years? Is the crime rate up in the United States in the last 20 years? Is unemployment up in the United States in the last 20 years?...

Exactly. And of course there are remittances to Mexico, and improvements in the living standards of the immigrants themselves. Kaus goes on:

9. In both cases, less grand--and less risky--alternatives are available. Bush could have kept "Saddam" boxed up while he planned regime change through other means, built alliances and pursued the more manageable war in Afghanistan.

I doubt it. Of course, Saddam was more "in a box" already than we knew, or could have known, at that time. But the sanctions were unraveling, and dead Iraqi children because of the sanction were already a cause celebre for bin Laden and al-Qaeda, and a particularly dangerous one, since they were one of a number of areas where al-Qaeda was on the same page as conscientious Westerners.

Similarly, Bush could put "enforcement" mechanisms in place, and make sure they work, before he potentially stimulates a huge new wave of illegal immigrants by rewarding those illegals who already made it across the border.

And thus reinforce the injustice that those born within the borders of the United States have far better opportunities in this world than those born outside it.

10. In both cases the consequences of losing Bush's big bet are severe.

Severe for whom? The consequences of the status quo-- Saddam in power; our current immigration system-- were/are severe for its victims. More fundamentally, the status quo in each case puts us in the wrong. It was morally unacceptable to be punishing Iraqi children for Saddam's vile thwarted ambitions. It is morally unacceptable today that we are applying massive coercion to preserve the privileges of the American-born while denying freedom of migration to the foreign-born.

The equivalent disaster scenario in immigration would go something like this: "Comprehensive" reform passes. The "earned legalization" provisions work as planned--millions of previously undocumented workers become legal Americans. But the untested "enforcement" provisions (point #5) prove no more effective than they've been in the past--or else they are crippled by ACLU-style lawsuits and lobbying (as in the past). Legal guest workers enter the country to work, but so do millions of new illegal workers, drawn by the prospect that they too, may some day be considered too numerous to deport and therefore candidates for the next amnesty. Hey, "stuff happens!" The current 12 million illegal immigrants become legal--and soon we have another 12 million illegals. Or 20 million.

That's exactly what I'm hoping for. It would be interesting to know whether this is what Bush is hoping for, as well, or whether he really thinks "enforcement" will work. As I wrote in "A Right to Migrate":

The question, then, is whether illegal immigrants and their sympathizers have the courage and conviction to organize civil disobedience until they force lasting change... I, for one, hope they do. And I hope they bring about a world in which the right to migrate is accepted as an essential pillar of freedom.

As a result, wages for unskilled, low-income legal American and immigrant workers are depressed. Visible contrasts of wealth and poverty reach near-Latin American proportions in parts of Los Angeles.

Bring it on. After all, the "contrasts of wealth and poverty" are already there; borders are a blindfold, preventing us from seeing how the foreign-born are condemned to live. Open borders would render them visible but would not create them; on the contrary, they are by far the most effective means of reducing them, both through the natural processes of the free market, and by sharpening the pangs of conscience felt by the wealth off and fueling private charity.

And the majority of these illegal (and legal) immigrants, like the majority in many parts of the country, are from one nation: Mexico. America for the first time has a potential Quebec problem,** in which a neighboring country has a continuing claim on the loyalties of millions of residents and citizens.

This is paranoid. Mexicans come here because they want to benefit from the superior economy and governance of the United States. If they wanted to live in Mexico, they'd stay in Mexico. But of course, if we're worried about this, there's an easy solution: let in more non-Mexican immigrants.

In one sense, this second grand Bush plan failure wouldn't be nearly as disastrous as the first--tens of thousands of people wouldn't die.

Poverty kills more people than the Iraq War. Open borders would create huge opportunities for people to better their lives, leading to better health, lower infant mortality and malnutrition, longer life expectancies. Immigration restrictions kill.

In another sense, it would be worse. We can retreat from Iraq. We won't be able to retreat from the failure of immigration reform--no "surge" will save us--because it will change who "we" are.

Who we are is rooted in what we do. As long as we protect the privileged lives of the American-born through immigration restrictions, there is a fundamental cowardice at the soul of the American nation; we are spoiled aristocrats, telling the rest of the world, "Let them eat cake." We walk blindfolded, we cut ourselves off from our fellow men, we "retreat into our money and our vast carelessness," as F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote. And we are tainted by the unjust coercion that is exercised in our name. For this reason, many in this world justly despise us.

The Iraq War was, or at any rate may be, the beginning of the end of our Pontius Pilate foreign policy, in which we washed our hands of the injustice and atrocities which we had the power to stop, trying to deny any responsibility. Immigration reform points the way towards the end of the border policy by which we walk on the other side of the road and pretend not to see the suffering, the downtrodden. These two Bush policies point us... towards a Good Samaritan world.

(I've finally shed a bit of light on the cryptic title of this blog!)

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


My latest article at Tech Central Station:

Last night, President Bush's State of the Union address and Senator James Webb's Democratic response provided a useful juxtaposition of views. Among other things, it showed how the parties' positions on poverty have changed.

To wit, President Bush's proposals tend to target various aspects of what might be called absolute poverty. By contrast, Sen. Webb is interested in relative poverty.

