Scottish Independence, Group Identities, and Institutional Status Quo Bias. And Groundskeeper Willie. And The Proclaimers.

The internet is full of overnight Scotland experts this morning, I’ll try to not join them, promise. For the record, I was a very solid No on independence, though I must admit, the blockbuster Yes endorsements by Groundskeeper Willie and seminal ’90s light-rockers The Proclaimers made me waver a bit.

I’m thinking through a few theoretical ways to try to understand what happened. I’m hugely influenced here by Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order, which I very highly recommend.

There are two factors of human nature to think about: First, the base motive for recognition and dignity and status; and second, the fact that human institutions have a massive conservative bias, and tend to be preserved, all things equal.

First, the base human motive underlying the history of political development is the demand for recognition and status, which can occur on an individual level or collectively on behalf of groups. At the individual level it takes the form of the assertion of individual dignity, which has undergirded every attempt to expand individual political and civil rights throughout history. See the picture to the right, with the phrase "I Am a Man" serving as an incredibly powerful distillation of the entire civil rights movement. There is a direct lineage from this idea back to the Enlightenment, the revolutionary concept of human equality, and the Rights of Man. Though it’s also worth noting that the demand for individual recognition also inspires road rage murders and other violent encounters stemming from perceived "disrespect", as well as all sorts of dissolute status-seeking and face-saving behaviors. So it goes.

Beyond our demand for individual recognition, we quirky humans also seek recognition and respect for groups with which we identify, and membership in which contributes to our self-conception of our identity. These can be sports franchise fandom, ethnicities, religions; or on topic for today, nationalisms. We will act desperately to secure recognition at both the individual and group level, but we tend to endorse behaviors on behalf of a group, particularly a nation-state, which we would never consider or countenance as individuals (See Neibuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society). This explains  endorsement of, or merely indifference to atrocities committed by one’s state, as well as apologetics for profound institutional failures like the Catholic Church rape scandal. The individual morality of a non-psychopath would reject and abhor such acts, but when rallying round the group one may come to other moral conclusions. 

Back to Scotland. One reason the independence vote failed is because a majority of Scottish people consider being "British" as one of their concentric circles of group identity association. You would think the Yes voters were the group seeking recognition and respect and primacy for their identity. But the Nos were voting for group recognition in their own way just as much as the Yeses. There seems to be a wide age gap in the voting breakdown, with youngs overwhelmingly voting yes and oldsters voting no. This makes sense, as older voters either lived through or were much closer to the formation of the post-war institutional order which they see as a triumph of British unity and solidarity, and something well worth preserving. Gordon Brown’s tremendous speech on behalf of the union includes this stirring passage:

Let us tell the undecided, the waverers, those not sure how to vote, let us tell them what we have achieved together. We fought two world wars together – and there is not a cemetery in Europe that does not have Scots, English, Welsh and Irish lying side-by-side. And when young men were injured in these wars, they didn’t look to each other and ask whether you were Scots or English, they came to each other’s aid because we were part of a common cause. And we not only won these wars together, we built the peace together, we built the health service together, we built the welfare state together, we will build the future together. And what we have built together by sacrificing and sharing, let no narrow nationalism split asunder ever.

It is easy to see how these words would resonate with voters of a certain age. If the vote was fundamentally a contest for recognition between competing group identities, this appeal to the larger concentric circle of Britishness won out.

The human demand for recognition trumps other base-motive contenders like the instincts for self-preservation or economic self-interest. Sometimes the instincts are complementary. The struggle for civil rights and integration into mainstream institutions for African Americans and other minority groups throughout history also clearly improved their respective economic prospects, not to mention their prospects for not being summarily murdered by the state or by members of the ruling majority. 

But at the nation-state level the instincts are often in conflict, and recognition usually wins. Just the other day Dan Drezner wrote about this in the context of Russian aggression and the economic price it is paying.

Even back in the spring, it was clear that Russia’s economy was not doing well (matters have only gone downhill since). Nevertheless, when Pew polled Russian attitudes about their economy back in the spring, they got a startlingly different message. Despite a slowdown in the Russian economy, the percentage of respondents who said that their economy was good increased by 11 percentage points. […]

Notably, Russian satisfaction with their nation’s direction has improved 19 percentage points, from 37% to 56%, in the last year.

This seeming irrationality holds for many global hotspots, where ongoing conflicts, violent or otherwise, only make sense as expressions of and struggles for group recognition, since it’s often impossible to argue that anyone involved is improving their material well-being (except, as ever, defense contractors). Even in Scotland, 45% of the country voted for independence despite widespread agreement that it would be an economic calamity.

The independence vote also failed because of what Francis Fukuyama calls "the enormous conservatism of institutions." He writes, "Institutions once formed tend to be preserved, due to the biological proclivity…to conform to rules and patterns of behavior," and further, to "invest [such] rules and mental models with intrinsic significance." Beyond the original conditions that once justified the creation of particular institutions, over time, the institutions are "further reinforced by strong social norms, rituals, and other kinds of psychological investments in them." Gordon Brown’s passage is a perfect example of an institution (the UK) inspiring strong psychological investment far beyond the original justification or circumstances of the British union.

You can also call this conservation phenomenon path dependency or status quo bias. Basically nobody ever likes to change anything, and so whenever there’s a motion to change something big, you can immediately credit the no-change side with a massive built-in advantage even if you know nothing about the underlying issue. The Scottish Yes coalition was well aware of this aversion to changing the status quo, and did all it could to override this basic biological proclivity. It couldn’t.

An ominous concluding note: The main trouble with nationalisms and secession sentiment is that it inspires the resentments of other competing nationalisms. This assertion of Scottish nationalism, even though it was defeated, has stoked the nationalism of the other constitutent parts of the UK:

As it became clear that 55% of Scottish voters had said no to independence, [Prime Minister Cameron] demanded a new English settlement that would exclude Scottish MPs from ever voting on English matters such as health and education.

The English now have their own punitive demands for recognition. This doesn’t seem like a salutary development.

But now, The Proclaimers:

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Ferguson; the Militarization of Police; the Dark Side of Federalism

I am trying to make sense of the events in Ferguson, Missouri.

1. Why do these civilian police officers look like an invading military force? Their camo, their M4-like rifles and their mine-resistant armored personnel vehicles, their masks, sidearms, body armor, extra high-capacity magazines. It’s insane. (Several soldiers on Twitter noted that they had less gear on them while invading and occupying Iraq.)

As these photos from Ferguson come out, the militarization of civilian law enforcement has been getting a lot more needful attention this week.

This is a useful primer on the issue from the NYT just a few months ago. Like so many other absurdities and outrages introduced into our civic life, this phenomenon is a relic of the war on drugs, when in the early 1990s Congress created the military-transfer program because local authorities felt outgunned by drug gangs. The post 9/11 War on Terror ramped things up for good: A flood of surplus military equipment and generous DHS grants to localities who wanted to beef up their counter-terrorism capabilities a bunch of new macho toys have led to a drastic—and operationally unnecessary—militarization of our local police forces.

