Thursday, November 29, 2007

U.N. Security Council Doesn't Work

Henry Kissinger has some comments about how poorly the current U.N. structure serves international security needs:

The Security Council must be reformed, since it does not represent current realities. . .India, Japan, Germany and Brazil are not included. Yet this reform is unlikely, since it would either involve expansion of the veto-wielding permanent membership--rendering the Security Council even less capable of decisive action--or elimination of the veto, [which] would be unacceptable to the United States and the other four permanent members. But some change is necessary. The Council itself is breaking down--the interests of its permanent members are not parallel enough to permit a unanimous decision. . .

Kissinger’s comments are in line with this blog’s more detailed, earlier discussion of who really counts in world affairs.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

U.S. economy fundamentally sound.

New York Times columnist David Brooks is impressed with Summers’ warning about where the U.S. economy is headed. But he offers several points of optimism, admittedly from a longer-term perspective:

 the World Economic Forum and the International Institute for Management Development produced global competitiveness indexes, and once again they both ranked the United States first in the world. . . it leads the world in . . .higher education and training, labor market flexibility, the ability to attract global talent, the availability of venture capital, the quality of corporate management and the capacity to innovate.

 The U.S. . . has successfully absorbed more than 20 million legal immigrants over the past quarter-century, an extraordinary influx of human capital. . .Birthrates are relatively high, meaning that in 2050, the average American will be under 40, while the average European, Chinese and Japanese will be more than a decade older. . .The U.S. standard of living first surpassed the rest of the world’s in about 1740, and . . . the country has resolutely refused to decay.

 Between 1991 and 2007, the U.S. trade deficit exploded to $818 billion from $31 billion. Yet . . . during that time the U.S. created 28 million jobs and the unemployment rate dipped to 4.6% from 6.8%. . . Every quarter the U.S. loses . . . seven million jobs, and creates a bit more than seven million . . . the essence of a dynamic economy.

U.S. Financial Distress

Larry Summers, the former Harvard president who earlier was Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, is worried about where the U.S. economy is going. He makes these cautionary points (comments no Harvard president, even Summers, would utter in public):

1. forward-looking indicators suggest that the housing sector may be in free-fall from what felt like the basement levels of a few months ago. . . nationwide house prices could fall from their previous peaks by as much as 25% over the next several years. . . it is hard to believe declines of . . . this magnitude will not lead to a dramatic slowing in . . . consumer spending . . .

2. only a small part of the financial distress that must be worked through has yet been faced. . .the rate of foreclosure will more than double over the next year . . .total losses in the American financial sector would be several times the $50bn or so in write-downs that have already been announced, [spreading] to the credit card, auto and commercial property sectors.

3. the capacity of the financial system to provide credit in support of new investment on the scale necessary to maintain economic expansion is in increasing doubt. . . powerfully demonstrated last week when the yield on the two-year Treasury bond dropped below 3% for the first time in years.

So Summers offers these recommendations:

1. the Fed has to get ahead of the curve and recognise – as the market already has – that levels of the Fed Funds rate that were neutral when the financial system was working normally are quite contractionary today.

2. policymakers need to [adopt] non-traditional [measures], given how much of the problem lies outside bank balance sheets. . . The priority [is] maintaining the flow of credit.

3. [we need to maintain] demand in the housing market to the maximum extent possible. The government . . . needs to assure that there is a continuing flow of reasonably priced loans to credit worthy home purchasers.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

What’s in the Times’ Washington Bureau water cooler?

News of Iraq’s improved security situation has reached the New York Times—at least its Washington Bureau. Michael Gordon, its military correspondent, has written that attacks in Iraq had declined to the lowest level since January 2006, “adding to a body of evidence. . . that the violence had diminished significantly since the United States reinforced troop levels in Iraq and adopted a new counterinsurgency strategy.” The Gordon article quotes Brookings’ Michael O’Hanlon, another Washington insider, saying “These trends are stunning in military terms and beyond the predictions of most proponents of the surge last winter.”

Of still greater significance, Washington-based Timesman Tom Friedman has quietly signed on to the guardedly more optimistic view of how things are going in Iraq. Here’s how Friedman words it:

 It’s clear that the surge by U.S. troops has really dampened violence in Iraq. . .The surge has made Iraq safe. . . for an ‘A.T.M. peace’. . . the Baghdad government. . . as an A.T.M. cash machine — supporting the army and local security groups and dispensing oil revenues to the provincial governors and tribal chiefs from each community.

