Monday, October 25, 2010

Latin America from on the ground

I spend the last couple weeks in Latin America and thought I'd provide my thoughts on a few of the countries I saw. Some of the lead-ins are going to sound like something out of a Thomas Freidman column. Please don't take that as an endorsement of his style, content, or being.

Brazil
I was in Sao Paulo last week and something occurred to me. These folks have a long way to go, but they are making progress. I was staying at a fantastic Hilton is what was a decidedly business district (the adjoining mall was closed on Saturdays and Sundays) thinking up new words for large, complex topics and decided to take this picture out my window.

It's a little bit hard to see, but notice the rising favellas on the hill. I was in Sao Paulo and even as I was ensconced in a fabulous hotel, I was advised not to wander too far. This is the juxtaposition of a place like Sao Paulo. Barely more then a stones throw away from Brazil's world trade center (in the foreground) was a favella. Now the government is investing heavily in this location and I would wager the days are numbered for the particular favella.

This was a theme throughout the Latin American cities I visited in the past few weeks. There are a growing number of haves, but a persistent number of havenots as well. Of course, different governments have embraced economic policy. The great contrast being between Chile and Brazil (among the countries I visited).

Chile
I was talking to a businessman in a five star hotel in Santiago drinking a pisco sour (which I was told originated in Chile) he spoke of how the country has been dealing with some issues, both short-term and long term. In the short-term the country had been dealing with a massive earthquake and the mining disaster. In fact, as we met Chilean news had minute by minute coverage of the miners with the countdown graphic as they road the Phoenix to escape the cavern that had been their prison for 2 months. Despite this, he remarked how proud his country was. They had dealt with both problems with aplomb, in his estimation, and it seemed to be validation of a system of governance and economics that allowed Chile to do better then many countries during the recession.

Of course, this prompted the long-term issue. Chile suffers from a post-Pinochet identity crisis. As the liberal, Chicago school economic policies of the Pinochet regime bear fruit Chileans are put in a weird position. Can they applaud some of the policies while deriding the man? It is a whisper on the lips of many successful Chileans, something alluded to but rarely said allowed. The mention of Pinochet can still induce a visceral reaction among many Chileans, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the economic policies and institutions his regime put in place have positioned Chile well to move past a commodity dependent economy. Of course challenges remain, and they haven't made the transition away from commodities yet. Many of the miners broke through to the surface and immediately called for new mining safety regulations to prevent the kind of accidents they fell victims to. They weren't martyrs, but messengers and they brought their message at the point of greatest resonance with the population. The government response remains to be seen.

Peru
I really liked Peru, the people, the city of Lima, the food, and the pisco sours (which I was told originated in Peru). It, like many of the cities in Latin America is a city of contrasts. Consider this picture of the tourist-y upscale district of Miraflores.















And then consider this shot of a village about 30km away near the Pachacamac ruins. As much as I loved Peru, on statistic that I had heard shocked me. I had read Hernando De Soto's The Other Path sometime ago for grad school and he talks extensively about the need to bring the informal economy into the government fold. He talks about valuing ownership, and he presents all this as a way to combat the ideology of the leftist terrorist group The Shining Path.

Peruvian President Fujimoro embraced many of the policies and indeed The Shining Path was largely marginalized. The streets of Lima were some of the safest I walked in the region. And yet I heard that 60% of the Peruvian economy is estimated to be informal. This is the largest percentage in Latin America.


So those are just some random thoughts about a few of the countries I visited. It's an amazing region with amazing people and history (and food: chicarron, feijda, ceviche). All my observations are amateurish reflections from 4 and 5 star hotels, but for what it's worth, that's what I saw and thought.

GOP: All the Benefits of Anti-Bailout Populism . . .

. . . none of the downsides.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Awakening Council Reverting

No matter how you look at it, this isn't good for Iraq or the US. It seems like there are a number of reasons for the reversion back to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, but perhaps the most troubling is the perception (or perhaps reality) that the Iraqi government isn't keen to bring Awakening Council members into the fold.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Citizens United: Another Angle

Since it fostered so much debate yesterday, I thought it would be worth while to post a link to this piece in Democracy in America. Matt Steinglass raises the question of the appropriateness of foreign money being spent to influence U.S. elections. He lays out rather logically how the Citizens United decision makes it legal (and largely untraceable) for foreign governments to spend large sums of money to influence American elections. He notes:

Surely, the Supreme Court would hold it unconstitutional for Congress to pass a law prohibiting foreign citizens from getting up on a soapbox in Central Park and stating that they prefer one candidate or another in an American election. On what basis, then, can Congress bar foreign corporations from buying unlimited campaign advertisements advocating their preferred candidates in American elections? Ah, one might object, but buying campaign advertising is not the same as engaging in speech. And corporations are not the same as individuals. These are precisely the two principles that Messrs Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia, Alito, and Thomas rejected in Citizens United.

