Morsi Takes Charge

An attack on a border post in the Sinai shakes Egypt and its government (diagrammed here in July) from political and social deadlock.  The Muslim Brotherhood’s website blames the attack on Israel, but President Mohamed Morsi–who otherwise hews pretty closely to the positions of Brotherhood leadership–hasn’t made that claim, instead directing his ire at the Egyptian military and their poor control of security in the Sinai.  As for Israel, whose territory the terrorists were trying to enter when they attacked the border post, its government appears to have known about the attack and warned Egyptian intelligence.  The Economist has a good overview of what the incident means for relations between the three local actors of Israel, Egypt, and Hamas, while an op-ed translated from al-Masry al-Youm gives an alternate (rather anti-Israel) view, according to which security in the Sinai is important but isn’t enough.

Morsi took a series of bold steps in response to the attack, starting with the dismissal of the chief of intelligence and continuing last weekend with a dramatic maneuver that shocked the political class and surprised the United States.   He dismissed Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and other top generals while taking back the powers the SCAF had kept for itself after the election–making Morsi now effectively a democratically elected dictator–in a decree that Issandr el-Amrani called “a pre-emptive coup against a coup within a coup.”

The new military leadership has as its head the former director of Military Intelligence, known among revolutionaries for his staunch defense of the vile and indefensible forced “virginity tests” carried out on Tahrir Square protesters.  He is said to have good relations with the United States, and his newly appointed second-in-command clearly understands American views and interests, though at the same time expressing support for complete American withdrawal from the Middle East.

So: Morsi will actually rule Egypt now although the constitutional legitimacy of his new powers is almost nil; American relations with the Egyptian military-intelligence complex, which I think are probably pretty important, are shaken but not substantially weakened; the Sinai is no closer to being secure and relations with both Israel and Hamas are no stronger and possibly slightly weaker; the revolutionaries have their most pressing demand satisfied in the dismissal of Tantawi but are unlikely to see many practical effects of his absence; and the political scene as a whole must now reset for new parliamentary elections and the selection of the constitution-writing committee.

It’s been a long week.

Paul Ryan

Mitt Romney has selected House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan as his running mate, a pick that has both a lot of upside potential, in that Ryan is uniquely able to bridge the gap between the establishment and the tea-party wings of the Republican party, and a lot of downside potential, in that his name is synonymous with a budget plan that polls very poorly.  My view is that the choice of Ryan justifies Romney’s own candidacy–before the announcement, the electorate viewed him as an implementation specialist: give him a plan, a set of goals, and he will make it happen.  Now he has the other half–not in Ryan’s plan, which Romney does not want to adopt in full–but in Ryan himself.  It’s a bit backwards–in a sense, Romney’s job is auxiliary to Ryan’s–but my view is that the selection tells voters “here, this is why you Republicans were right to pick Romney.”  Early reports seem to show that rally attendees are energized but that this energy hasn’t necessarily made it to voters.

Bill Kristol, the Weekly Standard editor and leading neoconservative who single-handedly convinced the McCain campaign to choose Palin in 2008, and Dick Cheney, who recently criticized that pick, were both on target this time.  Kevin Drum says that Ryan represents one of the most ideological VP nominees in recent history, and E. J. Dionne makes the case that this is evidence of a shift from Democrats to Republicans as the party of theory over practical results.  Politico has good introductions to the person and the plan that are Paul Ryan, as well as to the effects of the pick on the race in each swing state and on the congressional races and an interesting look at the process by which he was selected and the means by which that selection was kept secret.  Among liberal pundits, though, the undisputed Ryan expert is Jonathan Chait, whose April profile (don’t make this guy’s mistake!) is a must-read.  More recently, Chait has quoted a story which explains that the Ryan plan is in a certain sense literally unbelievable, described the non-Medicare aspects of the plan, dug into the intellectual foundations of his policy views, and noted that Ryan has played a role in the failure of all three major budget compromise proposals of the past few years.

The difference between Paul Ryan and Barack Obama on Medicare reform is substantial, but voter perceptions–Paul Ryan wants to dramatically cut Medicare payments; Obama wants to preserve the current system–are off the mark.  Both the most recent Ryan plan and the Obama budget (p. 13) target a path for total Medicare spending, but as Paul Ryan explains:

The President has repeatedly proposed empowering IPAB [Independent Payment Advisory Board–they don’t cut Medicare on their own, but rather submit cost-cutting proposals to Congress] to hold Medicare growth to the same growth rate [GDP growth + 0.5%]. The difference is that this budget proposes to use competition to control costs, while IPAB under the President’s proposals would use bureaucratic benefit restrictions (i.e., “value-based benefit design”) to contain Medicare’s growth to below GDP plus o.5 percent.