Themes from President Bush's speech that relate to poverty include:

Health care. President Bush's discussion of health care was the wonkiest part of the speech, but his proposals are an effort to expand the net of health insurance to cover some of the 45 million people without health insurance, while encouraging cost savings. His first proposal was a change in the tax code, providing tax breaks to those with health insurance, thus making it more affordable and increasing the incentive to acquire it. Second, he proposed federal aid to "states that make basic private health insurance available to all their citizens," such as Massachusetts. If health insurance becomes more widespread, the poor, who are more likely to lack insurance, will benefit disproportionally.

Immigration. One demographic in America with especially high poverty incidence is illegal immigrants. Their lack of legal status puts them in fear of capture and deportation, and makes it harder for them to switch jobs. Last night, Bush called once again for "resolv[ing] the status of the illegal immigrants who are already in our country... [through] comprehensive immigration reform."

An immigration reform bill along the lines of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act passed by the Senate (but not the House) last May would be of immediate benefit to millions of the poorest people in America. The temporary worker program that President Bush proposed would benefit the US economy, but would also directly benefit those, probably from poor countries, who would get to come to America under the program, boosting their incomes and broadening their horizons. As a poverty alleviation policy, a temporary worker program is especially meritorious.

AIDS. In 2004, I had the opportunity to spend a few weeks in one of the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa. I was immediately struck by the tremendous number of children there. It seemed that the median age was about 15. Why? Part of the explanation is that 25% of the population had AIDS, and life expectancy had dropped to 40 or less. The pandemic left hundreds of thousands of orphans in its wake. In schools, upwards of 100 children would crowd into some classrooms, because the teachers were dying. Coffins became a major item in school districts' budgets. Along the roads, with alarming frequency, were the advertisements of coffin makers.

Thanks to anti-retroviral drugs, AIDS no longer has to be a death sentence. In rich countries, people like Andrew Sullivan can have AIDS and still lead highly successful careers and carry on fulfilling personal lives. But only a tiny proportion of AIDS victims in sub-Saharan Africa have access to these drugs. Bush has already tripled aid spending to fight the AIDS pandemic, to $15 billion, and last night he asked Congress to continue funding these efforts.

Malaria. Economist Jeffrey Sachs has argued, based on transnational research on the statistical determinants of economic development, that "the economic burden of malaria" is one of the major reasons that sub-Saharan Africa is the poorest region of the world. Because they are so poor, sub-Saharan Africans are not a lucrative prospective market, so profit-oriented pharmaceutical companies prefer to research drugs for the ailments of rich-world clients, even if these ailments have a far smaller human toll. President Bush called on Congress "to provide $1.2 billion over five years so we can combat malaria in 15 African countries."

I would argue that the Iraq War is at least as important as the other initiatives in the long-run fight against world poverty. If we see development as freedom, then people living in totalitarian prison-states are ipso facto among the world's poorest people, destitute of "substantive freedoms" even if they have some material comforts. Anyway, oppressive, corrupt, kleptocratic, unaccountable, and dictatorial states are a major hindrance to development even in the narrowly economic sense. The overthrow of one tyrant is a valuable precedent, because now no dictator can take his impunity for granted, and the ignominious downfall and death of Saddam Hussein stands as a warning to other rulers to serve their people rather than repress them.

If the Iraq War is the stick of encouraging better governance, the Millennium Challenge Account is the carrot. This new foreign aid program provides large tranches of money to selected countries. But in order to apply, countries have to achieve demonstrable progress in "ruling justly," "investing in people," and economic freedom.

President Bush has proposed an array of policies that confront different aspects of real deprivation as experienced by the poor here and abroad: bad education, lack of legal status and fear of deportation, lack of health care and disease. Of course, also critical to poverty alleviation is the ongoing success of the US economy, which, as the president mentioned, has created 7.2 million jobs since the beginning of the current expansion. Jobs are both the best way out of poverty and, as presidential aspirant John Edwards has said , a source of "dignity and self-respect." By calling for a balanced budget in five years, without raising taxes, President Bush made a bid to preserve a business climate in which prosperity will continue.

While the president is interested in dealing with specific aspects of poverty and deprivation, he is not interested in the position of poor people relative to others. Senator Webb is. "When I graduated from college," remarks Senator Webb, "the average corporate CEO made 20 times what the average worker did; today, it¹s nearly 400 times." Or again, "Wages and salaries for our workers are at all-time lows as a percentage of national wealth." In each case, the statistic he cites is a ratio: the average worker's wages compared to those of the CEO; wages and salaries compared to national wealth. That the average worker is much wealthier in absolute terms than he was thirty years ago does not seem to interest Webb much: what matters is that his relative wealth has decreased.

There is probably, in fact, a link between those soaring CEO paychecks that Webb is so indignant about and the rising living standards of the average worker. In a survey of executive pay offered last week in The Economist, Edward Carr reports that "executives have enjoyed an astonishing pay bonanza," and "explains why most of them deserve it." The rise in executive pay, reports Carr, probably reflects an improvement of corporate governance: the accountability of executives to corporate boards improved, and CEOs' positions became more precarious, which helped to make maximizing shareholder value paramount in corporate strategy. Then executive pay was bid up by the market for managerial talent. Better management led to productivity growth, and to job creation and higher pay for workers. So it matters whether you care about your wealth in absolute terms or relative terms. If you're interested in absolute wealth and poverty, recent trends are good. If you're interested in relative wealth and poverty, recent trends are bad.

