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Quote for the Day

By Taylor Marvin

“I finally figured out what bothers me so much about Wikileaks, and it is precisely what bothers me about the DOD: a sense, on both sides… … Of hypocritical entitlement, combined with arrogance and a blithe disregard for consequences. Wikileaks is the Left’s Pentagon.”

Joshua Foust, via Matt Yglesias

Friday’s Reading List

Gustave Moreau, Salomé.

By Taylor Marvin

The best links of the week:

The roots of Mexican economic stagnation (restricted access) (Gordon Hanson, via Free Exchange).

Disease and poverty (Superbug).

The future of Britain’s military (Shadow Government).

An improbable fish (Blue Marble).

The limits of spheres of influence (Eunomia).

American Environmental Legislation — Why the Long Drought?

By Taylor Marvin

Image by Alfred Palmer, via Wikimedia.

Image by Alfred Palmer, via Wikimedia.

Here’s a sample list of major American environmental legislation:

  • Clean Air Act: passed 1963, significantly amended 1990 (Air quality).
  • Federal Water Pollution Control Act: 1972 (Water quality).
  • Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act: significantly revised to current form 1972 (Pesticide control).
  • Endangered Species Act: 1973 (Species and habitat protection).
  • Toxic Substances Control Act: 1976 (Hazardous chemical pollution control).
  • Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability (Superfund) Act: 1980 (Polluted site compensation and restoration).
  • Montreal Protocol: 1989 (Ozone-destroying CFC regulation).

One thing stands out — all of America’s major environmental legislation happened over two decades ago, with most older than a quarter century. Why has America failed to continue to address environmental problems over the last 30 years, and why were the 1970’s such a fertile time for environmental protection policy? Suggestions:

  • Poor economic performance over the last 20 years: It’s well established that progressive causes tend to find less acceptance among voters during periods of stagnating incomes, the pattern of growth the US has seen since the mid 1960’s. After World War Two, American’s average income quickly climbed. However, by the 1970’s this ascent had slowed, with incomes growing at their slowest rate since the Great Depression. Together these changes in the American economic landscape were responsible for a large but mostly unobserved change in American culture — the end of rapidly rising incomes increased average American’s economic uncertainty, endangered jobs, and was accompanied by the global economic realignment that slowly eroded the availability of well-paying, unskilled industrial jobs. While Americans in the 1950’s could confidently say that they and their children would more likely than not earn and consume more in the future by the mid-1970’s this was no longer certain, a hard reality told by both economic forecasts and a slowly impoverishing middle class. This generational shift, of course, had political ramifications: it’s likely that the slow decline in the success of progressive government initiatives in the US compared to the rest of the world is as due to stagnating incomes and rising inequality as America’s distinct political culture. While European and East Asian nations have traditionally placed greater popular ideological value on government than the US, it’s probably true that these countries’ record of adopting liberal governing strategies, including regulation designed to protect the environment, reflects both their socioeconomic circumstances as well as their political philosophy. This is visible on a smaller scale in the US — periods of public pressure to restrict the scope of government authority to enact a liberal social order seem to be closely correlated with periods of stagnating incomes. This holds for environmental legislation. Most areas of environmental policy are fairly trivial for most Americans; people, probably with good reason, only pay attention to environmental causes when they don’t have much else to worry about. During periods of rising inequality and stagnating wages it’s both easier to ignore environmental problems and find the argument that environmental legislation retards economic growth and isn’t worth the cost more credible.
  • Regulatory capture: The specter of regulatory capture, the co-opting of government regulatory agencies by the industries they are designed to regulate, wasn’t able to effectively threaten the landmark environmental legislation of the 1970’s and 1980’s because at that time environmental regulation wasn’t a meaningful part of the government at all. For corporations to be able to capture government regulatory agencies they must exist is some kind of organized form — when the Clean Air Act was passed all the legislation’s opponents had available to influence was Congress, instead of permanent dedicated environmental agencies. Today the wide variety of government environmental regulatory agencies created to combat pollution almost all suffer form some degree of control by the industries they nominally police. Some of this is deliberate: many administrations on both sides of the political aisle, especially that of George W. Bush, have made a concerted effort to staff regulatory agencies with administrators straight out of the industries they now supervise. However, some degree of regulatory capture is inevitable in any government. By setting up permanent, organized environmental regulatory agencies the federal government has actually made their capture more likely: it’s both cheaper and more effective to buy influence in a dedicated body than Congress, which is too diverse and chaotic to effectively capture as a whole. This pervasive regulatory capture plays a role in why it is so much harder to pass environmental legislation today than in the days when these agencies didn’t exist — by creating regulatory bodies vulnerable to capture with actual influence the federal government inadvertently erected a formidable barrier to modern environmental legislation.
  • An increase in political partisanship: In the last thirty years American federal politics have become increasingly partisan. Though the reasons for this polarization are debated its effect on the success of environmental legislation is clear: in their rush to assign every possible policy position to a specific party American politicians have made environmentalism a clearly Democratic position. This guarantees the death of environmental legislation. If no Republican Congressman can vote for environmental regulation without alienating both his or her party and supporters any new environmental legislation won’t pass in the absence of a Democratic supermajority in the Senate. This is what we’re seeing today — it’s acknowledged as a given that a climate bill won’t pass the Senate without sixty Democratic votes, which is another way of saying almost never. As long as environmentalism is reserved for Democrats and America suffers from a crippling political partisanship environmental legislation will have a very hard time actually getting anywhere.
  • Only contentious issues are left: While the environmental legislation of the 1970’s and 1980’s were an impressive achievement, they all were fairly limited in scope. These landmark bills addressed specific problems with short term, highly visible costs and whose remedies weren’t very expensive. The Clean Air Act attracted support because it targeted a very specific issue that voters could see themselves suffering from. In contrast today’s greatest environmental challenges like climate change, habitat loss and mass extinctions are much less visible — it’s much harder to convince voters that climate change’s future abstract threat is as dangerous as the pollution they can see in their own town. Voters, for good reason, prefer to identify with issues easily seen and understood. That’s why explaining why the extinction of obscure species is an urgent issue that needs immediate government attention is so hard. Furthermore, modern environmental issues demand much more complex legislative solutions. Unlike the simple regulations of past environmental bills, a comprehensive government response to climate change will require either complex new cap-and-trade regulatory administration or an unpopular tax on essential consumer goods, all of which would be useless without the delicate diplomacy required to ensure an international effort to cut carbon emissions. Other modern environmental problems demand the same complex responses. It’s easy to see why it’s so much harder to pass modern environmental legislation: all the easy problems have already been solved.

Cognitive Biases and Counterinsurgency

By Taylor Marvin

Kevin Drum recently started a series of blog posts that looks at some of the under-appreciated cognitive biases that influence our thinking. Drum makes an obvious but popularly neglected point — because these types of cognitive biases are an inherent part of our collective mental structure they influence all of our decisions, including political ones. This has important implications. We’ll often find ourselves drawn to specific political preferences that aren’t strictly rations for reasons that could be just as driven by our basic cognitive failings as the merits of the policy itself.

This influence of these cognitive biases extends to counterinsurgency theory as well, particularly what’s termed the sunk cost fallacy, a theory that basically states that once invested in an uncertain outcome we tend to dramatically overestimate the bet’s chances of success. A classic experiment illustrates this fallacy nicely: when gamblers had already bet money on a particular horse they tended to believe their chosen horse had a much higher chance of winning a race than a gambler about to place a bet on the same horse. None of the two gamblers had any different information to influence their risk assessment, but since the those who had already betted were already committed to a particular investment they revised their risk appraisal to justify their decision. Of course this isn’t rational: betting on a particular horse does absolutely nothing to improve its chances of winning. But despite its irrationality the sunk cost fallacy seems to be an inherent part of our mental structure, and universally affects our decision making processes. The sunk cost fallacy is related to another human cognitive bias, loss aversion — our tendency to strongly try to avoid any losses even if it means forgoing possible gains. Most people would prefer to forgo a gain of say, 10 dollars, if it came at a cost of 5 dollars that they already possessed. Again, this isn’t rational but seems to be a universal part of our thinking.

