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More thoughts on Libertarianism

January 3, 2012

At The Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan further expounds on some of the themes that have kept me busy on the blog this week. I agree with the contention that Libertarianism is not, fundamentally, racist – but I insist that it’s modern conception — maximum liberty, minuscule government intervention on everything sans national defense and the protection of private property — is an ideology that has historically only benefited one segment of this society (property owning, white males). “Absolute neutrality” as Sullivan argues, is a profoundly worthwhile ideal. I wish that was the kind of society existing in 2012 America, but it’s not, and the sheer NUMERICAL weight of minorities (and “women in the workforce” as he says) are not meaningful metrics of this country advancing past the legacies of state-sponsored/ state-enforced discrimination, immigration quotas, property restrictions, and the like. 

(Also, the link to Ian Haney Lopez’ text: The Legal Construction of Race)

The Modern Cable Guy? Service still, um, sucks.

January 2, 2012

Just stumbled across this weird article from Sunday’s New York Times, on wardrobe selections of contemporary cable guys (Not kidding). Glad to hear that mega cable companies like Comcast are spending money on training for their workers — but I haven’t seen any noticeable correlation with improved service (or FAST service, for that matter). After my massive Comcast Debacle last month – in which I finally took to Twitter to complain after service techs missed numerous appointments, only to miss a few more after ranting on Twitter – I’ve decided to switch to Apple TV and look forward to never sending Comcast a check again.

Mosque attacks in New York: Some more thoughts on Hate Crimes

January 2, 2012

So a point that even level-headed critics of hate crime laws often miss (and one that I emphasized the other day), is that hate crime laws — protecting persons AND property — give nation states an important metric into things like social tolerance. I’ll concede that this is a worthwhile imperative for states to understake, especially nations that have absurd histories of racial/group violence like the United States. I’ll also concede that there’s no conclusive data on the “deterrent” effects of an enhanced penalty for bias crimes, and while I partially agree with Andrew Sullivan’s point about liberal sanctimony (I’m also a person before any socially-constructed ‘identity’ or category), its simply not possible to achieve the elusive goal of color-blindness by being color-blind (paraphrase of Ian Haney Lopez). The history of racial and ethnic violence in this country is still too raw, and its contemporary manifestations too real, to deny the reality that entire minority groups are often vulnerable to group violence. (Also note: I shy away from the term ‘hate,’ because it simply cannot capture the essence of what these laws are about).

The firebomb attack on a Mosque and Hindu Temple this past weekend in New York is a perfect case in point. Attacks on houses of worship are intended to intimidate an entire subsection of American society. That was the purpose of the wave of Black Church arsons that took place in the 90s — and it’s been the intent of similar crimes against Mosques, Mandirs, and Gurdwaras since 9/11. Hate crime laws not only tack on enhanced penalties for such crimes, but they also give law enforcement at the Federal and State levels important tools for crime classification. Again, as I argued over the weekend, I think such tools are important not just for data acquisition purposes, but also so authorities have some way of properly allocating their resources when communal tensions flare. Bias incidents like this may be infrequent – but they are on the same spectrum as other crimes against humanity, like ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Measuring Security: Costs and Perceptions

January 2, 2012

Over at Vanity Fair, Charles Mann reaches a conclusion that many others have rendered over the past decade: intrusive security measures at the nation’s airports are costly and their benefits are questionable, if not entirely minimal. Without rehashing his piece, let’s recall a few truths: First, the nation’s security overhaul in our transportation systems was an inevitable, immediate consequence of the 9/11 attacks, which were hastened by the system failures/lapses in screenings on that day and in the months prior. Second, even if you agree with Mann et.al that airport security expenditures have been gargantuan and yield questionable results, its nearly impossible to gut a Federal Agency — especially one that commands an $8 billion budget and has about 60 thousand employees. (Remember, the old Washington adage at solving a public policy problem is to throw more money at it, call for a bipartisan commission, or call for a new office/bureau/agency, or in this case, Cabinet Department!

Money grafs:

Has the nation simply wasted a trillion dollars protecting itself against terror? Mostly, but perhaps not entirely. “Most of the time we assess risk through gut feelings,” says Paul Slovic, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon who is also the president of Decision Research, a nonprofit R&D organization. “We’re not robots just looking at the numbers.” Confronted with a risk, people ask questions: Is this a risk that I benefit from taking, as when I get in a car? Is it forced on me by someone else, as when I am exposed to radiation? Are the potential consequences catastrophic? Is the impact immediate and observable, or will I not know the consequences until much later, as with cancer? Such questions, Slovic says, “reflect values that are sometimes left out of the experts’ calculations.”

