Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Eugenics -- I'm all for it! Apparently.

If you haven't been paying attention -- and I'd advise you not to -- you've missed possibly one of the stupidest, and contradictory, smears against left-wing people in recent memory. Ross Douthat and Kevin Drum have been going back and forth over whether "progressives" favour eugenics. Douthat says we do.

Now, I don't know if I'm in good standing with the Progressive Membership Committee, but I certainly didn't realize that I was a fan of Nazi Supermen. Nor am I a fan, as Ernest Manning was, of forced sterilization. But Ross Douthat, that sleuth, has unearthed the truth! That's right! As well as favouring grossly punitive tax levels, confiscation of national industry, summary execution of the rich, I also (as right-wing caricatures have revealed) favor policies that the Nazis would have approved of!

Of course, I don't, and Douthat is an idiot. What I favour is the right of women to choose what happens in their own bodies, and giving parents the full spectrum of medical information and advice they deserve. What this means in practice -- and here Douthat is correct -- is that many fetuses that would develop life-ending conditions when born (such as Tay-Sachs) are aborted. Douthat calls this "eugenics" because he's an idiot, and knows nothing about the actual history of eugenics.

Eugenics, as it was actually practiced in North America (and Germany) involved the imposition, by the state, of bizarre and unproven theories on to people's everyday lives. Women were forcibly sterilized as a matter of course -- famed Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer was sterilized without her consent by a white doctor during a totally unrelated surgery to remove a cyst.

But for Douthat -- who is, in other matters, a small government conservative -- this is totally comparable to loving couples making informed medical choices on their own given facts, not theories, about their potential children's lives.

What would Douthat prefer? Well, we actually know what he would prefer: a state that reached in to people's lives -- and women's uteruses -- and forced women to give birth to any viable pregnancy. Or maybe he would prefer if we simply denied people the medical knowledge to make informed decisions. Such a thing would be against the most basic bioethical laws drawn up since the Nuremberg trials, but hey, if it stops even one abortion...

What either of those options has to do with "conservative" politics or small government beats me. What any of it has to do with eugenics is a mystery, too, aside from the desire by those on the right to slime the left with rhetoric from two generations ago. Rhetoric which, if we were actually around two generations ago, they'd have been on the wrong side of.

Local business plug

Small note: If you own a bike in Toronto and are anywhere near Harbord and Bathurst, I can't recommend The Bike Joint highly enough for your bike maintenance and repair needs. Unlike too many shops in this city, they don't rob you blind once you've given up your transportation, and they're actually extremely competent. Two things that should go without saying, but don't.

Can't promise the same results, obviously, but yesterday I went in expecting a repair to take a few days (they've always got a lineup) but they did the work right in front of me so I could get to work on time. Very, very happy-making.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Fallows write, you read!

Jim Fallows on why people hate the media. I have to cut viciously to make this fit a quick blog post, but read the whole thing:
Yet in describing their decisions they used phrases like "I hope I would have the courage to . . ." and "In order to live with myself later I would . . ." The whole exercise may have been set up as a rhetorical game, but Ogletree's questions clearly tapped into discussions the soldiers had already had about the consequences of choices they made.

Then Ogletree turned to the two most famous members of the evening's panel, better known even than Westmoreland. These were two star TV journalists: Peter Jennings, of World News Tonight and ABC, and Mike Wallace, of 60 Minutes and CBS....

It was Newt Gingrich, looking a generation younger and trimmer than he would when he became speaker of the House, in 1995. One thing was clear from this exercise, Gingrich said. "The military has done a vastly better job of systematically thinking through the ethics of behavior in a violent environment than the journalists have."

That was about the mildest way to put it.
I would go further, actually. Despite the classes journalists take on "ethics", it's clear that what they're really taught is how to avoid criminal and civil trials. They aren't really taught whether something is right or wrong, nor are they taught to question their actions in such terms. (Really, you have to read Fallows' piece to see how two paragons of journalism react to an ethical challenge.) To take the most recent sensational example, check out the press reaction to Judy Miller being jailed on contempt charges. No serious journalist I read or heard defended Miller's actions, nor those of Bob Novak. Not one. And yet they universally said she shouldn't have gone to jail, and most I spoke to* couldn't think of an appropriate non-jail punishment for what she did. (I include myself there, but I was fine with her behind bars.) So we start from a decent enough premise -- freedom of the press -- and lead, without any real substantive thought, to a press totally unshackled from responsibility or accountability.

*There are journalists in my family, and my pro-jail-for-journalists views caused some heated discussions.

So yes, the military deals with the ethics of their profession far, far better than journalists deal with the ethics of theirs.

But again, read Jim Fallows.

It's called "budgeting".

I haven't written much about the whole "Toronto can't keep the city running" fracas we're having in the city, basically because a) many people have expressed my views better and sooner than I, and b) the whole issue makes me question my faith in human reason and democracy.

Basically, for those just tuning in, Toronto -- like many Ontario municipalities -- was saddled with a lot of social services during the Harris years, and the costs for those services keep going up. Unlike other municipalities, Toronto has been given extra revenue-generating powers by the McGuinty government to meet those costs. So the geniuses at City Hall, after literally more than a decade of lobbying for those same powers, can't even decide on whether to use those powers or not. You heard me right: they postponed a decision on whether or not to raise new taxes. By one vote.

Ah, and it continues to get worse: since that vote, at least two councillors have said they've changed their minds. Why? Because they saw the vote as an elaborate stunt, designed to blackmail Dalton McGuinty in to sending some Ontario dollars down Toronto way. McGuinty, no fool, is going in to an election and doesn't want to be seen shovelling money in to Toronto's coffers. (Forget bilingualism or health care: the only thing keeping this country together is the universal loathing of Toronto.) So, after the stunt failed -- with Finance Minister Greg Sorbara making an incredbly condescending statement about teaching Toronto to "save money" -- council might be willing to look at actually, uh, raising revenue to pay for its obligations.

Like Mr. Scoville at The Vanity Press, I agree with McGuinty -- Toronto has powers unique in the province, and should use them to get through over this hurdle, if nothing else. (It's worth saying that the Mayor is also a voice of sanity here.) But it's a bit much for the Premier to lecture Toronto about meeting it's own obligations. Dalton McGuinty has, after all, spent far more time in government going to Ottawa whining about not getting enough money than Toronto City Council has. And the Province of Ontario has vastly more fundraising powers than the City of Toronto ever will. Worst of all, McGuinty has presided over a provincial government while the Feds have cut taxes -- McGuinty could have raised taxes in Ontario without, on balance, changing anyone's tax burden. (Raising the PST when Harper cut the GST, for example.) But McGuinty was already burned by having to raise taxes when he took office, and wants to be re-elected. So it turns out that in Ontario politics, what's good for the goose isn't, in fact, good for the gander: Ontario deserves every nickel of money that it's asking for, but under no circumstances will Toronto get the money it wants.

Finally, it's worth noting that even if Toronto didn't have the special powers it was given by the McGuinty government, it still could have raised the necessary revenue, the way other cities in Ontario do: property taxes. When I was living in Ottawa, the taxes were increasing literally every year. Homeowners in Toronto pay lower tax rates than other cities in Ontario -- thank you, developers lobby! -- including Ottawa. (Montrealers also pay higher taxes.)

Long-term, yes, the Province should take back the social services they forced on the city -- or let the Feds pay for them, if Ottawa's willing. Frankly, there's not a lot of reason for the provincial-level division of powers in the 21st century -- I'm more a proponent of "hourglass federalism", with all the powers pushed (preferably) to the bottom or (when necessary) the very top. But that's a pipe-dream, and the provinces are far more paranoid about Ottawa encroaching on their turf than they are interested in actually providing their constituents with the services they pay for.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Ask the ghost of Gen. Stilwell

(Cross-posted at Ezra's.)

We don't need to be psychics to figure where this leads: faced with the choice of backing Petraeus, or backing the nominal Iraqi PM, the US Govt. will find some cushy job for Petraeus to retire to.

