Saturday, December 7, 2002
THANK YOU, ANDREW: As someone
Trent Lott acting like a jackass -- again
There is simply no excuse for Trent Lott's statement at Strom Thurmond's birthday lunch. According to today's Washington Post:
Click over to Tim Noah to get a glimpse at Thurmond's precise beliefs as a 1948 "Dixiecrat" presidential candidate.
As the Post story indicates, this is not the first time Lott has shot his mouth off on this subject.
If Senate Republicans allow him to stay on as Majority Leader, they will deserve whatever political misfortunes befall them as a result. It’s up to voters in Mississippi to decide whether they want Lott to continue to represent them in Washington. However, the Majority Leader position is a national one, and Senate Republicans need to think long and hard – oh hell, what am I saying, this takes ten seconds – about whether they want this man to be the visible face of Republican authority.
Beyond the moral reprehensibility of the comments, it’s also clear that Lott’s lack of political acumen is growing, not shrinking. That he made this comment in front of a C-SPAN camera is idiotic. His press spokesman’s statement – “Senator Lott's remarks were intended to pay tribute to a remarkable man who led a remarkable life. To read anything more into these comments is wrong.” – is delusional. This wasn’t something stripped of its context or twisted beyond its original meaning. This was just wrong, and Lott seems to be exerting no effort to make it right.
Senator, I say this as a Republican -- do all of us a favor and get off the national stage.
Friday, December 6, 2002
Earlier in the week, I promised a sociological exegesis of Paul Krugman. Here it is. [Full disclosure: Krugman was the outside chair of my Ph.D. dissertation at Stanford, and he’s thanked for it in my book. “Outside chair” sounds impressive, but what it basically means is that he was there to keep the process intellectually honest. We interacted for a grand total of three hours. He did pass me, for which I am certainly grateful.]
Paul Krugman should have felt good about himself this Thanksgiving. Editor & Publisher named him as one of four Features of the Year. Nicholas Confessore heaps a great deal of praise on Krugman in an a fair and balanced Washington Monthly piece. Plus, he has great luck in bringing out the rabid nature of his enemies – see Brad DeLong’s witheringly accurate takedown of Dan Mitchell’s uninformed caricature of Krugman as a “doctrinaire, left-wing, big-government type.”
That said, there’s a palpable sense that since Krugman started his New York Times op-ed column, the ratio of shrillness to insight has been increasing (Click here and here….). Implicit in Confessore’s story is that his current columns pale in comparison to his sparkling mid-1990’s essays for Slate and Foreign Affairs. Krugman admits that, “I'd like to make a big difference, but I'm not sure I have much of a chance of doing that.” Why does Krugman seem less influential now even though his megaphone is larger? Here’s my two-part answer, employing as much economic logic as I can muster:
Quality is a function of quantity. For some production processes, as output increases, the quality of each additional unit of output declines. Krugman is writing more now, but the quality has deteriorated. His earlier work was longer, more polished, and closer to his area of expertise – international economics. As he needs to generate more and more output for his Times column, he resorts to two strategies that drastically lower quality. First, he repeats himself ad nauseum. As Strunk and White point out, sometimes a little repetition is good to hammer home the point – this is what Mickey Kaus would call “flooding the zone.” After a while, however, diminishing marginal returns kick in. The benefit of each repetition shrinks, while the cost – in this case, to Krugman’s reputation – increases. Even Krugman’s admirers acknowledge this problem. Second, he branches away from his area of expertise to other topics of the day. Since his capital stock of knowledge in these areas is smaller, the product is less impressive.
On politics, he’s not moving down the learning curve. Krugman, along with many economists, has some serious blind spots in his political analyses. He’s consistently shocked when politicians engage in strategic or opportunistic behavior. He’s always stunned when leaders take actions that maximize their own power rather than benefiting the greater good. He’s flummoxed by the idea that nation-states might care about their relative economic power. These are all rational motivations – they’re just not ones that economists really consider when they do their own work. [Isn’t this a really cynical view of the world?—ed. Not necessarily. Politicians can desire power in the short run so as to pursue their desired ends in the long run. The logic of Bush's National Security Strategy is to prevent other great powers from rising in order to ensure the long-term growth of freedom, democracy and prosperity. For a great example of this kind of behavior in the domestic arena, check out John Barry’s The Ambition and the Power.]
