Political Animal


THE NEOCON AEI GRAND PLAN….Phil McCombs has a pretty interesting article in today’s Washington Post about the whole neocon agenda for international affairs. The interesting thing, however, is that he never uses the word “neocon.” It’s the same cast of characters, but in his article they’ve all morphed into members of the AEI mafia:

You could see it one recent morning as 20 protesters marched in front of the nondescript downtown Washington office building where the American Enterprise Institute is located.

Their chant, reminiscent of the Vietnam era: “Hey hey! Ho ho! Richard Perle has gotta go!” Perle is an avuncular guy based at AEI whose job is to sit around and think, and talk with other thinkers — like Cohen and Woolsey — about global strategy. Which is just what he’s doing inside, in a “Black Coffee Briefing” on “The Road to War and Beyond.”

….In short, if there’s a new American Imperium, the AEI group is its intellectual Praetorian Guard. Some 20 AEI scholars serve in the Bush administration, and though Cohen isn’t on today’s panel, he’s a member of AEI’s Council of Academic Advisers, present in spirit.

McCombs also gives us a good rundown of the whole “World War IV” meme that’s so popular these days.

(What’s that? Did you miss a war during your American history class? No, no, not at all, it’s just that all the cool kids know that the Cold War was World War III, which upgrades our current War on Terror to World War IV. It’s an easy mistake to make, so don’t blame yourself for not getting it, but you better read McCombs’ article if you want to catch up in time for the final.)


THE “HUMAN RIGHTS EXCEPTION”….Mickey Kaus asked the other day if there should be a “human rights exception” to the general rule that you don’t start a war unless someone else starts it first. It is questions like this that make it so frustrating to me that left and right are so far apart these days.

The reason for this frustration is that I think the answer to his question is yes. I would be delighted to see the civilized world take a stronger stand against brutal, dictatorial regimes like Saddam Hussein’s. There’s no sophisticated thinking behind this, either. It’s just that I don’t like torture, repression, and mass murder, and I do like democracy, religious tolerance, and personal freedom. And these are things I feel strongly enough about that I’m willing to impose them by force on the occasions where it seems feasible to do so.

The obvious question, of course, is: who gets to decide when a regime is bad enough that it ought to be forcibly removed and replaced by something (hopefully) better? I take it as a given that organizations with power should not be solely in charge of using their power. That’s why ? like everyone ? I’m in favor of civilian control of the military and city council control of local police forces. It’s not that I’m anti-cop, it’s just that I recognize that the kind of people who are good at wielding power are not the same people who are good at deciding when and how to wield it. They need oversight.

The same applies rather obviously to international affairs. Just to take the Middle East as one example, American backing for Israel, though laudable on many grounds, has been so one-sided that it’s been ineffective in mediating an end to 50 years of bloodshed between Israel and the Palestinians; we supported the Shah of Iran with disastrous consequences; we supported Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran; and we supported the Mujahedeen against the Soviets in Afghanistan, a splinter of which eventually became the Taliban. All of these seemed like defensible short-term decisions at the time, but the longer term effects have been catastrophic.

On the other hand, when we are part of a genuinely effective multilateral effort ? World War I, World War II, the Cold War ? we’ve done quite a bit better. It’s unfortunate, then, that anti-war liberals seem to put rather too much stock in the UN, an organization that has too many institutional barriers to action to be an effective multilateral force, while conservatives disdain any kind of multilateral body that might genuinely constrain American use of force.

We seem to be at an impasse these days and I wonder where the statesmanship will come from to break it? Oddly enough, in the same sense that only Nixon could go to China, the statesmanship could come from George Bush.

But what are the odds?


WAS SADDAM A PAPER TIGER?….Even by his usual standards, this piece by Glenn Reynolds last week was remarkably self-serving:

Totalitarian regimes always give the appearance of strength. In part this is because totalitarian regimes live and die by appearances….

You’d think that journalists and intellectuals, who as a class pride themselves on the ability to look beyond appearances to substance, would be the last ones to be fooled by totalitarian bluster. But, again and again, they’ve fallen for the appearance of strength, while disdaining the messiness of bourgeois, commercial, free Western civilization. Why are they so easily fooled? I can’t help but feel that it’s because many of them, at some level, want to believe in the power of tyranny.

For the past year, it’s been Glenn and the pro-war forces that have been unceasing proponents of the idea that Saddam Hussein’s regime was a mortal threat to the Middle East, the United States, and the world at large. The anti-war forces, by and large, argued that 12 years of sanctions had left him weak and not much of a threat to anyone. So who was fooled?

This week Glenn seems to have completed his transformation into the Rush Limbaugh of the blogosphere. Like the piece above, in which he “can’t help but feel” that journalists and intellectuals are really motivated by sympathy with murderous dictators, Instapundit has turned into an orgy of innuendo and name calling, with anti-war activists saddened because they “didn’t get the oceans of civilian blood [they] wanted,” smug remarks about how the BBC “has shot itself in the foot” simply for reporting the looting in Baghdad that everyone is reporting now, and snide comments about scare-quoted “neocons,” as if these folks don’t really exist and it’s shocking to suppose that anyone has ever wanted this war to expand beyond Iraq.

Glenn’s schtick has always been a bitter and cynical one, but the end of the war seems to have been a watershed for him. Like Rush with his “stack of stuff,” Instapundit has turned into nothing more than a clearinghouse for bile, with post after endless post explaining that anyone who disagrees with him is really motivated by a seething hatred of America and a desire to see everything that is good and true torn limb from corrupt limb. The level of rage and contempt that it takes to continue extracting pleasure from banging out this kind of stuff on a daily basis baffles me.


THE MORTGAGE INTEREST DEDUCTION….PART 2….On Friday I blogged about the mortgage interest deduction and how it was basically a scam that doesn’t really help home buyers. Today I’ve got a bit more detail, courtesy of a real live economics type person, showing that it does help some, but not that much. Warning: I highly recommend that you skip this post.

OK then, here’s a simplified partial equilibrium analysis of what happens:

  • Before the mortage interest deduction was in place, supply and demand intersected to produce an original price for a home. That’s in orange in the chart at the right.

  • After the deduction was put in place, the demand curve moved up and to the right, indicating increased demand due to the subsidy of the tax break. The intersection with the supply curve happens at a higher quantity, so more houses are built. However, because of the subsidy caused by the tax break, the price the buyer pays is different from the price the seller gets. The seller actually gets a somewhat higher price than under the original model, and the buyer pays a somewhat lower price. In other words, they split the difference.

Bottom line: the mortgage interest deduction does cause the quantity of housing to increase and it does save home buyers some money, it just doesn’t save them as much as they think. The actual amount of the savings depends on the slope of the supply and demand curves, how far the demand curve moves, and a bunch of other stuff. As my correspondent points out, this is an undergraduate level analysis, and the graduate level analysis ain’t going to happen. At least, not on this blog.

(And since several people have asked: the effect of the mortgage interest deduction on the rental market is quite complex, and it’s not clear exactly what the end result is.)

Anyway, this is all blather. As Matt Yglesias points out, no one in his right mind will ever suggest getting rid of mortgage interest deduction. Even if you could figure out a way to do it without hurting anyone, it sure wouldn’t benefit anyone, so where’s the support going to come from? In the end we’re stuck with a “middle class” tax break that actually favors the rich disproportionately (they have bigger houses so they get a bigger tax break, and of course those too poor to buy a house in the first place get nothing). Why does this sound hauntingly familiar?