The number of times the US government has found itself committed to defending a client regime with only a feudal sense of governance, unable to make broad national compromises necessary for it's own survival, really defies comprehension. Similarly, the number of times intelligent, well-meaning American officers have gone up against intransigent puppet regimes and lost is beyond counting.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

US Army: Blaming the correct since 1972

Not encouraging. (As if encouraging news is possible from Iraq anymore...) A few days ago, George Packer wrote that it was possible that the Vietnam-era schism between academia and the military was breaking down. The cause for this bout of rapprochement? Why, the war of course!
After the military’s failure in Vietnam, it tried to turn war into a matter of firepower and technology—which is why, when the Sunni insurgency began to take off in the summer of 2003, American forces had no idea how to react and made matters far worse. By 2004, battalion commanders in Salahuddin were begging the Pentagon for information about the nature of Iraqi society. This year, the Army is actually deploying teams of social scientists with units in Baghdad and Afghanistan. The soldiers whose reputations have been made and not destroyed in Iraq—General David Petraeus, Colonel H. R. McMaster, Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl—have doctorates in the humanities. The best soldiers I met in Iraq were eager to share critical views with professors and journalists. This past spring, when McMaster led a group of officials and private citizens to Iraq to assess progress there, he picked as one member an anti-war British political-science professor who happens to know a great deal about the country. Desperate times breed desperate measures.
Well, the military may need academics, but it doesn't have to like them. Col. HR McMaster -- the one Packer mentions specifically above, and about whom Packer has written a great deal -- has been passed over for promotion. For the second time. More than one person has pointed out the obvious: McMaster has gotten a lot of good press by a) emphasizing that new thinking, not new weapons, are necessary in Iraq, and b) McMaster's first claim to fame was writing a book where he argued that America's Vietnam-era Generals had failed miserably in their jobs by saying pleasing things to their (Democratic) political leaders, rather than telling the necessary truth.

It used to be said that the military learned it's lessons from Vietnam -- something that, I hope it's clear, is simply not true. Rather, the US military learned some lessons about a war that they believe happened somewhere in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s, but it really bears little resemblance to the war that was actually fought. I fear we're in for a rerun -- the military hierarchy refusing to listen to those who have proven themselves in the field to understand the different kind of conflict they're in.

Cycles within cycles.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Upside of Down

A few posts ago, I wrote (of Cullen Murphy's Are We Rome?):
If you're looking for something a bit more substantial in your Americo-Roman comparisons, there's more substance in another book out there -- something I'll return to in a later post.
Well, the book in question is Thomas Homer-Dixon's The Upside of Down, and my review of it is now up at Gristmill. I can honestly say that this is one of my new favourite books. I would certainly rank it up there with Guns, Germs and Steel in terms of horizon-expanding works.

Check it out.


Atrios, repeating himself:
For some reason people in and covering national politics seem to hate the fact that politics actually involves genuine disagreement, and it'd be so much fun if we just got rid off all that stuff we disagreed about.
Ah, the yearning for consensus.

Reading The Best and the Brightest, I think there's an older pedigree for this than we often realize. During the 40s, 50s, and early 60s, there really was a kind of consensus among those in power: Communism had to be defeated, Civil Rights for blacks was dangerous extremism, and the government could be -- in fact, had to be -- trusted on matters of national security. #2 started to break down early, but the others took a while longer to be seen for what they were.

Of course, there was never a true "consensus" in the sense of people universally agreeing with each other. Rather, what you had was the owners of the New York Times and the Washington Post agreeing with the Presidents and Secretaries of Defense and State of the age (so, never more than a dozen or so white men.) This was enough, for the early age of post-war mass media, to create the illusion of consensus.

But -- and this is really quite important -- the consensus was absolutely wrong, and a disaster for America. Communism wasn't universally imperial and expansionist. Indeed, after Stalin died, it wasn't imperial and expansionist anywhere that the US cared about until the 1970s in Afghanistan. So rather than make some kind of separate peace with the Chinese Communists, and later the Vietnamese, America saw both powers as nefarious and hostile.

Even worse, the desire to reinforce The Consensus led directly to McCarthyism, and a permanent lobotomization of the US foreign service. Because the US couldn't dare admit that maybe Chiang Kai-Shek wasn't the Asiatic reincarnation of George Washington, that maybe the KMT was simply incompetent to rule China, the Nationalists must have been betrayed -- the US must have "lost" China. In the witch-hunts that followed, anyone who had been right about China -- predicting the Communist victory -- was hounded out of office, while those who'd been most enthusiastically wrong, and were still clamoring to "unleash Chiang" on the mainland (ha!) were promoted. So the fall of China rewarded those who'd been most wrong, and punished those who'd been most right.

The results in Vietnam, later, were very similar, and the blood flowed from the same opened artery: a refusal to "lose" another Asian country led to a refusal to recognize that, once again, the Communists were the only truly nationalist, patriotic force in Vietnam, who commanded the loyalty of the people. Millions had to die on both sides before the Americans would bitterly abandon the illusion -- and some never have.

So no, please, let's not have any more consensuses (consensa?) in Washington. I don't think the world can afford them.

Solar: Too expensive!

Some data points for the "renewables are too expensive crowd":

1) Korean researchers develop plastic solar panels that deliver power at $0.10 per watt. (Rule of thumb: coal is $1/watt, nuclear as much as $6/watt.)

2) NJIT researcher developing process that could lead to home-made solar panels from your inkjet printer.

3) California utility buying concentrating solar power at $0.10 per kilowatt-hour. Peak cost of electricity in Ontario, yesterday at 3PM: $0.09 per kilowatt-hour. (This was about twice the average for the year so far, but the point is clearly, we can afford it.)

4) And if you need to store renewable energy, how about a big block of pencil-lead?

On the current constitutional crisis

So here's the state of play: You've got one branch of government, nominally charged with enforcing and executing the laws of the land, committed explicitly to ignoring, abrogating, and violating those same laws.

Then you've got one branch of government, nominally charged only with making the laws, and overseeing the executive, which now has to think of ways to enforce the law in the absence of faithful execution (and breach of their oath of office) from the White House.

Then you've got the Supreme Court, appointed largely by men sympathetic to the aims of the lawless men squatting in the Oval Office. At least 4 of the 9 can be expected to support Bush's lawlessness -- two because they owe their jobs to him, two because they're just awful men.

We are approaching the point where the Sergeant-at-Arms for the US Congress is going to be asked to compel White House witnesses to testify before Congress, and he may very well be stopped at the White House door by agents of the US Parks Service, or even the Secret Service.

You know, just because you don't call it a crisis, doesn't mean it isn't one.

Monday, July 23, 2007


So, uh, what the fuck are we doing in the Balkans? Because, it's not like anything bad has ever happened in the Former Yugoslavia that's caused major problems in the rest of the world. Or anything.

I supported the bombing of Kosovo -- something I'm far less certain about now, seeing where the caboose on that particular intellectual train ended up -- but at the time, NATO actions were explicitly predicated on a promise not to partition Kosovo away from the rest of Serbia. This made sense both pragmatically -- Russian actions were problematic enough -- and legally: the UN Charter basically forbids that kind of interference in a nation's politics. Now, having spent almost a decade building up Kosovar expectations, the US, Europe (and I assume Canada is part of the NATO package on this one) look ready to support Kosovo's partition away from Serbia.

To put it bluntly, it's difficult to think there's any way this ends well. Russia is going to be even more antagonistic to western policies, and you can expect Russia to start working with ethnic Russian minorities in former Soviet states (Georgia and Moldova most immediately) to pull off the same trick, this time with the pseudo-legitimacy of "they did it first". Lest you think this is something that will just blow over, I refer you to Richard Holbrooke of the Clinton Administration, from March of this year:
There is no doubt that President Vladimir Putin... is seeking to regain ground lost in the decade after the Soviet Union's collapse, while at home Putin pursues increasingly authoritarian, often brutal, policies. Only when Putin harshly criticized the United States during a conference in Munich last month (with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Sens. John McCain, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham sitting in front of him) did Americans pay attention -- and then only briefly. Now a key test of Russia's relationship with the West is at hand, and Russia's actions could determine whether there is another war in Europe.
Oh Goody. Because if there's a possibility of war in Europe, with Russia coming to the aid of Serbia, I think we should totally do that. It's totally fool-proof, I say! Now, where are those train schedules...

Not to be too blunt, but the aftermath of Kosovo really shows how problematic US foreign policy was, well before Bush. Holbrooke's piece in the WaPo shows exactly how condescending and arrogant US policymakers can be:
Belgrade is deeply opposed, as it has been to any change in the status of Kosovo, an area that the Serbs feel is part of their historic territory but that is now more than 90 percent Albanian. In the end, the Serbs will have to face the truth: Kosovo is gone from Serbia forever, a result of the policies of the former Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic.
Two things: First off, it's funny how easy it is to partition Kosovo off of Serbia -- which has to "face reality" -- but how impossible it is to get the Israeli government to accept the "loss" of the West Bank and Gaza. If we're talking % of population, Palestinians make up 82% of the West Bank -- where exactly is the magic line that says Serbia has to face reality, but the Palestinians have to be forced to accept enormous suffering and humiliation before we're willing to grant them anything remotely similar? (Let's not pretend that the Kosovar Albanians refrained from using violence, either.) Apparently, the magic line lies somewhere between 82% and 90%. The numbers would be even closer -- with a higher % of Serb Kosovars -- if there hadn't been so much Albanian-on-Serb violence after the end of NATO's war.

