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[ 38 ] February 16, 2008 |

Brad has a good post on the Freeman Dyson review of Michael Neufeld’s new biography of Werner Von Braun. Essentially, Dyson makes the argument that the V-2 was a poor allocation of scarce defense resources:

As the summer ended and our armies drove the Germans out of France, the buzz bombs stopped coming. They were replaced by a much less disturbing instrument of murder, the V-2 rockets launched from more distant sites in western Holland. The V-2 was not nerve-wracking like the buzz bomb. When a V-2 came down, we heard the explosion first and the supersonic scream of the descending rocket afterward. As soon as we heard the explosion, we knew that it had missed us. The buzz bombs and the V-2 rockets killed a few thousand people in London, but they hardly disrupted our civilian activities and had no effect at all on the war that was then raging in France and in Poland. The rockets had even less effect than the buzz bombs.

Brad uses this as a jumping off point for a discussion of inter-service rivalry and the US defense budget.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on here, and inter-service competition is only one (important) part of the issue. There’s no question that military organizations compete against each other for turf and resources, and I think it’s right to interpret the V-2 in the light of Wehrmacht-Luftwaffe competition. This kind of competition can reflect poorly in any number of ways, from producing bad procurement decisions to limiting cooperation in actual warfighting. In WWII, for example, conflict between the Luftwaffe and the Kriegsmarine prevented necessary cooperation on attacks against shipping. On the other hand, the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy were bitter rivals during the interwar period, but cooperated very well during the ASW campaign. Back in the 1960s McNamara tried to get the services to compete against one another for procurement in the hopes that the flaws of weapon systems he didn’t like would be highlighted. It didn’t really work out, though; the services knew they were being played and toned it down, and the result (each service gets a stable slice of the pie) is what we’re still coping with today. As Yglesias noted, Fred Kaplan has a good discussion of some of the competition surrounding ballistic missile defense in his new book, Daydream Believers. I suspect that it might be possible to create some kind of scheme by which forcing the services to compete with one another improved procurement; the services could conceivably become each other’s best critics. However, I’m not sure that the logic follows for questions such as doctrine or general organizational effectiveness, where turf battles can be very destructive. Military organizations do not, after all, exist in an environment of perfect competition, and as such competition doesn’t necessarily make them more efficient.

However, it’s worth mentioning (as Dyson notes) that the SS took over the V-2 from the Wehrmacht, so it’s clearly not just a inter-service rivalry question. Civilians somewhere convinced themselves that it would be a good idea to pour money into this particular program at the expense of fighter aircraft and other goodies. There are a couple of reasons why this might have seemed sensible at the time. The first is that some innovations aren’t so useful in and of themselves, but can be quite useful as stepping stones to other innovations. One example on the German side in WWII would be the submarine campaign. After the middle of 1943, the U-boat campaign turned very badly against the Kriegsmarine, with the Royal Navy, Royal Canadian Navy, and USN exacting a devastating toll on the Germans. Germany continued to devote considerable resources to the campaign, even though it wasn’t paying off at the time. This devotion resulted in the development of the snorkel (allowing German subs to spend more time underwater), and eventually in the development of the Type XXI submarine, which could have devastated Allied supply lines if the war had continued a year or two longer. It’s possible (the article doesn’t really say) that the V-2 was considered such a halfway step, and that the Germans envisioned a longer ranged missile that could hit the US and targets deep within the Soviet Union as the true war-winning weapon.

If this is true, the Germans were almost certainly mistaken. The amount of ordnance that could be delivered even by a successor to the V-2 is certainly less than was delivered onto Germany by strategic bombers, and the strategic bombing campaign neither broke German morale nor crushed German industry (although it did some damage to the latter, and might have done more had better metrics been employed). A few, or a few dozen, or even a few hundred missiles hitting US industrial centers would not have substantially slowed the US war machine; same with the Soviet Union. For complicated reasons associated with the German collapse in 1918 and the Bolshevik Revolution, military planners in the 1920s and 1930s assumed that societies were much more fragile than they actually were, and thus that bombing might end wars in short order. Didn’t work out. Things haven’t changed that much, as not a few modern military planners seem to assume that a smattering JDAMs and cruise missiles will serve to bring recalcitrant rogue regimes to their knees. Especially since the Germans were already suffering under devastating Allied bombardment yet not surrendering, it hardly seems possible that they could have believed that the V-2 or its potential successors could win the war in an economical fashion.

