Friday, March 25, 2011

Syria: A Possibility of Some Things We May Not Like Developing

I'm getting caught up on the situation in Syria right now, I may have some more things to say about it later.

But I just came across this on al Jazeera's live blog.

Protesters in Deraa are shouting slogans denouncing Maher al-Assad, brother of the Syrian president and head of the Republican Guard, a witness tells Reuters. As they headed to the main square in the city after the funeral of at least five protesters killed by security forces this week, thousands chanted:
Maher you coward. Send your troops to liberate the Golan
 Israel captured the Golan Heights in a 1967 war.

Something to remember about democracy is that a lot of early pushes for democracy have involved revanchist claims.  While I think in the longer run developments in the Mid-East will be good for the international system, including western interests, there are likely to be some challenges arising out of it in the short term.  Democracy is great, but don't forget the actual course France followed, or Italian reunification, or even territorial claims of the early United States.  While some of the more recent waves of democratization have been generally peaceful, these transitions weren't accompanied by the kind of wide ranging social and cultural change that is occurring in the Mid-East, most of these transitions involved states that had already developed a stable national identity.  These identities are still being formed in most Middle Eastern countries, it would be unsurprising if they made similar claims to the early European democratizers whose transition happened in the midst of socio-cultural change as well.  Tensions with Israel may be the least of it.

Also, specific to Israel, if a democratic Syrian state starts making claims against Israel, where do we stand on this?  Much of our support for Israel (or at least the stated reason for it) owes to their status as the only democracy currently in the Mid-East.  If the Arab states around them become democratic and start making territorial claims, similar to claims that Israel makes in the West Bank, what will our position be on this?  It's a much different situation when claims on democratic legitimacy and other rationalizations of our position are no longer different between Israel and its neighbors.  This is something that deserves some serious thought sooner rather than later.

Tribes and Libya

I'm going to preface this by saying that I know nothing specific about tribalism in Libya, so this is all going to be on a more general level since I do know something about tribes more generally (though it's hardly one of the areas I'm most comfortable with).

This post is basically a reaction to Friedman's post from the 22nd.*  The issue of tribalism is an important one for discussing how these revolutions might possibly turn out in the Arab world, tribalism is certainly a major barrier to successful democratization and strong tribal structures can certainly go a long way towards short circuiting democratic transition.

However, this is true of just about any powerful ascriptive identity that is present in a population.  Too often talk of tribalism is used as some kind of excuse for why we're so advanced and the rest of the world is so far behind (Friedman's column doesn't quite step into this, I have some other issues with it rooted in IR theory, especially about artificial borders since virtually all borders are artificial, but they're not worth taking up here.  I could also go on for awhile about the tribe's with flags bit, it's more complex than that, but not worth it).

But tribal identity isn't that much different from the kind of personal and local loyalties that were present throughout Europe before the rise of the modern state.  They're not that much different from powerful lineage groups that were present at points in Chinese history.  Comparing and contrasting these forms of identity would probably take a (series) book, so I won't go in depth here.

My point is that while ascriptive identities such as tribal identities certainly are a barrier to democracy and something that needs to be considered when intervening, it's also something that was present at some point in all successful democratizers since it is a universal trait.  These forms of identity were usually overcome at some point well before democratic transition, especially in the west where wars against the cities, landowners, and religious wars, all served to help reduce personal loyalties and replace them with loyalty to the state, but history shows they can be overcome and often have (sometimes with explicit recognition of the divisions such as in Lebanon) even later in the process of development.

A common theme in replacing these earlier identities with something more akin to national identities is violence.  It is not necessary, but a frequent way of developing a national myth is a revolution, such as the American or French revolutions (though in both of these strong earlier identities had been substantially eroded before revolutions, in the American case mostly due to emigration to the colonies).

The relevance of this to Libya is two things.  First, tribal identities are a reason for caution, but they shouldn't be given too much importance.  These forms of identity are not constants, they change as institutions change and its fully plausible they haven't survived the heavy urbanization of Libya in strong enough form to be an insuperable barrier.  While tribalism was a problem in Iraq, Libya doesn't seem to have the further complication of sectarianism.  The second point is that the resistance to Qaddafi provides the germ from which a more modern form of identity can emerge that suits a modern state (not necessarily western nationalism, but tribal identities aren't very compatible with the kind of hierarchical authority pattern based on the rule of law essential to the functioning of a modern state).  This was lacking in Iraq and is a major problem in that country's ongoing attempt at transition (among many others).

