Saturday, December 29, 2007

Time for ICBW's annual predictions...First, a review of last year's...
  • Any "surge" by US troops in Iraq, if it occurs at all, will be perfunctory and ineffectual. Likewise, any diplomatic initiative aimed at Iran or Syria will be half-hearted and come to nothing. Instead, Bush will rely on congressional pressure to force his hand, allowing him to reduce the American troop presence in Iraq while protesting that the mission would have succeeded if not for the meddling of lily-livered Democrats. More generally, the administration's popularity will improve now that it has a Democratic congress as its foil, although Iraq, and foreign policy generally, will not be the main arena of confrontation (see below).

My clunker of the year--it would have been hard to have been more wrong on every count, I guess. Who knew that the US military, having bungled Iraq for several years, could suddenly conceive and implement an effective counterinsurgency strategy there?

  • The conflict between Hezbollah and Israel will not flare up again this year, as Hezbollah will be preoccupied with consolidating and increasing its power in Lebanon. Meanwhile, Israel will be preoccupied with the continuing chaos in Gaza, which will spill over into the West Bank as well. The low-level civil war between Fatah and Hamas will continue, with numerous outside interests lining up on one side or the other. Rocket launchings and other attacks from Gaza into Israel will continue, and Israel's response will be sporadically violent, and sufficient to reduce but not eliminate them.

This one was just about spot-on, although arguably pretty easy to nail. The only possible criticisms are that the West Bank is still relatively calm, and that I didn't actually predict Hamas' takeover of Gaza. Both are, I think, minor quibbles.

  • Attention in the US will turn away from foreign policy and towards the economy, as (1) the economy slows and (2) economic policy becomes the focus of the Democratic congressional agenda--and of conflicts between Congress and the administration. Trade, taxes, fiscal policy, entitlements and regulation of business will be key flashpoints, against a backdrop of slower growth, a weakening dollar, a continuing real estate slump, and a retrenching stock market. Oil prices will drop slightly, though, and interest rates will decline slightly--although not enough to juice the economy, owing to lingering inflation worries.

Pretty good, I think, although Congressional Democrats haven't exactly grabbed the economic non-bull by the horns. Also, the stock markets are actually up modestly on the year, thanks to big gains early on, and of course oil prices have skyrocketed instead of falling. It's easy to forget, though, just how little attention the economy was receiving a year ago, and how optimistic most forecasts were back then.

  • In addition to the usual suspects all making it through the year (barring accident or illness), Ehud Olmert will surprise many by remaining in power as prime minister of Israel. (Navigating Israel's byzantine political ecosystem is the one thing he's serious about and competent at.)

My big winner for the year--few prognosticators would have given a plug nickel for Olmert's survival chances back when I called this one.

  • Neither of the two current frontrunners for the Democratic party presidential nomination (Clinton and Obama) will be considered a frontrunner by the end of the year. On the other hand, at least one of the two current frontrunners for the Republican nomination (Giuliani and McCain) will be considered a frontrunner at the end of the year.

Badly off-base both in substance (with respect to the Democrats) and in spirit (with respect to the overall tone of both primary races). This cycle, the parties appear to have adopted each other's traditional roles, with the Democrats rather stodgily anointing a consensus heir-apparent and the Republicans flailing around looking for a candidate with sufficient national stature.

  • (This one contributed by someone I know) A scandal will tarnish the sterling, upscale image of Whole Foods.

As promised...

Now for this year's predictions...

  • Hillary Clinton will be elected president in November, by a solid margin, in an election with relatively light turnout by recent standards. The Democrats will retain control of both houses of Congress.

  • The US counterinsurgency effort in Iraq will suffer significant setbacks in Iraq this year, but the political reconciliation process there will in fact make progress. Iran's nuclear program will last another year without either a military strike or a successful nuclear test. The Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan will grind on without resolution, aided by safe havens in Pakistan, where Pervez Musharraf will continue to rule, in one guise or another, replicating his neighbor's stalemate with its Islamists.

