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John Quiggin

War and waste

by John Quiggin on August 29, 2013

Even by the standards of CT, I seem to be an extreme pacifist. That’s surprising to me, because I was a mainstream liberal internationalist 20 years ago, and I haven’t changed my views in any fundamental way. In particular, I don’t have any fundamental objection in principle to war, or even to constraints like the need for a UN resolution. I’ve just looked at the experience of those 20 years, and reconsidered earlier wars, and I’ve concluded that the consequences of war and revolution are nearly always bad. Even ‘successful’ wars cost more, in terms of lives and wasted resources, than the benefits they deliver.

I don’t particularly like being out on a limb, so I’m generally encouraged to find other people starting to think the same way. In particular, I was pleased to see this column by Matt Yglesias, making the point that Military strikes are an extremely expensive way to help foreigners with specific reference to Libya. I made exactly the same case at the time.

With a little more ambivalence, I read this piece by Tom “Suck. On. This” Friedman who observes that Middle East oil no longer matters, and concludes

Obama’s foreign policy is mostly “nudging” and whispering. It is not very satisfying, not very much fun and won’t make much history, but it’s probably the best we can do or afford right now. And it’s certainly all that most Americans want.
I don’t share the tone of regret (“Happy the land that has no history” is my view), but apart from that, Friedman is very close to the view I put in the National Interest a year ago, that there is no clearly defined U.S. national interest at stake in the Middle East and, more succinctly, in this comprehensive plan for US policy on the Middle East … [^1]

Even at the cost of lining up with Friedman, I’d be pleased if the idea that war is a mostly futile waste of lives and money became conventional wisdom. Switching to utopian mode, wouldn’t it be amazing if the urge to “do something” could be channeled into, say, ending hunger in the world or universal literacy (both cheaper than even one Iraq-sized war)?

[^1]: The joke doesn’t quite work as a link. You have to imagine the [click to continue] fold after the first para.

More Nones than Republicans?

by John Quiggin on August 28, 2013

19 per cent. That’s the proportion of respondents to the latest Pew poll who say they identify as Republicans, an all-time low. It’s also Pew’s 2012 estimate of the proportion of the US population who describe their religious affilation as “atheist”, “agnostic”, or “nothing in particular”, or in the current shorthand, “Nones”.

These results need to be qualified in lots of ways (see over fold). But they still suggest that the ground is shifting against the kind of Christianist politics long exemplified by the Repubs.

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by John Quiggin on August 24, 2013

The drip feed of revelations about spying by NSA, related agencies and international subsidiaries like GCHQ, is taking on a familiar pattern. Take some long-held suspicion about what they might be up to, and go through the following steps

1. “You’re being paranoid. That can never happen, thanks to our marvellous checks and balances”
2. “Well, actually it does happen, but hardly ever, so there’s no need to worry about it”
3. “OK, it happens all the time, but you shouldn’t be worried unless you have something to hide”

An example which must have occurred to quite a few of us is whether NSA employees can spy on current or former partners, potential love interests and so on. Until a few days ago, this was at stage 1. Now, it’s been admitted that this not only happens, but it has a name “LOVEINT“. Still, we are told by the great defender of our liberties Dianne Feinstein, this has only happened on a handful of occasions (Stage 2).

All very reassuring, until you read the following

Most of the incidents, officials said, were self-reported. Such admissions can arise, for example, when an employee takes a polygraph tests as part of a renewal of a security clearance.
In other words, while NSA monitors everything you and I do all the time, it relies on witchcraft to detect wrongdoing by its own employees. I guess we’ll just have to hope that NSA staff are too busy snooping on our emails to read any of the 194 000 Google hits on “how to cheat a polygraph”.

Cronyism and the global city (again)

by John Quiggin on August 22, 2013

Alex Pareene at Salon points to a bunch of evidence showing, in essence, that the rich look out for themselves and their kids, and no one else, then to a piece by Andrew Ross Sorkin defending nepotism in the US, and by extension in China. There was a time, not so long ago, when Asia’s reliance on guanxi and similar networking practices was denounced as ‘crony capitalism’, to be contrasted with the pure and hard-edged version to be found in the US. This was supposed to explain the vulnerability of Asian economies to the crisis of 1997, and the stability of the US, then well into the Great Moderation.

A few years later, in the very early days of blogging, I wrote a post pointing out that the eagerness of financial sector workers to congregate in the same physical location, even though their work was supposed to be based on objective evaluation of data transmitted by computer, was pretty good evidence that the “global city” phenomenon, much in vogue at the time, was just guanxi writ large.

