December 14, 2010
“Hi. This is Sarah Palin. Is Senator Lieberman in?”
“No, governor. It’s Yom Kippur.”
“Well, hello, Yom. Can I leave a message?”
December 14, 2010
December 14, 2010
By far the most revealing comment on the Irish crisis was made – inadvertently, of course – by the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland when he announced that he would resign, dissolve parliament and hold a general election in the near future, once the austerity budget that was the condition of a financial bail-out of his country had been passed.
‘There are occasions,’ he said, ‘when the imperative of serving the national interest transcends other concerns, including party political and personal concerns.’
Well, that’s nice to know: there are occasions when the needs of the country may be permitted to interfere (though not, of course, for very long) with a politician’s career plans. But think how galling it must be for him, poor fellow, when this happens! There will soon be a name for the psychiatric condition such occasions cause in politicians: Politician’s Self-Sacrificial Stress Disorder.
It is too late for this condition to get into the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, of course, but there will surely be room for it in the sixth, which will probably be as long as, or longer than, the tax regulations. Let us, in preparation for the publication of that great compendium, develop a few diagnostic criteria for PSSD.
First, as a sine qua non, the sufferer must be a full-time professional politician, must have been so for at least four fifths of his adult life, and must never have worked in any productive capacity whatever. PSSD is therefore an occupational psychiatric disorder.
Second, the sufferer must have been in high office when a political or economic crisis struck the country, that anyone with an IQ higher than 80 would recognise as having been such, and that was of far larger scale or more grave than any crisis in the last fifty years. (What about forty years, you ask? No, the scientific committee charged with enumerating the criteria has laid down fifty, so fifty it must be.)
Third, the sufferer must have developed at least two of the following four symptoms within sixth months either of the unmistakable presence of the crisis, or of resigning office, whichever was the later (usually the latter, of course):
a) A preoccupying self-pity
b) An ability to rationalise everything he did while in power
c) A tendency to blame his successors for the subsequent mess in the country
d) A tendency to blame his predecessors for the subsequent mess in the country.
The above symptoms must be deemed to be in excess of the normal human tendency to display them, and should where possible be measured objectively by validated instruments, for example Williams and Greenbaum’s Self-Pity Checklist Questionnaire (498th Edition), which has a cut-off point of 37/48. (It also contains questions, such as ‘Do you blame your parents for everything?’ which measure the truthfulness of the respondents. Those who answer ‘No’ to the question ‘Do you blame your parents for everything?’ are lying.)
In addition to the above, the sufferer must display at least one the following symptoms, though most typically he will display both:
a) A tendency to continue to interfere in public affairs despite the self-evidently catastrophic nature of his previous efforts in this direction
b) A large publisher’s advance for his 700 page memoirs, which will remain unsold in the bookshops, or unread if transported therefrom into private houses.
However, it is time now to turn our attention from the sunny uplands of scientific psychology, where luckily the air is so clear that everything can be seen and measured, to the murky swamps of politics and economics…
By now, you’ve read the WikiLeaked headlines, illuminating the inner workings of U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, or detailing the intractable regimes in Iran and North Korea. But what does Cablegate have to say about the world’s forgotten conflicts — the dimmer outposts of U.S. influence where Washington arguably has even bigger messes to confront? FP went through the archives with an eye to our 2010 Failed States issue to see what light the cables shed on these benighted places — and whether the cables themselves may disrupt the often delicate balancing act of diplomacy. Here’s what we found going down the rankings:
What we know: As far as countries’ governance goes, Somalia is the world’s closest approximation to anarchy. In recent years, the United States and its regional allies Kenya and Ethiopia have begun to fear that al Qaeda will take advantage of the lawlessness to establish safe havens to train foreign fighters and carry out terrorist attacks. There’s some proof that this is happening; members of the Somali Islamist militant group al Shabab publically allied themselves with the terror network earlier this year. The group also claimed responsibility for a bombing in Uganda during the World Cup — the first al Shabab attack outside Somalia’s borders.
