Paul Krugman is a very smart and very annoying person. Over the past few years he's been hammering away at political and economic advocates for austerity policies with unmitigated glee and derision. He does so with a brio and condescension that some people can find off-putting -- but that doesn't mean that he's wrong.
After pummeling "austerians" for much of the essay, Krugman then endeavors to explain why so many policymakers and pundits still favor such policies:
The turn to austerity was very real, and quite large.
On the face of it, this was a very strange turn for policy to take. Standard textbook economics says that slashing government spending reduces overall demand, which leads in turn to reduced output and employment. This may be a desirable thing if the economy is overheating and inflation is rising; alternatively, the adverse effects of reduced government spending can be offset. Central banks (the Fed, the European Central Bank, or their counterparts elsewhere) can cut interest rates, inducing more private spending. However, neither of these conditions applied in early 2010, or for that matter apply now. The major advanced economies were and are deeply depressed, with no hint of inflationary pressure. Meanwhile, short-term interest rates, which are more or less under the central bank’s control, are near zero, leaving little room for monetary policy to offset reduced government spending. So Economics 101 would seem to say that all the austerity we’ve seen is very premature, that it should wait until the economy is stronger.
The question, then, is why economic leaders were so ready to throw the textbook out the window.…
Everyone loves a morality play. “For the wages of sin is death” is a much more satisfying message than “Shit happens.” We all want events to have meaning.
When applied to macroeconomics, this urge to find moral meaning creates in all of us a predisposition toward believing stories that attribute the pain of a slump to the excesses of the boom that precedes it—and, perhaps, also makes it natural to see the pain as necessary, part of an inevitable cleansing process. When Andrew Mellon told Herbert Hoover to let the Depression run its course, so as to “purge the rottenness” from the system, he was offering advice that, however bad it was as economics, resonated psychologically with many people (and still does).
By contrast, Keynesian economics rests fundamentally on the proposition that macroeconomics isn't a morality play—that depressions are essentially a technical malfunction.
Now this sounds a little far-fetched -- I mean, it's not as if pundits and policymakers can be that economically illiterate, right?
And then, as if Krugman planned it all along, along comes Michael Kinsley in the New Republic -- responding to a different Krugman essay that makes similar points -- with an essay titled "Paul Krugman's Misguided Moral Crusade Against Austerity." I think one of the points Kinsley is trying to make is that the policy divide between austerians and anti-austerians in Washington isn't as great as Krugman portrays. That's likely correct in Washington. During debates this year, even austerity "advocates" like John Boehner have made noises about not wanting to turn off the fiscal tap too soon, and even austerity "critics" like Barack Obama have talked about the need for fiscal rectitude. So yes, even austerity's critics sound austerity-curious at times.
Still, the guts of Kinsley's essay are … problematic. Some highlights:
It’s easier to describe what the anti-austerians believe than the austerians themselves. Anti-austerians believe that governments around the world need to stop worrying about their debts for a while and continue pouring money into the economy until the threat of recession or worse is well and truly over. Austerians want the opposite. But what is the opposite? Is President Barack Obama, for example, an austerian? To Republicans and conservatives, no: He pushed through a stimulus package of almost a trillion dollars early in his first term, and remains a symbol of “big spending.” To liberals and Democrats, yes: They feel we need a second and much larger stimulus and Obama has let us all down.…
Austerians believe, sincerely, that their path is the quicker one to prosperity in the longer run. This doesn’t mean that they have forgotten the lessons of Keynes and the Great Depression. It means that they remember the lessons of Paul Volcker and the Great Stagflation of the late 1970s. “Stimulus” is strong medicine—an addictive drug—and you don’t give the patient more than you absolutely have to.…
Krugman also is on to something when he talks about paying a price for past sins. I don’t think suffering is good, but I do believe that we have to pay a price for past sins, and the longer we put it off, the higher the price will be. And future sufferers are not necessarily different people than the past and present sinners. That’s too easy. Sure let’s raise taxes on the rich. But that’s not going to solve the problem. The problem is the great, deluded middle class—subsidized by government and coddled by politicians. In other words, they are you and me. If you make less than $250,000 a year, Obama has assured us, you are officially entitled to feel put-upon and resentful. And to be immune from further imposition.
Austerians don’t get off on other people’s suffering. They, for the most part, honestly believe that theirs is the quickest way through the suffering. They may be right or they may be wrong. When Krugman says he’s only worried about “premature” fiscal discipline, it becomes largely a question of emphasis anyway. But the austerians deserve credit: They at least are talking about the spinach, while the Krugmanites are only talking about dessert. [Emphasis added.]
OK, so, a few things:
1) No Republican or conservative, anywhere in the United States, will claim that Barack Obama is an austerian. I'm just gonna assume that this is a typo and move on. [Editor's note: The typo has been cleared up on the New Republic's website, and the block quote above has been corrected.]
2) Stagflation in the 1970s was caused primarily by an inward shift of the aggregate supply curve due to a surge in commodity prices, particularly energy. Some central banks responded with accommodating monetary policies that accelerated inflation even further. Fiscal policy was an innocent bystander to this whole shebang. So I honestly don't know what the hell Kinsley is talking about.
More importantly, the current macroeconomic climate is really, really different from the 1970s. Inflation was a Big Bad Problem during that decade. It is not a problem right now. If inflation were spiking, then a genuine debate could be had on macroeconomic policy options. But that's not the case.
3) In his final paragraphs, Kinsley has managed to epitomize the exact critique that Krugman has served up.
The irony of this whole thing is that the Congressional Budget Office's recent figures put the lie to Kinsey's hidden assumption that the federal budget deficit is getting bigger and bigger. Right now it's shrinking at the fastest rate in postwar economic history.
The CBO also warns that the deficit will start to balloon up again due to entitlement spending, which suggests that Kinsley has half a point about thinking through entitlement reform. The thing is, that's a structural problem, not a business cycle problem. Kinsley et al. are acting as if the current fiscal climate demands immediate budgetary actions. And it doesn't -- it really, really doesn't.
Look, I think Paul Krugman has a few policy blind spots. His method of argumentation alienates as many people as it attracts. But he's not wrong when he's talking about austerity. In his response, Michael Kinsley has managed to embody the conventional wisdom in Washington -- and in doing so, embody every policy caricature of Paul Krugman's worldview.
Am I missing anything?
Over the weekend Niall Ferguson got himself into intellectual hot water over an off-the-cuff response to a question about Keynes in which he suggested that Keynes didn't value the future too much because he was gay, had no heirs, and therefore didn't care about future generations. Now, Keynes's writings here and here would betray the claim that he didn't care about the future. And the whole "someone who's gay must have a reduced shadow of the future" stereotype is hackneyed in the extreme. So, Ferguson was doubly wrong -- and to his credit, he offered up a real apology (not an "I'm sorry if this offended anyone" variant) pretty quickly.
Critical wounds run deep, however. In response to a lot of online discourse that noted his prior observations on Keynes's sexual orientation, Ferguson penned an open letter in the Harvard Crimson. Some highlights:
I was duly attacked for my remarks and offered an immediate and unqualified apology. But this did not suffice for some critics, who insisted that I was guilty not just of stupidity but also of homophobia. I have no doubt that at least some students were influenced by these allegations. Nobody would want to study with a bigot. I therefore owe it to students—former and prospective—to make it unambiguously clear that I am no such thing.
To be accused of prejudice is one of the occupational hazards of public life nowadays.…
Not for one moment did I mean to suggest that Keynesian economics as a body of thought was simply a function of Keynes’ sexuality. But nor can it be true—as some of my critics apparently believe—that his sexuality is totally irrelevant to our historical understanding of the man. My very first book dealt with the German hyperinflation of 1923, a historical calamity in which Keynes played a minor but important role. In that particular context, Keynes’ sexual orientation did have historical significance. The strong attraction he felt for the German banker Carl Melchior undoubtedly played a part in shaping Keynes’ views on the Treaty of Versailles and its aftermath.…
What the self-appointed speech police of the blogosphere forget is that to err occasionally is an integral part of the learning process. And one of the things I learnt from my stupidity last week is that those who seek to demonize error, rather than forgive it, are among the most insidious enemies of academic freedom.
Now there are two things going on here. First, to what extent does a person's biography affect his or her role in history? And second, just who are these "self-appointed speech police of the blogosphere"?
Ferguson is correct on the first point in general, though I'm not so sure about this particular instance. I'm in the middle of Jeremy Adelman's magisterial biography Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman, for example. One would be hard-pressed to suggest that Hirschman wrote what he wrote about without paying some attention to his life story. So it is entirely appropriate for a historian to talk about Keynes's personal background in trying to suss out why he argued what he argued.
The thing is, Ferguson keeps eliding important details when he talks about the effect of Keynes's sexual preferences on his policy pronouncements. Take the claim that Keynes's attraction to Melchior affected his views on Versailles. Eric Rauchway points out some additional facts not in evidence:
Keynes made early calculations for what Germany should pay in reparations in October, 1918. In “Notes on an Indemnity,” he presented two sets of figures – one “without crushing Germany” and one “with crushing Germany”. He objected to crushing Germany because seeking to extract too much from the enemy would “defeat its object by leading to a condition in which the allies would have to give [Germany] a loan to save her from starvation and general anarchy.” As he put in a revised version of the same memorandum, “If Germany is to be ‘milked’, she must not first of all be ruined.”
Keynes also worried that too large a reparations bill might distort international trade. “An indemnity so high that it can only be paid by means of a great expansion of Germany’s export trade must necessarily interfere with the export trade of other countries.”
The point of mentioning it is that Keynes developed these concerns prior to going to the negotiations and meeting Carl Melchior.
So even if Ferguson is right on general principle, he's misleading on this particular point.
It's the last paragraph of Ferguson's letter that's quite … quite … 2004 in its formulation. Just who are these "self-appointed speech police of the blogosphere" anyway? The most damning indictments of Ferguson's past discussions of Keynes's homosexuality, Ferguson's more contemporary and woefully wrong economic predictions, and Ferguson's recent intellectual dust-ups come from either Business Insider or the Atlantic. Other prominent online critics of Ferguson over the past week have been Justin Wolfers, Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, and Rauchway. That's three full professors of economics and a full professor of history.
Ferguson's rhetorical trick here is to try to denigrate the content of their criticisms by pointing to the medium. It's a cute gambit in public discourse, and I suspect it will make him and his acolytes feel better. Intellectually, however, that dog won't hunt.
As much fun as it is to dissect Niall Ferguson -- and I won't lie, I've had a lot of fun at his expense -- this sort of thing gets tedious after a spell. So, please, Niall, try to wade into more interesting intellectual waters the next time you make a mistake.
Oh, and stop claiming "academic freedom" as a shield to protect you from public critiques of something you said at an investment conference. That's not how academic freedom works.
Am I missing anything?
Since gun regulation failed the 60-vote threshold in the Senate, some pundits have trotted out the "failure of presidential leadership" meme. See Maureen Dowd, Ron Fournier, Dana Milbank, or Peggy Noonan for example. To most political scientists -- hell, to most people who've taken an advanced poli sci course -- this a pretty unpersuasive argument. Andrew Rudalevige, Ezra Klein, Seth Masket, Jonathan Bernstein, and Jonathan Chait have all pushed back fiercely on this question.
Now, that said, pushback on the leadership question is difficult for two reasons. First, there's a lot of the political commentariat that wants the world to operate along the Aaron Sorkin Big Speech Theory of Politics. Klein is correct to observe that "the world isn't here to please you," but it's amazing how much wishcasting can make it easy to ignore.
The second problem is that in pushing back, it is too easy for critics to be interpreted as saying that presidential leadership does not exist. So critics should point out moments or opportunities for presidential leadership to better define the boundaries of this concept.
For one example, I give you Randall Archibold and Michael Shear's story in the New York Times about Obama's Mexico trip. The title gives it away: "Obama Seeks to Banish Stereotypical Image of Mexico."
President Obama, in speech to high school and university students here, said Friday that it was time to banish the stereotypical Mexico of violence and people fleeing across borders and embrace the new image of a strengthening democracy and economy.
“I have come to Mexico because it is time to put old mind-sets aside,’’ Mr. Obama said to vigorous applause from hundreds of students at the National Anthropology Museum. “It’s time to recognize new realities, including the impressive progress in today’s Mexico. For even as Mexicans continue to make courageous sacrifices for the security of your country, even as Mexicans in the countryside and in neighborhoods not far from here struggle to give their children a better life, it’s also clear that a new Mexico is emerging.'’
Although poverty remains deep and wages have stagnated, Mr. Obama focused on the positive signs of the economy, including growth measurements that exceed those in the United States, a surge in the manufacturing and technology industries and rising levels of middle class Mexicans.
OK, this matters. As the Chicago Council on Global Affairs demonstrated in their poll this week, Americans have a dim and distorted view of Mexico. Mention that country, and the three issues that spring immediately to mind are drugs, illegal immigration, and the "giant sucking sound" of NAFTA. In point of fact, illegal immigration has slowed to a trickle and outward Mexican FDI has exploded. Mexico's new president is pretty popular, and the next head of the WTO might be Mexican as well. Most Americans know nothing contained in the last two sentences.
One thing presidents can do with their bully pulpit is try to correct public misperceptions that are detrimental to the national interest ... like U.S. views on Mexico. Let's not kid ourselves -- one visit and one speech alone won't do that. But it can start to alter public attitudes on the margins. That's a start -- and very useful example of positive presidential leadership.
