No Panaceas

Friday, March 14, 2003
Stupid is as stupid does: Lots of stupid things are being said and done on both sides of the Iraqi debate. But it just doesn't get any dumber than this. I don't know where to even start. Renaming French toast, Freedom toast, when it was invented by an American named French is just silliness. But this goes way beyond silliness. It's a crass exploitation of the honored dead simply for the sake of some cheap publicity.

What's even worse is this continuing implication that the French owe us for our efforts in the world wars, as if our troops who fought and died there were mere mercenaries. I think they were there for a higher purpose. The French have always expressed their gratitude for what we, and the Brits, and the Russians, and the French soldiers, and the French resistance, did. But gratitude is hardly the same as giving up one's sovereign right to disagree.

Perhaps it's time for Congress to make a mass journey down to a little place called Yorktown. It might provide needed perspective about our mutual history with the French.

Sometimes two allied nations disagree. Sometimes two sovereign democracies, with a long history of helping each other find themselves unable to find common ground on a key issue. This is called the real world. Disagreement doesn't mean one side is venal. It doesn't mean one side hates freedom. It doesn't mean that one side is ungrateful to the other. And besides, it's not exactly like the French are the only one of our allies who disagree with us.

Thursday, March 13, 2003
Blair’s Paradox: I have been meaning to say something about British PM Tony Blair for a while now. His role is the most interesting of all. In many ways he has been a far more effective advocate for war in Iraq than has Bush. It is not just that he is, in my opinion, a more effective overall communicator than his U.S. counterpart. Rather, Blair has two qualities that makes his evaluation of Iraq far more credible than Bush’s. First, as a liberal Blair is communicating against type – he’s not just saying what you would expect him to say. That provides useful information to moderates. Second, Blair is putting far more on the line than Bush.

From the U.S. perspective Blair is a bit of leftist. (Within Britain he’s a centrist, but that’s because the British center is to the left of the American center.) Indeed, most of the time on most issues, Bush et al would just as soon the Brits put Thatcher back at 10 Downing. Thus the bite in comments like this from Talking Points Memo: “A lot of us have long had the sense that the Bush administration would use Blair for all he was worth and then toss his political carcass aside like an old banana peel once they were done with him.” (Emphasis in original.)

Blair is acting a bit against type and that is useful for people who are trying to get a handle on reality. Think Nixon going to China. Here was one of the preeminent Cold Warriors breaking bread with the enemy in Beijing itself. Conservatives and moderates thought, “If Nixon thinks this is the right thing to do, then it must be the right thing to do.” Liberals obviously already thought it was right thing to do.

What we have here is a classic principal-agent type scenario. We are the principals, our leaders are the agents. The agents have inside intelligence about the state of the world, e.g., the imminence of the Iraqi threat. They are telling us about that world, but we know that these agents might have reasons to mislead. Hawkish agents, for example, may want us to think the state of the world is such that it requires a hawkish response even when it does not. But when a set of agents with diverse views tells us the same thing – that we need a hawkish response – then that’s useful information. It enhances the credibility of the agents. As another example, consider the profound effect that Powell had on the debate once he decided to take a firm hawkish stance towards Iraq. Blair and Powell are easily Bush’s most credible advocates for war.

I suppose we could extend this as another way of looking at multilateral versus unilateral action. A diverse multilateral coalition sends a far more credible signal to the world that the war is justified.

Blair has taken a horrific pounding for his stand, and he faces a far bigger threat to his political survival than does Bush. What’s the worst thing that can happen to Bush? If things go really, really wrong, if thousands of U.S. troops die in a drawn-out war, then it might hurt Bush in the 2004 general election. But barring an impossible to foresee impeachment/conviction, Bush will remain in office until January 2005, at minimum.

Blair enjoys no such luxury. He serves at the behest of the Labour Members of Parliament. They elected him Prime Minister; the British people only made Blair the leader indirectly, by electing Labour MPs to a majority of the seats. Labour will stay in the majority until the next election, but Labour does not have to keep Blair as the PM until the next election. (For example, the Conservative party majority deposed Margaret Thatcher and elevated John Major in 1990.)

