Thursday, December 29, 2011

How not to choose a presidental candidate: Ron Paul edition

(I'm doing some research on the late Dutch libertarian politician Pim Fortuyn; in doing so, I got sidetracked into reading much more about Ron Paul than I would recommend to anyone; I figured I might as well say something about what I read.)

As numerous news outlets have reported in recent weeks, late 1980s/early 1990s newsletters published in Ron Paul's name, with articles written in the first person, featured all kinds of racist, homophobic, and generally bigoted writing. James Kirchick wrote a good analysis of these newsletters in the The New Republic; some pdfs can be found here and here, and transcriptions here.

Paul has long claimed he did not write these newsletters, and that he was unaware of their content. (Julian Sanchez & David Weigel offer a good discussion of who might have written them in Reason.) Paul's protestations seem pretty implausible, given that a) the newsletters brought in a fair amount of income for him during those years, and b) he was even then clearly someone with political ambitions.

Paul also argues that all this is old news, and that this means, in turn, that he should not have to face questions about the newsletters anymore — indeed, he recently walked out of a CNN interview where he was asked about them. At the same time, he has long conceded that he has "moral responsibility" for content that went out under his name (Matt Welch, at Reason, has an overview of Paul's responses to questions about their content). If "moral responsibility" is to mean anything at all, shouldn't it mean precisely that you do have to continue to answer questions about it?

In any case, lots of people like Paul as a candidate because he seems principled and plain-spoken. This appears be at the heart of his support among many college students, as well as of the anguished (semi-)endorsements by Andrew Sullivan (since retracted) and Conor Friedersdorf.

They are attracted to Paul, it appears, despite all that is wrong with him. As Kirchick notes in the New York Times today, he may or may not be bigoted (depending on how one interprets the newsletters), but he is definitely an inveterate conspiracy theorist. Moreover, his economic theories are completely nutty. Still, as John Cassidy pointed out in the New Yorker yesterday, Paul has many supporters who are attracted to him not for his views or his past statements, but because of "his reputation as an outsider, a plain speaker, and a scourge of the political establishment." As one 18-year old student is quoted as saying "He's real. That's what makes the difference for me."

However, shouldn't these newsletters — and Paul's response to questions about them — make it quite clear that he is in fact neither "real" (he is obviously trying to spin those newsletters and their content) nor "principled" (unless the principle is a cynical willingness to spout even the most despicable opinions in an attempt to gain adherents for a nutty economic agenda)?

What we are left with, then is that Paul is better than his competitors at seeming real and principled. Apparently that is the 2012 election's version of 2004's whether one might like to have a beer with someone. Neither, I would argue, is how one should decide whom to vote for to run the country.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The IMF as battering ram?

Observers of the IMF's actions in international financial crises are fond of quoting former U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor as having said that the IMF serves as a "battering ram" for U.S. interests. Google "IMF battering ram US interests" (without the quotes) and you get almost 75,000 results.

Interestingly, it is very difficult to find the original source for this quotation. Most authors either don't bother offering a citation, or simply cite another secondary source. For instance, one of the sources cited most often (indeed, it is the number one hit on the above Google search) is a 1998 article by Devesh Kapur in Foreign Affairs magazine: "The IMF: A Cure or a Curse?" Kapur mentions "former U.S. trade representative Mickey Kantor's colorful rendering of the institution as a 'battering ram' for U.S. interests." He does not offer a source for this rendering, however.

A number of authors do offer a citation to the January 14, 1998 issue of the International Herald Tribune. This is the case, for example, with the third hit in the Google search: Paul Midford's article on Japan in the book Globalization and National Security (edited by Jonathan Kirshner). However, a Factiva search of the IHT for the term "battering ram" in January 1998 finds no article dated January 14. This suggests that people are simply copying citations from other secondary accounts without double-checking themselves.

The same Factiva (or Lexis/Nexis) search does find an IHT article dated January 26 (also published in the New York Times on the same date) by Philip Bowring, titled "Toward a different Asia and a less dominant dollar." This article features the line "The IMF, in the words of former U.S. trade representative Mickey Kantor, is a 'battering ram' to open up Asian markets to U.S. enterprise" but gives no indication when Kantor might have said this, or in what context.

