I've spent a rather alarming portion of this week wading into intellectual pissing matches, so I'm loath to respond to Michael Kinsley's response to last week's brouhaha over austerity policies. But one paragraph does merit some pushback. After noting the backlash to his last column, Kinsley writes the following:
There are two possible explanations. First, it might be that I am not just wrong (in saying that the national debt remains a serious problem and we’d be well advised to worry about it) but just so spectacularly and obviously wrong that there is no point in further discussion. Or second, to bring up the national debt at all in such discussions has become politically incorrect. To disagree is not just wrong but offensive. Such views do exist. Racism for example. I just didn’t realize that the national debt was one of them.
Kinsley assumes that it must be the second explanation, and then goes on from there.
I can't speak for anyone else who pushed back against Kinsley's column from last week. Speaking for myself, however, I blogged about it because Kinsley was "spectacularly and obviously wrong." I say this because almost everything I wrote in my response to Kinsley I knew at age 18 after taking Economics 101 in college.
To explain, let me focus on Kinsley's motivation for thinking that the austerians have a point:
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.
This is wrong for three reasons, one pedantic and two substantive. First, to be pedantic, the austerity debate is about the wisdom of using expansionary fiscal policy -- i.e., running a significant federal budget deficit -- to alleviate downturns. Paul Volcker was the chairman of the Federal Reserve and thereby responsible for setting monetary policy. He had nothing to do with fiscal policy. This is a distinction that I learned in my first few lectures on macroeconomics. So either Kinsley phrased this badly or he's confused about what this debate is about.
The substantive errors can be explained more easily once you look at this chart of the budget deficit as a percentage of GDP:
So, looking at the above, you find Kinsley's two substantive errors. First, during the period that Kinsley seems to find so relevant -- the late 70s -- you discover that the budget deficit as a percentage of GDP was shrinking and not growing. So, to repeat a theme, I'm not sure where Kinsley is getting this notion that expansionary fiscal policy is responsible for the high inflation of the 1970s [Maybe Kinsley would argue that stagflation was an aftereffect of the spending spike that followed the 1973-1975 recession?! --ed. OK, except a glance at that chart shows that compared to the 1980s, the 1970s was a period of fiscal probity. Oh, and as I said before, there was that whole expansionary monetary policy/commodity price shock thing happening as well. Which I learned about from my Econ 101 textbook oh so many moons ago.]
Second, contra Kinsley (and Charles Lane while we're at it), stimulus is not an addictive medicine. The above graph shows budget deficits expanding during recessions and then shrinking again as the economy recovers.
Look, this isn't rocket science -- Kinsley made an argument about austerity that got a lot of basic economic facts about the 1970s and the current era very, very wrong. Dare I say, spectacularly and obviously wrong.
So there's really no point in further discussion.
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?
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!!
Every five years or so the National Intelligence Council releases a Global Trends report about what the world will look like a generation from today. The Global Trends 2030 report is now out, and if my Twitter feed and Thom Shanker's New York Times story are any indication, well, there's gonna be some freaking out inside the Beltway:
A new intelligence assessment of global trends projects that China will outstrip the United States as the leading economic power before 2030, but that America will remain an indispensable world leader, bolstered in part by an era of energy independence....
“There will not be any hegemonic power,” the 166-page report states. “Power will shift to networks and coalitions in a multipolar world.”
It warns that at least 15 countries are “at high risk of state failure” by 2030, among them Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda, Yemen and Uganda.
The study acknowledges that the future “is malleable,” and lists important “game-changers” that will most influence the global scene to 2030: a crisis-prone world economy, shortcomings in governance, conflicts within states and between them, the impact of new technologies and whether the United States can “work with new partners to reinvent the international system.”
The best-case situation for global security to 2030, according to the study, would be a growing political partnership between the United States and China. But it could take a crisis to bring Washington and Beijing together — something like a nuclear standoff between India and Pakistan resolved only by bold cooperation between the United States and China.
The worst-case situation envisions a stalling of economic globalization that would preclude any advancement of financial well-being around the world. That would be a likely outcome following an outbreak of a health pandemic that, even if short-lived, would result in closed borders and economic isolationism.
The chief author and manager of the project, Mathew Burrows, who is counselor for the National Intelligence Council, said the findings had been presented in advance in more than 20 nations to groups of academic experts, business leaders and government officials, including local intelligence officers.
As one of those academic experts, let me say three things. First, the NIC puts a lot of effort into these reports, and they're important because they're consumed globally and not just nationally. Not a lot of other countries have either official or unofficial institutions trying to do this kind of long-range analysis, so they devour the NIC reports just as much as Americans.
Second, as Michael Horowitz and Philip Tetlock pointed out in Foreign Policy just a few short months ago, these NIC reports are hardly a perfect crystal ball:
The reports almost inevitably fall into the trap of treating the conventional wisdom of the present as the blueprint for the future 15 to 20 years down the road. Many things the early reports get right, such as the continued integration of Western Europe, were already unfolding in 1997. Similarly, predicting that "some states will fail to meet the basic requirements that bind citizens to their government" or that information technology will have a large impact on politics was hardly going out on a limb.