What we learn: The leaked cables regarding Somalia betray U.S. skepticism that foreign fighters are infiltrating the country, as they have Iraq and Afghanistan. While some foreigners are reported to have been spotted here and there, most of them come from the Somali diaspora. As an Aug. 9, 2009, cable from the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi notes, “Beyond the public support from al-Qa’ida videos encouraging foreign fighters to travel to Somalia, there is scant evidence of significant direct al-Qa’ida financial or military support for extremists in Somalia, or a foreign fighter pipeline from Iraq or Afghanistan.”
Perhaps even more interesting for Somalia watchers is a June 9, 2009, cable that describes the country’s conflict as a largely clan-against-clan turf war rather than a political or ideological struggle. This explanation conflicts with other popular accounts of the crisis, which tend to focus on religious extremism combined with the potent quest for wealth and security.
All this is not to say, however, that the U.S. government doesn’t think terrorists operate in Somalia; they’re just homegrown. In recent years, the United States has used intermittent airstrikes to take out the most notorious among them. For example, alleged terrorist Aden Hashi Ayrow, who was apparently referred to as “Somalia’s Zarqawi” by some extremists, was killed by a drone strike on June 1, 2009, a cable explains.
The curveball: In an attempt to shore up Somalia’s transitional government, the African Union and the United Nations sent peacekeepers to Mogadishu in 2007. The troops have struggled enormously, in part because there’s no peace to keep, but also because there aren’t enough of them to maintain an effective security presence. Countries have been extremely reluctant to send their soldiers into what is largely believed (even in the region) to be a deathtrap. The president of Mali, Amadou Toumani Toure, offered a glimpse of the troops he’d pulled together for the mission in a meeting with the U.S. head of its African military command, recounted in a Dec. 1, 2009, cable: “ten or so of the former rebels, ‘since they like to fight so much’ [the president said,] are being sent off to support the African Union Mission in Somalia…”
December 14, 2010
This past week, wrangling over the Bush-era tax cuts has riveted Washington. The spectacle is only the latest round in an endless debate, one that has launched innumerable op-eds, cacophonous talk-show segments, and dinner-table quarrels. As conservatives see it, higher tax rates hurt job creation as well as undercut the incentive for entrepreneurship and hard work. Many liberals cast these downsides as modest, while stressing the value of tax revenue. Will tax cuts bring a bloom of free enterprise — or exploding deficits? Economists have studied the issue ad nauseam, but firm conclusions are elusive. It is difficult to tease out cause and effect, because at any given time, economic conditions other than taxation also shape behavior.
If only there were a scientific way to determine the real impact of taxation on industriousness, labor supply, and innovation.
According to some scholars, there is. Randomly assign a representative sample of the population — say, 10,000 taxpayers — a lower tax rate, and see what happens. Did these Americans, on average, behave any differently than their counterparts? Did they work longer hours or more jobs, start more businesses, hire more employees?
In other words, test government policies using the same technique — randomized controlled trials — used to test new drugs. A growing chorus of legal
scholars, economists, and political scientists believes that such trials should be conducted to evaluate a wide range of laws: gun control, safety and environmental regulations, election reforms, securities rules, and many others. And some believe that we are ethically obligated to do this, because laws affect our lives so pervasively. Understanding the true costs and benefits of legislation, they say, is essential to making good policy — and we may know much less about our own laws than we think.
“The randomized experiment is kind of the gold standard in medicine and social science,” says Ian Ayres, a Yale law professor and economist who advances the idea of the tax experiment in a forthcoming paper. “We should use that same tool to inform us whether laws work.”
Already, randomized trials have migrated beyond medicine. In recent years, experiments to test development programs in poor countries have grown common. Even in the United States, such trials have been used for several decades, in a scattered way, to evaluate social services such as job training and welfare reform, as well as criminal justice and education policies. In one controversial experiment described last week in The New York Times, New York City is testing a homelessness-prevention program by randomly denying services to some households. But now, proponents argue that this instrument should be used in other areas of law — that a culture of experimentation should take hold, and randomized trials should become the norm in lawmaking rather than the exception…