Monday, February 20, 2017

Henry Farrell's article in Democracy Journal on the British Labour party and its recent Corbyn troubles includes a remarkable omission:  it manages to discuss radical party leader Jeremy's Corbyn's rise in the context of the last several decades' history of internal Labour party politics without even once mentioning the name, "Michael Foot".  In one sense, the omission is understandable--after all, if one wants to blame Corbyn's disastrous ascendance on a series of changes in Labor's procedural rules, as Farrell does, then it's hard to explain how an equally disastrous proto-Corbyn could have risen to party leadership before any of those procedural reforms were enacted (not to mention his being the primary motivation for those reforms in the first place).  But  to someone familiar with the history, Farrell's analysis looks like a textbook case of denial, conjuring up an implausible theory to avoid confronting the deeper issues that have allowed two different unelectable radicals to seize control of the party within 35 years.

These deeper issues stem from an interesting property of the "left" and "right" coalitions I discussed recently in the context of the Trump phenomenon:  their constituent factions are not always in mutually harmonious balance.  At its healthiest, a coalition is a collection of constituencies that are each granted policy primacy in the areas that are their respective priorities.  The so called Reagan coalition, for example, offered law and order and military strength to its white blue-collar constituency, deregulation and tax cuts to its business constituency, and culturally conservative positions to its religious constituency.  The Obama coalition similarly offered identity politics to its minority constituency, cultural liberalism to its young urban constituency, and credentialist, crony-capitalist economic policies to its white-collar professional constituency.

At times of political weakness, however, a coalition can become unbalanced, with defections leaving one core constituency dominant.  This effect can snowball, with activists pushing the coalition farther and farther in the directions favored by its remaining stalwarts, chasing even more members of other constituencies away.  In the early 1960s, for instance, the post-Eisenhower revival of the old New Deal coalition under Kennedy and Johnson reduced the "right" coalition to little more than its business wing, which then promoted arch-libertarian Barry Goldwater to the Republican nomination, with disastrous results. 

Similarly, the decline of organized labor in the industrialized world has left the affluent white-collar professional class as by far the dominant political force in the "left" coalition in most countries.  In Britain, when Margaret Thatcher smashed the unions, the Labour party rallied around academic far-leftist Michael Foot; and again today, having lost much of the working class to the populist right, it rallies around far-leftist Jeremy Corbyn.  Whether the "left" coalition in the US, having lost much of its non-minority blue-collar constituency to Donald Trump, will now follow the British Labour party's lead into political radicalism, will be the one of the more interesting political questions of the Trump era.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

It's annual prediction posting time!  On the happy occasion of 2016's end, we first revisit last year's predictions, before launching into next year's...
  • The US economy will stall this year, as trouble abroad (in China, Canada, and other oil-based economies) hurts exports and the Fed's tentative forays into non-zero interest rates burst various mild bubbles in the stock and other asset markets.  The stock market and real estate markets will fall, interest rates will remain very low, and the price of oil will not rebound significantly from its current lows.
As usual, I was early on this one--eight years into the business cycle, another recession is inevitable, but predicting its exact timing is very difficult.  The previous year, I expected it to occur within the subsequent three years, and took a chance on it being in 2016.  Perhaps this will be the year (see below)...
  • Immigrant-related issues will continue to distract the continent from the greater threat of disintegration due to the incoherence of its monetary union.  Hence bailouts of bankrupt southern members will continue as a quid pro quo for cooperation in stemming the flow of Middle Eastern and African migrants.  Meanwhile, rightist, populist, nativist parties will continue to surge across the continent, jettisoning many of the domestic and foreign policies anchored into place by the previously-dominant bureaucracy/union/activist/corporatist coalition.  (Hostility to Israel will of course be one of the few policies to survive the purge.)
My most accurate prediction of the year, I'd say.
  • Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton will narrowly win the presidential election over Republican nominee Marco Rubio, with the crucial Republican-vote-diverting assistance of third-party candidate Donald Trump.  However, the Republicans will maintain their Congressional majorities--just barely, in the case of the Senate.
I completely botched my presidential prediction, of course, but I'm in pretty good company in doing so.  And my congressional prediction was spot-on.
  • The stalemate in Syria will continue mostly unchanged, tying down the main pro-Assad participants (Russia, Iran and Hezbollah) as well as the anti-Assad ones (Turkey, Saudi Arabia) while the US largely stays on the sidelines.  ISIS will continue to weaken under the pressure of its many enemies, and its big terrorist "successes" of 2015 will be repeated very sparsely if at all.  On the other hand, Israel will find itself increasingly drawn into the fray in support of the Sunni rebel side, as the Iran/Assad/Hezbollah axis intensifies its drive to establish a front along Israel's Golan Heights border with Syria. Finally, the Kurds will once again be in the region's crosshairs, as Iran, Turkey and ISIS all increase their pressure on them, each for its own reasons.  The Obama administration will sit that one out as well, leaving the Kurds in a precarious state.
Generally in the right direction, but a bit off on magnitude.  Russian scorched earth tactics have been more effective against the Syrian rebels, ISIS has managed to generate more terrorist attacks against the West, Israel has been more hands-off in Syria, and the Kurds have been under less pressure, than I predicted.
  • The current "stabbing intifada", consisting mostly of random Palestinians spontaneously attacking random Israelis with knives, will evolve into a complex game in which the Palestinian Authority attempts to carefully calibrate the level of violence so as to keep Hamas and other radical groups occupied without provoking a major Israeli crackdown.  Ultimately this strategy will fail, and at some point Israel, responding to one or more high-casualty attacks, will launch a major "lawn-mowing" operation in the West Bank to round up terrorist organizations hiding out in PA-run areas.  World condemnation will follow, although European vituperation will be milder than usual, as a result of the new terrorist-hostile political environment there, as well as greater Israeli willingness to take active measures to counter European meddling.
The small-scale attacks appear to have eventually subsided, due to some extent to surprisingly effective Israeli countermeasures.  
  • Disney will announce that following the huge success of "Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens", Star Wars Episode 8 will be entitled, "The Force Has Breakfast".
Personally, I like my title better...