An excellent article on Libya's tribalism also a appeared in the NY Times on March 21.

*I'm finally getting around to this after a busy week trying to get some work done before vacation in San Diego, which I've finally arrived in and will be here till Monday.  Starting next week posting should become more regular again.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

What Happens to Tripoli?

This question has been bothering me.  Qaddafi seems firmly in control of the city for now and even if unrest does occur there I doubt there is any way for air support to effectively intervene.

Assuming there isn't a negotiated abdication of Qaddafi there doesn't seem to be any good outcome for the citizens of this city.  The rebels have a lot of irregulars, after a few weeks of heavy fighting in what will undoubtedly be a hard fought push to take the city how much trust we can have about how these soldiers will act in liberating Qaddafi's main stronghold?  There is also a possibility of street to street fighting which has historically been very rough on civilians.  While I think intervention on the whole saves civilian lives in what would have otherwise been years of brutal crackdowns by Qaddafi loyalists in the short term it is not unlikely that many will see the choice as having been to trade a slaughter in Tripoli for a slaughter in Benghazi.

I just hope there is some form of negotiated settlement or stalemate instead of the city having to be taken by the rebel forces.

Mission Creep Already?

This early in a conflict it's hard to tell how much accurate reporting is happening and how much is distorted due to limited sources.  This New York Times article is making me wonder if the US is already starting to play a larger role than it needs to.  I understand that it is essential for US forces to take out the anti-air defenses but I don't see the need for US forces to be striking at ground targets.  It may be that our larger naval forces and problems with coordinating still incoming allied forces mean that we have forces in striking distance of targets such as armor and artillery while others currently do not.  On the other hand, America has a poor track record of sharing command and operations with others so it is also possible we're suffering mission creep when we don't need to because of this characteristic of our strategic culture.  Too early to tell, but I was worried about this but cautiously optimistic that as a result of the reluctance of the administration to participate in the Libyan intervention that we'd avoid our usual fate of demanding a leadership role whenever we participate.

Also, the divisions in the Arab League worries me.  Part of this is expected, none of these countries are all that democratic and they want plausible deniability.  Hopefully this is all that is happening.  What discourages me is that this is an example of completely unrealistic assumptions about war.  It was never possible to enforce a no fly zone simply by sending jets over and only firing back when fired on.  Of course we were going to have to hit command and control centers, airstrips, and anti-air batteries.  To think otherwise is incredibly naive.

This is a problem that I see often however.  People want to impose morality designed for individuals on state and group action, namely don't strike until someone else strikes first and then do so proportionately.  This isn't possible when you have a responsibility to others that are being asked to take action.  I find the idea of ordering pilots into harms way without first doing all we can to mitigate the chances of their getting killed to be an immensely immoral action.  No one should have the right to do this when they have the power to defend those they are responsible for.  The responsibility for commanders to see to the well being of their troops require that known valid military targets be taken out first before individuals under their command are asked to risk their lives.  It's regrettable that live will be lost in the installations struck but weighed against the power that the state possesses against the rights of the people under its command this is clearly the lesser of the two evils.  If Qaddafi hadn't been intending to fight back his troops would have already been withdrawn, sending our planes in before taking out these installations would have been little different then sending our soldiers to the gallows since we both knew about and had the power to save their lives by eliminating these installations.  No state can do that with a clear conscience.

Libya: What are Foreign News Sites Saying?

[Update:  This is from Al Jazeera's live blog:

These offers of a ceasefire are a little strange, seeing as there is already the offer of a ceasefire from the foreign minister yesterday.
You have to ask if this is a decision being made in the full view of the Libyan public. When the military spokesman was asked if this was going to be broadcast on state TV and Libyans would be made aware that there was a ceasefire offer, he said no.
What kind of cease fire do you not announce to your own public?  If there was any question about the intent of these cease fires to be anything other than providing diplomatic cover and an attempt to split the military coalition I think this detail adds a lot of context.]