Both these cognitive biases have a deep effect on counterinsurgency and the rationality of war in general. One of the most common popular arguments against withdrawing from Afghanistan is how much we’ve already invested in the conflict. If we admit defeat now, the argument goes, all the lives and money we’re already spent there will be in vain. This argument is familiar — it’s the same one that was heard forty years ago to justify continued involvement in Vietnam. It’s also very powerful. The United States has invested a huge amount of money, time, and lives into Afghanistan. If we leave now, these resources would have been wasted. But despite it’s emotional appeal, this argument doesn’t make a lot of sense. The fact that we have already invested in a conflict doesn’t do anything to change our actual chances of success and doesn’t justify further investment. The gambler analogy is helpful — it would be absurd to encourage a gambler to continue to play at a slot machine just because he had already lost money there. But when it comes to political discussions this this logic is common, because it seems the root of this argument is hardwired into our brains.

Of course there is occasionally real justification for this type of argument. If past costly investments into a conflict have significantly increased a player’s chances of a successful outcome they can justify continued investment. This is particularly true in a conventional war. If your past losses, though painful, have chanced the balance of a conflict by destroying irreplaceable enemy resources than it can make sense to continue to invest in your military bet. But in counterinsurgency this is less certain. A counterinsurgency campaign will only succeed when the counterinsurgent force is able to construct the stable social and economic network that disenfranchises militants, allowing for their political marginalization and eventual defeat. This is an extremely complex task that is largely out of the counterinsurgent force’s hands. If America’s past investment in Afghanistan has significantly contributed to raising our probability of establishing this eventual social stability than it can justify further investment. But in Afghanistan this is unclear — no one knows if the resources we’ve already sunk into our Afghan experiment have done anything to significantly improve our already meager chances of success. At this point in the conflict security and the legitimacy of the central Afghan government seem to be decreasing, not getting better. It’s wrong to assume that just because we’ve sunk so much into this conflict we need to continue it — the justification for war should rest on our chances of success and our benefits and costs of winning or loosing. What we’ve already invested in Afghanistan will make any eventual withdrawal nor painful, but does nothing to increase our chances of success.

Withdrawing from Afghanistan will have real costs: the fall of the central government and a return to Taliban rule, an enormous loss of US prestige and credibility, and most importantly the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Afghans. We need to be hones about this: if we fail in Afghanistan the people who helped us and had the courage to try to better their country will die, and we bear the same responsibility for these deaths as if we murdered them. If we leave Afghanistan millions of women will return to lives of ignorance, oppression and slavery. These costs are real, they are horrible and we should recognize them. But they don’t change the fundamental calculus of the conflict. If our chances of winning this war don’t justify further investment in the risky, expensive gamble of rebuilding Afghanistan it’s a bet we shouldn’t continue to lose on. The tragedy of Vietnam was how Americans leaders with a responsibility to make rational decisions refused to recognize this universal calculus of war. Politicians sending young Americans off to suffer and die in a war they privately acknowledge to probably be unwinnable is a crime we can’t repeat. This is all that should influence our decisions in Afghanistan. Recognizing the cognitive biases that prejudice our decision making is a step towards an honest conversation, one that we need to have.

No Easy Answers

By Taylor Marvin

Liberal blogger Kevin Drum is happy that the Republican party seems to be swinging more and more towards an extreme and inconsistent ideology in the hopes that the eventual electoral defeat of Tea Party candidates will led to a moderation of the American conservative movement:

“The die has been well and truly cast here for some time: the GOP is irrevocably committed to the undiluted Fox/Limbaugh/Drudge party line, and there’s no going back. They’re either going to stand or fall on that. So I say: let ’em do it. No excuses, no scapegoats.Finish up the Texification of the Republican Party and see how it goes. Only then is there any hope of a return to common sense.”

