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That Sounds Like a Terrible Idea

[ 0 ] November 25, 2008 |

The International Association of Independent Tanker Owners thinks that a blockade of Somali ports would be more effective against pirates than shipping escort. The European Community Shipowners Association thinks that air and cruise missile attacks on pirate bases would be even more effective. And the Russians, apparently, believe that direct land-based attacks on pirate strongholds are necessary:

NATO, the European Union and others should launch land operations against bases of Somali pirates in coordination with Russia, the Russian ambassador to NATO said on Wednesday.

Dmitry Rogozin said the view of Russian experts was that naval action alone, even involving a large fleet of a powerful nation, would not be enough to defeat the pirates, given Somalia’s geo-strategic position.

“So it is up to NATO, the EU and other major stakeholders to conduct not a sea operation, but in fact a land coastal operation to eradicate the bases of pirates on the ground,” he said.

Let’s take these in reverse order. The idea of a NATO/EU/Russian invasion of Somalia (which is what ground based attacks would amount to) strikes me as crazy. David Axe:

Please recall that the last time Western troops had a large presence in Somalia, in 1993, 18 Americans and hundreds of Somalis died in a brutal gun battle. And much of the bloodshed in Somalia today is an outgrowth of a brutal Ethiopian occupation. Somalia is not the kind of place you invade lightly, and certainly not just to kill a few pirates.

I’m also less than convinced by the airstrike option. Pirates may have offices and known operation centers like everyone else, but I doubt that much organizational capital is tied up in fixed land infrastructure; rather, I suspect that the capital is in ships, human expertise, and organizational/tribal loyalties, the last two of which cannot be easily destroyed with cruise missiles. Striking pirate motherships in port might make some sense, if you could reliably differentiate them from normal shipping. But any such strike would run the risk of civilian casualties, and the piracy problem just isn’t serious enough to take gambles like that.

I don’t know about the close blockade concept; my hunch is that there are too many points of egress on the Somali coast and too few ships to carry out a full blockade. A close blockade would also put naval vessels at risk of attack from small boats; it’s very unlikely that we’d see suicide attacks off Somalia, but I expect that the various navies would be too paranoid about the idea to actually go for it.

Axe gets it right, I think:

Ending piracy means encouraging Somalis to establish law and order on their own territory, while deterring pirates with naval patrols in international waters. An armed invasion would be counter-productive, by exacerbating the present nationalist insurgency and prolonging the country’s instability.

This is Your Brain on Drugs

[ 0 ] November 25, 2008 |

Hinderaker, via Dave Weigel:

Obama thinks he is a good talker, but he is often undisciplined when he speaks. He needs to understand that as President, his words will be scrutinized and will have impact whether he intends it or not. In this regard, President Bush is an excellent model; Obama should take a lesson from his example. Bush never gets sloppy when he is speaking publicly. He chooses his words with care and precision, which is why his style sometimes seems halting. In the eight years he has been President, it is remarkable how few gaffes or verbal blunders he has committed. If Obama doesn’t raise his standards, he will exceed Bush’s total before he is inaugurated.

I am struck speechless.

Bad ideas in the form of constitutional law

[ 0 ] November 24, 2008 |

Sandy Levinson, a professor of law and political science, has been arguing for several years now that academics pay way too much attention, relatively speaking, to the rights provisions of the Constitution, and not nearly enough to what he calls its hard-wired structural features. One reason this is so is obvious: the hard-wired features don’t produce any litigation to argue about.

A nice example is the 20th amendment. 73% of law professors and 99.95% of normal humans can’t tell you anything about it, but what it did was, among other things, close the gap from the presidential popular vote to the inauguration from 4 months to two and a half. Four months made a certain amount of sense in the 18th century, before Blackberries and Wi-Fi, but can anybody come up with an argument for why, in 2008, in the middle of a severe financial crisis, etc. etc., it’s a good thing for us to be stuck with two and a half more months of George W. Bush in the lamest of duck blinds, while Obama “signals” this and “hints” at that?

It doesn’t make a lick of sense, but it’s in the Constitution so we’re stuck with it, more or less. Like a lot of other stuff.

Hunting Humans

[ 0 ] November 24, 2008 |

I think Kim du Toit has been reading The Corner lately:

[A]n increasingly large cohort of America in the lower 48 (and probably Hawaii) are p—-ies. They have no clue where their food comes from, they don’t hunt, they don’t fish, so they get to act all high and mighty about scenes like [the Sarah Palin “Faces of Turkey Death” video].

In Alaska, they have critters that consider humans food. Absent high powered rifles, humans are not at the apex of the food chain in Alaska. That will tend to give people a different perspective than the silk pantywaists in the lower 48.

I wish people would stop with this sort of nonsense, but surely they won’t. For the record, there are no “critters in Alaska that consider humans food” unless — like the unmourned Timothy Treadwell — you defy every sensible piece of advice and hang around famished grizzly elders who would (and did) kill you after all the dead salmon had been harvested. It’s true that polar bears would gobble a human or two — but here again, only under conditions of extreme ecological duress, such as the disappearance of summer ice in the Arctic (which, I remind everyone, our governor doesn’t seem to think is a problem.) Even this, though, would place maybe 1% of Alaskans at risk of being gnawed on by a starving, rogue bear who would much rather eat your dog or your garbage than you.

