Monthly Archives: September 2010

Don’t Buy Land On Just Any Earth-Sized Planet to Come Along

2 astronomers have discovered an Earth-sized planet orbiting the star Gliese 581.  Gliese 581 is a small, long-lasting red dwarf star, about .31 Solar masses (meaning 31% the mass of our Sun).  This star system is only 20 light-years from Earth, quite unreachable within a human lifetime at 2010 technical capabilities but still within the Solar neighborhood.  The planet in question, currently-designated Gliese 581g, is 1 of at least 6 planets orbiting this star.  It is believed to have between 1.2 and 1.4 times the diameter and at least 3.1 times the mass of the Earth.  Not only do multiple articles about this Earth-sized planet play up the notion that it may be habitable, but a co-discoverer of the planet, Steven Vogt, has even made the immodest claim that “the chances for life on this planet are 100 percent.”

Surely the odds of life existing on this planet are less than 100 percent; after all, they haven’t found life there yet, and there has to be some probability that the planet was nailed with a large comet or meteor at some point in an extinction-level impact.  But barring such an incident–and the possibility that the Neptune-size planet orbiting between Gliese 581g and its star had a cataclysmic influence on its own orbit at some point in the past–should we be very excited about the possibility of humans walking the natural surface of this Earth-size planet someday, without space suits?

Not particularly; this is hyped.  Being “Earth-sized” and within a star’s temperate zone are probably necessary conditions for a planet to be habitable; they are still so insufficient for a planet to be habitable that they barely warrant mention. Mars is 1/3 the size of the Earth and within the Sun’s temperate zone; its surface pressure is the same as the area of space where the Space Shuttle used to orbit the Earth, and it’s bone-dry outside of the polar regions. Venus is almost exactly the size of the Earth and also within the Sun’s temperate zone; that said, its atmosphere has a crush depth, it rains sulphuric acid, and its surface is hot-enough to melt lead. Going on the simple “Earth-sized and temperate” criteria, Venus would make an amazing find as an Earth-like planet, but it’s still incredibly hostile to life.

Gliese 581g doesn’t really sound like a great candidate for a habitable planet. The best that can be said for it is that it orbits a very small star, which means that star is very long-lived and stable, and puts out low levels of high-frequency UV and gamma radiation. That said, the planet is close-enough to the star that it is locked into a tidal orbit: The same side always faces towards Gliese 581, and the same side always faces away from it. If the atmosphere is too thin, or contains too many heat-trapping gases, the side facing the star would be as hot as an oven; the side facing away is certainly frigid.  (Though the planet’s average surface temperature has been estimated at between -24 and 10 degrees, Fahrenheit, that could prove to be a very academic average between its 2 sides.) An atmosphere wouldn’t distribute that temperature much without planetary rotation. The twilight zone around the edges of the light side could be habitable IF there is a sufficient atmosphere–but without a large moon the planet’s axis might be unstable, so that one pole or the other could abruptly tilt towards or away from Gliese 581, thus burning away the habitable zone or plunging it into darkness with relative abruptness by planetary standards.

Gliese 581g, the most-Earthlike extrasolar planet found to date, but probably not as fertile as this artist's imagination.

Why the concern with a story utterly unrelated to human subjects?  Well, because this is a human story: Each latest Earth-sized planet found gives the astronomers involved the chance to capture the public’s attention (if they are hasty-enough to draw the public’s attention with 100% probabilities before they study the planet they just discovered), it gives science journalists a big news day in a field that probably often makes for abstract findings or marginal observational adjustments, and it invites the public to imagine everything from the alien civilizations we could eventually go to war with, to galactic colonization and the ultimate means of growing new markets.  All of these are understandable impulses, and none of them really foster a rational appraisal of the vast, wildly-alien and mostly utterly sterile spaces of the Galaxy.

The Liberal Ironist thought you should consider this before someone tries to sell you land on Gliese 581g.

Dark Times in Pakistan

The Economist ran a story 2 weeks ago with the low-down on the massive August floods in Pakistan.  Of course, natural disasters of this scope sometimes have a catalytic effect on critical forces in national politics; in Pakistan the most-organized critical force in national politics is the military.  A New York Times article today addressed the growing discontent within Pakistan’s military, which has just asked President Zardari to sack some of his ministers.

Asif Ali Zardari in 2009. Benazir Bhutto's stand-in as Pakistan's president has presided over inflation expected to reach 25% this year, near-systemic failure of emergency response to the country's August floods, and a large patronage network apparently supported by the 1.2% of the country's population that pays an income tax--as well as foreign aid.