Secondly, Serb's don't "feel" that Kosovo is part of their "historic" territory: Kosovo is, by international law, part of present Serbia. This sentence is about as condescending as if I wrote "Americans feel that New Mexico is part of their historic territory..." and about as accurate. You can't just wave away realities of international law and politics. It's this kind of laissez-faire attitude with facts that got the US in to Iraq, for God's sake. And you've got to almost pat Holbrooke on the head for this breathtaking stupidity:
Russia contends that the United Nations does not have the right to change an international border without the agreement of the country involved. But Kosovo is a unique case and sets no precedent for separatist movements elsewhere...
Right. Because as current events have shown, only the US or NATO gets to decide what a reasonable interpretation of international precedent is. It's not like China or Russia have used America's pronouncements on terrorism to crack down on domestic opposition because... oh wait, that's exactly what they've done.

If anything, John Podesta is even more arrogant today when he writes:
The administration and our key European allies have agreed to one final round of good-faith negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo, to take no longer than 120 days. This week's meetings are expected to lay the groundwork for those talks. It is clear that after those talks conclude, the United States is prepared to recognize an independent Kosovo. The question is whether European governments will follow suit. To do otherwise is to risk a replay of the Balkan chaos of the early 1990s.
Got that?

1) Negotiations designed to finalize the status of Kosovo.
2) Advance warning, by Washington insiders, that the US will support an independent Kosovo no matter what happens.
3) Presumably, negotations that will fail.
4) A unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo, backed by the US immediately and unconditionally.
5) Somehow, it will be all Old Europe's fault.

It's even possible that the partitioning of Kosovo could achieve what the invasion of Iraq was supposed to, what Richard Perle et al. wanted all along: the final, irrevocable de-legitimizing of the United Nations as a body for dispute resolution in the world.

About the only thing that is bright and sunny in this whole mess is the possible future I see: If Kosovo declares it's independence from Serbia and finds itself at war with Belgrade, the two forces most likely to defend Pristina are the US and the same group of people who find their way in to every country where a Muslim nation is being attacked by a non-Muslim one: Al Qaeda. So if those of us with an ironic outlook are really, really lucky, before Bush leaves office we'll have the joy of watching him praise the Al Qaeda forces fighting for a free and independent Kosovo. Bonus points for footage of US soldiers fighting alongside AQ fighters.

(Edited slightly after posting.)

What I'm reading/How depressed am I today?

The problem for me, after any decent period of non-blogging, is knowing what to start with. So I suppose I'll start with what I read on the 14 hours of flying I did over the last week:

First, I finished Cullen Murphy's Are We Rome? Extraordinarily well-written, though it would be charitable to say this book isn't exactly an academic treatment, and it doesn't try to be. What it is, is a short but very broad look at some of the core similarities between Rome and America, the problems they both face/faced, and some brief prescriptions at the end on how to avoid Rome's fate. Murphy suggests mandatory national service, a concept I keep going back and forth on. Many of the arguments I find totally daft. The idea that a US President would be less likely to order a conscript army to war than a volunteer one is simply stupid, and the idea that the US Armed Forces should be expanded so that America has the means to do bad things in the world, like the labour-intensive occupation of hostile countries, seems to me similarly dumb. (Hint: the solution isn't a bigger army, it's to stop occupying hostile foreign countries.) I would, highly, reccomend Murphy's book, because I think he avoids getting bogged down in making too-detailed a comparison between Rome and the US, and deals with it more thematically. The book is nothing more, and nothing less, than what it sets out to be, and as I said it's very well written. If you're looking for something a bit more substantial in your Americo-Roman comparisons, there's more substance in another book out there -- something I'll return to in a later post.

The second book I'm still reading is The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam. The capsule review for this book is a quote by Mark Twain: "History doesn't repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme." Halberstam couldn't have known it when he wrote TB&B in 1971, but Bush-Cheney have followed the march of folly so closely, you'd swear they were using his history of the Vietnam War as an instruction manual. Every time you read, in Halberstam, of Asian experts being ignored and ridiculed for being soft on Communism, think of the hostility and McCarthyism towards Middle East Studies experts today. (Ask Juan Cole for details, if you like.) Every time you read of French, and later American, Generals warning of the folly of trying to occupy Vietnam, think of Eric Shinseki. (General, and later Marshal, Leclerc warned the French government "It would take 500,000 men to do it, and even then it couldn't be done." And was ignored, of course.) When you read of dissenting voices in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations being silenced by McNamara and Bundy, think of the roles played by Rumsfeld and Cheney. And of course, what becomes clear is the incredible staying power of civil servants when they've decided on a course of action -- absolutely nothing could convice McNamara, Rostow, or Bundy they were wrong. Years later, after McNamara had finally changed his mind on the war, he asked John Paul Vann why it was that Vann's damning statistics had never made it to his office. Vann told McNamara that it was his own damn fault -- he'd made it impossible for dissenting information to make it to himself or the President.

The comparisons are easy -- maybe too easy -- but it's an incredibly depressing book to read. No less depressing than the reality we live with today, of course. I'm a firm believer in individual agency -- people aren't moved by vast, impersonal forces, but play an active role in the world they make. (In this sense, I'm very much like the men who blundered in to Vietnam. Yikes!) But reading Halberstam makes me more deterministic by the page, by the paragraph even. You can't help but feel we're trapped in cycles from which we can't escape -- some kind of awful Hindu cycle of reincarnation, with Kali the Devourer waiting at the end.

What I did on my summer vacation

So, yeah, I'm back from England. Nothing really wild or exciting to report -- I was staying with my mother, siblings, girlfriend, and most of my mom's family in a small town called Lymington, in Hampshire. Lymington was once represented in London by no less than Edward Gibbon of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Being a small town in the south of England, we all had a lovely time, and even managed to have a brief day in London -- long enough to see the major landmarks and a few hours at the British National Museum. You walk in knowing about the Rosetta stone, you expect to see the Rosetta stone, and then, bang, you're looking at the freakin' Rosetta Stone. Pretty cool.

I'm not sure if Lymington is technically considered to be inside the New Forest or not, but the New Forest is an interesting thing to see -- crown land in the South, where horses and cows roam around the side of the highways, sometimes uncomfortably close to the road. On one long, mud-filled trek around the marshes near where we were staying, my brother, girlfriend and I turned a bend in the trees to find about a half dozen horses and cows. My first thought was "oh shit, we've somehow trespassed onto private land and some farmer's livestock is grazing here." Turns out this probably wasn't the case -- rather, we'd met some of the long-term residents of the New Forest, who were generally unimpressed with our appearance. Whatever the ruminant equivalent of "psh, tourists" is, I'm pretty sure we heard it.

The New Forest is of course only "new" in the sense that it was created by William the Conqueror in 1079 so that he could have a game reserve. With all the problems that we've got today, I've got to say it's somehow heartening to see that it's possible, if only just, to maintain that kind of conservation ethic over 900 years and more.

London was interesting, obviously. What I found most interesting -- for the, like, seven hours I was there -- was the obvious contradictions between two sides of British history. On the one hand, you have a number of landmarks that date back about a thousand years or so, and the tour guides all very loudly point them out ("look, American tourist! OLD THINGS!") On the other hand, the really prominent landmarks (Trafalgar Square, anything beginning with the syllable "Vic-") are "only" a bit older than say, the British North America Act. Thus, while there are a few nods towards the millenium of Englishness, the real monuments you see the most are not, say, from when England lost the 100 Years' War, or from the Black Death*, but rather date from the apex of British power. I couldn't help but think of how Washington, DC, changed so rapidly during and immediately after World War II. The capitals of empire don't really reflect their history -- they reflect their power.

*Of course, the other reason so little was preserved from truly old London is the Great Fire of 1666. Given the destruction of 80% of the city, and the creation of the United Kingdom itself only a few decades later, London might therefore be the most "British" city in England.