I turned that into a magazine article at Next American City (now Next City, whose web site seems to have lost it). Then I wrote a longer and more academic version and submitted it a lot of journals in economic geography, urban geography and so on, none of whom were interested. I think it stands up well in retrospect (much more so than most of the ‘global city’ literature, at any rate), but of course I’m biased.

At any rate, at least now everyone, and not least a defender and beneficiary of the system like Sorkin, is comfortable with the notion that capitalism is a rigged game, in which the ability to fix the next round is part of the prize for winning this one.

Update/clarification I’ve implicitly taken the efficient markets hypothesis as a benchmark, and assumed that features of the financial sector (for example, physical colocation) that can’t be explained by EMH are likely indicators of cronyism. It’s possible to take the view that the financial sector does things that are inconsistent with EMH, but nevertheless socially beneficial. An obvious example is the kind of opaque, over-the-counter derivatives that Dodd-Frank has tried to ban, and that the finance sector is lobbying hard to protect: it seems clear that doing these kinds of deals would benefit from face-to-face contact. So, if such deals are, in aggregate, socially beneficial, my argument fails – the converse also holds.

Because they can

by John Quiggin on August 19, 2013

For any ordinary organization, the detention of David Miranda by British security authorities, coming hot on the heels of a major NY Times article detailing the similar treatment routinely dished out to Laura Poitras and other critics of the US security establishment would seem like a major PR blunder.

But, in this case, it seems more like an upraised middle finger, one in a series designed to show that the security apparatus can do whatever it likes, and no one who matters will try to rein it in, let alone hold it accountable. [click to continue...]

Krugman, Keynes, Kalecki, Konczal

by John Quiggin on August 18, 2013

Paul Krugman’s recent columns, responding in various ways to JM Keynes, Michal Kalecki and Mike Konczal have made interesting reading, signalling a marked shift to the left both on economic theory and on issues of political economy.[^1] Among the critical points he has made

  • Endorsement of Kalecki’s argument (which he got via Konczal) that “hatred for Keynesian economics has less to do with the notion that unemployment isn’t a proper subject of policy than about the notion of shifting power over the economy’s destiny away from big business and toward elected officials.”

  • Rejection of the Hicks-Samuelson synthesis of Keynesian macroeconomics and neoclassical microeconomics and advocacy of (at a minimum) comprehensive financial controls

  • Abandonment of the idea that the economics profession is engaged in honest intellectual debate, in favor of the conclusion that the rightwing of the profession, including leading economists, is characterized by denialism and bad faith. As he says, while many economists would like to believe otherwise ” you go to economic debates with the profession you have, not the profession you want.”

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Larry Summers: not enough of a jerk (with added link)

by John Quiggin on August 3, 2013

In the controversy over who should replace Ben Bernanke as Chairman of the US Fed, a fair bit is being made of the fact that Larry Summers is (to put it politely) a jerk. Without denying this, I’d like point out that, when it really mattered, Summers was thoroughly outjerked by the genuine article, Rahm Emanuel.

The occasion was the decision on a stimulus package needed immediately after Obama’s inauguration. Emanuel’s brilliant strategy was to go for as small a stimulus as possible, declare victory on the economic front, then turn to the main game of cutting a deal with the Republicans on health care reform. We all know how that turned out, 1 and anyone who recalled the Great Depression could easily have foreseen it. I can recall how stunned I was that Obama failed to take the obvious opportunity to nail Bush and the Repubs for the crisis, and switch to a single-minded focus on economic recovery.

The Keynesian analysis done inside the White House by Christina Romer and outside by Paul Krugman showed that what was needed was a stimulus of at least $1.7 trillion. Based on his subsequent commentary, it’s clear the Summers understood and agreed with this. If he had lived up to his reputation, Summers would have pushed this through the White House by demonstrating, beyond any doubt, that Emanuel was the kind of fool he is famed for not suffering gladly. Instead, he first made Romer reduce the estimate to $1.2 trillion, then dropped it from his brief without telling her, giving Obama a range from $600 billion to $800 billion.

Summers is great at saying the unsayable when it comes to things like shipping toxic waste to poor countries or making baseless speculations about genetics and gender. But when it really mattered, he couldn’t come up to scratch.

Note: Out of laziness, I omitted the link to the piece by Noam Scheiber, on which I relied. I’ve added it now.

