George Packer is a brilliant writer, an admirable human being, and a man who invested immense time and effort in truly understanding one of the most important events of our generation, the war in Iraq. To use a word out of a different era: the guy’s a humanitarian.
But his response to Obama’s speech on the withdrawal makes it seem like he doesn’t understand what a president is.
I’m just going to put that out there as a sort of a koan and see whether anybody responds. I find it a very upsetting and discouraging comparison, and I hope there’s nothing to it at all.
DAVID LEONHARDT is among my favourite writers, and when my RSS reader showed me that this weekend he got a slot in the New York Times Magazine to talk about “What the oil spill and the financial crisis have in common,” I got all excited. Then I read it, and it’s…pretty good. Leonhardt’s premise is that what the Deepwater Horizon blowout has in common with the global financial crisis is heedlessness of tail-end risk. Black swans, an unwillingness to take seriously the consequences of very low-probability, very high-damage eventualities, and all that. And this is certainly true. As Leonhardt writes, BP executives had never seen an oil rig blow up, so they didn’t really believe it could happen, just as Ben Bernanke didn’t really believe a nationwide real-estate crash could happen.
But this isn’t the main theme the two events have in common. The main theme they have in common is much simpler than that, and has more moral valence. And it’s the main theme not just for the oil blowout and the financial crisis but for the Katrina disaster and the Enron collapse and the Chinese melanin milk scandal and an extraordinary array of scandals, disasters and tragedies so far this century. The main theme they have in common is regulatory failure. The regulations weren’t strong enough, and the regulators didn’t do their jobs. Oil companies were allowed to self-certify, and MMS inspectors let them hand in their own inspection reports in pencil, then traced over them in pen * approved their design changes within five minutes with no real review. Non-bank financial institutions escaped regulations that had been written to cover banks, and when SEC inspectors were sent in to banks to monitor suspicious debt-hiding activities they spent their time downloading porn. Dyke safety standards established by the Corps of Engineers were inadequate, and officials at FEMA were incompetent. And, obviously, the people’s elected representatives chiefly clamoured for weaker regulations and tried to stop regulators when they did attempt to enforce the rules.
We may not be heading towards an End of History, but Hegel was right that sometimes there’s such a thing as a weltgeist that moves directionally from decade to decade, and what we’re seeing here is comeuppance (or, as Hegel would put it, the antithesis) for the deregulatory exuberance of the 1980s and 1990s. Leonhardt concentrates on the unfortunate human tendency to discount the highly unlikely. This is certainly a factor, but as advice, it’s only partially useful. If the lesson of the catastrophes of the noughties is to pay attention to tail-end risk, then we should all be running around building nuclear fallout shelters and working out deflection strategies for massive asteroid strikes. And that’s not going to happen. (Though in the case of climate change, one of Leonhardt’s examples, it is useful: we should be paying more attention to the risk that global temperature rise by 2100 will be near the catastrophic 6-degree-celsius high-end estimate, not the merely awful 2-degree median estimate.) But I don’t think that is the main lesson. The main lesson is simpler and more concrete: government regulations need to be more restrictive, regulators need to be more aggressive, better-paid, and more powerful, and they need to stop people and corporations more often from doing things that may be profitable but pose unacceptable risks to the public. We had this theory for a while that economic self-interest would prove sufficient disincentive to foolish risk-taking. But now the Gulf of Mexico is on fire, so I’m afraid we need to go back to the old-fashioned system with the rules and the monitors carrying sticks. Sorry.
* It turns out this probably isn’t true. The Interior Dept. Inspector General’s Report says there were reports with pencil that were then traced over in pen, but it’s likely that the inspectors themselves filled them out in pencil for convenience in case of corrections, and they couldn’t find any evidence that any had been filled out by the oil company. They had apparently heard a rumor that this had happened, but couldn’t substantiate it.
Proposed: The discussion of Elena Kagan’s undergraduate thesis on the history of socialism in New York City from 1900-33 is dog-whistle politics for the progressive left.
