Regional blocs, not global ones by mattsteinglass
December 23, 2008, 10:29 am
Filed under: Foreign Policy

Will Marshall thinks we should turn NATO into a global alliance by including Japan and South Korea, Brazil and Chile, Australia and New Zealand, India, and so forth. Matthew Yglesias thinks that’s a bad idea. One of the reasons Yglesias is right comes in Marshall’s first paragraph:

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is the most successful defense alliance in history. Today, however, the alliance is stumbling blind, and it badly needs a new sense of common purpose.

“I’ve got this cool old tool, now I just need some mission for it” is almost never a good way to make policy.

But the main point is that regional military-political blocs like NATO have proven fairly successful in the last 20 years at promoting stability and staging interventions in crises, while interventions by non-regional blocs have been pretty unsuccessful. NATO ultimately did resolve the Yugoslavian mess. East Timor worked because of Australia. In areas where the West is frustrated about long-running crises, such as Burma and Zimbabwe, the only players that can realistically resolve the situations are the regional ones — southern African nations in Zimbabwe, ASEAN in Burma. NATO works because it’s regional and there’s a regional consensus on European norms of governance and European security interests. Diluting that by bringing in lots of very different countries from all over the map would be a big mistake.

Fundamental problems by mattsteinglass
December 22, 2008, 5:03 pm
Filed under: China, Environment, Food

I was scanning this interview with an interesting guy,Qi Hanting, who founded the “Anti-CNN” website in China back during the Olympic Torch protests in March, and here’s how he describes his current political involvement:

I care about facts and further care about some fundamental problems such as energy and food.

Refreshingly, the issues people in East Asia care about these days aren’t so far removed from those people in the US care about. The food issue in particular — I keep telling people what a huge opportunity food safety represents for international action and US public diplomacy. But they won’t listen!

What a difference a day makes by mattsteinglass
December 22, 2008, 3:42 pm
Filed under: President, United States

Just a statistically more-valid reflection of what everyone knows to be true, but here, according to the LA Times/Bloomberg poll, is the effect Obama’s election had on the general sense of optimism/pessimism in the country:

“Do you think things in this country are generally going in the right

direction or are they seriously off on the wrong track?”








12/6-8/08 23 64 13
10/10-13/08 10 84 6

The “Wrong Track” number dropped 20 percent. That has to be entirely attributable to picking the right guy for President — God knows nothing else good happened betwee early October and early December, apart from “Friday Night Lights” getting picked up for a third season. But I doubt 20 percent of the country is watching FNL, even if they should be.

When the President does it (Watergate, Agent Orange, torture) by mattsteinglass
December 22, 2008, 2:30 pm
Filed under: President, United States

In a Steve Benen post I see that Nixon’s infamous line (from the Frost interviews, aka Frost/Nixon) “When the President does it, that means it is not illegal” is actually more complicated than I’d understood:

In context, Frost had asked about the notion that a president can “do something illegal,” if he/she decides the crime is “in the best interests of the nation.” Frost was particularly interested in the notion of the Huston Plan, which endorsed illegal surveillance and black bag jobs against Americans. After uttering the now famous phrase, Nixon added, “If the president, for example, approves something because of the national security, or in this case because of a threat to internal peace and order of significant magnitude, then the president’s decision in that instance is one that enables those who carry it out, to carry it out without violating a law.”

Benen doesn’t really follow through on the implications here but in fact this makes the Nixon line seem significantly less evil and crazy than it sounds when truncated. It sounds to me like what he’s talking about here is a version of the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Part of that doctrine holds that people can’t be held responsible for actions they undertook at the order of the government.

One example of the doctrine is its application in voiding suits by victims of Agent Orange, the toxic chemical defoliant used in the Vietnam War, against the chemical companies that manufactured the stuff. US courts have consistently held that the chemical companies can’t be held liable for damages because they were simply carrying out government orders: President Kennedy personally authorized the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. (Meanwhile, the government can’t be held responsible for damages because of sovereign immunity. Which means nobody can be held responsible, which is nice and neat, isn’t it?) Plaintiffs have attempted to end-run around this problem by noting that Agent Orange wasn’t supposed to be toxic; the high dioxin levels in the herbicide resulted from pushing the manufacturing process too fast. But as it turns out the companies made the Defense Department aware of this problem and DoD signed off on it, so the courts have held that they’re indemnified.

