blogbury in china, part 1

okay, let’s see if this works.

Quick notes that aren’t clear from the pictures:

  • On our descent into Beijing, the ground didn’t become visible until below 100 meters of altitude; we arrived to the worst pollution in at least a week and visibility was worse than even I expected.
  • After checking into the dorm at Beida (which is really more of a hotel in the way it’s run) four of us were still a little hungry (the two meals on the plane were edible and vaguely Chinese but not particularly good or filling) so we walked to a little shopping center/food court a block outside the university gate and picked a restaurant that looked clean and reasonably popular.  We couldn’t read the name (something like China First House of Whole Fish Boiled in Soup, it turns out), so we didn’t know until we got inside that it sold exclusively…boiled whole fish.  Not a single waiter spoke a single word of English (seriously), and the boiled whole catfish (forgot to get a picture) was actually pretty good: success.

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2012

So I’m back, for the time being, and I really don’t know when I’ll get back to the kind of posts I was making before–I have hundreds of links ready, but I don’t know where to start as far as writing them up goes.  Right now, though, I want to post something else.  I want to finally put into writing my idiosyncratic case for reelecting President Obama.

I supported John McCain for president in 2008 (actually, since before the primaries began).  I don’t regret that, and I might get into my reasoning soon if anyone cares to hear.  My support for Obama this year thus puts me in the tiniest of minorities–two percent of the country according to Gallup, or less than the three percent margin of error in that poll.

The Republican Party took exactly the wrong lesson from its loss in 2008: there was a tacit decision not to nominate someone like McCain again, even though no other Republican could reasonably be said to have had a better chance of winning in an election so thoroughly haunted by the presidency and presence of George W. Bush.  In keeping with that decision, which was confirmed by the rise of the Tea Party and its 2010 victories, candidates like Jon Huntsman (of which there was only really one, Jon Huntsman) never even made it beyond a few percent in the polls and never passed necessary thresholds of credibility in the conservative media.

And so it came to pass that Candidate Romney, deemed too conservative for the nomination in 2008, had to move even further right to survive attacks from challenger after challenger characterizing him as too moderate in 2012.

More Conservative Than Bush

President Bush was too conservative for America.  His hawkish brand of neoconservative foreign policy and its lack of success in Iraq, the Patriot Act and his other home-front actions in the war on terror, his staunch support for supply-side tax cuts, his push against stem cells, his judicial appointments–all of these were reasons why his approval ratings dropped so low.  So why are the American people considering electing someone whose stated positions on nearly all of these and other issues are as conservative as, or more conservative than, Bush’s?

Romney’s immigration policy is far more conservative than Bush’s.  His foreign policy is more conservative than Bush’s: Bush didn’t call for a substantial expansion of the Navy in the closest approximation to peacetime we’ve had in a long time, his neoconservatism at least drew upon rather liberal notions of humanitarian intervention and the “responsibility to protect” rather than raw national self-interest, and his policies on Israel and Russia were considerably more moderate than Romney’s are.  Romney opposed Bush’s bailout of GM and Chrysler.  And in one of the only areas where Bush was more conservative than Romney–Social Security reform–I happen to hold a relatively conservative point of view, and agree more with Bush.

Everything Except the Economy

This election is about the economy, except that it really isn’t.  Mitt Romney’s economic policy plan asserts that it will create 12 million jobs in one presidential term.  Turns out that’s well within expectations from private sector forecasters for a second Obama term–we are in a recovery, after all, even if it’s a really awful recovery, and some forecasters (in particular, Mark Zandi, who is usually not worth listening to but did happen to advise John McCain in 2008 and thus probably isn’t biased towards Obama) even go so far as to say their job forecasts don’t depend at all on the outcome of the presidential election.  This is all in keeping with the view that the federal government in general, and presidents in particular, have much less influence over the course of the private economy than they usually claim–but “elect me: I won’t be able to do anything about the terrible economy” isn’t usually a winning platform.  Sure, it’s still possible for a government to make incredibly stupid decisions and cause economic shocks–FDR’s 1937 monetary tightening comes to mind, as does the looming possibility of a constellation of fiscal shocks set to occur on Jan 1, 2013 (the so-called fiscal cliff) though to a much lesser degree–but arguments about the Bush tax cuts, the medium-term deficit, tiny stimulus packages, and the like are all much more political than they are economic. If Europe survives, and the fiscal cliff is averted, and nobody does anything really stupid, the American economy–and not a plan, president, or party–will create something in the neighborhood of 10 million new jobs over the next four years.  And whoever we happen to elect in November will, of course, still claim credit.

So what is this election really about?  Everything else. Whoever is elected will most likely have the ability to appoint one or two new Supreme Court Justices, and will most likely have the chance to substantially change the makeup of the Court for the first time since Clarence Thomas replaced Thurgood Marshall twenty years ago.  Electing Romney means creating a Supreme Court–and a federal court landscape–that could end by judicial fiat 80 years of commerce clause law, 40 years of abortion law, decades of affirmative-action law, a steady march towards more humane punishment, and many, many other progressive achievements.  Reelecting Obama means creating a Supreme Court that could end by similar fiat DOMA and corporate free speech.  I have immense trust in the current justices, especially Chief Justice Roberts, and I don’t think the Court would take any of these decisions lightly.  But at the end of the day, American presidents have become very very good at choosing Supreme Court appointees, and what should really be legal questions have, in the context of the election, become political ones.