But here’s the bottom line: so far as animals are concerned, humans are not terribly appealing as a source of food. I suppose there’s a species of conservative who derives an extra surge of adrenaline from the claim that people aren’t at the top of a regional food chain, but these are apparently the same people who equate hunting and fishing with stuffing a turkey into a killing funnel…

(via Ahab)

The worst sports broadcasters

[ 0 ] November 24, 2008 |

This is a very trivial issue, but on the other hand this is an eclectic blog.

Why are so many high-profile sports broadcasters so incredibly bad? OK, I’m sure broadcasting a sports event, like just about everything else in this world, is harder than it looks if you’ve never tried to do it. But I’m not asking why there aren’t more good broadcasters. That a certain number of people in a field, even near the top of a field, are going to be mediocre, boring, semi-competent, somewhat irritating . . . this goes without saying. What I’m asking is why a 21st century sports fan, watching a football or basketball game in glorious high-definition, should be subjected to, for example:

Paul Maguire

This babbling moron is a kind of Platonic archetype of the insufferable old white guy jock — constantly making utterly unfunny “jokes” that his somewhat less insufferable booth mates (usually Bob Griese, who used to be OK but is now mailing it in, and the intermittently competent Brad Nessler) feel obliged to laugh at and try to top, thus producing a kind of Moronic Convergence of irrelevant idiocy, that rises up between the viewer and the game like a noxious verbal fog. He also loves to point out extremely obvious things as if they were stunning insights, a.k.a. Tim McCarver Disease.

Dick Vitale

Once, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Vitale’s schtick was fresh and mildly entertaining. That was about four presidencies ago. Now he’s truly become the very definition of insufferable — splattering the screen of every broadcast with his non-stop verbal diaherria regarding Dick Vitale’s favorite coaches, how great Duke is, Dick Vitale’s favorite memories of something from the 1950s, Dick Vitale’s family album, the greatness of Coach K, Dick Vitale’s views on popular music, Dick Vitale’s opinions regarding the best team in the NFL — in short, almost any conceivable topic except something having to do with the actual game on the viewer’s screen, except for the perhaps 15% of the time when he remembers he’s supposed to say something about the game in front of him. Listening makes me want to root for a major terrorist incident to take place at his precise location on the planet.

Tony Kornheiser

35 years ago Monday Night Football had a cool for the time concept, when Cosell, Gifford and Meredith produced a weird but positive synergy. Since then, it’s been a slow decline into increasingly desperate attempts to recapture the freshness of that concept. I thought MNF couldn’t sink lower than Dennis Miller. I was wrong.

For God’s sake, somebody pull the plug already.


[ 0 ] November 24, 2008 |

Krugman on the Citigroup bailout. Or perhaps “weak, arbitrary, [and] incomprehensible” is the better phrase. The fact that Citigroup’s shareholders are apparently not even going to get much of a haircut (let alone the wipeout that should be the no-questions-asked starting point for any bailout of this magnitude) is particularly appalling. Is there some sort of “Queens’s only skyscraper” exemption to representing taxpayer interests that I’m unaware of?

And, of course, this provides stark evidence about how much damage Bush will be able to do in his last lame duck months.

Clinton at State

[ 0 ] November 24, 2008 |

I’m fairly agnostic about the merits of the appointment — I’m inclined to defer to Obama’s judgment given the quality of his campaign and Clinton is certainly a person of substantial ability, but there are some real policy concerns here. Still, I have to admit the fact that it will make people like Our Lady of the Dolphins just a little bit crazier makes me feel better about the whole thing…

The Important News

[ 0 ] November 24, 2008 |

Congratulations to Henry Burris and the Calgary Stampeders on winning North America’s most important football championship…

Preview of a Cat-Robot Alliance?

[ 0 ] November 24, 2008 |

Not. Good.

From Colony to Superpower: Tragedy, Comedy, Farce

[ 0 ] November 24, 2008 |

Erik leads off this week’s discussion of From Colony to Superpower. Chapter 3 deals with the period between 1801 and 1815. This period saw the dominance of the Republicans, and of the Virginia planter class. George Herring is considerably less sympathetic to the Republicans than to the Federalists, at least in terms of foreign policy. Both Jefferson and Madison receive criticism, on points both practical and ideological.

On a couple of points, Herring get hilariously cruel. Noting Jefferson’s preference for the language of “natural right” in the Declaration of Independence, Herring points out other instances in which Jefferson understand American interest in terms of natural rights, such as the natural right of American commercial access to the Mississippi (in spite of the French and Spanish property right to same), and the natural right of the United States to have a border along the Gulf of Mexico. Jefferson also made a conscious distinction between the kind of natural rights possessed by native Americans and African slaves, with the former achieving the status of “noble savage” which meant a chance for assimilation and eventual inclusion within the United States. Didn’t really work out that way, but nevertheless…

It’s dangerous to attempt to derive modern parallels for the events of the early nineteenth century. On the one hand, the author most certainly wants to make the history seem relevant. On the other, there is an obvious risk to understanding the past in the context of the present, rather than on its own terms. Herring discusses two incident in particular that reminded of modern foreign policy questions. The first involved continuing violence on the frontier. Herring discusses how the Americans appeared genuinely incapable of believing that Indian violence and attacks stemmed from the behavior of settlers and the US government. Rather, British influence was blamed, virtually without evidence.

