Thursday, September 30, 2010

Ireland: Leaving it to the Magical Markets

More bad news for Ireland this morning, as they are forced to bailout two banks at a cost of 40billions (with a B) euros to try and ensure investor confidence. You will recall Ireland was lauded for it's austerity measures in the face of a swelling deficit, but now it seems like it's all pain and no gain.

Current 10-year bond rates for Irish bonds stand at 6.8%, while the US 10-year bond rate closed at 2.5%. Let's not forget how Obama was assailed for suggesting austerity would stifle recovery.

And I'll preemptively reiterate something: I think the free markets are wonderful things, and they are, by and large efficient. But markets fail. That failure destroys people's livelihoods and that's when the government has to step in and ease the inevitable market correction.

Clearly for Ireland, something has gone awry and because of professed belt-tightening there is little the government can do to help people out. They're stuck waiting for the market correction.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Glenn Beck and Anti-Intellectualism

The New York Times Magazine has a profile out on Glenn Beck this weekend, but they have a preview available now. After reading it, I felt like it wandered. It was neither revealing of Beck's ethos, nor critical of the misstatements and intimations he dresses up as "history." But that's not what bothered me.

What bothered me was Beck's concept of populist intellectualism, where the "common man" gets it and the college educated mess it up. This was best represented in a comment by an attendee at Beck and Palin's Anchorage performance who remarked, "[Woodrow Wilson] was the start of the Progressive Era. He believed that college intellectuals should decide how the world should be run."

Now beyond the contradiction of deifying the founding fathers, (Thomas Jefferson graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1762 and passed the Virginia bar in 1967) and finding Woodrow Wilson's "college intellectuals" repugnant, there are broader concerns I have.

What's wrong with being a college educated intellectual? Why is this a perceived cause for a fissure in our social fabric? Is this now the great societal divide in America?

The rising tide of anti-intellectualism is one that has increasingly concerned me. It seems politically advantageous to pick on the smart kids. That's dangerous thinking. The college educated should not lord over those that don't have a college education, and perhaps that is the perception. Perhaps that is the reality. Young, college educated students are being tapped to manage older, more experienced professionals that haven't earned that piece of paper called a college diploma.

If that garners resentment, I understand it to a point, but to deride the educated as shysters because they are educated seems like a really good way to prevent the country from moving forward. Maybe that's the idea.

I meandering post to say the least. Maybe if I'd finished that graduate degree it would make more sense. Course, then I'd have to hate myself more.


Military Age vs. Drinking Age: Flipping the Switch

In a post yesterday in the Economist.com's Democracy in America blog, a contributor considers the drinking age vis a vis the age of military service and comes at the issue from a different angle:

There's been a bit of a hubbub recently about the fact that soldiers under the age of 21, like other Americans under 21, are barred from purchasing alcohol. Society trusts us to fire automatic weapons in America's name, the soldiers ask, but it doesn't trust us to drink a beer? It's a reasonable point...But I would take the opposite tack: teenagers should not be firing automatic weapons in America's name. We should raise the minimum age for soldiers on combat duty to 21.

The author goes on to cite studies that would suggest the mind isn't fully developed until someone reaches there 20s. To be honest, I have never considered this idea before, but I think it has a lot of merit. The author of the post makes a particularly prescient note that:

Adults tend to find recruitment campaigns based on macho athletic fantasies and evocations of the World of Warcraft experience somewhat less convincing than teenagers do. But for a military that expects to spend much of its time drinking tea and building collaborative relationships with local community leaders, rather than blowing things up, that's probably a plus.

Quite right. For those of you that have seen Restrepo, the documentary released in conjunction with Sebastian Junger's book War, I think the point will ring especially true. We see the well-intentioned army captain, Cpt. Dan Kearney, in the movie participating in jirgas with the locals, and we're given the impression this captain is a vast improvement over the captain that preceded him. That said, I was certainly left with the impression that the new captain just couldn't connect. Cpt. Kearney was too macho, too battle-ready to tolerate the tea-drinking, the circular conversation, and the round-about approach that defines the region he was sent to pacify and develop.

Of course there are myriad reasons why this it is impractical to raise the age of eligibility for military service, but they could be managed with proper resources. At some point, it may be worth discussing if we need a larger military or a smarter military and considering that the two are naturally complementary.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Afghanistan: Are we finally getting it?

General Petraeus has indicated that high-level Taliban member have reached out to the Karzai government and is prepared to begin to broach the subject of peace and reconciliation. Couple things to note about the report.
  1. Gen. Petraeus is quite supportive of these talks taking place and it's clear from his comments he views this as an integral part of the peace process.
  2. President Karzai (and probably Pakistan), his administration, and his allies seem to be hedging on the prospects that these talks will even take place.
I've been reading Thomas Barfield's Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History. I had been looking for a book that could take me all the way back to the origins of the Afghanistan. There are a number of great books that look at Afghanistan as the theater of war for various imperialists, but Barfield's book is the first that is about the Afghans, as much as there are Afghans. I'm a little over a fourth done with it, but I've covered a lot of ground prior to the start of the 20th century and through reading and from the two notes above I think the these two points are also true (and probably of greater consequence for Afghanistan):
  1. Gen. Petraeus understands that Afghanistan have never been stable as a highly centralized nation, and those that have tried to impose such an order have met with fierce resistance. He, I think, understands that there need to be a weak central government (likely based in Kabul) that will project minimal power over the other urban centers and even less over the rural hinterlands of Afghanistan. In return, that central government will have peace.
  2. President Karzai wants all or nothing. It seems the concessions of authority (and the limits of extortion) a reconciled central government would need to tolerate is an intolerable position for Karzai. He forget his history prior to 1970 and perhaps has too much arrogance to understand how bad the past 40 years have been for Afghanistan, when his predecessors tried to do what he is himself trying to do now.
Maybe I'm wrong, but I think the reasons for us to not back Karzai continue to outweigh the reasons to back him. Unfortunately, in the absence of an alternative we're stuck with a Afghan president that knows his own country's history worse then the much lamented occupier.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Revenues & Expenses

Peter Orzag has a great op-ed in The New York Times this morning advocating for a two year extension of all the Bush tax cuts and then a full repeal in 2013. He does some great "back of the napkin" math and makes plain, what most serious policymakers will already tell you. We can't simply cut spending and expect the budget deficit to go away. We need more revenue.

I don't think Orzag's plan is realistic just because it requires compromise and today's politicians signing on to tomorrow's decision. We could have different politicians by the time 2013 gets here or the sensible voices of yore might be trapped in a tough primary and have to stop being sensible (See McCain, Sen. John).

Regardless, I think it's a good thing more and more high-profile policymakers and pundits are saying that we need more revenue. People don't like government spending, but don't want to be without government services. Since we can't privatize everything, we're going to have to start taking in more money to pay for it. Reality sucks, but senior citizens living in poverty, roads and bridges that are crumbling, a pay-to-learn education system, and an ill-equipped military will suck more.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Healthcare if Different

In the comments section of this blog healthcare has been a much debated topic. Austin Frakt writes why healthcare is different, and why the solution can't simply be increased individual choice.

It's a complex problem and simply "liberating" the market won't work on its own.