MPs do not act in a vacuum. Public opinion will count for a lot. What all of this means is that when anti-war passions are at their absolute highest, British politicians will have a mechanism to remove Blair. That is not the case in the U.S. Even if anti-war fervor here gets huge – and it’s unlikely to be anything like Britain’s – Bush is safe until the next election, by which time passions probably will have cooled and Iraq will be only part of the electoral equation.

Blair’s greater stake gives him more credibility. He’s putting his whole career on the line for this. But that’s the terrible paradox he faces. Because the dirty secret, the stench in the room that everyone at the dinner party politely ignored, is that the U.S. does not need Britain, at least not militarily. Their value is symbolic and diplomatic. Then Rumsfeld piped up, “What’s that smell?” Oops.

Wednesday, March 12, 2003
Obstruction by any other name III: This dead horse cannot take much more punishment but I wanted to pull together a couple more points before moving on to Blair, basketball, and beyond.

My March 5th post ended with this: “…I think it is fair to say that we have never seen this type of filibuster before. Is it a dangerous precedent? Is it all that different than other, non-filibuster, types of obstruction?”

At one level filibusters are just another type of obstruction. Indeed, in an important sense, filibustering a judicial nominee is far less democratically noxious then, say, the Judiciary chair simply refusing to grant a nominee a hearing. At least a filibuster requires taking a public stance, and successful filibusters require the commitment of multiple senators. Avoiding cloture takes forty-one senators. Obstruction at the committee level is fairly private and can be done by a single senator (albeit with the tacit acquiescence of more.) Thus it is rather absurd to seriously say that the Estrada filibuster is worse than what has been done previously.

At another level, filibusters are different. On a salient issue filibusters are public and openly conflictive, and thus attract media attention and carry a rather direct risk of political backlash for the obstructing minority. Furthermore, filibusters pose a major threat to the Senate’s ability to conduct business. They can be hugely disruptive and, at times, they can completely shut the Senate down. (The modern Senate does have a mechanism for avoiding a shutdown, though it has actually encouraged more use of the filibuster.) Frequent users of the filibuster risk alienating other senators, a bad idea in a body where a single enemy can wreak havoc on your ability to produce goodies for the constituents.

So the filibuster is different. It’s a big deal to use it, especially on highly salient issues with strong majority support. Estrada seems to fit the bill for the Democrats.

Which brings me to a final question. Why does Estrada fit the bill? Numerous explanations are out there. He is a stealth candidate. Bush wants to promote him to the Supreme Court so this is an attempt to “nip it in the bud,” as Barney Fife would say. The Democrats need to show they can stand up to Bush. The Democrats think he is simply too conservative, especially for what is, arguably, the second most important court in the U.S., and especially because the DC Circuit currently exhibits a quite even ideological balance. The Democrats don’t want the first Hispanic on the D.C. Circuit to be a Republican.

Whatever. Who really knows? We are talking about a single event with multiple plausible explanations.

There is one component to this that I have not seen really addressed, at least not directly. Part of the equation has little to do with Estrada per se – it’s not like he’s the first stealth candidate, or the most unqualified nominee, or, presumably, even the most ideologically extreme nominee ever nominated to the federal bench. What has changed is the role of the lower courts. They are more important today than ever before. Consider some quite basic data. In the mid-1980s the Supreme Court received about 4200 petitions a year. That number now exceeds 7000. Yet, in the mid-1980s the Court granted cert to around 180 petitions a term, that number is now around eighty. So, not only is the Court hearing proportionally fewer cases a term, it is hearing a lower absolute number of cases as well.

I am not criticizing the Court. A group of nine justices and, at maximum, thirty-six clerks can only do so much. But the consequence of all this is that the Court ignores a lot of cases, some of them quite important. This renders the lower court decisions, including many decisions at the Court of Appeals level, the final say on a given matter. Thus the DC Circuit, as the “second most important court” is more important than ever. Perhaps it is even important enough to fight over.

Tuesday, March 11, 2003
Obstruction by any other name II: For now Senate Republicans are backing off on the Estrada nomination. Meanwhile President Bush is calling for a guaranteed floor vote for all judicial nominees. His proposal is similar to the one I talked about recently. It differs in two crucial ways. First, not surprisingly it contains no supermajority provision. Second, it offers the Democrats nothing.

