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Hide your kids, hide your wife, it’s Midterms!

By Taylor Marvin

Paul Krugman is deeply pessimistic about the prospect of a Republican victory Tuesday:

“This is going to be terrible. In fact, future historians will probably look back at the 2010 election as a catastrophe for America, one that condemned the nation to years of political chaos and economic weakness.

So if the elections go as expected next week, here’s my advice: Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

Will Wilkinson doesn’t agree with Krugman’s bleak view:

“I doubt it. I mean, will historians exist in the future? Won’t the unlucky survivors of the 2010 election be too busy sifting through the charred rubble of our wrecked civilisation to etch with sticks into the barren dust their harsh judgements of the past?”

I think Wilkinson is a bit closer to the mark. But considering that I’m a college student and it’s half way through Fall Quarter I think Wilkinson’s apocalyptic vision is more appropriate for the results of another type of midterm.

The Afghan Money Pit

US Soldier provides security during a patrol in Logar Province, Afghanistan. DoD photo by Sgt. Sean P. Casey, U.S. Army.

By Taylor Marvin

The US’s chief Afghan reconstruction auditor just released a new report chronicling massive US spending on Afghan governmental personnel (via Spencer Ackerman). In an effort to lessen low paid Afghan officials’ incentive for corruption the US has been quietly paying out huge amounts in unofficial benefits and gifts, often without bothering to keep track of where and how much was spent. Whether this anti-corruption effort- which is essentially massive discreet handouts to potentially untrustworthy public officials- is actually corruption itself isn’t a question the government seems to want to ask. The report’s conclusion:

“Since 2002, the Afghan government has depended on donor salary support to fill critical gaps in its capacity, yet donors may be forfeiting long-term capacity and fiscal sustainability for the short-term imperatives of standing up a functioning government in Afghanistan. Donor practices such as paying salaries that far exceed what the Afghan government can sustain and providing funding outside the government’s planning and budgeting processes have had a negative impact on the local labor market, the development of an effective Afghan civil service, and the long-term development of Afghan government capacity. Competition among donors for qualified Afghans further contributes to these negative effects… The weaknesses we identified in hiring, promoting, and paying Afghan recipients has put U.S. and other donors’ salary support funding at greater risk of waste, misuse, or corruption. Without conducting an assessment of these systems or coordinating with donors, the United States will not be able to ensure that the necessary internal controls are in place to safeguard U.S. funding for salary support in the future or that donors’ reforms will mitigate the negative effects of donor salary support.”

It’s important to remember what’s at stake here- if we win in Afghanistan at best we’ll get another Central Asian state with an unstable, undemocratic and authoritarian government that enjoys only nominal control over most of its territory and without any real prospect for economic growth or national unity. Of course, that’s much better than what Afghanistan once was. But this report underlines an unhappy fact- even if we do defy the odds and historical precedent and succeed in Afghanistan we’ll probably never know for sure how much we’ve spent on Afghan reconstruction, or how effective it’s been.

American vs. French Protesting

By Taylor Marvin

Lexington has a pretty low opinion of French protesters:

“It is not hard, if you really try, to find good things to say about America’s tea-partiers. They are not French, for a start. France’s new revolutionaries, those who have been raising Cain over Nicolas Sarkozy’s modest proposal to raise the age of retirement by two years, appear to believe that public money is printed in heaven and will rain down for ever like manna to pay for pensions, welfare, medical care and impenetrable avant-garde movies.”

The Future of the Royal Navy

British flagship carrier Ark Royal, slated for immediate decommissioning with no replacement until at least 2020. Photo by Ian Visits.

By Taylor Marvin

The UK continues to cut military spending in an effort to balance its massive budget shortfall. The Royal Navy’s getting the worst of it- the core of the British fleet will be reduced to non-carrier 19 surface ships, a cut that will definitively end the Britain’s status as an expeditionary naval power, probably forever. Whether you agree with the wisdom of these cuts or not it it’s obvious that they will have major implications for the balance of world naval power. War is Boring has a good older post on their significance.