And now for this year's shots in the dark:
  • All that stuff I predicted about last year's economy will apply this year.  (Or next year--see above.)  If you object that such a prediction is non-actionable, keep in mind Bernard Baruch's (possibly apocryphal) aphorism:  "I made my money by selling too soon"...
  • The right-wing resurgence in Europe will continue in 2017, with several more countries electing new nationalist, anti-immigration governments.  Brexit negotiations will begin in earnest, but will not complete this year.  Continuing sporadic terror attacks will be joined by increasingly frequent and more severe incidents of nativist violence against immigrants.
  • Donald Trump's first year in office will be very similar to his predecessor's:  lots of "I won" bluster, but very few legislative accomplishments, apart from one or two bipartisan ones driven by Congress with Democratic cooperation.  (The Republicans will not abolish the Senate filibuster, although they'll keep the limitations on it instituted by the previous Democratic Senate.)  Neither Obamacare nor immigration will be addressed legislatively, although many of the Obama administration's executive actions in these areas will be reversed.  Reaction to Trump's usual bombastic pronouncements will be overwhelmingly partisan, and his approval ratings will therefore track his partisan support, which will hover within the 40-50-percent range. 
  • Trump's foreign policy will sound radically different from his predecessor's, but will in practice be similarly quiescent and timid, at least militarily--although thankfully without the open courtship of avowed enemies (with the exception of Putin's Russia) and sabotage against pro-US friends.  For example, despite the new pro-Israel tone, US reaction to the recent anti-Israel UN resolution will be much more muted than the current torrent of threats suggests.  Any funding cuts or formal status changes to the US' UN membership will be confined to ineffective token gestures, and the US embassy will end up not moving to Jerusalem this year. 
  • Both ISIS and the Syrian rebellion will continue to weaken, but will not yet disappear by the end of 2017.  As the Assad regime consolidates its hold, pro-Iranian proxies will be freed up for increased attacks on Israel, and Sunni radicals as well, seeking a less ruthless target, will start turning towards Israel in earnest.  Some minor attacks will occur, to which Israel will respond harshly.  Meanwhile, the corruption investigation against Bibi Netanyahu will take many months to complete, and likely won't be completed by the end of this year.  In any event, ultimately no charges will be laid.
  • Venezuela will collapse further into failed-state status in the Zimbabwe mold, with a corrupt and incompetent government using brute force to suppress opposition amid continuing economic collapse.  Meanwhile, the American opening to Cuba will do nothing for its population's destitution, and economic failure will lead to significant popular unrest in Russia, Iran and Egypt.
  • The next Star Wars film will not be named either "The Force Gets Dressed" or "Rogue Two".
As always, readers are encouraged to add their own predictions as comments on this post.  Until you've tried it, you can't really appreciate the truth of Niels Bohr's aphorism:  "Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future"...

Monday, December 12, 2016

In December 1996, a Florida couple with Democratic party ties illegally intercepted and recorded a cellphone conversation in which House Speaker Newt Gingrich discussed strategies for handling the Congressional ethics charges he was facing, and provided it to a Democratic congressman, who passed it on to a Democrat on the House Ethics Committee.  The tape was also later leaked to the press, most likely by one of those members of Congress or someone on their staff.  The Florida couple were eventually charged and fined, and Gingrich paid a penalty to resolve the Ethics Committee's complaints against him.

In June 2004, a newspaper and television station successfully sued to unseal the court records of the divorce proceedings of Illinois senatorial candidate Jack Ryan and his wife Jeri.  The records had been sealed by mutual agreement, and both parties opposed the unsealing, but a judge ruled that the public's right to know outweighed the privacy of the parties to the divorce, including the divorced couple's minor-age son.  The records turned out to be highly embarrassing to Ryan, who ultimately lost his Senate race--to, of all people, a fellow named Barack Obama.

In May 2012, some comments by presidential candidate Mitt Romney at a private fundraiser were surreptitiously video-recorded, and the contents of the recording passed on to a journalist for a left-wing magazine.  (It was later revealed that the video was recorded by a member of the catering staff at the event, although in a second surreptitious video recording, a Democratic party operative claimed--with unknown credibility--that the Romney video recording was actually an "opposition research" project carefully planned by his organization.)  The private comments proved to be highly embarrassing to Romney, and appear to have contributed to his later loss in the presidential election that year.

These events, along with many similar ones in the recent past, provide some important context for the recent controversy over the Russian government allegedly trying to interfere in the US presidential election in favor of Donald Trump.  For the precedents clearly illustrate that
  • Embarrassing and damaging private information about politicians often becomes public by less-than-admirable means, at the hands of people who don't always have purely high-minded and disinterested motives.
  • Even when such information is obtained unethically or illegally, the issue of punishing and deterring unethical or illegal behavior can and should be separated from the question of whether the information so obtained should be made public. 
  • There is a broad consensus that the democratic process is generally better served by such information being made public--regardless of the moral quality of either the means of, or the motivation for, publication--than by suppressing it out of respect for the privacy or well-being of public figures and their families.
The Russian "interference" story fits very well with these past precedents.  Foreign hackers connected with the Russian government allegedly compromised Democratic Party email servers, then published their most embarrassing contents via Wikileaks, with the intention (according to the CIA--the FBI apparently reached a very different conclusion) of helping Donald Trump win the presidential election.  Based on past examples, then, we should consider the exposure of this private information to be a generally good thing, and stop sounding the alarm about the impending doom of American democracy at the hands of Russian intelligence.  After all, embarrassing private details about American politicians are revealed all the time, by all sorts of people with all sorts of motives, and we generally consider such revelations to be beneficial, not detrimental, to democracy.

Now, there are certainly aspects to this story that are very concerning.  For one, that the Democratic Party--or for that matter virtually every public-sector, nonprofit-sector or private-sector organization in the country--is so easily penetrated by foreign government cyberespionage agencies is without question grounds for great concern, although obviously more of a technical security matter than a political one.  It has also been noted that both the Trump and Clinton inner circles during and after the election were populated by a disturbing number of top people who have at one time or another had personal or commercial interests directly linked to one or another foreign government.  Congressional investigation into whether any of these past ties are sufficient to jeopardize American national security would certainly be most welcome.  Finally, it's to be expected that at least some of the released emails were doctored or fabricated by the Russians for effect, and some definitive findings regarding their authenticity would be useful--again for the sake of a better-informed public.

But the idea that unsavory characters revealing embarrassing information about candidates for public office endangers the very survival of American democracy would be unthinkable were the information in question not, as it happens, helpful to a character as despised as Donald Trump (or harmful to one as beloved as Barack Obama).  There's no evidence that the published emails had any significant impact on the election or on general trust in government among Americans.  And as the above examples illustrate, the hyperventilation in the press about this whole episode smacks more of partisan bias than serious concern for democracy and the national interest.   

Sunday, October 09, 2016

At first glance, the kerfuffle over Donald Trump's crude remarks about women 10 years ago makes little sense:  his long history of making such remarks has been discussed repeatedly over the course of the campaign, to little effect; his opponent's husband's history of sexual indiscretions and disrespect towards women is far worse, and has been so fully condoned for so long by his opponent's supporters that their criticism of Trump now reeks of hypocrisy; and he's so manifestly and direly unfit for the presidency in so many obvious ways that his boorishness really ought to be a mere afterthought by comparison.  So why now, suddenly, have these decade-old salacious comments become a huge issue for the Trump campaign?

In fact, the question itself is premised on a deep, widespread misconception about the nature of political scandals.  Contrary to popular belief, scandals are a symptom, not a cause, of political weakness.  In the modern political environment, any politician's opponents can be relied upon to maintain a continuous stream of accusations, innuendos and condemnations related to some real or imagined misdeed or objectionable statement by their target.  A politically strong public figure can parry these volleys with relative ease, refuting them or even turning them back against the accusers.  If a politician weakens politically, though--if, say, his or her support appears, based on polling, to be in substantial decline--then these attacks begin to "stick", and the result is a "scandal". 

