Six weeks ago I discussed -- as a dispassionate political scientist -- why the field of political science was good and truly f**ked when it came to Congress. Yesterday, Dave Weigel blogged about this at more length. The depressing parts version:
Attacking government-funded social science is popular, especially on the right. Last week, Texas Republican Rep. Ted Poe and Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul introduced a bill that would change the American Community Survey, sent annually to a random selection of 3.2 million people, from mandatory to optional. If Americans didn’t want to fill it out, even if that would render it mostly useless as data, the private sector would do just fine.
When I asked Poe to explain how that information would be collected without the Community Survey, he said, “There are other ways to get the same information about the dynamics of business, and where to locate a business. You can do it through polling. You don’t have to force people to participate.”
Social scientists don’t agree, but it’s difficult for them to justify their own funding in a time of severe government cutbacks....
The new attempts to claw away at research have gone on for months, and the academics haven’t put up a compelling defense beyond one event on the Hill and the yeoman blogging of some professors like John Sides. “Going forward,” Sides wrote after Coburn’s win, “a coordinated lobbying effort is needed not only to roll back the restrictions on political science but to defend the NSF’s core mission as a promoter of scientific research in the public good, broadly defined.”
So far that lobbying effort doesn’t exist. Instead, Republicans are able to challenge NSF funding in order to pursue long-term political goals without too many people noticing.
To understand further why this will be so difficult, let's go to the video clip of the week, which right now is probably the revenge fantasy of every political scientist out there. Via the Military Times, this is General Ray Odierno chewing out House Representative Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), with the bemused permission of Armed Services Committee Chair Buck McKeon. The chewing out part starts at around 3:30.
Now, watching that clip, it's hard not to conclude that Hunter was taken to the woodshed by Odierno for being an ignorant jackass. That's certainly the conclusion that Gawker, Mediaite, and others came to in promoting the clip.
Now, here's a fun exercise -- what if Odierno had been an irate political scientist rather than a four-star general? I guarantee you that the exchange would have been framed and interpreted differently. Because of the high public respect for the military, when Odierno goes off, people will listen. Not so with academics. Instead of "General smacks down House representative," the headline would have looked more like "Snotty academic preens at elected official."
In fact, we don't need to imagine. Remember this little exchange between House Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) and historian Douglas Brinkley from about 18 months ago?
Now, Don Young has all the charisma and grace of a three-month old carton of milk. He's far more insulting and contemptuous of Brinkley in that clip than Duncan Hunter was in trying to walk away from Odierno. The overall effect, however, is different. First, Young's chairman, Doc Hastings, protected Young in a way that McKeon did not protect Hunter, thereby preventing Brinkley from going on a rant.
Second, however, as bad as Young looks in that video, Brinkley doesn't look that much better. He comes off too much like a preening, stuffed-shirt academic.
Unfortunately, that's an occupational hazard. We're trained in graduate school to eviscerate counterarguments and the people who make them. It might be the one sector in the world where Aaron Sorkin-rules of debate hold up. But it only works because everyone in the seminar room or lecture hall understands the context of the debate. That rarely happens when the public peeks in at a YouTube clip of a congressional hearing.
Are there some political scientists who could pull off an Odierno-level smackdown? I suppose it's possible, but I confess to being dubious about its likelihood (suggestions welcomed in the comments section please).
Now, as a political scientist, I should warn you that viral-video-friendly exchanges like the ones linked above rarely shift public opinion. They are one way to frame the stupidity of a particular Congressional jihad, however. And as much as I might fantasize about a Beth Simmons or a Scott Sagan sticking it to Tom Coburn, I'm not confident that it will ever happen.
Am I missing anything? Please tell me I'm missing something...
UPDATE: I received a call in the last hour from Representative Duncan Hunter's deputy chief of staff, who lodged a polite protest over the descriptive term "ignorant jackass," referencing this Politico story. Which is fair enough, but this exchange suggests two things:
1) The staffer didn't read the blog post carefully, because I was using that term to describe how the video made Hunter look -- not whether that depiction was accurate or not.
2) Maybe political scientists blogging/writing for the press actually do have an effect on member of Congress.
Your humble blogger will be making his first visit to South Korea in less than twenty-four hours, and is very excited about that prospect. Blogging will therefore be on the lighter side for the next few days.
Talk amongst yourselv-- wait, then again, maybe you shouldn't do that.
Before I explain what I mean, let's have some disclosure. I blog at the foreign affairs portal in the United States. I'm a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. I've done the occasional consulting gig. I'm on reasonably good terms with foreign policy wonks from across the spectrum. Occasionally I get invited to swanky DC events and interview Tiger Moms. The point is, relative to a lot of people reading this paragraph, I'm pretty damn insider-y.
I bring all of this up because I probably have a higher tolerance for inside-the-Beltway bulls**t... and yet after reading this and this, I had to suppress my desire to vomit on my computer screen. The first link merely confirms the epistemic closure that pervades much of the right wing in Washington, DC. The latter is, on the other hand, the most incestuous thing ever written about anything, ever, in the history of mankind. Really, compared to those stories, the George W. Bush library ceremony seems... tame.
Combined, the two stories either function as a damning indictment on the state of DC insideriness... or I'm overreacting to the standard offal that comprises much of political journalism. I'm honestly not sure. Contrary to a lot of outside-the-beltway folk, I've come to see a utility for rent-seeking and back-scratching in politics. It functions as a necessary lubricant to get useful legislation passed. One could argue that part of the problem with Washington as it currently functions is that there's not enough earmarking, vote-buying, or other cross-cutting political exchanges.
At the same time, the revulsion I felt after reading these essays was quite real. I could barely finish Allen's Politico story, it was that insipid. These are the kind of essays that cause even a jaded foreign policy hand like myself to mutter "you'll be the first ones up against the wall when the Revolution comes" after reading Politico. Sure, much of this behavior is baked into the cake that is American political science... but I still ponder about the future of the Republic.
So I'll leave this as something for readers to ponder while I'm in the ROK -- over the next week there's going to be some serious foreign policy questions being debated: whether to react to Syria's chemical weapons use, or what to do about inter-Korean tensions, for example. Will this conversation be taking place in a policy universe that is just too damn small?
What do you think?
Since this week is George W. Bush retrospective week, it's worth pondering some of the possible counterfactuals of that administration. For example, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld played a pretty important role in the foreign policy clusterf**ks that dominated the first six years of that administration. You'd think that an alternative SecDef would have mattered.
It's worth considering the plausible counterfactual, however. Remember that Rumsfeld wasn't Bush's first choice for the job. Initially, Bush interviewed Senator Dan Coats of Indiana. According to Karl Rove, however, "after a couple of face-to-face meetings, the president-elect was concerned whether Coats had the management skill and toughness to do the job." So maybe a counterfactual of Secretary of Defense Coats would have led to a worse outcome!
I bring this up because I watched Dan Coats on ABC's This Week, and it was ... quite a performance. If we go to the transcript, here's his first intervention, on whether Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be Mirandized:
COATS: I think we should stay with enemy combatant until we find out for sure whether or not there was a link to foreign terrorist organizations.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Even though he's a citizen?
COATS: Even though he's a citizen. There have been exceptions to this before with the public safety issue of course on Miranda rights. But also the fact that he's traveled back to his hometown which is a Muslim area, could have been radicalized back there.
STEPHANOPOULOS: That was his brother though.
Now you have to hand it to Senator Coats here -- inside of ten seconds, he makes a dubious statement about the law and a factually incorrect statement. It wasn't like these were obscure facts, either, like the capital of Chechnya or something. So, great prep work, Senator Coats' staff!
This is just a prelude, however, to Coats' most noteworthy intervention:
STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator, what do you do though if no connection to a specific group is found? Instead we just find that these young men were inspired by al Qaeda, but not directed. That's almost impossible to find.
COATS: Well it is. And that's the reality of the world we're now living in. Because we not only face terrorism from abroad, that is, planned and coordinated. We face these lone wolves or these others or whoever gathers together that has a vengeance or a demented mind or who has been kind of radicalized through over the internet or through a mosque or whatever. We're going to continue to have to understand that is a threat to America also.
That's why we all need to be engaged in not only looking out for this type of thing, but helping identify and see, whether these loners, is there a kid in the classroom that's just --
RADDATZ: He wasn't a loner. He wasn't a loner (emphasis added).
Now in fairness to Senator Coats, it does seem as though the Tsarnaevs were lone wolves without any direct connection to overseas terrorist networks. Still, he got his brothers mixed up again -- as Martha Raddatz points out, there's no evidence that the younger Tsarnaev was a loner.
But let's skip the preliminaries and get to the more basic point. Is Dan Coats suggesting that high schools profile which kids are loners and put them onto a "possible terrorist watch list"? I'm picturing this kind of exercise at a typical high school:
PRINCIPAL: So, what about Jeremy?
TEACHER #1: Well, his grades are pretty good, but he does seem to stare out of the window a lot. And I keep having to yell at him to remove his sunglasses and earbuds in math class.
PRINCIPAL: Hmmm ... does he socialize with the other students?
PRINCIPAL: We can't take any chances after Boston. Put him on the watchlist. Oh, and it's totally Marjorie.
TEACHER #2: SAY WHAT??!! It's obviously Cersei!!
As someone with first-hand experience of loneliness in high school, I'd wager that this kind of exercise would be the dumbest f**king idea in the history of counterterrorism. This sort of half-assed thinking would multiply the amount of alienation and disaffectedness among America's teens.
Now, this isn't the first time Dan Coats has sounded like a dumbass on a morning show. So perhaps, as a public service, someone should suggest that the next time a television show asks him to be on the air to talk homeland security, he go sit in the corner and read up on Type I and Type II errors -- here's a good Cliffs Notes version for the Senator.
Am I missing anything?
By now, readers have a pretty good idea of the thesis of my latest book topic: Contra the arguments of many, the system of global economic governance worked pretty well during the 2008 financial crisis, and it's continued to work "well enough" since 2008.
Furthermore, American leadership is at least partly rsponsible for the system working. Despite bouts of partisan gridlock, the United States government still enacted a plethora of emergency rescue packages (via the 2008 Troubled Assets Relief Program), expansionary fiscal policies (via the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the payroll tax cut, and the extension of the Bush tax cuts), stress tests of large financial institutions, expansionary monetary policy (via interest rate cuts, three rounds of quantitative easing and Operation Twist), and financial regulatory reform (via Dodd-Frank).
Another area where the U.S. has led the way is reforming IMF governance. Since 2006, the IMF has engaged in two rounds of quota reform so the distribution of power within the institution better reflects the actual distribution of power. A third round is planned for completion in 2014. As Ted Truman explains in this Peterson Institute of International Economics policy brief, U.S. leadership played a crucial role in these negotiations.
So far, so good for my hypothesis. There's just one problem -- Congress has yet to ratify the last round of quota revisions. Since the reforms can't be enacted without U.S. approvial, this is a thing. According to Truman:
The United States bears substantial responsibility for the current situation. After 15 years in which US administrations of both political parties have pushed aggressively and imaginatively for governance changes in the IMF culminating with the central
US role in shaping the 2010 Seoul package, the United States has failed to implement that package. The rest of the world has been remarkably tolerant of the US delay in acting on the 2010 Seoul IMF reform package, but that patience is running out. US leadership and influence in the IMF is weakening, and thereby the influence of the institution itself. This is the principal reason why it is urgent to enact the pending IMF legislation.
From a US and global perspective there is only downside and no upside in further delay. Doing so would support the IMF as the central institution promoting global economic growth and financial stability, involve no true financial cost to the US taxpayer, and reinforce US leadership and influence in this crucial institution, positioning the United States to continue to lead in negotiating further IMF governance reforms.
Don't take Truman's word on this alone, however. As the Financial Times' Robin Harding reports, a lot of experts are starting to get antsy about the lack of congressional action:
Almost 100 policy makers and academics have written to the US Congress urging the ratification of crucial reforms of the International Monetary Fund that international leaders agreed more than two years ago.
The signatories argue in an open letter, sent to House of Representatives and Senate leaders on Monday and seen by the Financial Times, that if the US does not sign up it will undermine its authority in negotiations at the G20 and other institutions that govern the world economy.
“Failure to act would diminish the role of the United States in international economic policy making and undermine US efforts to promote growth and financial stability,” the letter says.
Signatories include holders of the top international economic job at the US Treasury under Republican and Democratic administrations. They include Tim Adams, who worked for former president George W. Bush, and Jeffrey Shafer, who was part of the Clinton administration.
I'd say that it's a cruel irony that the United States is the brake on reforms spearheaded by ... the United States, except that by now, savvy readers know that this sort of thing is disturbingly common.
Does it matter? Well, as much as I love to pooh-pooh the BRICS, they do share one genuine area of consensus -- they want more influence over global governance structures. If they don't get it, there will come a time when they will be both willing and able to set up institutions on their own -- like this one. Which would be a shame for two reasons. First, as a general rule of global economic governance, it's better to have great powers on the inside pissing out rather than the reverse. Second, the IMF has had some good mojo as of late, demonstrating renewed independence from Eurocrats and proposing some nifty policy ideas.