1/8 of Pakistan’s population–20 million people–has been uprooted by the August floods.  The Indus River is the central spine along which Pakistan’s population is situated, but last month it wildly broke its banks.  Most populated areas of the country have experienced at least mild flooding; for almost the entire length of the country, the immediate adjacency of the Indus River has simply been ruined.  Both Pakistan’s military and our own government, the Times article reports, are frustrated by the large size and narrow tax base of President Ali Asif Zardari‘s government, elected out of sympathy when Zardari’s wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated in late 2007.  Since that time, somehow, economic conditions in Pakistan have deteriorated rapidly.  (Both the nature of the corruption of Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party and dearth of protagonists in contemporary Pakistani politics are highlighted by the fact that Bhutto literally bequeathed her party to her 19-year-old son as part of her estate.)

(Attribution: Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F009528-0018 / Steiner, Egon / CC-BY-SA) General Muhammad Ayub Khan. This adopter of Pakistan's constitution and progressive legal reformer was also the country's first of 4 military dictators to date.

Pakistan has had a governance problem from the beginning.  The civilian government has been replaced by military dictatorships 3 times since its founding–under General Ayub Khan from 1958-1969 and then under that butcher of Bengal General Yahya Khan from 1969-1971, under General Zia-ul-Haq from 1977-1988, and finally one you should all be familiar with, General Pervez Musharraf from 1999-2008.  Pakistan has been under military administration for 33 of its 63 years as an independent state.  Military governments in Pakistan have been so common that the military’s influence over the government is institutionalized, a part of normal politics; Pakistan’s first military dictatorship under Ayub Khan actually emerged during a period of martial law declared by Pakistan’s president, was popular with the public, and even wrote Pakistan’s constitution.  The military’s ability to launch a coup is an explicit rather than an implicit fact of politics.  The standout fact of present political situation in Pakistan is not that the military has loudly voiced its dissatisfaction with the civilian government, but that most observers don’t expect it to launch a coup.  The Pakistani military has no interest in governing Pakistan because it finds it too challenging.

General Pervez Musharraf. Having cast himself as a defender of Pakistan's interest, in the years following his coup he would face skepticism from the US government, for his military dictatorship of a nuclear power, his country's disastrous failure to protect its nuclear secrets, and his long toleration of the Taliban presence in Pakistan, which resulted in the current civil war along the border region.

I saw the movie A Mighty Heart while it was in theaters in 2007.  The response to the film mostly focused on the dark but gripping biographical drama, or the versatility of Angelina Jolie’s performance; the Liberal Ironist was most-interested by far in the narrative depiction of Pakistan as a barely-administrated mess.  This was the most-consistently disturbing impact of the film; and while it is a movie, it is a story about real events, some of which shouldn’t happen in a well-governed country.  Pakistani law enforcement often seemed as out-of-place as the American citizens they were assisting during the investigation.  This impoverished country of over 170 million is little-enough governed that a dramatic portrayal suggests that its law enforcement has to start from scratch when opening an investigation into its most-dangerous criminals, even to find out who they are.

A country with as many as 90 nuclear weapons, of course, has to be kept stable.  In a large country which according to the New York Times article may experience 25% inflation this year while economic growth grinds to a halt, political instability will likely be structural for the forseeable future.  This means that a steady US investment of money and personnel, over a period of many years, may be necessary to move the government’s internal administration into more-reciprocal interactions with its citizens, and in time towards civilian control over the military.  There are no simple, clean policy commitments where a large, poor, weakly-governed yet heavily-armed country like Pakistan is concerned.  The last thing we want to do is “send a message” here; incremental investments and carefully-articulated confrontations over proper administration, occurring over a long period of time, are essential to Pakistan’s integrity.  For the past decade our government has stayed to some form or other of that forward muddle, and it has gotten better at it; the current flooding in Pakistan heightens the urgency of staying engaged in Pakistan, not an argument to leave simply because government and private aid to that country are susceptible to patronage and graft.

In this spirit of support for incremental political development in Pakistan, the Liberal Ironist is encouraged to hear that General Pervez Musharraf has returned to Pakistan from the United Kingdom to get back into politics–but as the founder of a new political party and a candidate for democratically-elected office.

The Future Imperfect

First, the Liberal Ironist would like to wish you all the very happiest of Confucius’ Birthdays (September 27th).

Yesterday’s Sunday Washington Post had a long column hazarding a brief answer to a hazardous question: Is it possible to scrutinize our current political, economic and social arrangements and identify those which will leave our descendants wondering, “What were people thinking?”  Author Kwame Anthony Appiah raises 4 examples of practices of our society that are indeed inhumane or outrageous.  The Liberal Ironist thinks that most of the practices which Appiah suggests will someday be abolished are facilitated by (though not essential to) commercial logics.