  • Ehud Olmert will survive another year in office. The Winograd report will criticize him harshly for being too recklessly aggressive during the Lebanon war, thus providing him with cover against his more hawkish main rivals. He will also authorize at least one fairly large-scale incursion into the Gaza Strip, which will achieve little but will further shield him against charges of dovish, indecisive softness. Meanwhile, Hezbollah's position as the largest single power in Lebanon will be consolidated and officially enshrined in the country's political power structure.

  • The US economy will narrowly avoid recession this year, but will experience very sluggish growth. Inflation will stubbornly refuse to fall, preventing the Fed from easing enough to really boost the economy. The stock market will have a down year, and oil prices will fall modestly. The housing market will not recover, but the US dollar will, somewhat, from its recent plunge.

  • "Product placement"--advertising embedded into content such as music, films and television shows--will become more widespread and conspicuous, to the point where it becomes a subject of pop-culture irony.

As always, my predictions are not for everyone. Consult your doctor if you experience sensations of plausibility while reading them.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Congratulate yourselves, readers--according to this site, you must all be geniuses (or, rather, genii). And I now have the perfect excuse for there being so few of you.

Of course, I could put in a lot of extra time (if I had any) and effort into making my blog more readable. But given that most of my postings contain roughly a book chapter's worth of ideas, it's not clear that that strategy would actually gain me readers. And in the end, I suppose I'd rather be brilliantly right than widely-read.

Then again, since you're all such scintillating intellects yourselves, perhaps I can benefit from your collective wisdom. Here's the challenge: take one of my postings (I'm assuming that mine, not LTEC's, are the problem), and explain how it could be rewritten so as to be much more accessible, without altering its content. The winner (in the unlikely event that there are multiple entries) will be posted as a kind of blog "'after' picture".

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The other day, I found myself driving behind a large white pickup truck bearing two bumper stickers. One bore the slogan, "Powered by Biodiesel--No Wars Necessary", and the other advertised a local "progressive talk" AM radio station.

My immediate thought was, "there goes a real greenneck..."

Saturday, September 29, 2007

I've written at length many times before about how many supposed foreign affairs "experts" exhibit complete historical ignorance and astonishingly poor understanding of basic international relations. Dan Senor's analysis of the Iranian threat in the Wall Street Journal is a case in point.

"Iran is not the Soviet Union," he writes, "and the post-9/11 struggle is not the Cold War. The deterrence camp is willing to stand by as Iran develops nuclear weapons, presumably on the model that Iran will eventually collapse as the Soviet Union did. But the Argentinean case [Iran's terrorist bombings of Jewish and Israeli targets in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994] demonstrates what Tehran was willing and able to do when it had no nuclear umbrella."

Senor seems to be under the impression that the Soviet Union never sponsored terrorism against its Western adversaries, the way Iran has. In fact, the Soviets provided ample support, in the form of arms, training and sanctuary, to various international terrorist groups during the 1970s and 1980s. It was also, lest we forget, willing to supply nuclear weapons (under its own control, we assume) to its ally Cuba. In its ruthless ambition for world domination, Communist ideology was second to none--including Islamism.

The lessons of the Cold War, properly understood, actually apply very well to the Iranian situation. The Cold War demonstrated that nuclear deterrence works--in the absence of proliferation. The Cuban missile crisis and centralization-obsessed Soviet dogma ensured that Soviet-made nuclear weapons would not be used except on the orders of the Soviet Politburo--and the American nuclear deterrent ensured that the Soviet Politburo could never afford such a risk. The Iranian government is almost certain to be similarly deterred from launching a direct nuclear attack, should it acquire the means to do so. Whether it will be as careful as the Soviet Union about husbanding its nuclear capacity is a more difficult and worrisome question.

But as the Cold War also taught us, nuclear and non-nuclear conflict are eminently separable. Nuclear deterrents, whether American, Soviet, Israeli or Iranian, are effective primarily against existential threats, of the kind that nobody is likely to mount against Iran in any event. But they do not prevent an adversary such as the Soviet Union or Iran from engaging in all manner of attritive combat, from proxy wars to terrorism, and even direct limited-theater military attack.

