Non-Boots, Meet Non-Ground

So about those ground troops in Libya:

A rebel official in Libya's besieged city of Misrata pleaded desperately on Tuesday for Britain and France to send troops to help fight strongman Moamer Kadhafi's forces, saying "if they don't, we will die." In the first request by any insurgents for boots on the ground, a senior member of Misrata's governing council, Nuri Abdullah Abdullati, said they were asking for the troops on the basis of "humanitarian" principles.

The French foreign minister is said to be "entirely hostile" to the idea of sending in ground troops, but perhaps that phrase doesn't translate quite the way you'd think:

The EU has drawn up a "concept of operations" for the deployment of military forces in Libya, but needs UN approval for what would be the riskiest and most controversial mission undertaken by Brussels.

The armed forces, numbering no more than 1,000, would be deployed to secure the delivery of aid supplies, would not be engaged in a combat role but would be authorised to fight if they or their humanitarian wards were threatened. "It would be to secure sea and land corridors inside the country," said an EU official.

....The planning has taken place inside the office of Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign and security policy chief....Diplomats say Ashton is pushing for a UN consent under strong pressure from the French, which is generally keen to promote projects supporting European defence and security policy.

This would be an EU force, not a NATO force, and would be tasked only with protecting humanitarian aid, not fighting for the rebels. So, just like all the other non-boots on the non-ground in Libya, this also wouldn't count as boots on the ground. Comprendre?

The Future of China, Take 2

A couple of weeks ago I linked to a paper predicting that China's growth would start to slow down in about five years, when its per capita income reaches $17,000. The authors based this on a comparison to a set of other countries that had also experienced high growth rates but eventually slowed down.

This week the Economist gathered a host of economists to comment, and for the most part they all agreed with the gist of the paper. However, they didn't invite Stuart Staniford, who thinks the $17,000 number is all wet. Roughly speaking, he thinks the authors chose the wrong set of countries for comparison, so he set out to get a more apt sample set:

To try to get a better grip on the situation, I did two things. Firstly, to formalize the instinct that the US has been at/near the productivity frontier at most times, I expressed every country's GDP/capita as a fraction of the US value in the same year. Then I started kicking countries out of the sample, unless they met the following criteria: they started out the sample clearly less productive than the US (I took less than 60% as my threshold), and ended up significantly more productive, relative to the US, than they had started out. Ie, we want countries where it's somewhat plausible that there's a story of underdevelopment, period of rapid catchup, followed by slowing growth once the country is a fully developed country with modern capital infrastructure and levels of productivity.

Long story short, Stuart produced the chart below, which suggests China can keep growing at a fast pace until its per capita income is somewhere in the $25,000 range, which is probably still 15-20 years away. I don't have the chops to adjudicate this, but I thought it was worth highlighting a contrarian opinion anyway. China might very well slow down in the next five or ten years anyway, since it faces multiple constraints (resource scarcity, productivity limits, demographics), but the $17,000 limit is just a guess, and you should probably put some fairly large mental error bars around it.

Who's Afraid of Standard & Poor's?

It's not like Paul Krugman needs my help in spreading his opinions, but people really ought to be paying a little more attention to the fact that right after S&P's warning yesterday morning about U.S. debt, interest rates on U.S. debt.....fell. Why? Because demand for U.S. securities rose and their price went up, as the chart below of a typical treasury index fund shows.

In other words, actual bond traders not only ignored S&P, they decided that U.S. debt was even safer than they thought before. And if S&P's warning didn't have any impact on trading in actual treasuries, it almost certainly didn't have any impact on anything else, including the stock market. As Krugman says, "People, this was a non-event."

The Indy Conundrum

Greg Sargent notes a contradiction:

The poll finds that 63 percent of independents support dealing with the deficit by raising taxes on those over $250,000. It also finds that only 23 percent of independents support cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, versus 75 percent who oppose such cuts. Indys are far more in agreement with Obama than with Republicans on the two core questions at the heart of the fiscal debate right now.

