Monday, March 28, 2011

Can we afford to intervene in Libya?

I made a pie chart on Microsoft Excel to answer this important question. The main problem that I ran into is that the cost of the intervention in Libya is so tiny that it isn't really possible to accurately represent it graphically. On my chart, spending on Libya is only represented by a line, instead of a slice. It's still overstated, because pixels are pretty thick.

I guess the take home point here is that, while there may be a lot of reasons we should not intervene in Libya, cost really isn't one of them.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Is Obama Consistent on War?

A lot of people have been surprised that Obama was willing to launch military strikes on Libya. They should not be. When accepting his Nobel Peace Prize in Norway, Obama gave a long speech discussing issues of war and peace. After reviewing the speech, it is very clear that Obama's actions in Libya are entirely consistent with the principles he laid out in his speech. I've included some relevant sections:

Obama: "We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason."

Historians will look back on 2011 as an enormously important year in world history. The spread of non-violent revolutions throughout the Arab world has been remarkable and unpredictable. Gaddafi was the first despot to resort to heavy military force to crush the civilian protesters. If left unchecked, that precedent could easily break this wave of revolution, as subsequent despots would be more willing to crush their rebellions with military force. Obama spoke of times when force is necessary and morally justified; if not in Libya, then when?

Obama: "In many countries there is a deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter what the cause. And at times, this is joined by a reflexive suspicion of America, the world's sole military superpower...[but] the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving peace."

Indeed, there is a deep ambivalence toward military action even among many American citizens today. We must remember that history is a guide, not a blueprint. It is easy to make the mistake of over-learning the lessons of history. A useful example: WW-1 started in part because the belligerents were very nationalistic and almost eager to go to war. The world realized what a costly and pointless endeavor the war was after the fact. In response, France and Britain moved too far in the other direction. In the 1930s the West refused to consider military force, having learned the lessons of WW-1, while Hitler rearmed Germany.

Similarly, is tempting after the excesses and mistakes of the Bush years to swear off foreign adventures. We must recognize that the alternative to the unilateral, preemptive, and costly exploits of the Bush administration is not swearing off foreign intervention altogether. Rather, the alternative is to adopt approaches that are multilateral, based on existing threats, and modest.

Obama: "I believe that all nations -- strong and weak alike -- must adhere to standards that govern the use of force. I -- like any head of state -- reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation. Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to standards, international standards, strengthens those who do, and isolates and weakens those who don't.

Furthermore, America -- in fact, no nation -- can insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves. For when we don't, our actions appear arbitrary and undercut the legitimacy of future interventions, no matter how justified.

And this becomes particularly important when the purpose of military action extends beyond self-defense or the defense of one nation against an aggressor. More and more, we all confront difficult questions about how to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government, or to stop a civil war whose violence and suffering can engulf an entire region.

I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That's why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace."

It is clear that Obama reserves unilateral military action for direct threats to the United States. Libya poses almost no direct threat to the US, and this is why Obama did not unilaterally impose a no-fly zone earlier in the conflict. Also relevant for the Libyan situation: Obama questions how to protect civilians from their own governments, answering that force can be justified in those situations. He cites the Balkans as an example, which has many obvious parallels to Libya.

Obama: "America's commitment to global security will never waver. But in a world in which threats are more diffuse, and missions more complex, America cannot act alone. America alone cannot secure the peace...Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice. That's why NATO continues to be indispensable. That's why we must strengthen U.N. and regional peacekeeping, and not leave the task to a few countries."

After a decade of mostly Anglo-led war in Afghanistan and Iraq, many people have questioned the relevance of even NATO, with the relevance of the UN been thrown to the wayside a long time ago. The way Obama has prosecuted the effort in Libya has served to re-legitimize both NATO and the United Nations. If we can prove that a multilateral approach to world problems can work, we open the door for stronger efforts in the future. This has obvious benefits of taking the focus away from America.

Obama: "...within America, there has long been a tension between those who describe themselves as realists or idealists -- a tension that suggests a stark choice between the narrow pursuit of interests or an endless campaign to impose our values around the world...There's no simple formula here. But we must try as best we can to balance isolation and engagement, pressure and incentives, so that human rights and dignity are advanced over time.

