Sunday, September 30, 2012

Ryan: "Torture" Statistics and They'll Confess

Hat tip to Digby who quoted this interview, I just wanted to highlight a particular section of the Chris Wallace/Paul Ryan Fox News Sunday morning interview:
WALLACE: You're the master of the budget, so briefly, let's go through the plan. The Obama camp says independent groups say if you cut those taxes rates for everybody, 20 percent, it costs $5 trillion over 10 years -- true? RYAN: Not in the least bit true. Look this just goes to show if you torture statistics enough, they'll confess to what you want them to confess to. That study has been so thoroughly discredited. It wasn't even a measurement of Mitt Romney's -- his policy.
Get that? If you torture statistics, they'll confess to anything. Does Ryan also believe when you torture humans they will do the same? Anyone want to bet against the idea that somewhere Ryan has spoken up in favour of "enhanced interrogation" and/or defended waterboarding for all the great "intelligence" inflicting suffering on a prisoner until he tells you things to stop the pain brings America?

This is an opening to inject some civil liberties talk into the election.  Since it's looking like it might be a rout, adding their Dark Ages mentality on torture to the list of things that caused this drubbing can only be helpful.

Echo The Atrocities

I think my favourite Atrios obsession is the deplorable selection of guests for the mainline Sunday morning political programs.  Whoever said DC is "wired" for Republican control cannot be argued with until lineups like this simply do not happen:


Face the Nation has an EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS CHRISTIE MUST CREDIT FACE THE NATION, Disgraced Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Marcia Blackburn.
 Tell us more about the "liberal" media oh conservatives.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Justin Trudeau

  • He appears to have won a tough nomination fight for the Montreal riding of Papineau back in 2007, and won the competitive seat held by a Bloc Quebecois incumbent (though historically a Liberal held seat) during a pretty bad election for Liberals in 2008, and subsequently survived the 2011 Liberal implosion.
  • He backed longshot Gerard Kennedy, a pretty decent liberal, in the 2006 Liberal leadership race rather than the "safe" frontrunners of either Ignatieff or Rae.
  • He has dual bachelors degrees from Canadian public Universities and has worked as a teacher, in both private and public schools.  
  • I understand he's fluently bilingual
  • It's not the biggest deal in the world, but facing down a stockier and younger opponent (and winning) shows some kind of mettle.
  • He's not the US/UK Ivy league educated and former Goldman Sachs profiteer technocratic saviour that the remaining Liberal elites seem to be desperately courting, Stephen Harper's pick for Bank of Canada Governor: Mark Carney.
  • I wouldn't put much stock in a flash poll finding that he'd win a federal election as Liberal leader, but it's of course good to start out as known brand that Harper's ad shop will have a difficult time defining negatively.
  • It's undeniable we would not be talking about him as Liberal leader seriously if he was not his father's son.  Yes he is charismatic and so on, but it's difficult to imagine people would be half as aware of his charisma if he didn't have a famous name.  There probably are back-bench MPs who are charismatic but don't have that leg-up to household name recognition.
  • What does he believe?  What kind of Liberal party would he lead?  What would his priorities be as Prime Minister?  His issues page is wafer thin.  He has my interest, and I take his support of Gerard Kennedy as a decent sign, but he has a ways to go to earn my support.
  • At this point, it might be best for Canada that the Liberals pick a forgettable leader who leads them to a predicable 3rd place finish in the 2015 election.  There's a real danger of a giant NDP/Liberal vote split that keeps the Conservatives in power thanks to our antiquated first past the post voting system.  If you're a loyal party Liberal, you of course want the party to have the strongest candidate.  If you're a small-l liberal first, you want a progressive party in power and the more experienced Mulcair has to remain the more credible person to do that at this point.
  • He conditionally endorsed the idea of a Liberal/NDP merger.  I'm disposed to be in favour of some kind of cooperation between these parties, and am glad he's at least open to it.  It also says something about his politics, as the Liberals who are against this tend to be the most conservative ones who still think liberalism is about repealing the Corn-Laws and letting invisible hands fix everything.  That said, I could be wrong, and it could be that a merged NDP-Liberal (NDP get top billing now as the bigger caucus) party pushes enough die hard NDP supporters Green, recent soft federalist Quebecois back to the BQ and blue Liberals to the Conservatives to still lose.  It has other potential downsides in the long term but I'm not going to give the topic a fuller treatment right now.
I'm going to need to read further on the Carney angle.  Right now my instinct is that keeping Canada out of the maw of the Vampire Squid is worth supporting a "legacy" pick who almost certainly cannot live up to his father's image and legacy (which are different from his father's actual record).  It could be an unfair impression but there are too many ugly signs on that book cover to ignore completely.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Economy as a Journey, Not a River

