Saturday, March 27, 2004

Figures of Merit

It would certainly save time and bother if economics were really the physics of money instead of a branch of sociology that deals with how certain cultures organize their material life. In particular, people are very reluctant to give up the dream that wealth has an unambiguous standard—gold, food, labor, energy, or whatever—so that whatever policy maximizes that value would be economically best. In fact, at times successive theories of value have provided more or less adequate indices of prosperity, but only for particular purposes and specific groups. Bullion really was crucial in the Age of Mercantilism, at least for governments whose effective power depended on ready money and credit, just as labor power was critical in the Industrial Revolution. For that matter, one could make a case in 1850 that the wealthiest nations were those that produced the most pollution. Where there’s muck, there’s brass. But reeking rivers and lakes of coal tar are at best signs of economic activity. In themselves, they are anything but wealth. Similarly, though per capita energy use correlated with other measures of wealth in the 20th Century, no company every increased its profits by using more energy to produce the same output. Measures of wealth are like the figures of merit that engineers use to rate refrigerators or electric motors. They sometimes help the designer to improve a product, but if the better freezer has the worse figure of merit, you junk the figure of merit, not the freezer. With this characteristically elaborate preface, may I suggest that it’s about time we recognize that statistical measures such as the GDP, which apparently show growth, are actually masking the gradual impoverishment of the United States?

Thursday, March 25, 2004

So What’s the Matter with Vengeance?

It is said to be virtuous to eschew political bickering in the 9/11 debate. To very slightly paraphrase Aaron Brown, the ventriloquist dummy of Sweet Reason, let us stop assigning blame and try to be constructive. And so forth. May I suggest that nothing in the current situation would be half as constructive as an accurate identification of who is to blame?

As quite a few people have noticed lately—it isn’t just me—the on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand bit automatically rewards those shrewd and ruthless enough to break the rules with maximum cynicism. It can make sense to remind everybody that there are failings on both sides, but if and only if the failings of both sides are equivalent in scale and character. In the case of the run up to 9/11, they pretty clearly are not. The Clinton administration sweated bullets over Bin Laden and his crew. The Bush administration simply ignored the threat, botched the response, and then changed the subject. Berger, Albright, and Cohen obviously failed to destroy Al-Qaeda and can and should be second-guessed for tactical and strategic mistakes; but they didn’t lie to the public, reflexively pass the buck, relentlessly vilify their critics, and stonewall investigations as Rice, Powell, and Rumsfeld did and continue to do. And despite 10,000 Xeroxed op ed pieces, it wasn't Clinton who wagged the dog: it was Bush. He’s the one who used a national tragedy for selfish political gain, and he and his gang deserve to pay the penalty for their failures and duplicities.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Indirect Vindication

On being advised never to eat anything bigger than my head, I took immediate steps to have my head enlarged. The administration has often followed analogous strategies. When Paul O’Neill published unclassified documents that revealed the ignorance and sloth of the President, Mr. Bush’s aides immediately tightened the rules for classifying documents.
Affirmative Action

It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good. For example, the unwillingness of the administration to respond to criticism with any acknowledgement of error amounts to guaranteed job security for obviously incompetent public officials like Condi Rice. Removing her would be an inadmissible acknowledgement of failure or error so she stays on no matter how big a fool she makes of herself on the Sunday news shows. You can be forced out of the administration if you thwart some powerful insider. Crossing Rumsfeld cost Thomas White his job as Secretary of the Army—it sure wasn’t his significant role in the Enron scandal—but letting terrorists fly airplanes into large buildings is OK.

