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Today In Moralistic Hysteria

[ 0 ] June 15, 2009 |

This is the key part of Publius’ take on the federal government devoting increasing resources to cracking down on online poker by freezing the accounts of players:

And just so we’re clear — I’m allowed to play government-administered lotteries, to bet on horse races, to go to casinos, and to purchase things from AIG. But the federal government is apparently drawing the line at Demon Rum online poker. We delicate snowflakes simply cannot endure its horrors.

The lottery point is really key. I prefer a more libertarian allow-regulated-and-taxed gambling approach. I can also see an argument that the social ills that come from gambling mean that it should be banned. But what I can’t defend is banning online poker while permitting incredibly low-odds state lotteries. On can say something similar about New York permitting a slots-only casino in Yonkers. I can see arguments for both permitting and banning casinos, but I can’t see any argument for allowing casinos but only allowing them the games that are probably the most addictive, provide the least jobs, and have the least appeal to affluent people (hence making the de facto tax as regressive as possible). If anybody can defend banning (as opposed to regulating and taxing) online poker but permitting state lotteries and state slot machines, I’d love to see the argument.


Hypocrisy and Double Standards

[ 0 ] June 15, 2009 |

Not surprising to see the High Principle of the “Up or Down Vote” be abandoned, of course — such things are inevitable after changes in party control — but for the record.

USA v Italy

[ 0 ] June 15, 2009 |

Even more important than changing electoral systems: USA v Italy, Group B, FIFA Confederations Cup (kicks off 19:30 BST tonight). This is a largely meaningless tournament beyond affording the World Cup host nation the chance to see if they can actually do this hosting malarky. This will be an interesting match, as its a reprise of the bloodbath during the 2006 World Cup. While being drawn into the same group as Brazil and Italy does little to generate optimism, at least the USA were the only side to take a point off of Italy in the 2006 WC. I’m encouraged that Bob Bradley has named a strong side for the tournament, and who knows, with just a bit of luck, maybe they make it out of the group.

Smart money’s on Spain to win this thing, of course.

Making a Muddle of Constitutional Reform

[ 0 ] June 15, 2009 |

or “How to Amend an Unwritten Constitution”.

Immediately following the salvaging of his career, yet again, Gordon Brown outlined his initiatives for Constitutional reform in yet another attempt at relaunching his Premiership. One of the many peculiarities of the United Kingdom, in addition to the Isle of Man, is its unwritten constitution. The inherent flexibility of such a non-document is both a strength and a weakness. Examples of the former are plain; witness the relative ease that the House of Commons emasculated the House of Lords via the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949. The corresponding elimination of the United States Senate borders on the impossible in comparison. Yet, as the constitution is malleable, the rules of the game can easily be changed. The absolute muddle that is devolution is a case in point.

Brown’s statement on Constitutional reform included a bunch of, frankly, boring stuff. He wants to do something about preventing another MP expenses scandal (no, really?), further regulate MP’s financial affairs (perhaps a good place to start is disallowing a sitting MP from, say, serving on a corporate board? I’m just saying . . . ), introduce further reforms of the House of Commons in an attempt to democratize the institution, etc. etc. blah blah blah. House of Lords reforms: eliminating the remaining 92 hereditary peers, thus breaking one of the last links that British politics and government has with the glorious medieval past. Personally, I have a difficult time working out just what the House of Lords is for, but that’s a topic for some other day. Oh, Brown has also suggested actually writing a constitution down on paper. Now there’s a revolutionary idea.

The interesting stuff went implied or unmentioned. The Constitutional Renewal Bill will consider electoral reform. As I implied at the end of my previous post, it’s too late to save Brown’s skin, but interesting nonetheless. I’ve included an essay question the past two or three years in one of my first year comparative politics classes that examines the conditions under which Gordon Brown should switch to PR in advance of the next election, and the current context is precisely that time. While Labour have, in the past, flirted with electoral reform (even promising the LibDems a referendum on PR back in 1996, a promise that went broken once Labour worked out that the existing electoral system looked pretty good in the wake of the 1997 landslide), if there ever was a time to do it, it was about six to 12 months ago.

