Saturday, March 19, 2011

War, American-style

It looks like the US, with a small assist from the UK, dropped over a hundred cruise missiles into Libya to soften up the air defenses for the coming no-fly-zone. Reports of coalition partners taking point seem to be wildly exaggerated. As always, the US has the assets and takes on the lion's share of the fighting/shooting/bombing.

Panning back a bit, I want to point to Marc Lynch's excellent piece on the passage of the UNSC resolution:

One might think that the disastrous post-war trajectories of Iraq and Afghanistan would have forever ended such an approach to military interventions, but here we are. Has anyone really seriously thought through the role the U.S. or international community might be expected to play should Qaddafi fall? Or what steps will follow should the No Fly Zone and indirect intervention not succeed in driving Qaddafi from power? No, there's no time for that... there never is. For now, I will be hoping, deeply and fervently, that the Libyan regime quickly crumbles in the face of the international community's actions.

Marc was an early, though cautious, advocate of the US and/or international community taking a role in Libya. But his questions are sobering, and I'm still unconvinced that the US has answers.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


The United Nations Security Council approved a measure on Thursday authorizing “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians from harm at the hands of forces loyal to Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi.

The measure allows not only a no-fly zone but effectively any measures short of a ground invasion to halt attacks that might result in civilian fatalities.
As Sully says, the run-up to this makes Iraq look well-deliberated. On the plus side, it's multilateral, and there have been rumblings that the US is pressing for other countries, including those in the Arab League, to play a real role here. This won't be all America. I hope it will be mostly foreign, but I doubt it. We inevitably end up taking on the lion's share of these operations. Where does our "responsibility" end? How far will the inevitable mission creep take us?

I don't really know what to say here. I'm deeply skeptical of this course of action. I am deeply pessimistic about possible outcomes. I hope I'm wrong. I fear I'm right.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

No Fly Zone? No thanks. (II)

Ross Douthat has been absolutely nailing it with his writing on intervention in Libya. From his latest blog post:

Still, [National Review's editors] continue, “if we can’t establish a no-fly zone over Libya and stop Qaddafi’s drive toward Benghazi, we really are tapped out as a world power.” But surely a true world power doesn’t need to embark on ill-considered military intervention just to prove that it isn’t yet “tapped out.” (I have every confidence that we can stop Qaddafi’s drive toward Benghazi. Indeed, I’m so confident that I don’t think we need to go the trouble of proving it.)
Besides, the lesson of Iraq isn’t that we can’t execute a tactically-successfu military intervention. It’s that even the greatest power in the world needs to think long and hard about what happens after the intervention. And National Review’s preferred course promises a very, very long “after” for America in Libya.

Emphasis mine. And yet, there's a whole lot of overlap between the people who got us into the clusterfuck in Iraq and the people signing a letter to the President urging military intervention in Libya. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then I think I can safely label Kristol and rest "batshit insane."

Sunday, March 13, 2011

What civil liberties?

CNN is reporting that State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley has resigned as a result of his critical comments regarding the inhumane treatment of accused Wikileaker Bradley Manning. This incident is yet another that reflects badly on the moral compass of the Obama administration. Civil liberties seem to be out of style in the world of the governing elite of both parties. I shouldn't have to point out just how right Crowley is about this:

But Crowley has told friends that he is deeply concerned that mistreatment of Manning could undermine the legitimate prosecution of the young private. Crowley has also made clear he has the Obama administration's best interests at heart because he thinks any mistreatment of Manning could be damaging around the world to President Obama, who has tried to end the perception that the U.S. tortures prisoners.
That puts aside the obvious moral problems with treating a prisoner who stands accused of something but convicted of nothing in such an inhumane way. This isn't a dangerous killer or child molestor, this is a guy who put some documents on a CD and handed them to Julian Assange. Now, to be sure, he broke the law, and he should be held accountable. But right now he's in holding until he goes on trial. His conditions are perilously close to what many people would term "torture." This is not the way America should treat prisoners of any kind. 