It sounds like what Nixon is saying here is at least in part similar: when the President orders you to do something (like break into the opposition party’s campaign headquarters), that means it’s not illegal for you to do it. You’re just following orders. And that doesn’t on the face of it seem so crazy. If a government authority tells you to do something that might in some cases be illegal — if a policeman orders a tow truck operator to take away someone’s car, say — we don’t hold the truck operator responsible when it turns out the policeman was acting illegally. Obviously this wouldn’t hold for crimes against humanity, but for something like breaking into an office, it’s at least a debatable point. It seems healthier to expect citizens to demand further proof of legal authority before following orders like this, but there’s some gray area there.

But there’s no gray area if the President is arguing that it’s not illegal for him, either. At that point you have impunity. And impunity is explicitly not part of the governing philosophy of the United States. Whatever crimes and misdemeanors the founding fathers expected Presidents to be able to get away with, breaking into the offices of the opposition political party cannot possibly have been among them. And it is hard to believe that authorizing torture could have been among them, either.

A golden age of musical piracy? by mattsteinglass
December 20, 2008, 11:03 am
Filed under: Internet, Music

Matthew Yglesias says government collusion in recording industry anti-piracy efforts is stupid because there’s no legitimate public interest in either promoting album sales or raising musicians’ incomes: “The purpose of intellectual property law is to protect the interests of consumers.”

But that’s not really true. The purpose of intellectual property law in the US is “to promote the progress of Science and useful Arts.” It’s right there in the Constitution, Article I, Section 8. In general that will coincide with the interests of consumers, in the long run, but not necessarily in the short run.

It’s true that, as Yglesias says, this is a moment of unparalleled diversity of musical availability to consumers. It’s also, in my view, a moment of rare creativity in musical composition. That’s in no small part because the same electronic tools that create the option of piracy, and are hence wrecking musicians’ incomes, also give them unprecented direct access to their audiences, afford them options for long-distance collaboration that never existed before, and put vast libraries of sound at their fingertips. But going into the music business, which has never been a profitable career choice, is becoming a career choice that generates just about literally no money at all. Of course huge numbers of people are still making and performing music, but that’s in large measure because the United States created an intense valorization of musical performance as it was creating modern popular culture back in the ’30s-’70s. And that was the era when music did generate tons of revenue. Famously, much of that revenue was stolen before it reached musicians’ pockets, but it took an entire industry to create the idea of a rock star. A lot of money went into making Elvis. And every time a 20-something indie rocker gets up to mug before an audience of her peers at a Brooklyn dive, she’s tapping into the mythos that was created for and by Elvis.

The music industry has had a fabulous decade while its revenues were shrinking. But it’s living on borrowed energy. What made American pop music was ASCAP and BMI — collective agreements between composers, distributors, and the legal industry about how revenue would be shared. Those agreements were made at a time when Americans had much greater talent for institution-building. The rise of the internet coincided with a moment of intense ideological individualism — a utopian individualism (information wants to be free!) — that crippled such institution-building efforts. In the next few years, record labels are going to start crashing the way newspapers have begun to. Then we’ll see whether America can sustain its love affair with musical creation on the strength of sheer cultural inertia. Without some new deal on how to generate and share revenue for the production of music, I think music, at least youth pop genres like indie rock, will likely become a quaint, treasured, anemic backwater, supported by local clubs and philanthropic foundations, like clog dancing.

Matthew Yglesias has been in Finland too long by mattsteinglass
December 17, 2008, 12:19 am
Filed under: Europe, Iraq, United States


The Iraqi people didn’t ask to be liberarted conquered and occupied by a foreign power that destroyed their country and then immediately set about meddling in Iraqi politics and until just a month or so ago was struggling mightily for the right to permanently station military forces on Iraqi soil contrary to the will of the Iraqi public. Not only did Iraqis not ask for such services, but nobody anywhere has ever asked for them.

The harsh reality is that this was not a noble undertaking done for good reasons. It was a criminal enterprise launched by madmen cheered on by a chorus of fools and cowards. And it’s seen as such by virtually everyone all around the world — including but by no means limited to the Arab world. But it’s impolitic to point this out in the United States, and it’s clear that even a president-elect who had the wisdom not to be suckered in by the War Fever of 2002 has no intention of really acting to marginalize the bad actors. Which, I think, makes sense for his political objectives. But if Americans want to play a constructive role in world affairs, it’s vitally important for us to get in touch with the reality of what the past eight years of US foreign policy have been and how they’re seen and understood by people who aren’t stirred by the shibboleths of American patriotism.