Note that the substance of the scandal is irrelevant:  a sufficiently strong politician can, for instance, drunkenly drive a woman off a bridge to her death and abandon her there, and survive the ordeal with only minimal political damage.  A weakened politician, on the other hand, can be knocked over with a metaphorical feather:  an expensive haircut, repeating one line too often at a debate, looking a bit goofy while riding a tank.

In the case of Trump, he was able to brush off lurid tales of his disgusting personal life for as long as his poll numbers remained strong.  But as his popularity started to fade in early October, following a weak debate performance, he became politically vulnerable, and embarrassments he had previously been able to brush off suddenly blossomed into "scandals".  It remains to be seen whether he can survive them at least until the election, but whether he does so depends on whether his declining base of support resists further deterioration--not vice versa.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The issue of police treatment of African-Americans, most recently highlighted by Quarterback Colin Kaepernick's decision not to stand for the national anthem, is unquestionably a serious one.  If even as distinguished--and as staunchly pro-police--a figure as Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina can attest to having repeatedly been ill-treated by police officers unaware of his position, then we can safely conclude that the perception of police hostility among American Blacks is both widespread and at least partially grounded in actual experience.

It is also safe to conclude that this experience, and the resulting general distrust of the police, has existed for many decades.  We can therefore ask why expressions of rage among African-Americans, even spilling over into violence, have suddenly spiked over the last year or so, after two decades of relative calm, and despite evidence of gradual improvement in police treatment of African-Americans during that interval.  The unsettling answer can be gleaned from the long history of violent Black protest movements: their cyclical rise is driven not only by internal dynamics within the Black community, but also by active encouragement on the part of politically motivated establishment institutions such as the press, the intellectual class and mainstream politicians.

Intellectual celebration of Black lawlessness goes back at least as far as Norman Mailer's seminal 1957 essay, "The White Negro", in which Mailer lauds "hipsters" who self-consciously identify with Blacks' perceived rejection of middle-class values and embrace their supposedly more primitive, and hence more authentic, culture.  By 1970, this phenomenon had gone upscale, with Tom Wolfe lampooning it in his famous essay "Radical Chic", about a party thrown by composer Leonard Bernstein and his affluent, cultured guests for a representative of the Black Panther movement.  (That movement is still widely honored today, despite its ugly history of the most brutal violence and criminality.)

It's not clear how much this sort of encouragement from the intellectual and cultural communities affected the strength and violence of Black radicalism during the 1960s through the 1980s.  Certainly rabble-rousers such as Malcolm X, Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan originally rose to prominence within the Black community without significant mainstream assistance.  (Whether the Black Panthers would have lasted as long as they did without radical campus activists enthusiastically abetting their activities and defending them against criminal charges, is an interesting question.)  But by the late 1980s, racial provocateurs such as Sharpton had developed a symbiotic relationship with sympathizers in the press and political establishment, who rewarded their bombast with attention and credibility as legitimate Black leaders--the whole phenomenon again being ruthlessly lampooned by Tom Wolfe in his famous novel The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Shortly thereafter, white music producers began promoting "gangsta rap" to primarily young white audiences as an "authentic" African-American musical form that portrayed Blacks admiringly as violent criminals.  Thoughtful Black critics like Stanley Crouch denounced it as a "minstrel update" catering to the contemporary equivalents of Mailer's primitivism-seeking hipsters.  But Mailer-esque public intellectuals, oblivious to the ugly precedents, hailed the medium's brutally obscene portrait of the modern Black condition as insightful and true rather than insulting and false.

Then, starting around the mid-to-late 1990s, something quite remarkable happened:  there began a nearly-two-decade period during which Black militancy and its public celebration declined dramatically.  (A list of mass racial violence incidents in the US, for instance, shows strikingly fewer incidents during this period.)  I've written previously about the numerous possible factors influencing this decline, and it's impossible to say which of them--if any--had the most significant impact.  But an accompanying development--quite possibly a direct effect--was an overall strongly positive trend in Black circumstances:  a steep reduction in crime that rejuvenated many predominantly Black urban neighborhoods; a significant rise in Black household income, and continuation of previous improvements in majority attitudes towards integration and Blacks in general.

The reversal of this trend towards racial reconciliation began with the economic downturn of 2008 and the election of former radical activist Barack Obama to the presidency.  The former wiped out a significant portion of Blacks' substantial economic gains during the previous decade and a half, while the latter elevated to the country's most powerful bully pulpit a man who made no secret of his enthusiasm for fomenting racial confrontation and conflict in the name of combatting racism.  Once elected, the president and members of his administration encouraged racial resentment at every turn, suggesting political opponents were motivated primarily by racism, consistently taking the side of angry Blacks in controversial cases--such as Colin Kaepernick's--involving highly charged racial confrontations, and enacting activist policies on race that implicitly imputed racial discrimination to the entire nation's cities and educational systems
Radicals in academia and the mainstream press followed the president's cue, initiating fresh rounds of purges of "political incorrectness" and enforcing a dogma of racial essentialism that discredits dissenting arguments using the invented pejorative category of "white privilege". 

It was out of this toxic stew of radical racialism that there arose a new generation of Black apologists for rioting and violence--all of them heavily promoted by mainstream liberal-to-left-wing publishers and news sources--such as Ta-Nehisi Coates (Atlantic Monthly), Shaun King (Daily Kos, New York Daily News), Marc Lamont Hill  (CNN, MSNBC, Huffington Post) and Deray McKesson (Huffington Post, The Guardian).  Like the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, these prominent activists all appear to have absorbed their radicalism in academic settings, rather than on ghetto streets.  (The BLM list of demands reads like a boilerplate manifesto issued by radical protestors of any color on just about any university campus anywhere in the country.)  Far more assimilated than their predecessors, these new Black militants speak the language of modern academic radicalism with native fluency, affecting outrage at alleged "oppression" while basking in the awards, attention and employment lavished upon them by academics, intellectuals, campus activists and journalists alike.

Now, it should be said that their rage is most likely completely genuine.  As Ellis Cose has documented, middle-class Blacks, despite their relatively comfortable--even privileged--status, are often even angrier about racial issues than their less economically and socially successful counterparts in the Black working class.  Middle-class Blacks' comfortable assimilation into majority middle-class society makes instances of its incompleteness even more jarring and infuriating: occasional tiny slights seem much worse, and perceived instances of unfairness much more galling, for someone who has effectively bet his or her life and livelihood on society's fulfillment of the promise of equality by choosing to assimilate, than for someone who hasn't staked so much on the prospect of full acceptance by the majority.

But again, these resentments are nothing new--Cose wrote about them over two decades ago.  What has changed is the reception that they are likely to get.  Whereas 15 years ago, a discredited troublemaker like Al Sharpton would have been laughed off any mainstream news broadcast, today he hosts his own cable news show, while CNN hosts raise their own hands in solidarity with Ferguson protestors, and universities throughout the country eagerly capitulate to disruptive protests and forcible takeovers of campus property in the name of "racial justice". With these mainstream supporters of racial militancy making it abundantly clear that aggressive (and perhaps even violent) racial confrontation will receive a warm public welcome from them, those disposed towards violent action have readily answered the call with riots, threats and disruptions, all solemnly excused in turn as necessary and understandable by their academic and journalistic allies. 

