Kevin Drum

Republicans Mysteriously Decide to Become Hawkish Again

| Tue Sep. 2, 2014 5:08 PM EDT

Apparently the kinder, gentler version of the Republican Party is quickly disappearing:

Remember when the Republican Party was quickly shifting toward a new brand of Rand Paul-esque foreign policy non-interventionism?

No more.

Less than a year ago, just 18 percent of GOPers said that the United States does “too little” when it comes to helping solve the world’s problems, according to a Pew Research Center poll. Today, that number has more than doubled, to 46 percent.

....The results echo a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll which showed higher GOP support for airstrikes in Iraq.

So what to account for the shift?

Hmmm. That's a poser, isn't it? What, oh what, could account for the shift?

Well, let's cast our minds back a year or two. We were fighting in Libya, a war that President Obama got us involved in. We were fighting in Afghanistan, a war that Obama ramped up as soon as he took office. We were fighting drone wars in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia, all thanks to Obama.

Then what happened? The civil war in Syria heated up, but after a brief bout of indecision Obama decided not to get deeply involved. Russia ramped up military action in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and Obama decided not to get deeply involved. ISIS took over a huge chunk of Iraq, and Obama decided not to get deeply involved.

So let's review. A year or two ago, we were involved in three overseas wars, all of them supported by Obama. At the time, Republicans were unaccountably dovish about military interventions. Today, Obama is refraining from getting deeply involved in three overseas wars. And guess what? Republicans have suddenly become hawkish again.

Yep, this is a poser. What could possibly account for this change in Republican attitudes?

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ISIS is a Problem That Only Iraqis Can Solve

| Tue Sep. 2, 2014 2:24 PM EDT

Christopher Paul and Colin Clarke have studied 71 insurgencies during the post-WWII period and have concluded that every successful counterinsurgency shared several characteristics. They apply the results of their research to the problem of the ISIS insurgency in Iraq:

First, we found that in every case where they succeeded, counterinsurgent forces managed to substantially overmatch the insurgents and force them to fight as guerrillas before getting down to the activities traditionally associated with counterinsurgency....U.S. air power could make a significant contribution toward that end. Airstrikes will help curb Islamic State advances in strategically important parts of Iraq and thus, help bolster the Iraqi government and security forces, at least in the short term.

Second, we concluded from the research that “effective COIN practices tend to run in packs”....Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) techniques identified three COIN concepts critical to success. These three concepts were implemented in each and every COIN win, and no COIN loss implemented all three: Tangible support reduction; commitment and motivation; and flexibility and adaptability.

....U.S. support to an Iraqi counterinsurgency strategy to defeat the Islamic State must focus on reducing tangible support to the insurgents, increasing the commitment and motivation of the Iraqi military and security forces and increasing the government’s legitimacy among Iraqi Sunnis.

It's been a long time since I spent much time reading about COIN and COIN strategies, but this basically sounds right to me. And it should send a shiver down the spine of anyone who thinks the US should get deeply involved in fighting ISIS.

Here's why. One of the key factors that I remember identifying during the height of the Iraq insurgency was local commitment. In a nutshell, it turns out that virtually no postwar COIN effort led by a big Western country has been successful. Western help is OK, but the COIN effort has to be led by the local regime. It's not a sufficient condition for success, but it's a necessary one.

Paul and Clarke are basically confirming this. Sure, American air strikes might help in terms of the sheer firepower needed to successfully fight ISIS. But of the other three key COIN practices, two are purely local and the third is mostly local. There's very little the United States can do to help out on these fronts. Only the Iraqi government can increase its legitimacy among the Sunni minority, and only the Iraqi government can properly motivate its military. (The US can provide training and materiel, but it can't provide commitment and motivation.) Even the problem of reducing tangible support for the ISIS insurgents is mostly something only the Iraqi government can do. The US can help, but only if Iraqis are leading the way.

At the moment, there's little evidence that the Iraqi government is capable of doing any of these three things. The new government of Haider Al-Abadi might be able to make progress on these fronts, but it hasn't demonstrated that yet. Until it does, more US help is almost certainly doomed to failure.

Instinctive hawks should think long and hard about this. The record of the United States in counterinsurgencies is dismal. If the conditions are just right, we might be able to do some good in Iraq. At the moment, though, the conditions are appalling. We can put a few fingers in some dikes, but unless and until the Iraqi government steps up to the plate, there's virtually no chance that deeper US involvement will turn out well.

Inflation Is Still the Great Bogeyman of the Rich

| Tue Sep. 2, 2014 12:26 PM EDT

Paul Krugman is trying to figure out why wealthy elites are so damn obsessed with the dangers of moderately higher inflation. After all, in a deep recession, inflation is likely to spur economic growth, and that helps rich folks. Their assets increase in value and they become even richer. So what's their problem?

