Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The intent of the founders: representing the people while avoiding gridlock

I've always been a moderate person who believes, contrary to Herman Cain, that the problem with America isn't too much compromise, but rather a lack of compromise. My vision of a smoothly functioning American government is when civil and well-informed representatives of the people converge on Washington, hash out their differences, and produce well intentioned legislation based on the best possible compromises. The goal is to give everyone some of what they want, nobody all of what they want, and always to move America forward.

Some people have intimated, from time to time, that it is fundamentally anti-democratic that I might wish that the representatives decide among themselves what the important issues would be and deal with them accordingly. And I fully admit that I believe that representatives should prioritize their constituents' interests, and even ignore some of them. Some would claim this position reeks of elitism, and that the truly democratic model is to elect representatives who follow their constituents' short-term inclinations to the letter.

If my view is wrong, why did the founders make America a republic? If the founders wanted direct democracy, they would have written into our constitution a form of direct democracy: but they didn't. I believe the founders understood that most Americans have better things to do than worry about politics, or alternatively, don't have the information access or facilities to really grasp the complexities anyway. Elitist? Sure, I'll cede that. But the founders counted on the people electing competent representatives who would follow the spirit of their constituents as best they could within the context of the federal government of a very large and diverse nation.

I've been trying to figure out what exactly is wrong with our political system, and it seems to me that we really almost have moved to a form of direct democracy. Especially with the advent of rapid communications, information technology, massive advertising budgets, messages matter. A hundred years ago, a well meaning representative could sacrifice some of his constituents' priorities in order to gain a compromise that was essential for the nation or one that advanced his voters' interests in other ways.

These days, its different. When a representative insults that small fraction of his support, he gets crucified for it. This is particularly true among the GOP today, which is more a consequence of them being the out-of-power party than anything else. Any one Republican who has bucked any one interest has paid a price. Mitch Daniels saw what most credible economists see: we cant balance the budget without some revenue increases. So why not a VAT? And yet, in today's GOP, proposing a tax of any sort is sacrilegious. Dick Lugar recognized a good START treaty with Russia and supported it along with all of the top military brass, and he was rewarded with a primary. I don't see any way that John Boehner makes it out of the 2012 election with a job. He will vote to increase the debt ceiling, and he will get primaried because of it.

In essence, the rapidity of the response to politics has moved us into an era of what is essentially direct democracy. And unfortunately, the American people don't always know exactly what they want. We want the government to keep its miserable hands off of our Medicare. We want to cut spending, but not cut medicare, social security, or defense. We think that cutting foreign aid to Pakistan will balance our budget. Direct democracy was most obvious in California, where the people consistently vote themselves more services but then refuse to increase taxes to pay for them. The founders knew that there needed to be a competent crew manning the rigging of the ship that we call America. Just let the passengers run things and there is chaos.

Many try to argue that this sad state of affairs is the fault of a misleading media or lying politicians, but I don't buy that. Politicians have always lied, and the media has always been biased. The single biggest thing that has changed is that politicians are now held in an environment where they are unable to make any sacrifices in the name of compromise whatsoever. It is this inability which has led to the intractable gridlock that we now see, and probably will continue to see, for some time. Until American politicians again act as the founders intended them to act, as representatives of a great republic rather than as mere puppets of fickle and conflicted constituents, this ship will continue to drift aimlessly at sea.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

America as the no-vacation nation

Most Americans have no idea how much more vacation that people in other Western economies get each year. Which is fine, because there are lots of trade-offs here. Germans for example get six weeks of paid vacation every year, but the German economy is crumbling even as we speak.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Guess who else thinks Netanyahu is being ridiculous?

Former Israeli Prime Minister and current defense minister Ehud Barak. From Haaretz.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Failure of Netanyahu

A good analysis from TPM:
For years the top generals in the IDF have agreed that Israel can handle withdrawing to the 1967 borders in military terms. But PM Netanyahu says that's impossible because those borders are not defensible. It's an amazing level of denial, intransigence and self-destructiveness on display today -- something the pre-statehood and early statehood Zionist leadership was seldom so vulnerable to.

I agree with Gadi Taub who said recently that while peace is the ideal the highest priority for both peoples right now is partition. Netanyahu's position makes that impossible. The 1967 lines are the only practical and politically conceivable basis for such a division -- with mutually agreed upon swaps of territory along those lines. Netanyahu's plan is simply to withdraw from areas of dense population within the West Bank. In fact, I think that overstates the case. I don't think Netanyahu has a plan beyond holding his coalition together and himself in the prime ministership. The rejectionists' 'plan' is simply to hold on for as long as possible and play for time.