We can only hope that the public's memory of the more peaceful and prosperous preceding two decades eventually overcomes these radicals'--and their mainstream fans'--enthusiasm for further self-righteous mayhem, and that voices of reconciliation and unity (such as the Seattle Seahawks') prevail over the forces of divisive racial confrontation.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The now-failed coup in Turkey has generated an enormous amount of commentary from US-based foreign policy experts, but the sampling of it that I've perused has consistently displayed one rather striking characteristic:  the assumption that US readers would be first and foremost concerned with the effects of the coup on Turkish democracy.  I have literally not seen a single analysis of the coup attempt that has so much as mentioned its possible consequences for US interests in the region, except insofar as those interests may be intertwined with the resiliency (or lack thereof) of Turkish democratic institutions.  This is especially remarkable in light of the near-universal judgment that Turkey's democracy was more or less doomed regardless, given that President Erdogan's authoritarian (perhaps even totalitarian) inclinations are well established; that the generals involved in the coup were unlikely to be anything approaching small-d democrats themselves; and that the coup's failure will only hasten Erdogan's and Turkey's slide into dictatorship.  If democracy was, and continues to be, effectively a dead letter in Turkey--with the coup, whether it succeeds or fails, unlikely to alter that fate--then why would its (non-) effect on Turkish democracy be viewed as the key criterion by which to assess its consequences?

To understand the answer to this question requires an understanding of the Cold War-era partisan divide over US foreign policy.  As I've explained previously, the overwhelmingly predominant issue in international relations since the end of the Second World War has been the size, role and desirability of American global power.  In the US, this became a partisan issue with the rise of the New Left in the late 1960s, which took over the Democratic party and aligned it firmly in the "against" camp on the issue.  The New Left took an essentially anti-American position on the Cold War, using as a pretext various alleged American sins against "human rights" around the world.  (Their real motivation, of course, stemmed from the collective interests of the "left" coalition:  reduced power for the military and military industries; devaluing of patriotism compared to cultural cosmopolitanism; and enhanced status for left coalition-aligned internationalist institutions such academia, the diplomatic corps and NGOs.) 

The pro-US-power domestic "right" coalition justified its continued support for American global strength--which coincided with its own collective interests--by invoking the Soviet threat to US security, as it had since the beginning of the Cold War and the advent of Soviet nuclear weapons.  But in the 1980s, in response to the "human rights" critique, a new, "neoconservative" style of justification for US power claimed the moral high ground for the US as primary evangelist for democracy around the world.  With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991--eliminating the major threat to US security--this neoconservative pretext for advancing US power globally became the primary one.  The "left" coalition, in response, shifted its arguments against US power more towards advocacy of internationalism and "balance of power" equilibrium-maintenance--the so-called "neorealist" approach.

Needless to say, simplistic and partisan foreign policy positions masked by superficial cover stories are unlikely to lead to highly successful foreign policies.  The "neoconservative" approach, for example, failed utterly to promote democracy over a half-decade of costly occupation in Iraq, while the "neorealist" approach has generated seven years of successive (effectively intentional) foreign policy failures under the Obama administration.  Yet neither side has found its way towards expressing its goals straightforwardly in terms of US power--the "left" coalition because its goal of weakening the US for its own sake would be so wildly unpopular if explicitly embraced, and the "right" coalition because its goal of expanding US power for its own sake (especially at a substantial cost in blood and treasure) is only slightly more popular. 

Hence when an international development such as the coup in Turkey occurs, nobody dares even suggest that America's interest would be best served by one or another outcome, lest the public interpret such a statement as implying either willingness to sacrifice money or lives to achieve that outcome, or else support for the opposite outcome through inaction.  Instead, we hear about the coup's dire implications for Turkish democracy, without the merest hint as to whether or why the American people should care in the least about its future.

That's unfortunate, because a clearheaded understanding of US interests would be a crucial first step towards formulating a sensible US foreign policy.  And if foreign policy experts won't provide us with that--perhaps because they're utterly incapable of it--then American foreign policy will continue to serve only disguised-partisan rather than national interests, at the expense of the nation as a whole.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau's now-famous, possibly-not-so-impromptu, not-entirely-accurate explanation of quantum computing has unfortunately distracted attention from the real news behind the viral video:  the announcement of $50 million in federal government funding for the Perimeter Institute, a research center affiliated with the University of Waterloo.  Ignored amidst the Trudeaumania is the key question:  will the money be well spent?

The Perimeter Institute is devoted to theoretical physics, an area whose enormous prestige, dating back to the days of Einstein and greatly enhanced by the terrifying grandeur of nuclear weapons, has gradually decayed over many decades.  It hasn't had a true worldview-overturning breakthrough since the subatomic particle revolution of the 1960s, and has since spent several decades wrestling with a grand theoretical framework--string theory--which has yet to demonstrate any significant explanatory power.  Once able to command cosmological-scale research budgets to build enormous experimental contraptions with which to smash particles together and announce suspiciously in-line-with-theory results, the field has found itself receiving less and less of the research funding pie, as more and more of it gets siphoned off by more fashionable fields with more recent tales of great impact.

Then, suddenly, along came quantum computing.  In 1994, a computer scientist named Peter Shor discovered that a computer working according to the principles of quantum mechanics, rather than the classical physics that governs conventional computers, could--in theory, at least--break widely used cryptographic systems that are otherwise believed impervious to practical attacks.  Now, this isn't a very practically useful result, unless you happen to be a spy agency interested in decrypting other people's secrets.  The main consequence for most people is that they'll have to upgrade their software at some point in the future so that it uses cryptography that even a quantum computer can't break.  (And as it happens, such cryptography doesn't appear to be all that hard to come up with.)  Indeed, there's very little, beyond breaking the current generation of cryptography, that quantum computing appears to be particularly useful for.  But it has two very important things going for it:  the words "quantum" and "computing".

To the average person, the word "quantum" summons visions of impossibly complex, incomprehensible theories accessible only to the most brilliant scientific minds.  (To quote Bernard Shaw, back in 1938,  “You have nothing to do but mention the quantum theory, and people will take your voice for the voice of science, and believe anything.”)  It's no coincidence that Trudeau, a politician with a reputation for thin intellect even by politician standards, chose to explain something with the word "quantum" in it--and that everyone was wowed by the spectacle.

As for "computing", no word screams "practical" (not to mention economically promising) quite as loudly.  If you wanted to tie your abstruse, largely useless theoretical field of study to something eminently useful and profitable, you could do worse than try to figure out a way to connect it somehow with computing.  And thanks to Peter Shor, quantum physicists have been able to do exactly that.

