Friday, August 22, 2003

So, an American finally got blown up in Afghanistan. It was going to happen eventually, with combat still active, and force levels there as high as they've ever been.

But it's not just the quality of our forces at issue, it's the quality of our allies. Which makes me think back to a local radio show from a couple of weeks back. After Sarah Chayes, now running an NGO's operations in Kandahar, described how the warlord we're propping up there had outraged local sensibilities by, among other things, getting publically drunk and pulling girls out of school to dance for visiting dignitaries, Omar Zakhiwal, an advisor to the Karzai government, offered this (roughly 26 and a half minutes into the broadcast, if you'd like to find it in the audio):

Zakhiwal: ... the warlords that we have in provinces, they are American allies for one reason and one reason alone, that is to fight terrorism and al-Qaeda. And these people are rational. They know very well that this is the reason why they are there for. And if this reason goes away, they probably will not be allies. And for that reason, they will make sure that that reason remains in Afghanistan. So not only they will be involved in the same things that your guest from Kandahar described they are involved in, they probably will also be in favor of the presence of terrorism and al-Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan because that would remain the reason for the alliance with the Americans.

Lyse Doucet, host: Oh dear. Well, let's bring in Sarah Chayes again, who we still have on the line from Kandahar, to respond to that.

Chayes: Sorry, I just want to emphatically agree with that. Emphatically agree. It is absolutely clear in Kandahar that these so-called US allies are in fact allowing the extremist elements back in from Pakistan. It's like a man flying two kites. They're flying the American kite and the extremist kite at the same time. And they are just tweaking the strings enough of each side to keep them both in the air.

And so once again, as in central America, as in the last years of Vietnam, as in sponsored coups for decades all over the world, American hawks pin their hopes on thugs with no discernable virtue other than the willingness to say, over and over, whatever the Americans want to hear...

Chayes's earlier remarks on the quality of the regime start about 22 minutes in, and are very much worth hearing as well. Heck, listen to the whole thing...

Thursday, August 21, 2003

Slashdot now has links to reports that worms exploiting holes in Microsoft software recently shut down safety systems at a nuclear plant for five hours, and just yesterday shut down the signal systems for Maryland commuter rail.

There are two problems here. One, that these systems were exposed to the internet in the first place; it's not at all clear what could justify the risks. The other, that they're using software with such known, and notorious security problems -- which would make them vulnerable to insider attack even if they were properly isolated from the larger public net...

The movie and record industry associations want you to think that unauthorized copying -- oh sorry, "piracy" -- of their wares is eeeeevil because it funds terrorism. From which perspective, this is a decidedly mixed blessing. A peer-to-peer filesharing gizmo based in Palestine has declared:

JENIN, West Bank, Aug. 19 /PRNewswire/ -- In response to the email received today from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to Earthstation 5 for copyright violations for streaming FIRST RUN movies over the internet for FREE, this is our official response!

Earthstation 5 is at war with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Record Association of America (RIAA), and to make our point very clear that their governing laws and policys have absolutely no meaning to us here in Palestine, we will continue to add even more movies for FREE.

ES5 (http://www.es5 .com) does not require any signups, registration, credit cards and/or any other personal information to watch the first rate streamed movies like TERMINATOR 3, BRUCE ALMIGHTY, MATRIX RELOADED, etc.

Our secure software protect our users who use our P2P application and there is nothing that you can do to stop us, says Ras Kabir, president of Earthstation 5 (http:/www.earthstation5 .com).

On the one hand, this is based in Jenin, where everything that happens can be "linked to" a terrorist organization, at least if you aren't fussy about what constitutes a link. On the other hand, if they're putting the stuff out for FREE, they're not obviously in a position to fund much arms traffic...

Speaking of piracy, by the way, the writeup here of St. Michael's church on Virgin Gorda briefly mentions a real-life Reverend Dr. Syn -- a parson with a sideline in piracy, of the more traditional high-seas variety. This versatile fellow is also mentioned in the latest travelog of the mysterious Isabella V., in which she slips onto the island in a silenced boat under cover of darkness to evade customs, finds out she could have accomplished the same by docking the boat on a public wharf after 5:00 PM, defies death by driving a Suzuki Samurai on bad roads, and is finally chased off the island by a force she dares not confront -- obnoxious tourists.