Patriots' Day is a holiday in Massachusetts. In Boston it is known for two events -- the running of the Boston Marathon and the only Major League Baseball game of the year that starts at 11 a.m. Your humble blogger is in no danger of trying to run a marathon, so he and his family went to see the Red Sox beat the Tampa Bay Rays in a thrilling walk-off win. And as we boarded the Green Line to leave Fenway, me and mine were happy that the day had gone well for Boston sports.
Soon after we got off the train, we learned that it had not been such a great day.
This is the kind of event where our monkey brains try to search for a deeper meaning, some moral or narrative or response that can sustain us through such moments of nihilism. In many ways, that's a mistake. Sure, the "helpers" and the response to the tragedy should be highlighted. Obsessing about the tragedy itself, however, won't do any good and will do much harm. As Bruce Schneier points out, the whole point of such an attack is to maximize the attention paid to the seeming breakdown in order -- although what actually happened was that emergency providers and ordinary citizens did their utmost to bring order back to chaos. In point of fact, terrorist acts on American soil have been very, very rare since 9/11. Furthermore, as John Arquilla observes, stopping this sort of thing can be next to impossible.
As President Obama and others have pointed out, Boston is a tough, resilient town. This sort of thing will shock us in the moment. As shock fades away, what is left is something stronger and more substantive, something that a few homemade bombs cannot destroy. That's the narrative that will hopefully emerge, and it's the one that does the best job of defeating the psychology of terrorism.
The next thing that will happen is foolish, uninformed speculation about who or whom was responsible. The Boston Globe's Todd Wallack and Andrea Estes have a story quoting lots of terrorism and foreign affairs experts on the question of who was responsible. I'm quoted as well, and I'll let that be the last thing I say on this subject until we have more information:
Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, cautioned that there is too little information to know who might be to blame. Some reports linked the Oklahoma City bombing to foreign terrorists, but it turned out to be the work of Timothy James McVeigh, an American seeking revenge against the government for its siege in Waco.
“Trying to speculate would be foolhardy,” Drezner said. “If anyone should learn anything from the past, it is that you shouldn’t speculate without more information.”
Your humble blogger has been knee-deep in chairing, discussing, and attending International Studies Association panels
all of which seem to have the word "diffusion" in the title and SOMEONE PLEASE MAKE IT STOP!!!
Now, naturally, with the global financial crisis and its aftermath there's been a lot of talk about debts and deficits. And with the defense sequester and what-not, there's been a lot of talk about rising levels of partisanship. And I've come to the reluctant conclusion that a lot of this talk need to stop, like, right now.
Here's the dirty truth about most international studies scholars: They know a fair amount about the high politics of international affairs and almost next to nothing about the rest of life. Of course, the rest of life does impinge on world politics, so there's some natural overlap. The problem starts when, in talking about non-IR stuff, we start to think that we have just as much expertise in these areas. Which we don't. At all.
Last night I tweeted a query about what areas IR scholars should be quiet about and got way too many answers to fit in a blog post. So, here are five things about which I'd really like 99 percent of international relations scholars to shut the hell up:
1) Macroeconomic policy. Should the United States cut its deficit further? Are budget cuts, tax cuts, or tax increases necessary? How can the eurozone escape its current macroeconomic malaise? Most of us have no friggin' clue what the correct answers are for the United States, and that goes double for the euro zone. So unless you're actually publishing scholarly work on global macroeconomic policy, shut up.
2) The role of money in American politics. Foreign policy scholars are far too often shocked -- shocked!! -- when they see interest group politics at work. The Citizens United decision has only amplified this lament. The reaction to this is to either bemoan the general health of the American polity or to start developing simple theories that argue that money or lobbies explain everything about politics. Now I might not be the biggest fan of the American politics subfield, but I'm pretty sure they know more about this topic than we do. So shut up and read what they have to say.
3) Partisanship in the United States. Did you know that it's getting worse? And that it's paralyzing the U.S. government? And that it's getting worse? One of the natural biases of foreign policy scholars is to think in terms of a national interest, and then act appalled when there are different partisan conceptions of that term. Basically, what applies to #2 applies to this point as well.
4) The Internet. As near as I can determine, when asked about this technology affects international politics, most scholars answer with some variation of "networks networks networks cyber cyber cyber." Some scholars do very good work on this subject. The rest of us should shut up for a spell and read them.
5) Diffusion. Never again. Ever.
What else, my dear readers, would you like to see less gabbing about from international affairs scholars?
Dear New York Times:
As the paper of record, your op-ed page is a natural target for snark, derision, and other forms of criticism. I'll certainly plead guilty to these venial sins. I've found flaws in more than a few of your columnist's writings on foreign affairs. Thomas Friedman, in particular, has invited a fair measure of scorn from your correspondent over the years -- though I'd note that I'm hardly the only one guilty of that sin. Let me stipulate that I have no doubt that Mr. Friedman can polish off an accessible 800 word column on foreign affairs better than 99.5% of the foreign policy community. And Friedman has locked down a certain Greatest Generation demographic, the one that emails their children with Ph.D.s in political science to say "Tom Friedman said something interesting in his column today. You should read it."
Friedman's prose style invites a certain kind of satire, which is occasionally unkind but pretty harmless. I write now, however, because in his latest column he has migrated from the merely foolish to the ill-considered and dangerous. This is his advice to incoming Secretary of State John Kerry:
[W]hat’s a secretary of state to do? I’d suggest trying something radically new: creating the conditions for diplomacy where they do not now exist by going around leaders and directly to the people. And I’d start with Iran, Israel and Palestine. We live in an age of social networks in which every leader outside of North Korea today is now forced to engage in a two-way conversation with their citizens. There’s no more just top-down. People everywhere are finding their voices and leaders are terrified. We need to turn this to our advantage to gain leverage in diplomacy.
Let’s break all the rules.
Rather than negotiating with Iran’s leaders in secret — which, so far, has produced nothing and allows the Iranian leaders to control the narrative and tell their people that they’re suffering sanctions because of U.S. intransigence — why not negotiate with the Iranian people? President Obama should put a simple offer on the table, in Farsi, for all Iranians to see: The U.S. and its allies will permit Iran to maintain a civil nuclear enrichment capability — which it claims is all it wants to meet power needs — provided it agrees to U.N. observers and restrictions that would prevent Tehran from ever assembling a nuclear bomb. We should not only make this offer public, but also say to the Iranian people over and over: “The only reason your currency is being crushed, your savings rapidly eroded by inflation, many of your college graduates unemployed and your global trade impeded and the risk of war hanging overhead, is because your leaders won’t accept a deal that would allow Iran to develop civil nuclear power but not a bomb.” Iran wants its people to think it has no partner for a civil nuclear deal. The U.S. can prove otherwise.
He goes on to talk about Israel/Palestine, but let's keep the focus on Iran. To put it kindly, there are some serious problems with Friedman's advice. In no particular order:
1) There are many possible Secretaries of State who possess the necessary charisma, drive, and rhetorical skills to resonate with the ordinary citizens of other countries. I think we can all safely agree that, capable as he might be, John Kerry is not one of those diplomats.
2) Why not "negotiate with the Iranian people?" Well, to get technical about it, they're not the ones controlling Iran's nuclear program. That's not a minor issue. For all this talk about how states are irrelevant in the 21st century, on matters of hard security not much has changed. Lest Friedman or anyone else doubt this, recall that the Iranian state has proven itself more than capable of suppressing the Iranian people over the past four years. Why Friedman thinks that the Ayatollah Khamenei would listen to ordinary Iranians on the nuclear question is beyond me.
3) Friedman seems to think that ordinary Iranians are implacably opposed to the nuclear program. I have yet to read any analysis or on-the-ground reporting (including the NYT) that suggests this to be true. Rather, the common theme is that Iranians take nationalist pride in the technological accomplishments of their national nuclear program. Furthermore, in a propaganda war between the U.S. government and their own government, the U.S. is probably gonna lose even if it possesses the better argument. For all of Friedman's loose talk about the power of social media in a digitized world, he elides the point that one of the sentiments that social media is best at magnifying is nationalism. In the case of Iran, this would mean a more recalcitrant negotiating partner.
4) In the 35 years since the Iranian Revolution, and the 10+ years since Iran's nuclear program became a point of contention, is there any evidence that U.S. public diplomacy has had any positive effect in the country of Iran? Any? So why will it work now?
5) One last point. Iran's regime has been obsessed with the belief that the United States is trying to foment a Velvet Revolution in the country. They've been willing to arrest, repress, or harrass anyone vaguely associated with such a campaign. Exactly how does Friedman think the government in Tehran would respond to the kind of public diplomacy initiative that he's suggesting?
I could go on, but you see what I'm trying to say. Friedman's "break all the rules" strategy is as transgressive as those dumb-ass Dr. Pepper commercials. Worse, he's recommending a policy that would actually be counter-productive to any hope of reaching a deal with Iran. This is the worst kind of "World is Flat" pablum, applied to nuclear diplomacy. God forbid John Kerry were to read it and follow Friedman's advice.
Sure, 99.5% of foreign policy wonks might write something less punchy, but I suspect most of them wouldn't write something so obviously wrong. Friedman clearly needs a sabbatical from the rigors of column-writing to get his head back in the game. In the interest of raising our country's foreign policy discourse, I beg you to put him on leave.
Daniel W. Drezner
Roger Cohen has a column modestly titled "Diplomacy Is Dead." Let's see what he's talking about:
Diplomacy is dead.
Effective diplomacy — the kind that produced Nixon’s breakthrough with China, an end to the Cold War on American terms, or the Dayton peace accord in Bosnia — requires patience, persistence, empathy, discretion, boldness and a willingness to talk to the enemy.
This is an age of impatience, changeableness, palaver, small-mindedness and an unwillingness to talk to bad guys. Human rights are in fashion, a good thing of course, but the space for realist statesmanship of the kind that produced the Bosnian peace in 1995 has diminished. The late Richard Holbrooke’s realpolitik was not for the squeamish.
There are other reasons for diplomacy’s demise. The United States has lost its dominant position without any other nation rising to take its place. The result is nobody’s world. It is a place where America acts as a cautious boss, alternately encouraging others to take the lead and worrying about loss of authority. Syria has been an unedifying lesson in the course of crisis when diplomacy is dead. Algeria shows how the dead pile up when talking is dismissed as a waste of time....
Indeed the very word “diplomacy” has become unfashionable on Capitol Hill, where its wimpy associations — trade-offs, compromise, pliancy, concessions and the like — are shunned by representatives who these days prefer beating the post-9/11 drums of confrontation, toughness and inflexibility: All of which may sound good but often get you nowhere (or into long, intractable wars) at great cost.
Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, wrote in an e-mail that, “When domestic politics devolve into polarization and paralysis the impact on diplomatic possibility becomes inordinately constraining.” He cited Cuba and Iran as examples of this; I would add Israel-Palestine. These critical foreign policy issues are viewed less as diplomatic challenges than potential sources of domestic political capital....
Obama has not had a big breakthrough. America’s diplomatic doldrums are approaching their 20th year.
Narrow-minded domestic politics.... check... Web 2.0 short-termism... check... yes, this is indeed the exemplar of the Grumpy Old Diplomatic Hand column. So as a Grumpy Middle-Aged Academic, I'd like to grouse a bit on these alleged truisms.
Now on the one hand, Cohen has a point that the optics of patient diplomacy can be more politically challenging than military statecraft. The use of force tends to arouse domestic suipport; diplomacy can be painted as an act of weakness or appeasement. And one can certainly think of Cuba, Iran or even Israel/Palestine as places where diplomacy has not achieved liftoff capacity. And, yes, Web 2.0 technologies do make things like "backchannel diplomacy" that much more difficult to keep under wraps.
All that said.... give me a f**king break.
First of all, there's a logical tension hidden within Cohen's narrative. He laments the disappearance of patient diplomacy in one breath and then observes the relative decline in U.S. power in the next. Maybe it's not that U.S. patience has withered, but that a hegemon with less weight to throw around requires even greater levels of patience to achieve the same tasks. In the case of Syria, for example, it's kinda hard to see how more realpolitik would have gotten states with fundamentally divergent national interests to agree on a manageable solution. Indeed, one could argue that the tropuble with America's Syria diplomacy has been too much realpolitik, not too little.
Second of all, Cohen is glossing over some examples of patient diplomatic successes. Even in Syria, there have been examples of successful "concert" diplomacy. The U.S. opening to Myanmar would be another example [UPDATE: Cohen tweets in response that he did in fact mention Myanmar. He's right, and I apologize for not noting that fact.]. This is a case where the Burmese themselves have done a lot of the heavy lifting, but it's to the Obama administration's credit that it nimbly seized on the opportunity. Indeed, this has been part of an overall Asia/Pacific strategy that would appear to epitomize the kind of hard-headed diplomacy that Cohen does. Even the Sino-American handling of the Chen Guangcheng case represents an example of deft diplomacy in response to Web 2.0 technology.
Third -- and most important -- diplomacy is a two-player game. There have been cases where the Obama administration has reached out to leaders with a different worldview in an effort to normalize relations -- think about the "reset" with Russia. It would be safe to describe that effort as "fraught with complications." Most of the friction in the Russia reset has nothing to do with the domestic American causess Cohen highlights, however, and everything to do with Russian policymakers
feeling their relative power wane being extremely wary of the outreach effort. Similarly, Iran's domestic politics during the Obama years have been... complicated. It's not clear whether the most generous U.S. offer would actually be accepted by Iran's current political establishment.
