Archive for December, 2009

Grant us peace

The B Minor Mass was in its first centuries an unsuccessful piece. But something in the music made Hans Georg Nägeli believe that it was worthy to be published, and that something has inspired generations of choirs since the second half of the nineteenth century to perform it again and again. The slogan “The Greatest Artwork of All Times and All People” might have been written to sell something, but it must contain a grain of truth….

Is Bach’s Mass in B Minor the greatest artwork of all times and all people? A commercial would have to say, “Yes, it is.” I’m not going to answer that question. Music is not about better, faster, louder. Listen to the piece yourself; try to hear how Bach builds his baroque palace, his musical Versailles.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor by Markus Rathey

Baroque palaces for Christmas Day, you could do worse.

Happy holidays to one and all.


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Earlier this month I began interning at the local office of a British political party. This is my first time working on an election campaign, though I have interned or worked at politics oriented think tanks in New York and DC. I would not call my three week long experience campaigning a eureka moment exactly, more an opportunity to connect the dots between the quite comfortable Ivory towers of think tanks (or laptop and pajamas blogging) and the day to day envelope stuffing, leaflet dropping, and occasional message crafting of campaigning. Here are some of the things I’ve learned so far.

First, connecting some expert’s wonkery to another person’s doorstep is pretty difficult, it is great to have lofty ideas, but then someone has to go out into the streets and sell it. Before you conquer the task of being pithy, accurate, and convincing, you have to get people to pay attention. Cut through all the other messages people receive in a typical day and make your particular candidate/issue/party stand out, amongst the Cadbury Christmas egg ads, Indian restaurant leaflets, and World Cup draw hoopla. You are battling for the attention of a public that devotes only a sliver of its time to politics. Certainly the general public devotes less time than the wonk or campaign salesperson ever devote to the finer details of issues – for instance, if you know about medical loss ratios, you probably have an opinion about them already.

Second, I have more sympathy for the candidates now. Asking people to vote for you is humbling, and hard. Humbling because some amorphous mass of people out there, more than you could ever possibly meet is making judgments about you. Your name, your origins, your background, your opinions, your decisions, your life – fairly or unfairly, rightly or wrongly, all this and more is up for public discussion. I’d go so far as to say I even have slightly more sympathy for Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman, and John McCain. As a writer, you are free to satisfy yourself, maybe your editors, some of your readers too if you’re feeling up for it. Altogether a pretty limited constituency. As candidate, or governing politician, someone’s likely to be incandescent with rage by the close of business. The negotiators’ task is a thankless one.

Third, I have more sympathy for the strident activists now. Stuffing envelopes for hours on end can be made more bearable by good company and some unhealthy snack food. Planning and executing events, well I suppose it is a compliment that your guests enjoy themselves and think it was done effortlessly well – but they didn’t see the dashing around for the corkscrew beforehand. That is to say, those volunteering their time, their homes, their money, they are heavily invested in the ultimate outcomes. They are likely to be among the most bitterly stung by concessions.

What do all these newfound sympathies mean with respect to the healthcare debate?

Well, personally I would like a single payer system, a US version of the UK’s National Health Service would be perfect. In my less charitable moments, I want Obama to be a Cheney of the left, riding roughshod over the opposition, and the Constitution if necessary – goodbye no drama Obama, hello Obama as Khrushchev, “We will crush you!” Not the wisest way to run a country, certainly not sustainable given all the Bush administrations tenuous legal theories’ Supreme Court reversals. Also, Khrushchev didn’t win a Nobel Peace Prize. In a democracy everyone has to quash their will-to-power moments.

So despite dreams of a Scandinavian American policy landscape, an America that takes economic and social rights as seriously and it takes civil and political rights, we’re left with the real live American politicians, real live American interest groups, and getting to that 60th vote in the Senate. We’re left with a politics full of politicking. Some of it unseemly (Senators Nelson and Landrieu), some of it unwise or unstatesmanlike (Senator McCain), some of it fairly hypocritical reversals of positions taken a few years ago (Senator Lieberman).

While I get the disappointment of those on the left who hoped for far more from healthcare reform, I don’t agree that we should somehow start again. We have little reason to believe we’d end up with anything much better than what we have – as the BBC Washington DC correspondent remarked, this bill passed by a whisker. I understand those on the left wanted a more assertive Obama during the course of the crafting of legislation. However, I also understand that a president has to husband his political capital. A second jobs bill, immigration reform, hopefully criminal justice system reform, just a sampling of the contested political territory that lay ahead.

And thanks to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid. Negotiating shouldn’t be entirely thankless.

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Nobel decline?

Various commentators are still arguing that the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Obama has cheapened the prize. I was watching Sky News’ coverage. Despite Obama delivering a Nobel Lecture on subjects no less weighty than peace and the human condition (worth the read if you didn’t see it), some of the commentary still centered on the controversy over the award. I recall similar claims, devaluing the Nobel Peace Prize, were made when the prize was announced. In October Peggy Noon wrote, “The Norwegian Nobel Committee has embarrassed itself and cheapened a great award that had real meaning.” She went on to say that, “In one mindless stroke, the committee has rendered the Nobel Peace Prize a laughingstock, perhaps for as long as a generation.” This assertion is a testable hypothesis claiming, since Obama won the prize it has been devalued.