This is by no means a representative survey, just a brief run through of some foreign news sites I check moderately frequently.  Given the contentiousness of foreign interventions I thought others might be interested in some brief highlights.

Chinese news sites are unsurprisingly still dominated by headlines from Japan.  People's Daily plays it straight and is mostly reiterating China's focus on sovereignty without making any strong claims about the specifics of the Libya situation.

Xinhua is somewhat more opinionated and is not so subtly insinuating ulterior motives for the intervention.

Some highlights:

The western coalition claimed they launched the assault for humanitarian interests. But many analysts and media believed they did it for the sake of their own goals and interests instead of the safety and welfare of the unarmed Libyan civilians as they have claimed.

With a record-low popularity and facing a presidential election next year, Sarkozy was eager to take the reins in global crises and show voters that he can take the lead.

Gaddafi, then, offers Sarkozy an opportunity.

Pravda probably isn't an example of mainstream Russian opinion, but wow.  Read it for yourself; I have no comment.  Hitlerites, Luftwaffe on the Move. 

Al Jazeera's coverage has been studiously neutral from what I've read so farI find their live blog especially interesting.

 This is by no means meant to be a representative sample, it's simply a summary of what I've read so far.  If anyone has been reading some other foreign news sites that diverge in coverage from the US I'd be curious to know what they're saying.

Government Spending as Percent of GDP

Since I found the data figured I'd post it.  Pretty much the same comments as the taxation figures.  Government expenditure is even messier than tax expenditure, I guess I'm used to seeing smoothed charts.  Unfortunately the data set isn't as good, several states start late in the series, though oddly enough Korea starts earlier.  In any case, there's a sharp spike for the current recession but the same kind of flattening of spending occurs as with taxation, though it's a little harder to see and looks less clustered.  Korea is the only country with a clearly rising government expenditure, but that's expected.  Sweden breaks 70% spending and Finland breaks 60%, though neither of them maintains it for long.  I assume this is due to a recession and counter cyclical spending, but am too lazy to do the research to check for temporary blips.  On this chart we get a few countries whose spending settled above 50% (though Sweden's data series is so short and noisy I can't say they look like they've settled into anything), Belgium, France, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland (France's curve looks like it still may have a slight upward slope, probably because they have completely unsustainable labor practices, and Belgium just barely makes the cut).

For the most part though, spending seems to become basically flat between 40 and 50% of GDP in most cases, and this has been stable for some time.  Unfortunately this data set only begins in 1970 so it leaves out the years that experience rapid growth of government.  If the curve had been there it would be more obvious how much leveling out there is post 1980 (and from the chart a leveling out that proceeded somewhat messily between 1980 and 1990) for many countries compared to the rapid rise of the state in the 50s and 60s, though the tail end of this is visible in the 70s for the few countries the data is present for (I especially regret not having Spain which started so much less developed and caught up).  Korea appears to be the only state that remains on a clear upward trajectory, while all countries show a recent spike this is to be expected due to the shrinking of the economy in the recession, and judging from the sharp spikes and recoveries common before there is no reason to think this will be sustained.

[Unfortunately I haven't found a good way to put graphics of this size into the blog yet.  I may eventually find a way for now it should be enlargeable in your browser or you can get the OECD data directly.  It's much clearer in Openoffice where I can highlight individual lines.]

Saturday, March 19, 2011

What Makes Libya Different?

I see a lot of commentary that seems to be taking the line that action in Libya can easily lead to us becoming over committed and feeling obligated to get involved elsewhere.  While it is never possible to be sure with military action, there's always a party advocating for ever more involvement, there are several factors that I think makes Libya different from other cases.