In a post yesterday, Krugman refers to my suggestion that it's mostly a case of septaphobia, or fear of the 70s. The idea here is that inflation really did run out of control in the 70s, and it really did take a massive recession engineered by Paul Volcker to rein it in. If that was one of your seminal experiences of the consequences of loose money, then it's no surprise that you fear inflation. But Steve Randy Waldman says this is "bass-ackwards":

Elites love the 1970s. Prior to the 1970s, during panics and depressions, soft money had an overt, populist constituency....The 1970s are trotted out to persuade those who disproportionately bear the burdens of an underperforming or debt-reliant economy that There Is No Alternative, nothing can be done, you wouldn’t want to a return to the 1970s, would you?

Quite right. Because the high inflation of the 70s really was painful for the middle class, the 70s do indeed serve a very useful purpose to elites who want to keep fear of inflation alive. But that begs the question: Why do they want to keep fear of inflation alive? The fact that elites have hated inflation forever isn't an answer. During the days of the gold standard, high inflation really did hurt the wealthy. But today's economy is vastly different from the hard-money + financial repression economy of the 70s and before. Inflation is much less threatening to the rich than it used to be. Why haven't they figured this out?

I'm not sure, but I do want to note that both Krugman and Waldman have at least partly misunderstood me. Although I do think that septaphobia is a real thing, I mainly think it's a real thing for the non-rich. It's primarily the middle class that fears a rerun of the 70s. That might have been a bit muddled in my initial post (which Krugman linked to), but I made this clearer in a subsequent post about the roots of inflation phobia:

So what's the deal? I'd guess that it's a few things. First, the sad truth is that virtually no one believes that high inflation helps economic growth when the economy is weak....Second, there's the legitimate fear of accelerating inflation once you let your foot off the brake....Third, there's the very sensible fear among the middle class that high inflation is just a sneaky way to erode real wages....Fourth, there's fear of the 70s, which apparently won't go away until everyone who was alive during the 70s is dead. Which is going to be a while.

Krugman responds to Waldman here, and even though Waldman says my argument is bass-ackwards, I actually think he and I mostly agree. Krugman may be right that higher inflation would help the rich right now, and that they'd support it if they were smart. But Waldman argues there's more to it. Basically, he thinks the rich are fundamentally conservative: inflation might help them on average, but there are still going to be plenty of losers whenever there's an engineered change to the economy. Since the rich, by definition, are already doing pretty well, why risk it?

I think that's probably right, though Waldman probably overstates its importance. Wealthy elites aren't that conservative, especially when it comes to making money. Still, it's almost certainly a significant factor. But I also think Krugman is right about false consciousness. In fact, that was #1 on my list above: the fact that virtually no one really, truly believes in Keynesian stimulus. (Waldman makes this point too.) If rich elites really did believe that a bit of high inflation would get the economy booming, I think they'd swallow their innate conservatism and support it. But they don't. Almost no one really believes it in their guts.

That's a failure of the economics profession, perhaps, but it's also a legacy of septaphobia. After all, if you take a look solely at the surface—and that's what most of us do, rich and poor alike—what's the lesson of the 70s? That's easy: Inflation got out of control and the economy went to hell. Then Paul Volcker reined in inflation, and the economy boomed. What's more, the rich have prospered mightily in the 30 years of low inflation since then. So why mess with a good thing?

So yes: It's septaphobia, both in a real sense and as a useful morality tale. It's false consciousness from wealthy elites who don't really believe that inflation will spur the economy. And it's the innate conservatism of the rich, who don't have much incentive to accept change when they're already doing pretty well. Add to that the fact that inflation phobia is an easy sell to voters because the middle class really does have reason to fear inflation, and you have everything you need to make it nearly impossible to convince people that a bit of higher inflation would be a good thing right now. And so we stagnate.

Putin Brags About How Fast He Could Take Ukraine

| Tue Sep. 2, 2014 10:58 AM EDT

Here's the latest from Russia:

Vladimir Putin has said Russian forces could conquer the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, in two weeks if he so ordered, the Kremlin has confirmed.

Moscow declined to deny that the president had spoken of taking Kiev in a phone conversation on Friday with José Manuel Barroso, the outgoing president of the European commission....Barroso asked Putin about the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. Nato says there are at least 1,000 Russian forces on the wrong side of the border. The Ukrainians put the figure at 1,600.

"The problem is not this, but that if I want I'll take Kiev in two weeks," Putin said, according to La Repubblica.

The Kremlin did not deny Putin had spoken of taking Kiev, but instead complained about the leak of the Barroso remarks.

Yes, the leak is the real problem here. Invading Ukraine is a mere piffle.