The Democrats are more likely to nominate Al Sharpton for president than agree to this. In the current climate, given the way Republicans obstructed so many Clinton nominees, it is hardly credible to now say, “Let’s change the rules to make it easier for us to confirm our nominees.” As I said recently, politics is about the short run; claims that future Democratic presidents will benefit will not impress many Democrats who today face a Republican president and Republican-majority Congress. The Republicans would not support this reform if Gore or Clinton were president.

But there is a way. Two ways actually. The first is part what I suggested the other day. President Bush should work out a deal with the Democrats that put a bunch of the blocked Clinton nominees on the bench in exchange for the Dems supporting the reform. The second way takes a pointer from recent history. During the Clinton’s first term a majority of Republicans and Democrats supported the line-item veto. But the Republicans hesitated to hand it to Clinton. So, the compromise was to have the veto kick-in in when the next president was inaugurated in 1997. That turned out to be Clinton. The line-item veto itself was blatantly unconstitutional, as the Supremes soon confirmed, but the compromise idea was a good one. It would work here by passing rule change that goes into effect January 20, 2005. Both parties then take their chances on who first benefits from the change.

Of course, this would not solve the immediate problem and I doubt anything will happen on this front anytime soon. Senators from both parties jealously treasure their powers to obstruct. (And heartily whine when things they like get obstructed.) Some Republicans might publicly support this proposal, but most of the support won’t be serious.

I know I’ve beaten the confirmation horse quite to death. These days it’s either this or the war. I’ll finish this whole meandering discussion tomorrow and then turn to other topics. Coming soon: Why March Madness is a great big empty exercise of lameness.

Monday, March 10, 2003
Economists Don't Understand Politics: For years economists have promoted the privatization of social security. Devoid of politics there is little denying that privatization makes economic sense. What economists fail to understand is politics. I am not talking about the difficult politics and economics of converting the system to some sort of privatization – a big problem given the current-workers-support-current-retirees scheme. Rather I am talking about what happens, inevitably, when there are bumps in the road.

Seen from a long run perspective – a non-Keynesian long run – some form of privatization makes economic sense relative to the current system. Historically and in the aggregate, markets trend upward. The problem is that politics is usually (always?) about the short run. (People want jobs now. Politicians want to get re-elected now.) In the short run markets tank. Once in a while they tank terribly. What will happen then? Those most hurt by the downturn will raise hell. In such a situation supporters of a bailout will have a political advantage: they will seek a concentrated benefit – money to make up the losses – against diffuse costs – the bill goes to all taxpayers, especially future taxpayers. The bailout supporters thus will have the incentive to organize, lobby, contribute money to politicians, make a bailout the basis of voting decisions, and they will have tear-jerking personal interest stories to tell a sympathetic media. Bailout opponents will consist of economic analysts on talk shows urging patience while talking abstractly about the long run. To whom will self-interested politicians respond?

A bailout will be expensive and quite possibly, if not probably, utterly obviate any efficiency gains from privatization. Furthermore, if workers assume that the government will bail them out when the market tanks, this could affect investment decisions in a negative way. Why do so many people continue to move to a hurricane-magnet sandbar jutting into the Atlantic (Florida)? Because they think (know?) the government will bail them out when they get wiped out.

I am not denying that social security is a fundamentally flawed system, but privatization is not the panacea.

Why am I talking about this now? For years I have made this argument to my students, and to numerous always-grumpy economists, but I had never noticed a single politician make this point. The perfection of the market (Republicans) and the sanctity of social security (Democrats) are opposing articles of faith that squeeze out most nuance. But Howard Dean has started making this argument. Personally, I think he has no chance of getting the Democratic nomination – and I’m not suggesting he should – but at least on this he demonstrates an ability to cut across conventional thinking.

Motivating Foreign Policy: Here is an interesting article about the future of U.S. foreign policy post-September 11. It views the war against Iraq as a necessary process of global integration. Also, here's a nice little primer on the history of U.N. Security Council vetoes.

Sunday, March 09, 2003
Balancing Act: Isn't part of the whole point of disarming Iraq to keep Hussein from acquiring nukes and then destabilizing the region? So does Iran having nukes mean that we'll have to maintain stability in the region by balancing Iran's nukes with someone else's. Like, uh, Iraq? (Of course, Pakistan has nukes but their concern is primarily eastward.)