Blargh Blog

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Everything is Politics

"Getting out of politics is right wing" edition

Ann Althouse:
[T]he great artist needs to separate himself from politics and certainly to get it out of his art. I'm saying there's something right wing about doing that. .... [Bob Dylan] was getting out of politics. ... I'm calling that right wing.


Monday, September 26, 2005

Blast from the Past

I don't understand all this furor about Bush appointing people without relevant experience to important leadership positions throughout the government. The important thing is that these are people of character, with integrity and a strong moral foundation. If they're a little inexperienced, they can just surround themselves with a solid team of first-rate people. Their dignified leadership plus their advisors' expertise will be the perfect combination for success, right? Heck, it might even be better to bring in an outsider to lead, rather than just giving power to the same old Washington bureaucrats.


Politics/Cleverness Quiz

Via Von at Obsidian Wings, here is another one of those tests that plots your political ideology in a multidimensional space: the OkCupid! Politics Test.
Conservative? Liberal? Republican? Democrat? No matter how you vote, it's unlikely that any one of these words perfectly reflects your views. Politcal beliefs are often intuitive and personal, and no party, platform, candidate or external label can encompass them exactly.
The quiz labeled me a Democrat, a political and economic liberal, and plotted me right on top of the face of someone who appears to be Robert Redford. It also whispered sweet nothings in my ear: "You exhibit a very well-developed sense of Right and Wrong and believe in economic fairness."

What sets this political quiz apart from the rest, though, is that it gives you an opportunity for cleverness at the end.
AND FINALLY, if you could make up ONE new law and have it enforced FOREVER, by goons, what would your law be? Use your imagination, let your despotic instincts run free.

I would dictate that...
My answer:
I would dictate that... every law can be repealed; none is permanently enforceable.
Can you top that?


Sunday, September 25, 2005


Beloved blogger Ezra Klein has become a member of Tapped, the highly regarded group blog of The American Prospect. One of his first posts is a takedown of a too-cute, pox-on-both-your-houses Slate article by Jacob Weisberg. The Bush Administration is looking to turn the post-Katrina rebuilding into a neocon playground, just like the post-Iraq rebuilding. Weisberg writes, not about the no-bid contracts for friends of the Administration, but about the other half of that agenda, the ambitious social-economic programs that the Republicans want to enact:
The reaction from liberals to Bush's proposed War on Bayou Poverty has been outrage that Republicans would take advantage of the tragedy to advance their ideological agenda.


This is precisely the wrong response. Liberals, who have failed to muster any kind of social consensus for a major federal assault on poverty since LBJ's day, should welcome conservatives as converts to the cause. They should hold back on their specific objections—some of which are valid, some of which are not—and let Bush have his way with the reconstruction. Making New Orleans a test site for conservative social policy ideas could shake out any number of ways politically. But all of us have a stake in an experiment that tells us whether conservative anti-poverty ideas, uh, work. If the conservative war on poverty succeeds, even in partial fashion, we will all be better for its success. And if it fails, we will have learned something important about how not to fight poverty.


Unfortunately, the conservative war on poverty in New Orleans probably won't take place in any concerted way, because Republicans and Democrats are equally terrified about what might happen. Conservatives don't necessarily want their panaceas tried out, for fear their utopia might not be so dreamy after all. Liberals don't want conservative ideas tested for a different reason. They're afraid that some of them might actually work.
Now, I like science as much as the next guy, but it appears to have slipped Weisberg's mind that millions of people's lives are at stake, and that, if Bush's "War on Bayou Poverty" doesn't quite work out, some of these people might mind. As Ezra says:
The people of New Orleans, we can only assume, will not be told they're participating in an economic version of the Tuskegee experiments; we'll just let them get buffeted about out of sheer respect for the scientific method. Testing hypotheses is much more important than a few thousand black folk.
So, I suppose that it's possible that Democrats are opposed to Bush's ambitious rebuilding policies because they don't want to be shown up by his success, but it's also possible, as Ezra observes, that their opposition "stems from a fear that it won't work, and that scores of poor people who just had their lives demolished will now be further punished by a regionally restricted Gilded Age."

How oh how can we choose between these two hypotheses? If only some clever Slate author could think up an ingenious social experiment to put them to the test! I don't care how many people's lives we have to mess with - somebody, please, just get me the answer.

