Man Without Qualities

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Art: The View From 43d Street

The New York Times reports on "Seurat and the Making of `La Grande Jatte' " at the Art Institute of Chicago, which traces the French artist's preparations for his major painting:

The painting (its full title is "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884") has been in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago since 1926. So great is its fame that to some visitors it is the Art Institute, the way "Las Meninas" is the Prado. They are, of course, mistaken. The museum, one of this country's best, has other attractions.

And the Prado doesn't?

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Tuesday, August 17, 2004

From The Reaction, A Surprise Home Run

It is not just the intensity of John Kerry's and the liberal media responses to the President's proposal to bring home many American troops from Europe and Asia that makes one think that he hit a political home run. What really suggests that result is that intensity coupled with the insubstantiality and incompleteness of the arguments against the President's proposal. The New York Times and Washington Post editorials are especially notable for their furious and unsupported rhetoric - but Senator Kerry's own response is also notable. The Times editorial, for example, leads with this grab-bag:

The troop redeployment plan announced yesterday by President Bush makes little long-term strategic sense. It is certain to strain crucial alliances, increase overall costs and dangerously weaken deterrence on the Korean peninsula at the worst possible moment.
As a preliminary matter, consider the Times assertion that the President's proposal makes little long-term strategic sense. The same Times editorial notes that it has been known for some time that the Pentagon wants to pull back perhaps half of the roughly 70,000 soldiers now in Germany and a third of the nearly 40,000 troops in South Korea, and nothing in the Times condemnation of the President's proposal turns on the size. Indeed, a prior Times editorial already second-guessed the Pentagon's request. Further, an Op-Ed item in the Times - whose tone and reasoning seems entirely of a piece with the Times' approach - disputed the Pentagon's related proposal to maintain new bases in Eastern Europe. In short, while the Times' current fulminations are directed at the President - those fulminations are actually corollaries of the Times' conviction that the Pentagon is itself already making a request that makes little long-term strategic sense. How likely is that? And how do the Times and Senator Kerry's rejections of the Pentagon proposal square with John Kerry's repeated pledge to listen to the advice of the military leaders?

Nor does the Times' sweeping but unsupported claim that the proposal is certain to increase overall costs seem to be correct, as the Post notes:

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said in a report in May that greatly reducing the U.S. presence overseas could save more than $1 billion a year but could cost nearly $7 billion upfront. "Restationing Army forces would produce, at best, only small improvements in the United States' ability to respond to far-flung conflicts," the CBO said.
It seems more like the CBO essentially expects a wash on the overall cost front, with some allowances for timing of expenses, and with a small improvement in overall military effectiveness. As a matter of common sense, should it cost more to maintain American soldiers in (1) America or (2) bases thousands of miles away? The Times is "certain" that the answer is choice (2), perhaps because Germany pays some of the costs of military bases in Germany.

The criticisms now emanating from Senator Kerry, the Times, the Post and the rest do not seem to include arguments that the President's proposal would increase any risks faced by the affected American servicemen. The Times thinks that The most dangerous threat still comes from North Korea, which is now thought to be building nuclear weapons. That seems correct, but doesn't it then make sense to remove as many American soldiers from the nuclear threat as possible - just as the Pentagon and the President are proposing?

There are fewer than 40,000 troops in South Korea - that's not a number one would expect to actually hold off or even materially delay a conventional assault on the South by the North. Indeed, the entire current American presence is less than the 44,000 fatalities U.S. troops suffered during the Korean War. Instead of being a significant combat force, the 40,000 American soldiers now in Korea are a "trip wire" or "hostage" force - one established and maintained to guaranty that the United States will respond to a conventional attack on the South. That the main threat from the North is now from a possible nuclear strike appears to reduce the combat significance of the American presence while increasing the risk that they would experience high casualties in the event of a Northern nuclear strike. Such increased risk and decreased combat significance in the face of the new nuclear threat appears to argue in favor of maintaining a much smaller American force, since that would reduce the risk of high casualties with no material reduction in the already immaterial combat significance of the American force. South Korea would not reasonably feel imperiled by the reduction, since the smaller force could function as an adequate "trip wire" or "hostage:" the United States will not allow a significant threat to, say, a force of 10,000 soldiers, go unaddressed. The mirror image of these considerations is that while it is true (as the Times notes) that Pyongyang has long coveted a reduction in American troop levels in Korea, any such reduction that leaves the American presence of sufficient strength to serve as an adequate "trip wire" or "hostage" will be of no satisfaction to the North - and therefore the President's proposal gives away no significant bargaining chip to the North.

The President's critics also claim that the repatriations of American troops from Europe is intended to "punish" those Western European nations - especially Germany - that failed to support the recent Iraq war effort. The Administration is denying that motivation, which is certainly correct, because it is preposterous that the United States deploys its military forces out of petulance. Moreover, Germany would simply not be punished by such a move. There is no "punishing" cost to Germany from such a US move.

