Jun 28, 2012

Who Is John Roberts?

We'll never know. (Let me say first that I called this one wrong. I though the mandate at least was going down. Rarely so glad to be wrong.) But here's a negative look:
By voting with the liberals to uphold the Affordable Care Act, Roberts has put himself above partisan reproach. No one can accuse Roberts of ruling as a movement conservative. He’s made himself bulletproof against insinuations that he’s animated by party allegiances.
But by voting with the conservatives on every major legal question before the court, he nevertheless furthered the major conservative projects before the court — namely, imposing limits on federal power. And by securing his own reputation for impartiality, he made his own advocacy in those areas much more effective. If, in the future, Roberts leads the court in cases that more radically constrain the federal government’s power to regulate interstate commerce, today’s decision will help insulate him from criticism. And he did it while rendering a decision that Democrats are applauding.
“For those of us who oppose the Affordable Care Act as a policy matter, this is a bad day,” Barnett said. “For those of us in this fight to preserve the limits of constitutional government, this is not a bad day.”
And a positive look, from about the unlikeliest source imaginable:
There's probably nothing in the near future that would restore more faith in the American system than a solid majority upholding Obamacare. Here's hoping Roberts realizes that.
Roberts! Well I'll be dipped in shit. I have no idea which one of those is right, but today was a good day for America, our government, and most of all the millions of uninsured out there. Let's savor this one for a minute.

Jun 27, 2012

Two Short Takes

Two things. First, an encouraging court result, where the DC Appeals Circuit upheld the responsibility of the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases. Garrett Epps has the goods. The weirdest part of the case was where the industry group did one of those broken borrowed kettle-type arguments, where you say (1) the kettle isn't broken, (2) it was broken when I borrowed it, and besides (3) I never borrowed that kettle in the first place:
A group of state governments, and a number of industry groups, immediately challenged the new rules in federal court. Their arguments, essentially, were three. First, they said, we don’t really know whether global warming is occurring or if it is caused by humans. Second, even if it is a real phenomenon, the courts should require agencies to pretend it isn’t, because believing in global warming would cost too much. Finally, and remarkably, they argued that the new permit requirements were illegal because they did not regulate greenhouse gases strictly enough.
The DC judges didn't buy it, thank goodness.

Second, there is a truly stupendous piece in Fortune, by Katherine Eban, about the Fast and Furious scandal that completely upends the discussion. If Eban is right, almost every premise of the conventional wisdom, especially the part about ATF agents deliberately "walking" guns across the border, is wrong. It's such a staggering piece that it's a little bit hard to believe, but there are a lot of documents contained in the link, and she's got a lot of people on the record. I'll be paying attention to this one.

It's wouldn't be right to excerpt it, so I'll just recommend in the strongest possible terms you read the whole thing. I was glued to the screen, stunned. And while it's immediately going to be jammed into a partisan box, the interesting thing is that it's not really a partisan piece—it's just a great bit of journalism about "weak laws, incompetent prosecutors, juvenile bickering within the ATF's Phoenix division, a CBS reporter who basically got played, and a craven bunch of managers and politicians who decided to throw the operation under the bus because it was too politically risky to just tell the truth."
Read it.

Jun 26, 2012

New Tunes

I've been making an effort to discover some new music, the way I used to do in South Africa. Here's my latest find, "Breezeblocks" by alt-J:

A Central Bank Always Has Iron Control Over Inflation

Naked Capitalism has an uncharacteristically sloppy and obnoxious post up by Stephanie Kelton, some econ professor, lambasting the chorus of econ bloggers who have been calling on the Federal Reserve to fix the economy. The obnoxious part is at the beginning, where she postulates a conspiracy trying to shift blame away from the president and onto the Fed. Let's set that aside. Here's the meat of her argument:
And so instead of building a powerful, unrelenting case for further fiscal easing, mainstream progressives are focused on the Fed, demanding that it do just as much to promote growth and employment as it does to promote price stability. How? By following Krugman’s advice and “credibly committing to a higher inflation target,” which, it is argued, will stimulate spending by lowering the real rate of interest. It’s a policy recommendation that only an economist (or someone with enough credit hours to be dangerous) could conjure up. I almost hope the Fed tries it so that we can banish this proposal to the wasteland of failed policy recommendations (along with QE1, QE2 and Operation Twist). But millions of Americans are suffering and so I really do not want to see us pursue a losing policy just because the alternative looks like a political nonstarter.
The zero bound isn’t the problem. Brazil’s central bank has cut its policy rate by 400 basis points since August 2011. That’s 4 percentage points in under a year! Meanwhile, growth continues to slow and inflation is falling. Why? Brazil isn’t up against the zero bound (far from it, rates are at 8.5 percent). The problem is that monetary policy is a blunt instrument (at best). Committing to a higher inflation target isn’t going to pull us out of the economic doldrums.
Spotted the error? Kelton says an inflation target won't work, and cites Brazil, which did not adopt an inflation target. Instead, they cut rates. I agree, that's a blunt instrument, but it's nothing at all like adopting an inflation target.