 Can the informal arrangements they’re cobbling together reach a level of stability that would enable a major drawdown of U.S. forces next year? I don’t know. My Iraq crystal ball stopped working a long time ago. I’m taking this one step at a time. Right now what is indisputable is that we are seeing the first crack in years in a wall of pessimism that has been the Iraq story.

Whoa! Friedman back to hoping for an Iraq win?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Will Sarko beat the unions?

In the heart of Old Europe, an event of historic proportions. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is attempting to face down the unions that have held French democracy hostage for over a century. Shortly after coming to power this past Summer, Sarkozy made it clear he would have to break union power in order to reform France. Now the transit workers are striking France, costing the country roughly $500 million a day. According to the International Herald Tribune, these are the facts:

Sarkozy: "We will not surrender and we will not retreat. France needs reforms to meet the challenges imposed on it by the world.” Sarkozy warned that the walkout must halt before it brought "the economy to its knees," and he cited the millions of French people who "are exasperated by being held hostage. . . You have to think of all those who have to go to work."

The strikers: railroad, subway and bus workers; energy workers and employees at the Paris Opera; air traffic controllers; newspaper printers; primary and high school teachers; firefighters, weather-service employees and staff of the Bank of France. Threatening to go out: Air France pilots.

How it’s going: demonstrators mobilized about 30% of the 2.5 million civil service employees. There were signs train workers were going back to work—fewer than 30% of the workers for the national railroad, SNCF, and the Paris transport network, RATP, were absent Tuesday, compared with 61.5% on last week’s walkout opening day.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Hollywood Goofs

Here’s the truth. The war in Iraq is unpopular. But Hollywood’s anti-Iraq movies are even bigger bombs. “The Kingdom,” in its 8th week, grossed a mere $102,000, a feeble stab at the $70 million cost to make it. But at least “The Kingdom,” wisely marketed as an action flick, grossed $47 million in the previous seven weeks. The other four anti-war pics have together grossed but $28 million (see chart), and one of the four—“Rendition”—is gone after only four weeks. Yikes!

Chart extrapolated from: LA Times, 11.19.07

Even more amazing, stars of the movies are Oscar winners and A-listers Reese Witherspoon [pictured], Meryl Streep (twice), Jake Gyllenhaal, Tom Cruise, Robert Redford, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Chris Cooper, Tommy Lee Jones, Susan Sarandon, and Charlize Theron. What gives?

USA Today commentator Jonah Goldberg offers his reasons for Hollywood’s missing its mark, among them:

 Hollywood cares less and less about what Americans think of their products because . . . Hollywood shifted its aim to foreign markets. Denouncing the war isn't only good marketing in Europe, it's the fastest route to critical acclaim.

 Perhaps the studios of yesteryear knew something today's moguls don't. . .Americans don't like to see America and her troops run down, even during an unpopular war.

To Goldberg, the following illustrates how little Hollywood understands America today:

When Peter Berg tested “The Kingdom” on Americans, he was horrified when the audience cheered when the FBI killed the terrorists at the end. "Am I experiencing American bloodlust?" the director agonized.

Polarized News Junkies

I have argued (here and previous) that mainstream media control the national agenda. The intensity of their effort to retain control suggests to me a fear that control is slipping away, a fear given indirect support by Markus Prior’s recent book on Post-Broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections. The author first describes a golden age of television news, when TV “consisted essentially of three networks, and many people watched news. At the height of the broadcast era, from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, almost half of all Americans watched one of the three network newscasts at 6:30 p.m. on a regular weekday evening.” Prior calls people of that era “politically informed, at least on some basic level.” During that time, network television helped end the Vietnam war, remove Nixon from the White House, and bring down Carter as well.

In his look at the same period, James Q. Wilson found that while the mainstream media changed middle class American views on Vietnam, their impact on working- class people proved less significant, a finding Wilson attributed to the media’s realizing they were serving a mass audience, and restraining their overt bias in order to hold that audience. Wilson believes today’s niche-marketed media, no longer with a mass audience, more freely express their true views.