During the Obama administration, according to Pentagon data, police departments have received tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft.

The equipment has been added to the armories of police departments that already look and act like military units. Police SWAT teams are now deployed tens of thousands of times each year, increasingly for routine jobs. […]

This militarization has had an insidious effect on how police officers view their mission and their relationship to the communities they are sworn to protect. It’s clear the officers in Ferguson are suffering from this distortion.

The ubiquity of SWAT teams has changed not only the way officers look, but also the way departments view themselves. Recruiting videos feature clips of officers storming into homes with smoke grenades and firing automatic weapons. In Springdale, Ark., a police recruiting video is dominated by SWAT clips, including officers throwing a flash grenade into a house and creeping through a field in camouflage.

In South Carolina, the Richland County Sheriff’s Department’s website features its SWAT team, dressed in black with guns drawn, flanking an armored vehicle that looks like a tank and has a mounted .50-caliber gun.

This is not healthy. I understand the recruitment aspect here, but these young men should join the army if they want to play soldier. Civilian law enforcement depends upon symbiotic trust with the populace they serve. Soldiering depends upon identifying and killing enemies.

And as we’ve seen the last few days, just because these officers have the look and gear of skilled warriors, their tradecraft is appalling. I’ve seen several photos of these guys aiming their loaded assault rifles directly at unarmed civilians. There was nobody rioting or looting last night. Who in the community were they trying to protect, and from whom? They’ve also arrested journalists, told people to stop recording and taking photos as is their constitutional right, and attempted to enforce a likely-unconstitutional evening curfew by using tear gas and rubber bullets in residential areas, even in the backyards of private homes. They’ve also withheld the names of the offending officers, including the one who murdered Michael Brown; by what right I do not know. Actual military professionals expert in crowd control have derided and lamented what they are seeing in Ferguson. Something is very wrong here.

There is a dangerous mix of ultra professional deadly equipment married to bumbling amateur-hour tactics. Who is this police chief? Why is he comfortable admitting that some of the officers under his supervision "probably don’t know better"? When will they all be looking for new jobs? Why was Missouri Governor Jay Nixon tweeting about education policy last night? Are there any adults in charge here?

1b. This is the crucial context for this militarization shift over the past few decades: Violent crime in the U.S. is at half-century lows, and has been falling all over the country.

crime 

It’s one of the best and most confounding public welfare developments of our time. Yet somehow police forces have convinced political leaders to keep giving them more more more.

2. We needn’t be obtuse when wondering why it might be that there is no sense of trust or solidarity between the population of Ferguson and its police force. St. Louis has a deep history of racial segregation and animus. Ferguson today is 67% black and its police force is 94% white. The police chief, the mayor, and all but one of the city councilors is white. Blacks are at the receiving end of 86% of all police stops and 92% of searches. Police have failed their communities in every way when the alienation runs this deep. 

3. You wouldn’t know it from our national political climate, but the federal government is not the source of most quotidian tyranny and suppression of citizens’ rights. Particularly for African Americans, "federalism" and "states rights" have meant more freedom for states and localities to coerce, repress, and discriminate with impunity. Local coercion can be as banal as onerous licensing requirements to sell your labor, or as horrific as an organized violent campaign of state terrorism such as that against black Americans in the 100 years between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights era. It occurs to me that in both the banal and horrific versions, the state is aligned with incumbent business elites. Lovely. 

I’m currently reading Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order, and just the other night I happened to read a relevant passage, on whether there’s a relationship between the relative strength of a central government and the amount of freedom enjoyed by the populace. Looking at test cases through a millenium of state-level political development, Fukuyama concludes:

"Political freedom is not necessarliy achieved by a strong, cohesive, and well-armed civil society that is able to resist the power of the central government. Nor is it always achieved by a constitutional arrangement that puts strict legal limits on executive authority. […]

"The twentieth century has taught us to think about tyranny as something perpetrated by powerful centralized states, but it can also be the work of local oligarchs [as in contemporary China—jd]…. It is the responsibility of the central government to enforce its own laws against the oligarchy; freedom is lost not when the state is too strong but when it is too weak. In the United States, the ending of Jim Crow laws and racial segregation..was brought about only when the federal government used its power to enforce the Constitution against the states in the South. […]

The degree to which [states within a federal structure] can maintain their independence from the central government depends on how they treat their own citizens. A powerful central government is neither intrinsically good nor bad; its ultimate effect on freedom depends on the complex interplay between it and the subordinate political authorities.

Remember that as you wonder if all those Gadsden flag patriots who came out to protest the tyranny of the Affordable Care Act in 2009 will now support the residents of Ferguson who are under seige from their local law enforcement. Somehow I doubt it.

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Human Volition and the Rise of the Machines

In Tyler Cowen’s book Average is Over, he makes two related predictions about how machine intelligence may interact with human behavior and affect human success in the near future. First, there will be an increasing sophistication and use of methods of tracking and measuring human performance in a wide range of endeavors, including but not limited to one’s job performance. Already of course a prospective employer can check your credit score and look you up on social media. Once on the job, the capacity to constantly monitor and measure and quantifiy your true performance value will increase over time, and the results may not turn out very kindly for a lot of workers.

In addition to employment metrics, maybe this trend of data collection and quantification will encroach on other areas of life, marking us as good or not-so-good dating prospects perhaps, or giving universities many more ways to predict a prospective student’s academic performance, or giving our doctors a picture of how compliant or trustworthy we are as patients, and likewise giving us better information on the performance of our doctors, etc.

Cowen sees this ubiquitous measurement trend as unsavory and disquieting, but he sees no way to stop it. It may end up delivering many benefits, but people generally do not like being surveilled and weighed and measured in everything they do. (FYI, here is a great interview transcript with Cowen summarizing many themes of his book.)

Like Cowen, I think a lot of people find this sort of constant measuring uncomfortable. Maybe we will eventually recoil from this over-quantification, this empirical obsessiveness, which when extrapolated reduces all human pursuits to a sort of sabermetrics calculation. Though I wonder how we will react when the price of access to a good and prosperous life is acquiescing to this constant invigilation by our data-hungry metric overlords. Will this "entry fee" clash with other more basic human psychological motivations?

Dostoyevsky, in his Notes From Underground, warns that attempting to reduce human behavior to a set of algorithms or "tables" is bound to fail and backfire. He, like Cowen, would concede that such sophisticated quantification may indeed be able to reveal where our own best interests lie, and allowing others access to this data jackpot may be the best move for our professional and personal flourishing. But the human will is not primarily interested in following the course of rational best interest, nor in flourishing.