Drum is wrong because this isn’t how politics works — Republicans aren’t stupid, and the modern conservative movement is gravitating towards more immoderate candidates and antagonistic rhetoric not in some suicidal rush towards political irrelevancy but because their message sells. Politics is a market, and both political parties provide the ideological narrative that their constituents demand at any moment in history. During the terror and foreign-policy obsessed early-2000’s the message that played best with conservatives was one of America’s righteous anger and just hegemony, which was why the ascendant Republican party chose it as the mainstay of their popular political narrative. Today the situation is different — America’s failing wars, diminishing dominance in the world, and most of all a truly awful economic depression have created a new demand for a new message among conservative voters. The conservative movement — a loose conglomerate of party elites, rising charismatic politicians, and the media outlets and commentators that do more than any to drive public opinion — answer this demand by adapting to a new narrative. Political parties don’t set national moods but are slaves to them. The central tenants of the Tea Party message — the wildly inconsistent demand for a balanced budget without tax hikes or any meaningful cuts in government services or entitlement spending, retained belief in a neoconservative fantasy world where American foreign interventions are both easy and always just, and a seemingly desperate rejection of any changes in America’s demographics or culture — are actually a very reasonable reaction to America’s political and economic climate. People make political decisions, like any choice, based on their perceived interests and biases. 9/11 and the Great Recession, combined with accelerating demographic and cultural changes within the United States, are probably the greatest shock American society as a whole has experienced since the 1960’s, and a vocal resurgence of economic populism and nativist sentiment makes sense in America’s current social context. And this harsh characterization of the Tea Party message isn’t misplaced: demanding a balanced budget and lower taxes while holding defense and entitlement spending sacred is nothing if not naked populism, and the furor over the Manhattan mosque project is nativism and xenophobia of the worst kind.

Drum is partly right: in the long-run, a shift towards ideologically extreme candidates will probably hurt the Republican party. Sure, some Tea Party candidates will win seats in Congress in 2010 and successfully influence American public policy. But in the long run the reemergence of an impossible populist strain within the Republican party won’t help. Sarah Palin or Newt Gingrich both have a very good chance of winning the Republican Presidential nomination in 2012; however, their obvious lack of policy credentials and extreme view will almost certainly lead to their electoral defeat. If Tea Party candidates do win influential positions, it won’t be long before their policies reveal themselves as absurdly ill-defined and inconsistent — it’s easy to call for reducing government spending while refusing to specify any meaningful programs to be cut when you’re out of power. Populism and angry words are popular and can be inspiring but they aren’t the basis of a government. Tea Party candidates don’t endorse specific policy programs because they can’t: political rhetoric is only emotional when it’s vague and emotional appeal is all candidates like Rand Paul or Christine O’Donnell really have. While embracing Tea Party rhetoric is a reasonable Republican response to a Democratic administration, economic uncertainty and falling-income driven popular anger it will never be a sustainable political winning strategy.

Drum’s mistake is to underestimate the harm that our vapid, populist politics are doing the all Americans, including his fellow liberals. America needs a vocal and intellectually honest conservative movement, something no Tea Party candidate can provide. Conservative positions, like any ideology, are valuable in society only if their advocates have the courage to honestly define them. Claiming the government should have let GM and Chrysler fail rather than allow for government intervention into private business is a perfectly valid policy position, but only if its advocates are willing to claim that the benefits of government inaction outweigh the risk of hundreds of thousands of lost jobs. The dominant voices in today’s Republican party have none of this honesty, and America is weaker for it. The US loses when conservatives accept nativism and the public rejection of American Muslims, when the mainstream Republican party has abandoned real economics in favor of a fantasy land where budgets can balance without expenditures equalling income, when scientific knowledge and dedicated study becomes a mark of suspicion rather than competence, and when an entire section of the American political spectrum bases their rhetoric on fear and rumor rather than reality. Drum is wrong to celebrate the ascendency of the Tea Party because the harm it does America as a whole outweighs any eventual electoral gains it might win for the Democrats. When suspicion and an irrational crawl towards populism and easy answers is the state of American politics we all lose. Narratives change, but reality doesn’t. When the two head in different directions nothing will ever be solved.

