Monthly Archive for November, 2011

Pakistan’s 60 Year Nightmare: It’s Not Barack Obama’s Fault


This article on President Obama’s failure at managing the U.S.-Pakistani relationship by Kapil Komireddi was recommended and endorsed by David Frum, so I gave it a close read, and I was surprised to find it consisting of mostly hysterical ad hominem bunk. The central conceit seems to be that the Obama administration is omnipotent, yet instead of using this omnipotence to help usher in a strong civilian democratic rule in Pakistan, Obama insists on using it to cosign Pakistan’s backslide into military authoritarianism. The failure of all former U.S. presidents to meaningfully change the balance of power between militarists and civilians in Pakistan is not mentioned in the piece.

Komireddi spends half of his piece blaming Obama for the recent forced resignation of Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., Husain Haqqani. It is true that Haqqani was a great champion of civilian democratic rule in Pakistan, and during his time in Washington he was often the only bright spot surrounding the fraught U.S.-Pakistani relationship. I’m sure the generals hated him. But unfortunately he was not the vanguard of some imminent Pakistani Spring in which the liberal secular pro-Western democrats would assert themselves and ride the army and the ISI and the Islamists out of town once and for all.

That’s because for all his personal and professional attributes, Haqqani as ambassador didn’t mean that Pakistan had civilian rule. As even Komireddi tellingly admits, "[Haqqani’s] forced resignation puts an end to the pretence of civilian rule in Pakistan." (italics mine) It was pretense, and it’s always been pretense. The generals were always in charge. This is tragic and lamentable but it’s not Barack Obama’s fault.

Komireddi accuses the U.S. of marginalizing Haqqani due to his outspoken support for civilian rule and for curbing the influence of the military.

Why would the White House choose to belittle a man championing civilian rule in Pakistan? Isn’t that also the objective of the Obama administration? The answer increasingly appears to be no.

Nonsense. The U.S. loves Haqqani’s peaceful democratic vision for Pakistan, but because that vision does not accurately reflect all parts of the government he was supposed to represent, his effectiveness as ambassador was somewhat attenuated. It would be a lovely world in which Husain Haqqani was in charge of civilian and military policy in Pakistan. But it’s not our world, and it’s no help for the U.S. to pretend that he actually had the ear and the confidence of the true power-brokers in Pakistan.

Komireddi undermines his own thesis about Obama’s unique role in emboldening Pakistani perfidy when he diagnoses the real source of Pakistan’s problems, which, shockingly, predate Barack Obama’s presidency:

Since the 1950s, when Gen. Ayub Khan mounted the first military coup, Pakistan’s army has etiolated the country’s evolution in every imaginable sense. Rooted in a culture of grievance and malevolence that is the foundational basis of Pakistan, the army has waged wars against India, suffused young minds with a fervor for jihad, sponsored terrorism, spread xenophobia and racism, carried out genocide against millions of its own citizens, stolen and smuggled nuclear secrets, foisted the vile Taliban regime upon the defenseless people of Afghanistan, and assumed complete ownership of Pakistan.

Those sound like really tough problems! Yet, Komireddi thinks that these sixty years of entrenched military rule buttressed by Islamic extremism, nuclear promiscuity, and terrorism sponsorship; in fact a military rule so entrenched as to be said without exaggeration to have "assumed complete ownership of Pakistan," could have been undone by a U.S. president throwing his rhetorical support behind a particularly talented and sympathetic Pakistani ambassador! Boy we really missed an opportunity there! 

Well to be fair, he has other ideas for how President Obama could have won the day if he wasn’t so willfully in cahoots with Pakistan’s military. He could have "corraled the army with fresh ultimatums" following the embarassing revelation that Osama bin Laden was hiding in plain sight in Abbottabad. Komireddi does not mention that in the wake of the bin Laden operation the U.S. withheld almost $1 billion in military aid to Pakistan. Yet the relationship has only deteriorated further since then. I don’t know how Komireddi is so sure that more and stronger U.S. ultimatums would miraculously produce a more compliant Pakistani military, and one that suddenly stops caring about hating India or wanting control over Afghanistan. Komireddi’s ideas come straight from the toughness-seriousness-boldness school of intractable problem solving. 