One could argue that Cohen's logic, extended globally, does have some heft. It's not just the rise of domestic impediments in the United States -- it's the increased importance of domestic politics in diplomacy in other countries that makes realpolitik statecraft so hard to execute in the 21st century. But let's be clear -- this phenomenon has little to do with the Internet age, the decline in American power, or even the rise of single-issue interest groups. Ironically, it has more to do with the effect a successful American grand strategy -- the promotion of open polyarchic politics in the rest of the world. Even authoritarian countries like China, or quasi-authoritarian countries like Russia have domestic interests and bases to sate. The domestic politics in these countries is far more open than it was during the heyday of realpolitik diplomacy.
As International Relations 101 will say, adding domestic constraints narrows the possibility of any international agreement. I agree with Cohen that this is happening. I disagree with Cohen as to the reasons why. It has very little to do with the United States, and an awful lot to do with the rest of the world.
So, to sum up: diplomacy's death has been greatly exaggerated, and a lot of what ails it has very little to do with the United States.
Am I missing anything?
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.
December 25th is a time of love, gifts, prayers... and thinking long and hard about Santa Claus as an actor in world politics. Sure, one could just compose awesome poems in the holiday spirit -- or one could think seriously about the implications of the jolly fat man for the international system.
I emailed a few of our gravitas-oozing foreign affairs pundits about the true meaning of Santa in our hyperconnected, globalized world. Here's what I got in response:
Santa is the most damning piece of evidence yet that we live in a G-Zero world. This stateless actor commands a vast intelligence apparatus, an apparent slave army of little people, and is not above working animals long past their breaking point. By any stretch of the imagination, he's a rogue actor. And yet, despite these flagrant violations of international norms, there isn't even a nascent effort to combat, contain or regulate his activities. The G-20 continues to dither, revealing itself yet again as toothless and pointless. This would never have happened back when the U.S. was the hegemon!!
On this day of Christ's birth, I will tell you something that the New York Times, which is so in the bag for this administration that one of their columnists kept predicting an Obama victory despite overwhelming mispeception to the contrary, will not: Santa Claus is a force for good in the world. Developing countries will cling to their indigenous Christmas heroes, foolishly hoping that these local legends can guide their country towards peace and prosperity. Wake up, rest of the world!! Yes, Santa can seem a bit domineering with his black-and-white dichotomy of naughty and nice. Let's face it, however -- those countries that have embraced St. Nick are better off. If anything, Santa's problem is that he's not being mean enough to the naughtys of the world. Only when he is prepared to deploy the elves to places like Syria and the Congo will Santa be able to honestly wish all a good night. I hope ole Saint Nick acts in this expansionist manner -- but I worry that the Obama administration, to distract from the fiscal cliff, will declare some kind of "war" on Christmas. Food for thought....
Beltway pundits, serenely sipping their eggnog at those Georgetown Christmas cocktail parties, will offer soothing patter about the merits of a white Christmas and the inherent goodness of Santa Claus. And other powerful interest groups, like retailers and the Catholic Church, will argue in favor of celebrating the birth of Christ on December 25th. Some clever liberal pundits will go so far as to point out that it was an American corporation created the modern-day Santa. Don't let these lobbies fool you -- celebrating Christmas on December 25th and welcoming Santa Claus onto our soil is a breach of American sovereignty that can no longer be tolerated. Why should Americans celebrate this most American of holidays the same time as everyone else in the world? Is it American for our government offices to be closed on this day because of some unelected bureaucrat based in that oldest of old Europe cities, Rome??!! Is it American to have some foreign actor -- a.k.a. Kris Kringle -- make decisions about whether our children have been good or bad?! Americans don't need some foreign list to determine who's naught and nice. I believe that there's a document that already takes care of everything we need, and it's called the United States Constitution. Our elected oficials must take action to protect the Constitution of the United States from these global efforts to affect our daily lives. We're an exceptional country with exceptional children -- we don't need Santa to tell us what they deserve.
It is on Christmas more than any other day that we can appreciate how wrong Chuck Hagel would be for the Secretary of Defense position. The former Senator from Nebraska seems all too willing to compromise in the War on Christmas, suggesting that perhaps "some" public spaces should be free of mangers. This is fully consistent with Hagel's past waffling on various threats to the American way of life, as evidenced by [MINIONS-- PLEASE INSERT LAZY, INACCURATE HYPERLINK HERE--JR]. I've heard exclusively from a top GOP source whose last name rhymes with "Fristol" that Senate Republicans have a master file of statements Hagel made at a Senate Christmas party years ago where he raged against the "rank commercialism" of the holiday. It's this type of anti-free enterprise statements that clearly demonstrate that Hagel is out of the American mainstream in his views on Christmas -- and America's place in the world.
There are many things to admire about Christmas -- and yet I'm left wondering why, on this most nurturing, this most feminine of holidays, it's a fat, aging, affluent white man who traipses around the world offering gifts to children. It could be that Mrs. Claus simply doesn't want to leave the North Pole -- or it could be that she's trapped there by the hidebound traditions of this holiday. Clearly, the current model of delivering everyone's presents on one night makes it impossible for women to have it all. Perhaps we should rework how Christmas operates to make it a more family-friendly model for the Clauses. Instead of everyone getting their presents on one night, it should be staggered throughout the year. This would allow both Santa and Mrs. Claus to participate in the making of the list, the checking it twice, and the bestowing of presents to the world's children. Let's face it -- the more that women take an active part in the management of this holiday, the better for everyone involved.
Merry Christmas, foreign policy wonks!!
As Blake Hounshell noted over at Passport, there was a story earlier this week in the Washington Post's Style section that's just the perfect mix of everything that foreign policy outsiders loathe about foreign policy insiders. The first reason for loathing it is that Bob Woodward wrote it. Here's the opener:
Roger Ailes, the longtime Republican media guru, founder of Fox News and its current chairman, had some advice last year for then-Gen. David H. Petraeus.
So in spring 2011, Ailes asked a Fox News analyst headed to Afghanistan to pass on his thoughts to Petraeus, who was then the commander of U.S. and coalition forces there. Petraeus, Ailes advised, should turn down an expected offer from President Obama to become CIA director and accept nothing less than the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the top military post. If Obama did not offer the Joint Chiefs post, Petraeus should resign from the military and run for president, Ailes suggested.
The Fox News chairman’s message was delivered to Petraeus by Kathleen T. McFarland, a Fox News national security analyst and former national security and Pentagon aide in three Republican administrations. She did so at the end of a 90-minute, unfiltered conversation with Petraeus that touched on the general’s future, his relationship with the media and his political aspirations — or lack thereof. The Washington Post has obtained a digital recording from the meeting, which took place in Petraeus’s office in Kabul.
McFarland also said that Ailes — who had a decades-long career as a Republican political consultant, advising Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush — might resign as head of Fox to run a Petraeus presidential campaign. At one point, McFarland and Petraeus spoke about the possibility that Rupert Murdoch, the head of News Corp., which owns Fox News, would “bankroll” the campaign.
Read the whole thing. Actually, listen to the whole thing -- I'd say that the audio recording of McFarland and Petraeus' conversation is more interesting than Woodward's story. The tape has everything:
1) A media mogul displaying overt partisan bias;
2) Petraeus "working the refs" as it were, as he's done with think-tankers in the past.
3) McFarland pretty much admitting that Fox's news coverage is guided by its target audience preferences rather than things like, you know, facts.
4) Petraeus' allusions to the backscratching relationship between him and "the Troika" of Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman;
5) A high overall level of off-the-record coziness between McFarland & Petraeus as emblematic of the "clubbiness" between government, the media, and think tanks more generally.
McFarland has responded to Woodward's story in her own Foxnews.com column:
Though Bob is in possession of a secretly recorded tape of my conversation with the general, he was way off base to characterize it as a serious attempt to get him to run, or to give him political advice.
Petraeus and I were having fun. Having just told me definitively that he wouldn’t run, he suggested that maybe Ailes could run this non-existent campaign. It was not a serious conversation plotting General Petraeus’ political future; it was the kind of idle speculation that happens in every campaign season. That’s why they call it the silly season. I knew he was serious about not wanting to run, and he knew I wasn’t serious in pressing it.
I realize conspiracy theorists have used this off-the-record interview to claim it was some plot to put Petraeus in the Oval Office. But it was little more than one defense analyst (me) trading some political gossip and laughs with one of the country’s most important military leaders (Petraeus).
Now as someone who has been underwhelmed with McFarland's foreign policy analysis in the past, I will say that the tone of the conversation seems consistent with her characterization of it. I'm not a Beltway insider, but I've been around enough DC bulls**tting and puffery in my day to know it when I hear it. Even if this took place in Kabul, the "Petraeus should run!" segment of the conversation has that BS feel to it.
Furthermore, I can't blame Petraeus for trying to work the refs -- that's part of a policy principal's job in the 21st century. I'd argue that McFarland's side of the convo makes Fox look pretty bad. If one wants to be charitable, however, asking Petraeus where a news outfit is getting the story wrong isn't intrinsically wrong, it's perspective-taking. It would only be wrong if, say, Fox News people failed to ask a similar question to other policy principals like Tom Donilon, Hillary Clinton or Leon Panetta. I'll let readers draw their own conclusions about whether Fox News does this due diligence.
So this story is a supremely annoying conversation, and something of a confirmation of how Fox News operates. But I'm not seeing Woodwardian-type scandal within the DC elite from this story. I'm seeing standard Washington schmooziness. This is not the most attractive thing to hear but also not nearly as important as the story suggests.
It's also worth putting things into perspective here. Take a gander at Jonathan Ansfield's story in the New York Times if you want to see a national political elite demonstrating truly world-class levels of corruption and exclusivity.
Am I missing anything?
Your humble blogger is headed to the United Kingdom this week to give a few talks and generally escape the election and post-election frenzy. Blogging will be light. However, before departing for the land of scones and Devonshire cream, there's one last election-related issue that's worth some words.
As I briefly discussed a few weeks ago, there's a brewing conflict about how to read the polls for the U.S. presidential election. This has crystallized into some latent, not-so-latent, and pretty damn blatant hostility towards' FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver. Now, some interpret this as simply a part of a larger War on Numbers. As Brendan Nyhan notes, Silver's analysis lines up with all of the other analytic forecasters.
But let's try to be fair here. I think there are a couple of different criticisms going on here from different quarters of the public sphere, and it's worth evaluating them on their own terms.
The first and simplest one is Matt K. Lewis, who points out why conservatives aren't keen on Silver's analysis:
Silver comes out of the baseball statistics world, and his defenders like cite sports and gambling analogies when defending him. But there is a key difference. If Silver says the Giants have only a 5 percent chance of winning the World Series again next year, it is highly unlikely that would impact the outcome of games. Umpires won’t begin making bad calls, the fans won’t stop attending games, etc.
But when the public sees that a prominent New York Times writer gives Barack Obama a 70 percent chance of winning, that can become a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy. It has consequences. It drives media coverage. It dries up donations. Whether Silver likes it, or not, people do interpret his numbers as a “prediction.” They see this as election forecasting.
This sounds about right, in two ways. First, it does highlight the ways in which forecasters can actually affect the outcome. Second, it's actually a compliment to Silver and his peers, because it reflects the belief that their assessments carry weight with the money. One does wonder whether it would have been liberal operatives pushing back if the forecasters were unanimous that Romney was the favorite at this point.
The point is, however, that part of the criticism is simply raw politics. That's fine, and can therefore be dismissed pretty quickly.
The second critique is more substantive, and rests on the notion that the assumptions that pollsters and forecasters are using when they crunch their numbers are flawed. Dan McLaughlin at Red State offers up a decent version of this critique:
Nate Silver’s much-celebrated model is, like other poll averages, based simply on analyzing the toplines of public polls. This, more than any other factor, is where he and I part company....
My thesis, and that of a good many conservative skeptics of the 538 model, is that these internals are telling an entirely different story than some of the toplines: that Obama is getting clobbered with independent voters, traditionally the largest variable in any election and especially in a presidential election, where both sides will usually have sophisticated, well-funded turnout operations in the field. He’s on track to lose independents by double digits nationally, and the last three candidates to do that were Dukakis, Mondale and Carter in 1980. And he’s not balancing that with any particular crossover advantage (i.e., drawing more crossover Republican voters than Romney is drawing crossover Democratic voters). Similar trends are apparent throughout the state-by-state polls, not in every single poll but in enough of them to show a clear trend all over the battleground states.
If you averaged Obama’s standing in all the internals, you’d capture a profile of a candidate that looks an awful lot like a whole lot of people who have gone down to defeat in the past, and nearly nobody who has won. Under such circumstances, Obama can only win if the electorate features a historically decisive turnout advantage for Democrats – an advantage that none of the historically predictive turnout metrics are seeing, with the sole exception of the poll samples used by some (but not all) pollsters. Thus, Obama’s position in the toplines depends entirely on whether those pollsters are correctly sampling the partisan turnout....
Let me use an analogy from baseball statistics, which I think is appropriate here because it’s where both I and Nate Silver first learned to read statistics critically and first got an audience on the internet; in terms of their predictive power, poll toplines are like pitcher win-loss records or batter RBI.
Oh, snap. I've read enough sabermetrics to know a diss when I see it.
