A supposedly horrible thing we may yet do again by mattsteinglass
August 6, 2010, 2:45 pm
Filed under: US, War

Responding to an argument I made over at the Economist’s Democracy in America blog, Kevin Drum says he’s not so optimistic that the Iraq-war disaster has made America unlikely to engage in foreign military adventures for the next few decades.

We left Vietnam in 1975 and were supposedly so scarred that we’d never do anything like that again in any of our lifetimes. Your definition of “like that” might be different from mine, but a mere five years later we dipped our toe into Afghanistan and then, over the next 30 years, intervened militarily in Grenada, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Kosovo, Afghanistan 2.0, and Iraq 2.0. In other words, once every three or four years, which is about as frequently as we did this kind of thing before Vietnam. Some scarring, eh?
Right now it looks like we’ve learned a lesson because, aside from a bit of chest beating from frustrated neocons over Iran, no one’s banging the war drums. But no one was banging the war drums in 1976, either, which is why it looked like maybe we were going to enter a new era back then too. Then the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and suddenly everything changed. So let’s not declare a victory for common sense in foreign policy just yet. I’ll believe things have changed when something actually happens overseas, a president tries to build support for intervention, and Congress and the public—including Joe Klein and me—balk. That will mean things have changed.

I think Kevin is basically right about this, but would clarify a couple of things. First, what I meant wasn’t that the US has been dissuaded from engaging in any kind of foreign military shenanigans for the foreseeable future. I was really thinking of the particular brand of nuttiness encapsulated in the invasion of Iraq: an unprovoked “pre-emptive” attack predicated on the idea that our troops will be welcomed with flowers, democracy will break out all over, and we’ll be able to bring the troops home fairly quickly at a modest cost, leaving behind a pro-American, pro-Israeli government. I think that kind of madness is off the table for quite some time. Somewhat more broadly, I doubt we’ll see any unprovoked American attacks on other countries, regardless of how “threatening” they seem, unless perhaps Cuba tries to buy a nuke from North Korea or something.

But I don’t think it impossible that we might see other kinds of limited military interventions, and I think some of the examples Kevin provides are illustrative of the kinds that may still occur. As he says, the US got out of Vietnam in 1973, and got into Afghanistan by 1980. But we intervened in Afghanistan by supporting local tribal-religious rebels in the hopes of handing the Soviets their own Vietnam. We weren’t trying to establish anything in particular in Afghanistan; we didn’t really care what happened to the country so long as it made things hard for Moscow. And, by its own lights, that strategy worked. In hindsight, Afghanistan would probably be better off today if the Russians had won, but the Afghan quagmire was among the reasons why the Gorbachev faction decided to forego military intervention as a means of quelling anti-communist political turmoil in the near abroad, so a Soviet victory in Afghanistan might have meant no velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989. Anyway, the point is, it’s not at all hard to imagine that the US might use limited force or special forces to back local allies against a foreign adversary in some third country in the near future.

This would be similar to the model of US intervention in Nicaragua and El Salvador, which Kevin also cites. And again, one thing to note about the US military efforts in Nicaragua and El Salvador is that, by their own lights, they worked. Certainly, they were bloody and unconscionable messes that involved American support for terrorism and war crimes, but the aim was to crush left-wing Soviet-backed authoritarian agrarian-socialist movements in favor of right-wing US-backed authoritarian plutocratic pseudo-democratic regimes, and that aim was achieved.

You could get deeper into the reasons why US interventions in Central America, and later in the Balkans, more or less achieved their own aims at an acceptable cost, while the interventions in Vietnam and Iraq (and, probably, Afghanistan) failed, at unacceptable cost. I would concentrate pretty heavily on proximity and zones of influence: Central America is the US’s restive backyard, the Balkans are Europe’s, and these things make a very big difference. But the main point is that I think the US won’t be cooking up excuses to launch pre-emptive attacks on supposed rogue states in the next couple of decades. Whether the US will send in Green Berets to back, oh, Christian rebels in southern Sudan, or whatever, is another question.


