Staying the Course: 2006

At one point, we needed to stay in Iraq to establish a beachhead of liberal democracy in the Arab world. Today, if you listen to some of the war’s strongest supporters, our goals are considerably less inspiring. Here’s Frederick Kagan from today’s Washington Post:

The presence of American troops is vital to restraining Iraqi soldiers – the Iraqis know not to participate in death squad activities when Americans are around. The fact that large numbers of U.S. troops are not embedded with the Iraqi police is a main reason for the participation of those forces in the killings. When the U.S. troops go, the Iraqi army will probably go the same way.

And here’s Reuel Marc Gerecht writing in the Weekly Standard:

staying in Iraq ought to be a compelling choice…. We–not the Iraqis–need to lead a major effort to break the Sunni insurgency. We–not the Iraqis–must police the Shiite-dominated security services to ensure they don’t slaughter the Sunnis, especially as we and a Shiite-dominated army with an important Kurdish contingent make a more serious effort to control Baghdad, Ramadi, and the centers of Sunni resistance. We need to keep building up a Shiite-dominated Iraqi army and slowly deploying it in ways that it can handle–with integral American involvement, as at Tal Afar. We should expect a few Iraqi governments to collapse before we start seeing real progress. Yet our presence in Iraq is the key to ensuring that Shiite-led governments don’t collapse into a radical hard core.

This may be too much for the United States now. It certainly appears to be too much for the Democrats. We would have all been better off if President Bush and his team had done what Senator John McCain advised back in 2004, when the insurgency started to rip: Tell everyone that the war would be long and hard, and pour in more troops. If we no longer have the stomach for this fight–and it’s going to be ugly, with few sterling VIP Iraqis who will make us proud–then we should at least be honest with ourselves. Leaving Iraq will not make our world better. We will be a defeated nation. Our holy-warrior and our more mundane enemies will know it. And we can rest assured that they will make us pay. Over and over and over again. (Emphasis added).

We’re no longer fighting to create a democratic Iraq that will be an example to the Muslim world. Now we’re supposed to fight to put down the Sunnis while using the other hand to hold back the Shiites from doing it an overly zealous and gory fashion. In the best-case scenario, what rickety government we keep standing will not be one to make us proud, as Gerecht puts it. These are the war’s supporters. This is the case for staying. Not something I’d want my kid or yours to die for.

But any other course, Frederick Kagan declares, would be “morally contemptible”: “Both honor and our vital national interest require establishing conditions in Iraq that will allow the government to consolidate and maintain civil peace and good governance.” Which is a bit cheeky. One might wish for a little less moral bombast and a little more humility when being lectured on matters of honor and vital national interest from one of the people who helped lead us into the biggest foreign policy disaster in three decades.

But put that aside. We need to stay, Kagan says, to help the nascent Iraqi government “consolidate and maintain civil peace and good governance,” a phrase that comes just three paragraphs after Kagan tells us we need to stay because the Iraqi police forces are carrying out sectarian murders and the Iraqi army would quickly turn to “death-squad activities” but for our supervision.

“Civil peace.” “Good governance.” Through what method of social alchemy are our soldiers going to transform the army and the police force into institutions that even aim at providing those goods, let alone institutions capable of providing them? How long will that transformation take, and can that goal possibly be achieved? If it can’t, how moral is it to ask more Americans to die for it?

The FDA’s Record on Folic Acid

However the kerfuffle over the Food and Drug Administration’s handling of Vegemite pans out, my passionate Australian colleague Sallie James is right to be suspicious. The FDA’s record regarding folic acid has been anything but sensible – or humane. As I wrote in 1998:

[I]n 1992, the federal Public Health Service (PHS) recommended [that] all women of childbearing age consume 0.4mg of folic acid daily. The PHS estimated this could lead to a reduction in spina bifida, a crippling birth defect that partially exposes the infant’s spinal cord through a hole in the backbone, of about 50 percent (i.e., about 1,250 cases per year).

However, the FDA would not let producers of foods rich in folic acid (oranges, leafy green vegetables, etc.) inform expectant mothers of this preventive medicine until 1996. From PHS estimates, it may be reasonably postulated that the FDA’s four-year suppression of this health claim caused as many as 5,000 infants to be unnecessarily stricken with spina bifida.

