Thursday, April 20, 2006

An open debate about U.S. Mideast policy

I must attend a conference at a truly deadful location for the next several days, so blogging will be light or nonexistent.

Here's a harmless topic: assume there exists an identifiable national interest for the United States. What set of policies towards the Middle East would best serve that interest?

posted by Dan at 12:28 AM | Comments (49) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

A temporary coda on the Mearsheimer/Walt debate

In recent days, there have been a few more musings about "The Israel Lobby". I wasn't happy with the debate threads from the last time I posted about it, so I'm going to give it one more try.

Reading through the latest volley:

a) the letters to the LRB;
b) Tony Judt's New York Times essay defending parts of the Mearsheimer and Walt (M/W) thesis
c) Juan Cole's discussion/defense of the M/W argument in Salon;
d) Michelle Goldberg's dissection of the piece in Salon; and
e) Jacob Levy's blog post on the topic -- and the comment thread it inspired on Crooked Timber.
I actually think there's more common ground on assessing the paper than most commentators believe.

There appears to be a general assessment that Mearsheimer and Walt have gotten two things right:

1) You need to factor in interest group politics when you try to explain U.S. policy towards Israel and/or the wider Middle East -- including, most obviously, AIPAC;

2) Mentioning this fact can put one at risk of being called anti-Semitic, which stunts debate on the topic.

I haven't read a critic of the M/W thesis not acknowledge that interest group politics plays some role in influencing policy in the region. As Levy says about AIPAC's lobbying power, "There's nothing anti-Semitic about reaching that conclusion." And Goldberg quotes the editor of the Forward as acknowledging that Walt and Mearsheimer are "right that the Jewish community and the pro-Israel lobby, separately and in different ways, make it hard to have a debate, partly on purpose and partly because there's a level of emotion there."

There also appears to be a general assessment that the paper has a couple of conceptual flaws. One is the rather slippery definition of the term "Israel Lobby." Cole points out:

The authors' use of the term "Israel lobby" is at times too broad, simultaneously trying to encompass classic pressure politics and much fuzzier belief systems and taboos. Their tendency to use the term in this slightly elastic, one-size-fits-all way explains the caveats of even some outspoken critics of the Israel lobby, like the Nation's Eric Alterman. Their insistence that America's Middle East policies are centered on Israel ignores the importance of oil. Nor do they explore the history of the "special relationship" between Israel and the U.S. and the way that Israel has become a myth in the American mind, to the point where it is perceived by many as being actually part of America. The belief in the "special relationship," which is a powerful force, is not entirely the product of the Israel lobby.
Cole goes on to say that these weaknesses are "minor," but as Goldberg points out:
This is an enormously sensitive subject, but Walt and Mearsheimer's approach is too often clumsy and crude. That's especially true in their discussion of the divided loyalties of some American Jews, and of the pro-war manipulations of the lobby. They conflate groups that are merely sympathetic to Israel with those that actively back the hard-line policies of the Likud. Though they try to draw distinctions between the lobby and American Jewry more generally, they occasionally use the two terms interchangeably, citing Jewish campaign donations, for example, as evidence of the lobby's power.

The Lobby also has significant leverage over the Executive branch," they write. "That power derives in part from the influence Jewish voters have on presidential elections. Despite their small numbers in the population (less than 3 percent), they make large campaign donations to candidates from both parties. The Washington Post once estimated that Democratic presidential candidates 'depend on Jewish supporters to supply as much as 60 percent of the money.'" This treatment of Jewish money as a monolithic force is both ugly and misleading; the agenda of liberal donors like George Soros and Peter Lewis is quite different from that of a hardcore Israel supporter like Jack Rosen, head of the American Jewish Congress....

They note the difference between the two, but then they ignore it, writing, for example, "There are also Jewish senators and congressmen who work to make U.S. foreign policy support Israel's interests." They argue as if there's no need to point out the distinction between, say, Joe Lieberman, one of the Iraq war's staunchest supporters, and Russ Feingold, one of its steadiest opponents. In their formulation, the fact that a congressman is Jewish creates suspicion of dual loyalties.

