Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Political Logic of Libyan Military Intervention

A few nights ago, President Obama issued a vague and underwhelming explanation of the U.S. military affair in Libya. Since then our situation in Libya hasn't gotten any clearer. In justifying military action, Obama was heavy on horror-inducing imagery and facts, but failed to clearly articulate a sound argument differentiating the Libyan situation from the dozens of brutal dictatorships scattered around the world. Clearly this particular military action isn't best explained through a logically consistent theory of international conflict. Looking at the conflict through the lens of domestic politics, however, we see that Obama made a shrewd political calculation given the highly uncertain nature of the recent Middle Eastern turmoil.

To establish a bit of context, Obama's response to the previous revolution in Egypt--basically a muddled confusion--turned out very well. But it's easy to imagine scenarios where things didn't turn out as rosy, and Obama looking flat-footed and foolish. With nobody quite sure when (and how) this snowballing revolutionary trend will end, it's entirely likely that some flashpoint will occur in the future where a "do-nothing" policy on the part of the administration will result in serious political fallout. With the 2012 election gearing up, the situation in Libya provided the perfect opportunity for Obama to neutralize his exposure to this political risk.

Think about the following scenarios. If Obama chose not to act, the many revolutions around the world might have resolved themselves without too much trouble (or bloodshed). It would have then been a non-issue for Obama: no political cost, no political benefit (the stable of Republican governors preparing to run against Obama in 2012 don't want to compare foreign policy credentials). If, however, the situations in many of these countries (such as Libya) continued to deteriorate, the lack of U.S. action early on would have been seen as a lack of confidence and foresight. In fact, by 2012 conditions in some countries might be so bad that military action might have been necessary anyway. By waiting so long to act, military intervention would be much less effective and Obama would be viewed as reactionary.

Now consider the flip side where Obama acts now with a limited military intervention (it doesn't really matter where). As before, the many revolutions bubbling in the Muslim world might still have resolved themselves, but now Obama gets to claim credit if that happens--a big political advantage. If things continue to deteriorate (civilian massacres, warfare, etc.), Obama can claim that he did the best he could in trying to use U.S. power to impose regional stability, but that any further action would be imprudent. He can spin a compelling narrative to voters that anything beyond the limited military action already taken would be counter-productive to U.S. interests in light of the quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan. By acting now to preempt the scenario of increased regional instability, Obama minimizes the potential political fallout and exposes the possibility of a big political win.

In light of the political logic of minor preemptive military action, Libya provides a good target. It's proximity and history with Europe, combined with the kooky vileness of Gaddafi make military intervention an easier sell. While we must wait to see how things ultimately turn out, of this I am sure: under any scenario, Obama now has a strong narrative to sell during the election.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Information Nexus

1. Ecological Realism
2. March Movie Madness
3. The Dangers of Technology
4. It's A Wonderful City
5. D.C. Gentrification

The Liberal Arts and Job Creation

Room for Debate has a fascinating discussion about the types of fields that are likely to produce good jobs, using Steve Jobs and Bill Gates' philanthropy as examples of competing approaches.

The kicker here is to understand that innovation and technological advancements don't necessarily produce very many jobs; think of Google or Facebook's incredible social impact relative to their small workforces. This is a big part of the argument in economist Tyler Cowen's The Great Stagnation, an eBook.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Power Players: Arthur C. Clarke

Amal Siriwardena of the Sri Lanka Guardian has a great profile:
While researching for this article I came across a searing indictment by Clarke on the American capitalist system. After observing that the structure of American society may be unfitted for the effort that the conquest of space demands he continued, "No nation can afford to divert its ablest men into essentially non-creative and occasionally parasitic occupations such as law, insurance and banking". He also referred to a photograph in Life Magazine showing 7,000 engineers massed behind a new model car they had produced as ‘a horrifying social document’. He was appalled by the squandering of technical manpower it represented. All this indeed makes one wonder whether he really was a closet socialist.
For more, check out this interesting clip from 1964 of Clarke making some predictions about the future.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Business: The Only Way Out?

Over the next ten to fifteen years, where will the majority of environmental solutions come from?  The three broad categories of problems (energy, climate change, and ecological destruction) all have similar causes at the most basic level: structural perversities in our economic and political systems. The three most glaring defects are rampant environmental externalities (who really thinks the price of oil truly reflects all the costs associated with it), state rationality vs. global rationality collective action problems (what's good for a state isn't necessarily good for the planet), and devaluing the future too heavily (high discount rates prohibit smart investment).

Government policy could theoretically do the most good by solving many of these structural problems--change the rules of the economic game and make the free market work for the environment, instead of against it. Steady-state, cradle-to-cradle, restorative, whatever you want to call it. But let's be honest, it's never going to happen, at least not completely. The politics are impossible.

The political sclerosis regarding environmental problems means that all the fascinating solutions developed by academia and policy thinkers over the past decades have little probability of being put into action anytime soon. Even if in the future popular support for radical environmentalist policies make drastic reforms politically possible, it will probably be too late to prevent major environmental changes. In all likelihood the world's environmental problems won't be prevented. Instead, adaptation will be the primary option for protecting quality of life.