The irony is that Sen. Webb calls for "measure[ing] the health of our society not at its apex, but at its base. Not with the numbers that come out of Wall Street, but with the living conditions that exist on Main Street." Quite right. But President Bush said not a word about Wall Street. He is interested in job creation, health care, and foreign aid. It is Sen. Webb who thinks the state of the nation depends on how the elite are faring.

Corresponding to the emphasis on absolute poverty and relative poverty are feelings of altruism and envy, respectively.

President Bush seeks to inspire altruism by encouraging Americans to compare themselves with those who have less:

"American foreign policy is more than a matter of war and diplomacy. Our work in the world is also based on a timeless truth: To whom much is given, much is required. We hear the call to take on the challenges of hunger and poverty and disease."

Sen. Webb, by contrast, encourages Americans to compare themselves to those who have more, and feel envy. Although Sen. Webb borrows John Edwards' "two nations" theme ("it's almost like we were living in two different countries"), unlike Edwards, Webb makes no mention of helping the poor. Sen. Webb's message is that "the middle class of this country, our historic backbone and our best hope for a strong society in the future, is losing its place at the table."

Whereas President Bush supports policies that would help the poor abroad, especially his call for "expanded trade and debt relief that are the best hope for lifting lives and eliminating poverty," Sen. Webb hints at policies that would harm them. When he complains about jobs going overseas, he is complaining about the very process that is now giving tens of millions of people a chance to lift themselves out of poverty. (James Webb also attacked illegal immigrants in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed.)

None of this is to say whether it's a good thing that President Bush cares so much about the poor. Some of his ideas are good, others may not work out so well. Laurie Garrett, in the most recent Foreign Affairs, reports on the serous problems facing the donors' drive to promote global health. President Bush's willingness to spend taxpayer money on the poor (and not-so-poor) is one of the things about him that makes a lot of conservatives uneasy.

The point is, rather, that this is a good time to notice how the parties' ideologies have evolved, and in one respect have leap-frogged one another. Democrats are no longer the ones who care about the poor. President Bush is.

George Bush wants us to be fed, clothed, healthy, educated, employed, and free. James Webb wants us to keep up with the Joneses.

Monday, January 22, 2007


Imagine you've just given a year and a half of your life to serving your country in Iraq and come home to find that your pregnant wife and your toddler daughter have been forced to leave the United States, and now the government won't let them back in.

You sit at home waiting, but no one can give you answers when or if they will be allowed to return. You wait five months, long enough for your baby to be born in a foreign country. But still, no one can give you answers.

That is what Aaron Thorsted of Salt Lake City, Utah, goes through every day. His story aired on KSL-TV there this week.

Why is the government preventing Johana Thorsted and the couple's children from returning to the United States? Is she on some terror watch list? Does she have ties to radical organizations? Has she committed some heinous act that makes her a danger to our country?

No. Like thousands of others who have grown up here and know no other life but ours, Johana's parents forced her to come to the United States from Guatemala illegally when she was a child. Aaron Thorsted knew her status when he asked her to marry him. He told KSL that Johana worried that he would reject her when he found out.

But love doesn't require a “green card,” and so Aaron promised her they would fix her problem. When Aaron was sent to Iraq, however, the process slowed, since immigration officials are wary of Americans who want to sponsor spouses who aren't actually living under the same roof.

Johana returned to Guatemala in what should have been the final step in adjusting her status. The couple expected she would have approval by the time Aaron came home from his tour in Iraq. But they are still waiting. And in December, their second child was born. This complicates matters because the child is not automatically an American citizen and now, too, must get permission to come to the United States.

Our immigration restrictions are a national disgrace. Vivan los coyotes!

Friday, January 19, 2007


Writes historian John Judis:

What exactly are we doing in the Horn of Africa, where we have encouraged the Christian government of Ethiopia to invade Somalia and replace its Islamic government? As far as I can tell, we have violated international law, committed war crimes, helped Al Qaeda recruit new members, and involved ourselves in a guerrilla war that could last decades. It's Iraq writ small. And it can't be blamed on Donald Rumsfeld.

There's an old principle of international law, going back to the seventeenth century, against one nation violating the sovereignty of another. It was often breached, but, after two world wars, it was enshrined in the United Nations charter. We criticized the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia and justified the first Gulf war on these grounds. The purpose of this principle has been to prevent wars that could arise if more powerful countries simply took it into their hands to dominate smaller, less powerful ones.

Sovereignty, like slavery, is a concept/institution founded on a morally nihilistic rejection of human dignity that treats people as means rather than ends. Of course, some sovereign states treat their subjects well, just as some masters treated their slaves well. It is sometimes appropriate to let bad institutions stand and rely on good individuals and communities to mitigate them. But not always, and not as a permanent principle.

