Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Counterfactual: Confederacy Survival

Attention Conservation Notice: Only of interest if you like long and rambling posts on counterfactual history.

A staple of the counterfactual history genre is the possibility of the Confederacy succeeding in breaking away from the Union. Most people focus on what sorts of military tactics or strategy would be needed for that success to happen, or follow domestic politics for a few decades. I'm going to assume that the Confederacy could indeed have broken away had things gone only slightly different, and would have survived.

Now consider the impact on WWI, and WWII if that still happens. The Confederacy would have been strongly pro-Allied--given its long-standing trade links with France and Britain and their tacit support during the Civil War (which would have been greater if not for especially fortuitous harvests).

The North would have been more split. You have a larger German-American population. On a strategic level, the country would have been sandwiched between a British Canada and British-leaning Confederate states. Whatever the Anglophile inclinations of elites, the incentives would have been to balance against neighboring Allies and embrace the Axis. Britain, after all, did burn down the US capital.

That is; America, by virtue of being undivided and secure, had the luxury of idealism in foreign policy. America viewed itself as an exceptional empire, rather than a full participant within a system of competing equals--yet this was predicated on geographical unity at home. A rupture after the Civil War would have raised the potential of bringing Europe-style state divisions, and Europe-style realpolitik to the Americas. The plausible corollary is that a European-style system of entangling alliances is not out of the question.

By this point of course, the North would have left the South far behind on industry and manpower. It's hard to say what would happen. Perhaps the North could use global war to re-unite the country by force; or else the South could hold off the North through Boer-style guerrila tactics. Either way--the US would probably not be contributing troops to Europe on net, and trans-Atlantic trade in supplies and goods would be badly strained. Especially by 1917, when Germany made peace with Bolshevik Russia and redeployed troops west; American reinforcements were the crucial ingredient stemming that tide and turning the war around. Without those critical inputs, it's easy to imagine Germany coming out ahead in WWI.

And then all of that feeds into WWII, etc. etc. A Germany without resentment would probably not have gone towards the Nazis; the Russians would presumably still go Soviet. It's tough to guage what would happen to the defeated Western Allies. An early loss of the colonies seems likely, probably with no partition in India. Their eventual status of the Western democracies would depend on the coming fight between Germany and the USSR, and they would then either be drawn into a Germany-dominated European Community, or live as Soviet client states.

All of this is speculation, but I think there's some value to this type of counterfactual thinking. To the extent that we can plausibly connect small changes in the past to enormous changes today--that highlights the precariousness of history as dependent on contingent events. Things didn't have to turn out the way they did. This is Niall Furgeson's take on counterfactual history; it's an account which prizes the importance of particular people, happenstance events, and the like.

Alternately, we may find that things end up roughly where they are now. This would be the determinist take on history, which has a long lineage going back to the materialists and Marxists. This is the harder type of counterfactual history to model. It's a lot easier to change one event and extrapolate forward; it's a lot harder to think of what the counter-moves and responses would have been from other involved people.

In particular, what you get at in this scenario is the huge importance of extra-European and extra-Eurasian powers in maintaining a balance on the continent. Powers in Europe have a natural tendency to try to seize hegemonic power, which Rome alone managed to pull off. The Hapsburgs, Bourbon French, Napoleonic French, the Second Reich, the Third Reich, and then the Communists--all saw their only hope of security through continent-wide domination. In all cases, this tendency was checked and prevented through a shrewd pattern of alliances sewn up first by Britain, and then America acting in concert with Britain.

But that type of balancing was very contingent. It required a unified Britain, secure behind a navy, being an economic powerhouse an possessing a strategic interest in European events. And then it required an America which was unified and which identified with the British containment mission. The first counterweight is pretty much there by virtue of geography. It's the second, American, counter which was much more iffy, but was also essential for a European balance of power. Without these counterweights, land wars in Europe would probably have continued until either the logic of atomic warfare kicked in, or one state dominated the rest.

As long as I'm wildly speculating anyway, I'm going to go ahead and say that this balance of power was pretty crucial to Europe's success. Being divided into numerous, non-hegemonic states propelled the incentives for innovation and growth in ways more absent in the Middle East, India, and China--all of which were for significant periods dominated by one autocratic sovereign.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Bruce Bartlett Review

Bruce Bartlett is one of the original architects of Reagan's Supply-Side Revolution. Recently, he's come out with a new book defending that movement, while arguing for higher taxes today in the form of a VAT, or consumption tax.

I don't buy it. I don't think adding extra consumption taxes would further either conservative or liberal goals.

