Archives: March, 2009

Our Problem on the Ground in Afghanistan

Virtually no one believes that things are going well on the ground in Afghanistan.  The reasons are many.  Some of the practical frustrations are captured by my friend Joshua Foust, who is working with the military on attempting to better understand Afghan society.  He writes:

 Over scalding cups of tea in mid-February, an elder in Nijrab, Afghanistan said to me, “For two years you have come here and asked me the same questions. I like you, I like the French, but you people never learn.”

He was referring to the generic questions Westerners ask Afghans: What is your life like? Where is the Taliban? What are your village’s needs? This particular elder has regular contact with American troops, and likes Americans enough to have tea with us. Nevertheless, he was deeply frustrated by the way, for all our questions, we never seem to learn from our experiences.

Very few people in Kapisa province assume that coalition forces are there to do them harm. They acknowledge that ISAF behaves fundamentally differently than the Soviets did. Yet as the seventh year of the war begins, there is enormous frustration with the coalition for not learning from its mistakes, and also with the Afghan government for being unresponsive.

One elder from northern Tagab said, “We can sit down and have tea with you, but we can’t with our own government.” He said he wished the coalition would focus more on the people and less on the government. “Governments come and go,” he said, “but the people will always be here.”

Indeed, countless interviews indicate that people in Afghanistan have very little confidence in their local government or the police, instead trusting their shuras (community and district councils) and the Army to represent their interests.

His reports on his blog also are well worth reading.  Josh is a skeptic of preventive wars and nation-building, but his posts are more reportorial, giving us ivory tower sorts a better sense of the reality that America’s military and civilian personnel must confront every day in Afghanistan.

Are You Good for it, Ask the Chinese?

You might have trouble telling which country is the world’s superpower with the world’s largest economy, and which is the still relatively poor nation attempting to push its way onto the international stage.

Reports the New York Times:

The Chinese premier Wen Jiabao expressed concern on Friday about the safety of China’s $1 trillion investment in American government debt, the world’s largest such holding, and urged the Obama administration to provide assurances that its investment would keep its value in the face of a global financial crisis.

Speaking at a news conference at the end of the Chinese parliament’s annual session, Mr. Wen said he was “worried” about China’s holdings of Treasury bonds and other debt, and that China was watching United States economic developments closely.

President Obama and his new government have adopted a series of measures to deal with the financial crisis. We have expectations as to the effects of these measures,” Mr. Wen said. “We have lent a huge amount of money to the U.S. Of course we are concerned about the safety of our assets. To be honest, I am definitely a little worried.”

He called on the United States to “maintain its good credit, to honor its promises and to guarantee the safety of China’s assets.”

Mr. Wen raised the concerns at a session in which he touted China’s comparatively healthy economy and said that his government would take whatever steps were needed to end the country’s economic slump. He also predicted that the world economy would improve in 2010.

The confident performance underscored the growing financial and geopolitical importance of China, one of the few countries to retain massive spending power despite slowing growth.

China has the world’s largest reserves of foreign exchange, estimated at $2 trillion, the product of years of double-digit growth.

Prime Minister Wen’s comments were conveniently timed, following a well-publicized naval game of chicken between a U.S. vessel and several Chinese boats in the South China Sea.  But the Chinese premier still has a point.  With the U.S. government stuck with unfunded liabilities in excess of $100 trillion even before it devoted trillions of dollars more to bail out just about anyone associated with the auto, housing, and financial industries, just how is Washington going to manage the new debt tsunami unleashed by the economic crunch?  Americans desperately want to know the answer to that question.

And, embarrassingly, so too do the Chinese.

Real Regulators: Madoff’s Accomplices

In his “Talking Business” column, Joe Nocera explores Bernie Madoff’s accomplices: the victims themselves, and the SEC. He quotes James R. Hedges IV of LJH Global Investments:

“It is a real lesson that people cannot abdicate personal responsibility when it comes to their personal finances.” And that’s the point. People did abdicate responsibility — and now, rather than face that fact, many of them are blaming the government for not, in effect, saving them from themselves. Indeed, what you discover when you talk to victims is that they harbor an anger toward the S.E.C. that is as deep or deeper than the anger they feel toward Mr. Madoff. There is a powerful sense that because the agency was asleep at the switch, they have been doubly victimized. And they want the government to do something about it.