There is no merit in protecting weaker countries against stronger countries; there is merit in protecting weaker people against stronger people, and against strong states. This is the direction in which international law must move.

Thursday, January 18, 2007


From Iraqi blogger Hammorabi:

Tuesday the 16th January 2007 was another bloody day in Iraq. This time the bloodshed was of female students in Almostansiriyah University in Baghdad. The terrorists used the same barbaric strategy by using several and different types of blasts in the same time.

More than 200 students have been killed and wounded after a suicidal attack and two car bombs. Most of the students were females in the University main entrance and some were waiting in the bus stop to go home. In addition to this ongoing attacks unrelenting in Baghdad and other cities that claimed hundreds of lives.

On the other hand the number of the US soldiers killed in Iraq reached above 3000 this week.

The new US policy in Iraq will fail if it ignores that the security issue in Iraq needs strong Iraqi army and police with better equipments. Increasing few thousands of the US soldiers in Iraq will not solve the most complicated matter.

On the other hand any US conflict with Iran will complicate the problem in the Middle East to an extent that the first one may regret it will be the USA. If the USA attacked Iran the latter may transfer the war inside Iraq against the US troops and will attack the US war ships in the Gulf. Hormoz Strait will close and oil will not go from there. Attacks may extend to include the US bases in Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait. The outcome will be devastating to the region and certainly to the USA which may pull its troops after Iran declares victory and became the only superpower of the region.

Any one who did a mistake should bear its own consequences. In 1980s Iraq was an equal force to Iran. Once the 8 year war finished in 1988 the USA implemented with its allies a policy after Kuwait war to destroy Iraq during the 12 years sanction. Iran was progressing while Iraq was regressing rapidly. It was much better at that time after the liberation of Kuwait to topple Saddam regime and preserve the Iraqi force while advancing the peace process in the Middle East. However the US took the advice of the Saudis to leave Saddam over a destroyed country and even destroy it more by sanctions and it was wrong. Indeed the Iraqis will never forget the years of sanctions which killed more than one million children while kept Saddam prosperous. The worst time in Iraq was not the second Gulf war but the time during the sanction and Saddam in power. Now the USA is paying for its mistake of not toppling Saddam at that easer time. Iran is going to be the superpower of the region with nuclear arms whether the US accepted this or not. However it is better to accept this sooner rather than latter and better without massive bloodshed and sever[e] damages.

We think that all of what is going on now and the attacks of the 11 September 2001 in NY could not have been happened if the war in Kuwait was avoided or at least if Saddam was toppled after that war and of no doubts that was much easier and better than the present situation. The mistake was that GWB the senior accepted the advice of the Saudis who themselves fed the ideology and strategy of September the 11th attacks and much more and seems to be more to come and may be so soon.

I don't agree with everything in Hammorabi's analysis, but his points about GWB Senior's mistake get to the heart of the matter. When I first learned about the effects of the sanctions on Iraq, in college, it made me sick and ashamed of my country. When the statue fell on April 9, 2003, my patriotism was restored. For me, the Iraq War had nothing to do with national security or 9/11. It was a penitential act.

(I wrote a previous post with this title.)

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


Barak Obama, now Democratic candidate for president, has no executive experience and only two years of experience in national politics. George W. Bush would have benefited from having more experience before becoming president. He'd been governor of Texas for six years. And that was peacetime. But peacetime or wartime, Obama is just too inexperienced to belong in the White House.

But a bigger problem is that all Obama's utterances seem to be meaningless pabulum. For example:

“Our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, common-sense way,” Mr. Obama said, speaking in a video address sent to his supporters. “Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can’t tackle the big problems that demand solutions.”

Blah blah blah. Give me substance. Bitter, partisan Democrats, gummed up by the money and influence of the AARP, blocked Bush's attempt to tackle a big problem, Social Security, that demands a solution. Is that what you're talking about, Obama?

Actually, Social Security aside, I'll be contrarian here and say that Obama is actually wrong. In the last few years, Congress has passed the No Child Left Behind Act, big tax cuts, and the Medicare prescription drug plan, while implementing regime change in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those are fair achievements.

But the real problem is that Obama's statements are designed to play well in the press, and to play well to different audiences. They're fortune-cookie statements, that make everyone's brain say "Yeah" because they sound good and are too vague to have any real meaning with which to provoke disagreement. It's a nifty trick, but voters would be very foolish to put a guy into the White House for it.

But wasn't Bill Clinton a smooth-talker too? Yes, but he was also a smooth operator, based on a lot of executive experience and a healthy dose of sleaze, that's what made him successful, and anyway, he was only successful in domestic policy; in foreign policy, the late 1990s were mostly a time of drift, and of course they led up to 9/11. Obama lacks the executive experience and (as far as I know) the sleaze; and this is not a time when we can afford to let foreign policy slide.

That said, I'll give my last dime to Obama's campaign if the Republicans nominate Tom Tancredo.


One positive summary of the Democrats' "100 hours":

Second, the House has now approved legislation directly addressing public concerns: raising the minimum wage, ethics reform, interest rate reductions on subsidized college loans and expanded federal support for stem cell research. It has put in place rule changes to promote fiscal responsibility and adopted recommendations from the 9/11 commission. Today, the House is expected to repeal tax breaks for oil companies. Poll-tested and guaranteed to be political winners, these achievements constitute a modest start toward a saleable centrist agenda for a party too often in the past labeled as extreme.