The result is a cash-strapped, out-of-fashion physics researcher's dream:  a field tailor-made for a pretty-boy politician to make a grand show of handing a large wad of taxpayers' money to, while enhancing his gravitas and convincing an already-credulous press corps of his sound policy sense.  I'm pretty sure that Shor had nothing like that in mind when he came up with his algorithm--but I also doubt that the delighted physicists at the Perimeter Institute waste too much time worrying about that, as they contemplate the many ways they might spend their unwisely-bestowed windfall.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

A lot of nonsense has been written about the battle between Apple and the FBI over an iPhone that belonged to one of the San Bernardino terrorists.  First, some background: 

Apple iPhones have a feature that encrypts the user's personal data using a key that's stored in a special hardware chip on the phone.  The chip must receive a numerical PIN set by the user before it releases the key, and after a few incorrect PIN guesses, it will erase the key.  The purpose of this feature is to protect the user's data from someone stealing the phone and decrypting the data by trying all possible numerical PINs.  If the PIN is four digits long, for instance, there are only 10,000 possible PINs, and without the erasure feature, a patient attacker could simply try them all, eventually retrieve the encryption key, and decrypt the data.  But because of this feature, a would-be attacker--or even the FBI--can't simply try all possible PINs, since after a few incorrect guesses, the chip will erase the encryption key.  (The encryption key itself has so many digits that guessing it by "brute force" is simply infeasible in any reasonable amount of time, even using high-powered computers to run through the guesses.)

However, the iPhone--like just about every well-designed software-based device on the planet--also has another important feature: to address the problem that all software has bugs (including bugs that result in security holes), all iPhone software can be updated.  If Apple sends a software update to an iPhone, the phone will check a "digital signature" on the update to make sure that it really is from Apple, and if so, will use it to update its own software.  Another way of saying this is that if Apple wants to alter the behavior of an iPhone in any way, it can do so, by sending it an update that changes its software accordingly.

You can probably see where this is going:  the FBI wants Apple to send an update to the San Bernardino terrorist's phone that disables the key erasure feature, so that the FBI can try every PIN and fairly quickly decrypt the phone's contents.  Apple doesn't want to do this, and is claiming that the FBI's demand is a threat to its users' security and privacy.

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Just about everybody under the sun, from technical security experts to pundits to other high-tech companies to politicians, has weighed in on the issue.  Unsurprisingly, politicians have mostly sided with the FBI in this specific case, refusing to go to the mat for the privacy rights of an Islamist radical who murdered 14 people and sought to murder many more.  Pundits have been more varied in their responses, generally coming down on Apple's side or the FBI's depending on the general strength of their libertarian passion for privacy or enthusiasm for terrorism-fighting.  But it's the responses of the security experts and the high-tech companies that are the most interesting, mostly because of their disingenousness.

Security experts such as Matt Blaze, Nicholas Weaver and Bruce Schneier, for example, argue that permitting the FBI to demand that Apple produce this update weakens everyone's security, because what the FBI can do, a sophisticated hacker might also be able to do.  But of course, the FBI isn't asking to do anything--it's asking Apple to do something that it is already quite capable of doing:  create and deliver an update that disables a security feature.  That is the nature of updates:  because Apple doesn't know in advance what security holes might exist, it retains the ability to change anything anywhere in the system, if necessary--and can therefore disable security instead of repairing it, if it so chooses.  The risk that somebody--whether Apple or someone else who has compromised Apple's update system--might use the update system to disable security features in one or more iPhones has thus already long existed--the only question is whether the FBI should be allowed to take advantage of it, and if so, under what circumstances.

Why, then, do these intelligent, knowledgeable security experts make such a specious argument?  It's possible that they are simply reflexively spouting the techno-libertarianism popular in their community.  More likely, though, it's because they see on which side their bread is buttered:  the more privacy and security are governed strictly by technical feasibility, the more it is their technical expertise that matters, whereas if government, law and politics are allowed to rule, then they and their expertise have clearly subordinate roles.

And make no mistake--once it is accepted that the disposition of the FBI's request has no security impact, it is law, government and politics, not technology, that must and should rule the day.  Blaze, Weaver and Schneier are clever folks, but they have no special insight into what particular set of legal or political safeguards best balance national security against personal privacy in cases such as these.  Their influence as commentators therefore depends on their ability to persuade people that the Apple-FBI dispute is a purely technological argument over how to optimize users' data security, rather than an inherently political and legal argument over tradeoffs between personal privacy and crime-fighting.

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What, then, of Apple itself, and its industry peers, all of whom have come out strongly on Apple's side against the FBI?  Are they not merely looking out for the interests of their customers, by defending them against the prying eyes of the US government?  Well, one might expect so--except that when other governments are intruding on their users' privacy, such stoutness in defense of customer interests is nowhere to be found.  For example, the Chinese government makes all sorts of far more privacy-destroying demands of American tech companies doing business there, and companies such as Apple routinely accede to those demands

Indeed, that's the real motive behind tech companies' opposition to the FBI in this case:  if they are known to be required to allow the FBI access to customers' devices--whatever the due process safeguards--then governments such as China's will be very reluctant to allow their citizens to be subject to such foreign snooping.  (After all, the procedural protections enjoyed by US residents against federal government snooping don't apply to foreigners.)  They thus have a clear financial incentive to prevent the FBI from gaining the access it seeks, so as to preserve their lucrative business in countries that don't trust the US government.

Now, I'm not arguing that it's inherently disingenuous to support Apple in its dispute with the FBI.  Nor am I arguing in support of unlimited, arbitrary FBI access to Apple users' iPhones.  Rather, I claim that balancing the privacy rights of users--particularly against potential abuse by government officials--and the business interests of major exporters, on the one hand, against the national goal of effectively fighting against crime and terrorism, on the other, is a fundamentally political problem. And however much they may wish otherwise, neither security experts nor interested corporations merit a particularly privileged say in that discussion.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

"Tempus fugit", as Virgil said--especially between annual ICBW predictions posts.  Here are this year's predictions--starting, as always, with a review of last year's...

  • The US economy will continue to be robust, leading towards a new recession in the 2016-2018 timeframe.  The fed will back off on its easing, keeping inflation in check, and interest rates will climb slightly in response.  Oil prices will bounce off their lows, but still remain well below their $100-ish average of the last few years.  The US market will rise modestly from its current already-frothy highs, setting the stage for a major correction post-2015, leading into the aforementioned next recession.  Real estate will also continue to climb moderately.


  • Not bad in general--the markets decided to go sideways rather than "rise modestly", but growth did maintain its fairly robust trend, the Fed finally bumped up interest rates a bit, and real estate prices did rise. Oil prices did bounce briefly in the spring, but then resumed their slide.

  • The EU will face another year of turmoil, with massive bailouts to Greece and possibly Spain looking necessary to save the Euro.  Eventually the currency will break up--as Herb Stein famously said, "if something cannot go on indefinitely, it will eventually stop"--but it probably has a couple of more years of stagnation, bailouts and general economic misery left in it before it finally gives up the ghost.


  • While the terrorism and refugee crises obviously distracted attention from the continuing EU bailout crisis, the Greek bailout went roughly as I predicted, with Greece accepting new austerity measures in return for a bailout extension.   

