Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Case for Geo-engineering

Nathan Myhrvold appeared last week on Fareed Zakaria's GPS making a compelling argument for geo-engineering in general, and one scheme in particular. I encourage you all to hear him out.

The arguments against geo-engineering tend to fall into three categories. The first is that we don't know whether geo-engineering will work. The second is that it is harmful to even talk about geo-engineering because it might puncture the political will to reduce carbon emissions. Third and finally, geo-engineering is a bad idea because it might bring about unintended side-effects.

Like most advocates of geo-engineering, I would argue that it should be researched further and deployed in conjunction with emission controls, not replacing them. However, in the interest of a fuller examination of our options, I will note that all three arguments could be made just as convincingly against emission controls.

We certainly don't know that an emission control strategy will work -- politically, at least. The IPCC has said that developed nations should reduce carbon emissions by 25-40% come 2020 in order to have a 'reasonable chance' of averting catastrophic global warming. Many now say these targets are too lax, but the Waxman-Markey bill currently being considered in the Congress wouldn't meet them. The bill would reduce U.S. emissions by 17%, and and even that weak bill has little chance of becoming law. With China determined not to jeopardize its growth strategy with verifiable targets, the odds of a global treaty that might head off global warming have to be counted as tiny.

The second argument is easier to dispense with. As Myhrvold himself argues, blaming geo-engineering for reducing the will for carbon controls is like blaming a bypass surgeon for encouraging his patient's snacking. You might also blame carbon controls for discouraging people from taking geo-engineering seriously.

The final argument is more substantive. Many people instinctively recoil at Myhrvold's proposal to reduce solar radiation by pumping sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere via an 18-mile-long hose suspended by a trail of balloons. How could more pollution cure the effects of pollution? But the reason Myhrvold focused on sulfur dioxide is because a natural experiment of this stratagem has already occurred. When Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide were injected into the air, lowering temperatures by half a degree. We know the climactic effects of this chemical, and we know its atmospheric effects as well because our power plants already eject it, albeit at far lower altitudes than Myhrvold is proposing. The overall amount of sulfur dioxide believed to be necessary to tame global warming is about one-twentieth of one percent of the amount ejected today by natural and man-made sources, but by expelling it near the arctic and at high altitudes we would be leveraging this chemical for the maximum of its reflective potential.

Are the risks zero? No. We need to research this idea further. But again, the unintended side effects argument could be made against emission controls too. Not even the most optimistic economists think the transition to a non-fossil-fuel future would be free in terms of GDP growth. Particularly in developing countries, GDP has a high corelation with all kinds of mortality data. Sacrificing growth could cost many, many lives.

If we are to be humble about what we don't know, then we should truly be humble about what we don't know. PBS recently had a valuable piece on the environmental effect of mining rare earth compounds in China. Rare earth, a collection of 17 rare elements in the periodic table, is indispensable for many green technologies from car batteries to wind turbines. At the dawn of the internal combustion engine in the 18th century, we had no idea what effect this technology would have on the environment. Can we say for sure that we know all the risks that renewable energy technologies might pose? These wouldn't be discrete acts like putting a hose into the stratosphere, but a million uncontrolled experiments scattered throughout the globe.

Of course, carbon dioxide has effects other than global warming. It also leads to the acidification of the oceans, for example. That is why geo-engineering cannot replace a saner energy policy, but it has to be at its side, preferably before the 'tipping point' effects such as methane release from permafrost and arctic ice melting take their worst toll. At its most basic, geo-engineering is something humble (and cost-effective) like painting your roof white to reflect more sunlight. More ambitious schemes include seeding oceans with iron to encourage plankton growth (the plankton captures CO2) and using solar-powered devices to create water vapor clouds over seas. The governments of developed countries, including our own, need to explore the safety, effectiveness and viability of these technologies.

Finally, I want to make a purposefully provocative comparison. The right-to-life movement tells us that abortion is murder. If they really think it's murder, shouldn't they be the biggest advocates of education about contraceptives? Usually they aren't, because they often believe that sex out of marriage is a sin too, and that education about contraceptives encourages this sin. Of course, education about contraceptives is not promiscuity. It is not even encouraging promiscuity, and might well include messages intended to discourage it. At its worst, education about contraceptives might be seen as encouraging promiscuity. So let's step back: is seeming like you might be encouraging promiscuity really worse than murder? Even if it were a sin, shouldn't you pick a lesser sin if it will diminish a far greater sin? The truth is that the right-to-life movement wants to use abortion as a trojan horse for its ethos. They say abortion is murder, and I'm sure they believe it, but they aren't willing to let go of their worldview in order to act rationally on their convictions.

