The Arab League and the No-Fly Zone

After a mere 24 hours, the Arab League is already reconsidering its support for a no-fly zone over Libya:

The Arab League secretary general, Amr Moussa, deplored the broad scope of the U.S.-European bombing campaign in Libya and said Sunday that he would call a league meeting to reconsider Arab approval of the Western military intervention.

Moussa said the Arab League’s approval of a no-fly zone on March 12 was based on a desire to prevent Moammar Gaddafi’s air force from attacking civilians and was not designed to endorse the intense bombing and missile attacks — including on Tripoli, the capital, and on Libyan ground forces — whose images have filled Arab television screens for two days.

Most of the commentary I've seen about this has basically consisted of derision: either of the Arab League itself, for doing a U-turn so fast, or of the Obama adminstration, for believing that the Arab League was ever likely to maintain its support in the face of a genuine military effort.

But I'd rein in the mockery a bit. Moussa is right, after all: aside from taking out Libya's anti-aircraft capability, Operation Odyssey Dawn has turned out to be a major assault anchored by dozens of ships, B-2 stealth bombers, Marine Harrier jets, Tomahawk cruise-missile strikes, and attacks by French and British fighters. This may or may not be necessary to accomplish whatever it is that the coalition is trying to accomplish (that's less than clear at the moment), but it really does go pretty far beyond what the Arab League thought it was signing up for.

For more on all things Libya, see our continually updated Libya explainer here.

Defending the Ridiculous

One of the most impressive accomplishments of the modern right is its ability to generate plausible technical papers to justify conservative tropes that are basically ridiculous. For example, during last year's campaign it was popular to claim that our economy was weak because of regulatory uncertainty. This made no real sense at all. Our economy is weak because of economic uncertainty: businesses don't have enough customers to make it worth investing in new capacity or hiring new workers, and they aren't sure when or if new customers will appear in the future. Unfortunately, that didn't make for very good campaign trail bashing. Republicans wanted to convince people that the economy was weak because President Obama and congressional Democrats kept passing onerous new regulations that had businesses scared to death, so that's the story they kept repeating ad nauseam.

It never really caught on outside of campaign stump speeches, though, because — well, because it was ridiculous. What to do? Answer: find someone to write a technical paper demonstrating that regulatory uncertainty really is holding back the economy. But who could they get for this job?

Paul Krugman provides the answer: none other than Alan Greenspan. Krugman's comment after reading the paper:

I could go through the weak reasoning, the shoddy econometrics that ignores a large literature on business investment and ignores simultaneity problems, etc., etc.. But never mind; just consider the tone.

Greenspan writes in characteristic form: other people may have their models, but he’s the wise oracle who knows the deep mysteries of human behavior, who can discern patterns based on his ineffable knowledge of economic psychology and history.

Sorry, but he doesn’t get to do that any more. 2011 is not 2006. Greenspan is an ex-Maestro; his reputation is pushing up the daisies, it’s gone to meet its maker, it’s joined the choir invisible.

Yep. Brad DeLong does the dreary work of taking down Greenspan in detail here. Past posts on this site about the uncertainty meme are here, here, and here. Conservative economists piling on the uncertainty bandwagon here. And the chart below shows what small businesses are really afraid of right now: low sales, not the specter of the federal jackboot.

But all that aside — which is to say, aside from the actual truth of the uncertainty meme — it's impressive, as usual, that the conservative movement managed to find such a big name to put his name to defending the indefensible. After all, news reporters almost have to take the uncertainty meme seriously now, and that's really all that matters. Mission accomplished!

Supermoon!

Here it is, tonight's supermoon as seen from my backyard. How super was it for you?

Friday Cat Blogging - 18 March 2011

The timestamp on this photo says it was taken Monday at 4:59 pm. That sounds right. This is pretty much what things look like around here between 4:30 and 5:00 every day: both cats in the living room staring greedily at us until we give in and feed them. Really, their internal clocks are amazing. And the staring always works, eventually.