The state of discourse in the United States reflects this false choice. The neoconservative Bush-era camp would have us embark on endless campaigns to impose our values around the world. These people balk at the prospect of multilateral action, and considered any international support to be little more than a bonus. Alternatively, with the rise of the Tea Party, there is a new isolationist camp that seems to believe we should never intervene anywhere. These people are over-reacting to the failures of the Bush administration.

We do not need to fall into this trap. The proper reaction to Bush's foreign policy failures is not an absence of foreign policy. It is a balanced foreign policy, one that cannot be reduced to a simple formula. It may call for interventions in some areas but not others. People may be frustrated by a president who allows himself to see the world in shades of grey. Viewing the world in black-and-white has the satisfaction of purity, I will admit. The real historical lesson of the Bush era is that falling into a position of ideological inflexibility leads to disaster; that is one mistake Obama has yet to make.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Intervention in Libya, Intervention in Congo

A lot of people have questioned why we intervene in Libya and not in places like the Congo, where civil war has resulted in the deaths of millions of people. The answer is that the nature of the threat to civilians in general is completely different. A useful analogy: if you have a gun, you can use it to protect your child from a wolf, but not from disease-carrying mosquitoes.

What is happening in the Congo and in many other failed states is a tragedy, but its very difficult for outsiders to stop the sort of low-tech civil war that goes on in places like that. The only real way to do it is to send massive numbers of US ground troops to impose order, and even then its very difficult and politically risky. There are situations in which it should be done anyway (Rwanda) but its easy to see that building up the political momentum for that kind of a mission might take longer than the conflict lasts.

By contrast, it is very easy for the US to stop civilian deaths if we can focus our efforts on a few targets, IE high-tech military forces like tanks and airplanes. Our military is built to deal with such threats. We can get there really quickly, because we have carriers all over the world. It is also far easier to secure political backing for such sorts of missions, since the risks are far lower.

Anyway, I do think that this effort has a reasonable shot at working. If you break the back of Qaddafi's military forces, and get a stalemate, then its just a war of attrition. If we are serious about getting him out, at that point we just impose an embargo on his oil exports and starve him out. Once his cronies realize the money well has dried up they will turn on him.

It is nice to dream of a world where our interventions are purely based on the gravity of the situation in the affected nation, but the reality is we have to pick our battles. We simply don't have the ground forces or the money to occupy every troubled spot in the world. But we do have an military that is really, really good at blowing up enemy tanks and airplanes. So if those are the weapons that a dictator chooses to use to kill his civilians, why not neutralize them?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

In Libya, we send a message to the militaries of autocracies.

The debate over Obama's actions in Libya have been hopelessly muddled by what happened in two other recent situations: what George W. Bush did in Iraq, and what Bill Clinton let happen in Rwanda. We must remember that there is a middle ground between "send 150,000 troops to occupy and nation build" and "let millions of people get massacred while the world watches". While Obama attempts to find that middle ground, critics are hysterical on both sides with claims that he is doing too much ("just like George Bush!") or not enough.

The truth is, our intervention in Libya is likely to be inconsequential more than anything. Our help may come too late to save the rebels. Even if they do hold out, they may not be able to finish the drive to the capitol to remove Qaddafi. Thats OK though, because the consequences of our intervention are similarly modest. We have a UN resolution and support from the Arab league. We aren't sending ground troops. Meanwhile, the Libyan military poses zero threat to us or our allies around the world. At best, we allow a revolution to drive out a dictator; at worst, our actions won't change anything.

There is another very good reason to intervene that I don't see many people talking about. This is an extremely important time in world history, with more revolutions in the Middle East almost certain to come. Our actions in Libya are very important, as they provide a very stark contrast for other militaries to consider. When a dictator in the future orders his military to attack civilians, what should the military do? They can take the example of the Egyptian military, and ignore their dictator's orders to shoot, thereby winning the adoration of their people, the support of the world, and the favors of America. Alternatively, they can follow the example of Libyan military, which followed Qaddafi's evil orders and ended up a smoldering, flaming wreckage as a consequence.

