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Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

US Air Force B-47 strategic bombers.

US Air Force B-47 strategic bombers, mid-1950s.

Prospect blog- come for the news, stay for the lies:

Constitutionally rotten (Democracy in America).

Epic border battle a bad sign for Afghanistan (Danger Room).

In praise of distraction (The New Yorker).

What if those wonderful results are wrong? (In the Pipeline).

Checks and imbalances (The American Prospect).

Spiderweb covered trees in Pakistan (Wired UK).

Forbes calculates the dragon Smaug’s treasure horde at $8.6 billion.

Lupe Fiasco- Little Weapon.


Knife to a Gunfight

By Taylor Marvin

Libyan rebels. Source: Voice of America.

Libyan rebels. Source: Voice of America.

From the New York Times:

“With only weeks of fighting experience, they lack an understanding of the fundamentals of offensive and defensive combat, or how to organize fire support. They fire recklessly and sometimes accidentally. Most of them have yet to learn how to hold seized ground, or to protect themselves from their battlefield’s persistent rocket and mortar fire, which might be done by simply digging in.

Prone to panic, they often answer to little more than their mood, which changes in a flash. When their morale spikes upward, their attacks tend to be painfully and bloodily frontal — little more than racing columns down the highway, through a gantlet of the Qaddafi forces’ rocket and mortar fire, face forward into the loyalists’ machine guns

And their numbers are small. Officials in the rebels’ transitional government have provided many different figures, sometimes saying 10,000 or men are under arms in their ranks.

But a small fraction actually appear at the front each day — often only a few hundred. And some of the men appear without guns, or with aged guns that have no magazines or ammunition.”

Any NATO strategy that relies on the rebels to militarily break the stalemate isn’t going to succeed. Qaddafi’s forces are proving themselves to be much better organized and more ingenuitive than the rebels, and are apparently adopting unconventional tactics in a successful attempt to avoid NATO close air support assets. Despite their enormous personal bravery, the rebels’ lack of a command structure seems to have prevented them from adopting even rudimentary military tactics and adapting to their tactical situation, despite having been in combat for over a month. If NATO sticks to its commitment to avoid boots on the ground, the rebels are likely not going to be able to take advantage of coalition air support and win decisive victories to force an end the civil war. This is troubling. It’s an open question how long domestic politics are going to allow France, the UK, and US air power to remain committed in Libya, and any war of attrition longer than a few months will favor Qaddafi’s forces, who are more disciplined, better equipped, and more numerous. Given the rebels’ lack of formal command and volatile moral, it’s not impossible that if the war lasts much longer individual fighters will begin to reconsider their chances of victory and go home, potentially fatally weakening rebel defensive capabilities. Until NATO is willing to be realistic about the capability discrepancy in Libya it doesn’t have an exit strategy.

Environmentalism by State

By Taylor Marvin

The Mother Nature Network has an interesting graphic depicting which environmental statistics states rank the worst at:

This is an interesting concept, but a little unfair:

  • Alaska’s many airports are necessary because of its huge size and low population density, and it’s likely that all of Alaska’s small bush-plane airports release less CO2 than one large international airport.
  • Hawaii would probably lead the nation in most endangered species even in the absence of humans. Islands are notorious for high extinction rates caused by geographic isolation and reduced intraspecific competition. While the advent of humans has obviously had a major adverse impact on Hawaii’s biodiversity, it’s a bit unfair to label the worst state in the US for species protection because it’s so vulnerable to begin with.

Political Visual Data Presentation

By Taylor Marvin

Without considering content, Ryan’s video is a particularly well-made presentation, especially in its visually effective use of graphs. I hope these presentations become more common in government- they give politicians the opportunity to convey more detailed information than in speeches or interviews, and encourage a more rigorous use of data in politics. The White House Office of Management and Budget has experimented with something similar:

Voters often have spectacularly uninformed opinions about the federal budget, and when used well visual presentations are an important tool to correct voter ignorance in an accessible way. However, these presentations are only as good as the data they contain, and can just as easily be used to present biased or incomplete information. Let’s hope they become more common, but are used responsibly.

Healthcare Inflation and Average Lifespans

By Taylor Marvin

Kevin Drum is curious whether the healthcare inflation rate might fall at some point in the future:

“Still: do we really think this is going to keep up forever? If it does, it will be pretty much the first time in history. I’m enough of a technological optimist (and a believer in the power of markets) to guess that someday — 10 years? 20? 30? — things like gene therapies, personalized pharmaceuticals, medical AI, and so forth are finally going to revolutionize medicine. And when that happens, costs will plateau at first and then drop. The curve simply won’t keep going up forever.”

Source: Fiscal Year 2012 Budget Resolution, House Committee on the Budget

Source: Fiscal Year 2012 Budget Resolution, House Committee on the Budget

Drum does have a point. Though current estimates predict healthcare costs rising at about 8% per year for the foreseeable future, forecasting on a 70 year timeframe is difficult, and it’s easy to suspect that unforeseen social or technological changes will eventually slow healthcare inflation. As Drum alludes to, there’s good reason to expect a future reduction in the rate of healthcare inflation to be driven by technological changes rather than market-driven efficiency gains, a point Matt Yglesias makes in a summary of why it’s reasonable to believe that healthcare is fundamentally less responsive to market forces than other goods.