I fear the same thing is true for not all but many environmentalists. They say the fate of the planet is in the balance, but if it truly is, shouldn't we be exploring every avenue to solve the problem? In the clip, Fareed Zakaria describes their attitude as Calvinist. I'd say they have developed a sort of secular spirituality. In their view, the only thing that will appease Mother Earth is not another sin, but the properly sanctioned sacrifice.

Monday, November 2, 2009

A Third Way in Afghanistan

President Obama is currently pondering the most difficult decision of his young administration: our country’s future direction in Afghanistan. His choice has often been portrayed in the media as binary: should he pursue the counterinsurgency strategy (COIN) proposed by General McChrystal, or should he follow the counter-terrorist strategy advocated by Vice-President Biden?

Media reports indicate that Obama is unsatisfied with the choices he has, and he should be. Both approaches are fatally flawed. Before I say why that is the case, and what a better strategy might be, let’s review why we’re in Afghanistan at all.

What are our interests in Afghanistan? If the Taliban returns to power, it would likely provide a haven for Al Qaeda to launch terrorist attacks against us. There is a legitimate controversy as to how important safe harbor is for an organization like Al Qaeda, with many pointing out that in the past attacks have usually originated in European cities, and that Al Qaeda is now functioning under a ‘cloud’ model that obviates central command. This is true, but it is undeniable that allowing them to reconstitute a sheltered and functioning command and control would be an operational and propaganda victory for them.

If this were the only risk, it would not be sufficient reason for us to stay. The more serious risk we run is that a Taliban victory in Afghanistan might provide moral encouragement, financial assistance and tactical support to an insurgency in Pakistan. Pakistan has a large and capable military, but it is badly infiltrated, and the Pakistani population is the most radicalized in the region. Given that Pakistan has around 50 nuclear weapons, a radical fundamentalist regime next door is simply an unacceptable risk. The claim that is sometimes made about the Iranian leadership – that they are so fanatical they are willing to take risks that threaten their existence – is probably not true about them, but has proved true of the Taliban. In 2001, they threw away power and risked their lives rather than give up their Al Qaeda cohorts; that is a symptom of fanatical – and undeterrable – ideological commitment.

Preventing a Taliban victory, however, is a daunting task. In his recent resignation letter, U.S. Diplomat Matthew Hoh spelled out the difficulties. One doesn’t have to agree with his prescriptions to admire how well he frames the challenge:
If the history of Afghanistan is one great stage play, the United States is no more than a supporting actor, among several previously, in a tragedy that not only pits tribes, valleys, clans, villages and families against one another, but, from at least the end of King Zahir Shah's reign, has violently and savagely pitted the urban, secular, educated and modern of Afghanistan against the rural, religious, illiterate and traditional. It is this latter group that composes and supports the Pashtun insurgency. The Pashtun insurgency, which is composed of multiple, seemingly infinite, local groups, is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies. The U.S. and NATO presence and operations in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police unites that are led and composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the insurgency is justified. In both RC East and South, I have observed that the bulk of the insurgency fights not for the white banner of the Taliban, but rather against the presence of foreign soldiers and taxes imposed by an unrepresentative government in Kabul.
So when General McChrystal, in his August 30 assessment, writes:
ISAF’s [International Security Assistance Force’s] center of gravity is the will and ability to provide for the needs of the population “by, with, and through” the Afghan government. A foreign army alone cannot beat an insurgency; the insurgency in Afghanistan requires an Afghan solution.
He is giving away the very Achilles heel of the operation. The Afghan forces are as much invaders to the Pashtun tribes as the Americans are. The tribes see them as a force they’ve been fighting for decades: a Kabul-centered government that takes much, imposes much, and gives back nothing. Even if Kabul were squeaky-clean instead corrupt, and duly-elected instead of illegitimate, it would still not command the allegiance of the Pashtun tribes that have resisted their rule for decades. The Pashtun do not like the Taliban either, and they resent their interference – but at least the Taliban is Pashtun. Hoh rightly calls this sentiment ‘Valley-ism.’ The Pashtuns value affiliations of family, tribe, and proximity far more than they feel the bonds of nationality. That at this stage, we do not understand the nature of the challenge ahead of us is uncomfortably reminiscent of Vietnam, where we mistook nationalism for ideological fervor.