When I wasn't in London or Lymington, I was in Gosport where my mother lived when she was younger. Gosport is just across the river from Portsmouth, which is where the HMS Victory is berthed. The Victory, for those who aren't naval history nerds, was the ship that carried Adm. Nelson's flag during the Battle of Trafalgar, when Nelson famously signalled "England expects that every man will do his duty." And if you wonder, "Gee, this is all very interesting, but can I buy kitschy memorabilia with those words plastered all over them at the gift shop?" Yes, yes you can.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Don't ever shift out of neutral

(Cross-posted at Ezra Klein's)

This is a small thing, but what Atrios is talking about here (the Americanization of the first Harry Potter book) really is bizarre and somewhat frightening to me. It's similar to putting English subtitles underneath people who are already speaking English, but have heavy-but-understandable accents because English isn't their first language. And I can't help but feel it's connected to the mania over illegal immigrants not speaking English -- the idea that we should be at all inconvenienced by a moment of linguistic incomprehension in our lives seems to offend us on some level, I guess. I wasn't aware that the point of a book, or a television news program for that matter, was for the audience to engage their eyes, ears, and brains as little as possible.

And it's totally irrelevant now that the Harry Potter cycle is complete, but you could always get the unbowdlerized Rowling in Canada -- Amazon.co.uk wasn't necessary.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Extended Radio Silence

So, I'm off to England.

Posting = Spotty, at best.

This will be my first trip in a 767, and my first air trip lasting more than 2 hours. Come to think of it, this will be my first trip outside the American hemisphere. That only occurred to me now. Huh.

I'll be back in about a week's time, though who knows how chatty I'll feel.

Biofuels, plug-ins, etc: shameless linkdumping

(Cross-posted at Ezra Klein's.)

Here's an interesting idea: the Japanese are investigating the potential of biofuel production from seaweed. Seaweed farming already produces several million tons of farmed product per year (the vast majority from China) and the same technologies that keep promising to make cellulosic ethanol profitable (just around the corner, honest!) could work the same magic on seaweed. The researchers claim that a 10,000 square kilometer seaweed farm could produce 1/3 of Japan's fuel demand per year.

The US demand is much higher, but the US has plenty of space: having the world's largest EEZ means that, even is seaweed cultivation is restricted to the area where US law applies you could meet US demand with less than 10% of the available ocean. I literally just started reading about this stuff -- does anyone know if seaweed cultivation requires shallow waters, or if there's some other bottleneck that would restrict large-scale production? In any case, a source of biomass that doesn't sacrifice food acreage is welcome indeed.

Back on land, a recent study shows that Miscanthus is a far more effective biomass feedstock than switchgrass. It's so effective, in fact, that trials in Illinois suggest that it could replace 80% of the state's liquid fuel needs with 10% of the land. As more effective breeding and cultivation methods are developed, it's expected those numbers will improve substantially.

Now, it's probable that neither of these options is going to be "cheap" in the sense that Americans and Canadians are used to. So the obvious response is to make cars more efficient, right? Good news: the Union of Concerned Scientists -- long the best source for fuel-efficiency and climate change data -- has modelled increasing the US fuel efficiency to 35 mpg by 2018, and the headline is that the US would gain nearly a quarter-million jobs while saving $60 billion at the pump.

Finally, it looks like GM isn't the only US automaker taking plug-in hybrids seriously: Ford seems to be getting in on the act as well, making a deal with SoCal Edison to provide 20 SUVs refitted as plug-in hybrids by 2009. At the risk of sounding repetitive, replacing liquid fuels with electricity wherever possible is the easiest, fastest way to curb oil demand and the accompanying CO2 emissions.

The rapid introduction of cars and light trucks that get 100 miles and more without consuming a drop of gasoline could eliminate much of US liquid fuel demand, while relatively small chunks of land or sea devoted to biomass production could fill the gap. This is the basic roadmap. How we generate the electricity -- wind, solar are obvious favorites of mine -- and where exactly we get the biomass -- miscanthus, seaweed -- are details. Important ones, but what's important is to get America (and really, the world) on the right path.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Tyranny of Moore's Law

Matthew Yglesias does the math on what a quarter-century of computer technology has brought us:
...it seems that back in 1982, James Fallows paid $4,000 for his computer featuring 64k of RAM plus another $800 for a floppy disk drive. According to the handy CPI calculator on the BLS website, $4,800 in 1982 is equivalent to a bit over $10,000 in today's money.

Naturally, I had no choice but to scroll over to the Apple Store and see how much computer I could get for $10,000. Well, I got myself a Mac Pro with two 3.0 GHz quad-core Intel Xeon processors, 8 gigs of RAM, four 750 gig hard drives, two Super Drives capable of reading and writing CDs and DVDs, a 30 inch Apple HD Cinema Display, a wireless keyboard and a wireless mouse. That comes to $9,449. I believe that's a 128,000-fold in RAM. The improvement in storage capacity is, in some ways, even more impressive.

The enduring relevance of Roman history

Cullen Murphy on the arrogance of empire, then and now:
Across the board it fosters the conviction that assertions of will can trump assessments of reality: the world is the way we say it is. This, in the most recent federal budget, $20 million has been set aside for an eventual "day of celebration" marking American victory in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A Roman moment captures the spirit: in 476 A.D., not long after the last emperor was deposed and the empire in the West had come to an end, the Roman Senate ordered new coins to be struck. The coins bore the legend "Roma Invicta" -- Rome Unconquered."

-- Cullen Murphy, Are We Rome?, p. 58

Somedays, my atheism fails me

...today is one of those days: Shirley Bassey covers Pink, "Get This Party Started":


Thursday, July 12, 2007

Defining heresy

Heterodox Economist (yes, a recent blogger) strikes at something that's been bothering me for a while now too: the tendency of orthodox economists to define anything that isn't Friedman-derived math fetishism as something "not economics".

This point in particular is a good one:
Economics, as defined by the orthodox, is NOT the study of the economy. It is the use of a certain perspective/method: as stated by Lionel Robbins, economics studies "human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses." Further, orthodox economists often presumes that this study must involve the use of formal mathematical models that have certain characteristics.

An "economist" then can study anything as long as the approach used is to consider human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce resources. This might involve buying a car, deciding whether to have a baby, figuring out how best to win a war, and so on. It's all economics.

What is NOT economics is "the study of the economy." Go figure.
Reading that, I was reminded of when the NY Times ran a story on George Akerlof's address to the AEA -- his address was called "The Missing Motivation in Economics", (PDF) and dealt (grossly shortening his thesis here) with the fact that people have pre-existing conceptions of what they should do, quite apart from simply following price signals.

I remember being confused and shocked when one economist in the article said (paraphrasing here) "Well, it's interesting and all, but it's not economics." Get that? Studying why people make economic choices isn't economics, because you dare to incorporate something non-mathematical like a normative assumption. This is such a brittle view of what "economics" is, you kind of hope somebody comes along and smashes it soon.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Puncturing stupid ideas

A new scientific study concludes that changes in the Sun's output cannot be causing modern-day climate change.

It shows that for the last 20 years, the Sun's output has declined, yet temperatures on Earth have risen.

It also shows that modern temperatures are not determined by the Sun's effect on cosmic rays, as has been claimed.

Writing in the Royal Society's journal Proceedings A, the researchers say cosmic rays may have affected climate in the past, but not the present.

"This should settle the debate," said Mike Lockwood, from the UK's Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory, who carried out the new analysis together with Claus Froehlich from the World Radiation Center in Switzerland.

"This paper re-enforces the fact that the warming in the last 20 to 40 years can't have been caused by solar activity"
We really need to just stop listening to people who keep grasping for nonsensical explanations for global warming. The science hasn't changed fundamentally since the Johnson administration, but God forbid you tell the coal lobby that.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

My suckage is duly noted

Me: Wow. Al Gore in a hologram, in Tokyo.

The Girlfriend: Is Al Gore an alien?

Me: No. Just a robot.

TGF: Oh...

Me: He could be an alien robot, I dunno.

TGF: Like a Transformer? What does he transform in to?

Me: Another Al Gore.

TGF: ...

Me: Look, he's boring, okay?*

TGF: That sucks, and you suck for it sucking so suckily.

(*I am, of course, in love with Al Gore.)