Some additional digging turns up the original source of the quotation: an article in the Times of London, 5 Dec. 1997, in the commentary/opinion section, titled "America's new Asian model." Kantor, who at that point no longer was U.S. trade representative (nor Commerce Secretary, a post he also held in 1996-1997), spoke in personal capacity at a dinner of the Confederation of British Industry. The relevant quotation from the article is: "the former US Commerce Secretary said that the troubles of the tiger economies offered a golden opportunity for the West to reassert its commercial interests. When countries seek help from the International Monetary Fund, Europe and America should use the IMF as a battering ram to gain advantage."

Note that the article does not imply that those are Kantor's exact words, though it seems plausible that Kantor did indeed use the term "battering ram." As an indication of how few of those who cite Kantor's statement have actually dug down to the original source, a Google search on "the troubles of the tiger economies offered a golden opportunity" (with quotes) produces only about 8 hits. Note, too, that Kantor does not say that the IMF is a battering ram, contra Kapur and Bowring, but rather that he, speaking in his personal capacity, thinks it should be used as a battering ram. (The article does claim that Kantor "echoes views emanating from the IMF to the Federal Reserve" but offers no evidence for this.)

In sum, Kantor's statement was colorful, which explains its popularity, but since he was not speaking in any official capacity, nor claiming to describe an actual (as opposed to a desired) strategy, it is much less meaningful than most people (mis-)quoting it believe or imply.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Men are from Venus, women are from Mars, or ...?

There's been much to do about the fact that, on the issue of the U.S. military action in Libya, key women on Obama's staff were more pro-intervention than their male colleagues. Maureen Dowd gives a representative overview in a recent NYT column.

Dowd already makes clear just how simplistic this gender stereotyping is, but now Charli Carpenter has an excellent and thoughtful discussion of the issue over at Foreign Affairs, titled Flight of the Valkyries: What gender does and doesn't tell us about operation Odyssey Dawn. One crucial point Carpenter makes: the international context within which political actors come of age likely has far more to do with support or opposition to the intervention in Libya than gender.

A similar message emerges from an illuminating new book by my former colleague Mia Bloom, titled Bombshell: The many faces of women terrorists. The book strikingly illustrates the similarity across genders of most motivations for terrorism (rape is a key gender-specific exception). In fact, gender disparities in terrorist activities appear driven largely by sexism and chauvinism among those who recruit terrorists ('demand'), rather than by gender-based differences in willingness to engage in such activities ('supply').

There is something amusing about the fact that, in this respect at least, the leadership of Al Qaeda appears to have quite a bit in common with the Washington, DC press corps.

Monday, March 28, 2011

How to contribute to disaster relief

Yesterday I posted some critical comments regarding disaster relief aid. These should under no circumstances be taken to imply that I think disaster relief aid is not valuable, or that it is not important to contribute to such aid. The key point is that it is worth thinking very carefully about making sure each contribution actually makes a difference.

Saundra Schimmelpfennig has a very good list of "Dos and don'ts of disaster donations" on her blog; these were written for the 2004 tsunami and updated for last year's Haiti earthquake, but they are no less valuable today, applied to Japan's earthquake/tsunami. I highly recommend reading through these before making any donation.

One important point that comes through in Saundra's list is that disaster aid is most likely to arrive when it is comparatively less needed. Organizations that are already active on the ground are best positioned to provide aid in the immediate aftermath. By the time donations from around the world arrive in the bank accounts of these organizations, they have already incurred most of their startup costs.

At the other end of the timescale, much of the crucial rebuilding work happens after the world media has moved on (when did you last hear or read something about the ongoing rebuilding effort in Haiti?), and thus also after new donations stop flowing in.

This has two implications: it means that it is less important to give as soon as possible than people sometimes believe, and it means that some of the most important donations take place before a disaster takes place. For this reason, I highly recommend not earmarking donations for a specific crisis. If you do wish to earmark a donation for a specific crisis, donate to an organization focused on the rebuilding process, rather than on emergency disaster relief operations.

On the other hand, if you want to support emergency disaster relief, consider contributing to an organization for which disaster relief is part of the ongoing mission, regardless of where disasters may occur. One excellent example in this category is Doctors without Borders/Médécins sans Frontières (MSF). MSF is acutely aware of potential pitfalls associated with disaster relief aid, and deliberately is not accepting donations specifically earmarked for Japan. Read their statement here.

