Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The socioeconomic context of the "Occupy Wall Street" protests and its imitators has been most astutely analyzed by Volokh Conspirator Kenneth Anderson and blogger Megan McArdle. Riffing on columns by Anne Applebaum on the bifurcation of the American middle class and Ross Douthat on privilege protection by liberal interest groups, Anderson and McArdle identify the OWS movement as a cry of despair from the newly downwardly-mobile lower tier of the upper-middle class.

Applebaum's observations on the divided middle class are nothing new--I noted the phenomenon some twenty years ago, and it was one of my early blog topics. During the 1960s, America's white-collar middle class, having grown explosively and prospered spectacularly during the entire postwar boom, began to assert itself as a separate class, with economic, social and cultural interests that diverged sharply from those of the blue-collar lower-middle class. Much of the political and cultural turmoil of that decade and subsequent ones--the takeover of the Democratic Party by the (upper-middle class) New Left, with its emphasis on (white-collar-run) services for the poor, rather than the (blue-collar-run) union movement; the sexual and feminist revolutions, driven primarily by the more libertine mores of the upper-middle class; and of course the rise of the coalition uniting the blue-collar lower-middle class with the wealthy to form the modern conservative movement, as embodied by the Republican Party--can be traced to this historic schism within the American middle class.

The schism has also evolved over the decades since the 1960s. Most notably, the boom of the 1990s sharply reduced the political significance of serving the poor, as large numbers of them became gainfully employed, effectively joining the lower-middle class. At the same time, the wealth accumulated by the upper-middle class during that boom caused their interests to shift closer to those of the wealthy. By the crash of the late 2000s, in fact, the left-right partisan divide had come to resemble a straightforward split between the white-collar upper-middle class and their wealthy allies, on the one hand, and the blue-collar lower-middle class on the other.

The effects of that crash are the subject of Anderson's and McArdle's observations. As they point out, the upper-middle class is itself now splitting, with its more tenuously affiliated members--"the helping professions, the culture industry, the virtueocracies, the industries of therapeutic social control", as Anderson puts it--rapidly losing socioeconomic ground. (To that list of losers can also be added the legal profession, which now finds itself in the midst of a terrible glut, and journalism, which is being demolished by the Internet revolution.) Hard times, government budget cuts, and student loan debts imposed by skyrocketing college tuition rates, have conspired to markedly dim the once-bright futures of college graduates with ordinary liberal arts degrees and no other marketable skills--that is, a large portion of the less fortunate scions of the upper-middle class.

The "Occupy Wall Street" movement--and the protests in Israel which preceded it, I might add--appear to be this cohort's cri de coeur, as they demand what everyone would have assumed to be their natural birthright a decade ago: a comfortable, satisfying white-collar job, with all its accompanying economic security and social status. Although their official demands are incoherent--a hodgepodge of vaguely radical leftist and populist proposals to be funded by taxes extracted from "corporations" and "the rich"--their overall theme is society's obligation to pour billions of dollars into addressing the concerns of (and, implicitly, valuing--and appropriately remunerating--the contributions of) young, privileged-but-unambitious left-wing liberal arts graduates. Student loan forgiveness, money for environmentalist projects, anti-corporate regulatory regimes (presumably staffed by activist investigators)--these are hardly the stuff of revolution, but they certainly resonate among the protestors' demographic.

What, then, of the ostensible focus of the protests--wealth and income inequality, as symbolized by the supposed depradations of the "1 percent" at the top? Ironically, the protests themselves are proof that the problem is resolving itself as we speak. As Applebaum notes, "[d]espite all the loud talk of the “1 per cent” of Americans...the existence of a very small group of very rich people has never bothered Americans. But the fact that some 20 per cent of Americans now receive some 53 per cent of the income is devastating." In other words, it's not the richest 1 percent, but rather the bifurcation of the American middle class itself, that has generated the most class friction and resentment in American society. And by slipping down and out of that coveted upper tier into a kind of hopeless socioeconomic limbo, the OWS protesters and their supporters are doing more to bridge the gap between the middle class' estranged upper and lower halves than any of their radical proposals could ever hope to accomplish. Eventually, once the howls of entitled indignance have trailed off, we may well see a resurgence of "middle-middle-class" solidarity, uniting middle-income white-collar and blue-collar workers to protect their common interests.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Numerous American journalists seem to be having great difficulty believing the US government's claim that the Iranian government attempted to get Mexican drug cartel members to assassinate the Israeli and Saudi ambassadors in Washington DC. Their argument? That the Iranians would never be so stupid and sloppy as to risk being exposed this way as direct, flagrant perpetrators of a terrorist attack on US soil.