However, the strategic bombing angle presents at least one other logical reason for pursuing the V-2; the Germans may not have believed that the V-2 itself could win the war, but might have concluded that the Allies would be forced to respond in some fashion and that the cost of that response would exceed the cost of the V-2. Probably the single greatest contribution that the strategic bombing campaign made to the end of the war was to drag German fighter aircraft out of tactical roles on the Western and Eastern Fronts. The presence of V-1 and V-2 launch sites changed Allied behavior on the Western Front, and it’s possible that the use of even more powerful delivery vehicles could have forced the Allies to engage in a costly effort to prevent the attacks. This is a pretty thin reed to stake an enormously expensive program on, but it’s not an impossibility.

And this, I suppose, is why I should read the book about Von Braun, because I don’t really know the details of any of this process, and it’s pretty interesting from a theoretical point of view.

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Economics Writers: Should Understand Collective Action Problems

[ 1 ] February 16, 2008 |

Megan McArdle cites a story finding that a fund permitting Virginians to send more money to the government voluntarily raises little revenue. What lesson does she derive from this?

This is what economists call “revealed preference”. What most of us are really in favor of is higher taxes on other people. If we wanted higher taxes on ourselves, we’d give the money to charity.

If I may be permitted to state the obvious, it reveals no such thing (unless it’s supposed to reveal the trivial point that nobody would want to pay taxes if necessary public services could be funded with money grown by magic ponies.) For some reason, a lot of conservatives think “if you think taxes should be higher, why don’t you send more money to the government?” is some incredibly clever rejoinder, but it’s deeply silly. Rather, most people intuitively understand the concept of free riding: unless you’re Bill Gates, no money you send to the government is going to pay for the provision of an important public good, and moreover it would also be very unfair for you to pay for a public good while your similarly situated neighbor with the ability to pay takes advantage of the public good without contributing. Hence, those mean Upper West Side Liberals (TM) who drove Adam Bellow to edit unreadable books for a living don’t send unsolicited money to the government but are perfectly willing to support politicians who raise their taxes and oppose politicians who cut them. This behavior is, of course, perfectly rational.

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"Popularity Contest"

[ 65 ] February 16, 2008 |

John Dickerson, while ruminating on the possible limits of Barack Obama’s “hipness,” asks a profoundly stupid question:

More generally, shouldn’t Democrats who have complained that George Bush was elected on the strength of a popularity contest be nervous that this blossoming Obamadulation is getting out of hand?

Um… Hold that thought while I retrieve a cool, refreshing drink from the linen closet.

Okay then. I have a limited amount of time before I go blind and slip into a coma, so I’ll make this brief. Could Dickerson possibly be speaking of George “Where Wings Take Dream” Bush? Last I recall, his — ahem — “election” to office in 2000 was a “popularity contest” in the following senses:

  • He received 50.5 million out of 104 million votes cast. That is to say, he lost the “popularity contest” outright. (Three million of those votes, of course, went to Ralph Nader.)
  • Fuck off, Ralph Nader.
  • Bush was, on the other hand, quite popular with the Dowdified corporate press corps who behaved egregiously thoguhout the campaign, blathering endlessly about his “folksy demeanor” while overlooking the fact that when he spoke about actual policy matters, his breath reeked of model airplane glue. Meantime, Gore was portrayed a desperate, arrogant wonk who — though not yet fat — was clearly unworthy of the office he sought.
  • Bush was also hip in the eyes of the rent-a-mob who disrupted the “undervote” recount in Dade County and helped their preferred candidate win a state whose “popularity contest” he had, in all likelihood, actually lost.
  • And finally, he was popular with five Supreme Court justices who offered the final stroke of legitimacy to the pretense that Bush was indeed “the people’s choice.”

Beyond those niggling details, it’s totally plausible that Dickerson might confuse Obama ’08 with Bush ’00. The resemblance is just uncanny.