If Congress stalls this quota reform measure that the executive branches from both parties have negotiated , they will be weakening a U.S.-friendly international institution and inviting potential rivals to set up or bolster alternatives. Which, if you think about, is a really stupid way to run U.S. foreign economic policy.
More importantly to me, however, it would really f**k up one of my book's hypotheses. Congressional gridlock hasn't sabotaged too much in the way of American global leadership for the past give years. Blocking quota reform would be a pretty big deal, though. It would force me to revise a book chapter, and I really don't want to do that.
So, in the name of political science, I humbly beseech Congress to pass the damn quota reform bill.
[Uh, you really think that an appeal to political sciece is gonna work with this crew?!--ed.] Uh ... in the name of preventing China and its allies from creating a New Anti-American World Order and threatening a global governance gap, I humbly beseech Congress to pass the damn quota reform bill. [Much better!!--ed.]
Yesterday an amendment to the continuing resolution funding the U.S. government, sponsored by Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, was passed by a voice vote in the Senate. Its purpose?
To prohibit the use of funds to carry out the functions of the Political Science Program in the Division of Social and Economic Sciences of the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences of the National Science Foundation, except for research projects that the Director of the National Science Foundation certifies as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.
Now, from a pure material interest perspective, this should make me happy. I've never received a dime in NSF funding, and I'm sitting on a pretty good grant for the next 5-10 years, so from a strictly relative gains perspective, I acquire more influece in the discipline. Furthermore, the national security exemption means that whatever scraps the NSF throws to political science will go to my preferred subfields like international relations and comparative politics.
The thing is, though, that I love political science. I want to see more quality research being done, and the NSF cutoff pushes things in the opposite direction. So I'm not happy.
If I'm displeased, however, then I think it's safe to say that the American Political Science Association is galactically pissed off at this outcome:
Adoption of this amendment is a gross intrusion into the widely-respected, independent scholarly agenda setting process at NSF that has supported our world-class national science enterprise for over sixty years.
The amendment creates an exceptionally dangerous slippery slope. While political science research is most immediately affected, at risk is any and all research in any and all disciplines funded by the NSF. The amendment makes all scientific research vulnerable to the whims of political pressure.
Adoption of this amendment demonstrates a serious misunderstanding of the breadth and importance of political science research for the national interest and its integral place on the nation's interdisciplinary scientific research agenda.
Singling out any one field of science is short-sighted and misguided, and poses a serious threat to the independence and integrity of the National Science Foundation.
And shackling political science within the national science agenda is a remarkable embarrassment for the world's exemplary democracy.
I've blogged at length in the past on the substantive reasons why a cutoff of NSF funds for political science is really, really, stupid. Another post on that question won't change things. And I vented my frustration at the willful ignorance of Senator Coburn yesterday, so there's no reason to go there now. Yesterday, however, there was rollicking debate on Twitter about the need for political scientists to, well, be better at politics. Folks such as Phil Arena, Jay Ulfelder, William Winecoff, and Jacob Levy observed that APSA's tactical response to Coburn's folly -- encouraging APSA members to email Congress and so forth -- was pretty lame. Only if we used the Dark Arts of political science knowledge could we somehow stymie the Senator from Oklahoma.
Here's the thing, though -- while I'm no expert in American politics, I think I know enough of the Dark Arts to know that we could have the best arguments in the world and still recognize that political science is good and truly f**ked.
From a straight interest group perspective political scientists don't matter. At all. The NSF funding for political science is a $13 million appropriation spread out geographically. There is no concentrated interest in a particular congressional district or state to motivate a member of Congress to fight for this issue with as much ardor as Tom Coburn or Jeff Flake.
Now, one could argue that if you believe in epistemic communities -- i.e., the power of collective expertise -- to influence uninformed members of Congress, then maybe political scientists could function as Weberian activists and educate members about the inherent value of political science. The thing is, as I've argued previously, politicians and pundits do not think of politics as a scientific enterprise. Maybe a few pundits developed a new appreciaion for statistics following the 2012 election, but that's not quite the same thing. So an epistemic community of political scientists won't cut it. Hell, all social scientists would be unlikely to persuade the Senate -- remember, this is a body that was copacetic with a Senator blocking a Nobel Prize winning economist from sitting on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. Maybe we could logroll with all the natural and physical sciences too, but if the past decade of climate change policy has proven anything, it's that this won't work terribly well.
Another gambit would be to move public opinion on this issue to the point where Congress had no choice but to accede to the masses ... except the masses likely support the cuts. A mass public that believes the foreign aid budget is a thousand times larger than it actually is likely believes that cutting NSF funding of political science goes a long way toward tackling the deficit. Furthermore, as Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler's research shows, it's next to impossible to correct that misperception.
There are three other ways for political scientists to alter the status quo -- but each of them has issues:
1) A political scientist needs to come up with a killer scientific breakthrough that really advances knowledge in the field in an unambiguous manner. We're talking something Nobel-worthy. Oh, wait, Elinor Ostrom already did that, and it didn't matter. Never mind...
2) A political scientist needs to develop a predictive model that's so powerful that it yields substantial profit -- to the point where the political scientists can afford to set up an endowment that substitutes for NSF funding. The thing is, there already are political scientists who have thrived in the private sector -- but I'm not seeing enough cabbage being earned to create endowments.
3) Finally, maybe a trained political scientist could just run for the Senate, get elected, and apply the necessary counterweight to Coburn et al ... except that one of Coburn's co-sponsors is Arizona freshman Senator Jeff Flake, who has -- wait for it -- an M.A. in political science.
Am I missing anything, or is political science good and truly f**ked?
UPDATE: OK, there's one other possibility that could theoretically shift the status quo. Suppose a rival great power -- say, a country that rhymes with "Dinah" -- were to suddenly throw around huge research $$$ to develop a comparative advantage in poli sci. Say that the money was so good that it started to attract the cream of the political science crop. That might spur Congress to freak out about the existence of a political science gap.
So, any political scientists sitting on fat research offers from China -- now is the time to accept them.
On Monday I blogged that Operation Iraqi Freedom didn't affect the international system all that much. What about the second image, however? Ten years after Operation Iraqi Freedom, are there lasting effects on American foreign policy?
The answer here seems to be "yes." Intriguingly enough, the people making this argument the loudest are neoconservatives. William Kristol argued that "war weariness" was affecting American foreign policy decision-making:
Now we’re weary again. And there are many politicians all too willing to seek power and popularity by encouraging weariness rather than point out its perils. Foremost among those politicians is our current president. It’s hard to blame the American people for some degree of war weariness when their president downplays threats and is eager to shirk international responsibilities.
[Note to Kristol: When you or anyone else inside the Beltway says "war weariness," to the rest of the country it means either "prudence" or "a healthy distrust of the claims of Beltway advocates for the use of force."]
Here's the thing: Deep down, the American people are pretty realist. The legacy of Operation Iraqi Freedom is that this realist consensus has cemented itself further in the American psyche. The American public has an aversion to using force unless the national interest is at stake, and a deep aversion to using force to do things like promote democracy or human rights. The current GOP civil war on the use of force demonstrates the extent to which this sentiment has become a bipartisan phenomenon. Indeed, if the GOP doesn't alter its rhetoric on the use of force, it will continue to bleed support from young voters.
Public opinion does not always form a powerful constraint on American foreign policy, but one of the biggest legacies of Iraq is that public attitudes about the use of force have imposed serious constraints on the United States. Sure, an administration can use force as in Libya, but now it needs multilateral support and a light footprint in order to avoid a public backlash. The curel irony of this for neoconservatives is that as secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld wanted a light footprint in the Iraq invasion, reflecting his own faith in the revolution in military affairs. By going in too light, however, Rumsfeld tarnished the RMA and the notion of using ground troops in anything but an overwhelming capacity.
Last year I closed out an essay in Policy Review with the following:
[T]he long, draining conflicts of Afghanistan and Iraq have taken their toll on public attitudes about U.S. leadership in the world, as well as the use of force. In 2009 Pew found isolationist sentiments had reached an all-time high in the United States. A January 2012 pipa poll found that Americans strongly prefer cutting defense spending compared to either Medicare or Social Security. According to a January 2012 Pew survey, "Defending against terrorism and strengthening the military are given less priority today than over the course of the past decade." Seventy-eight percent of respondents to a December 2011 cnn poll approved of the Obama administration’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq. The growth of unrest in that country since the U.S. withdrawal has done nothing to alter public attitudes on the matter — which is why Republican challengers to Obama have been rather reticent to talk about it. By the beginning of 2012, majorities opposed the war in Afghanistan and favored a withdrawal of U.S. forces as soon as possible. On Iran, Americans strongly prefer economic and diplomatic action to military statecraft even as tensions escalate in the Persian Gulf.
As Libya demonstrated, presidents still have some latitude when choosing to use force. The political risks for presidents to invest political capital into foreign affairs have clearly increased, however. Unless foreign interventions yield immediate, tangible results, Americans will view them as distracting from problems at home. If far-flung military interventions bog down, public support will evaporate. This will make any president regardless of ideology more risk-averse about projecting military power and persisting with it should difficulties arise. For strategic culture, this means a reversion back to the days of the Powell Doctrine and a continued appreciation for economic coercion.
It took a generation and the end of the Cold War for the lessons of Vietnam to fade away. I'd wager that it will take at least a generation for the legacy effects of the Iraq War.
Indeed, in American history, the war that Operation Iraqi Freedom reminds me of isn't Vietnam -- it's the War of 1812. That was another war of choice that was launched in no small part because of War Hawks in the halls of Congress. It went disastrously for the United States save the Battle of New Orleans, which allowed politicians to put a gloss of victory on an otherwise calamitous conflict. The long-term political effects on some of the War Hawks were pretty severe however (see: John C. Calhoun).
Operation Iraqi Freedom's effects on the international system were minor at best. The effects on American foreign policy, however, are significant and will be with us for some time to come.
In an exit interview with the Wall Street Journal, outgoing U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said some provocative things about the state of America's political system and how that affects our standing in the world. In particular:
If you look past the political dysfunction, the economy looks encouragingly resilient. We’ve got much more diversity of strengths, from energy to high tech to manufacturing than is true for any major economy, and people should find comfort and some optimism in that.
But the failures of the American political system are going to be very damaging over time unless they’re addressed. Although the world will give us some time to find a consensus around long-term fiscal reforms, they’re not going to give us forever. And you can’t count indefinitely on the worlds having more confidence in our political system than is justified. We have to earn that confidence. It’s going to have to produce better results from the legislative process.
So is he right?
My natural instinct is to be skeptical about claims like these. After all, the U.S. Constitution and America's great power status have co-existed pretty peacefully for the last 70 years. One could go further and argue that America's economic might has co-existed happily with the Constitution for the past century. Is it really the system that's at fault?
Perhaps a better way to frame Geithner's claim is to distinguish formal rules from informal norms. For example, the Senate filibuster has existed in its current form for quite some time, but there was a norm about not abusing this option that allowed necessary government operations to continue without significant impediments. Given rising levels of polarization, however, maybe these norms are breaking down?
I'm not sure that's it either, however. Even polarized party elites do share some common incentives not to completely destroy their reputations. If one looks at Barack Obama and John Boehner, for example, one finds two politicians with pretty different ideological starting points that are nevetheless willing to do some compromising.
No, based on what I've read over the past 24 hours, I'd wager that something else is happening. For lack of a better way of putting it, I think large swathes of the GOP elite simply lack instrumental rationality.
Let me explain what I mean here. I'm not saying that the GOP is insane in its policy preferences. One can debate whether it's wise policy to oppose any form of gun regulation, seek massive reductions in government spending or pursue a single-minded, bellicose foreign policy. Whatever one thinks about the wisdom of those policies, the GOP has beeen pretty clear in expressing them. Message received.
Instrumental rationality is whether an actor pursues the optimal course of action to maximizse those preferences given structural constraints and the preferences of other key actors. And it's here where the GOP's behavior puzzles me a wee bit. Consider two examples from yesterday's news cycle.
First, Maggie Haberman reports that a new right-wing group has sprung up to oppose Chuck Hagel's nomination to be Secretary of Defense:
A group of Republican strategists is forming a new outside group aimed at thwarting Sen. Chuck Hagel’s nomination as defense secretary, with a plan to air TV ads and to have people on the ground in the states of key senators to apply pressure in advance of his confirmation hearing.
Americans for a Strong Defense will be the latest group to hit Hagel from the right. As POLITICO reported yesterday, the well-funded American Future Fund is launching a multistate ad campaign against Hagel, and the William Kristol-founded Emergency Committee for Israel has already aired cable ads in Washington arguing the former Nebraska senator is weak on Iran and in his support for Israel...
The group’s officials acknowledged that Hagel is a Vietnam veteran and war hero, but made clear they will paint him as “outside the mainstream” on key defense issues.
Among the senators the group will pressure to oppose Hagel are Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina. All of those Democrats are up for reelection in 2014.