The always insightful Paul Rosenberg has an excellent piece up on linguist Anat Shenker-Osorio's new book "Don't Buy It:  The Trouble With Talking Nonsense About the Economy."  According to Rosenberg, she discusses empirical evidence of how the political metaphor used for the economy affects what sorts of policies voters support.  To conservatives, the economy is water, a river, the tide or just plain Mother Nature herself (bolding added):
First, the metaphors they used reinforced their view of the economy as something natural, and hence best left alone. That described the "what" of the economy. In addition to personifying the economy (hence "ailing, growing, recovering, anemic, fragile" etc) this view was also reinforced by metaphors of water (as in "money flowing, a rising tide lifting all boats", etc) and weather ("economic storms, a cold business climate", etc). Such naturalistic metaphors might seem, well, natural, but the implication is obvious, she reminds us: "You know who regulates the ocean? The moon." The common conservative point of all these metaphors is that human interference is irrelevant and silly at best, and more likely downright harmful.
Liberals on the other hand have been far less consistent in the metaphors we use to describe the economy.  We more often fall prey to using right wing descriptions which makes the intellectual lift of persuading people to support our policies more difficult.  But one model he endorses is a car, which encapsulates the economy as something created artificially by humans, and something that is fundamentally a tool to be used in service of other goals, rather than a goal in itself:
Although they lack discipline, progressives do have an appropriate metaphor: the economy as a human-made object in motion - ideally, a vehicle - which sends the factually accurate message that the economy would not even exist without human involvement, and needs conscious controlling in order to avoid disastrous results.
Although I've never given enough thought to the meta topic of metaphor selection, I have previously used the car metaphor in discussing the economy, for example, in explaining why I thought that the nature of the economic system was not actually the defining issue for liberalism as an ideology, I once wrote:
In my own mental model of society, economics is the engine of the car.  Engines are obviously very important to the overall functioning of the car.  However, they are not the purpose of the car.  They are also able to vary significantly in theory.  So long as it can provide power to turn an axle, who cares how the engine does it?  In practice, car engines almost all work on the same principles, and the laws of physics limit the practicality of many alternative models.  So it seems with economics.  Capitalism may be the greatest economic system possible, or it may be the best we have tried so far, and others still untried will prove much better.  Liberalism can be agnostic on this topic.  If it employs capitalism, it will delve into the best way to tune and tweak that engine for maximum output, but it will remember that the engine is not the car, and what is good for the engine is not necessarily best for the car. 
I bolded the last part to highlight how the car metaphor lends itself to progressive economic policies.  Too often economic policy abstracts "the economy" to the point of practically anthropomorphizing it, so that public policy aims should serve the economy rather than the economy serving public policy aims.  If we talk about an engine, we may want to invest in new sparkplugs or higher quality fuel or whatever, but if the seatbelts are broken that's easily a higher priority and only when we understand what new sparkplugs or premium gasoline will do to benefit us, the passengers in our journey.

It's a great piece and it sounds like an important book.  Rosenberg's last couple paragraphs on how the journey metaphor lends itself to better ways of discussing inequality as a problem are not to be missed.  Naturally Martin Luther King Jr. got there first on instinct and intuition alone, but it's a great insight into why his rhetoric was so effective and how we mere mortals might recreate some of his magic going forward.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Why Not Share Embassies with the UK?

