Whose idea was it to let the anthropologists run the war, again? by mattsteinglass
November 30, 2009, 6:16 am
Filed under: Afghanistan

I remember back about two years ago I started seeing white-hot discussions on a scholarly email group I belong to about the ethics of academic anthropologists working with US military in Afghanistan to provide expertise on social structure and culture for counterinsurgency purposes.

What nobody took up was the question of what the hell the US military thought was going to happen when it started letting anthropologists advise on strategy. I think the current argument about whether a potential turn towards reliance on a “tribal” strategy in Afghanistan reflects a hopelessly culturally essentialist pre-Levi-Straussian ethnographic privileging of what any post-structuralist account would recognize as fluid, hybrid and technologically-economically constructed relationships of social power, or whether that account in itself fails to recognize the self-empowering capacity for agency of oppressed social categories, or to take a sufficiently gender-inflected view, or should assimilate a more Agent Network Theory perspective that admits multiple types of affiliations…my point is made.

But check out this fascinating paper from the US Army’s Human Terrain System. I think it’s a research organization composed of humans, rather than some kind of analytical AI with a data-feed from droids and nanobots scouring the Afghan countryside, but I’m not entirely sure.


Appleyard, Sullivan, and evolution vs. religion by mattsteinglass
November 29, 2009, 10:32 pm
Filed under: Religion, Science

So far, I’ve read 3 pieces by this guy Brian Appleyard whom Andrew Sullivan likes because he (Appleyard) has gotten himself into a huge feud with P.Z. Myers over evolution and religion. In each of the pieces I’ve read, Appleyard makes it clear via some quick point that he aggressively misunderstands science. My impression is that Appleyard doesn’t understand either the scientific outlook or the scientific background on a lot of issues, that this lack of understanding enables him to make vague and floofy points about how science can’t explain various things, and that when he is attacked by exasperated scientists, he complains that “science has become an ideology”.

For example, here’s the latest Appleyard piece Sullivan pointed to:

I think Darwinism has become, in some hands, unhealthily imperious. It is presented as explaining everything. Evolutionary psychology, for example, is always said to be true because it must be. But, since we have no clear idea of how the mind supervenes on the brain, this, for the moment, is an assumption too far.

What does Appleyard mean when he says evolutionary psychology is “said to be true”? “Evolutionary psychology” refers to attempts to explain observed features of human psychology by reference to how genes coding for such behavior may have proven adaptive, or otherwise well suited to propagating themselves through the human species. It’s not an up-or-down thesis that can be “true” or “false”; it’s a class of propositions. Some of them may be true, some false; or one might be skeptical about the evolutionary psychology approach, believing it to be speculative, unscientific, not rigorous, and so forth. What would it mean to say “evolutionary psychology” “must be” “true”? Who makes such a claim?

I think what Appleyard wants to say is that evolutionary psychology is a speculative field that rarely generates solid results. If so, many evolutionary biologists and evolution-believing laypeople — the majority, I would guess — would agree with him. But not because, as Appleyard says, “we have no clear idea of how the mind supervenes on the brain.” In fact, neurobiology is making unbelievably rapid advances in connecting all sorts of experience and behavior to its physical substrates in the brain. Rather, there are two basic problems with the evolutionary biology approach. The first is that we know very little about how genes connect to higher brain function and behavior, so we don’t know how or to what extent behavior is heritable via DNA. The second is that we have almost no evidence of how humans behaved for the first 1.99 million years of our evolution, before the advent of writing. Evolutionary psychology hypotheses tend to be very speculative and verge on the non-falsifiable, since there is no way for us to recover the evidence: there’s no way for us to discover, for example, whether women are more likely to ask for directions than men because, when we were all stone-age hunter-gatherers on the plains of Africa, a male who approached a stranger to ask for help risked being attacked. It sounds plausible, but it’s impossible to test a proposition like that.

Anyway, my sense is that Appleyard very often gets confused in handling these subjects, and glosses scientific issues inaccurately. Then people like P.Z. Myers, who are heartily sick of having science mischaracterized by people who don’t understand it, lose their cool and write insulting things about him. And then he complains that Darwinism has become an ideology and its adherents are rigid and dogmatic. I understand why Appleyard feels attacked. But I think he’s being attacked because he’s writing poorly, and doing a bad job as a journalist of ensuring he understands the subjects he’s addressing.

Dubai and the anxiety of old elites by mattsteinglass
November 29, 2009, 8:56 pm
Filed under: Economics

Zachary Karabell has a good take in the Wall Street Journal:

The old centers—New York, London, Frankfurt, Tokyo—fear risk in parts of the world they deem emerging and underplay the risks in the offices next to them. They view the Dubais, the Shanghais and the Rios with suspicion and with errant conviction that their models are built on foundations of sand, ready to collapse, when it was their own foundations that have proved to be weak. Judging from the misguided reaction to Dubai’s challenges, the past year hasn’t changed those attitudes. That should make us worried, very worried, but not about Dubai.

It does seem like the back-and-forth sloshes of money towards and away from emerging economies reflect a lingering discomfort and unfamiliarity on the part of old elites in long-developed nations as to whether these countries are “for real”, a cycle of infatuation and panicked disappointment. Developing nations are strongly advised to consider capital controls to keep that hot money from moving too fast in either direction.