EarthStation press release via Slashdot

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

In the wake of the latest bombings, Tom Friedman acknowledges again that the invasion he touted is not exactly going well:

The Pentagon, with its insistence on doing nation-building in Iraq on the cheap, has been too slow in forming a provisional Iraqi government, too slow in getting the electricity on, too slow in turning security over to Iraqis. As a result, while most Iraqis are happy to be rid of Saddam, too many feel that their lives are tangibly worse in every other respect -- jobs, electricity, roadblocks -- because of the U.S. presence. "Saddam was paranoid, but he kept the streets open -- you're closing all the arteries," Muhammad Kadhim, a Baghdad professor, said to me.

Which sounds as if he's finally starting to confront reality. But only to a point:

Everyone has advice now for the U.S.: bring in U.N. peacekeepers, bring in the French. They're all wrong. There are only two things we need: more Americans out back and more Iraqis out front. President Bush needs to give the U.S. administrator, Paul Bremer III, more resources to get basic services here running and Iraqis in charge as fast as we can. This is not Germany 1945. America is much more radioactive in this region. We don't have infinite time.

Yes, and we don't have infinite cash either, or infinite infantry. Iraq is already costing the U.S. treasury $4 billion a month, according to Rumbo himself, and that doesn't seem likely to drop anytime soon. As for personnel, the military is already way overstressed, and many units have already been in theater much longer than is wise for lack of replacements. What other "resources" is Dubya supposed to commit, and where is he supposed to dredge them up?

This is why we pretty much have to bring in U.N. peacekeepers -- hopefully including the French -- if indeed there are any still willing to come. They have more to contribute; we're maxed out. And yes, after the high handed treatment Dubya's crew gave that body last winter, they can expect the price to include a substantial helping of crow, which Powell and friends should swallow with all the cheer they can muster. If they think that's too much humiliation, they can compare it to the humiliation of a loss of control in Iraq, which seems likely to happen if we don't get help soon.

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

The piece I did last week on homeowners' associations and libertarianism seems to have gotten more than the usual level of comments in response. To recap: a homeowner was told by the homeowner's association to take down the UN flag which had replaced his US flag -- a content-based speech restriction which would not be legal for a government body. But his options for dealing with the situation -- fight in court, petition the board to change its policies, or try to join it himself, are, at best, the same he could use in fighting the government.

Unfortunately, a lot of the responses were a bit clueless, like this one, from the libertarian I cited, who points out that homeowners' association covenants can be drawn up to be less restrictive than government powers, and that only governments have the right of eminent domain. But the homeowners' association in the case at issue was exercising powers which the constitution (after the 14th amendment) forbids to government at any level. And while homeowners' associations don't have the power of eminent domain, many of them can foreclose on homeowners that run afoul of them; to the guy being bought out, this is a distinction with precious little difference. Then there's this post, which argues that homeowners' associations are less of a threat than local governments exercising the same powers because the associations are local. And so forth.

A more interesting response comes from Julian Sanchez, who arrives at this conclusion:

If you look at a narrow case, many years down the line, it may well be that the choice faced by someone moving into a home bound by contract to an association is the same as that of someone moving into a zoned area. But this elides the very different processes by which the degree of collective control over property was arrived at. The private process should give us far greater confidence that the tradeoff is efficient than the majoritarian one, whether or not it yields the same outcome.

... based on the argument that at some point, individual homeowners faced a choice to join the association or not, and made that choice on some rational economic basis.

Which is odd a few respects. First off, as an empirical matter, many homeowners' associations are associated with whole new subidivions from the word go, and are not formed by the individual choices of homeowners over time. But even if not, arrangements which were economically efficient at one point may not be decades down the line; time was that the major business in what's now Silicon Valley was orchards. And the policies of the association can likewise change, as noted in the comments here:

Covenants and busybody homeowners associations stick in my craw and I'd avoid them at all costs, but i have sympathy for those who'd get stuck in a fix when they bought a house they loved in a great spot and figured it would be OK, then later got surprised when the assoc got taken over by a bunch of tightpipes. I'm not especailly troubled by reasonable and sensible appearance restrictions. But regardless of private property rights, people deserve some protection from arbitrary and capricious rule by the burghers of Elm st. ...