Looking carefully at the first two Global Trends reports reveals how the reports have struggled to make accurate non-obvious predictions of big-picture trends....
The reports also engage in extensive hedging. For every prediction, there is a caveat. The reports lean heavily on words such as "could," "possibly," and "maybe." The lead-in to Global Trends 2025 uses "could" nine times in two pages, and the report as a whole uses the word a whopping 220 times. The report also uses "maybe" 36 times. Global Trends 2020 uses "could" 110 times. Add all of the caveats and conditionals, and a harsh critic might conclude that these reports are saying no more than that there is a possibility that something could happen at some point -- and it might have a big effect.
Third, that prediction of the end to U.S. hegmony will be an interesting litmus test of the maturity of America's foreign policy community. Sure, other institutions have made this kind of prediction about rising Chinese power, but it's different when a U.S. government body does it. Despite the wide variance contained within these kind of predictions, it's gonna be easy for threat-mongers to screech at the headline statements.
Furthermore, whenever the topic of waning American hegemony comes up in public discourse... well, the conversation doesn't go well. Admitting a relative decline in American power is not something American's political and policy elites like to do -- see 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney.
So pay close attention to who freaks out and who doesn't from the NIC report, and feel free to discount the future statements of those who choose to freak out today.
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!!!!!
In the last few weeks, Fareed Zakaria and Niall Ferguson have found themselves at the centers of controversy. As someone who has written a thing or two about public intellectuals, I confess to finding it all very fascinating. What's striking to me is the vehemence on all sides. Brad DeLong is an excitable sort, but calling for Harvard to fire Niall Ferguson for tendentious matters unrelated to his scholarly work seems... a bit much. Last week the Washington Post ran a story falsely accusing Zakaria of another act of plagiarism... without independently checking to see if the charge had any validity.
On the other hand, the defenses that have been mounted also seem a bit over the top. Tunku Varadarajan defended Zakaria in Newsweek with an essay that bordered on the sycophantic, all the while accusing Zakaria's accusers of simple envy:
What one has seen in the past few days can only be described as a hideous manifestation of envy—Fareed Envy. Henry Kissinger’s aphorism about academia (where the “politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small”) applies with delicious tartness to journalism, where media reporters of the kind who hounded Zakaria occupy the lowest rung and exult at the prospect of pulling people down. Zakaria, by contrast, is insanely successful by the standards of his profession: he has a TV show to which few people of any prominence would refuse an invitation, plus columns at Time, CNN.com, and The Washington Post. He also writes academic-lite books that presidents clutch as they clamber aboard planes, and gives speeches at—it is said—$75,000 a pop. He is as much a brand as he is a journalist: he has “inc.” in his veins.
Zakaria himself responded to the Post's bogus second charge of plagiarism in a somewhat curious manner. Here's what he told them:
Zakaria, in an interview Monday, defended the practice of not attributing quotes in a popular book. “As I write explicitly [in the book], this is not an academic work where everything has to be acknowledged and footnoted,” he said. The book contains “hundreds” of comments and quotes that aren’t attributed because doing so, in context, would “interrupt the flow for the reader,” he said.
He compared his technique to other popular non-fiction authors. “Please look at other books in this genre and you will notice that I'm following standard practice,” he said.
“I should not be judged by a standard that's not applied to everyone else,” he added. “People are piling on with every grudge or vendetta. The charge is totally bogus.”
Ferguson responded to his critics in a similar fashion:
The other day, a British friend asked me if there was anything about the United States I disliked. I was happily on vacation and couldn’t think of anything. But now I remember. I really can’t stand America’s liberal bloggers....
My critics have three things in common. First, they wholly fail to respond to the central arguments of the piece. Second, they claim to be engaged in “fact checking,” whereas in nearly all cases they are merely offering alternative (often silly or skewed) interpretations of the facts. Third, they adopt a tone of outrage that would be appropriate only if I had argued that, say, women’s bodies can somehow prevent pregnancies in case of “legitimate rape.”
Their approach is highly effective, and I must remember it if I ever decide to organize an intellectual witch hunt. What makes it so irksome is that it simultaneously dodges the central thesis of my piece and at the same time seeks to brand me as a liar.
I'd feel more sympathy towards Ferguson if his term "liberal blogosphere" obfuscates the fact that a Nobel Prize-winning economist is rebutting Ferguson on his use of facts, and then Ferguson didn't compound his economic errors in a Bloomberg interview.
So what the hell is going on?
I think there are three interlocking things going on that explain why everyone feels so cranky. The first, as I alluded to in my Zakaria post, is that the economics of superstars has now reached the world of public intellectuals. There's been a lot of talk about "brands" recently, and it gets at how the rewards for intellectual output have expanded at the upper strata:
Not that long ago, getting a column in Time would have been the pinnacle of a journalist’s career. But expectations and opportunities have grown in the last few years. Many writers now market themselves as separate brands, and their journalism works largely as a promotion for more lucrative endeavors like writing books and public speaking.