Of note are the basic criteria Appiah thinks applies to social practices which future societies will decry, disavow and abolish:

1.) The moral objection to the practice is actually old and familiar;

2.) Defenders of this practice themselves don’t conceive of the practice in moral terms, instead invoking vacuous and yet always narrowly-conceived terms like “tradition, human nature or necessity.”

3.) Supporters or beneficiaries of the status quo practice don’t think about what they’re doing, or about the nature of the system they’re supporting.  “Those who ate the sugar or wore the cotton that the slaves grew simply didn’t think about what made those goods possible,” Appiah says.

It is at this point that one should realize that this column isn’t just an invitation to a thought experiment but to action against injustice where perceived.  The present practices which Appiah thinks are good candidates for future abomination are:

1.) Our large incarcerated population: The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate of any state on Earth.  Appiah doesn’t make a radical point here about law-and-order politics here; he does point out that most of our inmate population are in jail for nonviolent offenses such as drug possession or use (and implies that our criminalization of drug use might be reason-enough to “call us crazy”).

2.) Industrial meat production: Appiah notes the filthy, cramped and cruel way millions of meat livestock animals are warehoused to save money.  His graphic but eloquent description of the treatment of cows and pigs in our country warrants reading.  Again, Appiah doesn’t make some radical, abstract plea for animal liberation, but raises an objection to the intense and unmitigated suffering that livestock in the mean-producing industry are sometimes subjected to.  These harsh conditions, of course, follow a commercial logic that, as Appiah and Jeremy Bentham put it, thinks in terms of profit margins for the (rational) producer to the exlusion of the quality of life of the (merely-emotive) animals.

3.) The institutionalized and isolated elderly: “Is this what Western modernity amuonts to–societies that feel no filial obligations to their inconvenient elders?”  Appiah’s usual circumspection gives way here to volunteered disgust.  This situation appears to be another symptom of the self-involvement encouraged by the mobility of our culture and economic practices.  The Liberal Ironist hopes that this slaking-off and sequestration of senior citizens by their family will come to an end, but notes Appiah offers no ideas what kind of movement or social change could rectify this shameful problem.  The growing proportion of the elderly in Western countries–and hopefully, a growing number of the elderly who remain mentally-capable as a result of prudent dietary and lifestyle choices–may bring this issue of the disowned elderly to the open.  We can only hope as much, because nothing less than affirmation of the force of love in our lives, and our ability to come to terms with our own mortality, is at stake in whether we continue to accept the aging as part of our family.

In any case, this would be a worthier pursuit for our senior citizens than opposing attempts by the Federal Government to make Social Security and Medicare solvent again.

4.) The environment: This is where Appiah’s lack of recognition of Capitalism as both a series of economic arrangements and a social movement is most-apparent.  He discusses only desertification, probably due to space constraints.  But many issues here that pit different countries’ practical interests against one another, and some are debated on moral terms.  In the case of global warming, the concern of the Chinese, Indian and US governments with economic growth reveals a bargaining problem–as well as Appiah’s oversight that here, in fact, is a timely issue where the opponents of prudent change do have (and use) a plausible moral rationale for continuing to burn fossil fuels in spite of its impact on the climate: These governments want to achieve the rapid resource exploitation that will allow them to lift millions out of poverty.

Appiah offers 4 suggestions of future sources of moral outrage that currently retain an undeserved obscurity; the Liberal Ironist sees 3 (industrial meat production, the institutionalization of the elderly, and the environment) which are in essence commercially-driven social problems.  This observation is not intended to decry Capitalism as an ideology but to identify that it is not in practice rising tide that lifts all boats–and to offer a way of thinking about whether or when the contest over ideas results is fruitful for liberals.  To close I’d like to highlight one other established institution that makes us look crazy, or at least cruel:

The War on Drugs: This is an obvious one, and Appiah indicated it in passing, but he didn’t being to cover the sweeping harm done by our current drug policy.  As ongoing violence in Colombia, Afghanistan and now Mexico attest, the War on Drugs doesn’t simply result in the consignment of a “lost generation” of black and Hispanic youth to long prison sentences.  Entire countries are on the brink of political collapse and subject to bloodshed because of the social discipline and logistical efficacy required by those smuggling drugs to markets in Europe and the United States.  It is quite true, as DEA advertising campaigns claim, that purchasing illicit drugs of funds terrorism and civil war violence abroad, yet remarkably this hasn’t inspired a national political discussion on the advisability of the War on Drugs itself.  We have had the Controlled Substances Act since 1970, and outside of the violent deterioration of key developing countries used to grow or transport the drug crops, it isn’t clear what the impact of this modern-day experiment in prohibition has been.