Yglesias calls it a "perversion of justice." I like Kevin Drum's reaction: "Jesus Christ." David Frum tweeted: "Crowley firing: one more demonstration of my rule: Republican pols fear their base, Dem pols despise it." Glenn Greenwald is unsurprisingly incensed

As pissed as I am about all this, I don't know what I can do about it. Right now this country has two parties that are both complicit in perpetuating civil liberties violations. I don't really know what leverage those of us who care about civil liberties really have. I am still certain that this support for torture and indefinite detention will eventually be looked upon the way the Alien and Sedition Acts are now. For now, however, the arc of history is still bending away from justice, to paraphrase the president. 

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Wanted: Local political parties

Recently Matthew Yglesias has been talking about the failure of partisan elections in cities and local government. Cities are so heavily democratic that the current parties tell you nothing. Non-partisan elections (as in Chicago) would seem like a good idea, but for low-information voters, they just end up being name-recognition contests with a huge incumbency advantage.

This strikes a chord with me, since my current city council member seems intent on pushing pointless city ordnances that restrict development and nightlife for very little reason. But how are we supposed to know what candidates for local office favor? Sure, local officials are responsive to their constituents, but not everyone has the time/inclination to do a Q&A with their city council member's staff. Local issues are very different from national ones, and they don't break easily on the usual party lines.

What we need are local parties that focus on local issues. For example, if I were to run for city council, I would run as a member of the "Density and Transit Party" or whatever. My party platform would be mostly about promoting transit, removing subsidies for cars and parking, and relaxing the zoning and density restrictions to promote new development. Perhaps my opponent would be running as the "Preserve our city" party that tries to enact ever harsher historical districts and height restrictions in order to prevent new buildings from changing the character of the city.

These parties could even be national, but the partisan breakdown would be odd. There are plenty of conservatives who would agree with my party's goal of removing barriers to development and market-distorting subsidies. There are plenty of liberals who would support the idea that cities should be preserved, not developed. New parties would allow low-information voters to tell at a glance what each candidate stood for.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Doctors hold all the cards

Smart conservatives like to point to solutions to our current dysfunctional health care system that empower consumers to make choices that will lower costs. In many contexts, I like this idea. I do generally prefer market-based solutions to top-down regulatory solutions. But Ezra Klein neatly distills just why I'm not sold on this being a workable solution to skyrocketing health care costs:

Patients are in awe of [doctors], because they are sick and scared and desperate for the help of anyone who seems to know how to make them better.
4) For that reason, cost control theories that rely on the patient to become more sensitive to costs or the insurers to become more aggressive on costs will fail. The only thing that will work is giving doctors the information and incentives that allow them to practice medicine in a way that controls costs.

I do think there's room for organizations like HMOs to come up with ways to ration care in ways that allow for lower costs. It will take radical differences in premiums for consumers to opt in to a restrictive HMO over a more relaxed PPO plan in numbers that will move the needle. Will that happen? I don't know. (For the record, rationing is happening now and will continue to happen in the future. Let's stop treating it like a four-letter word. "Ration" has six letters, people!)

I do not have very much confidence that a person with a serious illness is able or willing to shop around for the most cost-effective treatment. Doctors, however, can. Bundled payments will help doctors try to find the most cost-effective treatments to maximize their payout from treating patients. Also included in the PPACA is money for comparative effectiveness research to help doctors make these decisions. It turns out that most of the information doctors have currently comes from the marketing of the products they use. Giving doctors access to high-quality information about cost-effectiveness and the incentives to use that information seems to be a good way to reduce costs. I remain skeptical that consumers are capable of making such judgments.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Blaming the Baby Boomers

After a couple years of watching the baby boomer generation turn out to Tea Party rallies on Medicare-provided scooters to protest Democrats' attempt to provide health insurance to people who don't have the benefits of single-payer government health insurance, it's pretty easy to be angry at the boomers. But Aaron Renn gave me another reason:

I don’t see any signs of the older generations getting through the grieving process [for the Rust Belt cities of old] and moving on. This makes me think that for us to fully embrace a true urban policy, even in city government itself, it is going to take generational turnover. The baby boomers are already starting to age, but they’ll be with us a lot longer. Alas, they have historically been the most suburban generation, and not shy about imposing their values, so I suspect we’ll be dealing with that legacy for a while.