What the Cold War taught us about such conflicts is that they can and should be answered in kind. During the late 1970s, when the US was in full retreat, Soviet proxies, including aggressive allied nations, insurgent groups and terrorist organizations, attacked the Western world and its allies virtually unopposed. The Reagan doctrine--that Communist victories can be not only resisted, but actually reversed--changed all that, forcing the Soviets to expend their resources on defense as well as offense (in Nicaragua, Afghanistan, and many other places), and thus reversing all the political momentum the Soviets had built up following Vietnam. Whether or not it was the primary reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union, as I've speculated, it was most likely an expediting factor.

The Iranian nuclear program can plausibly be compared with the Cuban missile crisis, in that an American enemy threatens to cross an important nuclear proliferation threshold. But the Cold War didn't end with the Cuban missile crisis, nor will the conflict between the US and Iranian-led radical Islamism end with the final success or failure of Iran's nuclear ambitions. If the Cold War is any guide, the outcome of that conflict will likely depend more on what the US does to confront and counter Islamists' global exercise of power, than on how it manages the nuclear stalemate that will ultimately exist regardless of whether Iran manages to build atomic bombs. America's lethargic response so far to aggressive Iranian operations in Iraq suggests that the current administration has yet to learn this lesson.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Should the US attack Iran? If so, how, where, and on what scale? Obviously, I have no idea, since I'm not privy to the kind of information that would allow someone to assess the likely outcomes of different types of attack with any accuracy. Those with the requisite intelligence data are presumably working through various scenarios as we speak, figuring out the worst-case, best-case and most probable outcomes, and trying to decide if they're worthwhile.

But there's one consideration that I fervently hope they aren't taking into account: the effect of such an attack on Iranian public support for the current government. Mark Kleiman, for example, points indirectly to a report that Iranian president Ahmadinejad is believed to be gearing up for a military confrontation with the US, hoping thereby to reverse the damage he's done to his own popularity by destroying the economy and generally behaving buffoonishly. Kleiman concludes that if such a military confrontation is in Ahmadinejad's interest, then it must clearly also be against American interests.

But that doesn't follow at all. It's true that if Ahmadinejad's successor were likely to be more pro-American, then there might be some justification for avoiding actions that could shore up his support. But under the Iranian system, in which candidates for president must be approved by "Supreme Leader" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei--the guy who approved Ahmadinejad's candidacy in the first place, lest we forget--the next president is highly unlikely to be significantly less anti-American than Ahmadinejad. He is, however, quite likely to be more competent. Hence, shoring up Ahmadinejad's popularity might well be a positive side effect of US military action against Iran.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Most partisan political debates are at least somewhat dishonest, with both sides concealing somewhat unsavory motives behind grand, idealistic rhetoric. The current immigration debate, however, may be setting new standards for bipartisan hypocrisy.

Supporters of the bill--primarily Democrats--claim to be saving millions of poor, oppressed illegal immigrants by granting them legal status (so-called "amnesty"). Of course, amnesty will do nothing of the sort: if the newly-legalized immigrants take advantage of their new status to escape their ill-paid, backbreaking labor, then employers will simply shun them in favor of fresh illegal arrivals, creating not one, but two underclasses--unemployed legal immigrants and their illegal replacements.

That's supposedly why Republicans want any amnesty tied to vigorous "enforcement"--meaning sealing of the US-Mexican border. The premise, presumably, is that once the amnesty is declared, the millions of new illegal immigrants who will rush to take their place must be stopped at the border. In practice, though, border interdiction can at best slow, not halt, the flow of illegal immigrants. (Think of how effective it is at interdicting drug trafficking, for instance.) Eventually, the supply of illegals will have been fully replenished, and "enforcement" will have come to naught.

There is, mind you, a highly effective way of massively reducing the number of illegal immigrants, with or without amnesty. It's no mystery--it's known as "employer sanctions", and it was supposed to be a part of the 1986 amnesty, but was never seriously implemented. The principle is simple: illegal immigrants come to the US because even the awful under-the-table jobs available to illegals are better than their prospects back home. However, if employers are harshly penalized for employing illegal immigrants, then the illegals will no longer be in demand, and therefore no longer have an incentive to come--or even to stay, if they've already arrived by now.