“Under current plans, the Royal Navy circa 2020 will be a very strange force. There will be just six high-end warships to protect two 65,000-ton super-carriers, plus a mixed flotilla of old Type 23s and FSCs numbering just over a dozen. It’ll be a top-heavy force with too few destroyers to escort the carriers into a shooting war, and too few frigates to perform day-to-day patrolling during peacetime. It’s a fleet optimized for nothing.”

Friday’s Reading List

Stirling Falls, Milford Sound, New Zealand. Photograph by Greg O'Beirne, edited by Sting and JJ Ludemann.

By Taylor Marvin

The best links of the week:

Birth control and climate change (Scientific American).

Are we over-investing in college education? (The Chronicle of Higher Education).

The defense budget litmus test (Plain Blog).

The life of Julian Assange (The New York Times).

Mother Jones interviews Vieux Farka Touré, a Malian guitarist who’s one of the best musicians working today. Seriously, give him a listen (The Riff).

Healthcare and Constitutional Flexibility

By Taylor Marvin

Within the next few years it seems likely that the Supreme Court will hear a case challenging the constitutionality of the individual mandate portion of the Affordable Care Act. The actual legality of such a case are debatable- while the mandate is a departure from previous federal policy it isn’t unprecedented and the federal government’s argument that its constitutional right to regulate interstate commerce permits requiring individual citizens to purchase insurance seems convincing. But these legal challenges raise an interesting question: what will it mean for the United States if ACA is struck down?

Individual mandates are not a perfect policy- there are real problems with requiring citizens to purchase insurance or be provided with it be their employers, and conservatives are right to raise these concerns. However, it’s clear that some form of mandatory insurance scheme is necessary to the long term success of the Unites States. Healthcare costs are growing four time faster than wages, and is already one sixth of GDP. Simply put, this is not sustainable. Healthcare costs are the primary drive behind the growth of the national debt and if the federal government continues it’s current approach to healthcare policy the United States will economically fail. Some form of rationed government insurance program is probably necessary to preserve the long-term fiscal solvency of the United States. This is the grim inescapable fact of the healthcare debate- when critics of healthcare rationing say that it’s immoral to limit end of life care because it puts a price on human lives they’re not being honest. Caring for people and keeping them alive does have a real financial cost, costs that the government often ends up footing the bill for. If we reject healthcare rationing then we are basically writing a blank check that our society has no hope of ever making good on. This isn’t responsible or intellectually honest- pretending that healthcare doesn’t follow the normal rules of accounting fundamentally doesn’t make sense. Either we restrict the public obligation to healthcare or the debt will continue to rise, it’s that simple.

However, there is a way out. Every other developed nation spend much, much less than the US on healthcare and consistently see better overall results. While the design of these programs vary, most include some type of government run insurance program that formally limits costs. However, if the US Supreme Court eventually rules that ACA is unconstitutional it would cast grave doubts on whether America could ever move towards this type of system.

If this does happen it raises a problem. America needs to radically reform its healthcare system- this is a basic issue of our long-term fiscal survival. As long as some portion of the population doesn’t have health insurance, whether because they’re poor and can’t afford it or young and healthy enough to decide to take their chances, some of the uninsured will get sick or hurt and come into emergency rooms. As long as our society isn’t prepared to let the poor and uninsured die without treatment the government will have to subsidize this cost. However, if insurance mandates are ruled unconstitutional it would probably shut the door to this type of national health policy for decades. If conservative opponents of ACA aren’t able to quickly implement another, presumably constitution plan, to control healthcare costs the future of this country’s fiscal solvency is in real jeopardy.