  1. Fans of 11-dimensional chess might want to make the case that Obama deliberately threw the 2010 election to the Tea Party, foreseeing that the resulting hubris would drive the Repubs mad, and therefore lead to their ultimate destruction. But I can’t impute such subtlety to Emanuel. 

Home court advantage

by John Quiggin on July 27, 2013

A while back I read a fairly standard presentation of the argument that the International Telecommunications Union should be kept away from control over the setting of Internet standards. The piece, on Ars Technica was written by Timothy B. Lee, who also writes for Cato Unbound[1]. Lee concludes:

The US hopes to preserve the “home court advantage” provided by the existing, open Internet governance institutions by preventing the emergence of the ITU as a rival standards-setting institution. Advocates of a free and open Internet and opponents of authoritarianism should hope that they succeed.

Now that we have a clearer idea of what the “home court advantage” actually entails1 it does not seem quite so appealing. The US government is at least as great a threat to a free and open Internet as any of those it routinely castigates in its Human Rights reports.

But if governments are determined to snoop as much as they can get away with, and claim unlimited powers to deal with their opponents as they see fit, is there any institutional structure that will make it harder, rather than easier for them to do so? I don’t know, but leaving control in the hands of the US state does not seem like an appealing solution.

  1. The NSA uses “home field advantage”, which is less sport-specific 

That’s the headline for my latest piece in the Oz edition Guardian. Of all of the anti-science nonsense peddled by the political right, in Oz and in Britain, none is more stunningly hypocritical than their campaign against the (non-existent) health risks of wind turbines. The self-image promoted by these guys (and, with a handful of exceptions, they are guys) is one of hardnosed scepticism about unproven risks, and disdain for emotive appeals to feelings about the environment. But because wind turbines are supported by their tribal enemies, they swallow and propagate utterly absurd alarmist claims.

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Carbon pricing in Australia

by John Quiggin on July 20, 2013

A number of people have asked me about the recent move by newly restored PM Kevin Rudd to “terminate the carbon tax”. I’ve given some of the political background here, explaining why the term “carbon tax” has become politically toxic in Australia. In this post, I’m going to try to spell out the story a bit more.[^1] There’s more detail here, but I’ll make the crucial points up front

  • Australia never had a carbon tax, as the term is usually understood. Rather, we had an emissions permit scheme, with a period of fixed prices (initially until 2016) after which emissions would be tradable
  • In 2012, it was agreed to link our scheme to the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, beginning in 2015. This didn’t attract attention, and legislation was passed to put the link into effect
  • Following his restoration, Rudd announced that the link would be brought forward to 2014. To undercut the Opposition, which had been waging a campaign to “Axe the Tax”, he described this as “terminating the carbon tax”

The initial fixed price was set at $23/tonne which was, at the time, a plausible estimate of the likely price of emissions in the EU scheme. Despite dire predictions the carbon price had no visible impact on the economy except the desired one of reducing emissions. However, as it turned out, EU prices have been much lower than the Australian price, making a link to the EU a cheap way of meeting Australian targets for emissions, net of imported permits.

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Tariffs and secession: the Australian experience

by John Quiggin on July 20, 2013

The claim that the secession of the Confederate states was driven, in large measure, by economic disputes over tariffs, rather than by the more obvious fact that the US had just elected an anti-slavery president, has come up in comments to Corey’s post. My impression is that this claim has been advanced both by neo-confederates on the right and by Marxisant writers in the tradition of Charles and Mary Beard, but I’ll leave it to those more qualified to set me straight if I’m wrong on this.

I wanted to point interested readers to Australia’s experience with a secessionist movement driven by concerns about tariff policy. [click to continue...]

Gillard and Rudd: a short history

by John Quiggin on July 14, 2013

I was asked in comments a while back to say something about the recent developments in Australian politics, in which Labor PM Kevin Rudd, deposed in favour of Julia Gillard three years ago, has returned to office. I won’t explain the mechanics of the process here, but instead talk about the personalities, policy differences and the issue of gender and misogyny. I’ll disclose up front that I supported Rudd’s initial selection as Labor leader, opposed his deposition, and supported his return, and that my views of Gillard are generally negative. For a reasonably balanced pro-Gillard case, you can look at this piece by Julia Baird.

A crucial point in understanding the issue is that Rudd was, and is, well-liked by the Australian public, but disliked, even hated, by many of his colleagues and other insiders.[^1] By contrast, Gillard was, and is, well liked, by her colleagues. This positive view was mostly shared by the general public, at least, those who cared enough about politics to have a view, until her installation as Prime Minister, and even for a short while thereafter. As Deputy PM, she was generally seen as the heir apparent to Rudd, and no one (AFAICT) foresaw any big problems for a female PM. We’d already had women as premiers and party leaders in most states, and the assumption was that there was bound to be a woman PM before too long.