He’s right — “it’s impolitic to point this out in the United States.” I’m not really sure how it works, but I think starting about late 2001 they put some kind of Jingo Wave Transponders in the metal detectors at JFK and Dulles that stir your neurotransmitters with massive American patriotism shibboleths, such that while you’re inside US customs, the things the US government does always seem to make some vague kind of sense. Then you get out to Europe or wherever and after a couple of weeks US foreign policy debates start to look like some kind of Papuan headhunter ritual where they cast bones to decide who to boil alive, in the belief that this will stop the volcano from erupting. In any case, Yglesias had better get back to the US pretty quick or he risks permanently losing the ability to sustain the consensual hallucination that is American politics.

Joni Mitchell, Tolkien geek by mattsteinglass
December 16, 2008, 4:23 pm
Filed under: Literature, Music

Here she is live in 1969 explaining that  “I Think I Understand” (on “Clouds”) is based on her favorite Tolkien character, Galadriel. The crowd of college hippies goes wild.

Ten years later, the idea that a Tolkien geek might be a gorgeous, staggeringly brilliant, sexually adventurous blonde singer-songwriter, rather than a hopelessly nerdy adolescent boy, would seem like a ludicrous fantasy created by the latter group.

Why do newspapers get dearer ads? Maybe because people pay for them? by mattsteinglass
December 16, 2008, 10:14 am
Filed under: Internet, Media

With the Tribune corporation filing for bankruptcy and the Detroit News and Free Press announcing they will only deliver papers 3 days a week, it appears the end of the industry I freely chose to work in 10 years ago is almost upon us. Newspapers are dying because no one will buy papers when they can get the news free on the internet. Meanwhile, internet-based news sources can’t generate nearly enough ad revenue to maintain the kinds of reporting operations newspapers do, because advertisers won’t pay nearly as much to advertise on the internet as they once did to advertise in newspapers. Megan McArdle notes that early TV advertising was lousy, too, and rather forlornly says “We may just be waiting for our advertising revolutionary who can show us how to make webvertising work,” but if so we’ve been waiting  a long time — brilliant people have been discussing how to make webvertising pay since I got my Interactive Telecom degree in 1996. TV advertising, in contrast, after getting started in the late ’40s, was generating spectacular revenues by 1960.

Why won’t advertisers pay as much for webvertising as they do for newspaper and magazine ads? Others have focused on the fact that internet ads are annoying. I think a different reason has been overlooked. Development agencies have known for over a decade that if you want to distribute condoms or anti-malaria bednets effectively, you don’t hand them out for free — you make people pay a small amount for them, because once they cost something, they start moving through the economy towards the people who need them. The initial cost gives them velocity, as people have to either use them or sell them to recoup their investment.

One thing about advertising in a newspaper is that you know the reader wants to read the newspaper because the newspaper reader paid money for it. On the free internet, the advertiser has little idea how much interest the customer really has in that page. The fact that newspaper readers pay money for the thing the advertiser buys space on makes that space intrinsically more valuable to the advertiser. This is in large measure why ads in the New York Times cost more than ads in the free New York Press, even though the Press probably prints as many copies every day as the Times does.

Making customers pay also makes the ads more valuable in another way: it limits supply. Newspapers cost money to produce, and the fact that customers must pay for them means only a limited number will be printed. Hence, only a certain total quantity of Detroit News advertising space will go out every day, and if you buy some of that space, that’s space your competitors didn’t buy. Taking up space and denying it to your competitors is valuable. But space on the internet is much less constrained: there may be limited space on screen X of Website Z, but while any one city only has one to three daily newspapers, there are essentially an infinite number of websites floating around all over the place. And the number of times screen X can appear is completely unconstrained, rising with the number of page hits — you can buy 100,000 impressions for your banner, but if the site’s viewership goes up, your competition may buy 100,000 impressions too. (This could be averted by selling banners as a percentage of total views rather than number of impressions, but I don’t know whether webvertising is sold this way — if not, maybe it should be.) In any case, advertisers have very little sense that when they buy space on a website, they are consuming a scarce resource. Scarcity generates value. The internet has little scarcity — it has infinite space. So its space has little value. (Good domain names, obviously, are more clearly limited, and have been highly valuable for over a decade.)

