Thursday, January 18, 2007

I'm away from my blog right now....

And on my way to the Mershon Center for International Security Studies to present a paper, "Regime Proliferation and World Politics: Is There Viscosity in Global Governance?" I already realize I made one mistake in this version -- I forgot to thank Eli Wallach in the acknowledgements.

Talk amongst yourselves. Here's a topic: exactly what does it mean when the North Koreans say they've reached "a certain agreement" with U.S. negotiators?

posted by Dan at 11:17 PM | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

My black mark on Iraq

Today I received the following in an e-mail:

Since you seem to have been wrong about everything you wrote in support of the invasion... no WMDs, no Al Queda before the war, no connection to 9/11, took troops and reconstruction money away from where real battle was in Afghanistan... now have more Al Queda and no success in either Afghanistan or Iraq... in other words a completely counter-productive disaster as some did predict... I was wondering if you had issued an apology to everybody who did get it right (and for the right reasons)... including Al Gore?
Well, this seems like a good time to address the big blog topic for the week.

There have been a boatload of blog posts, op-eds, and magazine articles that discuss how and whether people who supported the Iraq war in 2002-3 should have their pundit's license removed, and whether those who opposed the war deserve promotions to pundit first class.

This Radar Magazine story by Jebediah Reed kicked things off, followed quickly by Jonathan Chait, Mark Thoma, Megan McArdle, Julian Sanchez, Kevin Drum (follow-up here), Daniel Davies, Scott Lemieux, Obsidian Wings (here and here), and Eric Rauchway.

You can read the above links for their thoughts on the matter now, and their thoughts on their thoughts back in 2002-3. One grand irony is that back in April 2003 it was the pro-war people who basked in their successful prediction, and anti-war activists who pointed out that, as Michael Kinsley put it then: "victory in the war is not victory in the argument about the war":

The serious case [against the war] involved questions that are still unresolved. Factual questions: Is there a connection between Iraq and the perpetrators of 9/11? Is that connection really bigger than that of all the countries we're not invading? Does Iraq really have or almost have weapons of mass destruction that threaten the United States? Predictive questions: What will toppling Saddam ultimately cost in dollars and in lives (American, Iraqi, others)? Will the result be a stable Iraq and a blossoming of democracy in the Middle East or something less attractive? How many young Muslims and others will be turned against the United States, and what will they do about it?

Political questions: Should we be doing this despite the opposition of most of our traditional allies? Without the approval of the United Nations? Moral questions: Is it justified to make "pre-emptive" war on nations that may threaten us in the future? When do internal human rights, or the lack of them, justify a war? Is there a policy about pre-emption and human rights that we are prepared to apply consistently? Does consistency matter?

Given the current answers to Kinsley's questions, I'm going to indulge in a bit of painful navel-gazing below the fold....

I supported the war going in, and if I could go into the way-back machine and do it all over again, I'd say "HELL, NO!" as loudly and as firmly as possible. I was pretty critical of the occupation phase from day one, and got more critical very quickly. That said, it's a useful exercise to look back and figure out where I screwed up in my pre-war logic.

The main blog posts where I articulated my own arguments in favor of war -- and against those who opposed military action -- can be found, in chronological order, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. There was also this TNR Online piece.

Summing up, I had three major reasons for favoring war in 2002-3:

1) I wanted U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia, because that was a major irritant for devout Muslims, a great talking point for Al Qaeda, and seemed to be destabilizing the Saudi regime in a bad, bad way. That was not going to happen until Saddam was deposed or otherwise removed from power.

2) I thought the status quo U.S. policy in the region was trending in a negative direction. Countries like France, Russia and China were talking about ways to end the U.N. sanctions regime -- and the pre-9/11 Powell initiative to make the sanctions smarter had not borne much fruit. Saddam Hussein was offering future oil contracts to Security Council members as a way of weakening their willpower further. Obviously, Saddam did not have any WMD, and the sanctions worked pretty well on that score -- but my concern was that if the sanctions had ended with Saddam still in power, he was going to try to acquire WMD capabilities. I can't prove this would have happened, but the lack of WMD doesn't dissuade me on this point.

3) I thought that war was the humanitarian option. Throughout the nineties, the sanctions regime, combined with Hussein's rejection of humanitarian aid, had been responsible for tens of thousands dying every year. Hussein's devastation of the marsh Arabs was proceeding apace. I was hopeful that a quick war would, in the long run, reduce the annual number of dead and dying in Iraq.

Note that my e-mailer was in error -- my support for the war was not based on Iraq having WMD, or Iraq being connected to Al Qaeda (indeed, click here for my thoughts in March 2003 on this point).

