Friday, August 10, 2012

Political 02

There is plenty of chatter about whether and how to cut the federal budget to reduce if not eliminate the federal budget deficit, but nobody is raising, let alone addressing the key question of how exactly should we be calculating the optimal size for the federal budget or even the size of the federal government itself. And this is just a fraction of the overall problem of grappling with overall government, including state and local government. I think most people are willing to accept that during a crisis, economic or otherwise, it is temporarily okay to run a federal budget deficit, even a significant budget deficit, until the crisis passes to moderate the crisis itself, to moderate the impact of the effects of the crisis and to help accelerate recovery from the crisis. Judging the acceptable size of a short-term budget overrun is hard enough, but at the same time we need to remain cognizant of managing the underlying non-crisis bulk of the budget and size of government itself so that once the crisis passes we will find ourselves back "on budget."
One key problem is that a good fraction of the growth of the economy over the previous decade was basically "fake" in the sense of based on unsustainable finance and business practices which led to the recent crisis, such as companies that would not even exist if credit hadn't been so cheap and readily available. Government itself grew in response to the economy growing, but now that we have "reset" the economy to be more sustainable (with more work still to do), we need to consider how to "reset" government itself. This means we need an extensive and open debate in two areas: 1) how much and how to shrink the baseline size of the federal government to reflect a sustainable growth rate (once all current artificial stimulus is removed), and 2) what areas of government actually need to be beefed up and by how much to assure "good governance" that will avoid a repeat of the difficulties of the past decade.
Ultimately, the key question is what level of "services" does the government need to provide to society to assure that public safety, civil rights, and economic security are "protected." This depends on also answering the questions of what roles and responsibilities should be played by individuals, families, local and state governments, businesses, and private organizations. And of course we have the issue of what the federal government needs to do as opposed to state and local governments.
Maintaining the status quo is always a bad answer, especially in a society and economic system that is growing and as dynamic as ours. As a trivial question, if population grows by X% and GDP grows by Y%, what Z% should government grow by? I have seen nobody even begin to address these types of questions.
I am not ready to propose answers here because to me the first step is that we have to get the questions right. If we as a society cannot even agree on what the "right" questions, agreement on the answers is moot.
To put the question simply, if you didn't know the size of the federal government and its budget, how would you go about calculating what size both should be?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