Let's step back a second. A central bank has absolute, unquestioned control over the supply of currency. They can create arbitrary quantities of it at nearly zero cost. If they commit themselves in public to inflating that currency by some percent, and take serious steps to start up the presses, you'd have to be insane to bet against that inflation. Or, consider this analogy:
Imagine a situation in which you are the only person in the world who’s capable of producing diamonds. But you also have the ability to produce arbitrary quantities of diamonds, at any time, instantly, and at zero cost. Now why on earth would anyone worry that you might be unable to reduce the price of diamonds? I think that if someone in that position said, “I want to make diamonds 25 percent cheaper and intend to do whatever it takes to make that happen” that the price of diamonds would fall more or less immediately by roughly 25 percent. After all, the magical diamond man has promised he’s going to make this happen. You probably wouldn’t need to do anything at all. To be sure, just to show the world that you’re not a jerk and to maintain your credibility for the future it would probably be wise to follow-up the crash in the diamond futures market with the production of some actual new diamonds. So instead of diamonds, say you had the ability to produce arbitrary quantities of dollars….
For how a bit more inflation might help the recovery, see here. Krugman's case is stronger than Kelton says, and she doesn't address how inflation helps erode the real value of debt, while strangely insisting that fiscal stimulus (more government spending) is the way to...help households deleverage.

Finally, Kelton also doesn't address what is probably the most effective action the Fed could take: namely, printing money and giving it out to everyone (or just electronically adding $10,000 or whatever to everyone's bank account). If we're still lagging in aggregate demand—meaning we don't have enough spending throughout the economy—then handing out money is about the most straightforward way to get some. It sounds crazy, which is probably why it's so politically implausible, but the economics are ironclad.

UPDATE: I should clarify that I'm not against fiscal stimulus either, just that monetary policy is also important, and does work. These are two great tastes that taste great together. Furthermore, there is a real danger than any economic recovery kicked off by fiscal stimulus would be strangled in a the crib by a Fed fanatically committed to 2 percent inflation uber alles.

Jun 25, 2012

Quote for the Day

"With the prevailing capitalist order aware that it is in trouble but unable to conceive of practicable alternatives, Žižek’s formless radicalism is ideally suited to a culture transfixed by the spectacle of its own fragility." From the NYRB, in a masterful review by John Gray.

A Hack Supreme Court Is Bad News

With the Supreme Court decision about the fate of Obamacare coming down Thursday, there is a lot of hand-wringing on the left about the state of American institutions. James Fallows says looking at the last decade-plus of jurisprudence, this represents a "long-term coup:"
It's a simple game you can try at home. Pick a country and describe a sequence in which:
  • First, a presidential election is decided by five people, who don't even try to explain their choice in normal legal terms.
  • Then the beneficiary of that decision appoints the next two members of the court, who present themselves for consideration as restrained, humble figures who care only about law rather than ideology.
  • Once on the bench, for life, those two actively second-guess and re-do existing law, to advance the interests of the party that appointed them.
  • Meanwhile their party's representatives in the Senate abuse procedural rules to an extent never previously seen to block legislation -- and appointments, especially to the courts.
  • And, when a major piece of legislation gets through, the party's majority on the Supreme Court prepares to negate it -- even though the details of the plan were originally Republican proposals and even though the party's presidential nominee endorsed these concepts only a few years ago.
How would you describe a democracy where power was being shifted that way?
Just for example.
I've been arguing with bmaz on Twitter all week about this sort of thing. He says it's totally bogus, that the individual mandate objection is legally legitimate, and that liberals need to quit whining when judges rule against us. I happen to strongly disagree about the legal objection (see here and here), but I'm not a lawyer so let's set that aside.

I'll grant that ideological decisions are usually fine, and with us forever in any case. The problem with the Obamacare decision would be the level of radical hackishness, a very different concept. Hacks have little actual ideology aside from a willingness to do anything to promote the interests of whoever's in power on their team. John Yoo is a good example.

The most troubling thing about the prospect of overturning the individual mandate is that it's a conservative idea. It was proposed by the Heritage Foundation (!), and was part of Bob Dole's healthcare plan back when conservatives felt like the had to give a crap about the uninsured. Which is to say, from any sort of reasonable perspective, there is not a consistent ideological objection to Obamacare that comes anywhere close to justifying the conservative howling about the death of freedom. Conservatives have quite clearly whipped themselves into a frenzy over something that, should President Romney have passed it, they would have accepted without question.

I don't mean exactly to cast aspersions on their sincerity, by the way. This is probably some combination of cynicism, motivated reasoning, and increasing ability to believe strongly in whatever is on Fox News, and I'm not sure which is worse.

But in any case a Supreme Court full of people "willing to pretend they don’t speak English" in order to advance their party's agenda would be one more step down the road to a failed state. There's a reason Egypt is a corrupt basketcase, and it has a lot to do with the fact that their highest court does things like this. That's the kind of country where "there is no such thing as law, there is only power," and as Kevin says:
If the court does overturn the mandate, it's going to be hard to know how to react. It's been more than 75 years since the Supreme Court overturned a piece of legislation as big as ACA, and I can't think of any example of the court overturning landmark legislation this big based on a principle as flimsy and manufactured as activity vs. inactivity. When the court overturned the NRA in 1935, it was a shock—but it was also a unanimous decision and, despite FDR's pique, not really a surprising ruling given existing precedent. Overturning ACA would be a whole different kind of game changer. It would mean that the Supreme Court had officially entered an era where they were frankly willing to overturn liberal legislation just because they don't like it. Pile that on top of Bush v. Gore and Citizens United and you have a Supreme Court that's pretty explicitly chosen up sides in American electoral politics.
(On a side note, there's probably nothing in the near future that would restore more faith in the American system than a solid majority upholding Obamacare. Here's hoping Roberts realizes that.)