Prestige is an awfully slippery thing to value, but here are some questions to keep in mind:

  1. How many past winners excoriate the Nobel Committee for awarding the prize to Obama? You know, I used to hold my Nobel Prize in high regard, but since Obama won, it doesn’t mean that much to me.
  2. How many prospective nominators decline to participate in future? I’m sorry, I don’t think it’s a valuable use of my time to nominate anyone for the Nobel Peace Prize.
  3. How many future winners will decline the prize due to Obama’s award? Désolé. Since you gave it to Obama it doesn’t mean as much as it used to.
  4. Will the Nobel Prize command less attention from relevant audiences in future? Forgive me, but I’m not interested in reporting on this, since you gave the prize to Obama it isn’t really worth my time to report on – Nobel Prizes are not news anymore.
  5. Will people stop using Nobel laureate as a description to identify authors, speakers, etc.? Pardon me, but Nobel laureate as a description has become the equivalent of breathing human being, not really adding important or relevant information about the person whose book you’re about to read or speech you’re about to hear.

Call me skeptical. The people who already had a negative opinion of the Nobel Peace Prize will probably go on doing so. As for the rest of us, Nobel Prizes will go on being a big deal, no cheaper for having been awarded to Obama.

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Historians have hindsight. They can dissect turning points in minute detail. Those of us living history forward, however, are confronted by uncertainty, Himalayan Mountains of uncertainty obstructing the horizon. These uncertainties bear out the truth of Donald Rumsfeld’s comment about known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. The best we can do is consider the alternatives, systematically lay out our decision-making processes, and be aware of the many cognitive biases that may lead us astray.

Unfortunately, the decision-maker does not get to say, “I wouldn’t start from here.” Nor do decision-makers have the option of not deciding. Also, despite the insights of probabilistic thinking, you don’t get to rerun the world ten times and say: Well, six times out of ten I was right, we just happened to land in an occasion where I am wrong. While we should be interested in the arguments and analysis of prognosticators, we should also be mindful that analysts may be deploying the “lessons of history” in novel circumstances with new unknown unknowns (echoes of the standard caveats of the case study methodology).

Consider alternatives, lay out decision-making, and identify biases. Overall, I think that in sending more troops to Afghanistan, Obama made the right choice. If anything, I find myself leaning towards an even more pro-counterinsurgency stance. It is only fair that I lay out the biases that led me to this conclusion. Part of the reason I say I have “biases” instead of merely “assumptions” or “premises” is that, when faced when uncertainty, our preconceived notions about the world come into play. I doubt that any participant in this debate is engaging in objective, value free assessments.

I have a bias towards taking sunk costs into consideration. Despite the sensible advice to the contrary, I see sunk costs as relevant given the circumstances. Re-entering Afghanistan following some new terrorist atrocity would be more costly than sustaining a mission there, continuing a steady tempo of pressure against al-Qaeda. The reason I disagree with the Biden plan, drones and a lighter footprint in Afghanistan, is that this military intervention would not come with the civilian-side support needed to press Afghanistan towards durable stability. In addition, the Biden plan has humanitarian and public diplomacy drawbacks (NYer).

I have a bias towards paying quite high costs. I reread the opening of Kennedy’s inaugural and found myself agreeing quite a bit.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

Yes, yes, the Kennedy Doctrine, the Bay of Pigs and the path to Vietnam, I am not unaware of the possibilities for utter, utter disaster. Nevertheless, I am skeptical of Obama’s timeline to drawdown in July 2011. Obama left some wiggle room, escape clauses like “begin the transfer” and “taking into account conditions on the ground,” but setting a date was too definitive for me. Certainly not as bad as Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” banner, but I doubt people will focus on the room for fudging dates. July 2011 will be up in lights in the American public’s mind. Also, were I strategizing against America, couldn’t I wait until August 2011 to mount a demoralizing, Tet Offensive-like campaign?

Obama used an Eisenhower quote to advance his case for a timeline, saying, “Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs.” This comment is in tension with the passages where he emphasizes the importance of pursing al-Qaeda in the region. There is some delicate balancing, and in the interests of flexibility I’d prefer a balance tilted towards leaving options open; though I understand the purpose of the balancing was an attempt to satisfy those critics on Obama’s left who seek disengagement from the conflict sooner.

Given my view on paying high costs, I tend to discount the finance-related arguments advocating an immediate drawdown of troops or a shorter commitment to Afghanistan. America can pay for the things America wants to pay for, maybe more precisely, we can deficit spend for the things we want to deficit spend for. But we are far away from anyone cutting up the national credit card.

Finally, I have a bias towards human rights and repudiation of the Taliban. There are several ways of arguing this point, and one of the more noxious ways of arguing says, everyone who disagrees with me doesn’t really care about human rights. Thus one ends up with the argument, “Well, would you have preferred for Saddam Hussein to remain in power? QED.” I disagree with this mode of argumentation. In reality, the point of disagreement, and what is doing the work in the discussion, is how much are you willing to sacrifice to achieve the end in question. As mentioned earlier, I’m in the high costs camp with respect to Afghanistan. Advancing human rights in North Korea, Iran, China, etc., I treat as discrete cases where options are more circumscribed. In Afghanistan, (here come the sunk costs) we already have upwards of 70,000 troops on the ground, eight years invested, and massive aid commitments.

For instance, ongoing American intervention means the gains for women can be consolidated. Part of advocating counterinsurgency is preventing the Taliban from reasserting the negation of women in Afghan society. The involuntariness of this oppression is crucial, as far as I can tell, Afghan women would like the opportunity to participate in the life of the state. Therefore, I don’t see this as an instance of what Gayatri Spivak criticized as “white men saving brown women from brown men”.

I’ll just close by saying, I have seen the Fog of War , I have read the Quiet American. In addition to the course of the Iraq war, these works have added a dimension of humility to my thinking about military intervention. But as with Iraq, in Afghanistan America can open a window of opportunity to something different. America can not decide what that “something different” will be, that is up to the people of Afghanistan (and Iraq). By no means are there guarantees of success, or guarantees that we will approve wholeheartedly of the new circumstances that emerge. But for sustainable peace, we cannot simply say, “the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.” I believe Obama has been too cautious, but I wish the people tasked with implementing America’s strategies every success.

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