Brown, it turns out, doesn’t like PR. He feels the constituency link to be paramount (in other words, it’s just as important to represent dirt and trees as people) but is keen to move beyond the SMD / plurality system. (Why not the Mixed Member Proportional used by Germany and New Zealand . . . and, erm, Scotland, Wales, and the London Assembly?) Rumor has it that Brown is lining up behind the Alternative Vote. This is an interesting choice. It retains the representation of dirt and trees principle, yet creates incentives for sincere voting, removing those for tactical voting. While at first blush it doesn’t eliminate all of the problems with the current system (e.g. geographic concentration of partisan support will still result in unproportional outcomes) we should no longer have the bizarre outcome where Labour can translate 35% of the popular vote into a commanding 55% of the seats in Westminster.

Of course, assuming that Brown applies his trademark dithering approach to electoral reform (which he is; Brown is in search of “cross-party consensus” on electoral reform, which the Tories near immediately torpedoed), Labour will lose the next election before any of this gets off the ground. I know I’m not going out on a limb here in suggesting that a Tory government will not show the same reforming zeal, especially when they translate 40% of the vote into 65% of the seats in 2010 . . .


[ 0 ] June 15, 2009 |

I had kind of forgotten about him…

Phil Gets the Second Thumb Ring

[ 0 ] June 15, 2009 |

Wait; they actually bothered to play out the Lakers-Magic series? Why?

Sunday Book Review: Strait Talk

[ 0 ] June 14, 2009 |

Nancy Tucker’s Strait Talk, published earlier this year, is a detailed examination of the triangular relationship between Washington, Taipei, and Beijing between the 1970s and today. Tucker focuses on the role that Taiwan played in the negotiations that normalized relations between the United States in China, both as object (how the US and CCP participants discussed what to do with China), and as participant (how Taipei and its allies tried to influence negotiations). The result is a remarkably detailed and interesting account of one of the key diplomatic relationships in the world today.

Broadly, Tucker’s argument is that the United States has repeatedly given away too much in negotiations with Beijing, especially with regards to Taiwan policy. During the Cold War and in the immediate post-Cold War period (although perhaps not today), the United States could offer China far more than China could offer the United States. Tucker suggests that a better appreciation of this fact could have made it possible for Nixon, Kissinger, and their successors to take a harder line on Taiwanese autonomy and on the nature of the US relationship with Taiwan. Tucker discusses repeated incidences of US preference for Beijing across several Presidential administrations, including both Democratic and Republican.

Tucker’s argument is most sound when we don’t consider the problem of imperfect information. Viewed with the benefit of hindsight, it does appear that Beijing had much to gain from cooperation with the US, and that it might have been willing to display greater flexibility over Taiwan’s eventual status. Indeed, from some theoretical perspectives it should have been apparent at the time that the US could push Beijing around a bit, given the former’s strength and the latter’s weakness in 1972. Much depends on whether you believe client states bring patrons to heel, or the other way around. I don’t think, however, that Tucker sufficiently conveys the opaqueness of Chinese decision-making to US policymakers, especially in the early 1970s. Nixon and Kissinger rightly believed that a shift in Chinese alignment could bring substantial gains to the United States, both strategically and (eventually) economically. They could have played negotiations with an eye to relative gains with Beijing, which is to say that they could have accepted the argument that Beijing needed Washington more than vice-versa, and structured the resulting settlement accordingly. One reason they didn’t is that they were happy to accept relative loss vis-a-vis China in order to pursue absolute gains against the Soviet Union; Tucker covers this quite well. The other reason is that US policymakers didn’t have a good sense of the Chinese decision calculus, and therefore of how far the Chinese could be pushed before breaking. The rationality (in the traditional realist sense) of Chinese foreign policy behavior post-1949 was not evident to Americans of 1972, even if such behavior is more understandable through historical lens. I don’t think that Kissinger or Nixon knew precisely what Mao wanted, or what would happen if they pushed Mao too much on Taiwan and other areas of dispute. As such, accepting losses on certain negotiating positions was a way in which US diplomats and policymakers managed uncertainty about the Chinese decision-making process.

