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Monday, March 28, 2011

From ECON 101

Over the past few months, Republican governors have been attacking public workers as if they were to blame for the prolonged recession. Their salaries, benefits or jobs must be slashed to balance budgets. The banks and Wall Street investors who promoted a real estate bubble and trashed the economy are apparently long forgotten. The most affluent Americans, who benefited disproportionately from the unsustainable growth -- and who are again back on their feet -- are not being asked to shoulder more of a burden. Indeed, they got renewed tax cuts when the "Bush" (now Obama) cuts were renewed.

Thus, it seems, only the local librarians, teachers, fire fighters, or police officers can be blamed and made to pay.

Many critics of public sector workers reference seemingly damning statistics from a January 2009 Forbes magazine piece by Stephane Fitch:
The common presumption is that public servants forgo high wages in exchange for safe jobs and benefits. The reality is they get all three. State and local government workers get paid an average of $25.30 an hour, which is 33% higher than the private sector's $19, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Throw in pensions and other benefits and the gap widens to 42%.
That piece of information certainly makes it sound as if the public sector might be a place to make cuts when states are facing budgetary pressures.

However, the statistic is very misleading -- making a false comparison according to economists Robert Pollin and Jeffrey Thompson in the March 7-14, 2011, issue of The Nation:
What figures such as these fail to reflect is that state and local government workers are older and substantially better educated than private-sector workers. Forbes is therefore comparing apples and oranges. As John Schmitt of the Center for Economic Policy Research recently showed, when state and local government employees are matched against private sector workers of the same age and educational levels, the public workers earn, on average, about 4 percent less than their private counterparts. Moreover, the results of Schmitt’s apples-to-apples comparison are fully consistent with numerous studies examining this same question over the past twenty years.
Public sector employment should provide some job security -- workers earn less than their peers in the private sector.

Indeed, educated workers in the private sector should support them. If they are fired from their public sector jobs, then the employment market will be flooded with a larger number of more-educated workers. With a greater supply of workers chasing scarce jobs, salaries and benefits for private sector workers will go down. While the current recession has led to very high unemployment rates, the rate for college graduates has been at 5% or less. That's far too high, but the rate for all other job-seekers has been at least double that figure.

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Pragmatic cosmopolitanism?

Now that the US has intervened in Libya, many political analysts have speculated about an "Obama Doctrine." Last night on MSNBC's "Hardball," Andrea Mitchell identifed a doctrine in response to host Chris Matthews' question:
MATTHEWS: Is there a doctrine? In the first segment of the show tonight, we had McDonough on trying to find out if there is a doctrine. Is there a vision—what did G.W.‘s father call it, a vision thing? Is there a vision thing here?

MITCHELL: Well, I think there is a vision. It‘s emerging, and I think people have questioned whether there‘s a strategy.

The president tried to outline that in answers to our own Savannah Guthrie last night at the news conference in El Salvador. And basically what he says is, when you have a catastrophe that you can avert and the benefits outweigh the costs, and you have international or multilateral support, go for it...

You cannot stand idly by. That‘s what I would call the Obama doctrine.

MATTHEWS: It has conditions, too. We have to have friends who will join us, and we have to have an enemy who we can go after.

MITCHELL: Exactly.
Video here.

On Twitter earlier today (yes, I've just started tweeting), I labeled this "pragmatic cosmopolitianism."

There have been prior efforts to describe an Obama Doctrine, such as the one offered by Katrina vanden Heuvel, which focused on the President's major speeches of 2009 (arguably leading to the Nobel Prize):
support for diplomacy and the UN; commitment to a nuclear-free world; a belief that democracy is strengthened not through US intervention but when people win for themselves their rights and liberties; and engagement and cooperation with, rather than antagonism toward, the Muslim world.
In March 2008, Spencer Ackerman outlined something similar:
Ackerman describes how Obama and his advisors support a "human dignity" agenda that would -- contra the current policy approach -- seek to "fill stomachs, alleviate malaria, or protect neighborhoods from marauding bands of militiamen."
I think "pragmatic cosmopolitanism" still works to describe all these ideas.

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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Hot Duck

Today, on the Duck of Minerva group IR blog, I posted "Libya: R2P or Regime Change?" R2P means responsibility to protect, a framing of the authorized intervention that is too rarely used by American media.