Start with the conservatives. Bruce makes all of the conventional arguments against the Bush tax cuts: they didn't magically boost the economy, etc. etc. From the point of view of a bipartisan, maximize GDP perspective, these are fair points. In many ways, he repeats claims made by Jonathan Chait a few years back, when he denounced the extreme views of supply-siders as crackpot economics. What both miss is that the tax-cutting agenda is not driven purely by a motivation to boost "the economy." Transferring income away from the government towards people doesn't show up in GDP, but has an enormous impact on family welfare and the role of government in a free society.

To a substantial extent, the supply-siders are driven by the genuine desire of ordinary Americans to keep more of their hard-earned money. The rationalizations supply-siders offer for that goal are often dubious. But refuting those claims doesn't answer the broader question of how much government do we want, and what level of taxation would we like. This is very much a political and ideological question; yet Bartlett largely sidesteps that issue in favor of a broadly technocratic lens.

His diagnosis is that government is set to rise due to an entitlement crisis; that current economic problems are now ones of deflation and deficient demand; and that the only contribution of supply-side analysis is to pave the transition towards a larger government as smoothly as possible. His champions the VAT as a relatively efficient way to raise revenue.

Look, it would be one thing if we needed more taxpayer dollars to pay for some sort of Whiggish program of internal improvements, and a VAT was the only way to pay for that. But that's not the case. The long-term drivers of government spending are the entitlement programs--health care and social security--along with defense. Who benefits from these programs?

Social Security is distributed to everyone over 65--a population that has spent a lifetime earning and accumulating assets, and is rather well-off in aggregate. Medicare similarly benefits all the elderly, regardless of wealth, while its reimbursement program is riddled with fraud, and is a major driver of overtreatment and rising medical costs (Contributing 40 percent of the recent rise in medical costs by one estimate). Defense spending post-War on Terror is also insane. The US spends somewhere around $700 billion a year on defense; not only is this substantially more than any other country, it's also about twice what was spent during the 90s. Once Afghanistan and Iraq wind down, military spending could easily be cut in half with no discernible loss in welfare to the ordinary household.

This is to say: The drivers of higher government spending are basically wasteful and unnecessary spending, much of it consisting of transfers to the wealthy. This doesn't strike me as a cause worth funding through burdening the poor and working classes--who would be disproportionately hit by a tax on consumption.

There's an alternative here: slashing payroll taxes for poor workers and instituting flexible wages. Two of the biggest economic problems today are that wages are stagnant for many low-skill workers and unemployment looks to be persistently high. Both of these can be controlled by policy. By cutting regressive taxes on the poor, we can make wages rise as fast as we like--while attacking the real and growing disincentives for work. Bartlett is right to suggest that this may not have much of an impact as a "stimulus" or on economic aggregates. But this is to mistake GDP for human welfare. Families struggling to pay bills benefit tremendously with more after-tax income. It's precisely for this reason that many liberals worry so much about wages, even though the share of labor compensation doesn't have an impact on GDP.

We can cure unemployment as well. Singapore and France, along with other European countries, have implemented Edmund Phelps' policy of flexible wages. The idea is to allow employers to cut back on compensation during downturns, and have the government make up the difference. This allows labor markets to clear while keeping unemployment low. It's hard to think of any government spending that would further family welfare as much as keeping wage growth as high as we like, and unemployment as low as we want. Indeed, it's hard to think of many proposals that do so much to advance liberal goals. But fundamentally, this agenda relies on lowering the tax base and making it more progressive. Bartlett's VAT would move America in the opposite direction on both counts, while doing little to help struggling households.

I'll agree with Bartlett that Republican orthodoxy is sniffling the debate on many of these issues. Treating any defense cuts as tantamount to treason, and any cuts in Medicare as out of bounds entirely, doesn't do much to advance the debate on how to deal with a looming entitlement crisis. Republicans have done little during their time in office to tackle the long-term fiscal situation, and have placed too much emphasis on income tax cuts rather than dealing with chronic economic insecurity. But higher taxes on the poor won't help either.