However, beginning with her coup against Rudd, which was a complete shock to most voters, she came to be hated by large sections of the Australian public, with a venom that I can’t recall for any other public figure since John Kerr (who, as Governor-General, sacked an incumbent Labor Prime Minister in 1975). As a result of Gillard’s unpopularity, Labor was headed for a catastrophic defeat in the elections due this year. At least initially, Rudd’s restoration has turned things around, with the two parties now running level in the polls.

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Assimilated by the Borg

by John Quiggin on July 12, 2013

Following up on Chris’s 10th anniversary post, I thought I’d add my own recollections of the early days of Crooked Timber. Back in 2003, there weren’t many blogs around – few enough that you could keep up with all of them, or at least all that mattered.1 So, from July of that year, I rapidly realised that all my favorite blogs were disappearing, assimilated by the mysterious Unicomplex that was Crooked Timber. It soon became apparent that resistance was futile, so when I got an invitation to do a guestblogging stint at the end of 2003, I grabbed it with both hands, and refused to let go when my stay came to an end. So, I became the 13th guest at the supper, and have stayed ever since.

John and Belle followed a little later, bringing us to the size of a rugby team, where we stayed for a long while. This was the 2004 lineout ct-lineout

Crooked Timber has been a great experience for me, and I’d like to thank my fellow Timberites, past and present, and even more, our readers. I tend to mix it with the commenters more than most, and I’ve got a lot out of that, so I’m sure they won’t be offended if I thank especially the much larger group of people who read the blog, but don’t take an active part. I meet CT readers in all sorts of contexts, and the positive responses I’ve had are a big encouragement to carry on.

  1. A situation that seems to be returning, at least as regards independent blogs like this one. 

Responding to the unsurprising disclosure that the US is spying on its EU partners in trade negotiations, and the evidence that quite a few European countries are doing the same, the NY Times editorial page strikes a pose of blase cynicism, mocking Henry Stimson’s observation that “gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail”. In the view of the NY Times, and, it would seem, of most other commentators, this is the way of the world, and only a fool would refuse to play the game.

A couple of observations on this

  • Even more than with standard espionage, it is obvious that this kind of eavesdropping can only work if it is unsuspected, which is obviously not the case. The alleged sophistication of the advocates of spying is at about the same level as that of teenagers who have just discovered Ayn Rand.
  • In circumstances like this, the most effective, and most time-honored, way of cheating is not eavesdropping but bribery. Officially, at least, bribing foreign officials is a serious crime under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, legislation passed under the Carter Administration and roughly contemporaneous with the original, relatively restrictive, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, arising from the work of the Church Committee. But, on the reasoning used to justify the evisceration of FISA, even in its application to supposed allies, it’s hard to see how support for FCPA can be sustained. I wonder if the NY Times shares this view.

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The Strange Case of James Cartwright

by John Quiggin on July 3, 2013

That’s the headline on my latest piece for The National Interest. It looks at the case of (retired) General James Cartwright, former vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, under investigation for a leak relating to the Stuxnet worm, a US-Israeli cyberwarfare exercise directed against Iran. The key points

  • Like most leaks, the one for which Cartwright is being investigated revealed nothing that wasn’t known to the Iranian targets of the exercise or easily inferred by anyone who had followed the story in public media
  • Unlike the leaks for which whistleblowers like Manning and Snowden have been prosecuted/persecuted, this was an absolutely standard Washington leak, done for personal gain. Assuming the facts are as alleged, Cartwright, an insider, gave information (classified as secret, but actually well known) to a journalist, in return for favorable coverage. This is such standard practice that it would be hard to find anyone in government (in DC or elsewhere) who hasn’t done it

But, Cartwright had made lots of enemies and so appears excluded from the general immunity that covers such leaks. Moreover, thanks to Obama, the stakes are high. Based on the Manning precedent, he could be charged with aiding the enemy, a crime that carries the death penalty. The only comparable case of an insider prosecution is that of Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, who leaked the identity of an active CIA agent for political gain. He was sentenced to thirty months, which was immediately commuted. Even then he was prosecuted for perjury, not for the actual leak.

Having reached the point where the weapons of the security state are being turned against insiders, it will be interesting to see how things play out. Hopefully, those involved will look over the precipice and pull back.