The Liberal Ironist finds the idea of trying to think one’s way out of the presumed objectivity of an uncritical take on the present to find the moral mundane .  To the end of representing something more than just status quo Liberalism, this blog will at times try to discern the ways in which we’re all crazy today.

In closing, consider the state-by-state proportion of black and white male inmates incarcerated for drug-related offenses, as presented by Human Rights Watch:

Prison Admissions for Male Drug Offenders by Race

Source: Calculated from National Corrections Reporting Program, 1996, and Bureau of Census, 2000 data.

Money Never Sleeps, and Oliver Stone Never Stops Looking for the Butler

There is a good reason why sequels tend not to be good as the original.  If there is a sequel, the original movie was probably either a commercial success or it achieved a devoted following.  In either event, the original is more-likely than than the average movie to be considered “good” (though there is obviously no guarantee).  The original movie is probably the result of someone, or several people, having had a great idea, once.

This great idea was usually had just once.  In the mode, sequels are made to cash in on the strength of the original movie.  I think the strategy for filming most sequels is something like this: “Uh, do whatever it is we did that worked the first time, again.  No–Do more of it this time, if you can think of a way to do that.”  This isn’t an idea.  It’s usually a bad sign when the sequel seems to attempt to “conjure” the first movie, as if capturing the spirit of the original is an arcane secret even to the people who made that movie.

From the odd, hyper-stylized use of infographics, the at times asinine visual metaphors and the weird metaphysical guilt imposed on Wall Street executives for everything from suicides of people they barely knew to killing fusion power, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps tries to tell those stories about the human condition through the interrogation of American mythology that characterizes Oliver Stone‘s work at its best; instead what we get is that muddled, confessional, self-lacerating despair that constitutes Stone’s work at its worst.

The Liberal Ironist isn’t a snob.  He isn’t a purist.  He liked Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, another sequel to a movie from the 1980s that many people unfairly but humorously claimed was “ruined” by Shia LeBeouf.  The present movie wasn’t ruined by anyone (both Oliver Stone’s and writer Stephen Schiff’s considerable attempts notwithstanding); it was unnecessary.  Surprisingly, there isn’t really any message.  You could miss that point because of all the philosophizing by metaphor (which the Liberal Ironist likes), but it doesn’t sum to anything (which perhaps he should like, but doesn’t).

Gordon Gekko, 7 years out of prison in 2008 and having recently published a book that wonders aloud what has become of Wall Street, says “The problem is systemic.”  He mocks the sophisticated arbitrage algorithms that the hedge funds use to turn larger profits.  Interesting, I thought, could the movie be about this? Is Stone presenting one of those stories about the perils to one’s soul inherent in the system, like in Platoon or Nixon?  Will he make a movie about burned egos overplaying their hand in a dangerous World, like W.?  I mean, obviously Gordon Gekko is really just thinking of his way to get back on top of the finance game and needs the seed money that a tell-all book panning Wall Street could provide, but maybe the movie will address the fascinating paradox of all those math whizzes creating a financial system in which they could no longer calculate their own level of risk, as discussed in Wall Street Journal reporter Scott Patterson’s book The Quants.  The immediate culprit, moreso than quarterly profit-obsessed CEOs or the government policy of extremely low-interest rates (also factors Gekko decries), is hedge funds’ naiveté in their use of advanced mathematics to trade stock, which became so common it actually reduced their ability to comprehend and anticipate financial conditions.

No.  This interesting premise doesn’t transcend this scene.  Josh Brolin crashed the economy.  He also single-handedly stops fusion power, by the way.

Stone, who thought the best way to depict September 11th in film was to make a disaster movie about the collapse of the Twin Towers, here seeks to build a drama around the way rumors can stoke fear of a stock.  Whereas the panic surrounding the collapse of Bear Stearns could easily have been a spontaneous, convulsive reaction to speculation about the viability of the firm’s assets, its fictionalized stand-in, Keller Zabel, is brought down by an instrumental rumor spread by Brolin, a hedge fund manager for the bank Churchill Schwartz.

OK, I want to conduct a brief experiment.  I’ve heard that as along as the first and last letters in a word are where they belong, people can read an anagram at normal speed.  Let’s see if you can read which large, influential bank which had invested heavily in hedge funds, mortgages and collateralized debt obligations and whose former Chairman and CEO became Secretary of the Treasury Churchill Schwartz is supposed to be:

Gdmaoln Schas.

