Skip to content

Archive for

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

James Tissot - On the Thames, 1874

James Tissot - On the Thames, 1874

The best links of the week:

Getting specific on spending.

The paradox of presidential leadership.

In praise of Joanne Rowling’s Hermione Granger series.

The lost dream of trippy ’70s space colonies.

Mastering the machine.

Brazilian Girls – Don’t Stop.

The Libyan War Is Not Making The US More Popular In The Arab World

By Taylor Marvin

From the Washington Post, favorable perceptions of the US in the Arab world have fallen dramatically since 2008:

Favorable Attitudes to the United States, 2008-2011

The poll’s limited sample means this isn’t a definitive survey of Arab opinion, but it is still informative. What’s particularly interesting is that the NATO intervention in Libya hasn’t translated into greater support for the US among Arabs. As Adam Serwer points out, this significantly weakens the original justification for the war:

“…this is particularly bad given that part of the administration’s underlying rationale for intervening in Libya was to shift the regional narrative that the U.S. only supports brutal dictators and not the democratic aspirations of Arabs.”

By this measure, the war in Libya has been almost entirely a failure. The rebels’ failure to promptly break the stalemate with loyalist forces has forced NATO countries to escalate their air campaign far in excess of what was originally imagined, has raised tricky questions about the constitutionality of executive branch military interventions in the US, and drawn international attention to the relative weakness of NATO as an expeditionary force. The ability of rebel leaders to impose meaningful disciple on their forces has also been increasingly questioned, and suggest that post-Qaddafi Libyan leaders will have a difficult time establishing functioning unified government. Violent reprisals and looting are common occurrences in war, and will likely continue after a rebel victory. By entering the Libyan civil war NATO has tied its credibility to an eventual post-Qaddafi regime it has no control over, creating the potential for an embarrassing implicit NATO endorsement of an abusive Libyan government. Adding evidence that the Libyan war has apparently had a negative effect on Arab perceptions of the US — interestingly, higher Arab approval for Sarkozy suggests that most Arabs don’t identify Europe as the primary architect of the Libyan intervention — does not leave a very high payoff for the US even in a best-case conclusion of hostilities. While the costs of the Libyan war have admittedly not been high in comparison to other recent American wars, it’s doubtful that it will ever fulfill any reasonable cost/benefit calculus. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it is morally indefensible (though in terms of pure human suffering, prolonging the war has likely imposed more costs than a quick Qaddafi victory), but most of the benefits the US hoped to win from a successful Libyan intervention are no longer possible.

Fear Mongering the End of the Shuttle Program

By Taylor Marvin

Shuttle launch, 1988.

Shuttle launch, 1988.

At Foreign Policy, Joshua Keating has an article mourning the passing of the Space Shuttle. Unfortunately, instead of offering a balanced look at the costs and benefits of the US manned spaceflight program Keating instead uses Russian and Chinese goals in space to stoke familiar fears about American decline:

“The end of the space shuttle program is a big step back for the United States, and a giant leap forward for everyone else.”

Viewing competing space programs in zero-sum terms is a mistake, and Keating hugely overestimates the impact of manned spaceflight on national competitiveness. Similarly, his concerns about Russian and Chinese space goals are unconvincing:

“The Russian space agency’s more ambitious plans include a manned mission to the moon by 2025, potentially followed by an ‘inhabited station.'”

What makes the Russians’ ambitions for a moon mission any more credible than America’s? Post-Soviet Russia has a long history of publicly announcing the same kind of ambitious and expensive military or space programs the Soviets aspired to, but without the resources the USSR enjoyed. Russia, while possessing enviable technological and engineering human resources, faces huge problems gathering the necessary financial requirements for military development programs that are compatibly inexpensive compared to ambitious space programs. The troubled PAK FA stealth aircraft program is a good example of this constraint. Russian policymakers clearly perceive this program as vital to Russian security — certainly much more than a moon shot — but the program’s financial dependence on India suggests the PAK FA program will have a long and uncertain development. There’s a huge difference between publicly announcing ambitious space goals and actually possessing the technical and financial base to accomplish them, especially over decades long programs. The list of abandoned space programs is huge — the Soviet Buran shuttle and the American VentureStar program are good examples — and history suggests that sustaining funding for enormously expensive space programs that are only marginally related to concrete national interests is extremely difficult. During its peak year the US Apollo moon program consumed 2.2% of the federal budget, and there isn’t good reason to suspect that a modern moon program would be significantly cheaper. No nation on Earth currently produces a heavy-lift vehicle comparable to the Apollo Saturn-V, and the retreat to low Earth orbit after the 1960s means that much of the technology required for manned space flight beyond Earth orbit would have to be reinvented. There’s no reason to suspect the Russian government is serious about dedicating such a large portion of its chronically strained budget to this goal.