M/W also do not adequately address alternative explanations for U.S. policy towards the Middle East -- concerns about oil, actual ideational beliefs, etc. This would be less important if M/W were merely pointing out that the influence of groups like AIPAC have been underestimated. But they argue that these groups "almost entirely" explain U.S. policy in the region. That's quite a strong claim. Judt, who's sympathetic to their argument, allows that M/W's assertions "can be debated on [their] merits." He goes on to note:
[D]oes pressure to support Israel distort American decisions? That's a matter of judgment. Prominent Israeli leaders and their American supporters pressed very hard for the invasion of Iraq; but the United States would probably be in Iraq today even if there had been no Israel lobby. Is Israel, in Mearsheimer/Walt's words, "a liability in the war on terror and the broader effort to deal with rogue states?" I think it is; but that too is an issue for legitimate debate.
Finally, the normative assertions that the U.S. alliance with Israel has been a strategic liability, or that Israel has no moral advantage over other countries in the region, are also "subject to debate." The more I think about it, the more M/W's strategic logic doesn't hold up -- if the friendship with Israel has been such a strategic liability to the U.S., then why has Europe borne the brunt of the post-second intifada terrorist attacks? Still, again, subject to debate.

The funny thing is that "The Israel Lobby" is written in such a way as to foreclose such a debate. As Levy points out:

The structure of the paper is:

Why does the United States provide [so much] support to Israel?
1. Such support is not [in our view] genuinely strategically warranted.
2. Such support is not [in our view] genuinely morally demanded.
3. Such support must be explained by the presence of actors who place the interests of Israel ahead of the interests of the United States.

The mistake is astonishingly elementary, but it pervades the whole paper. The snarky way to put it is: M&W treat their say-so about strategic and moral considerations as if it was naturally entitled to such overwhelming political deference that the fact that the polity hasn't accepted their say-so is deeply anomalous. The probably-fairer way to put it is: M&W proceed as if the political system has some very strong natural tendency to reach true beliefs and justified policies about strategy and morality-- such a strong tendency that, if it fails in some case, there must be an unusual explanation, such as an unusually intense and effective Lobby that includes people willing to deliberately place the interests of a foreign power over that of their own country, and that includes powerful politicians, media figures, and so on who can make their preferred policies come about.

M&W profess to treat strategic considerations, moral considerations, and The Lobby as alternative explanations of U.S. support. For those to really be comparable itsmes, they'd have to be something like "relevant actors' beliefs about strategic considerations," "relevant actors' beliefs about moral considerations," and "lobbying/ interest group influence." But beliefs don't show up. M&W's discussion of whether Israel is a morally nice place or not is neither here nor there in understanding what brings U.S. support about. "Israel discriminates against its Arab citizens" and "The Lobby" are answers to questions of completely different sorts-- one evaluative, one explanatory.

M&W's rejoinder could be: "Well, since we're right about strategic and moral considerations, if other people's beliefs about those considerations lead them to support Israel, then their beliefs are wrong. Such widespread belief in false propositions is itself anomalous and must be explained by the activities of The Lobby." Now, however, I think the implausibility of the account becomes more apparent. Politics is often marked by good-faith disagreement about hard questions. And it's often marked by people getting things wrong. One doesn't need a Lobby to explain political actors believing and acting on false propositions about morality or prudence.

So, we're left with the rough consensus that this is a touchy topic to bring up -- and yet M/W did so in a rather ham-handed fashion. Which is the basic thesis of Goldberg's essay:
On one level, then, the attacks on Walt and Mearsheimer are examples of the very phenomenon the writers describe. Yet for anyone who hopes for a more open and critical discussion of the Israel lobby, their paper presents profound problems. This is not just a case of brave academics telling taboo truths. In taking on a sensitive, fraught subject, one might expect such eminent scholars to make their case airtight. Instead, they've blundered forth with an article that has several factual mistakes and baffling omissions, one that seems expressly designed to elicit exactly the reaction it has received. The power of the Israel lobby is something that deserves a full and fearless airing, but this paper could make such an airing less, not more likely.
The editors of LRB mention that, "Mearsheimer and Walt will reply to the correspondence we’ve published and discuss the wider response to their article in the next issue." I'll be very curious to see whether their response acknowledges their factual and conceptual errors or not. Their choice will either promote or forestall a policy debate.

posted by Dan at 10:56 PM | Comments (27) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

So I'm thinking Doha is dead

This morning George W. Bush announced a new director of the Office of Management and Budget:

President Bush today selected U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman to be the new director of the Office of Management and Budget, moving quickly to revamp his team now that his new chief of staff is in place....

