Growing up, sort of

The general reaction to the Eliot Spitzer “scandal” strikes me as an interesting stop along a fairly recent road toward a (sort of) more mature public treatment of sex. It wasn’t that long ago (say, a century or so) that nearly all of the public would have laid the blame for the whole scandal solely at the feet of the prostitute. Only recently has the “scarlet letter” mentality shifted to force men to bear the weight of their transgressions. Some parts of the world still stone prostitutes and adulteresses.

So, it seems encouraging to me that virtually no one has been trying to lay blame at the feet of the prostitute in this case or claiming that, somehow, Spitzer was somehow powerless to resist her feminine wiles. In fact, it seems that she has become something of a hero, with lots of people buying her music.

It seems like a good sign that the U.S. is starting to grow up a little bit, sticking a toe out from under the smothering history of Puritanical idiocy that has shaped so much of the region’s politics for centuries.

Of course, a nation that really had a mature attitude toward sex (and loves the free market as much as the U.S. claims to) wouldn’t be so bent out of shape about prostitution in the first place, so we still have a long ways to go.

Now I care. Slightly.

Care-O-MeterNow that samaBlog has provided a primer to most of the candidates, I am upgrading my Care-O-Meter for the 2008 U.S. Presidential race from “nonexistent” to “slight”.

I now care a little bit about the election. I didn’t yesterday. I didn’t last week. And I sure has hell didn’t care two years ago when all this election coverage started. There is no purpose to debates 18 months before the election, damn it!

States, your disgusting race to have the first primary does nothing but make me hate you and your vanity. Stop it.

XM, there is no need for an entire freaking channel covering this election, particularly this far away from the actual election. Stop it.

CNN, there is a reason that a Google search for “election coverage” brings up the page for your 2004 coverage long before showing a link to your 2008 coverage.

There is a reason that the Economist’s current “Week in Politics” only mentions the US election as its second to last item, and even then with a note that the process “got under way” this week.

There is a reason these elections only happen every four years. I look forward to when this one is over, so that the next one can start a day after the inauguration.

I’ll alter the bait

Seeing samaBlog tackle an office pool of 2008 predictions from the New York Times, I thought I’d do the same. The only thing is, I think many of the choices suck. So I’m going to answer free-form. Also, I’ll not repeat the questions or choices, so you’ll need to follow along in one of the links above:

  1. The SEC does not allow me to answer this question.
  2. No Country for Old Men
  3. Portions of either the DCMA or the Patriot Act are un-Constitutional. Preferably both.
  4. Tree of Smoke.
  5. The World Without Us.
  6. …services offering media without access control financially crush those that require DRM, and find that “old media” sales (CDs, DVDs) for such “open” titles actually increase as well.
  7. …the 50 trillion dollar shortfall that will fiscally destroy America pretty soon will continue to be unmentioned.
  8. Pervez Musharraf.
  9. Cuba.
  10. …hell freezes over.
  11. …whichever of them happens last. I might even care by then.
  12. …slightly higher than it is now. Also, October and November will be bloody, as the insurgency attempts to influence the U.S. Presidential election.
  13. …roughly equivalent to shuffling deck chairs on the Titantic, as it will be something other than the only one that actually matters (see answer #7).
  14. …something very loud but, ultimately, not important that skews the results of one or more party’s nominations. In the actual election, the standard advantages of height, hair and the “beer factor” will turn out to not play a role.
  15. Hillary Clinton-Robert “Bob” Kerrey
  16. …almost certainly a pair for whom I will not vote.
  17. “Anyone but Bush”. This theme will likely be just as disastrous as the soccer-mom “I just think it’s time for a change” theme that brought Bush to power was. Alternately, the winning theme may be the real lesson learned in the 2000 election: “I can rig election results better than you”.
  18. …something other than the only thing that actually matters (see answer #7).
  19. …the consequences of a 50 trillion dollar shortfall that no one has done anything to fix.

Merry economic war

You don’t have to look very far to find dire warnings about Chinese goods these days. For several months, the focus has been on toys with lead paint in them. Before that, however, there were beads containing GHB, toothpaste containing diethylene glycol, and poisonous petfood. If you think back to this same time last year, I don’t remember any such thing being so prevalently in the news, even though it is difficult to imagine that these goods went from being perfectly safe to the deadly poisons the news harps about in twelve months. It’s possible that these stories have reached the mass consciousness organically, feeding on each other to dominate mind space. Maybe they are sort of a fad, where the U.S. media (ever hungry for stories to scare the crap out of you) finds they consistently sell better when China is trying to kill everyone. Yet, when you think about the fairly rapid rise of these stories, the broad range of their repetition, and the staying power they seem to have, I wonder if there isn’t something a bit more to it. I’m wondering if it’s an American attack in an economic war between China and the United States.