If the United States is constitutionally prevented from moving toward the type of healthcare system the rest of the rich world has successfully adopted then we have a serious problem. While the Constitution is and should remain the final word regarding the general role of American government and the sanctity of individual rights it isn’t prepared to settle this type of debate. The Constitution was written in a time without any type of government heath obligation, without the complexities of modern medical care and without any notion of a public social safety net and we should interpret it as such. It’s worth acknowledging that while the constitution is probably one of the most important forces in shaping America’s stability and prosperity it does mandate a government structure that isn’t entirely optimal. The Senate gives massive legislative overrepresentation to a small portion of the population and disenfranchises urban, populous states and the electoral college is pretty unjustifiably undemocratic. Were the Constitution written today the compromises that gave birth to these features would probably have been left out- they’re a product of their time, not their utility. We should be honest in recognizing that there are parts of the constitution that make our nation profoundly uncompetitive in the modern world. Our inability to repeal wasteful government subsidies, to cut federal spending or even repeal any significant federal program are all a result of a constitution that wasn’t written to address these problems. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue- the Framers wisely designed an amendment process intended to allow the Constitution to stay relevant through changing times and a court system with the power to allow broad public opinion to determine its interpretation. But while the amendment process was designed to be slow and difficult and require deep public support for any Constitutional changes the modern partisan political climate probably makes any significant amendment impossible for the conceivable future- the last Constitutional amendment to attract any meaningful controversy was passed during the 1960’s. If the individual mandate is ruled unconstitutional it should be a wake up call: if our current interpretation of the Constitution forbids America from adopting a governing strategy the rest of the developed world has successfully used for decades maybe the policy isn’t the problem, our own attitudes are. Our governing philosophy isn’t perfect, nothing is. Recognizing that we should be open to ideas from the rest of the world is vital to our long-term competitiveness as a nation. If an unchanging interpretation of a static document doesn’t encourage this flexibility the Unites States may be in a lot more trouble than we recognize.

Quote for the Day

By Taylor Marvin

Will Wilkinson is a genius:

“The United States is “causing enormous trouble around the world” not due to some muddled idea of freedom, but due to a mixed-up conviction that America is special, the vanguard of providence, called forth unto the world with the righteous sword of liberation. If America is “almost a rogue state”, it is because our Pharisaic self-infatuation encourages us to see ourselves as a colossus of emancipation both able and obligated to stomp around the globe making it safe for democracy. It really isn’t because Americans insist on motoring to the Piggly Wiggly in petrol-guzzling Ram Ziggurats.”

Revisiting the Surge, cont.

By Taylor Marvin

Stephen Walt has more on drawing the wrong lessons from the surge:

“Petraeus & Co. are trying to pull off something similar here, and it may well be the best that can be made of a bad situation. But there is a subtle, long-term dangerin this sort of sleight-of-hand. If we tell ourselves we won and then get out, we will end up learning the wrong lessons from the whole experience. By portraying the Iraqi and Afghan “surges” as victories, we fool ourselves into thinking that this sort of war is something we are good at fighting, that the benefits of doing so are worth the costs, and that all it takes to win this sort of war is the right commander, the right weapons, and the right Field Manual. And if we indulge in this familiar form of historical amnesia, we’ll be more likely to make similar errors down the road.”

This doesn’t mean that counterinsurgency as a whole is unworkable, or that the entire Afghan project is automatically doomed to failure. But we need to remember just how hard this type of mission is, and how fighting long counterinsurgency campaigns at great cost in far off countries almost never works out to be in the net interests of the United States.

Revisiting the Surge

US Soldier training an Iraqi outside Basra. Photo courtesy US Army.

By Taylor Marvin

The conventional narrative that paints the surge as a strategic success for the United States argues that that increased stability in Iraqi society caused by the escalation of American troop levels coincided with both a Sunni rejection of religious extremist and foreign fighter ideology and fortuitous political sectarian reconciliation which encouraged Shia militias to stand down, which together allowed for a gradual reduction in overall violence levels and allowed for the formation of a stabilizing Iraqi society. It’s certainly true that American military casualties began to fall in the months after the surge. Similarly, by mid-2007 Iraqi civilian casualties fell to the lower, but still significant, levels we see today. However, this narrative is simplistic and overestimates the influence of American counterinsurgency strategy on the outcome in Iraq. Additionally, while many Americans view the war in Iraq as disproportionately costly compared to its relevance to US interests as American troop levels in Iraq wind down the war seems to generally be seen as a strategic, if largely insignificant, victory. This view ultimately risks drawing the wrong lessons from the surge and broader American counterinsurgency influence. Civilian deaths in Iraq did begin to fall in mid-2007, a development that coincided with the adoption of the counterinsurgency-centric surge strategy.