Bush, at a morning announcement at the White House, said Portman would "have a leading roll on my economic team."

As Portman's replacement as trade representative, Bush chose deputy trade representative Susan Schwab, a veteran from the administration of George H.W. Bush who has also worked in the private sector for Motorola, among other companies. Schwab was president and chief executive officer of University System of Maryland Foundation before joining the current Bush administration.

Here's a link to the transcript of the announcement.

Portman has done an excellent job at USTR for the brief time he was there, and his move to OMB might be, on the whole, a good thing for fiscal policy. That said, Bush and Bolten have decided to switch teams at USTR in the weeks before various deadlines for the Doha round of trade talks come up. This is a bad, bad sign for the likelihood of those negotiations to succeed.

UPDATE: Many commenters point out that Schwab will likely preserve continuity on trade talks. This may be true, but the optics look very bad to other countries and to Congress.

Two FT reports -- one by Alan Beattie and one by Caroline Daniel -- make this point.

Beattie first:

Rob Portman’s unexpected removal from the post of US trade representative on Tuesday evoked concern among governments and trade experts that the US was downgrading the importance of the so-called “Doha round” of World Trade Organisation talks....

Peter Mandelson, the EU trade commissioner, issued a barbed statement that qualified praise of Mr Portman and Susan Schwab, currently deputy trade representative and Mr Portman’s nominated replacement, with implied criticism about the timing of the move. “I have very much enjoyed working with Rob Portman and I shall be sorry to see him go from this post,” Mr Mandelson said. “We will of course manage without him, but at this stage in the round, it would have been easier to manage with him.”

Privately, other EU officials were less diplomatic, suggesting that the move sent out a clear signal that the US regarded the Doha round as dispensable. “On the face of it, this looks like bad news for the talks at a time when negotiations are at a fragile point and it is bound to lead to further uncertainty,” one official said. The official said that the one bright spot could be that the US would use the change of personnel as cover to moderate its demands for wholesale farm liberalisation in the Doha round....

Lobbyists and trade experts in Washington said that Ms Schwab was technically very well qualified to succeed Mr Portman. But several said that although she had good contacts on Capitol Hill, she would not enter the job with the same political influence as her predecessor....

Tom Buis, president of the National Farmers Union, said: “To me it sends a signal that things aren’t moving as smoothly as anticipated on the trade deal. It may be a realisation that Doha is not going to be the success that the administration hoped it would be.”

The European carping should be taken with a small grain of salt -- they'll jump on any excuse to evade blame for Doha collapsing.

Now Daniel:

The US on Tuesday named Rob Portman, the politically savvy trade representative, to head the White House budget office, a move that signals growing concern over runaway federal spending and a downgrading of trade policy in the administration’s second term....

“There is an awful lot of negativism now about the prospect of trade liberalisation and a backsliding on trade,” a leading Republican strategist confirmed. “There is a sense of giving up on bilateral trade deals and on Doha.”

Clay Shaw, a Florida Republican and chairman of the House Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee, told Congress Daily: “If the Doha round is doomed for failure ... this may be a case of looking for where [Portman’s] talents, which are extraordinary, can best be used.”

posted by Dan at 10:57 AM | Comments (15) | Trackbacks (0)

Why has there never been a hit television show based on an academic's life?

View the first minute or two of this Brad DeLong video post about how he spent his day yesterday and you'll get an excellent answer (You'll also get a nice precis of Marty Weizman's explanation of the equity premium).

This is not to diss Brad -- I too have children to ferry to school, a dog to walk, assignments that are overdue, and bureaucratic minutiae to finish. It's just that, to the rest of the world, it probably looks as exciting as paint drying.

You'll know the reality TV craze has passed when they air a show called The Professor.

posted by Dan at 10:47 AM | Comments (24) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, April 17, 2006

Open Edward Luttwak thread

OK, the Mark Steyn thread on what to do about Iran generated just a few comments. So, while Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claims that Iran is now developing really good centrifuges, here's another point of view.