And here's the hologram:

Friday, July 06, 2007


Just Foreign Policy Iraqi Death Estimator


Dr. Miller's data reveal some yawning gaps in basic knowledge. American adults in general do not understand what molecules are (other than that they are really small). Fewer than a third can identify DNA as a key to heredity. Only about 10 percent know what radiation is. One adult American in five thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth, an idea science had abandoned by the 17th century.
But there's more! Miller also identifies the key reason why American education is failing:
Dr. Miller, who was raised in Portsmouth, Ohio, when it was a dying steel town, attributes much of the nation's collective scientific ignorance to poor education, particularly in high schools. Many colleges require every student to take some science, but most Americans do not graduate from college. And science education in high school can be spotty, he said.

"Our best university graduates are world-class by any definition," he said. "But the second half of our high school population - it's an embarrassment. We have left behind a lot of people."

He had firsthand experience with local school issues in the 1980's, when he was a young father living in DeKalb, Ill., and teaching at Northern Illinois University. The local school board was considering closing his children's school, and he attended some board meetings to get an idea of members' reasoning. It turned out they were spending far more time on issues like the cost of football tickets than they were on the budget and other classroom matters. "It was shocking," he said.

So he and some like-minded people ran successfully for the board and, once in office, tried to raise taxes to provide more money for the classroom. They initiated three referendums; all failed. Eventually, he gave up, and his family moved away.

"This country cannot finance good school systems on property taxes," he said. "We don't get the best people for teaching because we pay so little. For people in the sciences particularly, if you have some skill, the job market is so good that teaching is not competitive."
The property taxes issue really is key -- wealthy families move out of the city to the suburbs, segregate themselves from the poor, so once you cross a county line, the difference in schools becomes evident.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Friends should make friends drive high

...cuz it looks funny from above.

What I've been thinking about lately, II

So, I don't go around writing epic posts about 14th- and 15th-century warfare for nothing. What interests me about the end of the knight as the central battle unit in European warfare is what followed it: It was cheaper to train longbow archers and pikemen (and following them, early musketeers) so armies got larger and larger, leading (almost) inevitably to the great continent-spanning wars of Napoleon. That is, a process where war had gotten more and more expensive (the knight paradigm) was eventually upended by a military paradigm where big wars got easier and easier: as war got larger, states became more "modern" in the sense that we would recognize them today. Because knights had such huge needs in terms of land, and other political powers besides, it became cheaper and easier to simply tax the nobles (many of them knights, of course) and send the rabble to fight with bows and pointy sticks instead. (The power of the pointy stick cannot be over-estimated. Ask the Swiss.) This drives both the impulse towards a modern tax-collecting state, and in the case of England, modern liberal democracy.

Armies -- built around infantry, cannon, and cavalry -- stay affordable (though never "cheap") well in to the 20th century, long after the tank and truck supplant and finally eliminate cavalry as a useful military unit. But sometime after World War II, the cost of equipping armed forces starts spiralling upwards. As Gwynne Dyer writes in his excellent book, War, the best fighter of 1939 (the British Spitfire) was something like 50 times cheaper than the best fighter of 1989 (the American F-15), even after adjusting for inflation. And this is only one example you can pick: tanks, ships -- hell, guns, with the exception of the half-century old AK-47, have gotten more expensive. Even infantry, that old standby, is going through major inflation as the US tries to build the new "networked" soldier. This is a problem for national governments, because nobody is 50 times richer than they were at the beginning of World War II. So armies by definition get smaller.

(There's the other obvious point that in many ways, the weapons of WWII "cost" less because England and the US in fact adopted many of the command-economy methods of the Soviet Union, albeit with a more pleasant face and none of the fratricidal butchery of Stalin's reign.)

So "expensive" war has replaced "cheap" war once again. The knights are back, except this time they ride in tanks and APCs. Moreover, they have defined what a "respectable" military looks like for the 60 years since WWII ended. Remember -- Edward III would have loved to have knights in Normandy. Any respectable King would have. Maybe there are good and substantial reasons for this -- tanks are extremely impressive, as are aircraft carriers and the F-22 fighter. But clearly, these are also weapons systems that other powers pursue for the prestige of owning them, as well as the military utility they confer. As it turned out for the knight on horseback, he was obsolete -- this might not be the case with modern warfare, but I think there's decent reason to believe that it is.

Remember, the French nobility reacted to the introduction of the Welsh Longbow rationally. They improved the armor of the knight himself, and added armor to their horses -- up-armoring, in contemporary language. It did not do them any good against the Longbow, because the very problem with the knight is that he has to close with his enemy to destroy him. By the time a knight closes with an archer, a 100-gram arrow flying from a 6-foot longbow carries enough kinetic energy to knock the knight off his horse, kill his horse beneath him, or if his armor is poorly made, punch straight through. And, even if the archers hadn't ended the reign of the knight, the earliest muskets were already being introduced to the European battlefield by the end of the 100 Years War. Within a few generations of improvement, the musket made personal armour useless, and in fact counter-productive.

So the knight on horseback disappears, though cavalry stick around for another half-millenium, and battles in Europe increasingly take the form of massed infantry charges, supported by cannon and cavalry. At first pikes defend archers, and then the bayonet-musket combination makes an unbeatable combination. And the infantry formation, which dates back to Sumeria, is eventually destroyed once and for all by the machine gun. Having dozens of men in a close march is just an inviting target by the time we get to the trenches of France and Belgium, though it takes everyone a few years to realize it. By the time the war ends, infantry have dispersed and tanks have been introduced as a way to overrun machine gun fire.

I want to stress that part: having a bunch of guys in close proximity went from being the fundamental aspect of war to being suicidal, because of a simple change in weapons technology. These kinds of things happen, a lot.

So, relevance for today: I read, with sadness, yesterday that 6 more Canadians had died in Afghanistan. I read, with interest, that they were in a RG-31 Nyala armored vehicle, specifically designed to resist land mines and other explosives. It doesn't actually matter what vehicle they were riding in, only to say that it could have been almost anything: there is very little in our arsenal that cannot be destroyed with enough ingenuity. And there's no reason to believe this is going to change. There are any number of reasons why we simply will not be able to add enough armour to the vehicles we fight in to make them resistant to the weapons we face: every pound of armour you add requires you to either sacrifice mobility, or build a better engine and better steering, for any vehicle you can think of. Plus, there are additional concerns: the US Army needs its vehicles to be light enough to be transported by aircraft such as the C-17 or C-5. This poses an absolute weight limit on a vehicle, unless we want to start re-engineering the entire logistical train of the modern military -- agh!

So the vehicles we're able to build, can't be armored enough for them to be "safe" from enemy attack. As just the most recent example, the highly-touted "MRAP" vehicle the US Army is being told by Congress to be desperate for cannot stop an explosively formed projectile, the likes of which we've heard so much recently of in Iraq. The Stryker has met serious problems -- though this is highly controversial -- when faced with IEDs, and there's even reports of Abrams tanks (presumed to be as close to invulnerable as human science can make) having been disabled in 2003 by Russian made Kornet anti-tank missiles. Rumours or no, the Kornet was confirmed to have been used against Israel by Hezbollah in their recent war, and the Merkava tank is no slouch when it comes to armour. By the way, the Merkava's fire control system is named "Knight".

So if we do up-armor our tanks, our APCs, our MRAPs, etc, there's no reason to believe that, in short order, any halfway motivated adversary won't be able to make or buy a countermeasure to punch through it. There's no mystery here: we've been watching this basic dance between armour and warhead since the introduction of the bazooka, and the single most important fact about the 1973 Arab-Israeli war has to be, in any objective evaluation, that the Arab armies stopped Israeli armour and air support for days with shoulder-mounted missiles that are, what, two or three generations behind what is currently available to Hezbollah? (I've heard it said that, at the apex of the Egyptian offensive, Israeli army soldiers begged the Air Force to stop sending air support -- they couldn't bear to watch more planes be shot down.) Imagine what the Egyptians and Syrians could have done if they'd actually been any good, or had leaders who were worth the name. And shoulder-mounted missiles are only one of the many weapons that armor now has to contend with -- IEDs, EFPs, not to mention professionally made weapons.

My point is this: the answer, in all probablility, does not lie in trying to build bigger and more heavily armored vehicles. The Israelis counter-attacked in the Sinai with infantry, not tanks, and surprised the hell out of the Egyptians in doing so. Similarly, it's occurred to some officers in Iraq that the proper response to IEDs is simply to get their soldiers the fuck out of those armored deathtraps. (Which was supposed to be what they were doing for the sake of counter-insurgency anyway, but that's another story...) Just as the answer to the longbow wasn't for the knight to get heavier and slower, the answer to the spectrum of anti-tank weapons (all of which will get more effective, not less) may, and here I stress may, be to abandon APCs with a dozen men and tanks with 3 men apiece, and disperse infantry forces once more, just as they did after the machine gun made the formation march lethally obsolete.