I think this does cast something of a shadow over the recent resurgence of urbanism in the US. As we saw clearly through the rise of the Tea Parties over the last couple years, old white people are more than willing to get out and protest (and vote!) when they care about something. In this case, that something will be any attempt at a reversal of the large system of subsidies and regulations that overwhelmingly benefit the suburban middle-class over poorer urban dwellers.

It does make me wonder what will happen as these suburban boomers age to the point where the suburban lifestyle is no longer feasible. At some age, driving is no longer a good idea, or even possible. In the suburbs, driving is the only option, however. There are going to be some serious problems in aging car-oriented suburbs. It will be interesting to see how they are addressed.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Koran vs the Bible

Via Andrew Sullivan, Dean Esmay has some interesting thoughts on the Sharia law hysteria coming from some on the right. Most of the piece is dedicated to pointing out the inability for any large religion to coalesce behind one vision of that belief system. But I wanted to highlight this passage:

This is like asking your average American if our own laws should be guided first and foremost by the Bible. I imagine you could get a good half of Americans to agree on that. But can you get even 10% of them to agree on exactly what that means? In anything but the most broad and nebulous terms? I doubt it.

It's not news that fundamentalist (and many somewhat less fundamentalist) Christians think that the US should be guided by the rules laid out in the Bible. It does, however, put the current hysteria over Sharia law in a slightly worse light. It's not that our law system would be guided by religious principles rather than the constitution, but that it would be guided by the WRONG religious principles. It would be nice if these people (looking at you, Rep. Peter King) would just up and say "we don't like Muslims". At least then we're arguing over the right things.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

No Fly Zone? No thanks.

Though many people have thrown cold water on the idea of a no-fly-zone over Libya, including Exum, Ricks, and even Bob Gates, Ross Douthat puts it best, I think:

To this it might be added that the last time we imposed a no-fly zone on a weakened Arab tyrant who we hoped would soon be toppled by his own people, the year was 1992 and the tyrant in question was Saddam Hussein — and we have been at war in Iraq, in one sense or another, ever since.

Frankly, even Libyan rebels don't want us there. Let's not do anything rash. The costs and risks of a no-fly-zone are far higher than those of sitting back and doing nothing. It's hard watching the remnants of the Libyan government slaughter civilians. But it's not a situation in which the US needs to act, as hard as that is to say.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

You're doing it wrong, budget edition

Via Reihan Salam's twitter, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget just released an excellent paper on tax expenditures. The upshot is that there is more spending via the tax code than there is revenue collected via personal income taxes.

This is a massive amount of spending that gets little or no scrutiny. This is because they are tax breaks rather than direct spending. They are automatically reauthorized every year, not held hostage in the current budget showdown on the Hill. The GOP currently characterizes closing these tax loopholes as raising taxes, and won't touch them. For some reason, money sent out as a check by the IRS is different than money sent out by the Social Security Administration or Department of Transportation.

Moreover, the biggest tax expenditures are hugely regressive. The mortgage interest deduction is essentially an individual mandate to buy a home, and the benefits are greater the bigger the house. (The cap is currently at a $1m mortgage.) Meanwhile low-income renters (me!) get no break at all. As Reihan says elsewhere, the contours of the tax debate are completely screwy.

Windmills do not work that way!

In keeping with the tradition of blaming everything bad that happens in the world on President Obama, the GOP's new line of attack is blaming the high gas prices on Obama and the Dems:

But the fact of the matter is, gas prices are going up, and that has an effect on GDP. If we're really focused on GDP growth, I'm looking forward to the president's proposal that we're going to start drilling using our own natural resources.

Drilling for oil and natural gas is a long process. It's not as if Obama can wave a magic wand and suddenly oil wells will spring up at full capacity, with the transportation and refining capacity to match. It would likely take decades for new oil fields to come on line. Even if they did, it's worth pointing out that we're not talking about much oil. The effect on prices of allowing offshore drilling or drilling in ANWR is likely to be minuscule to nonexistent.

The reason prices are going up is the same as it always is: instability in the Middle East combined with steadily rising demand from developing nations. The world is already pretty close to peak production capacity. A few extra barrels here and there isn't going to change the underlying fact that there's a finite amount of fossil fuels and the current rate of global consumption is unsustainable.