Again, I get the opposition to Hagel from some in the GOP. What I don't get is what anyone donating to these groups thinks they're going to accomplish. The moment Chuck Schumer endorsed Hagel's selection, this ballgame was over. No Senate election two years from now will hinge on this confirmation vote because -- just to remind everyone for the nth time -- voters don't care about international relations. The most plausible story one could gin up is that by fighting the good fight now, a marker has been laid down for future nominations. Except that since the reputation for power is a form of power itself, the groups that fight this and lose won't seem terribly imposing for the next critical vote. If I was a wealthy GOP donor who cared a lot about foreign policy and national security issues, there are at least ten other ways to spend this money that would be more efficient than trying to oppose Hagel right now.
The second data point comes from rumblings within the House GOP caucus that maybe they shouldn't risk hitting the debt ceiling. Hey, this sounds rational!! As more GOP elites and public opinion polls tell the Republicans that this is a dead-bang loser of an issue for them, it would make sense for Republicans to give Obama what he wants on the debt ceiling but fight him tooth and nail on the budget.
Republicans are mulling the “possible virtue” of a short-term extension of the debt limit, according to Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Ryan and other House leaders see such a move as the best way to engage President Barack Obama on spending cuts in the coming months. They believe that once the immediate threat of default is off the table, Republicans will be in a better bargaining position; the less drama, the better. "The last thing we should be debating is whether we’re going to put the nation’s full faith and credit at risk," Representative Greg Walden of Oregon said at a press conference.
This doesn't make any sense. If the full faith and credit of the nation shouldn't be a subject for debate, and if the GOP now realizes this is not a good arena for political combat, why kick this can down the road for less than three months? All this does is set up House GOP members to have to vote multiple times to raise the debt ceiling. Why force numerous no-win votes if you can economize on the pain, have one vote early in everyone's term, and then engage in actual budgetary politics?
I'm not a Washington insider, but I've observed politics for a couple of decades now. Most of the time, even if I disagreed with the preferences of a politician, I understood what they were doing to try to attain those preferences. I honestly don't understand how many in the GOP are thinking about how they're gonna achieve their ends. It's like they've all flunked Backward Induction 101. Or watched this scene from Blazing Saddles once too often.
So I disagree wth Geithner. Sure, the American political system can be sclerotic. But what we're witnessing right now is something different. Like the revolutionaries in Stephen Walt's Revolution and War, the current crop of GOP elites seem to believe that loud, repeated affirmations of their preferences will simply and eventually steamroll Barack Obama, the Democratic Party and the American people into acceptance of their policy platform. One would have thought that the aftermath of the 2011 debt ceiling fight, the 2012 election, the fiscal cliff negotiations, and the superstorm Sandy relief bill would have led to some learning. But it hasn't. And that's the scariest fact of all.
Developing.... in an utterly irrational way.
Since moving to Foreign Policy, this blog has primarily been devoted to world politics, global political economy, and American foreign policy. I don't know if I've ever blogged about gun control and gun violence (though I confess I've been enjoying my Twitter exchanges with Second Amendment absolutists immensely).
Now if that peroration seems like a windup for a big "we must do something about guns" post, you're going to be disappointed. Sure, from what I read, there's a clear correlation between gun ownership and crime, but it's far from clear that most of the policies on the table will do a whole hell of a lot to put a dent into that correlation.
However, with the Obama administration gearing up for an ambitious set of policy proposals, and with the gun lobby gearing up to fight those proposals, I do have one useful policy suggestion. If the White House is smart, they will take, verbatim, Kevin Drum's suggested policy proposals for eliminating lead from our nation's homes and topsoil.
Now, if you think that sentence was a massive non sequitur, I'd encourage you to read Drum's outstanding Mother Jones essay on the surprisingly robust connection between lead poisoning and violent crime, as well as his follow-up blog posts. Despite understandable and initial skepticism, even skeptics seem persuaded by the causal link. [Where's the international relations hook?--ed. This hypothesis holds when using cross-national evidence as well.] If the goal is to reduce violent, horrific crimes, then reducing lead exposure is a crucial part of the solution.
The brilliant thing about adding this to the menu of policy proposals is that I suspect it would actually amass broad-based support. Environmentalists will like it for obvious reasons, as will advocates of urban politics. Parents will love it because they know lead is bad for you. Policy wonks will love it because, well, the social science seems pretty rock-solid. The best part, however, is that groups like the NRA would likely support it as well -- because it makes them seem reasonable. In the wake of Sandy Hook, an awful lot of commentators have been saying things like "it's not just about guns," with a reference to meantal health or violence in the culture. The causal evidence linking lead poisoning to gun violence and violent crime would appear to be far stronger than the stuff on popular culture. So it would be smart politics for the NRA to endorse those measures.
It's pretty rare nowadays to come up with a policy solution that doesn't run into some partisan divide -- but this lead poisoning issue would seem to be the exception. I hope both the Obama administration and Congress exploit the opportunity.
As President Obama moves towards nominating former GOP senator Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense, and as Republicans gear up to try and
totally unhinge themselves defeat him, it seems like a good time to follow up on my Foreign Affairs essay on how badly the GOP has screwed the pooch on foreign policy. Let's start by addressing some critical feedback.
Ben Domenech wasn't all that impressed with my essay, as he explained in his newsletter:
Drezner’s problem is that Republican foreign policy has largely become bipartisan, so the critique is one that is more of tone than policy details: the grandstanding of the Romney campaign, its single-minded endorsement of unrestricted Pentagon spending, and the simplicity of its bullet point approach to issues. But these are critiques of a campaign and a candidate who wished to contrast without offending in every policy arena, not simply the foreign policy space – it’s unfair to assign this as due to an entire party’s approach to foreign policy.
A few thoughts here:
1) I'm not sure Domenech read the whole essay, because while I certainly talked about the 2012 campaign, I talked a fair amount about the previous decade of GOP foreign policy, and it's not pretty.
2) What Domenech doesn't seem to get is that the "single-minded endorsement of unrestricted Pentagon spending, and the... bullet point approach to issues" don't just apply to the Romney campaign -- it applies to the overwhelming bulk of GOP elites that weigh in on foreign policy. That sentiment perfectly captures the essence of the 112th Congress, not to mention the "Defending Defense" initiative put together by conservative think tanks. Actually, in some ways the congressional wing was worse because of the anti-Muslim hysteria, though to its credit that is an area where the GOP really does seem to be making some strides.
3) Saying that my critique is "one that is more of tone than policy details" shouldn't make the GOP feel any better. Because the GOP didn't win either the presidency or the Senate, tone and rhetoric are pretty much all Republicans can control on foreign policy. Oh, sure, Congress has some power, but it's largely a negative one -- they can say "no" to the president from time to time. The problem is that when they do this they either look like know-nothings or paranoids.
So the rhetoric actually matters for the GOP, because that's all anyone -- voters and wonks alike -- are gonna imbibe from Republicans for the next four years. Now this sets up an genuinely unfair challenge to the GOP: they'll be tarred with extremist statements made by the fringiest of the fringe. That said, the party leadership can improve its brand by taking the occasional stand if some back-bencher strays too far off the reservation (as occurred when a few idiots questioned Huma Abedin's loyalty).
4) Both Domenech (and Seth Mandel in Commentary) argue that because Obama has suceeded by co-opted the successful aspects of the GOP's foreign policy, Republicans can't be in that much trouble. The trouble here is which parts Obama co-opted, and how the GOP has reacted to that. Republicans used to have a pretty big tent on foreign policy -- realists, internationalists, and neocons galore. Bush 43's second term was pretty pragmatic and neocon-free, and that was what the Obama team co-opted. I'm honestly not sure that today's GOP is as keen on these kibds of foreign policy worldviews. The reaction to Chuck Hagel's possible nomination, for example, or the tenor of Danielle Pletka's Foreign Policy musings on the GOP, suggest that despite a decade of monumental f**k-ups, neocons still rule the GOP roost. Which means that leading GOP spokespeople on foreign policy no longer embrace the aspects of GOP foreign policy traditions co-opted by Obama. Or to put this another way: ask yourself if any of the viable 2016 GOP candidates for president would appoint someone like Bob Gates to be Secretary of Defense.
Now, it's possible that the next GOP president will campaign as a neocon and govern as something else. But doing that means that Republicans are sticking with a brand that, as I pointed out here and in Foreign Affairs, will cost them votes.
For the past few decades, the GOP triad to victory was low taxes, wedge social issues, and advocating for a robust foreign policy. Each of those three legs is now in jeopardy. Public opinion favors higher taxes, the right has lost the culture wars, and the public now trusts Democrats more than Republicans on foreign policy. Unless and until the GOP faces these realities, and figures out some new path forward beyond "REAGAN!", it's dooming itself to be the doppelgänger of eighties Democrats.
Domenech accuses me of lacking a clear way forward. I don't think that's true, but I will acknowledge that the primary point of my essay was to get the GOP to admit that it has a problem. If Mitt Romney's campaign proved anything, it's that creedal passion isn't enough to win on foreign policy -- there actually has to be some policy content. As to the way forward, I like James Poulos' suggestions in this post.
Look, I get that this seems like a thankless exercise. Talking about foreign affairs when you're out of power is a frustrating and abstract task. On the other hand, one reason the GOP is out of power is that its loudest voices don't sound terribly reasonable when it comes to world politics. This is the challenge it has to face for the next four years.
Your humble blogger was watching CNN late last night after the House of Representatives passed the fiscal cliff compromise, and was struck by the
anchor's Ali Velshi's complete and total disdain for what had just transpired. He repeatedly said that this was, "an embarrassing moment for America," and that it was so frustrating because these wounds were self-inflicted. This was surprising, since CNN is ostensibly the cable news netowrk that's the least partisan and most likely to maintain the detached, sonorous perspective that can only be incubated after prolonged exposure to Wolf Blitzer.
Now I'm certainly not gonna defend what went down the past two months as the exemplar of Jeffersonian democracy or anything, but I do think some perspective is in order here. The truth is that America's political institutions engage in self-destructive behavior on a fairly regular basis. This holds even in the post-Vietnam era. In the 1970s the country nearly tore itself apart because of Watergate. In the 1980s it was Iran-Contra. In the 1990s the federal government was shut down because Republicans and Democrats couldn't agree on the budget for a spell. That was followed by the House of Representatives impeaching President Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice. In late 2000 the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 ruling short-circuiting ballot recounts in Florida and making George W. Bush the next president using a legal logic that was so tortured that the Court said no one could ever use it again. And last year U.S. debt was downgraded -- not because of any fundamental U.S. economic weakness, but because of the U.S. political system. All of these episodes were politically self-inficted wounds -- and the United States weathered all of them pretty easily. Please bear this in mind the next time you read something about America going to hell.
[But haven't things gotten worse?--ed. Well, no, I think what's changed is that the Dems and the GOP are acting more like European parliamentary parties in a constitutional system that emphasizes the separation of powers. That's a problem, and gerrymandering is exacerbating the situation. But it's a situation that a few nonpartisan districting commissions would be able to solve.]
Now, with this dose of perspective sauce, there also needs to be a recognition that elements of the United States have shifted in an ideological direction that makes them increasingly isolated in the world. To see why, look at this Financial Times story by Hannah Kuchler on David Cameron's G8 priorities. The salient part for this conversation:
In a letter to the leaders, Mr Cameron said the world will continue to face “grave economic uncertainty” in 2013 but the rich countries must set “ambitious standards” to drive growth in their countries and across the globe.
The UK will push for action in three key areas: trade deals, including a potential EU-US trade agreement; measures to tackle tax evasion and open government; working with developing countries to fight corruption....
The British government has prioritised chasing tax evaders, with prosecutions for tax evasion up by 80 per cent and a treaty with Switzerland, its largest ever deal on tackling tax evasion. Mr Cameron wants to use the UK’s time at the top of the G8 to “galvanise collective international action”.
“We can lead the way in sharing information to tackle abuses of the system, including in developing countries, so that governments can collect taxes due to them,” he wrote in the letter. “We can work together to sign more countries up to international standards. And we can examine the case for strengthening those standards themselves.”
Now, international tax evasion has been an on-and-off G8 priority for the past 15 years, and there's actually been some progress on tax havens. I guarantee you, however, that to the House GOP caucus this will look like some back-door globalist conspiracy by the Obama administration to raise taxes or enforce collection through jackbooted G8 thugs. So anything that will require legislative approval ain't going anywhere.
[Uh, isn't this kinda nuts? Everyone knows that the G8 doesn't have any thugs, much less jackbooted ones!!--ed. Yes, and everyone knows that Agenda 21 is a nonbinding plan of action for sustainable development, but that hasn't stopped a few deluded people from freaking out about a U.N.-hatched global conspiracy.]
So some things have changed, and for the time being there will be some issues on which legislative action is likely not gonna happen. On the other hand -- much like Americans after New Years Eve parties -- the United States usually recovers from these bouts of temporary stupidity. The federal government will muddle through, and I suspect even the 113th Congress will be interested in a U.S.-E.U. trade deal.
Am I missing anything?
Pop quiz: which administration has been more enthusiastic about joining international treaties, George W. Bush or Barack Obama?
The Obama administration has been slow to submit new treaties to the Senate, and only nine have been approved so far. In contrast, the George W. Bush administration secured Senate approval of 163 treaties over eight years. These included not only bilateral treaties but also multilateral agreements on many important subjects, including human rights, atmospheric and marine environmental protection, the laws of war and arms control.
