Sunday, September 20, 2015

Pakistan's Endangered Leopards: Time to Change Spots?

Another deadly attack in Pakistan, it's hardly news. What is there to say about this ongoing tragedy - is there a change in rhythm of operations by the Pakistani Taliban? Will Pakistan's government recognize that this violence is not peripheral, but instead central to the future existence and coherence of the state?

Instead, a story in Tuesday's Washington Post discussed the new terror of Abbotabad - not the next Osama bin Laden - but rather leopards, who are increasingly attacking people.

Now, your faithful blogger loves a big cat story. They are good copy. But of course the victims are impoverished Pakistanis. I've been very critical of the Pakistani government but I only wish the best for the long-suffering people of Pakistan. Whenever a news report discusses the radicalization of the Pakistani people (which is, sadly, happening) bear in mind that they've been ruled by venal elites (uniformed and civilian) for so long who have systematically filled their heads with propaganda while denying them basic services that it is a testament to their moderation that they did not radicalize long ago.

So the story of increased leopard attacks reflects several aspects of Pakistan. First is the exaggeration. Leopard attacks have increased but still are very rare. In Pakistan, like many places, stories quickly became exaggerated. A handful of leopard attacks over a decade quickly becomes a massive plague and mobs hunt down the leopards. (Leopards are however attacking livestock, and it was Machiavelli who noted that people never forget who robbed them of their property.)

In fairness, it also reflects a basic human tendency to exaggerate certain types of dangers (our current election campaign shows plenty of evidence of this phenomemon.) By any objective measure, the probability of being killed by a leopard in Pakistan is very low (even lower than being killed by a tiger in India or a lion in Africa.) It is also lower than the probability of being killed in a traffic accident or by the diseases that are resurfacing in Pakistan as the public health infrastructure declines. For that matter it is symbolic of Pakistan's obsession with India, while ignoring the vast domestic threats.

Pakistan's foresters and game wardens of course recognize the importance of the leopard as an apex predator. But, unsurprisingly, they lack the resources to do much about it. One can understand an impoverished country prioritizing things besides nature conservation. But what social good is Pakistan prioritizing - besides its insane rivalry with India? All too often, the state seems unable to address the real problems it faces.

But there is more than that. Pakistan's populated areas are expanding fast while their forests have shrunk to a tiny fraction. Forests play an essential role in ecological health and their rapid decline bodes ill for Pakistan's environment. Of course the forests are being devoured by rapid population growth. While birth rates worldwide have, overall fallen, Pakistan is an outlier. Pakistan's population is about 180 million, by 2050 it will be over 300 million.

At the same time economic growth and infrastructure construction have been inadequate to meet the growing needs of the population. Water and power systems are over-taxed. Agriculture remains land and labor intensive. Little wonder that Pakistan's forests have been devoured both for land and for fuel. Of course given an already fragile ecology, destroying the forests only makes things worse.

Finally, and this may be at the crux of things, are Pakistan's women.

Many of the leopard attack victims have been women because women go into the forests before dawn for water, food, and fuel. Pakistan has long underinvested in education and women in particular have suffered. The overall literacy rate in Pakistan is about 60% and for women it is about 40%.

Women's literacy is linked to better family situations overall - better health, nutrition and education - and most significantly lower birth rates. This, even more than terrorism, is Pakistan's greatest challenge and need. A better educated population overall and better educated women in particular could begin to reverse the frightening trends engulfing Pakistan. As an international affairs analyst, these trends - in which Pakistan begins to fall apart - is the true nightmare.

Of course building a decent education system and educating women in a society that has traditionally restricted the woman's role is an enormous challenge. It's easier to talk about the leopards.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

On Wizards

I wrote about magic recently, then I saw this question on Quora: Who is the greatest wizard: Gandalf, Merlin or Dumbledore?

It intrigued me. I don't know the Arthurian legends well, so let's leave Merlin aside. Dumbledore vs Gandalf.

I recently read a book by Robert Sawyer (a terrific science fiction writer) which clarified - at least for me - how scientists are like wizards. In trying to understand a phenomenon they immediately come up with a concept to test it and a method, based on their deep familiarity with mathematical structures.

