Alternative Reality by mattsteinglass
September 20, 2007, 12:55 pm
Filed under: Iraq, War

Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-2003):

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who worked to defeat the Webb plan, said the Republican support for the war could have a political cost. “The Republicans own this war,” he said. “If it goes bad, the nation loses and the Republican Party loses disproportionately compared to the Democratic Party.”

“If” the war goes bad. Good lord. Would someone please smash the plexiglass dome over Washington, D.C. and allow the world to flow in.


Iraq as Dollar Auction by mattsteinglass
September 13, 2007, 12:07 pm
Filed under: Economics, Iraq

This Oliver Goodenough column is absolutely brilliant. You’d think so much had been said about Iraq by now that there was nothing interesting left to add. Amazingly, you’d be wrong.

Goodenough likens the Iraq war to the economics teaching tool of the “dollar auction”, where the professor auctions off one dollar to the highest bidder, on the condition the second-highest bidder has to pay up, too. The auction usually ends with the top two bidders offering several dollars each for the dollar, in an insane war to lose a bit less than they otherwise would.

To quote the computer in “Wargames”, “The only way to win is not to play.”

Friedman: No More Friedman Units! by mattsteinglass
September 12, 2007, 3:09 pm
Filed under: China, Iraq, United States, War

Wow! And there it is! Thomas Friedman has rendered his latest judgment on how many months we will need to see whether Iraq can still succeed, and the answer, at long last, isn’t six; it’s zero!

By now it should be clear that Iraq is going to be what it is going to be. We’ve never had sufficient troops there to shape Iraq in our own image. We simply can’t go on betting so many American soldiers and resources that Iraqis will one day learn to live together on their own — without either having to be bludgeoned by Saddam or baby-sat by us.

So either we get help or get out. That is, if President Bush believes staying in Iraq can still make a difference, then he needs to muster some allies because the American people are not going to sustain alone — nor should they — a long-shot bet that something decent can still be built in Baghdad.

If the president can’t get help, then he has to initiate a phased withdrawal: now. Because the opportunity cost this war is exacting on our country and its ability to focus on anything else is out of all proportion to what might still be achieved in Iraq by our staying, with too few troops and too few friends.

All of which is a perfectly reasonable thing to say, and it’s also perfectly natural that Friedman was prompted to take the final logical step by a visit to China for the World Economic Forum, where he realized that being a great power is actually a lot easier, not harder, when you aren’t fighting grindingly expensive, lethally unpopular counterinsurgency wars:

That is where we are in Iraq. We’re wasting our brains. We’re wasting our people. We’re wasting our future. China is not.

Again: perfectly reasonable. The question is: without Friedman Units, how will Atrios set his watch anymore?

War All The Time by mattsteinglass
September 12, 2007, 2:05 pm
Filed under: Iraq, United States, War

Ross Douthat approvingly cites a post from back on September 2 on John Robb’s “Global Guerrillas” blog explaining “why we’ll be staying in Iraq for a long, long time.” I clicked, knowing Robb’s blog and wondering why he would be arguing that it was a good idea for the US to stay in Iraq — that didn’t seem like his cup of tea.

Turns out the post, quite in character for Robb, argues in a completely values-free, ruthlessly analytic fashion that the US is going to be in Iraq for a long time because with structural shifts since Vietnam — improvements in Pentagon propaganda methods, the all-volunteer army, the further entrenchment of the military-industrial complex — there is no longer much of a political constraint on the ability of a democracy to fight a low-intensity war forever. In fact he argues that in a globalizing era where states face mounting challenges to their legitimacy and usefulness, they will generate such permanent wars in order to justify their existence and broaden their areas of control. Hardly a ringing endorsement of the US’s presence in Iraq.

Keystrokes by mattsteinglass
September 12, 2007, 12:49 pm
Filed under: Internet

It seems Mumbai police are installing keystroke monitors in all the city’s internet cafes. It might be worth noting, for them and others: the way to defeat almost all keystroke monitors is to periodically click and type plenty of random letters, elsewhere in the same target window as whatever you’re actually typing.

Asymmetrical information: yes, we have no bananas by mattsteinglass
September 11, 2007, 5:13 pm
Filed under: China, Health, Media

Most people in the U.S. are still operating with a worldview that divides political and economic systems into the state-centered versus the free-market. Hopefully, this summer’s cascade of disastrous news about unsafe Chinese-manufactured products will help people understand what an inadequate framework that is for thinking about modern political economy. In any reasonably complex economy, state structures are critical to lay the groundwork for the market. One of the most critical functions of state regulatory agencies is to establish trustworthy information about products. Without such a reliable official voice, the market is suffused in a fog of unreliable and opaque claims; every single purchase becomes as perilous and exhausting as buying a used car, and consumers retreat into a paranoid crouch of helpless anxiety.

Witness yesterday’s great piece in the Washington Post. It starts out as a run-of-the-mill piece about electronic censorship and monitoring in China; but as it looks more closely at what’s being censored, the story gets weirder and more interesting.

From spring well into the summer, southern China’s banana farmers faced a crisis they could not understand. From cellphone to cellphone, a text-message rumor had swept the country saying that Chinese bananas carried an infection called “Panama virus” that could cause cancer. As a result, consumers everywhere were leery, and bananas piled up unsold.

Distraught agriculture officials knew of no such problem with Chinese bananas. Eager to restore the market, they called in the Public Security Ministry’s electronic censors to find out where the rumor originated. From message to message, the monitors traced it back through thousands of cellphone connections.

After weeks of sleuthing, they discovered the first message had been sent by a woman in Nanning, capital of Guangxi province just northwest of Vietnam. Because she lived in a major banana-growing region, they surmised the woman might have been seeking to inflict harm on a local businessman or farmer.

But after tracking her down and interrogating her, Nanning police said she explained that she was only passing along what she had read in an article in China Daily, the government’s main English-language newspaper. Beijing police launched an investigation at the newspaper’s head office in the capital. The article in question was indeed about bananas and it did mention cancer, they found, but the writer had said nothing about bananas causing cancer.

After further interrogation, China Daily editors said, Nanning police discovered the woman was reading the paper as a way to improve her English — which was still shaky — and she had misunderstood the article.

Obviously this kind of samizdat mass hysteria is produced, in part, by government censorship: when people don’t trust the government, they become more susceptible to crazy rumors.  But it’s also caused by the chaos and governmental inertia of a top-down, non-democratic society. Reliable regulatory authorities, answerable to the voters, are an indispensable part of the modern economy. Without them, we are constantly afraid that our food is poisoning us, and vulnerable to the next rumor about killer bananas.