A while ago, I had a multi-topic post covering some things I hoped to expand on. One of them was this
Blowing things and people up is seen as a demonstration of clarity and resolve, unless someone is doing it to us, in which case it’s correctly recognised as cowardly and evil. The most striking recent example (on “our” side) was the instant and near-universal approval of Trump’s bombing of an airfield in Syria, which had no effect at all on events there.
We’ve now had another round of bombing from Trump, and yet more instant applause. As I reread the para above, and looked at evidence on the general ineffectiveness of airstrikes, it struck me that there is a big asymmetry. The satisfaction we get when our side blows something or someone up is trivial in comparison to the hatred generated when we are on the receiving end. In most cases, the people and resources mobilised against the bomber far outweigh the physical destruction the bomber can inflict. Here’s a study (paywalled, but the abstract is clear) making that point about Vietnam; it seems to be entirely general.
I’ve talked here about large-scale aerial bombing, but all of these points apply with equal force to bombing campaigns undertaken on the ground by non-state actors, going back to the “propaganda of the deed” in the 19th century. Experience has shown that deeds like bombings and assassinations make great propaganda, but not for the side that carries them out.
Henry Farrell’s recent post on the irrelevance of conservative intellectuals reminded me of this one from 2013, which concluded
Conservative reform of the Republican party is a project that has already failed. The only question is whether the remaining participants will choose hackery or heresy.
Overwhelmingly, the choice has been hackery (or, a little more honorably, silence).
The case for hackery is put most clearly by Henry Olsen. Starting from the evident fact that most Republican voters are white nationalists who don’t care about small government, Olsen considers the options available to small government conservatives. He rapidly dismisses the ideas of challenging Trump or forming a third party, and concludes that the only option is to capitulate. Strikingly, the option of withdrawing from party politics, and arguing for small government positions as an independent critic isn’t even considered.
As Paul Krugman has observed recently, conservative economists (at least, those who comment publicly). are a striking example for the choice of hackery over heresy. Krugman, along with Brad DeLong, has been particularly critical of a group of economists (Robert Barro, Michael Boskin, John Cogan, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Glenn Hubbard, Lawrence Lindsey, Harvey Rosen, George Shultz and John. Taylor) who’ve made dishonest arguments in favor of corporate tax cuts.
Recently, an overlapping group (Boskin, John Cochrane, Cogan, Shultz and Taylor) have taken the hackery a significant step further.
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I’m a sucker for taxonomies, and Ross Douthat has quite a good one in the New York Times
Like any strange and quarrelsome sect, the church of anti-Trump conservatism has divided and subdivided since Donald Trump’s election. Some members have apostatized and joined the ranks of Trumpists; others have marched leftward, with anti-Trumpism as a gateway drug to wokeness. There is a faction that is notionally skeptical of Trump but functionally anti-anti-Trump, a faction that insists it’s just calling “balls and strikes” and a faction screaming that the president rigged the game and needs to be thrown out.
What’s interesting is that, from my observation, he has the factions about right in order of size. The group who have gone left is probably smaller than its ranking suggests, but contains most of what was left of serious thought on the conservative/libertarian side of politics. The smallest group, and the one treated most dismissively, consists of those who have remained politicaly conservative while being unremittingly hostile to Trump. Its members are either out of active politics already (like the Bushes) or are kicking Trump on the way out (like Corker and Flake). By 2020, it will probably be an empty set. That obviously raises the question of what will remain of the conservative movement when and if Trump is defeated.
A point of purely sporting interest is to classify Douthat himself. I’d say, some mixture of “anti-anti-Trump” and “balls and strikes”. The main part of his column, arguing that Trump is more of a joke than a menace, is consistent with this, I think.
The Washington Post has an article on millennial attitudes to Trump, broken down by race/ethnicity. The results won’t surprise anybody who’s been paying even minimal attention. Other things equal, millennials are even more hostile to Trump than Americans in general. Of course, other things aren’t equal; as with the population at large, African-Americans most unfavorable to Trump, and whites are least so, though no group is favorable on balance.
What’s surprising, or at least depressing, is the contrarian framing of this as a counter-intuitive finding, against a starting point assumption that millennials should have uniform views. I can’t blame the author of this piece for taking this as the starting point; it’s taken as axiomatic in the vast output of generationalist cliches against which I’ve been waging a losing battle since the first millennials came of age in the year 2000.