  • President Obama's recent modest approval ratings increase (near, though not above, 50 percent) will generally hold up through 2015 following the Republican takeover of the Senate, much as Bill Clinton's did once he became the sole bulwark against the GOP-dominated Congress in 1994.  This will enable him to continue implementing his executive amnesty for illegal immigrants, defend Obamacare against legislative attacks, and support local anti-police initiatives.  The effects of these policies will be as intended:  increased illegal immigration, rising crime, and erosion of affordable employer-provided health care.  Republicans in Congress will launch legislative measures to counteract all of these, as well as various tax reform and pro-business proposals, but they will all fail, some due to internal GOP squabbles and the rest after being vetoed by the president.


  • Pretty spot-on, I'd say...

  • By the end of the year, the frontrunners in the Democratic and Republican presidential candidate races will be Hillary Clinton and (out-of-the-box call, here) Wisconsin governor Scott Walker.


  • I think I can be forgiven for not predicting Trumpmania.  But it's also interesting that Walker turned out to be much less ready for the national stage than his political skill at the state level suggested.  It may be that state and federal politics are becoming more distinct than they were in the past. 

  • The Israeli elections will produce an inconclusive result followed by weeks of complex political wrangling, out of which Bibi Netanyahu will once again emerge as the prime minister.  He will lead a center-right coalition little different from the current one, although possibly including more ultra-Orthodox representation.  Israel's policies will therefore remain largely unchanged.  Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority will continue its current strategy of war-by-legal/diplomatic-means, while quietly continuing its security cooperation with Israel.  The EU will similarly make a grand show of supporting this international campaign, while quietly undermining it at exactly the moments when it threatens to cause concrete harm to Israel (as in the case of the recent UN Security Council vote).  Hamas and its Gaza-based partners will continue to launch terrorist attacks on Israel, with public encouragement from the PA, but those will gradually decline in frequency and effectiveness as Israel's counterterrorist forces--assisted by the PA's internal security agencies, happy to betray their Hamas rivals--get a better handle on combatting them.


  • Mostly correct, but I failed (as did the Israeli government, I gather) to predict the current campaign of low-level, low-tech terrorist attacks. 

  • The Islamic State will weaken considerably in the face of stiff resistance from the Kurds, the US, and internal elements tired of their incompetence, corruption and indiscriminate brutality (with emphasis on the "indiscriminate" part).  Its foreign supporters will respond by shifting their generosity towards new candidate Sunni radical forces in Syria and Iraq, who will be little better in their behavior but less enamored of the kind of grand international gestures that bring on Western countermeasures, and more willing to take on the Iranian proxy governments in Syria and Iraq directly.  The result will be continued slaughter in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.


  • The Islamic State lost ground in 2015, but has responded, bizarrely, by lashing out at its external adversaries--France, Saudi Arabia, and the US.

  • Nuclear talks between the US and Iran will continue to be extended without resolution, as Iran continues to refuse to denuclearize.  US sanctions will remain mostly in place--they were enacted by legislation, not by executive choice--but their effect will be eroded by increasing international disregard for them.  Fortunately, the global fall in oil prices will have roughly the same economic effect, limiting Iran's economic resources--although not enough to block its continued heavy involvement in its proxy wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, of course.


  • I certainly didn't expect that the Obama administration would ever be willing to cave as completely to the Iranians as they did in their 2015 pseudo-agreement (it has been neither signed by Iranian representatives nor ratified by Congress). 

  • Elsewhere, the decline in oil prices will weaken Vladimir Putin's Russia, forcing him to pare back his aggressive moves against European neighbors as he deals with his domestic economic crisis.  China, on the other hand, will get an economic shot in the arm from cheaper oil prices and more robust exports to the US.  


  • My biggest miss of the year.  Putin has reacted to the collapse of his nation's economy by acting even more boldly abroad--in Syria, for instance.  And in China, low oil prices appear to have been insufficient to compensate for decades of bubble-like economic growth reaching a breaking point.

  • The recent Sony-North Korea-"The Interview" incident will turn out to be the harbinger of a trend, with more hackers making "hacktivist"-style outrageous behavioral demands of their corporate victims, and more studios milking horrible films for quick pay-per-view profits by finding a way to link them to some major current-affairs controversy.


  • Once again, I'm years ahead of my time...

    And now for this year's predictions:
    • The US economy will stall this year, as trouble abroad (in China, Canada, and other oil-based economies) hurts exports and the Fed's tentative forays into non-zero interest rates burst various mild bubbles in the stock and other asset markets.  The stock market and real estate markets will fall, interest rates will remain very low, and the price of oil will not rebound significantly from its current lows.
    • Immigrant-related issues will continue to distract the continent from the greater threat of disintegration due to the incoherence of its monetary union.  Hence bailouts of bankrupt southern members will continue as a quid pro quo for cooperation in stemming the flow of Middle Eastern and African migrants.  Meanwhile, rightist, populist, nativist parties will continue to surge across the continent, jettisoning many of the domestic and foreign policies anchored into place by the previously-dominant bureaucracy/union/activist/corporatist coalition.  (Hostility to Israel will of course be one of the few policies to survive the purge.)  
    • Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton will narrowly win the presidential election over Republican nominee Marco Rubio, with the crucial Republican-vote-diverting assistance of third-party candidate Donald Trump.  However, the Republicans will maintain their Congressional majorities--just barely, in the case of the Senate.
    • The stalemate in Syria will continue mostly unchanged, tying down the main pro-Assad participants (Russia, Iran and Hezbollah) as well as the anti-Assad ones (Turkey, Saudi Arabia) while the US largely stays on the sidelines.  ISIS will continue to weaken under the pressure of its many enemies, and its big terrorist "successes" of 2015 will be repeated very sparsely if at all.  On the other hand, Israel will find itself increasingly drawn into the fray in support of the Sunni rebel side, as the Iran/Assad/Hezbollah axis intensifies its drive to establish a front along Israel's Golan Heights border with Syria. Finally, the Kurds will once again be in the region's crosshairs, as Iran, Turkey and ISIS all increase their pressure on them, each for its own reasons.  The Obama administration will sit that one out as well, leaving the Kurds in a precarious state.
    • The current "stabbing intifada", consisting mostly of random Palestinians spontaneously attacking random Israelis with knives, will evolve into a complex game in which the Palestinian Authority attempts to carefully calibrate the level of violence so as to keep Hamas and other radical groups occupied without provoking a major Israeli crackdown.  Ultimately this strategy will fail, and at some point Israel, responding to one or more high-casualty attacks, will launch a major "lawn-mowing" operation in the West Bank to round up terrorist organizations hiding out in PA-run areas.  World condemnation will follow, although European vituperation will be milder than usual, as a result of the new terrorist-hostile political environment there, as well as greater Israeli willingness to take active measures to counter European meddling.
    • Disney will announce that following the huge success of "Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens", Star Wars Episode 8 will be entitled, "The Force Has Breakfast".
    Readers are once again encouraged to add their own predictions in comments.  Just think--You Could Be Right!