Keating is just as worried about Chinese ambitions in space:

“It launched its first manned mission in 2003 — becoming the third country to do so — and hasn’t sent a person up since 2008. But, unsurprisingly, its ambitions are enormous. Later this year, China plans to launch the first of three separate temporary space stations which will eventually lead to a permanent orbital station sometime around 2020 or 2022.”

Again, this is overly optimistic. While the Chinese space program certainly benefits from greater financial — and increasingly technical — assets than its Russian counterpart, this doesn’t change the fact that Chinese goals in space are extremely ambitious, and difficult. China’s inexperience in space and lack of developed ties to other nations’ space programs means that it will likely have to reinvent the decades of technical development and experience required for the US and Russian space station programs. While building a space station is much less difficult and expensive than a manned flight to the moon, it is stil technically challenging, and of uncertain practical value.

Keating’s other fears about the Chinese space program are similarly alarmist:

“In addition to its manned spaceflight ambitions, China raised eyebrows in 2007 with its test of an anti-satellite missile.”

This is irrelevant. Anti-satellite missiles share almost technology with manned spaceflight, and while China’s development of successful anti-satellite technology is worrying, it’s an issue with no relevance to the end of the shuttle program. Keating is scaremongering.

What’s interesting is that China’s growing manned spaceflight program likely actually reduces its threat to Western military satellites. China’s 2007 anti-satellite missile test was universally criticized for generating massive amount of debris in low Earth orbit, debris whose uncontrolled orbits and high speeds pose a serious danger to manned spacecraft. This danger is well understood, and is part of the reason why the US has refrained from anti-satellite missile tests since the 1980s. If China is serious about continuing its space program, it will have an incentive not to increase the amont of space debris that threaten all spacecraft, including its own. From the perspective of US military satellites, a Chinese civilian space program is a good thing.

The fundamental flaw of this article is that it doesn’t consider why nations pursue space programs. Even if China and Russia can muster the enormous financial and technological requirements for ambitious space programs, they do not have any real reason to. The US didn’t devote a significant portion of its government budget on the Apollo program for a love of science and exploration — it did it to outcompete the USSR and demonstrate to the international community that despite US failures in the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam the United States remained a strong world leader and dangerous adversary. In the post-Cold War world these incentives are greatly reduced. Russia and especially China have less expensive ways of demonstrating their national strength than decades-long, extremely risky space programs whose practical expected payoff is distant and low. Unfortunately for those entranced by the romance of manned space exploration (myself included), there is no reason to judge the lofty goals of foreign space programs to be any more credible than President Bush’s mostly forgotten plan to return to the moon. Like the US, China and Russia will likely continue manned space programs and will eventually accomplish worthy goals in space, but this doesn’t make these programs a threat.

The end of the shuttle program is a rare opportunity to re-examine the goals and benefits of the US manned space program. However, we shouldn’t let fears of American decline make this judgement for us. The US should only continue manned space flight if it returns real scientific and technological benefits, not out of fear of China.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Unfortunately apt imagery. J.M.W. Turner, Shipwreck of the Minotaur.

Unfortunately apt debt ceiling negotiations imagery. J.M.W. Turner, Shipwreck of the Minotaur.

The best links of the week:

How to be an Afghan expert.

Information flow can reveal dirty deeds.

Debt ceiling: what’s the end game for Republicans?

The frustrating legacy of “Plasterosaurus”.

Anti-aircraft missiles loose in Libya.

The hidden perils of covert action.

This is a few weeks old, but Andrew Exum’s reading of Pawlenty’s foreign policy speech is alternatingly insightful and hilarious.

Via Matt Yglesias, the annals of insane and entertaining economics research continue.

Keziah Jones – The Funderlying Undermentals.

The Future Of Debt Ceiling Brinksmanship

By Taylor Marvin

Felix Salmon is afraid that debt-ceiling brinksmanship will become the new normal in Washington:

“The really depressing thing is that even if a deal does get done this month, the planning won’t have been in vain. Now that the Republicans can see how much leverage the debt ceiling gives them, they’re going to pull this stunt every time it gets near. The best-case scenario, with a big $2 trillion increase, would mean that we’re going to go through the exact same thing late in 2012; a more modest increase in the debt limit would set up a reprise of the current fiasco much sooner.

