Reputation theory and war

Many, if not most, of the wars fought and being fought have their basis in “credibility.” If the U.S. fails to take action against a putative aggressor, then the U.S. ceases to have credibility. And it seems that credibility trumps all other rationales for military intervention.

But upholding one’s “reputation” as a credible corrector of international mayhem turns out to be a false doctrine. Vox‘s Max Fisher reports.

If you have experienced even a few minutes of cable news coverage or handful of newspaper op-eds on American foreign policy, there is a word you will have encountered over and over again: credibility.

The United States, according to this theory, has to follow through on every threat and confront every adversary in order to maintain America’s global credibility. If it fails to stand up to challengers in one place, then they will rise up everywhere, and America will see its global standing, and thus its power in the world, crumble.

But there is a problem with this theory of credibility: It does not appear to be real. Political scientists have investigated this theory over and over, and have repeatedly disproven it.

Apple surprise

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On the heels of a disappointing financial quarter, wherein Apple’s iPhone sales dipped and the company’s profits failed to meet analysts’ expectations, we find this chart from the Seattle Times. It shows R&D spending among major corporations.

I admit to being surprised by Volkswagen’s being at the top for three years running, and not so much that Samsung occupies the second slot for the same timeframe. Conspicuously absent from the top 20 was Apple—until last year, when it moved into the 18th position.

I’ll hazard a prediction. If Apple does not dramatically boost its R&D spending and concentrate on the “next best thing,” it will continue to lose ground to those who take research and development more seriously. What good is all that cash if you don’t use it to profitable effect?

Swift and certain

Why do people misbehave and so often? Research suggests that lack of swift and certain apprehension and punishment encourages criminal behavior. If we know that authorities are absent or, if present, will do next to nothing should we transgress, we do bad things—over and over.

The linked article above focuses initially on traffic situations. Those of us who drive cars know something about such things. I, for one, avoid the freeways as much as possible, save for Fridays, when my wife and I must join the muck to head from Everett to Seattle, where our grandkids reside. It’s a treat well worth the effort, mind you. And, with some exceptions, the trip is decent enough, mostly because we can drive in the HOV lane, bypassing the vehicular goo to our right.

Yet, I am nevertheless bothered by the prevalence of bad drivers. My biggest irritant are those who immediately drive into the leftmost lane, then stay there as if they are masters of the domain. Meanwhile, other motorists join the queue behind them, all growing more anxious with each mile of impedance.

In Washington state it is against the law to drive in the leftmost freeway lane unless to pass another vehicle. Yeah, right. There are sparsely located signs indicating as much. No matter. Motorists flout the law, exercising what, for them, is their god-given right to seize a 12-foot-wide corridor for their exclusive use. Other motorists be damned.

Well, those increasingly anxious trailers must feel bottled up, which they are. That’s when things can go ugly.

Freeway travelers cannot help but notice skid marks on the freeways, indicators of vehicle collisions, some ending in horrible death. Many collisions result from over-anxious drivers seeking an escape from the congealed line of backed-up cars in the left lane. The would-be escapees sometimes miscalculate. They believe that they’ve discovered an opening, only to misjudge space and time.

In my previous life I made a living as a traffic accident reconstructionist. I would be called to a scene after the fact to survey the remnants of a collision, involving one or more vehicles. I would measure the skid marks, damaged vehicles, the scene itself, and whatever appeared related to the incident under investigation. Having gathered the evidence, I would then apply Newton’s laws and other appropriate physics and math to determine who did what.

One of the most spectacular effects of a collision occurs in relatively minor freeway accidents. Let’s explore one example.

Say that you are one of those motorists stuck behind a stubborn or otherwise oblivious domain-master. After several minutes, your patience ends. You’ve got to escape. You spot an opening to your right in the center lane. So you accelerate while moving in that direction. But you misjudge distances. In your maneuver the left front of your car clips the right rear of the car ahead of you that you’re trying to pass.