That's the tradeoff we face. We can continue spending on wasteful and unnecessary transfers and spending, much of it going towards the rich, and balancing the cost on the already-burdened working and middle classes. Or we can solve the central economic problems of the day by addressing ballooning spending front-on. But that will require both more committed conservatives than Bartlett, and more devoted liberals than those in office.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Wise Words

Here's Scott Sumner,

It seems to me that the human race is rapidly approaching a crossroads where we need to decide whether we will continue to pretend to be innocent creatures inhabiting the Earth, like bunny rabbits, or whether we will forthrightly acknowledge that for better or worse we basically control the fate of the Earth from here on out. No matter what, whether we decide to use geoengineering or not, we will decide where global temperature will be 100 or 200 years from now. We will increasingly decide which species become extinct, and which species that would have gone extinct (even without humans existing) that we will artificially save. Within 100 years we will be able to prevent any future asteroid impacts on Earth. We have already created nuclear technologies that require us to watch over nuclear waste for 10,000 years. I don’t think it makes sense to use intuition about not fooling with Mother Nature any longer.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The McCain Health Plan, Again

I noticed about a year ago that McCain actually had a decent health plan. It called for taxing premiums for insurance to pay for coverage for those without. The idea is that the tax-exclusion privileges wage compensation that comes in the form of health benefits, encouraging a general rise in healthcare costs. At the same time, the fact that this benefit only applies to employer-provided insurance contributes to a world in which millions of people without employer-coverage can't get health insurance. I noticed how prominent Obama economists had in fact called for exactly such a plan to reign in out-of-control healthcare spending while expanding coverage.

Obama was very opposed to the idea at the time. He denounced it as a new tax, and spent millions on ads convincing people it was a bad idea. The wonkish liberal blogosphere joined in attacking the plan. Here is Matt Yglesias:
One issue that hasn’t gotten nearly the widespread attention it deserves is that in the context of John McCain’s overall policy for steep tax cuts for high-income Americans he’s also proposing a very significant tax increase on the broad group of people who receive health insurance through their employers
As a result of that kind of fear-mongering, Democrats have found it very hard to impose any kind of tax on health care plans in current bills. The bills they plan cement the link between employment and health insurance and do little to tackle the fundamental drivers of escalating health costs. Well, here's Yglesias now:
by artificially subsidizing health care consumption by the relatively prosperous, [the tax exclusion] drives prices up for everyone, including the not-so-prosperous. And because it’s a tax-side subsidy, the subsidy does little-to-nothing for the poor.So scrapping or curbing the subsidy makes sense in general. And it especially makes sense as a way of raising money to finance progressive policy like ensuring that health care is affordable for the poor and the lower-middle class.
You can argue about whether McCain's plan for redistributing the revenue from the tax--in the form of a refundable tax credit--was the best way to expand coverage. A lot of the criticism there said something like "poor people don't pay taxes, so they won't benefit." But a refundable tax credit will effectively act as a subsidy for people who don't pay much in taxes. In fact, Wikipedia tells me that some conservatives and libertarians oppose such credits exactly for this reason.

But instead of having a debate about the particulars, we effectively shelved one of the best tools for health reform off the table about a year ago. In a world in which the financial crisis hit a few months later--say the Bush team decided to save Lehman--McCain would probably have been elected President. It's intriguing to imagine if McCain could have teamed up with Wyden-Bennett to produce a bipartisan health plan by now. One suspects not, but everyone is entitled to their own counterfactuals.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Geoengineering and Freakonomics

I remain perpetually impressed at the degree of outrage and shock that Krugman and company can put out. I can only hope that one day, I can channel my own cranky impulses as productively.

Anyway, the latest controversy is over Levitt and Dubner's latest book, Superfreakonomics, which isn't out yet. Fortunately, I've managed to find a bootleg copy of the climate change chapter which is generating the outcry.

I have to say: it's actually pretty interesting. I've talked about geoengineering before, and it's a fascinating topic. Levitt and Dubner take the position that a carbon tax would be great, but faces many global coordination problems, so it's worth thinking about more radical solutions in case things get really bad. They outline some cheap and feasible solutions which could reverse the rise in temperature. For instance, coal plants put out a lot of sulphur. Volcanoes put out sulphur at a higher atmosphere, and that seems to lower temperature without any downsides. It seems reasonable to try redirecting the sulphur we already produce at a higher altitude and see what happens.

This has caused utter and complete outrage. Brad DeLong replies that all his friends at Berkeley disagree on geoengineering and global coordination on carbon taxes is totally possible. To which I can only reply: 1) I don't have access to Berkeley faculty, 2) Nothing is stopping you from putting in carbon taxes with a geoengineering backstop, and 3) Twenty years of failed global coordination on this issue should say something.

Tyler Cowen and Krugman suggest that global coordination on geoengineering will be hard. To put it mildly, this is insane. Suppose that the costs of cutting back on carbon went down to $20-50 million, the cost of some geoengineering proposals. Do you think this would make global coordination harder or easier? Coming to a global coordination may still be hard. But right now, it seems hard enough. I think most reputable IR specialists would agree.