  1. The Arab League endorsed intervention.  A major international innovation over the past century has been the development of a number of formal international bodies.  This has been particularly remarkable since WWII and is a major feature of the American international system.  So far, while these bodies have not always proven effective, they have proven to be far more effective at promoting peace than anything else yet tried in history.  As our relative power declines it is the strength and persistence of these bodies that has the most promise for creating a stable international system that we can continue to prosper in.  Raw power is something we won't possess enough of.  Enlarging and emphasizing the role of these organizations is in my opinion the number one strategic challenge on the US in the coming decades so that the world remains favorable to us even when we are one of several powers.
  2. Libyan government defections (NY Times).  So far, none of the other revolts in the Mid-East has involved substantial defections of high ranking officials.  The defections mean there are substantial rifts in the Libyan government and give strong hints of how shallow his power is.  If he can't even keep the loyalty of officials dependent on the center his prospects for controlling the rest of the country effectively are dim.  He may be able to maintain some authority through brute power, but this is fragile and can't be maintained for long.  This hints very strongly that even if Qaddafi were to win stability would not be restored.
  3. Large military defections, including pilots (NY Times).  Air forces are one of the most expensive, and by extension should have been one of the most loyal, military institutions a state has.  While numbers have been small, two fighters (does anyone know what happened to these two planes after landing in Europe?) and another voluntarily downed, this hints strongly that Qaddafi's grip on the military isn't the tight.  As the story linked to says it seems he has some intensely loyal brigades and that the bulk of the army is weak and poorly trained, but his reliance on mercenaries hints that he may not be all that certain of even these troops.  His grip on power seems linked to his series of successes, if western help can break this his forces may not keep stable enough for prolonged action.  Though forcing him from his capital will be problematic.
  4. Refugees.  While there has been violent suppression of riots elsewhere this has not led to a mass exodus of people.  This hints strongly at a different scale of violence then has been observed elsewhere.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Egypt and Libya

My biggest question mark in regards to Libya right now is what Egypt will end up doing.  Facts are thin, this is all that was in the most recent NY Times Article:

The administration also spoke to Egyptian officials about taking part but Egypt — the leading military power of the Arab world — was concerned that air strikes could endanger some million Egyptians who live in Libya. In addition, protesters only last month toppled the 30-year regime of President Hosni Mubarak and Egypt’s transitional military government remains fragile.

It makes sense that Egypt wouldn't want to take the risk with its air force, for this type of action at risk civilians are a liability.  However, if ground forces become a question then Egypt's concerns may change, subject to internal risk.  I believe they would be particularly likely to intervene on the ground if Qaddafi attempts a blitz and it looks like a massacre may take place.  An insecure regime like Egypt's can't afford this kind of foreign policy crisis this early in the transition process.  Expect Egypt's stance to change very rapidly, and unpredictably, as circumstances develop. 

Wish I read Arabic so I could read what their papers are saying.

Qaddafi's Cease Fire

Couple of thoughts on the cease fire that Qaddafi has called.  First, it showed that European forces should have had a command structure in place and planes ready to go instantly.  They've had a couple of weeks to prepare and the British and French were both onboard early.  Reminds me of the disorganization that made Suez a fiasco.  Still early and things seem to be moving far more swiftly than that mess so I doubt things will get that bad.

From Qaddafi's point of view I see two advantages.

The first is that him calling a cease fire gives diplomatic cover to try to split the alliance.  If bombing proceeds some states may waver in supporting the coalition that will give him breathing room and turn Arab support against the west.  It certainly raises the risk but too much uncertainty to say how it will go.

The second advantage is that if we resist bombing for fear of alienating allies it may occur that he can organize his forces for a quick blitz.  It takes time to put forces in place and it's unlikely we'll put assets in play that will be effective against ground units such as tanks and artillery until anti-aircraft missiles as well as his air force is eliminated.  This means that a blitz to eliminate the rebels may work if his air force and anti-air ground weapons can keep our planes busy long enough for his ground forces to overrun the rebels. 

So we're left with a tough choice, if we bomb in advance so he can't blitz this may alienate our allies.  If we wait he may blitz and snatch a win out from the jaws of defeat.  I hope that the Arab League makes this call for us since that will weaken the costs of early bombing.  We will see.

What I really hope will happen is that we called his bluff and he'll accept asylum somewhere.  Not impossible since he knows he is overmatched, but I wouldn't bet on it.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Look at the Difference with China

Just read about coordinated intervention to offset the appreciation of the Japanese yen.  Got me to thinking about how much different it is with trying to coordinate currency adjustments with China.  Well not really, I've been thinking of this for several hours a day for the past few weeks already.  Unlike my last two posts, I'm not procrastinating when observing on this because it's related to the work I should be doing, which is finish my paper on a comparative examination of US influence on the Japanese currency vs. the Chinese currency.