Michelangelo at 60, 16th century.

Michelangelo at 60, 16th century.

However, there’s good reason to suspect that future technological and social developments will drive healthcare costs to increase, rather than slow, their rate of inflation. Throughout history the upper limit for human lifespans have remained largely fixed. If an inhabitant of 1300s Europe could survive the extremely high-mortality childhood years and avoid any injuries and infectious diseases, a lifespan of 70 wasn’t unheard of. This is a surprise to most people —we’re so used to hearing that the average lifespan in the Middle Ages was in the high twenties it’s easy to forget these statistics are skewed by high child mortality. If a Medieval British aristocrat survived his twenties he could expect to live until his sixties, and the upper limit for average adult lifespans haven’t shifted a great deal in the last 500 years. While technological and social advances like antibiotics and widespread plumbing have resulted in huge human health gains, these developments have most impacted childhood mortality and deaths from injuries and infectious diseases, rather than chronic diseases. The conditions that typically killed older people in the past, like heart disease, neurological conditions, and cancer, are still responsible for the bulk of modern elderly mortality and remain the most common upper limit on average lifespans.

However, it’s likely that medical science will make significant progress in combating these conditions this century, potentially leading to a dramatic increase in average rich-world lifespans. While this would obviously be a huge benefit for human welfare, it would be something of a perfect storm for public healthcare entitlements; these advanced treatments would be expensive, and elderly people would live longer to take advantage of them. Healthcare inflation is fundamentally a good thing for humanity, because it’s indicative of constantly improving quality of life for the sick. However, it’s just as reasonable to expect healthcare inflation to increase over the 8% per year benchmark as to optimistically hope for eventual stabilization.

Adventures in Journalistic Rigor with the “California Review”

By Taylor Marvin

UCSD’s California Review has an article that discovers — surprise — that UCSD’s campus newspaper The Guardian leans left. In pretty unconvinced by the basic metric of the article — attempting to score Guardian articles by their political bias is inherently subjective and dependent on the author’s definition of conservatism, and I’m confident that I could repeat author Gabriella Hoffman’s methods and prove The Guardian to be a mildly right-wing paper. Also, the revelation that the student-run paper of a caucasian-minority, University of California campus that draw most of its students from Democratic counties leans editorially left isn’t exactly worthy of a Pulitzer. Most politically-active UCSD students tend to the left, so it isn’t surprising that The Guardian’s writers do as well. If the California Review’s editors want to advance a conservative perspective within The Guardian’s editorial content, they should join The Guardian. Given the UCSD student body’s appreciation for on-campus publications, I’m sure The Guardian could use the enthusiasm.

The California Review’s metric for ranking left vs. right leaning articles is particularly ridiculous. Since when do conservatives have a monopoly on “fiscal responsibility?”  Has Ms. Hoffman never heard of the Reagan or second Bush administrations? Couldn’t I claim that, given the mainstream and throughly disproven Republican position that national tax-cuts raise revenue, that pro-fiscal responsibility editorials lean left? It gets worse. An “anti-Islam” slant is conservative, rather than just bigoted? Being “pro-military” is ranked as conservative, which probably explains all the Democrats in Congress who don’t support the troops. And I’m sorry, if you disparage “alternative lifestyles” in 2011 you look like a bigot, and also someone who doesn’t realize it’s 2011. Please. The phrase “alternative lifestyles” is only acceptable if you’re a mid-1960s parent worried about your son becoming a hippie. The best part? The sample size: “At least 305.” That’s statistical rigor.

Update: Ms. Hoffman’s response can be found here. What’s unfortunate is that while I don’t dispute her core thesis that the Guardian tends to the left, her method of demonstrating this is entirely unconvincing. Editorial slants and political beliefs in general are so hard to quantify that bias is extremely difficult to demonstrate in anything by the most obvious cases, which, combined with her loose definition of a liberal bias, substantially weakens The California Review’s argument.

Update II: And wait, I call The Guardian “right-wing?” I though it was obvious I was arguing that Ms. Hoffman’s method was subjective enough that another author using the same procedure could claim The Guardian is a conservative paper, not that The Guardian is actually right-wing. I’m also going to steal the name “The Prospect,” it’s much more important sounding than what we have now.

Update III: Interesting. When I first viewed the California Review piece last night at about 10:00pm, it prominently displayed a disclaimer by the editor reiterating the author’s views were her own and not necessarily those of the publication as a whole. As of 8:00am this morning this disclaimer has been taken down.