In the case of Japan, I also want to reiterate the importance of asking what the added value of a contribution to disaster relief there is likely to be, given that:
1. Japan is a rich country which, moreover, can print its own money. This means that shortage of funds is unlikely to be the determining factor in limiting relief operations.
2. Japan is also an open, well-functioning democracy, with a government that cares about the well-being of its citizens. This means that situations in which the government deliberately neglects particular affected groups or areas (and in which relief organizations could play a key role) are unlikely to arise.

In contrast, there are numerous conflict- and disaster areas around the world where neither of these two conditions holds. MSF is active in most of them. So is the Red Cross. Consider giving to these organizations so they can make a difference where they are needed most.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

How babies are like natural disasters

A few years ago, when good friends of mine had just had their first child, I remember talking with them about how one set of grandparents was great to have visit, whereas the other was not. The difference was not that that the second set loved them or the grandchild any less, but that they were unfamiliar with where everything was in the house, with the neighbourhood where my friends lived, and they had their own ideas about what my friends needed to help them through the first weeks with a baby. Because of this, the second set of parents actually made for more stress and sleep deprivation, rather than less.

I think most people readily identify with this problem: just about everyone has friends or family who, however well-intentioned, seem unable to be of any real help — whether they try to help with a baby, with home repair jobs, with yard work, or anything at all, really. They simply require more time and attention to coordinate and point in the right direction than they save by taking some jobs off your hands.

This, I believe, is how one should think about disaster relief aid. No matter how much we want to help in the aftermath of a disaster, we should ask ourselves what our help would be like. Have the people we are thinking of helping asked for help? Do we know their circumstances and "neighbourhood"? Can we provide the kind of help they need? Or would we (or those we fund) simply be in the way and underfoot? If not, those we wish to help might prefer not to receive our assistance, even if they may also be too polite to say so.

In the specific case of Japan's earthquake/tsunami disaster, it is not obvious that Japan needs or wants money. Japan, after all has its own currency, and with current inflation levels very low, the government can simply print more money.

Nor is it obvious that many of the organizations that are now raising funds for disaster relief in Japan are familiar with the area and have the requisite local contacts. GlobalGiving, for example, which has raised more than $2 million so far, is an organization set up to promote projects in the developing world, not in one of the richest countries in the world. In fact, their website indicates that they have never previously been active in Japan. Moreover, they appear not to have quite figured out what they will do with the money they've raised, saying "We will post more details of the specific use of funds as soon as possible."

This seems sort of like hiring an actor who plays a parent on TV to help you out when you have a baby. It could turn out well, but chances seem pretty slim.

It is possible that this analogy appeals to me at the moment only because I am a brand new parent. If it fails to move you (or even if it does resonate), I highly recommend reading the discussion of the issue on the blog of GiveWell.org, an organization whose sole purpose is to figure out the most cost-effective and useful ways to give aid intended to improve the lives of others. They argued about 10 days ago that there appears to be "no room for more funding" and followed this with a clarification last Thursday that further elaborated their position.

Everyone their own charity?

It has long been a truism in development assistance that aid coordination could go a long ways towards making aid more effective (and less of an administrative nightmare for recipients to manage). Unfortunately, most donors — governments and individuals alike — tend to support aid coordination only as long as others coordinate with them. This means that governments coordinate much less than you'd expect, and that individuals continually start new non-governmental aid organizations.

A similar pattern is evident in disaster relief. It appears that the IRS has, over the past few weeks, received 4500 applications for new non-profit organizations set up to respond to the disaster in Japan. Nor is Japan's case unique: lots of new relief organizations were created in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami as well. Although there may be some fraud involved, the vast majority of such organizations are undoubtedly well-intentioned. That does not mean, however, that they are needed.

Even many well-established disaster relief organizations are currently simply standing by, waiting to see whether there is something they can do to help in Japan. The chance that a brand-new organization would be able to accomplish something they cannot is vanishingly small. And the chance that it's presence will be counterproductive is actually quite high (for example, by further taxing an already heavily overstretched local infrastructure).

A recent article in the Guardian by Conor Foley, titled "good intentions are not enough," discusses the case of fifteen British volunteers who had flown to Japan with relief supplies, but who had been refused permission to work in the quake region. In the end, they handed over their supplies to the Salvation Army and were forced to leave. It would have been better for everyone involved if they had contributed those supplies to the Salvation Army directly. They could have then increased their donation by the cost of the fifteen tickets to Japan that they would not have needed to buy.

