Friday, January 16, 2004

A few days ago, Nick Kristof posted a column in the Times arguing once again, as he has in the past, the evils of

flirting with anti-trade positions by putting the emphasis on labor, environmental and human rights standards in international agreements.

because, he says, if Cambodians can't get jobs in sweatshops, they wind up trying to make a living picking trash out of garbage dumps, under conditions which are even worse.

As a defense of the economic system which gives rise to those sweatshops, this has always struck me as uncomfortably close to the arguments of ante-bellum Southerners who defended their own peculiar instutition by pointing out that slaves were better off than some tribesmen you could find in diseased conditions in Africa. The salient question, to me, about the sweatshops isn't whether the Cambodians could do worse, but rather, whether we could do better -- and given that Nike was, not too long ago, paying more money per shoe for endorsement deals than for the labor in the shoe itself, it seems likely that we can.

But if you'd like to read someone taking on the argument on its own terms, you could do worse than peruse Daniel Davies take on the column in Crooked Timber, which among other things, dings Kristof for predicting new hardship for Cambodians if Cambodia were forced to honor labor standards which it already meets. In this post, Davies also inaugurates a new scoring scheme for this sort of pro-WTO propaganda. Eight Globollocks points!

Note as well Kristof's weird assertion that discussion of "labor, environmental and human rights standards" in the context of any trade arrangement whatever is somehow "anti-trade" -- that is, opposed to international trade per se. I gather that there are circles in which this is conventional wisdom -- a recent public appearance here by Robert Rubin featured similar comments, for which Rubin gave no evidence whatever. But to me, at least, this seems an odd enough proposition to deserve some kind of a supporting argument...

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Paul Krugman has a posse...
A bit of fan appreciation from Ad Frank on stage at T.T.'s yesterday:

I'd like to thank you all for coming out to a rock and roll show on a night that is cold as fuck. I wouldn't have done it.

Review of the set here, for those who have an interest in the Boston music scene...

Some blog entries are quick. This one wasn't; I've been chewing it over for nearly a week now. But that said, it's as topical now as it was when I started, so what the heck.

I had the opportunity to hear a talk by Kanan Makiya at MIT last week. Makiya, as you may know, is the former Iraqi dissident who wrote Republic of Fear, a moving account of Saddam's atrocities, and is involved with current events there both as an advisor to the constitutional committee of the IGC, and as the organizer of the Iraq Memory Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving the memory of Saddam Hussein's atrocities.

It was a talk that featured, to me, a lot of weird contrasts. In fact, it started off with one -- Makiya described the mistrust of interim constitutions in many Iraqi circles, due to the use of interim constitutions by several military regimes, and ultimately, the Baath party under Saddam Hussein. For those reasons, he stressed the importance of proceeding directly to a stable, final constitution.

He then explained that due in part to exigent external pressures which he didn't describe in detail (presumably from Washington), there was going to be an interim constitution. To some, this might suggest an unwarranted haste -- one of several mistakes in the occupation which Makiya acknowledged.

For instance, he also cited the failure of the CPA to find Iraqi allies and collaborate effectively with them (including the Arabic-speaking archivists he has recruited for his own foundation, who are not being allowed to assist the US in the perusal of the archives for their own purposes), and how the use of American forces to maintain security was a situation fraught with peril, which he said that many in advance had advised them to avoid.

And yet, rather than blame, he had high praise for the officials in the American administration, and more precisely the neoconservative faction within it. (The alliance seems to spill over into personal connections; for what it's worth, he is in the stable of experts maintained by Benador Associates, which also includes Richard Perle, Laurie Mylroie, and the particularly bloody-minded Michael Ledeen).

When I pointed out in Q&A that all this had made some of us doubt the depth and sincerity of the administration's commitment to democracy in Iraq, his response was in part to cite the old cliché that it's better to be inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in. And while it's not clear what this means to people who will never be inside Dubya's tent, or Dick Cheney's, no matter what we do, he suggested that it would be good for those on the American left to demand that the administration hold true to its small-d democratic rhetoric -- even though the administration has shown no inclination to accomodate big-D Democratic demands of any kind whatever.

And in fact, there's something to his logic, at least as it applies to him. In politics, you can't always choose who you work with, and demanding that your allies agree with you in every particular leads you into the sins of Saint Ralph (viz. the comments here). In fact, it's not entirely out of the question that Makiya has private doubts about the quality of the administration which he is reluctant to air in any public or semipublic forum, for obvious reasons -- but nevertheless feels that by staying part of the process, he may be able to keep them away from errors they would otherwise slide into. (Though he certainly wouldn't, and didn't, hint at any such reservations to the likes of me).

But there is also a danger. The logic that "it would be worse without me" can justify collaboration with people a lot worse than Bill Clinton, or George Bush. Indeed, without equating those guys with the likes of Saddam, we can still suggest that at least a few of the people who collaborated with and enabled the Baath regime were following the same sort of reasoning. Conversely, a protest against the CPA's hamhandedness, its failure to find and engage with Iraqi allies on the ground, and so forth, would have a lot more impact from Kanan Makiya, than from the likes of me.

So, I imagine, for someone in Makiya's position, there must be indignities and reverses which must be endured to get anything done. You have to decide how much good you are actually doing by staying in volved in the process -- and how much toleration of hasty interim constitutions, corruption, pandering to theocrats, armed raids against civilians based on unsubstantiated rumors from informants (much as under the old regime), and so forth is worth that good.