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The Mind Boggles

[ 22 ] February 16, 2008 |

Like a moth to the flame, I followed Scott’s Paglia link, finding this:

A quite different film that I’ve recently enjoyed re-seeing and studying is “Revenge of the Sith” (2005) from George Lucas’ “Star Wars” saga. The climactic light-saber duel between Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi on the volcano planet of Mustafar (with footage of actual explosions and lava flows at Mount Etna in Sicily) is nearly mystically sublime in the High Romantic sense. The convulsive, manly passion between the two tortured Jedi is hyper-sustained by John Williams’ powerful music. Then there’s Anakin’s shocking mutilation and Wagnerian immolation, leading to the grisly Frankenstein surgery that turns him into Darth Vader and that is cross-cut with a parallel hospital sequence, as Anakin’s wife, Padme, dies while giving birth to the twins Luke and Leia.

I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to say. I’m at a loss for words. I don’t know what to say. To paraphrase Hugh St. John Alastair Parkfield, I’ve attempted to enjoy this passage on a personal level, on an ironic level, as a novelty, as camp, as kitsch, as cautionary example… nothing works. And just to seal the deal, the film she was discussing just previous to Revenge of the Sith was The Sorrow and the Pity.

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Why Is Salon Publishing This Person?

[ 0 ] February 16, 2008 |

Yet more evidence for the proposition that the answer to the question “Who’s worse, MoDo or Paglia?” is “whoever you’ve read most recently.” I won’t even get into Paglia’s fulsome praise for the cinematic genius of George Lucas…

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Stupid Superdelegate Question…

[ 3 ] February 16, 2008 |

When Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, and Bill Richardson were still in the race, were they each listed as having one pledged superdelegate? I’ve got to assume that each was planning to vote for himself…

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Lessons in Diplomacy

[ 0 ] February 16, 2008 |

From Vanessa at Feministing:

In the midst of a trade discussion in 1973 with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Chinese leader Mao Zedong offered sending Chinese women to the United States as as a trade, saying:
“We don’t have much. What we have in excess is women. So if you want them we can give a few of those to you, some tens of thousands. . . We have too many women. … They give birth to children and our children are too many.”

And the kicker: “It is such a novel proposition,” Kissinger replied. “We will have to study it.”

Shades of Dr. Strangelove… Seriously, though, I’m not sure how Kissinger could have responded any differently; vicious misogyny was only one of the many horrible things that Kissinger chose to ignore about Mao Zedong. Any thoughts on a more appropriate reply that would have preserved the opportunity for Sino-American reapproachment?

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The Ja Rule of the Foreign Policy Clerisy

[ 7 ] February 15, 2008 |

Spencer Ackerman:

Michael O’Hanlon is a Brookings Institution defense expert who doesn’t actually know anything about defense. He does, however, know how to be a reliable barometer of what very-slightly-left-of-center establishment types believe should be said about defense. If anyone in the foreign-policy community respects O’Hanlon, I haven’t met him or her. I remember being at a barbecue in 2005 and remarking that O’Hanlon has never had an interesting thought in his life when an aide to John Bolton stood up, pumped the air with both fists, and bellowed, “Preach it, brother!” Well, that’s not entirely fair: everyone’s throat-clearing caveat about O’Hanlon is that he compiles the useful Brookings Iraq Index, a compendium of Iraq-relevant statistics. So as a foreign-policy mandarin, he makes a good intern.

As Ackerman suggests, O’Hanlon’s latest op-ed in the WSJ doesn’t break the author’s streak of consecutive, uninteresting thoughts, many of which have been documented in abundance by Rob and Scott. O’Hanlon’s point, as best I can fathom, is that the US diplomatic record is spotty when it comes to dealing with unpleasant characters, and that Barack Obama, therefore, should be careful about converting diplomacy into a “doctrine.” Of course, Obama has suggested nothing of the sort, nor has he — as O’Hanlon implies — claimed that engaging in diplomacy with Iran or any other adversary would be “a new tool of American foreign policy,” nor has he indicated that a shift away from the mindless sack-grabbing of the Bush administration would “guarantee success.”

In other words, O’Hanlon has just earned his rent money by warning his readers about this fellow and the perils he might pose to American foreign policy:

Careful, Mike! He burns!