Gordon Gekko and Brolin’s Bretton James (or James Bretton?) each take a turn at the heavy, but the movie is weirdly-unable to make these reptilian investment bankers look like the bad guys.  The Liberal Ironist is not the Capitalist Fundamentalist, but he thought these characters had understandable motives and pursued what they wanted within reasonable bounds.  (They aren’t at fault for the suicides dramatically attributed to them, which certainly helps.)  Now, it is true that Gordon Gekko eventually steals $100 million from his daughter and only family, but even that seems more like protecting his property: Gekko’s daughter agreed to hold the money for him in a Swiss bank account while he was in prison.  When her brother killed himself (while Gordon was serving an 8-year prison sentence), she reneged, and she resolves to donate all of it to fusion power research upon withdrawal.  I’d be pretty mad at my daughter; in a sense Gordon’s massive theft is graceful.  After taking the money Gekko turns about $1.1 billion out of it before Christmas 2008.  Suddenly, fusion power really doesn’t look like much of an investment.

The most-frustrating thing about the movie is the character that’s supposed to be its “moral center”–Winnie Gekko, Gordon’s daughter and LeBeouf’s fiancée.  She becomes angry when LeBeouf watches her father on the news plugging his new book, she cannot forgive her father because he was in jail when her brother killed himself (though she always visited him in jail before that), and she leaves LeBeouf–not because he played a role in her loss of the money, but because he had tried to help Gordon reconcile with her without her knowledge.  “You’re like him!” she cries, when that’s self-evidently false.  She is intended as the moral center of the movie, but Winnie Gekko is a shrill, idiosyncratic, incoherent mess.  Actually, wait…she is the moral center of this movie.

Andrew Sullivan’s Approach to Blogging: Not the Entire Story, or Even the Best One

The Liberal Ironist has just read Andrew Sullivan‘s essay “Why I Blog”–and this 2-week-old blogger doesn’t approve.  This characterization is based on the historical meaning of the term “log,” which of course forms the basis of the term “web log.”  This demonstrates the limitations of metaphors based on the historical origins of words as much as anything.

The author acknowledges there is something bizarre, or to appearances even petulant, to calling an established journalist and author who has been blogging for 10 years now, misguided in his understanding of and aim in blogging.  While the author isn’t a regular reader of his blog, he liked a lot of what he’s read.  He simply suspects that the blog’s popularity owes in part to the ease with which it can be read.  This is an understandable means of reaching people on their own terms; it also sells the medium short.

Sullivan’s characterization of blogging is hardly a necessary approach to this endeavor–an admission he makes towards the end of the essay.  While the author blogs out of interest in “conceptual scoops” that are not always timely, Sullivan views a blog as grade above tweets or wall posts on Facebook:

“…We bloggers have scant opportunity to collect our thoughts, to wait until events have settled and a clear pattern emerges. We blog now—as news reaches us, as facts emerge. This is partly true for all journalism, which is, as its etymology suggests, daily writing, always subject to subsequent revision. And a good columnist will adjust position and judgment and even political loyalty over time, depending on events. But a blog is not so much daily writing as hourly writing. And with that level of timeliness, the provisionality of every word is even more pressing—and the risk of error or the thrill of prescience that much greater.”

The author literally sees no value in “hourly writing,” and doesn’t think it too old-fashioned to say that it is a healthy instinct for writing not to be infused with “the thrill of prescience.”  (Or maybe he just feels that way because he often has the strange suspicion that catching the news as it breaks is a waste of time.)  Sullivan has a point when he says that blogging is “more free-form, more accident-prone, less formal, more alive,” and thus more-vulnerable to criticism and more-accessible to critics on average than other forms of journalism or editorial comment.  But while this certainly makes blogging different from traditional print journalism or columns, Sullivan writes–and the terse, rapid response style of his blog suggests–as if the epitome of what blogging has to offer is to emphasize these qualities as much as possible.

Sullivan sees a blog as a fundamentally-confessional form of writing.  Blogging does reveal something about the author–but this is true of almost all writing in a non-trivial sense.  But the author was disappointed to find Sullivan celebrate the blog as essentially a form of emotive exposition.  This leads him to take a blithe attitude towards the emotional invective sometimes encountered on DailyKos or the lack of perspective on breaking news that can characterize the Drudge Report.  The author tends to write column-length posts, and is more-interested in trends, even where forgotten or overlooked, than in breaking news.  He uses a blog to reveal those problems or developments that he finds interesting, but not to offer visceral reactions to breaking news–a form of expression which is indeed ephemeral, and not always thought-provoking.

“From the first few days of using the form, I was hooked. The simple experience of being able to directly broadcast my own words to readers was an exhilarating literary liberation. Unlike the current generation of writers, who have only ever blogged, I knew firsthand what the alternative meant. I’d edited a weekly print magazine, The New Republic, for five years, and written countless columns and essays for a variety of traditional outlets. And in all this, I’d often chafed, as most writers do, at the endless delays, revisions, office politics, editorial fights, and last-minute cuts for space that dead-tree publishing entails. Blogging—even to an audience of a few hundred in the early days—was intoxicatingly free in comparison. Like taking a narcotic.”