Honestly, I hope it is. It should be. In the first place, there is some reason to believe that China has been conducting large scale industrial espionage against the U.S. for some time. More troubling, China has been accumulating a vast reserve of U.S. dollars for years. The quantity of this horde seems far in excess of Chinas needs, and opens the possibility of China using this reserve to intentionally manipulate American economic policy for its own benefit, largely through a kind of economic blackmail. In August, coincidentally close to when the poison goods stories kicked into high gear, a number of Chinese officials began hinting they they would do exactly that if negotiations didn’t go their way. As early as 2002, China was also the second largest holder of U.S. bonds, which likewise frightened people, although some called China a scapegoat (Communism was just a Red herring).

This year saw another new development as well. Long content to let others come to it, China began seriously reaching out into the world. They recently bought a large chunk of Morgan Stanley, have a large and growing influence in Africa, and will be hosting the Olympic Games in less than a year. A few months ago, an author being interviewed on NPR (I can’t remember who, sorry) made the observation that, when you look at most of written history, the economic dominance of China has been the “natural state of the world”, with recent centuries being the fluke.

In October, both Japan and China started selling U.S. bonds for the first time. This is troubling because it can have cascading effects, since, in economics, perception of reality often causes a belief in that reality, which can easily cause that reality to occur. Laurence Kotlikoff, in his book The Coming Generational Storm, warns that the logical conclusion of present US economic policy is an inevitable collapse which, most likely, will be forced on us by just such an event, where the collective market suddenly stops believing in U.S. creditworthiness.

So, many punches come at America, but few were going the other direction, at least until the “China is trying to kill us” furor began. As a weapon, I’m not sure how effective it is, though. There have been some costly recalls, but these tend to hurt American companies as well (just ask Mattel). Other than an object lesson to companies to (unrealisticly) seek other partners, that doesn’t seem to do much good. As propaganda designed to rouse “don’t buy China” sentiment, catered to mess with Christmas sales as much as possible, it succeeds a bit better, but to what end? As a negotiation ploy? If that’s the plan, it doesn’t seem to be working.

Talks with China recently failed to accomplish much. According to that story, chief negotiator Henry Paulson thinks that:

The biggest issue we have with China right now is economic nationalism, the problem of its domestic industries welcoming competition. In China, what you find is that you’ve got an increasingly powerful domestic industry that is a strong lobby.

Trying to penetrate the Chinese market is an extremely old tale. So far, there seems to be little the U.S. can do to accomplish it. Here’s hoping we’re actually trying.

Update: not surprising.

Roosting chickens

Call me cynical, or maybe godless, but I’ve never really bought into the idea that suicide bombers are in it entirely for the 72 virgins, mercy from sins and eternal life in heaven. Though anathema to me, maybe that really does matter to some of them. I suspect that what matters much more, however, is the large quantities of cash that are promised to their families.

The average life expectancy in, say, Pakistan, is 62 years. If you take out, say, 15 years of that average life where working is nearly impossible (either to old or to young), you get an estimated 47 “working years”. Multiply this by the average yearly income ($690) and you get a loose estimate of lifetime earnings for the average person in Pakistan of $32,430. Given that 32.6% of Pakistanis (~54 million) live below the poverty line and 17% (~28 million) live below $1/day, quite a large number of Pakistanis will make significantly less than $32k over their life. To such people, $25k would be a lot of money, much more than they will ever see. Even to those with average incomes, it’s quite a lot of money. (Figure out how much you might make over you life, and decide what you’d be willing to do if someone offered you 75% of that amount at once.)

I don’t know if bombers are really responding to that financial incentive, but it is fairly powerful. I suspect it is at least a factor in their “vocational choice”, and probably an important one. If this is true, it suggests a method of prevention: make it clear that those who take such money don’t live very long.

By “make it clear”, I don’t mean that politicians should issue sternly worded warnings. I’m talking about assassination, with signs pinned to the body saying “profited from suicide bombing” written in English, Punjabi and Arabic in their own blood, and tapes sent to CNN and Aljazeera. Preferably, in large numbers all at once. If there really are secret satellites that can vaporize human targets from space, fire them up. Perfect targets. At the very least, send special ops to steal the money.

This probably wouldn’t stop all the bombing, but I bet it would help. It doesn’t score high on the morality meter, but it’s much more moral than killing civilians at random or with collateral damage. If you have a better plan, I’d love to hear it.

Corruption sting

So, an international standards body recently held a vote as to whether a proposed standard from Microsoft should be “fast tracked” into acceptance, skipping the usual procedure for the standards the body regulates. The vote was “no”, as many still have gripes about Microsoft’s proposal. This is getting more coverage than it deserves, because Microsoft has evidently been manipulating the process. In an interesting study, a Finish group reports a high correlation between countries who voted “yes” in this vote with high levels of corruption in their governments.

I don’t particularly care about any of this, but the Finish study suggests an interesting idea: could you reverse the direction of the study to detect corruption? Could you, in essence, set up a “sting”, where anyone rational would say “no”, but someone who was bribed would say “yes”?

