Monday, May 28, 2012

Cheney in the twilight zone

Via PM, quoting Steve Coll, comes the nugget that Cheney thought the last chapter of Mearsheimer's The Tragedy of Great Power Politics was a bit too "softhearted." This is fairly mind-boggling. Mearsheimer's basic line in that chapter was that the U.S. had to take deliberate measures to slow down China's economic growth, because otherwise security competition would increase, leading to a higher likelihood of military conflict, presumably on terms increasingly unfavorable to the U.S. Short of advocating a preventive war, which no one in his/her right mind would, I'm not sure how much more hardheaded (or whatever the opposite of softhearted is) one could get. (Of course, Mearsheimer was not right, I think.)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Romney in Philly

So Romney, according to WaPo, went to a charter school in West Philadelphia, did some listening, but also delivered a little sermony remark about two-parent families and cited a McKinsey study purporting to show that class size is not correlated with student achievement. Wow. I guess, on balance, it's better than not going to West Philadelphia, though he can't possibly expect to get many votes there, I wouldn't think.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The mantra of growth; or, Bhagwati vs. Pogge

Given the nature of the news cycle, the debate sparked by Pres. Obama's (successful) nomination of Jim Yong Kim to head the World Bank has long since been eclipsed by a spate of fresher stories. But I wanted to write this post before the Kim story faded into complete oblivion, because the debate over Kim raised again some fundamental questions about economic growth, inequality, and poverty.

In a column published last month criticizing the choice of Kim,
Jagdish Bhagwati asserted that the Obama administration has the wrong view of development. He wrote:
...perhaps the most compelling factor in Obama’s choice [of Kim] seems to have been a fundamental misunderstanding of what "development" requires. Micro-level policies such as health care, which the Obama administration seems to believe is what "development" policy ought to be, can only go so far. But macro-level policies, such as liberalization of trade and investment, privatization, and so forth, are powerful engines of poverty reduction; indeed, they are among the key components of the reforms that countries like India and China embraced in the mid-1980’s and early 1990’s....

[I]t is the rapid acceleration of economic growth in the major emerging countries that has reduced poverty, not only directly, through jobs and higher incomes, but also by generating the revenues governments need to undertake the public-health, education, and other programs that sustain poverty reduction – and growth – in the long term.

Now, there's no question that economic growth in India and especially in China has enabled millions of people to improve their living standards and leave the ranks of the extremely poor. And it's also true that economic growth generates revenues that governments, if they have wise priorities and some administrative resources, can use for public-health, education, and similar purposes. But Bhagwati failed to ask an important question: Could 'emerging countries' have reduced poverty even more by following a different, more equitable growth path?

A 2008 article by Thomas Pogge suggests that the answer is yes.* Pogge used China to illustrate his case. He argued that although poverty in China has gone down substantially, "it is likely that more equitable growth," i.e., growth accompanied by less income inequality, "would have been much better for the Chinese poor." Pogge pointed out that although China's gross national income (GNI) increased dramatically from 1990 to 2004, the relative income share of the bottom ten percent (decile) of China's population decreased from 30.8% in 1990 to 16.0% in 2004. This decrease in its relative share meant that the absolute income of the poorest decile increased "by only 75 percent" at a time when China's GNI was going up by a whopping 236 percent (see section 5.3 of the article as reprinted in Pogge's Politics as Usual, pp.100ff.).

What if China had preserved the income distribution as it existed in 1990, even if that meant sacrificing some growth? Pogge assumed, for the sake of argument, that preserving the existing income shares would have cost China 2.3 percentage points in per capita GNI growth from 1990 to 2004. Under this assumption, the poorest decile "would have done much better..., ending the period [in 2004] at an average income of $715, rather than $500, thus with a gain of 150 rather than 75 percent." (p.101) Slower, more equitable growth also would have caused less environmental degradation, a consideration that, coupled with equity, suggests that "all countries should conceive growth much more from the standpoint of their poorer population segments" (p.102, italics in original). He also pointed out that economic inequality is much easier to create (or generate) than to reverse, because the better-off are able to change the relevant rules in their favor (ibid.). There are, in other words, lock-in effects (though Pogge does not use that phrase).