For me this brings back two things I thought were obvious until the Citizens United decision. 1) Buying advertising is not identical to practicing free speech and 2) Corporations (and unions) are not individuals. Of course, as Ben pointed out yesterday, the real kicker of the Citizens United decision was the removal of reporting requirements. We are now left with less data about the additional money being spent and where that money is coming from.

I wonder how the most vociferous defenders of the decision would feel if Saudi royals influenced city council elections in Dearborn, Michigan in the hopes of founding a Wahabi grade school? My gut says they would be non-plussed at the notion.

Marc Thiessen, Ideologically Blinded Moron

Marc Thiessen’s propensity for writing ideologically-driven nonsense on the pages of the Washington Post sets him apart, well, not all, from most of the rest of that paper’s columnists. The deficiencies of the WaPo’s Op-Ed page are well known and oft commented upon. Thiessen, though, is particularly objectionable in part for his mindless defense of all things Bush and attack of all things Obama—much in the way the Bush administration approached the Clinton administration to its ultimate determent, see 9/11—and in part for his suborning evil (read: torture).

Among the strange positions he’s taken are an opposition to targeted killing (because it demonstrates Obama is weak on terrorism) and opposition to civilian trials for terrorists (because it demonstrates Obama is weak on terrorism). In his most recent diatribe he writes:
The Ghailani prosecution is hanging by a thread today not because of the interrogation techniques employed against him, but because of the Obama administration's ideological insistence on treating terrorists like common criminals and trying them in federal courts.

There are myriad problems with this statement. One obvious problem is that the Ghailani prosecution is not hanging by a thread—if it were, the government likely would have pursued an interlocutory appeal of the decision that inspired Thiessen’s Op-Ed. Another obvious problem is that the reason for the set back in the Ghailani case has nothing to with the Obama administration—it has everything to do with the Bush administration's program of using overly harsh interrogation methods at secret prisons. The setback, if it is a setback at all, can be place squarely at the feet of the Bush administration, Thiessen’s former employer.

Ultimately, though, the oddest part of Thiessen’s preferred approach—“they can be held indefinitely under the laws of war”—is its implicit elevation of Ghailani, a terrorist, to the status of a soldier. Combatants and civilians directly participating in hostilities are detainable—not indefinitely, but until the end of hostilities—under the law of armed conflict. This is not meant to punish the combatants but to remove them from the battlefield and return them, unharmed and unpunished, once the war has ceased. Terrorists, on the other hand, are criminals: they have not killed other combatants (legitimate targets); they have not targeted infrastructure of military import and utility; they have not abided by the laws or customs of war. No, they have killed untargetable civilians, attacked civilian infrastructure: they have committed murder. They ought to be treated as criminals—and soldiers, including our soldiers, deserve better than Thiessen’s implicit moral equivalence with terrorists.

Finally, from a pragmatic perspective, civilian trials have proved eminently more effective than CSRTs or Military Commissions in dealing with terrorists. Since 9/11, upwards of 300 terrorists have been successfully prosecuted and convicted in civilian courts, garnering something like a 90% conviction rate. In contrast, 70% of detainees at GTMO who have challenged their detention through habeas corpus proceedings have won.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

That Town Hall Analogy

A few months ago, while discussing the impact of Citizen's United, I used an analogy (that I stole from a colleague) centered on Norman Rockwell's famous Four Freedoms series. Specifically: imagine a New England town hall meeting. Now, instead of the banker waiting for the mechanic to finish speaking before the banker gets to speak, imagine the room filled--every seat filled--with someone wearing the same colored t-shirt, sponsored by Corporation X, to repeat X's talking points. Now imagine that when you walk up to the town hall meeting, every seat has already been filled by people paid by X and there's a line out the door of people paid by X. That's the potential impact of Citizen's United: the drowning out of all other points of view in a race.