I was going to write one more post today about Libya, but I gave up. I don't know what's going to happen next, I don't know how things are going to turn out, and I don't really know if we're doing the right thing. As Matt Yglesias says, in this case "you have everything done right—a UN Security Council resolution, backing from the Arab League and the OIC, and a bad guy who is, loosely speaking, adequately nuts to seemingly put everyone off." But I'm still not sure we really know what our endgame is here. For more, check out Josh Rogin, Peter Feaver, James Joyner, and Marc Lynch.

In the meantime, though, enjoy the cats. They are blissfully free of any concern beyond their next feeding time.

Understanding Paul Krugman

Is economics a science? Do economists try to don the mantle of scientists as a way of groundlessly asserting their authority? Karl Smith thinks not, and proposes the following model of Paul Krugman as evidence:

Conservatives will no doubt have noticed that one of Krugman’s major themes is that their point of view is stupid. One might be inclined to think that this is a rude way of saying “you do not have access to the scientific knowledge that I do.”

It is not. It is a statement about what he thinks of your intelligence and ability to draw well formed conclusions.

He is not saying, I have such a deep understanding into the nature of the economy that everyone should listen to me. He is quite literally saying that the statements of conservatives convey such a shallow and imbecilic understanding of the economy that no one should consider listening to them.

He is not claiming the mantle of science, he is claiming the mantle of not being a moron.

I agree: Paul Krugman is not a moron. But then, I'm not sure his critics are either. Perhaps they're actually smart people who are just responding to a lot of bad incentives? I'm not sure if that's a more or less charitable view, though.

UPDATE: Tyler Cowen weighs in:

Economics is most like a science when people do not care about the outcome of the argument.

Yep. That's a little more evenhanded way of saying what I said.

Excitement vs. Peace

Ezra Klein endorses this sentiment from a Fast Company article on happiness:

Younger people feel happiest when they are excited, while older people equate happiness with peacefulness.

This only struck me because of how strongly I disagree with it. I'm quite a bit older than Ezra — though, admittedly, maybe not yet antiquated enough to qualify as "older" in the context of the article — but I have no interest in peacefulness at all. In fact, I feel like I'd kill for some genuine excitement in my life these days. Not the constant faux tension inspired by modern media and our kindergarten-level politics, but real excitement, the kind generated by believing that there's a real chance of something new and rewarding and galvanizing taking shape.

I haven't felt that in a while. But I'd sure like to.

What's Next in Libya?

Jon Chait reacts to the news that Muammar Qaddafi has called a cease-fire following the UN approval of a no-fly zone over Libya:

A few lessons pertain here. First, the neocon model of standing up to aggression, while frequently wrong, is not always wrong. The model holds that dictators are like bullies, and if you make clear you'll stand up to them, they'll back down. Obviously, this way of thinking fails a lot, most notably leading up to the Iraq war, when Saddam Hussein apparently remained in total denial about U.S. intentions to depose him. One of the main flaws with the idea is that dictators who are crazy enough to carry out mass bloodshed also tend to err on the risk-seeking side in other ways, too.  But some of them have a keen sense of self-preservation.

Opponents of intervening in Libya all seemed to assume that the threat of force would automatically mean employing force. This may not turn out to be a correct assumption.

Opponents also assumed that any use of force would devolve into an occupation and/or quagmire. They may be right, and their cautions deserve to be taken seriously. But one caution I have about the caution is how deeply it has been imprinted by the Iraq war. Ross Douthat's recent column ("Iraq Then, Libya Now") views Libya almost entirely through the Iraq prism, when Iraq is not the most relevant historical example.

Iraq, of course, has lessons. But the overwhelming tendency of our foreign policy debates is to over-learn the lessons of the most recent war. I confess to this myself, as my support for the Iraq war was strongly influenced by the successful interventions of the 1990s (the Iraq war, Bosnia, Kosovo.) In war, things usually go differently than we expect -- often for the worse, but not always.

