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Invictus

[ 0 ] December 15, 2009 |

Clint Eastwood has made some fabulous films (Unforgiven, Mystic River, Letters from Iwo Jima). He’s made some films that aren’t quite fabulous, but are marvelously entertaining (The Outlaw Josey Wales, Million Dollar Baby, Grand Torino). And he’s made some terrible films (Blood Work, Absolute Power, True Crime, etc.) Before this afternoon, however, I can’t recall having been bored to tears by a Clint Eastwood movie. To say that the film sinks beneath the weight of its own pretension really understates the matter; it sinks, gets refloated, hits an iceberg, sinks again, and gets torpedoed on the way down. Then it hits an uncharted rock. Then it sinks into the mud.

That said, fitting 164 minutes of rugby action into a 134 minute film does represent a certain kind of cinematic achievement. I can thank Clint for the life lesson I learned today; I find rugby staggeringly boring.

Blech.

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Enough

[ 0 ] December 15, 2009 |

I will concede that at the time the decision was made, we didn’t know whether the decision to let Joe Lieberman keep his chairmanship was a good idea or not. Well, at this point we know it was a disaster, and surely relieving him of his perks has become a no-brainer. This isn’t a question of balancing a desire for revenge against the pragmatic interests of the party. Continuing to reward people who double-cross you and continuing to trust people who have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they can’t be trusted is just bad strategy.

Is the present HCR bill better than nothing?

[ 0 ] December 15, 2009 |

On the one hand:

(1) No single payer

(2) No public option

(3) No expansion of Medicare

(4) People will be forced to buy insurance they don’t want (btw about 17% of drivers on any given day have no car insurance although it’s legally mandated).

On the other:

(1) In theory, insurers will be barred rescinding coverage when people need to actually use their insurance, and denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions. I say in theory because a crucial aspect of the final bill (and exactly the kind of thing that gets decided in the most disingenuous and confusing way at the last moment during conference committee negotiations) will be exactly what sort of legal mechanisms will be created to enforce these “rights.” Absent a vigorous administrative process, federal legal mandates on giant insurers aren’t likely to mean much.

(2) There will be, for now, subsidies for purchasing insurance.

In sum, while it would be an exaggeration to say this bill is *no* improvement on the status quo, the improvement appears quite minimal, the political costs of enacting it are likely to be considerable (requiring people to buy health insurance sounds almost like a parody of what Rush and Co. claim the Democrat Party is all about), and the good stuff in the bill will be the easiest to strip out (the subsidies) or simply ignore (the new legal requirements on insurers) the second the Republicans are back in power.

On yet a third hand something is generally better than nothing. For me, the ultimate question is whether a weak bill will destroy the momementum for further reform, or will (like the 1957 Civil Rights bill) serve as a starting point — or at least a cautionary tale — for future efforts.

Update: Howard Dean says no sale.

The Point Being Exactly What, Again?

[ 0 ] December 15, 2009 |

From Oregon, I’ve been reading with befuddlement the noises that Gordon Brown might call an early election. Maybe it’s jet lag, but it seems to me that the time to have called an early election was July 2007. Rumor has it he’s considering 25 March, which is only six weeks in advance of the assumed date (to correspond with local elections in early May) and not all that far in advance of the latest possible date for an election (5 June I believe).

It’s obvious that one calls an early “snap” election when it disproportionately advantages your side. For Labour in early (as opposed to mid) 2010, I can only imagine three possible scenarios that would marginally advantage Labour (as opposed to disproportionately advantage). First, they assume that the current, vague trend towards Labour will continue, but hit a ceiling. Second, they assume that things are only going to get progressively worse, and calling an election sooner will at least maintain Labour as the official opposition. Third, they assume that the Tories are not prepared for an election. Or . . . fourth . . . they know that there will be thermonuclear bad news released between 25 March and 6 May. Considering the state of the British economy, the structural problems involved and concomitant threats of the credit agencies to downgrade the rating of the state debt, this scenario is not as far-fetched as it seems.
Of course, when David Cameron hails Simon Cowell and suggests that there is something that politicians can learn from this “incredibly talented” man, perhaps it isn’t too soon to call a snap election.
UPDATE: It was the Tories spreading the rumor. This makes more sense.