Here's one exhibit: 60 Plus has spent 83 percent as much as Kapanke has spent on his entire campaign.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Governator in his Closing Scenes

I've often considered the political existence of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, but haven't dedicated the time to come to any conclusions. The Economist does that for me, and I think it's a nice little "history at present" roundup.

Time will tell what, if any, impact the Governator actually had. I can't help feeling that in many policies, Gov. Schwarzenegger advanced sensible, well-reasoned policies but failed to get the buy-in from the roustabouts on either end of the spectrum. Pity that. His story also makes me consider President Obama, promises of post-partisanship, and the inability to govern from the center.

The Economist piece closes on a back-handedly encouraging note, "Seven years ago Californians were furious enough to elect him but not to follow through. Now more of them realise what a mess their state is in."

Will we be saying the same thing about the United States in 2016? Will the Brits learn to use a "z" instead of that bastard "s"? Time will tell, but odds are greater on the former.

The Global Fund: Austerity and Aid

International development and aid work is not something we talk about a lot on this blog, despite the editors personal connections to some great friends doing great things all over the world. (Example) But I thought it would be worthwhile to consider how the global financial crisis and the calls for austerity, particularly in Western Europe, is impacting aid work.

The Global Fund, a major multilateral aid group working intently on health issues, fell $1.3 billion from its targeted pledge of the $13 billion they needed just to meet existing commitments. They received pledges for $11.7 billion, but had hoped to increase donations to $20 billion. According to The Economist, "this would have allowed [The Global Fund],...to triple the number of antiretroviral treatments for HIV from 2.5m at the end of 2009 to 7.5m."

The article pointed to a couple bright spots, including a commitment from the US to donate $4 billion over 3 years (if I'm reading the article correctly). This gives The Global Fund a longer timeline.

But a separate article at Baobob mentions something else that has larger geopolitical implications, namely the emergence of China as an aid donor to the African continent. While Chinese donations have been more about industrial development, rather than health-related projects, it shouldn't be lost on anyone how this could lead to a degree of patronage on the continent.

What does it all mean? I think it means as the Western world is constrained by demands of austerity two things are going to happen in Africa:
1) Essential health aid isn't going to be coming.
2) China's continued patronage and rising prestige with particular governments could give rise to the kind of client-state relationships that defined the Cold War and hobbled Africa's "post-colonial" development.

Of course altruism and a commitment to humanity should be enough of a reason for Western governments to continue pledging aid, but if it isn't (and oft times it isn't), perhaps we should consider the strategic reasons.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Chicken or The Egg: Blaming....someone...

Matt Steinglass has a post up in Democracy in Action discussing Obama's pocket veto of a once uncontroversial piece of mortgage-related legislation. He gets into a defense of the intelligence of elected officials, but I think he gets off track when he says:

These people [member of Congress] aren't mindlessly partisan carney barkers, but they often play them on TV. Why? My working theory is that it's generally because we, the voters, demand it. We're frequently angry, and we're not very smart.

Slow down. I just can't get fully behind this point, and not because I think I'm a pretty smart guy (trust me, I am). My own "working theory" is a media monster that constantly needs fed and the degradation of professional journalism into a horse-race, process-centric smörgåsbord/trough that the monster can feed at. The gaffe, the audacious, indeed the irrational is sexy. The actual policy is tedious, plodding, and boring. Can you imagine watching Morning Joe (I watch at the gym. Yes the gym. Seriously.) for 3 hours in the morning where there is mostly a reasoned discussion of specific policy choices? Mika would fall asleep. Joe would run out of things to say (maybe).

But Stienglass doesn't stop there, he continues:

Rather, I think one of the things you have to recognize about politics is that it's to a great extent composed of very smart people forcefully saying things they know aren't true, in order to retain the support of the public to do the complicated things they know are actually in the public interest.

Let me get this straight: Our elected officials knowingly say things that aren't true to gain our support so when nobody is looking they can actually serve us. Is that really our reality? No wonder there's a Tea Party and people hate incumbents.

Steinglass presents a vision of the US political scene that makes me want to wave a Gadsden flag (h/t Wikipedia). I refuse to accept that 1) The American people want politicians to dumb it down and 2) Dumbing it down is the way to be reelected.

Am I living in denial? Meh, maybe. I prefer to consider it faith in the ability of our politicians, the media, and the we the people to strive for something better.