Replace "journalist" with "intellectual" and that paragraph still works. Credentialed thinkers like Zakaria and Ferguson, once they've reached the top, become brands that can multiply their earning potential far more than was the case fifty years ago. The ways in which the Internet concentrates attention on a Few Big Things means that if you are good and lucky enough to become one of those Big Things, money will rain down on your door. Over at Esquire, Stephen Marche proffered this explanation for what he would call Ferguson's intellectual devolution:
The real issue isn't the substance of Ferguson's argument, though, which is shallow and basically exploded by this point in time. It isn't even the question of how such garbage managed to be written and published. It is, rather, why did Ferguson write it? The answer is simple but has profound implications for American intellectual life generally: public speaking.
Ferguson's critics have simply misunderstood for whom Ferguson was writing that piece. They imagine that he is working as a professor or as a journalist, and that his standards slipped below those of academia or the media. Neither is right. Look at his speaking agent's Web site. The fee: 50 to 75 grand per appearance. That number means that the entire economics of Ferguson's writing career, and many other writing careers, has been permanently altered. Nonfiction writers can and do make vastly more, and more easily, than they could ever make any other way, including by writing bestselling books or being a Harvard professor. Articles and ideas are only as good as the fees you can get for talking about them. They are merely billboards for the messengers.
That number means that Ferguson doesn't have to please his publishers; he doesn't have to please his editors; he sure as hell doesn't have to please scholars. He has to please corporations and high-net-worth individuals, the people who can pay 50 to 75K to hear him talk. That incredibly sloppy article was a way of communicating to them: I am one of you. I can give a great rousing talk about Obama's failures at any event you want to have me at.
Now, railing at the One Percent aside (*cough* Esquire's target demograpic *cough*) Marche is really onto something here. I've heard from a few sources that Ferguson resigned his professorship at Harvard Business School (but not Harvard University) because he calculated that if he gave four or five extra talks a year, he could earn his HBS salary without all the tedious teaching obligations.
Zakaria and Ferguson got to where they are by dint of their own efforts, but the thing about the superstar phenomenon is that there's also an element of caprice involved. The gap between Zakaria and Ferguson, and their replacement-level deep thinkers is pretty narrow; the gap in the financial and intellectual rewards is pretty vast.
So I suspect that there is a bit of jealousy in some of the criticisms being leveled. These guys earn many multiples of the median intellectual income -- and I guarantee you that the median intellectual doesn't think that either Ferguson or Zakaria is many times smarter. That's gonna stir up some petty and not-so-petty resentments.
The top tier of public intellectuals are doing well in this world, and the best are pretty savvy at marketing their ideas across multiple platforms in a Web 2.0 world. But the same dynamics that push these people to the top also increase their vulnerability to intellectual criticism -- and this is the second thing that's going on here. As I noted a few years ago:
The most useful function of bloggers is when they engage in the quality control of other public intellectuals. [Richard] Posner believed public intellectuals were in decline because there was no market discipline for poor quality. Even if public intellectuals royally screw up, he argued, the mass public is sufficiently disinterested and disengaged for it not to matter. Bloggers are changing this dynamic, however. If Michael Ignatieff, Paul Krugman or William Kristol pen substandard essays, blogs have and will provide a wide spectrum of critical feedback.
One can clearly add Niall Ferguson and Fareed Zakaria to this list. Furthermore, the very act of trying to market ideas across platforms -- and the constant drive to generate new content -- leaves these intellectuals vulnerable to criticism. They can get sloppy, like Zakaria, and commit a near-fatal error. They can be tendentious in their use of facts, like Ferguson, and suffer reputational damage. Or, they can simple debase themselves to the point where Evgeny Morozov goes medieval on them.
For high-flying intellectuals, this kind of public criticism clearly wounds. What the superstar phenomenon gives, it can also threaten to take away (though, to be honest, scandals and bad writing don't seem to actually take away rewards all that often). But in the mind of top-tier public intellectuals, effort and intellect drive their accomplishments, not fortuna. They see online criticism and interpret it as jealousy, pettiness and ideological score-settling. A lot of the time that's exactly what it is -- but the online intellectual ecosystem is also pretty good at fact-checking and substantive criticism. Publc intellectuals don't see that these kinds of criticisms are the flip-side of the very phenomenon that is enriching them in the first place. They also don't realize that in a Web 2.0 world, mere bloggers can fact-check them and scorn them for a lack of citation.
Which leads to the last thing that I think is going on: this superstar phenomenon is invading one of the last spheres of life where money is not necessarily the Most Important Thing. Getting a Ph.D. means being socialized into a world where an academic job is considered more respectable than becoming a consultant that earns gazillions more in money. The currency in the academic economy is intellectual respect. Even if public criticism doesn't affect their real-world income, it does affect their intellectual standing. Even if Zakaria has left the academy, and Ferguson can "transcend" it, they were socialized into this value system, and they clearly care what their peers think.
Zakaria's argument that general nonfiction shouldn't be held to the standards of academic discourse rankles academics who know that he should know better -- the first instinct of any person with graduate training is to read the literature and cite, cite, cite. As my friend Delia Lloyd put it: "I find him culpable because Zakaria comes from the world of academia.... Plagiarism may not be a major moral failing... in the university setting in which Zakaria was trained and credentialed, it’s pretty much one of the worst crimes you can commit."
