Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Treason of the Hawks

A great post by Stephen Walt on the tough choices ahead for Israel.

What Walt doesn't say (though probably knows) is that there is virtually zero chance Netanyahu will come to his senses about the desirability of a two-state solution. This is not necessarily because Netanyahu is unable to recognize the virtue of a two-state solution when compared with the other options. Rather, his inclination towards an apartheid-style solution has much to do with the nature of domestic politics and Israeli elections, which make it virtually impossible for a sitting Prime Minister to get serious about pursuing a two-state peace with the Palestinians. Israel has an electoral system based on proportional representation that makes it much easier for smaller and more radical niche parties to break up governing coalitions. A rightward shift of even a small minority of the Israeli electorate can result in meaningful constraints on a Prime Minister interested in making peace. And it seems as though the Israeli electorate has, indeed, shifted rightward in recent years.

The Israeli style system stands in sharp contrast to the American electoral system, which is called first-past-the-post. As we saw today with the defection of Arlen Specter to the Democratic party, our system does not accommodate political parties that cater to citizens with fringe beliefs (either right of left). With Specter now a Democrat, the far-right dominated Republican Party finds itself in the political wilderness and facing a filibuster-proof Senate.

Neither electoral system is perfect. But a first-past-the-post system is highly desirable when a policy decision needs to be made that will be vehemently opposed by a small but significant minority of the electorate--as is the case today in Israel. Given the Israeli proportional electoral system, I'm not sure how a two-state solution is possible without Obama basically forcing it upon an Israeli government by threatening to dismantle the American-Israeli special relationship. I highly doubt that will happen, at least not until an Obama second term. Let's hope that if and when Obama does win a second term, the two-state option is still a viable possibility.

Monday, April 20, 2009

America Tortures

Or rather, did torture during the Bush administration.

If you only read one article all year, read these excerpts from the ICRC Report on the Treatment of Fourteen "High Value Detainees" in CIA Custody, by the International Committee of the Red Cross. It will make your hair stand on end. But read it all the way through. Every citizen has a responsibility to know about—and react to, on a visceral level—what our government does to other human beings in the name of our national security.

I also recommend reading this follow up article by Mark Danner, also in the New York Review of Books. It makes a very strong case for addressing head-on the crux of the matter: determining just how well torture “works.” Luvh makes a strong argument that even indulging the idea that torture might “work” cedes too much ground in the debate. I agree with his sentiment. But I fear that if we don’t cede that ground, those who defend torture might prevail because they will be politically empowered following the next Al Qaeda attack, if and when it comes.

From the point of view of Al Qaeda, Bush’s torture policies were a godsend that continues to fuel their movement and help them recruit. And the best way to push America back towards those policies would be to show up the Obama administration as “weak,” unable to stop another attack. If we don’t soberly and seriously consider the question of what valuable information—if any—was attained through torture, the next attack (or even attempted attack) could be politically devastating for Obama and his anti-torture friends.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Bargain basement prices for detecting and destroying asteroids

Pickle Nation, DO NOT read this article unless you want to be badly bored. Or unless you are a PhD-level economist or statistician. DO, however, take note of what I found to be a shocking point therein.

This is a paper by William Nordhaus, a Yale economist, in the midst of a peer-reviewed conversation with Harvard economist Martin Weitzman about the use of cost-benefit analysis for figuring what to do about climate change. The substance of the debate comes over how to value really horrible things that have a very low probability of happening. It's a fascinating and important question, about which I hope to say more soon, though I am in no position to be promising Pickle Nation anything at all.

Anyway, the point of this post - not of the paper - is that Nordhaus illustrates one of his points by talking about the generally accepted idea that there is a 1 in 100,000,000 chance each year that a huge asteroid will hit the earth and kill us all. Now, I have been vaguely aware of this, and have ignored it because I have figured that them's the breaks. Why worry about it? Live every week like it's shark week.

But lo and behold, Norhaus has shocked the hell out of me. He says it would cost $1 billion per year (for how long he doesn't say) to reduce the chance of that kind of event by 90%. What?! And all we're spending is $4 million per year to track potentially threatening asteriods? For that matter, isn't spending $4 million a classic "you buy cheap you buy twice" situation? Isn't that just $4 million to ensure that in the moments before we are incinerated or freeze to death or have our heads explode from the loudest sound imaginable or whatever awful way a huge asteroid kills you we get to experience the thrill of looting?