More important in terms of substantive future legislation, the ability of the Democrats to win over significant numbers of Republicans on most votes signals the slim but enticing possibility of Democratic mastery over a demoralized Republican Party — one that has thrived on polarized partisan warfare in recent years.

If the new bipartisanship takes root, the prospects for health care legislation and immigration reform sharply improve. These proposals cannot survive without backing from both Democrats and Republicans. When it comes to health care, a key corporate lobby, the Business Roundtable, has already formed a tentative alliance with organized labor, thereby giving cover to wavering members of Congress from both ends of the political spectrum. A parallel alliance among business, Roman Catholic Church leaders and progressive organizations like the National Council of La Raza has already formed in support of immigration legislation.

If the new fiscal responsibility rules take hold, they make it harder for Democrats to pass big new spending programs. That is, as long as they're not willing to raise taxes; but Bush would surely veto a reversal of his signature tax cuts, and any sign that the Democrats will hike taxes hurts their chances in 2008, and it's hard to make the case for tax hikes at a time when the deficit is melting away. The higher minimum wage is a bad but probably not a disastrous idea. Presumably Democrats won't overturn Medicare Part D. No protectionism so far, knock on wood. Now, if immigration comes through, Bush can retire with a fine domestic policy legacy.

Monday, January 15, 2007


"If," by Rudyard Kipling:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream -- and not make dreams your master;
If you can think -- and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings -- nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And -- which is more -- you'll be a Man, my son!

Answer: George W. Bush and John McCain.

Dominique Moisi's thesis that "the world today faces not only a clash of civilizations but a clash of emotions as well[; the] West displays -- and is divided by -- a culture of fear, while the Arab and Muslim worlds are trapped in a culture of humiliation and much of Asia displays a culture of hope" is astute in some ways. Although I would say that "culture of fear" mainly describes Blue-State America; Bush is definitely a hope guy. (Republicans campaigned on "fear" themes in 2006, including nativist fears, hence their well-deserved but probably temporary loss of power.)

But this is a goofy claim:

Instead of being united by their fears, the twin pillars of the West, the United States and Europe, are more often divided by them -- or rather, divided by how best to confront or transcend them. The culture of humiliation, in contrast, helps unite the Muslim world around its most radical forces and has led to a culture of hatred.

Whatever their differences, Americans and Europeans aren't even thinking about killing each other. Meanwhile, in the Islamic world, al-Qaeda would like to kill basically all the rulers of the Arab states; Shiites and Sunnis are killing each other; and Arab- and Iranian-Muslim liberals live in fear of both their authoritarian rulers and Islamist vigilantes. Islam is more divided than the West.

Saturday, January 13, 2007


Larry Kudlow reports that the markets seem to like Bush's Iraq plan:

Amidst all the pessimism about the U.S. strategy-shift in Iraq, world financial markets seem to be voting for Bush and his plan -- not against. On the days immediately preceding the president's speech, as its contents were leaking out, oil prices were plunging and stock prices were rising. And right after the speech, when the contents of the Iraq plan were clear, guess what? Oil prices continued to fall, and share prices hit record highs.

The funny thing about the Bush "surge" plan is that while it's an escalation in terms of boots on the ground, in some ways it's a retreat ideologically. Until now Bush has been the evangelist-in-chief of global democracy. But in the latest strategy there is a subtext: "Maybe Iraqis are more incompetent at governing themselves than we thought. We'll have to do it for them for a while."

Imperialism had a bad name for ideological reasons: both of the Cold War ideologies, Marxism and the American Creed of liberal democracy, condemned it, and this ensured that the imperialists were routed by the Third World nationalists in the battle of ideas. But the blanket condemnation of imperialism is not well-grounded empirically. In South Asia the end of the British Raj was a humanitarian disaster in the short run (millions massacred in the India-Pakistan Partition), while sub-Saharan Africa went from bad to worse for three or four decades after the imperialists left, largely because of the abysmal quality of local governance. By now the sins of the anti-imperialists dwarf those of even the worst imperialists. But who would defend imperialism now, after it's been not just defeated but, more importantly, unfashionable for almost a hundred years?

Well, historian Niall Ferguson does. In his book Colossus, he declared himself "fundamentally in favor of empire," and with respect to Iraq, recommended that the US stay for the long haul by "pretending to leave," following the example of the British Empire in Egypt from the 1880s to the 1950s. He ought to love what Bush has done in Iraq so far (although, being a man of rather unsteady temperament, I think he has been less than supportive in practice).

Even if there could be practical benefits of imperialism (for those subject to it, not necessarily for those practicing it), its lack of legitimacy is too severe today for it to be generally adopted. But if it can bring a bit of stability -- peace -- in Iraq, then it could make room for what's really going to let us rise above all this: Economic growth.