That paragraph comes from John Bellinger III, Bush 43's former State Department legal adviser. Now, one obvious pushback to this is that Obama has had to deal with a sovereigntist caucus in the Senate that is even more rabid than it was under Bush. Bellinger acknowledges the obvious, but then goes on to argue that fault also lies with the Obama administration:
It isn’t enough to blame Republican opposition to international agreements, which certainly has risen among the party’s senators in recent years. That trend only makes it more important that President Obama work harder to gain Senate support for treaties in his second term....
President Obama must devote more energy to securing Senate approval for pending treaties, both by using the presidency’s bully pulpit to explain the benefits and by directing administration officials to pay more attention to the concerns of individual senators. Despite increasing Republican hostility toward treaties, the president should still be able to persuade between 12 and 15 pragmatic Republican senators to support treaties that give concrete rights to Americans and American businesses or that promote important American interests.
The president should begin with the Law of the Sea Convention, which enjoys strong support from all branches of the United States military and from the American business community. He almost certainly could have gained Senate approval of this important treaty during his first three years in office but inexplicably waited until the maelstrom of the 2012 election year to push for it.
Over at the Monkey Cage, Erik Voeten looks at the political science of this and concludes that Bellinger has a valid point. The reason that Obama has been lethargic on treaties? The opportunity cost of the effort:
The idea that it is indeed hard work to pass treaties is supported by a recent working paper by Judith Kelley and Jon Pevehouse. Passing a treaty isn’t a simple matter of tallying the votes. The Senate’s agree and consent process takes away legislative time and political capital that could be used for other, perhaps more valuable, legislation. This opportunity cost theory yields some interesting and counterintuitive hypotheses. Presidents should become less likely to advance treaties when their approval ratings are high and when their party controls the Senate because that is the time when they can pass more valuable legislation on domestic issues. Kelley and Pevehouse find strong support for these patterns in their analysis with data from 1967-2008.
I suspect that Bellinger is correct that the Obama Administration could have persuaded a few Republicans to switch sides on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities if it had expended more time and capital on the treaty. This is not just about Republican opposition but also about priorities in the Obama Administration, which have, rightly or wrongly, been more on the domestic side.
One could argue that this logic also applies to Obama's cabinet selection process on foreign affairs. With Susan Rice, Chuck Hagel and John Kerry, the White House strategy appears to be, "hey, let's float the name, see if anyone gets upset, and see if the nominee can push back effectively before bothering to actually nominate the person."
Now from a pure logic of politics, this strategy makes some sense on some foreign policy matters. As embarrassing as it was that the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities did not get ratified by the Senate, it doesn't change much. There is no effect on domestic law and the U.S. takes a marginal hit on the global stage. Even on cabinet appointments, one could be truly bloodless and argue that Susan Rice's Value Over Replacement-Level Policy Principal wasn't that high. The fiscal cliff negotiations matter a lot more.
Still, politics is art as well as science, and there's something just a little bit chickens**t about the Obama White House's tactics. Politics isn't only about winning -- sometimes it's just about making the effort. And the truth of the matter is that when it comes to dealing with Congress, this administration hasn't made the effort. By my recollection, during its entire first term, the only international relations piece of legislation that got the full court Obama White House press was the New START treaty with Russia. Now given what was going on with the economy, one could argue that the administration had the right set of priorities. But one way to help jumpstart the global economy would be a series of potentially significant foreign economic policy moves -- including the ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention, by the way. And I'd feel safer about my bet with Phil Levy if I knew that the Obama administration was willing to get some skin in the game when it came to foreign policy and Congress.
Letting peple like Susan Rice or Chuck Hagel twist in the political wind is, well, cruel. So I hope that in its second term, the White House cares enough about foreign policy to actually engage Congress rather than throw up their hands and say, "crazy Republicans, what can you do?" Actually, President Obama, you could do one whole hell of a lot if you made an effort.
So, after yesterday, there appears to be a little more clarity about who's gonna be doing what on Barack Obama's second term foreign policy team. If the latest reports can be trusted:
1) Susan Rice took herself out of the running for Secretary of State, but it looks like she'll be staying on as U.N. Ambassador, with a potential move to National Security Advisor at some point in the second term.
2) John Kerry is now the frontrunner to be Secretary of State
3) Chuck Hagel is now the frontrunner to be Secretary of Defense
4) Tom Donilon is staying on as National Security Advisor
5) CIA will go to either acting ditector Michael Morrell or deputy NSC advisor John Brennan.
My thoughts on these developments:
A) As someone with very little inside-the-Beltway knowledge, the Susan Rice denouement still raises more questions than it answers. In particular: i) Why was Benghazi such a big deal when she had zero operational authority and in no way lied when she appeared on the Sunday talk shows in September; ii) What the hell did she do to alienate Susan Collins (which appears to have been the pivotal moment)? iii) Why didn't the Obama White House offer up a full-throated defense of Rice or tell her to shut the hell up? Why the squishy, tepid support? iv) What was it about Rice that prompted so much bipartisan backbiting?
B) The changing norms of the Senate suggest the disturbing possibility that the only cabinet nominees who can sail through are.... former Senators. This is bad, bad, bad, bad, and bad for foreign policy. Cabinet officers are administrators and managers. Most senators haven't managed anything bigger than a legislative office. This isn't to say that all of them will do a bad job... but cofidence is not high. Narrowing the candidate pool like this harms the national interest.
C) If Chuck Hagel gets the nomination, it's gonna be one hell of a test of the Israel Lobby thesis. Eli Lake and Stephen Walt don't agree on much, but they do agree that Hagel is not really viewed as a friend of Israel... or at least Israeli uber-hawks. Hagel's overall foreign policy expertise/competence isn't a question, and as a former GOP senator it's going to be tough to make this a partisan issue. So... this is really an ideal test of the power of the so-called Israel Lobby. If AIPAC et al either don't oppose the nomination or oppose it and lose, that's a data point against Walt and Mearsheimer. If they oppose it and Hagel is withdrawn/goes down, it would be tough to deny that the power of AIPAC wasn't the crucial factor. As a social scientist, let me just say... pass the popcorn.
D) Actually, come to think of it, there is one other group that would likely oppose a Hagel nomination. Democratic policy defense wonks won't be thrilled with Hagel -- because it means one of their own won't get the job. If Hagel gets the nomination, then three of the last four Secretaries of Defense under a Democratic administration will have been Republicans. At a time when Democrats are acquiring a foreign policy/national security advantage over the GOP, this is not the best signal of party competency on defense matters. That said, a Hagel nomination would also be evidence that the GOP has pretty much shed all of the realists from its foreign policy team.
E) Hey, remember when the Secretary of the Treasury and the U.S. Trade Representative were significant foreign policy positions? Good times. Foreign economic policy got the short end of the foreign policy stick during Obama's first term -- it would be peachy if that changed. Wouldn't it be awesome if these positions got some nominees with political juice and the ability to move an ambitious foreign economic policy agenda through the system?
What do you think?
Your humble blogger was all set to talk about the nail-biter of an election for China's Standing Politburo Committee, but gosh, it seems like there wasn't much surprise in how it played out (with the admitted exception of Xi Jinping managing to sweep Hu Jintao off the Central Military Commission). So instead I'd like to talk about the clusterf**k that is the current debate in the United States on the Benghazi attack.
Yesterday at his press conference, Barack Obama defended Ambassador/possible future Secretary of State Susan Rice from Republican critiques of her Sunday news show appearances on Benghazi:
President Obama strongly defended U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice against attacks Wednesday by a trio of Republican senators who said she is ill-qualified to serve as secretary of state because of how she explained the roots of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Bristling with evident indignation during a news conference, Obama said Rice has “done exemplary work” with “skill, professionalism and toughness and grace.”
He then made a pointedly and almost personal challenge to Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.),Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) who earlier Wednesday said Rice is unqualified to lead the State Department because she appeared either misinformed or ill-prepared to discuss the attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, on national political talk shows a few days after the attack.
“If Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham and others want to go after somebody they should go after me,” Obama said. “For them to go after the UN ambassador who had nothing to do with Benghazi…to besmirch her reputation is outrageous.”
Apparently the troika weren't pleased, taking to the Senate to blast Rice, Obama and everything else within range.
Slate's David Weigel has already blogged about the ways in which McCain has already distorted what Susan Rice actually said in those Sunday appearances. Rather than repeat his points, I'd note a few things:
1) It's fascinating to me how critics seem to think that Susan Rice flat-out lied in those Sunday shows. "Lied" is different from "saying things that are wrong." Lied implies that Rice knew exactly why that attack occurred but for political reasons said something else. Being wrong would have been a much simpler task -- simply echoing intelligence talking points that were given to her. It's to Marco Rubio's credit, for example, that he nails the distinction. As quoted by Weigel:
"We have a process for nominations, and we want to give her a full hearing," said Sen. Marco Rubio yesterday when asked about Rice. "I'm concerned with the fact she went on Sunday shows and said this was the product of a spontaneous uprising and not a terrorist attack. Obviously she based those comments on directives or information that she had, and it's important to know where those directives came from and what that information was." (emphasis added)
Everything that I have read about Benghazi suggests that this was a bureaucratic nigtmare -- but Rice didn't lie. And anyone who says differently better have something better than the assertion of "it's obvious!!"
2) Tying Rice to Benghazi seems.... odd, since her only role in what happened appears to be those Sunday morning talk shows. The better questions to ask would be about Rice's performance at the United Nations. Richard Grenell has a piece over at Fox News that gets at this issue. Grennell is the embodiment of a pure partisan -- but that doesn't mean he's wrong in this case. These are the questions that should form the basis of any confirmation hearing -- if it happens.
3) Do Republicans really want to make their new standard for bouncing cabinet nominations to be "says inaccurate things on television"? By that standard, an awful lot of the GOP's foreign affairs machine that served or defended the Bush administration would be blackballed from any foreign policy office for the future.
I have an essay in the New York Times on why it is that presidents seem to care so much about foreign policy when voters care so little. Here's how it opens:
I’d like to apologize to American voters. I’m one of the 5 percent. The 5 percent, that is, who vote in presidential elections based on the foreign policy views of the candidates. It might seem to the other 95 percent of you that we pull the strings. At his taped fund-raiser, for example, Mitt Romney complained that the common folk weren’t asking him enough foreign policy questions. It certainly must appear as if we control presidents once they’re elected — after their first year in office, all we read about is that they’re attending some fancy-pants summit meeting or using force somewhere exotic.
While I wish that this were true, the reality is a lot more complex. Really, those of us paying attention to foreign policy are trying to do the rest of you a favor. Maybe if some of you paid attention to the rest of the world as well, American presidents would be more cautious about expending blood and treasure abroad. That sounds crazy, but it’s true.
You'll have to read the whole thing to see why I make that argument.
Hey, remember when I said that China's debt holdings did not pose a serious threat to the United States? And remember when I banged my head against the desk because Very Serious People continue to insist otherwise?
I bring this up because, according to Bloomberg's Tony Capaccio and David Kruger, the Department of Defense has my back:
China's holdings of more than $1 trillion in U.S. debt and the prospect that it might “suddenly and significantly” withdraw funds don’t pose a national security threat, according to a first-ever Pentagon assessment.
“China has few attractive options for investing the bulk of its large foreign exchange holdings out of U.S. Treasury securities,” given their extent, according to the report dated July 20 and obtained by Bloomberg News
China is the second-largest holder of U.S. government debt after the Federal Reserve. Acting at the direction of Congress, the Defense Department studied the rationale behind the investments and whether “the aggressive option of a large sell- off” would give China leverage in a political or military crisis. China’s debt holdings have been cited as a sign of U.S. vulnerability by Republicans in this year’s election campaign....
“Attempting to use U.S. Treasury securities as a coercive tool would have limited effect and likely would do more harm to China than to the United States,” according to the report, which was sent to congressional committees by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. “As the threat is not credible and the effect would be limited even if carried out, it does not offer China deterrence options” in a diplomatic, economic or military situation, the Pentagon found....
China decreased its Treasury holdings last year with little apparent impact in the market, Treasury data show. The world’s most populous country reduced its position in Treasuries in the first yearly decline since Bloomberg began tracking the data in 2001.
The holdings declined 0.7 percent, or by $8.2 billion, to $1.15 trillion last year. The decline was much steeper in the second half of the year when China’s stake plunged 12 percent, or by $163 billion, from an all-time high of $1.31 trillion in July 2011, the data show.
During that period, 10-year Treasuries rallied as the U.S. credit rating was reduced by Standard & Poor's to AA+ from AAA and the European sovereign debt crisis worsened, pushing the yield to 1.88 percent from 2.80 percent.
Foreign investors held 50.3 percent of the $10.52 trillion in outstanding Treasuries as of June, government data show. That’s down from April 2008, when they reached 55.7 percent of the $4.64 trillion in U.S. marketable debt....
The Pentagon said in its report that the Fed also is “fully capable of purchasing U.S. Treasuries dumped” by China and “reducing the economic impact.”
A Chinese move to “suddenly and significantly” reduce its Treasury holdings “would fundamentally change the international finance and business community’s perception of China as a reliable and respected economic and financial partner,” the Pentagon said.
