Archive for May, 2009

When a Smile is Insufficient

Sunday, May 24th, 2009

If it were a rhetorical contest based solem on style, former Vice-President Dick Cheney could hardly compete against President Barack Obama. Obama is lean, tall, and athletic in poise. Cheney is overweight and supports a large head unburdened with hair. Obama has a smile that could melt more icebergs than rising levels of carbon dioxide. Cheney’s barely visible smile, composed of teeth in need of braces during adolescence, resembles an impish smirk. Obama has a cadence in his delivery that lends itself to lofty linguistic flourishes. Cheney has a systematic and clear delivery, but cannot modulate either the volume or rhythm of his voice sufficiently to evoke emotion. Obama is extremely popular, and Cheney is not. The fact that Cheney seems to tying the Obama Administration up in knots with his articulation of the need for enhanced interrogation techniques suggests that he is winning purely on the merits of his arguments.

Perhaps this is partly due to Obama’s obvious disingenuousness.  On one hand he says, “… I have no interest in spending our time re-litigating the policies of the last eight years,” but spends most of his recent speech in harsh criticism of the previous Administration. This might be acceptable if he recognized it is possible to come up with legitimately different positions in the difficult struggle between maintaining the safety of Americans and minimizing harsh treatment of prisoners who have information that could save American lives.

Instead, Obama argues, without providing independent evidence, that enhanced interrogation techniques have made us less safe. However, in the 1990’s there were attacks  in America that culminated in the 9/11 attacks in 2001. After that point, the Bush Administration has managed to keep attacks from American soil. This accomplishment would have been unexpected if people were asked in the period following the 9/11 attacks about the prospects of a future attack.

The enhanced interrogation technique that elicits the most attention is waterboarding, which some argue is torture. However, it was only used against three of the very highest Al Qaeda operatives, over five years ago, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM). At time when Americans rightly felt another attack could come unexpectedly, KSM boasted of upcoming attacks on the US and personally slitting the throat of US journalist Daniel Perle. It is hard to argue that KSM is a sympathetic victim. The enhanced interrogation techniques did no severe harm to him and were successful, in providing important information. George Tenet, a CIA Director appointed by President Bill Clinton,  stated “Information from these interrogations helped disrupt plots aimed at locations in the United States, the United Kingdom, the Middle East, South Asia and Central Asia.”

On the positive side, there is evidence that Obama is learning in office, as he shoulders the responsibility to protect Americans. He now sees the need for military tribunals to adjudicate cases of detainees — a practice that he sharply criticized Bush for during the campaign. Against his initial impulses, he correctly decided against releasing provocative photos taken by the US military in their prosecution of those who abused prisoners. He recognizes that there may be those that need “prolonged detention” without convictions for some extremely dangerous detainees. He may still come to see that whatever protections he wishes to provide detains at Guantanamo can be provided at the state-of-the-art facilities recently constructed there. After having to grapple with the same issues that Bush did, Obama is drawn to some of the same policy positions he criticized before.

Unfortunately, Obama has set himself up for embarrassment and political division in the country. If he changes course significantly with respect to US foreign policy and the way he deals with extremists and if there is a successful attack on the US, his policies will compare unfavorably with those of the previous administration. This is true, irrespective of whether any specific changes are in any way related to a future attack. Under such circumstances his wonderful smile and suave demeanor with only serve to indicate a lack of seriousness.

Middle Three Quintiles

Saturday, May 16th, 2009

Every time I hear  the mantra about the disappearing  middle class, I want to ask if percentage of households in the middle three quintiles has changed. I am sure, many on Left out of ideological reflex would assure me that it has. Of course, the middle three quintiles of any distribution of income, or grades, or heights, by definition, will always contain 60%  of the sample.

Mathematically literate people of any ideology quickly recognize this truth about the fraction of people in the middle quintile. Nonetheless, there many people who are genuinely concerned by the the observation that median household income seems to have stagnated. But this statistic is misleading, because it does not account for the changing nature of households. Households have shrunk in size. Steve Conover has shown that the income per worker has gone up. It is just that the  number of workers per household has decreased offsetting this increase. Household, rather than individuals incomes say less about the economy and more about the way people have chosen to live their lives. Perhaps as individual income increase, people are free to opt to live in smaller households.

If you look at the distribution of income per earner as a function of time as shown below:

it appears that the middle class has just been happily pushed into higher income brackets.

Despite these statistics, many people genuinely feel that the economy has changed negatively for the “middle class” over the last few decades. I suspect that the source of this anxiety is associated with two important factors as opposed to the actual income distribution.

(1) It is very difficult to maintain a “middle-class” lifestyle with a job that is low skill. A retail worker like a shoe salesman or a low-skill factory worker used to be middle class. Low skill workers now have to compete with automation or low skill workers of other countries. The fraction of the US economy that is manufacturing is the same that it used to be, but manufacturing is now being performed by fewer and fewer more productive workers. Much like agriculture that dominated the economy  in the 1800s’s, fewer and fewer people are required to produce more and more. This is as it should be. Our standard of living would be far lower if we as a country were so unproductive that low skill jobs were typical and people in them were middle income. The goal is arrange for as many people as possible to be prepared for high-skill jobs.

(2) Middle class is not what it used to be. Middle class Americans live in larger homes than their parents, have air conditioning when their parents did not, eat out more often than their parents did, and go on vacation more frequently. This does not even count the gadgets such as cell phones, computers, and large flat panel televisions that were not even available to the wealthy a generation ago. Our expectations are higher than those of our parents.