Economists that focus on politics eventually begin to acknowledge these sorts of motivations. Krugman, however, seems perpetually befuddled when politicians act politically. Since his readers trend in the politically savvy direction, this failure to learn has become an ever-increasing handicap.
There’s more to say, but sociological exegeses are exhausting, and unlike Krugman, I’m not getting paid for penning these thoughts. So I’ll end with a plea for Krugman to switch papers from the New York Times to the Washington Post. I suggest this because the Post has op-ed columnists that write bimonthly or monthly. Krugman is the rare economist that can write well, and as such he has a duty to contribute to public discourse. His effect on that discourse would be more positive if he contributed less frequently.
UPDATE: Brad Delong has a post that links together my musings on Krugman and O'Neill.
CLARIFICATION: Much obliged to Mickey Kaus for the link. To clarify, I am not a student of Krugman's -- my Ph.D. is in political science, not economics. Here's Krugman's clarification (though, to be fair, Mickey said Krugman was "an" advisor, not "the" advisor). And click here for another Krugman assessment.
The postmortem on Paul O'Neill
What to make of his tenure? The most positive spin the Bloomberg piece can put on it is that "O'Neill's assessments were often accurate even if they weren't always politically savvy." As someone who worked at Treasury during his tenure, and someone who wholeheartedly agreed with him when he opposed the steel tariffs, I'd judge him a little more harshly.
O'Neill fundamental strengths were his intelligence and his willingness to say what he though even if it roiled markets and politicians. His fatal flaw was that he knew he was intelligent, and therefore never considered the possibility that he could be wrong. Also, saying what you think is not the most useful skill for a job that requires a fair amount of tact. Since O'Neill had no political ambitions, his incentive to correct these flaws were nil. Therefore, he never learned on this job.
This led to three substantive mistakes. First, he believed that all aspects of government can be run like a business. Now, some aspects of government can, but by design, democratic governments operate differently from firms. His exasperation about this was palpable from day one.
Second, O'Neill never really understood the international dimensions of his job. The purposes of the G-7, one of the most successful forms of international policy coordination that exists, eluded him. The statements he made about the Brazilian and Argentinian economies were factually wrong and politically inane.
Third, O'Neill doesn't know squat about politics. He considered this a virtue, as someone who could speak truth to power. But politics does matter. Without an understanding of the way the process works in Washington, nothing substantive can ever get accomplished. In the end, because of his multiple gaffes, O'Neill had successfully alienated Congress, Wall Street, the G-7, the financial press, and the bureaucrats in his own department. It takes real effort to simultaneously piss off that many groups.
O'Neill is a man of extraordinary gifts. Unfortunately, those gifts had nothing to do with being a good Treasury Secretary.
Wednesday, December 4, 2002
The war on leisure
The Bush administration now believes Al Qaeda is responsible for the latest attacks in Kenya. The Times ran a piece right after the Mombasa attack pointing out that Al Qaeda was now focusing on "soft" targets, but the pattern is even more specific than that. The attacks on Bali and Mombasa are attacks on the very principle of leisure. The pursuit of happiness is an essential part of Western liberalism, and an anathema to the brand of Islam that Al Qaeda espouses.
Three thoughts on this. The first is that, in the pursuit of homeland security, our focus may be off-target. The major concern is that Al Qaeda will hit major population centers or somew component of our critical infrastructure. However, given Al Qaeda's philosophy and it's post-9/11 material weakness, the likeliest places to be attacked may be vacation resorts -- Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Key West, and of course, any Disney theme park.
The second thought is that these attacks highlight the degree to which Al Qaeda and the fringe anti-globalization crowd often swim in the same waters. The latter tend to decry the whole notion of developing countries serving as vacation resorts for first-world travelers as some kind of neo-colonialism. Read this excellent Jane Perlez story on how tourism affects the Balinese economy, however, and you realize the vacuousness of this message:
The tourist economy in Kenya tells a similar story.