Barack Obama as David Dinkins, Pt. 2 by mattsteinglass
June 15, 2010, 10:41 am
Filed under: Obama, Politics, US

I think I ought to at least explain what I’m thinking about with this comparison. It’s driven more by a subjective political sensation than by any grounded analysis, and it may actually be an utterly worthless comparison. I don’t know enough about Dinkins’s mayoralty to write a well-rounded post on this subject, even though I was living in New York City for its last two years, and voted for Ruth Messinger against Giuliani at the end of Dinkins’s term. But rather than do a quick shoddy job of web-surfing to try and pass myself off as knowing something about NYC politics during those years, I’d rather just describe the very sketchy shape of the comparison I was thinking about, and see whether those who do know a lot about NYC political history can set me straight.

David Dinkins was a universally respected politician widely seen as smart, competent and a good conciliator, if somewhat uninspiring. (There’s the first point of sharp dissimilarity with Obama.) He was congenial to white liberals, and brought along the black and hispanic votes largely out of solidarity. The simple prospect of having New York’s first black mayor generated a fair amount of voter enthusiasm.

However, that enthusiasm was not attached to a strong agenda, and once in office, like any Democrat in New York City (or anywhere else), Dinkins found himself tied down like Gulliver to a million tiny cross-cutting interest groups and points of ideological dogma, not to mention Democrats’ habitual enthusiasm for circular firing squads. In an overwhelmingly Democratic city, a Democrat in Gracie Mansion was immobilized. He couldn’t cross the teachers. He couldn’t cross the school boards. He couldn’t cross the sanitation workers’ or transit workers’ unions. He couldn’t override the delicate sensibilities of neighborhood historical preservation boards and other NIMBY-enforcing associations. He tried to bring the city a grudging racial peace, after the years of Bernard Goetz and Howard Beach and “wilding” (which may or may not ever have taken place). But he proved unable to tame the tensions that flared during the Crown Heights riots. And he had the bad luck to preside over a vicious recession that gave the city an air of defeat.

Meanwhile, Dinkins never really got the benefit of the doubt from the conservative white neighborhoods of Queens and Staten Island, who had become accustomed to a white, ethnic image of New York under Ed Koch. They treated his mayoralty as though they were living under enemy occupation, as a betrayal of their image of what New York-ness was. New York, to them, was not Spike Lee or Run-DMC. New York was Woody Allen and Frank Sinatra. They heard Dinkins’s “gorgeous mosaic” speech as a repudiation of the melting-pot ethic that underpinned their own narratives of immigrant Americanization.

So the first chance they got, they put somebody into office who brought back Ed Koch’s accent, but with a more punitive attitude. And while much of what Rudy Giulani accomplished was due to luck (the strong economy, the continuation of the fall in violent crime that began under Dinkins), the overwhelming sensation was that a Republican with the backing of the police, Wall Street, and the yuppie elite could generate momentum in overwhelmingly Democratic New York that no Democrat ever could. This political sensation has continued under Bloomberg.

In many ways, this comparison reveals how little Dinkins has in common with Obama. The racial politics of 2008-10 are very different from those of the early ’90s. Identity politics is dead. Sister Souljah has no army. Barack Obama himself personifies an easy grace with mixed racial identity that renders the mosaic-vs-melting-pot debates of 1990 antique. 2008 in America, unlike 1989 in New York, was a moment of remarkably low racial tension. New York elected a black mayor in 1989 in part because it needed a racial peacemaker; America was able to elect a black president in 2008 in large measure because racial conflict was not on the immediate agenda.

Then, of course, there’s Obama himself. He is inspirational. He has a style all his own. He is a personality, a celebrity. He can be electrifying on television. He’s an analytical thinker and a manager with a professorial gift for expressing complex processes in clear, conversational terms. Dinkins was none of these.

The similarity lies in the sense that Obama was swept into office on a wave of personal enthusiasm insufficiently attached to an agenda, and that he’s now bogging down in a characteristically Democratic muck of dissension and squabbling. My anxiety is that Obama, like Dinkins, is a cool, friendly conciliator who was elected by a deeply divided community in the hope that he could bring it together. But both of them have been smacked with insurmountable economic problems that have denied them the resources they need to make reconciliation work. And as the community relapses into vicious squabbling, it blames the conciliator for its own failures. That’s the mess I’m afraid Obama may get stuck in.