My major screw-up was both simple and profound -- at the time, with regard to foreign policy, I thought the Bush administration could walk and chew gum at the same time (i.e., fight Al Qaeda and Iraq), when it turned out that they couldn't even chew gum unaided.

I also implicitly assumed that if administration officials -- many of whom had displayed a fair amount of competence in the Bush 41 prosecution of Gulf War I -- discovered that their initial plans did not go, er, according to plan, that they would recognize this fact and adopt contingency plans. I did not think that their response would boil down to something like "stay the course" for close to four years, followed by a surge proposal.

In making this mistake, I didn't just make an ass out of you and me: two-and-a-half of my three reasons for the war got vitiated. Pulling out of Saudi Arabia was still a good move, and the Saudi experts I talk to say this has helped reduce Al Qaeda sympathies on the Arabian peninsula. Of course, compared to the cluster f**k in Iraq, this is small beer. For the Iraqis, this has been a humanitarian disaster by any metric as compared to the pre-war sanctions regime. And I simply cannot believe that an eroding UN sanctions regime, bad as it would have been, compares to what exists now.

In fact, the sanctions might not ever have eroded. In retrospect, it's heartbreaking to contemplate what would have happened had the administration halted its plans to invade Iraq after the UN Security Council unanimously endorsed Resolution 1441. Through that resolution, the Bush administration had a dramatic effect on Iraqi compliance just with the threat of military force. Had Bush stopped there, a lot of treasure and no small amount of blood would have been spared.

Re-reading these posts also reminds me that I do, in fact, owe an apology to Al Gore, who by supporting the 1991 Gulf War and opposing the 2003 war is batting a rare 2 for 2 in Middle East conflicts. He wasn't just right on the outcome: he was right in (much of) his reasoning as well:

I vividly remember that during one of the campaign debates in 2002 Jim Lehrer asked then Governor Bush whether or not America, after being involved in military action, should engage in any form of nation building. And the answer was, and I quote, "I don't think so. I think what we need to do is to convince people who live in the lands they live in to build the nations."

"Maybe I'm missing something here. We're going to have a kind of nation-building corps in America?"

"Absolutely not."

Now, my point is, this is a Bush doctrine. This is administration policy. Given that it is administration policy, we have to take that into account as a nation in looking at the likely consequences of an overwhelming American military victory against the government of Iraq.

If we go in there and dismantle them--and they deserve to be dismantled--but then we wash our hands of it and walk away and leave it in a situation of chaos and say, "Oh, that's for you all to decide how to put things back together now." That hurts us.

Sorry, Al.

So, dear readers, I definitely erred in the arguments I made in 2002 and 2003. I have and will try to do better. Bear in mind, however, that when it comes to foreign policy prognostications, better is a relative term.

posted by Dan at 07:13 PM | Comments (19) | Trackbacks (0)

Um.... isn't this how incentives work?

Fiona Harvey, the Financial Times' environment correspondent, reports that environmentalists are irked about the way carbon emissions trading is working out:

Factories in China and carbon traders are exploiting a loophole in climate change regulations that allows them to make big profits from greenhouse gas emissions trading.

Chemical plants that reduce the amount of polluting HFC gases they release into the atmosphere receive “carbon credits” in return. Such credits can fetch $5 to $15 on the international carbon market.

The equipment, known as “scrubbers”, to reduce HFC gases is cheap to install, at $10m-$30m (£5m-£15m) for a typical factory, according to industry estimates. Installing such equipment can generate millions of carbon credits, because HFC-23 is a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Mark Woodall is chief executive of Climate Change Capital, which has a portfolio of about 50m certified emission reductions, or carbon credits,worth up to $750m, derived from Chinese HFC projects. He said: “They were deals that could be done relatively quickly and did not need a large amount of capital. These projects have a good track record of delivering the credits because of the low methodology and low technology risk.”

The practice is perfectly legal but effectively allows the factories and the companies through which they trade carbon credits to make big profits. The eventual buyers of the credits are governments in developed countries that have agreed to cut their greenhouse gas output under the Kyoto protocol....

But some carbon specialists are uneasy that the use of credits generated by HFC reductions is distorting the market. Tristan Fischer, chief executive of Camco International,a carbon trader, told the Financial Times: “HFCs are controversial.”

He said regulations to force factories to fund HFC reduction from profits might work better than allowing them to benefit from the carbon markets, or “perhaps the World Bank should fund the installation of scrubbers”.

About 60 per cent of “certified emissions reductions” issued under the Kyoto protocol are estimated to be from HFC reduction projects, although the gas makes up a small fraction of industrial greenhouse gas emissions.