A Little From Column A…

[ 0 ] December 15, 2009 |

With respect to the question of whether Joe Lieberman is stupid or mendacious, the answer is, of course, both. Certainly, the fact that he’s not very bright can be seen in the fact that none of the explanations he offers for whatever idiotic position he’s now taking are even remotely coherent. Having said that, I also have to agree with Brad that no matter how little respect you have for Lieberman’s intelligence or command of policy details — and, like Chait, I certainly have none — I don’t believe he’s so stupid as to have not noticed that his new ad hoc objection to provisions excessively favored by liberals completely contradicts the ad hoc objections he came up with three months ago. In this case, his embarrassing hackishness has to be seen as trumping his intellectual limitations, although both are very much present.

Of course, as Bowers points out, he’s not alone among the “centrists” in the world’s worst deliberative body. So why does he attract the by far the most vituperation? First, while senators from Nebraska and Louisiana are going to be an obstacle to decent progressive legislation as long as the stupid supermajority rules remain in place, a senator from Connecticut shouldn’t be. (Unlike Lieberman, Ben Nelson has never made any pretense of being a liberal on domestic policy in order to get elected.) Secondly, Lieberman’s fairly ordinary venality is made much worse by the fact that he’s such a sanctimonious prick.

And despite this gap between his immense self-regard and non-existent integrity, he has a massive cheering section among journalists. As Somerby has pointed out more than once, Gore’s selection of Lieberman was basically the only time he got positive media coverage in the 2000 campaign. And, surely, Charles Lane wouldn’t have been compelled to engage in disgusting, substance-free smears of Ezra Klein in order to defend Mary Landrieu’s honor from analysts too “”youthful” to know that we have to pretend that Joe Lieberman is a great statesman and man of principle no matter how overwhelming the contradictory evidence.

Three-Way Trade For Halladay

[ 0 ] December 14, 2009 |

Looks like he’s going to the Phils; another triumph of the Wilpons’ unwillingness to spend any money on player development. I’m assuming that the Mariners didn’t give away King Felix, at least, which makes it look attractive (although we’ll see which prospects they gave up…)

The Killing Fields

[ 0 ] December 14, 2009 |

Ezra Klein argues that Joe Lieberman is willing to “cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people” for no better reason than to settle some old political scores.

This has put Washington Post editor Charles Lane in quite a tizzy. According to Lane, Klein is “essentially accusing Lieberman of mass murder,” and Klein’s “venemous post” is “beyond the pale.”

The underlying issue is Lieberman’s sudden discovery that expanding Medicare to allow people over 50 or 55 to buy into the program would require such a sacrifice in the way of Freedom(tm) that including such a proposal in any health care reform bill before the Senate would cause him to filibuster it.

Klein points out that a recent Institute of Medicine study suggests that lack of health insurance is causing about 20,000 excess deaths per year in the United States. This in turn suggests that successfully blocking health care reform would cause a lot of people to die who otherwise wouldn’t. Another way of putting this point is to say that blocking reform will kill people. Yet another way of putting it is to say that someone who has the power to block reform and chooses to exercise that power is killing people. (Or, in Lane’s intentionally hysterical formulation, “murdering” them).

As Yglesias points out, Lane’s sudden squeamishness about these sorts of rhetorical tactics might seem odd, given that he seems to have no problem with, for example, Charles Krauthammer and George Will publishing highly misleading columns on crucial public policy issues.