A man, whoever he is, always and everywhere likes to act as he chooses, and not at all according to the dictates of reason and self-interest; it is indeed possible, and sometimes positively imperative, to act directly contrary to one’s own best interests. One’s own free and unfettered volition, one’s own caprice, however wild, one’s own fancy, inflamed sometimes to the point of madness, that is the one best and greatest good.

Dostoyevsky writes that a man will always commit abominations counter to his interests, “just so that he can assert, as if it were absolutely essential, that people are still people and not piano-keys.”

More than that: if men really turned out to be piano-keys, and if it was proved to them by science and mathematics, even then they would not see reason, but on the contrary would deliberately do something out of sheer ingratitude in order, in fact, to have their own way.

We can all agree, Dostoevsky says, that two-and-two-make-four is an excellent thing; “but to give everything its due, two and two make five is also a very fine thing.”

In this future quantified world, rejecting the measurements of the machines, and refusing to be defined and played upon by these metrics, will be asserting 2+2=5 against our own revealed best interests, in order to assert our "own free and unfettered volition." 

But Cowen has another prediction about the future ability of machines to reveal to us a best course of action, and it might lead to a very different conclusion.

As our personal devices collect and collate ever more individualized information from every facet of our lives, they may come to develop strong opinions on our behalf regarding dating advice, career advice, investment advice, leisure advice, and so on. Cowen thinks that a key predictor of success in the future will be one’s willingness to defer to the machines. But will this satisfy our demand for self-volition and recognition?

Because of their ability to synthesize an unlimited amount of data from disparate sources, and unfettered by emotion and fear and anxiety, computer recommendations for an individual’s decision-making could in fact be more creative, more nimble, and at least superficially appear to be against our best interests. If the computer is thinking with such advanced abstraction using far more information than humans can process, its behavior recommendations my seem full of caprice and even "inflamed to the point of madness." But in fact the computer will be merely asking us to override our human intuition, which is so often faulty and unreliable and beset by bias and superstition. 

So this inverts the Dostoyevsky aphorism: It is human intuition that is often limited by staid 2+2=4 thinking, and the computers which may insist to us that 2+2=5 is the best course of action.

Cowen has an illustrative story about this: Imagine you are on a date in the future, and at a key point in the evening your phone or equivalent device starts buzzing at you, and it starts flashing, "kiss her now!" Depending on your intuition and mood at that moment, perhaps that recommendation strikes you as 2+2=5 thinking, essentially inconceivable and maybe anti-rational, and surely counter to your own current best interests. But the device has been listening to your conversation, measuring your heart rate, calibrating the vocal timbre of you and your date, and analyzing the entire literature and history of male-female romantic interaction, etc. Maybe you should listen. Cowen argues that those willing to heed their device in these sorts of circumstances may find better relationship success. And in many other areas of life, those willing to override their often-terrible human intuition and listen to the capricious machines may prosper more than those who stubbornly refuse.

But will this hectoring by our devices offend our pride and our demand for self-volition? Or will we see the device as an ally and in fact an extension of our own volition?

If the former, in order to continue to assert our own volition in the Dostoyevsky sense and prove we are not piano-keys, we will have to reject the computer’s innovative 2+2=5 thinking, and affirm the old boring predictable 2+2=4. In these cases, following our 2+2=4 intuition will become the revolutionary act, the radical departure from our own true best interests revealed through the computer’s peculiar genius. Dismissing something on your notification bar could become the height of human protest. How radical.

The base human desire for self-volition and recognition will not go away. But what counts as an assertion of human volition and individual recognition will get tricky. In the face of ubiquitous quantification, and beseiged by machine advice about our best self-interest, how people come to define what qualifies as a successful satisfaction of these base desires may affect the future trajectory of man-machine interaction in profound ways.

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The Terms of Their Surrender

Anyone feeling dejected or frustrated by the Hobby Lobby decision needs to read this Andrew Sullivan post, in which he places this perceived "setback" in proper perspective. The basic point: Social liberalism is triumphing wherever you look, and it’s a rout. The progress of marriage equality is the most prominent example of course, banking yet another victory yesterday, this time in that bastion of liberalism, Kentucky. But there’s a lot more:

[U]niversal health insurance, to take an epic example; the shift in drug policy away from mere law enforcement; the speed with which marijuana legalization marches forward; the rise and rise of women in the economy and the academy and politics. Then consider the broad demographic shifts – the sharp increase in the religiously unaffiliated, the super-liberal Millennial generation, the majority-minority generation being born now, and a bi-racial president possibly followed by a woman president. When I see the panic and near-hysteria among some liberals in response to the Hobby Lobby ruling, I have to wonder what America they think they’re living in.

Regarding Hobby Lobby, first recall those dark days before the ACA, when there was NO federal requirement for contraceptive insurance coverage. None! Then, suddenly, there was a universal requirement (yay!). But now, it’s been pared back to a near-universal requirement (boo!), in which there will likely be some provision arrangement for those women left out. But, perspective please:

[L]ook at it this way: with the ACA, for the first time ever, all insurance covers a wide array of contraception options. That’s a huge step forward for social liberalism, and it was allowed by the Roberts court.

Progressives still are having trouble taking yes for an answer. Through hard experience, they still seem to think they are beseiged by a dominant American reactionary culture, hostile as ever, implacably committed to mobilizing its silent majority to roll back every inch of liberal social progress.

Ain’t. Gonna. Happen.

And rather than validating the paranoid roll-back view, the Hobby Lobby decision actually further undermines it. These are the terms of surrender. It is social conservatives, unable to prevail at the ballot box, facing demographic irrelevancy, who are left appealing to the courts to help wall themselves off from what they consider the most offending aspects of the ascendant progressive culture outside their gates. As Andrew notes, it is they who are now desperately seeking some small accommodation, some protection, from the victorious majority. The Supreme Court gave them an accommodation this week. So be it.

Yes, there are some companies that can make the provision of certain contraceptives a little more difficult. Just as while gay marriage triumphs faster than even the most optimistic scenario, there are still businesses which can deny service to same-sex weddings; still private citizens who can harbor grotesque bigotry toward their fellow man.

There are surely other areas where cultural anxiety and grievance, or yes, genuine religious conviction, will lead some to try and quarantine themselves from modernity’s encroachment. And they will sometimes be successful, through the courts or other means. So be it. None of this is evidence that progress is tenuous, or that magnanimity in victory is naive or misplaced. These are merely rearguard forces, protecting a vanquished army in full retreat. The victors needn’t give chase.

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Climate Scientists Have a Major Branding Problem

The President spoke to the League of Conservation Voters yesterday, and to this friendly audience he continued his recent rhetorical tactic of flat-out mocking climate change deniers. It’s a perfectly valid tactic. Mocking and ridicule get a bad rap in political discourse. There is a place for both as part of an overall pursuasion/mobilization strategy.

