Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Simon Jenkins and his incoherent stance on terrorism

"The biggest threat to the West lies within itself, not with Islam" is a title obviously designed to grab one's attention. What he leaves unspoken but we're supposed to know is that hawks view the entirety of Islam as a menace. This is an opinion which is shared by the extreme and ignorant on the right but not the mainstream. That we're starting off with a strawman bodes ill.

The first half of the column makes some decent points: the west isn't REALLY in peril of being wiped out by terrorists any time soon, it isn't helpful to describe the war on terror as being the west against all of Islam, etc. The problem is that he's not clear about who exactly he's arguing with. Observe:

To portray Islam as a whole as a concerted threat to western security, and to imply that the West’s democratic institutions and freedoms are not proof against that threat, is absurd and close to treason.

Who, exactly, is saying this? Why spend so much time using precious space at a major newspaper without naming names? I read dozens of pieces from the biggest names on the right every week and I never see anything along those lines. I read a heck of a lot more about needing to be able to counter the might of a different billion-people group, China. Neocons argue that we should seek to transform the Islamic world, and while the goal and its means are very debatable it's certainly nothing like the rhetoric used against (for example) the Soviet Bloc during the cold war.

Eh, wasted time and a strawman isn't what I came to gripe about anyway. This is:

This poison has not been generated by the teaching of Sayyid Qutb and his Al-Qaeda fanatics, but in the overreaction to them. After sowing their mayhem they, and not Iraq, should have been targeted and eliminated.

Wait a second, I can't be upset that someone wrote that, even if I disagree it's a perfectly reasonable and defensible... but that isn't what he wrote.

This poison has not been generated by the teaching of Sayyid Qutb and his Al-Qaeda fanatics, but in the overreaction to them. After sowing their mayhem they, and not Afghanistan and Iraq, should have been targeted and eliminated.

Excuse me? It's one thing to say that Saddam's Iraq, which wasn't a major base of Al Qaeda in 2002, should be left alone. It's quite another to say that we overreacted by attacking the Taliban, which refused to give up Al Qaeda and which is allied with them to this day. To imply that we "eliminated" either Iraq or Afghanistan, I'll chalk that up to simple word order, but at the very least it's obvious he means "targeted". First off it's just silly to say we targeted the entire countries, especially when it comes to Afghanistan. I'll skip back a moment for more insight on his mindset.

The chief threat to world security at present lies in the capacity of tiny groups of political Islamists to goad the West into a rolling military retaliation.

In other words, we should have a small fight against small groups of terrorists. That's all well and good if Al Qaeda was based in say the Swiss Alps, without the support of the Swiss. No need to depose a government there, just work with them to stage counterterrorism activities and clear out the bad guys. The problem is that when an active terrorist group is supported by a government, it is imperative that said government either renounce terrorism or pay the price. Let's ignore the notion that we committed some sort of moral crime in liberating Afghanistan; let's just focus on the fundamentals of the situation.

It is unimaginable to me that following 9/11 we should have tolerated the Taliban giving harbor to Al Qaeda. Even without the 9/11 attacks, everyone knew who Osama was and what his group stood for. The Taliban was comfortable with that. They gave a nod to "how do you know it was Al Qaeda" in refusing to authorize action against the AQ camps, but nobody really expected them to go along because the alliance between the groups was too deep. The point at which we go after Al Qaeda is the point at which it is necessary to deploy a significant military force, and since the Taliban refused to allow it the choice was between either taking the Taliban out as well or assuming that they'd just ignore our use of their roads and airports for military operations. I mean, I honestly don't understand this position.

It's one thing to say, "9/11 was an inside job and thus I opposed the war in Afghanistan". It's one thing to say, "we should show we're better by not fighting back and thus I opposed the war in Afghanistan". I disagree, but I understand. It's quite another to say "we should have attacked Al Qaeda but left the Taliban alone". If we'd tried to do that the Taliban wouldn't have left us alone to do our thing in Afghanistan. I almost feel like I'm trying to explain why one plus one equals two here, and I'm not sure if it's worth going into why the Taliban would have attacked our soldiers in Afghanistan if they were left in power.

We targeted the government of Afghanistan for facilitating the staging ground of the 9/11 attacks, and then refusing to end this policy after the attacks. Simply lobbing a couple missiles wouldn't have been sufficient unless they were nukes, thus there had to be a military deployment. This gets to the core of the problem behind the "we should only be targeting a few extremists" talking point: state sponsorship changes the equation. When a government is sheltering the extremists in question, going after them militarily with reasonable efficacy requires neutralizing the government as well. It's nasty but that's the reality of the situation.