Post-disaster aid to rich countries: the case of Katrina

Major natural disasters offer countries an opportunity to rise above the normal standards of international interaction. For example, a large number of countries offered generous help in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. Some, such as Cuba, offer aid purely as a public relations ploy, with no expectation that it will be accepted. Conversely, some such aid may be rejected, for similar symbolic reasons.

Still, that leaves a lot of countries. Wikipedia has a page on the international response to hurricane Katrina, listing pledges from more than 100 countries and international organizations besides Cuba, including such unlikely candidates as Vietnam (pledged $100,000), Mongolia ($50,000), and Albania ($308,000).

Interestingly, most of that aid was not claimed by the United States. A Washington Post article by John Solomon and Spenser Hsu, written two years after the hurricane, noted that "Allies offered $854 million in cash and in oil that was to be sold for cash. But only $40 million has been used so far for disaster victims or reconstruction, according to U.S. officials and contractors. Most of the aid went uncollected, including $400 million worth of oil."

Sometimes the problem was aid was earmarked for specific purposes where it was not needed. At times bureaucratic red tape was the problem. In addition, some "valuable supplies and services -- such as cellphone systems, medicine and cruise ships -- were delayed or declined because the government could not handle them." Indeed, Administration officials admitted in 2006 "that they were ill prepared to coordinate and distribute foreign aid and that only about half the $126 million received had been put to use."

Some of the problems can be chalked up to incompetence and ineptitude, but it is clear from the article that the logistics of handling and coordinating all these aid offers taxed well-meaning officials to their limit. The article provides sobering reading for anyone thinking about how best to (or even whether to) provide aid to Japan in its current crisis.

One clear conclusion to be drawn: well-established non-governmental organizations with some local institutional infrastructure and specific preparedness in disaster response — most obviously, the Red Cross — are most likely to be able to put disaster relief aid to good use; more so, even, than a government as rich, powerful, and (generally) well-run as that of the United States.

Libya is more than a coastline

I'm doing some research on disaster relief, and encountering a number of interesting items along the way. Since updates to this blog have been woefully infrequent recently, I'm going to link to a few without too much comment.

First up: lots of people have noted that much of the Libyan population lives very close to the Mediterranean cost. For example, Christopher Hitchens, writing in slate, calls the country "in effect a long strip of coastline, with a vast hinterland of desert." However, that hinterland is not empty.

In fact, it contains both towns and, more importantly, weapons arsenals. Alex de Waal points out that Libya's neighbours are quite concerned about this, since groups aiming to overthrow their governments have long sought shelter in Libya. Now that Gaddafi has made his arsenals available to anyone willing to fight on behalf of his rule, "such rebels have been able to acquire arms and vehicles with ease." Not only that, de Waal reports that "Mercenaries, freebooters and rebels from across the Sahel, and even beyond, are heading for Libya to take advantage of this open-entry, take all you can arms bonanza."

This is not an issue that has been much discussed in the international media, but given the number of long-simmering conflicts in the region, it is a problem well worth monitoring more closely.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Lying on the television news

A famous 1986 column in The New Republic by Michael Kinsley noted that "Worthwhile Canadian initiative" was perhaps the world's most boring headline imaginable (it was a real headline, from a New York Times column). Boring, in part, because Canada keeps putting forward worthwhile initiatives, again and again. Indeed, Kinsley wrote a column of his own titled "Worthwhile Canadian initiative" on the Atlantic wire just last summer.

The past few weeks, on the other hand, have brought us the worthwhile Canadian initiative-stopper. As RFK Jr. points out in a Huffington Post column, Canadian regulators decided to reject attempts to repeal a law that forbids lying on broadcast news. The country's "Radio Act" forbids the broadcasting of "false or misleading news"; the country's right-wing Prime Minister, among others, wanted this changed, to make possible a Fox News-style channel, as well as right-wing talk radio of the kind that is so popular in the United States.

Ironically, the vice president of the Communication, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada — a union representing more than 20,000 journalists — is Peter Murdoch. Murdoch called the proposal to repeal the law "totally bizarre". I think it is safe to conclude he is not related to Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch. :-)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Taxes and logic

About 10 days ago, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was the featured speaker here at William & Mary's Charter Day ceremony. The text of his speech can be found here. One usually expects a visiting politician to stick to his standard talking points, and Cantor largely did so. Still, I found him oddly rude to his audience.