This (courtesy Brad DeLong) is really interesting. The conclusion:
American radicals cannot afford to become their own worst enemies. In unity lies their only hope.
Tea Partiers take note!
Of course people write all kinds of things when they’re undergraduates that are not reliable guides to what they think when they, you know, grow up. I wrote 100-something pages on Russian religious apocalypticism. As I recall I found it all very vulgar. My thesis advisor could never understand what I meant by that word. Come to think of it, I still find it pretty vulgar, so maybe some undergraduate theses are reliable guides to what you think later on.
Because Reihan Salam isn’t in my RSS feed, I missed the fact that he’d written responses to two things I wrote last month over at The Economist. I generally like Reihan Salam’s writing. But his first response to me mischaracterized something I’d written. His second response, I think, was kind of slippery, but I think what it comes down to is that I have a different interpretation of the term “free-riding” than he does. I believe it pretty much universally carries a negative connotation, like “freeloading”.
Salam’s first response came in answer to a few sentences I’d written about school choice. I had written that I found it surprising that Will Wilkinson, also a writer I find very interesting, picked school choice as one of the arenas in which he expected Democrats to become more sympathetic to a libertarian cause. I’m not opposed to school choice, or charter schools. But everything I’ve read indicates that there’s not a lot of strong evidence for the success of school choice programs, and that while many individual charter schools have proven successful, there’s no evidence that charter schools are on average any better than the public schools they replace; the latest broad study indicated that most were worse. This doesn’t mean that “school choice and charter schools don’t work”. What it does mean is that to say one supports school choice or charter schools is not at this point an adequate response to concerns about the quality of elementary education in America. The idea that giving parents the power to choose where their kids attend school will automatically result in widespread improvement in educational outcomes hasn’t systematically borne out in the places where it’s been tried. Here’s what I wrote:
What’s curious is that both of these initiatives seem to be several years past the point when they were the most convincing in intellectual terms, on the basis of theories and evidence. School choice was an idea that had a lot of proponents in the 1990s, but with well over a decade of large-scale pilots for various implementations, it doesn’t seem to be showing any results. And you have former top proponents like Diane Ravitch actually turning against charter schools.
Now, admittedly, I probably shouldn’t have glossed “there doesn’t seem to be evidence that school choice, on average, improves educational outcomes” as “(school choice) doesn’t seem to be showing any results”. The latter sounds more negative than I’d intended, though formally the statements are equivalent. But Salam doesn’t claim that there is strong unambiguous evidence for the success of school choice. He says, instead,
Randomized field trials in education are difficult to devise, and the number of large-scale pilots for various implementations is small, particularly when compared to the number and quality of experiments that preceded the welfare reform efforts of the mid-1990s. We do have a handful of natural experiments involving lotteries. These experiments face a number of limitations, including faulty record-keeping, a failure to properly separate treatment and control groups, and much else besides. But of the big randomized lottery experiments, we have seen nontrivial gains for African American students. We actually don’t have much data for non-black students, in large part because of ferocious resistance to further experimentation. Because these experiments have yielded nontrivial gains without an increase in resources, I’m hard-pressed to see why we shouldn’t field more experiments, ideally well-designed RFTs. The idea that this is a settled issue is … interesting.
Who said it was a settled issue? Not me. I, too, see no reason why we shouldn’t field more experiments. What I said was that since school choice hasn’t been getting such great press lately, owing in large measure to the failure, for whatever reasons, to generate strong findings of educational improvement across school systems (as opposed to at individual well-run schools), this seemed to me a surprising candidate for a new liberaltarian alliance at this time. Personally, I’m favorably disposed towards charter schools and cautiously favorable to some kinds of school choice, but I have been since the 1990s, and those ideas seem to me to command less support today than they did then, not more.