Jun 24, 2012

Why I Hope iPads Are Not The Future of Computing

Farhad Majoo, in a couple Slate pieces on the new Apple laptop and the new Windows 8 tablet, has an bizarre conceit running through both of them: that tablet computers are going to kill the PC:
At the same time that it is killing the PC, Apple keeps extending the life of the personal computer with notebooks like the Air. That the same company is doing both these things is quite strange and spectacular—imagine if, in addition to building the Model-T, Henry Ford was also working on a way to breed faster, less smelly horses.
Is the iPad really killing the PC? Personally, every single person I know that has an iPad also has at least one PC, and it's not really a replacement. Rather, it's for gadget nuts or for people who like consuming media on a handy and portable device. But when it comes to doing something serious on the iPad, it sucks. Manage a spreadsheet, or type a long document? Even just upload a single file without going through iTunes? (You can do that with Linux, by the way.) I think Kevin Drum has this right:
Here's the thing: I have an iPad. I like it! Millions of other people like it. But let's be honest: it's a toy. It doesn't have a file system you can use. It doesn't run real apps. It can't exchange data with your Mac easily. It has a bunch of limitations on what you're allowed to do with it. (You can't upload files via a website, for example.) Put all this stuff together, and for most of us the iPad simply can't replace our main computer. In fact, it doesn't even play very well with our main computer.
So the new Surface is going to be a tablet with a nifty detachable keyboard. Or: a laptop with a touchscreen. More convenient, slicker, easier to use for Grandma, sure, and if you stretch there could be a "new paradigm" in there. But not a gigantic conceptual upgrade from mouse + keyboard + screen. I'd wager that for real work, we'll still have mice in five years, because despite all the elegant touchscreen widgets I haven't seen one that even comes close to the pinpoint accuracy you can get with a mouse for fine work. Even just getting the cursor between two letters of a word is a pain. Even if I'm wrong about that, as Kevin says, the encouraging thing about the Surface is that it might actually work.

See, the real reason I hope iPad-style computing is not the wave of the future is Apple's approach to the user. Here's Manjoo on the new Surface:
For the first time in its history, Microsoft is taking PC hardware as seriously as it does software. The software giant is coming around to a maxim that archrival Steve Jobs always held dear—that the best technologies come about from the tight integration of code and manufacturing, and that no company can afford to focus on just one half of that equation.
Apple is a Stalinist dictatorship of a company, and they treat their users accordingly. Everything on the iPad must be directed through Apple-approved channels, and only Apple-approved applications will run on the thing (unless you've got a Linux box, or are willing to jailbreak it). Apple makes pretty good software, so their devices work well if you're willing to play only in their walled garden, but let's be clear about what this "tight integration of code and manufacturing" is. It means deliberately crippling the functionality of the device so that the user is forced to spend more time and money in the Apple ecosystem. The only difference between the iPad's command-and-control system and the crapware that lards up most new PCs (and Samsung Android tablets) is in functionality. The intent is the same, and it has nothing to do with making the "best technologies."

Computing may be heading for the iPad dystopia outlined by Cory Doctorow:
We're not making a computer that runs only the “appliance" app; we're taking a computer that can run every program, then using a combination of rootkits, spyware, and code-signing to prevent the user from knowing which processes are running, from installing her own software, and from terminating processes that she doesn't want. In other words, an appliance is not a stripped-down computer—it is a fully functional computer with spyware on it out of the box.
But I sure hope not.

Jun 23, 2012

Quote for the Day

"So on the one hand, the Washington Post believes that the notion that the US has an ‘empire’ is self-evidently ridiculous. On the other hand, it suggests that if Ecuador is impertinent enough to host an individual whom the US doesn’t like (but would have a hard time pressing charges against), it should and will express its displeasure by crippling Ecuador’s economy and threatening the livelihood of 400,000 of its citizens. These few sentences are rather useful, despite themselves, in talking to the nature of the American imperium, the doublethink that maintains it, and the usefulness of providing/withholding market access as a means of imperial coercion." --Henry Farrell, responding to this WaPo op-ed.

Jun 21, 2012

The Latest From Die Antwoord

Music from South Africa. Weird, disturbing, and a little violent. As per usual.

A Bloody Economic Analogy

I was holding down the table for the Monthly at the Take Back the American Dream conference on Tuesday, and got to see Chris Hayes do a live interview of Paul Krugman. It was a good chat, but they talked for awhile about an economic metaphor that got me thinking: "the economy has magneto trouble," Krugman said, quoting Keynes. This was to spark (groan) the idea that the catastrophic effects of a depression are of a simple and mostly technical sort—a magneto being an old-timey word for part of the electrical system of a car (today we'd call it an alternator) which provides power to the spark plugs. It's cheap and easy to replace, but if yours is broke, your car won't start. Realizing that when people hear "magneto," they probably think of the X-Men villain, Krugman came up with a different metaphor, saying right now the economy is like a car missing a battery. Nothing fundamentally wrong with the car, just pony up the cash to replace the battery and everything will be fine.

All very good, but as far as metaphors go that one is pretty crude. It got me trying to invent something more ambitious: a simple, intuitive, easily-understood simile summarizing the basic concepts of macroeconomics. This wouldn't capture all the nuances of various models, but only give lay people a toehold to help refute the economic misconceptions people's natural intuition seems to generate.