Just to push the point a little bit further, this study only disaggregates millennials by race. If, in addition, you took account of the fact that millennials (on average) have more education, lower income and less attachment to religion than older Americans, you would probably find it impossible to derive statistically significant differences based on birth cohort.
So, we finally joined the 21st Century and got Netflix. We are watching House of Cards (US version), an episode most nights. Based on one season per year of time passed in the show, that’s about four weeks of dystopian fantasy per night. But, when we wake up in the morning, the day’s news almost always has more and crazier stuff packed into it than that, with subplots and story arcs being passed over for lack of space ( will the emoluments clause come back to bite Trump? did he suggest that Comey should imprison journalists? Who can keep track of it all).
Looking at the main plotline of Season 1, what would it take for life to imitate art and elevate Pence to the White House? There’s clearly no likelihood that the House Repubs will impeach Trump as long as they still hope to push through a big tax cut for corporations (which apparently depends, for arcane procedural reasons, on passing some kind of repeal of Obamacare). As Liam Donovan says in Politico
The criticisms may grow louder with each unforced error by the White House, but as long as the legislative dream is still alive it’s hard to imagine any sort of full-scale break. If that dream dies, however, it’s every man for himself.
But maybe this really is a house of cards. Suppose that three Republican Senators defected to the Democrats. That would kill the dream, at which point lots of Republicans might start thinking that a fresh start with Pence would offer them a better chance of survival in 2018. And, hey, they got Gorsuch. Once a dozen or so jumped, it would indeed by sauve qui peut for the rest.
It’s easy to name two Repub Senators (McCain and Collins) for whom it would make personal and political sense to switch sides. Given two, there must surely be a third. Still, I can’t see it happening any time soon. On the other hand, every day brings a new humiliation. Perhaps someone will find a hidden reserve of decency, or just frustration, and say that enough is enough.
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One of the few points on which I agreed with Donald Trump during the election campaign was on his statements to the effect that the US should not get involved in Middle Eastern wars. Of course, Trump being Trump, he made the contradictory promise to “have a plan to defeat ISIS within 30 days.” (There some ambiguity as to whether the 30 days was the time taken to produce the plan, or whether he already had the plan and would have ISIS beaten in 30 days. As of day 78, it scarcely matters). But one point that came across reasonably clearly was that Trump wasn’t going to do anything about removing Bashir Assad from power, and was going to increase co-operation with Putin, Assad’s patron.
All that has now gone by the board, but it is unclear what is going to replace it. Following the horrific poison gas attack a few days ago, Trump responded in thoroughly Trumpish fashion. His missile attack was big enough to mark a clear, and possibly irreversible, escalation of US involvement, but not big enough to have any military effect. A day after their airbase was attacked, Syrian Air Force planes were flying out of it to launch more strikes against their opponents.
I don’t have a solution to the current mess other than the Irish advice “if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here”. But, at least I now have the cognitive consistency of knowing there is now no policy issue of importance on which I agree with Trump.
fn1. Very probably, though not certainly, undertaken by Assad’s regime. I don’t want to be derailed by this and will delete, with prejudice, any comments seeking to ventilate alternative theories.
fn2. Obvious wrong turnings on the way to where we are start with the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1915 and go all the way to the Iraq war.
fn3. I was happy that he refused to sign TPPA. But it’s now clear he’s pursuing the standard corporate agenda on trade, including ISDS and strong IP.
One of the reasons I like blogging and opinion writing is that I’m better at thinking up ideas than at the hard work needed to turn them into properly researched journal articles, which is the core business of being an academic. So, it’s great when an idea I’ve floated in a fairly half-baked form in a blog or magazine article gets cited in a real journal article. Even better when it’s a colleague or, in this case, former colleague who cites me.
James Laurenceson, formerly of UQ and now Deputy Director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at UTS, has an article just out in the Australian Journal of International Affairs (paywalled, unfortunately, but well reading if you can get access), on Economics and freedom of navigation in East Asia, which cites a short piece I wrote last year and reproduced here. My key points were
* Contrary to many claims, China has no interest in blocking trade in the South China Sea, since most of it goes to and from China
* For the smaller volume of trade between other countries, the cost of taking a more roundabout route is so small that China could not exert any significant leverage by restricting access to the South China Sea
* There’s nothing special about this case. The whole idea that navies are vitally needed to keep sea lanes open is nonsense
Where I based the first two claims on a bit of Google searching and a couple of academic papers, James has developed the argument in convincing detail, addressing a wide range of possible counterarguments. If I could find someone to do the same thing for my third claim, I’d be very happy.