This seemingly little nudge produces extraordinary effects. The domain-master’s car is suddenly rotated counter-clockwise, putting the vehicle into a yaw and propelling it sharply left and out of the leftmost lane.

If we assume that the vehicles are traveling over 60 mph, which is most often the case in that left lane, the mishap can have dire consequences. The domain-master’s car may collide with a car to its left (e.g., in the HOV lane) or into an embankment or protective barrier. The sudden deceleration upon hitting another object at high speeds is what kills and maims.

If domain-masters knew that their obstructionist behavior would be quickly and consistently recognized and stopped by the Washington State Patrol, then, according to the linked article, there would be fewer such motorists and, therefore, fewer accidents involving impatient drivers. From the article:

In other words, people respond to how likely they are to get in trouble. So on roads where cops are more likely to pull over people for bad driving, maybe drivers are more likely to adhere to speed limits and avoid anything that might look like reckless driving.

I would change the enforcement emphasis, however. I’d sanction less the speeder and more the obstructionist.

Egan stumbles

I generally appreciate Timothy Egan’s words, which I find eloquent and usually spot on. But he, like his New York Times colleague, Paul Krugman, has joined the bashing-of-Bernie brigade, dismissing him with agist epithets. Today’s column is just one example. He writes of Sanders:

The next highest concentration of voters seeking radical change is drawn to the shouted shibboleths of Senator Bernie Sanders, the 74-year-old socialist. Sanders is a sloganeer with authenticity. But a rant, no matter how dead-on, is not a governing blueprint. His answer, on a number of occasions, to complex issues has been “I haven’t thought about it a whole lot.” In many areas, he’s almost substance-free.

Bernie’s supporters would disagree. But I am mostly concerned with Egan’s ill-informed attempt to propel Hillary Clinton to victory. He proffers a “big idea”:

Consider the epic changes over the past century that brought lasting good to this country. Social Security and Medicare, allowing millions of Americans to live in dignity, were part one. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the 1960s, which completed what Abraham Lincoln started with the 13th Amendment, were part two. Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, which made the nation’s cities breathable, waterways swimmable and the country more habitable for all living things, were part three. Clinton needs to fashion a part four, attacking inequality with an institutional uplift to the slipping middle class.

Clearly Egan has not read Thomas Frank’s latest book, Listen, Liberal. There he would discover that the Clinton’s deliberately shunned the working class, which is most of us, after all. They did so to curry favor with Wall Street elites, to demonstrate their “Very Serious” crud, and to pre-empt Republican ideology, which has always blamed the victims while promoting or executing policies that make more of them.

Frank cites several Clinton White House initiatives that made lives worse for the Rest of Us. These include: ending of welfare-as-we-know it; NAFTA, which encouraged, if not enabled, corporations to shut down U.S. plants and move operations to cheap-labor Mexico; and wholesale deregulation of the financial sector, leading almost inevitably to the Great Recession, from which most Americans have yet to recover.

We will recall the Bush-versus-Gore debates about Social Security and “lock boxes.” Both presidential candidates vowed to protect the program, one way or another. Of course, G.W. Bush, as president, would try to do the opposite: throw the elderly under the bus by tying their retirements to Wall Street and its malevolent misadventures.

Well, guess what? Bill Clinton did his best to accomplish what G.W. couldn’t. In brief, America’s elderly were saved by a blow job. Here’s Frank:

The two leaders [Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton] knew this [privatizing Social Security] would mean building “a new center/right political coalition” to get the deed done, because many Democrats could be counted on to oppose the deal. Indeed, … on numerous issues “the president was closer to Gingrich than he was to the leadership of his own party,” a description that could have been accurately applied to each of Clinton’s great accomplishments—NAFTA, welfare reform, and bank deregulation, all of them made into law by cooperation between the Democratic president and the Republicans in Congress.