As for Ferguson, Timothy Burke blogs about what it is exactly about Ferguson's career arc that nettles him:
Ferguson would feel more like he was still within the bounds if he either investigated his own distaste for Obama in more reflective, philosophical and recursive ways or if he was willing to lay out a generalized, prescriptive theory of political leadership that didn’t fitfully move the goalposts on intensely granular or particular issues every few seconds. Why? Because I think scholarship requires some measure of self-aware and reflective movement between what you know and what you believe, and the relationship between your own movements and those of your professional peers... A scholar has to believe on some level that things are known or understood only after being investigated, tested, read, interpreted, that there’s something unseemly about robbing the graves and morgues for cast-off “facts” in order to assemble them into a shambling, monstrous conclusion built from a hackish blueprint. Being an intellectual takes some form of thoughtfulness, some respect for evidence and truth, something that goes beyond hollow, sleazy rhetoric that plays dumb every time it gets caught out truncating quotes or doctoring charts. Being an expert means you guide an audience through what is known and said about a subject with some respect for the totality of that knowing and saying before favoring your own interpretation.
Public intellectuals who have PhDs do not want to lose their standing as scholars. Sure, they can gin up psychological defenses against the hidebound ivory tower, but criticism like the one quoted above will leave a permanent mark. They'll have their riches, but they won't have what they were trained to crave more than anything -- respect.
In the end, what I think is going on is that, contra Russell Jacoby, top-tier public intellectals have acquired greater power than they used to possess. What they resist on occasion is the responsibility that comes with that power.
So that's what I think is going on. What do you think?
P.S. I think one of the best compliments I've ever received is that Justin Fox independently and simultaneously arrived at very similar intellectual destination on this topic.
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.
I take my cues from the front page of the New York Times just like any other
effete intellectual member of the Media Elite. And today, Jodi Kantor delves into the latest paroxysm of debate about women trying to "have it all," and, hey, whaddaya know, this time it's an Atlantic cover essay by Anne-Marie Slaughter that's set it off. I've had my friendly disagreements with Slaughter in the past, and I'm afraid I'm going to have another one after reading "Why Women Still Can't Have it All." But in this instance I want to stress the "friendly" part of the "disagreement."
Slaughter's title pretty much sums up her thesis: after spending two years in a hard-charging job as the Director of Policy Planning at the State Department, she discovered that the opportunity costs to her home life were too great:
I realized that I didn’t just need to go home. Deep down, I wanted to go home. I wanted to be able to spend time with my children in the last few years that they are likely to live at home, crucial years for their development into responsible, productive, happy, and caring adults.
The essay is worth reading, if not quite as groundbreaking as others would like it to be. It ceetainly references
political minefields issues I've raised here in the past on women pursuing foreign policy careers. Rather than launch a full-blown critique, however, I'd just raise three questions:
1) Is this just about women? As multiple critics have pointed out, the issues Slaughter raises -- balancing work and home life, etc. -- are hardly unique to women. She suggests that women face this challenge more acutely because... well... they're moms:
From years of conversations and observations, however, I’ve come to believe that men and women respond quite differently when problems at home force them to recognize that their absence is hurting a child, or at least that their presence would likely help. I do not believe fathers love their children any less than mothers do, but men do seem more likely to choose their job at a cost to their family, while women seem more likely to choose their family at a cost to their job.
Many factors determine this choice, of course. Men are still socialized to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the breadwinner; women, to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the caregiver. But it may be more than that. When I described the choice between my children and my job to Senator Jeanne Shaheen, she said exactly what I felt: “There’s really no choice.” She wasn’t referring to social expectations, but to a maternal imperative felt so deeply that the “choice” is reflexive.
As someone in a more traditional marriage than Slaughter, I'd tweak this just a bit. First of all, unless someone is inheriting a trust fund, there's also really no choice in providing for a family either. Seriously, there isn't. Second of all, a difference between men and women is that when parenting issues come up, it's totally cool for women to anguish about it -- in print, no less -- while it's happening. For men, it's totally cool to drink Scotch, brood and repress feelings about the costs of careerism for years until it all boils to the surface at some family vacation when the kids are grown up and resentments can be aired. But trust me, men have to cope with this as well.
Third, I wonder if the choice is really that stark. There are hard-charging jobs and hard-charging jobs. There's being an active parent and then there's... American parenting in affluent zip codes. As Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry noted:
YES, you can have it all. You can have a successful career and a good family. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes, and there is absolutely no doubt about that.
What you CANNOT have is a successful career AND helicopter parenting. This “it” you cannot have. And if you want the best for your kids, you’ll choose the career and ditch the helicopter. They’ll be better off, and take it from me, they’ll be grateful.
2) Is it the international dimension? Slaughter was trying to write as general an essay as possible, but I was struck by how much of her anecdata consisted of women in foreign affairs/national security careers. I have no doubt that professionals in other sectors face this issue, but one of the biggest challenges with "international" careers is that they tend to spawn international travel.