Employer sanctions would require a fair bit of work, of course--establishing a database of citizens, an effective identification system, and an inspection system to catch scofflaw employers. But given that these things have been built for cars and guns, it shouldn't be impossible to do the same for people. And the system needn't be perfect, because employers--unlike, say, gun owners--tend to be affluent and respected enough to want to avoid the risks associated with breaking the law.

One could raise some legitimate, though minor, concerns about this regime, such as whether the database jeopardizes personal privacy, or whether legal job applicants of the wrong ethnicities would come under undue suspicion of being illegals masquerading as legal. Employer sanctions also face opposition from politicians who see partisan benefit in the perpetuation of the illegal immigration problem: Democrats who see the illegals as potential Democratic-voting future citizens, and Republicans who see their employers as potential Republican-donating business tycoons.

But the real reason why serious employer sanctions aren't part of the current immigration bill--and barely figure in the debate at all--is that the perpetuation of the illegal immigration problem benefits many more Americans than just the aforementioned political operatives. In fact, virtually every American pays lower prices for goods and services provided by a host of industries whose millions of illegal workers would have to be replaced by legal workers--at a much higher cost--if employer sanctions were put into place. Indeed, nobody knows where those legal workers might come from, how much they'd cost, or whether customers would be willing to pay the bill. In other words, the exploitation of millions of Mexican workers with no alternative is a massive and crucial portion of the American consumer economy, one that few Americans want to give up.

Of course even fewer Americans want to admit that they depend on the illegal worker system for their low-priced goods and (especially) services. They'd rather engage in pointless arguments about amnesty and border control instead.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

It's a year before the presidential election. The president, a backslapping Texan doggedly pursuing a costly and unpopular war, will not be running again. His party's activist base is rumbling with dissatisfaction at the collection of establishment centrists who are contending to replace him, and itching for a more ideologically pure candidate to enter the fray. The opposing party, meanwhile, is haunted by its own candidate from the presidential election seven years before, a sitting vice-president who lost in a controversial photo finish. He has since rejuvenated his tarnished reputation by reinventing himself completely and winning over his party's angry grassroots. And so we must ask the year's burning political question: is Nixon the one?

No, I don't predict a repeat of 1968, with Al Gore storming to victory, only to resign in disgrace six years later. Nor, however, do I consider the parallels merely superficial. Like the Democrats in '68, the Republican party of 2008 has created enough of a moderate, responsible establishment to alienate its purist ideologues, the latter egged on by a full range of newly-mature, ideologically conservative institutions: think tanks such as AEI, Heritage, Cato, Hudson, Hoover and Manhattan, as well as media outlets such as Fox, and even a large portion of the Supreme Court. The party is thus ripe for the kind of radical takeover that eventually decimated the New Deal Democratic coalition and opened the door for the conservative resurgence of the 1980s.

Meanwhile, today's Democrats are in a position similar to that of the 1968 Republicans: their establishment core is moribund, focused on declining institutions and long-outdated ideology. Its young guard is blessed with (environmentalist) religious fervor and unburdened by the old (race-and-class) political orthodoxies, but has yet to form a coherent coalition based on what it's for, not just what it's angrily against.

History doesn't always repeat itself, of course. The Republicans could avoid a radical takeover, or the Gore and "netroots" Democratic factions could fail to coalesce into a coherent reformist movement. (Or both.) But I would be surprised if the institutional right wing of the conservative movement didn't at least try to flex its muscles over perhaps the next decade or so, seeking to consolidate and even extend the right's recent political gains. And to the extent that it succeeds, it will certainly provide a useful focus for a re-invigorated left, as it evolves from a ragtag coterie of angry outsiders into the next mass political movement.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Michael O'Hare's May Day tribute to several generations of American Communists--including, he makes clear, thousands of loyal Stalinists--is a fascinating study in partisanship. "They were misled by their leadership more than once", he writes, "and there's a lot they didn't understand about how societies and people really work, but they were brave and their hearts were in the right place."

The usual partisan retort to such an encomium is to declare it equivalent to--that is, as unthinkably obscene as--a celebration of, say, American Nazis. But as a committed non-partisan, I find it much more interesting to compare it with an equally unthinkable (for Prof. O'Hare), but rather less obscene, hypothetical: a tribute to supporters of the current American president.