This Doonesbury cartoon kind of gets it as well. Working with computer scientists, I've occasionally seen them dissect a seemingly difficult problem. I'd like to think they occasionally see me do sort of the same thing in my space. That being said, they are accomplished because they see and comprehend an underlying structure. Because they know it they can manipulate it in ways the rest of us cannot.

So Dumbledore is sort of a Dungeons & Dragons style wizard, just tossing thunderbolts and miracles around. In terms of sheer firepower he is pretty impressive. But it's a world of magic, so everyone can do that, Dumbledore is just better at it than everyone else. So it's like a book about baseball in which one character is just a better hitter. Fair enough.

What Gandalf does is more mysterious. We see him intervene personally on occasion. He fights a balrog, tussles with Saruman, rallies the troops at Gondor. clearly he can make things happen. But he isn't just running around tossing fireballs. He is choosing carefully where to intervene, he is following deep patterns and trends and identifying critical points - and that's where he shows up. It isn't clear who he is working for and the exact nature of his power (where it's from and what he can do) is vague.

But I think that is closer to the definition of wizard, in which the root word is wise - that is the ability to see more deeply and clearly than others, to make connections that others can't.

It would be cool to be Dumbledore, who can fly and repair buildings and all this other cool stuff with the swipe of his wand. But we live in an age of miracles. We can in fact fly (not as easily as Dumbledore) and communicate instantaneously and a zillion other things.

But I kind of like Gandalf. He certainly has powers, but he sees deeply - the profound underlying patterns and where and how they can be re-shaped. Gandalf is both more mysterious and wise, which is what a wizard should be. Dumbledore is pure fantasy, but I can almost imagine a real-life Gandalf - a brilliant strategist one move ahead of everyone who seems to make things go his way - like (since I'm all about Presidents) Lincoln or Eisenhower or even Reagan. (The closest president to Dumbledore would probably be TR.)

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Balaam and the Power of Words

Yesterday was July 4th, the birthday of the United States of America. It was also Shabbat and on this particular Shabbat the Torah portion read was Balak (which is better known as the story of Balaam. It was the portion I read for my bar mitzvah land I like to re-visit it because it has many lessons. Yesterday I delivered the dvar Torah (the Torah lesson) at my synagogue, and this is what I said:

A rabbi, a priest, and a minister were - no they weren’t at a bar - they were having coffee and talking shop. They were discussing their failing, their weaknesses. The minister admitted that he chased women. The priest admitted he liked to drink. They turned to the last member of the trio, “And you Rabbi, what is your great weakness?”
The Rabbi answered, “Sometimes I get an unbearable urge to gossip.”
I LOVE rabbi, priest, minister jokes. But they are best when they are true and this joke has the virtue of having truth to it. Evil speech, loshon hora, is a great sin in Judaism and it is because we take words so seriously. We are the people of the Book and a book is just a big pile of words.

Consider in how many cultures adulthood is established by going on a hunt, or a quest, or some other physical task? In Judaism the rite of passage is proving, in public, that you can read. We are an outlier, but it seems to work. We are still here 5000 years later, but I haven’t run into any Hittites lately.

This is on my mind a bit since we just read the parsha Balak and it was my bar mitzvah portion sometime last century. One of the great themes of parsha Balak is about words and language. Balak is a king in Moab. He sees the Israelites coming and knows he cannot resist them (these aren’t the  frightened slaves fleeing Egypt, this a new generation, hardened and prepared to do battle.) So Balak hires Balaam to place a curse on the Israelites. Balaam asks for Hashem’s permission. Hashem tells Balaam not to do it, but Balaam keeps asking and finally Hashem tells him he can go. On the way to the mountain where Balaam will make the sacrifices and deliver his curse, an angel appears. Balaam is so intent on doing delivering this curse that he doesn’t notice the angel. However, his donkey does. When the donkey refuses to go forward Balaam begins beating it. The donkey, then miraculously, is given the power of speech and rebukes Balaam. Finally Balaam makes it to the mountaintop and where, instead of a curse, Hashem places a blessing on his lips.

Clearly this is a story where the power of words and language is a theme. But one thing bugged me, who cares about Balaam’s curse. Why did it matter? Later scholars said Balaam was a sorcerer so his words had real power. But we are modern people, do we really believe this?

