Sunday, July 31, 2011

Quote of the day

Jacob Stein writes a regular column for the D.C. Bar's magazine. His pieces are anecdotal and reflective and often full of interesting quotations. In his column in the current issue Stein quotes a definition of "litigious paranoia" from the famous 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. It says among other things that the "basic emotion [involved in the condition] is vanity...."

After quoting the paragraph-length definition, Stein adds:
This was written before Freudian psychoanalysis.... If the entry were rewritten today, the only change would be to reframe the diagnosis of vanity into narcissism, the narcissist being the person thinking of no one but oneself. Or, as George Eliot (not Freud or Jung) said, "What we see exclusively, we see out of proportion to reality."
I suppose it is arguable that an aspect of George Eliot's genius was her ability to make a tautology sound like a profundity. In any case, it's a pretty good line.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Government has been a job-creator (even if the GOP may not know it)

"No taxes on job-creators" (meaning owners of small and large businesses and anyone making over a certain amount of money, say a quarter-million a year) has been a mantra of some Republican participants in the debt/deficit debate. In view of that, the following may be of interest inasmuch as it shows that government, supposedly the root of all evil, has been a major job-creator.
Between 1990 and 2008, the number of employed workers in the United States grew from about 122 million to about 149 million. Of the roughly 27 million jobs created during that period, 98 percent were in the so-called nontradable sector of the economy, the sector that produces goods and services that must be consumed domestically. The largest employers in the U.S. nontradable sector were the government (with 22 million jobs in 2008) and the health-care industry (with 16 million jobs in 2008). Together, the two industries created ten million new jobs between 1990 and 2008, or just under 40 percent of total additions.
-- Michael Spence, "The Impact of Globalization on Income and Employment," Foreign Affairs, July/August 2011, p.30 (emphasis added).

Friday, July 29, 2011

Goin' to the chapel

Here (paragraphs 8 to 10).

[added later] A constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget is insanity. There are times when a balanced budget is desirable and other times when it isn't. One learns this on the second day (maybe the third) of any basic economics course.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Silliness on stilts: Friedman's "McDonald's theory"

Maybe the heat has gotten to them: a prominent IR prof/blogger (Drezner) and a prominent writer/blogger (Mead) have a go-round about a so-called "theory" promulgated by a prominent ... well, whatever Friedman is (careful, no bad words allowed). Drezner is basically right, but I don't know why he's wasting his time on this in the first place. He suggests that a kernel can be salvaged from the Friedman "theory" because two countries with McDonald's, although they can go to war (see his examples), may be less likely to do so. He then proceeds to admit that this proposition, even if true, is not useful because the presence of McDonald's is an "intervening variable." He nonetheless urges some student to write a thesis testing the 'war-is-less-likely-between-countries-with-McDonald's' proposition.

However, 'traditional' interstate war (country A fighting country B, without the complicating presence of any internal armed conflict) is so rare these days that the proposed test is, IMO, of minimal interest. Friedman's "theory" is not a theory and Drezner's weaker version of it is a waste of time, virtually by his own admission. I blame John Sides for drawing my attention to Drezner's post: it's all the fault of someone who doesn't even study international relations. Figures.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The U.S. left and Obama

It's no secret that large numbers of progressives or left-liberals (or whatever label one prefers) are unhappy with Pres. Obama's performance. Although there are some grounds for that unhappiness, I think part of its source may be the high expectations generated by the 2008 campaign. But presidents, especially in recent years (and with the possible exception of G.W. Bush), never behave in office exactly the way their campaigning suggests that they might; they move to the center, for lack of a better phrase, and when the center itself has shifted, or is perceived to have shifted, that will produce disappointments (e.g., in Obama's case, the insufficiently large stimulus package, compromise on Bush tax cut extensions, certain questionable foreign policy decisions, etc.). The disappointments, however, should not obscure the real, if measured, achievements of the Obama admin (e.g., health care reform, saving the domestic auto industry, fulfillment of pledge to end U.S. combat ops in Iraq, two pretty good Supreme Court appointments, etc.). Obama has not changed the underlying structure of the U.S.'s 'winner-take-all' politics (Hacker/Pierson's phrase), but changes to this kind of entrenched system are difficult, to say the least.

Disenchantment with Obama on the left can produce some unhinged judgments, as in this comment from a recent CT thread:

Obama should just do an LBJ. He won’t, of course, but that’s because he’s not as honorable as LBJ.