I don't have a big problem with Canada finding economies in sharing real estate with other nations in maintaining our diplomatic and consular services around the world.  As this map shows, we've got a pretty extensive reciprocal arrangement with Australia.  Good for both of us.

I do take issue with sharing with the UK though.  Three main reasons:
  • Canada was a UK colony and doesn't exactly have a very high profile around the world.  One of our big national stories concerns the World War 1 battle of Vimy Ridge, the first time Canada's forces all fought together, and fought under Canadian instead of British command.  We teach kids in school that the victory at Vimy was the first time the international press wrote about the activities of Canadian troops in WWI as Canadians rather than just as part of British forces.  It's something of our foundation as a separate nation apart from the UK.  When Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, Canada, despite having independent rule simply understood itself to also be at war with Germany.  All that is to say historically we took some pains to distinguish ourselves from the UK.  I don't love the idea of implicitly putting ourselves back in the mother country's shadow.  We only repatriated our own fully domestic Constitution in 1982.
  • Quebec.  There are serious points of contention with Quebec and while there's little immediate danger of a new referendum on sovereignty it's irresponsible to needlessly offend them like this for something as petty as some operating budget savings (which is how the government is now justifying this).  Quebec is not going to break the country up over this, but all these petty cultural insults by this government just serve to remind Quebec how little they support the government, and how little influence they currently have in Canada.  It all adds up.
  • The UK's colonial baggage.  This mostly isn't about any specific recent thing the UK has done or is doing but just that much of the world has not forgotten that Britain ruled an empire that included many of them, and they didn't like it very much.  One of Canada's under appreciated diplomatic strengths has been that we don't have the baggage of colonialism.  We never had a global colonial empire.  Britain still has simmering disputes around over their few remaining holdings, and don't say those don't matter.  But when you combine our underwhelming presence and identity on the world stage the last thing we need is to start letting ourselves be defined as Britain's little brother.  Better than "America Jr." perhaps, but not by much. 
It could be much ado about not much, but to the extent that views of our country are shaped by people in other lands driving past a building that says "Joint Canadian and British Consulate" - they know damn well who Britain is, but they probably don't know much about us, so we are too easily defined in relation to whom we associate ourselves with.   Sharing with nations like Australia is far less a problem in this regard.  I'm sure their foreign policy record isn't ideal, but they don't have a global legacy of centuries as the Superpower. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Yglesias Digs In On Tax Breaks For Idle Rich

I recently took issue with a Matt Yglesias piece purporting to demonstrate the supposedly socially beneficial economics behind giving preferential treatment to investment income (or "capital gains").  Yglesias has now replied to the critics of that piece but remains thoroughly unpersuasive.  He completely ignores several major points of critique around the original piece (such as the point that the one doctor is not "doubly" taxed) and starts by simply trying to change the subject into the desirability of some kind of progressive sales tax, which I'll address later, but on his previous post, this is about all he has to say:
Last I'll say that I was a bit surprised by some of the blowback simply because this is such standard practice. Not only have capital gains been taxed at a lower rate than ordinary income throughout almost all of American history (with the gap even bigger when you consider that investment income isn't subject to Social Security tax), but the gap was particularly large during the postwar decades that progressives often cite as an example of a time when high tax rates were compatible with strong economic growth. In European countries with large welfare states, similarly, there's a lot of reliance on consumption taxes as a finance base.
This is really sloppy and fallacy laden argumentation, in order:
  1. "Standard practice" - so lots of orthodox neoliberal economists think this way.  So what?  Shall I start of list of things that the neoliberal economic consensus was wrong about over the past 20 years? Maybe Yglesias is right that most economists agree with this, but it's not hard to find dissenters.  One of them is the most famous (living) economist on the planet after all.  He's not alone either.  Krugman's problem with this policy is what I highlighted from Yglesias' last piece; the wafer thin nature of the evidence of the actual benefits we're supposed to realize.  
  2. "American history" - most of American history has US federal policy largely controlled by wealthy interests, sometimes actually driving, other times using their veto on policy they don't like via the Senate (which was the explicit point of the Senate).  The period between The New Deal to the end of LBJ's presidency is about the only period where liberal policies designed to benefit the majority were somewhat dominant.   Even so, America didn't get universal health care in this period like so many other rich countries, so even then the rich still had outsized political influence.  It's not shocking that they managed to keep their cherished tax break afloat.
  3. "Postwar decades" - Let's concede for sake of argument that progressives all think the postwar decades were utopia.  Does that mean lower capital gains taxation is good?  Or that this period was good despite this tax preference?  Isn't that a more likely interpretation of progressive views on the subject?  
Now, as to a progressive consumption tax, this strikes me as beside the point.  Yglesias set out to show why Mitt Romney's tax rates should be lower than those of working people, and having failed to persuade his readers of that (at least judging by the comments and my own reaction) he diverts to saying that a progressive sales tax could alleviate progressive concerns about growing inequality.  Well, maybe.  But in an America funded by progressive consumption taxes, then we're also not taxing income either, so the preference for investment income over labour goes away.  When and if a progressive sales tax is on some kind of plausible agenda, I might be persuadable that it is superior to raising the capital gains tax, but that's not the world we live in today. 