Security theater, from this perspective, is an attempt to convey a message: “We are doing everything possible to protect you.” When 9/11 shattered the public’s confidence in flying, Slovic says, the handful of anti-terror measures that actually work—hardening the cockpit door, positive baggage matching, more-effective intelligence—would not have addressed the public’s dread, because the measures can’t really be seen. Relying on them would have been the equivalent of saying, “Have confidence in Uncle Sam,” when the problem was the very loss of confidence. So a certain amount of theater made sense. Over time, though, the value of the message changes. At first the policeman in the train station reassures you. Later, the uniform sends a message: train travel is dangerous. “The show gets less effective, and sometimes it becomes counterproductive.”

Security, like much else, is in fact about risk vs. reward. The “gut feelings” that Prof. Slovic mentions, has a lot to do with the perception of security, and the trade-offs imposed by the presence — or lack thereof — from bomb-sniffing dogs, full-body scanners, and an assortment of regulations governing your carry on items. That said, I’m glad Vanity Fair placed Mann’s piece in its Culture Section. A few years ago, Zbigniew Brzezinski penned an excellent op-ed in The Washington Post, in which he argued that the nation’s myriad security measures effected after 9/11 had largely contributed to a “culture of fear.” Though he wrote this during the latter half of the Bush Administration, I’ve seen few signs of this abating since 2009 (with the minor exception of the silly terror alert colors). There is still significant paranoia in our culture — and one that’s shamelessly exploited by politicians, pundits, and security entrepreneurs, who reap huge pay offs for fostering perceptions of a nation constantly under siege. When was the last time you entered an office building without having to sign in with a rent-a-cop at the front desk? On this, Brzezinski wrote:

Just last week, here in Washington, on my way to visit a journalistic office, I had to pass through one of the absurd “security checks” that have proliferated in almost all the privately owned office buildings in this capital — and in New York City. A uniformed guard required me to fill out a form, show an I.D. and in this case explain in writing the purpose of my visit. Would a visiting terrorist indicate in writing that the purpose is “to blow up the building”? Would the guard be able to arrest such a self-confessing, would-be suicide bomber? To make matters more absurd, large department stores, with their crowds of shoppers, do not have any comparable procedures. Nor do concert halls or movie theaters. Yet such “security” procedures have become routine, wasting hundreds of millions of dollars and further contributing to a siege mentality.

Government at every level has stimulated the paranoia. Consider, for example, the electronic billboards over interstate highways urging motorists to “Report Suspicious Activity” (drivers in turbans?). Some mass media have made their own contribution. The cable channels and some print media have found that horror scenarios attract audiences, while terror “experts” as “consultants” provide authenticity for the apocalyptic visions fed to the American public. Hence the proliferation of programs with bearded “terrorists” as the central villains. Their general effect is to reinforce the sense of the unknown but lurking danger that is said to increasingly threaten the lives of all Americans.

Its hard for me to envision a scenario in which the domestic security establishment shrinks to a pre-9/11 level (interesting thought experiment: would we consider pre-9/11 baselines, ‘normal?’). To paraphrase Paul Pillar, Americans must realize that security is a function of how much they are willing to sacrifice (liberty/tax dollars) in its pursuit.

On Throwing Fits

January 2, 2012

Over at The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg characterizes choices Pakistan’s military rulers considered in the aftermath of the Bin Laden raid last May. He writes:

There are two ways for the Pakistani military to grapple with the fact that Bin Laden was hiding out in Pakistan: They could apologize to the U.S. for, advertently or not, hiding the greatest mass murderer in American history, and they could conduct a serious internal investigation to discover how it came to pass that Bin Laden found refuge in their country. Or, alternatively, they could throw a fit about the “violation” of their border by American soldiers hunting the aforementioned greatest mass murderer in American history, and investigate not how Bin Laden got into Pakistan, but how CIA operative gained access to Pakistan.

From a solely U.S. standpoint (reminiscent of the options Dick Armitage famously laid out to Musharraf in 2001), Goldberg is not incorrect. But he presents a false binary (apologize + investigate OR whine and tantrum throw) that doesn’t capture the constraints and incentives for Islamabad’s military and civilian leadership to not comply with U.S. demands.