First, he did not address his remarks at students at all, except in the sense that one can assume they are friends of William & Mary, opening as follows: "President Reveley, the Board of Visitors, faculty, administration, alumni, friends of William & Mary, thank you."

Second, and more substantively, the core argument of his speech was that high tax rates in this country — especially high tax rates on top earners — are inhibiting the U.S. from maintaining its traditional leadership position in innovation and entrepreneurship. As most people know, Cantor included, tax rates on top earners used to be much higher during much of the post-World War II period, when the United States built its reputation for innovation and entrepreneurship. For example, the top marginal rate did not fall below 70% until 1981. Yet there was a lot of innovation and entrepreneurship in the U.S. before that time. Apple Computer, one of his examples, was founded in 1976.

Logically, then, Cantor was telling William & Mary students that they are either intellectually weaker than their parents, or extremely mercenary in their behavior, since he feels that they will not innovate or become entrepreneurs unless taxes are lowered still further (the top marginal rate is now 35%), even though their parents clearly had no trouble producing innovation and entrepreneurship for less extreme financial rewards. It may just be me, but I found that fairly insulting.

Cantor also seemed to suggest, in his speech, that taxes were independent of government spending. So he complained about both taxes and "runaway debt" (a result, in part, of reducing taxes without cutting spending), as though they were unrelated. And he implied he was offended by the notion that raising taxes might help us deal with the current economic crisis. Well, it is not raising taxes that might help — it is what we do with the resulting revenue. Again, this is basic logic, but Cantor apparently believed that William & Mary students cannot make the connection.

Cantor is obviously a smart guy; having spent several years at William & Mary's law school he should know that our undergraduates are smart too. It would have been nice if his speech had not both assumed and implied otherwise.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Michael Lewis on Greece & Ireland

Michael Lewis, in the current issue of Vanity Fair, investigates Ireland's debt crisis ("When Irish Eyes Are Crying"). Together with his earlier articles on Greece (October 2010, "Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds") and Iceland (April 2009, "Wall Street on the Tundra"), Lewis has now completed a triptych on the human politics behind the national manifestations of the global economic crisis in the three hardest-hit European countries.

As always with Lewis, both the writing and the anecdotes are excellent. The Ireland story makes clear just how fateful — and how unnecessary — the government's decision to guarantee the banks really was. Investors who had been unable to dump their bonds in those banks at 50 cents on the dollar were suddenly told that the Irish government would pay them the full dollar!

Another key point Lewis makes is that those private creditors have been almost entirely repaid. What is owed now is money borrowed from the European Central Bank to make those repayments. The ECB is not in the business of debt forgiveness, but given how many of those — now happily repaid — private investors appear to have been German and French banks, it might be worthwhile spreading the pain a little.

In Iceland, voters overwhelmingly rejected a deal that would have forced them to shoulder the entire burden of guaranteeing the deposits made by foreigners in the failed Icesave bank. The more recent, renegotiated deal still insists on eventual repayment, but now under more generous terms and over a far longer period. It is not inconceivable that the Irish might be able to extract some similar lightening of their load, but first they would need to rise up to demand it.

As Lewis notes, however, the Irish appear oddly apathetic and compliant — "where's the rage?" asks the introduction to the article. Perhaps the Irish feel that their pain is more broadly self-inflicted than was the case in Iceland. After all, "Left alone in a dark room with a pile of money, the Irish decided what they really wanted to do with it was to buy Ireland. From one another."

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Ending terrorism in Sri Lanka

The New Yorker had a fascinating and disquieting article by Jon Lee Anderson a few weeks ago about the brutal defeat of the Tamil Tigers by the Sri Lankan army: "Death of the Tiger" (partially gated).

The article makes clear that the army indiscriminately shelled LTTE strongholds, knowing full well that these also contained tens of thousands of unarmed civilians. Indeed, the army apparently designated "no-fire zones", told civilians to assemble there, and "then shelled those zones repeatedly, while issuing denials that it was doing so." This brutal strategy was, in the end, successful in conquering the LTTE, albeit at a very high humanitarian cost.

The LTTE was a pretty despicable group, with its frequent use of suicide bombing, among others. Its soldiers also shot civilians that were trying to escape their clutches towards the end of the war, thus behaving no better than the Sri Lankan army. And its leaders, in the end, attempted to get free passage for themselves and one thousand of their fighters, leaving the civilians on whose behalf they claimed to fight to their own devices. (True leaders would have offered to give themselves up in exchange for free passage for all the remaining civilians under their control.)