The world of private action (business, NGOs, research organizations, etc.) on the whole is a highly resilient, dynamic system. Individual institutions may currently be adapted to a particular political, economic, and environmental context, but as things change so will the composition of successful organizations. For example, some U.S. cities (and businesses located there) will become less attractive under future environmental conditions (think Phoenix), while others will become more attractive (Fargo?). As energy prices terminally increase, local producers of goods will become more competitive with global supply chains.

Admittedly this situation is bleak, especially regarding the implications for inequality and access to choice. Richer people will be better able to adapt to environmental problems (by moving easily, or purchasing energy- or ecologically-intensive products) than poor people. That is a profoundly unjust scenario, but as much as we'd like to prevent it, our politics just won't allow it. If somebody wants to do the most good regarding environmental issues, it seems that there are two options: change our political system (good luck), or work to develop environmental adaptations that are cheap enough to be available to everybody. That means research, technology, investment, scale, and most importantly, trial-and-error. That means business.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Different Kind of π-Day

March 14th, Pi Day. On this most important day math geeks and students-with-no-choice alike celebrate the number π: the mathematical constant equal to the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter, usually by baking or buying a delicious pie to share with friends.

This year, I want to bring to attention an interesting idea: that the number π is stupid. A circle is defined by its center and its radius, and by defining π using diameter (two radii), we complicate things unnecessarily. Instead, mathematicians could use Tau, defined by the ratio of a circle's circumference to its radius.

Now, obviously, the constant π is enshrined in mathematics (could we ever really change the beautiful Euler's Identity, e^(iπ)-1=0 ?), but it's certainly fun to imagine alternative structures based around Γ. For more information, read The Tau Manifesto by Michael Hartl. Happy π-Day!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Horror of Science

This morning I read an article about a fungus that turns ants into suicidal zombie-ants, and the whole day I couldn't stop thinking about it in the context of zombie horror films. Granted the ant brain is simpler than the human brain, but it still gives me pause just thinking about these ants. I just love it when science fiction becomes real science.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Patent Pending: Contrail

Introducing Contrail, another great project being funded through Kickstarter. A handy bicycle accessory that leaves a thin "contrail" of colored chalk behind you as you zoom here or there. In addition to being fun, I think Contrail could do amazing things for bike awareness and urban planning. Easily identifying popular bike corridors would allow for smarter bike lane construction, and of course Critical Mass would never be the same. Great idea, can't wait!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

2012 Already? Candidate Rundown

It's time. Over the next few weeks, politicians will begin to formally announce their candidacies for the Republican presidential nomination. The crop:

Mitt Romney: Former governor of Massachusetts. If this race has anything approximating a front-runner, Mitt is it. But his flip-flopping, perceived inauthenticity, and RomneyCare will be big challenges in the primary. His bid involves keeping expectations as low as possible in Iowa and decisively winning in New Hampshire. Romney's chances rest on the implausibility of nearly all the other candidates. In the general election, he's probably got the best shot at ousting Obama, running as a smart economics-driven moderate. More here.

Newt Gingrich: Former Speaker of the House from Georgia. To get his name circulating and to signal Republican base voters, he's periodically said really crazy things over the last year or so. He's totally unelectable against Obama, which will probably keep him from winning the nomination. Add to that the specific path to victory (too Beltway for Iowa, too insane for New Hampshire), and he doesn't stand a chance. Maybe he's angling for influence or something? More here.

Jon Huntsman: Former governor of Utah and Ambassador to China under Obama. Need I say more? He'd be better than Romney against Obama, but primary voters will never pick someone who worked for the enemy. Add to that his lack of name recognition and he's got no chance at all. I think Huntsman is positioning himself for 2016, figuring that Obama will get reelected. By quitting the ambassadorship early and maybe running this cycle, he'll have some distance by 2016 and will have built a national image as a moderate Republican. After two crushing defeats, Republicans in 2016 will turn to the most electable candidate. Huntsman, with impeccable domestic and foreign policy credentials, will top the list. More here.

Haley Barbour: Governor of Mississippi. Longtime Republican super-lobbyist would have plenty of money and elite backing, but seems unlikely too generate much popular support among independents. He's a fat, stereotypical Southern Republican with a terrible record on racial issues. Obama would eat him alive in a general matchup. More here.

Tim Pawlenty: Former governor of Minnesota. He's been calculating this run for a long time, and as such has a strong conservative record for primary voters, although his name recognition is terrible. A victory for Pawlenty rests on a great showing in Iowa and building momentum and cash to challenge Romney in New Hampshire. Among all the candidates, Pawlenty has the best aggregate primary-plus-general electability, however high expectations in Iowa may prevent Pawlenty from punching out of the pack. Oh well, there's always 2016. More here and here.

Rick Santorum: I feel kinda bad for the guy (and his kids), but this problem seems insurmountable.