Salam’s second response addressed my criticism of his phrase “the fact that much of metropolitan Europe and East Asia ‘free-rides’ on American military power.” I didn’t, and don’t, believe that much of metropolitan Europe and East Asia “free-ride” on American military power. In fact, I wrote, I can’t think of a country that the phrase “free-riding on American military power” fits. Mr Salam responds:
Note that I put “free-riding” is scare quotes. That, of course, is a subtlety that’s easy to miss. I was suggesting that free-riding isn’t the perfect term, but it is useful. Given the way Steinglass approaches issues relating to health systems, public finances, etc., I can’t be too surprised by his reaction. But I am disappointed.
Do I believe that European and East Asian countries are spending “too little” on defense? No, I don’t. I’m not sure if that’s a meaningful concept. Military expenditures are a kind of self-insurance against an anarchic international environment. Choosing the “right” level of self-insurance is a thorny question that doesn’t have a clear answer. This is an environment with more than one imaginable equilibrium. The idea that a state can spend the right amount reflects a planner’s delusion….
The notion that there is free-riding going on doesn’t imply that it’s necessarily a bad thing: this is a core premise advanced by William Wohlforth and others who believe in “the stability of a unipolar world.” “Free-riding” in this vein is a feature, not a bug.
It seems that Salam and I agree, then: neither of us thinks European or East Asian countries are spending “too little” on defense. But really, I think this is all a bit of a dodge. Like it or not, the term “free-riding” carries strong negative connotations. The claim that countries are “free-riding” on American military expenditures is descended from cold-war-era conservative arguments that European countries were failing to pull their own weight and were spending too much on domestic social programs rather than on mutual defense against the Warsaw Pact. Now that those countries face no external threat, the concept has outlived its usefulness. Contrary to what Salam says, I don’t think one can have “free-riding” if it’s not clear that the “free-rider” is receiving anything of value. If I choose to go out and spend a million dollars on a cannon emplacement in the center of Dupont Circle, and then claim that Reihan Salam is “free-riding” on my cannon-emplacement spending, I think Reihan Salam would regard my claim as ridiculous, since he believes he derives no benefit from my cannon emplacement.
The case is more complicated in the case of America’s allies, since they clearly do derive benefits from American defense spending. But obviously every country always derives benefits from the military spending of its allies; it seems absurd to use the term “free-riding” to encompass every relationship of military alliance. Or do we mean that every country “free-rides” on the defense spending of allies only if the ally spends more on defense? Do we mean this in nominal, or percentage terms? Is Israel free-riding on American defense spending, even though Israel’s defense spending is proportionally far higher? Or is America then free-riding on Israel’s defense spending?
To me, the phrase “free-riding on American military power” suggests that a country derives clear benefits from American military power, benefits that fit into the country’s own views of its interests (as opposed to “benefits” which America regards the country as receiving, but which that country itself may have no interest in), and that the country in question is clearly failing to make an adequate contribution to its own defense. I wrote in my initial post that I didn’t think that description fit any actual countries in the world at the moment. On reflection, I believe a case could be made for Taiwan and possibly Japan; but a case could also be made against either of those countries. Taiwan spends 3% of its GDP on defense, and while that may not be enough to fend off a Chinese amphibious invasion 10 years from now, the Taiwanese public’s conception of its relationship to China has shifted greatly over the past 20 years; if Taiwanese are increasingly interested in reunification, on whatever terms those entail, then their commitment to spending whatever it takes to fend off a Chinese invasion may be ebbing for political reasons that have nothing to do with “free-riding”. As for Japan…again, what is the military threat to Japan?
Salam wants to cast me as being possessed of an absurd certitude that reductions in American military spending will not lead to increased military competition in a multipolar world. I don’t pretend to such certitude, and I think it’s entirely possible that the future will involve both less overwhelming American military power and more military competition among other states. It’s also possible that less American military power might lead to less military competition among some states.
What I criticized, though, was Salam’s certitude: specifically, his phrase “the fact that much of metropolitan Europe and East Asia ‘free-rides’ on American military power.” He shouldn’t be using the word “fact” there. If he wants to make the case that some states free-ride on American military power, he should argue that case; I’ve a feeling I’ll probably disagree. But I won’t use interjections like “Sigh.”, because, as I said, I consider Reihan Salam a pretty interesting writer.