Add: I realize I’ve failed to communicate here that Barack Obama has in fact accomplished an immense amount in his first year and a half in office. Passing national health-care…is enough for a president to retire on. Financial reform, once passed, will be a major accomplishment; we’ll have to see how good the bill is. And, of course, we have an economy that’s in some kind of recovery, due in no small part to the ARRA, and whatever else you want to say about Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, at no time in the past 2 years have I gone to an ATM machine and found that I can’t withdraw money because the global financial system has ceased to exist. This was not a foregone conclusion. Obama has had, objectively, a very accomplished 18 months. But we’re running into a sense of the doldrums this summer, and that’s what prompted the comparison. Again, it may well be a very bad analogy.

English is a bizarre language by mattsteinglass
June 14, 2010, 10:37 pm
Filed under: Language, US, Vietnam

There exist rules of grammar and usage in English of which native speakers are unaware, and which become apparent only when foreigners violate them. Some of these rules are so arbitrary that you have to pity anyone who has to learn English as a second language, and wonder how English ever became the international lingua franca.

Take this lead sentence from an article in the Vietnam News this morning:

It was time for the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta to build a flexible, multi-functional irrigation system to better respond to socio-economic development and the impact of climate change, said Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Dao Xuan Hoc.

“It was time”? What’s that about? The article is relating a statement by an official in an interview. The author means to say “It is time”. The reason for the use of the past tense is that the author knows the rule that in English, statements by speakers related in the indirect style move back one tense, e.g. “He said she was going to the store,” “Barack Obama said BP was responsible for paying the cleanup costs.” If the statement is already past simple, it moves back to pluperfect: “She said she had studied physics before switching to communications.” And so on.

Compare: “Deputy Minister Dao Xuan Hoc said it was time for the Mekong Delta to build a flexible, multi-functional…” This is correct. But the author doesn’t know that when the cited statement comes before the speaker is identified, the tense doesn’t move back.

On reflection, this rule isn’t entirely arbitrary. The reason for the shift is that the clause “He said” already places us in the past tense, which pushes the dependent clause into the past tense as well. When that “he said” clause doesn’t show up until the end, it sounds bizarre to start in the past tense. Still, this is the kind of rule that’s really hard for a non-native speaker to absorb; it’s a wonder anyone does learn to speak or write English correctly, much less that it’s been selected as the language every international professional has to master. It’s just a very strange kluge of a language.

Why doesn't the US buy lots of Chinese debt? by mattsteinglass
June 14, 2010, 8:21 am
Filed under: China, Economics, US

Speaking of US-China competitiveness, Paul Krugman has been on a tear over the past week arguing that the US has to put some muscle behind its demands for China to stop undervaluing the yuan. The other day Krugman addressed China’s allegations that imposing countervailing tariffs to retaliate for Chinese currency manipulation would violate WTO rules. And indeed it isn’t really clear whether WTO and IMF rules consider currency manipulation to be a trade subsidy, so it’s not clear whether the US has a case on those grounds.

But here’s my question: if it’s not a violation of WTO rules to manipulate your own currency, why doesn’t the US simply do exactly the same thing China is doing? Why don’t we purchase a countervailing quantity of Chinese government debt to compensate for the US government debt China buys in order to keep the yuan low? Is it because the US government, unlike the Chinese government, lacks the spare cash to buy up foreign debt? If so, couldn’t the Fed do this as an open-market operation? Or is it because the Chinese State Bank controls sales of government bonds and would stop us from buying up Chinese debt via administrative measures? Or does Chinese government debt simply not trade openly? Or what?

Why US industry can compete with East Asia by mattsteinglass
June 14, 2010, 3:14 am
Filed under: China, Economics, US, Vietnam


I saw this guy Sunday afternoon risking his life while attempting a routine maintenance task in our neighborhood here in Hanoi, and it reminded me of why US industry still remains potentially competitive in many sectors with industry in East Asian emerging markets. Things here are simply much, much less efficient. The country has extremely pressing infrastructure needs to fulfill just to ensure it won’t have continuing blackouts knocking out power to factories, traffic jams that prevent goods from getting to port, sewers that don’t flood streets with excrement every rainy season, and so on. And of course the incredible tangle of wires that is the residential power, phone, and internet system, which I hereby dub the Infrasnargle.

All of these contribute to the fact that Vietnamese workers are vastly less productive than American ones. PPP-adjusted output per worker in the Vietnamese manufacturing sector in 2008 was $8100. For Chinese workers, it was $22,000. For American workers, it just passed $300,000 this year. (I’m not really clear on why we’re using PPP-adjusted figures here; for purposes of comparing competitiveness in exports, the flat dollar value seems more appropriate. But regardless, it’s clear that workers in the US economy can produce vastly more value per hour.)