The real danger is that this anxiety will lead to government policies that reduce the dynamism of the economy in the name of security and make the progress we have already achieved less possible to sustain.

Squishy Moralists

Sunday, May 10th, 2009

We have noted previously here that there are two respective positions with regard to the use of violence. One holds that violence is sometimes justified particularly for self defense when other choice are unavailable. The violence employed, of course, must be commensurate with the seriousness of a threat.

The principled pacifist position holds that violence is inherently evil and never to be used. The serious pacifist recognizes that adherence to this position could cost that person injury or even their life. A courageous pacifist does not avoid violence by denying the existence of real danger, but chooses a principled position despite the risk. A squishy pacifist, by contrast, postures as a moralist, but denies the existence of real threat. It is easy to be brave in the face of no threat.

A similar distinction can be drawn with respect to the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, when the use of them might indeed advert loss of life and catastrophe. Again the severity of the interrogation needs to be consistent with a reasonable assessment of the level of  threat. Contrary to popular notions fed by the mainstream media,  William Ranney Levi in the the Yale Law Journal  notes that the use of enhanced interrogation techniques pre-dated 9/11. [1]  In particular, he documents that “Conventional wisdom states that recent U.S. authorization of coercive interrogation techniques, and the legal decisions that sanctioned them, constitute a dramatic break with the past. This is false.”

An alternative principled position is to believe that enhanced interrogation techniques should never, under any circumstances, be used. However, there is a recognition that the cost of such a policy could be significant additional risk to innocent people. Courageous people who hold this position insist that they believe the additional risks are a severe price paid to avoid the moral stigma of the techniques.

By contrast, squishy moralists try to have it both ways. They simultaneously argue against the used of enhanced interrogation techniques and that there is no risk in shunning their use. A number of intelligence people and former CIA directors attest to the importance of intelligence gathered from these techniques. One can decide that one will forgo the  information from enhanced interrogation, but it is morally juvenile to assert that there are no costs associated with the choice.

It is possible to forgive those who hold the latter position, in the sense that they may be in a state of denial. What is less forgivable are actions by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She was briefed on the enhanced interrogation techniques while they were occurring. She was silent. If her conscience were shocked, even if she couldn’t stop the practice, she could have made a formal (if classified) objection to the use of such techniques. She didn’t, perhaps because at the time the country felt truly threatened. However, to now deny her role and express moral outrage at the Bush Administration’s decisions is at best only hypocrisy. At worst, it represents a despicable cynicism.

[1] Waterboarding may be the exception. However, the exact extent it could be used without severe harm was well-known because it had been applied to American troops in training exercises. Some techniques used in previous administrations were perhaps more exotic.  Previously the CIA has implemented “..implemented chemical, biological, and other human behavioral control methods for purposes of interrogation.”

Impossible Standards to Meet

Sunday, May 3rd, 2009

Sometimes you have to sit by and marvel either at President Barack Obama’s political skill and other times you have to wonder why the press seems to be so inept in asking questions without adequate follow-up. At this week’s presidential news conference we were provided the opportunity to experience both.

Virtually everyone, at least until  Obama’s recent comments, acknowledges that there are instances when extraordinary interrogation techniques are not only necessary but morally required. The ticking time-bomb scenario (you need information about the location of a ticking time bomb to save many innocent lives) represents the extreme case. Senator John McCain, who has some moral authority in this area because he was deliberated tortured by the North Vietnamese, recognizes this exception.

When asked about an analogous dilemma that might face him as president, Obama refused to acknowledge the possibility and established a impossible standard to meet with regard to the efficacy of such decisions. He said:

“But here’s what I can tell you, that the public reports and the public justifications for these techniques, which is that we got information from these individuals that were subjected to these techniques, don’t answer the core question.Which is, could we have gotten that same information without resorting to these techniques?”

Of course, it is impossible to conduct a controlled experiment or prove a negative with regard to alternative strategies. We do know that a number of former CIA directors and others have insisted that the techniques in question have saved lives. Even Dennis Blair, Obama’s director of national intelligence, concedes that. “High-value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qaeda organization that was attacking this country.” [1]

Of course, we can never know with precision what would have happen if an alternative policy had been pursued. Assume that after a long period of conventional interrogation, a high-level Al Qaeda operative provides little useful information. Then extraordinary interrogation techniques are used and the detainee provides information that breaks up a plot days away from execution.

There is no way to know with certainty that if we had not extended conventional questioning a few more days that the information would have finally been revealed. We would never know with certainty if a foiled plot might have been adverted another way, including clumsiness on the part of the terrorists. In other words, Obama has relieved himself of moral responsibility by setting up an impossible burden of proof for others. While this is rhetorically clever, it avoids dealing with a critical issue that may confront an administration. We hope that more serious discussions about such issues are going on behind the scenes, even is dismissed in public. If not, the refusal to confront such issues guarantees that if such a situation arises, decisions will have to be made without the benefit of patient consideration.

All we know is that the policies followed before 9/11 were insufficient to prevent an attack and the policies afterward did protect the United States for the entire Bush Administration. We hope that whatever policies with regard to extraordinary interrogation Obama implements are as successful. The extraordinary interrogation techniques were used in the immediate aftermath of the capture of high-level Al Qaeda operatives. Since we are unlikely to have a similar opportunity in the near future, the question may be moot.

[1] Blair’s conclusion was edited from White House information releases. When the Obama Administration does this, it is careful editing. If the Bush Administration had edited a rhetorically inconvenient conclusion of the intelligence community, it would be cherry-picking information.