Conversely, the problem with a counter-terrorist strategy is not that it is impractical, but that it doesn’t address our interests adequately. Aerial strikes on terrorist targets would make our presence unpopular to the local population, and might hasten a fall of the government. The U.S. might be able to prevent the building of training camps in Afghanistan, but that is all we would prevent. An ideological movement threatening our vital ally, Pakistan, would remain unchecked.

We need to take a step back and ask ourselves: Is the end state we are envisioning – a stable and democratic Afghan government with control over all its land – necessary for the achievements of our goals? The answer is no. We are trying to give Afghanistan something it has never had before, something we do not need in order to defeat the Taliban.

Our recent experience in Iraq might hold some lessons for us. The key to the dramatic turnaround in that country was not the small increase in troops called “the surge,” or the change in strategy to COIN (which since it depends on a change of attitude in the population, would certainly have taken far longer to show such dramatic results.) The reversal was due to the Anbar Awakening: smart U.S. officers on the ground recognized a rift between Al Qaeda and the Sunni insurgency and intelligently exploited it. They backed and coordinated with Sunni brigades called “Sons of Iraq” that employed disaffected former insurgents. This is a strategy that bubbled from the ground up, and it caught everyone by surprise. We didn’t need to defeat our enemies; we could, in effect, hire them.

Perhaps something similar is possible in Afghanistan. Major Jim Gant, a decorated Special Forces officer, was stationed in 2003-2004 with seven other U.S. troops in a small Pashtun village near the Pakistani border. He writes about this experience in a paper, and corroborates much of what Hoh wrote:
Afghan tribes always have and always will resist any type of foreign intervention in their affairs. This includes a central government located in Kabul, which to them is a million miles away from their problems, a million miles away from their security.
But Gant goes on to describe how he developed close relations with the village chieftain, whom he affectionately called "Sitting Bull." He was audacious enough to arm and supply the village's fighters, probably breaking many rules but winning their trust and allegiance and gaining access to valuable intelligence. It is this approach - a tribal engagement strategy - that he advocates for the country as a whole. He calls the fighters Arbakai, a tribal militia that would protect their neighbors from Taliban intimidation. These could be the Afghani equivalent of the “Sons of Iraq,” grass-roots warriors defending their own tribal interests, with the U.S. as their ally – not imposing a central government on them, but giving them what they want: security, their tribal traditions, and the right to be let alone.

I will go farther than Gant does. Instead of envisioning an end state where Kabul dominates all of Afghanistan, we should be striving for Kabul + Largely Autonomous Tribe Lands. The Karzai government would control the heavily populated areas in the east of the country, and as best they could the border areas with Pakistan. They would have nominal sovereignty over their country, as previous Afghani governments have. The Pashtuns would be empowered to defend themselves from the Taliban, but they would largely be free of Kabul too. Provincial government structures would have to be developed in order to resolve inter-tribal conflicts and law-and-order issues; largely, governance would come from nearby.

Obviously, bringing about this end state is an extraordinarily difficult task. We would need a lot of men like Gant: smart, highly trained, with a ravenous cross-cultural appetite and a keen emotional intelligence. These people would have to develop close relationships on the ground and would need to attain a granular view of local politics. It would be a war won not so much by force as by micro-diplomacy. Despite the complexity of the task, this might be the only way to achieve our objectives. It is foolish to fight a war that requires winning the allegiance of an inherently conservative people while also attempting to re-engineer their society. As Gant writes:
We will be totally unable to protect the “civilians” in the rural areas of Afghanistan until we partner with the tribes for the long haul. Their tribal systems have been there for centuries and will be there for many more. Why should we fight against not only what they have been accustomed to for centuries, but what works for them? They will not change their tribal ways. And why should they?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Beyond Theory

In this recent op-ed David Brooks contrasts Bentham, an arrogant central planner, with Hume, a humbler fellow who prefers decentralized, market-based solutions to problems.

I agree that there are two kinds of people in the world, but I don't divide them this way: my two groups are pragmatists and ideologues. One group works from the evidence to the solution; the other works from the solution to the evidence.