Then I had an epiphany.

Spoken words can make you laugh, or cry. They can provide comfort, they can change your life.

We are modern people. We live in an age where we know our bodies are made of chemicals and our thoughts and feelings really just come down to chemical reactions - complex and remarkable though they may be. We know we can take pills, cause these chemical reactions, and change our mood.

Now consider, an organ in our throat can vibrate air molecules which then vibrate small organ inside someone’s ear and are then turned into these complex chemical reactions that can have these incredible effects that can cause these chemical reactions.

Pic is from LOTR, but it's sort of how I imagine Balaam

What’s more, we’ve gone even a step farther. We can now transmit these things via little marks on wood pulp. Earlier in the service we read the Declaration of Independence. A bunch of marks on a paper established a great nation. Behind us sits the Torah, a bunch of marks on a parchment has been the spiritual sustenance, that has held us together, for thousands of years.

We’ve taken the magic to a whole new level, we can now transmit these vibrations and marks instantaneously and share thoughts and ideas around the world.

We are all magicians of the highest order. We are all going to Hogwarts! The only question is Hufflepuff of Slytherin.

Will we use our powers for good, or evil? Because, as Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, in a recent opinion citing that noted legal scholar, Spiderman, reminds us, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

The Torah serves as a framework to think about this crucial question. It does not always provide clear or direct answers. But it gives us ways to think about it, not only with commandments but with stories. Balaam was a case of man gifted with great power who chose to use it for evil, despite being warned.

As it happens, today’s Haftorah, from the Book of Micah, eloquently addresses this question ending, with those inspiring words:
He has told you o man what is goodAnd what the Lord wants of youTo do justice, love mercyAnd walk humbly with your G-d.
Talk about the power of words.

On the whole humility is a virtue. But occasionally, it is good to step back from it and consider the awesome powers we all possess.

And that’s the final lesson of this weeks Torah portion, the story of Balaam.

Sometimes, to see the obvious, you need a good kick from your ass.

Coda: My secular and religious lives bump into one another and are intertwined in odd ways. Yesterday was a Shabbat and July 4th, two celebrations in one. Two celebrations of freedom - personal and political. Today, as I write this, it is the Fast of Tammuz (commemorating the first breach in the walls of Jerusalem), which  begins a three week period of morning which ends on Tisha B’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, remembering the destruction of the Temple. It is said that Jersualem ultimately fell due to evil speech.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Charleston & the Limits to Reason

I have a PhD in Public Policy. So I am interested in what policies could actually affect a problem. Connected to that are questions of whether these policies won’t create more problems than they are intended to solve (as a small c conservative this looms large in my thinking). Because of my particular area of study, I’m also interested in the politics of the problem. That is, what are the solutions our political system can bear. It is a pragmatic, evidence-based approach - kind of like engineering.

When I discuss issues with friends who do not have this background, I am often frustrated because my thinking is rooted in the art of the possible and science of realistic. Most people, when they talk about politics are speaking from emotion. There is a terrible problem and something should be done about it. I consider the toolkit, which is usually limited, expensive, and not well-suited to the task.

Interestingly I just read a piece in the New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell that discussed this in the context of auto recalls and the exploding Ford Pintos. (I know Gladwell is NOT a social scientist, but rather a talented story teller - in this case that's the point!) Gladwell explains that engineers have to balance a range of tolerances and specifications in building a car, knowing that there are trade-offs - no car can be perfectly safe. At the same time, when there is an accident, engineers focus on the problem. In the case of the Pinto, a small car rear-ended at high speed by a much bigger vehicle has a very high risk of exploding and there isn't much to be done about that because of - well - physics. Unfortunately, when accidents happen this approach is usually not what people want to hear. Congressman Tim Murphy, chair of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations observed, "People don't care what yo know until they know you care."

In looking at politics and policy, I'm an engineer. The horrible murders in Charleston highlight the limits of my approach.

When Jon Stewart delivered his compelling remarks on Charleston, he observed:
And we’re going to keep pretending like, “I don’t get it. What happened? This one guy lost his mind.” But we are steeped in that culture in this country and we refuse to recognize it, and I cannot believe how hard people are working to discount it. In South Carolina, the roads that black people drive on are named for Confederate generals who fought to keep black people from being able to drive freely on that road. That’s insanity. That’s racial wallpaper. That’s — that’s — you can’t allow that, you know.