Now I don't think Silver and his ilk would agree with McLaughlin's reasoning -- see Nick Gourevitch for a useful counter. But I do I think Silver agrees with McLaughlin's on the source of their disagreement. As Silver's latest post title suggests: "For Romney to Win, State Polls Must Be Statistically Biased":
The pollsters are making a leap of faith that the 10 percent of voters they can get on the phone and get to agree to participate are representative of the entire population. The polling was largely quite accurate in 2004, 2008 and 2010, but there is no guarantee that this streak will continue. Most of the "house effects" that you see introduced in the polls — the tendency of certain polling firms to show results that are consistently more favorable for either the Democrat or the Republican — reflect the different assumptions that pollsters make about how to get a truly representative sample and how to separate out the people who will really vote from ones who say they will, but won’t.
But many of the pollsters are likely to make similar assumptions about how to measure the voter universe accurately. This introduces the possibility that most of the pollsters could err on one or another side — whether in Mr. Obama’s direction, or Mr. Romney’s. In a statistical sense, we would call this bias: that the polls are not taking an accurate sample of the voter population. If there is such a bias, furthermore, it is likely to be correlated across different states, especially if they are demographically similar. If either of the candidates beats his polls in Wisconsin, he is also likely to do so in Minnesota....
My argument... is this: we’ve about reached the point where if Mr. Romney wins, it can only be because the polls have been biased against him. Almost all of the chance that Mr. Romney has in the FiveThirtyEight forecast, about 16 percent to win the Electoral College, reflects this possibility.
Here we have a pretty simple and honest disagreement. Silver thinks the pollster's models for what the electorate and turnout will look like are pretty accurate; McLaughlin doesn't. They agree that if Romney wins it will be because practically all of the state polls are biased against him.
The final critique is the one that fascinates me -- the notion that traditional pundits can look beyond the polls at more ineffable factors like "momentum" and "crowd sizes" and "closing arguments" and "energy" and "early voting" other kinds of secret sauces to deternmine who will win. These guys rely on numbers but also the political instincts they've hones for decades as pundits. This is basically what Michael Barone has done, for example, in his prediction of a Romney blowout.
In some ways this mirrors the "scouts vs. stats" divide that ostensibly existed in baseball as Silver was developing PECOTA and Michael Lewis was writing Moneyball. And a lot of commentators are setting it up that way.
I'd tend to agree that this is the most bogus line of criticism... but a few things prevent me from rejecting this analysis entirely. First, there is the crazy possibility that pundits really do possess "local knowledge," as Hayek would put it, that forecasters lack. I'm not sure I really buy this hypothesis, but it's possible.
Second, as Silver himself observed in The Signal and the Noise, scouts get a bum rap. Over time, the evidence suggests that the scouts who worked at Baseball America actually outperformed the sabermetricians at Baseball Prospectus. As Silver acknowledges, just because something can't be quantified doesn't mean it's unimportant. Maybe pundits like Barone have picked up on these "intangibles." Or maybe they have an implicit theory of the election that turns out to be superior to what is, at this point, a strictly poll-driven model. To put it another way: polls at this point are merely the intervening variable between the causal factors that the pundits like to talk about (the economy, the candidate's narrative) and the outcome (the election).
To be honest, I doubt that any of this is true. But the great thing is that come Wednesday, we'll know which group is more right. And then let the taunting commence!!
Your humble blogger was innocently surfing the web yesterday when someone linked to Niall Ferguson's latest Newsweek column. Now even though I've warned everyone -- repeatedly -- not to go to there, I made the mistake of clicking. And this is what I saw:
Everyone knows there could be a surprise before Nov. 6—a news story that finally makes up the minds of those undecided voters in the swing states and settles the presidential election.
[T]he only kind of surprise I can envisage is a foreign-policy surprise. And if the polls get any scarier for the incumbent, we might just have one.
Recently The New York Times--increasingly the official organ of the Obama administration—offered a tease. “U.S. Officials Say Iran Has Agreed to Nuclear Talks” ran the headline. In the story, the Times quoted unnamed officials as saying that one-on-one talks with Iran had been agreed to in “a last-ditch diplomatic effort to avert a military strike on Iran.”....
Not only that. If the White House could announce a historic deal with Iran—lifting increasingly painful economic sanctions in return for an Iranian pledge to stop enriching uranium—Mitt Romney would vanish as if by magic from the front pages and TV news shows. The oxygen of publicity—those coveted minutes of airtime that campaigns don’t have to pay for—would be sucked out of his lungs....
[There is] an alternative surprise—the one I have long expected the president to pull if he finds himself slipping behind in the polls. With a single phone call to Jerusalem, he can end all talk of his being Jimmy Carter to Mitt Romney’s Reagan: by supporting an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
A few things:
1) Here's a pro tip: if your foreign affairs observations represent a reprise of wacky Donald Trump musings, maybe it's best to take your ball and go home.
2) It's really kind of adorable that Ferguson thinks a foreign policy surprise would move that many voters. Sorry, Niall, while presidents eventually pivot to foreign policy, it's not going to matter that much to undecideds right now.
3) If you want a foreign policy "tell" that Obama is in such serious straits that he's willing to gamble on a foreign policy initiative, there's a smaller-bore policy that would work better: an opening to Cuba. If Obama suggests that in the remaining week, it's a sign that: a) he thinks Florida is a lost cause; and b) he is trying to shore up support in the midwest with agricultural concerns that would love a new export market.
4) The laziness involved in Ferguson's essay got me to thinking.... could this be the worst international affairs column of 2012? How can we be sure? I mean, to be fair, Ferguson cited a real New York Times story in the column -- that indicated an actual modicum of effort. As I suggested last night, it might be an interesting exercise to create an NCAA-style bracket competition to determine the Worst International Affairs Essay of 2012. Why shouldn't the foreign policy community have it's own version of the Razzies?
To that end, I hereby ask commeters and the foreign affairs blogosphere to suggest candidate entries and possible rules for this contest, as well as possible judges. We'll see if there's enough momentum to add this contest to the coveted Albies.
futile determined effort to expand his public intellectual brand, your humble blogger was on the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC for about an hour this AM. It was a veeeeery interesting experience. Now, I know that some readers of this blog aspire to poison me and take my place on the FP masthead punditry themselves. So, as a public service, this is what happens when you go on a Sunday morning talk show: imagine the Law & Order chunk-CHUNK! going after each paragraph:
WEDNESDAY: I receive a polite email from one of Melissa's segment/booking producers, who we'll call "M", asking if I want to be on the show this Sunday. Having never done this kind of punditry before, and having my previous obligation for the weekend cancelled, I accept.
Immediately after accepting, I experience two contradictory emotions. First, the fear builds that they will email back the same day and say, "uh, we just re-checked our Rolodex, and.. [laughs] we have no idea who thought you merited being on television." At the same time, I realize I'm going to have to watch the rest of the prime-time Republican National Convention speeches. At which point I let loose a strong of profanities [What if had been the DNC instead?--ed. The same number of profanities would have been released.]
THURSDAY: I talk with M again, who runs down the planned topics with me -- the RNC, the DNC, the state of the election, and gun violence. Immediately I have a slight quandry -- my expertise is in international relations, not electoral politics. Do I dare to think I can play in the sandbox for a Sunday morning talk show? At which point my inner media whore screams, Gollum-like, "YES!! WE WANTS TO BE ON THE TV!!! IT'S OUR PRECIOUS!!"
This is, as near as I can determine, the First Commandment of Televsion Punditry -- you have to be secure enough in your abilities to chat with authority about issues outside your intellectual wheelhouse.
FRIDAY: To make my inner media whore proud, I start reading up on gun violence statistics. I also read as much commentary as I can about the Republican National Convention. Whatever intelligence I gain from the former I lose by reading the latter.
SATURDAY: Full disclosure: Melissa and I were political science colleagues at the University of Chicago back in the day, so I'm familiar with her style and her politics. That said, I haven't been a regular watcher of her MSNBC show, so I tune for the first half-hour in to get a sense of the roundtable. Clearly MHP leans juuuuust a little to the left. This raises an identity issue -- am I supposed to be wearing the hat of "defender of conservatism"? It's not a role I've been comfortable with as of late. Or am I gonna wear the "dispassionate, snarky observer of the political scene"? I feel much more comfortable with that hat on. In all likelihood, it's going to be a little from column A and a little from column B.
LATER ON SATURDAY: If you're going to be on roundtable for radio/television, there's a 98% chance you will need to do a "pre-interview" with a producer so they have a sense of what you're going to say during the conversation. So I have that conversation with M, during which I learn that the topics have been jiggled around a bit and all those
minutes hours of sketchy detailed online research into gun violence stats won't be worth much. Instead, we'll be talking gay marriage. Which is fine, I will rally with yet more Wikipedia-surfing intense study of primary texts. And, of course, that segment will be moved as well. So, the Second Commandment of Television Punditry is that the schedule will always change.
EVEN LATER ON SATURDAY: The MHP show is classy -- they took care of all the flight/hotel/car service logistics. So by Saturday night I found myself in a comfortable midtown hotel with a lovely view of Central Park. Surfing the web furiously to research for Sunday AM, I see that some fireworks broke out on MHP's Saturday show after I switched off to pack. Melissa was responding to the panel's most conservative participant making a point. Ruh-roh.
To prep, I take notes on each of the "blocks" or segments that I'm supposed to weigh in on. I'm a professor and an academic, and therefore alwasys feel better with notes.
SUNDAY MORNING PRE-SHOW: I get to 30 Rock on time, which means I'm the first panelist there.... or so I think. In actuality, the two female panelists -- NYU's Cristina Beltran and the Center for American Progress' Aisha Moodie-Mills -- are in makeup. As they enter the green rom, I quickly comprehend that I am in deep trouble, because I am not nearly as pretty. As the clock ticks towards 10 AM, and no one comes to get me, I am petrified that I have been typecast as the splotchy-faced redneck surrounded by urbane alluring panelists. Before this scenario can play out in even weirder directions inside my head, however, M sends me to makeup. They apply as enough powder to my face to fuel at least two Dunkin' Donuts franchies -- but it works . My family later informs me that I looked good, so many, many thanks to those professionals at MSNBC.
SUNDAY MORNING, 10 AM-11 AM: OK, having done my first hour of Sunday morning chat -- which you can watch here, here, here and here -- I have learned the following effects on one's senses when three cameras and numerous klieg lights are pointed in your general direction:
A) Time speeds up. Seriously, that hour flew by. Every time I was feeling like we were getting to a good part of the conversation, we hit a commercial break.
B) Almost all prep work is useless. I knew exactly what I wanted to say in response to the first question asked, and I did that competently. After that, whatever good punchy things were in my notes might as well have been left back at home for all the use they were to me. Part of the issue is visual -- you don't want to be looking down at your notes. Another part of the issue, which I've blogged about before, is the academic weakness of trying to directly answer the question.
C) Really, cameras can make you stupid. If you mangle your words during an ordinary conversation, or even when giving a speech, you can take a moment and regroup. If you mangle your words during a panel show, you become acutely aware that you're screwing up, which compounds the problem. Another panelist will be happy to enter the breach. On at least two occasioons, I had written down a better answer than the one that came out of my mouth during the program.
SUNDAY MORNING, 11 AM: I need to get to the airport to come home, but I find two pieces of critical feedback from the experience worthwhile. The first was the thumbs-up that Moodie-Mills and her partner give me as I exit the green room. The second is an anonymous email I soon find in my inbox:
Drezner........Why are you such an idiot? Your appearance on MSLSD was laughable and embarrassing. It's really sad and embarrassing how you liberal bedwetters continue to be brainwashed by your worthless president. Why can't you clowns form a coherent thought on your own? Exactly, because you buffoons are mindless robots programmed by your worthless president. Barnum and Bailey have nothing on you clowns. What do you call a basement full of liberals? A whine cellar. Keep up the good work loser................
Why, it's... it's a troll!! I've made it!! I'M A REAL PUNDIT NOW!!!!!
Your humble blogger has fiercely resisted getting drawn into the scrum regarding Niall Ferguson's Newsweek jeremiad against Barack Obama. I kinda already said my piece about Ferguson as a polemicist more than a year ago. The
fact-check critical blowback and Ferguson's response and the response to Ferguson's response have been truly nasty. And I'm supposed to be on vacation. There are beaches very close to where I am typing this. The Official Blog Wife will be unhappy -- and you do not want to see the Official Blog Wife unhappy on vacation.
At the moment, however, I find myself alone next to a computer. And I have noticed that most of the commentary has been directed at Ferguson's discussion of the U.S. economy. The foreign policy section of the essay has been comparatively neglected (though see here), and I was curious to see how it held up to a fact-check. So -- quickly, before the Official Blog Family returns from the beach -- let's dive in!
The failures of leadership on economic and fiscal policy over the past four years have had geopolitical consequences. The World Bank expects the U.S. to grow by just 2 percent in 2012. China will grow four times faster than that; India three times faster. By 2017, the International Monetary Fund predicts, the GDP of China will overtake that of the United States.
David Frum has already pointed out -- in a defense of Ferguson, mind you -- the ways in which Ferguson's calculatons of the Chinese economy are... er... geopolitically a bit off. By using purchasing power parity rather than market exchange rates, Ferguson is magnifying China's economic power just a wee bit. Or as Frum puts it, "things are not yet quite so dire as Ferguson fears."
Meanwhile, the fiscal train wreck has already initiated a process of steep cuts in the defense budget, at a time when it is very far from clear that the world has become a safer place—least of all in the Middle East.