Finally, many pundits criticized President Bush for his exhortation last year to fight the war on terrorism by going shopping. Both Democrats and "national greatness" Republicans said that was the time to marshall Americans towards some greater collective goal. I sympathize with this response, but it smacks of an attempt to match Al Qaeda in their humorless puritanism. I say Bush didn't go far enough in the other direction. Given Al Qaeda's current predelictions, the best way to fight the war on terror is to put our decadent brand of hedonism on full display. So my advice is to take a long, luxuriant vacation. From personal experience, might I suggest Captiva island in Florida? [Boy, you really know how to dispense tough love --ed. Yes, I am a harsh taskmaster that way.]
Tuesday, December 3, 2002
Europe and pseudo-balancing
OK, back to world affairs. Eric Olsen goes off on Charles Kupchan's new book, The End of the American Era, which is summarized in this Salon interview. To condense the summary, Kupchan's basic argument is that 1) Europe is emerging as a counterweight to U.S. power, and 2) U.S. domestic politics will force U.S. foreign policy to be simultaneously more isolationist and unilateralist.
I know Kupchan and like a lot of what he's written, but I think he's dead wrong in this book, albeit for different reasons that Olsen. On Europe, let's be generous and assume that the EU is on the path of becoming a real state. Is Kupchan right about Europe becoming a great power peer balancing against the US? No, because even Kupchan doesn't think this will happen. In the Salon interview, he admits, "The likelihood of military conflict between the U.S. and Europe is very low, almost beyond the stretch of imagination." He acknowledges that Europe is highly unlikely to invest in the necessary defenses. Without that, any talk of actual balancing behavior is moot. If you read the interview, you see that what he's talking about is really "pseudo-balancing," adopting different positions on issues like Kyoto, the ICC, and so on. Don't get me wrong, these kinds of regulatory issues are intrinsically important (they're the subject of my next book), but they are not war-starters. Contrast what Kupchan thinks is balancing with what Josef Joffe describes as simple European petulance. To paraphrase Woodrow Wilson, the battles between the EU and the US will be fierce because the stakes will be so small.
The second reason Kupchan is wrong on Europe is demography. Europe is aging a hell of a lot faster than the United States, and its immigrants are far less integrated into civil society. Even if Europe is a unitary actor, it will be a declining power. When he presented this argument last month in Chicago, I asked him how Europe would handle its demographic decline, and his answer was that it would have to be more welcoming of its immigrants. Given that most of its immigrants are Muslim and that the EU can't bring itself to seriously consider Turkey, the one secular democracy in the Middle East, for membership, I don't see this happening anytime this century.
Finally, on U.S. opinion favoring isolationism and unilateralism, consider the following two facts. First, polling data in the U.S. consistently shows that a broad majority of American favor both an internationalist and multilateralist foreign policy. Don't take my word for it, go read Stevel Kull and I.M. Destler's book, Misreading the Public. Second, because the post-9/11 world is like the Cold War era in that world affairs is considered important by voters, it is highly unlikely that foreign policy leaders are going to stray too far beyond the consensus that Kull and Destler describe.
Monday, December 2, 2002
POLITICAL SCIENCE AND POLITICS: Patrick
POLITICAL SCIENCE AND POLITICS: Patrick Ruffini has a long rant in response to the DiIulio story that boils down the basic point that political scientists -- i.e., those with a Ph.D. in poli sci -- don't know squat about politics: "For an academic, it takes time to learn that more than 90% of politics is logistical and operational, that the day-to-day mechanics of government have precious little resemblance to a luncheons at the Brookings Institution, good for the soul as they may be.... You have to endure a few lectures of Poli Sci 1 to appreciate just how truly alien the academic study of politics is when stacked up against how politics and campaigns really work."