I think it's hard to avoid the point that Levitt and Dubner raise--that geoengineering proposals never get anywhere because people think about the environment through a secular religious lens. We sinned and destroyed the environment, and now have to repent and sacrifice to make up for it. Geoengineering is like gastric bypass when you should be dieting.

That doesn't mean these proposals are a great idea either. It's pretty easy to imagine them turning out pretty badly. But that's why they're best seen as "in case of emergency" options. If you really believe serious global warming is a possibility, and you observe countries right now doing little about the problem; you should consider some radical solutions. Again, we can still try the global coordination route. But after hearing Jairam Ramesh--India's environmental envoy--talk; I have to say the odds for a global deal don't look good.

Frankly, the fact that geoengineering proposals are being pursued by cranks like Dyson and out-there Venture Capitalists, rather than environmental engineers, is a problem. The fact that widespread adoption of cheap and clean nuclear energy largely remains the preserve of Republicans rather than environmentalists is a problem. We need a rational environmentalism that acts according to a cost-benefit analysis to maximize impact, and doesn't give a hoot about "raising awareness."

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Some Pessimism for Optimists

Forecasting is impossible unless you're this guy; everyone else looks at an uncertain world and makes some prediction with error. The optimists think things will get better; the pessimists that it will get worse.

The optimists have been overwhelmingly correct over the past few hundred years. Health, wealth, and freedom have all gone up; poverty, intolerance, and malaria have all gone down.

Yet people keep praising the pessimists. Pessimists are graded on the strength of their best prediction; optimists on their worst.

Compare Fukuyama with Roubini. Fukuyama's prediction--that liberal, free-market democracy would rule the world--was bold if not entirely innovative. But it's held up enormously well. Global conflict is down; freedom and free markets have spread. Yet Fukuyama gets absolutely no respect. People focus on the flaws in his call--there is still some conflict in the world; some countries are still repressive. Successes in optimistic predictions, no matter how large or important, are ignored as representing flukes or are else seen as "unsustainable". More generally, optimists are taken as terminally deluded captives of some authority. They're sellout shrills, and deserve no respect. Serious people are eternally critical.

Then there's Roubini. He's spent the last ten years warning about disasters that have never happened. A dollar crisis, balance of payments crisis, and so forth. Most of those disasters have still not happened. Then he got to doomesdaying on the housing market late. But everyone only remembers this last prediction, and calls him a prophet. He goes around New York with a bevy of hot twenty-somethings; Fukuyama doesn't get the same treatment.

The lesson is clear for future prognosticators. If you say things will get better; you'll be denounced as wrong if it doesn't hold up, and a suck-up even if they do. If you say they'll get worse; just wait until something bad happens and you get hailed for your prescience.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Vietnam Revisionism, Iraq, and Afghanistan

Lexington reminds me to bring up a vastly under-discussed topic: Vietnam Revisionism.

Counterinsurgency broke the news after Petraeus and McChrystal, but it was actually very big in the popular and military imagination during the '60s as well. Mao's success in China sparked a huge discussion of how to conduct and defeat insurgency. For obvious reasons, the Vietnam War continued this trend.

Reading A Better War, a classic revisionist account of Vietnam, is like looking at Iraq all over again. The initial commanders in both wars--Westmoreland in Vietnam, Tommy Franks and others in Iraq--were basically clueless about how to tackle local insurgency. Westmoreland, for instance, focused on body counts and firepower. He threw artillery and air power at guerrillas, and focusing on winning battles. He exuded optimism and threw out made-up statistics during press conferences. As in Iraq, this led nowhere.

Then you had new generals in both wars. In Vietnam, General Abrams came in. He replaced "search-and-destroy" missions with ones focused on "clear-and-hold" to implement a policy of civilian defense. He focused more on training native Vietnamese units. This coincided with Nixon's "surge" strategy of escalating the conflict to leave on better terms. The dramatic change in policy as a result of following counterinsurgency doctrine and the dramatic change in the outcome of the war in America's are not in question. Needless to say, the surge under Petraeus and Odierno, and the shift in American doctrine towards COIN, was a similar story.

The disputed part about Vietnam Revisionism is whether Abrams' efforts were enough to win the war in the long run. North Vietnam enjoyed enormous support from Communist states, while Congress eventually killed all military aid to South Vietnam. In the Revisionist counterfactual, limited military aid would have allowed an insurgency-free South Vietnam to sustain direct attacks from North Vietnam.