Jenkins wants it both ways: he wants people to know he's against war, but he also wants to present himself as being willing to strike terrorists. When it comes to the aftermath of 9/11 those two things are very much contradictory.

Monday, October 8, 2007

My blood hurts

I hate the Bills. I hate them because I love them.

But I hate the Cowboys more.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Columns on war & taxes, and "our broken economy"

EJ Dionne is a respectable liberal. I disagree with 99% of what he says but he's not disagreeable to me. In this column he talks about the dead-on-arrival "war tax" bill proposed in congress. Let me highlight the conclusion.

And if the president believes in this war so much and doesn't want to raise taxes, let him propose the deep spending cuts it would take to cover the costs. Then Bush would show how much of a priority he believes this war is -- and he wouldn't be playing small ball.

I disagree with the "war tax" for a number of reasons, for instance the rate levels seem high given the revenue goal, but I can't see any way to combat that line. It goes back to my 'failure to lead' post: Bush talks about the importance of Iraq but he doesn't act like it. 9/12/01, with a GOP congress and an 80% approval rating, was Bush's chance to be serious and make big plays. Change the military budget from what's best for politicians to what's best for the military; put the kibosh on pork spending; take a hard look at the $2 trillion budget and find ways to offset military spending in order to keep things in the black.

Instead Bush did the exact opposite, and now he has no political capital to fight waste or new domestic spending. If he'd gone to the public in 2001 and said that the time for using the federal budget to protect incumbents was over, he'd have won the battle and could have carved out enough cash to cover even Iraq. Now he looks fiscally irresponsible and unserious for acting as though the money comes out of thin air. It's bad policy and bad politics.

Jeff Madrick has a beefy entry that advocates a big change in government policy. If you're at all familiar with The Nation, you can guess as to what kind of changes and why I'm responding. To start with, for a column of such length he gives hardly any concrete proposals, just a very generic "grow government and tax more". Also he spends way too much time re-hashing ideas he disagrees with, when a briefer summary followed by longer criticisms would do far better in proving his points.

Some of what he says seems... off. For instance this: "After growing robustly for a few years, productivity growth since 2003 is as low as it was before the Internet boom." And your point is what, exactly? The economy was still ailing in 2003 but made a nice comeback between 2004 and 2006. Certain national statistics take time to come in, but productivity isn't one of them, and using 4 year old data makes his argument look weak.

Jeff makes on argument I'll agree with wholeheartedly: rising wages don't necessarily mean inflation. Some economists similarly think that low unemployment causes inflation. In fact, both need to be measured against productivity growth. Wage inflation occurs only when a company has to pay more for the same level of production, so if wages go up only about as much as productivity then there's no inflation.

Madrick proposes a return to Keynesian economics, in which the government spends a lot and is willing to run up deficits in the hope of growing the economy. In theory, the economy will grow faster than interest on the debt, which will make the policy sustainable. Madrick to his credit isn't advocating for government ownership of or investment in private industry, and he isn't proposing busywork spending-for-spending's-sake. That said, he needs to do two big magic tricks to get to where he wants to go.

Madrick's first trick is claiming that higher taxes don't have an effect on the economy. Check this out: "No economist has ever made a defensible case that high taxes impede economic growth in the long run." Wow. How can someone write a column for a major publication like The Nation and think it's okay to toss out such a gigantic statement without any sort of backing before or after? Just proving that line would take more words than he spends on this piece which covers the entire economy.

Madrick's second trick is to say that running a bigger deficit is okay by default, based on Keynesian theory. "The budget deficit is low", we're assured. The annual deficit, perhaps. However it would be a large stretch to say that the national debt, ie. the total from past years, is low... and it's downright incredible to me that anyone talking about the future of the economy can ignore the future debt, that is, the gap between future liabilities and reasonably expected future revenues. Keynesian economic theory was formed at a time when Social Security could be continued for the foreseeable future, and when the elderly died at 65 instead of generating huge medical expenses. Even if one grants that Keynesian economics worked in the past, it's simply not acceptable to ignore the huge difference between the future as of 2007 and the future as of 1937 or 1967.

Now, it's one thing to propose additional spending for things like infrastructure and early education. Infrastructure is an important public good, and early education can shape minds for the better at a time when minds are most changeable. It's quite another to say that a little more taxation and a lot more spending is fine without also addressing future budgetary needs. Whether a right-winger or a left-winger, one absolutely must address entitlement spending when one is discussing long-term federal budget priorities. The US got away with big deficits in the past but it can't indefinitely. If Madrick was looking at the big picture in a responsible manner he wouldn't be so flippant about the deficit, which he sees as needed for the spending he proposes.