What about a deficit-neutral stimulus? by mattsteinglass
November 29, 2009, 8:11 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Matthew Yglesias points to Louis Uchitelle’s article in yesterday’s NY Times on the shortage of giant infrastructure projects in the US and notes:

The perversity of this is that you’re really unlikely to find better times than 2009, 2010, and 2011 to spend a bunch of money on large-scale projects. Most of the time, this kind of spending would involve a short-term economic cost in exchange for a long-term economic benefit. But faced with such a weak labor market, it’d be a short-term benefit with even more benefits over the long-term.

Here’s another thing that doesn’t make so much sense to me: why are we obsessed with the idea that stimulus spending in a recessionary environment has to be deficit spending? The reason we have a recession is that the propensity to spend has fallen: consumers are hoarding cash because they’re afraid they’ll lose their jobs or won’t be able to pay off their debts, and businesses and banks are hoarding cash because they don’t see any good investment opportunities. In that environment, wouldn’t it raise spending and thus help get the economy out of its doldrums if the government taxed more of people’s money away and spent it? Obviously this wouldn’t be as direct a shot in the arm as deficit spending, but doesn’t it still work? I mean, if Republicans force the administration to abandon deficit-financed stimulus because of perverse budget concerns, isn’t the second-best solution to go ahead with tax-financed stimulus?

Carl Levin is not as well informed as might be hoped regarding Afghanistan by mattsteinglass
November 29, 2009, 1:40 pm
Filed under: Afghanistan

Here, via Marc Ambinder, is Sen. Carl Levin today on “Face the Nation”:

LEVIN: It’s very do-able. The Afghans are known to be fighters. And there’s not that kind of ethnic division that existed in Iraq.

Um, yeah. The fact that Afghans are “fighters”…given that we’re fighting Afghans, how is this supposed to be reassuring? And on the ethnic divisions: yikes. This guy has been getting briefed on Afghanistan? Seriously? For eight years? Your average person who read “The Kite Runner” wouldn’t say something as weird as this.

Didn't investors already realize Dubai was vulnerable? by mattsteinglass
November 29, 2009, 12:22 pm
Filed under: Economics

I’m sure there’s a lot I’m not getting here, but I’m baffled by the idea that large numbers of investors would be shocked and panicked at a Dubai World default, and that this poses a risk of a new Great Depression. Kevin Drum cites John Judis’s piece from a few days ago (“You have to remember that the Great Depression only became ‘great,’ that is, global, when an obscure Austrian bank went under in 1931, and set off a massive financial explosion around Europe.”), and spins out the current analogy:

The nightmare scenario is that something like Dubai World panics investors and sends them fleeing back to quality; Eastern Europe can’t roll over its debt; Brazil goes kaboom as hot money suddenly stops flowing; Western European banks start to fail; etc.  You can fill in the rest.

This is certainly a nightmare, but here’s the difference between Dubai and other emerging economies like, say, Brazil: Dubai doesn’t have a real economy. Dubai doesn’t produce anything. Not even oil. The entire Dubai experiment was, as Paul Krugman put it the other day, a huge CRE play. The one thing Dubai actually has is a very successful port management company, Dubai Ports World, and that has been separated from the rest of Dubai World for the purposes of the restructuring because it’s still a healthy company.

It was always clear that Dubai was a crazy instantiation of fantasy money run wild, and that if any polity ought to have been leveled by the GFC, it was Dubai. For that matter, the news of Dubai’s implosion has been streaming out since the beginning of this year — tales of empty malls, luxury hotels cracking and subsiding into the Gulf, unemployed expats living out of their cars and desperately hunting for makeshift employment to avoid debtors’ prison because they’ve defaulted on their condo payments. So why would global investors respond to the rather predictable bankruptcy of Dubai World by disinvesting in the healthy, growing economies of the developing world where half the world’s products are actually made these days? I realize that global investors are, as a herd (rather than individually), as stupid as wildebeest. But how stupid does a wildebeest have to be to panic at the sight of a housecat? If Dubai World really does touch off a new flight to quality and definitively crash the global economy — if global investors really are that incapable of distinguishing between a make-believe economy like Dubai and a real economy like Brazil — it seems like a very conclusive argument for strong capital controls.

Conspiracy World: Pakistan by mattsteinglass
November 28, 2009, 10:22 pm
Filed under: Afghanistan

As with all significant events in Pakistan, it’s unclear what, if anything, this means. President Zardari has given up his chairmanship of the country’s Nuclear Command Authority, meaning the military now has full control over the nuclear arsenal without civilian supervision. But in fact they always did anyway, and the civilian control was pretty much fictive. The US has been trying for many years to get the military to tell it where the bombs and their triggers, which are stored separately, are located. But in fact, as Seymour Hersh reported this month, the Pakistanis feed the US only non-critical information because, if the balloon ever really went up (Taliban assassination of the president or other complete chaos in Pakistan), there’s no way the Pakistani military would let the US seize its nuclear arsenal.

I still think part of the impossibility of effective diplomatic action by the US in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan is the incredible ubiquity of conspiratorial thinking in those societies: it’s never clear what any political moves mean, because people interpret all moves through a refractive lens of paranoia and suspected duplicity. People constantly suspect the US has ulterior motives for anything it does, just as everyone else is assumed to have ulterior motives for whatever they do, and they think that whatever appears to be going on is just a screen and that the real forces driving things are secret conspiracies by the CIA and the ISI. And that position is incredibly hard to dislodge because for decades, the real forces driving things actually were secret conspiracies by the CIA and ISI. And, perhaps, that’s still true.