Mitchell Feierstein, head of emissions products at Cheyne Capital Management UK, the fund management company, said: “Carbon dioxide and methane clearly represent the majority of the problem. We believe a proportional amount of investment should be focused on curb emissions.”

Now this is a story that the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have also carried this story, and each time I read it I'm confused. Reading the articles, I get that CO2 and methane are the big contributors to global warming in the aggregate -- but I also get that per unit of emission, HFC is far, far worse, and far cheaper to correct. Doesn't it make sense that a market mechanism would focus on the low-hanging, cheapest fruit first?

The implication in these articles is that the carbon market is not working to reduce greenhouse gases, but from what I'm reading, it's working pretty well (though Chinese firms are reaping a large windfall). Greg Mankiw or someone else in the Pigou Club needs to explain all the hubbub to me. I understand if environmentalists want to increase incentives to cut greenhouse gas emissions even further; I don't understand why they think the current focus on HFC emission should be dealt with through direct regulation instead of the current set of arrangements.

It should benoted that there are other ways that the carbon trading scheme is imperfect. The focus on HFC can, perversely, undercut the Montreal Protocol's efforts to reduce CFC emissions (click here for more on that). The primary thrust of these articles, however, is that the market is not working -- and I don't see that.

posted by Dan at 08:48 AM | Comments (11) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Anne Applebaum kind of agrees with me

Back in November I argued for outright drug legalization, in part because of the benefits to U.S. foreign policy:

Because of current policies regarding narcotics, the United States is stymied in promoting the rule of law in Afghanistan and several Latin American countries because farmers in those countries keep harvesting products that American cunsumers demand. Because this activity is crminalized, the bulk of the revenues from this activity enriches criminal syndicates and terrorist networks. All for a supply-side policy that does nothing but act as a price support for producers.
In Slate, Anne Applebaum makes a more moderate argument with respect to Afghanistan:
[B]y far the most depressing aspect of the Afghan poppy crisis is the fact that it exists at all—because it doesn't have to. To see what I mean, look at the history of Turkey, where once upon a time the drug trade also threatened the country's political and economic stability. Just like Afghanistan, Turkey had a long tradition of poppy cultivation. Just like Afghanistan, Turkey worried that poppy eradication could bring down the government. Just like Afghanistan, Turkey—this was the era of Midnight Express—was identified as the main source of the heroin sold in the West. Just like in Afghanistan, a ban was tried, and it failed.

As a result, in 1974, the Turks, with U.S. and U.N. support, tried a different tactic. They began licensing poppy cultivation for the purpose of producing morphine, codeine, and other legal opiates. Legal factories were built to replace the illegal ones. Farmers registered to grow poppies, and they paid taxes. You wouldn't necessarily know this from the latest White House drug strategy report—which devotes several pages to Afghanistan but doesn't mention Turkey—but the U.S. government still supports the Turkish program, even requiring U.S. drug companies to purchase 80 percent of what the legal documents euphemistically refer to as "narcotic raw materials" from the two traditional producers, Turkey and India.

Why not add Afghanistan to this list? The only good arguments against doing so—as opposed to the silly, politically correct, "just say no" arguments—are technical: that the weak or nonexistent bureaucracy will be no better at licensing poppy fields than at destroying them, or that some of the raw material will still fall into the hands of the drug cartels. Yet some of these problems can be solved by building processing factories at the local level and working within local power structures. And even if the program only succeeds in stopping half the drug trade, then a huge chunk of Afghanistan's economy will still emerge from the gray market, the power of the drug barons will be reduced, and, most of all, Western money will have been visibly spent helping Afghan farmers survive instead of destroying their livelihoods. The director of the Senlis Council, a group that studies the drug problem in Afghanistan, told me he reckons that the best way to "ensure more Western soldiers get killed" is to expand poppy eradication further.

Besides, things really could get worse. It isn't so hard to imagine, two or three years down the line, yet another emergency presidential speech calling for yet another "surge" of troops—but this time to southern Afghanistan, where impoverished villagers, having turned against the West, are joining the Taliban in droves. Before we get there, maybe it's worth letting some legal poppies bloom.

I still like my idea better -- but Applebaum does have the advantage of proposing something that seems politically possible in the current universe.

UPDATE: Ilya Somin weighs in.

posted by Dan at 10:57 AM | Comments (9) | Trackbacks (1)

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

A question that will haunt protectionists and free traders alike

The Financial Times' Richard McGregor notes that China is making somewhat louder noises about continued appreciation of the renminbi:

The Chinese ministry responsible for promoting exports has backed a further appreciation of the renminbi, removing one of the last remaining institutional lobbies in Beijing against a stronger currency.

