Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Defense of Calibrated Warfare: the Obama Doctrine

President Barack Obama gave the best defense of calibrated warfare in decades (perhaps ever) last night. That is not, perhaps, as much of a compliment as it sounds: I can't think of a previous justification for calibrated warfare. Since Vietnam - a major failure of calibrated war - a series of smart U.S. policymakers has elucidated a clear repudiation of the concept.

Calibrated warfare is military action that falls short of full commitment. It implies that we might be willing to lose the war if it becomes too costly, a dangerous precedent for a superpower. The Weinberger and Powell Doctrines reject this approach, stating U.S. troops should only be committed wholeheartedly and with the clear intention of winning. Otherwise, troops should not be committed. We have violated these doctrines frequently, mainly under President Clinton, whose disastrous decisions in Somalia cost thousands of American and foreign lives by convincing our enemies that America would give up once enough G.I.'s had been killed in any given conflict. It took President Bush's ugly subjugation of Iraq to convince the world that America can still handle death.

Calibrated warfare is a dangerous game; clearly, however, it is the right approach to Libya. Obama did an excellent job distinguishing between military and political goals in Libya. Like everyone else, Obama wants Qaddafi ousted. But that goal is beyond the scope of military action, precisely because the cost could match Iraq's. However, the goal of preventing a wholesale slaughter of Eastern Libyans was and is a worthwhile goal for intervention, according to the Obama Doctrine. Thus, he is committed to exercising American power only to meet that goal. If it helps topple Qaddafi, all the better, but we won't be putting Marines into Tripoli to capture the Colonel or to mediate with force between opposing Libyan factions.

This is an important step in formalizing ideas about America's role in the world. We said "never again" after the Holocaust; we said "never again" after Cambodia's killing fields; we said "never again" after Rwanda's genocide; we said "never again" after ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. The use of force for humanitarian ends was clearly the only way to stop similar atrocities. Iraq and Afghanistan, however, made it clear that nation-building is beyond the capacity of our military. What's a superpower to do? Clearly stated, sharply delineated goals allow us to step in, stop a madman's military machine, and then step out - even if the result is dictatorship or low-level civil war. We're not trying to give the Libyans a democracy by force, just removing the imminent threat of Qaddafi's military.

Obama's approach is still riddled with problems, however. What happens if an even worse tyrant arises in Qaddafi's place? What if the Benghazi government carries out reprisal killings in the tens of thousands? How do we deal with low-tech massacres like Rwanda, where air power would be pointless? As much as Obama wants to avoid it, the Pottery Barn rule still applies: if a U.S. Air Force-created power vacuum results in the reign of a homicidal maniac, nobody is going to let the U.S. off the hook.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Taxation and Equality

High tax rates combined with a Byzantine system of credits, breaks, loopholes, and shelters are one of the best ways known to reward big corporations and punish little ones. General Electric, with politicians in its pocket, can get away with getting a $3.2 billion payment from the IRS at tax time, in a year in which it earned $14 billion worldwide.

Lower taxes and simpler taxes level the playing field for businesses and citizens who can't afford to hire a small army of (sleazebag) tax attorneys.

Oh, and next time you're shopping for lightbulbs or appliances? Skip G.E. Buy another brand - which probably has to pay taxes - and support America.

Earnestness and Culture

Check out the WSJ's review of In Search of Civilization by John Armstrong. Armstrong appears to have a classical view of civilization, updated to 21st-century relevance.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Tax the Rich? We do.

Using well-respected OECD data, economists at the Tax Foundation found that the United States depends on its highest 10% of earners for a larger share of taxes than any other rich country. Looking only at income and payroll tax, the top 10% of U.S. earners pay 45% of taxes while earning 33% of all income.

Since European countries have higher tax rates than the U.S., for the most part, what this means is that we "undertax" our middle class relative to other rich countries. The difference is even starker when you consider that the U.S. has low sales taxes (which hit the poor and middle class hard) and will have the highest corporate income tax as of next month.

Next time somebody claims that the U.S. has a less progressive tax structure than Europe, Canada, Japan or anywhere else, ask them for data.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Arab Revolt is in Dera'a

Syria's protesters are not going quietly. Do we need any more evidence that the yearning for freedom from government oppression is universal?

Kudos to the commenter who knows whither the title of this post is drawn; no searching.

Mt. Morris

For those of us who enjoy stopping in the town of Mount Morris on our way to Letchworth State Park, the town has become a more and more welcoming place, an emblem of small-town sensibility and charm. It's not an accident.