I think that later Presidents can be more justly accused of failing to negotiate assertively enough with Beijing than Nixon and Kissinger, but we should remember that Chinese decision-making and governance structures remained volatile until at least the early 1990s. Looking back its easy to see continuity, but there were always reasons for the US to be concerned about China’s leadership politics. In contrast, United States policymakers understood fully that Taipei had no options; despite a very brief flirtation with the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s, Taiwan depended for survival on the generosity of Washington.

This didn’t mean, however, that Taiwan lacked advocates in the United States. Tucker’s other major contribution is a detailed discussion of the decline and fall of the China Lobby. As most know, the China Lobby wielded substantial influence in the United States for several decades. It represented an alliance of American evangelical and missionary groups, American businessmen interested in the China market, and a certain segment of the Chinese Nationalist political elite (although not, apparently, much of the Chinese-American community) . The Lobby helped structure the terms of US relations with China prior to World War II, steering the US towards Nationalist China and against Communist China and Japan. This is not to say that the Lobby was fully determinative of US policy; the US government had good reasons to oppose Japan and the CCP in any case. The Lobby helped, however, to turn a realpolitik decision into a moral crusade. The influence of the Lobby couldn’t save Nationalist China on the mainland, but nevertheless remained potent after 1949.

The language that the China Lobby used to preclude US rapproachment with China will be familiar to contemporary readers; China was a rogue state that could use its nuclear weapons randomly at any given time, and as such wasn’t fit for diplomacy. At one point, Chiang Kai Shek claimed knowledge of the location of the most important Chinese nuclear facilities, and suggested that he could take them out, if only the US would loosen the leash a bit. The PRC, it seemed, was full of atheist maniacs who didn’t believe that 72 virgins would be waiting for them when they died, and consequently could do ANYTHING. Lousy atheists. Anyway, strategic considerations (and sanity) precluded any meaningful unleashing of Chiang, but the influence of the Lobby in the executive branch and in Congress helped prevent a Sino-American dialogue over Vietnam, the final status of Korea, the role of the PRC at the UN, and the potential for collaboration with the Soviet Union. When any President hinted at acknowledging the PRC, the Lobby could arm Congressional opponents with money and righteous rhetoric about the dangers of appeasing Beijing. Nixon was able to break the cycle, in part because the most vocal China advocates came from within his own party, but also because of the shifting strategic situation of the early 1970s. Concern about increasing Soviet power and the need for a way out of Vietnam eventually overwhelmed the story that the Lobby was trying to sell. Even so, when news of Nixon’s China trip became public, Ronald Reagan (a member in good standing of the China Lobby) was dispatched to Taipei to allay Nationalist concerns. This was Reagan’s first major foray into foreign affairs, and it ended in embarrassment; Nixon essentially deceived Reagan as to the extent of concessions promised to the PRC, and Reagan himself later backtracked from generous campaign rhetoric with regard to Taipei. The influence of the Lobby waned in the 1980s, in part because the old guard died off, in part because the ideological force of the rhetoric progressively rang more hollow, but mostly because the US-PRC relationship was wildly successful. Beijing, and American business interests that favored engagement with Beijing, eventually were able to counteract and neutralize pro-Nationalist forces in the United States.

Understated in the discussion of Nixon’s opening with China is that one of Nixon’s key goals was to secure economic relations between the US and the PRC. Nixon believed that US-China trade could alleviate the economic difficulties that the United States faced in the early 1970s. On this point, while Nixon was probably too optimistic about the immediate effects (US trade with the PRC did not surpass US trade with Taiwan for a very long time), he pretty much nailed the long-term impact. The US trade relationship with China has become one of the cornerstones of US economic growth, and indeed of the entire world economy. It’s difficult to imagine what the world would look like without this relationship; had China remained isolated (not difficult to imagine in 1972), worldwide economic growth rates would undoubtedly have suffered. Tucker doesn’t delve deeply into this aspect of US relations with the PRC, but it’s nevertheless critical to an evaluation of the performance of US diplomacy in the 1970s and 1980s.

