The Perils of Incrementalism

Where many wanted universal health care, the United States instead got a half-hearted attempt at health reform in the Affordable Care Act. Instead of any significant reduction in scope of the F-35 program, 550 other aircraft will be scrapped, 25,000 personnel RIFed, and a whopping four F-35s cut from the total order. Instead of wholesale change, we tinker around the edges with a broken system.

This is just the latest in a long string of “government failures” and the inadequacy of a 20th-century bureaucracy to cope with the challenges and tasks for a 21st-century nation. Federal Acquisition Regulations, the inability of Congress to do much of anything except let programs and infrastructure collapse (much less show up to work or let anyone else do so), the healthcare.gov debacle – these are truly examples of areas in need of much greater reform than additions and edits (and areas in which only the federal government has the scale and the purchasing power to effect change on a national scale). The “system,” such as it stands, is crying out for a full-on rewrite, for bold thinking, vision, and more than anything, action.

I often find Matt Yglesias insufferable, but he’s on point here:

For conservatives, the myriad problems consumers had using the federally run exchanges was just another reason to abandon the goal of universal health insurance. The website issues have been viewed optimistically—almost gleefully—since if the site is sufficiently terrible, it may be impossible for a critical mass of people to sign up and the program will have to be substantially scaled back. Conversely, progressives had been hoping to build a system that didn’t just meet some bare standard of functionality but actually persuaded people that a larger state role was a good idea. After all, the user experience of private health insurance is hardly the greatest thing in the world. Building a great healthcare.gov was supposed to be part of a campaign to persuade people that government should be involved in areas that are more contentious than garbage pickup.

This is, of course, the culmination of a decades-long quest to not just shrink the federal government to a size where it could be drowned in a bathtub. For the modern Republican Party, healthcare.gov proves that their attempts to render the government dysfunctional have rendered the government dysfunctional. Pure “government terraforming.”

Bigger solutions sometimes are better solutions, and small plans do little to change an essentially broken system. What we have now is the result: a loss in faith that the government can do anything for anyone. Even among a younger, less rabidly anti-government generation, misguided dreams of a technological utopia separate from the clumsy hand of paternal governance abound. Who has faith in the US government to mail a social security check or help a city buy a single car for their subway?

The argument has often been among those who would seek to destroy domestic national governance that where federalism makes sense is in providing for the common defense and representing the collective states in foreign affairs. But now, of course, the government can’t even be trusted to do that. From a new Pew poll:

The most striking poll result is the share of Americans who believe that “the U.S. should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” For the first time since Pew began asking in 1964, more than half of respondents say they agree with that statement, a staggeringly high 52 percent. That number has historically ranged between about 20 and 40 percent.
[…]
These poll numbers reflect American public attitudes that are widely and strongly enough held that they could indirectly steer the White House, thus affecting U.S. foreign policy and perhaps the world itself. Obama already ran into this problem, for example, with his plan this fall to launch limited strikes against Syria as punishment for its use of chemical weapons against civilians. Overwhelming public opposition and overwhelming Congressional opposition fed into one another, ultimately killing the plan. Even though the strikes would have been modest compared to almost every other U.S. military action of the last 10 years, they were opposed far more vociferously, and that mattered.

This isn’t to say that the President should have advocated for a full-scale invasion of Syria. But it does reflect that the government isn’t trusted by a majority of its own population to do much of anything abroad or at home.

And so it’s hard to not conclude that at least for now, the Do-Nothing Party is winning.

Preparedness

In the wake of absolutely historic, devastating flooding of New York and its infrastructure in particular, it’s worth revisiting a piece from the New York Times: “Hurricanes on the Hudson.” A report released by the Army Corps of Engineers, it explores the potential impacts of a Category 4 hurricane on the city of New York.