Private Security Contractors in Afghanistan

The Senate released what The Washington Post has called a "blistering" report about security contractors in Afghanistan. (h/t JC) It an unflattering recounting of lackadaisical background checks (or none at all), and stories of employing duplicitous (or flat out enemy) warlords and their militias. Of course the contractors pay the warlords money for services rendered (though not evaluated) and some of that money may be getting into the hands of Taliban insurgents.

There has already been a lot written about the use of private security contractors. There is a big down-side and an as yet unclear upside. The concept of private security contractors has even been lampooned in a recent movie. I don't have much to add except a few points.

1) How many times we do need to have an incident reported in a newspaper or an official report before closing these guys down becomes a priority? Clearly their use doesn't change hearts and mind.

2) The reporting has an incredulous tone that these warlords would work with the Taliban (and take money from the highest bidder). This is essentially how Afghanistan has worked for centuries, and indignation doesn't really help us.

3) Ben pointed this out to me yesterday, and I think it's worth stating. The Taliban were the recognized or at least de facto government in Kabul from 1996 to 2001. Also, the Taliban does not mean Al Qaeda and vice versa. I think in the minds of the American public the two are inextricably linked. This creates a problem when reports come out that Afghan warlords are working with the Taliban. It gets read as "Afghan warlords are working with the people that attacked us on 9/11." This is not factually accurate. We need to disaggregate the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Back to the original point. This is an unflattering report, though certainly not the first of its kind. It sounds like maybe the Pentagon is prepared to do something about this, but that something means putting more American servicemen and women in harms way. As repugnant as private security contractor utilization might be, it's easier to periodically decry them in reports then it is politically viable to advocate to put more Americans in harms way.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Longing for a Simpler Time

Dana Milbank has a column about an untelevised press conference/gaggle conducted by Robert Gibbs. Milbank is hit or miss for me, but the longing for a time when grownups had a serious conversation is certainly something I can appreciate.

Preconditions for Taliban Talks

The AP reports today that, according to a former head of the Pakistani ISI, the Taliban have set out 3 preconditions for negotiations: 1) a timetable for NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan; 2) the release of Taliban prisoners; 3) removal of the 'terrorist' label from the Taliban. Clearly, the Taliban conditions indicate a desire to be recognized as a traditional belligerent, conferring a modicum of legitimacy on the organization.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Stimulus Wasn't Big Enough

The IMF has there 2010 World Economic Outlook out and they put forth the idea that if the world economy weakens further, those nations that can afford it (say a nation who's 10 year bond rate is hovering around 2.4) should consider additional stimulus.

The IMF also makes the point in the executive summary that "fiscal consolidation in advanced economies typically detracts from short-term growth." In other words, if you cut government spending, you hurt short term growth. And as Matt Steinglass points out in Democracy in America, the IMF has concluded that fiscal consolidation to the order of 1 percent of GDP leads to a 0.5 percent decrease in real GDP and a 0.3 percent increase in unemployment.

So far we have paid out $537 billion from the original $787 billion that was authorized. That constitutes 68% of the authorized funds.

I'm not saying we pass another stimulus tomorrow. I'm saying it needs to be part of the policy conversation. Paul Krugman has been all over this here, here, & here, and clearly he has a point of view, but he's also a Nobel Prize winning economist who's research focused on the Great Depression. Maybe we should listen to him instead of waiting for him to say "I told you so." (Which has said many times in the past couple years)

UPDATE: Jan Hatzius, economist with Goldman Sachs, has a grim outlook for the U.S. economy over the next 6 to 9 months. He also notes "The reason is...the impulse from fiscal policy [is] likely to continue deteriorating through 2011."

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Free to Choose & Moral Responsibility

ThinkProgress has a link up about a house in Obion County Tennessee that was allowed to burn to the ground, while firemen stood by and watched. They watched and did nothing because the homeowner hadn't paid the $75 annual fee to get fire protection services. Obion County is outside the city of South Fulton, TN and for residents outside the city to receive fire protection, they must pay.

The conservative blogosphere didn't show much compassion for the family.

Krugman make's a useful comparison to the belief system that undergirds this situation and healthcare.

Me? I'm torn on the specific case, to be honest. No, the family didn't pay the fee and they made that choice, but I think the firemen should have fought the fire because that's their job. I don't know if I could have stood by and watched a family's house burn because they didn't pay $75. I understand their superiors might not have allowed action. It seems petty to me. Bill the family for goodness sake.

What if you contested your electric bill and didn't pay on time? Should the electric company be allowed to turn out the lights the day the money is late?

