Archive | February, 2008

Policy Memoir Bleg

26 Feb

Noam Scheiber’s TNR piece about Obama’s policy shop has got me thinking about the policy affairs of the Clinton years. So I’ve compiled a short list of the personal and political memoirs that, I think, cover most of the major policy issues and key players in the Clinton White House. In the foreign policy arena, Madeline Albright’s Madame Secretary and Dennis Ross’s The Missing Peace cover the major conflicts and diplomatic endeavors (i.e. Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, Camp David). Robert Rubin’s In an Uncertain World and Robert Reich’s Locked in the Cabinet cover both sides of the economic and trade disputes from the Rubin/Summers and the Reich/Thurow wings of the Democratic party. The last two are a bit different: George Stephanopoulos’s All Too Human is the quintessential political memoir of the 1990s, and seemingly de rigeur for understanding how the White House went about crafting its messages and playing full-contact politics. Benjamin Barber’s The Truth of Power: Intellectual Affairs in the Clinton White House looks at Clinton’s relationship with ideas and academia.

I’ve chosen personal memoirs because they give the reader a view of both the policy issues and the behind-the-scenes management from an on-the-ground perspective. I’m less interested in a dispassionate wonkish monograph than an account of policy in action–and perhaps ideology in action (and I can find those pretty readily). But I feel like I’m missing some big issues; I don’t have anything on the 1993 health care reform (probably the biggest domestic policy failure) nor anything from a singular military perspective. Any suggestions for books to round out the list?

How Bad is the Situation? It’s “Scenarious.”

26 Feb

I’ve noticed two random mistakes in online advertising recently. The first is for Cass Sunstein’s new book (the corrected version is on the right):

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The other one is for The New Republic–the reflected image is a different issue:
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I’m available to proofread if anyone’s hiring…

Sometimes I Read Things Out Loud

22 Feb

yak.jpgTonight is one of those nights. I’ll be reading poetry alongside talented fiction writer Rebecca McGill and the wry and incisive non-fiction stylings of Mike Scalise. It starts at 8pm at George Mason University: third floor, Meeting Room E in the Johnson Center. So if you’re around (and for some reason you read this blog), you’re welcome to come. I promise to read poetry about comic book superheros, famous physicists, and the occasional economist. So you know what you’re getting yourself into.

Yes, it’s probably as bad as it sounds, but look at this way: free drinks to lull the higher brain functions asleep while you listen to bad verse and funny stories.

Kosovo and Cautionary Tales

22 Feb

As a fellow member of the humanitarian hawk club, I think Dylan Matthews (née Minipundit) is too hard on this Matt Yglesias piece on Kosovo’s independence and the rise of liberal hawkishness. Yglesias’s point isn’t that similar interventions would be unwarranted, or that the NATO campaign against Serbia was a mistake, but simply as a caution on the limits of even successful interventions:

But many hawks looked at Kosovo and saw not a boundary case for when the use of force might be legitimate, but a new baseline against which future interventions should be judged…In reality, Kosovo, though much less disastrous than Iraq, has, like Iraq, turned out to be more problematic than enthusiasts advertised and should, like Iraq, mostly inspire humility about what we can expect to achieve through force.

There are two good reasons for this note of caution, which also represent limits on the “substantive competence” which Dylan advocates :

1) Nation building is a legitimately costly and difficult enterprise that takes varying levels of cooperation and competency which the military doesn’t possess–at least not at the level of development needed. There are some positive signs that the military is waking up to these new challenges, but there’s also the problem of international coordination and who will supply the troops and pay the costs. Kosovo has been kept together in a part of the world close to EU and NATO allies where other countries have a greater stake–and thus, greater competency–and were willing to aid in the diplomatic and financial burdens. Other, more politically volatile (and less Western friendly) theaters (e.g., the Middles East, Africa) will be harder to manage from a resource and competence standpoint.  We lack a detailed enough understanding of the players on the ground, the local social structures, and often–as we saw in Iraq–don’t have enough people on hand who speak the language.

2) Kosovo represents an upper limit of political cooperation and military logistics, at least in the near term. Even a case like Rwanda, which is widely regarded as the example of morally necessary intervention par excellence (on which I agree), would have faced very real logistical constraints, constraints that need to be taken into account when weighing a possible intervention. Alan Kuperman’s The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention lays out the problems the U.S. military would have faced, problems that might have limited the number of Tutsi saved to 125,000; still a victory of moral significance, but also a sobering figure for those that support intervention.

I’ll defer to Jacob Levey’s assessment that Kosovo should be independent¹, while noting his caveat that “sometimes there may be a legitimate place for deference to the views of a local great power, even if those views themselves are illegitimate.”

¹ Which, I’m assuming, is a moral and political rationale based on his multiculturalism of fear.