And that’s the invidious thing about low-probability events. Repeat the experiment often enough, and eventually they’ll happen. We’ll get a deal done this time. But one day, we won’t. And that day is not going to be a happy one.”

I’m a bit more optimistic, but would argue that the likelihood of a future debt ceiling catastrophe depends on the outcome of the 2012 presidential election and ability of congressional Republican leaders to enforce party discipline, at least in the medium-term.

Currently, congressional Republicans face strong constituent pressure to not raise the debt ceiling. Via YouGov:

However, if a failure to raise the debt ceiling before the August 2nd deadline results in significant disruption to the world economy, the percentage of Americans who believe not raising the debt ceiling in 2011 was a mistake will likely increase significantly. Republican leaders are clearly aware of this danger, which is made much more urgent by the rapidly approaching 2012 presidential election. If a costly failure to raise the debt ceiling allows Democrats to successfully portray Republicans as ideologues unfit for the responsibility of governance it will be very difficult for a Republican to win the general election, making the proximity of 2012 a moderating influence on the Republican leadership that likely reduces the brinksmanship risks they’re willing to accept. That’s why Republican are publicly articulating such a mixed message — most congressional Republicans are adamant that a debt ceiling deal that includes any revenue increases is not acceptable, while the Republican leadership is careful to quietly insist that a deal will eventually happen. However, if the Republicans lose the presidential election in 2012, this moderating influence will be gone. If Obama wins reelection — and especially if Democrats continue to hold the Senate — then congressional Republicans will have almost no incentive to not extract as many concessions as possible if the debt ceiling negotiation process can be pushed back until after the Presidential election. Given that the debt ceiling will probably have to be raised at least twice in an Obama second term, this pushes the Republicans’ acceptable risks of brinksmanship so high that a disaster is much more likely.

This logic will likely come down to how congressional Republican leaders judge Obama’s chances of winning reelection. If they think an Obama second term is likely, they’ll again try to delay raising the debt limit as a negotiation tool. If they judge a Republican presidential victory likely, congressional Republicans will probably try to quickly pass another increase in the debt limit under Obama to avoid the negative public perception impact of raising the debt ceiling under a Republican president. Counterintuitively, the likelihood of a future catastrophic failure to increase the debt ceiling is probably lower if a Republican in elected in 2012, because the Republican congressional leadership has less incentive to use it as a weapon. So perversely, we’re likely better off if the debt ceiling is raised by less than $2 trillion, because it means another debt ceiling fight will come up before the election, when the moderating influence still holds. If Obama wins in 2012, all bets are off.

J-20 Watch, Cont.

By Taylor Marvin

Image at

J-20 flight testing. Image at

Barron’s has an article on Chinese military modernization efforts by that takes a very paranoid view of the J-20:

“Highlighting one of the fastest military buildups in history was China’s debut of its stealth jet just hours before the January visit to Beijing by outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The fighter will rival the U.S.’s F-22 Raptor, the world’s only operational stealth fighter. Larger than the F-22, with bigger fuel tanks, it will fly higher, faster and with less chance of detection. It’s one of many Chinese weapons that will impede the U.S. military’s ability to roam freely in the region.”

China didn’t debut a stealth jet in January, it debuted a stealth jet prototype. There’s an important distinction. The development cycles for modern combat aircraft are measured in decades, and even if the Chinese are able to field a operation aircraft derived from the J-20 it likely won’t be before the late 2010s at the earliest. We have no idea how similar an eventual  operational J-20 variant will be to the J-20 we’ve seen, which makes speculating about its capabilities difficult.

Similarly, while the J-20 is much bigger than the F-22, this is more of a deliberate design choice that reflects the J-20’s likely intended mission rather than a straight advantage over the F-22. Bigger combat aircraft can hold more internal fuel and boast a longer range and heavier warload, but typically are less maneuverable. What we’ve seen of the J-20 seems to support this theory. Its large internal fuel volume and roomy internal weapons bays seem to indicate that an eventual operational J-20 would serve in the long-range interception role, possibly against US or allied surface ships, features that China’s coastal geography and the PLAAF’s lack of tankers necessitate in this mission.

