We won the Vietnam War, FDR caused the Depression, and other useful historical fictions by mattsteinglass
November 17, 2008, 9:20 am
Filed under: Economics, United States

In the USSR, when they wanted to change history for political purposes, they had to employ entire art departments full of airbrush wizards. In today’s America, all you have to do is have a “counterintuitive” idea. The deployment of the conservative meme that FDR caused the Great Depression has become so widespread that Paul Krugman now finds himself shooting it down when George Will tosses it up on “This Week”. (Via Brad DeLong.)

Back in mid-2005, with things gone miserably sour in Iraq and the analogy to Vietnam becoming all but undeniable, conservatives began to aggressively deploy a new meme. It wasn’t that Iraq was entirely unlike Vietnam, they said; the Iraq War was similar to the Vietnam War in many ways, but the US won the Vietnam War. The strategy had two parts. First, right-leaning academics like Lewis Sorley and Mark Moyar wrote books making tendentious cases that the US had, in various ways, done far better than most historians believe we did, and that the war could have been won if only those pessimistic, unpatriotic liberals hadn’t stopped  us from continuing the brilliant counterinsurgency strategies of Creighton Abrams, or from supporting the South Vietnamese government with airstrikes in 1975, or (in Moyar’s case, amazingly) from continuing to back the brilliant Southern dictator Ngo Dinh Diem (whom every other historian considers an incompetent with an untenably narrow power base). Then, conservatives in the media boil these books down into soundbites and create a new “consensus” view that the US actually won the Vietnam War, only to have liberals hand the Communists the keys to Saigon. Hence, we will win in Iraq if only we can keep those damn liberals from giving away the store. Or, as President Bush so amazingly put it during a state visit to Vietnam in November 2006, “The lesson of the Vietnam War is that if we stay, we win.”

The same game plan is being pursued for the new anti-FDR offensive. First, Amity Shlaes wrote a book “arguing” that FDR’s policies exacerbated the Depression, rather than ameliorating it. Some of Shlaes’s evidence for this point apparently cuts in a radical Keynesian direction rather than a conservative direction — she seems to embrace the Friedmanite argument that FDR’s monetary policy was far too stingy, which is hardly a conservative talking point in the current political moment — but that point seems to be lost on conservatives who trumpet her book. Anyway, in the next phase, conservatives in the media take up her book and a few of its points to argue that FDR caused the Great Depression. If the goal of arguing that the US won the Vietnam War was to fight off Democratic attacks over Iraq, the goal of arguing that FDR caused the Depression is to fight off Democratic government-led interventions to cope with the global financial crisis.

The brilliance of these strategies is a Rovian brilliance. Americans have a deep-seated cultural affinity for counterintuitive arguments, for the upending of the conventional wisdom. Americans had to retrospectively invent the myth that Columbus had proved to a skeptical Europe that the world was round; in fact everyone knew that already, but for Americans, America itself must be the counterintuitive answer that disproves an old and deeply inaccurate convention. What makes these Rovian offensives work is that for Americans, the truth must be revolutionary. It is not enough, in this vein, to argue that Creighton Abrams’s counterinsurgency strategy after the Tet Offensive was a great improvement over Westmoreland’s attrition strategy (true), or that FDR’s regulation of markets and public-works programs were flawed and insufficient (true). You have to argue that the US won the war, that FDR caused the Depression.

In early 2006, I started to worry that the new “the US won the Vietnam War” meme might be taking hold amongst impressionable youngsters who had not, like me, grown up watching M*A*S*H. So I started asking American college students, whenever I ran into them, whether they believed these arguments that perhaps the US actually won, or could have won, or was right to fight, the Vietnam War. They all looked at me like they had no idea what I was talking about. “I think everybody pretty much thinks that war was a bad idea,” one Harvard senior said.

What about the new “FDR caused the Great Depression” meme? I’m afraid this one may gain more traction, in part because it seems to have more centrally placed advocates in academia to lend it respectability. But it seems to me to be extremely important to fight back aggressively on this front. When you argue about history, you’re also arguing about the future.


East Asia deploys capital controls, and wins by mattsteinglass
November 17, 2008, 8:10 am
Filed under: Economics, Vietnam

Dani Rodrik posted this over a week ago but I’ve just noticed it:

Can you resist financial globalization?

Yes you can, and Asia has been doing it.  I am in Bangkok for a Bank of Thailand conference, and among other interesting contributions (by Jose Antonio Ocampo, Raghu Rajan, and Arvind Subramanian) is a nice paper by the BIS’s Robert McCauley and Guonan Ma called “Resisting financial globalization in Asia.”  The paper documents how fours countries (China, India, South Korea, and Thailand) have thrown “sand in the wheels of finance” to varying extents. Interestingly, those countries that have done the most resisting are the ones that are the least affected by the crisis.