This report isn't going to end the silly campaign rhetoric or the Niall Ferguson/Tom Friedman foreign policy community talking point, of course. But I thought it was worth posting here so I can link back to it the next time I need to bang my head against a desk.
If you're an American and want o worry about China, don't focus on the debt -- focus on the apparent disappearance of China's next leader.
Your humble blogger has not been shy in decrying those in Congress, the mainstream media, and the academy who believe that the answer to all of America's problems starts with defunding National Science Foundation research grants for political scientists. As I've blogged about repeatedly, political science research provides significant bang for the buck, and even the jargon serves a purpose.
However, a good social scientist must also acknowledge contradictory data points against his or her hypotheses. And so I must concede that this week the American Political Science Association has highlighted a decision-making process that suggests political scientists shouldn't be trusted with either money or power.
Readers might be aware that Tropical Storm Isaac appears to be bypassing the Republican National Convention in Tampa and is instead headed.... right for New Orleans. It's scheduled to his the NOLA area on Wednesday. This is a wee problem for political scientists because, well, the American Political Science Association annual meeting is scheduled to be held in - wait for it -- New Orleans from Thursday to Sunday. APSA has already cancelled all Wednesday pre-meeting activities, and based on the storm path, I'd place a 50/50 bet on the whole convention being scrubbed (the other possibility is APSA Hunger Games, which would end badly for all the post-materialists).
This gives rise to a very simple question of mine: why, in the name of all that is holy, did any political scientist think it was a good idea to have the annual meeting in a hurricane zone... DURING HURRICANE SEASON??!!
Now, you might think that this decision was made post-Katrina to express solidarity with the city of New Orleans -- it wasn't. According to this timeline, the decision was made in 2003. Still, it's not like hurricanes devastating New Orleans is a recent phenomenon -- there's a long and storied history of tropical storms hitting New Orleans right around Labor Day weekend. Indeed, there's even a history of hurricanes affecting past APSA conferences in New Orleans -- second-hand sources have informed me that a hurricane nearly hit the 1985 APSA meetings held in the Big Easy. Since that's the weekend APSA takes place, maybe places like New Orleans and Miami are bad hosting locales, right? Right?
[So you're saying you don't like these cities?--ed. No, I love both cities. Hell, I'm half convinced New Orleans exists merely to give writers an excuse to use the phrase "seedy charm." I'm saying if the conference is going to be held in late August/early September, avoiding hurricane zones seems like a prudent course of action.]
Now, since Katrina devastated New Orleans, there has been a huge controversy about whther it's a bright idea to hold the meeting there. However, if you look at that timeline, you'll see that the controversy has to do with Louisiana's "Defense of Marriage" constitutional amendment and the effect it would have on same-sex couples. This is a fair issue to raise, but I'm thinking that the whole "possibility of being in a hurricane zone" thing should have come up as well.
Looking over APSA's written guidelines for convention siting, I see that APSA has included criteria about regional diversity, local treatment of same-sex unions and partnerships, labor union strength, carbon neutrality, and ethnic and racial diversity. Might I humbly suggest that if political scientists want to be taken seriously by Congress and the general public, if would be a good idea to add "no city located in a hurricane zone during hurricane season" to the list of criteria?
Here's a more complete transcript of my interview with Peterson Institute for International Economics founder C. Fred Bergsten that Foreign Policy excerpted earlier in the week. I edited and abridged the transcript to clean up some of grammar. Have at it -- Bergsten's discussion of his role in the Trans-Pacific Partnership should make for interesting reading!!
DANIEL W. DREZNER: I guess the first question I would ask is, what do you think the [Peterson Institute for International Economics'] greatest accomplishment has been?
C. FRED BERGSTEN: I think our greatest accomplishment has been to educate Americans on the benefits of globalization. And the first calculation that tried to quantify the effects, namely a trillion dollar a year -- higher -- national income, the potential for further gains of another half-trillion a year could go all the way to reducing barriers to global trade. Um, it's been a tough battle. It started in earnest I'd say in the NAFTA fight in Congress, and it continued during every one of the trade policies at the time. It's of course come up repeatedly in the capital flows context as well with all the monetary crises going back to the 80s with the debt crisis, and the 90s with Asia, Russia, Brazil, Mexico, etc. And now, with the crises of the high-income countries...but I think, putting it in the broadest terms, we have been the people trying to expand understanding of globalization -- its benefits and costs, which there certainly are -- but how [on] balance, it's a positive force, both for the U.S. economy and for U.S. foreign policy. In doing that, we have never tried to cover up or short-change the costs, particularly the adjustment the cost to workers and [immobile] factors of production, but it's mainly workers. We've quantified that, about 50 billion a year to offset against the one trillion a year of gains --20/1 cost ratio -- pretty overwhelming but that is significant cost. So that has to be dealt with, and the U.S. has not dealt with it very well. Trade adjustment is miniscule -- one billion a year. We need to invest more to deal with the downside; the cost of losing, in order to keep the benefits of globalization on a stable basis. And we've argued that throughout, and I think our balance carried the day. But the battle rages on, as you know, so much work yet to be done.
DWD: Of course, I know you're a Fletcher alum, and I'm speaking right now from the Fletcher school, so I have to ask this question: In what ways did your Fletcher experience prepare you for going to DC and then sort of creating the Institute for International Economics?
CFB: Well, it prepared me really well because I learned really most of my international economics there, from the top professors of the day, [like] Charles Kindleberger.
DWD: Kindleberger was there when you were? Oh, I didn't know that.
CFB: Charlie taught a couple of courses -- a course on Europe, Europe Economy, an economics course on development with Humphry called the Don and Charlie show -- that was one of the highlight performances on the campus. But their teaching gave me most of my roots in international economics, and always -- obviously in a global context -- but also in a real world context; a political economy context that was, of course, really useful then for going into the policy world, which I did, most immediately into government, and then with that of most of my 20 years of career then to creating the institute.
DWD: Do you think America's foreign policy establishment has become more or less economically literate since when you first started IIE?
CFB: I don't think there's been much change. They were not very literate then, and they're not very literate now. My first big job -- I had a couple of lesser jobs -- my first big job was becoming economic deputy to Kissinger when he was National Security Advisor under Nixon.
If one myth has been slain by the financial crisis and the response to it, it's the idea that central banks ought to be independent and unaccountable politically.
The idea of central bank independence was that it would guarantee good monetary policy. During the Great Moderation it certainly seemed that way. But now it's no longer the case...
[The] point is that the choice between inflation and unemployment is a political, not a technical choice. What's "better"? To screw debtors or creditors? To make millions unemployed or to "debase the currency"? Those are very important questions. More important, they're questions that cannot be solved by economics. They can be informed by them, but at the end of the day what you prefer is going to come down to your own moral value system. In other words, it's a political choice. And the way we make political choices in modern countries is through the democratic process, not through unelected, unaccountable technocrats....
The bottom line is that the argument of supercompetence of central bankers is dead and once that's gone you need to revert those powers back to the political process (emphasis in original).
Now, this is a pretty powerful argument. One would be hard-pressed to say that Jean-Claude Trichet or Alan Greenspan or Ben Bernanke have covered themselves in glory during the past five years or so. Why not return central banking to the politicians?
Well.... before I answer, I want to object to Gobry's framing of the issue in two ways. First, he sets up a too-simple dichotomy between "independence" and "political control." The devil is in the details here. Political scientists have done a lot of research into how legislatures exert influence over supposedly "independent" institutions like courts and regulatory agencies, and this logic applies to central banks as well. Or, to put it another way, I suspect that Ben Bernanke would be pumping more money into the economy were it not for a fear of Congressional blowback. Furthermore, "political control" is unclear here -- which politicians have control? Would central bankers be directly elected? Appointed by the legislature? Appointed by the executive subject to recall? And so forth.
Second, the notion that central banking decisions are strictly political seems as wrong as characterizing them as strictly technical. It is overly cynical to believe that either technocrats or politicians gin up any old theory to justify the policy ends they seek. As with Supreme Court disputes, there are genuine disagreements in economics on the theory side. At this very moment, different central bankers disagree over the best way to reduce unemployment in part because of different economic theories. Expertise is kinda important in these moments.
OK, these contestations aside, I still have a basic problem with Gobry's argument. For Gobry's process to work better, voters have to punish politicians for poor monetary policy and reward them for wise and prudent monetary policies. I see little evidence that voters would have the necessary knowledge and attention span to do this. Instead, they would likely vote on other considerations, or vote based on short-term considerations such as the unemployment rate and GDP growth without considering whether short-term pump-priming is occurring or long-term sustainable growth. Furthermore, politicians would rig the game just a bit. Political scientists have extensively discussed the existence of "political business cycles" due to fiscal policy. I have every confidence that political control over monetary policy would simply extend the phenomenon to that policy lever as well.
The fact that politicians still control the fiscal lever is what leads me to think that central banking should still be independent. A diversification of political controls over the economy seems like the best minimax strategy over the long run. Thinking back to how U.S. politicians would have handled the last 20 years of central banking, I suspect that they simply would have exacerbated the boom-bust dot-com and housing bubbles. It's not clear at all that the added democratic gain outweighs the loss in policy competence.
That said, Gobry makes a powerful argument, and I'd like to hear from readers. Has independent central banking jumped the shark? What do you think?
Lots o' stuff to chat about in the higher education universe, but let's keep it to three items in this blog post:
1) My student-soon-to-be-Doctor-of-Philosophy Patrick Meier and Chris Albon blog "Advice to Future PhDs from 2 Unusual Graduating PhDs." They make some interesting, provocative, and dare I say counterintuitive arguments.
I disagree with a couple of their points. First of all, I ain't buying "the blog is the new CV." The blog is a calling card, and if you're lucky it's a branding device -- but it's not the same thing as a vita. Second of all, I think they tend to inductively generalize from their own experiences and capabilities. Not everyone should take on outside projects or teach at every opportunity, because these are excellent not-writing-your-dissertation activities. Finally, I think their seven pieces of advice are out of sequence. Their #3, #6 and #7 are the most important things. Only once you've answered those questions should you even consider following the rest of their advice. Still, read the whole thing.
2) I see that Naomi Schaefer Riley got fired from her Chronicle of Higher Education gig for writing a 500 word blog post bashing dissertations-in-progress in African-American studies without reading them. Riley has written her response on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page. James Joyner provides an excellent round-up of the affair. My take is similar to Joyner in that, to be blunt, neither the Chronicle nor Riley come out of this looking very good. The Chronicle looks like it kowtowed to the pressures of academic political correctness by either not reacting sooner or standing their ground. Riley, on the other hand, has put herself in the indefensible position of calling for greater academic rigor while whinging that those standards shouldn't apply to her when she blogs for the Chronicle. So, a pox on everyone's house for this affair.
3) The House of Representatives, in its infinite wisdom, has voted to cut funding for political science -- and only political science -- from the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences part of the National Science Foundation. Representative Jeff Flake's justified cutting the funding using pretty much the same logic as Senator Tom Coburn did in 2009 when he lamely tried to do the same thing [At least he didn't claim that "social scientists brought our world to the brink of chaos"!!--ed. Thank goodness for small favors.] .
There’s real irony here in a Republican-controlled House of Representatives voting to defund a political-science program at a time when the Department of Defense and “intelligence community” seem to be increasing spending on it. With things like the Minerva Initiative, ICEWS, IARPA’s Open Source Indicators programs, the parts of the government concerned with protecting national security seem to find growing value in social-science research and are spending accordingly. Meanwhile, the party that claims to be the stalwart defender of national security pulls in the opposite direction, like the opposing head on Dr. Doolittle’s Pushmi-pullyu. Nice work, fellas.
ABC News reports on a "hot mic" moment between President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev:
At the tail end of his 90 minute meeting with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev Monday, President Obama said that he would have “more flexibility” to deal with controversial issues such as missile defense, but incoming Russian President Vladimir Putin needs to give him “space.”
The exchange was picked up by microphones as reporters were let into the room for remarks by the two leaders.
President Obama: On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space.
President Medvedev: Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. Space for you…
President Obama: This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.
President Medvedev: I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.
Now, compared to past "hot mic" moments, this certainly seems less, well, profane. Nevertheless, it has gotten the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin all hot and bothered about the hidden Obama that will emerge in 2013:
It’s helpful to have a vivid illustration of this, but is there anyone who thinks Obama, should he get a second term, wouldn’t run wild with policies and positions that the majority of the electorate oppose? Otherwise, he’d roll them out now, of course....
Elections are taken as mandates by elected officials and the media (even if the message is less clear than the winner would have us believe).
In sum, the election is not simply a referendum on President Obama’s actions to date; it’s essentially a blank check for the president’s second term. Romney should be asking wary independent and moderates: Is there a scintilla of a chance that Obama would be less liberal in a second term?
Rubin's logic seems pretty clear: Obama is really a liberal, and free of political constraint -- particularly on the foreign policy remit -- he'll revert to type. There's just one problem: based on recent evidence, there's an excellent chance Obama will be less liberal in the second term.
Consider the last three two-term presidents: Reagan, Clinton, and Bush 43. I'll grant this is a very small sample, but bear with me. Did their second-term policies look different from their first-term?