Friday Cat Blogging - 29 August 2014

| Fri Aug. 29, 2014 2:51 PM EDT

It's the return of quilt blogging! Sort of. In any case, there's a quilt in the background because that happens to be where Domino was posing this week. I think she's auditioning to be the model for a new pair of sculptures outside the New York Public Library.

Chart of the Day: When Women Fail, They Pay a Bigger Price Than Men

| Fri Aug. 29, 2014 2:19 PM EDT

The chart below is not part of a study that examines a statistically random set of data. It's quite informal, and probably suffers from some inherent sampling biases. Nonetheless, it's pretty astonishing:

Here's the background: Kieran Snyder asked men and women working in the tech industry to share their performance reviews with her. Virtually all of them were high performers who got generally strong reviews. But it wasn't all positive:

In the 177 reviews where people receive critical feedback, men and women receive different kinds. The critical feedback men receive is heavily geared towards suggestions for additional skills to develop....The women’s reviews include another, sharper element that is absent from the men’s:

“You can come across as abrasive sometimes. I know you don’t mean to, but you need to pay attention to your tone.”

[Etc.]

This kind of negative personality criticism—watch your tone! step back! stop being so judgmental!—shows up twice in the 83 critical reviews received by men. It shows up in 71 of the 94 critical reviews received by women.

This comes via Shane Ferro, who concludes that there's probably good reason for women to be more cautious than men in their professional lives. It's easy to tell women they shouldn't be afraid to fail. "But we as a society (men and women), need to stop judging women so harshly for their flaws. For them to be equally good, it has to be okay that they are equally bad sometimes."

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Has Vladimir Putin Painted Himself Into a Corner?

| Fri Aug. 29, 2014 1:14 PM EDT

Max Fisher writes today that Vladimir Putin probably never wanted to invade Ukraine. So why did he? It all started when he was elected to a third term as president amid continuing economic stagnation:

Putin expected another boisterously positive reception, but that's not what he happened. Instead, he got protests in major cities, opposition candidates, and, even according to the highly suspicious official tally, only 63 percent of the vote.

Putin panicked. He saw his legitimacy slipping and feared a popular revolt. So he changed strategies. Rather than basing his political legitimacy on economic growth, he would base it on reviving Russian nationalism: imperial nostalgia, anti-Western paranoia, and conservative Orthodox Christianity.

....Then the Ukraine crisis began....In March 2014, Putin indulged his own rhetoric about saving Ukraine's ethnic Russians — and seized an opportunity to reclaim a former Soviet strategic port — when he launched a stealth invasion of Crimea....This is when the crisis began to slip beyond Putin's control....The nationalistic rhetoric inside Russia was cranked up to a fever pitch. Putin's propaganda had built a parallel universe for Russians, in which the stakes in eastern Ukraine were dire not just for Russia but for the world....But the violence in eastern Ukraine was spinning out of control, with Ukrainian military forces looking like they were on the verge of overrunning the rebels.

In a rational world, Putin would have cut his losses and withdrawn support for the rebels. But, thanks to months of propagandistic state media, Russians do not live in a rational world. They live in a world where surrendering in eastern Ukraine would mean surrendering to American-backed Ukrainian Nazis, and they believe everything that Putin has told them about being the only person capable of defeating these forces of darkness. To withdraw would be to admit that it was all a lie and to sacrifice the nationalism that is now his only source of real legitimacy. So Putin did the only thing he could to do to keep up the fiction upon which his political survival hinges: he invaded Ukraine outright.

Is this basically correct? It's more or less the way I view events in Russia, so it appeals to me. But I don't know enough about Russia to have a lot of confidence that this is really the best explanation for Putin's actions.

It's also not clear—to me, anyway—that Putin is truly stuck in a situation he never wanted. I agree that this interpretation makes sense. Eastern Ukraine just flatly doesn't seem worth the price he would have to pay for it. But that's easy to say from seven thousand miles away. I wonder if this is really the way Putin sees things?

There Are No Lessons of History

| Fri Aug. 29, 2014 12:37 PM EDT

Adam Gopnik argues that knowing history won't really help you understand the lessons of history. There are just too many of them, and you can always cherry pick whichever lesson supports the thing you wanted to do in the first place. Rather, it should teach us humility:

The best argument for reading history is not that it will show us the right thing to do in one case or the other, but rather that it will show us why even doing the right thing rarely works out.

....The real sin that the absence of a historical sense encourages is presentism, in the sense of exaggerating our present problems out of all proportion to those that have previously existed. It lies in believing that things are much worse than they have ever been—and, thus, than they really are—or are uniquely threatening rather than familiarly difficult. Every episode becomes an epidemic, every image is turned into a permanent injury, and each crisis is a historical crisis in need of urgent aggressive handling—even if all experience shows that aggressive handling of such situations has in the past, quite often made things worse.

