Archive for March, 2011

The flip side of what Matt Yglesias is saying here, “Successful political transitions to democracy generally take place through exercises of non-violent “people power”‘ is that revolutions almost never end happily when the army won’t stand down. In virtually all the cases he cites – the American South, the Philippines, Chile, certainly East Germany – “people power” was only successful because the official military eventually refused to shoot nonviolent protesters when told to do so.  In the South, of course, the US Army was finally called on to protect key civil rights against the desire of the state National Guards. The People Power revolution of 1986 in Manila happened when key air force squadrons defected with little violence. And 1989 was mostly nonviolent in East Germany because the East German army refused to take on demonstrators. Chile is a weirder but similar case.

All this is to say that the ultimate driver of whether or not a revolution is bloody, and thus likely to end in some semblance of democracy, is outside the demonstrators’ control. The state determines this. When the army thinks it has little to gain from letting the protesters win, things are going to be nasty. I’m not sure exactly how I feel about this kind of political determinism because I’m uncomfortable with the idea that we should be writing off revolutionary movements as “not going to be democratic” the moment the army starts firing on them.

Mercenaries and Modern Revolutions

The factor that’s tipped me toward tepid support for this week’s UN intervention in Libya has been the Libyan government’s alleged use of mercenaries against civil opposition. While there are obviously huge questions of how the peace is to be managed afterward, importing mercenaries to crush revolts crosses a line that the international community cannot afford to tolerate. It’s an ultimate marker of lost political legitimacy that Qadhafi would feel the need to draft  outsiders to run internal security (in this case, some of the mercenaries appear to have not so much been “drafted” as tricked into getting on planes thinking they were working other jobs, then had guns thrust in their hands and were threatened with death if they didn’t shoot protesters).

For the world to allow this is to tolerate a norm not only against democracy, but against the very ideal of self-determination that defines the modern nation-state: the idea that dictators with zero internal support but lots of money are free to hold a country literally hostage for as long as they can keep paying outsiders to shoot their own people. Authoritarian states that nonetheless have some measure of popular support are one thing, and their internal troubles can reasonably go into the box of “civil conflicts” that we shouldn’t be meddling with. This is quite another, and the trend needs to be stopped in its tracks right now.

Junkets, PR, and Ethics

As a fan of both Joseph Stiglitz and obscure Indian Ocean island countries, I was excited to see Mark Thoma linking to a new post by Stiglitz titled “The Mauritius Miracle.” Sadly, the article is pretty thin on actual analysis and thick on fulsome praise for Mauritian policymakers. And Stiglitz’s random turn at the end toward advocating that Diego Garcia be returned to Mauritius is just bizarre in an article that’s ostensibly about Mauritian social policy, raising uncomfortable questions about his motivation in writing the piece.

Why would Joseph Stiglitz really care about the political status of the Chagos Archipelago, which includes Diego Garcia? (Also, how are we to reconcile the idea that everything is great in Mauritius with the apparent vital importance of reclaiming atolls that never held more than about 1000-2000 people? ) Well, it looks like about ten months ago the Mauritian government started cranking up its lobbying campaign on the Chagos issue. And Stiglitz mentions that he recently paid Mauritius a visit. Hmmm.

At a minimum I think someone needs to ask Stiglitz: who paid for your trip to Mauritius? If Stiglitz was visiting the country on his own dime, either as a tourist or for work, and happened to meet with Mauritian policymakers who influenced his opinions, that seems fair enough. But if he was on an all-expenses paid junket with the Mauritian government footing the bill in exchange for a blanket endorsement of their major policy aims, Stiglitz owes it to his readers to disclose that fact. I don’t know which of these is the case, but the way the article is structured – almost like a checklist of barely disguised talking points – is not encouraging.

The Worst Person in the World

For some stupid reason I was playing around yesterday with the radio app on my phone and decided to listen to Hugh Hewitt’s show on the local Christian radio station. (I had just come from the doctor’s office and he said I had low blood pressure, so maybe I was subconsciously trying to raise it.) During a commercial break the station played a wire story from the “Missionary News Network” that was almost beyond belief. But- and I do this all for you, dear readers- I managed to find it.

Ready? Neal Hicks of The Mission Society, you are the worst person in the world:

Neal Hicks has spent 30 years working in Japan with The Mission Society. His co-workers are okay, but two of them, Koz and Emiko Kinoshita, have lost loved ones. Emiko just returned from a visit to her family in Onagawa. “That town no longer exists. It’s totally gone. Emiko and Koz are just in shock and disbelief. Her immediate family and all her relatives — all gone.”