But wait! Posting at Tapped 8 minutes before Ezra is the estimable Matthew Yglesias. He brings some of that typical liberal opposition to Bush's "war on poverty" - something about how Bush is rejecting "effective ways to help the poor people displaced by Katrina ... in favor of less effective ones" - but that's just irrelevant yammering that ignores the wonderful fact that Republicans are trying to do something about poverty, and the obvious implication that we should let them do whatever they want (because hey, some of it might work, and even if it doesn't that's interesting too). But Matt also has something relevant to say. It turns out that Republicans (Ronald Reagan, even) have had some anti-poverty ideas before, and some of them have actually worked: Section 8 housing, the Earned Income Tax Credit. What's been happening to those? Well, it looks like conservatives are trying to cut them. Bush is even abandoning Section 8 vouchers, a successful part of Ronald Reagan's republican war on poverty, in favor of his new experiment, a not-particualrly-conservative trailer-based anti-poverty program (which is really not so different from some old failed experiments). But liberals, those dastardly liberals, they're loving these programs and trying to expand them! Where is your fear, you silly liberals? Cower before the Republican anti-poverty successes! Run away and hide! They will destroy you! But no, instead the Republicans seem to be hiding from any government program that succeeds at reducing poverty. Government that works? How embarrassing.

If only Ezra had waited to read Matt's post before taking on Weisberg. Because my reaction to Ezra's post quickly went from "Amen!" to "Say what?" Ezra writes:
If [liberals] did not believe conservative solutions would fail, they would be conservatives. And if either group, liberals or conservatives, are so unsure of their policies that they believe antithetical programs should be applied for the experimental value of it, they should really exit the debate with all possible speed...
No, no, no! Have you no humility, no open-mindedness, no recognition of your own fallibility? The 8-minute gap, it seems, was not long enough for Ezra, as Matt's post refutes Ezra's claim before he'd even made it. No policy maker knows ahead of time exactly what will work and what won't, and sometimes effective programs come from the darndest places. Policy makers have mixed motives - on the one hand, they want to use what they see as the best policies available to help people who need them. On the other hand, they are still learning what works and what doesn't, and new theories and policy proposals are always in development. You do need to experiment, to try out new, unproven policies, in order to keep from getting stuck with the same old policies. But, as any good scientist knows, you don't experiment blindly; you use your best existing theories to test out hypotheses that have a decent chance of giving useful results. And, as any good conservative should know, whenever possible these experiments should be tried out on a small scale. That way you can see what works and what doesn't, tinker with things to make subtle improvements, and not scale them up to a point where they could do real damage until after they have a proven track record. When the stakes are high, like, say, if you're trying to help people put their lives together after a natural disaster destroys much of a major US city and causes the largest dislocation of Americans in over a century, then you might not want to reach for the policy book labeled "Speculative Ideology-Based Experiments." And when you see the President reaching for that book, then instead of sitting there with rapt attention, congratulating him just for moving, and eagerly awaiting some fresh 'sperimentin', you might be better off pointing out what we've learned from all those previous experiments. What makes you a liberal is believing in liberal goals, and believing that society's collected wisdom shows that liberals' policies are a good start at pursuing those goals.

Weisberg says that we should welcome Bush to the anti-poverty game. I'll give him a warm welcome if he shows that he'll take the game seriously, working consistently to achieve anti-poverty goals, basing his policies on the most successful experiments that society has conducted to date, developing new experiments in light of the best theories that we have to explain what works, and limiting his crazy new experiments to narrow situations where they can't cause much damage. I'm not holding my breath.


Tuesday, September 20, 2005


How much of yesterday's pirate-like talking was used to communicate the fact that it was Talk Like a Pirate Day?

a) Less than 20%
b) 20-40%
c) 40-60%
d) 60-80%
e) More than 80%

As always, please decide on your answer before reading the comments so that they cannot influence your response.


Monday, September 19, 2005

19th Philosophers' Carni'al

Arrr, they say that th' sequel be nereas good as th' original, an' so ye might imagine that by th' 6th, 8th, 14th, or 19th 'ersion o' somethin' 't wouldna e'en be worth mentionin'.

Carni'als be diffarnt, though. They's endless fun, especially if ye replace them borin' old crazy whorly rides, sugary candy, an' enticin' prizes wi' carefully reasoned philosophical argument. Gar.

Aye, and so, without further ado, I brin' ye somethin' that is worth mentionin', linkin' to, and e'en readin': Philosophers' Carni'al XIX. Aye, me parrot concurs. Go take a eyeball Hilzoy's post on explanation an' justification - she always sees thin's so clearly - and whatereelse strikes yer fancy. Aye.