At this point in history, we can safely say that we know these things for sure: pure, unfettered markets do not work and central command economies do not work. The ideal is somewhere in the middle; we need to sort out when it is the right time to to intervene and regulate, and when we need to let the market do its magic. Who do we trust to do that? Who can look at the evidence dispassionately, and make decisions based on facts instead of predilections?

If I know nothing else about them, I'll go with the person who doesn't enter the room trumpeting his principles.

In Angels in America, Tony Kushner has the world's oldest living Bolshevik plaintively ask "how are we to proceed without theory?" That same question seems to be stirring in the hearts of many conservatives today.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Pssst! My Negotiating Position Is Not My Real Position

I know I’m not supposed to say this. I’m supposed to say “the public option is non-negotiable! No public option, no health reform!”

I realize why I’m not supposed to say what I’m going to say. The people who are willing to walk away from a deal are the ones who have the negotiating leverage. I know this. But even though I really want to see the health care reform bill include the public option, I have this thing… I can’t help but blurt out the truth sometimes. And the truth is I wouldn’t dream of letting health care reform die just because public option wasn’t included. Why? Well, isn’t it obvious?

What would happen if health care reform failed?

  • Barack Obama’s presidency would be crippled. Any hopes of passing cap-and-trade, financial reform, or an immigration bill on our terms would be dimmed dramatically.

  • The Democrats would likely be punished in 2010. The last time a popular Democratic President failed to pass health care reform the Dems lost 54 seats in the House. A swing of that magnitude would give the Republicans the lower chamber again.

  • Health insurance companies would be able to continue to dump sick patients from their rosters.

  • Coverage would continue to be out of reach for those with prior conditions.

  • Lifetime caps and high out-of-pocket requirements would ensure that the endless march of healthcare bankruptcies continued.

  • We likely would not see another attempt to reform health care for a generation, if ever. 18,000 people die from lack of health coverage every year; extend that number over two or three decades and perhaps half a million people might die unnecessarily if we fail to gain universal coverage.

I’m not willing to pay this price. All these items could be avoided and reversed, even with a plan that did not contain a public option. Would a true progressive put an ideal bill above the pressing interests of 47 million uninsured? No, of course not. But we have to say we will!

Pretending that we are willing to kill health reform forces us to use unconvincing arguments sometimes. For instance, we say that if we don’t get the bill right this time, we’ll never get it right. This is baloney. Comprehensive health reform is extremely hard to pass: Truman, Johnson, Carter, and Clinton all failed at this challenge. There’s simply no evidence that tweaking health programs once they are law is nearly as difficult. S-CHIP has been repeatedly amplified and refocused, Medicare grew a prescription benefit, and Medicaid has been tweaked many times over the years, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.

We also say that if we don’t pass the public option health care expenses will grow out of control and the Dems will be blamed for it, allowing the Republicans to roll back our reforms. Of course, the other side will try to blame us for growing expenses (and they will likely grow anyway, with or without the public option.) But what would happen with no bill at all? Many significant measures that would lower cost and improve quality – like comparative effectiveness research, more power to MedPAC, and health care IT expansion – would be lost. As for the idea that the Republicans would roll back universal coverage, I say this: Will. Never. Happen. No industrialized nation that has achieved universal coverage has ever gone back. Even Margaret Thatcher, a political giant who privatized every damn thing she touched, didn’t dare touch the British health service.

We have to over-sell the public option. CBO says it will save the government $150 billion over 10 years; a whole lot of money, but we have to pretend the fate of the trillion dollar plan depends on these savings. And we have to exaggerate the scope, even though it’s likely that only 10 million people will be covered by the public option.

Finally, in order to make sure that Obama puts maximum pressure on the Senate centrists, we have to pretend that he has the magical ability to buckle Senators from states where he lost by 15 points. Even though we’re a ways from getting even 50 votes in the Senate, we have to pretend that 60 is a cinch. As they say, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

I know I sound like I’m being ironic. The thing is I’m not. Yes, the public option is an uphill battle, but it’s definitely not a lost cause. That’s why Steve Pearlstein is wrong in saying we should give it up. Intrade lists the public option’s odds at 35%. We are still in the game, and not letting on to our bottom line is a big part of the game.

So maybe someone in comments is going to “disagree” with me. You’re going to call me a sell-out and a weak-kneed accommodator. You’re going to say of course we should ditch the health care bill if it doesn’t have the public option… it would be worthless without it! That's exactly what you should say, thank you. Sorry we “disagree” (wink, wink.)