I have absolutely no fondness or romantic ideas about the Confederacy - change the street names, take down the flag!

But I also thought, wait, if having streets named after Confederate generals somehow caused this, then why aren't there a lot more of these kinds of murders? It is obviously all to easy to do (this is the same way I view the shibboleth of Islamic lone wolf terrorism - I’ve been consistent.)

It may be a dead on analytic observation, it offers exactly ZERO comfort especially considering the number of hate crimes, the huge legacy of violence against African-Americans, and the general and profound frustrations African-Americans face in the United States.

My analytical mind does not like to identify trends from outliers. I do big data for a living. You can get trends, but predicting what any given person will do is just not possible. This is an outlier, the overall trajectory for African-Americans has been positive. I can point a thousand examples of improvements big and small.

Yet I know that I'm speaking from a privileged vantage (I'm Jewish - but the impact of anti-Semitism on my life has been just about zip - thanks America!) 

For me to talk about positive trend lines, in light of the awful (and unknown to me) crap that African-Americans have to deal with on a constant basis is unhelpful and irrelevant.

I see the awful stuff Roof posted on Facebook but wonder if we want a society where we lock people up for saying stupid stuff on Facebook and being bigots - this has big implications. 

Of course, we don't seem to have trouble locking up lots of African-American men for not doing much of anything.

I read a few articles about the shooting that were long on passion and, I thought, short on coherence.

Thinking in terms of policy, I want to do stuff, but what? Preventing gun crimes is very hard in current political climate. Changing attitudes I support whole-heartedly, but it takes a long time. Improved schools or economic opportunities are great - we don't actually really know how to do these things. Political passion makes me nervous because things are promised that can't be delivered.

Yet as I read these essays - which continually cited the KKK which is basically defunct (and yes it was absolutely a terrorist organization in every sense of the word) and other injustices recent and not so recent - I saw. This is not necessarily a policy manifesto, it is a demand for acknowledgement. That what happened in Charleston is part of a long line of real crap that keeps dropping on African-Americans.

It is an acknowledgement that is well deserved. Taking down the flag is a nice gesture.

We are seeing the best possible response to Dylan Roof’s mad dream of inspiring a race war - an outbreak of comity.

This is all good, but my policy wonk re-emerges. This is where emotional politics make me nervous, because great things will be preached and promised. I like an inspiring speech as much as the next person, but I worry about what happens when reality intrudes.

African-American pundits have pointed out that they believe racism on an individual level has declined, but that institutional racism continues. These are knotty problems to fix. Reforming police procedures and the criminal justice system are excellent things to do. But they are highly technical endeavors that will then need to be adapted to the thousands of jurisdictions around the country. They will then need to be implemented. This will take time, there will be mistakes - some of which will be costly.

I doubt there is a politician that would not sincerely like to fix inner-city schools. It is easy to say we must roll up our sleeves and get to work. But hard work is easy. Trade-offs are hard. Fixing inner city schools will require resources which have to come from somewhere else. Where? (Read this piece on efforts to reform Newark’s public schools for a sense of why policy-makers and the public are leery of tossing money in that direction.) Even given resources, how will we actually achieve this? Inner city public schools did not reach their crisis state over-night. Are there clear paths to improvement and how can they be implemented given the existing “legacy systems" (as President Obama put it in his recent interview with Marc Maron).

I see the limits of reason, calculating but without vision. Emotions come from the root word of motion, they are that which moves us. If the tragedies of recent months move us to make change, so be it. But unfettered emotion too has its limits.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Sad State of Public Diplomacy @State

The Washington Post did a huge front-page story about the faltering U.S. efforts to conduct public diplomacy against ISIS, particularly the doings of the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), which was established as a war room to counter al-Qaeda and ISIS online.

We, us, taxpayers should be horrified.

Much of the article focuses on disputes about the content on U.S. counter-ISIS messaging. One public diplomacy chief, Ambassador Alberto Gonzalez (who I met briefly at a DC think tank thing) wanted to use the kind of grisly imagery that ISIS uses against them. This rankled rankled some and he was retired and his replacements focused on snark.