"’Folks will tell you climate change is a hoax, or a fad, or a plot, it’s a liberal plot,” he said. “Many who say that actually know better and they’re just embarrassed. They duck the question. They say ‘I’m not a scientist,” which really translates to, ‘I accept man-made climate change is real, but if I say so out loud I’ll be run out of town by a bunch of fringe elements … I’ll just pretend I don’t know, that I can’t read.’”

That sounds about right to me. There’s also the religious motivation, that god is inerrant and man can’t possibly undo what He Hath Wrought (Adam and Eve’s little indiscretion notwithstanding).

Obama also tried the logical analogy tactic. He spoke about the need to defer to expert consensus, as we do in so many other domains:

“I’m not a doctor either, but if a bunch of doctors tell me tobacco can cause lung cancer, then I’ll say, ‘OK.’ It’s not that hard,” he said.

Sounds okay, but here’s where the problem lies I think. We hear often that 97% of climate scientists agree on anthropomorphic climate change, and that it’s absurd to discount such expert consensus. But I’m pretty convinced that when deniers hear "climate scientist", they don’t think "high-status expert". They think "witch doctor". It doesn’t register as "reputable elite" in the same way as do experts in other academic fields, and certainly not like the president’s hypothetical team of pulmonary oncologists above. In short, climate scientists have a major branding problem.

Of course, a core part of the strategy of professional climate deniers has been to undermine the credibility and integrity of these poor scientists. And they’ve been quite successful in this effort, not because they’re such great spinsters, but because people are simply predisposed to think "climate scientist" sounds a little like a bullshit job. And I admit, it does! But why?

Some ideas: You don’t really learn about the career at any stage of schooling (perhaps kids do now?). It’s not readily apparent where you would go to study it and become an expert in it. Almost nobody has personally met a climate scientist. You only ever hear the word as part of the "controversy" over climate change. There’s no cool or badass factor (think astronauts). They have no popular culture presence whatsoever (they need an "ER" for climate science). There’s no climate Einstein, or climate Watson and Crick. It’s not apparent what they do all day. And the problem is not merely that the field is arcane and inaccessible to normal people. I feel like other disciplines that register as completely eggheaded nonetheless enjoy very high status, like quantum physics or nuclear engineering.

But for some reason, compared to other professional elites they basically have nothing going for them in terms of public perception. It’s why the president’s doctor analogy will never pursuade anyone. They have a massive status problem. What to do? For starters, the word "climate" has been thoroughly spoiled by politicization. Maybe officially rebrand as Environmental Scientists. Also, they need a lobby. They need a guild and a PR firm. Mostly they need to pay George Clooney to play a heroic and charming but slightly brooding climate environmental scientist in his next film. And tell Al Gore to never say another word on the subject.

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Turkey’s Got Problems But the Kurds Ain’t One

Ever since Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan came to power, he and his foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu have promulgated a foreign policy doctrine they call "Zero Problems." This is supposed to mean that they seek harmonious relations with all their neighbors and make decisions primarily on that basis.  

But as I’ve noted before, just because Turkey declares it has zero problems with you doesn’t mean you’re going to have zero problems with Turkey. In practice their doctrine usually means that, depending on your relative status on the world stage, you’ll be somewhat okay as long as you acquiesce to a baseline level of Turkish ethnic chauvinism. This has defined all of their historical dealings with the Kurds of Iraq.

However, as long-time Kurdophile Peter Galbraith notes, after years of outright hostility motivated by Turkish fears of its own restive Kurdish population, things are changing. Lately, Turkey has not only been resigning itself to the existence of a fully-autonomous, if-not-quite independent Kurdistan in Iraq, they’ve been active boosters and enablers of the idea. Much of this has to do with economic opportunity: the two sides do a massive amount of trade, and Turkey is the largest foreign investor inside Kurdistan. Also, Turkey has been happy to share in the fruits of landlocked Kurdistan’s oil ambitions: They’ve signed a 50-year energy deal, and a pipeline from Kurdistan to the Turkish port of Ceyhan is now operative.

Turkey has now taken the bromance to the next level. For those at all familiar with the toxic history between these two peoples, these quotes are just unbelievable:

The Kurds of Iraq have the right to decide the future of their land, said Huseyin Celik, a spokesman for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on Friday.

“The Kurds of Iraq can decide for themselves the name and type of the entity they are living in,” Celik told Rudaw in an interview to be published soon. […]

In case Iraq gets partitioned, said Celik, “the Kurds, like any other nation, will have the right to decide their fate.”

Zero Problems indeed! This is bizarro world stuff.

Speaking of oil, recall that as of last week the Kurds now control Kirkuk, in which resides 40% of Iraq’s total oil reserves. Not a bad dowry for a fledgling nation. They’d be smart to move quickly to link Kirkuk’s oil to the main pipeline to Turkey. Oh what’s that? It’s done already?

Iraqi Kurdistan has built a link connecting Kirkuk to its newly-built pipeline to Turkey, its minister of natural resources said, potentially cementing Kurdish control over the northern oil hub and reducing its reliance on Baghdad.

Well then. Let’s recap. The Kurds have their preferred, long-coveted national boundaries under peshmerga control, they have an independent source of revenue that will guarantee self-sufficiency, and they have the full support and partnership of a regional superpower who just a few years ago were threatening their annihilation with regularity. I suppose with a psychopathic militia on the loose, they’re not in the clear just yet. But it’s pretty exciting, and worthy of celebration, particularly in a region with so many dark days still ahead.

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Long Live Kurdistan

The Kurds’ strong short-term interests are to consolidate the territory they’ve obtained, maintain security particularly around the oil, and prepare for their growing independence as Iraq disintegrates around them. A course of action most definitely not included on this list is to join a massive sectarian war for the fate of Iraq (and Syria, and…).

While this inward-looking approach is eminently reasonable now, it’s clearly not compatible with their longer-term interests to have jihadist barbarians settled in right across their border. And to reiterate a point I hope doesn’t require much further emphasis, it’s also incompatible with the interests of everyone else on Earth to abide as these enemies of civilization engage in a nation-building experiment in the heart of Mesopotamia.

Despite talk of a truce between ISIS and the Kurds, and a mutual interest in avoiding an all-out war, here’s the thing about jihadist barbarians: they are not known for their reasonableness. Jihadists be jihadin’.

Today, ISIS advanced into a Shiite villiage south of Kirkuk, apparently too close for comfort for Peshmerga forces in Kirkuk. There was a skirmish and the Kurdish forces drove ISIS out of the area.

[A Peshmerga major] told VICE News that, despite sporadic clashes, he did not think ISIS planned on engaging them heavily. “They don’t have the courage,” he said. “They’ve tried. They know now.”

I think that’s right, I’d be very surprised at a heavy engagement. And it doesn’t seem that ISIS encroached on Kurdish territory. Yet this is also right:

Nevertheless, the major did not rule out a fight, admitting that the informal detente now in place could easily end. “We’re not naive to believe they’ll stay away,” he said. “If they kill infants, how can we trust them?”