In Commentary, Edward Luttwak argues that there are several good reasons not to attack Iran anytime soon. He gives three reasons. First, geopolitics renders Iran a natural ally of the United States over the long haul. Second, the Iranian regime wants a U.S. attack for the rally-round-the-flag effect.

The third reason is the most convincing for me: despite three decades of effort, the Iranians haven't made much progress at developing strategic industries, much less a workable nuclear device:

[I]n spite of all the industrial assistance it received, it is not clear that the Iranian nuclear organization can manufacture centrifuge cascades of sufficient magnitude, efficiency, and reliability. There are many talented engineers among the Iranian exiles in the United States and elsewhere in the world, but perhaps not so many in Iran itself. Besides, demanding technological efforts require not just individual talents but well-organized laboratories and industrial facilities.

Organization is indeed Iran’s weakest point, with weighty consequences: after a century of oil drilling, for example, the state oil company still cannot drill exploratory wells without foreign assistance. In another example, even though the U.S. embargo was imposed almost 25 years ago, local industry cannot reverse-engineer spare parts of adequate quality for U.S.-made aircraft, which must therefore remain grounded or fly at great peril—there have been many crashes. Similarly, after more than sixty years of experience with oil refining at Abadan, existing capacity still cannot be increased without the aid of foreign engineering contractors, while the building of new refineries with local talent alone is deemed quite impossible. Iran must import one third of the gasoline it consumes because it cannot be refined at home.

In sum, there is no need to bomb Iran’s nuclear installations at this time. The regime certainly cannot produce nuclear weapons in less than three years, and may not be able to do so even then because of the many technical difficulties not yet overcome.

Lest one think Luttwak is being too sanguine, here's the closing part of the piece:
There is thus no indication that the regime will fall before it acquires nuclear weapons. Yet, because there is still time, it is not irresponsible to hope that it will.

By the same token, however, it is irresponsible to argue for coexistence with a future nuclear-armed Iran on the basis of a shared faith in mutual deterrence. How indeed could deterrence work against those who believe in the return of the twelfth imam and the end of life on earth, and who additionally believe that this redeemer may be forced to reveal himself by provoking a nuclear catastrophe?....

These, then, are the clear boundaries of prudent action in response to Iran’s vast, costly, and most dangerous nuclear program. No premature and therefore unnecessary attack is warranted while there is still time to wait in assured safety for a better solution. But also and equally, Iran under its present rulers cannot be allowed finally to acquire nuclear weapons—for these would not guarantee stability by mutual deterrence but would instead threaten us with uncontrollable perils.

Read the whole thing. I think Luttwak is underestimating the ability of the Iranian regime to stay in power, but it's food for thought.

posted by Dan at 11:43 PM | Comments (66) | Trackbacks (0)

The exaggerated externalities of illegal immigration

Via Kevin Drum, I see that Eduardo Porter has a myth-busting piece in the New York Times on the effects that illegal immigration has had on the wages of the least educated Americans. Here's how it opens:

California may seem the best place to study the impact of illegal immigration on the prospects of American workers. Hordes of immigrants rushed into the state in the last 25 years, competing for jobs with the least educated among the native population. The wages of high school dropouts in California fell 17 percent from 1980 to 2004.

But before concluding that immigrants are undercutting the wages of the least fortunate Americans, perhaps one should consider Ohio. Unlike California, Ohio remains mostly free of illegal immigrants. And what happened to the wages of Ohio's high school dropouts from 1980 to 2004? They fell 31 percent.

As Congress debates an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws, several economists and news media pundits have sounded the alarm, contending that illegal immigrants are causing harm to Americans in the competition for jobs.

Yet a more careful examination of the economic data suggests that the argument is, at the very least, overstated. There is scant evidence that illegal immigrants have caused any significant damage to the wages of American workers.

And here's how it closes:
"If you're a native high school dropout in this economy, you've got a slew of problems of which immigrant competition is but one, and a lesser one at that," said Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal research group.

Mr. [Lawrence] Katz agreed that the impact was modest, and it might fall further if changes in trade flows were taken into account — specifically, that without illegal immigrants, some products now made in the United States would likely be imported. "Illegal immigration had a little bit of a role reinforcing adverse trends for the least advantaged," he said, "but there are much stronger forces operating over the last 25 years."