Still, that does not justify the Sri Lankan army sinking to their level. Anderson suggests, disconcertingly, that "the Sri Lanka option" for counter-insurgency is now discussed with admiration in military circles around the world. It is to be hoped that governments think twice about Sri Lanka's example. The country's government claims that it has "ended terrorism," but that is of course silly. The LTTE may be dead, but the way the government is treating Tamils in the North of the country has produced an excellent petri dish for growing new terrorist groups. Moreover, by the literal definition of terrorism, one might argue that the Sri Lankan army is doing a pretty good job of spreading terror among the Tamils.

Aid transparency

OK, time to crank up the blog again, after some time away focusing on other stuff. I've gathered up a bunch of stuff over the past month or so, so upcoming posts may occasionally not be à la minute.

First up, the promising new aid transparency blog Full Disclosure, run by Devex, "the largest provider of recruiting and business development services to the international development community," briefly commented on the new IATI global standard for publishing aid information, under the title "The Revolution Begins." Claudia Elliot notes that the new standard (finalized on Feb. 9th) makes it possible for donors to share information on the aid they provide, and recipients can get a better sense of the aid they are getting.

Increased aid transparency is an excellent idea, and is crucial for increasing accountability. But it is hardly the case that no aid information has been available until now. The OECD's Development Assistance Committee (DAC) has promulgated aggregate aid statistics for decades now, and its online statistics are invaluable. Superb project-level aid information is available at AidData, a more recent initiative of Development Gateway, the College of William & Mary, and Brigham Young University..

One hopes that this new IATI standard will make a real difference. But I'd hesitate to call it the beginning of a revolution. After all, for a new transparency standard to make a big difference, at least one of two things must be true:

1. Governments have wanted greater transparency than was available through DAC and/or AidData but have been unable to get it until now
2. Publics have wanted greater transparency in order to hold their governments accountable, but their governments have withheld that information from them until now.

It is not obvious that either or both of these conditions hold. Indeed, most historical evidence suggests that they do not. Governments have paid lip service to the importance of aid coordination for a long time, without ever doing much about it. And for decades, governments have gotten good PR out of promising to meet certain aid targets — as specified in the Millennium Development Goals, for example – without actually intending to do so. They may thus have an interest in less than full disclosure, and publics have not historically clamored for more specific information about aid programs.

For a revolution to begin, publics must become both more interested in and better informed about aid policy and projects. Until then, Elliot inadvertently points to one of the things governments may (ab-)use aid information for: "to compliment each others' efforts". I suspect she means "complement", but it is undeniably true that one reason for governments to supply aid is the reputational benefits this may provide Since such benefits won't follow until a government's generosity is widely known, governments will be happy to supply transparent information on the efforts they are most proud of.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Human rights imperialism?

On the last day of 2010, Stephen Kinzer offered a scathing attack on "human rights imperialism" in the Guardian. In this exceedingly odd piece, Kinzer criticizes Human Rights Watch and other organizations for "imposing western, 'universal' standards on developing countries."

Kinzer makes two key points, related but not identical. First, he believes that the human rights movement "has lost its way" and is using "human rights as [its] excuse" for undermining governments of poor countries and building support for American military interventions worldwide. In other words, the movement is lending itself to becoming used for foreign policy goals that are not driven by human rights considerations.

Second, he suggests that many of the most prominent human rights NGOs "promote an absolutist view of human rights permeated by modern western ideas that westerners mistakenly call 'universal'."

There is little or no evidence to support either of those points. Kinzer's claims are hardly novel — human rights activists have long struggled with the danger of succumbing to either of these risks. (Consider, for example, Michael Ignatieff's excellent Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, published in 2003, which, as the title deals with precisely these two issues.) As a result, it is silly to suggest that the leading human rights NGOs have now succumbed wholesale.

The key problem is this: in any given issue area, multiple human rights are at stake, and the United States is likely to have a strategic interest. Any HR organization will thus need to think carefully about the relative priority of different rights, and the risk of appearing to be pushing for change that — for different reasons — fits US strategic goals. Difficult choices are unavoidable.

Kinzer apparently disagrees with some of those choices, and translates this disagreement into a wholesale condemnation of the human rights movement. His two specific disagreements are very poorly chosen, however. First, he argues that human rights organizations in Darfur have served as "useful idiots" to extend a conflict by reacting to massacres strategically provoked by rebel groups.