Nevertheless as Socrates or Miss Manners or possibly both pointed out, two wrongs don’t make a right, so the fact that Krauthammer likes to claim that Iranian agents are even at this moment contaminating our precious bodily fluids doesn’t mean it’s OK to publish misleading claims to advance one’s policy goals, no matter how noble. And the study Klein cites is a pretty weak one. It uses a very crude methodology — in essence it assumes that the difference in relative risk for mortality between insured and uninsured adults is accounted for completely by this single factor. That’s surely not the case, any more than, for example, the difference in relative mortality risk between high school dropouts and college graduates is wholly a product of different levels of education.

Update: As a commentator points out this is actually incorrect. I relied on the Urban Institute paper’s summary of the IOM’s study’s methodology instead of looking at the study itself, which was obviously a mistake. The study actually relies on a 1993 study that used a 1.25 hazard ratio associated with uninsurance after adjusting for multiple confounders. This earlier study, however, finds a relative risk running from 1.00 to 1.50 when employing a 95% confidence interval, which means that, using that confidence interval, the number of annual excess deaths associated with uninsurance ran from about 40,000 on the high end to zero on the low end.

To be fair, the study’s authors admit their estimate is a rough one, and that even if their method overstates the effects of lack of insurance on mortality by 50% that’s still a lot of dead people. (They could have made an even stronger argument by at least mentioning that the effects of under-insurance, given its prevalence, might be even more significant than those of uninsurance).

Furthermore their own data indicates that nearly half the excess deaths associated with uninsurance are taking place in one ten-year cohort: people aged 55-64. This, of course, is precisely the group that would benefit from the modest reform Lieberman now suddenly opposes.

Update: A further point that ought to be considered is that the effects of uninsurance on mortality don’t nececssarily show up when a person is uninsured. It’s quite plausible, for example, that lots of people covered by Medicare at the time of death died earlier than they otherwise would have because of the effects of decades of previous uninsurance.

The more general issue implicated by all this is to what extent it’s OK to accuse your political opponents of killing people when they advocate policies that produce excess deaths in comparison to the policies you prefer. As a pragmatic matter, the answer of course is “it’s OK to the extent it advances your goals.” As a matter of principle, the answer, I think, ought to turn to a significant extent on the degree to which the policies you’re opposing are actually intended to kill people as a first-order effect. Thus I see no possible objection even in principle to pointing out that Joe Lieberman (and other supporters of the Iraq war) wanted to kill a lot of Iraqis because he (and they) thought killing lots of Iraqis by invading the country would on balance generate good results. To be in favor of a war of choice, after all, is to be in favor of killing people who would otherwise not die so soon, because you believe killing them is necessary to achieve some worthy goal. That’s what it means to advocate invading another country, although you would never guess that from listening to high-flown speeches on the matter.

Things get more complicated when the deaths caused by your policy preferences are second-order effects of those policies. Saying that you’re in favor of invading Iraq even though this means you will be killing a lot of people in the process isn’t the same thing as saying you’re in favor of, for example, not criminalizing cigarettte smoking, even though not criminalizing cigarette smoking probably results in a large number of otherwise preventable deaths.

Lieberman’s position on health care is more like the latter than the former — which isn’t to say that I have any objection to using the kind of language Klein uses to condemn him. As Yglesias says, stark moralizing language works. And in politics what works must, to a point, be given preference over more complete and accurate descriptions of reality. What that point might be is needless to say often a difficult question. In this case it isn’t.

2008 Was Excellent News For John McCain

[ 0 ] December 14, 2009 |

Shorter Colonel Mustard: The American population elected a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president because they favor Republican policies.

No, seriously, that’s his argument. I could bring up a number of points here — for example, if the country has such reliable “center-right” values, why is health care reform foundering in the counter-majoritarian-in-countless-ways Senate rather than the much more majoritarian House? — but…really, with an argument this transparently unserious, why bother? There’s not much point in engaging about politics with people who know nothing about the subject.

