Political MoJo

Fighting the Brain Drain

| Tue Oct. 25, 2005 2:20 PM EDT

The New York Times has a very good piece today on the "brain drain" phenomenon among developing countries; wherein the most talented and educated workers in the Third World emigrate to the United States or Europe or other wealthy countries, thus leaving their home countries with very little in the way of human capital, and no way to exit the vicious cycle that caused people to leave in the first place:

Most experts agree that the exodus of skilled workers from poor countries is a symptom of deep economic, social and political problems in their homelands and can prove particularly crippling in much needed professions in health care and education.

Jagdish Bhagwati, an economist at Columbia University who migrated from India in the late 1960's, said immigrants were often voting with their feet when they departed from countries that were badly run and economically dysfunctional. They get their government's attention by the act of leaving….

But some scholars are asking whether the brain drain may also fuel a vicious downward cycle of underdevelopment - and cost poor countries the feisty people with the spark and the ability to resist corruption and incompetent governance.Remittances back home from expatriate workers make up some of the difference—and these payments are usually spent more effectively than foreign aid—but not enough. Interestingly, the "powerhouses" of the developing world—China, India, Indonesia, Brazil—don't suffer from brain drain, with less than 5 percent of their skilled citizens living in OECD countries.

Some suggest that OECD countries should restrict skilled immigration. One response would be that in some sense we already do; strict licensing requirements here in the United States already put up staggeringly high informal tariffs on the importation of doctors, lawyers, economists, and other professionals. Quick example: Several years ago the federal government paid New York hospitals $400 million to train fewer doctors out of concern for "oversupply"; blue-collar protectionists never had it so good. These barriers, by the way, dwarf our rather small tariffs on goods that "free traders" tend to worry so much about. But that's only part of it. On the other hand, the United States, Britain, Canada, and Australia really do actively seek out many other sorts of skilled workers from abroad, especially in more technical fields, and this seems to hurts developing countries the most.

So what to do? Only a handful of countries have been successful in luring their emigrés back home. Bhagwati has suggested that developing countries should tax their expatriates. Creating networks among entrepreneurs might offer one solution—I know of at least one example in Latin America where the government sets up links between researchers abroad and workers at home to share knowledge. Set up something like Craigslist for really smart expatriates. Ultimately, the best thing to do would be to figure out how to get the poorest countries in the world to start growing—just as China, India, Indonesia, and Brazil have done—but the first person who figures out a fail-proof way to do that will get a very nice prize indeed.

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Cheney Goes For the Loophole

| Tue Oct. 25, 2005 12:46 PM EDT

As reported previously, the White House is now actively trying to put loopholes into the McCain amendment that would try to prevent detainee abuse and regulate interrogation tactics, by exempting the CIA from all regulations:

Stepping up a confrontation with the Senate over the handling of detainees, the White House is insisting that the Central Intelligence Agency be exempted from a proposed ban on abusive treatment of suspected Qaeda militants and other terrorists.
Frankly, passing no amendment at all would be better than passing an amendment that had this loophole—which would then give the congressional seal of approval to abuse and torture by CIA agents. Read this ACLU report to see a list of detainees that have been killed in U.S. custody. In what follows, "OGA" (Other Government Agency) refers to the CIA:
A 27-year-old Iraqi male died while being interrogated by Navy Seals on April 5, 2004, in Mosul, Iraq. During his confinement he was hooded, flex-cuffed, sleep deprived and subjected to hot and cold environmental conditions, including the use of cold water on his body and hood. The exact cause of death was "undetermined" although the autopsy stated that hypothermia may have contributed to his death. Notes say he "struggled/ interrogated/ died sleeping."

An Iraqi detainee (also described as a white male) died on January 9, 2004, in Al Asad, Iraq, while being interrogated by "OGA." He was standing, shackled to the top of a door frame with a gag in his mouth at the time he died. The cause of death was asphyxia and blunt force injuries. Notes summarizing the autopsies record the circumstances of death as "Q by OGA, gagged in standing restraint."

A detainee was smothered to death during an interrogation by Military Intelligence on November 26, 2003, in Al Qaim, Iraq. A previously released autopsy report, that appears to be of General Mowhoush, lists "asphyxia due to smothering and chest compression" as the cause of death and cites bruises from the impact with a blunt object. New documents specifically record the circumstances of death as "Q by MI, died during interrogation."

A detainee at Abu Ghraib Prison, captured by Navy Seal Team number seven, died on November 4, 2003, during an interrogation by Navy Seals and "OGA" A previously released autopsy report, that appears to be of Manadel Al Jamadi, shows that the cause of his death was "blunt force injury complicated by compromised respiration." New documents specifically record the circumstances of death as "Q by OGA and NSWT died during interrogation."Maybe this is what Dick Cheney meant when he told John McCain that the president needs "maximum flexibility" for dealing with suspected terrorists. No doubt those detainees all gave quality information after being killed.