You know, it's a funny coincidence, cause I was just perusing the Institute for Economics and Peace's 2012 Global Peace Index, which measures "the extent to which countries are involved
in ongoing domestic and international conflicts." A key conclusion they draw in the 2012 report? "The average level of peacefulness in 2012 is approximately the same as it was in 2007 (p. 37)." So, actually, it is somewhat clear that the world -- and the United States -- remains comparatively safe and secure.
For me the president’s greatest failure has been not to think through the implications of these challenges to American power. Far from developing a coherent strategy, he believed—perhaps encouraged by the premature award of the Nobel Peace Prize—that all he needed to do was to make touchy-feely speeches around the world explaining to foreigners that he was not George W. Bush.
I discussed whether the Obama administration had a grand strategy at length in Foreign Affairs last year. I think Ferguson has half a point here on the "touchy-feely speeches" Obama delivered in his first year -- but his administration has clearly pivoted (get it?) away from that first-year approach
In Tokyo in November 2009, the president gave his boilerplate hug-a-foreigner speech: “In an interconnected world, power does not need to be a zero-sum game, and nations need not fear the success of another ... The United States does not seek to contain China ... On the contrary, the rise of a strong, prosperous China can be a source of strength for the community of nations.” Yet by fall 2011, this approach had been jettisoned in favor of a “pivot” back to the Pacific, including risible deployments of troops to Australia and Singapore. From the vantage point of Beijing, neither approach had credibility.
What evidence is there that the rebalancing strategy hasn't worked and lacks credibility? The initial response to the pivot was pretty positive, and it's safe to say that China noticed it. I'm not saying that no evidence exists, mind you. I'm saying that sheer assertion by Ferguson does not in and of itself constiute evidence.
Believing it was his role to repudiate neoconservatism, Obama completely missed the revolutionary wave of Middle Eastern democracy—precisely the wave the neocons had hoped to trigger with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. When revolution broke out—first in Iran, then in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria—the president faced stark alternatives. He could try to catch the wave by lending his support to the youthful revolutionaries and trying to ride it in a direction advantageous to American interests. Or he could do nothing and let the forces of reaction prevail.
In the case of Iran he did nothing, and the thugs of the Islamic Republic ruthlessly crushed the demonstrations. Ditto Syria. In Libya he was cajoled into intervening. In Egypt he tried to have it both ways, exhorting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to leave, then drawing back and recommending an “orderly transition.” The result was a foreign-policy debacle. Not only were Egypt’s elites appalled by what seemed to them a betrayal, but the victors—the Muslim Brotherhood—had nothing to be grateful for. America’s closest Middle Eastern allies—Israel and the Saudis—looked on in amazement.
"This is what happens when you get caught by surprise," an anonymous American official told the New York Times in February 2011. “We’ve had endless strategy sessions for the past two years on Mideast peace, on containing Iran. And how many of them factored in the possibility that Egypt moves from stability to turmoil? None.”
Man, there's a lot to unpack here. First, I'm calling bulls**t on the Iran claim. Note to Niall: it's never a good idea to use a Jennifer Rubin talking point. Second, I'm pretty sure the administration has been active in Syria -- just not as active as Ferguson would like. Third, it's waaaaay too soon and simplistic describe Egypt as a "foreign-policy debacle."
Regarding the strategic surprise, Ferguson is telling the truth but not the whole truth. Sure, Obama was caught unawares. So was everyone else. I talked to a lot of high-ranking Israeli leaders/thinkers when I visited the country less than six months before the Arab Spring, and not a single person we talked to even hinted at any kind of pan-Arab uprising. Ferguson attends Herzliya regularly, so I'm curious whether he knows any Israelis who picked up on this.
My point here is that Israel has a powerful incentive to monitor everything going on in the Arab world -- and they didn't pick up on the Arab Spring. Does Ferguson seriously believbe a President McCain would have detected it?
Remarkably the president polls relatively strongly on national security. Yet the public mistakes his administration’s astonishingly uninhibited use of political assassination for a coherent strategy. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London, the civilian proportion of drone casualties was 16 percent last year. Ask yourself how the liberal media would have behaved if George W. Bush had used drones this way. Yet somehow it is only ever Republican secretaries of state who are accused of committing “war crimes.”
The real crime is that the assassination program destroys potentially crucial intelligence (as well as antagonizing locals) every time a drone strikes. It symbolizes the administration’s decision to abandon counterinsurgency in favor of a narrow counterterrorism. What that means in practice is the abandonment not only of Iraq but soon of Afghanistan too. Understandably, the men and women who have served there wonder what exactly their sacrifice was for, if any notion that we are nation building has been quietly dumped. Only when both countries sink back into civil war will we realize the real price of Obama’s foreign policy.
Ferguson makes some interesting points here, but can we talk about the elephant in the room? Why does Ferguson think Obama polls well on national security? Killing bin Laden, the Libya war, the rebalancing strategy, and the withdrawal from Iraq are commonly cited. Guess which one on that list Ferguson fails to mention.
As for what veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq think, well, Pew polled vets on this very question in the fall of 2011. The results? "While post-9/11 veterans are more supportive than the general public, just one-third (34%) say that, given the costs and benefits to the U.S., the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have both been worth fighting." Nevertheless, 96% of them felt proud of their military service. So I'm guessing that they want the U.S. to withdraw from Afghanistan too.
[UPDATE: Damn Pew's deceptive topline results! Looking a bit deeper, I see support for the war in Afghanistan still commands 50% support among post-9/11 veterans. On the other hand, these post-9/11 veterans also overwhelmingly (87%) support the increased use of unmanned drones that Ferguson dislikes so much.]
America under this president is a superpower in retreat, if not retirement. Small wonder 46 percent of Americans—and 63 percent of Chinese—believe that China already has replaced the U.S. as the world’s leading superpower or eventually will.
I like using survey data to bolster my arguments just as much as the next guy -- but I'm also willing to say quite clearly when the public is wrong about something -- and they're wrong about this. Furthermore, Ferguson knows this perception is wrong. We know from the previous paragraph that he doesn't care for public attitudes when he disagrees with them, but he uses it here. The reason? This time it supports his argument.
My verdict: the foreign policy section isn't as bad as the domestic policy section of Ferguson's article, but it's still sloppy. Ferguson makes a lot of lazy assertions without backing them up with facts. Some of the facts he uses are a bad fit for the arguments he's trying to make. And he values similar data points differently depending on whether they support his argument or not.
There are some good critiques that can be made of the Obama administration's foreign policy, and Ferguson skirts close to some of them. But Romney supporters can do better.
Time Magazine columnist and CNN host Fareed Zakaria has apologized "unreservedly" to Jill Lepore for plagiarizing her work in The New Yorker.
"Media reporters have pointed out that paragraphs in my Time column this week bear close similarities to paragraphs in Jill Lepore's essay in the April 22nd issue of The New Yorker. They are right," Zakaria said in a statement to The Atlantic Wire. "I made a terrible mistake. It is a serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault. I apologize unreservedly to her, to my editors at Time, and to my readers."
Zakaria's column about gun laws for Time's August 20 issue includes a paragraph that is remarkably similar to one Jill Lepore wrote in April for a New Yorker article about the National Rifle Association. (The similarities were first flagged by NRANews.com and first reported by Tim Graham of the conservative watchdog group Newsbusters, who leveled the plagiarism charge.)
Time suspended Zakaria for a month, CNN suspended him from his GPS hosting duties pending further review, and the Washington Post is looking into his work there. Rodger Payne has a useful round up of the relevant links.
Once the news broke, there was a whole lotta Twitter speculation about how and why this happened. Many media types assume that this was a mistake made by one of Zakaria's flunkies/assistants/interns, but in some ways that's just the proximate cause. A better question would be: why would Fareed Zakaria outsource any writing under his name to others?
I used to think that doing this kind of thing required willful negligence on the part of a writer. Now my view has changed a bit. It's still negligence, but with only a fraction of Zakaria's writing obligations, I can see all too clearly how this happened. To paraphrase Chris Rock, I'm not saying I approve... but I understand.
The New York Times lists Zakaria's day jobs, and they're formidable: "Mr. Zakaria, 48, balances a demanding schedule, doing work for multiple media properties. He is a CNN host, an editor at large at Time, a Washington Post columnist and an author."
Most people who wind up in this situation don't just snap their fingers and take on all of these jobs at once. It's a slow accretion of opportunities that are hard to say no until you are overextended. I'm not remotely close to being a member of the League of Extraordinary Pundits like Zakaria. Still, even I've noticed that, as writing & speaking obligations pile up, corners get... well, let's say rounded rather than cut.
I suspect, as one
has more gobs of money tossed at them than they ever expected out of life approaches League status, three factors dramatically increases the likelihood of this kind of thing happening. First, since the distribution of punditry assignments likely follows a power law distribution, superstars are asked to write a lot more, the pressure builds up. Second, to compensate, the pundit has to hire a staff -- and most people who get into the writing/thinking business are lousy at managing subordinates and staff. Third, if small shortcuts aren't caught the first time a writer uses them, they become crutches that pave the way for bigger shortcuts, which then become cheats.
None of this is to excuse Zakaria for what he did. It just makes me very sad. I enjoyed his first book, and I've enjoyed Fareed Zakaria GPS because it's one of the few Sunday morning shows devoted to international affairs. It didn't air this Sunday because of what happened.
I hope the show goes on, with or without Zakaria. And either way, I hope whoever hosts it learns from this mistake.
Dear Mr. Hiatt (and Mr. Pexton),
Sorry to be writing to you in such a public format. I'm also sorry to bring up the rather touchy subject of your attempts to find a competent and authentically conservative blogger for the Post. But can we talk about Jennifer Rubin for a second?
As I blogged yesterday, Rubin demonstrated incompetence, laziness and/or mendacity in her "hackstabbing" of Robert Zoellick. In particular, she seemed unable to understand the meaning of the "responsible stakeholder" language that Zoellick started using in 2005, and her weblink to that language wasn't even close to accurate.
Today I wake up to see that she has offered a follow-up post on Zoellick and an update to the controversial post from yesterday. Let me just reprint that update in full.
UPDATE: To clarify, Zoellick in 2005 delivered a speech in which he encouraged China to become a “responsible stakeholder” in international affairs. From 2005 to the present in speeches, articles and interviews (asked in 2009 in Financial Times interview about China’s “scorecard” on acting as a responsible stakeholder he said “I think China has come a long way”), Zoellick repeatedly praised China’s conduct, despite ample signs China was anything but “responsible” and widespread criticism of the policy Zoellick had championed. Given Mitt Romney’s “take China to the WTO” stance and his unsparing criticism of China’s human rights abuses Romney could not be more different in his view of China.
Now this is a bit of an improvement. Rubin has accurately described what Zoellick was saying in 2005 (as opposed to how it still appears in her original post). She also suggests that that Zoellick rubs some neoconservatives/China hardliners the wrong way on positions like human rights abuses. That's a genuine policy disagreement.
Still, there are some issues. One problem is that even in the update, she's still screwing up her evidence. Her quote from the FT interview of Zoellick is a somewhat out of context -- it seems more like Zoellick was talking about China's economic development in that particular phrase:
Zoellick: I think China has come a very long long way. I have a special perspective because I was living in Hong Kong in 1980. I went to Guangdong province right after Deng Xiaoping started the reform process. All you have to do is compare the China of that era and the China of today. It’s so startling.
As for her embedded links: Rubin's URLs for the "widespread criticism" portion go to two different articles. The first one is accurate, but, alas, Rubin only bats .500. The "criticism" link goes to a paper by Jonathan Czin entitled "Dragon Slayer or Panda Hugger? Chinese Perspectives on 'Responsible Stakeholder' Diplomacy." Here's Czin's conclusion:
Zoellick attempted to move U.S. thinking beyond the wholly inadequate dichotomous roles of friend and enemy to define the grey conceptual space that China occupies. To say that China is neither a friend nor an enemy of the United States is not only a truism; it has also become a cliché. Neither China nor the United States wants to see China become part of a “hub and spokes” alliance system in East Asia. Yet the claim put forth by strategic thinkers such as John Mearsheimer that the changing material balance of power will inexorably and inevitably lead to Sino-American conflict is over-deterministic and threatens to engender a self-fulfilling prophecy. Moreover, it runs counter to the premise of U.S. China policy since Kissinger. Strategically, Zoellick’s “Third Way” offers the most reasonable and palatable option.
I do not think they anyone would characterize this as "criticism" of Zoellick's policy formulation. I read through the whole article, and couldn't really find any criticism of the policy. Between you, me and the lamppost, I suspect Rubin saw the "panda-hugger" headline and just put it in. But I concede that's pure speculation on my part.
Look, this is tedious stuff, and I don't like descending into the weeds all that much. Still, if Rubin can't correct her earlier screw-up without making yet another screw-up, doesn't that suggest that something is seriously wrong here? And don't you, as her publishers, bear just a wee bit of responsibility for this kind of mendacity and laziness?
Daniel W. Drezner
Dear Neoconservative Foreign Policy Flacks Who Work for Mitt Romney:
Hey there -- how's the campaign going? Oh, sorry, touchy topic.
So listen... I can see why you're all pissed off and everything that Robert Zoellick has agreed to act as the foreign policy "transition chief" for the Romney campaign. Zoellick has never really been "one of you," and he's more commonly associated with James Baker than with any neoconservative guru.