Nobody on the left gets out of bed every day on raising the capital gains tax.  If Yglesias has some vision of America where the rich pay their share other ways, then probably I and others wouldn't care so much about this tax break mostly benefiting the idle rich, but inequality is growing, various forces are trying to use government revenue shortfalls as an excuse to cut the programs most important to the bottom half of society, and in the absence of a strong case for the general benefits of this tax break, it should be "on the table" too.  If an increase in the capital gains tax rate would keep some number of the poor able to get Medicaid or keep the Medicare eligibility age from increasing then damn right it should go up. 

Actually raising the capital gains tax rate is not on any likely-to-pass agenda, but at least let's not help the 1% plead their case by claiming it's better for everyone that the Mitt Romneys of the world pay lower taxes than us working shmoes.  The last thing we need is smug conservative pundits citing "even the liberal" Matt Yglesias as being in favour of this tax preference for the rich. 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Deregulation Kills Workers

The CBC has done a good job tracking the story of a gas station employee killed as he tried to stop a customer who was driving away with over $100 in gas without paying.  I'm glad I wasn't the only one who saw the original story on the weekend and immediately guessed that the cause was that his employer was docking his pay for theft losses.  Now, the employer (a Shell franchisee) in this case denies it, but the deceased man's family (who insist he was penalized) are much more likely in my opinion to be telling the truth. 

The man, likely earning at most minimum wage plus a dollar or two, in the face of seeing several days worth of wages driving off was prompted to put his own life at extreme risk facing off against someone in a vehicle. 

This is just a good case in point to remind ourselves at least anecdotally how regulation (with adequate enforcement) saves lives.  Ontario actually has a law that prohibits employers from holding their employees financially accountable for any assets the employee doesn't have sole control over, but it's obvious that there is widespread under the radar disobedience of this law by the station owners.  Now, this is what happens even with the law prohibiting it.  Imagine what would happen if this law were repealed?  The numerous anecdotal reports of gas station employees facing such penalties (and to which I can add my brother, who worked for a real cheapskate station owner many years ago) show that the incentives are in favour of owners outsourcing this risk to their staff, and the power disparity between owner and employee is such that they will almost certainly get away with it. 
The usual conservative/libertarian answer to this is "if you don't like it, find another job" - but even for individuals able to do that, the industry practice wouldn't change and many more clerks will get hurt or killed over gasoline thefts.  No, if you actually want to prevent these tragedies, regulation is the answer.  We're often told that business owners deserve every penny they can squeeze out of their businesses because they take all the risks in opening them, I'm not convinced of this, but I do know they should not be allowed to delegate downside risk to staff with no comparable upside opportunity. 

There will still be cases where regulations are ineffective or do more harm than good for whatever reason, but such cases do not negate the basic rationale for regulations:  Employers almost always have more power than employees and if left to their own devices, many will exploit that power imbalance in unfair and socially harmful ways.