In any case, I thought we were talking about science fiction here, but by all means, let's spend $1 billion to shoot those suckers down. I mean, is it shovel-ready?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Georgia, Russia, Iran…Afghanistan (Obama Saves the World)

My favorite punching bag is back in the news! Disgusted citizens of Georgia have taken to the streets for a sixth straight day, demanding the resignation of Mikheil Saakashvili, president of Georgia and professional character assassin. Facing a rather pathetic and divided opposition political establishment, Saakashvili will likely stay in power for a while longer, although I highly doubt he will make it all the way to 2013 when his term officially expires. One protester pithily described Saakashvili's political predicament thusly: “Georgians are proud people, and we cannot stand this humiliation. In any country, a leader who loses a war, resigns. We need to make him understand that.” There are very few base-truths in politics. The idea that "if you lose a war that you start, you're days in power are numbered" is definitely one of them.

But the Saakashvili story is a mere sideshow these days. The real news is being made in US-Russian relations. With his “reset button” campaign, Obama has indicated that an improved relationship with Russia is a top priority. Georgia, meanwhile, will likely get sold down the river during this thawing process, and its hopes of joining NATO will be dashed. This may not be a terrible thing for Georgia, given how poorly Saakashvili’s hyper-nationalist, militantly pro-Western/anti-Russian stance has served the country.

Interestingly enough, the thawing of US-Russian relations is, in turn, its own sideshow. The grade-A, top-tier, supersize-me foreign policy action is, of course, in the Middle East. One of the main reasons Obama wants to hit the reset button with Russia is that he needs as much Russian backing as possible when he sits down at the table with Iran to discuss the nuclear issue. There are clear signs (see: U.S. May Drop Key Condition for Iran Talks) that a long term negotiating process between Iran and the US is about to begin. And make no mistake: a grand bargain-type agreement is possible. Roger Cohen, who has been on fire with a number of excellent columns about Iran (here, here, and here), offers up the following as a possible compromise:

Iran ceases military support for Hamas and Hezbollah; adopts a “Malaysian” approach to Israel (nonrecognition and noninterference); agrees to work for stability in Iraq and Afghanistan; accepts intrusive International Atomic Energy Agency verification of a limited nuclear program for peaceful ends only; promises to fight Qaeda terrorism; commits to improving its human rights record.

The United States commits itself to the Islamic Republic’s security and endorses its pivotal regional role; accepts Iran’s right to operate a limited enrichment facility with several hundred centrifuges for research purposes; agrees to Iran’s acquiring a new nuclear power reactor from the French; promises to back Iran’s entry into the World Trade Organization; returns seized Iranian assets; lifts all sanctions; and notes past Iranian statements that it will endorse a two-state solution acceptable to the Palestinians.

Obama is making a huge bet that both Russia and Iran are not “revisionist powers”—that is, they are not interested, first and foremost, in transforming the world power structure to their singular advantage. He is betting that they are open to acting as respectable global citizens and are open to compromise. Many people believe the Russia-Georgia war was indicative of Russia’s expansionist ambitions. But I believe Russia’s deputy ambassador to NATO, Ivan Soltanovskiy, when he says the West should not overreact to Russia’s new found swagger: “There is a new sense of self-assurance in Russia, but don’t confuse it with aggressive nationalism. We see in the West a lot of mistrust of my country. But this is a self-confident Russia open to negotiation.” Iran’s willingness to play by the rules is much less obvious (Tom Friedman, for one, doesn't think Iran is serious), but Obama is absolutely right to take the chance. In fact, I think it will prove more difficult to keep Israel from doing something stupid, like bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, than it will be to entice the “mad mullahs” to negotiate in good faith.

And finally, to connect the dots just one step further, in two years when a grand bargain is reached with Iran and the Georgia-Russia war is long forgotten, Obama can leverage up the support from those two former enemies and focus all his energy on the absolute primo #1 problem of our time (which will undoubtedly still be a mess): Pakistan-Afghanistan. With Russian and Iranian cooperation, he just might be able to pull off something of a victory there as well.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

LA Men's Jail "Medieval," "Drives Men Mad"

The ACLU of Southern California just issued a report on conditions at L.A. County's Men's Jail - it sounds pretty awful, especially considering that jailed inmates haven't yet been convicted. They're awaiting trial, and they're there because they can't afford bail.