Here's my idea: the economy is like a human body.* I mean this in a kind of macro-anatomical sense. So the economy is composed of lots of interlocking parts. There are infrastructure and transport sectors, agriculture, money, information transmission, etc. It's tremendously complex, but when things are good all of them work in tandem so that most everyone who wants a job has one, factories are working at capacity, and so on. Similarly, the body is composed of lots of interlocking parts. You have a skeleton and muscles, the digestive tract, the circulatory system, the nervous system, etc. When everything is good, they all work together and you feel healthy.

The order here is deliberate—in this scheme blood is analogous to money. In the economy, the banking system pumps money around the country where dollars are exchanged for goods and services. Inside the body, the heart pumps blood around where oxygen is "exchanged" for productive effort, like digestion, movement, or thought.

So how can we think about a depression? In the real world, a depression is where we have lots of perfectly good unused capacity (idle factories, empty trucks) sitting around, while at the same time lots of unemployed workers desperate for a job. In our econo-body we had a heart attack (the financial crisis), and our circulatory system seized up and stopped pumping blood around the body properly. We got defibrillated by the EMTs (emergency actions in 2008-09) so we stopped getting worse, but now, we have persistent low blood pressure. This is the key idea. Our muscles are still strong, our organs are still in good shape, and our bones haven't rotted (yet). But we feel tired and weak all the time because our heart isn't delivering enough oxygen. We could be much more active than we are, going to work and playing with our kids, but instead we're sleeping all day.

So if we've got chronic fatigue due to a shortage of blood reaching the organs, one natural thought is to make some more blood. That's the Milton Friedman monetary policy solution. Similar to how your bone marrow is responsible for creating new blood cells, the Federal Reserve can create arbitrary quantities of money. Print more money until the economy is back to full capacity, then back off.

If you even mention the words "print money" boneheads like Peter Schiff howl about hyperinflation, but again the metaphor is instructive. In our econo-body, too-high inflation is analogous to high blood pressure. It's ridiculous to worry about high blood pressure if you're currently in the midst of low pressure crisis. Just like how we won't get high blood pressure until our veins and arteries are filled to capacity and we're back to fully active, we won't get hyperinflation until the economy is running at capacity and prices can be bid up instead of just bringing in idle resources (or as Karl Smith would say, there is no such thing as immaculate inflation). See here for a more in-depth explanation of this point.

Of course, in our econo-body our problem is with our heart. If we had some magic device to force the bone marrow to crank out more blood, it wouldn't do much unless the heart was working properly, so perhaps we must fix the banking system before we can recover. This still holds for the most part—it's why zombie banks can be so terrible for a country— but the analogy fails in that in the last resort the central bank can just mail money to people (or drop it out of helicopters), bypassing the banking system altogether. In point of fact, though, central banks don't do this. Most of the money-printing from the Fed and the ECB has gone into the banking sector, which largely just ate it without pumping it around.

Anyway, the other major cure for a depression is Keynesian fiscal stimulus. This is what Paul Krugman is always talking about, where the government borrows money and spends it on anything handy. This would be analogous to borrowing a pint of blood from someone else and using it to re-pressurize your vascular system.  (This is a tougher point to make, so ideas would be appreciated, especially in capturing the point that depressions are a great time to make some cheap investment in infrastructure.)

These are the main points, what I would use to replace the "magneto trouble" metaphor. But talking it over with my girlfriend and writing it up I thought of some more points where the metaphor could be expanded.

1) Regulators are like the immune system. It's possible for them to be too zealous, like when you have allergies, but if you have a real sickness or tumor you want them out there laying forth with the hammer of justice. The way cancer (extractive elites) kills you is by diverting more and more of your productive capacity into useless, unproductive tissue. Our current situation also makes me think of HIV, where the disease has infiltrated the regulators that are supposed to protect us.

2) Low and steady inflation is like normal blood pressure. Something a lot of people have a hard time understanding is that inflation is a positive good. No change in the price level (0% inflation) is a bad thing and deflation is a horrible thing. Inflation puts pressure on big holders of capital to get their money out there supporting economic activity, similar to how your heart builds pressure to force blood out to your extremities. (Another big benefit of inflation as I understand it, though, is how constant steady price movement keeps imbalances from building up, but I couldn't think of a simple way to include that.)

The main problem I see with this scheme is with including the idea of expectations. The way the central bank influences the economy through statements of policy is hugely important, and it's not very close to how a body works.

Finally, any input, especially from real economists, to flesh out these points or correct mistakes would be highly appreciated.

*My actual knowledge of the human body isn't systematic, and I'm sure medically or biologically speaking this whole discussion is riddled with oversimplifications and distortions. If I've made a huge mistake by all means let me know, but remember this is just a simple, intuitive analogy for people to get their teeth into, not a med school class.

Jun 19, 2012

Why You Should Read Chris Hayes' Book

As regular readers are aware, I'm a huge fan of Chris Hayes. Accordingly, I went to his event at Politics and Prose last night (an hour early to get a good seat), and for the first time in I can't remember how long, bought a new, hardcover copy of a book I've already read for solidarity reasons.