So yeah, I can see why you'd leak your complaints about this to Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post. Rubin might have her flaws, but if she's proven anything this election cycle, it's that she's a reliable stenographer for the Mitt Romney campaign.
Here's the thing, though -- if you're gonna leak to Rubin, I think you're also gonna have to do her homework for her. Rubin has been a bit sloppy as of late in her "Right Turn" posts, trivial stuff like confusing "Third Way" with "Third Wave."
With the Zoellick post she just
cut and pasted wrote up, however, I think she's gone from trivial mistakes to out-and-out incompetency and/or lying. Here's one paragraph:
For foreign policy hawks, Zoellick is an anathema. As the right hand man in the State Department and Treasury Department of James A, Baker, who was infamous for his anti-Israel stance, Zoellick acquired a reputation as ”soft” on China, weak on pressuring the Soviet Union at the close of the Cold War, opposed to the first Gulf War and unsupportive of the Jewish state. His stint as U.S. Trade Representative, and Deputy Secretary of State, in the George W. Bush administration did nothing too alter his image with foreign policy hardliners. That tenure will no doubt complicate Romney’s efforts to distance himself from his predecessor. And in 2011, Zoellick shocked foreign policy gurus by delivering a speech praising China, suggesting that it was a “responsible stakeholder” in Asia, at a time human rights abuses and aggressive conduct in Asia were bedeviling the Obama administration.
Now there's a lot of tendentious crap in that paragraph, but the doozy is the embedded link. Cause if you click on it, you get to a story with the headline: "Robert Zoellick: China 'Reluctant Stakeholder' in World Economic Woes". Here's the opening few paragraphs:
China is a vital but "reluctant stakeholder" in the current wave of Western financial woes, said Robert B. Zoellick, President of the World Bank.
Zoellick told listeners that China benefits from the international system and needs to "share the responsibilities" of that engagement, for the sake of both sides of the Pacific.
Hey, did you notice a key word difference between what Rubin claims Zoellick said and what Zoellick actually said? And that the word "responsible" appears nowhere in that story? And that Zoellick's statement here is fully consistent with what he told a Chinese audience the next month? So either Rubin didn't bother reading the embedded link you provided her, or she didn't read the embedded link at Zoellick's Wikipedia entry... or she didn't care. Whichever way it went down, it doesn't look good for either you or Rubin.
[An aside: Now I know what you're going to say -- Zoellick coined the "responsible stakeholder" language. That's partially true -- he introduced the idea in this 2005 speech. However, if you, like, actually read the speech, you'll see that he was arguing that, "We need to urge China to become a responsible stakeholder in that system." Zoellick wasn't saying that China was already responsible, as Rubin suggests in her
Wikipedia dump column. He was offering an aspirational goal for the Chinese government.]
You want to hit Zoellick? I think you're wrong, but fine, I get that. You want to use Rubin to do it? Then I suggest you write out exactly what she should print, and then double-check your f**king footnotes. Cause otherwise, the errors and distortions she prints will rebound back onto you.
All the best!
Daniel W. Drezner
Your humble blogger is
procrastinating his packing preparing for a family vacation. So, according to Jonathan Bernstein, Kevin Drum and Brendan Nyhan, is the political press corps. Bernstein explains:
[The summer] creates a whole lot of reporters with little to report on – and a whole lot of empty time on the cable news networks, the newspapers, the blogs, the new talk radio shows and the rest of it.
And what academic research tells us is that slow news days create scandals. That’s what Brendan Nyhan and other media researchers have found; indeed, Nyhan believes that the lack of scandal during Barack Obama’s first two years in the White House was caused, at least in part, by a series of very eventful news cycles. The mechanism, obviously, is that if there’s no major news, then minor news fills the hole, and if there’s no minor news, then we’ll hear plenty about stuff that if you squint just the right way might sort of pass for news....
It’s no surprise that mid-summer, when lots of newsmakers are on vacation (and when little is happening even in the sports world), is when stories such as the “ground zero mosque” or Shirley Sherrod’s supposed racism took off. Not just those; any kind of meaningless hype, whether it’s a supposed gaffe or some meaningless polling random variation, is going to get far more attention than it deserves.
Bernstein offers some suggestions for what political reporters could do with their surfeit of time besides explore stupid scandals. Let me proffer a suggestion of my own: cover the rest of the world.
Seriously. World politics doesn't stop for the summer, and as I'm sure I heard someone smart once say, the world is not a boring place. Sure, it used to stop in Europe, but I'm betting a lot will happen on that continent as well. Why shouldn't political reporters use the summer to earn their foreign correspondent bona fides?
Now, I'm sure newspaper and television editors reading these scribblings will immediately protest that even though they think the world is interesting, their audience won't. Hogwash. If there is anything the media excels at, it should be how to tart up stories that might otherwise pass under the radar. Here are a few suggestions:
1) The "where are they now?" gambit. Remember how, in 2011, the world seemed liked it was kinda ending? Earthquakes, revolutions, that kind of thing? Wouldn't it be wacky to send reporters to these places to see how things are going now? Think Fukushima, or Tunisia, or even states that didn't have full frontal revolutions, like Oman. Do some follow-up journalism.
2) The "Olympic Hangover" stories. The one big sporting event this summer will be the London Olympics. How about sending some reporters to previous Olympic host countries and see what happened to those facilities? I bet the Athens and Beijing reports would be interesting.
3) Foreign superheroes. This summer has seen a bumper crop of Hollywood blockbusters about men in tights and women in catsuits with extraordinary powers. While superheroes had their origins in American comic books, wouldn't it be cool to see if and how this genre has been adopted elsewhere in the globe? Is there are Russian Superman? A Chinese Iron Man? An Indian Wonder Woman? Go find out!
Readers are welcomed to come up with their own foreign policy hooks in the comments below.
Your humble blogger is not naive in the ways of punditry. He is keenly aware that the only way to move up the punditry food chain is to bemoan the crumbling state of America's infrastructure while pining for better high-speed rail, better schools, and ORDER, dammit!!
In the interest of serving the greater good, your humble blogger has decided to do the crucial pundit fieldwork necessary to adopt this position. I am therefore taking the Acela "hi speed" train from Washington, DC, to New York City, and shall chronicle every moment of import along the way in this blog post. So buckle your seat bekts -- it's going to be a bumpy ride:
8:10 AM: Part of the pundit code is getting into a local taxi and getting colorful quotes from them. Alas, my cabbie was not the chatty type. Also, despire the morning rush-hour time, there wasn't a lot of sitting around time. Oh, and his cab was clean too. Clearly, Washington DC is receiving favored treatment in its infrastructure.
8:35 AM: I get to Union Station to find much of it being renovated. There are cranes and construction equipment everywhere! What is his, Shanghai?! Of course, in the Far East, they're just building new things, whereas here in the decaying United States, we're trying to preserve our crumbling monuments to modernity [Oh, that is Pulitzer GOLD, baby!!--ed.]
8:40 AM: I want to get coffee from Starbucks, but the Acela line has already started forming. I bypass the coffee to make sure I get a good seat. Anger at stupid American regulations... rising!!
9:00 AM: On the train, I hold my breath as I try to access Acela's wifi. Many an expeletive has been tweeted in anger at this unreliable system. In my case, however, it opens with no difficulty. There is a warning page informing me that, for myriad reasons, the wifi might cut in and out and it can't access certain pages. Still, Amtrak's web service has jumped up a notch since the last time I took the Acela... or, again, the NYC-DC corridor gets preferential treatment compared with the Boston trains. Note to self: hire eager-beaver grad student to unearth Amtrak perfidy.
9:10 AM: I can't access YouTube. That's it, this is the worst f***ing WiFi service I've ever encountered. There's no WAY this would happen in China!!!
9:20 AM: Well, the Acela reveals itself to be erratic, as it starts to slow down from its pathetically low "hi speed" -- oh, it's stopoing st the BWI station. Never mind.
9:33 AM: Sure, I could have opted for the quiet car, but I wanted to mix with "the people," get a sense of what they're talking about amongst themselves. So far, they're talking about... PowerPoint presentations. There's a column in here somewhere...
10:00 AM: So far, the train has been on time, the WiFi has worked, and even the non-quiet car has been pretty sedate. Friedman's Rage is not building. [Bye-bye Pulitzer!!--ed.] No, wait, the train ride is kinda bumpy. Very bumpy at times. Kind of like... like... the American body politic!! [Atta boy! You're back in the game!--ed.]
10:20 AM: The WiFi cut out for, like 10 minutes south of Wilmington. How sad and pathetic for America. Why, if this had happened in, say, Chongqing, at least one train bureaucrat would have been executed and one British hedge-fund manager would have been poisoned to set an example for other trains.
10:39 AM: The WiFi is becoming erratic again, causing additional mutterings from other passengers in my car. One of them says "This would never happen in Michael Bloomberg's America!!" #notreally.
11:35 AM: The train has arrived in Newark. I look around. God, I miss China.
11:45 AM: Your pundit's long morning nightmare has come to an end on a gorgeous day in Manhattan. I learned a lot about America on this trip, but even more importantly... I learned a lot about myself. [Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Aaron Sorkin!!--ed.]
Earlier in the week the Washington Post's Chuck Lane wrote an op-ed arguing in favor of Jeff Flake's amendment to cut National Science Foundation funding for political science. In fact, Lane raised the ante, arguing that NSF should stop funding all of the social sciences, full stop.
Now, I can respect someone who tries to make the argument that the opportunity costs of funding the social sciences are big enough that this is where a budget cut should take place. It's harder, however, to respect someone who:
2) Is unaware that the social sciences are -- increasingly -- running experiments as well;
3) Believes that because individual social scientists have normative preferences, the whole enterprise cannnot be objective (or, in other words, doesn't undersand the scientific enterprise at all);
4) Fails to comprehend the economics of public goods;
5) Hasn't really thought through what would happen if all social science was privately funded.
Now, all columnists can have a bad day, so that's fine. What I find intriguing, however, is that Lane's response to criticism from political scientists to his essay can be summarized in one tweet: "shorter my critics re poli sci funding: we want our money." This is cute, but overlooks the fact that a lot of Lane's poli sci critics -- myself included -- haven't received a dime in NSF funding.
More disconcertingly, it's intellectually lazy. Sources of funding do matter in public discourse, but they do not vitiate the logic contained in the arguments linked to above. This is simply Lane's cheap and easy excuse for not engaging the substance of his critics' arguments.
The hard-working folks here at the blog believe strongly in reciprocity, so Lane has done us a small favor -- we no longer need to read Chuck Lane's arguments all that carefully, or take him all that seriously, ever again.
David Brooks' New York Times column this AM is a riff off of a Peter Thiel lecture about the odd relationship between capitalism and competition. Thiel's point is that our meritocratic society conditions individuals to compete -- for admission to good schools, good jobs, and so forth -- when, in fact, the goal of the capitalist should be to innovate their way to the capitalist holy grail -- a temporary monopoly.
Brooks takes this argument and runs with it:
students have to jump through ever-more demanding, preassigned academic hoops. Instead of developing a passion for one subject, they’re rewarded for becoming professional students, getting great grades across all subjects, regardless of their intrinsic interests. Instead of wandering across strange domains, they have to prudentially apportion their time, making productive use of each hour.
Then they move into a ranking system in which the most competitive college, program and employment opportunity is deemed to be the best. There is a status funnel pointing to the most competitive colleges and banks and companies, regardless of their appropriateness.
Then they move into businesses in which the main point is to beat the competition, in which the competitive juices take control and gradually obliterate other goals. I see this in politics all the time. Candidates enter politics wanting to be authentic and change things. But once the candidates enter the campaign, they stop focusing on how to be change-agents. They and their staff spend all their time focusing on beating the other guy. They hone the skills of one-upsmanship. They get engulfed in a tit-for-tat competition to win the news cycle. Instead of being new and authentic, they become artificial mirror opposites of their opponents. Instead of providing the value voters want — change — they become canned tacticians, hoping to eke out a slight win over the other side.…
You know somebody has been sucked into the competitive myopia when they start using sports or war metaphors. Sports and war are competitive enterprises. If somebody hits three home runs against you in the top of the inning, your job is to go hit four home runs in the bottom of the inning.
But business, politics, intellectual life and most other realms are not like that. In most realms, if somebody hits three home runs against you in one inning, you have the option of picking up your equipment and inventing a different game. You don’t have to compete; you can invent (emphasis added).
Now, there's definitely a strong element of truth to Brooks' point. True innovators in many fields are searching for the genuinely new idea, and then run with it. I, for one, have a (temporary) monopoly in the international relations theory and zombies market. So I get what Brooks is trying to say here.
And yet, in the end, I think this is a crap argument, for a few reasons:
1) Brooks too neatly divides the innovation from the competition elements of market life. Indeed, the company that made Thiel super-rich -- Facebook -- is exhibit A for this point. Facebook didn't really innovate anything that MySpace or other social networking sites hadn't done already. Rather, because social networking is an arena where greater size means greater profitability, Facebook managed to beat its competitors at gaining market share. It did this through a few bells and whistles, but Facebook did not "create a new market and totally dominate it," as Brooks would put it.
2) Brooks has a tendency to conflate different dimensions of social activity as if they're one and the same, and that bolded sentence is exhibit A of that. In point of fact, a politician usually can't invent a different game -- or, if s/he does, it's often called a coup or a revolution. Brooks is clearly disgusted with the ticky-tack, news-cycle, tweet-length tactical fights of politics, and I can't say I blame him. But Brooks of all people should know that politics is also about Very Big Arguments that cannot be avoided. Say what you will about either Barack Obama or the GOP House of Representatives, but over the past two years they've been having The Big Argument. I don't think either of them can risk abandoning the intellectual competition (though maybe this is another option).