Source: Iraq Body Count

However, research into this fall in violence points away from the increase in secuirty forces as the root cause of the reductiuon in civilian deaths. Starting with the fall of Saddam’s regime in 2003 Iraq’s previously religiously mixed urban neighborhoods began to slowly segregate into sectarian blocks. While Iraq’s Shia and Sunni religoous factions has always suffered a violent co-exisence the imposed social order of the Baathist totalitarian regime did serve to damped ethnic conflict; with the removal of the social struvture religious violecen encouraged Iraqis to move to areas dominated by their co-ethnics. This process, which began in earnest as the Iraqi civil war intensified in 2006, was all but complete in Baghdad by 2007.

Ethnic distribution in Baghdad, 2003. Mixed neighborhoods shown in orange.

Ethnic distribution in Baghdad, 2006. Mixed neighborhoods in orange, Shia areas in green, Sunni in red.

Ethnic distribution in Baghdad, early 2007. Segregation increasing.

Ethnic distribution in Baghdad, late 2007. Segregation continues to increase.

2009. Ethnic segregation nearly complete.

Source: The Gulf/2000 Project

Previously violent ethnically mixed neighborhoods saw reductions in violence as they slowly homogenized- ethnic segregation reduced the contact between religious groups, which in turn reduced the opportunity for violent encounters. This segregation process made the surge almost irrelevant. While increasing the prevalence of security forces in ethnically conflicted areas can reduce violence levels to be effective the increase must be implemented early. By the surge’s inception in 2007 ethnic conflict in Iraq has escalated to the point that no number of government security forces would have likely presented a sufficient deterrent to security motivated ethnic militias.

Post-2007 Iraq’s fall in violence presents a challenge to the United States- while Iraq has become much more secure none of the original problems that motivated its civil war have been resolved. The Iraqi government continues its perpetual sectarian deadlock and offers little hope of improving its governing capacity and ability to offer public services. Iraq is still unstable enough to prevent the emergence of any real economic activity and rising standards of living, and the question of Iraqi Kurds’ integration into the rest of the country remains unresolved. While Baghdad’s ethnic segregation has curtailed violence it has also reduced the chances of any eventual national ethnic reconciliation and endangered the popular legitimacy of any mixed-ethnicity government. Today Iraq is an impoverished, unstable state that continues to suffer from pervasive ethnic violence and an ineffective, largely anti-American government heavily influenced by Iran with little prospect for real improvement- a end state few Americans would call a strategic victory for the US. Of course it may be naïve to belittle the current state of Iraq; after the disastrous first years of the occupation any Iraq not in a full-blown civil war is likely the best we were going to get at all.

The real risk of examining America’s experience in Iraq is drawing the wrong lessons from the surge. The surge was a textbook example of classic counterinsurgency strategy- its advocates stressed the COIN tactics of high troop levels, an emphasis on development and a “clear and hold” strategy, and increasing reliance on domestic security forces and institutions. However, Iraq’s fall in violence was more due to its own domestic ethnic segregation than any COIN strategy. This lesson applies to other conflicts. To be sure COIN is the only strategy with any real chance of succeeding in insurgency and ethnic warfare ridden conflict zones. But it is only that- a chance. COIN, if successfully implemented, only paves the way for the institution building, ethnic reconciliation, and economic growth ultimately necessary for any social security; developments almost wholly conditional on the domestic forces and chance outside of American control. This is the central fact at the heart of both poor-world economic development and conflict resolution: progress is ultimately dependent on the conditions of domestic actors with outsiders largely peripheral. The causes Iraq’s stagnation and violence are rooted in its geography and thousands of years of economic and historical forces- a fact Americans policymakers conveniently forgot when promising a liberation that would spark radical changes in Iraqi society.

The surge in Iraq was the the right strategy at the wrong time, not because it could have made things worse but because by 2007 there was almost nothing the United States could have done to decisively improve the situation in Iraq. If we look back on the surge we should see it as a sobering lesson in the limits of US influence rather than a testament to the success of COIN.