This statement from the middle of the second page of Sullivan’s essay (which is long but still a recommended read) is as revealing as any.  (Finding pop sociology to be a guilty pleasure as I do) I wonder if Sullivan is in fact stuck on the thought of emphasizing the distinctness of blogging from other forms of writing simply because its flexibility and convenience never lost its sense of novelty for him.  Blogs have already been around for over a decade as the author writes this, so perhaps the thought of writing it in a way that could reach the most people with rapid-fire responses to the news hadn’t even occurred to him.  Perhaps the term “blogging” is overly-broad if it characterizes both what Andrew Sullivan and the current (admittedly-unproven) author are doing with the medium.

Sullivan makes another good point in celebrating the hyperlink as a means of informing the reader and holding him- or herself to a higher level of accountability.  This blog also attempts to offer lots of contextual information in posts, hoping to offer readers a path to other informative venues.  But Sullivan often offers a blunt opinion–favor or disfavor–where we could use some elaboration, and a lot more conceptual connection between hyperlinks.  That many different online sources might be brought together through a blog post in a novel relation, strangely, isn’t an approach that seems to have occurred to Sullivan.

Sullivan’s optimism wholly wins him over.  There are many virtues to the easy accessibility of various information and comment sites and the ability of readers on the great big Interweb to offer their questions, disagreements and even criticism directly to writers.  That said, Sullivan clearly believes in John Stuart Mill’s “marketplace of ideas”–“that the always adjusting and evolving collective mind can rapidly filter out bad arguments and bad ideas.”  An open discussion should be expected to “progress” in the direction of ideas that are easily-grasped among the participants of that discussion, not necessarily to a profound truth, accurate information or even a salutary or useful myth.  He acknowledges the risk of problems such as cyber-balkanization but still makes the extraordinary claim that Democrats and Republicans are brought together by the blogosphere.   That Sullivan seems confident that Democrats and Republicans have been forced to be more intellectually-accountable and fairer with each other because of the blogs seriously calls his grasp of the medium into question; in this case it doesn’t seem to matter where the links go.

Sullivan has a lot to say about the freedom and variety of potential available to bloggers, eventually acknowledging the different types of blogs we observe.  He goes on to make what is in a sense a mind-blowing admission, if perhaps still one that should have been obvious to us:

“…As the blogosphere has expanded beyond anyone’s capacity to absorb it, I’ve needed an assistant and interns to scour the Web for links and stories and photographs to respond to and think about. It’s a difficult balance, between your own interests and obsessions, and the knowledge, insight, and wit of others—but an immensely rich one…”

There are actually 2 take-home messages here, first that Sullivan has interns helping vet information he may want to write about on his blog, and second that the blogosphere has really become too large to grasp, precisely because of the democratic character he recognizes in it.  The importance of these admissions seems to be lost on him, first that his influence and efficacy as a blogger is still an outgrowth of the fact that he is Andrew Sullivan, a man who has distinguished himself in several forms of the print medium, and second that the very fact of its low entry cost tends to consign most bloggers to obscurity.  The issue isn’t that Sullivan’s characterization of blogging and its meaning or potential is wrong, but that it reflects an understandable but still-naive optimism of an enthusiastic journalist of established pedigree who entered the medium in its experimental early days–long after his excitement about the freedom and empowerment of that medium ceases to be a characteristic experience.

The Liberal Ironist owes Andrew Sullivan gratitude for clarifying his approach to blogging.  Reflecting the kind of conversation he wants blogging to be, his essay about blogging also demands a response beyond the visceral reactions and conjectural ideas that those of us who follow politics can already experience daily.  If only he would write blog posts like a more-compact version of that essay–but again, we have the absurdity of a starting blogger judging a veteran by his standard.  In closing, the Liberal Ironist would cast Sullivan’s characterization of traditional writing, somewhat-ambitiously, as the purpose of this blog:

“…In some ways, blogging’s gifts to our discourse make the skills of a good traditional writer much more valuable, not less. The torrent of blogospheric insights, ideas, and arguments places a greater premium on the person who can finally make sense of it all, turning it into something more solid, and lasting, and rewarding.”

The Republicans Issue Their Declaration of Co-Dependence: The Draft Pledge to America

The Draft Pledge to America represents the clearest statement we have had of the Republican Party’s relationship to the Tea Party movement.  Social and foreign-policy issues are virtually absent from this document (aside from sanctions against Iran and SDI missile defense), and national security and immigration play a modest role in it.