Nocera ably acknowledges the hurt and suffering of Madoff’s victims while pointing out their thoroughgoing irresponsibility — especially in the suggestion that someone else should pick up the pieces.

I’m less sanguine: The more thoroughly their cascading delusions of government aid and protection are shattered, the better. And yours, too. And mine. No bailout.

(Earlier posts in this “real regulators” thread here and here.)

Why Vouchers?

Yesterday a universal voucher bill heavily promoted by state Sen. Eric Johnson died in the Georgia legislature.

I can’t understand why anyone continues to push for a brand-new voucher program when they already have a universal education tax credit.

Tax credits are more popular and pose less of a threat to private schools and homeschoolers than vouchers, and Georgia already has a tax credit program. All they need to do is lift the cap on available tax credits, which is set at $50 million.

School choice programs actually save money — billions of dollars in fact — so there is no sense in capping the program, especially during an economic downturn.

And there is no sense in pushing for a new, inferior policy when you can focus your efforts on increasing funding for an existing law.

Friday Podcast: ‘Drinking Ages and Highway Fatalities’

Does the policy of setting a national drinking age reduce highway fatalities?

In Friday’s Cato Daily Podcast, Jeffrey Miron, senior lecturer in economics at Harvard University, talks about the research he and student Elina Tetelbaum (now a Yale Law student) carried out on that question:

What we find is that the only area where there is any evidence for efficacy of the law are states that adopted a higher drinking on their own without any compulsion. For the states that the feds forced … to raise [their] drinking age, there is no evidence of a beneficial reduction in traffic fatalities… We conclude quite strongly that it’s only when a state chooses a higher drinking age on its own, it’s only when it decides its going to devote enforcement resources and when there’s public sentiment to support that, that you see those sorts of beneficial effects.

Miron and Tetelbaum offer a more detailed look at their findings in the Spring issue of Cato’s magazine Regulation, which will be released March 26.

Topics:

The Beginning of the End of All that Comparative-Effectiveness Research

In “A Better Way to Generate and Use Comparative-Effectiveness Research,” I predicted that taxpayer-funded research on which medical treatments work best would ultimately be defunded at the behest of those who make a living providing the less-effective treatments. Because, well, that’s what always happens.

Well, it turns out those folks have gone and formed themselves a coalition and launched a media campaign to ensure that comparative-effectiveness research doesn’t put a dent in their incomes. According to the Associated Press:

People’s lives and plenty of money are at stake when it comes to determining which medical treatments work best.

So some prominent health industry and patient advocacy groups are trying to reframe the debate over how such decisions are made in order to ensure their interests are protected…

It’s a big concern for drug and biotech companies too since they could lose out if a treatment they’ve developed is found to be less effective than a competitor’s. But a drug company’s bottom line isn’t likely to draw as much public sympathy as a disabled person’s needs.

That makes [former Rep. Tony] Coelho a good face for the Partnership to Improve Patient Care, which formed as the issue began to surface last fall and is funded by groups including the Easter Seals, Friends of Cancer Research, the Alliance for Aging Research, the Advanced Medical Technology Association and the powerful pharmaceutical and biotech industry lobbies.

It also makes the Partnership to Improve Patient Care the very type of “patient-provider pincer movement” of which Tom Daschle wrote in his book.

Your Apropos-of-Nothing Observation of the Day

Fun with juxtaposed quotes:

Durkheim taught that in religious worship, society adores its own camouflaged image. In a nationalist age, societies worship themselves brazenly and openly, spurning the camouflage.

-Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983), p. 56.

and

Addressing Congress [in 2003], Bush declared that “the course of this war is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.” A form of religious nationalism permeated the whole address. Bush took words from a hymn, “There’s Power in the Blood,” to refer to the “power, wonder-working power,” of “the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people” — words which in the hymn are used of the lamb, Jesus Christ.

-Anatol Lieven, America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 128.

Crazy as I thought those days were at the time, the more you think about it, the crazier they seem. You’d think American Christians would have found this sort of thing mindblowingly offensive. Yet, they sort of seem to have dug it.

Nationalism. Powerful stuff.