The threat of force won't deter everyone. For geopolitical reasons, we can't intervene in Iran, Syria, Bahrain, or some other potential hot spots. Still, this season of revolution is certain to be unpredictable. The single most important factor for the success of peaceful revolution is whether or not the military attacks the people. The last thing we want to do is send a message that it is OK for an air force or military to start attacking civilians. We would almost be inviting massacres. Even though it would be nice if some other country could deal with things for once, Obama is doing the right thing.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Congestion Pricing

We all know from experience that the severity of a 'traffic jam' is not linearly proportional to the number of cars. Instead, a traffic jam almost seems to be a product of a threshold effect. A given highway can handle any number of cars smoothly up to a certain point. Once that point is reached, additional cars rapidly cause the buildup of a traffic jam. Obviously this does not apply to jams caused by accidents or breakdowns, but most traffic jams aren't caused by those things. Most jams are caused by too many vehicles on too small of an artery.

The implication is that if we were to institute congestion pricing and reduce the overall number of cars by 20%, we may not be reducing the severity of the traffic jam by only 20%. The extra cars that don't show up because of congestion pricing may have been what pushed the highway over the traffic threshold had they been present. By getting rid of that extra 20% of the cars, we could potentially get rid of the majority of the traffic slowdown. This is sound policy on so many levels. Liberals and conservatives should all agree on this, but we don't have this policy yet. Too bad.

Moving Beyond the Automobile: Congestion Pricing from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

Monday, March 14, 2011

First Teachers, then Physicians?

If you view our governmental system as nothing more than a long protracted partisan war, I think the actions of Republicans make a lot of sense. Budgets need to be balanced, so why not make your political enemies foot the bill while letting allies off the hook? Teachers traditionally vote Democratic and their unions are a huge boon to Dem politics, so the GOP has come after them. I worry about this sort of 'trade warfare' as an American and as a future physician. I could be wrong, but my suspicion is that physicians as a group generally vote Republican. What if some hypothetical future extreme Democratic Party comes to power, looks at explosive health costs and deficits, notices that physicians support Republicans, and decide to punish us for it? They could simply block the medicare doc fix, or worse.

I resent the idea that one group should be faced with a disproportionate share of a social burden because they are on the losing side of politics. It is not unreasonable to expect sacrifice from public employees - and it looks like they were prepared to sacrifice in Wisconsin. At the same time, is gutting education spending the best way to secure our nation's long term prosperity? (If it was up to me, we'd cut teacher unions and tenure, but expand benefits and pay such as to make teaching jobs more competitive). There are more millionaires in New Jersey than teachers. There are other forms of public spending, including inefficient subsidies to various industries. There are of course costly entitlements, and the military. These dwarf our education spending in scale.

If Republicans are serious about improving our deficit situation, they need to do more than pay lip service to the notion of shared sacrifice. Focused partisan assaults on a few groups will never be accepted as fair. Any gains will be only temporary, and will simply be undone in the next electoral cycle. To make sustainable changes, changes that are accepted as fair by both political parties and thus not likely to be reversed, Republicans will need to cut government spending in all areas. They may have to injure some political allies in the process. That is the nature of compromise. Without mature leaders who were willing to compromise, our nation wouldn't exist; without them going forward, our nation won't exist.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Holding Our Leaders to a High Standard

Say what you want about the left, but they hold their leaders to standards that the right can only dream of. What is happening to Bradley Manning pales in comparison to what Bush was authorizing on a regular basis to be done to hundreds of captives we had in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo.

And yet, the outrage on the left against Obama is orders of magnitude greater than anything we saw from Republicans against their president. Republicans during the Bush era made apologizing and rationalizing their leader's blunders and excesses into an Olympic sport.

This is something conservatives should learn from the left. The next time your "small government" leaders try to expand entitlements, subsidize business with government money, or go on reckless foreign policy adventures, revolt against them!

This advice might be especially prescient given the situation in the Middle East and the fact that every GOP candidate for president apparently thinks we should have intervened militarily in Libya and Iran to help anti-government forces. Have none of them learned anything over the last decade?

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Republicans should repeal Medicare Part D

Republicans are obsessed with repealing costly health care bills. Why not start with Medicare Part D? This massive unfunded entitlement expansion was passed by the Bush Administration just before the 2004 elections to buy-off the senior vote. Why not repeal it today?

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Something George W. Bush got right

He did a good job, in the aftermath of 9/11, in reminding us that Muslim-Americans are good people and should not be confused with the extremists who attacked us. Its a shame that his supporters seem to have forgotten that.