Nonetheless, he is certainly right that the Pakistani military and ISI’s double-dealing with the Taliban and complicity in violence against Americans in Afghanistan is scandalous. As to the former, Pakistan has seen a strategic interest in supporting the Afghan Taliban for a long time. Not even ten years of war has changed this calculus. Ten more years won’t either. At least the killing of American troops will be mitigated by the upcoming drawdown. But that is bad news according to Komireddi:

Then, in a craven abdication of American responsibility to the citizens of Afghanistan, Obama talked about the need for nation-building at home. […]

As the fighters currently enjoying Pakistani hospitality in the country’s northwest make their way back into Afghanistan [following the U.S. withdrawal], the gains made over the last decade will wither away. Thus will the tremendous sacrifices, of both American troops and Afghan civilians, be honored.

Ah yes, the only way to honor sacrifice is with unending sacrifice. That’s a tidy aphorism but a really terrible basis for military strategy, and an immoral one. One may disagree with the administration’s decision to bring the U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan to a close after ten years. But I’m curious: what would acquit Obama of the charge of craven irresponsibility? Another troop surge? Another trillion dollars? Escalating the current nebulous proxy war with Pakistan into a real war? If your principles of justice and sacrifice require you to advocate embroiling America in a hot war with an major Asian nuclear power, you need new principles.

Are there things the U.S. could do to help foster a less military-centric ruling order in Pakistan? I don’t know, I’m sure there’s something. But in the post-9/11 period, two successive administrations, with opposite foreign policy visions and opposite rhetorical styles, have been unable to do so. I find it very likely that a long string of future administrations will encounter the same difficulty. Then, as now, it will not be Barack Obama’s fault.

Say it with me Mr. Komireddi, slowly and tearfully, Good Will Hunting style: it’s not Barack Obama’s fault.

Barney Frank and the Case for Congressional Expertise


Barney Frank is retiring next year, and we’ve been seeing a lot of deserved commentaries about his famous pugnacity, his erudition, his wit. One thing I think his career shows is the importance of congressional longevity and seniority in acquiring policy expertise. Whenever the topic of congressional term limits comes up, Frank is my go-to example for arguing against the idea. However you feel about his politics (and no, he didn’t cause the housing crisis), over the last 31 years in office he made himself an expert in the U.S. financial and banking system, and in committee hearings this fluency allowed him to interact and spar with Fed chairmen, Treasury Secretaries, and industry executives as a peer, rather than as a supplicant or a grandstander or with his nose buried in a sheet of talking points written by his staff.

This isn’t a post about congressional term limits, but what term limits and short congressional careers in general do is make this accumulation of policy expertise next to impossible, and that transfers effective policy-making control to think tanks and lobbyists and outside advisors.

A freshman congressman comes to DC and first has to master the arcane norms and rules of legislative procedure. That takes time. In addition, they rarely have the policy knowledge necessary to make an immediate substantive impact. Whether their legislative portfolio is banking, foreign affairs, budgeting, energy, the military—the substance of their jobs is unimaginably complex. Most House members do not have a relevant educational or professional background to rely upon. Yet the moment they are sworn in they are faced with bills to vote on, hearings to attend, entreaties from interest groups and constituents and fellow lawmakers. You’ve got to have something to say about the topic at hand. Staff can keep you afloat, but staff can’t help when you’re alone or forced off-script.

Luckily, in Washington there is an entire industry of partisan aligned think tanks and lobbyist firms whose job it is to crank out plausible-sounding policy arguments for lazy or under-informed lawmakers. To the extent that a lawmaker lacks knowledge or command of their legislative purview, that gap is filled in by the information-industrial complex in DC. This complex will (very happily!) help you write your legislation and formulate your talking points for your afternoon hit on MSNBC, and it will help you think of things to say in your big address to the American Enterprise Institute luncheon crowd.

Of course longevity is no guarantee of policy expertise. You can make a long career out of cutting and pasting policy briefs from the Center for American Progress or the Heritage Foundation onto your congressional website. And you can amass a voting record by doing what industry lobbyists and interest groups and political consultants tell you to do. But we’d agree perhaps that this career template falls far short of the ideal, and Barney Frank was much closer to the ideal than most. Rarely does one find in public life such a combination of legislative passion and policy acumen. Regardless of your politics, we can lament that the U.S. Congress is losing a whole bunch of both.

Israel "Climbing the Mountain of Conflict" with Iran

I rewatched the brilliant and hilarious political satire In the Loop last night, in which midlevel officials in the US and UK governments stumble fecklessly toward war with an unspecified Middle Eastern country. This time around it reminded me of the current farce surrounding the ever elusive, ever imminent, ever "on the table" Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Will they or won’t they?