Indeed.

The Kurds can take care of themselves, largely because they rightly ignored U.S. entreaties to subordinate themselves to Baghdad for the sake of "stability" over these last ten years. And good thing, since our president is not particularly fond of enforcing his red lines. After a century of neglect and betrayal and cynical manipulation by their Western "patrons", the Kurds have no right being such staunch and loyal partners as they are today, having implausibly carved out a refuge for pluralism and democracy against a permanent seige by successive authoritarians and religious fanatics. Today our stalwart Kurdish friends and allies deserve all the solidarity we can muster, because it’s moral and because it’s just.

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On the Kurds’ Plans for Kirkuk, and Their Relationship with ISIS

ISIS has taken the small city of Tal ‘Afar in northwest Iraq after a two-day battle with Iraqi security forces, seemingly continuing to shore up its supply chain from Syria before pressing on to Baghdad and the Southern Shiite-majority areas. You can also see its strategic control along the Tigris and Euphrates. Just a reminder, presented without comment: These Iraqi forces have been trained and equipped by the United States for nearly a decade.

This is one hell of a scary map. It’s my understanding that ISIS isn’t just militarily occupying these cities, but rather it has full administrative and governing control. They are deeply embedded in these areas, and I can’t see how they will be easily dislodged. The only hope is a cleaving of the alliance of militias comprising the insurgent fighting force, which along with ISIS includes former Baathists and various secular Sunni groups who just want to be free of Baghdad’s rule. The latter may find rule under crazy jihadi extremists not as delightful as they imagined. 

What you’ll also notice in this map is that ISIS has no presence in Iraqi Kurdistan or in the Kurdish areas of Northeast Syria by the Turkish border. The Kurds, of course, have been making their own territorial gains lately.

The Daily Beast‘s Eli Lake spoke with Qubad Talabani, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s former representative in Washington, and now the incoming Deputy Prime Minister of the KRG. (He’s also the son of Jalal Talabani, a founding father of modern Kurdish politics and current President of Iraq, though the latter title may not mean so much right now). Qubad confirmed that the Kurds consider Iraq functionally dissolved:

Iraq, in a sense, has broken apart from us,” he told The Daily Beast. “Geographically we practically have to cross another country to get to Baghdad. We have to cross through territory that is governed and secured by forces that are not loyal to the federal government in Baghdad.

Genuine news to me, Talabani also said that the Kurdish Peshmerga forces were deployed to Kirkuk with the approval of Prime Minister al-Maliki:

“No one has asked us to abandon those posts in Kirkuk,” Talabani said. “On the contrary, the Iraqi prime minister’s office gave us the green light to do what we can to protect as much territory as we can in the north.”

So this was not merely an opportunistic, if well-earned, land grab. Al-Maliki, now under existential threat, has realized (after years of antagonism toward Kurdish aspirations) that the more territory and oil under Kurdish control and protection, the better. I can only assume the U.S. feels the same way.

Though Talabani was equivocal about the KRG’s permanent plans for the newly-occupied areas, other Kurdish officials are stating the obvious:

Late on Friday, the Kurdish ministry of Peshmerga (defense) stated that, except for some areas, “The entire Kurdish territories outside Kurdistan Region were now in the hands of the Kurdish forces.”

The statement confidently reassured that “the Kurdish troops have no intention of leaving the area.”

“We are here to stay,” it declared. “Basically, all Kurdish villages and localities are now protected by the Peshmerga forces.”

So what is the relationship between the Kurds and ISIS? Will the Kurds come to the aid of the Maliki and the Iraqi forces? Will they take up arms against ISIS? On the aid question, doesn’t look like it:

The Kurds say they received no formal request for help from in Baghdad. But even if Baghdad were to ask, it no longer has much to offer the Kurds in return for the favour, since the Kurds have already taken prizes like Kirkuk for themselves.

What about ISIS? Well ISIS seems to want no part in fighting the far superior Peshmerga forces. They appear to have no designs on Kurdish territory, and no grievance with Kurds or Kurdish aspirations in general. In fact, they’ve asked for a truce:

A Peshmerga officer in the area also told Rudaw that the ISIS have contacted them by courier, saying, “If you don’t attack us, we would not attack you.” […]

According to information provided by the Peshmerga forces, the ISIS checkpoint is only half a kilometer away from the Kurdish forces and that via taxi drivers on the road, the militants have asked for reassurance that they will not be attacked from the north.

Now I highly doubt that it is compatible with Kurdish interests, and with human civilization more generally, to have Islamist homicidal psychopaths governing vast swaths of Iraq and Syria. We may be seeing the final unraveling of Sykes-Picot, but I’d say this is most definitely not the last chapter.

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Iraq is Dissolving, The Kurds are Thinking Big

One of my more riskless predictions on the blog has been my repeated insistence that there is much bloodshed to come before the dispensation of Iraq’s disputed territories, let alone its larger sectarian divide, is finally resolved. Like economists who do nothing but predict recessions or inflation, my sagacity has at last, inevitably, been vindicated.

It’s a goddamn mess over there. ISIS, al-Qaeda-inspired Sunni militants who also control territory in war-torn Syria, are overrunning Iraqi cities, with their sites set on Baghdad and Shiite areas in the South. Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces have arrived to help the government fight back, all while Prime Minister al-Maliki asks the U.S., Iran’s mortal enemy lest we forget, to intervene as well. President Obama has not ruled out U.S. assistance.

At stake for Iran in the current tumult in Iraq isn’t only the survival of an Shiite political ally in Baghdad, but the safety of Karbala and Najaf, which along with Mecca and Medina are considered sacred to Shiites world-wide.

An ISIS spokesman, Abu Mohamad al-Adnani, urged the group’s Sunni fighters to march toward the "filth-ridden" Karbala and "the city of polytheism" Najaf, where they would "settle their differences" with Mr. Maliki.

That coarsely worded threat further vindicates Iran’s view that the fight unfolding in Iraq is an existential sectarian battle between the two rivaling sects of Islam-Sunni and Shiite—and by default a proxy battle between their patrons Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Existential sectarian battle, great.

And what of the Kurds, and the slightly-more-prosaic dispute with Baghdad over administrative control of the contested territories bordering Kurdistan, including oil-rich Kirkuk? Amid the chaos, the Kurds have stumbled upon one way to resolve the issue:

Kurdish officials said on Thursday that their forces had taken full control of the strategic oil city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, after government troops abandoned their posts there and disappeared, introducing a new dimension into the swirling conflict propelled by Sunni militants pressing south toward Baghdad.

It was just two weeks ago that Prime Minister al-Maliki thought he had the political clout to threaten the Kurds with reprisal for piping Kurdish oil to Turkey without Baghdad’s approval. Now his troops are abandoning their posts and surrendering without a fight to the ISIS, and Baghdad’s only hope for stemming its advance in the north is the assistance of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Before this is over it might be Baghdad begging to be under the administrative control of an independent greater Kurdistan, with the U.S. and Iran celebrating their great cooperative Iraqi military campaign. The Middle East is a weird place.