I know and admire some professionals who go overseas and bring their families with them, but that's not for everyone. The one piece of advice I can proffer here is to cram intense foreign experiences early in one's life. One of the jumpstarts to my own career track was spending significant amounts of time in eastern Ukraine during a time when no Westerners wanted to be there. I was able to do that because at the time I was unattached and childless. There is no way -- no way -- I would have made the same choice if I was married and a father. Plan accordingly.
3) Are the solutions worse than the problem? Finally, I am skeptical that Slaughter's suggested reforms will really work. I like her suggestion that we reconceive our career arcs so that they peak in one's late sixties rather than twenty years earlier -- but that won't happen unless wages get less sticky. Older workers woiuld have to be comfortable with declining rather than rising wages, because otherwise Slaughter's suggestion would act as a massive barrier to hiring younger workers.
Furthermore, some of Slaughter's recommendations would likely have unanticipated consequences that would exacerbate the very problems she wants to solve. For example, one of the issues that she raises is family leave for raising children. Now, this is an innovation that has been cemented into the academy pretty well -- but the effects have been somewhat perverse. That's because after maternity leave, paternity leave got institutionalized. This sounds great, but I know from personal experience that women and men use these leaves differently. Women tend to use it by being moms. Men tend to use it by being more of a dad, but also by using it as a semi-sabbatical to publish more. I should know -- that's what I did. So an innovation that was designed to allow redress gender imbalances actually exacerbated them.
Now is ordinarily the time in the blog post when I offer my own suggestions, but I can't say I have any great ideas. So I'll leave it to the readers: what is to be done?
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.
Pundits are clearly scrambling to figure out what the hell is happening in Egypt, and what Egypt means for the rest of the world. And I'm beginning to notice that some of them are blaming international relations theory for being asleep at the wheel.
First, over at AEI's Enterprise blog, Apoorva Shah argues that these events suggest the poverty of modern political science:
Did anything in academia foresee the unrest in Egypt, and more importantly, can something explain how Western foreign policy can appropriately react to the events? Of all the “schools” of IR thought—liberal internationalism, realism, isolationism, etc.—did any theory make sense of this and guide us on what to do next?
My amateur opinion is no. Because of an academic world obsessed with increasingly complex empirical analysis where every revolution is a mere data point and every country a pawn in the great game, our political science departments and the scholars they have trained (many of whom serve in and advise our current administration) were caught flat-footed, searching for some logical, rational approach to a particularly unique and country-specific event. While digging for the right IR theory, they instead produced a mishmash of mixed messages and equivocation.
If I’m wrong, please correct me.
OK... you're wrong. Let me correct you.
First of all, let's clarify the division of labor in political science a bit. Crudely put, international relations focuses on the interactions between governments and other transnational and subnational actors. Comparative politics focuses on the domestic politics within countries.
To put this in the context of Egypt, it's the job of comparative politics scholars to explain/predict when we should see mass protests and when those protests might cause authoritarian regimes to buckle. It's the job of international relations scholars to predict what effects the regime change/authoritarian crackdown would have on both Egypt's foreign policy and the situation in the Middle East.
Calling out IR scholars for not predicting the uprising in Egypt is like calling out a cardiologist for not detecting a cancerous growth.
But here's the thing -- as Laura Rozen has observed, political scientists and those they've trained did call this one!! From her September 2010 story:
A bipartisan group of senators and foreign policy analysts is pushing the Obama administration to prepare for the looming end of Hosni Mubarak’s rule in Egypt by putting a new emphasis on Egyptian political reform and human rights....
“The bottom line is that we are moving into a period of guaranteed instability in Egypt,” said Robert Kagan, a foreign policy scholar with the Brookings Institution who co-founded the Egypt Working Group with Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “So the idea [that] we can keep puttering on as if nothing is going to change is a mistake. ... What we need now is to move to deliverables.”
The pressure from the academic and political community comes amid widespread expectation that the 82-year-old Mubarak — who reportedly is seriously ill — may soon cede power to his son, Gamal.
If that's not enough, consider that Joshua Tucker blogged about the spread of revolutions last week, before Egypt blew up. Even before that, my fellow political scientist and FP blogger Marc Lynch's January 5th blog post:
For years, both Arab and Western analysts and many political activists have warned of the urgent need for reform as such problems built and spread. Most of the Arab governments have learned to talk a good game about the need for such reform, while ruthlessly stripping democratic forms of any actual ability to challenge their grip on power....
Meanwhile, the energy and desperation across disenfranchised but wired youth populations will likely become increasingly potent. It's likely to manifest not in organized politics and elections, but in the kind of outburst of social protest we're seeing now in Tunisia.... and, alarmingly, in the kinds of outburst of social violence which we can see in Jordan and Egypt. Whether that energy is channeled into productive political engagement or into anomic violence would seem to be one of the crucial variables shaping the coming period in Arab politics. Right now, the trends aren't in the right direction.
Not surprisingly, the Obama administration met with many of these people this week.
Finally, a small point I made earlier this week regarding Mubarak's options:
Everyone assumes that the Egyptian leader is a dead man walking, and given his speech on Friday, I can understand that sentiment. There are, however, remaining options for Mubarak to pursue, ranging from a full-blown 1989 Tiananmen square crackdown to a slow-motion 2009 Tehran-style crackdown.