Like our fumbling minister above, I’ve been seeing the same sort of equivocation regarding Iran in the media for several years now, ramped up to eleven ever since Jeffrey Goldberg’s Atlantic cover story last year in which he concluded that there was a "better than 50 percent chance" of an Israeli attack by this past July. We’ve missed that deadline of course, but the speculation, the recrimination, the preparation, rages on.

A new IAEA report accuses Iran of having carried out secret tests "relevant to the development of a nuclear device." In response, the US, UK, and Canada have announced new sanctions targeting Iran’s banking and oil sectors. This week Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak hinted that the time for climbing the mountain of conflict may be approaching:

Barak, speaking on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS program, indicated that Israel’s patience was wearing thin — and provided an ominous response when asked about the growing speculation of an Israeli military strike.

"I don’t think that that is a subject for public discussion," he said. "But I can tell you that the IAEA report has a sobering impact on many in the world, leaders as well as the publics, and people understand that the time has come."

Even before this latest IAEA report, Israel has been in serious preparation and training for an unspecified long-distance air conflict:

In late October, six Israeli Air Force squadrons sent aircraft 1,500 miles across the Mediterranean for a joint exercise over Sardinia with the Italian and German air forces. This is just one of over a dozen such exercises that have taken place in the last three years, in which Israeli pilots have trained in flying long distances over unknown terrain and facing fighter pilots and anti-aircraft batteries of foreign forces.

The U.S. official position on an Israeli attack seems to be deep ambivalence. It does seem clear that the U.S. does not want the Israelis to act unilaterally. Unlike previous Israeli attacks on nuclear facilities in Iraq (1981) and Syria (2007), the geopolitical stakes with Iran are much higher, and retaliation—economic or military or both—is inevitable. The U.S. will share public blame for any Israeli action whether it was involved or not, and it would not be difficult for Iran to target U.S. personnel and interests in the region if it so chose.

With all the conspicuous preparation underway, it’s no surprise that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited Israel last month to urge closer coordination:

Panetta publicly stressed during his visit that the United States is “very concerned” about the Iranian threat but emphasized that countering that threat “depends on the countries working together.” Panetta demanded that Jerusalem warn Washington in advance of an attack on Iran, but he did not receive clear assurances it would, according to American diplomatic sources.

Panetta also warned of the potential economic fallout of a military strike. "There are going to be economic consequences to that (an Iran strike), that could impact not just on our economy but the world economy," he said. He said the U.S. focus was on diplomatic pressure and sanctions.

I hope that is true. Panetta’s palpable public opposition to a strike hopefully means that the administration’s private opposition is even more forceful. One sign that there might be more bluster than substance here is that this debate has always seemed a little too public. Israel doesn’t take to broadcasting its military intentions prior to action. There were no public threats or preparations before the Osirak reactor strike in Iraq, nor the Syria strike in 2007. They just happened. When the real business of sensitive national security needs to be done, Israel doesn’t put its defense minister on CNN to announce it first. When everybody shuts the hell up, it’ll be time to worry.

Speaking of not shutting up, I’ll leave you with more from In the Loop—behold the great Malcolm Tucker (extremely NSFW):

Death in Venice; and Madrid, and Lisbon, and Athens, and Paris, and…

In Thomas Mann’s short novel Death in Venice, a well known German writer takes a holiday on the Venice coast to overcome his writer’s block. At first, his staid, prudent German manners are offended by the signs of decadence and superficiality he sees in southern Europe. But over the course of the novel his intellectual restraint begins to peel away, and he soon succumbs to the sensory passions and abasements of his surroundings. The ever-present southerly sirocco wind and rumors of a cholera outbreak add to the ominous portrait of a dissolute, decaying south literally infecting the north as represented by our German protagonist.

Profligate southern Europe vs. prudent northern Europe. Sound familiar? This of course has become the dominant media and political narrative of the Euro debt crisis: Those decadently idle Italians and Greeks and Portuguese looking for rescue from the responsible and virtuous Germans.

But while this theme may have resonated culturally in Mann’s day, it does little to explain the dynamics that led to the current crisis; in fact, its implied assignation of victims and villians and heroes may well have things completely backwards. This analysis by David Frum deserves more attention:

The euro currency was not a favor done by Germany to the rest of Europe. In fact, you could much more convincingly argue that Germany was the biggest single winner from the euro — and that the time has come for Germany to pay for it.