Let's put aside for a moment the bizarre notion that the same regime whose first major international action was seizing the US embassy in Teheran and holding its American occupants hostage for more than a year, and which has spent the last thirty-plus years since then engaging in a steady and completely overt campaign of international terrorism aimed in no small part against the US and Americans, would suddenly get all squeamish about provoking American anger by attacking a couple of foreign ambassadors in Washington DC. Let us instead take it on faith that the Iranian regime would have truly feared being exposed as the initiators of this plot.

Now let's consider the baffled journalists' scintillating logic: it was totally unlike the Iranians, they say, to operate this way--so much so, in fact, that even US investigators doubted Iranian involvement until rock-solid proof more or less fell into their laps. In other words, had the Iranians not been so horribly unlucky as to have chosen a Mexican contact who happened also to have been a paid DEA informant willing to cooperate actively with an FBI anti-terrorist investigation, there would have been every reason to doubt after the fact that the Iranians were in any way involved. Indeed, even today, when the US government claims to have smoking-gun evidence, many journalists have trouble believing it.

Take away that evidence--that is, assume that the plot actually succeeded, with at best a few circumstantial hints of Iranian involvement--and throw in a well-timed fake-but-vaguely-plausible-sounding after-the-fact claim of responsibility from some imaginary new offshoot of al Qaeda, and these doubting journalists would presumably have lots and lots of company among those initially skeptical US government investigators.

Now, remind me again why the Iranians ought to have considered this operation to entail such a hugely reckless risk of exposure?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Amidst all the commentary about the recent rioting in Britain, one simple fact has been consistently ignored: for all their scale, the rioters represent a tiny minority of British "young people", or even "lower-class British young people". (Most of the rest, no doubt, are cowering at home with everyone else.) Those who interpret the unrest as proof of the foolish callousness of the government's austerity measures, or of the moral corruption of the welfare state, or of the decline of British culture, are therefore carelessly extrapolating from a few hoodlums to an entire generation of Britons.

Max Boot is more on target: whatever the "root causes" of the rioters' violent impulses--of which the most significant is no doubt the inevitable, inherent predilection of a certain fraction of humanity for mayhem--the direct cause of the riots has been simple opportunity, provided by negligent policing. We can say this with considerable confidence because the pattern unfolding in Britain--years of gradually increasing laxity in law enforcement, culminating in rampant lawlessness--is a near-perfect replica of the history of America during the latter half of the twentieth century.

From the mid-1960s through the early 1990s, riots in large American cities were frequent and devastating, and crime was rampant. Not only had huge swaths of every large city been turned into de facto "no go" zones, where criminals ruled and the police were effectively absent (allowing riots such as the LA riot of 1992 to spin out of control unimpeded), but even outside those areas, crime--including violent crime--was simply considered a normal element of city life. (I recall one New Yorker recounting to me his tale of being mugged in the middle of a Macy's department store.)

And then, following a massive crackdown on criminality--literally millions incarcerated, a flood of newly stringent laws, law enforcement rules and sentencing guidelines, and a revolution in sophisticated policing techniques--crime rates and criminal unrest finally peaked in the early 1990s, beginning a spectacular decline that has continued to this day. Most young urban Americans these days (outside a few still-dismal spots such as Detroit and Washington, DC) see the chaos in places like London and Paris and simply shake their heads, unaware that until a couple of decades ago, the head-shaking was all going in the other direction.

Note that the supposed "root causes" of crime--either an "underclass" culture of poverty, broken families, and low education and employment levels, or cuts in government social assistance and insufficient availability of social services, depending on whom you ask--have persisted at roughly the same (or worse) levels right through the period of steeply dropping crime rates. Law enforcement, on the other hand, has changed dramatically, and it's hard not to give it significant credit for the decline (though some have tried mightily--it seems that lawlessness, like terrorism, is fertile ground for political posturing). I predict that if the British simply try a dose of the American remedy--as it has been suggested they might do--they will experience the same "miraculous" cure.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The amount of attention being paid to the current negotiations in Washington DC over the debt ceiling simply baffles me. Granted, if the US government really defaults on its obligations, then the consequences could well be quite severe. But there's no significant chance of that happening--the political risks for all the participants are simply too great. And once that danger is discounted, the negotiations are reduced to nothing more than a large-scale, high-stakes form of bazaar haggling.