The federal government itself recommended that women of childbearing age consume more folic acid, yet the FDA refused to let food manufacturers get the word out for four years. As if to shine a beacon on its prior stupidity, in 1998 the FDA required manufacturers to fortify enriched cereal grain products with folic acid.

If the FDA can tolerate 5,000 preventable cases of spina bifida, it’s reasonable to conclude that the agency wouldn’t bat an eye over severing one’s emotionally crucial link to the motherland.

That is, unless Australians have a more powerful lobby than newborns do.

Smoking Ban — without Government

A Washington Post Food column notes that going smoke-free pays off for restaurants. Which raises again the question of why we need a one-size-fits-all government ban, when customers are fully capable of sending signals to entrepreneurs.

WHERE THERE’S SMOKE, THERE ARE SEATS FREE: Being the businessman that he is, restaurateur Tony Stafford doesn’t like the sight of vacant tables in his sprawling Bonefish Grill (6315 Multiplex Dr., Centreville; 703-815-7427). Yet plenty of booths in the chain seafood restaurant’s 50-seat bar routinely go unused when customers notice cigarette smoke there. “They turn down immediate seating,” sometimes waiting an hour or longer for a table in the dining room, the managing partner reports. As a result, the establishment is going smoke-free Nov. 1. With winter on the horizon, and hoping to retain regulars who smoke, “I’ve promised to buy them a heater for the patio outside.”

Mbeki Banned in South Africa

Not President Thabo Mbeki, of course. But his brother, the outspoken political commentator Moeletsi Mbeki, turns out to be one of nine people banned from the airwaves by the South African Broadcasting Corporation, which is, in the words of the Washington Post, increasingly “reverting to its apartheid-era roots as a tool for government propaganda.”

The new top news executive at SABC, Snuki Zikalala, is a former spokesman for the African National Congress-dominated government who “received his journalistic training in Communist Eastern Europe.” A new report says that he is responsible for the ban on nine government critics.

In the last days of apartheid, some libertarians pointed out to South Africa’s rulers that if they left a government broadcasting operation in place, they would one day regret the way a different government would use it. Looks like that day has come.

Meanwhile, you can’t hear Moeletsi Mbeki on South African radio and TV. But you can read his thoughts in this Cato Foreign Policy Briefing.

Does Online Vigilantism Make Sense?

Clyde Wayne Crews of the Competitive Enterprise Institute has a new piece out on cybersecurity, online vigilantism, and white hat hacking. It explores the many avenues for countering bad actors in the online environment, and draws a line between reaching out to aggress against them and using deception and guile to confound and frustrate them.

The piece is apparently motivated by the the “Peer-to-Peer Piracy Prevention Act,” introduced a couple of years ago, which would have given the music industry immunity from liability for accessing peer-to-peer networks and attempting to prevent trade in their copyrighted material. Crews says “the industry is bound to try again.” His conclusion: “Explicit liability protection for particular classes of white hat hacking is ill advised… . A green light for hacking can work against broader cybersecurity and intellectual property goals, and there are alternatives.”

The End of Fidel Castro?

NPR has a report this morning that it’s looking more and more like Fidel Castro is terminally ill and will not return to power. NPR and Reuters both suggest that younger brother Raul Castro may open up the economy and even the political system to some extent.

Meanwhile, after 47 years of tyranny, some leftists still revere the Cuban dictator. A “colossal portrait” depicting Castro as “a champion of civil rights” will be unveiled in Central Park on November 8.

Illusions of Risk

Despite my digs at Jacob Hacker’s new book, I don’t find it implausible that middle-class Americans do feel that their lives are economically precarious, even when they are, in objective terms, immensely economically secure. The question is whether attempting to ameliorate that feeling is a worthwhile aim for liberal policy. Let’s start with a comment Hacker made two weeks ago:

If you have trouble figuring out why risk makes people anxious and unhappy, consider this simple thought experiment: How much of your income would you be willing to put at risk to get a chance at twice your current income? If you’re like most Americans, the answer is “not much”—and for a simple reason: While you’d love to have more money, your life would be thrown into turmoil if your income dropped by, say, half.

Social psychologists have a name for this phenomenon: “loss aversion,” which means simply that we dislike losing things we have far more than we like gaining things we don’t have. No wonder: If your family income fell by half, you would risk losing your home, your health insurance, your retirement savings—in a word, your safety net. And with these vital assets would go your dreams for the future. Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that a recent poll found that even opportunity-loving Americans prefer, by a two-to-one margin, the security of having their current income protected to the chance to make more money.