That is absurd. LBJ decided not to run for re-election in 1968 in the face of widespread discontent among Democrats and others, confirmed by Eugene McCarthy's strong showing in the New Hampshire primary, about his Vietnam policy. LBJ began an escalation of the Vietnam war under deceitful pretenses (the Tonkin Gulf resolution) and persisted in a policy that was misguided and morally dubious (to say the least). One can parcel out blame among his advisors and adduce all kinds of sophisticated and probably correct explanations about why LBJ's Vietnam policymaking took the course that it did, but ultimately it was a failed policy for which LBJ, as president, could not escape responsibility. Obama has made no mistakes of anything like a comparable magnitude. LBJ was in many respects a tragic figure; indeed, Eric Goldman wrote a book called The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson. No serious person will ever write a book called The Tragedy of Barack Obama. The comparison is groundless.
Historical footnote: On March 25, 1968, roughly a week before he announced he would not seek re-election, LBJ was advised by the so-called Wise Men (elders of the foreign policy establishment including Acheson, Lovett, McCloy) to change tack and start de-escalating (and negotiating). For ultra-hawk Walt Rostow, Johnson's national security advisor, this represented the 'death' of the U.S. foreign policy establishment (see D. Milne, America's Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War [2008], p.222). It was more like the establishment finally coming to its senses.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

How changes in British welfare and housing policy are changing London

A bit off the usual track for this blog, but I saved this WaPo article last month and thought it might be worth linking to. Striking to an American is how actively the British government, until the recent austerity measures, subsidized rents etc. to ensure a level of socioeconomic diversity in central London neighborhoods. I think it's fair to say that a comparably far-ranging policy in the U.S. would be out of the question, regardless of the state of the economy.

Malefactors of great wealth

John Quiggin at CT:
What the US needs at this point is someone willing to advocate a return to the economic institutions that made America great – 90 per cent top marginal tax rates, strong trade unions, weak banks and imprisonment for malefactors of great wealth.
I associate the phrase "malefactors of great wealth" with FDR, but it was first used by TR.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Famine in Somalia

A discussion of the situation, including obstacles facing aid delivery.

Terror attacks in Norway

Update: The suspect in custody is described as a right-wing Christian fundamentalist opposed to multiculturalism, etc. Thus, this apparently had nothing to do with Norway's involvement in Libya and Afghanistan.

Someone quoted in this piece about the attacks in Norway says they will "change everything." Hyperbole, but understandable in the immediate aftermath of shocking events.

Targeting young people attending a summer political conference is especially despicable. The linked article says the death toll on the island is now 80. I would guess it's quite unlikely that a single assailant could have caused so many casualties; however, the article doesn't speculate on that. Whether Norway's participation both in the NATO operation in Libya and in ISAF (Afghanistan) was part of the motive for the attacks remains to be determined.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Too clever by half (?)

A list of recent columns by Slate's William Saletan (whom I never read, mainly because I don't read Slate very often) includes one about the Obama admin's position on congressional authorization for the Libya operation.

The column is called "Koh is my God pilot." That would be Harold Koh, chief legal advisor in the State Dept. (And just in case your brain has retired for the evening, the title is a riff on those bumper stickers one used to see now and then announcing "God is my co-pilot." Personally I prefer the bumper stickers that say "My airedale [or fill in other desired breed of dog] is smarter than your honors student." But I digress.)

If you find any of this offensive, don't blame me; I'm just the messenger.

P.s. Haven't actually read the column yet.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Head of Kashmiri American Foundation charged

Note (added 7/20): NYT and WaPo today refer to the group as the Kashmiri American Council, not Foundation.

Intuition and a glance at Wikipedia suggest that the Foreign Agents Registration Act is perhaps not one of the more consistently applied and enforced of U.S. laws. At any rate, quite hard on the heels of talks in Washington, which were said to have gone well, between the acting director of the CIA and the director-general of the ISI, Pakistan's intelligence agency, comes news that the FBI has arrested the executive director of the Kashmiri American Foundation on charges of being an unregistered agent of the Pakistan government. Not to get too speculative (what is this, a blog?) but it looks like maybe the CIA and the FBI and the Justice Dept. aren't communicating as well as they might, in view of the timing. Pure speculation on my part. (Some may see this as retaliation for the Pakistanis having detained several people involved in the vaccination campaign in Abbottabad [see previous post on that] or for the earlier arrest of CIA contractor Raymond Davis. Who knows?)

'Drifting' U.S.-India nuclear deal

The expected benefits of the U.S.-India nuclear deal, signed a few years ago, have so far not materialized, for reasons examined in this piece. Nicholas Burns is quoted in the article as saying the fault lies on India's side, and that seems to be accurate, inasmuch as the liability law passed by the Indian parliament deters U.S. companies from selling reactors, etc. The Japanese nuclear disaster following the tsunami has also made India understandably more wary of nuclear power.