Frum asks to imagine a world where Europe proceeded with market and labor integration but did not adopt a single currency. Let me quote at length because I cannot explain it better:

In such a world, Germany as the most productive economy would have begun to rack up large trade surpluses. As those surpluses accumulated, the value of the Deutsche Mark would have appreciated against Europe’s other currencies. The cost of doing business in Germany would rise relative to, say, the Czech Republic or Slovenia. Investors would shift their operations out of Germany. Jobs would be created outside Germany and destroyed inside Germany.

The poorer European countries would face a very different environment in our non-euro world.

Investors worried about currency risk would charge significantly higher interest rates to countries like Greece. More expensive credit would have constrained their ability to run budget deficits.

But in our actual world:

By folding all of Europe’s currencies into the euro, Germany prevented its neighbors from reducing their costs — thus enhancing German exports and preserving German jobs.

In the decade from 2000 to 2010, Germany’s share of world trade rose by almost 9 percent (most of that being exports to other European countries).

The same currency that made German exports more competitive also made the exports of other European countries less competitive. Their shares of world trade declined over that same decade — in France’s case, by a spectacular 23 percent.

But the less competitive countries did get something out of the euro: Lower interest rates. The currency arrangement that enabled Germany to sell more enabled Greece, Italy, Spain, and France to borrow more.

Germany got the jobs. Greece and the others got the debts.

If it weren’t tethered to the euro, safe and productive Germany would have eventually been open to a problem like Switzerland just faced: a dangerous appreciation of its currency due to rapid investor flight-to-quality. Of course, a few months ago the Swiss central bank stepped in and announced its intention to do whatever it took to reverse the trend. Here’s the result:

Swiss currency crisis averted. The European Central Bank, however, has indicated quite clearly that it has no intention of intervening in this way. This leaves the poorer eurozone countries stuck sharing a monetary policy that’s best suited to Germany’s interests, not their own. No wonder Angela Merkel is calling for more integration, not less. And no wonder the poorer countries see little way out of this mess other than abandoning the euro. As Frum notes:

Imagine if today’s Federal Reserve governors were jointly appointed by the governments of China and Saudi Arabia, and you get some idea of why Greeks riot in the streets.

With no monetary tools at their disposal, the eurozone countries can only fiddle with fiscal austerity measures to try and get their books in order. But as the whole world hopefully now knows, austerity reduces consumer demand and makes recessions worse, not better. The economies of Europe are so incestuously interconnected, every euro country is seemingly the largest export market for every other euro country. An austerity-induced demand shock in one country will screw every country around it. Even the rich, prudent Germans need to sell their products to someone; but if everyone stops buying, the contagion will eventually reach Berlin. With the ECB continuing its stance of willful somnolence, we are in for an ongoing, major, crushing cycle of europain. Happy Christmas Europe!

Rick Perry’s Modest, Conservative Plan to "Uproot, Tear Down, and Rebuild" Our Entire System of Government

The rise of modern Republicanism as a Christianist cultural-resentment club has corresponded nicely with the hibernation of true conservatism. As a quaint historical artifact, here is something close to the essense of true conservatism; the parable of G.K. Chesterton’s fence:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

Now, here is Rick Perry, on reforming institutions:

“I don’t believe that Washington needs a new coat of paint — I think the whole place needs to be overhauled,” Mr. Perry said, speaking to applause from more than 100 people on the floor of the Schebler manufacturing plant here. “I’m a true believer that we need to uproot, tear down and rebuild Washington, D.C., and our federal institutions.” […]

“Americans know there is a season for everything under the sun,” Mr. Perry said. “And this is the season for tearing down and rebuilding again, for uprooting the broken branches of government in Washington, and building a new government that’s smaller and more humble.”

We’ll ignore for now the rather pagan-tinged assertion about seasons and suns. Perry also wants to turn Congress into a part-time legislature, as well as term-limit all federal judges; all part of his modest proposal to uproot, tear down, and rebuild our entire system of government. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more radical platform from a legitimate presidential candidate. I do not consider myself a conservative, but even I am terrified at the insouciance with which Perry aims to remake the world. So much for the Republican fear of policy “uncertainty”!

Perry’s plan to abolish whole executive departments is another example. He famously could not recall his full list of intended targets, but that is most likely because he has no idea what those departments do. You can better understand this behavior when you realize that Rick Perry and his ilk do not have considered policy proposals, they have only moods.

When you declare yourself a “true believer” in the rectitude of your own conclusions, analysis and doubt are the enemy. A man with such a temperament simply reaches for the sledgehammer without wondering what happens after he swings. This, I remind you by way of Chesterton, is not a conservative impulse. It’s a frightening mix of utopianism and nihilism; we need a good word for it.