Let's go back to the point I agreed with him on: fast wage growth is not bad by default. If only he would make it easy for me.

Such a theory means that federal policies to promote higher wages have an additional justification: economic growth. Higher minimum wages, support of living wages and laws more favorable to unionized labor may actually improve productivity and benefit us all rather than being a cost to society.


The wage share of the nation's income has fallen sharply since rising in the late '90s. Inflation is at rock bottom and inflationary expectations are weak.

Thus he claims that the government can force businesses to pay higher wages to the benefit of the economy. Ah, but he makes a mistake I see from many progressives: he fixates entirely on wages as the only form of employee compensation. The true cost of labor includes benefits, especially health benefits whose costs have skyrocketed. Perhaps his call for universal coverage would eliminate that in theory? No mention of that. Jeff implies that the economy hasn't done well by workers because wages haven't gone up fast enough, but an accurate picture requires determining how much employees cost their employers.

Why am I putting so much into 'total cost of labor'? Because he's calling for massive government-mandated increases in wages as a way of raising them, and he's defended this proposition by saying that fast wage growth isn't necessarily a bad thing and by saying that wages aren't rising fast enough. Since he isn't claiming to offset the cost of benefits, he wants wages to go up independent of productivity growth. Even putting aside the basket of anti-minimum wage right-wing talking points, there's one obvious result of this: inflation. Jeff implies that because of productivity gains over the last few decades that there's lots of room for a sudden jump in wages, but that room quickly evaporates when you factor in benefits. Hiking wages to the extent he seems to propose (as I mentioned earlier he's vague) would cause the cost of labor to rise faster than productivity, which is the definition of wage inflation.

Last but not least I'll touch on his idea of what I'd call "progressive protectionism". That is, it's de facto protectionism in the guise of good intentions.

The objective of trade pacts should not be to protect American workers per se but to bring to the rest of the world the progressive revolution in living standards that US factory workers started to enjoy a century ago. Higher minimum wages, protection against labor abuses, adequate healthcare and a decent environment will help develop domestic markets in these nations, which will in turn stimulate their productivity growth and make them less dependent on exporting to the United States. Meanwhile, Americans will compete on a more level playing field and find export markets for their goods.

I can't get over the use of "per se". That implies he wants to 'protect workers' (ie. protectionism), but doesn't want this to be the stated rationale. I've seen a lot of proposals along these lines, and it's an issue on which I believe a person is either unserious or dishonest.

Protectionism, that is putting tariffs on goods for the sole purpose of giving domestic producers an advantage, is a long-since discredited theory. It's something that we can thank for the length and depth of the Great Depression. It's something that sadly has roots in both the left and right of politics in many countries. 'Progressive protectionism' seeks to impose costs on foreign manufacturing for insufficient wages, work standards, benefits and other such things. The implication is that mighty America will dictate to other nations how they handle their economy.

Unilateral sanctions as a "we don't like your specific dictatorship" foreign policy tool have had minimal effect; why would this be any different? Multilateral sanctions, such as those brought against South Africa, have worked. Good luck getting that to happen today. Germany won't put sanctions on Iran for sponsoring terrorism and building nukes, why would they stop doing business with Laos or Chad over minimum wage? It's wildly unrealistic to think that in an age where the US is becoming a smaller and smaller portion of the global economy, we can single-handedly force the third world to raise their standards.

Again, put aside free market talking points on the issue, let's just look at the practical effect. The US threatens the third world with trade barriers, nobody else joins in, and the third world by and large keeps doing what it's doing just without the US. This would be the best way possible to make sure the US misses out on the benefits of globalization. Meanwhile I could talk about how countries with decently free markets have moved into the global middle class thanks to trade without the attempted use of progressive-minded economic hegemony, but hey, it doesn't matter because everybody knows we won't be a global economic overlord for long. Jeff either believes that such a trade policy would work exactly as he says, or he's using it as a mask for populist protectionism. Politicians tend to do the latter, but I believe Jeff is honest. And by honest I mean incredibly wrong.

When you accumulate all of the ways to "fix" the economy you're left with wage inflation, a bigger debt leading into the entitlement crunch, one-way trade barriers and higher taxes. Sounds like the solution is worse than the problem to me.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Healthcare: two columns, and I'm not grumpy about either

Here's a column I would be tearing apart if it was really possible for me to do so. Harrop is, from my experience, one of the better left-wing columnists and this is a perfect example of why. If you dislike Bush, you enjoy the way she tears apart the uncontestable contradiction in Bush's stance on healthcare today compared to in his first term. If you're on the right, you're given a reminder of the size and scope of the drug program Bush pushed. If you're a moderate who is somewhat inclined to take the Democrat's side on the issue, Bush looks heartless and unreasonable. When I talk about the way people should write, ie. to convince people that their point of view is correct, this is what I'm talking about.