Others of you (not many I hope) are going to share my lack of discipline and surfeit of honesty and tell me you agree with me. All I can say is… shame on you.

Okay, maybe now I’m being ironic.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

For Übergeeks Only: Why Krugman Is Wrong

A couple of days ago, Paul Krugman wrote a widely cited post where he argued that the Geithner plan would amount to a huge subsidy for banks. The taxpayers, he fretted, would once again be taken to the cleaners. To fill in some background: in the Geithner plan Treasury funds are combined 1:1 with private equity; together they go to the FDIC and obtain a non-recourse loan six times greater than the original principal. Private investors decide how to invest while the Treasury piggy-backs on their expertise, splitting the proceeds with them.

Krugman is skeptical. The fact that the loans are non-recourse, he writes, would mean that investors would likely take greater risks since their losses are capped, costing the taxpayer dearly. I know... he won a Nobel Prize and I didn't. But he's wrong and I'm going to prove it.

Here's the example Krugman cites:
Suppose that there’s an asset with an uncertain value: there’s an equal chance that it will be worth either 150 or 50. So the expected value is 100.

But suppose that I can buy this asset with a nonrecourse loan equal to 85 percent of the purchase price. How much would I be willing to pay for the asset?

The answer is, slightly over 130. Why? All I have to put up is 15 percent of the price — 19.5, if the asset costs 130. That’s the most I can lose. On the other hand, if the asset turns out to be worth 150, I gain 20. So it’s a good deal for me.
Here is what he means. A bid of $130.50 makes the average outcome of the scenarios $0. That is the breakeven point... a higher bid than that will, on average, result in a loss:
In another post, he explains that "two-state numerical examples" are the natural way to think about these things. Really? Just out of curiousity, what would happen if we went to a three-state numerical example?
Huh. When you add a middle scenario, all of a sudden the breakeven point has gone down to $116.28. Of course, in real life outcomes don't isolate themselves into two faraway islands. What if we kept on adding scenarios...
Wow. It looks like if we modelled this more like real life the overbidding Krugman writes about diminishes. If there were an infinite number of scenarios between $50 and $150, as there would be in real life, the degree of overbidding might even be reduced to single digits.

Let's also ask ourselves: is the spread of uncertainty likely to be as wide as Krugman's example? Think about it. There's a 3x spread between the high value and the low value. This would be like saying that a security with a face value of a dollar could as easily cost 25 cents as 75 cents. Remember that investors will have information about the payment history and location and credit history of the borrower, and remember that they have a wealth of prior experience on how similar borrowers have performed before. Isn't it likely they will be able to make far better projections than that? What if we narrowed the scope of uncertainty?
That makes a huge difference. Now the rational investor is only overbidding by just under 5%. But okay, let's say we overshot when we narrowed the spread of the scenarios. After all, no one can really predict economic performance, and that will certainly be a significant variable. Let's widen the scenarios a little to say... 40% on either side. But let's not pretend that there's an equal chance of getting extreme scenarios as opposed to the middle scenarios. Let's weigh the scenarios on a bell-shaped curve, giving more weight to the likelier middle scenarios, and less weight to the unlikelier extreme scenarios:
Still, a rational investor is only overbidding by around 5%. But I hear you say: 5% of a trillion bucks is an awful lot of money. It sure is. But there are other factors we have not considered yet.

First of all, the FDIC loans are low-interest... but they're not no-interest. The government will be making some money on the loans that do happen to perform.

But more importantly, there is a fallacy in our calculations. We're pretending investors are eager to risk capital just for the sake of breaking even. That's crazy. On the day the Geithner plan was rolled out, Bill Gross of PIMCO went on CNBC saying he expected returns in the "low teens." For any investment where the entirety of your capital is at risk, that is the minimum you should expect. So the bids are going to be lower than the breakeven price; they need to factor in their profit. Notice also that profit expectations increase as the range of uncertainty we mentioned above, the risk, increases.

Nor should we forget that it's not cheap to pore over loan tapes and make calculations that are far, far more sophisticated than the ones we've just done. Expenses will be at least 1%... probably more. Lower the bid by that amount. (Meanwhile, our government will have no such expenses.)

Together, these underbidding effects will dwarf any overbidding due to the capped losses. While there is no guarantee that the U.S. will not lose money on this deal, it is far likelier that we will profit. As many economists before, Prof. Krugman has let his theory come untethered from reality.