I think Conor Friedersdorf’s objections to “newsroom diversity as ideology” are, overall, wide of the mark. It would certainly be a pernicious mistake for communities to be covered only by people who came from those communities, or for journalists to be pigeonholed into reporting only on the communities they come from. But that’s not what the piece by Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander to which Friedersdorf objects is talking about. Here’s the paragraph that Friedersdorf calls “nonsense”:
“You can’t cover your community unless you look like your community,” said Bobbi Bowman, a former Post reporter and editor who is a diversity consultant for ASNE. (Full disclosure: I [Andrew Alexander] sit on its board). “If you have a community of basketball players, it’s difficult for a newsroom of opera lovers to cover them.”
Imagine diversity consultant Bobbi Bowman telling a black reporter, “I’m sorry, your work is good, and I’d like to grant your request to cover Georgetown for the Metro desk, but you can’t cover a community like Georgetown if you don’t look like the people there.”
But that’s not what Bowman said. She didn’t say you can’t cover basketball if you’re an opera lover. She said a newsroom full of opera lovers will find it difficult to cover a community of basketball players. Bowman is talking about the effect of diversity on communities, including the community of a newsroom. People in diverse communities soak up background knowledge from each other. They’re made aware of things they don’t know that they don’t know. They’ll walk in every morning and hear unfamiliar terms being bandied about, they’ll get an inkling of what’s going on out there and how much they have to learn.
In contrast, people in homogenous communities don’t know what they don’t know. They get trapped in echo chambers, and assume that the possibly ignorant opinions they and their demographically similar friends hold are accurate. The opera lovers at the Washington Post will likely do a solid job of covering a community of basketball players, but that’s in part because they’re surrounded by basketball fans. And the basketball players at the Washington Post will probably do a better job of covering opera if there are still a few opera fans left at the paper.
This is actually expressive of a pretty central tension in thinking about racial integration. Conservatism embraced the idea of an individualist anti-racism that permits no discrimination on any grounds by the late 1970s or so. But it did so in part by rejecting communitarian conservatism, which had been associated with support for segregation in the ’50s and ’60s. The orthodoxy on the conservative end of things became that expressed by John Roberts: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” (Or, as Stephen Colbert would put it, “I don’t see black skin.”) Liberals, meanwhile, have not had an easy time of articulating the difference between barring consideration of gender, religion or ethnicity to exclude people from institutions, but allowing or encouraging consideration of gender, religion or ethnicity to include people in institutions and promote in-house diversity. And it’s a genuine problem: any time you consider one person’s under-represented identity to include them, you may be considering someone else’s over-represented identity to exclude them.
Still, what Bowman is saying here is like what universities say when they explain why they value diversity in admissions: diversity is mission-related. In sectors like education and media, diverse institutions perform better. The reporter you put on a beat doesn’t need to come from that beat. But the newsroom that’s covering all those beats will do a much better job if it contains a mix of people who come from all those beats, too.
Filed under: Liberalism
This is going to be an impressionistic post, but here’s the sense I’m getting from reading a lot of young center-left bloggers’ extremely angry reaction to the reluctance of House Democrats to pass the Senate’s health reform bill.
Basically, if you’re under the age of 40 or so, pretty much your entire political life has seen Republicans in control of at least two out of three of the elected bodies of government. More important, there’s been a constant and powerful anima of conservatism either driving the direction of political life, or sort of roosting over it menacingly, threatening to return at the first stirring of progressive activism.