The NYTimes profiles the efforts of Queens businessman Greg O'Connell, a SUNY Geneseo alumnus, in remaking the town.
Things began to change in Mount Morris in 2007. That was when O'Connell quietly began buying up buildings — he now owns 20 — on Main Street... He restored the historic storefronts and interiors, cleaning the tin ceilings. He renovated the apartments on the second floors, bringing in fresh paint, oak and maple floors, new windows, nice bathrooms... O'Connell charges these businesses as little as $100 a month in rent, but he asks for things in return... O'Connell's leases require businesses to leave their lights on at night, to change their window displays at least four times a year and to stay open one evening a week. "If this place is going to make it," he says, "it’s going to be a community effort."
O'Connell became famous for developing Red Hook, Brooklyn, an area previously known for drugs and prostitution. There, he gained a reputation as a "socialist" - because he didn't build luxury condos on the cheap or flip buildings - while earning millions.

O'Connell says his wife won't give him permission to "do another town" - but if you've got a cool million lying around, visit Mount Morris and wonder if you could emulate the model elsewhere.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Year of the Weird

This year is boggling the minds of those who have followed international organizations for any length of time. First, the Arab League voted to call for the use of force against one of its members for violently suppressing protest (while using force in another country - Bahrain - to suppress protests). Now, according to Drudge a crazed dictator in the throes of a civil war immediately ceased military operations IN RESPONSE TO A U.N. RESOLUTION!?!?!?!?!

Prior to this, no dictator has ever done anything in response to a U.N. resolution. The U.N. matters? What's the world coming to? And why can't I still be involved in Model UN and Model Arab League - they finally became cool!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

March Madness

Nate Silver has a nifty bit of math, backed up by data, which shows that the NCAA seeding system is "unfair" - in the sense that teams ranked 8th and 9th are at a significant disadvantage in advancing beyond the second round than teams ranked 10th to 15th. He proposes dropping the ranking and randomly seeding the teams outside the top 24 (who would have a big advantage).

I have a better idea. Seed all the teams - 1 through 64. Gather a representative from each team (coach, captain, math professor, sabermetrics whiz student, quant booster, whatever) in a TV studio on selection day. Extend the seeding show from 1 hour not to 2, as Silver proposes, but to 8 hours, and let the teams pick their own spots on the bracket. In order.

Got that? The lights go up... drumroll... the hosts reveal the entire field, ranked 1 to 64, as a list. Big LCD screens show that list next to the empty brackets, listing only game dates and locations. Team #1 - Ohio State, this year - takes the opening game nearest their home campus (presumably); that one's a layup. Team #2 - Kansas State - doesn't want to see OSU until the final, so they pick a starting game near home on the opposite side of the bracket. Then Team #3, and so on.

The fun begins in the muddled middle - a 4-seed team might make a statement by trying to take down a 2-seed in the opening game. An 8-seed might choose to play a 6-seed rather than take an open spot against (likely) a 9-seed in order to play close to home. Opening-round games would be challenges, not just calendar dates, and a team might choose to play its crosstown rival or the school that dispatched it last year. At the end of the day, the 15- and 16-seeds take what's left over: almost-certain losses to top programs, much as they do now.

There are three reasons to love this idea:
  1. It's fairer than the current system. If you take a crappy position, you have no one but yourself to blame
  2. It's fun. Great TV - coaches sweating, consulting spreadsheets and advance scouts, players issuing guarantees and chest-bumping. The speculation, second-guessing, and recriminations would be a March madness within themselves.
  3. It makes economic sense: let people make their own decisions. Would an 8-seed be better off swapping with a 12-seed, as Silver suggests? Find out what they would do given the choice!

Civility Police

Would those who blamed the incivility of public discourse for the shootings of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and several of her constituents please stand up? There are frequent violent threats being made toward an important public servant, and if you wait until after he's shot or dismembered (as the threats go), it will be too late. In addition, it appears that the police are ambivalent about maintaining order and protecting this figure from the threats.

Personally, I think this overheated rhetoric reflects mainly on the character of the speakers (or lack thereof), and is unlikely to lead to actual killing (likewise, that it played little or no role in the Arizona shooting). But it is far more specific and sustained than anything leveled against Giffords, so if you think incivility a serious threat, this is a very serious matter.

Hat tip to James Taranto at Best of the Web Today.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Harry Reid and Causality

It's understandable that Harry Reid wants to protect the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. After all, he doesn't quite understand the causal relationships involved here:
"The National Endowment of the Humanities is the reason we have in northern Nevada every January a cowboy poetry festival. Had that program not been around, the tens of thousands of people who come there every year would not exist." (Politico)
The Republicans want to end the existence of tens of thousands of people! That's like half the population of northern Nevada. And those callous Tea Partiers don't even care if those good folks exist.