As for Prior, he writes that the population currently watching network news is below 10%, and identifies 20% of the TV audience as happy enough with cable and other news to make news their preferred viewing choice. He’s worried about the lack of political participation of the other 80%—those who get their news from Leno, Letterman, or nowhere. People who follow the news re-enforce their partisan views with their preferred niche choices. They help make politics confrontational. The less partisan uninvolved, by voting in reduced numbers, deny America the benefit of their more moderate, middle-of-the-road sentiments.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Academia's PC Rot

"White culture is a melting pot of greed, guys, guns, and god."

--From University of Delaware’s August 2007 "diversity facilitation training" program for resident assistants (RAs).

You know what I object to most? Giving "melting pot" a bad name.

The irony of what’s happening on college campuses is that in the name of diversity, the marketplace of ideas that used to distinguish a great university is giving way to an ideologically rigid world view that brooks little dissent. This from the National Journal’s Stuart Taylor Jr., who says he has “never been conservative enough to vote for a Republican presidential nominee.”

According to Taylor:

 One Delaware University RA report classified a young woman as one of the "worst" students in the residence life education program for saying that she was tired of having "diversity shoved down her throat" and responding "none of your damn business" when asked "when did you discover your sexual identity?" Said Kelsey Lanan, a 19-year-old sophomore, "it seemed like they were trying to convince us we were racist and sexist and were horrible people".

 "At least in the humanities and social sciences," Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein wrote in a 2004 essay, "academics shun conservative values and traditions, so their curricula and hiring practices discourage non-leftists from pursuing academic careers. The quasi-Marxist outlook of cultural studies rules out those who espouse capitalism. . . If you think that the nuclear family proves the best unit of social well-being, stay away from women's studies."

 the 88 Duke professors who signed [the] April 2006 ad in the school paper spearheading the mob rush to judgment against falsely accused lacrosse players included 80% of the African-American studies faculty; 72% of the women's studies professors; 60% of the cultural anthropology department. . .

 Duke literature professor Grant Farred has produced . . . a monograph styling Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, a native of China, as "the most profound threat to American empire." In the fall of 2006, Farred accused hundreds of Duke students of "secret racism" against "black female bodies" because they had registered to vote. . . to defeat rogue Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong. . . [Now] Cornell [has] hire[d] away and tenure[d] Farred. . ."We are very enthusiastic about Professor Farred, whose work everyone in this department has long admired," remarked Cornell English Department Chairwoman Molly Hite.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Facts on the Ground (Reprise)

[Iraq is] a debacle and that’s a fact. We’re only debating the causes.

--“Facts on the Ground,” 10.17.06

A year ago, I argued that the combination of Saddam, militant Sunni Islam, and the world’s fourth largest oil reserves made Iraq the world’s most dangerous country in 2003, before the U.S. liberated Iraq. A year ago, the future of Iraq as a unified country was very much in doubt. The overthrow of Saddam had exposed long-standing fissures within the Iraqi body politic.

Since then, the U.S. surge has helped increase security for Iraq’s people, particularly in areas formerly controlled or threatened by al-Qaeda in Iraq. Improving security in turn is helping the economy. But Iran’s influence over Iraq’s Shiite majority remains a concern, and includes uncertainty about the power of Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi militia, armed by Iran.

The American media do control our agenda, but in the end, the national debate revolves around actual facts. In the end, no matter the spin, truth emerges. The reason Iraq hurt Bush and Republicans so much is because we were losing there in 2006. And our Iraq difficulties in turn colored how people viewed Republicans, the War on Terror, and the economy. That may change, now that conditions in Iraq are improving.

Friday, November 09, 2007

For unhappy Americans, thank the media.

American forces have routed Al Qaeda in [Iraq] from every neighborhood in Baghdad a top American General [Maj.Gen. Fils, pictured] said today, allowing American troops involved in the 'surge' to depart as planned.

--Item in New York Times, found at p. A-19

The news here is no news—the New York Times is determined to bury good news out of Iraq.

For the era of Democratic dominance, 1933-64, the media largely supported the president, shouldering their patriotic duty to help the president move America out of depression and through a major war, post-war recovery, the challenges of the Cold War, and the early civil rights struggle. But after Kennedy died and Johnson led us astray in Vietnam, the media retched out its sicky sweet treatment of the White House, becoming the adversary it probably was supposed to be, all the way until Gingrich tried to tie Clinton into knots with Newt’s December 1995 government shutdown.