Update: I forgot to decrease the cap amount as the bid decreases! Still, that doesn't change the numbers too much. In the final case, I still have a number just slightly above 5%. I'll update with correct numbers later. 1:32PM: The numbers are now corrected.

Monday, March 9, 2009

How Long Does Obama Have?

Everyone seems to be asking themselves how long Obama has before the American people start getting -- as Andrew Sullivan puts it -- pissy. Nate Silver looks at polling data and guesses that it will be a year and a half. Blumenthal is skeptical, but not very specific.

I'd like to approach the question not from current poll data but from historical analogy. The other harsh recession since the great depression was the 1981-82 slump, when Reagan was in power. Like Reagan, Obama is a President with a pretty strong connection to the American people, so the comparison is apt that way. Let's look at the unemployment rate since that seems to be the measure that's most connected to popular anxiety, even if it is a trailing indicator for the economy.

Unemployment started going up in July 1981 and peaked in December 1982. Reagan's popularity bottomed around 45% in January of 1983, so it never really cratered. It was above 50% until October 1982. That seems to confirm Nate Silver's guess: about a year and a half, maybe a little less. I would just add two things: Reagan's recession began during his term. He was quite effective in blaming it on Carter, but the timing surely didn't help him. Obama's recession is more closely identified with his predecessor because it was already a year old when he stood on the Capitol steps to take the oath. Also, I would note how fast Reagan's popularity rebounded as the economy improved. Even though the unemployment rate was still above 10% half way through 1983, the economy was showing signs of recovery, so his approval rating was steaming back up to 60% by the fall of that year. Which is to say, if we start getting a visible recovery by Spring 2010, Obama's numbers may not fall below 50% at all.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Same as the Old Boss?

Two full days ago, the following appeared in the Wall Street Journal (emphasis mine):
CIA Director Leon Panetta, in his first meeting with reporters, said the agency will continue to carry out drone attacks on militants in Pakistan. He also said that while CIA interrogations will have new limits, President Barack Obama can still use his wartime powers to authorize harsher techniques if necessary.
Is he saying that the President’s powers as Commander-in-Chief under Article II give him the power to override the law of the land, which includes our treaty obligations such as the Convention Against Torture? I thought we got rid of the people who told us that last election.

Then this is somewhat comforting…
The main change Mr. Panetta has planned, he said, is to establish "a clear set of ground rules" for interrogations and detainee treatment that are "in line with our ideals."
But you have to wonder what he could possibly mean by that, because the big slap in the face is yet to come:
On interrogations, Mr. Panetta said he believes the CIA can be effective if it limits itself to the 19 techniques the military is allowed to use. He said the administration is evaluating the effectiveness of so-called enhanced interrogation tactics such as waterboarding and will make recommendations to the president on what techniques should be allowed. In the interim, only the 19 techniques will be used.
Leon Panetta, head of the Agency that was given leeway to torture during the Bush administration, is now saying that waterboarding not only would be legal but is under active consideration?

I believe profoundly in President’s Obama’s governing project. In the joint address to Congress he said:
And that is why I can stand here tonight and say without exception or equivocation that the United States of America does not torture.
Did he just mean right now? It should be the position of this administration that neither the President nor anyone in his administration has the authority to order torture; that it is already illegal and illegitimate.

What I find a little surreal is the almost perfect silence in the blogosphere about this. Glenn Greenwald? Nothing. Andrew Sullivan? Nothing. Josh Marshall? Nothing. Atrios? Nothing. All the powderkegs of outrage are suddenly powderpuffs of indifference.

The Director of Central Intelligence has just told us that torture is an option… we’re just not choosing to exercise it right now. We are one election away from a torture regime again, and they will be able to say "not only did Bush say we have the right to torture, but Obama agreed." It seems like our national shame is not over.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Fifth Age

After two disappointing elections, conservatives are wondering where their future lies. The clear-eyed ones realize that their project, as Reagan defined it, is finished if not complete. From 1980 to 2008, the highest marginal tax bracket was lowered from 70% to 35%. Welfare was reformed. The Soviet Union collapsed. Many businesses were deregulated. (Plainly, these items weren’t all their doing, but their wishing was in them.) On the other hand, the more ambitious conservative goals – privatization of Social Security, school vouchers, an imperial American presence worldwide, drastic reduction in the size of government – have little, if any, chance of coming to fruition.