Both budgets cut Medicare, and both budgets cut Medicare by exactly the same amount.  The difference is in precisely how they go about it, where their policy ideas come from (Obama’s projections of cost savings come out of the contemporary academic health policy world while Ryan’s have their origins in a paper from 1978), and who picks up the difference if the cost cuts turn out to be less than forthcoming (Ryan’s plan shifts costs directly onto seniors, while Obama’s cap is a target that is enforced only through congressional action on the advice of IPAB).

As far as the rest of the plan goes, the CBO’s long-term budgetary impact calculations show that it would force total discretionary spending below 4% of GDP in 2050 (ignoring the fact that policies that far off are irrelevant and more or less assume no Democratic president for 40 years).  This contradicts Romney’s promise to keep defense spending permanently above 4% of GDP even if you zero out all non-defense discretionary spending. The plan would also force total Medicaid spending in 2050 to half of what it is at present and a quarter of what would be necessary to provide the same Medicaid coverage we do now.  The jobs impact of the overall plan is comically uncertain, at least if you believe the think tanks–the conservative Heritage Foundation claims that it will create 1.3 million jobs while the labor-allied Economic Policy Institute claims it will lead to the loss of 4.1 million, and both assert that their analyses are based on “standard” macroeconomic models.

Ryan’s views on non-Ryan-Plan issues have not received as much press, but they are certain to contribute to the electorate’s perception of him in the months to come–and to the direction which a Romney-Ryan administration would take if elected.  They’re summed up well here and here (one key takeaway: he’s even more socially conservative than Romney), but it’s better to hear them from Ryan himself.  In a 2008 WSJ op-ed, Ryan wrote that he opposed the Fed’s so-called “dual mandate”–i.e., that he believed that the Federal Reserve should focus exclusively on providing the economy with stable prices and low inflation without also aiming to keep unemployment low.  In 2011, he gave a speech to the Hamilton Society which, if nothing else, displays a much deeper understanding of foreign policy questions than is evidenced by Romney.  He may come to similar conclusions in the end, but I have much more trust in his foreign policy judgment and his ability to understand and interact successfully with foreign leaders who are not Bibi Netanyahu.

Lastly, Paul Ryan has at times indicated that he’s a fan of Ayn Rand, although he now says his philosophy is closer to…Thomism.  Dave Weigel attempts to use Rand quotes to ferret out what effect that might have on Ryan’s monetary policy.  And, in a story I couldn’t really fit anywhere else, Ryan’s bills have only been passed by Congress twice.

I’ll be back to the hodgepodge posts soon.

Links for Sunday

Since a July 25 op-ed in the New York Times, Danny Dayan, the public face of the Israeli settlement movement, has been more in the news than usual.  He’s a particularly interesting character because, like Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, his Zionism is of the staunchly secular variety even though he leads a group often thought of, more or less correctly, as fundamentalist or even messianic.  Reading an excellent interview with Dayan gave me, really for the first time, a good idea of what a secular defense of the settlement movement might look like, and what the differences might be between the movement’s assumptions and those of the two-state “mainstream.” The first thing that sticks out is that Dayan believes his approach is more, not less, pragmatic than the two-state approach: that the settlers recognize the facts on the ground and the diplomats are the ones with their heads in the clouds.  And to a certain extent that’s true–but it’s sneakily true.  The settlers recognize the facts on the ground–but, more than that, they create them.  They understand a lot better than most American supporters of the Israeli government–perhaps better than Netanyahu himself–that the settlements really are the biggest barrier to peace.  But unlike the Palestinians and their advocates, who believe the same thing at least as strongly, they embrace this: Dayan says the settlers settle in order that the two-state solution might die, because they believe the two-state solution would make Israel and the region less peaceful, less safe, and less prosperous.

Where do I stand?  I share the Israeli right’s belief that an independent Palestine will not result in a marked improvement in Israeli security, the Israeli left’s belief that a wall of separation has no place in an ostensibly free and democratic society, and the Palestinians’ belief that an equitable settlement must include a right of Palestinian return to the homeland they were forced out of.  If it comes down to a demographic question–if the State of Israel becomes majority-Palestinian–I would prefer the preservation of democracy over the preservation of Jewish control, and renewed aliyah (Jewish immigration) over both.  I also don’t believe that those statements and preferences constitute any sort of solution–but they’re consistent with a future for Israel that I think is possible, if at the moment unlikely, and a future for Israel that I might even want to live in.