That said, Vietnam is frantically investing in infrastructure improvements, and if we want to keep American workers competitive, we need to do the same.

Take off the green sunglasses by mattsteinglass
June 4, 2010, 7:45 am
Filed under: Politics, US, World

Ezra Klein went to China for a week or so and found himself unable to comprehend why anyone back in Washington cared whether the Obama administration had offered a job to Joe Sestak to keep him from running in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary. This is one of the things that happens when you go abroad for awhile: the idiotic, trivial, meaningless and confused partisan pseudo-arguments taking place in your country of origin reveal themselves in even greater idiotic, trivial, meaningless and confused partisanship. I left the United States 11 years ago, and basically very little that’s taken place there in the past decade makes any sense to me at all.

Responses to Reihan Salam by mattsteinglass
May 4, 2010, 3:59 pm
Filed under: Education, Liberalism, Libertarianism, US, War

Because Reihan Salam isn’t in my RSS feed, I missed the fact that he’d written responses to two things I wrote last month over at The Economist. I generally like Reihan Salam’s writing. But his first response to me mischaracterized something I’d written. His second response, I think, was kind of slippery, but I think what it comes down to is that I have a different interpretation of the term “free-riding” than he does. I believe it pretty much universally carries a negative connotation, like “freeloading”.

Salam’s first response came in answer to a few sentences I’d written about school choice. I had written that I found it surprising that Will Wilkinson, also a writer I find very interesting, picked school choice as one of the arenas in which he expected Democrats to become more sympathetic to a libertarian cause. I’m not opposed to school choice, or charter schools. But everything I’ve read indicates that there’s not a lot of strong evidence for the success of school choice programs, and that while many individual charter schools have proven successful, there’s no evidence that charter schools are on average any better than the public schools they replace; the latest broad study indicated that most were worse. This doesn’t mean that “school choice and charter schools don’t work”. What it does mean is that to say one supports school choice or charter schools is not at this point an adequate response to concerns about the quality of elementary education in America. The idea that giving parents the power to choose where their kids attend school will automatically result in widespread improvement in educational outcomes hasn’t systematically borne out in the places where it’s been tried. Here’s what I wrote:

What’s curious is that both of these initiatives seem to be several years past the point when they were the most convincing in intellectual terms, on the basis of theories and evidence. School choice was an idea that had a lot of proponents in the 1990s, but with well over a decade of large-scale pilots for various implementations, it doesn’t seem to be showing any results. And you have former top proponents like Diane Ravitch actually turning against charter schools.

Now, admittedly, I probably shouldn’t have glossed “there doesn’t seem to be evidence that school choice, on average, improves educational outcomes” as “(school choice) doesn’t seem to be showing any results”. The latter sounds more negative than I’d intended, though formally the statements are equivalent. But Salam doesn’t claim that there is strong unambiguous evidence for the success of school choice. He says, instead,

Randomized field trials in education are difficult to devise, and the number of large-scale pilots for various implementations is small, particularly when compared to the number and quality of experiments that preceded the welfare reform efforts of the mid-1990s. We do have a handful of natural experiments involving lotteries. These experiments face a number of limitations, including faulty record-keeping, a failure to properly separate treatment and control groups, and much else besides. But of the big randomized lottery experiments, we have seen nontrivial gains for African American students. We actually don’t have much data for non-black students, in large part because of ferocious resistance to further experimentation. Because these experiments have yielded nontrivial gains without an increase in resources, I’m hard-pressed to see why we shouldn’t field more experiments, ideally well-designed RFTs. The idea that this is a settled issue is … interesting.

Who said it was a settled issue? Not me. I, too, see no reason why we shouldn’t field more experiments. What I said was that since school choice hasn’t been getting such great press lately, owing in large measure to the failure, for whatever reasons, to generate strong findings of educational improvement across school systems (as opposed to at individual well-run schools), this seemed to me a surprising candidate for a new liberaltarian alliance at this time. Personally, I’m favorably disposed towards charter schools and cautiously favorable to some kinds of school choice, but I have been since the 1990s, and those ideas seem to me to command less support today than they did then, not more.