Kurdish leaders have long feigned a commitment to remaining part of a federal Iraq, so long as the state was stable enough to maintain security and be responsive to Kurdish interests. Well with an "existential sectarian battle" raging across multiple national borders, and promise of a protracted civil war, I’d say the idea of a viable centralized Iraq may be over.

I asked journalist Michael Weiss if the Kurds are now thinking big regarding their ambitions for independence, in light of these new developments. He responded, "Hint: They’ve been thinking big for 100 years." Indeed, who can begrudge them at this point if they decide to not let a good crisis go to waste.

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Losing Your Congressional Seat is Not Really the Same as Surviving the Holocaust

Well good riddance to Eric Cantor. He was a cynical, smarmy, clicking-eyed obstructionist, supplicant to big business and champion and appeaser of lunatics in his party. I think he lost simply because no one believed he was actually on their side. Not the Tea Party, not the establishment, not his constituents. He operated and maneuvered and positioned himself to universal loathing. That’s actually an impresive feat of failure for a politician.

sherman 

In the GOP meeting at the Capitol today in which he announced that he’s stepping down as Majority Leader, Eric Cantor appears to have compared his disappointment at losing an election to the suffering of a Holocaust survivor. Now we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, he was emotional and it’s probably a really, really big personal disappointment.

But this is a good time for a reminder: being a former Congressman is not a very big hardship. Being a former Majority Leader with strong ties to the defense and financial industry? Well, there’s a chance he may just bounce back from this.

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Remember, we shouldn’t allow politicans to prioritize their reelection over all other considerations. We shouldn’t excuse or accept craven "positioning" as a reason for their actions in defense of their seat. The streets are not littered with homeless ex-Congressmen. I have a feeling that when Cantor walks out of the Capitol building for the last time next January, he’ll use the revolving door.

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The Hypocrisy Angle Putin Is Looking For: That Time the U.S. Tried to Annex the Dominican Republic

As we wait to see the extent of Vladimir Putin’s plans for destabilizing and annexing the sovereign territory of Ukraine and pillaging its economic resources, it’s also worth taking a brief look at the hilarious way Russia is spinning these deplorable acts to the world.

Putin has several tactics. The main one is the classic autocratic statecraft game of "Lie, Deny, Counter-Accuse". Some examples:

"Russia accuses Ukraine of intervention in Crimea"—Remember, Crimea was PART OF Ukraine. This was also the same day that Russia took total military control of Crimea. That is how you counter-accuse.

"Russia accuses Kiev of violating Ukraine peace deal"—Russia starts a war of conquest then accuses the victim of not being peace-minded enough. Genius.

"Russia never annexed Crimea, no plans to intervene in Ukraine, it’s a Western delusion" – Putin, three days ago. It’s hard to even process this one. The annexation vote by the Russian Duma is on video.

Apart from Lie, Deny, Counter-Accuse, Putin also likes to accuse the U.S. of hypocrisy and of having no moral standing to complain about Russian actions in the world. For instance:

"The entire world remembers the US secretary of state demonstrating the evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, waving around some test tube with washing powder in the UN Security Council. […]

"We have almost no military forces abroad, yet look: everywhere in the world there are American military bases, American troops thousands of kilometres from their borders. They interfere in the interior affairs of this or that country, so it is difficult to accuse us of abuses."

Elsewhere he’s used the examples of Afghanistan and Libya as other "illegitimate" Western interventions. These analogies are weak, weak, weak. He can do better. I am here to help Putin out.

I’ve just finished reading historian Eric Foner’s masterpiece, Reconstruction, and while I’ve learned something new on virtually every page, there’s one episode that seems particularly relevant for Russia’s hypocrisy trolling purposes: That fun time in 1870 when the U.S. tried to annex the Dominican Republic.

First, recall the pattern of Russia’s behavior in Crimea: Putin makes up all sorts of pretexts for intervening, citing various dubious vital Russian interests at stake, including maintaining the Russian military base at Sevastopol. He invades, then drums up a referendum in Crimea under conditions of intimidation and military occupation. The referendum succeeds, and he formalizes the annexation in the Duma. Done.

President Grant’s plan for the Dominican didn’t end quite as smoothly, but not for lack of trying. Here’s Foner:

A number of factors came together to produce this disreputable scheme. The navy desired a Carribbean base, American businessmen who owned property on the island pressed for annexation…. In addition, the ruling Dominican political faction hoped to save itself from overthrow in a continuing civil war, and Grant’s private secretary Orville Babcock, who…negotiated the agreement, owned land on the island that would appreciate in value under American rule. Nobody considered the wishes of the people who lived there, although a plebiscite, held with four days’ advance notice and coupled with a warning that opponents of the treaty would be exiled or shot, producted a resounding vote in favor of annexation.

Unfortunately, President Grant didn’t have autocratic powers or a rubber-stamping Duma at his disposal. The U.S. Senate rejected the treaty, handing Grant a humiliating defeat. His annexation idea died.

But, c’mon, the desire for a military base, the various shady economic interests, the bogus, rushed referendum under threat of violence. THIS is the Crimea analogy Putin is looking for. His propaganda minister needs to get on this. You’re welcome comrades.

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Nice of Him to be Explicit About It

Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine

Seventy-six year-old Thad Cochran has been Mississippi’s (do I even need to specify the party?) senator for thirty-six years, and he’s in the midst of a likely career-ending primary challenge that looks to be heading to a runoff after last night’s inconclusive result. Cochran is old, genteel, an institution guy, and proud of the deals he’s made and the federal money he’s brought back to his state over the last four decades. He’s soft-spoken and not taken to inflammatory culture war rhetoric. In other words, he could not be more out of step with the recent tone and trajectory of his party.

His opponent, Tea Party-aligned Chris McDaniel, is a new-breed firebreather, all distilled cultural rage, furious at the establishment, and intent on awakening anyone who doesn’t realize there’s a life-or-death struggle for America’s soul happening out there.

There are no major policy differences between the candidates; the Republican Party civil war (the Tea Party/Establishment one anyway) is mostly about affect, style, tone, anger. As Jonathan Chait notes, this race is between Cochran, "a hard-line conservative who votes with his party on everything" and McDaniel, "a hard-line conservative who will also vote with his party on everything but will say a bunch of crazy stuff as well."

One of those crazy things appeared in Molly Ball’s excellent Atlantic recap of the race. All the cool kids know that cultural and demographic anxiety is the animating force of the modern Republican party. But you don’t see Republican politicians speaking openly about this anxiety. It’s uncouth, and it’s hard to rhetorically pull off a complaint about a "changing America" without sounding like a bigot, a crank, an anti-modern. So the good politicians couch these complaints in deep euphemism, or else they advocate policies that just happen to disproportionally affect the groups they’re most anxious about. The talk-show and television demagogues can come right out with it, stoking the passions of their septuagenarian audience. You can hear it all the time, the America we grew up with is gone, wink wink. But for politicians, that stuff’s risky.