I asked, in my previous post, why the French nobility kept sending knights in to be slaughtered by rabble with bows and arrows. What was the learning disability? What's ours? We watched and were alleged to have learned from the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, we watched last summer as Hezbollah held off the Israeli army with prepared fortifications and shoulder-mounted missiles (all the while pelting northern Israel with rockets and impunity) and yet the US Army was, until it's budget got eaten by Iraq, planning for the Future Combat System (FCS), a multi-hundred-billion dollar reinvention of the Army, building shiny new tanks, artillery, and mortars for the next generation. The Mounted Combat System (the tank component of the FCS) is supposed to have a firing range of 8 kilometers... or about the same maximum range of the Israeli-made anti-tank Spike missile. Even assuming the Mounted Combat System ever makes it in to production, who thinks the Israelis are the only ones capable of building a missile like that? Who wants to bet against the next generation missile having longer range and a bigger warhead? (Oh, and it gets better: to improve mobility, the MCS was supposed to be "lightly armored", allowing it to fit inside a C-130, but offering less protection, one can only imagine.)

Whatever the US and its allies (including Canada) spends in Iraq and Afghanistan, the procurement budget for their adversaries is, as Ian Welsh has put it, a rounding error in comparison. But this isn't limited to issues of fighting wars of occupation -- the example of 1973 shows, in a modern conventional war, how effective anti-tank weapons were 34 years ago. It's possible we'll look back on the war in Lebanon last summer with the same opinions, I can't say yet. What we're looking at is not only the mistake America made by fighting a war of occupation, and thus surrounding itself in enemy territory. This is something more fundamental. If the tank is obsolete as I suspect it is, it's because they're expensive and slow to build but cheap and fast to destroy: the weapon it takes to destroy a tank isn't nearly as expensive as the tank is, and can be made faster and in larger numbers. The same weapons that make tanks so vulnerable to infantry also give infantry far more power on the battlefield than they used to, meaning that it's not like post-tank wars will be less violent or destructive. But, infantry can disperse in a way that makes those weapons less effective against them (once more, remember the machine gun) but still remain effective in combat -- much more so, with modern electronic communications.

And this is why this issue scares me so: if Big War becomes cheaper and easier, it becomes more seductive for someone to try. I don't worry about terrorism, mainly because I live in North America and my odds of dying of cancer, a car accident, or lightning strike are higher. And, I guess it's worth pointing out, it's not like I'm really likely to die in a major-power war, either. But major-power war scares me, all the same: in the last years of World War II, as the Soviets marched West against Nazis fighting like cornered rats, a million people died per month, on average. There is nothing else humans do to each other that has the kind of lethal potential of war. Which is why it terrifies me, absolutely chills me to the core, that some Americans will never see China as anything but a threat to be destroyed, or at the very least disarmed. China will be a major power, as will other countries, and the task for the 21st century is to make room for them, not try and prolong the "unipolar moment". Because as bad as Iraq is, as bad as Afghanistan is, a war with another major industrial power -- with the kinds of weapons available to us and them today, even forgetting the horrifying possibility of nuclear war -- would be absolutely... well, I'd really prefer to never have to describe it as an actually-occurring event. Let you imagination handle the rest.

History isn't your strong suit, Georgie

Churchill Historian on Bush: He's Chamberlain, not Winston.

Truman Historian on Bush: Just shut up and try not to break any more than you already have. The Truman historian in question is the late, great David Halberstam, who writes of the Korean War:
In time, MacArthur made an all-out frontal challenge to Truman, criticizing him to the press, almost daring the president to get rid of him. Knowing that the general had title to the flag and to the emotions of the country, while he himself merely had title to the Constitution, Truman nonetheless fired him. It was a grave constitutional crisis—nothing less than the concept of civilian control of the military was at stake. If there was an irony to this, it was that MacArthur and his journalistic boosters, such as Time-magazine owner Henry Luce, always saw Truman as the little man and MacArthur as the big man. ("MacArthur," wrote Time at the moment of the firing, "was the personification of the big man, with the many admirers who look to a great man for leadership.… Truman was almost a professional little man.") But it was Truman's decision to meet MacArthur's challenge, even though he surely knew he would be the short-term loser, that has elevated his presidential stock.

George W. Bush's relationship with his military commander was precisely the opposite. He dealt with the ever so malleable General Tommy Franks, a man, Presidential Medal of Freedom or no, who is still having a difficult time explaining to his peers in the military how Iraq happened, and how he agreed to so large a military undertaking with so small a force...

Catching up now...

The head of the IEA -- the agency created by the OECD after the oil shocks of the 1970s -- has basically endorsed the concept of Peak Oil. But you didn't read that in the papers, for reasons passing my understanding.
Within 5 to 10 years, non-OPEC production will reach a peak and begin to decline, as reserves run out. There are new proofs of that fact every day. At the same we'll see the peak of China's economic growth. The two events will coincide: the explosion of Chinese growth, and the fall in non-OPEC oil production. Will the oil world manage to face that twin shock is an open question.
There's more at the link, worth checking out.

Behind on things

This is a few weeks old now, but interesting nonetheless: Former Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar explains the fall of the Soviet Union... to the American Enterprise Institute.

Okay, in fairness the AEI is presenting it, but if there's a bunch of people who more desperately need to learn that No, Dipshit, Reagan didn't win the Cold War by virtue of his steely man-resolve, I can't think of them. Charlie Stross' take is probably the most concise one:
The USSR isn't the only superpower to have problems squaring the circle of high military spending, a mushrooming deficit due to imports exceeding exports, and — oh, what's the use? Unlike the USSR, the USA runs one of the two most solid currencies on the planet, and that buys a lot of credit that wouldn't be available if, for example, raw materials were priced in Euros instead of dollars. And I suspect it may be thinking along these lines that explains why Vladimir Putin is trying to channel the ghost of Leonid Brezhnev these days. He's not looking for a new cold war so much as he's betting that the US is close to the limits of imperial — and fiscal — overstretch, and if he just pushes a little bit harder, sooner or later something's going to break.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

One of my occasional comments on religion in general

In 1858 Edgardo Montara, a six-year-old child of Jewish parents living in Bologna, was legally seized by the papal police acting under orders from the Inquisition. Edgardo was forcibly dragged away from his weeping mother and sitraught father to the Catechumens (house for the conversion of Jews and Muslims) in Rome, and thereafter brought up as a Roman Catholic... his parents never saw him again.

-Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 311-313
Montara had been secretly baptized by his Catholic baby-sitter, ergo he was a Christian. Ergo, the Catholic chuch had to drag him kicking and screaming from his parents. This caused worldwide outrage, to which the Catholic Church responded with this old chestnut:
That widespread outrage... was dismissed by the Catholic newspaper Civilta Cattolicaas due to the international power of rich Jews.
It was 1858, the "media" barely existed outside of some newspapers, and yet still the Jews controlled everything! How crafty!

But the thing that has had me laughing for 20 minutes since I read it is this:
A Catholic newspaper in the United States defended the Pope's stance on the Montara case, arguing that it was unthinkable that a Christian government 'could leave a Christian child to be brought up a Jew' and invoking the principle of religious liberty, 'the liberty of a child to be a Christian and not forced compulsorily to be a Jew'...


What the hell could that even mean? "Forced compulsorily to be a Jew" by the fact that he was born to Jewish parents, happily raised a Jew, and only made a Christian by an overzealous baby-sitter?

It seems ridiculous, of course, except it isn't. The refusal to accept, for example, what consenting adults do in their own bedrooms as a private matter is motivated by the same impulse -- you don't have the right to a private sin, even if it's not your religion that's judging the sin.

Or, to pick a more relevant example, the refusal to allow gays and lesbians to adopt children in the US: we're preserving the "freedom" of children not to be forced "compulsorily" to have loving parents who happen to have the same sets of plumbing. Brilliant.

I'm sure the Pope approves. No, really, I'm certain.

Inconveniently apt comparisons

Chris Bray. You read.

"The permanent exception" = "The 1% Doctrine".

Survival Aids

Some interesting snippets, to help us make it through the century:
And, for no particular reason, an interview with Kim Stanley Robinson. The last line of the interview really is the killer:
Humanity is sane, and can make use of its intelligence. We have to act as if this is true. That's the whole story of the 21st century: Are we a sane civilization or not?
Indeed. To rephrase it a bit more cruelly, the question is whether or not we're too stupid to continue living.