A Liberal MPP has proposed a bill to make pre-payment at Ontario gas stations mandatory and the Ontario Federation of Labour has moved quickly to set up a hotline where people can report gas station owners who violate this law. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Yglesias' Weak and Incomplete Defence of Romney's Tax Rates

Slate's Matt Yglesias attempts to defend the fact that Mitt Romney generally pays a lower rate of taxation on his millions in income than many working people pay.  It's exactly as unconvincing as you might expect.  To summarize his case:
  • Widely accepted economic theory states that lower (or zero) taxation on investment income incents aadditional investment by people who would otherwise not bother investing it (see his example of two doctors deciding what to do with the money they make being doctors)
  • It's really a great theory but there's no clear proof of it in the data
No, really, he has no proof of this theory, quote:
That's the theory, at any rate. It's a pretty solid theory, it's in most of the textbooks I've seen, and it shapes public policy in basically every country I'm familiar with. Even researchers like Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez (see "A Theory of Optimal Capital Taxation") who dissent from the standard no taxation of investment income position think capital income should be taxed more lightly than labor income. Empirically, it's a bit difficult to verify that variations in capital gains tax rates and the like really are making a material difference to investment levels. But then again the data is noisy.
I can't help but snark here and express my utter surprise that the empirical evidence for the benefits of trickle down economics is thin.  I could stop right here as I think that alone disqualifies the piece from having achieved its aim, but there's a couple other things to say: 
  •  Yglesias contends the doctor who invests his money is being "double taxed" on the money when he has to pay normal income tax rates on the gains he makes.  His commenters take suitable exception to this, even if investment income is taxed like regular, when you sell your $1M in stock, you only pay taxes on the gains not the amount you originally invested.
  • It's bizarre to use an example of two upper-middle class professionals to justify the tax rates that Mitt Romney pays.  Romney is in the stratosphere of wealth, he can consume as much luxury goods as he can possible use or want and not have to make hard choices about whether to invest money.  Maybe it could marginally affect how much he invests or spends but Yglesias' example has the prodigal doctor who spends all his money on luxury vacations and such and invests none of it. 
Lack of evidence aside, the glaring logical flaw is that Yglesias is making a utilitarian argument in defence of an inherently unfair (I think he agrees it's at least prima facie unfair) tax preference for unearned income because it supposedly has some great pragmatic benefits, but fails to contend with the downsides of the policy.  This is a tax break that mostly goes to the rich, it has costs, like the direct increase of social inequality, and starving government of revenue or forcing it to get those revenues elsewhere.  A growing body of evidence shows that social inequality has real costs, in health, cohesion, happiness, crime, productivity, education and just about everything in society is affected. 

Even if Yglesias could prove some increase in investment because of lower tax rates, and further prove that additional investment leads to broad societal gains (something he doesn't attempt) - in a utilitarian argument you still have to show the gains are worth the costs.   I strongly doubt letting the rich keep all unearned income tax free (or significantly discounted) could survive that test. 

Finally, as several commenters point out, there's no reason that investment income cannot also be taxed progressively even if the rates are lower than labour income.  Maybe the doctor should pay 15% on his modest capital gains, but why can't Romney pay 25% or 28% on the millions he makes instead of 15%?  Even making the case for lower taxes on investment income in principle is not to defend America's crazy ultra low 15% rate on all capital gains. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Canadian Senate Reform On Hiatus

Or possibly even dead:
Under the guise of a projected Supreme Court reference on Senate reform, Prime Minister Stephen Harper may be about to bury his party’s grand plan until at least the next federal election and, possibly, for all time.
For American readers, Canada's system allows the Government to ask the Supreme Court "Do you think this would be constitutional?" in advance of actually passing a bill or taking some action.  For Canadian readers, the US system doesn't allow this for reasons that as a non-lawyer I don't claim to understand.