I wasn't disappointed. Hayes, as you might expect from a TV man, is very good at talking, and gave a good talk. I've already written a lot about his book, so I won't rehash the content, but it was well done. Somewhat more surprisingly, he was also very good at working the microphone, even leaning into it and dropping his voice to make a punchline standup comedian-style. And he was very kind and gracious at the signing, remembering my review of his book and complimenting my writing, which caused my brain to seize up like a flash-frozen halibut.

Anyway, listening to one of the fans ahead of me in line last night I was reminded of the reason why I liked it so much. Not exactly because of Hayes' intellectual case for the decline of the meritocracy (which is very timely, cogent, and well worth discussing in itself, don't get me wrong), but because Hayes, more than anyone else I've ever read, really captured the feeling and nuance of what coming and age during a time of catastrophic elite failure is like. To make a bit of a hyperbolic comparison, it reminds me of the way people talk about how The Great Gatsby captured the essence of the Roaring Twenties.

This is a very nerve-wracking time to be alive. (As the curse goes, "may you live in interesting times.") Watching Europe implode, and the president assassinate American citizens, and the top level of our financial system evolve into an enormous tick buried in the neck of the country, can be terribly lonely and alienating. To read and listen to someone like Chris, who gets it, who isn't reciting bullshit mind-numbing platitudes on his show, who seems to be honestly grappling with the problems facing the world, is comforting on a deep, almost spiritual level in a way that is very difficult to describe.

Or, as Ze Frank puts it:

If you're youngish, like me, and/or you feel some existential stress about the state of the world, read the book. You won't regret it.

Jun 17, 2012

End the Senate!

Thinking back on what is probably Caro's best book so far about Johnson, Master of the Senate, I'm struck again and again at how strange the institution of the Senate looked compared to today. Everyone knows that the parties back then had little in the way of coherent political ideology; both had liberal and conservative wings and bills were routinely passed on a bipartisan basis. Probably the most striking example of this was during the Eisenhower administration, where the Democrats were if anything more supportive of the president (particularly when it came to foreign policy) than the Republicans, who had significant isolationist and crazed anti-communist wings.

Before Johnson, Senate was a muddled tangle. Its committees were mostly controlled with an iron grip by Southerners (who abused the filibuster to stymie civil rights), its rules were a massive, illogical snarl of anachronisms, and its system of advancement was based on seniority, making many of its most powerful members feeble or senile. But the this very muddled, confusing nature, where individual senators held tremendous power and party discipline was not strong, meant that Lyndon Johnson's unsurpassed skill at personal manipulation and intrigue was extraordinarily effective.

LBJ got his power, and made the Senate work, mostly through personal relationships. He got the powerful old Senate bulls in the South to love him by limitless ass-kissing, and used that power base to get himself elected Minority Leader. He changed that position by upending the seniority rules slightly to give himself more power, then leveraged that power over committee seats as a threat to get even more power. Once firmly ensconced as Majority Leader, he used sheer force of personality, "supplication, accusation, cajolery, exuberance, scorn, tears, complaint and the hint of threat," to get the votes he needed, and procedural trickery to speed up or slow down Senate procedure as desired.

But with the kind of evolution we've witnessed in the past half-century, LBJ would be not nearly so successful in today's Senate. Sure, that kind of persuasive doggedness would be useful to use against the vacuous Democratic "centrist" caucus, but with lockstep partisanship and party discipline becoming ever-stronger, even Johnson wouldn't be able to round up Republican votes. The kind of cooperation with the President that he oversaw is simply unthinkable for the minority party these days.

The lesson here, I think, is that the Senate is a lousy institution. It's foolishly designed, its rules are idiotic, and for most of its history it has been a clot in the arteries of the republic. As it was before Johnson, the Senate again is a muddled tangle, where freedom goes to die. If we get the chance, it should be scrapped.

Jun 13, 2012

Drones Are Defensible, but They Are Not Being Used Defensibly

Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Greenwald, and Conor Friedersdorf have been in a bit of a spat over drones. Greenwald and Friedersdorf argue, in essence, that the drone campaign is doing more harm than good. Here's a representative quote from the latter:
Despite all these misgivings, it's the drone aided kill-stats to which Sullivan always comes back, as if our president's cool competence has allowed him to end the terrorist threat by remote controlled aircraft. But it really doesn't make sense to extol Obama every time a drone kills an Al Qaeda operative. There's no shortage of politicians who, if elected president, will give the CIA permission to fire on suspected terrorists in various foreign countries. Herman Cain would give that order. So would Rick Perry. Sarah Palin might even let drone operators practice on wolves. Would they be serving America's best interests in doing so? I don't think so. Neither does Jane Mayer. Nor Jeremy Scahill. Nor various anonymous officials quoted in The New York Times, who think we're creating more terrorists than we're killing.
Sullivan disagrees:
What frustrates me about Conor's position - and Greenwald's as well - is that it kind of assumes 9/11 didn't happen or couldn't happen again, and dismisses far too glibly the president's actual responsibility as commander-in-chief to counter these acts of mass terror. If you accept that presidential responsibility, and you also realize that the blowback from trying to occupy whole Muslim countries will be more intense, then what is a president supposed to do? I think the recourse to drone warfare is about as reasonable and as effective a strategy as we can find. It plays to our strengths - technology, air-power, zero US casualties, rather than to our weaknesses: occupying countries we don't understand with utopian counter-insurgency plans that end up empowering enemies Moqtada al Sadr and crooks like Hamid Karzai, and turn deeply unpopular at home. Given our country's fiscal crisis, massive expensive counter-insurgency is no longer a viable option.
Let me establish what I think are reasonable underlying principles. First, the United States faces a real threat from terrorist forces, some based overseas. This threat is partially the result of blowback from US bungling and partly the result of crazed, zealous hatred of the US. As The Looming Tower shows, there really is an anti-Western Islamist ideology that is not based on a desire for vengeance, just like how the gruesome government bungling at Waco and Ruby Ridge were combined with violent, paranoid militia nuttery in the mind of Timothy McVeigh. Second, any use of state violence is not intrinsically productive or counterproductive. Some wars are just and others are not. I imagine even Greenwald himself would agree that in some instances killing someone with a drone strike could be worth doing.