On Thursday, I posted "Nuclear Disarmament: Looking Back at Reykjavik." Nearly 25 years ago, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev both offered proposals to disarm offensive nuclear arsenals within 10 years. Declassified documents reveal that this aim was prevented by U.S. desire to research and potentially deploy anti-ballistic missile.

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

NCAA Hoops

As usual, I picked Kansas to win the NCAA tournament. The team is again a #1 seed -- and was again picked by President Obama to win the national championship. He correctly picked UNC in 2009, but had KU last year.

This is a typical 2011 bracket for me, though I picked a few extra upsets in a pool weighted towards rewarding them and made a few different tactical choices in a pool involving some local competitors.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Spring Break 2011: Hoops and Nukes

Most of my colleagues at the Duck of Minerva group IR blog are at the annual ISA convention in Montreal. Thus, I'm posting over there this week to provide fresh content. Of course, most of the readers are probably in Montreal too...

In any case, today, March 16, I posted "No Nukes: Arms Division" about the ongoing work by former Defense Secretary William Perry to achieve nuclear disarmament. Perry recently provided some scary details about a 1970s-era computer error in the Pentagon.

Tuesday, March 15, I blogged "Multiple Meltdowns?" about the ongoing crisis at the Japanese nuclear plants. I linked to some expert blogs to read and went out on a (short and sturdy) limb by predicting more political problems for the nuclear power industry.

While I'm pointing to Duck posts, I might as well link to my February 17 article on "A Truth Commission for Iraq." The piece calls for a U.S. inquiry in order to puncture the developing narrative about the success of counterinsurgency tactics (and "the surge") in Iraq.

Finally, I'll post my 2011 NCAA bracket on here tomorrow. If any old friends or colleagues want to participate in a private pool, just shoot me an email. Also, I am running the old Journolist private pool to see if Nate Silver can win for a third straight time. However, without the list, it is difficult to publicize the contest and only a portion of last year's entrants has submitted a bracket. So far, Silver is not among them.

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Monday, March 14, 2011


Saturday night, my family headed out to The Rud for dinner and to see a group of local musicians perform Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" LP live from start-to-finish (plus a few other hits as encores). Show video here (yes, I'm in the front row for the early show).

The performers were danny flanigan, Kimmet Cantwell, Brigid Kaelin, Todd Johnson, Tim Halcomb, and Ray Rizzo. Rizzo and his beard were channeling Mick Fleetwood, Kaelin and Cantwell sang and looked a bit like Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks, bassist Halcomb played the role well of John McVie, and guitarist Johnson has an angular face and the look of eventual solo-artist Lindsey Buckingham. Old friend danny flanigan didn't really look like a member of Fleetwood Mac from the Rumours period (they had 5 members for that recording), but he could have been representing founding guitarist Peter Green -- or maybe eventual solo artist and former member Bob Welch.

The evening created a flood of old memories from the late 1970s. My long-time college roommate had the album on 8-track tape and I recall borrowing it before a big date my freshman year -- and playing it a lot.

Oh, and "Don't Stop" reminded me of the 1992 Clinton campaign. The song made me feel kind of depressed about promise lost.

In all, it was a fun evening and the music was very entertaining. Unfortunately, the Falls City Pale Ale I had during the show was not as good as other local brews.

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Tuesday, March 08, 2011

ICC in Film

I viewed Roman Polanski's "The Ghost Writer" last weekend and thought it was a reasonably entertaining political thriller. It wasn't exactly "Chinatown," but that's a pretty high standard.

The story is pretty simple: A new ghost writer is brought on to an autobiography project for a former British Prime Minister, Adam Lang, who seems quite obviously modeled on Tony Blair. The film is based on a book by Robert Harris, who was apparently friendly with the Blair government until the Iraq war. In the story, the original ghostwriter, a long-time political confident of the PM, has died under mysterious circumstances. Some characters suspect foul play.

In the film, the Lang character is under investigation from the International Criminal Court for his alleged "war crimes" or "crimes against humanity." The charges do not stem from Iraq, but rather from the UK's cooperation with American rendition program involving terrorism suspects.

The ICC plotline is somewhat implausible given that the ICC is designed to be initially deferential to state investigations of alleged crimes. The ICC webpage:
In general, a case will be inadmissible if it has been or is being investigated or prosecuted by a State with jurisdiction.
Despite this shortcoming, it was nonetheless interesting to think about the ICC as if it was a meaningful player in these kinds of circumstances.