Cutting Defense Spending, cont.

By Taylor Marvin



Another insightful post by Daniel Larison on why, despite the current national debt obsession, the least useful large portion of the federal budget is off limits for everyone with any actual influence in government, Democrat or Republican:

“That makes things sound rather grim, and perhaps they are. The constituencies that strongly support reductions in military spending are progressives, libertarians and deficit hawks, which also happen to be three constituencies with the least influence in their respective parties when it comes to national security policies. Obama’s military budgets are huge because there are no significant political obstacles to making them that way and there are no political incentives to make them smaller. A first, small step in changing the way we talk about military spending involves referring to military spending as just that. If military spending is ever going to be reduced, most Americans will need to acknowledge that the vast majority of military spending has a tenuous or non-existent relationship to the defense of the United States. At the very least, critics of that spending should avoid casually referring to it as defense spending, when that is not the purpose of most of these expenditures.”

This is completely true. The vast majority of the military budget has absolutely no bearing on the security and safety of the United States. And unlike the entitlement programs that, together with military spending, dominate the federal budget our defense spending doesn’t really buy us anything. America is no safer for our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and spending half of the planet’s military budget is far, far beyond what is necessary to provide a reasonable deterrence to our potential enemies. Entitlement spending, while rapidly becoming unaffordable, does real good- it improves the lives of our seniors and America’s poor in a way that has an enormous positive impact on society. I’m not sure you can say the same for what we spend on war.

Know Your Enemy

By Taylor Marvin

Another ugly campaign ad.

What’s really interesting about this spot is the assertion that Iman Rauf believes “America was partially responsible for 9/11.” Obviously, the writers of this ad believe this view to be damning evidence of his terrorist sympathies. This mindset isn’t really contested in American culture: most citizens really do believe not only that the US’s foreign policy had no influence on al-Qaeda’s but that questioning this common knowledge is the equivalent to sympathizing with terrorists. This view is both intellectually cowardly and harmful to America- while Osama bin Laden is a completely evil man with no justification for his crimes attempting to understand and ultimately defeat radical Islamic terrorism without seeking to appreciate why his message has gained so many followers in the Arab world is foolhardy.

Al-Qaeda’s message is at its heart a contradictory mix of rejection of modern values and populism. However, the popular narrative of anti-Western sentiment and Muslim nationalism that al-Qaeda’s extreme ideology grew from is both rational and understandable: many impoverished Muslims around the world have real reasons to hold a grudge against the West. Imagine yourself a young man in, say, Egypt. You’re probably unemployed, with little prospect for any education or a meaningful career. Because you don’t work you spend a lot of your time bored and isolated. There’s no prospect of political change in your country because the United States supports your autocratic president- he’s been in power for nearly thirty years and will soon pass the Presidency to his son. This dictator doesn’t tolerate any public criticism of his regime, but its obvious that your unemployment and your nation’s poverty is due to his misrule. You’re politically aware and spend a lot of time worrying about the plight of the Palestinians, who, after all, are suffering only a hundred miles away just over the border. You know Israel, and by extension America, are responsible for their suffering because the government controlled cable news stations constantly remind you. This suspicion of the US is compounded by the fact that America supports most of the authoritarian government in your region, stations troops for no obvious reason in your neighbor’s countries, and has spent decades making empty promises about coming change and prosperity. Is it any wonder that you, a young impoverished Arab man, could reject the values of your perceived oppressor and embrace the narrative of radical Islamism? This narrative gives you purpose and meaning: your beloved country isn’t responsible for its stagnation and your unfulfilling and static life isn’t meaningless. The worldview of radical Islamism is comforting because it is a flattering simplification of a troubling and complex reality- that’s why it’s popular. Of course the violence, nihilism and contradiction of militant Islamism repel many of these young men. But for others it isn’t a problem- it’s part of the allure.