In the face of this conservative attack on Clinton, the media turned themselves into cheerleaders for the weakened Democrats, and helped hold the White House together through Clinton's impeachment crisis (1998-99). The media were then collectively outraged by Bush’s illegitimate election victory in 2000, and worried about what complete Republican control of Washington would do to the country. Knocked off their game by 9.11, the media pounced on Iraq as Bush’s Vietnam—a God-given (except media mostly don’t believe in God) gift to be used to drive Bush from the White House.

The media’s principal goal is to replace Republicans with Democrats. Iraq has been their best means for doing so. But any bad news will do: Katrina; high gas prices and mortgage foreclosure rates; Congressional GOP corruption; troubles with Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Korea; dissatisfaction in Europe; global warming; health care costs; tuition costs. Remember the high cost of prescription drugs? That was a big one, until Bush fixed it. Anything that will reflect badly on Republicans. And bury all good news, particularly about the economy—tax cuts working, 50 continuous months of job growth, rising personal income, falling deficits, record increases in productivity, world prosperity lifting the U.S.

The American media are powerful. They shape our national agenda. No wonder Americans, happy in their personal lives, think government stinks.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Americans: Unhappy with Government

Faced with declining monthly American death totals from Iraq, ABC News last night chose to talk about the fact that the death toll in Iraq for 2007 is now the highest for any year. Always able to dig bad news out of good.

David Brooks has a column about the “happiness gap”—that between people’s private optimism and their public gloom. Brooks writes:

 American voters are happy with their own lives: 86% say they are content with their jobs, 76% say they are satisfied with their family income, 62% expect their personal situation to get better, and 65% are satisfied over all with their own lives — one of the highest rates of personal satisfaction in the world today.

 Yet Americans are overwhelmingly pessimistic about public institutions: only 25% are satisfied with the state of their nation; the 4th largest gap in the world between public and private satisfaction, trailing only Israel, Mexico and Brazil. 80% think this Congress has accomplished nothing, 68% think the country is on the wrong track, 62% think that when government runs something, it’s inefficient and wasteful, 60% feel the next generation will be worse off. We’re more pessimistic about government’s ability to solve problems today than in 1974, at the height of Watergate.

Noting that people are not personally miserable or downtrodden, Brooks speculates that neighborhood happiness is threatened by the global problems beyond people’s control: terrorism, rising health care costs, illegal immigration, global warming and the rise of China and India. He recommends politicians offer voters a few big proposals (and implementing strategies) that respond to these global threats. Brooks believes the New Deal succeeded because voters wanted to change the country and their own lives. But today, he suggests, people want the government to change so their own lives can stay the same.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Succeeding in Iraq

[W]e have certainly been successful in significantly improving the security situation in Iraq, and I would say that what we need to do is continue this effort and ensure that the economic reconstruction and development follows.

--Defense Secretary Robert Gates, November 1, 2007

Here’s our latest monthly, highly abbreviated version of the Iraq Index, published and updated twice a week by Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution:

Americans Killed in Action, Iraq (monthly average)
2003: 32
2004: 59
2005: 56
2006: 58
2007: 71
October: 28

Americans Killed in Action, Vietnam (monthly average)
1965: 128*
1966: 420
1967: 767
1968: 1140
1969: 785
* = First U.S. combat troops arrived in Vietnam, 5.3.65
Vietnam table compiled by Galen Fox using Defense Department sources.

Crude Oil Production (m. bbls./day)

Prewar Peak: 2.50
Goal: 2.10 (Revised downward, 1/07)
actual: 2.33 (10/07)

Electricity (megawatts)

Prewar: 3,958
Goal: 6,000
actual: 4,750 (10/07)

Since our last monthly report, the American KIA total dropped from September's 38 down to 28. That KIA total is the lowest since September 2004, and is the third lowest monthly American KIA total since September 2003. It is also less than one-fourth (23.9%) of May's KIA total of 117. [Please note: the number of KIA is almost always lower than the media-reported total of American deaths, which covers all causes, including non-hostile. Our Iraq and Vietnam figures are KIA only.] More than any other closely-watched data, the sharp drop in American KIA provides concrete evidence the surge is working.