Romney on Toughness and Seriousness and Boldness

A few weeks ago I made fun of politicians’ penchant for insisting that the solutions to our most intractable problems involve nothing more than applying the correct mixture of toughness, seriousness, and boldness.

Mitt Romney has an op-ed in the WSJ today, ostensibly meant to critique President Obama’s Iran policy, but it reads more like a parody of the toughness/seriousness/boldness school of political problem solving. 

Romney writes that after Obama’s failed attempt at engagement with Iran over its nuclear program,

a serious U.S. strategy to block Iran’s nuclear ambitions became an urgent necessity. But that is precisely what the administration never provided.

So our unprecedented expansion of sanctions against the regime was indeed a strategy, but just not a sufficiently "serious" one. At the White House strategy planning sessions over Iran, someone probably asked, "should we pursue this strategy with lots of seriousness or not?" Obama must have answered, "No, not too much seriousness. Don’t overdo the seriousness." And there was the fatal misstep!

Romney goes on building his case:

Another key juncture came with the emergence of Iran’s Green Revolution after the stolen election of 2009….Yet President Obama, evidently fearful of jeopardizing any further hope of engagement, proclaimed his intention not to "meddle" as the ayatollahs unleashed a wave of terror against their own society. A proper American policy might or might not have altered the outcome; we will never know.

Obama’s policy wasn’t proper enough. Romney’s policies will all be more proper, and therefore "might or might not" be more successful. Good to know.

Ok time to get specific:

If I am president, I will begin by imposing a new round of far tougher economic sanctions on Iran.

Ah yes, I forgot the secret weapon of toughness, no doubt missing from all prior rounds of sanctions over the past thirty years. It’s good someone has finally thought to correct this.

I will speak out forcefully on behalf of Iranian dissidents.

The president spoke out many times on behalf of the Iranian opposition during the uprising. But as we are now aware, speaking out is useless unless you do it "forcefully."

I will back up American diplomacy with a very real and very credible military option. I will restore the regular presence of aircraft carrier groups in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf region simultaneously. I will increase military assistance to Israel and coordination with all of our allies in the region. These actions will send an unequivocal signal to Iran that the United States, acting in concert with allies, will never permit Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.

The president has never taken the military option "off the table," but apparently he has left it on the table in an unreal and uncredible manner. Israel is already the largest recipient of U.S. aid, and the U.S. already "coordinates" with all of our allies in the region, so I don’t know how a symbolic increase in aid and "coordination" will combine to send a "signal" that is less equivocal than all the signals we’ve sent previously over the past thirty years.

When Iran was discovered plotting to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador by setting off a bomb in downtown Washington, the administration responded with nothing more than tough talk and an indictment against two low-level Iranian operatives…Demonstrating further irresolution, the administration then floated the idea of sanctioning Iran’s central bank, only to quietly withdraw that proposal.

This is a difficult one, because Romney concedes that the president’s talk was "tough" which as we know is a precondition for success. But then he introduces a new variable, irresolution. It seems that irresolution cancels out toughness. I’m not sure how it holds up against seriousness or properness or forcefulness though. Romney should devise a rock-paper-scissors game to help us learn what beats what.

Look, Romney is smart to focus on the president’s Iran strategy. It is easy enough to attack the Obama economy. But foreign policy is perceived as a big strength of this administration, what with shooting Osama bin Laden in the face and presiding over the cascade of revolutions in the Middle East. The adminstration also concluded important free trade agreements, strengthened ties with India, and announced the impending end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And for all the right-wingers out there, Obama has also continued his awesome stampede over our civil liberties, and he has deported more illegal immigrants than any of his predecessors.

While none of this stuff is likely to figure prominently in the general election (absent a major crack-up somewhere), the Republican nominee cannot just concede national security to the incumbent. But in the absence of genuine soft spots, I expect we’ll hear a lot more nonsense about toughness/seriousness/boldness masquerading as strategy. I actually had hopes that Romney wouldn’t need to resort to this sort of rhetorical vacuousness; but alas, he’s more comfortable perpetuating the fiction that American presidential edicts, sternly delivered, are the real secret key to solving world problems. Actually, maybe I’ve just stumbled on something. Someone check if sternness has ever been tried.

In Defense of Flip-Floppery

Republicans are not too enthralled at the prospect of a Mitt Romney White House. While his polling has been remarkably consistent, and his fundraising and organizational strength far ahead of his rivals, he can’t seem to crack 25% in the polls. He’ll still win the nomination, but it seems it will be bestowed grudgingly.