Don’t Raise the Retirement Age

By Taylor Marvin

The United States should raise the retirement age.

This is the closest thing to conventional wisdom in the American fiscal policy debate. Voices from both political philosophies have supported legislation that would gradually raise the minimum age to collect Social Security from the current sixty-six years old to seventy- future House Majority Leader John Boehner has supported the option, as have a variety of liberal media outlets and policy analysts. Supporters argue that raising the minimum retirement age is necessary to adjust for both the increasing life expectancies that lengthen the average retirement and the rapid aging of the American population that places growing pressure on the fiscal solvency of federal entitlement programs like Social Security. These are certainly valid points- in the 1930’s the average American life expectancy hovered around sixty. When passed Social Security was intended as a benefit program that only a lucky, long-lived, fraction of the population would ever collect from, and then only for a few years. Today, gains in life expectancy mean that the average retiree can expect to collect from Social Security for at least a decade, and often much longer. This has placed huge strain on the program as a whole, a pressure that’s compounded by the fact that the United States is rapidly aging. In the 1950’s retiree’s eligible to receive Social Security were a tiny fraction of the population:

Source: NationMaster

In the near future, thanks to longer lifespans and falling birthrates the situation is much different.

Source: NationMaster

Because today there are so many fewer workers paying into the Social Security system per retiree collecting from it than there once was funding the program today is much harder. Combined these demographic shift do make it much harder to justify the sixty-six year old minimum retirement age, and supporters of a rise are right to argue that raising the retirement age is a solution to this looming problem.

However, raising the minimum retirement age is a deceptively easy solution that isn’t the best that our society can do. The fiscal future of the Social Security program should be viewed as part of the wider whole of the federal budget, not as a discrete unit. While Social Security costs are rising, these increases are only a small part of increasing federal entitlement obligations:

Source: The Incidental Economist

The costs of federal healthcare programs will eventually dwarf those of Social Security and are a much greater threat to the future fiscal solvency of the United States. Moreover, every dollar that Social Security spends goes directly to seniors and enables then to improve their lives through increased consumption. Given the massive inefficiencies in American healthcare the same can’t be said for Medicare or Medicaid spending- an individual dollar spent in these programs is much less beneficial because so much of federal medical spending is lost to inefficiencies and waste rather than benefiting patients. Additionally, it’s medical programs, not Social Security, whose costs will skyrocket in the future. While some of these rapidly rising costs are due to the aging of Americans and can’t be avoided most is driven by excessive cost growth and can be limited through sound healthcare policy and cost controls:

If the federal government could limit medical entitlement, and to an extent defense, spending we wouldn’t have a long-term budget crisis. With these programs gradually made more efficient and cheaper there will be money in the federal budget for an unchanged Social Security program. Yes, because Social Security is funded separately from the rest of the federal government we would have to move a lot of revenue around but this isn’t a major issue- Congress could easily increase Social Security withholdings in exchange for lower federal taxes made possible by reined in spending. If we increase the minimum retirement age we’ve basically using cutting Social Security as an easy way out- cutting the senior benefits that do real good to subsidize the healthcare inefficiencies that only waste money.

Yes, with increasing life expectancies the length of the average retirement has risen dramatically- an argument that advocates of raising the minimum retirement age often offer to justify a longer working lifespan. But why should the retirement age even have to stay constant? We have made enormous social strides since the 1930’s- people live longer, more confortable lives than ever before. Shouldn’t more leisure time at the end of a citizen’s life be a good thing? What use is our social and technological progress if it only means that people just have to work longer? Many people don’t like their jobs- they shouldn’t be forced to work longer if it isn’t absolutely necessary. The mark of a successful society isn’t just output or wealth, it’s happiness and how easy it is for citizens to lead meaningful lives. For most of us, the activities and people that give our lives meaning are found outside of work, and increasing the time we have to devote to them can’t be bad. It’s easy to get lost in the formal definitions of success- if we want to build a society we can be proud of we can’t forget that there’s another measure of success besides wealth. A long retirement is part of it, and we shouldn’t give that up.