Is this fair? A full answer would require a much longer post; the short answer is yes and no. [What do you know about this?--ed. I'm a political scientist who did policy work in the government for a year, courtesy of the Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowship.] It is undeniably true that political scientists often crash and burn when they enter the policy world -- as seems to be the case with DiIulio. I don't have tenure yet, so there's no way in hell I'm going to name names. Is this because they didn't understand the way politics actually works? It might be safer to say it's because they don't understand the art of management, a point Franklin Foer made two years ago in the New Republic.
That said, Condoleezza Rice, another political scientist, seems to be thriving in this administration, even though many DC insiders predicted she'd get eaten alive by Rumsfield, Powell, Cheney et al. Political scientists per se are not congenitally incapable of prospering in government. And the tools of political science are a vital component of their success. [What about Ruffini's argument that history is more useful?--ed. They're both useful -- but woe is the man that relies only on history as a guide to DC. Many policymakers rely on theory to guide their decision-making, but the theory comes in the form of weak historical analogies that get them into trouble.]
I suspect the real difference between those political scientists that succeed in government and those that fail is that the successes know the limits of their trade. The most useful models of politics -- like the most useful models of any set of complex behaviors -- are abstracted from reality. The most capable political scientists know the proper limits of those models. They recognize that other sets of skills matter, skills that go way beyond social science. What those skills are, I'll get into in the next couple of weeks.
P.S.: This phenomenon is not unique to political scientists by any stretch of the imagination, nor does it apply only to Republican administrations. Joeseph Stiglitz and Laurence Summers were both distinguished economists who took reasonably high offices in the Clinton Administration. In 1992, If you were to predict which of them would do better, it would have been Stiglitz, since he was the more affable of the two of them, and Summers already had some bad blood with Al Gore. But Stiglitz crashed and burned, leading some considerable bitterness, as this Atlantic Monthly piece makes clear. Summers, in contrast, managed to thrive because he learned from his early mistakes, as David Plotz pointed out.
Esquire's secret formula
The White House press corps can't stand the Bush administration. The motivation isn't ideological. It's that the Bush team is rarely off-message, which leads to a dearth of interesting stories.
This leads to the following question: how the hell is Esquire getting the dirt that no one else can? In the spring, you might remember, they were the ones to publish a bizarre Andy Card confession about the behemoth that is Karl Rove. Now, according to Drudge and the Times, the magazine has scored another tell-all interview. This one's with John J. DiIulio Jr., the former head of Bush's faith-based initiative. He confirms Card's gaffe -- Rove is running everything. This latest dust-up just prompted a White House denial. (Update: Drudge has posted DiIulio's long e-mail that formed the guts of the article)
One substantive comment and one smart-ass comment. The substantive comment is that according to the Times story:
As a pragmatic libertarian, I think that DiIulio is both logically and factually wrong. He's logically wrong since on social issues libertarians will espouse views that are pretty far to the left [take it away, Jacob Levy; He has--ed.]. He's factually wrong, since libertarians are not happy with this White House on either homeland security or foreign economic policy. The latter most defintely has Karl Rove's fingerprints. Which means that despite the Weekly Standard's claims that libertarians should consistently favor Republicans, libertarians might not want Karl Rove to have that much power.
The smart-ass point: if a "sophisticated" men's magazine like Esquire can get quality dirt like this, imagine what less sophisticated men's magazines could dig up. I call on the White House to extend press credentials to reporters from Maxim, Stuff, and FHM immediately!! [Did you really have to link to those magazines?--ed. Just trying to be thorough!]
UPDATE: DiIulio now denies making the comments. Card provided similar denials last spring. Ron Suskind wrote both pieces for Esquire. Here's Suskind's response to DiIulio's denial. Maybe Suskind's just making it all up, but the guy's a former Wall Street Journal who won a Pulitzer, so I have to think there's some truth to the stories. Looking at DiIulio's e-mail, I suspect this is a case of a person upset by a reporter's spin, not the facts themselves. Patrick Ruffini disagrees. TNR's blog provides a nice summary of the plausible explanations for DiIulio's comments and retractions. Hmmm, another thought.... maybe men's magazines encourage the same kind of fantasizing with their feature articles that they do with their profiles of attractive women. In which case, having Maxim or Stuff in the White House press corps could produce "reporting" along the lines of Robert Reich's notorious memoirs, but more titillating.