When researchers with the National Weather Service, working with the Army Corps, applied the [“SLOSH”] model to New York City they discovered, to their great surprise, that the slope of the sea bed and the shape of the New York Bight, where the coasts of New York and New Jersey meet, could amplify a surge to a depth far greater than if the same surge had occurred elsewhere…

To reinforce its observations, the corps doctored photographs to show flood waters submerging the doors to the South Ferry subway station and the World Trade Center, and the entrance to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel

For anyone familiar with city landmarks, the report makes good, if macabre, reading. The peak storm surge at the Lincoln Tunnel would top 28 feet. Kennedy Airport would be submerged. Even a category 1 hurricane would flood the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and the PATH tunnels at Exchange Place and Hoboken Station in New Jersey, and launch water into the city’s subways through vents at 14th Street in Manhattan and at Montague and Joralemon Streets in Brooklyn, and many other points. [emphasis mine]

And now I direct you to a recap of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy:

Tunnels under the East River were all flooded and pumping had begun at some of them. Mr. Lhota said that flooding was “literally up to the ceiling” at the South Street subway station in Lower Manhattan. Long Island Railroad remained closed due to flooding on the tracks. Two Metro-North lines north of 59th Street continued to be without power, and Mr. Lhota estimated that there were at least 100 trees downed on the tracks. Staten Island ferry and railway service were also still suspended. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie said there was “major damage on each and every one of New Jersey’s rail lines.” New Jersey Transit and PATH service remained suspended.

By now you’ve also all seen the video of South Ferry-Whitehall station, and the photos of Ground Zero and the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel:

But back to that report: it was released by the ACE in 1995. By the time the perfectly thinkable happened, predictions of it were nothing new. We have the technology and the ingenuity to anticipate catastrophe. We’ve been red-teaming for years (perhaps not taken seriously enough), and our brightest minds have also met with commercial success in thinking the (formerly) unthinkable. But all the creativity and brilliance and conclusions are meaningless unless they result in action. The Corps of Engineers got it right in 1995; New York did some to prepare, but could have and perhaps should have done more.

Obviously there was no way for the MTA to prevent this from happening. Hurricanes happen, floods happen, and by all accounts Joe Lhota has done a masterful job preparing for and now recovering from the storm (I shudder at the thought of WMATA here in DC struggling to cope with a disaster of similar scope. That disaster has also been anticipated). But there are ways to mitigate it. In this case, solutions range from the macro – i.e., constructing New York’s own version of the Thames flood barrier – to the micro, e.g., waterproofing switches and as much of the sensitive equipment in the East River tubes as possible. Of course, these cost vast amounts of money and most of the time they’ll not be necessary or used – until they’re both.

The problem here is again, for all our planning, building resilience into a system and planning for the worst are completely at odds with an efficient system. Resilience, after all, is the opposite of efficiency. All too often, we find ourselves proscribing solutions – and frequent good solutions at that – only to take no action for fear of the cost or the political will necessary or the “what’s-the-point” strain of defeatism. As Adam Serwer wrote today, there’s no benefit in disaster prevention – politicians’ time to shine is in disaster relief. But somehow we’ve got to overcome our total lack of foresight and find a way to adequately prepare for future catastrophic events.

That goes double for non-natural disasters. The danger in preparing for outlandish ideas is that preventing them would require too much in the way of singular assets dedicated to a niche capability. The constant array of new security theater measures that always seem to be deployed in a wake of a new air travel-based attack vector are proof alone of a) our adversaries’ own ingenuity, and b) the futility of locking the barn door after the horse is out. But if a threat is too remote to have a dedicated counter-team, then we can at least mitigate its potential impacts. Passive measures – building hardening qualities into landscape design, redundant lines and connections (applicable to any sort of network), a general mindset of resilience – these are what we’re missing. New York will rebuild and move on, the subways will be repaired, and the Great American Metropolis will sort itself out as it always does. But we can do it faster, and we can do it better.

Wot Won It?

From the London Evening Standard, more on American support to Britain during the Falklands Crisis:

President Reagan at first said the US would be impartial in the conflict between two of its allies. But on April 2, 1982, the day of the Argentinian  invasion, he sent Mrs Thatcher a note: “I want you to know that we have valued your cooperation on the challenge we both face in many different parts of the world. We will do what we can to assist you. Sincerely, Ron.”

A week later Reagan’s Secretary of State Al Haig visited London to mediate, but covertly delivered the message: “We are not impartial. We face a common problem. We must do all we can to strengthen you and your government.”