This story is being repeated all over the region. And the uncertainty of the nuclear issues has the entire nation on edge. Hick says many Japanese who have become so materialistic and almost agnostic are changing. “Their gods of money, self reliance and even technology have failed them miserably, and they are absolutely shaken to the core and don’t know which way to turn.”

Less than 1% of the Japanese population is evangelical Christian.

According to Hicks, there has not been anything like this since WWII that’s prompted the Japanese to turn from their ‘no-god’ god to the living God. “The Japanese are once again shaken. They’re asking eternal questions again. We have another window of opportunity, and there are missionaries in Japan who are prepared to communicate the Gospel.”

“I think it is probably one of the most opportune moments–at least in the last 50 to 60 years since the war–that we’ve ever had,” says Hicks.

Daylight savings conservative drunkblogging

It’s late and I’ve had too many gin and tonics.  This naturally calls for a post.

I was hazily thinking about Matt Yglesias’s recent post on conservatives and nuclear power and it occurs to me that today’s conservative movement is in some ways an engineering marvel – somehow, latter-day conservatives have amalgamated the very worst features of each of the three or four Republican 20th century icon presidents.

President 1 is Hoover, whose economic ideas have somehow come back into fashion.

President 2 is Reagan. The cult of personality and dogmaticism, the doubling down in the face of information that suggests you’re wrong, the relentless political segmentation and marketing rather than focusing on policy correctness – these strike me as a developments of the 1980s.

President 3 is Nixon. The dirty tricks and constant recourse to subterfuge come straight from him.

President 4, the one motivating this post, is, strangely enough, Eisenhower. Maybe I’m being unfair to Eisenhower and attributing a particular strain of old Republicanism to him personally, but when I think about the roots of conservative attitudes on science and technology, I think of a military/engineering intellectual superstructure that flourished in the 1950s and managed to triumph in a few select fiefdoms. NASA is one, with its blinkered insistence on doing things that are challenging from an engineering perspective without actually thinking about whether they make sense. And the nuclear power industry seems like another area where technocratic elites have swamped the political conversation and created a conservative cause celebre, even if there’s no obvious reason why conservatives should care about nuclear power. When we look at conservative nuke advocates in 2011, the only explanation that seems to make sense is that we’re dealing with a historical artifact that bred the strange grandchildren of Eisenhower and the RAND Corporation.

The sociology of tourist traps

Interesting piece in the Guardian about tourists who ask for restaurant recommendations, then blithely ignore them and have the expected miserable experiences at overpriced tourist traps. There are probably a bunch of phenomena that cause this effect:

  • Most people have undiscerning taste in food and they’re the ones who create the demand for tourist traps in the first place. A place like House of Nanking is San Francisco is one example of this; you’ll rarely see a Chinese person there, yet the experience is exotic enough to the average non-Chinese tourist (and some misguided non-Chinese locals) that the place has managed to hold onto a reputation in some circles as the best Chinese restaurant in town.
  • Travelers in foreign cities are often uncomfortable getting around, and this tends to bend their food choices toward the conservative. When you’ve been walking around all day, are hungry, and aren’t sure if you can find your way back to the Tube station from some dark back alley, that shiny well-lit storefront probably looks pretty appealing.
  • By their nature, tourist traps have huge marketing advantages. Unlike locals, tourists have a limited number of meals in a city and I think there are moderately strong social and psychological pressures to conform to a common “tourist experience.” Even if your host says “avoid this place,” if  everyone you know who’s been to London has been there, the perceived social benefit of giving the same old tourist trap a try is  going to outweigh the risk of coming off as snobby or weird if you come back and tell your friends about places they’ve never heard of.

Bankers on the Fed

Matt Yglesias actually understates the issue when he points out that George W. Bush’s rubber-stamped appointees to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors weren’t economists, so Republicans are huge hypocrites for opposing  Nobel laureate Peter Diamond for not being qualified. Bush appointee Kevin Warsh wasn’t just not an economist – he was an investment banker, and not a particularly senior one at that.

It’s too bad that nobody in the media or the public cares about who sits on the Fed Board of Governors, because if they did, an astute Democratic political hack would have a golden opportunity to pound the table all day about the GOP opposing a Nobel prizewinner in favor of an investment banking douchebag who undoubtedly got the job because of personal connections.