What’s the problem? Well, we are told that it’s his lack of demonstrated fealty to “true” conservative principles. And the flip-flopping of course. Here is Erick Erickson, Republican gatekeeper:

Mitt Romney is not the George W. Bush of 2012 — he is the Harriet Miers of 2012, only conservative because a few conservative grand pooh-bahs tell us Mitt Romney is conservative and for no other reason. […]

Mitt Romney is going to be the Republican nominee. And his general election campaign will be an utter disaster for conservatives as he takes the GOP down with him and burns up what it means to be a conservative in the process.

Erickson, truly the Edmund Burke of our time in his ability to ascertain “what it means to be a conservative,” is so distraught that he’s giving lowly Jon Huntsman another look, who he thinks might be “more faithful in his conservative convictions than Mitt Romney.”

I don’t understand all this unease and this obsession with divining convictions. It’s true, here we have a guy who caters and tailors his views to match whichever constituency he is courting at the time. We all know about his moderate technocrat phase in Massachusetts, and his subsequent repudiation of that phase and his slow rightward march as he looked to national office.

The important thing to note here is that as regards “what it means to be a conservative,” it’s not Romney who flits in and out of that immutable state, it’s the conservative elites that keep changing the damn definition. It’s not Romney who’s unmoored, it’s the Republican overlords, who code policy positions as variously canonical or heretical, depending on what the Democrats are doing.

Reagan raised taxes, George W. Bush spoke compassionately about immigration, conservatives innovated the idea of the individual mandate. Now the Repubican mood is such that one dollar of extra revenue is too much, anything short of a sci-fi border death fence is amnesty, and healthcare for all is synonymous with fascism. I’m sure there are other examples. It’s true that Romney has floated rather promiscuously around many sides of these and other issues, but a big reason for that is the “true conservative” position is a perennially moving target.

If I was a Republican kingmaker like Erickson, I’d think: “Well who knows what previously verboten notion will become the new conservative dogma in a few years from now; and who can tell which bedrock conservative belief we will have to abandon because Barney Frank decides to embrace it? Who can we trust to be willing to flop every time we impetuously decide to flip?” Under the circumstances, a consistently principle-averse chameleon is exactly the sort of person I’d want in office. If I had a bunch of loony unstatic policy preferences, I’d be thrilled that there’s a guy out there who’s shown time and again that he’s ready and willing to morph and mold his way into my loony mercurial heart. Republicans should be grateful!

Of course, the fear of Romney-like ideological maleability is that once you help get the guy in office, there’s no way to know how the “real Romney” will govern, and no way to ensure that he won’t wake up confused one morning and think he’s head of the United States of Massachusetts.

But this implies that there is no way to constrain a politician once he is in office, and that’s mistaken. In a way, the behavior of a totally cynical flip-flopper is much easier to predict than that of the true-believing ideologue. All you have to do in Romney’s case is figure out which constituency he is beholden to, and you know that his behavior will conform to reflect that. If he becomes president, this constituency foremost will be Congressional Republicans, along with all sorts of base activists and interest groups and donors and Republican governors and business types whose support he will continue to rely upon.

In Massachusetts he had a liberal constituency and a solid Democratic legislature, so bam, Romney was a socially moderate technocrat. He governed like he said he would govern. Who cares what he “really” was? Now his task is to appeal to the current—shall we say unbalanced—Republican orthodoxy; so viola, he’s aligned himself with all of their priorities. In the White House he’ll govern the same way, because he will be constrained politically by the very same constituency, particularly if his party has a majority in one or both houses of Congress.

Just as right-wingers probably have nothing to fear from a Romney presidency, progressives really have no reason to look forward to the idea, notwithstanding the likely accurate suspicions that “deep down” he is more moderate and more reality-based than his competitors. Progressives can be thankful that he doesn’t indulge the worst instincts of his party, but he’ll likely govern as a standard conservative, whatever that word happens to mean at the time.

The Onion, on Complexity

Apropos of my long essay below, as usual, the Onion got there first:

The Onion

Nation Finally Breaks Down And Begs Its Smart People To Just Fix Everything

WASHINGTON—Overwhelmed by the frustration of being utterly unable to solve any of the numerous difficult problems it faces, a worn-out nation finally broke down Thursday morning and begged its smart people to please just fix everything now.