The problem, then, is in how it's done—the regime under which the drones are operating. Who are they killing, and why? How solid is the intelligence? Right now, lest we forget, the military is killing people whose identities they don't even know:
Today, the Defense Department can target suspects in Yemen whose names they do not know. Officials say the criteria are tighter than those for signature strikes, requiring evidence of a threat to the United States, and they have even given them a new name — TADS, for Terrorist Attack Disruption Strikes. But the details are a closely guarded secret — part of a pattern for a president who came into office promising transparency.
How exactly is one supposed to know we aren't just killing random people for no reason? I would say that there has to be some kind of oversight for this kind of thing to have a prayer of success. Not the press, necessarily, but perhaps a secret court, something like that. Someone not directly reporting to the President. Sullivan agrees, sort of:
Which is why this program needs to be very carefully monitored, excruciatingly reviewed, constantly questioned. So yes, I'm with Conor on the need for more accountability and transparency on this.
The awful truth of war is that innocents will die. Our goal must be to minimize that. Compared with the alternatives, drones kill fewer innocents.
Sullivan's position, as best I can make out, is that the drone program is troubling but necessary. We should have more oversight if possible, but on balance it's a good thing. Let me first agree very strongly with his contention that drones are preferable by far to ground invasions. But this is a false dichotomy. The choice shouldn't be drones vs. war, it should be effective vs. ineffective action. It looks to me that even if we give the administration the benefit of the doubt, there are not the structures in place that will ensure success in the long term.

I simply do not trust the security apparatus of this country any longer. Bush was eight long years of catastrophic failures, each one tripping over the last, and Obama looks decent only by comparison. Far worse, elite lawbreaking is no longer punished. The lesson of history is that unaccountable elites will abuse their power if they get half a chance. Nearly the entire top echelon of the last administration are war criminals, yet walk free. Several have boasted about their war crimes on television. Worst of all, the population doesn't seem to much care about or want to grapple with this fact.

Clearly we're pretty good at killing people, and we seem to be keeping a lid on Al Qaeda for the time being. But hundreds of civilians are also dying, and in a particularly brutal and dishonest way. John Brennan has lied over and over to cover up this fact. In my honest estimation, the next 9/11 just waits for us to lose interest, or the rot to spread so far among top officials that even with random carpet bombings, they can no longer actually hit their targets.

UPDATE: On further reading, clarified the sentence about McVeigh.

Jun 12, 2012

Internet Culture of the Day

I've been playing the same game of Civ II for 10 years. Though long outdated, I grew fascinated with this particular game because by the time Civ III was released, I was already well into the distant future. I then thought that it might be interesting to see just how far into the future I could get and see what the ramifications would be. Naturally I play other games and have a life, but I often return to this game when I'm not doing anything and carry on. The results are as follows.
-The world is a hellish nightmare of suffering and devastation.
-There are 3 remaining super nations in the year 3991 A.D, each competing for the scant resources left on the planet after dozens of nuclear wars have rendered vast swaths of the world uninhabitable wastelands.
Wow. Really, really interesting.

Jun 11, 2012


Well, I'm finally done for the time being filling in for Ed Kilgore. I kept meaning to put something up here but full-time blogging really wrings out my brain and I couldn't muster the energy. So, for now, here is a selection of the best posts I did over the last week or so:

1. Science Denial Is a Large and Growing Problem. This one blew up a little on Twitter.

2. Concern Trolling in the Times. Bill Keller recommended this one. Turns out, he is a remarkably terrible columnist.

3. Mitt Romney and Firefighters. The future holds more wildfire, bet on it.

4. Remember When Breaking the Law Used to Mean Something? Nixon was a criminal, sure, but Bush was  every bit as lawless. Plus, nobody cares, which is way worse.

5. The Liberal Path to Power. Summing up a lot of my recent thinking.

6. Jon Stewart and False Equivalence. Constant vigilance.

7. Poor Understanding of Monetary Policy Is Killing the Democrats. We need a crash course, children's book, something.

8. Why I Am Wary of Government. The last decade has been great for cynicism.

9. Age Discrimination on the Right. Jonah Goldberg is a fucking idiot.

Something like regularly scheduled programming should resume soon.

Jun 6, 2012

Programming Update

With our headline blogger still largely out of commission dealing with a medical emergency, I've been doing more blogging over at the Monthly site. If you're looking for something to read, check it out!

Jun 3, 2012

Graveyard of the Colorado, Part III

Upheaval Dome, via
[This is Part III of my dad's story about Cataract Canyon. Part I is here, and Part II is here.]