Obviously, these aren't remotely good options for anyone involved. The first rule in political science, however, is that leaders want to stay in power, and Mubarak has given no indication that he wants to leave. (emphasis added)
Alas, based on this morning's events, it appears that Mubarak has selected the Tehran 2009 option.
So I think Shah is pretty much wrong. That said, I agree that there are profound limits on what IR theory can do in a situation like Egypt. Ross Douthat sorta made this point earlier this week:
[Americans] take refuge in foreign policy systems: liberal internationalism or realpolitik, neoconservatism or noninterventionism. We have theories, and expect the facts to fall into line behind them. Support democracy, and stability will take care of itself. Don’t meddle, and nobody will meddle with you. International institutions will keep the peace. No, balance-of-power politics will do it.
But history makes fools of us all. We make deals with dictators, and reap the whirlwind of terrorism. We promote democracy, and watch Islamists gain power from Iraq to Palestine. We leap into humanitarian interventions, and get bloodied in Somalia. We stay out, and watch genocide engulf Rwanda. We intervene in Afghanistan and then depart, and watch the Taliban take over. We intervene in Afghanistan and stay, and end up trapped there, with no end in sight.
Sooner or later, the theories always fail. The world is too complicated for them, and too tragic.
Douthat is sorta correct -- but it's precisely because the world is so complex that we rely on theories. While they're often wrong, they're vastly superior to the alternatives.
Consider that, instead of explicit theories, a lot of commentators are simply asking whether 2011 Egypt parallels 1978/79 Iran. This is a great question to ask, but the only way to answer it is to rely on explicit or implict theories of how revolutions play out and how the international system reacts to them.
Of course the theories will fail from time to time. Unfortunately, this is not rocket science, because rocket science is way easier than the social sciences. There are too many variables, too many idiosyncratic elements to each case, too much endogeneity, and so forth. But simply saying "the world is tragic" is a pretty lousy substitute to organizing foreign policy.
Thomas Sowell has a new book out called Intellectuals and Society (here's a precis from his National Review essay on the topic from January). It sounds like a remix of Mark Lilla's The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics, mixed with Hayek's "The Intellectuals and Socialism." Those are pretty good source materials. And as someone who occasionally writes about this topic, I'm always intrigued by new arguments on this topic.
Sowell recently gave an interview to Investor's Business Daily that's worth excerpting, however:
IBD: How do you define intellectuals?
Sowell: I define intellectuals as persons whose occupations begin and end with ideas. I distinguish between intellectuals and other people who may have ideas but whose ideas end up producing some good or service, something that whether it's working or not working can be determined by third parties.
With intellectuals, one of the crucial factors is their work is largely judged by peer consensus, so it doesn't matter if their ideas work in the real world.
IBD: What incentives and constraints do intellectuals face?
Sowell: One of the incentives is that, to the extent that intellectuals stay in their specialty, they have little to gain in terms of either prestige or influence on events. Say, an authority in ancient Mayan civilization just writes about ancient Mayan civilization, then only other specialists in ancient Mayan civilization will know what he is talking about or even be aware of him.
So intellectuals have every incentive to go beyond their area of expertise and competence. But stepping beyond your area of competence is like stepping off a cliff — you may be a genius within that area, but an idiot outside it.
As far as the constraints, since their main constraint is peer consensus — that's a very weak constraint on the profession as a whole. Because what the peers believe as a group becomes the test of any new idea that comes along as to whether it's plausible or not.
I'm pretty sure that Sowell's answers contradict each other. If the primary means through which intellectuals assess their value is through peer assessment, then why is peer assessment such a weak constraint on intellectual activity?
Methinks Sowell is underestimating both the power of academic culture and the ways in which the marketplace of ideas has become more competitive. But this is certainly good fodder for debate.
What really caught my eye, however, was this section:
IBD: You say that intellectuals during Hitler's rise subordinated the mundane specifics of the nature of the German government to abstract principles about abstract nations, by which you meant the idea espoused at the time that "nations should be equal" and thus Germany had a right to rearm. Does that description apply to the Obama administration's approach to
Sowell: I hadn't thought of it, but it certainly does. In fact, there are other people who have said, "Some countries have nuclear weapons, why shouldn't other countries have nuclear weapons?" And they say it with an utter disregard for the nature of the countries and what those countries have been demonstrably doing for years and show every intention of doing in the future.
IBD: Do you think also that the Obama administration has abstract notions that you can negotiate with
Iranthe same way you can negotiate with, say, Australia?
Sowell: Oh, yes. And the question is not whether you should negotiate. We negotiate with all kinds of countries. The question is whether we think negotiations will be at all effective in carrying out what we want to do.
Give Sowell credit -- it's clear that he really hasn't thought about the question. Anyone who has paid any attention to the Obama administraion's Iran policy would be hard-pressed to characterize it as tolerant of Iran's right to arm itself with nuclear weapons. As Robert Kagan recently pointed out in FP:
Republicans may complain, along with many Democrats, that the administration has been too slow to support the Iranian opposition and took too long to pivot to sanctions. Yet some also realize that Obama's prolonged effort at engagement accomplished what George W. Bush never could: convincing most of the world, and most Democrats, that Iran is uninterested in any deal that threatens its nuclear weapons program. As a result, France, Britain, and even Germany appear more determined than at any time in the past decade to impose meaningful sanctions. A majority of Republicans, along with most Democrats, will support the administration as it toughens its approach to what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton now calls the "military dictatorship" in Tehran.
