VN June inflation down to 2.1%, world fails to grasp point by mattsteinglass
June 28, 2008, 2:59 pm
Filed under: Economics

Vietnam’s June inflation numbers came in at 2.1% month on month, down from 3.9% in May. For some reason Bloomberg and others report this is an acceleration to nearly 27% year on year, above 25% in May. This is a silly way to report the numbers, since what’s happening is simply that the 12-month period in which year on year inflation is measured now contains fewer of the low-inflation months from before inflation started ticking up last fall. The main point is that the month on month rate fell.

I am less impressed these days with the way the financial press does its job than I used to be. More on this later when my kids stop screaming at me.


Too Dutch by mattsteinglass
June 28, 2008, 4:12 am
Filed under: Netherlands

Canal in Haarlem, Netherlands

I’m in Haarlem for a week or so and the great impression it gives off, like much of the Netherlands, is of an excessive perfection. Too neat, too cute, too well organized, too efficient, too environmentally responsible, too morally unimpeachable, the roses in the flower box on the front stoop too thriving and well cared for. There’s a passage in, if I remember rightly, Dostoevsky’s “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions” where he talks about the impossibility of Europe; he refers to it, if I recall rightly, as a precious grove of birch trees, in which everything seems to go perfectly, as if of its own accord, whereas everywhere else everything turns to crap. It’s a kind of cri de coeur of developing-nation despair: what is the point of aspiring to something that can never be achieved anywhere else, yet achieves itself there in Europe as if by magic? I have some of the same feelings when I look at Holland, particularly when I’m thinking about transportation policy.

On the other hand half the time Holland drives me absolutely nuts with its incredible dull conservatism and niggling detail-mindedness, which is helpful and reassuring in its own way.

Better off under Ian Smith than under Mugabe? by mattsteinglass
June 27, 2008, 12:41 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

It’s a very interesting point to note that Zimbabwe is  not a “failed state”: the state has thorough political control over its territory, unlike Congo or Chad, which shows that just having a functioning government doesn’t necessarily get you to peace and prosperity. It’s more complicated to argue that “the assumption that any black leader was definitionally better than the Smith government is part of what enabled Mugabe.” When you have a transition from a white-minority racist government to a black-majority government in postcolonial Africa, it seems inevitable that the strongest black leader is going to take power. I don’t believe it is in the capacity of outside governments to pick a weaker black leader because we think more highly of his ideology and character. (I know the Vietnam analogy is tedious, but the Ho Chi Minh example is pretty instructive here.)

I guess one has to distinguish here between two different groups of outsiders: Africans outside Zimbabwe, and non-Africans. I think the great majority of non-Africans do not in fact believe that Robert Mugabe is entitled to rule Zimbabwe because he is black. But the opinions of non-Africans on this question do not matter much, and didn’t really even in 1979. The UK and US could no more have held a weaker, more democratic and capitalist government in place in 1979 than they could have held the Kerensky government in power in Russia in 1918.

However, the apparent belief by Thabo Mbeki that Robert Mugabe has the right to dispossess and slaughter the Ndebele because he is a Shona, has the right to dispossess, exile or kill whites because he black, and has the right to impoverish his entire country and beat his political opponents to death because he was a hero of black anti-colonialism — that has certainly empowered Robert Mugabe. Mbeki is a very strange figure; despite running Sough Africa for eight years, he seems still not to really deeply grasp that he is actually running a country and bears responsibility for what happens to it. But other African leaders seem equally incapable of intervening against Mugabe. The question is really to what extent non-Africans can influence the attitudes of Africans on these kinds of issues. Does it matter what we think of Robert Mugabe?

In some ways I think non-Africans may have less ability to influence political discourse in South Africa than elsewhere, because of the racial polarization of politics in South Africa. We may be more able to influence the ways that, say, Ugandans, Rwandans, and Ghanaians (to name a few relative good-government zones on the continent) address the Mugabe question.

