Saturday, April 30, 2011

What Star Wars teaches us about power projection

Overthinking It has a fantastic discussion on the economics of the Star Wars universe and the Death Star in particular. One tangential point stuck out to me, however:

For the Empire to actually exist as an institution, it needs to have the mechanisms in place to exist – namely, donks like Queen Amidala and Senator Jar Jar Binks who basically just sit around and handle boring government work. And you also need people everywhere. Like, if the Emperor controls everything, he needs to make sure every Speeder Registry office in every settlement on Tattooine has somebody working the counter except during major Imperial holidays. ... 
To maintain order, the Emperor would generally need a MASSIVE, MASSIVE bureaucracy.
So, the Emperor and Tarkin focus on making one really huge, high-impact investment: The Death Star. They throw in Alderaan as part of that investment. This doomsday weapon will supposedly free up their resources to spend less on administration, personnel and infrastructure, and continue to function without a Senate. It seems like a big investment until you realize how much they save by not actually having a functioning government. 
This is an attractive option even today, as politicians look to pay for tax cuts and handouts to core constituencies by laying off or cutting salaries and benefits for bureaucrats and government workers, as well as by skimping on infrastructure. 

The problem, of course, is that it doesn’t work. The underpaid, undermotivated, poorly managed stormtroopers can’t even track down the Empire’s most wanted fugitive androids in an extremely sparsely populated area where they have undisputed control. If Tatooine still had meaningful senatorial representation and local government, Luke never would have gotten off the planet. Whole systems just break away and form not just a resistance, but a giant frickin’ fleet of spaceships that destroy not one, but two death stars. The failure of leadership is so total and complete that Tarkin is killed in his own fortress and the Emperor is murdered in his own office by his own right-hand man.

Obviously, this has a domestic focus, but I think we can draw lessons on national security from it as well. When you're reading through this explanation of the importance of good government even in imperial systems, one notes some parallels to today's American operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.

The defense budget is many times the size of the budgets of the State Department and USAID combined. A lot of that money goes towards troops, but a lot also goes toward carrier battle groups, hideously expensive submarines, and shiny new fighter jets like the F-35. None of that helps us build the infrastructure necessary for the three aforementioned nations to become functioning states. Similar to how the Death Star wasn't able to build the bureaucratic infrastructure necessary for effective governance in Tatooine, the USS Gerald R. Ford will not be able to provide effective governance in the Korengal Valley.

It's true that troops can help create the conditions necessary for local governance to be possible. But troops are also being pressed into duty as arbitrators and de facto local leaders. (Remember the scenes in Restrepo of Captain Kearney trying to settle disputes with the local village elders. That's not something usually taught at West Point.) Even current Secretary of Defense Bob Gates is worried about the increasing militarization of US foreign relations. Certainly the ideal situation is for local governments to step in and provide the government necessary, but in the interim, it would be far better for civilians to be doing the work of setting up local government. There was lots of talk of a "civilian surge" in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but an overstretched diplomatic and development corps has a hard time fulfilling that promise. And, of course, they're being targeted for budget cuts in the current austerity craze.

Going forward, US policymakers need to avoid looking at flashy big projects and pay attention to the nitty gritty of good governance both at home and abroad. You can't win the future with the Death Star, but you can with effective governance from top to bottom.

(Clearly I'm not the only one who made this connection.)

Saturday, April 9, 2011


The economy was recovering from a financial crisis, but things still weren't all rainbows and unicorns. Unemployment hadn't recovered fully, and growth and investment weren't quite as high as they should have been. But Very Serious People insisted that right now the Most Important Thing was to reduce the deficit. Sound familiar? I'm talking about 1937. But I could easily be talking about 2011. As the graph above shows, FDR's budget cutting didn't "win the future." It put the US back into recession. With the last minute budget deal, Serious People, including the President, are congratulating themselves for contractionary fiscal policy. The Fed can't even bail them out. Interest rates can't go lower than 0, and they're not likely to try a third round of Quantitative Easing after the gold-bug hysteria that resulted from QE2.

Buckle up.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Justice Grover Norquist

Andrew Cohen's very good piece on Justice Kagan's blistering dissent in a recent case buries the lede. Grover Norquist's tax philosophy, that tax expenditures are not spending, has made it into case law at the Supreme Court of the United States. Watch as Justice Kennedy tries to explain why tax breaks to religious institutions are not the same as handing them a check:

It is easy to see that tax credits and governmental expenditures can have similar economic consequences, at least for beneficiaries whose tax liability is sufficiently large to take full advantage of the credit. Yet tax credits and governmental expenditures do not both implicate individual taxpayers in sectarian activities. A dissenter whose tax dollars are "extracted and spent" knows that he has in some small measure been made to contribute to an establishment in violation of conscience. In that instance the taxpayer's direct and particular connection with the establishment does not depend oneconomic speculation or political conjecture. The connection would exist even if the conscientious dissenter's tax liability were unaffected or reduced. When the government declines to impose a tax, by contrast, there is no such connection between dissenting taxpayer and alleged establishment. Any financial injury remains speculative. And awarding some citizens a tax credit allows other citizens to retain control over their own funds in accordance with their own conscience.

Got that? It only affects you if your taxes are higher because a check is being cut to "an establishment". If your taxes are higher because that same establishment is getting a refund on their taxes (which we might often call "getting cut a check"), you're not being affected. In this case, it means that you can't object that your taxes are higher because of government support of religious institutions.

As Kagan (and Avi Schick of Slate) point out, Kennedy had to ignore five previous cases that found no distinction in order to made his weak argument:

As Justice Kagan points out in her powerful dissent, since creating the Flast exception, the Supreme Court has been presented with five separate challenges to tax-benefit programs by plaintiffs who invoked taxpayer standing. In each of those five cases, the court reached the merits of the claim even though the challenged program did not involve any direct government expenditure. Kennedy's rather weak retort is to note that while standing may have been assumed in each of those cases, the question wasn't explicitly addressed in any of them. His implication is that in five hard-fought Establishment Clause cases argued over a period of many years, the court, the parties and the solicitor general all somehow failed to notice the plaintiff's lack of standing to even bring the lawsuit.

Schick spends a lot of time on the hypocrisy of liberals and conservatives in this case and others like the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act. I think I've been consistent in arguing that tax breaks are spending. In any case, Kennedy's acrobatics to make his case are now putting into case law a meaningless distinction between types of government expenditure.