The document laments the perceived current state of “An unchecked executive, a compliant legislature, and an overreaching judiciary,” and rather than referring to the poorly-executed wars and strangely-broad unwarranted wiretapping of the W. Bush years, it is referring to the President and Congress that passed hate crimes legislation to protect gays and the disabled, reformed health care while actually reducing spending on Medicare, reformed the Federal student loan program, passed a major economic stimulus, helped the American auto industry overhaul its business model and avoid collapse, provide Federal aid to States to help them ease the impact of drastic budget cuts, and pass a massive overhaul of the fast-and-loose and dizzyingly-complex financial sector that threw us into the Second Great Depression.

The focus on President Obama only carries on for half a page, though; after this emphasis shifts to a positive policy message–a thing which the Liberal Ironist has been hoping to see from a coherent conservative party since 2006.  Notably, there is a specific commitment to Judicial philosophy of Originalism, and to emphasize Federalism and State’s rights in policymaking.

“It’s time to do away with the old politics: that much is clear.”  Hoo boy.  You won’t quite reach the middle of page 4 before the draft of the Republican Party’s guiding document just assumes you are a sucker.  It’s true that anti-Washington messages have a certain resonance…in just about every national election since 1976.  Promising to do away with the old politics is old politics.  No one has ever really explained what the relationship would be between “doing away with the old politics” and, oh, implementing the desired policy reforms.  On the margins, Baby Boomers seem to respond to ’60s-style contempt of the political process every election cycle.

“Structure dictates behavior,” the Pledge continues, referring to Congressional reform.  I agree, but even moreso in the case of the Republican Party’s current political situation: The party has heard the small-government message from the Tea Party’s dramatic primary wins, loud and clear.  The Pledge is a formal announcement by the Republican Party that it will make limited government, political Federalism and market solutions to policy problems its full-time job.  President Bush‘s big-government “Compassionate Conservatism” and Neoconservativism are gone.

In bullet form, highlights of the policy proposals in the Pledge to America are…

Taxes: Make the Bush tax cuts permanent, and allow small businesses a tax deduction equal to 20% of their income.

Regulations: Require Congressional approval for any new Federal regulation that would either add to the Federal budget deficit or “make it harder to create jobs.”  (The causal logic required to determine either isn’t entirely clear; what is clear is that Congressional Republicans want more leverage over the President and these issues have caused a lot of public anxiety.)  There is a pledge to repeal the small business health care mandates in the new health care law.

Federal spending: Excluding Medicare, Social Security, the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration (which the Pledge calls “common-sense exceptions,” certainly the right way to put it from a political standpoint), the Republicans commit to reduce Federal spending to pre-Bailout levels.  This is plausible, and not as radical as it sounds considering the Bailout and the Stimulus were a two-off, and the exclusion of…well, 60% of the Federal budget from the calculations.  Still, this should result in comparative austerity in Federal spending, which the Pledge claims of “at least $100 billion in the first year alone.”  There is a pledge to audit and review every current Federal program to identify waste.  The Republicans promise to cancel what remains of the stimulus and reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Entitlements: Though no specifics are yet given, the Republicans promise to pass budgetary reforms that will require making the Federal entitlement programs solvent now.  Paul Ryan, an ideological but well-mannered Republican from Wisconsin who expressed himself professionally when his party seemed most-aimless, has proposed a conservative plan for doing that, though his party clearly hasn’t committed to it yet.

Health care: The Republicans pledge to repeal the President’s signature health care bill and replace it, I think it is fair to say, with a series of gimmicks: Limits on medical malpractice lawsuits, small business health care consortia, buying insurance across state lines, and health savings accounts.  These measures will do little in general to restrain costs, abuses, and gaps in health care coverage among the neediest.

The Pledge doesn’t address the fact that repealing the health care bill would increase Medicare spending by $500 billion over 10 years.

Congressional reform: The Pledge mentions a new law that would require a citation of Constitutional enabling authority to be included in every new bill.  This is an interesting idea, but with Presidential signing statements almost to laws unto themselves and a Supreme Court that makes bold decisions regardless of the deciding judicial philosophy, imposing such procedural restraints on Congress, if effective, may further weaken the Legislative Branch rather than limit the power of the Federal Government.

Defense/National Security: There is a pledge to keep the Guantanamo Bay detention center open (hardly an issue as President Obama hasn’t closed it yet), to continue the fortification of the border with Mexico, and an implicit commitment to expand the ICE program of collaboration between local and Federal law enforcement for checking the immigration status of criminal detainees.