We sometimes see the affinities of our ideological side as permanent. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Today, conservatives are known for wanting to shrink the size of the state, but in the first age of American politics, it was the Jeffersonian liberals who wanted to limit the federal; they thought that power should lie with the people, not a King-like figure. The Hamiltonian conservatives, on the other hand, argued for a strong central authority; they considered it necessary in order to resist the passions of the mob. It was an age that was both inspired and spooked by revolutions, both here and abroad.

Since that time we’ve had many inflection points, when the dividing lines between parties shifted. Are we coming to one of those moments? First, let’s consider the prior ones.

The second age of American politics was dominated by the Civil War; it runs from Jackson to the end of reconstruction. The issue that dominated the era was how much power should lie with the federal government, and how much of it should be retained by the states. The south saw the war as a conservative revolution… an attempt to protect a way of life.

The age of reform comes next. It runs from reconstruction to 1932. It is the only age that is not dominated by a single issue, but rather, many discrete questions. During this time, the mechanics of industrial capitalist democracy are refined, and it is largely (though not exclusively) the Republicans who are leading the way, doing some things that today we don’t usually associate with them, like taming large companies and conserving wild land.

The fourth age begins with Roosevelt’s coming to office in 1932. Beginning here, the primary argument is the size and scope of government. In many ways, the debate is framed by the rise and fall of the Soviet Union. Roosevelt wanted to save capitalism from itself, to institute reforms that averted the real possibility of social unrest and even revolt. Reagan wanted to diminish any resemblance to the old Soviet Union, to return to a primacy of the individual and the marketplace.

Today, the argument is largely – though not completely – concluded. “The era of big government is over,” announced Bill Clinton. Barack Obama described the role of government modestly: “Government must do what we cannot do for ourselves.”

Transformational liberal projects remain – universal health care, day care, perhaps others – but liberals have been chastened by their 28 years in the wilderness. Hardly anyone in the Democratic Party hankers for a return to the 70% top marginal rate or welfare as we knew it. Sometime in the next decade or two we will still have arguments about the extent of government… but probably without even realizing it, we will come to some sort of near-consensus on the role of government.

Even today, the size and scope of government is no longer the dominant issue. We are at the dawn of the fifth age of American politics. The great tectonic shift of our lifetime is globalism. China, India, and much of the rest of the developing world are enjoying an unprecedented growth spurt; they will demand power comparable to their financial gains. Problems such as global warming will require coordinated international responses. The great technological innovation of our times, the Internet, is a beast that knows no borders; it will need international authorities. Perhaps as a reaction to globalism, tribal conflicts seem to be on the upswing; they will necessitate multi-lateral responses. Our current financial crisis illuminates how completely trade and investment have bound us together; financial coordination and regulation will need to develop.

It is around these questions that the fifth age of American politics will be organized: pro-globalist vs. anti-globalist; free trade vs. ‘fair’ trade; submission to international authorities vs. maintenance of sovereignty; pro-immigrant vs. anti-immigrant; multilateralism vs. unilateralism; pro-foreign aid vs. anti-foreign aid; seeing the U.S.A as a leader of a new, multi-polar world vs. looking backwards to the U.S. as unipolar superpower.

The next conservative movement will be populist and nativist. They will inherit the socially conservative, church-going constituency of today’s Republican party (social conservatism will never disappear, although with the baby boomers aging past their child-rearing years, it will lose some ferocity.) It will be an anti-immigrant and protectionist movement, strong on defense, but inward-looking in foreign policy. They will heap scorn on treaties, as well as international organizations such as the United Nations, the WTO, the IMF, and others yet to be conceived. On global warming some will be denialists, some will fatalists, others will point to the sins of other nations as an excuse to avoid action ourselves. The new conservatives will lose support from the business community, but they will gain it from an increasingly disenfranchised working class. They will not be scared of government programs, and indeed, will advocate them for their constituencies.

Most surprisingly, these new conservatives are probably just as likely to take over the Democratic Party as the Republican Party. If it were the Republicans, we would probably see the new movement as son-of-Pat Buchanan, a new breed of paleocons. If it were the Democrats, we would probably see them as son-of-Dick Gephardt, pro-union pols in touch with their constituency’s conservative side.