Course there are those that will say it was the homeowner's choice to not pay the fee and he must live with that choice. To me, that's a cold view of the world. I am left to ponder if people out there truly believe they have no responsibility to their fellow man. Isn't the world a scarier place in the face of this hyper-Hobbesian vision of something we once called society?

There is an overreach in the opposite direction where choice is denied to the individual in support of the collective, but when a house is allowed to burn to the ground over a $75 fee I think it's time to consider if the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Of course, that's not the message you'd get from the modern Republican party or the Tea party.

Defense Spending, Sacred Cows, and the Tea Party

AEI's Arthur Brooks, Heritage's Edwin Feulner, and Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol joined forces yesterday to write an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (full text at Heritage.org) basically saying in the discussion about where to cut deficits can't include a discussion about cutting our defense budget.

C'mon man! (for the reader(s) who watch ESPN's Sunday NFL Countdown)

Instead, they go after entitlements. "Cut them first!" they holler, "Or else!" Or else our trading lanes will be obstructed, our freedom threatend, lions, tigers, bears! Oh my! Now the op-ed actually raised the ire of a conservative (maybe libertarian is a better descriptor) blogger writing on the Economist.com's Democracy in America blog. W.W. out of Iowa City, IA (because repetition sells) responds and makes from very valid points. The most notable point that our current defense spending is greater then the spending by China, Britain, France, Russia, Germany, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Italy, South Korea, Brazil, Canada, and Australia combined. Surely there is some room to make cuts there.

Also, let's look at percentages. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities project that in FY2010 about 20% of tax receipts will go to pay for defense and security spending. This, by the way, is the same percentage as Social Security.

There is also the point to be made that President Obama didn't start two wars (one entirely justified, one less so) while cutting taxes. That's a tired point, but one we shouldn't forget.

I'm not saying we don't touch entitlements. There can be no sacred cows if we are legitimately going to get our budget deficit under control. My issue is the ridiculous attempt by these thought leaders of the conservative movement declaring one fifth of federal spending off limits for cuts. Ridiculous.

Closing note: W.W. critiques the WSJ op-ed and wonders if Tea Party activists will rally around this op-ed. He's hoping they don't. If you've read Matt Taibbi's piece in Rolling Stone (and I have) you are far less optimistic they won't.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Well Said, Bob Gates

In response to the appropriations process halving the State Departments request for $2 billion for its operations in Iraq, Swampland quotes Bob Gates:
"It is one of these cases where, having invested an enormous amount of money, we are now arguing about a tiny amount of money in terms of bringing this to a successful conclusion," Gates said. "It reminds me for all the world of the last scene in Charlie Wilson's War, where, having forced the Soviets out of Afghanistan and having spent billions to do it, Charlie Wilson can't get a million dollars for schools." It's a good thing Charlie died in February at 76, so he won't have to watch the sequel.

Obviously Iraq is not Afghanistan redux--Afghanistan is not even really Afghanistan redux--but Gates' point should be well taken. Disengagement after Soviet withdrawal was a major contributing factor to the failure of the Afghan state, giving rise to the instability that facilitated the Taliban's take-over and, eventually, Al Qaeda's creation of a fiefdom there. For several years we've witnessed an incredible decline in US influence in Iraq. At the same time, the dysfunction of the Iraqi political system has been patent over the last 7 months as Iraq has struggled to form a new government, leading, it appears, to the resurgence of Muqtada al-Sadr. After the time, blood, and treasure expended in Iraq--ours and the Iraqis--it would be a tragedy to, through short-sighted penny pinching, undermine what was eventually built up.

Facebook, Freedom, and a New Political Structure

Spurred on by Malcolm Gladwell's piece on social networks and the way they could potentially undermine autocratic states (I haven't read Gladwell's piece because I never received the refund I requested for buying and attempting to read Blink) set off a conversation between Matt Steinglass, Matthew Yglesias, and then a response by Steinglass.

The whole debate seems a little too much like navel-gazing to me, but in Steinglass's response he makes a statement I 100% agree with, but couldn't have said so well:

It is possible that single-party rule by a self-selecting, self-reproducing political elite that allows cultural and entrepreneurial freedom is a viable model for a modern state.

I think this is the lesson of modern China, and it is a lesson that won't be lost on future aspiring autocrats. Remember when capitalism would lead to democracy? I read an awful book about it in college. I think it's a flawed hypothesis.