Anyway, this is a huge relief.  I wrote about Harper's plans last year and explained what's wrong with appointing "elected" Senators:
Currently, only Alberta has held its own unrecognized Senate elections, and Harper actually did appoint one of Alberta's "elected" Senators.  A couple other provinces out west are considering holding elections too.  This is exactly what Harper is hoping for.  If even 3 or 4 provinces start electing Senators, that could be enough to fundamentally change the nature of the Senate as an institution.  Once you have a mass of "elected" Senators in the body, operating under term limits, they're going to start trying to legislate, amend bills and defeat bills.  They won't feel constrained by the chamber's lack of democratic legitimacy, because they'll claim they were elected.

What will the Senators who never won elections do?  Some will join in the crusades of the elected peers, and others will try and stand aside, but the result will be a mess.  What happens when the partially elected Senate defeats a House bill?  The public reaction will almost certainly be in favour of electing the rest of them.   However it plays out, the result will be to break the strong traditional prohibition on the Senate playing an activist role.  Once this gets going, there won't be any way to stop it. 
 My take was that this was a way to create a self-fulfilling prophecy of Senate reform by fostering a democratic legitimacy crisis in the Red Chamber.  I went on in that piece to note that while one of the typical Western beefs with Ottawa is being underrepresented in the House of Commons (which is mostly false) in the Senate the four Western provinces actually are dramatically under weight by their population.  So it surprised me that Harper's lot were willing to empower the chamber that empowers Quebec and the Atlantic so much to their expense.  As it turns out, they're not actually willing to do that, back to Hebert:
They (rightly) worry that giving the Senate the enhanced legitimacy of an elected house without making it more reflective of the demographics of the country only stands to enshrine Western Canada’s democratic deficit in Parliament.

“To the extent that the Senate becomes a more influential body — and that’s uncertain — but to the extent that it does, it would shift power into Atlantic Canada and away from the West,” [Canada West Foundation leader Roger] Gibbins explained in an interview earlier this year
So I was wrong by underestimating the simple regional zero sum cynicism of conservativism.  Well, I can live with that.  I can also live with this bad Senate reform thing not happening.  I'm glad Harper and co are chickening out, because I think their plan would have worked.  Making political offices elected is one of those magic button solutions that voters leap at as a panacea to resolve whatever problems exist with corruption, indolence or incompetence in some government function.  A few months of political wrangling where some half-elected Senate started mucking with House business would very quickly bring numbers up in favour of some variation of a triple-e senate plan.  This really struck me as very similar to how the US 17th Amendment (requiring direct election of Senators) was passed.  Actually, Hebert suggests another pretty basic reason Harper is backing away from empowering the Senate, he can't really control Conservative Senators:
The prime minister might well need backing from the Court to convince some of his own appointees to live up to their initial commitment to give up their Senate seats before they reach the current mandatory retirement age of 75.
This didn't occur to me last year, but it makes perfect sense.  Harper might be able to kick Senators out of the Conservative party and probably out of the Conservative Senate caucus, but if they have very lengthy terms and get to run for re-election as well established incumbents in province-wide elections, they'd make dangerous opponents to him.  House members fear their party leaders because almost no House members have enough notoriety to win re-election on their own name as an independent candidate.  Being kicked out of the party is to face almost certain defeat at the next election.   A Senator who wins a big population province is potentially getting several million votes.  S/he might be able to swing a Lieberman and stymie the party leadership.  Comparatively, the Prime Minister will only have one riding's worth of voters, a few tens of thousands of votes directly for him/her.  I can well imagine some Alberta Senator rejecting Harper's demands and claiming a stronger mandate to represent the wishes of Alberta Conservatives than Harper. 

In this respect a triple-e Senate would be worse than the US system because at least in the US, the sitting President always has the largest direct democratic mandate (larger than any Senators at least).  In Canada, it's theoretically possible for a Senator from Ontario or Quebec to have more votes than the ruling party got combined.  In 2011, the Tories got 5.8 million votes total.  Ontario has 9 million registered voters (5.5M actually showed up) and Quebec has 6M.  It's not terribly likely, it would take some universally beloved figure to get that kind of support, but that the theoretical possibility even exists is reason enough to worry about cutting loose our 105 Senators to preen about the national stage without accountability to their parties.