You bectha. Reagan tacked in a decidedly liberal direction with respect to the Soviet Union, switching from rhetoric about the "evil empre" to cutting substantive arms control agreements with the Soviet Union. Clinton, on the other hand, tacked in a more conservative direction. After being enamored of multilateralism and leery of using fore in his first term, he became more comfortable with using force and using it outside of UN strictures in his second term. Finally, Bush 43's second terms was decidedly more liberal. In his first term, he declared an "Axis of Evil" and invaded Iraq without UN support. In his second term, however, the Bush administration was decidedly more dovish, working through the UN on both Iran and North Korea, demonstrating a willingness to directly negotiate with the Iranians, and refusing to use force in Syria. This, by the way, is why claiming a continuity between Bush 43 and Obamas is not quite as much of a political jab as people like to claim. The dfifferences between Bush in 2003 and Bush in 2008 were massive.
Now, these narratives are not really as clean as the last paragraph suggests. Reagan also embraced Iran/Contra in his second term. In Clinton's second term he pushed hard to address US arrears to the UN. And Bush had some elements of
compasionate conservatism liberalism in his first term, what with PEPFAR and a refusal to declare a clash of civilizations following the 9/11 attacks.
What's striking, however, is that recent second-termers have not reverted to their ideological bliss point -- if anything it's been the reverse, they've tacked away from their starting point. Part of this is circumstances. Reagan had, in Gorbachev, a real negotiating partner in his second term. Bush had to be more circumspect on Iran and North Korea after the cost and constraint of military operatons in Iraq and Afghanistan. All three presidents had less favorable legislatures in their second term than their first.
Still, it's not all about circumstances. What gives? I'd argue that precisely because presidents have fewer foreign policy constraints than dometic ones, they feel free to pursue their preferred set of policies from day one. Reality, however, quickly determines which ideas are working and which do not have any staying power. Over time, therefore, presidents change tack until they hit on a more successful formula. This usually means overcoming one's personal ideology and embracing new ideas.
I've argued that this is exactly what Obama has done in his first term -- and I'm hardly the only one. And, so, yes, contra Rubin, I think the notion that a second-term of President Obama will be the second coming of the Kellogg-Briand Treaty requires a willful misreading of Obama's first term of foreign policy -- as well as ignorance of the last thirty years of American foreign policy.
Am I missing anything?
In an excerpt from his forthcoming book The Escape Artists, Noam Scheiber has a behind-the-scenes story in The New Republic about how the Obama administration mostly botched the debt ceiling negotiations with Republicans last year. I'm guessing that Scheiber's best sources were the Treasury folk, because they come off looking the best -- advising Obama to cut a deal with the Republicans in December 2010, telling him to not negotiate policy concessions to get a debt ceiling boost, and so forth. Obama did not listen to them, and we all know what happened. Scheiber goes on to note that after the debt ceiling drama of the summer, Obama learned to attack conservatives rather than compromise with them, thereby improving his political fortunes.
He closes the essay with the following:
For voters contemplating whether he deserves a second term, the question is less and less one of policy or even worldview than of basic disposition. Throughout his political career, Obama has displayed an uncanny knack for responding to existential threats. He sharpened his message against Hillary Clinton in late November 2007, just in time to salvage the Iowa caucuses and block her coronation. He condemned his longtime pastor, Jeremiah Wright, just before Wright’s racialist comments could doom his presidential hopes. Once in office, Obama led two last-minute counteroffensives to save health care reform. But, in every case, the adjustments didn’t come until the crisis was already at hand. His initial approach was too passive and too accommodating, and he stuck with it far too long.
Given the booby traps that await the next president—Iranian nukes, global financial turmoil—this habit seems dangerously risky. Sooner or later, Obama may encounter a crisis that can’t be reversed at the eleventh hour. Is Obama’s newfound boldness on the economy yet another last-minute course-correction? Or has he finally learned a deeper lesson? More than just a presidency may hinge on the answer.
There are two big problems with this kind of formulation. The first is that, for all of Obama's stumbles and bumbles on the debt ceiling issue, it's hard to argue in retrospect that he lost that political fight. Since the debt ceiling dispute, Obama's approval numbers have moved north while Congress has become historically unpopular. The improving economy likely explains some of this -- but if that was the only part of the story then Congress' numbers should be rising as well.
It's not that Obama handled the debt ceiling talks terribly well -- it's just that Scheiber misses the point that the Republicans made an even bigger hash of things. Obama came off as someone willing to deal and the House GOP came off as a group of people looking forward to the apocalypse. Looking more reasonable that one's adversaries occasionally matters in domestic politics -- and it's not in Scheiber's account (full and fair disclosure: I would have been in agreement with Scheiber six months ago).
The more interesting question is whether there's any validity to Scheiber's larger point -- that Obama's initial passivity in responding to political crises suggests he's ill-prepared for handling global crises. Does Scheiber's pattern of how Obama responded to domestic political challenges match up with his foreign policy?
I think Scheiber has half a point. As I've noted in the past, the administration's first set of foreign policies were predicated on the same basic impulse that Obama had domestically: deals and bargains were possible in many parts of the globe. However, as the administration found itself rebuffed and frustrated by various international actors (Iran, China, etc.) it quickly pivoted to a more aggressive -- and more fruitful -- counterpunching approach. Similar to how the debt ceiling negotiations play out, Obama has benefited from his initial outreaches; he can say he tried the olive branch before turning to the stick. When it comes to global actors that Obama perceives as enemies or rivals, his administration has been pretty ruthless.
Where Scheiber might have a point is with how Obama has handled America's friends and allies. Obviously, these countries should have more common interests with the United States, so by and large they should be less obstreperous. When issues have flared up, however -- with Israel on housing settlements, with Europe on the sovereign debt crisis, with post-reset Russia on anything, and with G-20 allies on quantitative easing -- the administration seems slow-moving, awkward, and occasionally shocked that these countries might have interests that diverge from the United States.
Pressuring and cajoling allies is a tricky and delicate business. One would be hard-pressed to argue that the Bush administration did a great job of it. Still, as the latest iteration of the Eurocrisis plays out, Scheiber might have hit on the Achilles heel of Obama's foreign policy acumen.
What do you think?
I'm at a stage in my career when reporters will occasionally call or e-mail me for an "expert" opinion on something. I've gotten better at refusing those requests when I'm not really an expert but just a snarky blogger. Still, even when I can claim expertise, I don't always do that great of a job.
To see what I mean, consider this New York Times front-pager by Mark Landler and Annie Lowrey on President Obama's proposed reorganization of foreign economic policy agencies. I'm quoted accurately in this story -- but I'm not quoted fully.
To explain, here's the key bits of the article:
Mr. Obama called on lawmakers to grant him broad new powers to propose mergers of agencies, which Congress would then have to approve or reject in an up-or-down vote. If granted the authority, he said, he would begin pruning by folding the Small Business Administration and five other trade and business agencies into a single agency that would replace the Commerce Department....
Despite regular vows by presidents to overhaul government — Mr. Obama made one in his State of the Union address last January — few have followed through. Those who did, like Richard M. Nixon, often met with failure. Scholars have mixed feelings about such reorganizations, with some arguing that they rarely lead to lower head counts, more effective departments or savings.
“My gut tells me those benefits will end up being much smaller than advertised, and the costs much larger,” said Steven M. Teles, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University, pointing to the time wasted during the consolidation and the changed political dynamic between the agencies and Congress.
But experts on government efficiency applauded the initiative, saying it was overdue, and some analysts said it made sense to combine agencies involved in business development, foreign investment and trade promotion into a single department with the mandate to promote American exports.
“If you look at American exports, it’s dominated by big business,” said Daniel W. Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University. “If you want small and medium enterprises to get more involved in exporting” — a goal of the Obama administration — “having small business and the trade office in the same agency makes sense,” he said. “So this could be a boon for that.”
Now, based on that quote, you might think that I'm pretty enthusiastic about this initiative. If, however, you checked my initial tweets about this proposal, you would notice a lot more agreement with what Stephen Teles said in the paragraphs above me. My instant assessment was that this was one of those "reorganizing government" initiatives that makes a lot of sense in the abstract but probably leads to more transition costs than long-term benefits. Indeed, the first thing that came to mind could be summed up in four words: Department of Homeland Security.
So what gives? This is what happens when I talk to reporters. I had a long chat with Annie Lowrey during which I listed A) the various ways in which Congress won't go for this; and B) why merging different organizational cultures will likely be a big mess. Lowrey then asked me if there was any rationale for this kind of reorganization. At which point I said what was quoted in the paper of record.
Now if you know my views about the National Export Initiative, you'll see I don't hold out much hope of this accomplishing anything. Still, to repeat, Lowrey's quote of me is completely accurate, and it is a decent motivation for this kind of initiative.
This is one of those mismatches between reporters and experts. It's not really the reporter's job to convey the full gist of a conversation with an expert. This story isn't "What Dan Drezner The Expert Thinks About Something," after all. Still, this is often the natural expectation of many experts, because we think about the entire conversation, not just one part of it. Furthermore, it's an expectation that, despite multiple occurences like this, stubbornly persists in my brain. So the impulse to develop disciplined talking points and not stray from them has never developed.
Why? Because I like answering questions fully, or trying to, anyway. That's why I got a doctorate, and why I became a professor. This impulse, by the way, is why so many experts loathe presidential debates. The candidates are usually too savvy to directly answer a question. Rather, they are being tested on their ability to pivot from the question that's asked to the talking point that is closest to that question.
This is a long-winded way of saying that what I said in the Times was the truth but not the whole truth. And that the odds are good that I'm probably going find myself in this situation again. And that's OK -- one of the perks of having this blog is that when this sort of thing happens, I can ramble my way to a more fuller explanation of my views.
So check out David Rothkopf for a full-throated defense of Obama's proposal. Despite my quote in the Times, you're not going to see one here.
UPDATE: Now this is fascinating. The Anchorage Daily News runs a version of the Times story -- except that the ADN version has much fuller quotes from more experts. The relevant portion:
One government efficiency expert, Jitinder Kohli, applauded the move.
"These efforts to rationalize government are long overdue, frankly," said Kohli, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. "In fiscally tight times, it's even more important to think carefully about how to deliver savings — and that includes making websites easier to use, providing single points of entry and streamlining."
"In the world of business, reorganization happens all the time, for good reason," Kohli added. "The world changes around businesses, and businesses change to better serve the world. But the government is far, far less nimble."
Still, a body of research throws cold water on the notion that such reorganization leads to lower head counts, more effective departments or cost savings.
"The most important considerations are the costs in wasted time while they do the reorganization, how this changes the politics of the affected agencies in relation to Congress and other executive branch agencies, and how specific the purported benefits of consolidation are," said Steven M. Teles, an associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. "My gut tells me those benefits will end up being much smaller than advertised, and the costs much larger."
Daniel W. Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts, said "This is one of those ideas that looks great in abstract. But you're talking about merging the organizational cultures of five or six agencies. It takes a long time for efficiencies and synergies to work out. They're not going to play well for a while."
Nonetheless, Drezner said that having a single body devoted to export promotion made sense.
"If you look at American exports, it's dominated by big business," he said. "If you want small and medium enterprises to get more involved in exporting" — a goal of the Obama administration — "having small business and the trade office in the same agency makes sense. So this could be a boon for that."
Susan C. Schwab, who served as a U.S. trade representative during the Bush administration, agreed that the move might improve export promotion. But she said that it might do so at the expense of broader trade policy.
"You'd take a small, very efficient agency and have it totally swallowed up by this behemoth," said Schwab, who is now a professor of public policy the University of Maryland. "From a trade policy perspective, it makes no sense at all."
Schwab added, "Trade policy involves so many different sectors of the economy, and U.S. interests. It's foreign policy. It's manufacturing. It is services, agriculture, consumers, labor, the environment, intellectual property."
An agency without a strong trade representative, she said, could end up giving "short shrift" to some concerns.
Had this been the version that the Times ran, I wouldn't have bothered blogging about this, because my quotes were both accurate and captured to gist of what I was saying.
Of course, this is a longer story, which reminds me that sometimes it's not the reporter that has mismatched incentives -- it's the editor worried about length.
American politicians are super-mad at Standard & Poor's for downgrading U.S. debt even after the debtopocalypse was averted earlier this week. These same politicians seem torn between pointing out that S&P sucks at math and blaming the other political party for the S&P screw-up.
I really don't care about that as much as the debate over whether S&P got its political analysis right. Here's the key paragraphs of the actual Standard & Poor statement:
[T]he downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges to a degree more than we envisioned when we assigned a negative outlook to the rating on April 18, 2011....
Compared with previous projections, our revised base case scenario now assumes that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, due to expire by the end of 2012, remain in place. We have changed our assumption on this because the majority of Republicans in Congress continue to resist any measure that would raise revenues, a position we believe Congress reinforced by passing the act.
Felix Salmon, thinks that this analysis is spot on:
[T]he US does not deserve a triple-A rating, and the reason has nothing whatsoever to do with its debt ratios. America’s ability to pay is neither here nor there: the problem is its willingness to pay. And there’s a serious constituency of powerful people in Congress who are perfectly willing and even eager to drive the US into default. The Tea Party is fully cognizant that it has been given a bazooka, and it’s just itching to pull the trigger. There’s no good reason to believe that won’t happen at some point.