TWO STEPS FORWARD, ONE STEP
TWO STEPS FORWARD, ONE STEP BACK FOR BRAD DELONG: When Brad DeLong is talking about economic policy, he's the man. Even if you disagree with him, he's an intellectual force to be reckoned with. When DeLong switches to plain-old politics, however, he becomes a boring liberal.
For evidence of the former, check out this great link on how Zimbabwe is unintentionally highlighting the virtues of the Washington Consensus, and then this piece on the problems with NAFTA (not the one's you'd think).
For evidence of the latter, see this post gleefully contrasting Ashcroft quotes from 1997 and today. Now, the libertarian in me agrees with DeLong that Ashcroft is probably more sanguine about enhanced executive powers now because he's in the executive. However, the pragmatist in me simply cannot swallow DeLong's assertion that, "the world today is about as dangerous a place as it was back in 1997. The threat of international terrorism is of the same order of magnitude now as it was then." The heightened insecurity of a post 9/11 world does provide a justification for Ashcroft's flip-flop. That might not be his actual reason, but it's still a pretty good one.
How the U.S. Media is becoming more European
For all of the talk about the U.S. and Europe parting ways, there is one phenomenon in which the U.S. is moving closer to the European model -- the overt biases of media outlets. In Great Britain, for example, everyone knows that the Guardian is left-of-center, the Independent is centrist, the Times is to the right, and the Daily Telegraph is further to the right (don't ask me about the tabloids, they all just blurred together to me).
In the U.S., media outlets ritually stress their devotion to objectivity (fair and balanced, anyone?). However, outlets are beginning to drift to one side of the political fence or the other. There are lots of ideational reasons for this (I suspect that post-9/11, the reader demand for a consistent philosophy to put news coverage into a clear context has increased) but the most important might be that it increases profits.
Consider Seth Mnookin's Newsweek piece on the "crusading Southern populist" (i.e., liberal) bias in the New York Times. The piece is mostly about the Times' leftward shift under Howell Raines, but it contains another interesting nugget of information: "their game plan is working—at least at the newsstand. During a time when many papers are losing circulation, the Times, which has aggressively pursued a national readership, has seen increases over the past six months, with most of that uptick coming outside the New York metropolitan area."
Now, contrast this with the following information contained in the New York Times' favorable Sunday piece on Fox News: "Fox News reported that its prime-time viewership had grown 17 percent for the month, compared with November 2001, while CNN's prime-time ratings fell 31 percent, continuing a pattern of dominance by Fox in the cable news wars. In the 24-hour cycle, Fox has a solid lead over CNN, and has left MSNBC in the dust."
For all the talk about the Blogosphere fracturing into snug ideological cocoons, it's the mainstream media that could be headed in this direction. I'm on the fence about the implications. One clear downside is the tendency for ideological zeal to overwhelm a concern for accurately nailing down the hard facts of a story. All sides are guilty of this -- click here for the New York Times' headline fiasco and here for brouhahas involving the Washington Times.
Still, I suspect it won't be an entirely negative phenomenon, so long as a market still exists for an Independent-style of neutral publications. A chief virtue of an ideological press is that when a media outlet goes against its natural ideological biases, it carries great credibility. If Fox News were to argue in favor of stricter gun control laws, it would make people notice; ditto if the Times were to ever argue in favor of restricting abortions. [Why haven't you mentioned Paul Krugman's criticisms of media bias this past Friday?--ed. Because Krugman wasn't thinking like an economist in that piece, he was posting as a liberal. An economist would celebrate the 67% increase in market competiotion for television news, and point out the utility of ideological brands as a useful signal in a market defined by imperfect information. His concern is the growth of conservative media outlets. This tendency of Krugman will be the subject of what the Times would label a "sophisticated exegesis of a sociological phenomenon" -- and what I will simply call a lengthy post -- later this week).
Developing.... over the next couple of years.