So if you’ve grown up liberal in this period, you’ve gotten used to the idea that you have to conceal or water down your ambitions in order to get anything through. You’ve gotten used to watering down your expectations by choosing a Southern centrist like Bill Clinton rather than a flaming California liberal like Jerry Brown who could never win; and then you’ve gotten used to Clinton himself triangulating his modest aspirations away in the face of Republican headwinds. And you’ve gotten used to backing your half-traduced liberal candidates to the hilt, acknowledging that they’re doing the best they can to get something worthwhile accomplished. You’ve gotten used to never saying things like “cut defense spending” because of fear of the conservative madness that could descend upon your centrist candidate, and that might force him to disown the liberal wing of the party. You’ve gotten used to endless Sister Souljah moments. (Or, more important, Lani Guinier/Van Jones moments, where your candidate is forced to sever ties to a smart, morally upstanding, politically solid progressive with excellent policy ideas because they once wrote something that stupid, provincial, ignorant people think is Communist, or that white people think favors black or Hispanic people. You’ve also gotten used to the idea that you can never, ever call people stupid, ignorant, or provincial, certainly not if they’re white.)
You’ve gotten used to the expectation that any good progressive policy initiative will be bastardized and bargained down until it’s only half as good as it might have been, and that this remainder will then be laced with a cocktail of industry giveaways and sweetmeats for particular “centrist” Democrats in order to have any hope of passing. You’ve gotten used to the idea that you will then need to express full-throated support for the resulting mess of a bill because, after all, it’s better than nothing, and this is the way things work in our democratic system. You’ve gotten used to the idea that the solutions that emerge from the process will be not first-best or even second-best but third-best solutions that are then made even worse in committee.
But you’ve learned to take all this like a grownup. Political reality is what it is. You’re in this to get things done, not to preen. You’re not a Nader voter, prizing your moral purity above your actual accomplishments. You don’t have the luxury of declaring “a pox on both your houses” to Democrats and Republicans alike. You want things to get better, you have one life, you live in the real world. And so you vote Democratic. You put your shoulder into it and try to push that rock a little further up the hill.
And then you get the 2008 election. A once-in-60-years majority in House and Senate, plus the presidency. This is as much as the Democrats can ever hope to have in your lifetime. This legislative moment will not come again. These chances don’t come around twice. There are pressing problems to be solved: a vicious recession, global warming, the combustiflating health-care system that will bankrupt the government in 25 years. This is the moment to take these challenges on.
Then you watch Senate Democrats f*** up the health reform bill to within an inch of its life, over the course of 9 months, because they’re too cowardly to get out there and pass something decent, too stupid to realize that their Republican opponents are trying to kill the bill and kill the Democratic majority, too selfish and puerile to give up the opportunity for rent-seeking behavior of fiddling with this and that little piece of crap provision so they can have some kind of goody for their own local voters. And yet still, you back the bill. It’s still got the most important, powerful reforms in it — guaranteed issue and community rating, the exchanges, the stuff that will help people. It’s still got some cost-control measures — $500 billion in Medicare savings and the employer insurance tax aren’t too bad. It’s reasonably fiscally responsible. You back it the way you’ve backed everything Democrats have tried to do for the past 30 years, acknowledging the crippling political realities that make it worse than it might be.
And then the Democrats lose their 60th vote in the Senate, and the Democrats in the House panic and won’t take the last available possible way forward and just sign the Senate bill.
At this point, a certain number of those reasonable, mature, grown-up younger people who’ve backed the Democrats this far are going to start reassessing their understanding of political reality. If you give up your purism in the interests of pragmatic accomplishment, and spend 10 or 20 years working towards that pragmatic accomplishment, and you get this close to that pragmatic accomplishment only to have the people who could make it a reality drop the thing and back away because they’re scared to do it…you start to think maybe those people aren’t actually going to get you any pragmatic accomplishments. Ever. You start re-evaluating your feelings about Naomi Klein. You start wondering whether you might perhaps accomplish more by pulling a black mask over your face, picking up a baseball bat, and charging into the AHIP building yelling “here’s your public option” and smashing shit up trying to nudge the Overton window a bit further left.
So that’s what I think is going on with those young liberals who are now saying they might consider staying home and not voting Democratic next fall. I don’t belong to that camp. I still think that fragmenting your party is almost always a mistake. I’ll be voting next fall. But I can see where they’re coming from.