Even more ridiculous, though, is the meticulous attention paid to the ten-year projections that accompany each side's proposals. (The projected budget changes--whether cuts or tax increases--attributed to the various plans are always expressed as cumulative over ten years.) For one thing, these numbers depend heavily on economic forecasts that are inevitably off the mark, as often as not by wide margins. For another, the tax rates and expenditures they represent are constantly being tinkered with over time, and could change radically with the next big overhaul of the tax code, one or another major entitlement, or various discretionary programs. Just off the top of my head, for example, I can think of major tax rate changes enacted under every US president since Reagan, and major entitlement program changes under those same presidents, with the possible exception of George H.W. Bush. Thus the likelihood that any of the figures being bandied about will even come close to predicting actual government spending or revenue in any category is simply a fantasy.

Why, then, are these numbers seemingly taken so seriously? My best guess is that they're symbolic of the participating politicians' commitments to their coalitions and constituencies. Republicans are taking a hard stand against tax increases and in favor of budget cuts as a way of demonstrating that they won't betray their supporters--largely white, middle-class blue-collar and small-business voters. Conversely, Democrats, by their adamance in favor of larger tax increases and smaller budget cuts, are demonstrating backbone to their supporters: white-collar professionals, government employees and ethnic/racial minorities.

This show of backbone is particularly important because times are hard, and fear is a much stronger motivator than greed. To a typical voter, a politician who's happy to meet an opponent halfway appears more likely to trade away that particular voter's politically-obtained benefits or advantages, than a politician who will go to the mat on a completely arbitrary debate over a few hundred billion fantasy dollars in a meaningless projection. So each faction blusters and threatens, for fear that its supporters will abandon it as weak and fickle if it dares appear too ready to compromise.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The haphazard American response to the various upheavals in the Middle East, and in particular the current civil war unfolding in Libya, has provoked a great deal of speculation about the underlying strategy and reasoning guiding the Obama administration's foreign policy. This is a bit odd, since the underpinnings of its foreign policy have been crystal clear since at least the unfolding of the Honduran crisis in June of 2009, within the first six months of Obama's presidency.

During that crisis, the administration acted promptly and vigorously
  • In defense of a rabidly anti-American Honduran president, against the more pro-American branches of the Honduran government;

  • In support of generally anti-American multilateral organizations, such as the OAS; and

  • In favor of an unpopular would-be authoritarian, battling against democracy, rule of law and popular opinion in his own country.

Since then, the administration's major initiatives have included

  • A marked cooling in relations with democratic allies such as Israel, Britain and Colombia;

  • Eager (and largely failed) attempts at "engagement" with virulently anti-American, anti-democratic regimes in Russia, China, Syria and Iran; and

  • Enthusiastic embrace of anti-American multilateral institutions such as the UN and OIC.

The pattern is unmistakable--the only remaining question is whether the anti-American or anti-democratic impulse is more dominant. (Given the general hostility of multilateral organizations to American power, the multilateralist impulse is simply an aspect of the anti-American one.) And the popular uprisings in the Middle East have provided ample clarification: the most pro-American dictator in the region, Hosni Mubarak, was quickly abandoned in favor of a possibly more democratic but definitely more anti-American mob of protesters.

Since the start of the Cold War, the dominant foreign policy issue dividing politicians around the world has been the desirability of American power and influence. And in Western Europe and America, the broad coalitions of the "left" have lined up against it, while the opposing coalitions of the "right" lined up in favor of it. During the 1970s and 1980s, for instance, the leftist position was that America was supporting brutal right-wing dictators in the name of battling Communism, while conservatives made fine distinctions between "authoritarian" (i.e., pro-US) and "totalitarian" (i.e., pro-Soviet) dictatorships. Today, of course, their positions on democracy are essentially reversed, with "neoconservatives" taking an idealistic line in favor of democracy promotion, while left-wing "realists" defend pragmatic multilateral engagement with powerful tyrants.

This swap of positions demonstrates that in neither case is democracy the true motivating issue. Rather, it is the issue of American power that drives the debate on both sides, as the political contortions over Libya--the liberal obsession with avoiding the appearance of American leadership, the conservative fixation over saving America's reputation--once again demonstrate.