This claim is pernicious for three reasons. First, Kinzer implies that massacres in Darfur were, from the very beginning, strategically provoked, which is a severe accusation for which I do not believe there is evidence (not only that — given the degree to which the world ignored the conflict in South Sudan, which festered for decades and cost about two million lives, Darfur rebel groups would have to have been rather stupid to count on useful involvement from the outside). Second, he suggests that massacres that have been "provoked" (he does not specify how) cannot constitute serious human rights violations worth monitoring and protesting. Third, he seems to believe that any group that cannot win on the battlefield cannot have a human rights complaint worth getting involved in — realpolitik at its worst.

Kinzer's second complaint is no less problematic: He takes issue with complaints about Paul Kagame's increasingly authoritarian rule in Rwanda, given that Kagame's government has brought peace, stability, and economic growth back to Rwanda far more successfully than anybody could have dared hope fifteen years ago.

Again, there are three serious problems here. First, I am not aware that any human rights organization denies Kagame's achievements. The "evidence" Kinzer's online article links to in support of the claim that "Human Rights Watch... portrays the Rwandan regime as brutally oppressive" simply documents official intimidation of opposition parties; it does not state nor imply that HRW thinks "giving people jobs, electricity, and above all security is not considered a human rights achievement." Second, the evidence is fairly straightforward, so Kinzer's opposition to publicizing it suggests that he feels Rwanda's economic and security achievements have earned it a free pass to commit a range of "minor" human rights violations. Third, Kinzer takes a primordial view about Rwandans and their "ethnic hatreds", suggesting, with no evidence whatsoever, that all opposition parties that are being intimidated by the Kagame regime a) are connected to genocidaires, and b) would, if they came to power, unleash another genocide.

Judging by his website, Kinzer seems like an interesting and fairly thoughtful guy. He must have been in a particularly sour mood around the holidays to pen such a profoundly misguided attack on the entire human rights movement. I hope he comes to his senses in the new year.

Estonia's euro bet

Just a brief follow-up on my earlier mention of Estonia's adoption of the euro. The Economist's last Charlemagne column of 2010 discussed "Why fiscally prudent Estonia wants to join the troubled euro." In addition to the standard economic reasons — reduce interest rate premiums, lower transaction costs, attract investment — Charlemagne also mentions Estonia's goal of tying the country ever more closely to (Western) Europe (and underscoring its separation from Russia). I suppose there is some symbolic value in adopting the euro, but I am not so convinced that "[t]o many Estonians, the euro also means security" in the sense of protection from Russia. Currency policy is important, sure, but not that important.

Charlemagne acknowledges that Estonia was able to attain this milestone in part by implementing severe austerity policies when the global economic crisis hit. Its economy shrank by 1/7 during 2009 alone, and the unemployment rate averaged about 17.5% in 2010. Not many governments are secure and stable enough to survive that kind of an economic shock. As Charlemagne suggests, it may be all the more difficult for those states that have already adopted the euro and face similar calls for austerity.

Estonia may calculate that even if such countries end up forced out of the euro, a rump euro-zone will continue, participation in which will continue to be valuable. This is not such a bad guess to make; after all, the Estonian kroon has been pegged to the German mark and the euro since its re-introduction, and apart from the recent (admittedly severe) economic shock, the country has benefited nicely from this choice.

P.S. As an interesting side-note, the author of the column has evidently read (or read about) Timothy Snyder's excellent new book Bloodlands, about Stalin's and Hitler's murderous regimes and what they did to the areas that lay between Germany and Russia. The book has nothing to do with monetary policy, but does bear reading for anyone interested in that region (which includes the Baltic republics). Two informative (and glowing) reviews are here and here.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Ireland and sovereignty in an integrated Europe

Geoffrey Wheatcroft discusses the non-existence of Irish independence in a brief article in the Dec. 30 issue of The New Republic (partially gated). Protesters in Ireland have been bemoaning the fact that their government appeared to be "handing over our sovereignty", but as Wheatcroft notes, there was never that much to hand over. Or, to put it differently, the idealized notion that sovereignty means a state has full control of its own fate is utterly unrealistic for any country actively involved in the global political economy, let alone one that has joined joined the European Union and adopted the euro as its currency.