Saturday, September 17, 2005


One of the weakest argument in favor of going to war in Iraq was that we had to go get the terrorists who were operating inside Iraq. This argument was only plausible to people who were mistaken about what was happening in Iraq, which is why it was alluded to far more often than it was made explicitly. When claims about terrorists in Iraq were put into words, they tended to take a very limited form, specifying a few individual terrorists or even just one man, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. A war to take down Baghdad was not a good way to stop Zarqawi, as was clear then and is all the more clear now. A far more promising approach would have been to go after Zarqawi directly, and his organization Ansar al-Islam, at their camp in the northern part of Iraq that was not even under the control of the Baghdad government.

Going to war in Iraq was not a way to go after the terrorists, as a chorus of people who opposed the war have tirelessly repeated: "Iraq is a diversion from the war on terror."

What response is there for those in favor of the war?

Here's one reply: "Yes, and a diversion is just what we needed." We wanted to divert the terrorists from their war on us. They're so distracted by the fight and the chaos in Iraq that they are neglecting their operations in other parts of the world. Because we're fighting them in Iraq, they aren't able to fight us nearly as effectively in other parts of the world.

Now, there are moral responses to this argument (how could you use the Iraqis as terrorist bait?!?), but let's consider this from a tactical point of view. Who is more diverted?

The United States has a large, traditional fighting force consisting of over a hundred thousand men and women. The terrorists are a loosely linked multinational network, consisting of only a few thousand fighters. Keeping our armed forces stationed in Iraq is costing hundreds of billions of dollars, and it is draining many of the military's capabilities, including its supply of willing volunteer soldiers and its ability to be engaged elsewhere. The terrorists' decision-making is distributed, their costs are low (particularly when they are able to forage for weapons in the surrounding countryside), and small groups of them can come and go as they choose, in a matter of days. The military's comings and goings, conversely, constitute a complex and time-consuming logistical operation. Which side is likely to be more seriously diverted by war in Iraq? Which side can recover more swiftly from the distraction and, if it chooses, focus its attention elsewhere?

It is true that both sides entered the war by choice. To get the terrorists to engage us in Iraq, we had to make it a juicy enough target for them, but they still came in by choice. However, both sides do not have the option of leaving the war by choice. Although the United States could theoretically leave any time it wanted to, in reality the US is not free to go because its mission is so closely tied to the events on the ground in Iraq. The only way to leave Iraq before things have advanced to the point where there is a stable, palatable government is to concede at least partial failure and to go back home. The terrorists, however, are free to go operate elsewhere. Even if they give up in Iraq and the US gets what it wanted, they are not failures at their mission as long as they contiue to act elsewhere. If it was worth diverting the terrorists into Iraq, then they must have other ripe targets once they are undiverted. For the terrorists, exit could be an opportunity to act elsewhere, so it could come swiftly with a minimum of bad publicity for their cause, while for the United States it could be a slow, embarrassing retreat.

The final point to be made on the war in Iraq is this: the battle is not merely between the two fighting forces that entered Iraq, the United States (and its allies) on one side and the terrorists on the other. Both sides are receiving support from among the people of Iraq and others outside Iraq, recruiting and training men to serve on their side. The US is trying to train Iraqi security forces, while the terrorists are joined in their fight by various sets of insurgents. Some of the men on either side come from preexisting fighting forces, including former soldiers who now work for the security forces and former Baathists who are now insurgents. The fighting inspired others to join up, as the violence and destruction around them provided people with motivation either to join the security forces or to side with the insurgency, depending on one's interpretation of where the damage is coming from. Despite these apparent symmetries, the two sides are in very different positions. The allied forces have a much harder job. They must gather a much larger fighting force, and they must train them directly to do a very difficult job. Corruption, bad discipline, and thuggery could all seriously undermine the value of the security forces, as could the presence of traitors. The insurgents do not need to be nearly as numerous, and their decentralized nature seems to make them more resilient to the presence of "bad apples" in their midst. A diversion does not accomplish much if the "diverted" people can multiply while they are diverted, and in Iraq the terrorists seem to be in a much better recruiting position than the Americans.

A brief disclaimer "below the fold" (i.e. in the comments)


Thursday, September 15, 2005

I had a birthday and nobody noticed

Not even me. That's probably not a good sign.

I'm now one year and 13 days old. Note to self: remember September 2nd.