Fed Chairman Fun

| Mon Oct. 24, 2005 9:17 PM EDT

This isn't really the place to come for Federal Reserve commentary, but maybe I can provide a few knee-jerk lefty complaints about the new Fed chief, Ben Bernanke. All the center-left blogs like him, and indeed, he's better than Andy Card, but this looks like more of the same. He's a fan of "formal inflation targeting," eh? As best I can tell from his 1999 spat with James Galbraith, Bernanke doesn't take this to mean that the Fed should sacrifice everything else under the sun—including employment growth—at the altar of Always Low Prices, but Gerald Epstein argues here that that's what inflation targeting tends to mean in practice. That inflation-obsessed monetary theorists in the U.S. wrongly insisted that the rate of unemployment could never go below 6.5 percent during the 1980s, letting wages stagnate and poverty rise, makes Scooter Libby's high crimes and misdemeanors look rather flimsy in comparison.

Moreover, Epstein argues, moderate rates of inflation, up to about 20 percent, "have no predictable negative consequences on the real economy," so perhaps the Fed obsession is misguided after all. As far as I can tell, no one seems to know for sure whether or not inflation would hurt the poor, but that's probably not to question to ask, instead let's debate: what sort of monetary policy would be better for the least well-off, and the rest of us? Or rather: Why not have the Fed stop fretting about inflation—within limits—and instead focus on promoting full employment, investment, and GDP growth? Good question. The answer is to follow the money:

One likely explanation is that a focus on fighting inflation and keeping it low and stable is in the interest of the rentier groups in these counties. Epstein and Power (2003) present new calculations of rentier incomes in the OECD countries supporting the view that in many countries, higher real interest rates and lower inflation increase the rentier shares of income.
Ah, rentiers. The argument against Epstein, I take it, is that theoretically a central banker just can't use inflation to boost employment because people aren't dumb, they'll soon catch on to what the bank's doing and plan accordingly, nothing will change when inflation strikes, and soon we're on the path towards stagflation. Hence the virtues of a hawk like Greenspan—or Bernanke. In reply, the dying herd of old Keynesians might say eh, this isn't really a concern, since the real inflationary dangers come not from full employment, which is usually a good thing, but from stagnant growth, since during a slowdown monopolistic enterprises will start raising prices to recoup their fixed costs. Certainly Big Pharma and Big Insurance have been doing just that recently, so score one for the dying herd.

I'm not even fractionally smart enough to know who's right in all of this, so I'll just leave it at that and admit that my bias is towards Epstein. His suggestion for "real targeting" makes sense on the surface, although for the Fed to be truly democratic, the whole institution itself will probably have to be rejiggered so that ordinary citizens get actual input into central bank decision-making. That obviously won't happen in my lifetime, but surely the least we can do is be bitter about it, no?

The Plot Against Syria?

| Mon Oct. 24, 2005 4:51 PM EDT

To follow up on Melanie's post below, Josh Landis notes that senior Bush administration officials already seem to be preparing for various degrees of regime change in Syria. Among other things, Stephen Hadley has reportedly discussed possible successors to President Assad with Italian sources. By all accounts, this is a bit crazy. As Mark Levine noted at HNN, the Assad clique has been running Syria—and by extension, Lebanon—like the Mafia for years, and no one would cry to see them go. On the other hand, après lui, le deluge and all that; Syrian's liberal democrats are an underdeveloped force, to say the least, and a clumsy ouster of Assad's regime, provided he's not quickly replaced by a somewhat more Western-friendly thug, could throw the country into factional infighting and chaos. The question here isn't whether the world would be better off without Assad's family in charge of Syria—of course it would—but whether getting rid of him would actually be a smart idea, and more importantly, how the Syria hawks actually plan on doing it.

It's also worth noting, though, that with the release of the Mehlis report, there's much, much more to this story than U.S.-Syria relations—the pressure against Syria isn't just a plot hatched by lunatic neoconservatives, and the Bush administration may choose Libya-style multilateral pressure on Syria rather than violent regime change. Indeed, the administration, John Bolton especially, has been surprisingly careful to let the UN take the lead in this whole Lebanon investigation. Now the UN is presumably going to demand a trial over the Hariri killing—as noted below, even France has stuck to its guns here—and presumably Assad isn't about to fork over his brother and brother-in-law, the latter of whom is perhaps the second-most powerful Syrian in the government, to the Hague. It's hard to see the Security Council putting up with that sort of slap in the face. Much of the important pressure, then, will likely come from the international community rather than the White House alone.