Points taken. It's true that nearly everyone has a tendency to over-learn the lessons of the last war. That was one of the conclusions of Gideon Rose's excellent How Wars End. However, it's worth keeping in mind that his other conclusion is that political actors almost never think through post-war scenarios clearly enough.

In this case, that means wondering what happens after the cease-fire. Can Qaddafi simply leave a big chunk of his country in rebel hands? I don't see how, and this means that one way or another this war has to either simmer along forever (unlikely) or else come to some kind of definitive end. I'd bet on the latter: This cease-fire isn't going to last forever, and Qaddafi is highly unlikely to just give up. So what then?

We'll see. I doubt that Qaddafi has simply folded his tent in the face of a UN resolution. More likely, he's taking a breather to figure out how to continue prosecuting the war in a way that's relatively safe from air power alone. If that's the case, what's Plan B?

POSTSCRIPT: I should just say that I'm not discounting entirely the possibility that Qaddafi really has decided to give up. He's a weird dude, after all. It's just that the fundamentals of the situation don't make that very likely. One way or another, someone has to win this war, and it's hard to see how the rebels do that, even with air cover, unless the army defects from Qaddafi's control.

UPDATE: From the Guardian:

A disturbing call from Misrata was just broadcast on al-Jazeera which, assuming the caller was genuine, adds to the evidence that the Libyan regime is not abiding by its announced ceasefire. Mohamed Ali, who said he is at the medical centre, said there has been "indiscriminate shelling" which has wrought, "savagery and destruction on the whole city".

This is, obviously, developing as we speak.

The Limits of Tax Jihadism

Remember the Republican abortion bill that tried to redefine "forcible rape"? That bit of the bill got removed after a public outcry, but the rest of it is still sailing through the GOP-controlled House. And in its zeal to make sure that no one anywhere ever gets an abortion, Republicans have decided that money you save via tax breaks or tax credits isn't your money after all. It's their money, and they want to make sure you spend it the way they want. Nick Baumann:

Under a GOP-backed bill expected to sail through the House of Representatives, the Internal Revenue Service would be forced to police how Americans have paid for their abortions. To ensure that taxpayers complied with the law, IRS agents would have to investigate whether certain terminated pregnancies were the result of rape or incest. And one tax expert says that the measure could even lead to questions on tax forms: Have you had an abortion? Did you keep your receipt?

....The proposed law, also known as H.R. 3, extends the reach of the Hyde Amendment—which bans federal funding for abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is at stake—into many parts of the federal tax code. In some cases, the law would forbid using tax benefits—like credits or deductions—to pay for abortions or health insurance that covers abortion. If an American who used such a benefit were to be audited, Barthold said, the burden of proof would lie with the taxpayer to provide documentation, for example, that her abortion fell under the rape/incest/life-of-the-mother exception, or that the health insurance she had purchased did not cover abortions.

Here in the Drum household, for example, Marian is very big on taking advantage of her company's cafeteria-style health plan and putting aside pre-tax dollars each year to pay for medical incidentals. This is why I always save receipts for copays or bottles of aspirin or whatnot: so Marian can get reimbursed for this stuff out of pre-tax dollars.

The GOP's normal line is that this is your money, not the government's, despite the fact that it's a tax break that obviously costs the government some revenue. But no longer. If we were to submit a claim for an abortion, I guess it would be illegal unless it were the result of rape or incest. And we'd have a gang of jackbooted IRS thugs smashing down our door and demanding that we prove it.

Or something. It's unclear, of course, what the law would actually require. But at least we finally know the limits of the GOP anti-tax fervor. In a battle between tax cuts and making it harder for women to get an abortion, it turns out that abortion demagoguery wins.

One Man's Corruption Is Another Man's.....