Similarly, the US treatment of Haiti seems to lay out a template for 20th century Cuba policy. Adams moderated Haiti policy substantially (partially in response to tensions with France), but Jefferson pursued a very hard initial line. He shifted somewhat when anti-French sentiment rose just prior to the Louisiana Purchase, then returned to the hard line after the completion of his transaction with Napoleon. Because of the influence of Southern slaveholders, the US would not recognize Haiti until the Lincoln administration.

Herring is extremely critical of Madison’s handling of the War of 1812, both in terms of its initiation and its execution. While recognizing that genuine policy conflicts existed between Great Britain and the United States, Herring faults Madison (and Jefferson) for inept diplomacy backed by no military force. Republican nervousness about standing military forces limited US capability, and by necessity produced an unfortunate confidence in the capacity of militia and irregular troops. Naval victories in the Great Lakes, combined with instability in Europe, managed to save the US from a more serious disaster.

Jefferson’s Embargo against France and Britain was one of the most ill-conceived projects in the history of American foreign policy. Jefferson barely bothered to explain the policy to the American people, or to build domestic support. Since many constituencies depended on trade with Britain, there was immediate resistance and efforts at circumvention. Moreover, the embargo had none of its intended effects; the French barely noticed, while the British were able to take advantage of emerging suppliers in Spanish America. As Erik notes, the Embargo depended on a radical over-inflation on Jefferson’s part of the importance of American trade to Europe.

More later…

On Having the Game Pass You By

[ 0 ] November 23, 2008 |

While watching Penn State destroy Michigan State yesterday, it occurred to me that we aren’t hearing much this year about how Joe Paterno is a coach lost in another era, the “game having passed him by”. It also occurred to me that we would be hearing quite a lot about how Tom Osborne, Don James, Bo Schembechler, and Lou Holtz were being “passed by” if any of them had possessed Joe’s longevity, assuming that the disasters their teams have endured as of late ensued on their watch. Although I suppose that there’s some question as to how much control JoePa still has over the team, the lesson would seem to be that even elite college football teams are subject to cycles of success and failure. The relatively weak performance of Penn State from 2000-2004 is best interpreted as part of such a cycle, rather than as evidence of JoePa’s creeping dementia.

Preparing the Way…

[ 0 ] November 23, 2008 |

This article is kind of fabulous, in the sense that it clearly lays out the connection between a lax attitude towards regulation and the production of bad loans:

Simeon Ferguson, an 85-year-old Brooklyn resident with dementia, according to his attorney, signed up in February 2006 for an option ARM. The monthly cost was $2,400, but the terms of the loan from IndyMac Bancorp, a major thrift based in Pasadena, Calif., allowed Ferguson to pay less than that each month, the way people can with a credit card. Many of the loans made by IndyMac and other thrifts were extended to borrowers without ensuring they could afford their full monthly payments. Ferguson, who lived on a fixed monthly income of $1,100, was one such borrower, according to a pending lawsuit filed on his behalf in federal court…

Concerns about the product were first raised in late 2005 by another federal regulator, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. The agency pushed other regulators to issue a joint proposal that lenders should make sure borrowers could afford their full monthly payments. “Too many consumers have been attracted to products by the seductive prospect of low minimum payments that delay the day of reckoning,” Comptroller of the Currency John C. Dugan said in a speech advocating the proposal.

OTS was hesitant to sign on, though it eventually did. Reich, the new director of OTS, warned against excessive intervention. He cautioned that the government should not interfere with lending by thrifts “who have demonstrated that they have the know-how to manage these products through all kinds of economic cycles.” Reich, through a spokesman, declined to be interviewed for this article.

The lending industry seconded Reich’s concerns at the time, arguing that the government was needlessly depriving families of a chance at homeownership. IndyMac argued in a letter to regulators that in evaluating loan applications it was not fair to rule out the possibility that a prospective borrower’s income might increase. “Lenders risk denying home ownership to qualified borrowers,” chief risk officer Ruthann Melbourne wrote.

The proposal languished until September 2006, when it was swiftly finalized after a congressional committee began making inquiries.

The long delay in issuing the guidance allowed companies to keep making billions of dollars in loans without verifying that borrowers could afford them. One of the largest banks, Countrywide Financial, said in an investor presentation after the guidance was released that most of the borrowers who received loans in the previous two years would not have qualified under the new standards. Countrywide said it would have refused 89 percent of its 2006 borrowers and 83 percent of its 2005 borrowers. That represents $138 billion in mortgage loans the company would not have made if regulators had acted sooner.

See also Prarie Weather and Calculated Risk.