Similarly, as someone schooled in intellectual life, walking away from an argument means you've lost the argument. That's not the end of the world, but given that arguing about ideas is what intellectuals do, it's not great either. I think Thiel's argument works well for business -- but business is manifestly not like other spheres of life.
3) It's worth noting that Brooks and Thiel mistakenly conclude that if the meritocratic system was adjusted, the best and the brightest would become better entrepreneurs. I question that hypothesis. Here's the pithy Larry Summers observation that's worth remembering. Summers was actually making an argument consistent with Brooks and Thiel, pushing back against the Amy Chua "Tiger Mom" silliness:
"Which two freshmen at Harvard have arguably been most transformative of the world in the last 25 years?" he asked. "You can make a reasonable case for Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, neither of whom graduated." If they had been the product of a Tiger Mom upbringing, he added, their mothers would probably have been none too pleased with their performance.
The A, B and C alums at Harvard in fact could be broadly characterized thus, he said: The A students became academics, B students spent their time trying to get their children into the university as legacies, and the C students—the ones who had made the money—sat on the fund-raising committee.
The thing is, these groups are more self-selecting than Summers, Brooks and Thiel believe. Which means altering the meritocratic incentives won't change all that much.
Am I missing anything?
Last Wednesday Thomas Friedman wrote a very silly column in which he called for Michael Bloomberg to enter the presidential race because
he had an annoying experience at Union Station he thinks the United States needs a real leader:
[W]ith Europe in peril, China and America wobbling, the Arab world in turmoil, energy prices spiraling and the climate changing, we are facing some real storms ahead. We need to weatherproof our American house — and fast — in order to ensure that America remains a rock of stability for the world. To do that, we’ll have to make some big, hard decisions soon — and to do that successfully will require presidential leadership in the next four years of the highest caliber.
This election has to be about those hard choices, smart investments and shared sacrifices — how we set our economy on a clear-cut path of near-term, job-growing improvements in infrastructure and education and on a long-term pathway to serious fiscal, tax and entitlement reform. The next president has to have a mandate to do all of this.
But, today, neither party is generating that mandate — talking seriously enough about the taxes that will have to be raised or the entitlement spending that will have to be cut to put us on sustainable footing, let alone offering an inspired vision of American renewal that might motivate such sacrifice. That’s why I still believe that the national debate would benefit from the entrance of a substantial independent candidate — like the straight-talking, socially moderate and fiscally conservative Bloomberg — who could challenge, and maybe even improve, both major-party presidential candidates by speaking honestly about what is needed to restore the foundations of America’s global leadership before we implode.
The Twitterati and blogosphere reaction to Friedman's argument tended towards the scathing, and now we're beginning to see the responses elaborated to op-ed length. This smart essay, for example, makes the very trenchant point that in a political structure with so many veto points , so much political polarization and so many entrenched interests, the ability of any one leader to reform the system on the scale that Friedman proposes is next to impossible:
A system with as many checks and balances built into it as ours assumes — indeed requires — a certain minimum level of cooperation on major issues between the two parties, despite ideological differences. Unfortunately, since the end of the cold war, which was a hugely powerful force compelling compromise between the parties, several factors are combining to paralyze our whole system.
For starters, we’ve added more checks and balances to make decision-making even more difficult — such as senatorial holds now being used to block any appointments by the executive branch or the Senate filibuster rule, effectively requiring a 60-vote majority to pass any major piece of legislation, rather than 51 votes. Also, our political divisions have become more venomous than ever....
A system with as many checks and balances built into it as ours assumes — indeed requires — a certain minimum level of cooperation on major issues between the two parties, despite ideological differences. Unfortunately, since the end of the cold war, which was a hugely powerful force compelling compromise between the parties, several factors are combining to paralyze our whole system.
For starters, we’ve added more checks and balances to make decision-making even more difficult — such as senatorial holds now being used to block any appointments by the executive branch or the Senate filibuster rule, effectively requiring a 60-vote majority to pass any major piece of legislation, rather than 51 votes. Also, our political divisions have become more venomous than ever....
We can’t be great as long as we remain a vetocracy rather than a democracy. Our deformed political system — with a Congress that’s become a forum for legalized bribery — is now truly holding us back.
Congratulations to present Thomas Friedman -- for effectively refuting past Tom Friedman.
In my experience, pundits tend to be risk-averse in calling out a very rich person on their economic or financial analyses. There's a couple of intuitive logics at work here:
1) Most pundits don't know much about economics, and so are leery of entering those waters;
2) The really rich person likely became really rich because they demonstrated a shrewd understanding of the markets -- therefore, who is the low-six-figure-or-less-earning pundit to challenge such high-yielding wisdom;
3) Most pundits refuse to admit that they don't understand something that reads like gobbledgook, because they're afraid this makes them look like an idiot.
Well, your humble blogger has never been afraid of looking like an idiot... which brings me to PIMCO's Bill Gross. I'll occasionally read his monthly newsletter when a link to it pops up in my Twitter feed. Every time, I'm amazed at the florid, rambling, not-really-related-to-his-main-point way he opens these little essays. Sometimes I find the analysis afterwards useful, sometimes I find it eerily similar to what someone says after spending too much time with Tom Friedman. I gather he's had better years as an analyst than he did in 2011, but everyone has down years and bad predictions.
Here's the thing, though -- I can't understand a word of his latest Financial Times column: Here's how it opens:
Isaac Newton may have conceptualised the effects of gravity when that mythical apple fell on his head, but could he have imagined Neil Armstrong’s hop-skip-and-jumping on the moon, or the trapping of light inside a black hole? Probably not. Likewise, the deceased economic maestro of the 21st century – Hyman Minsky – probably couldn’t have conceived how his monetary theories could be altered by zero-based money.
Things get a little clearer towards the end of the op-ed... but not much. His February 2012 newsletter appears to be an expanded version of this op-ed (plus the usual wacky opening), so let's go there to see what he's trying to say:
[W]hen rational or irrational fear persuades an investor to be more concerned about the return of her money than on her money then liquidity can be trapped in a mattress, a bank account or a five basis point Treasury bill. But that commonsensical observation is well known to Fed policymakers, economic historians and certainly citizens on Main Street.
What perhaps is not so often recognized is that liquidity can be trapped by the “price” of credit, in addition to its “risk.” Capitalism depends on risk-taking in several forms. Developers, homeowners, entrepreneurs of all shapes and sizes epitomize the riskiness of business building via equity and credit risk extension. But modern capitalism is dependent as well on maturity extension in credit markets. No venture, aside from one financed with 100% owners’ capital, could survive on credit or loans that matured or were callable overnight. Buildings, utilities and homes require 20- and 30-year loan commitments to smooth and justify their returns. Because this is so, lenders require a yield premium, expressed as a positively sloped yield curve, to make the extended loan. A flat yield curve, in contrast, is a disincentive for lenders to lend unless there is sufficient downside room for yields to fall and provide bond market capital gains. This nominal or even real interest rate “margin” is why prior cyclical periods of curve flatness or even inversion have been successfully followed by economic expansions. Intermediate and long rates – even though flat and equal to a short-term policy rate – have had room to fall, and credit therefore has not been trapped by “price.”
Even if nodding in agreement, an observer might immediately comment that today’s yield curve is anything but flat and that might be true. Most short to intermediate Treasury yields, however, are dangerously close to the zero-bound which imply little if any room to fall: no margin, no air underneath those bond yields and therefore limited, if any, price appreciation. What incentive does a bank have to buy two-year Treasuries at 20 basis points when they can park overnight reserves with the Fed at 25? What incentives do investment managers or even individual investors have to take price risk with a five-, 10- or 30-year Treasury when there are multiples of downside price risk compared to appreciation? At 75 basis points, a five-year Treasury can only rationally appreciate by two more points, but theoretically can go down by an unlimited amount. Duration risk and flatness at the zero-bound, to make the simple point, can freeze and trap liquidity by convincing investors to hold cash as opposed to extend credit (emplases in original).
And... sorry, I still don't get it. I get why zero interest rates are bad for bondholders like PIMCO. I get that flat yield curves + high amounts of economic uncertainty = cash hoarding. What I don't get is that:
A) Gross himself acknowledges that the yield curve ain't flat;
B) Low interest rates allow for private-sector deleveraging, which is a prelude to stimulating market demand;
C) Low interest rates prevent today's government binge from being even more expensive than it would be in normal times (by keeping financing costs down);
D) If uncertainty is decreasing -- and that appears to be the case with the U.S. economy -- then low interest rates should spur greater entrepreneurial investments.
So, at the risk of threatening my status in the International Brotherhood of Serious Global Political Econmy Bloggers That Talk Seriously About Economics, I hereby ask my commenters to explain Bill Gross' concerns to me. Because I don't get it -- and I'm beginning to wonder if I'm not the only one.
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.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Earlier this week Walter Russell Mead blogged about the mortal danger facing a prominent international relations theory:
American fast food continues to worm its way ever deeper into Pakistani affections. Hardee’s recently joined McDonald’s in Islamabad and both are doing well, says the Washington Post.
Since McDonald’s is also thriving in India, an IR theory is about to be put to a test. The “McDonald’s theory” holds that no two countries with McDonald’s in them will ever go to war. Once you have a middle class big enough to support hamburger franchises, the theory runs, war is a thing of the past.
I wish. The 2008 war between Russia and Georgia dealt the theory a blow; an India-Pakistan war would be the end.
Whether or not that happens, the theory is a bust. Countries often become more militaristic as their middle classes rise.
A touch a touch, I do confess it!! It appears that the collective reputation of international relations theory has been tarnished, yet -- wait a second, who came up with that theory in the first place?
As it turns out, it was not some academic IR theorist like me, but rather a Prominent Foreign Affairs Columnist of Some Renown … kinda like Mead (but not really). Yes, it was indeed Tom Friedman who first suggested "The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention."
Mead concludes that the theory is a bust, and Wikipedia appears to back him up:
(Actually, Wikipedia is underestimating how many times the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention has been falsified … according to Wikipedia. The Kargil War was in 1999, not 1998, and according to casualty estimates, there were more than 1,000 battle deaths, which meets the standard definition of a war.)
Empirical quibbles aside, this certainly falsifies Friedman's original "strong" hypothesis of "no two countries that both have a McDonald's have ever fought a war against each other." The thing is, international relations theories are kinda like … er … zombies. Even if you think you've killed them off, they can be revived.
Let's water down Friedman's strong hypothesis a bit. Is it true that, "two countries that both have a McDonald's are significantly less likely to fight a war against each other?" Mead thinks the answer is no, but my hunch is that it would be yes. A cursory glance at the scholarly literature suggests that no one has actually tested it, so … get to it, aspiring MA thesis writers!!
That said, even if the weaker version was true, would it be useful from either a theoretical or policy perspective? I think the answer here is no, and this is one important way in which academic IR theorists do better than, say, Tom Friedman. The comparative advantage of the Golden Arches Theory is pedagogical -- it's easy to explain to anyone. The problem is that McDonald's is really an intervening variable and not the actual cause of any peace. And while IR scholars sometimes roll their eyes at democratic peace theory, the literature has produced significant progress about the ways in which that hypothesis is constrained (in a world of democratizing states, for example).
Mead is correct to observe that this particular IR theory is in trouble. I'm marginally more sanguine about the state of academic IR theory overall, however.
MIRA OBERMAN/AFP/Getty Images
The Official Blog Son and I were lucky enough to catch Team USA's thrilling come-from-behind victory over Brazil in the FIFA Women's World Cup. It was a great and controversial game, sure to be replayed on ESPN Classic for years to come. It also got me to thinking about how prominent thinkers and writers about world politics would use the game as a hook for their foreign affairs columns and op-eds this week. Here are their opening paragraphs:
I was quaffing hearty German pilsners with FIFA President Sepp Blatter in a luxury box in Dresden's Glücksgas Stadium (try the bratwurst!!) when he said something that hit me like a thunderbolt: "I can't understand why there's so much demand for video replay in soccer. You know, there is no instant replay in the real world." And really, that's what the global economy is like -- a fast-speed, arcing bullet of a free kick with no time to press the pause button. You have to use every part of your being -- your legs, your head, though admittedly not your arms -- just to keep pace.
Watching the thrilling run of the Americans leading up to Abby Wambach's header, I was struck by the complex, free-flowing sequence of passes that got the ball from the American end to Megan Rapinoe's left foot. It was such a seamless, interlaced network of exchanges -- dare I call it a web of them? -- that moved the ball forward. As the passes moved from one player to another, I bet social networking technologies moved even faster, alerting Americans that a Big Moment was about to happen. In winning, the United States showed the power of webbed networks -- or is it networked webs? -- yet again.
All of the Western media will focus on the "theatrics" of the USA-Brazil game, but it doesn't matter. This was an intramural match between Western Hemisphere teams, which means it was irrelevant. Japan's stunning upset of host Germany in the quarterfinals is the real story of this World Cup, yet another signal of how the one remaining Asian team will leave the three "Western" teams still alive in the dust.
