Monday, June 24, 2013

More Cranky Monday Blogging

OK, everyone is picking on Ross Douthat's column from yesterday. Why isn't anyone picking on Richard Haass?

Much of his piece yesterday, the part concerning foreign relations, seemed sensible to me. And I have no real problem with his point that, given the lack of major danger abroad, it's a good time to solve domestic problems. But then there's this:
At home, we must work to restore the foundations of American power. In many cases, this doesn’t even require spending more — often there is little relationship between our investments and the results.

The United States spends nearly twice as much as other industrialized nations per citizen on health care — often with worse outcomes. We spend more per student on education than most other wealthy countries, with few results to show for it. Attracting top-quality teachers, rewarding them for success, and enabling parents and students to choose effective schools would be a better use of resources.

And with only modest government funds we could foster public-private partnerships to rebuild this country’s often crumbling infrastructure, refashion immigration policy to give preference for visas and green cards to many more immigrants with advanced degrees and needed skills, and above all reduce long-term entitlement obligations, cutting the ratio of public debt to G.D.P.
In other words: I'm going to use my expertise on foreign affairs to tell everyone what they should be doing on domestic policy, and I'm going to pretend that my particular policy preferences are simply common sense that everyone obviously should support.

It's not true! As Jamelle Bouie said in a nice post last week: "Americans—both in and out of Washington—like to think that because we share a common national identity, we also share common interests. And in the broadest sense, we do. But for issues of public policy—on the questions that drive our politics—there’s far more disagreement than not." His point there was that this is perfectly healthy and natural, and he's exactly right.

Nor is it the case that the US has ignored education, health care, and other domestic issues out of some sort of misguided obsession with mythical threats from abroad. Simply not true!

There's just no hint here of two massively important factors: that people disagree over policy, and that policy -- even when everyone does agree -- is sometimes really, really, hard to get right.

It's enough to, yes, make me cranky.


  1. I would take that a step further, and point out that people often do not appreciate the problems inherent in doing policy in a country as large (both in terms of population and geography) and diverse as the US. Foreign relations people, who are often usually immersed in the affairs of much smaller and more homogenous countries, or else comparative types who think in terms of governments and nations as unitary actors, are especially bad about that. Why does the US differ from the UK? Well, for many reasons, but an amazing number of people miss the obvious fact that the UK has only about one sixth the population, is markedly more homogenous even now, and is about the size of Oregon. Canada? Larger in geography and somewhat more diverse than the UK, but only one tenth the American population, and that population is radically concentrated in a discontinuous strip along the border. If you want truer comparisons try Russia or Brazil, or even India or China -- comparisons that one would think foreign policy types would make a lot more often than they do.

  2. policy -- even when everyone does agree -- is sometimes really, really, hard to get right.

    Truer words have rarely been spoken. To some extent this is the heart of the 'problem' with the bloggy info era: myriad voices are clamoring for audience, so the temptation is great to treat as a plug the 'hard parts' that are unpleasant to the listener. (A familiar example might be Krugman's assurance that major structural budget changes are coming a decade or so hence, related to elderly health costs, but don't worry, we'll solve that problem - no problem - when we get there. idk. I think that's going to be hell. But then, I bet Krugman gets invited to a lot more parties than I do, and not just cause he's smarter, but also cause its easier to listen to what he says).

    But I digress. Kudos to you and Jamelle for pointing out that this stuff ain't easy. You will both no doubt score points in heaven for that; not sure how well that will go down here on earth.

  3. @ Anastasios -

    On a positive note, this is part of what makes your politics so interesting. Yes the UK is smaller and probably less diverse, which might make public policy easier, but it also seems to make for a less political culture. I'm probably wrong about this as it's just subjective, but you guys seem to have a much more lively and passionate public debate about... well, pretty much everything, except maybe fox-hunting!

    On balance, it might be preferable to have decent healthcare and a sane immigration policy, but not necessarily, in the long run.


    1. Decent health care? By whose standard? Most of us have healthcare already, better than that of the UK when it comes to major interventions. Sane immigration policy? You act as if that is obvious, and that all winners and losers would see it the same way.

      Chuckle. Just yanking your chain Adam, by way of agreeing that politics is one of our most beloved national sports -- and to underline the problems inherent in American public policy. Such are the mildest comments one would get from some very mild people in public policy discussions.

      I would point out, however, that as with most of our sports, the vast majority of the population are spectators in it for the entertainment value. We tend to be a nation of specialists. Most aren't businessmen, but those that are tend to be very good at it. Most aren't soldiers, but the soldiers are very, very good at what they do. And most of us are not politicians or policy wonks, but we recognize the superb and highly developed skills of those that are, and applaud accordingly. Otherwise, if you really want to understand Americans in their natural habitat (the suburb and/or the middle-class city), I would recommend rather than studying the principles go Thomas Jefferson or James Madison to be familiar with those of Norman Vincent Peale.

  4. Drezner used Haass's recent book (which presents the same argument) as an example of why foreign policy specialists should stick with foreign policy.

    But, Anastasios, speaking of sticking to what you know, "comparative types who think in terms of governments and nations as unitary actors"!!!! I think you'd get an argument about that assertion at the next APSA meeting.

    1. Chuckle. Correction accepted, although the other kind seems very prevalent among pundits and commentators. Then again, members of the AHA are not particular impressed by the kind of historian that shows up on TV, either.


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