Commenting on the linked WaPo article, a reader writes: "another bush/cheney [sic] debacle." Not really. As I wrote at the time, the U.S.-India nuclear deal was one of the very few Bush foreign policy moves that was defensible. And it may yet turn out to pay some dividends, assuming the current obstacles can be removed. (Sec. of State Clinton is now in India for talks.)

Monday, July 18, 2011

Documents of the Arab left

Kal at The Moor Next Door (which I visited recently for the first time in a long time) has started a series of translations of statements, communiques and so on from Arab left-wing parties, especially in Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, and Mauritania. The first post in the series, consisting of three statements from the Tunisian Communist Workers Party (PCOT), is here. A main point of the series seems to be to counteract the impression in some quarters that Islamist parties monopolize the organized political space in Tunisia, Egypt, etc.

The post is careful to note it is not endorsing the views of PCOT, which is described as a Marxist-Leninist party with Hoxhaist (as in the former leader of Albania) and Stalinist tendencies, strongly opposed to normalization of relations with Israel. One hopes the full series will include statements from, e.g., social democratic (or democratic socialist) parties as well.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Food, water, and conflict

A post by Daniel Little with numerous links.

Why have I said practically nothing about the debt/deficit negotiations?

Mainly because I find the whole spectacle depressing.

Some Many things sound better in French

I was in the library the other day and saw a Paris Match cover that said, with reference to Peter Falk: il a fait d'un flic modeste une star mondiale [rough trans.: he made a modest cop into a world star]. See? The French sounds better.

Speaking of French: a review in NYTBkRev of Marc Fumaroli's When the World Spoke French.

The other Murdoch

Rupert Murdoch is in the news right now, but a friend tipped me off that today is the birthday of someone who contributed a lot more to the world: the late Iris Murdoch. (See today's installment of The Writer's Almanac.)

The first Murdoch novel I read, more than 20 years ago, was The Accidental Man (1971), one of her few novels with a clearly political context. The plot centers on a young American in Britain who opposes the Vietnam war and struggles with whether he is evading his responsibility by accepting an Oxford job and marrying an English girl (the appropriate word here, given her age) rather than returning to the U.S. to face the draft (and the possibility of prison).

Not Murdoch's strongest book by any means, something about The Accidental Man appealed to me and I went on the kind of binge that I've rarely done with any other author. By the time I was through I'd read a large number of her many novels (though I haven't read all of them -- she turned out almost one a year from 1954 through the mid '90s). Although critical and popular opinion seems to favor the books from her early and middle phases, e.g. The Black Prince or The Sea,The Sea (both of which won awards, the latter the Booker Prize), my favorites are three long, rambling ones she wrote in the '80s: The Good Apprentice, The Book and the Brotherhood, and The Message to the Planet (though I'm probably not quite as high on Message as the other two). These three have rather intricate plots and multiple characters, but nothing feels confused, and there are many pitch-perfect passages. For example, there's a moment in Good Apprentice when one of the main characters revisits, as a middle-aged man, the school where he was a star teenage athlete and student -- a kind of typical novelistic moment that in the hands of many writers, even good ones, would be banal and hackneyed and handled with a sledgehammer. Murdoch navigates it like Roger Federer hitting a cross-court forehand: everything is just right.

I've read some of her non-fiction, including the very rambling (probably by design) Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, and I also have Peter Conradi's biography, which someone gave me. Both Murdoch's life and her books remain somewhat controversial, and her novels are definitely not to everyone's taste. She probably wrote too many, and the weakest ones are not very good; the best ones, however, are, in my opinion, pretty great.

I don't return to Murdoch again and again, re-reading the novels every few years, but then I don't really do that with any authors. It's somehow enough to know that they're all on the shelf, within easy reach.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Can't walk away?

Correction (added 7-28): The amount in the Kerry-Lugar bill is $7.5 billion, not $750 billion.

"The U.S.-Pak[istan] relationship is vexing, complex, and dangerous, but nobody can just walk away from it,"
Prof. Joshua Goldstein writes. Hard to disagree with this as a general statement. However, as I've had occasion to mention before (echoing Lawrence Wright), there is a case -- not an airtight one, perhaps, but a serious case -- to be made for reducing the current level of U.S. military aid to Pakistan, given that at least some of it is being diverted into non-military purposes and/or used in ways that do not help the U.S. Despite the enactment of the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill, which gives Pakistan $750 $7.5 billion in U.S. non-military aid over five years (most of which I believe has not yet been spent partly due to disputes about oversight and conditions with Pakistan's government), the relationship continues to be dominated by military and intelligence issues. And continuing to support the Pakistani military with very large amounts of aid may not be the most sensible thing for the U.S. to be doing.