It seems obvious, accustomed as we are to partisanship, that O'Hare would never dream of including contemporary Republicans in such a misty-eyed paean. But in fact he almost certainly has more in common with them, politically speaking, than with at least the most extreme of those he actually chose to celebrate. And this relative affinity goes well beyond the paramount fact that both he (I assume) and today's Bush Republicans prefer democratic politics over, say, a totalitarian revolutionary vanguard's violent seizure of absolute dictatorial power. Indeed, "on the issues", as they say, today's compassionate conservative probably occupies the mushy middle ground between O'Hare and his beloved Marxist predecessors. Let's consider a list:
  • The environment: Pure bourgeois frivolity. The industrialization of the Soviet Union--achieved at a horrific environmental cost--was uniformly celebrated by Communists of pretty much every stripe. In those days, conservationism was the preserve (so to speak) of wealthy brahmins with plenty of free time for birdwatching and the like, and little concern for maximizing industrial production.
  • Immigration: Surely I don't have to review Communist doctrine regarding control of movement of people across borders. The mere idea of allowing wealthy American capitalists to import millions of foreign laborers to underbid local workers would have given any self-respecting Red apoplexy.
  • Welfare: In the Soviet Union, those who refused to work were declared "parasites" and prosecuted.
  • Civil liberties: 'Nuff said.
  • Iraq: This is the only (slightly) tricky one--certainly, 20th-century leftists were generally in favor of deposing fascist dictators by military force, but on occasion (say, when the Soviet Union had entered into a non-aggression pact with one), the most orthodox among them were inclined to waver. Still, it's safe to say that absent a direct Soviet interest, invading a country to replace a fascist dictatorship in which Communists had no hope of seizing power with a democracy in which they were free to organize would have met with the approval of most Communists.

Given this list of sharp disagreements, what could O'Hare possibly have meant when he declared that those old Stalinists "had their hearts in the right place"? He gives a hint in his comparison of his historical heroes to his current enemies:

As the United States slides further and further toward the kind of outrageously unjust income distribution my parents and grandparents fought against, and every day's news has another injustice by the strong against the weak, what's worth remembering is the generations of people who paid some real dues trying to make a better world.

Is this really the root of O'Hare's identification? Shared preference for a more progressive tax policy? Delusion that a self-professed "revolutionary vanguard" seeking absolute power really only wanted to defend "the weak"? Well, sort of. In practice, these shared symbolic ideals are a kind of coded signal, indicating to others that their holders' hearts, as O'Hare would say, are in the right place--that is, that they're "the right sort of people". In this particular case, "the right sort of people" are relatively educated folks of plebeian origin who think of themselves as clear-thinking, truth-seeing intellectuals, and embrace the values such people could be expected to embrace: erudition, rationality, articulateness, intellectual discipline. In their utopia, what counts are these qualities, not wealth or social class or talent or hard work--traits that could elevate people other than themselves to positions of wealth and power (over them).

Other forms of political partisanship are, at heart, similarly constructed out of tribal fraternities of the like-spirited. The nerdy libertarian pines for a world where impersonal markets govern everything, and physical strength and social skills are powerless against (his own self-attributed) raw talent and brilliance. The working-class heartland conservative imagines a country where "values" and "tradition" (that is to say, his values and tradition, since they are, he believes, the dominant version) shape policy more than wealth, social status or education. The self-identified minority group member dreams of a world where his minority is privileged and superior where possible, and otherwise no less favored than the majority. The ambitious, hard-working ladder-climber envisions a world where hard work and ambition are all it takes to get ahead, and lazy bums, busybodies, do-gooders and pointy-heads (that is, people unlike him) can't interfere. And so on.

