The gold standard is not in any way like the war in Afghanistan by mattsteinglass
May 30, 2010, 5:46 am
Filed under: Afghanistan, Economics, Libertarianism, Uncategorized

Andrew Sullivan writes that we shouldn’t dismiss libertarians as cranks just because they back the gold standard: “The insanity we take for granted every day – the Afghanistan war, for example – is a lot crazier than the gold standard.” Like Andrew Sullivan, I think the US should extricate itself from Afghanistan, but this is, to put it mildly, not a good illustration of the point he’s trying to make. Supporting the introduction of the gold standard in today’s global fiat-money economy is simply much crazier than supporting the continuation of a counterinsurgency and nation-building war against the Taliban that the US originally got into for very honorable reasons and with apparently good chances of success. Supporting the abrupt and unprovoked invasion of Iraq in 2003, I would grant, might have been compared in its craziness to supporting the introduction of a gold standard in a world economy that has long outgrown such metaphysical superstitions.

There are other reasons why, as Conor Friedersdorf says, we shouldn’t dismiss libertarians as cranks and nut jobs. But one of those reasons is that a lot of libertarians are much too smart to believe in snake-oil stuff like the gold standard.


Metrics and NFL quarterbacks and Afghanistan by mattsteinglass
December 2, 2009, 2:28 am
Filed under: Afghanistan, Sports

Matthew Yglesias posts on Ta-Nehisi Coates‘ humility regarding Brett Favre’s great season and his own limited quarterback-season prognostication abilities:

I think the lesson here is that people just tend to overrate the extent to which variation in the success of an NFL passing game is driven by variation in the skill of the quarterback. I think you can especially see this with Favre, who appears to be putting together the best season of his career at age 40. Common sense says that he can’t be actually reaching the peak of his abilities as an athlete at this age. Fans who (like me) watch the games but don’t have experience playing football have a very hard time distinguishing slightly below average offensive line play from exceptional offensive line play, but obviously that makes a huge difference.

What we’d want to look at here are some metrics that give us a good proxy for offensive line play. We could look at how often Favre is getting sacked. But that’s not such a perfect indicator, because a good quarterback is going to be able to do one of two things: either get the ball away before he gets sacked, or turn a sack into a rushing attempt. A better indicator would be the sum of four indicators that a QB isn’t getting protection: sacks, interceptions (which show he’s being hurried), rushes, and fumbles. If you look at sacks alone, you’ll see Favre appears to be getting pretty good protection, but not exceptional: 22 sacks in his 11 games so far this year, vs. 30 in 16 games last year for the Jets, 15 in 2007 for the Packers, 18 in 2006, 29 in 2005, etc.


But if you add up sacks, ints, rushing attempts, and fumbles, you get…

2009: 32

2008: 75

2007: 68

2006: 70

2005: 81

2004: 39

2003: 63

2002: 77

2001: 91

2000: 85

This metric would suggest Favre is getting better protection this year than he’s had since 2004.

Wouldn’t it be great if we had metrics like this to measure how well we’re doing in Afghanistan? Unfortunately, we don’t. But that’s not the worst part. The worst part is that I’ve cherry-picked the above metrics to produce something that appears to explain Favre’s great season this year. If we did have some kind of metrics for Afghanistan, pundits, generals and political leaders would no doubt do exactly the same to produce results that make it look like we’re winning. Or losing. Oh well.

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.

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.

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.

Afghanistanization (declaring victory and getting out) by mattsteinglass
November 25, 2009, 9:31 pm
Filed under: Afghanistan

Yesterday I posted this at Democracy in America. As you can kind of tell, my actual views on Afghanistan are somewhat stronger than that post’s last paragraph makes it seem. I note in the post that Jeffrey Sachs was widely made light of a few years back when he proposed a plan to end world poverty for $500 billion. I don’t think that plan made much sense either, but it’s worth noting that the US is currently spending $6.7 billion per month in Afghanistan, and that it’s thus pretty likely that by the time we draw down to a commitment of a just a few thousand soldiers, some years down the road, we will have spent $500 billion on Afghanistan alone.