DeLong Smackdown Watch? (Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Edition)

19 Feb

Not quite. Chris Betram–with his mighty clairvoyant powers–elicits predicts this anti-Castro response from Brad DeLong:

I haven’t looked yet, but I’ve no doubt that there’ll be lots of posts in the blogosphere saying “good riddance” to Fidel Castro (especially from “left” US bloggers like Brad DeLong who never miss the chance to distance themselves). And, of course, Castro ran a dictatorship that has, since 1959, committed its fair share of crimes, repressions, denials of democratic rights etc. Still, I’m reminded of A.J.P. Taylor writing somewhere or other (reference please, dear readers?) that what the capitalists and their lackeys really really hated about Soviet Russia was not its tyrannical nature but the fact that there was a whole chunk of the earth’s surface where they were no longer able to operate. Ditto Cuba, for a much smaller chunk. So let’s hear it for universal literacy and decent standards of health care.

Thus (from DeLong):

Fidel Castro has retired. Good riddance!!

That the Lenin-Trotsky-Stalin Authoritarian Project of which Fidel Castro was the next-to-last exemplar was not an advance toward but a retreat from a better world was obvious long, long ago. Quite early–Kronstadt?–it was clear to all save the dead-enders that the project was a mistake.

Why should I approve of laudable goals achieved (to whatever extent) by illiberal means? I’m going to take the Sen/Nussbaum approach here and ask: “To what extent did the Castro regime allow citizens to realize substantive freedoms?” Taking for granted the literacy and health-care standards, Cuban welfare is substandard. Cuba doesn’t allow for political dissent or free political association unless it’s part of “socialist” objectives as defined by the state. While citizens may live in relative good health with good average education, they are severely limited in their political and expressive (personal) lives. Essentially, Cubans have the good fortune to live a long time in an oppressive socialist bureaucracy and they’re educated enough to know how bad they have it. What sort of life is that?

The Classroom as IR Theory

19 Feb

I’ve been asked to think about who my students are for my pedagogy of teaching literature. Which of these crude IR theory/economic/comparative politics analogies about general education classrooms (at the college level) seems more apt:

  1. The neoclassical model: Students are all rational actors (but not perfectly rational) that maximize their utility, which is expressed via grades. They respond to incentives (such as quizzes) which will improve their grades, but won’t read as closely (or sometimes at all) if there is nothing at stake. Grades–and not the information or experiences imparted in the classroom–are the measure of utility.
  2. The Malamud-Goti experience: Students are the citizens of a post-authoritarian regime: in this case secondary (and likely public) education. They have been socialized to accept the teacher as the arbiter of What is Right and wait to be filled with knowledge. Given more freedom, they will default to rote learning–living an educational life of “oppression,” they will choose a “banking” approach to learning.
  3. The realist theory: The default condition of the classroom is anarchy. Students are self-interested and respond to grades rather than an ideology of educational enrichment. (You can substitute other IR theories here at will).

This isn’t only about college classrooms–it’s also about making tortured and entertaining connections between totally disparate disciplines. Comments welcome (including ones about classroom experience in general or high school pedagogy.)

Addendum: I freely admit these are cynical takes on the classroom experience, but that is part of the difficulty of a general education class; students with no real interest (at least not as part of their major) are asked to take classes that are unconnected to their discipline.  Of course, a college or university offers these classes as part of a “complete education” (however they conceive that) and many of the skills that make one a successful student in one area of study overlap with another.  But at bottom you’re teaching future engineers and MBAs how to read Robert Frost poem.

I Am Not as Easily Worried as Greg Mankiw

13 Feb

Greg Mankiw worries that Barack Obama may side with the populists of the Democratic party rather than the centrists, thanks to a statement like this:

It’s a game where trade deals like NAFTA ship jobs overseas and force parents to compete with their teenagers to work for minimum wage at Wal-Mart. That’s what happens when the American worker doesn’t have a voice at the negotiating table, when leaders change their positions on trade with the politics of the moment, and that’s why we need a President who will listen to Main Street – not just Wall Street; a President who will stand with workers not just when it’s easy, but when it’s hard.

The first part of this statement is populist bluster, so I can see why this raised Mankiw’s neoclassical hackles. The second part of the statement is the more important part because it explicitly states what the first part implies: “Some of you have been shut out (or feel left out) from economic prosperity but I will not forget you. You will have a voice in my administration.” That is as fine, if essentially bland and boilerplate political statement. And when we consider other signals, like his economic policy team, Obama is still safely in the centrist category.

So what’s with the NAFTA bashing? There are primaries in Texas and Ohio that Clinton is favored to win, with primary voters that respond to the populist message and whose demographic makeup work against him and for Clinton. Obama needs to join his primary momentum with appeals to Clinton’s likely supporters if he wants to lock up a victory. Thus, the political logic of populist rhetoric.

I think one of the biggest political issues an Obama administration will have to deal with is criticism from the left that he is insufficiently progressive or too economically conservative. What happened to the revolutionary leader who was going to sweep into Washington and eliminate corporate power and legislate away poverty? But he hasn’t promised those things and he isn’t the revolutionary leader some on the left are looking for (at least, not in the ways they want him to be).  For my part, Obama’s more centrist tendencies and wide appeal are why I’m a supporter.

Obama appears to be a canny pragmatist with strong political gifts, a man who can build coalitions through deft political maneuvering and while bringing the polity along with leadership and inspirational rhetoric. None of these things are negative; they are all part of politics, and this NAFTA comment seems a part of this.