Early this year, as Vietnam’s inflation rose and confidence in its currency dropped, respectable people (the Wall Street Journal editorial pages et al) were still actually writing that the best way for a country to ensure a stable currency was a liberalized currency market. Even then, my impression was that most people didn’t believe that. Now my impression is that almost no one does. In late spring, as foreign analysts wrote that Vietnam might face a sudden collapse of the dong unless it allowed steady, rapid depreciation, others were explaining that because the dong is not freely exchangeable and is tightly managed by the State Bank, it would extremely hard to mount an attack on it. They were right, the dong didn’t collapse, and anyone who bet strongly against it in May has lost a lot of money.

As far as I understand it, this is an area in which developing countries that have been following China’s model in recent years have done well, and those that have followed the US’s advice have done poorly.

Lame duck appoints Burma envoy by mattsteinglass
November 11, 2008, 12:20 pm
Filed under: Burma, United States

AFP reports that on his way out of town, George W. Bush has decided to leave a legacy in Burma by appointing Michael Green to a new special envoy post.

If confirmed by the US Senate, Green “will serve as our main interlocutor with other countries and organizations as we attempt to help the Burmese people,” said US National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

Green, who has served as senior director for Asian Affairs on Bush’s national security council, is currently an associate professor at Georgetown University and holds the Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington.

The post was created by the US Congress with an eye on increasing pressure on the military junta that rules Myanmar.

This may at first glance suggest a neo-con maneuver to put personnel in place to pursue a Bush-era foreign policy into the next administration, but in fact it’s probably not so partisan. True, Green is definitely on the hawkish side of the democracy promotion issue, and he’s for a stronger stance of backing Japan against China. He’s written that the US should demand more concessions from North Korea on the Japanese abductee issue before taking Pyongyang off the state sponsors of terrorism list. In a piece published in late 2007, he took the unusual position that “democracy promotion, which is languishing in the Iraq and Middle East context…has quietly been a success story in Asia.” (Larry Diamond and most of those looking at Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Cambodia at that point — to say nothing of Vietnam, China, Laos and Burma — were drawing the opposite conclusion. When you add in Indonesia and Malaysia, the picture is at best mixed.)

Still, Green is no John Bolton, and reading his and Derek Mitchell’s November 2007 piece in Foreign Affairs on the Burma question is revealing. Green clearly wants to take some kind of tougher, more dramatic line against the SPDC, something that will move the situation past the ugly stalemate it’s been in for over 15 years now. “A decade later,” he writes, “the verdict is in: neither sanctions nor constructive engagement has worked. If anything, Burma has evolved from being an antidemocratic embarrassment and humanitarian disaster to being a serious threat to the security of its neighbors. But despite the mounting danger, many in the United States and the international community are still mired in the old sanctions-versus-engagement battle.” But Green knows East Asia, he understands the reality on the ground, and he’s not about to make ludicrous policy recommendations that have no chance of succeeding. So what does he come up with? Weak tea:

All parties with a stake in its resolution need to adjust their positions and start coordinating their approach to the problem. Although this may seem like an unlikely proposition, it has more potential today than ever before. Burma’s neighbors are beginning to recognize that unconditional engagement has failed. All that is needed now is for the United States to acknowledge that merely reinforcing its strategy of isolation and the existing sanctions regime will not achieve the desired results either. Such a reappraisal would then allow all concerned parties to build an international consensus with the dual aim of creating new incentives for the SPDC to reform and increasing the price it will pay if it fails to change its ways.

Green winds up calling for all the concerned parties to construct a road map to reform in Burma. And this is about as far as a serious area expert with certain neo-connish tendencies can go on the Burma issue. Burma is not Serbia, and ASEAN is not the EU, let alone NATO. The fact is, there’s very little the US or anyone can do about Burma except try to keep our hands clean and wait for the SPDC’s senior leadership to die. In Southeast Asia, our tea, whether Democratic or Republican, is weak, and there is little anyone can do to change that.

Update: To be clear about what I wrote above, I don’t think Green is a “neocon and hawk”; from what I’ve read that seems much too harsh a description. Rather, I think just what I said: he wants a clearer US shift towards Japan where there are conflicts between Japan and China, he wants a North Korea policy that is less conciliatory and takes Japanese abductee concerns more seriously, he wants a stronger democracy-promotion agenda, and he wants some kind of strong action to push Burma towards human rights reforms. I’d characterize these as “neo-connish tendencies”. I think he’s wrong, and outside the mainstream, when he argues that democracy promotion is a big success in Asia, and I think he’s misguided to claim that Burma’s neighbors now clearly recognize that the repressiveness of the regime has become a regional security threat and requires group action. I think their discomfort with Burma, while real, is much more modest, and their aversion to interfering in a neighbor’s internal politics far outweighs that discomfort. And I am not really “disappointed” with the US’s weakness; I just think it’s telling that the limits of US and European power in SE Asia are so obvious that even someone like Green who greatly desires strong action on Burma is unable to come up with anything more dramatic than a call for a coordinated road map towards progress.