Pogge also highlighted the growth in global income inequality from 1988 to 2002, with the relative share of "the poorest 30 percent of humanity" down by about 20 percent during that period, "from 1.52 to 1.22 percent of global household income" (p.106). Again, inequality translates into differential influence over the rules that shape the distribution of global income and wealth (p.107).

These are the sorts of considerations one should keep in mind when reading the celebratory assertions of
Bhagwati and others about rapid economic growth in 'the emerging countries' and its effect on poverty. Of course such growth has reduced poverty, in some cases substantially, but poverty would have been reduced even more if that growth had been more equitable, even if less rapid. Neoliberal globalization, heralded by its supporters for reducing poverty, has likely not reduced poverty as much as a more equitable form of globalization would have, and it has perpetuated the unequal structure of influence in global institutions. The appointment of Kim to the Bank will obviously not drastically change this, since no single appointment could have such an effect and the institution will no doubt exert its organizational pull over any leader. But Kim's critical stance toward neoliberal globalization -- or what was his critical stance some years ago, at any rate -- perhaps offers a bit of hope. In any event, Bhagwati's critique was completely off the mark.

*T. Pogge, "Growth and Inequality: Understanding Recent Trends and Political Choices," Dissent (Winter 2008), reprinted (in slightly different form) in his Politics as Usual: What Lies Behind the Pro-Poor Rhetoric (Polity Press, 2010), pp.93-109.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Regional integration and the state, Mideast version

An interesting statement by Harriet Feinberg reproduced in this post suggests that "new governance structures" may be the eventual solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Israel, she writes, will need to become part of two "regional consortia," one consisting of Mideast countries, the other of those that border the Mediterranean. She cites the EU as a work-in-progress and also (implicitly) a model, as well as regional integration efforts in Africa and South America.

One of the notable features of existing regional arrangements, however, is that they have not replaced nation-states but rather built on top of them. Nor is there any strong evidence that the EU, for instance, is going to replace states in the foreseeable future. Thus while Feinberg's thoughts are to be welcomed, her vision of separate nation-states in the Mideast becoming as obsolete as Royal typewriters in 50 or 100 years is one that I would hesitate to place bets on as a prediction. Which is not to say that regional consortia are not a good idea; they almost certainly are. Whether they can solve the underlying problems in that region, however, is less clear.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Taylor's crimes in Liberia

Here (h/t HC).

An omission

CORRECTION (added 6/5/12): Awlaki and his son were killed in two different strikes, not the same one. See here. That no one corrected my mistake is an indication, if any were needed, of how few people read this blog.

Reports (WaPo, NewsHour) about the latest story involving AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) mention the U.S. drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki last fall but don't mention that [a later strike, I should have said] killed Awlaki's 16-year-old son.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Coming late to a right-wing "theorist"

Following a link on another blog, I just read a column by Spengler, which is the name David Goldman uses for his columns in the Asia Times online. This particular Spengler piece conjures up the ghost of Richelieu, who "advises" that Iran should be attacked. According to a puff for one of Goldman's books at Amazon, his Spengler column has a million readers a month. If true, this is depressing. The book in question, by the way, appears to argue that "population decline" is "the issue of the 21st century" and that declining fertility in the Muslim world fuels Islamic radicalism. Or something like that. I never cease to wonder at the amount of rubbish that manages to get published. Declining fertility in the Muslim world actually is a positive trend, certainly from the standpoint of long-term economic development, and one has to ponder the sanity of someone who tries to construe it as a major "threat."

Update: Wikipedia's entry on the real Spengler mentions that Goldman has been writing his column since the beginning of 2000. I had been happily unaware of the column until now.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Only bad options

Added 5/6: A review of a recent book about the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in the late 80s. Parallels? Decide for yourself.

There is no good exit strategy available for the U.S./ISAF/NATO from Afghanistan, which should not be very surprising: there rarely are good options for withdrawal and extrication from this kind of conflict. The best outcome might be a negotiated peace settlement that brings elements of the Taliban into a kind of national unity government, but that prospect does not seem at all likely right now.