Cover me I’m going in by mattsteinglass
June 27, 2008, 2:52 am
Filed under: Media

In Michael Winterbottom’s brilliant and too little noted futuristic oedipal tragedy “Codex 46”, one of the clever turns is that a kind of globalized apartheid is established between places and people who have “cover”, meaning who are insurable, and places and people that aren’t. The “cover” zone starts at the outskirts of, say, Shanghai, and people in the covered class simply don’t venture outside that boundary, let alone to entire uncovered regions like the Middle East. And even people in the covered class may be uncovered for certain zones if they’re found genetically vulnerable to diseases that are endemic there. It’s a brilliantly sinister vision of how economic systems create class boundaries in ways that, these days, supersede the need for hard and fast legal divisions like the old South African passbooks.

I had thought the term “cover” was a brilliant neologism the film had invented, coming to stand for that global class division between the haves and have-nots. But as I found out a couple of weeks ago while booking flights on EasyJet and being offered travel insurance, “cover” is simply the British term for what an American insurance company would call “coverage”. I’m not sure whether that’s really any less sexy, though – it’s just as clever to have taken this everyday word and played out its implications into a whole sci-fi “Time Machine”-type bifurcation of the human race.

Bad apples by mattsteinglass
June 24, 2008, 12:12 pm
Filed under: Human Rights and Torture

Philip Gourevitch has some good posting going on over at TPMCafe on his new book, “Standard Operating Procedure”, the companion volume to the Errol Morris film about Abu Ghraib. He poses two questions: what is the value of discussions of Abu Ghraib, given that no senior US officials will ever be punished for crafting the US’s torture policies? And how are we to deal with the segmentation of US society in the volunteer-army era into a caste society, where the military is drawn from a demographic caste apart from the rest of American society? Do we need, Gourevitch asks, to bring back the draft?

On the first question, I think the value of discussions of Abu Ghraib and of the evolution of the US’s torture policies is self-evident. What’s really powerful about this story is that it’s one of the best stories I’ve ever seen for examining the way that policy decisions translate into events. Think, for instance, of Jane Mayer’s amazing article for The New Yorker on Alberto Mora. The hardest thing to do in journalism is to draw connections between complex and fuzzy management and policy decisions, bureaucratic political maneuvering and the adoption of one or another document as official policy, and the consequences such documents and management tactics have for the accomplishment of an organization’s mission. The reporting that’s been done on how abuses at Abu Ghraib (and Bagram and Guantanamo) stemmed from the evolution of US torture policy has been probably the best, most gripping organizational reporting I’ve read.

On the second question, bringing back the draft is an obvious non-starter. I don’t think the problem of a demographic and cultural bifurcation between the military and the rest of American society is most evident in the Abu Ghraib drama. It’s more of a broad political problem. The basic problem is a tendency on the part of those in the military, partly because of their increasing segregation from the rest of American society, to dramatically overrate the value of what they do, and to believe that they ought to be doing more of it. Perhaps what would be really valuable would be a concerted effort to integrate military personnel into the rest of American society, to prevent in-group isolation and the reproduction of a military culture apart.

The chief people who will care are other government officials. by mattsteinglass
June 23, 2008, 11:47 pm
Filed under: Human Rights and Torture

A bet of $1000 between me and Megan McArdle over whether “the chief reaction would be outrage” to the arrest of a US official for official actions would never be settled. Megan is right that Europeans are not going to arrest any senior US officials for crafting the US’s torture policies. But as I said in the original post, Megan is wrong about the reasons for this. The reason no US official will be arrested in Europe for crafting the US’s torture policies is opposition on the part of other US officials, not to mention British and German and Italian officials, who wish to preserve their impunity, much as Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic would like to preserve theirs.

I don’t accept the bet because I am nowhere near sure enough of my argument to risk $1000 dollars on it, and because I am saving for my kids’ college educations and I selected the “balanced” investment plan, not the “arbitrary events over which you have no control aggressive growth” one. (I’m doing it for the kids! Everyone is now required to weep, especially conservatives – I’m looking at you, Mel Gibson.)