Admitting they had "absolutely no idea what the fuck [they were] doing," millions of Americans immediately ceased trying to manage the country’s large-scale, ongoing disasters and pleaded with U.S. scientists, economists, educators, philosophers, and inventors to intervene and make things better again. […]

Acknowledging they lacked the know-how to put anything together without it all falling apart again in a matter of seconds, millions of ordinary Americans implored the nation’s skilled individuals to just use their knowledge to end the financial crisis, manage the health care industry, determine which human beings are actually fit to hold political office, teach the nation’s children, and enact overarching policy decisions that serve the greater good.

Citizens across the nation also promised to stay completely out of the way while those people who actually have some idea what they’re doing roll up their sleeves and get down to the bottom of all this. In addition, the competent have been issued assurances they will not be hindered by irrelevant, totally uninformed opinions while they are getting things done.

"You won’t hear a single word out of us, we swear," said Chicago real-estate broker Paul Linder, mentioning that smart people can have all the time and resources they need to make the necessary repairs to society.

Complexity and Institutional Distrust, a Blogger’s Lament

After every post I write attempting to elucidate a small sliver of a difficult question, I’ll soon stumble upon a piece by some other writer which raises a different angle to the question that I did not consider. Sometimes it nicely supplements my own points, and sometimes it leaves my entire post in intellectual shatters. So it goes. This is a generalist blog which at its best aspires to synthesize widely disparate areas of human behavior and endeavor. It fails often; one can only synthesize so much, across so many domains. Only rare polymaths can weave together coherent narratives and analyses culled from the endless back catalogue of human history, politics, art, science, and economics. The rest of us operate within a narrow and attenuated amplitude, which is why it’s a nice idea to keep our conclusions modest and provisional.

This problem of information synthesis is why writers and policy analysts tend to specialize. Adam Smith explained the profound productivity benefits of labor division, but he also warned that such stark division might atrophy one’s interest in, and ability to understand, phenomena outside one’s particular domain. Specialization may in this way “corrupt the courage of the mind” and leave us ill-equipped to deal with multivariate issues of common concern.

As our modern systems and institutions become more complex, requiring more and more micro-specialization to understand each tiny constituent part, it becomes near impossible for anyone to step back and see how the systems relate to one another. As the complexity of modern political and economic life deepens, the systems become more globally integrated, and therefore more fragile. Just when the ability to synthesize and understand the totality is most urgent, hardly anyone among us is able to do so.

I think this unprecedented complexity and growing inability to synthesize information across domains has profound implications for our politics.

We are in the midst of a crisis of authority in this country in which the legitimacy of and trust in our traditional institutions has been undermined. The church, government, the Supreme Court, mass media, corporations, schools—are all experiencing near-historic lows in public confidence. Some of this is recession-related no doubt (bank hatred), but much of it is cumulative. Here is the basic state of things:


One reason for the growing public distrust in our elite institutions is the seeming failure of these institutions to foster shared prosperity and the inefficacy of our political class to resolve any of our most urgent problems.

But I think the basic inability of most people to understand what the hell is going on has some explanatory power as well. I think this lashing out at traditional institutions of authority is a reaction against the impotency in the face of the staggering complexity of our modern economic and political systems.

This dawning of complexity really began accelerating with the rise of globalization and the end of the Cold War, and culminated in two events: 9/11, and the financial crisis.

Prior to the end of the Cold War and the rise of true global integration, Americans to some degree had been insulated economically, culturally, and politically. Suddenly the shades were drawn up and we rubbed our collective eyes and we saw a whole interconnected world out our window. Unimaginably complicated financial interactions, political and religious ferment all around, previously dispossessed and impoverished societies demanding recognition and prosperity and security; beguiling technological breakthroughs. We rode a tech bubble through this vertiginous era, and easy credit and rising asset prices, along with unmatched military supremacy, helped provide the veneer of insularity to which we were so accustomed.

The veneer was stripped away on 9/11, and the modern world—by way of the 7th century—flooded in for good. We were offered innumerable explanations for what had happened. It was our freedom; it was foreign policy blowback, it was poverty, religion, the consequence of dictatorship and political repression. Americans had no historical context with which to make sense of it, and no ability to synthesize these complex and interconnected social disciplines. How to understand the lineage of Islamic thought and the wellsprings of accumulated grievance and pathology running through the Arab and Muslim world? I never learned about that in school. What of the sectarian and ethnic divisions that had convulsed a quarter of the world for a millennium? Nope.

