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.