I think a fairly convincing argument can be made for that scenario. But in any event; there are better and worse ways of fighting insurgencies, and it takes a while to develop the competency and leadership capable of fighting them.

The success of counterinsurgency in Vietnam and Iraq doesn't imply that it will work in Afghanistan, a very different country. Nor will it tell you if Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan were ultimately worth fighting. Just because a given tactic can win a war doesn't mean the war is worthwhile.

But from the point of view of South Vietnam, at any rate, it probably was. South Vietnam remained mired in poverty for twenty years after its war, while it enjoyed growth under a free market before the war, and would probably have enjoyed even greater success had it won the war--something like a North Korea/South Korea analogue (I might even go so far as to say that if you think the Korean war was worth fighting, than you should have supported South Vietnam in 1975, even if you opposed sending troops in during the 60s).

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Some Optimism

orgtheory brings up what I'll dub the cassandra litany: America doesn't manufacture things anymore because all the jobs are going to China, while the US keeps declining in relative influence. Life will be horrible for the next generation.

You hear these things often enough that it's worth pointing out that these claims are misleading at best.

Start with manufacturing. America produces more manufacturing goods than ever before. Even the share of manufacturing goods, as a percent of GDP, has remained roughly constant over time at about ten percent. The recession obviously has hit manufacturing, as have every previous recession, and particular states--Michigan--may have lost some manufacturing plants for good. But other, Southern, states will likely pick up the slack in the coming years, as they have in the past.

It's true--manufacturing jobs are disappearing, even as manufacturing remains strong. But this is a worldwide phenomenon happening not due to trade, but because technology allows for capital to replace people in factories. China is losing millions of manufacturing jobs. So are Japan, Brazil, and many other countries. Don't take my word for it--ask that incorrigible conservative Robert Reich.

Ultimately, this is why things like tire tariffs and industrial policy are wrongheaded. Not because they're bad ways to keep manufacturing jobs in America--though that's true, too. But because in the long run, factory jobs are going the way of farm jobs. Sometime in the next few decades, we'll need about five percent of the population to produce all our food and goods. Everyone else will need to become a service worker, in one way or another, no matter what we do now.

Nor is the US doomed to obsolescence. America has declined in global economic importance, but the big hit was after WWII. At the end of that conflict, America controlled something like half of the world economy. That went down to about a fifth of world output until after Japan and Western Europe recovered. But the US share of output has held up remarkably well since then.

The real story, as the Economist helpfully shows, is that the economic rise of Asia has been parallel by a corresponding fall in Europe's relative position.

If you're a Republican, you say that Regan's tax cuts and deregulation kept America going while Europe started to lag. High immigration and high fertility (the result of big homes, an easier work-life balance for working mothers, and a more abundant economy) have also given America a demographic boost enjoyed by only a few European countries. In fact, most European countries, were they were American states, would rank among the bottom in living standards.

This is likely to remain so for the future. As long as America hosts the world's best Universities, attracts the world's best talent, remains innovative and so on--it will likely not only keep growing, but keep up with the world in relative terms as well. We don't need Summers and his technocrat buddies to figure out where new jobs--green or otherwise--are going to come from. Despite all their progress, India and China would love to have America's problems rather than the ones they currently have. The news tends to focus on growth rates, so it's easy to forget that America's per capita GDP is sixteen times higher than China's, with a similar level of income inequality.

People still focus on the stagnating middle class, two Americas, etc. Leaving aside the issue of whether that's an accurate description, there's a real issue here. Class mobility is low, and the collapse of manufacturing has left fewer good jobs for unskilled workers. But CEO pay and income tax cuts for the rich are minor points in this story. To the extent that policy can fix any of these issues, education reform and encouraging family stability have to top the list.

But we'll make more progress on the tough stuff by doing less China India hysteria, less angst about trade, less nostalgia about manufacturing, and less doomsday talk about what is, after all, the world's best system for wealth creation.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Petraeus, Don't Betray Us

Ever since the last election, I've kept an eye on the 2012 race. Like many people, my attention has been mainly on current and former Republican governors--Mitch Daniels, Pawlenty, Jindal, Huckabee, Romney --who could plausibly run as pragmatic technocrats focusing on fiscal prudence and competence in governance.

Intrade has another possible pick--Petraeus is trading at just under a ten percent chance at the Republican nomination.