Kublai Khan decrees new stately pleasure domes, on time and under budget by mattsteinglass
November 10, 2008, 9:40 am
Filed under: China, Economics, United States

In the US it looks like the Democrats are gearing up for a minor stimulus package before the end of the year and a major one after Obama takes office, with support from such laissez-faire Republican luminaries as Martin Feldstein and center-right sages like Fareed Zakaria. The big question: will it focus on government investment in infrastructure? In East Asia, meanwhile, governments are heeding the call of various economists to bump up consumption with government-driven infrastructure investments, with the new big announcement being China’s commitment to spend a staggering $586 billion dollars, mainly on new infrastructure.

The announced sum of four trillion yuan represents about 16% of China’s economic output last year, and is roughly equal to the total of all central and local government spending in 2006. New spending of even half that amount would be substantial next to China’s six trillion yuan annual budget for this year.

The plan includes spending in housing, infrastructure, agriculture, health care and social welfare, and features a tax deduction for capital spending by companies. China’s economy won’t be able to absorb so much spending immediately: Economists expect one or two more quarters of slowing growth at a minimum before a rebound could take hold.

Note that final sentence: one to two quarters. The objection to using infrastructure spending as stimulus in the US has classically been that new infrastructure spending takes too long to get underway, by which time the recession is over. When we say “too long”, we’re talking about five to ten years or more from the time a proposed new road, bridge, port, train, power plant, or what have you is mooted, to the time the concrete starts pouring.

In China when they say the spending can’t take effect immediately, they mean it may take three to six months. I remember an article someone pointed out to me about 4 years ago which makes this phenomenon clear. It was about a Chinese highway construction project that had to traject a large river. “We’re not sure whether we’re going to build a bridge or a tunnel,” the lead engineer on the project said, “but whichever we choose, it will be done in six months.”

Obviously some of the difference is that in China they don’t do environmental review. They don’t do smart growth (not that the US does, mostly, either). They don’t have adequate procedures for input and objections by citizens and other stakeholders. They have brutal and autocratic methods for eminent domain, and pay inadequate compensation. Nevertheless, something has gone out of whack in the US. It takes us too long to do major infrastructure projects. If the legacy of this worldwide recession is that China emerges with spectacular 21st-century infrastructure and the US emerges with a dying bailed-out auto industry and big unemployment programs, then we’re going to have trouble in the coming decades.

Anthropologists at war by mattsteinglass
November 6, 2008, 7:34 pm
Filed under: War

Foreign Policy points to the latest grisly death of non-military Western personnel in Afghanistan. This time it’s anthropologists:

An Afghan national in Meywand, Khandahar province, reportedly doused a U.S. civilian working with the U.S. military with a flammable liquid and lit the worker on fire. Another U.S. civilian then shot and killed the attacker….The U.S. civilians were working with teams of anthropologists and psychologists that help the U.S. military with cultural awareness.

FP also refers to a debate it hosted over the issue of whether anthropologists could legitimately work for the Pentagon. One issue that didn’t come up in that discussion seems rather germane here: if some anthropologists work for the US military, all anthropologists will be assumed by opposition forces to be working for the US military, whether they admit it or not. And they will all become targets.

Lest I forget thee, O Tallinn by mattsteinglass
November 5, 2008, 12:30 am
Filed under: Europe, Russia, War

Daniel Larison is generally against NATO expansion and blustery McCainish efforts to extend US military solidarity to small countries bordering Russia where the US has no strategic interests. And I generally agree with him – the whole “plucky Georgia” narrative was shot through with Slavophobia and deliberate ignorance of the consequences of supporting independence for Kosovo. But here, he seems to me to take the argument too far, perhaps out of a misplaced desire for logical consistency:

Estonia should never have been admitted to NATO, because America is certainly not going to risk WWIII to protect Estonia.  The sooner that everyone understands that, and the less they talk about new Cold Wars, the better.

If NATO is not intended to guarantee the security of well-run European democratic states like Estonia against potential coercion by militaristic and less democratic neighbors, I don’t know what it’s for. The Baltics were integrated into NATO at a moment when the risk of immediate conflict with Russia was minimal, but with a sense that this might change at some point, and that it was important to draw a firm line locking them into the European zone. That goal has been accomplished, and it seems in retrospect like it was a good idea. Estonia is not Georgia. Its membership in Europe is well established, it is contiguous with the rest of democratic Europe, it is part of Scandinavia. I see no reason why the US should grant a security guarantee to Greece but not to Estonia.

Ethnic minorities as heads of state by mattsteinglass
November 4, 2008, 10:54 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

CNN International is asking viewers to vote online on the question: “Could a member of a minority be elected head of state in your country?” Vietnam FTW! Communist Party Chairman Nong Duc Manh is an ethnic Tay. Obviously the extent to which he was “elected” is up for debate, but he was elected by the Central Committee of the CP. And he’s not technically head of state, but Vietnam has one of those ruling-troika systems where it’s not entirely clear who should be considered the single most powerful guy.