Yes, I'm Still Procrastinating: Libyan Intervention

So the Security Council decided to pass a resolution to intervene (NY Times link).  I believe it's dangerously late but given the reservations expressed so far it seems to be just about what I wanted to come out of it.  We'll see if we get dragged too far in.

In case you don't want to use up your 20 New York Times article reads, some key points.

Beyond that, the diplomat said that officials in Britain, France and the United States were all adamant that Arab League forces take part in the military actions and help pay for the operations, and that it not be led by NATO, to avoid the appearance that the West was attacking another Muslim country.

That support is likely to consist of much of what the United States already has in the region — Awacs radar planes to help with air traffic control should there be airstrikes, other surveillance aircraft and about 400 Marines aboard two amphibious assault ships in the region, the Kearsarge and the Ponce. 
The Americans could also provide signal-jamming aircraft in international airspace to muddle Libyan government communications with its military units.

I'm nervous about the possibility of using our marines, but Awacs, surveillance, and signal jamming aircraft sound like about the right level of US involvement.

The resolution stresses the necessity of notifying the Arab League of military action and specifically notes an “important role” for Arab nations in enforcing the no-fly zone. Diplomats said Qatar and the United Arab Emirates were considering taking a leading role, with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt also considering participating.

This should definitely be primarily their show.  I see a role for the west to use our technological superiority to take out Qaddafi's most dangerous weapons, particularly ground to air missiles, and to take out his most dangerous fighters, but after that it should be their job.  We've shown from the previous two Gulf Wars that our aircraft are close to impervious to the air forces in the region so it would be needlessly wasteful of lives to have them go in as the first line in an even fight when experience has shown the chances for casualties for us are slim.  After that though, our direct action should be over and it should be their job.

Procrastinating: Taxation as Percent of GDP

Couldn't find a good data source for government expenditure as percent of GDP and don't have time to compile the statistics myself, World Bank only went back to 95 which doesn't show what I want to show and OECD only gave raw and not proportional expenditure.  So this is taxation data which is far messier.  Only thing I want to point out is that you can roughly eye-ball this to see that taxation becomes significantly flatter somewhere in the range of 30 - 50% of GDP but rises quite sharply before then.  It very rarely, and only briefly rises over 50% of GDP and that is in only a single case, Sweden.  There is no constant rise in government taxation as % of GDP as some would claim and the European countries flatten out without any sort of political movement comparable to the American right or the Tea Party.

Explanation for the graph since it didn't import well.  Taxation as percentage of GDP is on the Y axis and I couldn't get the labels to go on the X and don't have time to fiddle with it so the X axis is years past 1965.  Best I could do without spending too much time with it.

I couldn't get it to size well, your browser should be able to enlarge it easy enough.  Credit for data goes to OECD.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Last Chance

I probably wrote that last post too late.  If this New York Times story is correct, this is probably the final point where intervention can make a difference.  There's only a few hours left for governments to wake up and realize that the costs of the situation are already sunk and there's little to nothing to lose by intervention but real gains to be had, though gains that have been shrinking by the hour since the Arab League came out in favor of intervention.  This is probably too short a time frame for diplomacy so I'm predicting that those costs will start showing up in a few years.  I'm expecting an uptick in terrorists of Libyan origin, probably not on the scale of Afghanistan but enough that we will rue our dithering in due time.

Libyan Scenarios

I'm a little frustrated with the continued failure for action in Libya.  I see very little to be lost through intervention, and while the ains won't be enormous there is a possibility of real gains through intervention.  These are the scenarios I have in mind.

No internvention:

Qaddafi Wins

If we don't intervene and Qaddafi wins we end up with a slightly crazy dictator who doesn't like the west and already appears angry.  He may be too distracted with further unrest to focus on taking out his ire on the rest of the world.  However, it is not unlikely there will be a diaspora of former rebels seeking refuge abroad.  Like in Afghanistan it is not unlikely that since they will have little power to strike at Libya they will act as former anti-Afghani soldiers did and blame the west for their ills.  I expect this to be a very high risk scenario that will likely help to fuel terrorism for decades to come.