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So Much Wrong

[ 19 ] February 15, 2008 |

Here’s the synopsis: In Oxnard, California, a 14-year-old boy is being charged as an adult (and with a hate crime enhancement) for the shooting murder of a gay classmate [as of this morning, the victim was brain dead and there were plans to remove the ventilator keeping him alive]. The victim had a troubled past and at the time of his death was living in a shelter for troubled children. He had started to wear some women’s clothes and makeup to school, a development that apparently upset the boy who would later shoot him. The day after a confrontation involving both boys, one was dead and the other was charged with his murder. The shooter, who just turned 14 in January, is being charged as an adult and faces 50 years to life in prison.

There’s so much that’s troubling in this incident that it’s hard to parse it out. It’s upsetting, of course, that an adolescent boy would feel such homophobia and hatred at such a young age. It’s terrible that he had access to a loaded gun and that he was able to bring it to school. But it’s also terrible that a 14-year-old is being charged as an adult and may spend the rest of his life in jail. Of course, what he did is reprehensible. But are we prepared to say that a 14 year old understands his actions and their consequences as an adult does, and that he should be treated as such? Keep in mind that this boy just turned 14 last month; 14 is the cutoff for charging as an adult in California.

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"Disgusting delicacies"

[ 18 ] February 15, 2008 |

I think the slashfood article Ezra links to here gets it wrong; I don’t think I could force myself to eat that maggot cheese on a bet, but I didn’t really have an issue with eating balut. I hadbalut a couple times in Cambodia this summer and I thought they were actually pretty good.

I really want to try civet coffee some day, but it’s simply too expensive to justify. While wikipedia claims the coffee’s unique taste comes from enzymes in the civet’s stomach, I’ve heard from coffee people that the real reason civet coffee is so good is that the civets are far more discerning in choosing which the coffee they eat then any human harvesting method could be.

Unfortunately, when my bus stopped in Skuon, I was having some stomach troubles, and I couldn’t quite bring myself to try the deep fried spiders.

One of the tastiest things I ate in all of Southeast Asia was in Laos; I selected an item at random from a Laotian menu at a little roadside stand of a restaurant. I was served a wonderful baguette stuffed with fresh herbs and chunks of some of the most delicious, tender, tasty fried meat I’ve ever had. I went back the next day for another one, and this time they had an English menu to accompany the Laotian one. The dish was identified simply and directly: “fried weasel with baguette.” Whether the meat was actually a weasel, or some other animal that some white person said looked like a weasel, I’ll never know.

Another Laotian food note: many Laotian restaurants primarily serve a combination of Thai and Vietnamese dishes, but in my experience they were often better than the versions of those dishes I had in Thailand and Vietnam. The Pho, in particular, was consistently much tastier and more flavorful in Laos than Vietnam.

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Spinning Yourself

[ 0 ] February 15, 2008 |

I think Josh and Markos get it about right about Mark Penn, Union Buster (TM). What’s amazing to me is that given his apparent willingness to leave pledged delegates on the table Penn’s arguments that the states that have been sufficient to put Obama in a strong lead don’t count don’t seem to be mere spin. Rather, he may really think that he could lose pledged delegates by a significant margin and still win because undecided superdelegates wouldn’t act in their own interests or that anyone not already in the tank would consider a contest with one major candidate on the ballot and no campaign retroactively turned into a primary a perfectly legitimate election.

But it should be obvious to anyone thinking about it a little, let alone being paid millions of dollars for his strategery, that it wasn’t going to work. I don’t have the highest view of Democratic elites, but they’re not dumb enough to overturn a clear victory by a credible candidate. Even those who would prefer Clinton would rather unite behind Obama than effectively put John McCain in the White House by ripping the party apart through the use of elite votes or outright cheating. The Clinton campaign taking Wisconsin seriously indicates that they’ve finally understood that they’re actually going to have to win this on pledged delegates rather than by a significant margin among superdelegates or by counting the results of straw polls ex post facto, and this includes getting as many delegates as you can in states you don’t win. Whether they figured this out too late remains to be seen.

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[ 24 ] February 15, 2008 |

Perhaps the scariest teaser in the Ole Perfesser’s history, which is evidently saying something. And, apparently it’s as atrocious one would expect, complete with assertions that love is sort of like double-entry bookkeeping and whining about how “a woman can get pregnant outside wedlock, and still hound a man forever for child support.” The oppression is unbearable!

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