The film also accurately teaches viewers a simple lesson about world politics. Not all states are party to the Rome Convention and accept ICC jurisdiction, but the list of non-member states is somewhat embarrassing for the US. I couldn't find the script on-line, but this section of dialogue is pretty close to the scene from the movie:
While the Blair/Lang comparison is obvious, I could not help but think of Polanski's similar situation.

As is well-known, the infamous director pled guilty on the charge of statutory rape (the alleged victim was 13) and fled the US in 1978. Despite extradition attempts, the director continues to make movies. Indeed, he won an Oscar in 2003 for directing "The Pianist."

I won't spoil the film's ending by revealing what happens to Lang (and other characters). You might want to check it out for yourself (now on DVD and on Showtime, I think).

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Friday, March 04, 2011


Middlebury Political Scientist Allison Stanger was on "The Daily Show" earlier this week discussing her book about outsourcing in American foreign policy.

I just wanted to post a couple of items that suggest the issue is even bigger than she discussed on the show.

First, Stanger didn't emphasize the fact that even intelligence agencies are outsourcing their work for higher pay. Tim Shorrock in the September/October 2009 Mother Jones:
more than 70 percent of the US intelligence budget—estimated this year at more than $60 billion—is now spent on contractors. Nearly 40,000 private contractors work for intelligence agencies including the CIA and the NSA, according to Ronald Sanders, a human resources official in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence; these contractors pull in salaries that average about $207,000 a year—almost double the pay of their cubicle mates employed by the government.

At the NSA, my sources estimate that at least half the jobs are contracted out. (The agency won't disclose the official breakdown.) At the National Reconnaissance Office, the top-secret agency that manages military spy satellites, a full 95 percent of personnel actually work for contractors.
Like Stanger, Shorrock wrote a book about this problem.

Second, though it is not "privatization," it is noteworthy that the US and other affluent states essentially outsource international peacekeeping to poorer countries. James Gibney, in the July/August 2009 The Atlantic:
the top 10 payers of peacekeeping dues (rich countries like the United States, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, etc.) rely on the top 10 troop contributors (poor countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Jordan, Nepal, Ghana, etc.) to do their dirty work...
Gibney calls it a mercenary system, which is what Stanger implies when she discusses privatization.

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Thursday, March 03, 2011

Not all deficit hawks are defense hawks

Many partisan deficit hawks are simply using the current political context to pursue policies that they have long supported for other reasons. Where were their deficit concerns when voting to renew the "Bush tax cuts" -- particularly since they insisted that tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans were included in any final deal?

And many are happy to see Pentagon spending increase when other spending is facing significant reductions. As one Washington insider recently told The Nation, “When the Soviet Union disappeared...a lot of people on the right failed to notice.”

It may be that the circumstances are changing in Washington. The unnamed Washington insider I just quoted is Grover Norquist, a long-time conservative activist.

On November 30, a coalition of conservative groups signed a joint letter calling for defense cuts as part of any reductions in government spending (pdf here).
The Pentagon is slated to spend $6.5 trillion over the next ten years – equal to the current projected deficit spending in the same time period....True fiscal stewards cannot eschew real spending reform by protecting pet projects in the federal budget. Any such Department of Defense favoritism would signal that the new Congress is not serious about fiscal responsibility and not ready to lead.
The coalition includes a number of libertarians, including Christopher Preble and Ben Friedman of the Cato Institute.

Robert Dreyfuss in that February 14, 2011, issue of The Nation reported that a counter-coalition of conservatives who are hawkish on defense are leading the fight to preserve defense spending. The names are familiar from the Bush years: William Kristol, Thomas Donnelly, and Danielle Pletka.

Dreyfuss says that Kristol's Foreign Policy Initiative is an updated version of the Project for a New American Century. Indeed, FPI has been scolding the Obama administration for planned future defense cuts.

If the question was of less importance, I would suggest making some popcorn and watching the conservatives commit fratricide. Instead, it looks like the libertarians might need some help.

Good progressives may need to help Tom Coburn cut defense. What would such a Faustian bargain entail?

Corrections: Ben Friedman wrote to point out that he is not a libertarian even though he works at Cato. Also, I didn't mean to imply he's a signatory to the letter (he's not). Rather, Dreyfuss reported that Friedman and Preble gave a Capitol Hill forum calling for substantial defense cuts.

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