We begin to shuttle the people down to the beach at Ten Cent Rapid, the last one above the lake. Doug flies the people on a short detour round the field of spires and pinnacles known as the Doll’s House by way of accumulating actual vacationing points. We’re still having fun, right? Then he’s ready to take the gear and kitchen down to camp, only he doesn’t have a sling and it would take dozen trips to haul it all in the cockpit. “Throw it all on one of those boats,” he says, “I’ll just tie on to that.” 

“Are you sure?” I ask him right out, “We haven’t had the best luck trying to fly these things.” 

He fixes me with a cool eye. “Throw it on,” he says.

We use my boat, the “Tuolumne,” as the flying cargo container. There’s the kitchen full of cast iron cookware, stoves, food, tables; the toilet set-up goes in a hatch by itself.  I cram personal baggage into every hold till the lids will barely close and there is still a mountain of baggage on the beach. I look up at Doug. He’s leaning on the bubble of his chopper rolling a cigarette.

“Throw it on,” he says.

We pile the whole mound on the decks, personal gear, clothes, sleeping bags, tents, and more, run a rope through it, then make a sling out a couple of sternlines, the stoutest available rope. Last time we did this we had several days and a nearby hardware store to puzzle it out. Even then the first boat wouldn’t come off the ground till we had taken everything out but the oarlocks. I’m a little skeptical about the prospects this time and figure I’ll take my camera up behind a big rock away from flying debris to watch the attempted lift-off, in case there’s a dramatic photograph to be made. As if to raise the stakes, Doug says he would like us to push the boat out into the river before he takes off so he won’t have to worry about sand in the machinery. I have visions of Doug and his helicopter trolling my boat through the biggest white water on the continent like a seventeen-foot fishing lure, or perhaps hitting the end of its tether and being jerked from the sky like a broken kite. That’d serve him right, the cocky bastard.

Doug puts fire to the Llama, still smoking his handmade cigarette. A dozen of us tug the “Tuolumne” into the water and shove it out. I hightail it to my perch. Doug waits until the boat is fully in the current and picking up speed downstream before the copter rocks a little on the sand and bolts into the air. He doesn’t bother trying to gain altitude, instead just starts heading downstream at full throttle, and when he hits the end of the rope, the “Tuolumne” leaps into the air like a big red salmon in an explosion of spray and is instantly headed downstream at a hundred miles an hour, trailing the helicopter at a 45 degree angle.

Downwash is not a factor if the load is never below you.

Below the rapids, Doug sets the boat on the beach like I’d just pulled in with the bowpost bobbing in surge, hits release and heads for home. He’s almost out of gas. The rest of us will have to find our own way to camp. We’ve still got the snout rig, a formidable craft, 22 feet long, 36 inch tubes with a 20 horse Merc. It’s quicker to turn than the big rigs, and that’s what matters. To drive it, we’ve got a guy named Steve Bathemous, who was one of the last ones down before the Park Service cut everyone off. He is wearing a wetsuit and two lifejackets, and his hand shakes visibly on the throttle. Then there is our 17 foot Avon Spirit rowboat. They will both have to go to get us all there. Greg’s rescue party has doubled the size of the crew.

So we ran Cataract that day, which turned out to be the absolute peak day and were the only ones that did. Franklin, our trainee baggage boatman, rowed the whole thing by himself and was the only one on earth to do that too. We stopped above Niagara and stared down the steep incline into the depths of a hole that could have digested an uninterrupted stream of three bedroom houses moving by at 20 miles an hour. There was a narrow slot of continuous current directly off the right bank, but, though smooth, the water sloped down into the chasm of Niagara at an impossible angle. It seemed as if it would surely draw you in. 

It didn’t though. We survived and it was good. The people even enjoyed their trip across the lake the next morning and didn’t mention lawyers once. Mission accomplished, sort of. We still had seven dories abandoned in Cataract Canyon but I wasn’t interested in recovering them any time soon. Let the water drop for a couple of months. Let’s watch TV, play hearts or something.

Well, that wasn’t in the cards. There was unfinished business. The company needed the boats for other trips. The Park wanted them out too. Six days later we were back on the beach at Range Creek and the water was still Oh God Help Me high. Sixty eight thousand was the official tally of cubic feet of water hurtling by every second. We had always figured that thirty five was the top for dories because we’d had a trip go down at thirty three and their eyes were wide as saucers. We put two boatmen in each boat, everybody wearing two life jackets and did a little silent beseeching just in case. I was genuinely gripped. 

I don’t remember much about the trip down to the Drops. Mike Taggett, my partner that day, did a lot jumping around to the high side and we were slapped repeatedly by breaking waves that made a crack like the bow had been stove in. I was rowing a beautiful little Mackenzie dory that was set up for my wife who is 5’ 3”.  I couldn’t get my feet under the braces and was rolling around the deck like a bottle in the bilge water.  We got down to Big Drop I and made it across the rocketing current sheer into the eddy on the left that was filled with logs and all manner of spinning drift, where we stopped to scout Big Drop II, home of Niagara. A rapid going upstream in the eddy had standing waves a couple of feet high.

The river was still gnawing at its banks and the trip to the scout rock was through large loose angular rubble. The river looked the Brooks Range had been liquefied and poured into the canyon. Mike was next to me shouting in my ear, but I couldn’t hear him. The ground was vibrating and spray from minor waves pelted our faces from 50 feet away. I was trying to concentrate on my run and not to look at Niagara, which was still a sucking chasm. Everybody else thought the right slot was still open but it was narrower still and steeper yet and I thought the boats would surely fall off the sloping ledge of water and be vaporized. I was going left. I had made up my mind.