Rebels Win

If the rebels pull victory from the jaws of defeat, say through an unexpected tribal defection, they will give us little thanks for our dithering.  If a stable regime emerges it will probably be at best as hostile as Nasser was.  While I think the prospects for a stable government in Libya are low an unstable government can be just as dangerous.  I'd expect another quasi-failed state from this arrangement.  I also expect a quasi-failed state that blames the west for much of their ills do to the damage Qaddafi did in surpressing the rebels and that will be a major source of instability throughout the region, and a threat that may eventually require boots on the ground to suppress, like in Afghanistan, but one whose humiliation and anger is even fresher in memory and more hostile.


Qaddafi Wins

If we intervene and Qaddafi wins he will be even angrier at the west and will no doubt attempt to sow instability and support terrorism. However, the rebels will continuge to plague him and they will know they can count on some western support.  They may blame our late intervention for their failures (and the longer we wait the more severe this will be) which could lead to problems for us but I believe they'd be more likely to continue to resist Qaddafi.  Particularly if we continue to give them covert support.  Qaddafi simply doesn't have enough in the way of resources to simultaneously suppress internal unrest and play a major role in causing unrest and damage outside his country.  I don't see this scenario as being significantly different from a Qaddafi winning with no intervention scenario so I don't see much risk here.

Rebels Win

In this case as long as our intervention hasn't taken a form where we claim to be the decisive factor, I see a potential for a significant warming of Muslim attitudes towards the west.  This would undermine accusations that the west does not care about those countries and potentially diffuse a lot of the anger fueling terrorism.  While I still doubt Libya will become a liberal democracy, and I think state failure will continue to be a real option, it will be a scenario where if intervention becomes necessary the population won't feel a powerful grievance against the United States, making this scenario far less costly.

These are basically the four general scenarios I see happening.  There is a huge amount of variation in which one depending on what the details are, I don't know enough about Libya to say, but I think at this point, with both the rebels and the Arab League supporting a no fly zone, intervention is a clearly dominant long term strategy.  I understand the dithering, there's always a status quo bias that makes people think that not doing anything is equivalent to not making a choice, but this is bullshit when the power to intervene is clearly present and everyone knows this.  So by dithering, like it or not, we're making a choice and we'll suffer the consequences for it.  And they will be negative. 

Intervention of course is no certain success, I'm sure our statesmen would prefer to take a wait and see approach to find out who wins, but I don't see this as mattering.  What additional harm do we really think Qaddafi will do if he wins?  He's still going to hate us after what has happened, and he'll be in a stronger position to make this known.  If we intervene he'll be more motivated to act, but his resource situation will be greatly weakened.  At this point, win or lose, coming out in favor of the rebels and intervening is simply less costly in the long run.  Intervention may help our long term relations with the Muslim world, non-intervention will only inflame existing negative perceptions.  I don't see what we gain by not doing anything an the costs of intervention aren't that steep.

Of course, there is the risk that we'll allow our intervention to escalate.  This I'm strongly opposed to.  Intervention and Qaddafi winning anyways is an acceptable outcome.  There's no reason to put boots on the ground and this should be made clear from the start of any intervention.  While there's a certain logic to warfare that calls for escalating commitments, I believe the lack of a clear ally or established obligations will prevent this scenario.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Libya: To Intervene or Not to Intervene?

I've been mulling this over in my head for the last week, most of my initial doubts based on the Iraq war have been dispelled.  The key change for me is that the Arab League has endorsed a no fly zone and that reports on the rebels in Libya have started calling for support, something they hadn't done initially. 

So I now tentatively feel that the right thing to do is to intervene, but with some caveats.  The biggest caveat is that before we need to go in we need to accept the limits of our influence.  We can't remake Libyan politics and toppling Qaddafi or putting another specific group in power isn't our goal.

What we should do is try to make this a fair fight, and be upfront about it.  Liberating Libya is up to the Libyans, our role is just to make it a fair fight.  Right now, Qaddafi has control of the air force, tanks, and other advantages that go with being able to buy arms for decades.  What we can do is eliminate this advantage and make this a straight up ground war.