In other words, the Obama administration's actual policy towards Iran bears no resemblance whatsoever to Sowell's characterization of it.
One should not be completely surprised by this; Sowell is an economist by training and should not be expected to know much about American foreign policy, as it's beyond his area of expertise. I do find it a little rich, however, that Sowell has written a book complaining about what happens when intellectuals leave their knowledge reservation to opine about events of the day -- and then proceeds to commit that precise sin during his book promotion.
There are two possibilities here. Either Sowell has no capacity for irony, or he's cleverly trying to add data points to support his argument.
[T]he "global community" didn't honor the American President; five Norwegians did.
Glenn Greenwald, "Accusing Obama critics of 'standing with the terrorists,'" October 10, 2009
It's not clear to me (the committee) speaks for the world. It speaks for five Norwegians.
William Kristol, Fox News Sunday, October 11, 2009.
I'm not sure what scares me more: Kristol and Greenwald agreeing with each other... or me agreeing with both of them at the same time.
Maureen Dowd has a column today entitled "Stung by the Perfect Sting." We're going to run much of this column through a little MoDo translator, partially inspired by Josh Chafetz's still-relevant discussion of the Immutable Laws of Maureen Dowd, and helped by a few other bloggers.
Here we go....
If I read all the vile stuff about me on the Internet, I’d never come to work. I’d scamper off and live my dream of being a cocktail waitress in a militia bar in Wyoming.
If you’re written about in a nasty way, it looms much larger for you than for anyone else. Gossip goes in one ear and out the other unless you’re the subject. Then, nobody’s skin is thick enough.
Translation: "I read everything about me on the Interwebs. Everything. And despite my bravado act, it hurts me sometimes. I'm brave for putting up with it, though. Ah, the first graf and I've already checked off the Fourth Immutable Law of Dowd: 'The particulars of my consumer-driven, self-involved life are of universal interest and reveal universal truths.'
Say, the militia crack was pretty funny, right? Right?"
“The velocity and volume on the Web are so great that nothing is forgotten and nothing is remembered,” says Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic. “The Internet is like closing time at a blue-collar bar in Boston. Everyone’s drunk and ugly and they’re going to pass out in a few minutes.”
Translation: "You know how, later on in this essay, I say that insulting individuals on the Internet is rude? That's only if you do it badly. If you insult broad swathes of people in a charming manner, that's just witty banter."
Those are my people, I protested, but I knew what he meant. That’s why I was interested in the Case of the Blond Model and the Malicious Blogger.
Translation: "Hah! Less than a third of the way through, and I've already checked off the First Immutable Law of Dowd: 'All political phenomena can be reduced to caricatures of the personalities involved.' Suck on that, Tom Friedman!!"
It began eight months ago when Liskula Cohen, a 37-year-old model and Australian Vogue cover girl, was surprised to find herself winning a “Skankiest in NYC” award from an anonymous blogger. The online tormentor put up noxious commentary on Google’s blogger.com, calling Cohen a “skank,” a “ho” and an “old hag” who “may have been hot 10 years ago.”
Cohen says she’s “a lover, not a fighter.” But the model had stood up for herself before. In 2007, at a New York club, she tried to stop a man named Samir Dervisevic who wanted to drink from the vodka bottle on her table. He hit her in the face with the bottle and gouged a hole “the size of a quarter,” as she put it, requiring plastic surgery.
Translation: "Did you like how I subtly compared the physical attacker to the blogger? That was pretty deft of me, right?"
This time, she punched the virtual bully in the face, filing a defamation suit to force Google to give up the blogger’s e-mail. And she won.
“The words ‘skank,’ ‘skanky’ and ‘ho’ carry a negative implication of sexual promiscuity,” wrote Justice Joan Madden of State Supreme Court in Manhattan, rejecting the Anonymous Blogger’s assertion that blogs are a modern soapbox designed for opinions, rants and invective.
The judge cited a Virginia court decision that the Internet’s “virtually unlimited, inexpensive and almost immediate means of communication” with the masses means “the dangers of its misuse cannot be ignored. The protection of the right to communicate anonymously must be balanced against the need to assure that those persons who choose to abuse the opportunities presented by this medium can be made to answer for such transgressions.”
Cyberbullies, she wrote, cannot hide “behind an illusory shield of purported First Amendment rights.”
Translation: "A judge is on my side! I'm going to quote her at length!"
[Side note here: will individuals also be able to sue those who write anonymously about them on bathroom walls soon?--DD]
The Internet was supposed to be the prolix paradise where there would be no more gatekeepers and everyone would finally have their say. We would express ourselves freely at any level, high or low, with no inhibitions.