Pres. Obama has said that after 2014, the U.S. will remain only to help the Afghans with 'counterterrorism' and training. Eugene Robinson asks why the U.S. doesn't make that switch now instead of at the end of 2014. The official answer is that the extra time is needed for the Afghan security forces to gain more strength, though that is not exactly a comforting or perhaps even a convincing rationale or justification for continuing loss of life.

Two former State Dept. employees who worked in Afghanistan, writing in the March/April 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs, argue for leaving a sizeable number of U.S. civilian and military advisers in Afghanistan after 2014, adding that the advisers should 'rough it' and share the risks to which those they are advising will be exposed. Obama did not mention this approach explicitly in his speech from Bagram the other evening, but I wouldn't be surprised if an 'advisory strategy' is basically what ends up being adopted, regardless of who wins the November election here. "Advisers" would be a loose term covering both civilians and a military force, which David Ignatius thinks could number up to 20,000, though Obama mentioned no numbers in the speech. Ignatius believes this strategy makes sense, but here's a problem: what happens if, by the time 2024 rolls around, Afghanistan is still in turmoil and the 'counterterrorism' strategy or 'advisory' strategy (I think the differences between these are not all that significant) hasn't succeeded? Commit the force for another ten years? I don't think anyone would be happy with that.

The Scream and Angelus Novus

It occurred to me that there is arguably some similarity between Munch's 'The Scream,' which just sold at auction for close to $120 million, and Klee's 'Angelus Novus,' the subject of a well-known passage by Walter Benjamin describing it as picturing "the angel of history." The arguable similarity lies in the vibes the works give off rather than in a literal visual similarity. (The Benjamin passage is quoted by Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities at the end of ch. 9; see also Anthony Marx, Faith in Nation, pp. 204-5.) I'm pretty sure this thought isn't original so I'm not even bothering to google around and find out how many people have had it before me.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Were the "trusters" right?

In an article published a year ago, Brian Rathbun looked at the views held by U.S. liberals and conservatives just after World War II about the institutional design of the UN and NATO.* Rathbun argued -- I'm simplifying for the sake of brevity -- that liberals (mostly though not exclusively Democrats) wanted a more co-operative, multilateral approach and strategy because they were more "trusting" of allies and less fearful that allies would take advantage of the U.S., whereas conservatives (mostly though not exclusively Republicans) were less "trusting." Thus on NATO, for example, the Truman administration, Rathbun writes, "was willing to provide a guarantee of European security before the Europeans could effectively contribute to the alliance because it expected future reciprocity." By contrast, conservative Republicans wanted a "unilateral declaration of American intent," a sort of Monroe Doctrine for western Europe, rather than NATO, "but even moderate Republicans wanted the Europeans to first demonstrate their commitment to continental defense before the conclusion of any pact...." The less "trusting" Republicans feared 'free-riding' (in the non-technical sense of that phrase), i.e. they feared that the European states in NATO would not contribute adequately to their own defense.

Rathbun is interested in making a theoretical argument about social psychology, trust, and dispositions to co-operate, so he doesn't, at least from what I gather based on a perusal of the article, ask which side turned out to be right. Were Republicans correct to fear that allies would take advantage of a U.S. commitment to their security and not contribute to their own defense? It depends, I suppose, on how strong a version of the argument one takes. NATO members certainly have maintained their own defense budgets and militaries, but the question of relative contributions has been a sore point in recent years and probably throughout much of the alliance's history. And when it comes to U.S. security commitments to allies in Asia, the situation is probably etched in sharper relief. Robert Kelly (who, like Rathbun, blogs at Duck of Minerva) has pointed out that the level of defense spending by South Korea is "irresponsibly low," i.e., South Korea is taking advantage of the U.S. security umbrella to avoid spending very much on its own defense. Trust is all well and good, but in these contexts it does seem to have led to what IR scholars loosely (because it's not really the technical definition) call free-riding. I never, ever thought I'd quote Reagan with approval about anything, but here one can't help recall the slogan -- admittedly taken out of context -- "trust but verify."
*B. Rathbun, "The 'Magnificent Fraud': Trust, International Cooperation, and the Hidden Domestic Politics of American Multilateralism after World War II," Int'l Studies Quarterly v.55 (2011):1-21.