Another column from a similar point of view is slightly more problematic. It's not Campos-esque or anything, but I feel the need to address some of the content which reflects some of the flaws in the debate. These flaws extend to both sides of the debate.

The larger point is that private markets in health care are not necessarily better than the government-run variety.

Given the shocking waste in U.S. health care, it's embarrassing that Bush still fails to see this. The United States spends nearly twice as much per person on health care as "socialized" Sweden or France, yet Americans' life expectancy is shorter. The profligate spending comes because doctors and patients make indulgent medical decisions while sticking third-party insurers with the cost.


Where unfettered private initiative produces evidently bad outcomes, most people prefer an alternative.

I'm going to ignore lines like "the free market has no solution for the uninsured", which would pretty much require an entire litany of right-wing talking points to properly refute. I'm not interested in doing much of that.

Behind the above sentences is an assumption: US healthcare today is the result of 'free market' policies. On the left and the right this assumption is used as a comparison to 'universal'-style healthcare in other countries. If they have a government/public system, we must therefore have a private one. Right-wingers say "socialism will lead to more costs!" and left-wingers say "then how come the US pays twice as much?"

The problem with the assumption is that it fails to recall the origin of today's US healthcare system. In olden times before most people reading this were born, there was a system of "wage and price controls", meaning there were regulations on how much you could pay for something and how much you could pay someone. It didn't cover absolutely everything but it was endemic enough to cause businesses to find a major loophole: benefits. The recent GM/UAW deal centered around benefits doled out half a century ago, benefits that only existed because of governmental regulation. Businesses couldn't compete with each other or entice employees with cold hard cash, so they did it with items like medical care.

Healthcare thus took on the primary characteristics of socialized medicine: the person receiving care was not directly responsible for the cost of medical care. If a person received medical insurance from his or her employer in one country, and a person received comparable insurance from the government in another, what would the difference be in how the insured consume medical care? I can't think of any significance there. The crux of the libertarian/conservative opposition to universal healthcare is that it takes away personal responsibility, but said responsibility has largely been removed anyway, even in cases where people have to buy their own insurance.

The health insurance industry in the US is far removed from other types of insurance, which center around major events. Mallaby references the need of some type of insurance in his column:

But a large share of health spending comes when people face emergencies: when they are sick, scared and about as far from feeling "empowered" as they possibly could be. Moreover, emergencies involve huge hospital bills that consumers are not going to pay out of pocket, even in the Bush team's shiniest scenario. Catastrophes will always have to be covered by insurers, so consumers' incentive to control this important component of health-care costs will always be imperfect.

Granted, but try finding a health insurance policy that's emergencies-only. Today's policies were spawned by businesses wanting something employees would be interested in, and that meant more than just getting a hospital stay covered if you break a leg. It meant things like minor doctor visits, the relative nickel-and-dime stuff that represents the majority of incidents if not spending. Insurers soon entangled themselves in all aspects of medical care, and their internal bureaucracies have hassled doctors and patients alike, creating incalculable amounts of paperwork and anxiety. It would be like homeowners' insurance getting involved when you call a plumber to fix a clogged sink. The insurance company represents a third party who leeches off the first two *and* costs them time with paperwork.

This mindset became the norm, and eventually state governments made the situation permanent by mandating what things *must* be covered by any health insurance sold within their borders. Insurers thus craft policies for every state, and few states have so little regulation that it could reasonably called "unfettered private initiative". The end result is the hassle, inefficiency and lack-of-personal-responsibility associated with 'big government', without the socially harmonizing benefit of universiality.

That's not to say I favor socialized medicine. Rather, I'm annoyed that so many people fail to see the roots of the current US healthcare system and the ways in which it's nothing like 'free market'. Those on the left should be skeptical that replacing one bureaucracy with another will have a significant positive effect; those on the right should realize that just because something is technically private-sector doesn't mean it should be defended from criticism. It's possible to be libertarian AND a critic of the healthcare system; as I've demonstrated it's actually quite easy. Sadly partisanship leads many on the right to oppose universal coverage proposals with no substantive counter-proposal, which leads the public to think that the right is satisfied with the problematic status quo.

For all the reasons I outlined, the right should be just as upset as the left. Because it isn't, the debate is being won handily by the left. The poor quality of debate on this issue is bad for everyone, and sadly I don't see that changing any time soon.