The left was a stupendous V wave. The left side of the wave was a huge crashing lateral that was flipping the motor rigs. The same thing had happened to all of them. They would come in powering right in hopes of blowing through the right side of the wave and tucking in below Niagara. It was going so fast and it was so hard to get the scale that they didn’t make it, and all ended up with the whole boat in the monstrous left lateral which was curtains. Guaranteed. Not only would you be flipped, if you didn’t get right after Niagara, whatever the reason, you were going straight into Big Drop III, through the quarter mile of continuous gnarl known as Satan’s Gut. The other side of the wave was a piedmont of water that rose to a peak near vertical. It had dual nature. One was a stationary tsunami of beckoning glass and the other, when the top had built beyond the vertical, was a towering mass of tumbling foam and solid water that broke upstream and rolled down the face like a liquid storm front. It would swallow a dory like a pea. The cycle took about 15 seconds.

Getting out of the eddy was a chore by itself and when we passed the first little marker wave I was truly shaken. The marker was huge. I began to push the boat forward like I had never pushed before. Everything was gigantic. We were moles on a heaving continent of brown water. The wave rose up before us and over the bow I could see nothing but sky. We were flying.

The wave broke right under the oarlocks. I could hear it rolling down the face behind us. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever done in a boat and it was sheer dumb luck.

[That's it for now! Hope you enjoyed the story.]

Jun 2, 2012

Elites and Intellectual Failure

I agree mostly with Matt Yglesias' diagnosis of the scariness of American political institutions, and the even greater uneasiness that European institutions inspire. I want to quibble with this graf however:
Think seriously about it and you'll see that it just can't be that everyone in Frankfurt and Brussels and Berlin and Madrid and Athens is incredibly stupid. Rather, the eurozone has blundered into a set of institutional arrangements that can't process the issues correctly and the rest of us can just stand and watch the wreckage unfold. Our problems are completely different in origin but similar in some important respects. Luce's book is the story of a United States that's suffering from a variety of fairly well-known problems that intellectually seem far from unsolvable. And yet our political system, for some fairly profound reasons, just isn't working on solving the problems. Instead, it's leaping toward another terrifying and pointless debt ceiling showdown even as political punditry remains excessively focused on personality conflicts rather than the structural roots of this dysfunction. It's time to start thinking.
Again, I think that this diagnosis of institutional failure is correct, and also that solutions to our problems are intellectually pretty easy. However I think the analysis of that failure has to include some room for straight-up inability to correctly understand things (for whatever reason, be it ignorance, stupidity, or some kind of prejudice). Check out this little segment with Paul Krugman and a couple British conservatives:

(As an aside, I do enjoy how the TV norms in Britain seem to lean more towards actual, back-and-forth discussion, rather than a bunch of hacks shouting carefully crafted talking points at each other.) It was striking to me how unable the conservatives were to actually engage with Krugman's points. He kept trying to separate the idea of being in a depression from other points about debt, deregulation, and the size of the state, and the conservatives simply didn't get it (see especially about 6:30). I'm reminded of 2010-2011, where Obama and his team made a "pivot" to concentrating on debt and deficits that was, from an intellectual or political standpoint, utterly boneheaded.

The whole political discourse these days is strongly reminiscent of the Great Depression years. Herbert Hoover presided over three years of disastrous economic failure, but went round saying things like:
Nothing is more important than balancing the budget with the least increase in taxes. The Federal Government should be in such position that it will need issue no securities which increase the public debt after the beginning of the next fiscal year, July 1. That is vital to the still further promotion of employment and agriculture. It gives positive assurance to business and industry that the Government will keep out of the money market and allow industry and agriculture to borrow the monies required for the conduct of business.
It wasn't just an institutional problem with Hoover. All the institutional incentives were lined up for him to fix the depression; he didn't, and as a result was utterly crushed at the polls in 1932. He was captured by an ideology that prevented him from operating in his own political self-interest. The same goes for most of the political elites in Europe, and Obama to a lesser extent. (Hoover deserves a bit more of an excuse, I suppose, in that there wasn't much of an economic consensus back in his day, but given how conservatives are prone to quoting his ideas nearly verbatim today I reckon even if Paul Krugman had been around back in 1930 Hoover would have done the same things.)

Being young and poor and therefore utterly divorced from the elites in this country, I can't say for sure what's happening here, but I have a suspicion that there is a rarefied culture among the elite (as Digby would call it, the Village) which basically makes them stupid. Elites are mostly very wealthy, which usually brings an enormous dose of self-regard and arrogance, as well as the belief that because they themselves became rich doing things in the economy, they therefore understand how it works. It's small and very insidery, and peer pressure and groupthink can make espousing out-group principles socially problematic. All that together and we have an elite culture which has a strong tendency to settle on simple, intuitive, emotionally appealing economic ideas like Hoover's, while excluding people like Krugman as "unserious" or unwilling to "make tough choices." That, maybe, is how you get career politicians doing the electoral equivalent of shooting themselves in the face.

So any institutional design should take this tendency into account, and somehow provide a way for political elites to be able to correctly predict the consequences of their policies. For more on elite culture, and how it develops, I very highly recommend Chris Hayes' new book Twilight of the Elites, available soon.