This would be pretty interesting. Republicans have a long history of nominating war heroes and generals--basically every nominee from Eisenhower to McCain was a general, war hero, war President, or played a war hero in Hollywood. Bush 2000 and Nixon are a couple of exceptions. The military is one of the most admired institutions, and Petraeus in particular is highly regarded.

Moreover, unlike some past candidates--Colin Powell--Petraeus is fairly political. He's great with the press, worked some serious politics to get to where he is today, and is on the record as expressing interests in the Presidency. Sure, half of Congress probably has Presidential interests depending on the day of the week, but it's a little rarer in the military.

He isn't known for any sentiments on domestic policy, but that's exactly his promise. It means no long record of incriminating or flip-flopping statements, so can enter the campaign with a blank slate. People will project whatever they want onto him, so he can be all things to all people until he gets elected (sounds familiar...). I'm sure he's a smart guy--put him in the room with a few advisors, and he'll learn everything he needs to.

Of course, the nominee, and winner, in 2012 will be determined by future events we can't predict. But it is possible to sketch out the path in which Petraeus would do very well:

The economy keeps getting worse. Debt keeps rising. Obama exits Afghanistan, and things get worse there and in Pakistan. Terrorists strike somewhere. People perceive the government as corrupt and ineffectual; and its stance on national security as weak.

Petraeus steps in as the candidate of authority. His patriotism and competence are beyond question. It really doesn't matter what he says, as long as he comes off as reasonably intelligent and competent. This would be another Obama-like "branded" campaign, in which the overall image and tone of the candidate overshadows everything else. McCain tried to run something like this (Country First), and almost won (and would still have won if not for the post-Lehman collapse. I'm surprised I don't see more conspiracy theories/spite about that.).

Can you imagine trying to run attack ads against a successful war general? Not fun. All of the other potential Republican candidates have pissed off someone else in the camp at some point or another. Petraeus is arguably the only Republican alive who earns the respect, if not the outright adulation, of not only most Republicans, but many others as well.

Of course, if things turn out differently--the economy gets better, the wars end up going well--there will be much less space for a Petraeus candidacy. Either way, civilian-military relations seem be decidedly chillier under Obama, and it'll be interesting to see how this plays out.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Graveyard of Empires

One thing you hear all of the time is that "Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires". It's taken down everyone from Alexander the Great to the British to the Soviets, so America should probably stay away. Or else just go in all the way just to prove how America is so amazing.

Well, check out the history of Afghanistan on Wikipedia. You'll see that Alexander the Great conquered Afghanistan (then Bactria) just fine, and Greeks ran empires in the region for hundreds of years. Other successful conquerors include the Persians, Scythians, Mongols, Arabs, Sikhs... the list really goes on. Historically, Afghanistan has been the stepping-stone of empire rather than its graveyard.

It's true, the British had some setbacks there. But ultimately both the British and Russians had victories in the region.

But none of this answers the question of whether Afghanistan can be "won" today or not. Iraq, for instance, has historically been very easy to conquer; and, yes, any country today with a sizable standing army probably would have found it reasonably easy to both conquer and pacify Iraq. India or China, if either had the logistics capacities and local defense bases, could probably have done a decent job at it. But it proved to be very difficult for America today nonetheless.

The Soviets, for instance, found Afghanistan tough going--even though the Russians enjoyed some success there over a hundred years ago. The past is very poor at predicting the outcome of insurgency today. Not even the Soviet example is a perfect indicator of how things may go in Afghanistan, as things are very different. There are no Stinger missiles or foreign countries supplying insurgents today, for instance.

Rather than misreading inapplicable historical examples, it would be nice if the media offered some more cost-benefit analysis on this sort of foreign adventure. Here, I'm genuinely agnostic: cutting and running would seriously hurt counter-terrorist operations, but even total success is not worth an infinite amount of money and lives. It seems silly to skimp and scrounge for every last penny on a health reform bill, but then say that because this particular war seems good in comparison to a pretty lousy one, it's worth throwing no end to money towards it.

It also seems odd to slam McChrystal for behaving as a neo-MacArthur in demanding more troops for the mission. Isn't that what Shinseki did before the Iraq War, before getting fired and then applauded for his willingness to speak up? It's probably true in both cases that generals shouldn't be the final determinants of troop levels (at least in wars of choice), because they aren't in a position to weigh the benefits of more troops with costs elsewhere. But really that's just a reason to stop engaging in wars of choice, so that these issues will stop rearing up.

The news already does a pretty poor job of covering international news; maybe if they finally do a poor enough job, no one will care, and these sorts of wars will stop happening.