In the Washington Post on Saturday, Anthony Shadid outlined one likely Syrian strategy: "[O]ffering enough gestures to fend off international pressure but making no concessions that might imperil a government that already feels besieged." Or, as Shadid reported the following day, Syria "has promised to cooperate, within limits." Indeed, Syria's taken this route to good effect before, but it's not clear that it will work this time, even if Europe is wary of destabilizing Syria. And the latter might well come to pass sooner rather than later. David Ignatius last week suggested one possible outcome to all this: "If Assad's grip weakens and he can't or won't clean house in Damascus, the season of coup and counter-coup will begin for real."

US Jumps at Syria Implication

Mon Oct. 24, 2005 4:34 PM EDT

Today is United Nations Day, marking the organization's 60th anniversary. As New York and UN offices around the world celebrate and commemorate with parades and fairs, a potential storm is brewing amid US interests in the Middle East.

The stir is caused by the release of the Mehlis Report, a 54-page document that provides the findings of the UN investigation into the car bombing that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in February. The latest controversy concerns Mehlis' implication of high-ranking Syrian officials with involvement in the assassination plot, along with a subsequent call by the U.S. for international sanctions against Syria.

Although Syrian President Bashar al-Assad denies any involvement in the bomb and the UN investigation has thus far not produced any proof that he had knowledge of a conspiracy, the report does name Assad's brother-in-law, General Rustum Ghazali, the former Syrian intelligence chief in Beirut, as a co-conspirator.

In recent months, the Bush Administration has had particular trouble with what it sees as Assad's refusal to assist counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq by stemming the flow of foreign fighters into the country. Der Spiegel describes the American contention "that Syria has assumed a role similar to that of Cambodia in the Vietnam War: It has become the staging ground for a shadow and proxy war" as incentive for the US to gain control of the Syrian front of the Iraq war.

The UN Summit in September resolved to consider the Secretary-General's proposal for a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy in the coming year. But while the General Assembly pushes for consensus on a definition of terrorism, the UN Security Council is again being called to take immediate action with its stronger-armed tools. The State Department hopes the UN will hold a ministerial-level meeting on October 31st to decide what Security Council measures will be taken against Syria. Notably, France is also interested in getting tough on Syria. Tomorrow, the Security Council will discuss the Mehlis report tomorrow in New York.

Endless Cycle

| Mon Oct. 24, 2005 2:25 PM EDT

Over at the New Republic's now-defunct &c. blog, Spencer Ackerman observes that the U.S. is now even further away from training the new security force in Iraq than it used to be. The problem is that, while the training itself is going decently, the semi-independent Iraqi government now needs even more troops—325,000 rather than its previous estimate of 275,000—to counter an insurgency that continues to grow. (And in all likelihood there's still room for the insurgency to expand even further; see John Robb's figures.)

Although there's got to be an upper limit here, it's not too implausible to expect an endless spiral of this sort over the next few years: the U.S. can't get the new Iraqi army fully trained because the requirements keep moving upwards, which means that American troops stay for longer, helping to swell the insurgency even further, and meanwhile the predominantly Shiite-and-Kurdish army have just enough presence to antagonize Sunni Iraqis but not enough presence to maintain law and order and defeat the insurgency, so the requirements for the new Iraqi security forces go up yet again. One would hope this doesn't actually happen but it certainly seems to be the trend so far.

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Body Counts

| Mon Oct. 24, 2005 2:12 PM EDT

The Washington Post reports today that an old Vietnam-era practice is making a comeback in Iraq:

Eager to demonstrate success in Iraq, the U.S. military has abandoned its previous refusal to publicize enemy body counts and now cites such numbers periodically to show the impact of some counterinsurgency operations.

The revival of body counts, a practice discredited during the Vietnam War, has apparently come without formal guidance from the Pentagon's leadership. Now we've known that the military has been using body counts as a metric of success in Iraq since Newsweek's Christopher Dickey reported it back in May of this year. But all trends seem to suggest that this is now the formal answer to Donald Rumsfeld's concern, in a memo he wrote in October 2003:

Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror. Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?
Just count the corpses, maybe. William Arkin recently reported that the Pentagon is planning to unveil new "metrics software" that will try to break these questions down into raw numbers and "calculate" success. Better than having no metrics at all, one would imagine, but Arkin sees shades of Vietnam: "Commanders and analysts will be pushed to produce the right numbers to show 'progress.' Units will be mandated to 'report' measurable data lest progress is not being properly shown." Or, as Conrad Crane, director of the military history institute at the U.S. Army War College, put it somewhat more pithily, "[T]he numbers got so wrapped up with career aspirations that they were sometimes falsified."