But that should be the limits of our influence, and it should be publicly stated.  Toppling Qaddafi is something that will be done by forces on the ground and how things turn out will be their victory, not ours. 

I believe taking this position will serve the dual purpose of adding legitimacy to any new regime and reducing anti-western radicalism that has become so pervasive due to our Middle Eastern policies.  Taking credit for toppling the regime wouldn't do this it would just play into the narrative of western imperialism.

There are two risks to this strategy, even if it works.  The first is that Qaddafi will stay in power and be even more disruptive than in the past.  This I'm not to worried about.  He was a pest before and didn't topple the international system, we can live with him being a pest again.

The second risk is that the Libyan rebels aren't organized so we don't know what we'll be dealing with if they succeed.  This is a huge risk, and what I do know (which isn't much) about Libyan politics is that they're still divided by tribe and other ascriptive identities that make any form of democracy more difficult and less stable.  This can't be ignored.  However, if they do win, if not now say in another revolt in a few decades, and we didn't intervene this will be a major new source of resentment in a region of the world we're already not very popular.  Libya has also already proven to be a large source of insurgents in Iraq.  Things are already bad there from our perspective, while they can get worse I think this is balanced by how much better things can get.  I believe this concern, while real, has slightly greater upsides than downsides so ultimately argues in favor of intervention, if only by a hair.

Aside from these risks, my main concern is that if we do intervene the hawks will win out and drag us further into this than we should go.  This is my biggest concern.  I think limited intervention has a low enough risk and a high enough pay off to be worth it.  What we have to recognize is that there's a risk, if we lose this hand we have to cut our losses and not get drawn further in.  If we let ourselves get drawn into making this our fight rather than simply playing a supporting role the balance changes and intervention is far too expensive.  This worries me since hawkishness is always popular so there's a real chance that if we do intervene at all, we won't be able to stop the momentum from dragging us in.

On the whole, while I have doubts, I think we should intervene provided we can make a number of up front caveats to help us from getting drawn in further and to communicate to the Libyans, and the Arab world in general, that we still see this as their fight, we're only lending a small helping hand.  Making this distinction is what I see as the critical element however, I'm opposed to any intervention where we try to take any credit for toppling Qaddafi, this isn't our role, it's not in our power, and it would be a massive strategic and diplomatic mistake to do so.

I'd also like a UN resolution supporting intervention, it seems time to call an emergency assembly.  If the other Arab nations will push for it, it seems like it has a real chance of happening.  China and Russia may grumble, but neither likely wants to alienate the rest of the Middle East so I think they'd abstain if it came to a vote.  It's worth the gamble.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Energy Efficiency and Jevons Paradox

Just read an article in the NY Times on how energy efficiency can lead to increased energy usage.  I've heard the argument before, and there's definitely some truth to it.  The article contains links to some of the evidence for this.

The perspective given in this article leads right into one of the major themes of this blog.  Things aren't simple, can't be considered as isolated effects, and attention has to be paid to their contingent nature.  In this particular case that contingency is the fact that more effective measures such as a gas tax are made cheaper by increases in energy efficiency.  It could be true that:

While there’s no doubt that fuel-efficient cars burn less gasoline per mile, the lower cost at the pump tends to encourage extra driving. There’s also an indirect rebound effect as drivers use the money they save on gasoline to buy other things that produce greenhouse emissions, like new electronic gadgets or vacation trips on fuel-burning planes.
However, it's also true that people have very real concerns about how a gas tax might impact the economy and the poor.  Increased fuel efficiency reduces these costs.  This changes people's cost calculations and can make possible political alignments that weren't possible before.*  Technological advances change the underlying systemic pressures and can impact policy outcomes in meaningful ways.  Analyzing things in isolation misses this, and while I think most well informed people realize there's more to it, this doesn't describe everyone engaged in political debate. 

I believe it's important to recognize, and be explicit about, these second order effects so that we don't have as many tiresome arguments about topics such as efficiency vs. a gas tax (not that I recall seeing this specific frame), as if these are separate strategies rather than complementary ones.  Probably too much to ask from a newspaper article with wordcount, as opposed to a blog where I can freely ramble on to my heart's content, but I see things presented so often in this basic oppositional structure that I couldn't help commenting on it.