The rapid modernization of the PLAAF will certainly impede the US military’s ability to operate in the western Pacific. However, Barron’s hugely overestimates the threat posed by the J-20. The assertion that the J-20 is stealthier than the F-22 is completely unsupported, and very unlikely. The designers of the J-20 prototype we’ve observed seem to have focused most of their stealthing efforts on the aircraft’s front half, and the tail and round exhausts of the J-20 are likely highly detectable. The J-20 does appear very stealthy when viewed from the front, and this suggests that when faced with a choice between stealth and affordability the PLAAF has focused on minimizing the J-20’s detectability by fixed radars. This supports the idea that the J-20 is primarily a strike and interception aircraft, a mission completely distinct from the all-around stealthy F-22. The J-20 is a major step forward by the PLA, and an eventual operational variant will likely significantly enhance the capabilities of the PLAAF. However, depicting it as an immediate threat is an overreaction, and China’s lack of experience operating world-class combat aircraft will likely decrease the operational effectiveness of any Chinese fifth generation fighter that actually emerges from this program, if any. China’s on its way to a more capable military. But any examination of just how difficult it is to run advanced aircraft development programs on time and on budget suggest that the Chinese will have a difficult time adopting the J-20 for operational service.

Note: Previous Prospect coverage of the J-20:

J-20 Watch, Cont.

The Future of the J-20: An Interview with Tai Ming Cheung

Expanding East Asian Militaries: An Interview with Richard Bitzinger

China’s New Stealth Jet

Pornography May Have Postive Social Benefits, So Don’t Ban It

By Taylor Marvin

Via Think Progress, presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum have pledged to ban pornography if elected president. This is silly. The Supreme Court has upheld the gradual retreat of US anti-pornography laws, and attempting to restrict adult internet pornography — which is extremely common and decentralized — would be a futile waste of police resources. However, what is interesting about this pledge is, religious opposition to pornography aside, easy access to porn seems to have some degree of positive impact on society.

On of the most interesting examples of this is the relationship between pornography and the incidence of rape in society. Reported rapes in the US have plummeted in the last 30 years:

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

This encouraging trend is mostly unrecognized in the American public consciousness, but it’s astounding. Rapes have become much, much rarer in the last 30 years. What is especially remarkable is that we would expect the percentage of rapes that are actually reported to police to have risen during the same period as the social stigma against rape victims has slowly begun to erode (though of course this stigma is still prevalent, and is a very serious problem). The fact that the number of reported rapes have dramatically fallen while the expected percentage of total rapes that are reported is strong evidence that the actual, unobserved rape rate has declined even more dramatically.

There are many potential explanations for this dramatic decline. It’s possible that the social acceptance of rape has fallen since the early 20th century, discouraging many potential rapists from actually committing crimes. Similarly, advances in forensic technology have made rapists more likely to be eventually caught, a likelihood shows like Law and Order or C.S.I. exaggerate in the public consciousness. Similarly, falling incidence of rape likely increase the marginal reduction in the rape rate in positive feedback loop — if people believe rapes are rarer in their society, their more likely to rationally judge that rapists are likely to be caught and have further incentive not to actually commit rape, or that rape is simply socially unacceptable.

However, there is also evidence that internet access, and specifically access to pornography, lowers incidence of rape. The basic logic behind this relationship if fairly intuitive. The wide proliferation of internet access in the 1990s made pornography much more accessible and, importantly, able to be more easily consumed in private, which likely lessened its social stigma. Because pornography seems to be at least a partial substitute for actual sexual contact and there is some empirical evidence that rape is motivated by sexual as well as a power motives, it follows that access to pornography could lead to a net reduction in actual rapes. This relationship seems fairly well supported by actual US rape statistics. While this potential causal relationship does not explain all of the US fall in reported rapes, it likely contributes to it.

Just because access to pornography could reduce the incidence of rape doesn’t mean that pornography does not have negative externalities — it clearly can. But any policymaker that attempts to ban pornography should be aware that there is significant empirical evidence that supports the idea that access to pornography can be at least partially a social good. Because banning pornography would be a severe restriction of individual liberty, it should only be pursued if access to pornography fails a broad cost-benefit test. This evidence suggests that it doesn’t.

Note: Alyssa Rosenberg has a good take on Bachmann’s anti-porn pledge.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Im not even going to pretend that I can stop thinking about Game of Thrones, so heres some European medieval artwork. Jost Amman, 1561.

I'm not even going to pretend that I can stop thinking about Game of Thrones, so here's some European medieval artwork. Jost Amman, 1561.

The best links of the week:

Crime rates by time of day: 3am’s safer than you’d think.

Ahmadinejad vs. the Ayatollah.

Why the number of teenagers with summer jobs has plummeted.

What Twitter users asked the president.

How we use the tools we choose: a week of worldwide data usage.

Glen Hansard- Cry Me A River.

China’s Really Big

By Taylor Marvin

Image from Wikimedia, by user Roke.