Sometimes Success Means Success

[ 0 ] December 14, 2009 |

Yglesias is more impressed than I by Pat Lang’s discussion of successful and failed counter-insurgency campaigns. In particular, I think he misconstrues the objectives of many of the major counter-insurgency campaigns of the post-war colonial period:

This theory of warfare [COIN] was developed by the colonial powers as a “cure” for the wave on “wars of national liberation” that swept through their overseas possessions after World War Two. Because of these revolts against authority most of the European powers found themselves faced with colonized populations engaged in extended attempts to obtain independence from the metropole. Such rebellions were usually based on ethnic and racial differences with the colonizers and were often led by vanguard Left parties with communist connections. That connection caused an eventual American policy commitment to the COIN struggle. That commitment sometimes occurred as a partner of the colonial power (Vietnam in the late ‘40s and ‘50s) and sometimes as a successor to the colonial power after at least partial independence had been achieved. (Vietnam after the French).

Whereas Lang describes COIN as being primarily about maintaining territorial control of colonies, the retention of territorial control was only sometimes the objective of war. The French wanted to hold Algeria, but the British in Malaya wished only to install and maintain a friendly regime. The latter model is more common, I think, to both the colonial era and today. For example, formal Vietnamese independence was established in 1950; the rest of the war, from both the French and American perspectives, was about installing friendly rulers. The Mau Mau revolt accelerated Kenyan independence, but only by convincing the British that it would be easier to manage their interests through a friendly African government than to govern the territory directly. Kenyatta, never deeply tied to the Mau Mau, embarked on a very pro-British foreign and domestic policy after independence. Lang’s argument is closer to the mark on Cyprus, but even there the insurgency was as much about the eventual balance of power between Greeks and Turks as it was about ejecting the British. The British also retained a very strong influence over Cypriot domestic institutions and foreign policy. Moreover, the pursuit of a friendly government isn’t exclusive to the colonial era. The Soviet aim in 1979 was the replacement of one faction of the Communist Party with another, not annexation; it is perhaps the only example of an invasion that was requested by both parties to the dispute.

The British succeeded in suppressing this revolt [in Malaya] but what did this successful effort gain them? It was enormously expensive and success was followed by British withdrawal from Malaya and the creation of an independent Malaysia completely dominated by the Malay ethnic adversaries of the overseas Chinese.

It resulted in the creation of a friendly regime, run by rulers chosen by the British. Indeed, the British escalated their commitment at the behest of the Malayan rulers that they had chosen. The establishment of friendly rulers in former colonial territories may or may not be stupid reason to fight a war for (there’s certainly a good case that it’s an immoral reason to fight a war), but Lang doesn’t really contribute on that question. I don’t know if the value of British economic and strategic interest in a friendly Malaysia over the forty years following 1958 exceeded the cost of the war, but I wouldn’t be surprised either way. Indeed, one of the key realizations on the part of metropolitan powers at the end of the colonial period was that they could retain economic (and often some political) control of their former territories if they made sure that the right people took over. The difference between friendly and not-so-friendly post-colonial leadership was seen, understandably, as something worth waging a war for. Thus, it’s a bit absurd to suggest that British success in establishing Malaysia was somehow pointless, simply because the British withdrew anyway.

Having friendly rulers in charge of foreign countries is nice; in fact, it’s one of the central reasons that countries decide to wage war. Arguing that COIN is useless because all it can do is install friendly rulers is like suggesting that a hammer is useless because it can only drive nails. The Korean War was waged in conventional fashion by the United States, and it resulted in the maintenance and survival of a South Korean state run by people we liked. The Chinese entered the war because they wanted to maintain a North Korea run by people that they liked. Edmund Burke wanted to strangle the French Revolution in its crib not because he had designs on Calais, but rather because he wanted to eliminate dangerous people in Paris. Central to the Allied war aims in 1939 was the removal of Adolf Hitler as ruler of Germany. It would never be argued, however, that success in conventional warfare is worthless because it resulted only in the installation of friendly regimes in Korea, France, and Germany.