Though I do feel that perhaps rather than ending

No matter what laws are enacted, people are going to find ways to use energy more efficiently — that’s the story of civilization. But don’t count on them using less energy, no matter how dirty their clothes get.
Perhaps something could have been added that spoke of the complementary nature of the preferred solution of a gas tax along with the inability of efficiency to achieve large economy wide energy savings on its own (though I'm agnostic about the washers mentioned in the last paragraph, gas taxes are more interesting to me).

*I will admit this doesn't seem to be happening in the US.  We seem to use the technical advances involved in making more efficient cars to simply make them bigger instead (which I think may be part of the explanation for the increased fatalities for small cars, it's not irrelevant the big ones are growing in size and number as well.  Part of this issue is timing, efficiency increases may create a window where a gas tax could be imposed without harm since people haven't adjusted their habits yet.  Given them time, and this will become more difficult.  This is purely theoretical in the case of the US auto industry where we haven't seen a move to more efficient vehicles since a good portion of the efficiency increases are wiped out by size.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Comparing American Slavery to Russian Serfdom

Another excellent post on the NY Times' Disunion blog, this one on comparing aspects of the Russian emancipation of the serfs to American emancipation of the slaves.  While there are certainly differences, I spent a lot of time back in my American politics class comparing eastern European emancipation to that in the US (and also trying to contrast the two with Brazil and the Hapsburg emancipation in Austria-Hungary) to point out numerous similarities.  Understanding all three of these cases helps us to understand each one individually better.

This is a bit off topic for the normal thrust of this blog, there just aren't all that many tie ins to modern times, but it's something worth reading to understand our history as Americans and to put it into the context of world history so I thought I'd point it out.  Especially since it's a light easy read.  Take a few minutes to look at it.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Through the Fox Looking Glass: Consolidation of Government Services and Government by Press Release

While I always feel that picking on a Fox News column is slightly unfair, this ties in with some other reading* I've been doing so I reacted to it rather strongly.

John Lott reacts somewhat hyperbolically to a new GAO report on the waste being caused by program duplication.  My readers probably know that this is an area of particular frustration for me and the major reason that I am often so pro-federal government.

John Lott of course isn't.  He points out that according to the GAO report up to $200 billion could be saved over the next decade (though I don't see that figure in the link presented and it seems like a high end estimate, but for arguments sake we'll assume it's correct).  So far, so good.

It's his explanation for the problem that I think can be best described as complete bullshit:

Call it "press release government." For politicians, the best way to be seen as being actively involved and to viewed as caring about a problem is to set up a new government program and then claim credit for it. It doesn't seem to matter if there are already 17 other programs that help people get nutritious food or 79 other programs to provide transportation for the disadvantaged, adding another program shows that the politician really cares... Creating new additional government programs spread across different government agencies also means that additional congressional committees can try claiming oversight...Thus, when there is a housing problem, congressmen and Senators from a range of different committees can claim legitimate reasons to run before the television cameras and hold committee hearings...Part of the problem is that once a program is adopted, it is there forever, and expenditures are assumed to continue along certain trends.
This is utter nonsense.  Does anyone really think that a Congresscritter cares if they are in front of the cameras for a new program to give young mothers money to buy their kids veggies or to claim they increased WIC funding by 20% so that mothers can buy their toddlers veggies?  It doesn't make any difference to them, they're still in front of the cameras and can make the same speeches and press releases, so this can't be a good explanation (there may be some truth to them liking being able to stand in front of real, physical stuff they built, but this isn't applicable to the stuff in the GAO report).  And since the poor don't vote in as large of numbers, according to Leighly and Nagler 2006 56.4% of the lowest quintile of eligible voters vs. 86.3% of the highest quintile it seems unlikely they are pursuing many of these anti-poverty programs for votes (while other programs have duplication these are the ones Lott mentions, and it is true they are rather more frequently duplicated) (also remember that many states deprive criminals of the right to vote, which make up a not insignificant portion of the lowest quintile and depending on survey method may be impacting these numbers since many people may mistakenly believe they are ineligible to vote due to the opacity of these laws which may impact 47 million Americans, as do immigrants who have not yet gained citizenship).