For starters, civilian leadership in Pakistan is not an occupation that carries much job security. This is a country that’s been governed through direct military rule for over half of its history. In similar fashion to an organized crime syndicate in Caldwell, New Jersey, civilian leaders in Pakistan don’t tow the military’s preference set are likely to be whacked (e.g. Gen. Ayub Khan taking the reigns from PM Iskander Mirza in 1958; Gen. Musharraf jailing Nawaz Sharif in the late 90s, etc). This is nothing new — and those memories create profound disincentives for leaders, civilian OR military, to appear weak in the face of foreign friends or adversaries. The U.S. Navy Seal mission was a brazen violation of Pakistan’s domestic sovereignty (to use Stephen Krasner’s definition), but then again, so are the covert drone strikes in the NWFP. That is not a reality lost on Pakistan’s public and ruling elite. As a result, no matter how culpable military/ISI authorities were in hiding OBL, their most viable short-term option was to engage in distinctly Pakistani petulance about borders and international law (as if they cared about the latter, anyway).

 

 

 

Talk about staying on message!

January 2, 2012

Either Ron Paul decided – or someone else decided for him – that it would be great to keep the media’s conversation about his candidacy centered on the Texas Republican’s views on race. He’s a purist – fine, I’ll concede that, but he’s apparently not even willing to acknowledge the conditions that sparked federal enforcement of Civil Rights law. That’s deeply troubling considering that he’s in his mid-70s and lived through most of the more egregious stuff during the middle part of this century. In any event, he’es not going to be the nominee – and if he is (and I’m willing to put money on this now), a third party candidate will emerge (Huntsman?) only to ensure another Obama term. Numbers, people.

Thoughts on the Gwadar Port – and alliance dynamics in South Asia.

January 1, 2012

A little late to this due to holiday festivities, but just noticed Michael Krepon’s nice assessment of the often confusing alliance dynamics in my favorite region of the world.During the Cold War, South

Asia, like many other developing regions, was fertile ground for the emergence of rival patron-client relationships and proxy contests for influence. While India formally remained part of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), New Delhi sustained a cozy partnership with Moscow, which helped reinforce Washington’s emerging alliance with Islamabad. CENTO and SEATO were important formal structures in this setting, as Krepon points out, and its also helpful to underscore the way in which the Nixon Administration used its Pakistan alliance as a vehicle to advance its opening with China. (See this). Pakistan’s cover in advancing the U.S.-China opening was no small concession — and Islamabad’s military rulers were convinced that the United States would come to its defense during the brutal 1971 Indo-Pak war, a conflict that *literally* broke the country in two — and played a critical role in the development of Islamabad’s grand military strategy three decades later. (I’ll write more later about the the 1971 war – and its impact on Pakistani military doctrine and threat perceptions, but for the moment, I want to highlight a salient reality: the United States has NEVER come to Pakistan’s defense during a Subcontinental Conflict. And neither has China. Thus the larger question: what good is superpower patronage if they won’t back ya’ up when it really matters?)

Concerning Gwadar, Krepon correctly characterizes the China-Pak “all-weather” silliness, writing:

Pakistan’s military will increasingly rely on Chinese equipment. But the track record of China-Pakistan relations — especially during natural disasters and crises with India — suggests a relationship in which Pakistan asks for much and Beijing is circumspect about giving.

As I wrote last year, Beijing has found numerous opportunities to quietly back away from infrastructure development in its Southern neighbor, as a consequence of Pakistan’s deteriorating internal security environment. One such example was the much-celebrated Gwadar Port development project in the Southern city of Gwadar. In 2001, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji visited Pakistan to announce Beijing’s plans to finance the first phase of the port’s construction, pledging $198 million of the requested $248 million necessary to begin the project. Situated at the nexus of the Arabian Sea and only forty miles east of Iran, Gwadar has long been considered a key strategic locale for both Islamabad and Beijing. Mindful of the Indian Navy’s blockade of the Port of Karachi during the 1971 war and New Delhi’s threatened blockade in the midst of the 1999 Kargil Crisis, Pakistani’s military planners have envisioned port construction at Gwadar as a way of easing its strategic vulnerability in the event of another Subcontinent confrontation. For the PRC, the Gwadar project has been seen a way for Beijing to diversify and secure its crude oil imports, while also potentially serving as a long-term basis for naval power projection in the Indian Ocean. A future port at Gwadar also serves as a critical link for the consolidation of the Karakoram Highway connecting China’s Xinjiang Province to Pakistan’s major cities – including Islamabad, Rawalpindi, and Abbottabad.

Gwadar brought a lot of hype a decade ago – and the reality on the ground has changed considerably since its development. More on this later.

My paper, in .pdf form.

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