The man is a fool at so many levels. But there's no denying that he speaks for a very large chunk of the Israeli electorate.

Bibi called the 1967 borders indefensible. Of course, Israel successfully defended those borders in 1967, and again in 1973. Meanwhile Israel has seen a foe become a friend (Jordan), its arch-foe become a non-factor (Egypt), another arch foe (Saddam's Iraq) irrevocably weakened, and an Arab world in general more concerned about a threat from Iran than from Israel. In other words, Israel's geopolitical position is far stronger now than it was forty years ago, when it was able to decisively defend the 1967 borders on two separate occasions.

When one stops to think about the threats Israel faces, it becomes even more ridiculous. There is no conventional threat to Israel. Iran has rockets, not a ground army with thousands of tanks like Egypt had in the 60's. The greatest threat to Israel is terrorism from WMDs or delegitimization. Occupying the West Bank makes Israel more vulnerable to those dangers, not less.

I used to hold Binyamin Netanyahu in such high regard, but he has proved himself to be incredibly short sighted. I wrote another post about his missed opportunities just a few months ago. Very disappointing.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Does Obama hate Israel?

Here are some quotes from Obama's speech that pertain to Israel.
"Antagonism towards Israel became the only acceptable outlet for political expression [in repressive Middle Eastern nations]."

This is implicitly a defense of Israel. There is no doubt that in general the people in the Middle East don't like Israel. The question is why. Pro-Israeli people believe that is because Israel has been used relentlessly as a scapegoat by autocratic dictators to focus their peoples' anger elsewhere. Anti-Israeli people believe it is Israeli policies that create the resentment among its neighbors. Obviously there is an element of truth to both, but extremists tend to believe one or the other. I believe it is primarily the former, and apparently so does Obama, which is implicitly a pro-Israeli stance.

"Standing up for Israel's security...we will continue to do these things."

That doesn't sound very anti-Semitic to me.

"Efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure."

Opponents of Israel are pursuing a strategy that results in the destruction of Israel not by military means, but by political and economic means. This is what Obama means by "delegitimize". The strategy in a nutshell is to isolate Israel in the same way that South Africa was isolated because of apartheid. Obama is aware of this strategy, which means he no doubt thinks like I do: that Israel shouldn't play right into the hands of the people who are using it. This means striking a balance between deterrence and use of force, and it means not deliberately provoking Muslims for no reason (IE expanding settlements).

"Symbolic actions in September won't create an independent state."

In September, the PA is going to submit to the UN assembly a vote that would create a Palestinian state. I'm not sure how the rules of the UN work so I'm not sure if they can legally do this or not. I'm not sure if the US can even veto this. We couldn't stop the PRC from taking the ROC's seat in the security council in the 1970's so we may not be able to stop this. It would be a major blow to Israel if it happens. It is a part of the delegitimization strategy that anti-Israeli activists have been pursuing.

"Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of violence and rejection...Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying Israel's right to exist."

Obama reaffirms that Hamas must renounce violence, recognize Israel's right to exist, and honor previous agreements. This is all very standard stuff.

"Our committment to Israel's security is unshakable, and we will stand against attempts to single it out for criticism in international forums."

In other words, the US has and will veto UN resolutions that condemn Israel for this or that while allowing other nations to perpetrate far worse crimes with no mention.

"Israel must be able to defend itself, by itself, against any threat."

IE the US will continue to support the Israeli military.

"[Palestine should be a] sovereign, non-militarized state."

One of the sticky parts of establishing a Palestinian state is whether or not it gets to develop a military. Obviously the Israelis might be uncomfortable with that. Obama here is coming down squarely on Israel's side of the issue.


There is lots of room for criticism over how Obama approached the Israeli-Palestinian question. The speech was decidedly unambitious and did not budge the status quo even a single iota. Everything in the speech was very standard, widely accepted stuff. Everyone* agrees that peace will come with a two-state solution. Everyone* agrees that the 1967 boundaries are the basis for the future borders. Everyone* agrees that Israel isn't going to take down their West Bank settlements, and so land-swaps are necessary. On the issues that people aren't sure about, such as over the status of Jerusalem or right-of-return for Palestinians, Obama just punted.