…but in their eyes

Samablog’s recent mention of two articles with differing perspectives on the comparison between Vietnam and Iraq finds me returning to thoughts of a different comparison, one made before the war really started. To me, the biggest mistake made in Iraq appears to be the incorrect belief that that the Iraqis would be as active and willing in rebuilding their country as the Germans and Japanese were after World War II. They clearly haven’t been.

Up to now, I’ve gone along with the reasoning that this was because Iraq really wasn’t a nation to begin with, but rather an artificial imposition of Winston Churchill. While this seems reasonable, the articles Rob mentioned mixed in my head with a conversation I had with my wife’s uncle (a German citizen) about what life in the Fatherland was like after the war and with an article claiming (among other things) that suicide bombing is really about sex. The result suggests another key difference between post-WWII and Iraq: Immediately following the war, a large percentage of the young male population in Germany and Japan had been killed, so were not around to either help or hinder the rebuilding.

It’s hard to say what would have happened in those two countries had the young male population been around during that time. Certainly most of them would have been unemployed. You can imagine that this would have led to all sorts of things, such as increased crime, the rise of “gangs” or worse, and so on. Hitler, for example, was originally elected on promises of ending unemployment.

Iraq, however, and the Middle East in general, hasn’t recently suffered a World War to decimate its young males. While it’s tricky finding nuanced demographic information on Iraq, what figures there are point to more males than females, with a median age for males of 19.6 years. It’s likely that those in the insurgency now are the exact gender and age that would have been killed in something like World War II. Although a 1999 study by the U.S. Government on what makes a terrorist concluded that “there does not appear to be a single terrorist personality”, it mentions that 80% of terrorists world wide were male, and nearly all of them were under 30 years old. It claims that most suicide bombers “were bachelors aged 18 to 25” and that “Arab and Iranian groups tend to use boys aged 14 to 15 for dangerous missions, in part because they are less likely to question instructions”. This report is to old to contain information from 9/11 and recent events in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it seems clear that young men are a significant portion of the insurgency.

All of this, combined with the sectarian violence Iraqi’s seem intent on pursuing in place of rebuilding their country suggests a strategy for the US in Iraq. It is quite brutal, and probably unworkable, but I think you’ll find it has a better chance of success than any other concrete strategy you’ve seen voiced recently (any easy task, since there haven’t been any). It requires abandoning all pretense that the U.S. cares at all for Iraqi civilians, but with over half a million of them being dead already, I’m not sure this pretense is really believed by anyone anyway.

The strategy goes like this:

  1. Withdraw all U.S. forces in Iraq into Afghanistan suddenly and without warning. Destroy any bases or airfields that would make the country harder to reconquer later.
  2. Watch as the various factions in Iraq start to kill each other in increasingly creative ways.
  3. Allow any arms dealers under CIA control to go nuts selling weapons that armies would use to fight each other, like tanks and artillery. The idea would be to encourage battles between semi-military forces, rather than soliders vs. civilians.
  4. At some point, the factions will probably stop fighting each other in favor of ethnically cleansing areas under control, as this is safer than getting killed by an opposing army. When this happens, send in black ops missions to frame the other side, with the intent to refocus the factions on killing each other instead of civilians.
  5. When one side gains the upper hand (probably the Shia, since they will be getting backing from Iran) send in some cruise missiles and air strikes to even the odds, claiming that we’re striking “terrorist camps” or something similar. No one will believe us, but fortunately that will no longer matter (a fringe benefit of Bush’s “middle finger” style of diplomacy is that we no longer even need to pretend).
  6. Fighting will probably lead to fracturing of Iraq into three or more ethnically aligned “nations”. When this happens, recognize all of their governments, then sell them all weapons. Also, repeat step 4, with the idea of getting the whole region to fight until it is under the control of a single “government”.
  7. While all this is going on, finish the mission in Afghanistan somehow.
  8. Once the region known as Iraq is under a single group’s control, re-invade.

At this point, we’re back to where we started, with three important differences. The first is that it will probably be twenty years later, with a splendid excuse to fund the miliary-industrial complex for the duration. More importantly, however, all the young men in Iraq (and probably from a lot of neighboring nations) will be dead, and the local population will have a fresh taste of what happens when you don’t take a hand in making your own civilization better.

What could possibly go wrong? Well, OK, lots. In a mine field of wild cards, two stand out. First is that should an independent Kurdistan get formed in the process, Turkey would probably invade it, which would make things much scarier. Still, it would probably be possible to leverage their desire to join the EU and sacrifice some Iraqi territory to contain this. The second wild card is the third important difference mentioned above: more countries, probably including Iran, would now have nukes. This would be scary, but I still think may make the situation more manageable if handled well, not less.

On the other hand, Iran will probably invade as soon as we leave anyway, making much of the strategy moot.