Afghanistan is a tiny, economically irrelevant country halfway around the world that has never had a stable central government. I don’t think the likelihood of our creating a stable, self-sufficient, non-Taliban government there is very good. And I don’t think the benefits of creating such a government, to the US, are really so high. And I think even the benefits of creating such a government for Afghans have been overstated. But let’s say we have a 75% chance of being able to do it. There is surely a maximum price tag at which we are willing to value that outcome. What is it? Nobody will even talk about this. I don’t know what the price tag is either. But I am pretty damn sure it’s not $500 billion. Okay, the first 8 years are sunk costs; but at $6.7 billion a month, the next 2 years are $160 billion. And face it, it’s not that either. The people of Afghanistan are very nice, and they’re facing some bad prospects if the US doesn’t continue to prop up their government. But they’re facing some bad prospects if the US does continue to prop up their government, too; and the Afghans aren’t the only nice people in the world. They’re just the only nice people in the world we’ll be doing anything for, for the next few years.

I mean, seriously: how could the United States alter the dynamic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if we were willing to spend $75 billion a year on it, and commit over 100,000 US troops?

There are other considerations to take into account. An abandonment of our goals in Afghanistan at this point would be a severe humiliation for the US, and since we’ve dragged half of Europe into the fight, we have commitments to our allies we can’t realistically just drop. There are also domestic political considerations: a precipitous pullout would be politically fatal for the Obama administration, and would torpedo any chance of precisely the kinds of social spending one might want to use that $150 billion for. And pulling out would earn Obama the enmity of every faction within the military, which would make it impossible to shrink the defense budget in other areas over the next 3 years. These are all pretty cold reasons to continue throwing away money in a tiny and unimportant country, but they do set limits on how quickly the US could realistically disengage. They are, in fact, basically the same issues Richard Nixon faced in Vietnam in 1969, and that led him to increase bombing, build up the Vietnamese military, score some battles that looked like “victories”, and withdraw. What Obama will try to do will be to ramp up the troops, shift the strategies in a fashion that moves the goalposts to something he could possibly “accomplish” within a few years, build up Afghan forces, and then pull back and wash his hands of the mess. I would prefer he did all the same stuff, but without the part where he ramps up the troop presence. It’s all fundamentally a charade intended to save face for the US, so it’s important to keep it as cheap as possible.

Betting everything on Afghanistan by mattsteinglass
November 18, 2009, 12:37 pm
Filed under: Afghanistan

Matthew Yglesias picks up Spencer Ackerman’s note that a deployment of 30-40,000 more troops to Afghanistan would, in fact, mean deploying pretty much every available brigade we’ve got there. Yglesias then notes as a cute aside that “I don’t really think we need to worry too much about the possible lack of a contingency force to fight off an invasion from Mexico.”

I disagree! Not about an invasion from Mexico, that is; but the problem is precisely that we’re in Afghanistan because we no longer think of the military as something one employs when somebody invades the US, or even an American ally. Instead, we’re thinking of the military as something we send to failed states and zones of insurgency because they could, potentially, harbor anti-American terrorists. And that means the list of potential sites for intervention is pretty much open-ended. Heck, we could even intervene in northern Mexico, where there’s a shooting war between drug-financed criminal gangs and (probably drug-financed criminal) police and possibly murderous Mexican Federal troops that could almost as easily be described as an “insurgency” as what’s going on in Afghanistan today.

If there’s a reason why we don’t need to “worry” about such contingencies, it would be that Afghanistan today is a war of choice, which is occupying the entire energies of our military mainly because our military (particularly its ascendant counterinsurgency faction) needs a war to occupy its energies. There are people who are arguing that the main argument for allowing the military to continue what it’s on about in Afghanistan is that as long as it’s tied up there, they can’t be causing too much trouble elsewhere, particularly in Washington. Increasingly, that looks like a plausible argument to me.