What there isn't any room for is criticism that Obama is anti-Israeli. And yet, the only thing I see plastered all over the front page of Fox News is precisely that. This is being echoed all over the conservative blogosphere. And you know what? I get it. I get why the Republicans are jumping all over this big lie. Their attempt at following through to the promises they made in the 2010 elections have been absolutely pathetic. They have been outfoxed by Obama and the Democrats at every turn. Boehner's 38 billion in "cuts" actually ended up increasing the deficit by 3 billion. Paul Ryan has been thrown under the bus by half of his party. The GOP will vote for the debt ceiling increase, but they will only get token cuts for it IF Obama is feeling generous. The GOP presidential candidates are all awful, save one or two who probably can't win a primary.

So like I said, I get it. We're going to hear over the next few weeks how Obama is a vicious anti-Semite, which fits in perfectly with accusation that Obama is also a secret anti-colonialist Muslim America-hater. Netanyahu is of course going to play along, just as a spoiled child will manipulate their divorced parents, and will cement himself in history as one of the most short-sighted Israeli leaders ever. But yea, anything to distract from the train wreck that has been the GOP agenda; I can't say I blame them for wanting something else to talk about. Whether or not there is any truth to what they are saying is irrelevant.

*When I say "everyone", what I mean is "reasonable people who we might listen to". There are lots of people who don't agree on a two-state solution, 1967 boundaries as a basis for that, and land swaps. These people are unreasonable, and should all be ignored. This includes, but is not limited to: Hamas and Islamic extremists, the international far-left extremists, ultra-right wing orthodox Jewish settlers in Israel, ultra-right wing evangelical Christians in the US. To name a few. None of these groups think there should be a compromise, just endless war until their side wins and the other side is dead.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Impressions from East Africa: historical development, communities, and finances

Imagine Tanzania in the year 1900. This is a land that is 50% larger than the state of Texas, supporting a population of maybe 3 million. There was no infrastructure, no centralized government, and really, no history of a centralized government. Contrast that to Qing China, the Manchurian dynasty which ruled China up to modern times. Qing China in 1900 was arguably still one of the great powers of the world even if it was quickly falling apart. Back then, the population of China was several hundreds of millions. There was a history of civilization going back four millennia and certainly a tradition of strong centralized government, despite the fact that China is so geographically large.

One of the things required to create a modern nation state and the appropriate institutions is a sufficient population density in the surrounding area. China apparently hit that necessary population density thousands of years ago, but we should remember that Tanzania was nowhere near that threshold even one hundred years ago. A great book that expounds on this topic is "Guns, Germs, and Steel" for anyone interested. Despite these great contrasts, GDP per person in China and Tanzania 30 years ago was not so different. The take-home point is this: strong economic and political development doesn't just happen by default. It can get hindered by any number of things.

Think back to Tanzania in 1900: sparsely populated, inaccessible, every community for themselves. These communities, like other small communities throughout history, would need to be close knit. Vertical ties may involve patronage from a chief or leader who has surplus resources. That leader can distribute those resources to neighbors and subordinates in order to strengthen ties and bonds between them. Horizontal ties would involve relationships between friends, relatives, and neighbors who are on equal footing. In a small self-sufficient society, it is all about hedging risk. Sometimes one family has a good hunt, or a good harvest. Another family may fail to find an animal, or will have crops which get killed by fungus. Obviously, if neighbors are willing to readily share everything they have, the risk gets hedged throughout the community as a whole and everyone is better off.

In a century, the population of Tanzania has increased by 10-fold or more. It has been thrown into the modern world, and expected to develop sound Western institutions of government. Are these aforementioned cultural survival traits just going to disappear in a single human lifetime? Vertical ties of patronage in 1900 are manifested in the modern world as endemic corruption. Horizontal ties between neighbors manifest as a lack of savings. Let me expound on this last point. When we were in Kenya, one Westerner was telling me that if any person makes money or has a big payday, they immediately go out and spend it on all of their friends at the bar or restaurant. An employee of this person didn't want to keep her money at her house. She was afraid a friend or family would ask for it, and she would be obligated to give it away. These two examples help illustrate a source of serious economic problems. Without savings, there can be no investment. Without investment, there is no productivity growth.

I do appreciate that this dynamic is a testament to the strength of the community in Tanzania and Kenya, which is a wonderful thing. I've figured out that it is a big part of the attraction that Colleen feels to east Africa. Really, it is the same for me. The palpable sense of community is something we just don't have in the West anymore for the most part, and its something one can never perceive from photos of Africa. One has to be there to feel that pulse. Not to denigrate my own culture, because I love the West and I think it is the pinnacle of human existence: but this resource-sharing dynamic in east Africa is more instinctively "normal", in the sense that humans are hard-wired to operate that way. Sharing of resources in small, close-knit communities has been the norm throughout human history.