Arab and broader Muslim resentment towards the United States is by no means universal or homogenous.

Percentage of Arabs with a Favorable View towards the United States

Source: Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs

Most Arabs respect Americans and our achievements like democratic institutions, popular culture, and technological advancements. But our foreign policy is deeply unpopular in the region. We should understand that these views make sense and are very real- they’re simply human. While most Chileans respect Americans and the United States as a whole there is still deep resentment in some parts of Chilean society against the US government that overthrew a democratically elected leader and ushered in two decades of dictatorship and depression. It’s the same in the Muslim world: it’s hard to forgive the US when you know that American dollars are why you still have a president who acts like a king.

The fact that American foreign policy decisions influence mainstream Arab anger against the US doesn’t excuse radicalism and violence for one second- al-Qaeda members are wrong and evil and should be hunted down. But if America can’t understand what motivates a man to join al-Qaeda or an insurgent group in Iraq we won’t be ever able to beat them. People make decisions for reasons, not in a political vacuum. Becoming a violent terrorist is an amazingly determined decision: a young man who decides to attempt to attack Americans is basically signing his death warrant. This isn’t a light decision, and he won’t make it without perceiving a long-held, convincing social cause that will justify his death. The war on terror is a war of ideas, not bombs- we will win when we convince potential terrorists that a multicultural world of political and religious acceptance and economic growth trumps xenophobia and blind radical nationalism. But the moment we forget that Arabs have very real grievances against their autocratic, stagnant governments and the US that enables them we begin to lose this fight. Automatically rejecting the idea that American policies can empower al-Qaeda by stoking resentment in the Muslim world is wrong. Americans need the intellectual honesty to try to understand the motivations of our enemies even if we don’t like the answers; its much easier to believe that the enemies who have hurt us are simply evil, barbaric men. Understanding doesn’t excuse their actions- this is a war we will win because we are right and they, the Islamist radicals who purposefully kill civilians to incite terror, whose blind nationalism makes compromise impossible, who keep women in oppression and slavery, are totally and irrevocable wrong. We can’t be afraid to understand the enemy; it’s never been possible to win a war otherwise. Americans who hold the cowardly view that our enemy’s actions have no motivation are worse than wrong- they’re foolish.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Arnold Böcklin, 'The Island of the Dead III', 1883. Via Wikimedia.

Arnold Böcklin, ‘The Island of the Dead III’, 1883. Via Wikimedia.

The best links of the week:

The tragic consequences of Congo’s recent mining ban (Texas in Africa).

Public opinion in Pakistan (The AfPak Channel).

Weak ties and social change (Frontal Cortex).

Hoping for an American decline (Matthew Yglesias).

Afghan perceptions and coercive force (Abu Muqawama).

Postcards from Palestine (The Nation, via Matthew Yglesias).

Here’s to those innocent past days when finding pictures of your opponent dressed as a Nazi was a politician’s impossible dream (Joshua Green).

Carbon Policy and the Debt — Common Ground?

By Taylor Marvin

Economist Donald Marron (via Ezra Klein) is confidant that the eventual debt-induced necessity for tax hikes could be America’s best shot at a carbon tax or cap-and-trade program:

“But I would like to suggest another strategy: Perhaps the environmental community should make common cause with the budget worrywarts. In principle, a carbon tax is a powerful two-birds-with-one-stone policy: it cuts carbon emissions and raises money to finance the government. (This is equally true of a cap-and-trade approach in which the government auctions allowances and keeps the proceeds.) Perhaps there’s a future 60-vote coalition that would favor those outcomes even if various energy interests would be opposed?”