As I've pointed out before, ideology has always been, for the most part, a cover for the alliance of constituencies with common interests. That today's middle-class intellectuals would imagine themselves in solidarity with a previous generation of middle-class intellectuals--despite disagreeing with them on virtually every concrete particular of public policy--shouldn't surprise anyone. After all, that's what partisanship is all about.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

I remarked some time ago that those who are ardently committed to one side in a political conflict rarely simply change their minds when faced with the moral or empirical unsupportability of their position, but rather tend to become more and more vehement in their partisanship, until they reach a "breaking point" at which they can no longer tolerate their own stance. The classic example, of course, is the process by which many devoted Soviet Communists eventually broke with their ideology--often swallowing numerous hard-to-reconcile outrages (the show trials, the Nazi-Soviet pact, the Hungarian and Czech invasions) before their cumulative effect, or perhaps a final straw, caused them to recognize their error. I suggested at the time that the continued eliminationist radicalism of Palestinian terrorist movements in the face of Israeli concessions during the Oslo peace process was having a similar polarizing effect, causing many to abandon their pro-Palestinian leanings, while others maintained their continued allegiance by redoubling their hatred for Israel.

Since then, as the fanaticism and barbarity at the core of the various Palestinian factions (and their anti-Israel allies such as Hezbollah and its sponsor, Iran) have become even more conspicuous in the West, the Palestinians' Western base of support has been both eroded and radicalized, to the point where it now openly and frankly echoes Palestinian/Hezbollah/Iranian calls for the complete elimination of the state of Israel. Increasingly, though, the latter have incorporated blatant expressions of crude anti-Semitism, in the form of Holocaust denial, invocations of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and ugly ethnic slurs. How, then, will Western eliminationists reconcile themselves with this unsightly aspect of their allies' public image?

Why, the same way as they reconcile themselves to Palestinian terrorism, of course: by excusing it as a natural reaction to "Israeli oppression". I first sighted this tactic recently among the comments to this Crooked Timber posting. Note that not one peep of protest is uttered when one commenter offers, and another echoes, the "Israel made him do it" justification for Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's anti-Semitic tirades.

The readership of Crooked Timber itself appears to have radicalized somewhat in the three-and-a-half years since I noted their unwillingness to condone Palestinian terrorism. (Compare, for example, this more recent discussion, in which the defenders of Palestinian terrorism are much more forthright and aggressive, and its critics much more timid and equivocal, than in the previous case.) It may therefore no longer be representative of current liberal thinking on the Arab-Israeli conflict. However, it does provide a useful window into the current thinking of the remaining rump of diehard leftist enemies of Israel, among whom I predict that the defense of virulent Middle Eastern anti-Semitism as an understandable reaction to Israeli depredations will before long be a routine rationalization.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

The wide availability of video editing software has spawned a number of new art forms, one of which is the imaginatively reinvented movie trailer (the "recut"). Three of my favorites are for Jaws, When Harry Met Sally, and Taxi Driver.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A startling new research result is rocking the worlds of sociology and psychology. Apparently, when provided with certain artificial stimuli, under controlled conditions, a group of experimental subjects were found to be capable of reliably inducing in themselves an intense, satisfying sexual experience--one that they described afterwards as among the most powerful of their entire lives. These experiences had no apparent ill effects, and may even have improved the subjects' overall well-being, as later reported by themselves and others. Some researchers are speculating that the results of this experiment may radically alter our view of sex--possibly ending sex as we know it.

Not exactly astounded by the news that people can enjoy getting themselves off? Well, I lied a bit--the experiment, as reported by Mark Kleiman (full paper here), actually deals with the artificial induction of religious experiences, using the hallucinogen psilocybin (the active ingredient in so-called "magic mushrooms"). Either way, though, a breathless, apocalyptic tone is quite unnecessary.

Artificially generating intense feelings outside the context which naturally produces them can certainly be useful at times--imagine being able to feel comfortably satiated without actually having to eat a large meal. But religious feelings, like sexual ones (or appetitive ones, for that matter), perform an important role within their normal context--a role that doesn't disappear just because the same feelings are also available on demand. Most people, for example, still need intimacy, trust and partnership in life, and continue to reinforce those things using intense sexual feelings even in this era of technologically advanced sex toys. Likewise, many people need a moral, metaphysical and communal framework into which they can fit their lives, and from which they can draw inspiration and comfort. They will no doubt continue to seek that inspiration and comfort from religion even when artificial varieties of mystical experience are readily available. Magic mushrooms may be good for an occasional religious thrill, after all, but that doesn't mean the age-old story of boy-meets-God is going to go out of fashion anytime soon.