On the other hand, if one's raison d'etre is a cowboy poetry festival, maybe nonexistence is a consummation devoutly to be wished. At Global Review, we simply wish that Senator Harry Reid did not exist.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Take it away, Kathleen

"If you've got health care already, and probably the majority of you do, then you can keep your plan if you are satisfied with it... Number one, let me just repeat, if you've got a health care plan that you like, you can keep it." - Sen. Barack Obama, in the second presidential debate, 2008. He hit this talking point many times.

"We don't want to take away people's health insurance before they have some realistic other choices," HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in an interview with The Hill. The context is the 1,040 businesses that have been granted a one-year waiver before the government takes away their employees' health insurance plans and forces them to buy something else.

Kathleen! Stay on message puh-leeze.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Comment

I posted this elsewhere as a comment; reproduced here simply because (a) it's already written and (b) the topic is important.

Writing at HuffPost, somebody named Phil Zuckerman indulges his hatred for evangelicals with an essay entitled "Why Evangelicals Hate Jesus". He argues:
Evangelicals don't exactly hate Jesus... They do love him dearly. But not because of what he tried to teach humanity. Rather, Evangelicals love Jesus for what he does for them. Through his magical grace, and by shedding his precious blood, Jesus saves Evangelicals from everlasting torture in hell, and guarantees them a premium, luxury villa in heaven. For this, and this only, they love him. They can't stop thanking him. And yet, as for Jesus himself -- his core values of peace, his core teachings of social justice, his core commandments of goodwill -- most Evangelicals seem to have nothing but disdain.
Zuckerman is intellectually lazy. Evangelicals are far from perfect, but they give more to charity (even non-church charities) than any other group in the population. Evangelicals and Catholics are pretty much the only group opposing easy divorce laws. Evangelicals led the anti-slavery movement and black evangelicals led the civil rights movement; evangelicals currently lead the defense of the unborn.

Zuckerman assumes that Jesus teaching about giving to the poor & eschewing wealth was an institutional command, not an individual one. That's a legitimate point to discuss, but by assuming that it's an institutional command (and ignoring data on individual charity) he begs the question and smears those he despises. I have a big problem with Christians who enjoy most of their wealth, but I don't think the government can legislate financial holiness.

Zuckerman assumes that Jesus was opposed to the death penalty; the only evidence for this is the story of the adulterous woman, which is weakly attested in texts, and requires a lot of interpretation.

Zuckerman assumes that Jesus was pacifist and anti-weapon. At times, it's true, He preached non-resistance. But He never preached non-violent resistance (just non-resistance), and He once told His disciples to go buy swords.

If you take Zuckerman literally, he's advocating a theocracy! He seems to think that we should legislate Jesus' commands, or in any case those which Zuckerman imagines to be Jesus' commands. In truth, what Zuckerman really hates about evangelicals is that they disagree with himself and his cut-and-paste Jesus.

There are excellent critiques of American evangelicism; this is not one of them.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Capitalist on Capitalism

Vilified capitalist Charles Koch pens an op-ed in the WSJ today, attacking government overspending... on corporations. He doesn't say anything about public sector unions, but he blasts subsidies for corporations and industries, including his own. Call him a hypocrite if you will, but he's shining a light on Federal welfare for his own sector of society, not pointing a finger at others.
Government spending on business only aggravates the problem. Too many businesses have successfully lobbied for special favors and treatment by seeking mandates for their products, subsidies (in the form of cash payments from the government), and regulations or tariffs to keep more efficient competitors at bay. Crony capitalism is much easier than competing in an open market. But it erodes our overall standard of living and stifles entrepreneurs by rewarding the politically favored rather than those who provide what consumers want...

Because every other company in a given industry is accepting market-distorting programs, Koch companies have had little option but to do so as well, simply to remain competitive and help sustain our 50,000 U.S.-based jobs... For example, because of government mandates, our refining business is essentially obligated to be in the ethanol business. We believe that ethanol—and every other product in the marketplace—should be required to compete on its own merits, without mandates, subsidies or protective tariffs.
Government's role in business should be, as outlined by Adam Smith, guaranteeing fair competition, breaking down barriers to entry, and enforcing contracts. Plaintive cries of "ruinous competition" were maudlin in Smith's day, and are all the more so in ours: get rid of ethanol subsidies, get rid of guaranteed government contracts for favored businesses, get rid of all forms of corporate welfare, and the economy will grow.