On Amtrak trains, passengers are a captive audience: Amtrak has a monopoly on, among other things, selling them food.   But somehow they’ve still managed to lose hundreds of millions of dollars selling food on their trains–in violation of a 30-year-old law.  Republicans are attacking them over this, with one representative using a particularly creative press conference.  To me, though, the outrageous part isn’t the money–it’s the fact that Democrats are now defending the loss, and attacking the Republicans’ plans for privatizing Amtrak concessions, by viewing food service on Amtrak as a jobs program, and efficiency improvements as job losses.  It’s true that the more inefficiently a government program provides a given service, the more jobs that program will support.  But the money to support the unnecessary workers is not free, and would if left in the private economy or spent by a different government agency support a similar number of jobs elsewhere–leaving the overall economy better off because more useful services get performed or more products get made.

In Egypt, the new interior minister announces a hard-line policy on protests and demonstrations.  Optimistic reformists note that the relative lack of diversity in Morsi/Qandil’s cabinet–a mixture of Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) and felool (old regime) is not diversity!–is the result of revolutionaries’ refusal to accept appointments at least as much as Qandil’s refusal to issue them.  In other news, President Morsi continues to tread a very fine line in his foreign policy by, first, either sending or not sending a letter to Israeli president Shimon Peres and, second, maybe possibly staying away from a controversial Non-Aligned Movement summit in Iran that Israel would very much like him not to attend.

If the Free Syrian Army can secure complete control of Halaab (Aleppo), the civil war there will finally fit into the comfortable western paradigm of city-hopping (the way Libya did), rather than the much scarier (to western officials) asymmetric insurgency conflict which it remains at present, and military aid might be considerably more forthcoming.

The Democratic candidate for Tennessee’s Senate seat is a terrible person and they should probably have tried harder to enable non-terrible people to win even if it won’t matter in November.  Less astoundingly, a Republican candidate for Montana state representative is a similarly terrible person.

Speaking of terrible people, Larry Craig

Ever wonder how political polls have dealt with the rather drastic decline of people who pick up phones and answer political polls?  Now you know

So there was a jobs report on Friday.  This is what Romney has to say about it.  This is what Obama’s team has to say.  Note the use of four significant figures…

In Somalia, there are so many drones in the skies that they are becoming dangerous for ordinary aircraft…

In Greece, the Golden Dawn party continues to disgust all reasonable people…

James Hansen continues to be right

Henry Kissinger continues to be wrong

Links for Friday

Mohamed Morsi’s newly appointed Prime Minister, Hesham Qandil, nominates the new Egyptian republic’s first cabinet.  The surprising thing is just how little changed: the “new” appointee as defense minister is Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the de facto head of state during the period of military rule and Mubarak’s defense minister since 1991.  Qandil also kept Momtaz al-Saeed as finance minister and Mohamed Kamel Amr as foreign minister, though neither has a history of high-level service for Mubarak.  Western governments likely breathed a sigh of relief–al-Saeed has won praise for his willingness to call on the IMF for financial support and advice and Amr gets along well with Secretary Clinton, in addition to espousing relatively moderate views on Israel.  To the revolutionaries, though, Tantawi is more or less unacceptable.  Watch this space.

Brookings releases an analysis reaching the rather obvious conclusion that “a revenue-neutral individual income tax change that incorporates the features Governor Romney has proposed…would provide large tax cuts to high-income households, and increase the tax burdens on middle- and/or lower-income taxpayers.”  There just isn’t enough money available in ending deductions on rich taxpayers to make up for the rate cuts on the same.  I can’t emphasize it enough: if a politician says they want a tax reform that will “broaden the base,” they mean that they want to flatten the distribution of taxation, increasing effective rates on the poor and lowering them on the rich.  Incidentally, the response from the Romney campaign is to state not that the study is wrong but that its authors are Obama supporters.

From the ground in Tehran comes an interesting view (note: the Basij are the government’s plainclothes militia) on the prospect of war and the future of the government.  The piece doesn’t represent the whole of the Iranian people, or the whole of the opposition, but it’s important to keep in mind that Iran is much more than a belligerent president and an autocratic supreme leader–that the Iranian people are suffering under our sanctions and debating the same war we are.

The blogger Alexey Navalny (English here, albeit delayed by a few days), one of the most prominent figures in the “unofficial” Russian opposition (i.e., the part excluded from government, as opposed to the token opposition parties Putin allows to nominate presidential or parliamentary candidates) is arrested for, in theory, embezzling half a million dollars worth of timber.  You just can’t make this stuff up.

Three recent articles on qat, the drug which takes 30 percent of Yemen’s water supply and 17 percent of its families’ income…

This is how the U.S. military plans for things like the long-term development of the situation in Syria…

Dick Lugar, long-time Indiana senator defeated in a May primary by tea partier Richard Mourdock, on partisanship and his opponent

A somewhat parochial view on the Bo Xilai purge (maybe China seems like a total “black box” to you because you only talk to dissidents?)…

A forceful piece on Romney’s Israel remarks–also see Diamond, Zakaria, and Acemoglu but keep in mind that it doesn’t matter any more whether politicians understand social science…