Yet the poll also finds that only 28 percent approve of Obama’s handling of the deficit, versus 68 percent who disapprove.

How can this be? What explains such odd behavior?

This will probably satisfy no one, but I think the answer is pretty simple. First: the vast, vast majority of independents don't really have any idea what Obama's plan to handle the deficit is. They just know that (a) the deficit is high and (b) Obama is president. Beyond that, there are kids to get to school, laundry to be done, bosses to be pleased, and leaky faucets to be fixed. The details of the deficit debate are just a bit of partisan background noise that they haven't really parsed yet.

Second: the economy still sucks. Unemployment is high, wages are stagnant, housing prices are dropping, friends and neighbors are having trouble making ends meet, and taxes are due. So approval of everything Obama related is down.

I realize that these two things are sort of an all-purpose explanation for everything. Nonetheless, that's my explanation.

Going in Circles in Libya

The LA Times reports on how things are going in Libya:

"We rushed into this without a plan," said David Barno, a retired Army general who once commanded U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. "Now we're out in the middle, going in circles."

The failure of the international air campaign to force Kadafi's ouster, or even to stop his military from shelling civilians and recapturing rebel-held towns, poses a growing quandary for President Obama and other NATO leaders: What now?

Well, this, apparently:

A joint British-French military team of advisers is to be sent to Benghazi in a move that is likely to lead to accusations of mission creep....The UK-French team will advise the rebels on intelligence-gathering, logistics, and communications. In an indication of the serious nature of the move, the team will be run by a joint force headquarters, the Guardian has learned.

....William Hague, the foreign secretary, said in a statement that the team "will enable the UK to build on the work already being undertaken to support and advise the NTC [National Transitional Council] on how to better protect civilians". He added: "In particular they will advise the NTC on how to improve their military organisational structures, communications and logistics, including how best to distribute humanitarian aid and deliver medical assistance."

Hague said the British section of the team will consist of "experienced British military officers".

Bud these are advisors, not trainers, no rebels are being armed, no boots are on the ground, etc. etc. Move on, nothing to see here, folks.

Wall Street Watch

So how's the banking industry doing in the wake of the Great Collapse? Here are a few bellwethers:

  • Goldman Sachs crushed analysts' expectations. They're doing great!
  • Citigroup is successfully gaming those pesky new capital requirement. Nice job, Citi!
  • America's top bank regulator is cutting yet more sweetheart deals with America's top banks. Good job, OCC!

Being on Wall Street means never having to say you're sorry. It's a grand life.

Why We Deny

I've always known that facts and evidence don't generally affect people's opinions much. But possibly the worst aspect of blogging for the past nine years is that now I really, really know it. I have my face rubbed in it every day. That's a different, and far more discouraging thing, than simply knowing it in an abstract, intellectual sort of way. But Chris Mooney comes to the rescue today, putting this all back into the realm of the abstract and using science to explain why science persuades so few people:

The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience: Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call "affect"). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we're aware of it. That shouldn't be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It's a "basic human survival skill," explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.

We're not driven only by emotions, of course—we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower—and even then, it doesn't take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that's highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about.

Read the rest for the whole story. But be prepared to be annoyed when Chris wrenches his spine out of shape bending over backward to find an example of liberals denying science as much as conservatives. It might be true that you can find vaccine deniers in the aisles of Whole Foods, but if there's any rigorous evidence that belief in the vaccine-autism link is especially pronounced or widespread among liberals, I haven't seen it. Surely there's a better, more substantive example than that floating around somewhere?