So, even if you believe that homeowners' associations start more efficient than zoning boards -- of which I'm not convinced -- they're hardly guaranteed to stay that way. And when they go bad, they get to do it with the exercise of powers that governments lack. Is there any other reason to prefer them? Sanchez actually starts from another, which is this:

First, if you're not a pure consequentialist (and even if you are... but hold that thought), it might well be the case that two actions or situations have precisely the same practical consequences but differ in moral status. The means can matter as much as the end. Let's say I'm looking for gay sex in a small midwestern town. Maybe I'm unable to satisfy that desire because the local sheriff is keen on making sure no such hanky panky goes down in his town. Most folks, presumably Charles included, will say that's wrong. On the other hand, maybe I'm unable to find any because there just aren't any willing gay men in town. The consequence is the same. In terms of "positive freedom," to use Berlin's schema, I'm in precisely the same situation of "unfreedom" either way. What's obvious in this case, though, is that my degree of positive "freedom" here isn't the only possible way of assessing the two situations. One might at the very least make the case that in the latter instance, my (positive) freedom is being limited by those who are perfectly entitled to restrict it -- my prospective partners -- whereas in the second, it isn't.

I'm not sure how exactly this is supposed to apply to homeowners' associations versus zoning boards. If Julian actually means to express a moral preference for private contracts over government accountable to voters... well, I just have to disagree; I tend to favor "one person, one vote" over "one dollar, one vote" when individual rights are at issue, and those are the choices on the menu. I tend to remember, for example, that a lot of our regulatory structures were actually put in place to prevent actual exploitation of the poor by, as someone once said, malefactors of great wealth who were using their influence to systematically exploit the little guy -- as in, for example, the creation of the SEC under FDR in response to endemic stock scams in the 1920s, and the earlier creation of the FDA in response to the exposure of genuinely dangerous packaged foods, all in response to serious pressure from poorly endowed, but numerous voters.

That's not to say that I'm opposed to market-based policies or regulatory structures per se. From what I can tell, for instance, pollution credits seem to work pretty well in practice, and I don't have a whole lot of patience for the moralistic and, frankly, silly arguments of some lefties that a pollution market is evil even if it works because it "removes the moral stigma" of polluting. But it's worth noting that there is nothing "natural" about the market established by a pollution credit regime -- in order to function at all, it requires the existence of a regulatory regime capable of regulating the output of polluters, and keeping them all within whatever emissions are allowed by their credits.

Which brings up another point of dispute with the libertarians, or at least those who claim that "the natural operation of the market" -- any market -- is best left without government interference. Markets, almost by definition, are mechanisms for the exchange of property rights. Property rights -- well, what are they? In America, for instance, holding title to a piece of land does not allow you to keep someone from flying an airplane overhead, but does allow you to keep them from walking on it. Well, barring easements. And in Britain, it doesn't necessarily even let you do that -- people are granted the right to walk "traditional paths" regardless of what the owners of the land underneath them have to say about it. Even in the realm of tangible, portable, personal effects, "ownership" of something does not translate into the absolute right to do anything to that object -- to cite one trivial example, the owner of a gun does not have the unrestricted right to point it wherever they choose and pull the trigger.

So ownership of property -- even simple, tangible property, never mind more obviously artifactual things like stock in a company, or, heaven forfend, mutual funds -- is actually a fairly complex concept, granting certain rights to the property and limiting others to balance the rights of the owners against other people in society at large. And that balance is resolved by different societies in different ways. How? There are only two possibilities -- by main force, in a continual Hobbesian struggle of all against all -- or by some sort of political process.

And this point is directly relevant to the case of homeowners' associations versus zoning boards. Both are, explicitly and avowedly, legal mechanisms set up to restrict the actions of individual property holders -- in other words, to limit property rights -- in order to balance the owners' interests against those of other members of some larger community.