What I've been thinking about lately

One of my friends complained recently that this blog has been reduced to nothing but how Republicans are ruining the planet. So, I feel like I should change things up a bit. Who'd like a bit of a discussion of the 100 Years' war?

Well, tough luck, because that's what you're getting.

The 100 Years' War is interesting because, like World War I, it bridges two great eras of military technology. Just as the Great War saw the evolution from infantry and cavalry to armored tanks with air support and indirect artillery fire (the predecessors of blitzkrieg) the great war between England and France saw enormous change -- though of course over a much longer span of time. The first few battles are fought primarily with knights on horseback as the central battle units. By the end, firearms and cannon fire were finding widespread use, especially in laying siege to towns and cities in the French countryside.

What's also interesting is the way the war changed the social fabric of England and France, something that's inseparable from the weapons used in the war itself. By the mid 1300s, the Armored Knight had become not just a formidable weapon in and of itself, but (to use modern language) a central node in the network of European kingdoms. Kings needed to be able to call on Knights for their wars, but keeping men and horses strong enough to ride in a cavalry charge is really, really expensive. (Talk to people who keep much smaller horses today if you doubt this.) So knights come to control large estates themselves, from which they derive the wealth to keep themselves healthy and armed.

Wealth + weaponry = political power, no surprise. France, the kingdom which regularly fielded the most knights, made them a central part of the political structure, a role that would endure for centuries: by the time the revolution came four hundred years later, the most conservative and obnoxious members of the aristocracy were those who had "earned" their nobility by the sword, or whose great-grandparents had.

There was a problem for the Kings of England who so desperately wanted to be Kings of France, though: The codes that knights swore to uphold specified that Knights were supposed to "defend the realm", not go off half-cocked on some mad scheme to capture Paris. So when Edward III landed men in Normandy in 1346, he had almost no knights on horseback with him, but instead a conscript army of a few thousand archers. At this time, it was thought that an armored knight was largely immune from arrows, so you can imagine how confident the French aristocracy was when they began charging -- having been deserted by their Genoese mercenaries -- across the plains at Crecy, knights on horseback outnumbering English peasants something like 3 or 4 to one.

Think, for a moment, what it must have been like to be on the receiving end of of a medieval cavalry charge. Most people today a) aren't familiar with horses to begin with, and b) aren't familiar with organized violence of the kind we're talking about. 10,000 Knights coming across a muddy field isn't something you only see: it's something you hear and feel in your chest as the rumble of 40,000 hoofbeats comes rolling your way. There are descriptions going back to Thucydides of men urinating and defecating out of fear from an onrushing Spartan phalanx charge -- the French at Crecy would have been something altogether more numerous, and deadly.

So it's kind of bizarre when the French get massacred.

(Please, no jokes about the French surrendering. Spoiler alert -- they go on to win the war.)

Estimates of casualties are notoriously unreliable from so far back, but the traditional numbers are that the French lost at least 10,000 of the suspected 30-40,000 warriors, including a substantial chunk of the French governing elite -- remember the centrality of the knight. The English are thought to have lost no more than 500.

The French, not being stupid, start improving their armor and begin lightly armoring the horses themselves. A minor bout of illness -- otherwise known as the Black Death -- spoils the fun everyone had been having for a time, but by 1356 the French and English are meeting again in battle, this time at Poitiers. This time, it looks for a moment like the knight is ascendant: the improved armor on the knights causes the English (er, Welsh) arrows to bounce right off. The English react quickly, and before the French knights can close, they outflank the cavalry and shoot the French horses out from under their riders. This destroys the cohesive line of battle that's crucial to a cavalry charge, and the English once again inflict a humiliating defeat on the French aristocracy.

As a final bout of humiliation, 60 years later English archers would deliver the coup de grace to the idea of the Knight as the paramount unit of battle, at the massacre that is otherwise known as the Battle of Agincourt -- a battle so laughably similar to Crecy that Edward III would have been within his rights to sue Henry V for plagiarism. Once again, the French relied on knights and crossbows, and once again the superior range and rate of fire of the Welsh longbow destroyed a cavalry charge before it could close with the enemy.

So, were the French just learning disabled? Why would they, three times in the same conflict, go in to battle with obsolete weapons and tactics? These defeats weren't minor -- after Poitiers, King John II of France was captured by the English, and he would later die in captivity in London, after a brief repreieve ruined by his son.

Well, part of the reason no doubt lies in the central role of the knight in the French elite. If some English peasants get lucky once or twice, well, that's one thing. But to admit that an entire mode of warfare is now obsolete -- and with it, the social order that underpins it -- would have been unthinkable to the French.

And, I hasten to add, the English. It's not like King Eddie wouldn't have loved to have knights when he landed in Normandy. Political expediency forced him to rely on an "inferior" force and leave the knights he had behind. As it turned out, English tactics, mobility, and weaponry would eventually overwhelm the cream of French aristocracy.

Of course, the English do not rule France today, nor did they even rule most of it from 1415 onwards. Agincourt was the last gasp of English power on the continent -- Henry V had spent the last few weeks retreating from the French army, and would retreat further after his "victory". The only thing he won was his own survival, and that of his soldiers.

Henry V's son (cleverly named Henry VI) would rule over the final expulsion of English soldiers from France. It was madness to think that England, with a population of 4 million, would be able to invade and conquer France and it's 17 million, especially as the war itself fostered a form of French nationalism incarnated by that religious fanatic, Joan of Arc.

Obvious lessons for the day:
  • the weaponry of war changes, sometimes rapidly and dramatically. Organized militaries sometimes have difficulty adjusting to these changes, and even deny that the changes are taking place.
  • A string of victories in battle is no guarantee of winning the war (as the English lost the war, despite three crushing victories.)
  • Similarly, having the most innovative tactics or superior weaponry is no guarantee of victory -- the legendary use of new weapons and tactics by the English on St. Crispin's Day, 1415, did nothing to cement English control over France.
  • The most innovative tactics are, almost by definition, not used by those with a superior conventional force.
Everybody knows the famous Shakespeare lines from Henry V -- perhaps the only widespread knowledge derived from the 100 Years' War of any kind:
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
Now that there's some good chest-thumping. But few remember the other words Shakespeare put in Williams mouth from the same play:
...if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it...
Two passages from the same play -- in isolation, one sounds like brave English pluck, while in context, we see the full ambiguity of Shakespeare's writing: Henry commends his men to fight for glory, after being warned that he would have been reviled for losing in a war where his soldiers have no idea what they're fighting for. That is, wasting men's lives for a lost cause is a gross sin, and it would be better, as Bates says, for the King himself to die or be captured and spare the lives of his soldiers.

And that, citizens, is why children should still be taught Shakespeare in school.

I is smrt

Mr. Scoville has kindly linked to me as one of five "thinking bloggers" he enjoys. I'm under no illusions that I'm in the top five. But these things run on reciprocity, so I now have to name five bloggers who make me think. Hm.

Jon Schwarz of A Tiny Revolution. One of the funniest bloggers out there, who also has a detailed, obsessive grasp of many of the worst aspects of US foreign policy. You might be able to guess, I would desperately like to be him. Because, you know, obsessive-compulsive bloggers get mad chicks.

Matthew Yglesias: Watching the evolution of Yglesias' views since 2002 or so has been fascinating. When I started reading his work, he was basically a DLC-style centrist, and he was perilously close to supporting the war against Iraq -- bailing out at the last minute. Since then, he's become one of the better voices against American hegemonism. (If hegemonism is a word.)

The troupe at Lawyers, Guns and Money, especially Rob Farley*. (This is kind of tawdry, because Rob was kind enough to name me as a thinking blogger a few months ago.) That Scott Lemieux and Rob have both been adopted by the American Prospect to fill out TAPPED was such an excellent move on the Prospect's part -- sheer genius not seen since they hired Ezra Klein.

*Prof. Farley is singled out not to prejudice you against the others, but because he's the one I pay most attention to. Your Mileage May Vary.

The non-me bloggers at Gristmill. Speaking of tawdry, this is pretty self-indulgent on my part. But no kidding here, Gristmill has some of the best writers on energy and environment issues you're going to find anywhere. I've been pretty spotty in my posting there (and here) of late, but it was seriously flattering when I was asked to contribute to Gristmill. Plus, I started there before Joe Romm did, and he was a deputy in the Clinton Administration. So I win. (You can also find excellent stuff by Gar Lipow, recently of comment threads here, at Gristmill.)