As benumbed Americans fell back on the ready-made tropes of demonization and jingoism and nationalism, our elites were equally clueless. They gave us TSA, torture, warrantless surveillance, CIA kill lists. The president said Iraq and we said sounds good. We spent the next several years fumbling through ill-conceived and ill-executed wars in deeply hostile places, and at home we were changing the relationship between state and citizen, likely forever.

Then the financial crisis hit. While were were still flailing about through our newly-discovered political vulnerability, our crippling economic vulnerability revealed itself. We discovered our collective economic fate was controlled by unscrupulous bravados who conjured up exotic financial instruments that none of them understood, based on bunk risk models, in order to realize short term profits and bonuses. There was a whole new set of explanations and buzzwords: tranches, CDOs, Glass-Steagall, Dodd-Frank, Basel III, TARP, flash crashes, Fannie Freddie. There was a whole new cast of villians. Banks, yes, but also federal debt, public unions, Wall Street, the federal reserve system, China, illegal immigrants.

We are all now faced with the same problem of synthesis that I struggle with in miniature on the blog. How to understand and explain why the fate of our financial well-being depends on whether the Eurozone monetary union is fortified? On arcane votes by the Slovakian Parliament or popular referenda in Greece. Why American job growth depends on raising nominal GDP targets. Why income stagnation, rising inequality, why the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, the rise of China and India. Where does education fit in? Health care? Immigration? And I hear those climate problems are still with us.

What of the hardening class lines and lack of income mobility in this country that entrap people by accident of birth? Is it regulations and marginal tax rates? Is it monetary policy? Is it our weak redistributive welfare state? Technological displacement? Unskilled immigration? Declining marriage rates? I have impressions but I don’t know! Who does?

So how have we reacted to this impenetrable thicket of complexity? Look back at the graph above. We lash out and rather indiscriminately blame all of our elite institutions of traditional authority. Faced with our own inability (with good reason!) to articulate substantive critiques and marshall sound arguments in support of our reflexive policy preferences, voters and politicians alike settle on simplistic platitudes, emotional appeals, identity- and heritage-mongering, slogans from perceived golden ages.

None of these phenomena are new, and of course it’s not the first time that bedeviling events have evolved beyond our capacity to understand them. But I believe this new brand of complexity we face, revealed emphatically by 9/11, globalization, and the financial crisis, has given us a slate of unprecedented policy challenges that admit of no apparent solution.

Attempting to synthesize these infinite data points across myriad academic sub-specialties may be futile for all but the freak geniuses among us; but alas, we are incorrigible pattern-seeking creatures and we’d rather settle on an impoverished narrative than no narrative at all (which likely describes this whole post). Politicians are as stymied and impotent as the rest of us. So they glom on to ready-made sophistry churned out by partisan think tanks, telling us it’s simple, we just do what we did before, we do what Reagan did thirty years ago, we regain our surety and our sense of agency by means of a mysterious alchemy involving American ingenuity and the rolling up of sleeves and squinting anew at the words of the founding fathers in search of hidden signposts.

I don’t mean to make this a partisan argument because I don’t think anyone is immune. But clearly a right-wing militarist political party with reactionary social instincts is especially vulnerable to all this. When you graft the profound changes in our culture on top of the political and economic morass, you have the recipe for a rather difficult Republican moment, which we are in the midst of now. What sort of basic ideological and cultural biases must one revisit and overturn in order to actually grapple with and assimilate these changes? Very few people are interested in that sort of skin-shedding. It will take a long time.

We have had amorphous protest movements on the right (Tea Party) and the left (Occupy Wall Street). Both have as their targets one or more institutions of traditional authority. In one way, the fall from grace of these instutitions is welcome, as they have proven themselves inept in dealing with the problems of compounding complexity.

But this loss of trust is also troubling. While these institutions are insufficient, they are also necessary. There is a worrying strain of nihilism running through this elite backlash. With the terminal undermining of trust in our institutions, the very idea of collective action in response to national problems takes a hit as well.

Politically and electorally, this will lead to a tumultous time. If our elite institutions are seen as suspect and effete, the politicians empowered to run and regulate them will be seen that way as well. This will induce a period of rapid electoral see-sawing as we flit from one partisan savior to another. This constant instability might make our institutions even less effective and further undermine public trust, leading to ever-more violent electoral swings and partisan rancor.

That’s a rather dystopian vision and I hope I’m wrong. But I do not see our reaction to the problems of network complexity and multivariate synthesis growing more sophisticated any time soon. In the meantime you can continue watching me lurch about for answers.