And what goes for the delineation of property rights goes for other aspects of a market as well, such as dispute resolution and enforcement. For which, nota bene, the homeowners' association uses the government -- for dispute resolution (the courts) and enforcement (the police, if it comes to that). Again, the only alternative to Hobbesian battles here is some sort of political process. Politics, then, is not an "unnatural" interference with the "natural" market; rather, political processes are a precondition for the existence a market of any sophistication.

And to get back to our homeowners, signing onto a homeowners' association, as opposed to a zoning board, does not get them away from the exercise of state power. When the associations foreclose, the cops will evict. To that extent, at least, the distinction between "public" and "private" bodies here is an illusion. The main difference, it seems to me, is less that one is public and the other private, than that homeowners' associations use contract law to bypass the limits America's founding fathers put on the actions of government per se. They also limit their voting franchise to propertyholders in a community, which was common in government early in American history, but which government has lately gotten away from, for what most people regard as pretty good reasons.

The difference, in short, is that when a homeowners' association goes bad, the people affected have less recourse against it than they would against government. For someone who values individual liberties, that doesn't strike me personally as a good deal.

Monday, August 18, 2003

First this:

U.S. troops fighting their way into Baghdad April 8 were justified when they fired a tank round at a local hotel, an incident that killed two television cameramen, a recently concluded U.S. Central Command investigation determined.


Personnel from embattled U.S. units, the release continued, observed what they believed to be enemy troops directing fire against the Americans from the balcony of an upper room of a high-rise building. U.S. witnesses also observed flashes of light -- which appeared to be enemy fire coming from the vicinity of the building.

Now this:

Reuters cameraman Mazen Dana, an award-winning journalist who had covered some of the world's hottest spots, has been shot dead while filming near a U.S.-run prison on the outskirts of Baghdad.

Eyewitnesses said Dana, 43, was shot by soldiers on an American tank as he filmed outside Abu Ghraib prison in western Baghdad.

His last pictures show a U.S. tank driving towards Dana outside the prison walls. Several shots ring out from the tank, and Dana's camera falls to the ground.

The U.S. military acknowledged on Sunday that its troops had "engaged" a Reuters cameraman, saying they had thought his camera was a rocket propelled grenade launcher.

I feel for the troops -- they're in a lousy situation not of their own making. But it's critical to the success of their current mission that they establish good relations with the locals. If everyone looks like a threat, and every gizmo looks like an RPG, they cannot possibly do that.

And as for the brass, their report is now even less likely to convince anyone who doesn't really want to be convinced...

via pandagon

Kevin Drum wonders why it seems that everyone in the vast panoply of Tom Friedman's worldwide list of contacts seems to talk exactly like Tom Friedman. Matthew Yglesias has his suspicions.
Dubya's administration favors free trade and a flexible workforce -- except when the workers in a protected industry are the swing votes in a key state. Witness the textile tariffs it imposed as naked pandering to textile workers in the Carolinas. In short, on this issue, Dubya's making the Clinton administration, which went against the unions in its trade policy, look like a bastion of principle.

How could that get more pathetic? When the pandering doesn't work:

Lynn Mayson is an unemployed machine operator here. Roger Chastain is president of a textile company. While they travel in distinctively different circles, they have quite a bit in common.

Both are Republicans. Both were part of the Solid South vote that helped George W. Bush win the White House in 2000. And, now, both say they are angry enough about job losses in the region to vote for someone else in 2004.

"Something's got to give," said Ms. Mayson, a mother of three, as she left a state-run jobs center the other day. "I'm not going to vote for Bush unless things change. The economy has got to get better, and it's only going to do that if someone makes something happen."

Mr. Chastain, whose company, Mount Vernon Mills, has laid off 1,000 workers in recent years, is part of a coalition of textile executives who have formally complained to the White House about trade practices they contend are driving Americans out of jobs and manufacturers out of business, while giving huge advantages to China and other countries.

... trade practices which include breaking an agreement with Pakistan, a supposedly important ally in the War on Terra, in order to benefit the textile workers. Sad all around.