Monday, March 07, 2011

The recent resignation of the director of the London School of Economics over his university's lucrative and academically suspect relationship with Muammar Khaddafi's son has highlighted the general shamelessness of academics in courting wealthy foreign despots. (Daniel Drezner has a nice roundup of reports.) Middle Eastern studies gadfly Martin Kramer has been having loads of fun citing examples and implying that the academics in question--and by implication, academics in general--are essentially for sale to the highest bidder, happy to whitewash murderous tyrants if the pay is good.

In fact, the situation is far worse. Consider, for instance, the famous case of Lee Bass' $20 million-dollar grant to Yale University to expand its "Western Civilization" curriculum. Bass' grant was ultimately turned down, because he wanted to ensure that it was spent at least somewhat in the spirit in which it was offered. Similarly, Princeton sacrificed $50 million out of the Robertson's $900 million grant, plus another $40 million in legal fees, rather than accept the foundation's seemingly innocuous condition that the funds be used to prepare students for government service. Apparently, some principles are more important than mere money.

What, then, distinguishes merely questionable gifts from the unacceptably filthy ones? The easy answer, of course, is, "ideology". One could, for example, draw a parallel with universities' long history of selectively capitulating to threats of violence (only) from quarters representing the academic left's political fashions of the moment, from the appeasement of the student radicals of the 1960s to the most recent case of the Yale University Press' removal of the famous Mohammed cartoons from a scholarly book on the controversy. And no doubt a radical anti-American regime such as Khaddafi's can attract its share of ideological sympathy on American and European university campuses. But Saudi and Emirati potentates--hardly the campus revolutionary's idols--have also received more than their share of academic sycophancy. There appears to be more at work here than just ideology.

I believe Paul Rahe has identified that key extra element: prestige. It is the currency of the modern academic--indeed, of the professional scholar in every age--and he or she therefore evaluates every seductive offer or menacing threat in light of its dividends in that currency. Certainly the Khaddafis' reputations profited from their hob-nobbing with world-renowned scholars, and fromhaving the latter write glowing op-eds about them. But for the scholars, too, public engagement as an "advisor" to a national ruling family--even one as odious as Libya's--was a badge of global importance, and clearly more than one mere egghead was excited to wear it (at least until said family's status as national rulers suddenly started looking a little shaky).

Contrast this delicate quid pro quo with the Bass and Robertson cases, in which some wealthy industrialists attempted to pay a couple of leading academic institutions to do their bidding. No reciprocal status marker was offered--just cash, in return for the humiliation of being explicitly told what to teach. It's hardly surprising that the institutions in question found that deal rather unappealing.

There's a possible lesson there for philanthropists seeking to influence the direction of academia: mere bribery is unlikely to succeed. Subtler appeals to academic vanity--prizes, say, or appointments to positions of (real or apparent) influence--are likely to work much better.

Monday, January 17, 2011

This past weekend's New York Times story on the Stuxnet computer worm contained a wonderful, fiendishly clever little detail:
The computer program also secretly recorded what normal operations at the
nuclear plant looked like, then played those readings back to plant operators,
like a pre-recorded security tape in a bank heist, so that it would appear that
everything was operating normally while the centrifuges were actually tearing
themselves apart.
Now, I don't happen to believe for a minute that the program did any such thing. First of all, it'd be very difficult to do so--you'd have to alter all the changing details of operation, such as timestamps and run durations, while keeping all the consistent details the same. Anyone who understood the data generated by the monitoring systems that well would almost certainly be able to have the software simply create bogus-but-plausible readings out of whole cloth, rather than record and replay samples of previous problem-free runs. (And how would the software know those previous runs were actually problem-free, anyway? A log that contained data showing the same rare anomaly over and over would look mighty suspicious...)

On the other hand, suppose you're an intelligence official working on the Stuxnet project. You know that the worm has succeeded in disabling some fraction--but not all, and probably not even most--of the Iranian regime's nuclear fuel-generating centrifuges, and is now being thoroughly purged from all its facilities. How do you maximize the cost and difficulty of the Iranians' task, given that your whole cyber-sabotage operation has pretty much played itself out?

Why, you drop a little hint to the New York Times, to the effect that all the Iranian systems that appear to have been untouched by Stuxnet may simply have been faking it, presenting perfectly fine data while actually being infected and destroying themselves. That way, the Iranians--if they're naive enough to believe the New York Times--will have to minutely examine every single machine in their facility, to check for physical signs of damage, rather than simply scrubbing the facilities that appear to have gone awry. Fiendishly clever, indeed!