If we could just reduce the violence in Iraq a couple of notches, Republicans might be able to shift voters' attention to the economy and win in 2008 while sustaining a presence in Iraq. And in another way this could happen on a world scale: people will get tired of fulminating against the Iraq War when they realize we're in the midst of what may be the best economic growth in the history of the world. The history of perceptions and opinion about the Iraq War has always had a life of its own, out of all proportion to the actual scale of events. More Americans die in car crashes every year than in the Iraq War, but you don't hear about that. The Iraq War is a "disaster," in a certain sense, namely that this has become the conventional wisdom of a large section of the chattering classes; but in terms of objective data Iraq is less important than dozens of other conflicts, epidemics, bad regimes, even natural disasters (e.g., the tsunami) which have attracted far less attention and inspired far less angst. A few years of strong economic growth-- self-conscious economic growth like the 1990s-- will make Iraq seem like just a bad dream.

Thursday, January 11, 2007


Jonah Goldberg writes:

Americans are torn between two irreconcilable positions on the Iraq war. Some want the war to be a success -- variously defined -- and some want the war to be over. Conservatives are basically, but not exclusively, in the "success" camp. Liberals (and those further to the left) are basically, but not exclusively, the "over" party.

I'm one of the ones who wants the war to be over. Before the speech, my views were something like William Odom's:

The military theorist Carl von Clausewitz said that war is always a gamble. President Bush stepped up to the Iraqi poker table in the spring of 2003 and won a couple of big hands. Flush with the cash and a cry that, "In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed," he failed to pick up his chips and go home. Instead, he has hung around for the last 3½ years, betting on lousy hands - pairs of twos and threes and numerous inside straights...

[We should] write off the democracy goal as a draw, declare a tactical victory, and withdraw in good order. Of course a terrible mess will be left, but more troops and money can only make it worse, not better. The new strategic aim must be regional stability, not democracy in Iraq. The United States alone cannot achieve it. It will need help. And other countries will not help while we are bogged down in Iraq. They enjoy our pain.

But once they see U.S. forces departing, they will be frightened. The aftermath of our departure will cause them far more pain than it will us. Not only will the countries in the Middle East become more cooperative, but so will the Europeans and others.

Why? Because none of them can lead a global coalition. The Europeans will be asking us to lead, and the others will see it as the least-undesirable alternative.

Precisely how to orchestrate such a coalition to reestablish regional stability will be a challenge, but it will be a new poker game with more favorable odds. The old game has expanded Iran's influence in the region, allowed Al Qaeda to build more cadres and reduced Israel's security. It's time to reshape the game. That means salvaging our strategy, not toying with tactics.

But I was moved by the speech. For one thing, I really admired Bush the man. This will sound corny, but these landmark Bush speeches always make me feel patriotic and proud. I don't know whether history will vindicate his decision not to take the easy way out offered by the Iraq Study Group, but it shows courage. To stand tall in the face of so many slings and arrows of contempt and hatred-- I found it inspiring, almost amazing. I felt the desire to follow; I felt loyalty, support...

However, on balance, I don't favor the new strategy, for one reason:

Succeeding in Iraq also requires defending its territorial integrity and stabilizing the region in the face of extremist challenges. This begins with addressing Iran and Syria. These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq. Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We'll interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.

I don't think we can afford to confront both Iran and Syria. The Iraq Study Group wants to negotiate with both. That's self-defeating because it makes us look so weak that we're hardly worth negotiating with. Bush wants to confront both. Why not split the difference: engage Iran, while continuing or escalating the punishment of Syria, both because it deserves it (assassinating Hariri, helping jihadists in Iraq, etc.) and as a warning to Iran? Iran's public is pro-American; its president is not, of course, but after severe losses in local elections last month, Ahmadinejad is notably weakened, and a conservative/reformist camp headed by Rafsanjani is sounding more favorable to opening to the West.

On the military merits, my two informed sources-- Ralph Peters and Belgravia Dispatch-- disagree. Peters thinks "the president's plan deserves a chance," while Greg Djerejian pours scorn on it. But even Peters, and other hawks, figure a medium- to long-term commitment is needed, and the political climate at home is so hostile that I don't think we're capable of that right now.

This is a bit like an American Tet Offensive: we're sappping our own strength to the point where it's dangerous, but the gains might be the just enough to pacify Baghdad just long enough to... to do what? To engage Iran from a position of relative strength, and get a few concessions-- e.g., maybe a cessation of its nuclear push-- in return for diplomatic gains such as a commitment not to overthrow the Islamic Republic and an end to the trade embargo which will empower them within the Middle East. This weakens Iran's incentive to stop us in Iraq, and at the same time strengthens fears of Iranian hegemony in the Arab Middle East, which would make them more inclined to view the US favorably as a needed counter-weight. It would be helpful, too, to push for peace in Israel-Palestine; even if it didn't succeed, it might do some good there, while helping our image in the region a little bit, and weakening the only reason for solidarity between the Arabs and Iran...

I'm a little out of my depth here. These details are pretty speculative. But I think it would take some kind of real diplomatic change for the "surge" to have a good enough chance to achieve peace in Iraq to be worth the risks. In its absence, I can't support the plan, and if the next best option is the Iraq Study Group's recommendations, I guess I'd support that.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


The Wall Street Journal speaks up in favor of the surge:

President Bush is set to announce his new strategy for Iraq this week, and the early signs are that it will include both more American and Iraqi troops to improve security, especially in Baghdad. We think the American people will support the effort, as long as Mr. Bush treats this like the all-in proposition it deserves to be.