The roughly 70,000 American soldiers now in Germany are not even a "trip wire" or "hostage" force - which is consistent with the Pentagon's desire to pull back perhaps half of them. The Times and other critics of the President disingenuously carry on as if 70,000 American soldiers are stationed in Germany so that they can rush off - like Batman - on a moment's notice to trouble spots in Africa or Kosovo. That's not what has happened. US European bases are intermediate points from which military actions might be fought and supported by US soldiers mostly home-based in the United States in any event. The Pentagon's proposal for greater reliance on leanly staffed bases in cheaper locales to which men and material can be transported as needed makes good sense, and the President's critics haven't provided any good counterarguments.

Further, a military base that cannot be used more or less at the will of the United States because the host country will not permit such use is not much good at all. Neither the Pentagon nor the White House can ignore that fact, which means that they cannot ignore the fact that the current German government seriously considered totally prohibiting the use of United States bases in Germany and German air space for the Iraq war and did seriously restrict the American use of those bases. Indeed, arguments were made and taken seriously in Germany that such American use of those bases violated the German constitution. Further, the German government actually obstructed American efforts to provide assistance to Turkey in connection with the Iraq war, as noted in this New York Times article. It is simply disingenuous to pretend that such serious symptoms of unreliability of an ally can be ignored to the point of assuming - as the Times and the President's critics are doing - that reliability of the host country is not a major factor in determining where to locate a military base or the appropriate location of military forces. Germany just cannot be presumed to be reliable now.

Oddly, it is the President's critics who are undiplomatically publicly harping on the connection between the recalcitrance of some European countries (especially Germany) during the Iraq war and the troop repatriation proposals advanced by the Pentagon and the President. The unreliability of those countries cannot be ignored by Pentagon planners or any White House administration. But there is no need to fray the diplomatic ties with those countries with continuing public harping. It's strange that the Democrats who prattle on about how the current President has abraded diplomatic relations with such countries of old Europe are more than willing to needlessly abrade those relations by drawing attention to the recent unreliability of their governments.

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Monday, August 16, 2004

Why Do They Hate Us?

The Democrats and liberal media have passionately and endlessly explained that the current president has caused our old European allies - especially Germany - to hate us. So tragic.

And now the same Democrats and liberal media are explaining that the Germans are now so unhappy with the bullying, unilateralist, lawless, America of Mr. Bush that they're hopping mad that he doesn't want to keep more of our soldiers there in Germany.

So I guess that if the Germans really, really loved us - the way they would under a President Kerry, I suppose - they would be out by the millions in the Berlin streets chanting "Yankee Go Home!"

Has history shown us that those Germans are just full of that kind of nuance and love to play hard-to-get!?

Ah, the inscrutable occident!
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Senator Harkin Flips Out

The Associated Press reports:

Sen. Tom Harkin pushed the name-calling in the presidential race to a new level, calling Vice President Dick Cheney a coward for not serving in Vietnam and cowardly for his criticism of John Kerry.

The AP does not report what John Edwards (who did not do military service) had to say about the Iowa Senator's comments - and did not seek out any reaction from former president Bill Clinton (same).

Also, there seems to be a typographical error in the AP article. The phrase "Harkin pushed the name-calling in the presidential race to a new level" clarly should read "Harkin pushed the name-calling in the presidential race to a new low."

The word "shrill" does appear in the AP article.
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Rudolf, This Is Nicholas ...

... we seem to have mainstream media liftoff on the Christmas-In-Cambodia story. Over.

Roger, Nicholas. This is Rudolf. Watch your tail, New York Times and Washiington Post remain UFO's. Over.

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Sunday, August 15, 2004

More Conventional Wisdom

The New York Times today publishes a rather panicky interview by Deborah ("This Can't Be True! Nobody I Know Is Voting For Bush!") Solomon of Yale Professor Ray C. Fair - creator of the "Fair Model" for predicting presidential races - a model that Professor Fair updated as of July 31st to show a coming Bush landslide of 57.48 percent of the two-party vote that has Ms. Solomon so worried. Unlike Ms. Solomon's questions, Professor Fair's answers are themselves models of professional restraint:

Ms. Solomon: The polls are suggesting a much closer race.

Professor Fair: Polls are notoriously flaky this far ahead of the election, and there is a limit to how much you want to trust polls.

S: Why should we trust your equation, which seems unusually reductive?

F: It has done well historically. The average mistake of the equation is about 2.5 percentage points.

S: In your book "Predicting Presidential Elections and Other Things," you claim that economic growth and inflation are the only variables that matter in a presidential race. Are you saying that the war in Iraq will have no influence on the election?

F: Historically, issues like war haven't swamped the economics. If the equation is correctly specified, then the chances that Bush loses are very small.

S: But the country hasn't been this polarized since the 60's, and voters seem genuinely engaged by social issues like gay marriage and the overall question of a more just society.

F: We throw all those into what we call the error term. In the past, all that stuff that you think should count averages about 2.5 percent, and that is pretty small.