Much of what the article covers has been said already (the supply of Sidewinder and Stinger missiles have been known for some time). But there were some interesting tidbits to uncover, such as:

  • There was some sort of Civil Reserve Air Fleet support, at least infrastructure-wise: “The local Pan Am airline manager, Don Coffee, told us his president had told him that we had to make everything possible [on Ascension Island] available to British forces. He said he wasn’t referring to President Reagan, but the President of Pan Am.”
  • The Argentinian Air Force’s capabilities were qualitatively overestimated: Americans “assess at the outset that the Argentinians have about 220 first- and second-line combat aircraft — but only days after the landings at San Carlos on May 21, the Americans report about half the first-line Argentinian aircraft have been knocked out.”
  • Perhaps unlike my previous thesis, the Reagan Administration saw the USSR as the greater threat to the sanctity of the Monroe Doctrine: ” Washington believed the Soviet Union was prepared to provide ships, weaponry and ammunition to the Argentinians, in return for cheap grain.”

I assume there’s much more to be gleaned from the newly released Agency documents (you have to love that thirty-year rule), which seem to be held entirely at National Archives II, but a selection of which has been digitized by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, available here. Looking forward to what else might be in there…

Corporate Warriors: A Review

It has been much too long in coming, but I finally finished P.W. Singer’s Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry. It is, quite simply, excellent.

Singer is one of the most intriguing defense/security writers out there, as his “thing” is basically finding heavily underrreported – yet crucial – developments occurring in the U.S. military. He seems to always be one of the first to really study in a comprehensive and coherent manner certain evolutionary changes in the way war is fought, and Corporate Warriors is no exception. His other works deal with heady subjects like robotics in war and child soldiers, and here he is at the forefront of yet another startling trend.

Corporate Warriors is an attempt to trace the lineage of the Private Military Firm (PMF) from early mercenaries to today’s corporate arrangements, and in doing so, to fit them into a theoretical framework for better understanding and predicting industry developments. Published on the eve of the Iraq War in 2003, the book mostly deals with the 1990s, though to fully explain the rise of the PMF it jumps back to earlier examples in the 1970s and 80s.

Much of Corporate Warriors is couched in the language of IR theory, but Singer never slavishly tries to fit all of his findings into a rigid framework. Chapter 2 is an excellent historical survey of privatized military history, ranging from mercenaries in the service of King Shulgi of Ur to Syracusan hoplites to the first “companies” of the Hundred Years War. Singer fully explains the ‘state as monopoly on violence’ and the prominence that mercenaries enjoyed from the dawn of history until the nineteenth century, explaining that the odd little gap between roughly 1860 and 1950 in which the state’s monopoly was the only game in town. But he is never overly concerned with the theoretical framework. Chapter 11, “Market Dynamism and Global Security Disruptions,” opens with an epigraph from Professor R.B.J. Walker:

The disjunction between the seriousness of international politics and the triviality of international relations theory is quite startling.

Continue reading

Patriot’s Day

The British route to Concord and the route of the Patriot riders.

I meant to post this yesterday, but dropped the ball on it. Today (yesterday) was Patriot’s Day, and for those of you not living in the Boston area (or Wisconsin, for some reason), that means a celebration (and Monday off in honor) of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Lexington was the first battle that saw colonial blood spilled. At Concord, we finally shot back.

It’s one of my favorite holidays, complete with reenactors all across the state, the Boston Marathon, and a Red Sox game played at 11 AM. So I figure this is as good a time as any to announce that my paper on the Battle of Concord, “Privates and Patriots,” has been accepted for presentation at the NEASA conference this November. It’s a comparison of British and American (or if you like, loyalist and rebel) perceptions of that day’s battle, and an attempt to discern fact from exaggeration. Here’s a little excerpt:

With Pole’s companies still at the South Bridge and Laurie’s detachment at the North Bridge, Colonel Smith’s troops still in the town square had set the courthouse aflame. Since 0900, Colonel Barrett’s forces had grown in size with companies from Acton, Bedford, Lincoln, and Carlisle joining those already mustered in Concord. Upon seeing plumes of smoke from the center of town (and mistaking those at the South Bridge for a larger conflagration), the young Lieutenant Joseph Hosmer turned to Barrett and asked, “Will you let them burn the town down?” The captain of the Acton company, Isaac Davis, declared to those who might question their willingness to fight for a town not their own that “I haven’t a man who isn’t afraid to go.” Barrett and the various company captains at Punkatasset held an impromptu war council. The verdict was simple and clear: “To march into the middle of the town for its defense, or die in the attempt.”