In spite of a few quibbles, I found Nancy Tucker’s Strait Talk enormously valuable. It’s very detailed, well sourced, and compellingly constructed. I highly recommend it to China specialists, and to anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of strategic policymaking.

Behind the Albany Coup

[ 0 ] June 14, 2009 |

…is apparently Tom Golisano, who didn’t like the fact that New York state tax polcies weren’t being constructed for his personal benefit:

Mr. Golisano, a billionaire business executive, had spent heavily to help Mr. Smith and other Democrats win control of the Senate in the November election, and was angry to hear they were now planning to raise taxes on the wealthy. He expected an audience befitting a major financial patron.

Instead, he said, Mr. Smith played with his BlackBerry and seemed to barely listen.

“I said, ‘I’m talking to the wall here,’ ” Mr. Golisano recalled in an interview on Tuesday.

That meeting led to the dramatic collapse Monday of the Democrats’ grip on the Senate majority as a frustrated Mr. Golisano secretly planned with Republicans to persuade two Democrats to join them in ousting Mr. Smith.

If you want to see some major league wanking, see this video, in which he defends his plutocratic self-interest in the language of Broderism.

Hey; Is Something Going On?

[ 0 ] June 14, 2009 |

So, I’m trying to find out something about what’s going on in Iran, and on CNN I can watch a rerun of Larry King interviewing several gentlemen without shirtsleeves who apparently assemble choppers. On Fox Mike Huckabee is trying to explain why Jesus hates credit card relief. MSNBC is rerunning something about a prison in New Mexico. CNBC is evaluating whether college students should be able to afford Chanel tote bags.

Media fail.

…Mideast Analysis has a good rundown of possible scenarios.

The Revolution Enters its Next Phase

[ 0 ] June 14, 2009 |

Great post on Iran by Gary Sick. Hat tip to Ackerman.

North Korea Nuclear News

[ 0 ] June 13, 2009 |

Fox News is reporting this morning that North Korea has declared the existence of its uranium program, and is threatening the weaponize its remaining plutonium. The New York Times confirms the latter, but not the former, and I can’t seem to find the text of the North Korean declaration (although CNN confirms the Fox account). The suspected existence of the uranium program helped derail the Agreed Framework that held between 1994 and 2002 (US intransigence also helped), which eventually led to the restart of the plutonium program at Yongbyon. The North Korean declaration is in response to the tighter sanctions regime established by yesterday’s UN resolution. It also looks as if North Korea may be preparing a third nuclear test; the general consensus is now that the device in the first test failed completely and the device in the second failed partially. North Korea is suspected to have enough plutonium for about half a dozen bombs (with perhaps one or two more if the rest of the plutonium at Yongbyon is weaponized), but I haven’t seen a good estimate of how much uranium it could have enriched.

Galrahn has a brief discussion of what the UN resolution means; China and Russia have committed, in word if not yet in action, to a regime which allows the interception and inspection of North Korean ships carrying prohibited weapons. As the resolution bars North Korea from exporting any arms at all (and from importing most arms), this is fairly wide-ranging authority. Even if China and Russia aren’t fully on board with implementation, the resolution makes any effort to export very risky for the North Koreans.

All of this seems to me to be the right way to go. It’s fair enough to suggest that we should tread lightly where North Korea is concerned, but that doesn’t obviate the international community of the responsibility to establish boundaries of appropriate conduct. North Korean breaches of these lines have made China, Russia, and South Korea willing to engage in more assertive diplomatic action than they had previously been prepared for. If additional tests are simply a negotiating tactic on the part of the North Koreans, then additional UN sanctions are the diplomatic counter-tactic of the US, Russia, China, and South Korea. I’m not too worried about additional North Korean nuclear tests (each test expends plutonium while unifying the international community), but the concern is that the next negotiating tactic the North Koreans will employ will involve military skirmishes along the DMZ, or near offshore islands.

Deep Thought

[ 0 ] June 13, 2009 |

Omar Minaya’s failure to understand the concept of “sunk costs” and hence to not sign Orlando Hudson to replace Luis Castillo — the gift that keeps on giving.