Our other indicators also point to success. Oil output is up to its highest daily total since September 2004, and is the fifth-highest oil daily output average for any month since the war began. Only one month since Saddam's overthrow, September, produced more revenue for Iraq from oil than October. And the figure for electricity output is also excellent--4,750 megawatts is the second highest monthly average the Iraq Index has ever recorded (September's total of 4,860 megawatts was higher).

After two excellent months in Iraq for the three indices we have faithfully followed since early 2006, it's hard to refrain from indeed saying, "We seem to be succeeding."

Saturday, November 03, 2007

War: Answering Derek

This is my response to Derek's comment here.

(1) No one (well, hardly anyone) is suggesting leaving Afghanistan, the invasion of which was a measured response to the attacks of 9-11

Europeans are having difficulty maintaining NATO’s presence in Afghanistan. Several nations put severe limits on how their troops are deployed. Canada debates its presence in Afghanistan the way we debate ours in Iraq. U.S. marines have suggested transferring from Anbar to Afghanistan partly to deal with the waning Allied support there.

(2) I would like to see Gerson's plan for actually saving his "flawed democrats of Iraq," with expected costs, etc., before signing on for an everlasting occupation of their country... which they do not want us occupying

If Iraqi’s elected government wants us out, we will go. “Everlasting occupation?” Who says? “Costs, etc.” What “etc.”? It’s all about costs. Liberals want to spend money at home to support worthy projects here, not waste money building democracy in Iraq. Here’s the point. We are at war with Islamic extremists, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, everywhere these forces choose to fight us. It’s an asymmetric war, meaning our costs will be much higher than theirs. Do we fight or not?

(4) The "war on terror" can be won every day by vigilant police work, rights-respecting intelligence gathering, maintenance of our open society, and the peaceful spreading of freedom, capitalism, and democracy

Yes. But what do we do when confronted with organized terrorism, such as the Iran-backed Mahdi militia? All the tools you mention, plus bullets, I believe.

"[it’s] false [to assert] the Iraq War has actually been creating the terrorist threat we seek to fight..."Wrong. It has and it does. The evidence is overwhelming - from surveys of actual muslims, including jihadists. Gerson's counterargument is evidence-free. Why in the world would you excerpt it?

Sigh. Gerson notes that bin Laden used U.S. actions in Iraq in the 1990s to help justify 9.11—Osama didn’t need our overthrow of Saddam to oppose us in Iraq. Osama's attacks came first. We are responding to his war; of course, we would prefer a world at peace. Gerson says flatly that if bin Laden beat us in Iraq, militant Islam would be strengthened around the Muslim world. I so believe. It’s o.k. for you to disagree, but key observers are on my side. Here’s just one post that makes my case (from no friend of Bush).

hardly anyone) is advocating paralysis. What about diplomacy?

Right now, the national foreign policy debate is between those who wish to have “the stick,” “arrows in our quiver” a part of our diplomacy (Clausewitz: "War is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means") and those who are so fed up with Vietnam + Iraq that they want war eliminated as a U.S. foreign policy option. The latter group believes that somehow, one can engage in diplomacy without using the threat of war. What’s so difficult for observers like Gerson to understand is how in the post-9.11 era—when we face others determined to kill as many Americans as possible—we can possibly base policy on foreswearing the use of force.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Universal Health Care is Coming

Mort Kondracke is the very sharp (he won a Washington Post award in 2006 for most accurately predicting the outcome of that year’s congressional elections) executive editor of Roll Call. He’s happy because the next election will result in universal health care. Though Republicans won’t use the word “universal,” the leading candidates’ plans offer tax credits or deductions that enable everyone to buy private insurance.

Kondracke has problems with “HillaryCare 2.0”. Clinton, he writes, “by creating a Medicare-like government alternative to private insurance and heavily regulating private plans, [will drive people] to the government plan, leading to Canadian-style medicine. As Joseph Antos, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute put it, Clinton has designed ‘a reasonably clever way to prove that the private sector doesn't work and have the government swoop in on a white horse.’” Kondracke adds, “studies document that public satisfaction with Canada's single-payer system is low because of long waits for diagnostic tests and surgery.”

But Kondracke also feels GOP plans are flawed because “tax deductions or credits . . .encourage younger, healthier workers to drop company coverage and buy cheap policies on their own, raising the cost for older workers left behind.” Kondracke favors the plan of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) that combines mandatory coverage, tax credits and a regulated private market; a plan discussed here earlier.