This document is interesting in representing the purposes and goals of a Republican Party that embodies greater enthusiasm and self-confidence than it has in the past 5 years.  True, it’s just a “pledge,” and “contract”-type documents are narrower than a party platform, but the overwhelming focus on reducing the scope of the Federal Government, the secondary focus on law-and-order issues and the near-total silence on social issues and even the wars abroad and the issue of terrorism is interesting. Because of the narrowness of the document it’s too early to tell if we’re looking at the outline of the “new Republican Party” here, but that’s a real possibility.

Considering current electoral projections from Nate Silver‘s suggest a House majority of 223 Republicans and Republican pickups from 23 to 30 Governorships just in time for the post-Census Congressional reapportionment, the Republicans will probably have the chance to demonstrate whether this is the case very soon.

India’s Maoist Insurgency: When Free Trade Cannot Promote Good Government in Developing Countries

The September/October 2010 issue of Foreign Policy has a pretty illuminating article on the Naxalite Maoist insurgency operating throughout rural east India.  This decades-old ideological rebellion was nearly licked when India began its steady booming climb out of world-economic obscurity back in 1991.  Authors Jason Miklian and Scott Carney say that today it’s just a racket, set in motion by the remaining core of armed insurgents and fed by isolated and impoverished villagers and the vast opportunities for extortion in this vast coal-mining region.

Resource-rich regions are a classic inducement to insurgent activity.  The authors also refer to the Niger Delta, Nigeria’s major oil-producing region, as an analogous case of a developing country resource-fed insurgency, but the comparison is inexact.  The Naxalite insurgency poses a more-compelling threat to India of de facto secession than the autonomy movement in the Niger River Delta.  Additionally, the availability of oil as a source of rents for insurgents in the Niger Delta has prevented some militant movements from organizing as an insurgence and launching a full-blown civil war.  Paul Collier and Nicholas Sambanis‘ illuminating 2-volume case study collection, Understanding Civil War, includes a complicated examination of many failed civil war starts in unstable and fractious Nigeria.  In the case of the Ijaw revolt in the Niger Delta, this conflict has been associated with successive rounds of militant attacks on oil companies’ facilities, from blowing up pipelines, to kidnapping and ransoming oil rig workers, to occupying oil flow stations and loading platforms.  These actions usually result in a quick settlement by the oil company, which wants its workers back and to get the oil flowing again quickly and reliably.  Successive Nigerian governments have been less-repressive of these occupations of oil company facilities, according to the contributor of that chapter, because while costly these very-local insurgent activities don’t directly challenge government power.

Initially, the Naxalites, a revolutionary Maoist group, didn’t manifest such naked material calculation.  But right at the moment of Communism’s repudiation as a World-historical force and the collapse of possible outside sources of state funding or support–about 20 years ago–India aggressively stepped up its extraction of the region’s resources.  The extreme unevenness of the development of this vast country (as well as the radical regional variation in the nature of the natural and human resources available) has become a serious problem.

Regions of Naxalite Insurgency in India 2007

As the article notes, this insurgency has grown in the wake of the formal separation of the states of Jharkand and Chhattisgarh, intended to give the locals more-direct regulatory control of mining operations there.  The result was a more-local rentier state, as local officials took graft and skimmed revenues while outside companies, for a while at least, were able to mine the region’s coal aggressively and at times carelessly.  Among the results are underground coal fires that can burn for decades and even cause massive cave-ins, and a series of other mishaps and conditions which continue to require the relocation of hundreds of thousands of locals.  Offered ideological pretenses aside, the evidence from the field suggests that the Naxalite insurgency is really about its participants organizing to extort a cut of these rents.

All of this looks like another instance (albeit a surprising one) of a large developing country turning out to be internally-incoherent.  India’s coal regions provide demanded energy resources for an increasingly energy-starved world.  Much like the oil- and natural gas-producing countries of the Persian Gulf, the Former Soviet Union and West Africa, the diamond-rich Great Lakes region of the Congo and the drug-producing or -conveying areas of Colombia, Afghanistan and now Mexico, the association of certain commodities with protectionist oligarchy at best and the mass-murdering banditry of civil war at worst is very strong.  Even as economic globalization lifted a billion people out of extreme poverty since the end of the Cold War, for those countries or regions at the initial points of certain commodity supply chains, the same economic forces are malevolent.  When those who live with a resource that everyone wants are numerous and poor, they will become just one contender in a fight for control that will draw combatants who have crass intentions and no morals.  One of the businessmen interviewed for this article freely admits that he is operating an illegal mine; when Maoists kidnapped him, the result was an agreement that he would pay them a 5% commission on his profits, and he was released.  He describes the extortion money as a tax like any other.  In Jharkand and Chhattisgarh, the “stationary bandit” has serious competition.