    Saturday, December 26, 2015

    Despite his crazy, radical political positions and his uninhibited, don't-give-a-hoot-who-I-offend old-white-male persona, he's been pulling in surprisingly huge crowds during his primary campaign rallies, and polling far more strongly than anyone expected.  But given his likely hopeless weakness as a general election candidate, his party's establishment stalwarts have no intention of letting him win the nomination, and are busily maneuvering to try and stop him.  So what, ultimately, will they do about...Bernie Sanders?

    You would of course be forgiven for assuming that I was referring instead to Donald Trump, the Republicans' far more sensational and threatening version of the Sanders phenomenon.  But the parallels between the two men serve well to highlight the striking contrasts between the states of the two parties.

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    As I've been saying for decades, the modern "left"-"right" partisan split in American politics began during the 1960s, when the middle class split into two halves:  an affluent, college-educated white-collar "upper" half, and a less prosperous, less educated blue-collar "lower" half.  The upper half allied with the poor and minorities to form the "new left", while the lower half allied with the wealthy to form the reconstituted "conservative movement".  The battle between these two interlocking alliances dominated US politics for some thirty years, with sides lining up on partisan wedge issues in accordance with the coalition partner most invested in the issue.

    On social issues, for example, the "left" embraced a social libertarianism that was anathema to generally socially conservative poor and minority constituencies, but eagerly embraced by the educated upper-middle class, who reciprocated by endorsing welfare, racial preference policies and other spoils lavished on the poor and minorities.  Conversely, the "right" embraced a social and religious conservatism that sat poorly with wealthy conservatives, who were nonetheless placated by the alliance's endorsement of the low tax rates and business-friendly policies they were most interested in.

    The boom of the 1990s brought about a shift in these coalitions:  as I mentioned thirteen years ago, the poor essentially disappeared as a distinct class, as welfare reform and increased employment merged them into the lower end of the lower-middle class.  Meanwhile, the upper-middle class acquired enough investment capital to cause their interests and those of the wealthy to converge.  The result was a "left" that essentially represented, and reflected the interests of, the more affluent half of society, while the "right" reflected primarily the interests of society's lower half.

    However, the financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent weak economy have again rearranged the alliances somewhat, refocusing everyone's attention on bread-and-butter economic issues.  The groups hardest hit by this economic downturn--minorities and white-collar workers in fields such as law, journalism, academia and (non-federal) government, including education--have been particularly active in pushing to preserve their once-comfortably-secure positions, recreating a kind of revised version of the old post-60s poor/upper-middle-class "left" alliance.  This is the alliance that drove the election of Barack Obama as president, and has become, in effect, the Democratic party's "base". 

    Although its most conspicuous victories have been in the social policy realm--gay rights, for instance--it has used these social policy wedge issues primarily as a means to exert greater control over institutions and their vital resources.  Academia, media, entertainment, government--all have been effectively overpowered, and their money and resources commandeered, by the Obama alliance for the furtherance of its own collective interests.

    The old "right" alliance, on the other hand, has been far less successful at re-establishing itself.  Its two main components--wealthy entrepreneurs and investors, on the one hand, and the non-minority blue-collar lower-middle class, on the other--are no longer content to trade off blue-collar social policy for wealth-friendly economic policy, now that economics has become paramount to both constituencies.  Instead, they find their interests at cross-purposes, the business class seeking greater freedom from taxation and regulation, and the blue-collar class hoping for a more active government role in job creation. 

    The flash point of this conflict is the de facto "open borders" immigration policy which has been in effect for several decades now, due to persistent non-enforcement of immigration laws.  To the non-minority blue-collar lower-middle class, open immigration is both an economic threat (in the form of job competition) and a cultural one.  But it has also greatly benefited wealthy businesspeople, both as employers and consumers, by steeply reducing the price of unskilled labor.

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    Enter Donald Trump, a wealthy real estate mogul who has paradoxically won instant credibility as a representative of blue-collar Americans, first by promising to drastically curtail immigration, and second by embracing populist economic policies such as protectionism that focus on job creation rather than capital growth.  A more threatening figure to the old "right" alliance between the entrepreneurial and working classes could scarcely be imagined.  And his success bodes exceedingly ill for that alliance's short-to-medium-term health.

    Bernie Sanders, in contrast, is--despite his ostensibly extreme socialist economic views--very much within the mainstream of the Obama alliance.  There is no doubt that his brand of socialism would, in the extremely unlikely event of its implementation, end up being very friendly to the lawyers, academics, educators, journalists, government workers and minorities that make up the Obama coalition, since he fully embraces the policies of the Obama administration and the alliance it represents.  Indeed, he's consistently been rather reluctant to challenge his putative primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, on policy matters, since she's also promising something more or less like a third Obama term.  Far from threatening the Obama coalition, Sanders prefers to represent himself as the more trustworthy guardian of its principles, less likely to compromise them than a longtime inside operator like Clinton.

    In practice, neither Trump nor Sanders has a realistic hope of winning his party's presidential nomination, since neither is nearly sufficiently skilled or polished enough as a politician to expand his own base into a majority coalition without alienating large chunks of it.  However, while Sanders is actually salutary for his party, improving its general election prospects by allowing eventual nominee Clinton to pose as a bridge between the Democratic base and moderate independents, Trump represents a massive threat to the Republicans' November hopes.  Should he decide to launch a third-party campaign, for example, he would likely have absolutely no difficulty peeling off enough votes to doom the GOP's chances utterly.  (Indeed, the Democrats would be well-advised to bankroll that campaign themselves, should Trump balk at blowing his own cash on such a purely quixotic effort.)  And even if he bows out gracefully, he may already have caused enough internal alienation between business and blue-collar Republicans to seriously erode at least one faction's turnout for any eventual nominee in the general election.

    Of course, the GOP's problem isn't really Trump--it's the schism within its own ranks between its blue-collar and business wings.  One way or another, they will have to iron out their differences and agree on a compromise they can both support, or else resign themselves to permanent minority status at least until the next major shakeup of partisan alliances.

    Tuesday, November 17, 2015

    The issue of whether the US should take in Syrian refugees is easily one of the biggest and most annoying red herrings in the recent history of American politics.  The simple fact is that regardless of how many refugees the US takes in, it will be no more than a tiny fraction of the total number suffering in Syria.  The real issue, therefore, is what to do about the situation there, which has been generating horrific levels of carnage for four years now, killing hundreds of thousands, driving literally millions to flee their homes  and incidentally spawning a virulent new genocidal-terrorist quasi-state in the process.