The problem for Ireland is that it is particularly sensitive about its sovereignty and its independence, for understandable historical reasons. Norway is in a similar position, which is one of the reasons it has not (yet) joined the European Union. Wheatcroft draws a parallel with a different Nordic country, Finland, arguing that "Finland has achieved the things that Ireland aspired to": its own language, real neutrality, and economic success.

Wheatcroft overplays the comparison a bit. Finland may have resisted Soviet military aggression for four months in 1939, but it was severely constrained in its international relations from the end of World War II until the end of the Cold War, in ways that Ireland wasn't. I am sure many Finns would have been happy, at any time between 1945 and 1989, to exchange their "neutrality" for Ireland's. Nor is it fair to suggest that Ireland's economic success amounted to little more than the combination of a construction bubble with striking corruption.

Nevertheless, the parallel does raise an interesting issue. Finland was not able to join the European integration project until the end of the Cold War, because the Soviet Union would not have allowed it. Perhaps the experience of real political constraints has made the Finns more realistic about which features of sovereignty and independence are important, and which are not. One could argue Finland gave up one form of dependence for another when it joined the EU, but this was a dependence that was voluntarily chosen, and it was one that offered great benefits as well (unlike the dependence on Soviet goodwill).

In Ireland, in contrast, public debate is deeply focused on sovereignty as an end in itself; the issue comes up every time the European Union treaties need to be revised. It is a serious failure of the country's political leaders that they have never conducted an honest debate about what sovereignty means in a globalizing economy, nor what its value or purpose are in an ever more closely integrated Europe.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Eurozone grows

With all the doom-saying about the euro, it is worth noting that January 1st saw an expansion of the eurozone, with Estonia officially adopting the euro. Its fellow Baltic republics Lithuania and Latvia are also eager to join, and aim to meet the prerequisites by 2014 at the latest

Estonia's conversion was easier than most, since its national currency, the kroon, had been pegged to the euro since 2002. Still, having the same currency as neighbour (and linguistically closely related) Finland ought to provide an economic boost. In Finland, there were some immediate benefits, as the Mint of Finland had received the order to mint Estonia's euro coins earlier this year.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The greatest curiosity in the world

The release of diplomatic cable traffic by Wikileaks has occasioned an enormous amount of discussion about the implications for diplomacy if communications cannot be guaranteed to remain secret. This is hardly a new problem: for centuries, innovations in cryptography were generally driven by attempts to keep diplomatic messages secret.

Sooner or later, encoded messages became publicly available anyway. However, the kind of semi-confidential gossip that distinguishes the cable traffic released by Wikileaks was often not considered important enough to encrypt or keep confidential.

For example, the Dutch newsweekly Vrij Nederland noted in its December 4th issue (gated, sorry) that John Adams, on a tour of Europe, wrote to Abigail on Sept. 15, 1780 offering some opinions on the Netherlands. Vrij Nederland displays a facsimile of the letter, which unfortunately I could not find reproduced online. Amusingly, the Pieter Groet, the author of the accompanying note, has trouble with Adams' handwriting, and believes that Adams called the Netherlands "the greatest country in the world." Adams' handwriting is quite legible, however, and it is quite clear that he considered it "the greatest curiosity in the world" (emphasis mine).

Adams' complete assessment reads:
"The country where I am is the greatest curiosity in the world. This nation is not known any where, not even by its neighbors. The Dutch language is spoken by none but themselves. Therefore they converse with nobody, and nobody converses with them. The English are a great nation, and they despise the Dutch because they are smaller. The French are a greater nation still, and therefore they despise the Dutch because they are still smaller in comparison to them. But I doubt much whether there is any nation of Europe more estimable than the Dutch in proportion. Their industry and economy ought to be examples to the world. They have less ambition, I mean that of conquest and military glory, than their neighbors, but I don't perceive that they have more avarice. And they carry learning and arts, I think, to greater extent."
On balance, Adams was pretty positive — a good thing, since he would become the U.S.'s first official ambassador ('minister plenipotentiary', actually) to the Netherlands two years later. The quip about language is only partially correct: as continues to be true today, almost nobody but the Dutch speaks Dutch.

But the Dutch have always reacted to this by learning multiple languages, even back then, making it possible for them to converse with more people, not fewer. Indeed, Dutch poets of the age revelled in writing poems with words or phrases in multiple languages (Constantijn Huygens' "Olla Podrida" contains 8 languages: Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Latin, and Greek).