The schedule on which the two men agreed went as follows: Clinton would start hinting at the privatization proposal in January 1998. Various groups would then spend the year conducting a Social Security “dialogue” whose conclusions can be easily guessed. Incredibly, the two leaders would somehow contrive to “keep the issue off the table in the 1998 congressional elections,” and then get it enacted during the lame-duck session in December 1998, when nobody could hold either of them responsible.

Clinton actually went through with the first step in the plan, demanding in his 1998 State of the Union address that Congress use the federal surplus to “save Social Security first,” a vague but noble-sounding demand that appears to have been his way of opening the privatization discussion. As it happened, Social Security was already safe—safe from Clinton, that is—thanks to a certain Oval Office dalliance. The week before his speech, the media frenzy over Monica Lewinsky had begun, and it was all polarization and impeachment after that.

The day of the speech itself, Hillary Clinton went on TV and accused a “vast right-wing conspiracy” of coming together in an effort to bring her husband down. This was true enough as regards the sex scandal, but the conspiracy that really mattered was the one between her husband and his putative right-wing rival, Newt Gingrich.

Here’s why the D.C. pundits came to love Bill Clinton: He almost did it. He almost achieved that great coalescence of the professional and business classes.

Frank refers to Hillary as her presidential husband’s principal advisor. I would not expect her to abandon Bill Clinton’s successful efforts to morph the Democratic Party from labor’s advocate to Wall Street’s sycophant. Hillary does not make $300,000 speeches to financial firms to make life better for the poor and middle classes.

So, I see no way in heaven or hell that President Hillary Clinton will arrest the increase in inequality, which is at its highest level ever. That’s not what she and her husband are about.

It’s all about the ducats.

Meet the new Democrats

Matthew Yglesias, writing for Vox:

What’s clear is that there’s robust demand among Democrats — especially the next generation of Democrats — to remake the party along more ideological, more social democratic lines, and party leaders are going to have to answer that demand or get steamrolled.

Siphoning dollars because they can

Paul Krugman suggests that Verizon, for example, fails to invest in its infrastructure—an investment that would benefit its customers—because the company has no need to do so. It enjoys monopoly or near-monopoly status, enabling the firm to charge “rents” without fear of competition.

At one time policymakers believed that the consolidation of companies would free the now-larger corporations to invest dollars that would improve service and boost employment. Krugman traces this thinking back to Ronald Reagan.

For Reagan didn’t just cut taxes and deregulate banks; his administration also turned sharply away from the longstanding U.S. tradition of reining in companies that become too dominant in their industries. A new doctrine, emphasizing the supposed efficiency gains from corporate consolidation, led to what those who have studied the issue often describe as the virtual end of antitrust enforcement.

Verizon and other telecommunications providers exercise monopoly power. Krugman links to a study (pdf) released by the Obama Administration that illustrates the pernicious effects of concentrated economic power. Among other things, the new “robber barons” (Krugman’s term) would be “able to milk their businesses for cash, but with little reason to spend money on expanding capacity or improving service. The result would be what we see: an economy with high profits but low investment, even in the face of very low interest rates and high stock prices.”

Of course, things could be different. And they are elsewhere. I wrote about one example here. The French have access to speedy Internet, high-quality and abundant television content, and telephone service for a mere fraction of the cost charged by Comcast for its bundled products. The contrast has much to do with the concept and reality of “common carrier.” Telecommunications infrastructure in France is open to multiple providers of both content (input) and retail services (output).

Then, again, this is America. And we have nothing to learn from others.

Simplifying taxes

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have introduced legislation that would, if passed, simplify tax returns. But the bill will hardly accomplish this:

In Sweden, the four-page tax form comes in the mail already filled out. On a Saturday morning, Betty and I take our coffee to the couch and review the forms. Seeing they look reasonable, as they always do, we “sign” with a text from our phones. In 15 minutes we are done. We don’t have to hire a tax consultant, and we avoid fights about whether a print cartridge bought at the drugstore is a business expense or not.

The quote comes from Tom Heberlein, a retired professor who, with his wife, splits his time between Sweden and Wisconsin. I wrote about his dual perspectives here.