Mitch Daniels: Governor of Indiana. The favorite among conservative pundits due to his competency, cerebral style, and disdain for contentious social issues. Ironically, that last point would be a terrible obstacle in the primary election. I'm not convinced that Daniels would be such a strong general election candidate, either. He's bald, and was budget chief under George W. Bush, which seems like an almost comically bad qualification in light of Bush's fiscal irresponsibility. His nominating path is difficult: expectations would be high in Iowa due to Indiana's proximity, and he'd have to face Pawlenty's all-out Iowa blitz. Daniels' identity as an economic conservative (rather than social conservative) also means that expectations would be high in New Hampshire, where he'd face Romney's bastion. With no clear path to the nomination, it's no wonder Daniels is leaning away from a run. More here.

In case anybody is wondering why I didn't mention Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin, it's because they won't be running. He's too fat and she's too uninterested, and both are too rich and too loose with facts to be framed as "electable". Their celebrity rests in part on the media's perception that they will run, so they've both played the "coy interview response" game with much gusto. But make no mistake: it's not gonna happen.

Information Nexus

1. The Case For More Bureaucrats
2. Pulitzer-Prize-Winning Poet Critiques Ke$ha's 'Tik Tok'
3. The Least Free Places on Earth, In Photos
4. A Complex Issue: e-Books and Libraries
5. Why Isn't This Taught in Econ 101?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Governor Moonbeam Pt. 3

He's not hilarious, he just transcends humor. More here.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Two-Party System Is Making America Ungovernable

Intelligence Squared US is out with another fantastic debate on the proposition: "the two-party system is making America ungovernable." For those unfamiliar with Intelligence Squared, the forum pits 4-6 relevant public intellectuals against each other over some proposition. One side argues "for" the motion, the other side "against". The audience is polled before and after the debate, and the side moving the most votes wins. I whole-heartedly agree with this particular proposition, although not necessarily with all the points raised in its defense. Check it out:

This medium is great because it allows for a more in-depth argument to be presented--a rare pleasure in today's blog-centric public discourse. The propositions are always good, too. Some of my favorite past debates were, "It's wrong to pay for sex" and "Guns reduce crime". Enjoy!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Short Stories Are Great

I've really been enjoying short stories of the science fiction variety lately. They always seem to have a fast-paced, haunting quality to them. I think that's because the reader abruptly enters the story in the middle; there's no real intro or conclusion, and hardly any information about what's going on. This creates a mysterious vibe which is really fun.

Frequent readers of Unity Politics will know that I regularly post sci fi short stories (for a full list, click the 'Information Nexus' label on the sidebar), most of which come from this fantastic anthology. Another incredible collection is William Gibson's Burning Chrome. It includes the architecture-themed story The Gernsback Continuum, (which coined the term 'raygun gothic') and Hinterlands, a story about a futuristic cargo-cult society. The latter is probably the creepiest and most powerful short story I've ever read.

Most recently I've been immersed in the environmental-themed dystopias eerily imagined by Paolo Bacigalupi. Pump Six, an anthology of short stories, paints a grim future: immortal post-humans reflect on the discovery of an un-modified dog tenaciously surviving amidst a toxic mine-scarred landscape in The People of Sand and Slag; a black-market farmer harvests crops using illegally-obtained water from the drought-devastated Southwest U.S. in The Tamarisk Hunter; tyrannical agriculture corporations rule a post-petroleum world through genetically-engineered crops and industrial plagues in The Calorie Man; refugees fleeing their climate change-ravaged homeland struggle for survival within a socio-economic underclass in Yellow Card Man. Read these last two award-winning stories here.

If anybody has any suggestions for other good short stories (sci fi or otherwise), I'd love to hear them!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Lean, Mean, Aid-Giving Machine

Non-profits seem to have a bad reputation when it comes to their organizational efficiency and bureaucratic vigor. Obviously many non-profit organizations are extremely well-run, but it's no surprise that this institutional model has a set of structural obstacles that hinder efficiency more than the average business.

Firstly, most non-profits are constantly crunched for money. What's worse, non-profit funding is often less reliable and quicker to dry up than income acquired through selling goods to consumers. When economic conditions degrade, donations to non-profits usually fall more than consumer spending because people cut out non-essential activity from their budgets.

Non-profits also have a built-in information problem: it's very difficult to measure success. Businesses have an inherent feedback mechanism in the form of revenue/sales that constantly provides information about the organizational health.

Competition and cooperation among related organizations is also different. All businesses differentiate themselves to minimize competition and to enjoy synergy with similar firms. Additionally, businesses integrate vertically through commercial relationships. Non-profits, which are often defined by an issue (environmental justice, access to education, etc.), find it much harder to differentiate. This means that the set of competitors (for funding, talent, etc.) is much larger. Two organizations both working on the same broad issue, but providing solutions on totally different levels, may still compete directly with each other in a way that businesses do not.

Finally on a systemic level, non-profits lack a critical mechanism that exists in the business world for enhancing organizational efficiency: the market for corporate control. Mergers, acquisitions, buy-outs, sell-offs, spin-offs, split-ups--all of these processes impose constraints on poorly-performing businesses. Good bits of an organization will grow, while bad bits will be eliminated. Granted, some Darwinian selection occurs with non-profits, but not much, and in a much less structured way.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011