So on this day (yesterday), remember Lexington Green and the Old North Bridge. Remember the running battle fought all the way back to Boston, around the “Bloody Angle” and Parker’s Revenge; Fiske’s Hill and The Bluff. And remember that every side has its own story.

By the rude bridge that arched the flood
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurl’d
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard ‘round the world

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Concord Hymn”


They came three thousand miles and died
To keep the past upon its throne
Unheard beyond the ocean tide
Their English Mother made her moan

– James Russell Lowell, inscribed on the grave of the British soldiers


Hyphenated-Americans

And so all too soon, my tenure at Fortnight comes to a close.

I like to think that my last article, “Hyphenated-Americans,” ends on an optimistic note. What we are is as much what we make it as what we’re born with; we are the architects of our own dreams.* The baggage that identity carries with it is forever changing, from liability to asset, cornerstone to curiosity, cast away to embraced. And all of that goes for collective identity and culture as well.

In the grand scheme of existential questions, “Who am I?” is a close second behind “Why am I here?” Identity remains the catalyst for countless struggles within families, communities, states and nations. The heyday of 1960s-era identity politics may have passed, but we live in an age of unreconciled, increasingly fluid social boundaries.

The idea of a single American identity is a relatively recent construct. During the American Revolution, it was hard to find a single unifying idea beyond that of throwing off the yoke of British rule. But after the war was won, the fledgling Republic suffered its own trials. The failed Articles of Confederation presaged Shay’s Rebellion, and the final Constitution used today. We struggled through a bloody five-year civil war before reuniting, even if at gunpoint. There has always been tension and impetus in different directions here; the United States has always been a restless melting pot.

Today, we’re anything but united. Politically, ethnically and regionally, we’re split even more than perhaps we realize. The number of overlapping identities and allegiances that exist lead to an incredible number of constructed personas. Are Americans a collection of adjectives –Jewish, gay, Christian, Muslim, white, black, Arab, female, young, old–or, are we something more than the sum of these parts? And in an age of ever-increasing fracture, what do we still have in common?

Read the rest at Fortnight. And also, stay tuned for Fortnight, Volume II. My editors, Adam and Samantha, already have some amazing names lined up: James Ransone of Generation Kill and The Wire fame, author Benjamin Hale (whose debut novel The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is really quite excellent), Army Lieutenant Rajiv Srinivasan, and Digital Democracy founder Mark Belinsky, just to name a few. And those are just the contributors. I can’t even imagine what kind of luminaries they’ll find. As always, thanks for humoring these digressions.

*Apologies for the reference, I only just saw Inception for the first time the other night.

Born in the USA

An F-117 flying over Nellis AFB, Nevada, 2002.

This story, if indeed true, is rather frightening:

On March 27, during the height of NATO’s air war on Serbia, a very smart and very lucky Serbian air-defense commander…managed to shoot down an attacking U.S. Air Force F-117 stealth fighter-bomber…

The destroyed F-117’s left wing, canopy and ejection seat — plus Zelko’s helmet — wound up in a Belgrade aviation museum, but most of the rest of the 15-ton jet was gathered up by farmers living around the crash site…

Bach in March 1999, the F-117’s wreckage was possibly still cooling when foreign agents sprang into action. “At the time, our intelligence reports told of Chinese agents crisscrossing the region where the F-117 disintegrated, buying up parts of the plane from local farmers,” Adm. Davor Domazet-Loso, then the top Croatian officer, told the Associated Press.

“The destroyed F-117 topped that wish-list for both the Russians and Chinese,” added Zoran Kusovac, a military consultant based in Rome.

David Axe suggests that there is a good portion of F-117 DNA in the recently unveiled Chinese J-20. As he points out, it would also go a long way towards explaining the relatively sudden retirement of the barely 30-year-old F-117 in 2008.

But it does raise the question of future incidents. Out of 168 F-22s, already three have crashed (albeit all within United States territory). What happens when we lose one elsewhere? What if it’s in a combat zone? It sounds like the most helpful piece to the Chinese was learning the composition of the F-117’s skin coating and other advanced composite materials. And those are hard to self-destruct.