S: It saddens me that you teach this to students at Yale, who could be thinking about society in complex and meaningful ways.

F: I will be teaching econometrics next year to undergraduates. Econometrics is a huge deal, because it is applied to all kinds of things. ....

S: Are you a Republican?

F: I can't credibly answer that question. Using game theory in economics, you are not going to believe me when I tell you my political affiliation because I know that you know that I could be behaving strategically. If I tell you I am a Kerry supporter, how do you know that I am not lying or behaving strategically to try to put more weight on the predictions and help the Republicans?

S: I don't want to do game theory. I just want to know if you are a Kerry supporter.

F: Backing away from game theory, which is kind of cute, I am a Kerry supporter.

S: I believe you entirely, although I'm a little surprised, because your predictions implicitly lend support to Bush.

F: I am not attempting to be an advocate for one party or another. I am attempting to be a social scientist trying to explain voting behavior.

S: But in the process you are shaping opinion. Predictions can be self-confirming, because wishy-washy voters might go with the candidate who is perceived to be more successful.

F: It could work the other way. If Kerry supporters see that I have made this big prediction for Bush, more of them could turn out just to prove an economist wrong.

S: Perhaps you could create an equation that would calculate how important the forecasts of economists are.

F: There are so many polls and predictions, and I am not sure the net effect of any one of them is much.

S: Yes, everyone in America is a forecaster. We all think we know how things will turn out.

F: So in that case, no one has much influence, including me.

The interview casts some interesting light on why the prevailing Conventional Wisdom is leaning fairly strongly towards Kerry-Edwards with little in the way of conventional support. As Kausfiles delicately and diplomatically and, I believe, correctly, puts it:

I just think Halperin's "Gang" is still influenced--if only subconsciously--by sympathy for the Democrats and (more important) for those Democratic operatives who are their sources. Correct for that and it's probably not Kerry's contest to lose after all.

Ms. Solomon is herself a more rampant case than those who merely favor Kerry-Edwards "subconsciously." Here she interviews a scientist at a major research university - and terms herself surprised that he hasn't distorted the results of his scientific research to favor his pre-existing political view. One easily imagines her internal dialogue: "Gee," she seems to be saying to herself, "I think nothing of distorting the results of my journalistic investigations to favor my pre-existing political view. What's the matter with this guy? I'll bet he's a closet Republican!" And what to make of Ms. Solomon's stunned quiet at the end of the interview after the Professor observes that what he writes won't influence the election much because lots of people are writing. Can there be a more direct challenge to the write-it-and-they-will-come approach of so many mainstream liberal journalists? More internal Solomon dialogue: "I always assume I'm going to influence the outcome of what I write about substantially - that's why I distort what I write!"

Of course, Ms. Solomon shouldn't worry so much about what she does with her own distortions. Her profession has a lot more in common on this point with the work of trial lawyers than with that of scientists. Who cares much if the analysis proves to be wrong after the jury has made it's award and appeals have expired - or her newsprint has yellowed? That's yesterday's news! Judging from her questioning, her likely first choice for the Democratic nominee was John Edwards - as was the case with so many of her colleagues.

She deplores what she calls Professor Fair's unusually reductive equation - but she thinks nothing of attempting to reduce him to a political label "Republican" or "Kerry supporter." She's surprised when her labeling approach doesn't yield a good prediction as to what the Professor is up to. Then there is her "sadness" at hearing that a professor of economics has been teaching his students that economics has a lot of influence on how people actually operate. So much better to learn to think in complex and meaningful ways that give inaccurate predictions.

Even after Professor Fair does his best to disabuse her of her prejudices, it never seems to occur to Ms. Solomon that the only reason anyone pays special attention to Professor Fair is that very reputation for predictive accuracy. It also never seems to occur to Ms. Solomon that the day after the election Professor Fair will still have that reputation to maintain - and whether he predicted the actual outcome of the election will matter to his reputation, but whether "his" guy Kerry won won't. Perhaps Ms. Solomon bases her view of how Ivy League economists operate on Herr Doktorprofessor Paul Von Krugman - to whom a reputation for predictive inaccuracy now clings and who long ago traded in whatever economic credibility he may have had for the cheap, fleeting pleasures of a hack journalist: "Compare me… compare me, uh, with anyone else, and I think you'll see that my forecasting record is not great."

People like Mark Halperin and Charlie Cook really are non-hacks who do know more than the rest of us. Which is a good thing, because they and their like provide the input that makes the Conventional Wisdom worth reading - even if they are not always right. If every member of Halperin's Gang of 500 were equivalent to Ms. Solomon, and their input to the Conventional Wisdom equivalent to her contribution to this column, the Conventional Wisdom would be nothing more than a demonstration of the arithmetic fact that zero multiplied by five hundred is still zero.

MORE: From Betsy's Page. I'll be keeping an eye out for Stephen Green's Techcentral item, if Nick let's it through.

STILL MORE: From Don Luskin.

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