In journalism there is something known as the "inverted pyramid." The biggest most important facts are at the beginning of an article and the details are towards the end. The article on public diplomacy was a bit more a long form piece so in that sense the inverted pyramid was not essential. But there was a sort of inverted pyramid in terms of the focus of the article and the importance of the subject in terms of U.S. public diplomacy.

The Media is the Message?
Most of the article was about a fight over the content of the U.S. diplomacy messaging. People understand content (because it is meant to be understood - that's why it is content.) Reporters, particularly understand content. But in public diplomacy, as in everything else, there are lots of mistakes, false starts, and blind alleys. If we don't have the perfect response each time, so be it. If some salvos miss, there should be plenty more ammunition.

The Institution is a Mess
But there isn't. The CSCC is still establishing its organizational culture. It has already cycled through 3 directors (and overall the broader public diplomacy effort is not much better off.) They have a tiny budget and have to fight for office space. When the plan for the CSCC was proposed, President Obama was furious, "This is what I've been asking for -- why haven't we been doing this already?"

When the CSCC's first director took office, 9/11 was nearly a decade past. His wife asked, apparently incredulous, "You're doing this now?"

I've gone to about 2000 DC think tank things on terrorism over the past decade and a half and at every single one, speakers have discussed the need to "win the war of ideas." But no one seemed to have a clue how to do this. Now, almost 15 years after 9/11, we still don't have a clue. My wife, with her own snark, noted, "Welcome to government."

But it only took a year for us to gear up and invade Iraq!

The case study on the bureaucratic politics of the failure to build an effective public diplomacy operation after 9/11 should be fascinating.

The Measuring the Message
The bureaucratic failures are the subtext to the fight over content. Fine, but buried in the article is the truly crucial detail.
And for all the viral success of "ISIS Land," [a State Department produced anti-ISIS video] even the center's defenders could never determine whether it accomplished its main object: discouraging would-be militants from traveling to Syria
Later chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ed Royce added, "If we can't measure the impact of what we're doing, how do we prove it's effective?"

This is the buried nugget. We don't know how to do public diplomacy because we can't really figure out what about it we can measure. There is a strategic problem - what can public diplomacy actually do and how do we know if we are doing it? There is also a technical issue: how do we understand and measure online activity to make our efforts effective. A couple hundred twitter users should not be able to drive the goverrnment of a super-power bonkers. And the inability of our government to manage this problem (not necessarily solve it - droning bloggers seems out of proportion) makes us appear ineffectual.

These are hard problems with no permanent solutions. But the fact that this is where we are almost 15 years after 9/11 - when the challenge of public diplomacy has been front and center throughout that time - is absolutely ludicrous.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Foreign Policy of Diogenes: More Thoughts on Corruption

Sometimes, one gets to the end of a writing project and realizes that was just the beginning. That is exactly what happened after my review of Sarah Chayes' Thieves of State was posted. It was an excellent book.

I have long been interested in questions of development - particularly institutions. The U.S. invested hundreds of billions of dollars hoping to build decent governments in Iraq and Afghanistan. It didn't take. On a smaller scale the U.S. has invested heavily attempting to do the same sorts of thing all over the world - with limited results.

Reading Chayes book crystallized the fundamental problem as being corruption. That is the state (and the individuals who staff its institutions) are primarily focused on extracting money. They do this to the exclusion of providing any services. Redistributionist policies don't work because usually the richest people - no matter how wealth they are - do not have enough money to make up for the poverty of others. But what does happen, I'm paraphrasing the Nobel Laureate economist Douglass North, is that the very wealthy control institutions that allow them to become very wealthy at the expense of keeping most people poor.

Identifying a problem does not make it any easier to resolve. The U.S. with its relatively efficient and honest bureaucracies defines corruption very broadly. But in many societies the social guts are work by what we would call corruption. But they may be more or less functional webs of obligation - with an equilibrium hammered out over centuries. Finding ways to work with these systems (without falling prey to a corrupt guide) seems essential.