Imagine that protest was at a synagogue, and its target was Jews. It would be a window into Germany circa 1933.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

A republic, if we can keep it.

It was really only a matter of when this sort of thing would happen rather than if, but Fox News was caught lying about the protests in Wisconsin. In this video, which Fox attributes to the pro-union protests in Madison, we see some violent protesters. Also notice there are palm trees in the background: there is no way this footage was from winter in Wisconsin.

Fox News makes "mistakes" like this all of the time. They may accidentally use the wrong footage to make a Tea Party protest look larger than it is, or they may misquote people, or take things out of context. And this is just when they are reporting, don't even get me started about when their pundits come on and start talking. It is hard to believe Fox is just innocently erring when these mistakes happen, because the change always happens to benefit a right-wing narrative. At any rate, the purpose of this post wasn't to point out a lie that Fox News is trying to sell. Thats old news.

An interesting fact that came up when I was reading about this latest lie was that Fox was recently denied access to Canadian television. Canada has a law in place that prohibits misleading or false information from being propagated from television news stations. A lot of people apparently wish we had a similar sort of law here in the states, but I don't. The most indispensable legal right we have in America is the 1st Amendment. That includes the freedom to lie, if that is the agenda of a person or organization. I want no affronts to the freedom of speech, and furthermore I would not want the government to spend effort deciding what is true and what is not (if that was even possible).

Ben Franklin told us after the constitutional convention that we have been given a Republic, if we can keep it. I am confident that when it comes to lies and propaganda, Americans as a group will see through it and will ultimately marginalize the source. I have written before: Fox News undermines conservatism. The phony debates they have on their network cheapens our discourse. The influence conservatives grant to Fox means that they, not we, decide who our party leaders are. Every time the network lies and gets caught, they hand a recruiting tool to the left.

The onus is on conservatives to demand better from Fox News.

(Another) Oil Bubble

Oil prices have been rising lately, probably caused by a multitude of factors. As the economic recovery quickens, demand will increase and so price along with it. Adding to the increases are all of the revolutions going on in the Middle East. Concerns are abound about Iran and Saudi Arabia in particular.

An important point that is often lost on people is that oil producers like Iran are in sort of a catch-22. In the event of an actual geopolitical crisis (a war, for example) with a subsequent disruption of oil supplies, the price of oil would indeed skyrocket. But if Iran isn't selling their oil, they don't benefit from that increased price. Thus it is in Iran's interest to increase tensions and concern of a geopolitical crisis without precipitating one. That way, the price of oil goes up and Iran makes a juicy premium on what it would have exported anyway.

Then you think about what would happen if there was actually a disruption: say a conflict in the Strait of Hormouz or a revolution in Saudi Arabia. The price of oil would skyrocket, possibly to close to 200 dollars a barrel. Consider though that both of those nations are heavily dependent on oil to keep their countries running. In the event of a disruption and subsequent price spike, that nation has a huge economic incentive to get their oil back to market ASAP to take advantage of the high prices. I don't care who takes over Saudi Arabia: you factor in the number of barrels they can export every day times a 200 dollar per barrel price, and its obvious that any disruption will be short lived.

Finally, I think its pretty clear that the demand for oil is pretty plastic. Americans waste a ton of fuel. Dressing warmer in the winter and heating homes less could save a lot. Carpooling, taking a bus, or riding a bike would save more. These are all things that we don't do now because gas is only 3 dollars a gallon; they are things we will do if gas hits 5-6 dollars a gallon. Adding to the flexibility of demand for oil is the fact that there *are* substitutes. Natural gas, nuclear power, and coal for example (the latter two could power cars via batteries).

Commodity speculators were almost certainly behind the spike of oil to 140 dollars per barrel that we saw a couple of years ago. A price at that level was not economically sustainable. With all of the aforementioned variables causing uncertainty in the oil market, the speculators no doubt will be at it again. All things being considered, we will almost certainly see another oil bubble soon. I suspect that prices over 130 dollars per barrel are not sustainable over the long term. If I had some financial assets I'd be ready to short anything above that. You'd have to be crazy to not short anything above $ 160 / barrel, which I wouldn't be surprised to see at some point in the next year or two.