Well Chris McDaniel is not bound by your stogey rules. Coincidentally, he’s also a former talk-radio host. Here he is on the campaign trail, being refreshingly explicit about the theme of his campaign and his worldview:

"Millions in this country feel like strangers in this land," he says. "An older America is passing away. A newer America is rising to take its place. We recoil from that culture. It’s foreign to us. It’s offensive to us."

Ironic that it’s the 41-year old McDaniel, not the oldster Cochran, speaking fearfully about the older America passing away and the foreign, offensive modern culture that’s ascending. I wonder what aspects of the newer rising America he finds particularly foreign and offensive? Hmm. I don’t think it’s the kids and their loud rock music. But really, nice of him to make his repellent reactionary mission so explicit.

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Russia and Crimea: This is Not a Cold War

In the last few days I’ve seen about a dozen headlines declaring the start of a new Cold War between the United States and Russia. This interpretation of events is very silly, not least of all because it mistakenly implies that everything a foreign leader does in the world is somehow a reflection of either American strength or weakness. This just isn’t so; I know this is hard for some neocon-minded foreign policy analysts to contemplate, but it’s the case that sometimes things happen in the world without regard to the United States at all! (Somehow I bet this won’t be John McCain’s message on Meet the Press, which I just assume he’s on this weekend; it could more accurately be titled, Meet John McCain with guest David Gregory.)

However, the Cold War interpretation is perhaps understandable if you read Vladimir Putin’s speech to the Duma yesterday, announcing his annexation of Crimea. The speech is an extraordinary litany of sophistry, nostalgia, U.S. bashing, misplaced historical analogy, and if I read it right, it’s also an announcement of more menace to come for Russia’s neighbors. A couple quotes and annotations:

–"Unfortunately, what seemed impossible became a reality. The USSR fell apart." Nothing new there; an ongoing refusal to reckon with the human suffering of Soviet Communism, the purges, the famines, the fear and subjugation. No, the real tragedy is that Russia lost a bunch of territory.

–With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, "the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders." Again, the USSR was good because it at least united all ethnic Russians (in abject misery). Does this statement suggest a longer-term goal of incorporating other ethnic Russians into the Russian Federation? 

–"After the dissolution of bipolarity on the planet, we no longer have stability." Yes, totalitarianism combined with nukes was super stable for everyone.

This is all bizarre, troubling stuff, but it is not some sort of reactivation of Soviet-style power projection. First of all, to paraphrase Moe Green, Russia just doesn’t have that kind of muscle anymore. Putin’s lament for the loss of US-Russian bipolarity is fascinating. It’s as if he thinks that nothing has changed about the global order in the past twenty-five years other than Russia lost control of a bunch of peripheral territories. I think China would disagree; they’re probably reading this speech and laughing at their poor sad delusional neighbor to the north, thinking it’s still the premier Asian power. In fact, perhaps this meager projection of force reveals more Russian anxiety about the rise of China, rather than whatever fake rivalry it believes it has with the United States.

And not to get all Fukuyama on you, but another problem with Cold War analogies is that it implies some sort of parity on the world stage and parity in terms of delivering welfare outcomes to citizens. This is, well, not quite the case with modern Russia. The old USSR was indeed able to project quite a bit of military and economic power for a while, as well as offer Communism as a genuine (if awful) rival organizing ideology. But Russia lost all those bets. Today, Russia does not provide much of a salutary political/ideological example, to, well, anybody on earth. It has no governing ideology I can discern. It’s primarily a petro-kleptocracy ruled by a mafia clique of oligarchs and former intelligence agents. Journalists and political rivals are murdered and imprisoned without process. Gays are persecuted and the state subscribes to discriminatory retrograde gender norms.

BjLl8uQCMAAmB0f.jpg large

How about outcomes for citizens? Economically, Russia’s GDP per capita $14,300, making it slightly poorer than Estonia and Uruguay. Nearly three-quarters of its total exports rely on digging oil and ore out of the ground. In 2013, Russia ranked 127th out of 175 countries in corruption, tied with Pakistan and Nicaragua.

Since so much of the country’s economic resources are captured for the benefit of the ruling elite, it’s not surprising that Russia is experiencing a quarter century-old public health crisis. Russia’s life expectancy is the same as that of Bangledesh (70 years), with male life expectancy of only 64, tied with Cambodia. It has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, one of the highest alcoholism rates, and the highest AIDS rate in the industrial world, slightly worse than Liberia and Cape Verde.   

The point is, rather than being enmeshed in a grand contest with the United States or "the West", Russia’s more befitting geopolitical rival would be a small developing country in Central America or Africa. Putin is allowed to pretend otherwise because his country has nukes, a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, and is not shy about using his petro resources as a geopolitical weapon. These are nuisances to be sure, but we elevate Russia far above its weight class with absurd Cold War talk. Putin’s ethnic chauvinism and nostalgia for territorial conquest should be seen for what it is, a rather sad revanchist obsession with past glory, by a dictator with a litany of domestic dysfunctions to distract from.

The U.S. really did win the Cold War, which among other things means Apollo Creed didn’t die in vain.

Relatedly, I bet John McCain is watching this montage on repeat:

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Yes David Brooks, Politics is Important

David Brooks says that "politics should take up maybe a tenth corner of a good citizen’s mind. The rest should be philosophy, friendship, romance, family, culture and fun." This is because political change is inherently a "slow trudge", and so government should limit its goals and oriented itself around "essential but mundane tasks" mostly concerned with maintaining a "background order".

Brooks has done this trick before where he purports to advocate a limited government defined by a few modest tasks, but when he lists those tasks we find they encompass the entirety of human experience.

Today, his boring, mundane, and gradual government should only do things like "keeping the peace and promoting justice and creating a background setting for mobility." Though the pursuit of these modest goals should not "deliver meaning" to the pursuer. All of this is nuts.

First, his list of non-political pursuits is a lot more political than he thinks. Enjoying family and friends does indeed sound like more fun than obsessing about politics. But what if you can’t even create the family you want to subsequently enjoy because you’re gay and your government severely limits your family-formation options? And in decades past, what if your preferred romantic arrangement didn’t conform with the majority culture and there was no legal right to live how you liked? To paraphrase Trotsky, you may not be interested in politics but politics is interested in you.

Similarly, consuming and thinking about culture is indeed something I love to do: but how much vital art and culture is borne of political strife, struggles for justice, etc? And it’s hard to separate the story of cultural expression from the fight to strike down puritan obscenity and decency laws, not to mention racial segregation. Again, politics is interested in you.