Read the whole thing. Illegal immigration poses significant policy problems -- but those problems have little to do with economics.

posted by Dan at 05:41 PM | Comments (31) | Trackbacks (0)

The ins and outs of media whoring

Jennifer Jacobson has an excellent story in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the travails faced by academics who make regular media appearances. It's the perfect mix of serious and amusing.

The amusing stuff:

During the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the late 1990s, Cass R. Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago, appeared on television regularly to argue that impeaching President Bill Clinton was wrong.

Then he got sick of it. He was bored with the cameras, sitting in the studio had lost its novelty, and, to top it off, his earpiece kept falling out. So after CNN asked him to appear yet again, he said he would agree only on one condition: that his dog join him on the air.

The network agreed. During the commercial break, the phones were ringing off the hook, Mr. Sunstein recalls. Viewers wanted to know where they could buy a dog like Perry, Mr. Sunstein's Rhodesian Ridgeback. "He was a big TV star," says Mr. Sunstein. The experience, he says, was "the highlight of my television career." [I must stipulate here that Perry is indeed a gorgeous dog... though not as gorgeous as Chester--DD.]....

On television-free days, Diane Ravitch doesn't wear much makeup — no eyeliner, eye shadow, or mascara. Some days, she says, she does not even apply lipstick.

She is not a fan of getting made up for television; in fact, she says "that's the worst part." There is, however, an upside to it, Ms. Ravitch says: The skillfully applied products make her look 20 years younger — for three minutes.

She realizes that is not a lot of time to share her views with the public. But it is a chance to reach a national audience, she says. Besides, most Americans get their news from television. "So if you can say something that's educational and valuable for them to hear," she says, "that's more than they'll hear for the rest of the day."

Ravitch's last quote raises an interesting question -- as Americans get more and more of their news off the Internet, will more public intellectuals start up blogs? [Duh--ed.]

On the serious side, it turns out that junior faculty should be wary of doing too much television. Who knew?

posted by Dan at 08:24 AM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

Sunday, April 16, 2006

What to read about economics for this week

Barry Eichengreen, "Global Imbalances: The New Economy, the Dark Matter, the Savvy Investor, and the Standard Analysis," Journal of Policy Modeling, forthcoming. Here's how it concludes:

This paper has reviewed four perspectives on global imbalances. The standard analysis suggests that the U.S. current account deficit cannot be sustained at current levels. It suggests that there will have to be significant adjustments in asset prices to compress U.S. spending and significant changes in relative prices to crowd in net exports. At the same time, nonstandard analyses, focusing on the profitability of investment in the United States, the profitability of U.S. foreign investment, and the differential returns on U.S. foreign assets and liabilities suggest that U.S. current account deficits may be easier to sustain than implied by the standard analysis.

As for which view is correct, only time will tell. But uncertainty about whether a disorderly correction is imminent does not justify inaction. That a Category 5 hurricane strikes only once a generation does not absolve the responsible homeowner, living in a flood plain, from putting his house on stilts or investing in flood insurance. For the United States, insuring against a disorderly correction would involve progressively tightening fiscal policy and thus gradually narrowing the gap between absorption and production. The best way for China and other East Asian countries that export to the United States to meet this deceleration in U.S. absorption growth would be by loosening fiscal policy (increasing spending on social security, health care, education, rural infrastructure and the like) and thus stimulating demand at home. With demand growth slowing in the United States and accelerating in Asia, relative prices, in the form of the dollar exchange rate, will tend to adjust. The argument for gradual adjustment starting now to limit the risk of a sharp, disruptive adjustment later is still sound even if an eventual hard landing is less than certain.

While I've been travelling, I see that Greg Mankiw -- Harvard economist, former Chairman of the Council on Economic Advisors, and probably some other title I've forgotten -- now has a blog. It's worth checking out.

Mankiw is an honest broker -- he highlights a Dallas Federal Reserve study on globalization and governance, which finds that countries that are open to globalization are also among the best governed. However, Mankiw correctly points out that these are merely correlations -- globalization does not necessarily cause good governance (the other problem with the study is that it relies on A.T. Kearney's measure of globalization, which conflates a few causes an effects).

posted by Dan at 08:17 PM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)