David Weigel concludes that the S&P political analysis is fair:
This is not crazy.This what Republicans imply about the supercommittee -- they will not accept plans that increase taxes, and despite the fact that they've agreed to let the Bush tax cuts lapse on January 1, 2013, they are making noises about not accepting a return of the rates. The best possible scenario, if we assume that stance, is what I wrote about today -- tax reform plans that start in the supercommittee and win over a committed Congress.
Kevin Drum, however, thinks that S&P's political analysis is way off:
S&P shouldn't be in the business of commenting on a country's political spats unless they've been going on so long that they're likely to have a real, concrete impact on the safety of a country's bonds. And that hasn't happened yet. There's no serious macroeconomic reason to think Americacan't service its debt and there's no serious political reason to think the Tea Party has anything close to the power to provoke a political meltdown in which wewon'tpay our debt....
[S&P]should care only about the safety of U.S. bonds, and for the moment anyway, there's no legitimate reason to think either that we can't pay or that we won't pay. The bond market, which has all the same information as S&P, continues to believe that U.S. debt is the safest in the world, and in this case the market is right. S&P should stop playing dumb political games and stick to its core business.
I side, mostly, with Drum. It's totally fair for S&P to factor politics into their assessment of sovereign debt. Indeed, a key trend in sovereign debt analysis over the past five years has been the recognition that political fundamentals can matter as much as economics. That said, if ratings agencies are going to do this, then their political expectations can't just be retrospective -- they need to do some actual forecasting. Instead, they looked at recent weeks and extrapolated into the future.
There are three factors that should give S&P pause before assuming that political dysfunction could lead to no increae in tax revenue. First, as Drum points out, despite all the displays of ideological inflexibility, in the end the debt ceiling vote secured a strong majority of the GOP House caucus. Some Tea Party members were willing to risk a crisis, but not actually go and perpetuate one. It was not a Great Moment in Democracy, but in the end a deal was done. You can't dock for intransigence without noting the outcome.
Second, unlike the debt ceiling, deadlock in late 2012 means that the Bush tax cuts expire. Either a lame-duck Obama or a newly-re-elected Obama will be able to make that fiscal decision (no way any faction in Congress musters the 2/3 vote necessary to override). As Jonathan Chait has repeatedly observed, that dynamic is the opposite of the debt ceiling episode, in which case paralysis led to bad fiscal outcomes. If S&P thinks partisan gridlock will persist on Capitol Hill, then the conclusion to draw is that taxes will go up.
Third -- and this is pretty important -- S&P has failed to observe the political aftereffects of the debt deal. As I argued previously:
[T]he thing about democracy is that it has multiple ways to constrain political stupidity and ideological overreach. The first line of defense is that politicians will have an electoral incentive to act in non-crazy ways in order to get re-elected. The second line of defense is that politicians or parties who violate the non-crazy rule fail to get re-elected. So, in some ways, the true test of the American system's ability to stave off failure will be the 2012 election.
The first line line of defense has been breached, but the second line of defense looks increasingly robust. Public opinion poll after public opinion poll in the wake of the debt deal show the same thing -- everyone in Washington is unpopular, but Congress is really unpopular and GOP members of Congress are ridiculously unpopular. At a minimum, S&P needs to calculate how the current members of Congress will react to rising anti-incumbent sentiment. If they did that analysis and concluded that nothing would be done, I'd understand their thinking more. I didn't see anything like that kind of political analysis in their statement, however.
In the end, I suspect Moody's and Fitch won't follow S&P's move, so this could be a giant nothingburger. Still, if these guys are going to be doing political risk analysis, it might help to actually have some political scientists on the payroll. Based on their statement, S&P is simply extrapolating from the op-ed page, and that's a lousy way to make a political forecast.
Am I missing anything?
As the markets begin their full-on freak out over the failure of Washington to raise the debt ceiling, I must confess to having a semi-out-of-body experience about the whole thing. The American in me is simply appalled by the stupid, self-destructive behavior that led to this thoroughly avoidable apocalypse. The political scientist in me, however, is utterly fascinated by the whole shebang. I understand that wartime photographers have the same kind of problem -- I wish they had a word for it.
So, taking my American hat off and putting my poli sci hat on, I find it fascinating that House Speaker John Boehner is having so much difficulty whipping a debt ceiling bill that is already a dead letter in the Senate. Conventionally, whipping is done through a mixture of cajoling, coercing and cash -- with an emphasis on the latter. A pet project here, a pet project there, and presto, you have a majority.
The problem is that the nature of the GOP House caucus, combined with the party's anti-government ideology, has stripped Boehner of everything but the cajoling. First, here's the Politico story on last night's whip effort:
Boehner and his top lieutenants worked deep into Thursday night trying to find a just-right solution that would attract 216 votes for the package of $900 billion in new borrowing authority, $917 billion in spending cuts over the next decade, and a process for entitlement and tax reform legislation that could lead to $1.6 trillion or so in deficit reduction and a second increase in the debt limit.
They don’t have available to them the same tools as past Republican leadership teams: There are no earmarks to hand out, nor any to take away, for example.
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), one of the last holdouts and a candidate for the Senate in Arizona, spoke of how “refreshing” it was to see a lobbying effort bereft of the legislative grease that used to secure last-minute votes in the House. He said the vote-building would have “cost $20 billion” in the past.
Yes, it's totally refreshing. It's also totally f**king useless, because Boehner isn't trying to cajole moderates, he's trying to cajole ideological hardliners. David Weigel explains in his wrap-up:
The Republican dilemma quickly revealed itself. In other situations where a majority party needed to grind out a few final votes, it called on members who agreed with the concept of legislation but quibbled with the text....
John Boehner and Eric Cantor couldn't sell their Republicans in the same way. Their diehards never wanted to raise the debt limit. They had supported a strict, doomed version of a debt ceiling deal, Cut, Cap, and Balance, which did that, but even then, they weren't really comfortable with the concept of what they were doing. They did not want to raise the debt limit. Their constituents were uncomfortable with the idea, at first. And now they were being asked to raise the limit, without the conditions they liked, because... why? Because they were told that failing to do so would give Barack Obama all the leverage in the debt fight. That was too clever by half for some Republicans. More than 24 Republicans, it seemed.
Tonight, reporters stalked outside the offices of Boehner and Cantor as members walked in and out for meetings. This wasn't like health care, or even the continuing resolution. We were watching diehard conservatives, who had never wanted to raise the debt limit, and who had never done so in their careers, being begged for votes. As the night dragged on, the visitors did not look like the sort who could cave on big, existential votes. Louie Gohmert, one of the diehards who believes that Tim Geithner is lying about the threat of default, was dragged in. Tim Scott, the co-president of the freshman class, was dragged in; he walked out nonplussed, walked past reporters, and took out his iPod earbuds to confirm he was a "no." Roscoe Bartlett, an octogeniaran, who's not usually counted on for tough votes, entered the hot room telling reporters he didn't want to choose between "bad and really bad." The farce peaked when Gohmert joined freshman Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., for a prayer session in the House's chapel. It can't be good when members of Congress are literally asking for salvation.
If you are looking only to God for a clue about how you should vote, neither material incentives nor political rhetoric is gonna sway you. And now you know why I think there's a 50/50 chance that no deal occurs by August 2.
UPDATE: Megan McArdle has some similar reactions to the same Politico story as I did.
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Here's an open secret -- most American foreign policy observers loathe domestic politics. To those who seek to define and distill the national interest, the notion that factions or parties can get in the way of the common good is very, very frustrating. This is why, whenever gridlock breaks out in Washington, there is a spasm of caterwauling from prominent foreign policy thinkers that Something. Must. Be Done.
This leads to some silly memes, like claims that a third party will break the logjam. It won't -- a glance at Duverger's Law and you know that the first-past-the-post electoral system in this country means that a two-party system is the only stable long-term equilibrium. A third party in the United States could only achieve electoral viability in one of two ways: either supplanting one of the existing parties, or focusing on success in a particular region. Since neither of these outcomes has occurred since the Civil War, I'm not holding my breath.
Gridlock frustration also leads to proposals of Grand Diagnoses and Remedies for Fixing the System. Fareed Zakaria goes down this road, offering a diagnosis of why partisanship has been rising in the United States and then links to Mickey Edwards' essay in The Atlantic of how to fix things. Zakaria, riffing off of Edwards, lists four reasons why partisanship is so high:
1) Redistricting has created safe seats so that for most House members, their only concern is a challenge from the right for Republicans and the left for Democrats....
2) Party primaries have been taken over by small groups of activists who push even popular senators to extreme positions.
3) Changes in Congressional rules have also made it far more difficult to enact large, compromise legislation.
4) Political polarization has also been fueled by a new media, which is also narrowcast.
These sound compelling, except that A) none of them really explain increased polarization in the Senate; and B) only the fourth trend is in any way recent (the rest of these phenomenas can be traced back to the 1970's).
The real problem with Congress is that any proposed institutional reform to correct the problems would require either a dilution of legislative power or a dilution of the minority's power to obstruct. Neither minority nor majority parties in Congress will be interested in moves like that unless and until we're in a crisis that made 2008 look like a ripple in the pond.
If you are looking to this humble blogger for ways out of this current problem... um... look elsewhere. My training is in international relations, and I've found that people with that kind of training tend to prefer policy reforms that provide political leeway and insulation to the executive branch. These measures are appealing because they tend to minimize the number of stupid interactions with galactically stupid members of Congress. Over the long-term, however, even a stupid Congress still serves as a valuable check on executive branch authority.
I'm as frustrated as the next foreign policy observer when it comes to the current policy paralysis. I know my own kind, however, and we suffer from the flawed belief that there was a halcyon era of bipartisanship in the foreign policy days of yore. Be very, very wary when a foreign policy pundit gives advice about how to reform the American system of government. Most of the time they are relying on decades-old Introduction to American Government arguments that are either obsolecent or incentive incompatible.
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Despite Fareed Zakaria's best efforts, it seems that foreign policy commentators can't stop offering advice on American grand strategy.
Richard Haass provides the latest salvo in Time. After arguing that no other great power can offer a serious revisionist challenge to the current system, concluding, "Today's great powers are not all that great." With that set-up, he proposes a grand strategy of "Restoration":
The U.S. would continue to carry out an active foreign policy—to create international arrangements to manage the challenges inherent in globalization, to invigorate alliances and partnerships, to deal with the threats posed by an aggressive North Korea, a nuclear-armed Iran and a failing Pakistan.
But under a doctrine of restoration, there would be fewer wars of choice—armed interventions when either the interests at stake are less than vital or when there are alternative policies that appear viable. Recent wars of choice include Vietnam, the second Iraq war and the current Libyan intervention. There would, however, continue to be wars of necessity, which involve vital interests when no alternatives to using military force exist. Modern wars of necessity include the first Iraq war and Afghanistan after 9/11....
Restoration is not just about acting more discriminating abroad; it is even more about doing the right things at home. The principal focus would be on restoring the fiscal foundations of American power. The current situation is unsustainable, leaving the U.S. vulnerable either to market forces that could impose higher interest rates and draconian spending cuts or to the pressures of one or more central banks motivated by economic or conceivably political concerns.
Reducing discretionary domestic spending would constitute one piece of any fiscal plan. But cuts need to be smart: domestic spending is desirable when it is an investment in the U.S.'s human and physical future and competitiveness. This includes targeted spending on public education, including at the community-college and university levels; modernizing transportation and energy infrastructures; and increasing energy efficiency while decreasing dependence on Middle East oil. Spending cuts should focus on entitlements and defense. Further deficit reductions can be achieved by reducing so-called tax expenditures such as health care plans and mortgage deductions. The goal should be to reduce the deficit by some $300 billion per year until the budget is balanced but for interest payments on the debt.
Adopting a doctrine of restoration for several years would help the U.S. shore up the economic foundations of its power.
[Hasss' argument is] derivative of what journalist Peter Beinart called a “solvency doctrine” back in 2009. He wrote, “No matter what grand visions Obama may harbor to remake the world, the central mission of his foreign policy--at least at first--will be to get it out of the red.” None of these plans or explanations is perfect, of course, but taken together, they seem to me good starting points for what a grand strategy for the U.S. should look like, namely a focus on tending to the sources of American power rather than on making more commitments that draw on it.
Color me skeptical. It's not that I don't like the ideas behind Haass' argument -- they're sympatico with a welter of realpolitik-friendly strategies that have been promulgated at regular intervals.
There are two currently insurmountable political problems with Haass' strategy, however. The first is that it is ridiculously hard for the U.S. government to draw down military commitments -- particularly if the U.S. military doesn't want to do it. It's worth remembering that Barack Obama entered office with a worldview that closely matched Haass' restoration idea -- and yet, in the end, he expanded U.S. operations in Afghanistan and attacked Libya to boot. The U.S. military strongly supported the former, while Obama's foreign policy advisors jump-started the latter. [So, you're saying that if a powerful executive-branch foreign-policy actor favors the use of military statecraft, it's gonna happen?--ed. Um... yeah, I guess I am.]