Some of the other parts of Lang’s argument are better; COIN is expensive, long term, and fails a lot. Obviously, there’s also something twitchy about killing foreigners in an effort to determine how they’ll order their societies. I think that he gets Vietnam pretty wrong in suggesting that US counter-insurgency efforts were essentially successful in a military sense; the communist/nationalist insurgency in South Vietnam fatally weakened the state (and US attachment to South Vietnamese independence) to the degree that the North Vietnamese Army could crush its opposite number with ease in 1975. I also think that he gets some of this wrong:

COIN theory is predicated on the ability of the counterinsurgents to change the mentality of the “protected” (read controlled) population. The sad truth is that most people do not want to be deprived of their ancestral ways and will fight to protect them. “Hearts and Minds” is an empty propagandist’s phrase.

Were this true, the Chinese Communists would never have defeated the Nationalists, and the Viet Minh would have failed in Vietnam. In both cases, the insurgents offered positive revolutionary programs that defied tradition and ancestral ways; indeed, this is how the insurgents won the loyalty of the target populations. The peasants liked the insurgents because they promised to kill the landlords and redistribute their land, and because the insurgents offered an alternative (nationalist) conception of identity. Insurgencies in other parts of this world follow this pattern, offering varying degrees of revolutionary and nationalist doctrine (nationalism itself was a revolutionary doctrine, alien to traditional conceptions of village life). The Taliban doesn’t exactly campaign on a platform of restoring traditional Afghani ways of life; it also has a positive political program. “Hearts and Minds” is an empty propagandists phrase, but no less empty than “ancestral ways.” Most modern theorists of COIN reject using either term.

In the end the foreign counterinsurgent is embarked on a war that is not his own war. For him, the COIN war will always be a limited war, fought for a limited time with limited resources. For the insurgent, the war is total war. They have no where to escape to after a tour of duty. The psychological difference is massive.

While it’s true that insurgents invariably accept higher risk and endure higher costs than counter-insurgents, it’s simply not the case that there’s “nowhere to escape after a tour of duty.” The success of the “Anbar Awakening” was in giving insurgents somewhere to escape to, and thus reducing their willingness to sacrifice for the cause. Efforts to reach out to moderate elements of the Taliban are similarly about reducing the absolute commitment of the insurgent. These efforts may fail, and they may be costly in their own right, but it’s absurd to claim that every insurgent has a total commitment to the cause. When given a good reason (Americans promise to go home, for example) many insurgents may well decide that the fight isn’t worth the risk.

None of this has anything to do with whether or not a counter-insurgency approach will succeed in Afghanistan. The friendly government may be too corrupt and weak to save, the enemies too strong, civilian casualties too high, etc. I’m skeptical that even the most in-depth historical analysis can be of much assistance in determining the prospects for success in Afghanistan, and I’m really skeptical that an approach as far ranging and shallow as Lang’s can do much good.

What part of this diagram . . .

[ 0 ] December 14, 2009 |

. . . does Harry Reid not understand?

A World Affairs Expert

[ 0 ] December 13, 2009 |

Someone recently recommended Tom Bissell’s incineration of Robert Kaplan’s literary [sic] reputation, and I can now heartily second that recommendation. For my own part, I was of the opinion that Kaplan could account for two of the most embarrassing articles ever to appear in the Atlantic, and that was before I read Kaplan’s nostalgic ode to the day when Europeans could manage the gumption to butcher each other in large numbers.

On a tangentially related point (I am in no way attempting a comparison between the two), see Lance Mannion on Matt Taibbi. I will say that I think people are talking past each other on Taibbi’s recent piece; the key determinant of whether you like the piece, I suspect, is whether you have a taste for the genre of polemic. It’s a genre with its own rules, its own metrics of evaluation, and its own history and purpose. There’s something to the idea that close fact checking of such a piece is beside the point; the genre itself tends to leave me cold, and I doubt I’d enjoy the piece very much even if it lacked whatever errors have been identified.

Priorities

[ 0 ] December 13, 2009 |

Shorter Erick Erickson: moderate reform legislation modestly increasing access to healthcare is vastly worse than the Fugitive Slave Act or Alien and Sedition Acts. Freedom!!!!1!111!One!