The communal spirit is what enabled clans and small groups of people to survive, because everyone is hedging their successes and failures on their close relatives. Only with the advent of larger towns and cities using national currencies have people in the West in particular moved away from this. There is still an intense attraction to what they have in east Africa, because I believe our brains were designed to function in small communities like they have (and we used to have) instead of the relatively lonely and unfriendly places in which we live in the West. In fact I've read psychological studies which suggest that 150 people is the ideal community size for Homo sapiens; we can keep tabs on and socially interact with that many people.

The move from small self-sufficient community groups to larger cities and towns in the West occurred over an extended period of hundreds of years. This gradual transition allowed for the culture to adjust slowly. We were able to develop a norm of anti-corruption (even though it still happens everywhere). Since everyone was participating in government we began to think in terms of nation or kingdom instead of tribe or clan. Notice in places where political participation was forbidden by some group or another (Jews in Europe, African Americans in the USA) there remained into modern times sort of "tribal" (us versus them) schisms that we see in the news all the time in east Africa and are oh so shocked by. Tribal tendencies, xenophobia, racism - we are talking about the same thing. Barack Obama, show us your birth certificate!

Anyway. If I had one point to this post, I guess it would be this: many people look at the lack of economic development in Africa and think "what has gone wrong?" My reaction is completely different: How could they be anywhere else? There has been so much change in such a short amount of time in east Africa, there is just no way it could have happened smoothly. In east Africa we've been expecting them to make the sort of adjustments in 100 years that in the West we made over the last 700 and in China they made over the last 4,000. This isn't even adding in the complicated history of colonialism, the effect instability of neighbors has on local development, and the effect of poor government economic policies. I don't even need to think about colonialism to not be surprised by the current political and economic position in east Africa. Yet only 30 years ago China was every bit as poor as Tanzania. 70 years ago Italy still had endemic malaria, a high birth rate, and extremely high infant mortality. I don't know how the current situation could make anyone pessimistic about the future of Africa, because to me it makes perfect sense that Africans are where they are now given from where they have come.

Its all about where they are going, and I think the future is promising. Maybe I'm too optimistic, but its never smart to bet against humanity. Topic for another post.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Humans evolved to be persistence hunters

An interesting article about how humans evolved to be runners is found here. Anthropologists have recently started coming to the conclusion that humans relied on persistence hunting in ancient times.

Persistence hunting is just what it sounds like. A human runs down a prey animal on foot over an incredibly far distance in the middle of a hot day, only catching the animal when the prey is too heat exhausted to run any more. Humans can pull this off because we run on two legs, which is more efficient over long distances. We stand upright, and so expose less surface area to the sun. The sun only touches the top of our head and shoulders; in prey animals, the whole back is exposed.

Humans also have no hair, and have sweat glands over our entire body. Both of these things allow us to efficiently cool ourselves even in the hottest weather. In fact, military experiments demonstrated that humans can withstand 400 degree heat for an hour easily IF they have enough water and the air is dry - that is how efficient our sweating is. In the prehistoric human, intelligence allowed the use of containers to carry water on these persistence hunts. Empty ostrich eggs were the Nalgene bottles of 100,000 years ago.

I had read about persistence hunting before going to Africa. When we were driving through Kenya, and I felt the intense heat and appreciated the lack of water, I thought to myself "oh, that makes sense." You see, the Kenyan sun and heat isn't a liability for the humans - its an advantage. The dry hot weather and lack of water exposes the vulnerability of the prey animals: they can't cool themselves in such weather as well as humans can. In a temperate or wet climate, persistence hunting would never work.

Still not convinced that persistence hunting can work? Check out you tube video. Humans still persistence hunt today. Wouldn't that be a fun thing to do. Screw training for a marathon. I'm going to train for a persistence hunt.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Osama Bin Laden and the US economy

A few posts below, I wrote why I wasn't quite celebrating the death of Bin Laden:

Now there is all of this jubilation that bin Laden is dead, we got our revenge, fine. We're still fighting a war in Afghanistan, we haven't made much progress, and we're almost bankrupt as a nation. That was OBL's entire strategy. He knew he couldn't beat the United States in a conventional war, and he didn't try. His plan was to draw us in and bleed us with a thousand pin-pricks. Are we playing his game or our game? Did we play right into his hands? I'd be more willing to celebrate if OBL's strategy had failed.

Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein writes more about Bin Laden's war against the US economy. He reaches the same conclusion that I did. How could one not come to that conclusion? Pre-9/11 the US economy was running surpluses with a minuscule debt relative to GDP. We were arguably the first hyper-power in history. Now, when the dollar starts to fall, I'm reading WSJ articles about how this is almost certainly not the start of a collapse of American currency and its economy...certainly not, right? We're at the point where we have to reassure ourselves that an economic collapse is not imminent.

Should we exit Afghanistan with dignity?

Really, the book "Nixon and Kissinger" should be required reading as the discussion about ending the war in Afghanistan starts to pick up. We should stay and fight in Afghanistan if we think our interests are at stake and we think we can win the war (however defined). By contrast, we should leave Afghanistan if our interests are no longer at stake, or if we don't believe there is a reasonable strategy through which a victory could be accomplished, given human and financial considerations. In other words, if we "win" by sacrificing thousands of soldiers' lives and trillions of dollars for meager gains, we didn't really win. We just lost in a different way.

What we should not do is stay and fight in Afghanistan so that we can "exit with dignity". That is exactly what Richard Nixon did in Vietnam. Nixon sacrificed the lives of thousands of US troops in a war that he knew we weren't going to win, and a war that he was actively terminating, because he did not want a stain on his honor (and we all know how important Nixonian honor turned out to be). We ended up losing Vietnam without dignity anyway, as the world quickly saw what a farce the face-saving agreement with the communists was. Remember helicopters evacuating the US embassy in Saigon?

The long term consequences of the US withdrawing from Vietnam without dignity were precisely nil. Nobody doubted our strength in the long-term, even if morale was sapped a bit in the short term. I would argue that morale would have been less damaged in Vietnam had we ended the war sooner and saved thousands of lives, though. Furthermore, from the perspective of credible military deterrence, America would be more feared by non-state Al Qaeda types if they believed we could get involved in effective short-term military operations without always settling down for a decade-long war.

The reason I brought this up was because I saw some candidates at the Fox News GOP Presidential Debate say that we should make sure we exit Afghanistan with dignity. The suggestion that the lives of US soldiers are worth less than such petty superficiality is nothing less than reprehensible. Any politician who places priority on such nonsense should send their sons to execute the last face-saving operations of the failing war. The politician who puffs their chest out and talks a tough game about "honor" and "dignity" when sending other peoples' children to fight and die is the worst sort of politician there is. I wish Americans could see through that garbage.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Supermarkets aren't like schools

An interesting thought experiment. The most obvious flaw in it is that while people have to eat, they don't necessarily have to be educated. Not every child is born into a family with parents who, in a free market, would devote lots of resources (time, money) to ensure their children are educated.

The whole voucher for private school concept does not seem unreasonable to me as an alternative. However, the notion that we can just stop taxing people to fund education on some level is ludicrous. A free market in education will only work in families with parents who care.

I'm not willing to withhold opportunities to children who made the mistake of not being born into a family that values education. And if that means the rest of society has to pay to educate those children, I'm OK with that. An educated society is to the benefit of everyone in that society.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Military Dogs: coolest animals ever?

From a recent NYT Article:

Last year, the Seals bought four waterproof tactical vests for their dogs that featured infrared and night-vision cameras so that handlers — holding a three-inch monitor from as far as 1,000 yards away — could immediately see what the dogs were seeing. The vests, which come in coyote tan and camouflage, let handlers communicate with the dogs with a speaker, and the four together cost more than $86,000. Navy Seal teams have trained to parachute from great heights and deploy out of helicopters with dogs

John Yoo and Bin Laden

"Former government lawyer John Yoo taking credit on behalf of the Bush  administration for Sunday's strike against Osama bin Laden is like Edward John Smith, the captain of the Titanic, taking credit for the results of the 1998 Academy Awards," - Andrew Cohen.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Killing Osama Bin Laden

I guess its good in that it satiates our desire for vengence, but killing OBL isn't going to change a ton in the "war on terror".  Take Iraq.  We captured Saddam, but the war only got worse.  It wasn't until we changed our strategy that we made progress.  That Saddam was in jail and subsequently executed really didn't make much of a difference in the course of the war.  Maybe it was an important step...maybe not.
So now there is all of this jubilation that bin Laden is dead, we got our revenge, fine.  We're still fighting a war in Afghanistan, we haven't made much progress, and we're almost bankrupt as a nation.  That was OBL's entire strategy.  He knew he couldn't beat the United States in a conventional war, and he didn't try.  His plan was to draw us in and bleed us with a thousand pin-pricks.  Are we playing his game or our game?  Did we play right into his hands? 
I'd be more willing to celebrate if OBL's strategy had failed.