Just eliminate the Senate.  If it must exist, hobble it severely like the UK House of Lords.  Make it responsible for issuing pointless proclamations, ratifying what goes on stamps and coins, and correcting spelling mistakes in legislation.  Anything more makes Canada into a very bad copy of the US, with the worst features of both the Parliamentary and Presidential-Congressional systems.  Neither orderly division of powers nor Responsible Government.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Let Them Eat 47%

The irony of this is that liberals have spent years tearing their hair out trying to figure out why so many people actually in the bottom half of the income spread vote for conservatives who promise to cut the programs they depend on for survival.  In 2008, McCain got 43% of the votes of people making $30-50K, 37% of those making $15-30K and even 25% of those making less than $15K.  Sure, he lost each voting bloc, but you can still win elections by taking substantial chunks of your opponent's most fertile voting ground. 

Romney didn't even try to make some kind of nuanced argument, that it was tougher for him to reach the 47%.  He outright dismissed them as flat out voting for Obama.  It's not even a case of the so called "classic gaffe" in DC where one tells the truth, the Tea Party is heavy with poor and lower-middle class people who are in denial about the fact that they're dependent on government for assistance.  I suppose the only hope for Romney in this fall out is along these lines as Salon's Alex Pareene tweeted:
good luck convincing any white american that they're in "the 47%" romney's talking about
Romney was talking about that other 47%.  The ones that think that being unemployed and living in a van puts you in the 53% of US federal income tax payers.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Organizations Can Succeed Without Great Leadership

Former Firedoglake and Open Left writer Ian Welsh has a very thoughtful piece on the Obama/Bush administrations' failing strategy of assassinating Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders, arguing that these are organizations with lots of members who believe in the mission of the group, and thus don't really require some brilliant or charismatic leader to keep them going:
Leadership isn’t as big a deal as people make it out to be, IF you have a vibrant organization people believe in.  New people step up, and they’re competent enough.  Genius leadership is very rare, and a good organization doesn’t need it, though it’s welcome when it exists.  As long as the organization knows what it’s supposed to do (kick Americans out of Afghanistan) and everyone’s motivated to do that, leadership doesn’t need to be especially great, but it will be generally competent, because the people in the organization will make it so.
Even better is his commentary on how this applies to the corrupt institutions of the United States:
American leaders are obsessed with leadership because they lead organizations where no one believes in the organization’s goals.  Or rather, they lead organizations where everyone knows the leadership doesn’t believe in its ostensible goals.  Schools are lead by people who hate teachers and want to privatize schools to make profit.  The US is lead by men who don’t believe in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.  Police are lead by men who think their job is to protect the few and beat down the many, not to protect and serve.  Corporations  make fancy mission statements and talk about valuing employees and customers, but they just want to make a buck and will fuck anyone, employee or customer, below the c-suite.  They don’t have a “mission” (making money is not a mission, it’s a hunger if it’s all you want to do), they are parasites and they know it.
I think he's on to something, that this is a form of projection, the common fallacy where one assumes others think or are motivated by the same things as yourself.  American institutions, particular in government are stymied by both the necessity of careerist caution (see: Shirley Sherrod) and the true lack of honest information about what the organization is supposed to be doing.  Even to the extent there are people with initiative who are willing to act in the absence of instruction from above, they don't know what behaviours would be rewarded and the consequences of perceived failure (even just having a right wing clod decide to make you a target) are severe.

As I mentioned in the comments at Ian's place, this feature of the Taliban is actually well understood in military doctrine.  The Germans brought it to prominence in WW2 with a concept they called "Auftragstaktik."  It explicitly demands, as a matter of military strategy that each leader give his subordinates the main mission and leave as much detail on how to implement to them.  In fact, it even allowed for cases of disobeying orders so long as this was done to facilitate the ultimate mission of the organization.  Subordinates could make errors and not be punished.  All of this is highly ironic for the German Army in its role as the military of a fascist dictatorship, but the doctrine long predates the Nazis and to my knowledge had nothing to do with them (Hitler was a notorious micromanager much to his own disadvantage).