The pilot of the F-117, Lt. Col. Dale Zelko, was rescued remarkably quickly, but little interest was shown in recovering the wreckage. If the J-20’s lineage can in fact be traced to the F-117, that’s a mistake unlikely to ever be made again.

Human Sacrifice, Cats and Dogs Living Together

Mass hysteria!

“Truedog” has found the one word necessary to describe modern America: ‘hysterical‘. Everything’s blown out of proportion; no one has an ounce of common sense; we’ve all lost our collective shit. He also offers a most intriguing explanation:

Here’s my theory:  I think everyone in America shares an unconscious, often hidden, and largely unarticulated conclusion that we fucked up, the glory days are over, the country is in deep shit, and there’s no way out.  We know in our bones that we’re falling apart and the rest of the world is moving ahead.  Forget about being #1, we’ll be lucky to level off at #17.  I think that panic is shared across the political board.  Although ideology plays a strong role in who is blamed, the hysteria comes from a common root.  This isn’t just about now or the unemployment rate.  It’s deeper and more primal.  It taps into our inner terror of losing our grip and never getting it back.  Hysteria is just the vibration in our national fuselage as the American empire noses over and loses altitude. People sense they have lost something and are frantic over it.

So let’s just chill the fuck out until we regain our senses, or at least come to grips with our emerging place in the world. In the meantime, we would do well to acknowledge that we’re overreacting, and to at least back up our paranoia with meaningful actions instead of half-assing it. Bruce Schneier suggests that we close the Washington Monument instead of installing airport-like security. “We can reopen the monument when every foiled or failed terrorist plot causes us to praise our security, instead of redoubling it.”

Deep breaths.

A Brief History of Future War

Another article at Fortnight today, this one the most relevant to regular readers of this blog. Simply titled “Future War,” it’s a fairly comprehensive overview of Things I’m Interested In militarily. Opening excerpt:

Much as we in the United States may have forgotten our two land wars in Asia, we’re still in them.

But if all goes according to plan, we’ll be completely out of both Iraq and Afghanistan by 2015. Except for the “advisory and assistance brigades.” And special forces. And drones. And all the other minutiae and caveats that will have essentially set the stage for a near-permanent American presence in Central Asia for the foreseeable future.

But some day, an end will come both in name and in deed—even if that end turns out to be anticlimactic. It’s said all too often that “today’s generals are preparing to fight yesterday’s wars.” By the same token, the ascendancy of counterinsurgency doctrine in the United States military could be here to stay.

Charting the future course of war requires wisdom—and prescience. Who will do the fighting? How will our fighting be done? Why will we fight? And why will they fight? The pithy answers, in order, are: Very few people, remotely, preservation and economics.

Go read it!

On Value

Recent headlines like this:

And this:

And this:

Are enough to make you ask: why are we still pretending that these people produce anything of value whatsoever? That their hyper-inflated ‘MegaJob‘ salaries are anything close to realistic compensation? When will we publicly acknowledge that the vast majority of the American finance sector is completely full of shit and damages the reputation and capabilities of this country?

Manipulation of numbers produces nothing. It contributes nothing. If you want to do that, download R and make a graph. But don’t make $500,000 a year to do nothing.

Supposedly the recession is ‘over’ and we’re beginning to recover. But if ‘recovery’ means restoring the finance sector to its previous pedestal atop the grand pantheon of economic bullshit, then that kind of recovery leaves us worse off than we were before. Nothing has changed. It could take ten years to restore unemployment levels to what they were before the recession, and all the while new immigration will be rewriting the face of the country. Much as Elizabeth Warren tries (bless her heart) to change the culture of Wall Street, she is fighting a losing battle. Who would voluntarily surrender an obscene paycheck ‘for the good of the nation’?

We have never been particularly good as a country at rewarding the right kind of work – at paying firemen and manufacturers and miners and the other types of employees that produce something tangible. But the current state of inequality is mind-boggling. And for those like Matt Ridley, who would seek to lull us into a sense of complacency by comparing human life not to that of our parents, not to that of the last three decades, but to the entirety of human history, that’s not where we get out benchmarks for today. We misplaced our priorities a long time ago; are we ever going to find them?