I just described pre-modern societies which - by our standards - are corrupt, but are functional. Let's not romantize them. Chayes cites a very deep literature known as Mirrors for Princes, advice written for rules. The fact that so many of them exhort rulers to avoid the temptations of corruption suggest that this is not a new problem. At its core, I recall Aristotle and distributive justice. One is due a certain amount, taking more than what one is due is unjust. Of course the king can be wealthy, but if the second assistant to each minister is also wealthy, than perhaps they are taking more than their due.

Here Comes Modernity
In my studies, one of my great eureka moments was in studying international economics and understanding the physics of money. Not micro-economics - how our more or less rational pursuit of goods - shapes our behavior in often predictable but also surprising ways. But in macro-economics is more about the shape of money - the way money works changes and can how that shapes behavior. I don't have a great handle on this, but clearly there is a lot going on.

Here's my impression. When a modern society engages an undeveloped society it will, merely through contact, drop insane amounts of money on the pre-modern society. Money on a scale this society cannot possibly absorb and that skews whatever equilibrium is developed.

If the clans with which the west engages an undeveloped society can suddenly get their hands on millions of Western currency, than their every incentive is to get as much of that currency as possible and ship it someplace safe (Dubai, Europe or where-ever.) Their incentives to maintain the complex web of obligations are shot. Engagement with the West has changed the shape of money. This happened in the colonial period, but the age of modern banking means that the scale and velocity of money moved is far, far greater.

Hunting for the Honest Autocrat
Chayes focuses on the morality of the kleptocrats, but if that's the focus than we will be adopting the foreign policy of Diogenes, hunting for an honest man with a lamp. (Apparently, Diogenes father minted coins and Diogenes was banished from his hometown for debasing currency...huh!) Point is, good luck. Our ability to foster virtue is limited.

So Chayes is right that kleptocrats use the modern financial tools and institutions the developed world foist upon the developing world to commit their theft. But her primary policy responses involved legal recourse. Here I think of the baby-sitters co-op: a bunch lawyers on Capitol Hill in 1970s arranged for a baby-sitting cooperative. If one baby-sat another couple's kids they got a coupon they could use to get another family to baby-sit their kids. A good system, but no one wanted to go out in the winter and everyone wanted to go out in the summer, leading to all kinds of hoarding and other sub-optimal economic behaviors - the system wasn't working and no one was going out. Being lawyers, the co-op made rules to get things back on track. But it didn't work, it was an economic problem. When the organizers changed the frequency with which coupons were issued and created opportunities to borrow coupons things got back on track. It was a monetary problem not a legal one. The shape of money.

So my key though is, how to engage developing societies without dropping so much money on them that their behaviors are skewed completely out of whack. If you flood the desert you get a swamp. How can we irrigate it so that it can bloom long-term: t
he alchemy of development.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Aaron Mannes Review of Thieves of State in War on the Rocks

The terrific strategy blog War on the Rocks published my review of Sarah Chayes' new book Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security. Chayes makes a pretty compelling argument that corruption fuels extremism and instability worldwide and that the Western habit of embracing a local fixer (whether a guide or a president) and turning a blind eye as they acquire vast wealth has a certain amount of blowback. The beginning of my review is here:
In 2009 Sarah Chayes had an epiphany. A former NPR reporter who had fallen in love with Afghanistan while covering the U.S. invasion, Chayes had stayed on to run an NGO and then established a small business in Kandahar. Narullah, one of her employees, told her how his brother Najib refused to pay a bribe at the outskirts of Kandahar. After the soldiers hit him and smashed his phone, Najib paid but then called Narullah, who had previously been a policeman. Narullah called the local police chief who scoffed, “Did he die of it?” After relating this story to Chayes, Narullah declared, “If I see someone planting an IED on a road, and then I see a police truck coming, I will turn away. I will not warn them.”
For Chayes, everything fell into place as she realized, “Afghan government corruption was manufacturing Taliban.” From that revelation others followed. The Afghan government was not a weak state. In fact, it was all too effective at its core function — extracting wealth from the people of Afghanistan. Further, the United States government tolerated and often facilitated this corruption, assuming that this was simply how things were done. Looking beyond Afghanistan, Chayes saw an international problem in which developed nations tolerated and abetted corruption, which in turn fueled extremism and fostered instability.
You can read the rest here.