This was an example of American exceptionalism and American will to power at its finest. Battling a set of rules and referees that were clearly anti-American in their effect, the noble U.S. side displayed dogged determination and grit, vanquishing their Brazilian counterparts. The only black mark on the U.S. side was the timidity of the U.S. coach Pia Sundhage in obeying FIFA's absurd and corrupt rules. Sundhage, from that socialist bastion of meek multilateralism that is Sweden, adhered to the letter of FIFA law in pulling Rachel Buehler after she was "red-carded." A true American coach would have instead followed the spirit of the law and sent an 11th player onto the pitch in place of the unjustly accused Buehler.
Americans will thump their chests, display their brassy jingoism, and bray to the heavens about how the refereeing in this game was "unfair" or "ridiculous." They'll claim that the referee's red card of Buehler and mandated do-over of the penalty kick during regular time was "anti-American." They'll overlook the fact that the Australian ref could have midfielder Carli Lloyd off the field for a flagrant, deliberate handball but didn't. They'll overlook the granting of a re-kick for U.S. player Shannon Boxx during the penalty kick phase. They'll overlook the aesthetic beauty of Brazilian star Marta's soccer artistry. They'll overlook the arrogance of U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo -- a perfect American name if there ever was one -- as she had the audacity to question the ref (if the officials weren't so obviously in Corporate America's back pocket, Solo would have been red-carded). They'll overlook the fact that the extra half-hour of play insidiously stacked the deck for the Americans, rewarding their better conditioning against the poorer and put-upon Brazilians. They'll overlook the 158 other things that I will now lay out in excruciating detail. Only when WikiLeaks focuses its might on FIFA will the soccer world be more just.
The sweltering heat in Dresden clearly began to affect the crowd. They booed the Brazilian star Marta with all of her touches. You could sense a growing danger as the boos grew louder. The German fans, upset at seeing their own team get knocked out, had clearly decided to side with their tribal allies. It is likely that only Wambach's header prevented what would have been an unruly German/American riot, breaking down the tenuous social fabric. The riot would have started in the heart of Europe, but I have every confidence that, before long, the unrest would have spread to Halford MacKinder's heartland in the middle of Eurasia.
This match crystallized both the promise and the peril of the rising BRIC powers as they assume more responsibilities in global governance. The game put FIFA's many problems -- bad decision-making, a lack of transparency about the bad decision-making -- on full display. Even after the match, FIFA never explained why Brazil was awarded a re-kick following Solo's block of Christina's penalty kick. Instead of constructively seeking reform, however, the Brazilian side tried to free-ride off of FIFA's flaws. Marta constantly whined to the refs about the lack of Brazilian free kicks. Defender Erkia flopped onto the pitch in a transparent effort to stall play. Unless and until the BRIC countries learn to play cooperatively with the fading West, global governance will look as effective as FIFA's efforts to block corruption. Which is to say, not effective at all.
Readers are warmly encouraged to offer their own suggestions in the comments.
[Note to readers: Because Dan was upgraded to business class on his trip to Beijing, he was exposed to a serious viral infection in the food called metaphoricus overloadus, known more commonly as Friedman's Disease. Rest assured, it is far from fatal -- it usually passes after 24 hours of no travel. As near as we can determine, all the facts in the blog post below are accurate. While suffering from Friedman's Disease, however, side effects do include rapid-fire, over-the-top metaphors. Remember: You've been warned!! --ed.]
To truly understand the phenomenon that is China, you need to fly into Beijing's airport and then try to get into the city. That's it; that's all you need. Just that adventure alone will tell you all you need to know about the contradictions of the Middle Kingdom.
First you enter a glittering, modern airport, with helpful signs in Mandarin and English. It's sheer scale and modernity telegraphs the ways in which China has already entered modernity. The monorail from my terminal to baggage claim was a pointed reminder of how much the United States lags behind in infrastructure investment in recent years.
And yet, there's the traffic. Summer in Beijing is a confusing miasma of traffic and smog and traffic. As my compatriot and I clambered into our taxi at Beijing's immaculately clean and modern airport, we knew that the ride to the hotel could take anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes depending on the traffic. Just as we Americans don't know when exactly China will catch up, the Chinese are not sure how long it will take to get there.
We might like to think that driving in a New York City taxi is as exciting as a carnival ride, but that's nothing compared with a taxi ride on a Beijing superhighway. In New York, there's always that sense that, in the end, the taxi driver won't risk an actual collision. On the road to Beijing, however, I witnessed at least two last-minute swerves and road rage that would have made Los Angelenos blush. Using an accent that an old-style New York cabbie would have admired in its sheer swarthiness, my cabbie kept honking for at least two minutes after a car viciously cut him off.
It's a fantastical engineering problem, getting so many cars and motorcycles and trucks and buses to merge and move in the same direction. And that's when it hit me like a thunderbolt -- China itself is like this superhighway. It's massive in size, 10 lanes easy. It's filled with an array of vehicles determined to get ahead. The problem is that when you combine all the vehicles together, the real possibility of a two-week-long traffic jam in which everyone wants to go somewhere but nobody gets anywhere is clearly a possibility. Predicting China's future is like predicting the traffic: You know there will be some stop-and-go, but you just don't know how much of it there will be.
When we got to the hotel, I paid my cabbie and he signaled that I owed him four more yuan. I was suffering from ATM disease, so I took out a single U.S. dollar bill and a 100-yuan note, looked at him, and said, "You choose." He paused, and then took the yuan note and made the necessary change. Clearly, all of us participating in this hyperaccelerated, globalized economy are going to have to make the necessary change soon enough.
Over at Vanity Fair, James Wolcott blogs about the explosion of forthcoming superhero movies, why they will suck, and what this means for American exceptionalism.
Actually, let me put that a little differently: James Wolcott has used prose more bloated than X-Men 3 to attempt a half-assed connection between summer popcorn flicks and America's place in the world.
First, there's his general critique of today's superhero film:
For old-school comic fans such as myself (who had a letter published in the Stan Lee-Jack Kirby Fantastic Four in 1967—top that, Jonathan Franzen), these cinematic blowup editions are lacking on the fun side. The more ambitious ones aren’t meant to be much fun, apart from a finely crafted quip surgically inserted here and there to defuse the tension of everybody standing around butt-clenched and battle-ready, waiting for some laureled thespian (Anthony Hopkins as Odin in Thor) to elocute and class up this clambake. Even the films that play it loosey-goosier, such as the facetious Ghost Rider (Nicolas Cage as a skull-blazing vigilante who chills by listening to the Carpenters), end up laying it on too heavy, faking orgasm like a porn star trying to keep Charlie Sheen’s attention. For all of the tremendous talent involved and the technical ingenuity deployed, superhero movies go at us like death metal: loud, anthemic, convoluted, technocratic, agonistic, fireball-blossoming, scenery-crushing workloads that waterboard the audience with digital effects, World War IV weaponry, rampant destruction, and electrical-flash editing.
Three thoughts. First, this critique ain't exactly new. Second, the reason this critique isn't new is that Wolcott ignores
Drezner's Sturgeon's Law of Crap. Take any artistic or literary category, and 90% of the contributions to said genre will be total crap [Does that apply to your blog posts as well?--ed. More like 95% in my case.] Therefore, the easiest thing in the world to blog about is how 90% of any kind of genre stinks. Third, Wolcott clearly slept through hasn't seen the superhero films that rise above the 90% and possess a fair degree of whimsy, like, say, Spiderman 2, The Incredibles, or Iron Man.
As for the symbolic implications for American power, er, well, here's his key paragraph:
Why so much overcompensation? The superhero genre is an American creation, like jazz and stripper poles, exemplifying American ideals, American know-how, and American might, a mating of magical thinking and the right stuff. But in the new millennium no amount of nationally puffing ourselves up can disguise the entropy and molt. Despite the resolute jaw of Mitt Romney and John Bolton’s mustache, American exceptionalism no longer commands the eagle wingspan to engirdle the world and keep raising the flag over Iwo Jima. Since Vietnam, whatever the bravery and sacrifice of those in uniform, America’s superpower might hasn’t been up to much worthy of chest-swelling, chain-snapping pride (invading a third-rate military matchstick house such as Iraq is hardly the stuff of Homeric legend), and our national sense of inviolability took a sucker punch on September 11, 2001, that dislocated our inner gyroscope. Sinister arch-villains make for high-stakes showdowns, but asymmetrical conflict has no need for them, and for all we know the cavern voice of Osama bin Laden could be a Mission: Impossible tape, poofing into smoke at the first shaft of sunlight. The subsequent War on Terror is one waged within a shadow maze of misdirection and paranoia where the enemy might be no more than a phantom army of apprehensions, viral bugs invading the neural network.
Let me be blunt -- I'm not entirely sure if Wolcott wrote this paragraph or outsourced it to a computer program that strongs together random clauses about American foreign policy. Suffice it to say that the better superhero flicks -- both Iron Man and The Dark Knight Returns come to mind -- contain some interesting commentary on American foreign policy. Indeed, a few years ago Jesse Walker at Reason argued, with some justification, that "Superhero stories may have begun as power fantasies, but it is our ambivalence about power that keeps the modern genre thriving."
I share Wolcott's distaste for hackneyed comic book films, but sometimes, a bad movie is just a bad movie. Anyone trying to use
any film released in January The Green Hornet as a metaphor for what ails American foreign policy really needs to remember that, most of the time, a bad superhero movie is just a bad superhero movie.
Sooo... in the meantime, I have a review of George Friedman's The Next Decade: Where We've Been... and Where We're Going in the latest issue of Texas Monthly. Friedman is the founder and CEO of Stratfor, which is based in Austin, Texas.
Here's how the review opens and closes:
As a rule, those who predict the future of world events should be viewed the same way Hermione Granger viewed Hogwarts’s divination classes—with unremitting skepticism. Social scientists may have something to offer in the way of explanation or short-term speculation, but there are serious limits to any kind of global soothsaying. World politics are simply too complex to forecast anything precisely in the medium term; it’s like asking a meteorologist to predict the weather a decade from now....
Perhaps I exaggerated Hermione’s skepticism of divination a bit. An otherwise stellar student, she was clearly frustrated that she was simply no good at it. Similarly, I should confess a smidgen of envy at Friedman’s conviction that he will be proved right about everything. Some writers are so sure of their beliefs that their assuredness has a viral quality, infecting the reader even if their logic fails. Friedman possesses that certainty in truckloads, and The Next Decade contains a few nuggets of insight as well. But make no mistake: Things will happen over the course of the next decade—and the next year and the next week—that will completely rock George Friedman’s world. (emphasis added)
Hey, are my predictive powers amazing or what??!! OK, those predictive powers were really the result of an excellent editor at Texas Monthly, but you get the idea.
I believe you can read the whole thing. Incidentally, his key insight into Egypt comes on page 92: "Even if the secular Nasserite regime fell, it would be a generation before Egypt could be a threat, and then only if it gained the patronage of a major power." Ah, that explains why Israel is handling these events so calmly. Oh, wait...
For a fun exercise, see if Friedman's current analysis jibes with how he predicts the next decade.
The only thing I dislike more than admitting I'm wrong is admitting that Spencer Ackerman was kinda sorta right.
Cautiously in March and then more confidently in July, I predicted that new START was going to be ratified. Right now, however, Josh Rogin reports that the odds don't look so hot:
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), the key Republican vote in the drive to ratify the New START treaty, said Tuesday he doesn't believe the treaty should be voted on this year.
"When Majority Leader Harry Reid asked me if I thought the treaty could be considered in the lame duck session, I replied I did not think so given the combination of other work Congress must do and the complex and unresolved issues related to START and modernization," Kyl said in a statement. "I appreciate the recent effort by the Administration to address some of the issues that we have raised and I look forward to continuing to work with Senator Kerry, DOD, and DOE officials." ?
Kyl spoke with Defense Secretary Robert Gates about it last week. A possible meeting between Kyl, Biden, Gates, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in the works and could happen on Wednesday. The treaty was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by a vote of 14 to 4 on Sept. 16, and is awaiting a vote on the Senate floor.
The Washington Post reported that the White House is offering an additional $4.1 billion for nuclear facilities. This latest offer comes on top of the other promises related to nuclear modernization, which have a price tag totaling over $80 billion, that the administration has offered in an effort to win over Senate Republicans.
I thought Kyl was making some not unreasonable requests back in the summer, but as near as I can read the Obama administration had pretty much given him what he wanted.
It's possible that the treaty will be ratified in the next Congress, though that's a tougher road, and there's now some bad blood between Kyl and the administration to work away.
Substantively, the treaty itself is not a nothingburger, but it's not that big a deal either. There are two implications that flow from Kyl's decision, however. First, he's given the Russians a great excuse to become even more obsteperous. As Bob Kagan pointed out earlier this month:
Few men are more cynical players than Vladimir Putin. One can well imagine Putin exploiting the failure of New START internally and externally. He will use it to stir more anti-Western nationalism, further weakening an already weak Medvedev and anyone else who stands for a more pro-Western approach. He will use it as an excuse to end further cooperation on Iran. He will certainly use it to win concessions from Europeans who already pander to him, charging that the Americans have destroyed the transatlantic rapprochement with Russia and that more concessions to Moscow will be necessary to repair the damage. There's no getting around it: Failure to pass START will help empower Putin.
Second, even if START passes eventually, this little episode, combined with the
endless ongoing negotiations over KORUS, are highlighting the massive transaction costs involved with trying to negotiate any hard law arrangement with the United States. The rest of the world is now recalculating the cost-benefit ratio of doing business with the U.S. government.
Anyway, the real point of this post is that I was wrong... again. Let the pillorying in the comments section begin.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.