This Republican version of affirmative action is not intrinsically racial, but it is probably true that mediocre African-Americans have benefited from it disproportionately, correctly recognizing that their lack of talent will be overlooked in consideration of their political utility and dog-like loyalty. And negritude has other uses in this White House. For example, it allows Colin Powell to claim that his nose was brown before he took the job.
A Character Trait

Shortly after 9/11 it became clear that the administration had dropped the ball on anti-terrorism in the first months of its term. If you’ll recall, what seemed to be in the offing in the spring of that year was a confrontation with China; and that, rather than Ben Laden or the Israeli-Palestine problem, took up most of their energy and attention. This emphasis was an obvious error, but I wasn’t initially inclined to blame the Bush people too harshly. In foreign policy, administrations usually begin badly; and mistakes aren’t automatically criminal, even when they have terrible consequences. What already bothered me then, however, and strikes me as the most damning fact now is the utter refusal of anybody in the Bush administration to take any responsibility for what happened or to acknowledge any shortcomings whatsoever. In this respect, you have to admit they are consistent. This administration never, ever admits error about anything. I expect they have circulated a memo about it. It seems to be part of their premeditated general contempt for everyone else in the country and, indeed, the planet.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Unremarked Graves

After 9/11, a violent American reaction was inevitable. Mahatma Gandhi would have bombed Afghanistan. It was no more surprising that the enemies of the Taliban automatically became our friends, regardless of their own questionable behavior. We don’t criticize the dictators-for-life of Egypt or Pakistan either. In fact, we didn’t have anything but praise for the Taliban and Ben Laden when they were on our side in the Cold War. None of this bothers or at least surprises me since Real Politik makes for peculiar alliances, even discounting the ideology affinity, bordering on envy, that the current administration has consistently shown for authoritarian regimes. We should be clear headed about whom we’re supporting, however; and that’s yet another reason to bewail the absence of a free press in the United States.

The Northern Alliance did most of the fighting for us during the initial Afghanistan operation. In the process, they are now reported to have massacred something on the order of 3,000 prisoners and buried them in a mass grave. Story. Of course the story may turn out to be false or exaggerated. It may just as easily be understated. My point is that in the United States, it is simply unreported.
Doing the Time Warp Again

I moved to Connecticut just after the summer of love and experienced there for a second time and in the same sequence the fads, enthusiasms, and disappointments I had lived through in California. Like a golf tournament on television, the Cultural Revolution aired in New Haven with a tape delay. Two years later I spend a couple of days in Jonesboro, Arkansas where tie-die tee shirts were just appearing after an even longer lag. And for all I know, the Jefferson Airplane is finally touching down in Burkina-Faso even as I write this note.

News can’t travel faster the speed of light, but it can certainly travel slower. Most of human history has taken place in eras before the telegraph and radio allowed the events of war and diplomacy to take place more or less contemporaneously—the well-known instance of the Battle of New Orleans, fought weeks after the combatants had made peace, was no anomaly. But the time warp still applies to the spread of political facts among the general population, because such information travels through the retarding medium of the popular media and it’s transmission is slowed still more by the time it takes bemused, preoccupied, and poorly informed people to register it and pass it on—flatworms can learn a Y-maze in fewer reps than it takes the average American to notice that George Bush is a liar.

It sure isn’t September 1967, but deja vous has set in again for those of us who’ve been paying attention. It is quite startling to encounter media accounts that are just now taking notice of the extraordinary failures and deceptions of the Bush administration when the facts were in evidence years ago. It was often enough to read past the leads in newspaper articles or simply to apply commonsense to big, obvious facts. Richard Clarke’s “revelations,” for example, offer very little that wasn’t easily accessible in the public record back in 2001 and 2002. Similarly, the world press knew that the alarmist stories about the aluminum tubes, the mobile bioterror lab, and the Niger yellowcake were sheer propaganda the same week the administration put them out. I certainly did and I wasn’t trying that hard. And how can anybody possibly be surprised that the Bush policies are driving the deficit to historic levels? The man ran on an economic platform that asserted that 2 + 2 = 5. Although you don’t need to know how to calculate a hypergeometric distribution to detect the teensy error in that mathematics, the arduous journey from the premises to the conclusion is still under way for many Americans.