But that's sort of the least of the concerns here. The evidence is also good that worshipping at the altar of body counts actually increased the number of civilian atrocities in Vietnam, as suggested in the Toledo Blade's 2003 investigation of the elite "Tiger Force" platoon, which ended up going insane and killing everything that moved:

After arriving, the battalion - including Tiger Force - moved to the Song Ve Valley, a remote, fertile basin in the center of the province. The goal of the military was to stop the 5,000 inhabitants from growing rice - food that could feed the enemy. But with deep ties to the land, many villagers refused to leave. That's when Tiger Force members joined other battalion soldiers in what became a grisly routine: Shooting villagers who stayed in their hamlets.

Mr. Stout said commanders were counting the executed civilians as enemy soldiers to help boost "body count." In Vietnam, the measure of success was the number of enemy soldiers killed - not the taking of land, say military historians. Mr. Stout said in July he spotted a sign posted in a command center in the valley with a tally of the dead enemy soldiers: 600. But the numbers of weapons seized totaled only 11. "Most of the dead people were civilians."
There's no reason to think that soldiers in Iraq are currently shooting up civilians to foster the illusion of success, but frankly, this isn't the sort of possibility you really want to flirt with. The Pentagon from all appearances still doesn't keep track of Iraqi civilian casualties in the country, and it isn't exactly meticulous in sorting out who was actually killed in this or that latest bombing raid.

Bush campaign paid large fees to Harriet Miers' law firm

| Fri Oct. 21, 2005 11:37 PM EDT

George W. Bush's gubernatorial campaigns paid $163,000 to the Texas law firm of Locke, Purnell, Rain and Harrell during 1998 and 1999. At the time, U.S. Supreme Court justice nominee Harriet Miers worked for Locke, Purnell, which later merged with another firm to create Locke, Liddell & Sapp. The White House, citing attorney-client privilege, refuses to release details about the legal work done for Bush.

In 1998, two payments of $70,000 each were made within a month of each other. Legal fees for Bush's 2000 presidential campaign amounted to $365,000, and the total for his 2004 campaign was $191,000. A White House spokeswoman called the 1998 Locke, Purnell work "routine campaign work," but did not provide any details.

The $163,000 legal fee is considered extremely high for a gubertorial election campaign, and there is concern that some of Miers' work was directly related to the disposition of Bush's military records.

Conquering the CIA

| Fri Oct. 21, 2005 2:03 PM EDT

David Ignatius reports on the state of intelligence reform over the past year. His verdict: It's going "only partly right." Bureaucracy is multiplying everywhere you look, the new CIA director, Porter Goss, has brought in his political allies and driven out highly-skilled career top officers, and the new Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte, despite showing good management skills, seems inclined at times to politicize the intelligence process. Not a good sign.

I guess the alternative, more Bush-friendly way to spin this would be that Goss is finally cleaning up a dysfunctional agency that has constantly been at war with the president. The problem with that view, is that, at least over the last four years, as wrong as the CIA has been, they've always been much less wrong than the White House and its hawkish allies in the Pentagon (on Iraq in particular), and those skirmishes were at least partly warranted. Since the days of Team B conservatives have always loathed the agency for producing what they saw as too-watery threat analyses—never mind if they were correct in the end—and the early signs seem to be that Goss is continuing that trend.That's not quite the same thing as "cleaning up" a dysfunctional agency.

Anti-Torture Amendment Wavering

| Fri Oct. 21, 2005 1:37 PM EDT

A new human rights report will be released soon, revealing a whole barrel full of bad apples: "More than 100 detainees have died in U.S. custody since 2002, Human Rights First research in a soon to be released report indicates, including 27 cases the Army has to date identified as suspected or confirmed homicides, and at least seven cases in which detainees were tortured to death. The findings come as chairmen and ranking members of a House/Senate Conference Committee are scheduled to meet next week to determine whether to include in a defense appropriations bill an amendment setting clear rules for U.S. interrogation policy to prohibit abusive treatment."

Meanwhile, with regards to the above-mentioned McCain amendment, which sets guidelines for interrogations, Marty Lederman recently pointed out that politicians opposed to any and all restrictions on torture—including Dick Cheney and his congressional allies—will soon try to water down the bill by exempting the CIA from its provisions. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) has already tried to steer the bill in this direction, and we can expect more along those lines. As it stands now, the McCain amendment is couched in fairly general language, and wouldn't prevent all detainee abuse—the Pentagon could always reword its Army manual to get around many of the restrictions—but the changes and exemptions Stevens wants would essentially give an explicit green light to the CIA's interrogation tactics, and would for the first time put the congressional seal of approval on the administration's views on torture.