Salam’s second response addressed my criticism of his phrase “the fact that much of metropolitan Europe and East Asia ‘free-rides’ on American military power.” I didn’t, and don’t, believe that much of metropolitan Europe and East Asia “free-ride” on American military power. In fact, I wrote, I can’t think of a country that the phrase “free-riding on American military power” fits. Mr Salam responds:


Note that I put “free-riding” is scare quotes. That, of course, is a subtlety that’s easy to miss. I was suggesting that free-riding isn’t the perfect term, but it is useful. Given the way Steinglass approaches issues relating to health systems, public finances, etc., I can’t be too surprised by his reaction. But I am disappointed.

Do I believe that European and East Asian countries are spending “too little” on defense? No, I don’t. I’m not sure if that’s a meaningful concept. Military expenditures are a kind of self-insurance against an anarchic international environment. Choosing the “right” level of self-insurance is a thorny question that doesn’t have a clear answer. This is an environment with more than one imaginable equilibrium. The idea that a state can spend the right amount reflects a planner’s delusion….

The notion that there is free-riding going on doesn’t imply that it’s necessarily a bad thing: this is a core premise advanced by William Wohlforth and others who believe in “the stability of a unipolar world.” “Free-riding” in this vein is a feature, not a bug.

It seems that Salam and I agree, then: neither of us thinks European or East Asian countries are spending “too little” on defense. But really, I think this is all a bit of a dodge. Like it or not, the term “free-riding” carries strong negative connotations. The claim that countries are “free-riding” on American military expenditures is descended from cold-war-era conservative arguments that European countries were failing to pull their own weight and were spending too much on domestic social programs rather than on mutual defense against the Warsaw Pact. Now that those countries face no external threat, the concept has outlived its usefulness. Contrary to what Salam says, I don’t think one can have “free-riding” if it’s not clear that the “free-rider” is receiving anything of value. If I choose to go out and spend a million dollars on a cannon emplacement in the center of Dupont Circle, and then claim that Reihan Salam is “free-riding” on my cannon-emplacement spending, I think Reihan Salam would regard my claim as ridiculous, since he believes he derives no benefit from my cannon emplacement.

The case is more complicated in the case of America’s allies, since they clearly do derive benefits from American defense spending. But obviously every country always derives benefits from the military spending of its allies; it seems absurd to use the term “free-riding” to encompass every relationship of military alliance. Or do we mean that every country “free-rides” on the defense spending of allies only if the ally spends more on defense? Do we mean this in nominal, or percentage terms? Is Israel free-riding on American defense spending, even though Israel’s defense spending is proportionally far higher? Or is America then free-riding on Israel’s defense spending?

To me, the phrase “free-riding on American military power” suggests that a country derives clear benefits from American military power, benefits that fit into the country’s own views of its interests (as opposed to “benefits” which America regards the country as receiving, but which that country itself may have no interest in), and that the country in question is clearly failing to make an adequate contribution to its own defense. I wrote in my initial post that I didn’t think that description fit any actual countries in the world at the moment. On reflection, I believe a case could be made for Taiwan and possibly Japan; but a case could also be made against either of those countries. Taiwan spends 3% of its GDP on defense, and while that may not be enough to fend off a Chinese amphibious invasion 10 years from now, the Taiwanese public’s conception of its relationship to China has shifted greatly over the past 20 years; if Taiwanese are increasingly interested in reunification, on whatever terms those entail, then their commitment to spending whatever it takes to fend off a Chinese invasion may be ebbing for political reasons that have nothing to do with “free-riding”. As for Japan…again, what is the military threat to Japan?

Salam wants to cast me as being possessed of an absurd certitude that reductions in American military spending will not lead to increased military competition in a multipolar world. I don’t pretend to such certitude, and I think it’s entirely possible that the future will involve both less overwhelming American military power and more military competition among other states. It’s also possible that less American military power might lead to less military competition among some states.

What I criticized, though, was Salam’s certitude: specifically, his phrase “the fact that much of metropolitan Europe and East Asia ‘free-rides’ on American military power.” He shouldn’t be using the word “fact” there. If he wants to make the case that some states free-ride on American military power, he should argue that case; I’ve a feeling I’ll probably disagree. But I won’t use interjections like “Sigh.”, because, as I said, I consider Reihan Salam a pretty interesting writer.