As to his list of proper government functions which should not "deliver meaning": "Keeping the peace" is in fact very meaningful if your urban neighborhood, say Chicago, is wracked with gang violence. It might also intersect with the political system through complimentary issues like racial discrimination, education policy, and local labor market conditions. And do drone deaths of civilians in Pakistan "keep the peace"? Does TSA? Do our current gun laws? In each case, are there better ways to "keep the peace"? Tough questions! Should I concern myself with them? Or would that indicate misaligned priorities? 

And maybe Brooks thinks the proper pace of promoting justice should be set at "boring, gradual, orderly", but I bet those on the receiving end of systemic injustice may prefer a more vigorous pace. Fair enough, that’s a difference of opinion on the way forward! If only there were some outlet, some communal process, by which we could argue and adjudicate those viewpoints and a lawful resolution could be found? I know, how about politics?

Finally, Brooks wants to task the government with "creating a background setting for mobility." Well "mobility" can be a rather expansive concept. I think even a modest definition would encompass tax policy, issues regarding the pace and scale of redistribution, the provision of social insurance and public services, student loan and housing policy, and a big-but-boring one, the efficiency and effectiveness of government bureaucracy itself.

It really depends on where you stand whether you believe any of these issues belong in the "background setting" or the foreground setting of your life, and subsequently, how much time you want to devote to learning about these things and trying to effect change. And again, the venue where we decide the relative priority levels is the political process!

What about Brooks’s list of government inadequacies and limitations? I have a problem with those too:

[Government] is not nimble in the face of complexity. It doesn’t adapt to failure well. There’s a lot of passive-aggressive behavior. In any federal action, one administrator will think one thing; another administrator will misunderstand and do something else; a political operative will have a different agenda; a disgruntled fourth party will leak and sabotage. You can’t fire anybody or close anything down.

Now of course there is some truth to these critiques. Bureaucratic in-fighting and status-quo bias are indeed features of large organizations like governments, and employee protections can be distorting. But here he’s engaging in the very fatalism he rejects earlier in the piece. This is mistaken for two reasons. First, some governments are better than others. Some are more nimble and adapt to failure better than others. Some bureaucracies are more efficient and less corrupt than others. Some governments enact policies that lead to more successful outcomes for citizens than other governments. Right here in the U.S. there are fifty state governments making all kinds of different decisions on a range of policies: education, health, housing, etc. Some states seem to perform better than others. Residents of low-performing states shouldn’t just give up on politics because, oh well, government sucks; they should push for change to more optimal policies! Likewise, around the globe we find that East Asian countries have phenomenally successful education systems. And Scandinavian countries have amazingly efficient bureaucracies. In response, should Americans permanently downgrade the importance of politics in their lives and read more philosophy with friends? Well, I guess they can. But they can also try and make our bureaucracies, schools, etc, better!

Second, throughout the piece Brooks equates "politics" with "government action", and that’s myopic, particularly for a self-identifying conservative. Though government is the primary vessel for the manifestation of collective political action, it’s not the only vessel. Our civil society is rich with venues for political expression and impact: non-profits, charities, local associations and guilds. Is it okay with Brooks if people derive meaning from these pursuits, and spend more than 10% of their attention to non-governmental political action?

If you don’t care about any of the above policy issues, fine. But don’t let David Brooks rationalize your willful ignorance by saying that it doesn’t matter anyway, and perversely, that to be disengaged is what it means to be a "good citizen". It’s nonsense. 

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Worthwhile Filibuster Punditry: See if I can Avoid Writing "Filibusted!" and Other Terrible Puns

Welcome to the new dystopia in which (fragile readers please gird yourselves) a simple majority of Senators can sometimes pass certain things through the chamber depending on what we’re talking about. I notice Republicans have been using that term, "a simple majority!" with scare quotes around it, as if the tyranny of it was self-evident. But as someone on Twitter noted last night, that term sounds a whole lot more sensible and innocuous to people outside the beltway than it does to legislators. What looks absurd and antidemocratic to normal people are endless headlines like, "Measure fails on 56-44 Senate vote in favor of measure."

So, why did Harry Reid pull the trigger now? Three interesting ideas:

1. Jon Chait:

The main reason for this odd, partial clawback of the filibuster is that President Obama has no real legislative agenda that can pass Congress…. That reality means two things. The first is that President Obama’s second-term agenda runs not through Congress but through his own administrative agencies. His appointees are writing rules for financial reform, housing policy and — the potentially enormous one — climate emissions.

A consequence of an increasingly polarized and dysfunctional Congress is that the real policy action moves to the executive branch, as the president looks for ways to implement his agenda despite legislative obstruction. Republicans have anticipated this change—indeed they precipitated it—and have sought to kill the "active executive" scheme before it begins, by preventing the president from staffing key agencies in his administration or filling vacant seats on the all-important DC Circuit Court. This filibuster move is natural Democratic counterplay: If Republicans are permitted to deny the president of not merely legislative initiative, but also his constitutional executive and judicial prerogative, well that is essentially a nullification of his presidency and could not be countenanced.

2. Harry Reid and Democrats were convinced that Republicans would do away with the filibuster themselves the next time they’re in a position to do so. This is a safe bet. Republicans have shown no interest in sticking to long-held institutional norms, and their willingness to embrace procedural extremism in the Obama era is impossible to deny (see these harrowing charts). Do you think a Republican president and Republican-majority Senate would put up with half of the level of obstruction that Democrats have been subjected to in recent years? Republicans are already promising to do away with the filibuster entirely when they get the majority, which shows their fealty to institutional stability. And they will; the logic of escalation is now inescapable. But Harry Reid decided, rightly, that the breakdown of the current absurd equilibrium was inevitable either way, so may as well give the president a year to maneuver a bit more freely.

3. Is it really only for a year? The 2014 Senate elections are not favorable to Democrats. In a low-turnout midterm, Republicans will need six pickups to take the majority. Dems have to defend 21 seats, at least eight of which are very tough, while Republicans are defending only 14 of their own, almost all of them in completely safe red states. It’s a toss-up, but everything has to go well for Dems to hold.

But even if Reid is conceding 2014 in his mind, he is confident that 2016 is far more favorable: Republicans will have to defend 24 seats to the Dem’s 10, with several Republican seats coming from blue states. With presidential turnout, things look good for 2016.

But beyond the next few cycles, Harry Reid is banking on the long-term ascendancy of the Democratic coalition. Democrats have won the national popular vote in 5 of the last 6 presidential elections. This is not a statistical quirk. Demographic and cultural shifts (an excellent essay, do read) have made national elections an absolute nightmare for Republicans, and they portend harder times to come in the ensuing decades. Heartland identity politics are finished as a winning electoral strategy, but there is no easy way out for Republicans, who risk alienating their white rural base every time they even attempt to broaden their coalition.

4. Anyway, one thing we know for sure is that Republicans have been epically FILIBUSTED! Damn so close.

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