I don't know if the Taliban consciously models themselves on this basis, but it is probably a more or less automatic necessity of running an insurgent organization that must operate in constant fear of overwhelming force being brought down anywhere they are detected.  There just isn't room to micromanage.

None of this is to get too far into a tactical or strategic debate over how to fight the war in Afghanistan, but rather to highlight the efficiency costs of corrupt institutions and how the basic utilitarian logic of society can crumble as it becomes increasingly focused on the whims of the overlords rather than representing small d democratic impulses.  Increasingly American institutions don't function because they can't, and this is costing lives when it comes to fighting organizations not so encumbered.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

International Aid Works.

People often complain there isn't enough good news, but mostly when there is, it gets ignored.  UNICEF has released a report showing the enormous progress that has been made in reducing childhood mortality:
Data released today by UNICEF and the United Nations Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation show that the number of children under the age of 5 dying globally has dropped from nearly 12 million in 1990 to an estimated 6.9 million in 2011.
That's enormous, when you consider that the world population in 1990 was something like 5.2 billion versus the nearly 7 billion it would have been in 2011.  So even as the population has increased significantly, the absolute number of children dying has decreased markedly in absolute terms.

The obvious neoliberal explanation is that this is all due to magic market fairies, free trade, deregulation and so forth, but the report notes:
The report shows that all regions of the world have seen a marked decline in under-5 mortality since 1990. Neither a country’s regional affiliation nor economic status need be a barrier to reducing child deaths; low-, medium- and high- income countries all have made tremendous progress in lowering their under-5 mortality rates.
While the increases in income in many parts of the previously abjectly poor world, like China are no doubt helping reduce childhood mortality, the inclusion of still poor countries in these declines strongly suggests concerted aid by groups like UNICEF make a real difference. 

I once attended a debate on the subject of whether foreign aid did any good, and was struck by how similar the anti-aid position was to the usual right wing "tough-love" position on domestic welfare.  Instead of individual welfare recipients becoming dependent, you hear that Nation-States become those lounging in the aid hammock. 

Aside from the usual heartless libertarian take on aid, the glaring flaw I see in the anti-aid argument is that it assumes that cutting off aid is like adhering to some kind of Star Trek Prime Directive of non-interference in some foreign culture.  We stop our good intentioned "meddling" and the locals fix their self-inflicted problems on their own with gumption and boot straps.  But in the real world the "meddling" that governments and NGOs do to help afflicted areas is only part of the total meddling.  Pull that out, and you still have corporations plundering their resources by bribing corrupt officials, you still have warlords fighting over diamonds and rare earth metal mines, you still have druglords and international crime, and you still have plenty of ill-intentioned foreign meddling in these nations' affairs - knocking over "unfriendly" leaders, supporting rebel groups and arms peddling.  To the extent that people like Dambisa Moyo have a point that Africa (her focus, though her point obviously would generally extend to all aid everywhere) is still largely a mess after decades of aid, it's because aid isn't operating in a vacuum.  The patient may not be better despite being on an IV of antibiotics, but that's because he's also being repeatedly injected with raw sewage by psychopaths.  The aid may be all that keeps him alive.

There's plenty of aid-gone-wrong anecdotes, but yet we are making real progress.  If you pay any attention to news from poorer parts of the world, it can all seem like an endless slog of corruption, disease, drought, war, rape and ruin, but reports like this quantify the suffering in ways that allow us to know whether our efforts are futile.  They're not.  Aid works.  Even if you want to give credit to economics, the "market" is not on the verge of eradicating Polio, the World Health Organization is doing it, much like they did with Smallpox in the 70s.  Aid does things the market won't, and if market conditions are improving for a country, I expect that makes aid even more effective at resolving health problems even faster than they would be fixed organically.  These things matter and it's worth looking to the long horizon (both forwards and aft) once in awhile to see how things sit.