Why Fox Dumped Glenn Beck

Joshua Green:

A friend in the TV industry whose business it is to know these things has a persuasive theory about why Fox News dumped Glenn Beck: Beck simply wasn't toeing the company line. Whereas other Fox News personalities dutifully parroted the preferred mantra about Obama and the White House being a bunch of left-wingers, Beck — after initially targeting administration figures (Van Jones, etc.) and winning huge ratings — consistently departed on his loony flights of fantasy about caliphates, SDS, and even fish sticks (stick with me here). My friend wasn't just spit-balling; he had evidence to back it up. He'd kept a list of about two months' worth of the tease headlines for Beck's show. He also had a similar list for Bill O'Reilly, whom he perceived as representing the Fox News baseline. It makes for a fascinating contrast — and if you plug it into Wordle, one you can visualize.

Well, it turns out Green's friend is also a friend of mine, and he emailed this morning to alert me to this. "A fun little side project of mine that you might find interesting," he said. And you might too. Click the link to see how Beck's brand of lunacy just wasn't quite the brand that Fox wanted.

On Partisan Rhetoric and Fainting Couches

After listening to the delicate flowers in the GOP whine for the past week about how brutally partisan President Obama's deficit speech was, I thought I should remind them of some of the things Paul Ryan said in his budget plan. Here's a taste of what Obama was responding to:

Where the President has failed, House Republicans will lead....[The president's budget] Locks in reckless spending spree....Never reaches primary balance — failing to clear even the low bar the administration set for itself.

....The President and his party’s leaders embarked on a stimulus spending spree that added hundreds of billions of dollars to the debt, yet failed to deliver on its promises to create jobs. Acute economic hardship was exploited to enact unprecedented expansions of government power.

....Since his inauguration, the President has promoted a heavy-handed compliance culture in the energy sector, brimming with regulations and reckless spending on government-appointed winners and losers.... Gas prices have more than doubled since the President took office. Burdensome and ineffective regulations on businesses in the service of dubious environmental goals have driven up the prices of many products and services, while creating barriers for needed capital investment and job creation.

....The insistence by the President and his party’s leaders on spending money the government does not have has yielded trillion-dollar deficits now and into the future....By failing to address the unsustainable growth of autopilot spending programs, the President’s budget commits this nation to a crushing burden of debt.

I'll forego my fainting couch for the moment. I'm pretty sure I can handle this kind of rhetoric. But somebody needs to remind Republicans that tough partisan talk wasn't exactly invented last Wednesday by President Obama's speechwriters.

Who's Being Rude?

Andrew Sullivan lodges a familiar complaint:

I've gotten progressively ruder with my friends, who, even when just hanging out in the evening, keep their iPhones and Blackberrys in their hands. I understand the desire to check your email, stocks, Facebook wall, OKCupid or Grindr message in those moments when you simply have to walk or sit on a train or scarf some lunchtime Chipotle. But when you are actually among people you know, the act of glancing down at your mobile device is simply bad manners. It states absolutely that your current interaction is not as important or as interesting as any number of online connections. It's rude. And it misses the point.

The point is that these devices can enhance your social life, not replace it. And yet they seem like cuckoos in our social nest. I know I'm not one to talk. I communicate directly with probably ten times the number of people online that I do by face or physical presence. (Summers in Provincetown change that ratio dramatically, thank God.) But I try not to do both at once.

I feel precisely the same way. And not uncoincidentally, I think, Andrew and I are close to the same age. As near as I can remember, I have never heard this complaint from anyone under the age of 30 or so.

So: is this behavior rude? Or is it rude only if you're socializing with old fogies who consider it rude, sort of the way you watch your language around people who you know are offended by four-letter words? Or is it not even that, but simply a cultural change, like calling someone to thank them for a gift instead of writing a card, and it's us fogies who are being rude by refusing to understand that this behavior is neither offensive nor meant to be offensive? It's just the way teens and twenty-somethings live.

There's no answer to this, of course. I will probably go to my grave thinking it's rude, but unlike Andrew, I long ago decided to simply live with it because it seems so obviously to be a value-neutral cultural change, not something intended to annoy people.

But that's only for the young. If you're over 50, you don't get that forbearance from me: for our generation, it's just rude, full stop. When you're socializing, turn the damn thing off.