The CIA and (alleged) fake vaccinations

Via DPTrombly:
In the latest incident in the rapid deterioration of the US-Pakistani relationship, the ISI have picked up a Pakistani doctor that it claims, and the Guardian reports, was involved in a horrifying breach of medical ethics. According to the Guardian’s sources, the CIA recruited this doctor to conduct a fake vaccination drive in Abbottabad, hoping to corroborate bin Laden’s sister’s DNA with residents of the mysterious compound where US operators would later terminate the al Qaeda head. Chris Albon is dead on about the disastrous medical and public health implications of this story, which will seriously endanger health workers even if the story was a complete fabrication.
Trombly says he agrees with Albon but, on the other hand, also says this is what one should expect when a clandestine agency is tasked with eliminating a most-wanted enemy. However, I suspect Albon's point is that there are some lines that even a clandestine agency carrying out an important mission should not cross. Clearly the CIA wanted to be as sure as it could be that OBL was living in that compound. The question -- or a question -- thus is whether the fake vaccination campaign, assuming it occurred, was essential or whether the required near-certainty was obtainable by other, less ethically troubling means (e.g., surveillance, tracking the courier who left and returned to the compound periodically, etc.). The CIA is licensed to do a lot of dubious things, but a good baseline rule is that torture shouldn't be one of them and neither should this.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Pakistan update: blustering about the border regions

Lead graph of Karin Brulliard's piece today in WaPo:

Karachi, Pakistan — Pakistan’s defense minister has said that the country might withdraw thousands of troops from its volatile border areas in response to a suspension of U.S. military aid, a move that would undermine Washington’s interests in a region that is home to al-Qaeda and a stew of other Islamist militant groups.

A bit of editorializing here, no? Whether the threatened move would "undermine Washington's interests" depends on exactly what the thousands of Pakistani soldiers are currently doing there. Recently it was reported that there have been cross-border clashes involving unspecified Afghan insurgents attacking into Pakistan and the Pakistan army responding with artillery fire that has allegedly killed Afghan civilians. A reduction of the Pakistani military presence in the border regions might not necessarily be an entirely bad thing if it leads to some reduction in Pakistan-Afghanistan tension. OTOH there might be a downside if the Pakistani military is actually carrying out effective counterinsurgency operations in the border regions. They are not in any case in N. Waziristan, where several militant groups continue to be based.

The WaPo article goes on to note that drone strikes in the border regions have been continuing, another source of some U.S.-Pakistan tension. Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, writing in the current Foreign Affairs, contend that control of the drone program in these areas should be switched from the CIA to the U.S. military, a proposal which may have something to recommend it. However, the very non-transparency of the drone program which Bergen and Tiedemann criticize may be one reason the Pakistan government has tacitly supported it. On balance, though, they are probably right that more transparency would mean more support for the drones among the civilian population in these areas and a corresponding reduction of anti-U.S. sentiment.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Meeting of Minds

From Marjorie Garber, "Historical Correctness: The Use and Abuse of History for Literature," in A Manifesto for Literary Studies (2003), p.52 (footnotes omitted):
A memorable instance of this once-popular genre [i.e., dialogues of the dead] was offered by comedian Steve Allen's television show Meeting of Minds, which ran for four years on the American Public Broadcasting System. On one occasion Aristotle, Sun Yat-Sen, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning debated; on another a lively argument developed among Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Aquinas, Cleopatra, and Thomas Paine; a third panel featured Florence Nightingale, Plato, Voltaire, and Martin Luther; a fourth, Attila the Hun, Emily Dickinson, Galileo, and Charles Darwin. (Steve Allen to Galileo: "You know, it's most interesting. You sir, Miss Dickinson, and Dr. Darwin all had difficulty with domineering fathers." Attila: "My father, too, was no bargain." Or Karl Marx to Marie Antoinette, from a panel discussion with Ulysses S. Grant, Marie Antoinette, Thomas More, and Marx: "Did it ever enter your mind, Your Majesty, that...empty rituals and customs would in time destroy the people's respect for the monarchy?" Marie: "Nonsense, Dr. Marx, the people adored the rituals and customs!" Thomas More: "Yes, Dr. Marx,...rituals and manners aided the people to express their respect for royalty. I understand that in today's Marxist nations [sic] there is still room for pomp and circumstance.") These were not séances; actors played the parts. Allen's wife Jayne Meadows performed almost all the female roles.
I never saw Meeting of Minds. It's sounds mildly amusing, though I'm not sure where Steve Allen would have gotten the idea that Marx might think that rituals and customs destroyed respect for the monarchy of the ancien regime. His view of the French Revolution was a bit more insightful than that.