Yet in this infinite realm of truth-telling, many want to hide. Who are these people prepared to tell you what they think, but not who they are? What is the mentality that lets them get in our face while wearing a mask? Shredding somebody’s character before the entire world and not being held accountable seems like the perfect sting.
Pseudonyms have a noble history. Revolutionaries in France, founding fathers and Soviet dissidents used them. The great poet Fernando Pessoa used heteronyms to write in different styles and even to review the work composed under his other names.
As Hugo Black wrote in 1960, “It is plain that anonymity has sometimes been assumed for the most constructive purposes.”
But on the Internet, it’s often less about being constructive and more about being cowardly.
Translation: "I bet no one knew about this phenomenon before I discovered it today. God, my insights into this -- some anonymous blogging is good, some bad -- are really stunning."
Dowd conveniently ignores a few important facts. First, there are power disparities going on here. If, say, the New York Times published a story calling Cohen a "skank," I can see the need for a lawsuit. Same thing if the Huffington Post had done it. But who the hell read this post before the lawsuit commanded everyon'es attention? As Laura McKenna puts it:
This just feels like a lot of whining to me. If you're on the opinion page of the New York Times, you have to be able to take the heat. It's part of the game. If you're not up for it, then I've got a waitress job for you.
Second, in Dowd's closing grafs she manages to conflate and tar all anonymous commentary because some act rudely on the Internet. This is the functional equivalent of me saying that because George Will is occasionally shoddy with his fact-checking, the entire op-ed profession is worthless and slanderous. Attacking an entire medium because of what some individuals are doing seems logically incoherent to me -- and yet far too many media commentators do this when talking about the blogosphere.
If only that were still true of New York Times columnists.
UPDATE: For more on the legal intricacies of the motivating case, see this Dan Solove post.
Props to my colleague David Rothkopf for this concise description of the Department of Commerce:
The Commerce Department is a bureaucratic hodge-podge held together by those old Washington stand-bys of inertia, habit, and the self-interests of Congressional appropriators. Oh, and neglect. And ignorance. Not only do most Americans not know what the Commerce Department does -- its various missions are so diffuse most people who work there don't know all that it does.
David is being modest, however. As near as I can figure, the Commerce Department does perform one task exceptionally well -- it allow people to step up from foreign policy middleweights to heavyweights.
Prior to being at Commerce, these people are working in the think tank trenches struggling to get their op-eds placed in the Washington Post. After being at Commerce, these people are jetting to Davos, writing august tomes for Knopf, pulling down medium five figures for speeches, popping up on Sunday morning talk shows, and becoming Deans at the Yale School of Management.
Not that I'm bitter about this or anything.
I am not feeling very optimistic about the book's reception. I just don't sense any buzz. Maybe that's because I'm living in Indiana under a foot and a half of snow, but it does haunt me. Far more than passing kidney stones, I feel like waiting on a book release is like a woman waiting for labor--mostly it's dread and regret and the inability to get a decent night's sleep.
I know that's being self-absorbed, but--again--that's why it's like heading toward labor: there is this all-consuming sense of an onrush of something either very good or very bad and you have a hard time sensing the possibility of anything in between those two extremes.
As someone who is also waiting on a book to come out, I sympathize with Barnett's pain. I suspect, however, that his agita is actually worse than a garden-variety book author.
This has to do with the nature of book publishing and the state of the world. When publishing a book, all international relations authors not named Bob Woodward must endure a 3-12 month window during which the book is copyedited, typeset, and then published. During this period, an author can make limited changes to the text -- but nothing significant.
This gap doesn't matter all that much -- unless, of course, one is writing about world politics in a time of flux. In that case, authors feel like a hostage to current events. And because of the financial crisis, I've read an awful lot of first chapters recently that seemed out of date the moment they were published.
Your humble blogger has long been interested in the intersection between celebrity and politics.
I therefore feel compelled to report the following anecdote concerning Jessica Alba and Bill O'Reilly:
Jessica Alba is setting the record straight: Sweden was neutral during World War II.
Alba and Fox TV show host Bill O’Reilly traded punches last week after the presidential inauguration. After Alba told a Fox reporter that O’Reilly was “kind of an a-hole;” he retaliated by calling her a “pinhead” for telling a reporter to “be Sweden about it,” assuming she meant Switzerland.
“I want to clear some things up that have been bothering me lately,” Alba blogged on MySpace Celebrity. “Last week, Mr. Bill O'Reilly and some really classy sites (i.e.TMZ) insinuated I was dumb by claiming Sweden was a neutral country. I appreciate the fact that he is a news anchor and that gossip sites are inundated with intelligent reporting, but seriously people... it's so sad to me that you think the only neutral country during WWII was Switzerland.”
For the record, Alba wins this fact fight. This is the second time in the past year that a right-wing political figure has been brought low by a celebrity.
This is surprising. It's pretty easy to poke fun at celebs like Paris Hilton or Jessica Alba (the latter's inauguration video is unintentionally very funny). Right-wing politicos and pundits should be used to debate.
So why are celebrities schooling them? Has the quality of conservative leadership really fallen so far? What happens when the true A-listers, like, say, Salma Hayek, start focusing their fire on Mitch McConnell or Rush Limbaugh?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.