My expectation is that fixing a jail would be politically radioactive in a state with a budget crisis like California's. And I'm not even saying it should be a priority. But surprisingly, the crisis may actually require the jail's closure, according to L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, who cites its huge expense ($50 million a year, housing 6,700 inmates at any given time). It doesn't seem there's space for 6,700 additional inmates - one third of the county's jail capacity - so what's the alternative? Perhaps a reform of drug laws?

Indeed, the ACLU's press release states that its report comes
as the county investigates the death of John Horton, 22, who was found hanging from a noose in his cell on March 30 after spending more than a month in Men’s Central Jail following his arrest on a drug possession charge. The ACLU also released a letter from a witness detailing the events leading up to the death of Horton, who was held in solitary confinement in a dimly lit, windowless, solid-front cell the size of a closet. His body was already stiff by the time security staff discovered it.

“Men’s Central Jail is so grossly overcrowded, dangerous and dungeon-like that it puts intolerable stress on the jailed as well as the jailers,” said Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU National Prison Project.

Here is a copy of a letter from Horton's jail neighbor giving an account of some of the circumstances surrounding Horton's death. It is harrowing. For me, the humaneness reasons for not treating drug possessors like this are convincing. But if it's economic reasons that will do the trick, so be it.

Thursday, April 9, 2009


The lesson from elementary school in which we learned about venerable Synonym and brave Homonym no longer cuts it for the times in which we live. Students of the present and near future would be better served by learning about T9onyms, words that are spelled with the same numbers in predictive text.

Generally, T9onyms lead to plain-jane confusion, as with "me-of" or "if-he" T9onymy. T9 will occasionally provide an alternative that works, or even an upgrade. When I wanted to ask a friend about the whereabouts of his "peeps," T9 came up with "peers." Fine, and actually thanks. However, just as it giveth, it also taketh away - when recently responding to a friend's bailing, I wanted the confident "booooooooooo," but T9 gave me the desperate "comonononon," and I pressed send before I realized what was happening.

Monday, April 6, 2009


A rare post about someone else's coinage: "flip-flopping," which I guess would be Karl Rove's. I was listening to a report about whether or not Obama would label the Armenian genocide as genocide, and since he campaigned on doing just that, the commentator referred to the possibility of him not doing that as a flip-flop. She also referred to Clinton and George W. Bush's breaking similar pledges as flip-flops.

I don't doubt that there exists such a thing as a flip-flop, and certainly when a campaign promise is both made and broken for political expedience, it would be a candidate for being a flip-flop, but ever since the 2004 election, "flip-flopping" has really muscled genuine mind changing and reconsideration out of the way and out of the picture. It may very well be that both preceding presidents judged labeling the Armenian genocide as genocide wasn't worth giving up whatever they wanted from Turkey at the time, and if that were the case, I think that's great. I don't need a campaign promise kept if it's leading us into one of them nose-face-spite situations.

If real flip-flopping is anything, it's a pretty intense charge because it amounts to alleging that a promise was made falsely. If Clinton, Bush, and Obama all knew that they'd never be delivering on the promise to the Armenian-American community that they'd label the genocide as genocide, THAT would be a flip-flop, but it would also be straight up cold.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Andy Stern is Funny

I'm listening to Andy Stern - President of SEIU - give a talk right now, and he just illustrated the point that GDP growth, job growth, and wage growth are not all the same thing thusly:

"President Clinton used to say that his administration created 20 million jobs. Yeah, and as one of my members said, 'And I got 3 of them!'"

How to stop being the most innovative economy in the world

Stopping these people from coming to America to work is utter suicide.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Gouge Watch

As if publicly trash talking the President's basketball game weren't charming enough, Attorney General Holder has further endeared himself to us by putting the brakes on a proposed merger between Live Nation and Ticketmaster, i.e. the company I might hate the most.

I don't know about the technicalities of anti-trust, but if those technicalities are supposed to convince me NOT to be worried that the company resulting from this merger would have an 80% market share, then those are some pretty impressive technicalities.

On BrandTags.net, users are presented with a brand name or logo and are then prompted to enter the first phrase or word that comes to mind. The more common an entry, the bigger it appears on the page for each brand. The Ticketmaster page is revealing.