Friday, July 8, 2011

293 comments on Marx, several of them quite annoying

I'm neither an economist nor an expert on Marx (though I have read some Marx, mostly the parts that social scientists who are not economists have to read in the course of their schooling, including large chunks of Capital v.1 but not vols. 2 and 3). Nor do I really know anything about the controversies involving Sraffa's economics. So I didn't understand some of the 293 comments attached to John Quiggin's post on "Marxism without Revolution: Capital." But of the comments I did look at and understand or partly understand, several were quite annoying in tone, especially those by john c. halasz (he uses the lower case). Halasz's (or halasz's) contributions were mostly long, pompous lectures consisting largely of (1) assertions which he didn't bother to support, textually or otherwise, and (2) rehashes of standard Marxian points (do we really need to be told for the umpteenth time about the contradiction(s) between the relations of production and the forces of production?). Though much of his commenting was given over to the rather, imo, thankless and close-to-impossible task of defending Marx's labor theory of value (an effort in which he was joined by some other commenters), halasz did toward the end offer some critical remarks, e.g. that Marx could be faulted for not having "provide[d] an account of the state and the political domain...." Actually Marx does have an "account of the political domain" -- he may not treat it as (very) autonomous from economics, but that's a somewhat different point. Maybe halasz should start his own blog rather than lecturing so much at CT.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Bacevich on Wohlstetter

Cleaning up some papers, I was reminded recently that I happen to have a few worn-looking offprints of articles by Albert Wohlstetter, including his famous 1959 piece "The Delicate Balance of Terror" and a piece he wrote in 1960 for a series commissioned by Life on 'the national purpose'. (Explaining why I have these offprints would take me a bit too far afield; or, put more bluntly, I don't feel like doing it right now.)

Anyway, this prompts me to mention Andrew Bacevich's article in the May-June New Left Review, "Tailors to the Emperor," which is largely about Wohlstetter (with some attention also to Roberta Wohlstetter, who was best known for Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision). Bacevich's view of them is, not surprisingly, negative; however, after buying the article a while ago I proceeded only to skim it, so I can't really say specifically which parts I agree with and which I don't. So I'm neither endorsing the article nor criticizing it, simply mentioning it in the thought that one or two readers may possibly appreciate knowing about it.

P.s. Some other (possibly) interesting stuff in the May-June NLR. Check out the issue's t.o.c.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Pahk the cah and watch out for errant prepositions

Reader: There are so many serious, terrible things going on in the world; how can you write about nonsense?

Me: Oh give me a ******* break. It's the summer, at least where I am.


Now that that's out of the way, a couple of random obs.:

1) I spent about 40 minutes or so this evening with a hard-copy edition of the NYT from July 1, which I happened to have bought. I don't sit down with a 'real' newspaper this way all that often, and it persuaded me of something I already believed: the experience of reading print newspapers is different, and in some ways much better, than reading them online. There's something about the print and about the pages and about not having to wait a second or two while your browser loads the particular article you want. There was quite a lot of interesting stuff in the July 1 Times, which unfortunately I don't really have time to go into, it being quite late.

2) However, I do have time to take a quick jab at GW law prof and popular blogger Jonathan Turley, who had a recent post about what he called "a Harvard study" on the impact of Fourth of July celebrations in childhood on adult political views. Turns out this is not in fact a "study released by Harvard" -- after all, universities don't release studies in their institutional capacities very often -- it's merely an academic paper
(and apparently a somewhat odd one) co-authored by an assistant prof at the Kennedy School.

At the end of his post Turley opines that July 4th should be celebrated "even on [sic] Harvard Yard." Now, my impression is that no one does anything "on" that particular piece of real estate; even birds dropping their waste do it in Harvard Yard, not on it. Curious, I turned to Turley's very lengthy biography, scrolled to the end, and found that he received his undergraduate education at -- drum roll etc. -- the University of Chicago. Makes sense: they're too busy imbibing the Great Books there to worry about certain parochial and idiomatic uses of prepositions.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Dionne on the Declaration

"A reading of the Declaration of Independence makes clear that our forebears were not revolting against taxes as such — and most certainly not against government as such."
Whole column here.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Why are criminal gangs in Mexico killing Central Americans trying to get to the U.S.?

This sad story does not make clear why some migrants are being killed en masse by the Mexican mafias. It's one thing to kidnap would-be migrants and force them to run drugs; the mafias benefit from that. But what possible reason would the mafias have for killing them?