Unfortunately, I doubt that Gopnik is right. Outside of academia, I haven't noticed that a knowledge of history is correlated in any way with a calmer perspective on our current problems.

Take President Obama. He's a smart guy. He knows history, and he has an instinctively level-headed attitude toward life in the first place. What's more, he very famously won office partly on the strength of his skepticism toward military intervention and his opposition to "dumb wars."

So what happened after he took office? He almost immediately approved a surge in Afghanistan. Then another surge. That didn't work out especially well, and by 2011, when Libya was going up in flames, Obama was obviously reluctant to get involved. But he did anyway. And that turned into a complete clusterfuck. But even that wasn't quite enough. Two years later he almost got talked into intervening in Syria before turning aside at the last minute. And that brings us to the present day and the threat of ISIS.

As near as I can tell, Obama is now, finally, genuinely, skeptical about military intervention. That's why he's been so reluctant to approve wider air strikes against ISIS even though there's hardly a more deserving target of a bombing campaign anywhere in the world. He understands in his gut that it's not likely to work, and that it definitely won't work without an Iraqi government that can competently provide the ground troops to do the bulk of the fighting. Right now that doesn't exist, so Obama is refusing to be drawn into an unwinnable quagmire. He finally understands.

But this isn't because of his knowledge of history. It's because of Afghanistan. And Libya. And Syria. It took three consecutive slaps in the face to finally convince his gut of what his brain probably believed all along.

In the end, I think this is why I sympathize with Obama's foreign policy choices even though I've been at least moderately opposed to all his interventions. I'd like to think that I would have made different decisions if I'd been in his place, but the truth is I probably wouldn't have. The institutional and political pressures in favor of military action are just too strong. More than likely, I would have caved in too until I eventually learned better from bitter experience.

Is Gopnik's brand of historical fatalism any better than historical blindness? It's hard to say. But it probably doesn't matter. When it comes time to actually do things, we learn from experience, not the past.

BREAKING: Economy Continues to Stagnate

| Fri Aug. 29, 2014 10:32 AM EDT

If, despite my warnings, you allowed yesterday's upward GDP revision to kindle a tiny spark of excitement about the economy, today's news should bring you right back down to earth:

Household spending fell in July, a sign that cautious consumers could hold back economic growth in the second half of the year....Personal income, reflecting income from wages, investment, and government aid, rose 0.2% in July—the smallest monthly increase of the year....Meanwhile, the report showed a key measure of inflation—the personal consumption expenditures price index—rose 1.6% in July from a year earlier. That matched the prior month's annual gain, and is below the Federal Reserve's 2% long-run target for the 27th straight month.

Spending is down, which is no surprise since personal income is pretty much flat. This suggests that perhaps we could tolerate a wee bit higher inflation as a way of getting the economy moving, but of course we can't do that. Sure, inflation has been below its target for 27 months, but you never know. The 28th month might be different! And even the prospect of a single month of moderate inflation runs the risk of turning us into Zimbabwe.

So instead we just sit and stagnate.

Will Democrats Keep Control of the Senate This Year?

| Fri Aug. 29, 2014 12:09 AM EDT

Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium thinks that Democrats currently have a 72 percent chance of retaining control of the Senate this year. Most other forecasting outfits think Republicans have a 60-70 percent chance of winning control. Why the difference?

In most cases, added assumptions (i.e. special sauce) have led the media organizations to different win probabilities — which I currently believe are wrong....The major media organizations (NYT, WaPo, 538)...all use prior conditions like incumbency, candidate experience, funding, and the generic Congressional ballot to influence their win probabilities — and opinion polls.

....Longtime readers of PEC will not be surprised to know that I think the media organizations are making a mistake. It is nearly Labor Day. By now, we have tons of polling data. Even the stalest poll is a more direct measurement of opinion than an indirect fundamentals-based measure. I demonstrated this point in 2012, when I used polls only to forecast the Presidency and all close Senate races. That year I made no errors in Senate seats, including Montana (Jon Tester) and North Dakota (Heidi Heitkamp), which FiveThirtyEight got wrong.

I'd sure like to believe this. PEC is my go-to political polling site, after all. But it sure doesn't feel like Democrats are in the driver's seat right now, does it? All of my political instincts scream that Wang's forecast is wrong.

That's probably because I'm a pessimist by nature. But you either believe in poll aggregation or you don't. I do, and PEC has performed well in every election for the past decade. So just as I wouldn't "deskew" bad poll results I didn't like, I guess I won't try to second-guess good poll results that don't seem quite right. If Wang thinks Democrats are currently favored to keep control of the Senate, then so do I.