political 01

The "official" position of the U.S. government and various European governments is that Iran is "intent" on developing nuclear weapons, notwithstanding the simple fact that they have only a circumstantial case and little in the way of hard evidence that Iran's "nuclear ambitions" extend to developing nuclear weapons. In fact, other than the fact that Iran has a uranium enrichment capability, the U.S. and friends have something close to zero in the way of hard evidence of a credible Iranian nuclear weapons program. The "case" against Iran smacks of the case that the U.S. had against Iraq, or thought they had, or claimed they had. You'd think they would have learned. Or, maybe they did. Maybe the case against Iraq was really just a stalking horse, an indirect casus belli (cause for war) that didn't have to be true, just emotionally believable and viable as a means to get to war rather than a desire for enlightenment and a path to truth. Maybe that is exactly what is happening here with Iran as well. Sure, we don't have Neo-conservative Republicans leading the charge, but you still have a lot of politicians financially beholding to the so-called Pro-Israel lobby (Hillary and Barack among them.) In any case, the bottom line remains, as with Iraq, that there is no clear-cut case for believing that Iran is on a path to developing nuclear weapons. Yes, you can sleep well at night.
The first big problem is that the fear-mongerers have a field day by exploiting the ambiguity of the term "nuclear ambitions". The term includes both peaceful non-weapons programs and military weapons programs. By raising the term based on the fact of Iran's nuclear energy efforts, the fear-mongerers exploit the ambiguity and use it to allude to weapons when the facts do not support a weapons program.
Some argue that Iran has oil so it has no need for nuclear energy, but regardless of whether you believe in Peak Oil and Global Warming, oil is still a non-viable option for betting the energy future of any country, including Iran. Besides, crude oil is a great source of foreign exchange, so burning oil internally is not a preferable economic alternative.
Some argue that Iran should accept limits on uranium enrichment and contract out enrichment to other countries. That is fine as far as it goes, but violates Iran's sovereignty and puts Iran at risk of being subject to the whim of foreign powers, which is a non-starter given the record of Europe and the U.S. in the region. There is nothing a priori evil or sinister with Iran wanting to do its own enrichment and being in full control of the nuclear fuel cycle.
Some argue that once you get to 20% enrichment of uranium that it is "easy" to go all the way to 90% weapons-grade, but there is no factual basis for that claim. And, most important, no evidence of any Iranian intention to do so.
The most recent National Intelligence Estimate for Iran and its nuclear ambitions back in 2007 pulled the rug out from under the fear-mongerers by concluding that "we do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons." Since the resultant firestorm of criticism by the fear-mongerers, the U.S. government has adopted a political conclusion rather than an intelligence assessment conclusion that Iran intends to develop nuclear weapons, despite the fact that they lack hard evidence. Earlier this year people were awaiting the imminent release of a revised intelligence estimate that was expected to come down on Iran more harshly, but here we are six months later and still no new assessment. So, the 2007 assessment still holds, despite the political calculation.
So, despite the fact that there is no imminent threat from Iran on the nuclear weapons front, the U.S. politically "needs" to act as if there were. In other words there is a "gap" between reality and the political view espoused by the fear-mongerers who hold the politicians and hence the government captive.
As far as I can tell the real focus of these nuclear fear-mongering efforts is a belief that Iran will attack Israel or give nukes to terrorists. There is zero evidence to support either misguided belief.
Although much gets made of the animosity between Israel and Iran, including alleged quotes about "wipe Israel off the map" and "death to Israel", all of this need to be put in the context of the fact that Israel is still not recognized by a number of countries in the region and heated rhetoric is rarely indicative of true intentions. Iran has indicated that they would intend to retaliate if attacked first by Israel, but that is hardly the same as a direct threat against Israel. The reference to wiping off the map is more a matter of who nominally occupies Jerusalem, which is a matter of international dispute even absent Iran. In short, the fear-mongerers are over-reading a few rhetorical flourishes. Absent their over-reading, there is zero evidence that Iran seeks to attack Israel in a forceful manner with or without nuclear weapons.
Fear-mongerers also make too big a deal of Iran's support for Hamas and Hezbollah and their lame efforts to attack Israel with rockets. Those attacks amount to little more than harassment, with damage to property and loss of life still rather limited compared to a vigorous military campaign. To suggest that they somehow represent what Iran would do if they had nuclear weapons is a very unwarranted extrapolation based on zero evidence. The fear of the fear-mongerers is nothing but conjecture, fiction, fantasy, and fabrication.
In truth, Iran is a sovereign nation and every sovereign nation has the right to decide for itself whether it wishes to develop a nuclear weapons capability. That includes Iran. They do have a right to develop nuclear weapons if they should so choose. They do have various international treaty obligations, but those are essentially technical details rather than an obstacle in principle.
Even if Iran did pursue and fulfill a full-blown nuclear weapons development program, there is still little in the way of hard evidence that Iran would use those weapons. That is no accident since nuclear weapons are primarily a deterrent. The fear-mongerers have no significant evidence on their side to support their claim that Iran would "use" nuclear weapons if they had them. Use as a deterrent, yes, but use to strike at Israel or the U.S. or whoever, no. But, as the lack of evidence shows, we are not even remotely closely to being there yet.
I am still waiting for the fear-mongerers to drag out the Goldwater/Rice argument that we shouldn't wait for the evidence of a mushroom cloud. That is fear-mongering and paranoia at its worst. Emotion rarely leads to a rational decision. Stick with facts, evidence, and reason.
In short, there is no good reason for any American citizen to lose even a single moment of sleep worrying about Iran and nuclear weapons. Just say No to the fearmongerers.