Being President

By Taylor Marvin

“The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”

Barack Obama, 2007

Let’s keep one thing clear. Whether military action to stop a impending massacre in Libya was justified or not, the fate of Libyan civilians is clearly not an imminent threat to the United States. It’s true that the NATO decision to intervene had to be made on short notice if it was to happen at all, because by the time Congress had debated the issue the rebels would have been militarily defeated. But that doesn’t change the core question here. Either the President is constitutionally permitted to unilaterally lead the country into foreign wars or not — there’s no allowance for the urgency of the situation. If candidate Obama had claimed a president shouldn’t unilaterally authorize military actions not in response to an imminent threat to the US, naivety could reconcile this claim with President Obama’s later actions. But the belief that US presidents are not constitutionally permitted to unilaterally authorize wars doesn’t enjoy the same flexibility. The real lesson here is that the world looks very different to a Senator and to the President of the United States. It’s not as if President Obama suddenly forgot or maliciously abandoned his earlier views; I’m sure he’s painfully aware of them. But it’s much easier to reduce difficult, endlessly complex decisions to absolutes when your inaction doesn’t condemn thousands of people to violent deaths. But this doesn’t change the issue — if President Obama truly believed that he was legally bound to stand by and accept tragedy in Libya, then inaction was his only acceptable choice. Of course, this knowledge would have done little for his consequence, but regret is the nature of the presidency.

How to Remember

By Taylor Marvin

Yesterday I attended a press conference by President Clinton. Interesting: Clinton referred to the 1993 US intervention in Somalia as “Black Hawk Down.” We live in a culture where presidents refer to military operations they ordered by the title of the movie made about it.

Afghan War Casualties Update

By Taylor Marvin

I don’t understand this relatively optimistic reading of the most recent Afghanistan casualty figures. Coalition deaths in the first three months of 2011 fell by 30 from the same period last year, arguably too small of a fall to make any conclusions about the state of the war. That coalition fatalities have been basically constant for the last 9 months isn’t necessarily evidence that the military situation in Afghanistan is stabilizing. Fighting in Afghanistan typically slows in the winter because of inclement weather. Fatalities have been flat this year because, unlike every year before 2010, they didn’t significantly fall this winter, and we can expect fatalities to rise into the summer as they did in 2010. This trend demonstrates the Taliban have become more able to engage coalition troops during the winter, a major change from the 2001-2009 period. This is probably due to the Taliban’s increasing reliance on IED attacks over small arms, operations much less dependent on good weather. A summer spike in deaths over a high constant winter baseline seems to be the post-2010 status quo.

Public Perceptions of Social Security Future Solvency

By Taylor Marvin

Possible presidential candidate Rick Santorum is adamant that Social Security is fiscally unsustainable due to an aging US population, a demographic trend he attributes to abortion.

This is blatantly false. Social Security, as a program, will not face any serious solvency challenge this century. Unlike Medicare and Medicaid spending, mandated social security expenditures are not projected to significantly rise for the foreseeable future. Expenditures will briefly rise as baby boomers age in the next two decades, but this is a one time demographic anomaly that will stabilize by 2035. All in all, the Social Security funding shortfall is a minor, and easily addressed, future issue.

Santorum’s warning about unfavorable US demographics is also false. It’s true that aging populations are a significant challenge to public pension programs- countries with falling populations like Japan and parts of Europe are going to have a difficult time reconciling their falling proportion of workers to retirees in the coming decades. But the United States, thanks to an above rich-country average birthrate and immigration, has a significantly younger population than other developed countries and will largely avoid this problem. Santorum’s concern about a falling US birthrate also ignores the fact that, public pension funding issues aside, a stabilizing world populations is undoubtedly vital to the welfare of future civilization and necessary to avoid large-scale disruptions to the planet’s biosphere and is desirable.

The real issue here isn’t that Santorum’s wrong on this one issue- it’s that the fiction that Social Security is hurdling towards insolvency and the necessity of raising the retirement age has survived so long in American political discourse. This is a minor panic that can be disproved with a few graph and some pretty basic research, but it still dominates discussions of the deficit. Why? The real issue is that the growing projected debt comes down to one problem — medical cost inflation. However, politicians don’t like to discuss this issue healthcare inflation, because it’s an issue that extremely hard to understand and doesn’t have any easy solutions. It’s likely that about half of medical cost inflation is due to the technological advancements that have made more conditions treatable, and having to pay more for increasingly better available outcomes is an issue that won’t ever go away. Correcting inefficiency related costs is  a similarly difficult task, on that the ACA makes almost no real effort to attempt. This message — that healthcare costs are going to consume a rapidly increasing portion of the federal budget unless the American healthcare system is drastically, and potentially unpleasantly, reformed — isn’t a message that voters want to hear. They don’t really want to hear that the retirement age should be drastically raised either, but that’s a much easier message for politicians to articulate. The superficial solution to the imaginary Social Security crisis — cutting entitlements — appeals to basic conservative instincts, and would directly financially benefit the business establishment that is an important part of the Republican Party elite. This gives Republican politicians, and to an extent Democrats, a powerful incentive to ignore the real issues at the heart of the deficit issue. Expect a lot of talk about Social Security in 2012.