If Romney is elected, he will repeal Obamacare.  Almost nothing else about his platform and plans is as certain as that is.  But it still isn’t very clear.  He has promised to repeal the Medicare payment cuts that finance much of the system, and he would be politically very hard-pressed to avoid repealing two other parts that provide significant amounts of revenue: the mandate and its tax penalty/penalty tax and the various taxes on medical devices and expensive insurance plans.  There is a lot of political support for many of the insurance-provider mandates in the law, like the provision that requires children to be covered by their parents’ plan up to age 26 and the provisions that force insurance companies to offer plans to everyone in a community at the same price regardless of preexisting conditions or other risk factors, but keeping those would destroy the insurance system through dramatic rate increases unless combined, as in Obamacare, with a mandate and/or subsidies.  In short, it is the provisions that raise revenue that cause the entire Affordable Care Act to poll badly, while the individual provisions that make up the other side of the ledger consistently poll well–so Romney’s actions are certain to be a boondoggle either politically or fiscally, and likely both.

If Romney is elected, the entire Republican national-security establishment will return to office.  I think they are, on the whole, smart people who made, under Bush, a series of extremely difficult decisions in an honorable way.  But their principal criticism of Obama has been his choice of drones, and thus killing terrorists, over capture-and-interrogate missions.  And so Romney, who once said we should double the number of prisoners in Guantanamo rather than closing it, would likely reverse that choice to some extent–relitigating the torture debate, rekindling international condemnation, and swinging the “intelligence pendulum” back to the security-over-liberty side from its current more neutral position.

If Romney is elected, discretionary spending on crucial programs and infrastructure will be cut substantially to make way for a larger military–even though nondefense discretionary spending makes up a smaller portion of the American economy than it has in sixty years.

If Romney is elected, a destructive, unnecessary, counterproductive, and thoroughly open-ended war with Iran that neither the American people nor the Iranian people nor even the Israeli people remotely wants really might actually happen.

Last Chance for Action

We need another four years of Obama now, rather than some other Democrat in 2016 after a failed Romney term, because some things absolutely cannot wait.  In the second decade of the twenty-first century, we cannot countenance a president who denies anthropogenic climate change, not for four years that stand to be some of the most crucial in the history of climate policy.  Because of the rise of fracking and the Obama administration’s regulations on coal mining, we aren’t building coal plants any more–and American carbon emissions are back down to levels last seen in the early 1990s.  (Despite accusations from West Virginia politicians of an Obama administration “war on coal,” there’s actually more employment in the coal industry than at any time in the last 20 years, because labor-intensive underground mining is replacing environmentally destructive but labor-light mountaintop removal mining again.)  Because of tax credits that don’t even come close to removing the inherent, unjust advantages that fossil fuels have in not having to pay for their negative environmental externalities, wind power is as cheap as coal, growing exponentially, and already provides a meaningful fraction of American electric power.  Because of improved CAFE mileage standards and government-spurred innovation in electric cars and batteries, these trends will continue and will spread around the developed–and, soon, developing–world.  And because the Obama administration successfully ended Harry Reid’s dictatorship of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the form of Gregory Jaczko, nuclear innovation will continue to press forward and Romney can’t claim he’d do any better.

We’ve also waited far too long for movement on immigration policy, some of which has finally started to come from the Obama White House.  Romney won’t say for sure whether he’d withdraw the executive action that created a simulacrum of the DREAM Act in the executive branch, but his past policy statements and actions make it clear to me that he probably would.  Immigration is at the same time a civil rights issue, a foreign policy issue, and an economic issue–increased immigration, and increased integration of current immigrants into the economy and society are together the best stimulus we could ask for, and they’re free.

Last Chance for a Party’s Future

I have been a Republican for as long as I’ve thought the least bit coherently about American politics.  I’ve become less and less certain of that identification over the past few years, but I still think the party is a crucial repository of some of the most important philosophical, economic, and social truths in American intellectual discourse.  They are the party willing to buck political correctness and insist that, sometimes, culture really does matter and not every instance of disparate impact is an instance of discrimination.  They are the party willing to buck the Beltway wisdom and argue, every so often, for tax and entitlement reform.  They are the party willing to listen to economists on the importance of truly private property and the counterproductive aspects of price controls like minimum wages and rent ceilings.  They are the party that always insists more strongly on the crucial constitutional notion that our federal government is one of limited and enumerated powers.  They are the party that insists, at the top of its lungs and at the beginning of its platform, that economic freedom really does matter–and that it constitutes an essential component of the idea of America.

And so I want the party to survive.

I think the best way to ensure that is to force them to rethink their past few years, out at pasture, and to bring Republicans home again to the real world, with all of its vibrancy, all of its problems, and all of its changes the party seems to have missed.

The best way to do that is to find people who represent the best of the Republican Party, and push them to leadership roles in the next few years and presidential candidacies in 2016, 2020, and 2024.

But first, we have to tell the party that they’ve steered way, way off course.  And the best way to do that is to vote for President Obama.

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…