Over the weekend the Washington Post ran a story about a DC lawyer who enriched herself by taking advantage of a contracting program intended to help poor Alaska natives, even though she isn’t an Alaska native. She won $500 million in federal contracts and paid herself and her family hundreds of thousands of dollars along the way. David Boaz comments:

And so far this impressive story by Robert O'Harrow Jr. has generated 4 comments, 7 tweets, 11 "likes" on Facebook, and only one other blog post that I can find. Are we so jaded that a full-page investigation of self-dealing and corruption involving affirmative action, small business, defense contracting, and complicated financial maneuvers just doesn't get our juices flowing?

Jaded? Maybe that's the right word. More concretely, though, I think the problem is that although the details of this specific case are new, nothing else is. In fact, this scam is almost legendary. The basic program to help Alaska natives was set up back in the 60s, but in the ensuing decades a series of changes were made that allowed it to be widely abused — and these changes were made very deliberately, very ideologically, and with the very determined help of former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens. Here is Benjamin Wallace-Wells, in the Washington Monthly six years ago, describing how one particular tribe tapped into this latter day gold rush:

Stevens eventually inserted an exemption in the land claims settlement act that allowed native corporations to ignore sole source contracting limits....The senator worked to obtain additional benefits for them — most notably, loopholes in tax law — but by 1992, the corporations were still having a hard time getting their feet on the ground. That's when Chugach, down to 12 employees and in bankruptcy, hired Mike Brown....Brown convinced the SBA to list Alaskan natives as eligible for minority small business loans, and realized, with gathering excitement, that they had unique access to sole-source contracts.

....By law, minority-owned corporations and their subsidiaries are required to actually have a minority as CEO....Stevens soon got his colleagues to pass legislation exempting native companies from the minority CEO rule. Then Chugach grew too big to qualify for programs favoring small businesses; Stevens lobbied for and passed an amendment letting native corporations retain their small business status regardless of how large they become. And when Chugach began to approach the nine-year limit for a single company's participation in the small business program, Stevens won yet another statutory break allowing Alaskan native firms to create endless new subsidiaries so that the parent firm could have indefinite access to contracts.

....Yet another party stood to benefit from native contracting. By 2001, Bush administration officials saw in the sole-source exemption a way to privatize government quickly. That year, a joint venture of two native corporations — Chenega and Arctic Slope — won a no-bid, $2.2 billion deal to operate the Defense Mapping Agency, which uses sophisticated computer modeling to map potential battlefields. The companies didn't have any of the technical experience these contracts demanded, but they did have something else. Unfettered by the need to provide civil service protections to their employees, they cut staff and streamlined operations more aggressively than the federal government itself could have.

[Etc. etc.]

Indian tribes aren't the only ones eager to see the exemption expanded. While some in Washington are uneasy about its costs and corrupting effects, many in the GOP leadership view it as a model for the kind of federal government they would like to see more of. It is a privatized system that circumvents the civil service, enriches politically-connected corporations, provides a trickle of money to the poor, and secures Republican power. For some conservatives, in other words, the Eskimo loophole is not a failed experiment in social engineering. It is the future.

So there you have it: it's basically GOP-friendly privatization run wild, and the rules that allowed the abuse O'Harrow uncovered were no accident. They were all part of the plan.

Obama's Accidental Success in Libya

Here's a Twitter conversation from a few minutes ago:

Now that I've got the MoJo vote locked up, I wonder what other people think about this? I should point out clearly that I'm not saying this was necessarily a deliberate strategy on President Obama's part. Still, it strikes me that if the United States had aggressively endorsed action against Libya from the start, this would have created a tremendous amount of suspicion around the world about our intentions, and that might have been enough to derail global support. It would have been, yet again, America plus a few allies vs. everyone else. As it's played out in real life, however, other countries have taken the lead, which forces them to be truly committed to this operation, and opposition has been muted because the whole thing didn't turn into yet another big power pissing match.

Yes? No? What says the commentariat?