God, there's never enough room on these things. Suddenly, I feel like I'm back in an exam hall, asking a proctor for a second book to continue my essay answer...

Olaf at The Prairie Wrangler. I disagree with, oh, so much of what he writes. But, he's never a Conservative I write off, plus he's exactly the kind of Conservative an NDPer is liable to enjoy -- we're both, uh, not in love with Stephen Harper. The point is this: Olaf made an effort to reach out to me and carry on a reasonable, if sometimes heated, disagreement about everything from Kyoto to Afghanistan. And he's still at it, working to organize a Canadian blogger debate, which I've eagerly signed up for. There's intellectual spine there, and even if you disagree violently with his stuff (like I said, I do often) I don't think you can dismiss his stuff.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Scooter gets out of jail free

I have one rule for US political commentary that I have, more or less, obeyed since January of 2001. It has served me well.

It's how I knew, well in advance of the war, that Iraq had no WMDs and Bush was lying about that.

It's how I knew that Bush had been warned about the levees failing in New Orleans.

It's how I knew that Bush would engage in an abuse of power to further his ongoing obstruction of justice in a Federal crime.

The rule is this: You will never, ever lose money betting on the worst possible interpretation of the Bush Administration.

Wingnut welfare -- that vast network of obliging think tanks who never fail to employ convicted Republican criminals -- will happily take care of Scooter Libby for the rest of his life. Republican agents have probably already raised enough money to pay his $250,000 fine. Scooter Libby -- the only White House employee the jury could convict beyond a reasonable doubt, almost certainly not the only to commit a crime -- will be well cared for.

In every comment thread in the known universe, you'll inevitably see some wingnut claim that "Clinton did the same thing" when he pardoned Marc Rich. Marc Rich was indicted -- not convicted, nor even tried in court, because he fled to Switzerland -- for illegally trading with Iran, a temptation he, like Dick Cheney, was unable to resist. So by Bush's own statement yesterday -- where he claims to "respect the jury process" -- these matters are totally different. Moreover, there was genuine doubt as to whether or not Marc Rich would have even been convicted of the crime he was accused of. (Fleeing the country would have, deservedly so, been a lock.)

Moreover, there's the obvious point that Marc Rich was not accused of conspiring to perpetrate a crime at the behest of the White House. So the accurate comparison is not Bill Clinton (sorry, Republicans) but Bush I's pardons of the Iran-Contra felons.

I think John Rogers has it best when he writes:
Our representatives -- and to a great degree we as a culture -- are completely buffaloed by shamelessness. You reveal a man's corrupt, or lying, or incompetent, and what does he do? He resigns. He attempts to escape attention, often to aid in his escape of legal pursuit. Public shame has up to now been the silver bullet of American political life. But people who are willing to just do the wrong thing and wait you out, to be publicly guilty ... dammmnnnn.

We are faced with utterly shameless men. Cheney and the rest are looking our representatives right in the eye and saying "You don't have the balls to take down a government. You don't have the sheer testicular fortitude to call us lying sonuvabitches when we lie, to stop us from kicking the rule of law and the Constitution in the ass. You just don't. What's beyond that abyss -- what that would do to our government and our identity as a nation -- terrifies you too much. So get the fuck out of our way."

And to a great degree, the White House is right. You peel this back, and you reveal that the greatest country in the world has been run, for the last six and a half years, by men who do not give a shit about the Constitution, or fair play, or honesty. No, not just run by corrupt men, or bribe-takers, or adulterers or whatever, we could handle that --no we'd be admitting It Went Wrong.
And Digby is almost certainly correct when she writes that the only, single reason Libby wasn't pardoned already is to maintain is 5th amendment rights when he is inevitably called before Congress. Bush hasn't ended this -- he's continued, deepened his involvement in a criminal conspiracy.

When Ford died, I wrote that the biggest problem with pardoning Nixon was that it robbed America of the chance to write the proper ending to Nixon's story: that he rotted in jail for a few years, and emerged as a broken, ruined man -- just like any other criminal. More than that, it prevented the Republican party from ever learning the appropriate lesson about lawbreaking: so long as you can guarantee a Republican successor, or work for the man himself, you never need worry about jail time.

We're seeing the legacy of Ford at work today. More than that, though, we're seeing the modern GOP at work -- absolute contempt for the law, for justice, for even the appearance of equality before the law. Why, pray tell, should Scooter Libby spend zero days in jail, when Paris Hilton spent weeks? What if Scooter has been a black man holding crack cocaine on his person? Oh, wait, we know.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Beijing? Charming?

(Cross-posted at Ezra Klein's)

Well, it hasn't gotten as much attention as the heterodox economics discussion, but TPM Book Club had a discussion this week about Joshua Kurlantzick's new book, Charm Offensive: How China's Soft Power is Transforming the World. Some very good contributions there, and it just so happens that the main focus of the discussion -- China's aid campaign in Africa -- has shown a real payoff, in terms of China's public image: every other region in the world except Africa has shown a declining opinion of China's role in the world. According to the latest Pew Global Attitudes Survey, African countries are the only ones where China's star is rising.

Feelings have deteriorated in the United States, Britain, Japan, India and Germany, though China generally is viewed favourably, due largely to its contribution to economic growth, according to the survey.

The exception to the downturn was Africa, where China is expanding commercial ties and has pledged several billion dollars in aid. Large majorities in all but one of 10 African countries surveyed see China and its growing economic and military power positively.

Now, I've never understood what exactly the threat of China's actions in Africa is supposed to be. China's "expansion" in Africa has largely taken the form of bridge, road, and dam-building, as well as some peacekeeping and peace-corps style foreign aid. Nothing, in short, that the US couldn't do just as well if not better. The real objection usually seems to be that China has been giving large, unconditional loans where the US (fronting for the IMF and World Bank) would prefer that all aid be through conditional channels they control.

The solution should be an easy one, right? Conditions are an added cost to the aid recipient, especially in a continent where national sovereignty and autonomy are touchstones. If America and the West want Africa to choose conditional loans over unconditional ones, then clearly we need to offer more money at lower costs. It might be impossible to undersell the Chinese on finance, but I'd be shocked if that were true. In any case, America has lots more money to throw around than China does.

It makes no sense for America leaders to whine about China competing in Africa for influence. America has a more varied toolbox to go to than China, and more money to fund initiatives with. If America's willing to compete with China, this shouldn't even be a fair fight: the US should win, hands down. The whining coming from some corners strikes me as an indication that actually, America doesn't want to compete for African influence. They liked it a lot better when Africans had no choice but to come cap in hand to the World Bank and IMF. This might be lamentable if you live in D.C. but it's probably a good thing for Africa, where The Consensus did no good whatsoever anyway.

The whole discussion about China's "soft power" really strikes me as a misnomer. China has amassed exactly zero ability to convince any other non-authoritarian country that authoritarianism is nifty, and no capability to even convince the Taiwanese to want less independence. There's no country out there -- outside of their most dependent trade partners -- who wake up asking themselves "How can I make the Chinese happy today?" If countries are willing to take Chinese money, it does not necessarily follow that the People's Republic is building an anti-American alliance of those globe-straddling superpowers, Senegal and Namibia.

What has happened in Africa is a combination of a) China's inevitable desire to be seen as a major player in the world, including in global issues like development, and b) America's unwillingness to look at the real failures of development policy as practiced in structural adjustment programs. There's plenty of historical stuff in there too, but if the SAPs had actually, uh, worked in any measurable sense whatsoever, the countries where China is now doing so well would probably have been more charitably inclined to the US. Even that would be no gurantee: honestly, what would you prefer -- a loan where the bank forced you to stop paying for your kid's education and rent out your kitchen to strangers, or a grant that came with a new patio for your back yard? This is the kind of choice that Washington's offering the countries of Africa, and you can't blame them for taking the better bargain, or Beijing for making them the offer.

Finally, this whole discussion is poisoned by an assumption among many that the liberal prescriptions for international relations (globalization, democratization, human rights, on and on and on...) form some kind of international consensus that China is now disrupting. As with so many assumptions about the world, this simply isn't true. These are issues that spark intense debate even with liberal, democratic states, and the debates are no less fierce in the international realm. What Washington calls "anti-corruption" campaigns African countries call hypocritical, patronizing meddling by outsiders. China isn't disrupting any consensus -- it's exploiting the very lack of a consensus to it's own ends. Virtuous? Probably not. But it's not evil, either. It's just usual statecraft, something the US used to be very good at.