A think-tank attached to the commerce ministry said that an “appropriate or modest” appreciation of the renminbi would benefit China’s economy and trade “in the long run”.

“In the near term, a 3 per cent appreciation of the renminbi every year will not have an obvious or apparent influence on the overall increase of China’s trade,” said the report, which was posted on the ministry’s website.

The ministry said previously a 3 per cent appreciation would wipe out the profits of many exporters because of the razor-thin margins under which businesses operate. However, the ministry’s position has become increasingly untenable, with the trade surplus soaring during the past 18 months, a period in which the renminbi appreciated by more than 6 per cent against the US dollar. (emphasis added)

Six percent is not a lot, but clearly it's trending in the right direction. Which leads to an interesting thought -- if the renminbi continues to appreciate, but the bilateral deficit is not seriously affected, what does this mean for trade politics in this country?

Protectionists will be robbed of the easy crutch that the U.S. runs a large trade deficit because of China's unfair trading practices.

But free traders will be robbed of the argument that letting exchange rates float maes it easier to correct for current and capital account imbalances (see this Brad Setser post for more on the oddities of current global investment trends).


posted by Dan at 10:40 PM | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

Where the foreign tourists are

Virginia Postrel has a great column in the Atlantic Monthly about the decline and fall of airline glamour. Go check it out -- if for no other reason than to admire a writer's ability to justify someone paying for her to fly from Los Angeles to London in Virgin Atlantic’s “Upper Class” cabin.

In a follow-up post, however, Postrel makes a rather curious assertion:

I suspect that The Guardian's audience is not as well traveled as they think they are. Outside the major cities in the United States, for instance, the only foreign tourists you usually find are Germans, who will go just about anywhere and rent RVs to do it. How many Guardian readers have driven through the desert Southwest or the Blue Ridge?
I've traveled a fair amount in the United States, and my casual empiricism suggests that you'll find quite a lot of foreign tourists in the Southwest. They might not be driving RVs, but they will go there to take in one of the features of the United States that is not quite as common in Europe -- jaw-dropping natural vistas like the Grand Canyon, Garden of the Gods, or Zion National Park. In fact, in my experience, I've bumped into foreign tourists more often at non-urban destinations than urban ones.*

This could be a perceptual bias, so I'd be curious to hear from readers if this is their experience as well.

*If the dollar continues to fall in value, this will change, as even more tourists come to the U.S. for lower consumer prices.

posted by Dan at 08:54 AM | Comments (24) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, January 15, 2007

Personally, I'm voting for option A

What does it mean that, when I contemplate the fact that today is Martin Luther King Day, I can't stop thinking about the first three minutes of this clip from Blazing Saddles?:

A) I have bizarre sense of humor;

B) It underscores Seth Mnookin's point that, "[It's] twenty-nine years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr…and we still can’t talk openly and honestly about race." UPDATE: Wow, I am old. it's been thirty-nine years since the MLK assassination.

C) All of the above

D) None of the Above

posted by Dan at 02:57 PM | Comments (6) | Trackbacks (0)

The blog wheel has turned

Between 2002 and 2006, I noticed a meta-narrative that appeared in the blogosphere every so often:

1) Policy X is promulgated;

2) Policy X is generally acknowledged to be bad by policy wonks across the ideological spectrum;

3) The left half of the policy-wonk blogosphere blames Republicans for being responsible for implementing said idiotic policy;

4) The right half of the political blogosphere responds by pointing out the complicity of several Democrats in getting political approval of the policy;

5) The left half responds that this is besides the point, because the Republicans hold all the levers of power, so they're the ones who are to blame

6) Raucus name-calling debate ensues.

I bring this up because, once the Democrats took power in Congress, I had a hunch that we might see the inverse of this passion play in the blogosphere: Republicans bashing Dems for bad policy, and Dems responding by pointing out that some Republicans embrace the policy as well.

For Exhibit A, see this Mark Thoma post about protectionist Republicans. His basic point:

There has been attempt after attempt to portray the trade issue as an area where Democrats are deeply divided, and there has been much written about how Democrats will stifle trade and hurt the economy now that they are in power.

But the split is not unique to Democrats. As with immigration, Republicans are no less divided on this issue....

The point here is not to answer all the questions that surround the trade issue, but simply to emphasize that the divisions that exist are not confined to a particular party no matter what some pundits would have you believe.

Read the whole thing. Thoma is correct about protectionist Republicans (though I think they're more significant on immigraton than trade). That said, he overlooks the fact that if the Democrats hold majorities in both houses of Congress, then it is appropriate that they shoulder the majority of criticism for their protectionist wing.

posted by Dan at 02:15 PM | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)