    Unfortunately, nobody wants to discuss that very pertinent question, for multiple reasons:
    • It's an embarrassment to the Obama administration, which has miserably failed to address either the humanitarian or the national security aspects of the problem.
    • It's a deeply divisive issue for Republicans in Congress, who are split between hawkish interventionists and neo-quasi-isolationists on many foreign policy matters, including this one.
    • All sides of the civil war in Syria are too rabidly anti-US and anti-Western to win wholehearted American support on either moral or national security grounds.
    • Recent US adventures in the Middle East (in Iraq and Afghanistan) have ended badly enough to eliminate any taste among the public for a reprise. 
    The refugee issue, on the other hand, is wonderful fodder for partisan bickering, for several reasons:
    • It parallels the immigration issue, which both sides of the aisle in the US are constantly working for partisan advantage.
    • It naturally divides along class lines, with upper-class Americans generally supporting allowing refugees in, and lower-class ones opposing it.
    • It feeds existing partisan attack patterns, providing Democrats with an opportunity to accuse Republicans of being racist and Republicans with an opportunity to accuse Democrats of jeopardizing American security.
    So what would a reasonable US policy look like, absent partisan pie fights about red herrings?  Well, here's a proposal:
    • There are already millions of Syrian refugees living in squalid conditions in various neighboring countries in the region.  The US could help them much better by providing them with aid in their current locations, than by cherry-picking a few for transplantation to the US.  (Perhaps the government could re-purpose some of the money currently allocated for Palestinian "refugees" whose families have lived in their current location for multiple generations now.)
    • The bulk of the killing in Syria over the last four years has been done by the Assad regime and its supporters, Iran and Russia.  Given that these are three of the most implacably and aggressively anti-US governments on the planet, military support for their dedicated enemies--including some perhaps-not-so-savory ones--should be a no-brainer, especially since they've been holding their own remarkably well to date, and may need only a bit more assistance to put the regime and its allies to flight.
    • If it turns out that ISIS was in fact responsible for the Paris attacks, then the US should join with its French ally in destroying the ISIS quasi-state.  The US can then atone for its errors in Iraq and Afghanistan by deliberately not staying around to try to construct a stable, friendly regime in its place.  Realistically, the best that can be hoped for there is a replacement that's too frightened or preoccupied to engage in anti-Western terrorism--and little can be done to improve the odds of that outcome, beyond consistently destroying any emerging quasi-states that fail to live up to it.

    Wednesday, May 20, 2015

    Should ABC News punish newscaster George Stephanopoulos for failing to disclose his deep links to the Clinton Foundation while reporting on its alleged links to political corruption?  I can think of two defensible answers to this question:
    • ABC News is a respectable, non-partisan news organization with a commitment to objectivity and fairness.  By hiding his clear bias on a subject he was himself reporting on, Stephanopoulos has tarnished his own reputation for professional integrity and that of his employer.  If he's not severely punished, then the very journalistic credibility of ABC News is in jeopardy.
    • ABC News is a typical center-left, Democratic-leaning news outlet, just as Fox News is a center-right, Republican-leaning news outlet.  (Any audience member can easily deduce this from the prominence of George Stephanopoulos--a longtime Clinton administration staffer--among its journalists, just as they can deduce Fox's tendencies from the presence of Roger Ailes, a longtime Republican political operative, among its executives.)  ABC News executives are thus quite justified in firing Stephanopoulos for not disclosing his political activities to them--and equally justified in reacting to the whole affair with a shrug, if they so choose. After all, they wouldn't be betraying the organization's center-left identity by doing so, and if their audience didn't appreciate the kind of journalism produced by dedicated pro-Clinton partisans like Stephanopoulos, they would have long ago switched to another channel anyway.
    Now, I happen to lean towards the second answer, but I can easily understand someone preferring the first one.  Strangely, though, most commentators give neither answer.  Instead, (mostly right-leaning) people argue that (1) ABC News is a typical center-left, Democratic-leaning news outlet, and therefore (2) it should punish Stephanopoulos to protect its reputation, while others (mostly left-leaning) argue that (1) ABC News is a solidly professional, non-partisan organization, and therefore (2) it is uncertain whether Stephanopoulos' "mistake", which has "baffled" colleagues, is sufficient cause to punish him.

    Why are so many commentators giving such incoherent, self-contradictory analyses?  My best guess is that the overwhelming majority are basing their assessment of the Stephanopoulos flap not on their principled views of journalistic ethics, but rather on their own personal partisan biases.  Needless to say, this conclusion only strengthens my conviction that my second answer above is the more reasonable and realistic one. 

    Saturday, May 16, 2015

    The twin controversies surrounding the PEN writers' organization's award to Charlie Hebdo magazine, and the attack on a Mohammed-drawing cartoon contest in Texas, have together generated some spectacularly confused commentary.  In particular, commentators on all sides of the resulting debates seem to be under the impression that the key issue is the tension between the individual's right to freedom of speech and the damaging effects of "hate speech" on society as a whole. 

    That would indeed be the case if, say, either incident had involved a law criminalizing "hate speech", by some definition of the term.  But no such law was applied in either case, and in the US, such a law (despite its substantial political appeal) would in fact stand no chance of passing Constitutional muster.  Rather, the Texas contest participants and Charlie Hebdo staff, far from being arrested or indicted, were attacked by armed terrorists.  This is a very different matter, and one that commentators should find much easier to navigate.  For when terrorists attack civilian targets, any alleged moral imperfections of the victims fade into irrelevancy compared to the danger posed by terrorism itself.

    This is easy to see in cases where one's sympathies already align with the victims and against the terrorists.  For example, when Ward Churchill dared to suggest that the victims of the World Trade Center attack were in some way culpable for their own slaughter, Americans responded fairly uniformly with disgust and outrage.  But historically, defenses of terrorism by sympathizers with their cause have actually been disturbingly common.  The most notorious domestic American example, of course, is the Ku Klux Klan's terrorist rule over the South, which was enthusiastically embraced by millions of supporters of Jim Crow.  More recently, though, terrorist groups such as the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground have been lionized by political sympathizers despite their bloody histories. And international terrorist organizations such as the PLO and the IRA established large followings in America and elsewhere among supporters of their respective political causes.

    It is perhaps with this context in mind that defenders of Charlie Hebdo and the Texas contest organizers have fallen back on the weakest, most timid defense of all:  "free speech".  One might expect them to articulate a more straightforward assertion of outraged innocent victimhood, given that the terrorists in these cases intended to murder their targets in cold blood, not just fine them for violating a "hate speech" ordinance.  Yet the shocking willingness of prominent sympathizers with the terrorists' cause to blame their victims appears to have scared them off explicitly claiming the moral high ground even from brutal murderers, in favor of adopting what amounts to a legalistic procedural justification for not being butchered by violent fanatics.

    Much has been written--most of it devastatingly accurate--about the hypocrisy of commentators who enthusiastically defend offensively anti-Christian art while condemning its more mildly anti-Islamic equivalent.  But such partisan double standards are hardly uncommon in today's hyperpartisan political environment--the hypocrites are simply aligning their religious defenses with their partisan loyalties, with fundamentalist Muslims and fundamentalist Christians generally being on opposite sides of the domestic "left-right" political dividing line.  Justifying terrorism, on the other hand, isn't mere partisan hypocrisy. Unqualified condemnation of terrorist violence from all sides should be automatic in a peaceful democratic society, and those who add caveats and qualifiers are playing a far more dangerous game, one that should be as roundly and uniformly condemned as terrorism itself.