Hacker’s right that loss aversion is a very real, very well-documented phenomenon. But he’s wrong to imply that the representation of turmoil upon which loss aversion is based accurately predicts the real turmoil that would be experienced in a personal economic downturn. The main point of psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s bestselling book Stumbling on Happiness is that we make systematic errors in forecasting our future feelings conditional on the occurrence of big (or even little) events, such as how we will feel upon losing half our income, to take Hacker’s example. We think it’s going to be a lot worse than it really will be. Famously, people predict that they would be deeply depressed or even suicidal if they lost a leg. Yet real amputees quickly readjust to their new reality, and recover most of their sense of well-being. (And some even report a boost in well-being, their tragedy awakening them to the importance of what they have not lost.) There is certainly a sense of turmoil before one adapts to new circumstances. Indeed, the sense of turmoil is part of the process of adaptation and the recalibration of expectations.

Obviously, whether losing half your family income will dash “your dreams for the future” depends on how big your income was, and what your dreams were. If I had a job that paid 100K, and now I’ve got a job that pays 50K, then I still have my 501K, my health insurance, and probably a lot more safety net than I need. If I can’t now afford the payments on the Mercedes, well, bummer. If the kids are going to have to go to State U, fine. It’s not the job of my taxpaying neighbors to ensure that I can indeed afford Yale once I set my heart on it.

Sure, loss-averse Americans might like the idea of a constantly rising safety net that ensures a short fall, no matter how far we rise. But it’s not what we need, or even ultimately want. The best explanation for human loss aversion is its utility under conditions of scarcity in our environment of evolutionary adaptedness, tens of thousands of years ago. If you’re on the edge, a loss can mean death. But when you’re further from the edge than people have ever been, like well-to-do Americans are now, anxiety about risk and loss can lock us into bad situations, like unsatisfying jobs or loveless relationships. Our overinflated anxieties about the downside of big changes can be one of our biggest enemies. Middle- and upper-class Americans with college degrees have built-in safety nets in the form of their education and skills, and in virtue of being already enmeshed in the most successful wealth-producing institutions in history. The net is already only two inches from our feet. Losses suck, and we hate them. But I find it hard to believe that this is seriously considered a liberal proposal, or a sufficient basis for massive government intervention into our economy and fantastically comfortable and secure lives.

As I said in the last Hacker post, the main bout in the intramural liberal fight is about which set of institutions will provide what we need to exercise our autonomy and realize our ends. I don’t think a lavish social insurance state is the ticket for the poor, and certainly not for the middle. Americans from the middle on up are a class of extremely privileged people whose satisfaction with life ultimately requires moving beyond a complacent sense of safety and facing and taking more risk. Hacker would argue that people will take more risks if the downside is softer. That’s may be true, though it is also possible that people will just readjust their sense of entitlement, finding ever-smaller objective risks equally subjectively intolerable. But we would very probably take more rational, life-enhancing risks if we realized, with the help of a little self-administered cognitive-behavioral therapy, that the downside is already softer than we think. Hacker’s attempt to goad the American middle class into becoming ever more freaked out by their Pleistocene fear of loss is like telling a spoiled child she should definitely wail with a sense of entitled injustice unless she is given yet another pretty pretty pony. It’s perverse, and it’s not helping anyone.

If you haven’t had enough Hacker, here’s Matt Yglesias criticizing Hacker from the left . Let me say something about one point Matt makes about a point he attributes to Hacker:

If the broader economy is getting riskier, this is something public policy should aim to mitigate, rather than exacerbate. The point was simple, useful, and utterly correct.

I don’t think this point is simple, correct, or useful for much other than confusion. Again, if the risk we’re talking about is just the risk of your income fluctuating a bit, a liberal concerned about economic security has little reason to care as long as the fluctuations occur above the threshold of economic suffciency. Furthermore, if those fluctuations don’t generally cause much real harm, but are a symptom of an increasingly dynamic economy that will tend to give people greater opportunity to express their autonomy and realize their ends over the course of their entire lifetimes, then this kind of “risk” may well be something public policy should aim to exacerbate. Progress is not generally something you want to mitigate.