But on the other hand, from the American history even in this region in the past, it seems to me, there would have to be indignities and reverses which are too deep to be ignored. One might think, for instance, of the United States's unquestioned betrayal of the Shiite rebellion after Gulf War I, or Kissinger's earlier stab in the back of the Kurds -- both preceded by solemn promises and invocations of high ideals from American politicians who, when pushed, did not live up to them. So the awful part is that when you're dealing with these people directly, you can't always know what they are up to, and how firmly they are committed to it. There are no sharp lines between firm commitment and looking for the quick fix, or between looking for the quick fix and betraying democratic ideals entirely.

And so, at any point, you just have to guess how close you are to the line -- and whether you're doing more good by sticking with your current collaborators, flawed though they be, or by publicly holding them personally to account for their flaws, knowing (from their record) that the doors to the closed chambers will be forever sealed to you after that.

But the road Makiya is traveling is unmarked. No sign, no border post, marks that line.

For now, Makiya doesn't seem to think he's anywhere close to the line. But for that, he has nothing to go on but his own judgment. I don't envy him one bit.

Note: some light copy-editing to this post done late... e.g., switched link from Juan Cole's discussion of the IGC's establishment of Sharia law to Riverbend's...

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Some folks are wondering whether Dubya's new space program is worth the money -- initially, at least, an extra $1 billion a year -- especially given the government's current financial straits. Tosh. He's simultaneously working on another "proposal, which would provide at least $1.5 billion for training to help couples develop interpersonal skills that sustain 'healthy marriages.'"

His political staff have been developing this over the past several months, in collaboration with several conservative groups. And given conservatives' general opposition to meddlesome government social spending, particularly when it interferes with peoples' private lives and private choices, you know the expense has to be quite minor not to be a sore point...

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Actual headline from today's New York Times:

Iowa's Dark Art of Caucusing Is Turning a Bit More Public

You got it right there, folks. The basic mechanisms of low-level American democracy described as a lost, dark art...

On The American Street, Mark Kleiman quotes Phil Carter on the limits of torture, as applied to Candaian Maher Arar, who the US tortured by proxy, by shipping him off to Syria (where he was also a citizen, but hadn't been for years):

Carter explains how much could have been done to Arar while remaining within the letter of the promise not to "torture" him:

Locking someone in a small cell, denying him access to the outside world, etc. -- those are all "coercive" techniques, but they may or may not be torture. (See Mark Bowden's article in the Atlantic Monthly for where this line is drawn.) The importance of this distinction is that international law outlaws torture, but it does not outlaw coercion. Moreover, it does not tell a nation what it can do with its own nationals, because that would be an intrusion on state sovereignty.

Arar claims Syria went well over this line -- but forget that. Just consider that when hearing that in the jails in Baghdad at Guantanmo, in the cells full of prisoners that the US will not name, we are not using torture.

And then consider allegations (like those featured on the front of the Wall Street Journal yesterday, unfortunately not free on line) that we too have gone over that line...

I haven't done one of these in a while, but...

Ad peeve du jour: the lite beer ad that uses "freedom of choice" by Devo as its background music, but in typical fashion, clips the lyrics. Imagine how much better it would be if it ended right:

Freedom of choice
Is what you got
Freedom from choice
Is what you want

The lessons to be drawn from this for the average beer drinker are left as an exercise for the interested reader.

And as long as I'm on the subject, I'm actually looking forward to the Budweiser spots featuring "Leon" the football player with the, well, interesting sense of his role in the game ("Football is the ultimate team game, so I blame my teammates...") -- but how on earth does this sell beer?

A brief note: I expect to be at Arisia for at least a day or so this weekend, attired in thematically appropriate headgear...

Sunday, January 11, 2004

A little news from New England:

Last night at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, late in the fourth quarter, on a night so cold that the fountain outside one Boston art gallery was encased in a shell of ice that had frozen around it, the Tennessee Titans were driving downfield against the New England Patriots. But after the two-minute warning, the drive fizzled, as two long penalties and a pass falling through the hands of receiver Drew Bennett gave the ball to New England, on their own 42-yard line, with one minute, 38 seconds left to play.

In past playoffs, this sort of thing has set the stage for late-game heroics by Patriot quarterback Tom Brady and his offense -- like the heart-stopping drive that won the Superbowl for them two years back. But this time, there was no need. The Pats were already leading, 17-14. Brady kneeled on the ball three times, and then ran a slow-developing pass play to run the last three seconds off the clock, securing victory, and advancement to next week's AFC championship game -- which will be played again in Foxborough, before many of the same hometown fans.

And as he kneeled, boos rained down upon the field.

In guaranteeing themselves mere victory, the Pats were making no attempt to cover the six-point Las Vegas spread.

Hey, folks. Gamble much?

A brief exchange on a policy initiative of recent note:

Me: So, what do you think of Dubya's new moonbase?
Other guy: It's a grand idea. We should send him there as soon as possible.

More seriously, it's interesting to note that the basic engineering and science planning was done by noted engineer and scientist Karl Rove, who thinks it's important enough that the current projects of the lesser intellectual lights at NASA should be shut down to pay for it. Gosh, it's nice to have the grownups in charge.