I am not sure this problem has a solution. What we are facing in the news business is a situation where overabundance of a resource leads to underinvestment and poverty. It is in part a tragedy of the commons (no one will invest in reporting because no one can own or sell reporting), and in part more like the chronic poverty of indigenous tribes with abundant land who practice swidden agriculture (no one will invest in efficient farming because land is infinite). It could be effective to generate scarcity by altering copyright law to create a short-term monopoly on news — perhaps a 24-hour copyright. But even with compulsory licensing at very low costs per page hit, this seems unworkable, running right up against the right to free speech. And so far, attempts to create scarcity through subscriber fees, like the NY Times’ and Salon’s premium-user models, have mostly failed due to the internet’s tendency to route around obstructions of any kind.

The final option to consider is public or not-for-profit funding. And in fact that is increasingly how things are working, as James Surowiecki and Matthew Yglesias note. People like Yglesias and Ezra Klein have their journalism basically funded by think tanks with ideological leanings (and hence partisan political contributions). Meanwhile, Britain, France and Germany will continue to have extensive reporting organizations: they call them the BBC, AFP and DPA (my employer). I hesitate to recommend that model to the US — we’re already nationalizing our banking and auto industries, and at some point the whole thing starts to seem ridiculous. But here’s a little known fact. The Associated Press is essentially becoming a reporting quasi-monopoly in the US, right? Guess who the AP’s biggest single customer is? The US government. The estimate I’ve heard is that Uncle Sam accounts for one third of the AP’s revenues.

The Vietnam Analogy: Afghanistan (Part 2) by mattsteinglass
December 11, 2008, 9:01 am
Filed under: Afghanistan, Vietnam

I spent a few days this weekend with Mudassar Shah, a great Pakistani journalist who’s doing excellent stories on the tribal regions along the Afghan border, where he’s from. Over the weekend when the Taliban blew up that NATO truck depot, he was just working on a radio piece for Asia Calling about a ride he took with one of the local drivers who run the supply lines for NATO forces in Afghanistan. It’s a fabulous story and should be up by this weekend.

I found myself asking Mudassar repeatedly: what would happen if the US just withdrew from Afghanistan and Pakistan entirely? He said it was “impossible” and clearly didn’t support the idea, but then, he’s an open-minded and liberal person in a region that is viscerally threatened by medieval fanatics.

Here’s the dilemma as I see it. On the one hand it’s becoming increasingly clear that the West probably can’t defeat the Taliban in the struggle for control of Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan, for many of the same reasons the US and France couldn’t defeat the Vietnamese Communists. At the same time, it’s also clear that the Taliban are by every Western ethical measure perfectly horrible. And this is what makes Afghanistan different from Iraq: Iraq was a multifaceted and hopelessly confusing civil war. But the Afghan Taliban really can be described as “Islamofascists”, as the neocons and liberal hawks like to do.

That’s why this Ezra Klein post criticizing a Nagl quote ends quite wrongly: ” I saw this movie in theaters back in 2003. And frankly, I didn’t like it.” I am coming to agree that the US is probably going to have to give up on Afghanistan. But it’s not because the description of Afghanistan as a partially liberalized Western client state where girls are threatened by murderous Islamic extremists is wrong. It’s because the murderous Islamic extremists are probably going to win, and I don’t see how we can stop them. It’s a far more dismal moral situation than Klein is willing to admit.

Japan suspends Vietnam aid, Vietnamese grateful? by mattsteinglass
December 6, 2008, 8:27 am
Filed under: Development, Foreign Policy, Japan, Vietnam

So Japan, impressively, has gone ahead and suspended all new aid to Vietnam due to the massive Pacific Consultants International corruption scandal, which has led to jail terms for several Japanese executives, but where the Vietnamese have been stonewalling their investigation of the officials who took or demanded the bribes. (Which amounted to millions of dollars, on some of Ho Chi Minh City’s biggest infrastructure projects.)

What interests me is that, as you can see in my article here, not all Vietnamese are entirely upset. Which I find revealing, and typical. East Asians resent outsiders tub-thumping about human rights. But they are often grateful when outsiders attack the corruption, industrial and environmental poisoning, etc. in their countries which their own governments are incapable of taking on. I still think this is a missed opportunity for public diplomacy.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.