World population. Image from Wikimedia, by user Roke.

Over at Clyde Prestowitz’s blog at Foreign Policy, Iowa State electrical engineering professor Vikram Dalal has an interesting letter outlining why the decline of America’s manufacturing sector is potentially disastrous for the future prosperity and stability of the United States. Many of his points are good ones, especially coming from someone involved in educating future engineers, but one jumped out at me:

“What that in turn means is that more R&D gets done in China, and more industries move there, because that is where the workers will be. The United States is going into a death spiral. I have the attendance record of the recent Materials Research Society conference in San Francisco. It is probably 60 to 70 percent Chinese. Americans were rather scarce.”

What’s important to remember is that China is really big, and the United States will never have more than a fraction of its population. Given that the US population is less than 25% of China’s, we’d expect that a conference that proportionally represented Chinese and Americans (and no one else) to be about 80% Chinese. If world living standards keeping rising and barriers to international travel continue to precipitously fall we can expect the proportion of Americans involved in international research or production in any field to fall. Americans and European have historically been massively overrepresented in international activities because until about the last three decades other regions tended to be too poor, isolated or politically unstable to participate in meaningful ways in the global economy. There’s not much America can do to halt that, nor should we. The American period of global economic dominance in the 20th century was in many ways a aberration caused by the repeated destruction of non-US industrial bases, and rising global incomes and educational levels and accelerating globalization are a profound gain in aggregate human welfare.

No, America Is Not The Freest Country On Earth

By Taylor Marvin

Fellow UCSD student and conservative political blogger Gabriella Hoffman has a Fourth of July post that reveals an interesting falacy in popular American political thinking:

“We live in the freest and most tolerant country in the world. This fact is simply irrefutable. If you don’t like it here, go elsewhere.”

Well, no. This is actually very refutable. I’m not going to examine the claim about tolerance, which is patently ridiculous, but Hoffman’s assertion that the US is the freest country on Earth is easily testable.

Here’s the 2011 Index of Economic Freedom, jointly produced by the Wall Street Journal and the conservative Heritage Foundation:

While the United States does rank highly in economic freedom by world standards, it doesn’t perform particularly well compared to other developed democracies, and notably ranks lower than many European countries (Denmark, Switzerland) that Americans typically think of as socialistic and un-entrepreneurial. Despite this, America’s overall strong level of economic freedom is encouraging from a very practical standpoint, because economic freedom have been shown to be strongly associated with levels of national wellbeing, as shown in an interesting pape by Will Wilkinson:

However, just because the US ranks relatively highly on the global economic freedom continuum doesn’t mean that it’s the highest. America’s economic freedom is encouraging and something to be proud of, but it isn’t exceptional.

Similarly, America’s levels of political freedom are also high but not exceptional. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, which ranks countries by fairness of elections, absence of foreign influence, security of voters and national government capability, ranks the US as the 17th most democratic nation in the world:

Again, the US ranks notably behind the European social democracies conservative Americans tend to dismiss as politically meritless.

However, what I think is really interesting about the state of freedom in the US is how much less practical freedom Americans enjoy compared to nearly every other developed democracy. While economic and political freedoms are certainly important, the US’s clearly unreasonably high legal drinking age likely has a much more immediate effect on the practical welfare of young Americans. Similarly, the fact that the US government incarcerates 743 of its citizens for every 100,000 Americans (for comparison, the next large democracy on the list, Israel, incarcerates 325) means that a much larger portion of Americans have literally no personal freedom than citizens of other large democracies. Many aspects of US public policy, especially drug policy, directly result in lowering Americans practical freedoms, which is a fact many Americans, Hoffman included, seem unwilling to recognize.

Of course, this isn’t entirely unexpected. Just like many modern Chinese nationalists seem unwilling to acknowledge that many of Mao Zedong’s policies directly resulted in mass starvation Americans would like to believe that their country is exception in areas that it really isn’t, because these selective views of reality lend themselves to narratives of national greatness. Human are social animals, and there’s good reason to believe that we are predisposed to employ  many subconscious tricks to ensure that our interpretation of the reality we are presented with corresponds to our favored worldview. We’d like confirmation that America is exceptional in every way, so it’s common to refuse to internalize evidence that it isn’t. This is an extraordinarily common human cognitive bias, but we should be aware of how it affects our thinking. While modern America clearly grew out of a unique history, it’s silly and childish to blindly claim that it’s the freest and morst tolerant country in the world. America is a flawed society, and these flaws continue to inflict very real human costs. Refusing to recognize these faults is a recipe for only perpetuating them.