It’s certainly true that a carbon tax would be a major source of government revenue and could play a major role, when combined with real cuts in government entitlement and defense spending, in cutting the deficit. However, it’s hard to be optimistic about the federal government taking any major steps to combat the deficit before it’s too late for any type of carbon reduction program to be most effective– that is, before the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere is so high that significant global climate change is guaranteed whether we subsequently cut emissions or not. The European Union’s target limit for global warming is 2° C, of which .8° of warming has already occurred and another 0.5-0.7° is already certain due to the greenhouse gasses already in the atmosphere. This doesn’t leave much room to move: if the world is going to avoid significant global climate disruption carbon admissions need to be stabilized in the next few decades.

Unfortunately it’s hard to believe that the United States will take serious action on climate change during this crucial period. It certainly won’t for the sake of the climate itself. The Republican party is increasingly moving towards a complete rejection of climate science as a whole, and with the guaranteed Republican gains in November’s midterm elections this means that any type of cap-and-trade bill is dead for the foreseeable future. In the modern Senate extreme partisanship, combined with traditional Senate rules, effectively require 60 votes to bring any controversial legislation to a majority vote. Barring a drastic reform of Senate procedure or an unprecedented change in American conservative ideology climate change legislation is only going to happen when the Democrats have 60 votes in the Senate. Aside from the first half of the 111th Congress the last time they had this type of majority was the 1970’s. American climate change legislation is dead for the foreseeable future, at least for it’s own sake.

Is Marron right then? Does concerns about the debt and the necessity of eventual higher taxes offer the best change at some kind of reasonable American carbon policy? Cutting the deficit and reducing the national debt will require some form of higher taxes — it’s impossible to reduce the deficit through cutting spending alone. However, Marron is too optimistic that the United States will ever take the real steps, including tax hikes, necessary to reduce the debt. The actual legislation required to cut the debt will be deeply unpopular. A quick look at a breakdown of US federal spending reveals that the most expensive government programs whose cost drive the increasing debt are some of the most popular things the government does — any politician who advocates means-testing Social Security or reforming Medicare payouts simply won’t get reelected. When Americans say that they strongly prefer reducing the deficit by cutting spending they’re not being honest. Americans like the federal programs that we can’t afford — it’s only paying for them that’s unpopular. That’s why political rhetoric vaguely attacking general spending is popular while politicians refuse to name specific programs they advocate cutting.

The same logic applies to tax increases. With the Republican party increasingly opposed to any form of tax increases it would take a looming national fiscal crisis to give politicians the incentive to take the type of drastic action needed to make real steps to reduce the debt. However, it doesn’t seem like this impetus will ever come. Most economists don’t think that the US or other rich world economies aren’t close the the absolute limits of their debt — a new study predicts that the US and UK government could continue borrowing until their debt is equal to 160% of GDP, which is decades off. Given how painful fixing the structural problems at the core of advanced economies’ debts will be it’s likely that politicians will simply continue to put off real reforms as long as they can afford to. This would push the critical moment when politicians are forced by necessity to raise taxes and enact harsh austerity measures to public healthcare and pension programs decades into the future, possible to beyond mid-century. Even if Marron is right and future environmentalists are able to join forces with fiscal realists to get a rational carbon tax passed in the US by then it will be too late. Atmospheric carbon concentrations will be too high by the mid-21st century to avoid the worst of climate change. If a carbon tax or it’s less efficient and more bureaucratic cap-and-trade cousin are to be most effective they must be passed now, or as soon as possible. Unfortunately for the world as soon as possible in American politics seems to be a long way off.

Is COIN in Afghanistan Realistic? cont.

By Taylor Marvin

Counterinsurgency theorists acknowledge three pillars of counterinsurgency practice: security, politics and economics. For a counterinsurgency to succeed authorities must provide enough security to ensure a safe and stable civil environment, domestic politicians must cooperate to establish a fair, legitimate government that enfranchises the population and earns their trust and allegiance, and some form of economic growth must enable rising incomes and the stability of mass employment. All these pillars are interconnected — political consensus and economic development won’t arise in the absence of a stable and secure society. Similarly, its rare to be able to militarily defeat insurgents; insurgencies die when development and a fair political system disenfranchises their ideology. That’s why COIN is so difficult — if all these developments don’t occur concurrently nothing changes. This difficulty is a commonly known aspect of fighting counterinsurgencies. What’s less commonly acknowledged is how dangerous the nation building integral to COIN really is, a dismal reality America’s efforts in Afghanistan are now encountering.