Here’s the point. A concern that people who give orders to torture captives be punished for their actions is a dearly held value in European countries, just as Americans cherish a deep belief in freedom of conscience. (The torture thing, mind-bogglingly, we no longer seem to care as much about.) We hold that this belief gives us the right to levy sanctions and otherwise interfere in the internal politics of many countries, and we hold that in part because there are political consequences in the American system for failing to stand up for the rights of the persecuted in other countries. Each time a Vietnamese official tells the US it has no right to demand that an imprisoned journalist or pastor be freed, the US Ambassador says: American elected and appointed officials are obliged by their duty to their constituents to stand up for freedom of conscience and expression. Dozens of Vietnamese owe their freedom today to that contention and the exertion of American diplomatic power behind it.

There are also political consequences in European countries for failing to oppose the US’s torture policies, as Jose Maria Aznar found out. The trick in these situations is to find a solution that is diplomatically acceptable to both sides. US Ambassadors do not run around telling Vietnamese that we’re going to parachute in SEALs and free Father Nguyen Van Ly if they don’t release him. They draw certain clear lines: it is clear that anyone arrested for political reasons will attract the US’s attention, especially if they have foreign citizenship; procedures are established for assuring the US that Vietnamese behavior is not too oppressive; and those arrested are generally released these days within three years, after US inquiries and pressure.

The wise choice is to find a formula for addressing European concern with American torture policies that does not entail severe diplomatic s***fests. If it is politically unacceptable for a Spanish government to be caught letting David Addington change planes in Barcelona, let them make that clear. There is no particular reason why the United States should exert its diplomatic might to protect the right of the men who made the banally evil decisions that led, predictably and consciously, to the torture of Germans, Canadians, and sundry random innocent Afghans and Pakistanis to change planes in Barcelona rather than, oh, Casablanca. Inconvenient, surely, but I have trouble imagining the outraged conservative rallying cry as anything but self-parody. And this is simply exactly what Scott Horton is saying: David Addington needs to think carefully before flying through Barcelona. As I said in my post, I cannot believe that an order by Spain that some guy named David Addington can’t transit through their country is going to evoke any serious political reaction except among, well, that small minority among Bush’s 24% that knows who David Addington is.

This stands apart from the fact that David Addington should not be allowed to fly through Barcelona. He should be under investigation leading to indictment, or the very idea of war crimes has no meaning. This is the guy who thumbed through the SERE manual and said, “Let’s try this.” The very liberal international consensus Megan says she’s trying to uphold when she invokes “dead Bosnians” is precisely the consensus that liberal democratic nations cannot allow impunity for war crimes.

I have told Megan before that I have a red line when it comes to arguments defining away or promoting impunity for torture. I think it is time for conservatives to accept that liberals cannot be dissuaded on this point, rather than the other way around.

Hive minds are for bees by mattsteinglass
June 23, 2008, 10:46 am
Filed under: Internet

Back when I was studying at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU in the heady days of the young internet, I used to bristle at the utopian naivete of people like Jaron Lanier and John Perry Barlow who’d come in to tell us that because information wants to be free and bee hives are smarter than bees, everything is destined to become increasingly awesome and the state has become irrelevant, or something. Jaron Lanier has since famously recanted his enthusiasm for “digital Maoism,” which is great. Anyway, another guy who’s been in the net-culture analysis game since back in the day is Clay Shirky, who’s got a new book out that sounds fascinating, and he’s also decided to take up the necessary sword to remind people that humans don’t cease being humans when they go online, and that there’s a reason why humans have laws and sometimes even enforce them.

One of the things I’ve decided to dedicate some time to, now that the book is done, is debunking the kind of bottom-up, hive-mind, “people are good” nonsense being promulgated about novel forms of collaboration. Political philosophy isn’t about problems, its about dilemmas, which is to say things that can never be solved, only optimized for. The net is astonishing in the number of new optimizations it has offered us for managing social dilemmas is enormous, but it doesn’t make those dilemmas go away — it just keeps them at bay in new ways.