Conservatism is not just a philosophy; it is a temperament. Liberals see social bonds as fraternal; conservatives see them as filial. Liberals identify with the collective, the people; conservatives identify with the nation – the motherland or fatherland. Globalism, the great seismic event of our lifetimes, will inspire a complex of passions close to the conservative heart. The emotions these questions raise will in coming years eclipse the old arguments about how much government we need.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Fix Social Security... So We Can Afford the Stimulus

A couple of weeks before his inauguration, Barack Obama was asked the following:
QUESTION: Mr. President-elect, budget experts, as you know, agree that the real key to controlling federal spending lies with the entitlement programs. How early do you plan on addressing Medicare and Social Security? And what will your approach be?
OBAMA: Well, first of all, as I noted in my remarks, we’re going to be inheriting a $1 trillion-plus deficit. And if we do nothing, then we will continue to see red ink as far as the eye can see.[…] We are working currently on our budget plans. We are beginning consultations with members of Congress around how we expect to approach the deficit. We expect that discussion around entitlements will be a part, a central part, of those plans. And I would expect that by February, in line with the announcement of at least a rough budget outline, that we will have more to say about how we’re going to approach entitlement spending, how we’re going to approach eliminating waste in government, one of Nancy’s tasks.

This is tantalizing, but not an indication that Obama -- in the first year of his first term -- will plunge headlong into the mythical third rail of American politics. Still... should he? Sadly, if Obama were to tackle Social Security most of the resistance would come from his own side. The reasonable argument the left wielded to defeat Bush’s privatization effort was the following: “Social Security ain’t broke. Yes, it will start running deficits in about a decade and exhaust its trust fund in about three decades, but all that is necessary to fix it is some small tweaks – if the assumptions are too pessimistic, maybe not even that. So let’s wait and see how it works out, and in the meantime, let's concentrate on more important matters.”

True at the time, but this position needs to be revised. Why?

First of all, the assumptions don’t look so pessimistic any more. For the 2008 report, the trustees assumed 2.4% GNP growth from 2007 until 2017. We missed that number in 2007, 2008, almost certainly will in 2009, and probably 2010 too. The assumptions are starting to look a little on the rosy side.

Secondly, saying all it needs is some small tweaks was always disingenuous. Yes, the changes necessary aren't large, but in political terms they are monstrously difficult.

But more importantly, there’s this (click to enlarge):


Our debt level as a percentage of GDP is the highest it has been since the Eisenhower administration, when we were paying down the cost of the World War II buildup. Are we at the point when creditors might start wondering about our ability to repay this debt? Are we risking a currency devaluation, massive inflation, a dumping of U.S. debt, the loss of the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency, and perhaps in the worst case, a loss of the enormous privilege of servicing our debt in our own currency? We would not be able to fix some of these consequences… they would be a serious and permanent injury to American power, prestige, and well-being.

What is the level of debt where these kinds of risks come into play? People that tell you they know are lying. But informed experts, including Larry Summers, are said to be worrying about such an eventuality.

It’s time to get beyond the liberal orthodoxy and look at a way to reestablish our fiscal credibility –- so that we can afford this stimulus plan and avoid punishment by the debt markets. Social Security is the way to do it. Look at this chart:

Starting around 2035, the difference between outlays and revenues is around 1 percent of GDP. Say we spent $825 billion on the stimulus and did absolutely nothing to pay it off. In three decades it would balloon to $3 or $4 trillion in debt in a $27 trillion economy. It would still probably be cheaper to finance that debt than to make up the Social Security shortfall, which would be around $270BN. By fixing Social Security, we can offset the perceived danger we add to our credit profile by spending on stimulus. And by showing the political will to control our spending, we add even more value to our creditor cred.

Need more reasons? The Democrats will have 58, 59… maybe even 60 seats in the Senate and a very popular President in the White House. When are we going to have more leverage in negotiating a Social Security fix? There is a real possibility we could make this most regressive tax just a little more fair. How to do it? I would favor raising the cap; if that is a non-starter because of the President’s campaign promises, maybe add a surtax for income over $250,000. Ramesh Ponnuru has an interesting suggestion: slow benefit growth to the rate of inflation for those that are well off.

Fixing Social Security would have another significant benefit… it would solidify Obama’s centrist credentials and probably guarantee his re-election. 63% of Americans don’t think they’re going to receive the full benefits they’re entitled to. An electorate that is re-assured on this matter would be enormously grateful.