If the stakes in Iraq are as great as Mr. Bush says--and we believe they are--then he should commit whatever forces are needed to achieve success. The public's support for the Iraq campaign is waning, in major part because the casualties and expense have been producing no visible progress. Even with Democrats running Congress, Mr. Bush has a political window to pursue a more robust security strategy. The paradox is that the fastest way home from Iraq is a bolder commitment now.

Something's very odd about this situation. The Democrats just won the election, probably in large part because of public dissatisfaction over Iraq (though I'd like to think Republican stupidity on immigration had something to do with it, too). Then the Iraq Study Group, led by Republican grandee James Baker, came out in favor of phased withdrawal and engagement with Iran and Syria. From the political point of view, increasing troop levels at a time like this is perverse. And yet, even with the polls on their side 61-36% (although that's up from 12% support for the surge earlier), it seems that the Democrats will offer only symbolic resistance. Not that I'm exactly rooting for them to do it, but... if they're going to take an anti-war stance, what are they waiting for?

The most high-profile advocate of the surge, meanwhile, is John McCain. Maybe I'm biased because I'm a McCain fan... but I've been known to have a kind word for Bush, too. McCain has been advocating "more troops" longer; he's got more at stake since he's a possible-future-president rather than a lame-duck-current-president; he's more popular. And Bush would be too isolated to be effective without McCain's support.

I'm no military expert, but it doesn't seem to me the "surge" can help much. Some surge advocates specify larger numbers of troops, and demand that it be sustained, in order to turn the tide. But as political compromise tends to reduce the number, will they still be useful? And how will we use them? Ralph Peters also wants to know: what's the mission?

One useful mission I can think of is: seize Moktada al-Sadr. Put him on a prison-island somewhere, living in the lap of luxury, with profuse apologies and great deference and the best treatment he's had in his life, but tell him and the world the following: Sadr is suspected of ethnic cleansing, and we cannot in good conscience release him until he is cleared. Let the trial drag out for a few years. Try to get him tried at the Hague, and if we can't, argue, lawyerize... But get him out of Iraq and keep him out, for a while.

If we're not going to do that, I doubt a surge can be useful. I doubt that 40,000 troops can stop ethnic cleansing. We probably can't afford to keep them there very long, and if they're there only briefly, they would postpone ethnic cleansing rather than stopping it. Yet the bluff of a surge might be useful. Is that what McCain is up to? The logic of it might run: the Iraq Study Group report makes Americans look like defeatist wimps, so we've got to show that we've got some hawkishness left in us. So let's talk about a troop surge, then back down, but show the world that the hawks are still out there, they lost this battle but they could make a comeback at any time...

Friday, January 05, 2007


Given that one of its authors, Edward Prescott, is a Nobel Prize-winning economist, you can't just dismiss this argument in favor of greater government debt out of hand. But this claim seems really goofy:

Some naively think that government debt is a burden on the young. This is not the case since the welfare of the young and the government debt are both large in the efficient saving-for-retirement system. Indeed, in the inferior tax-and-transfer system, government debt is zero. We go on to show that switching from a pay-as-you-go system to a saving system makes everyone better off and there are no costs of making the switch. All that needs to be done is to stop taxing labor income. In the transition period there would be transfers to old financed by a large deficit. Subsequently the stock of government debt would be at its needed level.

If people want to save more, there need to be assets for them to buy. Government debt is an asset, but it's not the only one. Isn't society better off in the long run if we save and invest, and create capital that generates future wealth, rather than having the government soak up everybody's savings through borrowing? Also, aren't real governments occasionally subject to bank-run type crises? Wouldn't a huge debt make that more likely?

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


Kurt Andersen writes:

Populism has gotten a bad odor, and not just among plutocrats—for most of the political chattering class, it is at least faintly pejorative. But I think that’s about to change: When economic hope shrivels and the rich become cartoons of swinish privilege, why shouldn’t the middle class become populists?

Why shouldn't the middle class become populists, you ask? Because the American middle class is super-privileged compared to the vast majority of humanity, either historically or in the contemporary world. They have jobs, cars, most of them own their own homes, they take vacations at the seashore and a lot of them have even been to Europe, they work 40- or maybe 50-hour weeks (and the ones with less money work less, not more), they send their kids to college, they can get all the latest nifty electronic gizmos more cheaply than ever. They're politically emancipated, and they'll never get drafted into the military. Things like putting food on the table and clothes on their backs are taken for granted every single day of their lives. This is at a time when hundreds of millions of people in this world are living on less than $1 a day. I regard any middle-class American who thinks they deserve better as a-- to use Andersen's phrase-- "greedhead."

But what about the premise? Does the phrase "when... economic hope shrivels" actually describe the US economy today? There's no need to do a Google search to answer this question: Andersen has actually reported the fact that refutes him just a few paragraphs before!