General McCrystal’s tenure in Afghanistan was marked by an increased adherence to classic COIN doctrine that included rewriting US troops’ rules of engagement to place stricter controls on the use of force in an attempt to reduce civilian Afghan casualties. Most dramatically, McCrystal’s new rules of engagement restricted American soldier’s ability to call in airstrikes, which had been an invaluable tool in the rugged Afghan battlefield but a reoccurring cause of civilian deaths. Under the new rules airstrikes were only available if they wouldn’t harm civilian or damage Afghan homes or under extraordinary circumstances. This is a necessary aspect of COIN strategy: if NATO forces are going to win the hearts and minds of Afghans high-profile civilian deaths like the kind caused by errant bombs has to stop. However, restricting the use of soldiers’ most potent weapon directly puts soldiers at increased risk — its easy to find stories of American soldiers in danger of being overrun with air support available but prohibited from helping because of risk to Afghan lives or homes. Additionally, Afghanistan is a huge, rugged country and often aircraft support is the only type of help isolated soldiers are going to get. Of course there’s a real reason for these restrictions. Afghan lives are valuable, and whenever fighter jets start dropping bombs on villages inhabited by both civilians and Taliban fighters innocents are going to die — there’s simply no way around this problem. Extensive use of heavy air support can’t be a part of our Afghan strategy if the US is going to win. Civilian casualties are inseparable from airstrikes’ utility, and the civilian deaths heavy use of force causes are Afghan citizens’ greatest grievance against American forces and the Afghan government that hosts them. The central arena of counterinsurgency warfare is the allegiance of the civilian population and if the United States and its allies can’t manage to fight in Afghanistan without killing thousands of civilians the Taliban won’t be short of recruits. Of course these restrictions wouldn’t have any benefit if they didn’t significantly reduce civilian deaths. But after over a year of McCrystal’s command of the Afghan war his limits on airstrikes, combined with broader overall restrictions on the use of force, reduced both civilian casualties and the overall incidents of insurgent attacks. While McCrystal’s replacement General Petraeus has publicly considered easing the restrictions it’s likely that American soldiers will continue to face tough limits on the force they can use to defend themselves. This is inseparable from counterinsurgency; any superior power attempting to win a war of civilian allegiance must place an emphasis on reducing civilian deaths and the increased risks to soldiers’ lives it brings.

That’s the secret of counterinsurgency doctrine. Because COIN calls for close troop interactions with native populations, an emphasis on nation-building and limiting force to reduce civilian casualties it brings higher risks to soldiers than more traditional strategies. Pursuing a COIN strategy makes soldiers’ jobs more difficult and ultimately more dangerous- this is inescapable. This fact doesn’t automatically discredit counterinsurgency. COIN is ultimately the only strategy with any chance of fostering a stable Afghan society free of the Taliban; Vice President Biden’s preference for lower troop levels while emphasizing hunting al-Qaeda over nation-building abandons Afghanistan’s hope for a more peaceful future just as much as an immediate withdrawal. If we want to win in Afghanistan COIN is still the best strategy. But Americans should be more aware of its costs. Our war is Afghanistan is essentially a bet that we don’t know the odds on: a stable Afghanistan is the winning payoff and the increased sacrifice of COIN is the cost of playing. While COIN is the only strategy with a chance of winning in Afghanistan we should be honest about it — pursuing counterinsurgency and nation building will kill more American soldiers than simply hunting al-Qaeda. This cost is real, it’s unavoidable, and we should consider it when we’re deciding if we should make the bet at all.