The second is that a restoration strategy is really a focus on domestic policy. And, as I noted in the pages of Foreign Affairs:
The most significant challenge to Obama's grand strategy is likely to emerge at home rather than abroad. Viable grand strategies need to rest on a wellspring of domestic support. The biggest problem with Obama's new grand strategy is its troublesome domestic politics....
By focusing on renewing the United States' domestic strength, the Obama administration has introduced more partisan politics into the equation. There is still some truth to the aphorism that politics stops at the water's edge. But if the administration argues that the key to U.S. foreign policy is the domestic economy, then it increases the likelihood of domestic discord. Based on the tenor of the debates about the rising levels of U.S. debt, the possibility that the president can hammer out a grand bargain over fiscal and tax policies is looking increasingly remote.
I wrote that a few months ago, and of course as the debtopocalypse approaches, I'm sure things will improve in our domestic political discour--- HA HA HA HA HA HA HA... I'm sorry, I couldn't finish that sentence, I was
crying bitter tears laughing too hard.
Restoration won't be happening anytime during this session of Congress... or perhaps ever. The real problem in today's political climate is devising a grand strategy that is sustainable both domestically and internationally. I'm reluctantly coming around to Peter Trubowitz and Charles Kupchan's conclusion that the bipartisan political foundations for a viable grand strategy are badly eroded.
Chinese overlords alien visitors robot masters zombie hegemons post-apocalyptic historians:
Greetings. My goal in this message is to explain to you why the most powerful country in the world committed financial seppuku in the summer of 2011 AD*.
To set the stage: by now you know that the U.S. Congress was obligated to increase the debt ceiling in order for the United States government to continue to function normally. President Obama, Democrats in Congress, and most of the Republican leadership recognized the gravity of the situation. The GOP leadership, however, wanted to use the debt cekiling vote as leverage to get President Obama to commit to significant deficit reduction. After much haggling over "grand bargains," there was a recognition that no such deal could be passed. As a backup, leaders from both parties reluctantly advocated a bill that hiked the ceiling and put off questions about long-term deficit reduction to the future.
The problem was, a political faction emerged that some called "debt kamikazes." These were politicians and interest group leaders -- all Republicans -- who genuinely believed that nothing of consequence would happen if the debt ceiling wasn't raised. There were a few others who did believe it and were nevertheless copacetic with that outcome -- I'll get to that group later.
Sounds absurd to your futuristic ears, you say? Consider my evidence. The Daily Beast's John Avlon detailed the position of the 2012 GOP presidential candidates:
There were also interest group coalitions called "Tea Party" organizations that pressured their members of Congress not to raise the debt ceiling. As CNN's Shannon Travis chonicled, these organizations believed that the effects of more government spending were far more disastrous than defaulting on the debt:
Similarly, Red State blogger Erick Erickson wrote an open letter to the House GOP that boiled down to "do not believe the doom and gloom."
Now, future historians, you might argue that neither Tea Party activists nor presidential candidates (Bachmann excepted) were in Congress and therefore did not matter. However, what's important to understand is that these views were prevalent inside the House GOP caucus as well. The Washington Post's David A. Fahrenthold provided a detailed description of the members of the House of Representatives who thought a default wouldn't be such a big deal. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) offered the most extreme example of House GOP thinking:
Lest you think the view that a default was not such a big deal was limited to backbenchers, Outside the Beltway's Steven Taylor found House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan telling CNBC that a "technical default" of a few days wouldn't be a big deal:
Now, at this point, I'm sure you, future post-apocalyptic historians, must be scratching your
third eye heads, thinking the following:
Why, why did these human beings maintain these beliefs in the face of massive evidence to the contrary? Why did these people continue to insist that default wasn't that big a deal when Federal Reserve Chairman Benjamin Bernanke (a Republican first appointed by Republican president George W. Bush) insisted that there would be a "huge financial calamity" if the debt ceiling wasn't raised? Why did their belief persist when Moody's, Standard & Poor's, and Fitch Ratings all explicitly and repeatedly warned of serious and expensive debt downgrades if the ceiling wasn't raised? Why did they stick to their guns despite news reports detailing the link between the rating of federal government debt and the debt of states and municipalities? Why did they stand firm despite the consensus of the Republican Governors Association and the Democrat Governors Association that a failure to raise the debnt cailing would be "catastrophic"? Why did they refuse to yield despite bipartisan analysis explaining the very, very bad consequences of no agreement, and nonpartisan analysis explaining the horrific foreign policy consequences of American default? Why did they not understand that even a technical default would cost hundreds of billions of dollars**, thereby making their stated goal of debt reduction even harder?
Most mysteriously, why did these people throw their steering wheel out the window despite witnessing the effect of the 2008 Lehman Brothers collapse, which revealed the complex interconectedness of financial markets? Treasuries were far more integral to global capital markets than Lehman, but the debt kamikazes refused to recognize the possibility that a technical debt default would have unanticipated, complex, and disastrous consequences. Why?
I would like to be able to offer you a definitive answer, I really would, but I can't. The implications listed in the previous paraqgraph seemed pretty friggin' obvious to a lot contemporaneous observers at the time. As near as I can determine, there are four partial explanations for why the debt kamikazes persisted in their belief that nothing serious would happen: One explanation, which I've detailed here, is that the debt kamikazes refused to budge because refusing to budge had yielded great political rewards in the past.
Another explanation is that the debt kamikazes convinced themselves that no possible alternative was worse than the federal government accumulating more debt. They looked at countries like Greece and Portugal and decided that the U.S. was only one more Obama administration away from such strictures.
A third explanation was the general erosion of trust in economic experts during this period. To be fair to the debt kamikazes, many of the prominent policymakers who warned about calamities if the debt ceiling wasn't raised had pooh-poohed the effects of the housing bubble in 2005, or the collapse of that bubble in 2007.
The final explanation goes back to those people who acknowledged that a default might be a big deal, but were nevertheless OK with the outcome. These debt kamikazes had undergone a fundamental identity change. That is to say, despite all their protestations to the contrary, they were no longer loyal Americans. They were loyal to Republicans first and Republicans only. Erick Erickson made this logic pretty clear in his open letter to Congress:
As Outside the Beltway's Doug Mataconis explained in response:
That's the best set of answers I can give you. I'm sure, future post-aopocalytpic historians, that you have devised new and sophisticated methodologies to unearth the mysteries of the past. I hope you can solve this historical puzzle -- because me and my contemporaries are thoroughly flummoxed.
I wish you the best of luck, and once again, apologies for the whole collapse-of-Western-civilization-thing that happened in 2011. Our bad.
*To translate into your time scale, 15 B.B. (Before Lord Beiber, Praised Be His Hairness)
** 100 billion U.S. dollars = 15 BieberBucks
For those readers not keeping close tabs on the debt ceiling negotiations currently under way in Washington, here's how each participant views them:
There's been a lot of online debate about this question. Business Insider's Joe Weisenthal thinks this is just a matter of re-election motives, but I don't think it's that simple. As Nate Silver points out, "there is a larger ideological gap between House Republicans and Republican voters than there is between Republican voters and Democratic ones." Furthermore, many of the House GOP freshmen were elected in swing districts, so it's not as if they're representing only ultraconservative portions of the country.
I'd attribute the strategy of the House GOP caucus to two factors. The first is rhetorical blowback. It's simply impossible for elected representatives to say "we're not going to raise the debt ceiling, we're not going to raise the debt ceiling, we're not going to raise the debt ceiling..." and then actually raise the debt ceiling. And they really can't agree to the Mitch McConnell plan of "raise the debt ceiling with no concessions and then blame Obama." They can't agree to any "grand bargain" on austerity because any such bargain would have to include tax increases and there's that darn pledge not to. Politicians do occasionally go back on flat-out pledges not to do something. The example of George H. W. Bush to current GOP House members is not a good one, however. With blowback, it doesn't matter whether a member of Congress really and truly believes what they're saying or whether they can't reverse course without exposing their political backside. They're just as screwed.
The second factor is even simpler: to date the current Tea Party strategy of "no retreat, no surrender" has worked like political gangbusters. Recall that the conventional wisdom in Washington in early 2009 was that the GOP was going to have to be in the wilderness for a couple of election cycles before moderating their positions and winning at the polls again. The exact opposite of that scenario has occurred (see Erick Erickson on precisely this point). The Tea Party movement has been built on uncompromising hardline positions, and has led to significant electoral and political victories. As Joshua Green explains, even the exception proves this rule for Tea Partiers:
Unless and until the Tea Party wing of the GOP pays a political price for its positions, they have zero incentive to change their strategy.
Am I missing anything?
Hey, remember a few months ago, when I wrote that, "the Tea Party's influence on American foreign policy has peaked and will be on the downswing for quite some time."? How has time treated that statement?
Well, it's kind of a mixed bag. On the one hand, as Greg Ip notes over at the Economist's Free Exchange blog, the distrust in government that is the fuel for Tea Party activism has waned considerably:
My colleague at Democracy in America imputes from Mitt Romney’s surge into the lead among presidential contenders the beginning of the end of the Tea Party’s influence in the GOP. Now, the latest WSJ-NBC opinion poll contains clues that the movement’s broader appeal may also be waning. As my chart shows, after a brief reversal, Americans are once again getting comfortable with more government in their lives....
[T]ime and events have cooled passions. The bail-outs are receding from memory (and turning a profit), Mr Obama has tacked to the centre, and the economy continues to disappoint. Republicans overreached with Paul Ryan’s budget, thinking the population ready for a draconian restructuring of Medicare to deal with a looming debt crisis. Apparently, it isn’t.
I read several lessons into these results. First, political leaders regularly get out over their ski tips when they think the population is shifting rapidly to the left or the right. Ronald Reagan learned that in 1982, Mr Obama did so in 2010, and it may soon be the turn of the Republican far right.
While this suggests that the Tea Party's animating force is waning, it's possible that foreign policy proves to be the remaining policy dimension through which mainstream candidates like Mitt Romney appease the Tea Party wing of the party.
At a minimum, John McCain ain't pleased:
US Senator John McCain on Sunday expressed concern about growing isolationism in the Republican party, particularly among those vying for the 2012 presidential nomination.
McCain, the 2008 Republican nominee, said he was alarmed to hear various candidates at a campaign forum last Monday express opposition to US military involvement in the NATO military assault on Libya's Moamer Kadhafi.
"There's always been an isolation strain in the Republican party, that Pat Buchanan (a former Republican presidential contender) wing of our party. But now it seems to have moved more center stage, so to speak," he said.
I'm not entirely sure that this is isolationism talking, but the evolution of GOP foreign policy thinking is likely to move in a realpolitik direction. Which, coincidentally enough, is a cheap way to satiate the Paulite wing of the Tea Partiers.
UPDATE: Wow, I might have broken my personal typo record in one sentence. Fixed now.
For the past two years, staunch monetarists and economic conservatives have warned about the evils of massive deficit spending and quantitative easing. They have argued that such policy measures are inevitably inflationary and will debase the currency and raise nominal interest rates. By and large, supporters of Keynesian policies have responded by loudly pointing to the data on core U.S. inflation and the dollar's performance as falsifying the conservative argument. And, by and large, they have a point. If inflationary concerns really were prominent, the dollar should have depreciated in value an awful lot, and nominal interest rates should have soared. Neither of these things have happened. Point for Keynesians.
Right now, however, markets are providing a pretty powerful data point for Tea Party supporters who argue that hitting the debt ceiling is not the end of the world. Last week Moody's issued the following warning:
Moody's Investors Service said today that if there is no progress on increasing the statutory debt limit in coming weeks, it expects to place the US government's rating under review for possible downgrade, due to the very small but rising risk of a short-lived default. If the debt limit is raised and default avoided, the Aaa rating will be maintained. However, the rating outlook will depend on the outcome of negotiations on deficit reduction. A credible agreement on substantial deficit reduction would support a continued stable outlook; lack of such an agreement could prompt Moody's to change its outlook to negative on the Aaa rating.
Although Moody's fully expected political wrangling prior to an increase in the statutory debt limit, the degree of entrenchment into conflicting positions has exceeded expectations. The heightened polarization over the debt limit has increased the odds of a short-lived default. If this situation remains unchanged in coming weeks, Moody's will place the rating under review.
Make fun of the ratings agencies all you like, but this was front-page news last week. One would think that markets would be pricing in the possibility of institutional investors diversifying away from dollar-denominated debt, a collapse in the dollar, skyrocketing interest rates, a drastic reduction in nominal GDP, dogs and cats living together, and so forth. Or, as Tim Geithner put it, "catastrophic economic and market consequences."
And yet.... last week, the yield on 10 year Treasuries fell below three percent. Maybe markets are underestimating the likelihood that a debt ceiling deal won't happen, maybe they are underestimating the damage caused by hitting the debt ceiling, or maybe they think the Chinese will continue to buy dollar-denominated debt no matter what happens on the debt ceiling (though read this). Or... maybe the Tea Party activists have a point.
So, my question to readers, investors, and experts on the global political economy -- why aren't markets freaking out more about the rising probability of hitting the debt ceiling?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.