Back before the Second World War, in the teens and twenties, the richest one-half of one percent of Americans received 11 to 15 percent of all income, but from the fifties through the seventies, the income share of the superrich was reasonably cut back, by more than half. The rich were still plenty rich, and American capitalism worked fine.

Starting in the late eighties, however, the piece of the income pie taken each year by the rich has once again become as hugely disproportionate as it was in the twenties. Meanwhile, the median household income has gone up a measly 15 percent during the past quarter-century—and for the last five years it has actually dropped.

Most economists would agree that the official measures of inflation systematically overstate the increase of the cost of living. This is because, first, the statisticians have to compare the same bundle of goods across years, but in fact people substitute from goods and services whose price is rising to those that are falling and thus get a better deal than the "dumb" statistics suggest, and second, because completely new goods are forever being introduced, which provide "surplus value" to consumers (they're worth more than they cost) that can't be measured in inter-year comparisons since the goods were unavailable in the previous years.

But put that to one side: if income has risen 15%, Mr. Andersen has no right to talk about "economic hope shrivelling." (If real income growth plateaued for a few years after the late-1990s boom, which is debatable, that's just the business cycle, and anyway it's making up for lost time now.)

Those who peddle a false sense of victimhood on the part of one of history's most fortunate classes of people deserve a stern rebuke from all people of good will.

Meanwhile, the really interesting question is: What is it that the new super-rich are doing with their money? Friedrich Hayek saw the rich as a sort of "scouts" of mankind's economic-hedonic advancement: their consumption patterns are leading indicators of what people want, and much of what they consume is later mass-produced and made available to the masses. But the money of the rich is often put to the service of humanity more directly: they donate it to charity. Given the choice between taking the rich's money by coercion and trying to channel it to the poor through bureaucrats and letting the rich apply the talents they proved in the private sector to the problem of making their money make a difference, the latter is certainly ethically superior, and it's likely to prove much more efficient. Better the Gates Foundation than the Great Society welfare state.


Bush addresses the new Congress, and the nation in the Wall Street Journal. Just a few words here about Iraq. The main focus is on the economy:

America's priorities also include keeping our economy strong. The elections have not reversed the laws of economics. It is a fact that economies do best when you reward hard work by allowing people to keep more of what they have earned. And we have seen that businesses can expand and hire more workers when they have more money to invest--and since August 2003, America's employers have added more than seven million new jobs.

It is also a fact that our tax cuts have fueled robust economic growth and record revenues. Because revenues have grown and we've done a better job of holding the line on domestic spending, we met our goal of cutting the deficit in half three years ahead of schedule. By continuing these policies, we can balance the federal budget by 2012 while funding our priorities and making the tax cuts permanent. In early February, I will submit a budget that does exactly that.

Republicans missed a chance to get out the good news about the economy in 2006. I'll bet they won't miss it in 2008.

UPDATE: In the comments, Tom writes: "I'd take the economic growth of the Clinton years and the budget SURPLUS any day over the economic depression then growth and the largest budget deficits in the history of world during the current administration." Okay, what's wrong with this?

1) The phrase "economic depression" is certainly not an apt description of the first Bush years. This phrase is generally not used for any period in US history other than the Great Depression, because no economic troubles since then have even come close, but something would presumably have to be considerably worse than a recession to qualify. In fact, the slowdown in 2001 probably didn't even meet the technical definition of a recession, namely, two consecutive quarters of negative growth. As this table from the Bureau of Economic Analysis shows, the economy shrunk in (a) the third quarter of 2000, (b) the first quarter of 2001, and (c) the third quarter of 2001; but it grew in the intervening quarters, so there were never two consecutive quarters of negative growth. In popular discourse this has generally been called a recession, and most economists would probably go along with it, but you have to keep a mental footnote that, technically, it wasn't. Meanwhile, unemployment peaked in 2003 at 6.5%, as data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows. This is far lower than the 9% in 1975 or the 11% in 1983, let alone the 25% that America experienced in the real depression in the 1930s. That the Democrats peddled absurd memes about "the worst economy since Herbert Hoover" makes it a bit scary that they're now in charge of economic policy. Let's just hope they were lying.

2) The timing of the "recession" makes it pretty absurd to blame it on Bush. Common sense says that economic policy affects economic performance with a lag. The first quarter of negative growth occurred, and the second began, while Clinton was in office, while the third occurred when Bush had only been president for a few months, and it included 9/11. Interestingly, the recession seems not to have been caused by 9/11, either, but rather, by the popping of the Clinton bubble. In any case, it was certainly in no way Bush's fault.

3) As for "the largest budget deficits in the history of the world," proportionally to GDP, the budget deficit is moderate. As this chart on Greg Mankiw's blog shows, both expenditures and the gap between expenditures and outlays was much higher in the Reagan years. It's kind of funny that even as Reagan's retrospective reputation continues to soar, Bush gets blasted for fiscal sins considerably less than Reagan's. Moreover, the current budget deficit of about 2% of GDP is less than the rate of economic growth, which means that it's not only sustainable, but if sustained, will lead to a reduction in the national debt over time as a share of GDP. (Bush's deficits may be bigger than Reagan's in absolute terms, but the economy is much bigger, too.)