The Santa Barbara of the Imagination

You really owe it to yourself to read Mikhail Iossel’s essay in Foreign Policy on the role of the American soap opera Santa Barbara in the Russian popular imagination. Here’s a snippet:

Santa Barbara was the first American soap opera to be broadcast on Russian television. It started airing on Jan. 2, 1992, with episode 217, and came to a close on April 17, 2002, with episode 2,040. For the first several years, the new episodes ran three evenings per week. Later on, the show’s broadcasts became fewer and further between.

For 10 long years — all through the crime-ridden, chaotic 1990s, the early post-Soviet years of timelessness and hardship — life in large cities, small towns, industrial settlements, and snowbound villages across Russia’s 11 time zones would come to a standstill as the remarkably cheery sounds of Santa Barbara’s intro issued from millions of TV sets. “Run on home — you don’t want to miss Santa Barbara,” the kindly pharmacist from a TV commercial would say to the old woman at the counter. It was that big a deal. Missing an episode was considered to be a personal mini-tragedy.

Santa Barbara’s imprint was everywhere. It entered the Russian vernacular, as a denotation for any hopelessly tortuous, excessively dramatic kind of relationship. (“Oh, I can’t stand those two, with their endless Santa Barbara!”) A well-known pop band, Mona Lisa, released a super-hit, “Santa Barbara,” in which young women proclaim their undying love for the character Mason Capwell (played by Lane Davies). Countless Russian dogs and cats bore the exotic names Mason, Eden, Cruz, and C.C. Capwell. A trickle of former Santa Barbara stars — Jed Allan, Lane Davies, Nicolas Coster, and others — visited Russia at different times in the 1990s and 2000s, appearing on numerous TV channels, giving a plethora of print interviews, gushing about the beauty of Russia and its men and women — and generally, one would imagine, feeling like the Beatles during their first tour of the United States.

It was a national obsession of borderline-insane magnitude.

The contrast between the fictitious Santa Barbara and the realities of life in late 20th century post-Soviet Russia could hardly have been starker. When the last episode of the soap was aired in Russia a decade later (and a decade later than here), it left behind a country studded with homes and neighborhoods influenced by it along with a lingering nostalgia.

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First Must Come Understanding

I want to recommend an excellent essay by Alan Jay Levinovitz at Aeon on the decline of modern economics into mathematics:

The failure of the field to predict the 2008 crisis has also been well-documented. In 2003, for example, only five years before the Great Recession, the Nobel Laureate Robert E Lucas Jr told the American Economic Association that ‘macroeconomics […] has succeeded: its central problem of depression prevention has been solved’. Short-term predictions fair little better – in April 2014, for instance, a survey of 67 economists yielded 100 per cent consensus: interest rates would rise over the next six months. Instead, they fell. A lot.

Nonetheless, surveys indicate that economists see their discipline as ‘the most scientific of the social sciences’. What is the basis of this collective faith, shared by universities, presidents and billionaires? Shouldn’t successful and powerful people be the first to spot the exaggerated worth of a discipline, and the least likely to pay for it?

In the hypothetical worlds of rational markets, where much of economic theory is set, perhaps. But real-world history tells a different story, of mathematical models masquerading as science and a public eager to buy them, mistaking elegant equations for empirical accuracy.

Extra points for the uncited reference to John Maynard Keynes in the title of the essay: “The new astrology”.

Economics is a science of human behavior or it is nothing. Mathematical models should reflect a keen understanding of the underlying workings of whatever you’re trying to model. They aren’t a substitute for understanding. Mathematical notation does not produce rigor; it arises from rigor. Adam Smith and David Ricardo were great economists because they understood the human behaviors about which they wrote. Mathematical notation would not have made them better.

If you cannot explain your understanding in clear language, you do not have a clear understanding.


The World’s Turned Upside Down

Just as an earlier post today found a progressive writer horrified to learn that liberals weren’t liberals, the conservative think tank The Witherspoon Institute is shocked to find that “radical traditionalists” aren’t conservatives:

For many years now, the litmus test of an American conservative has been whether he or she is committed to limited, constitutional government and to the proposition of the Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Although much maligned and often misunderstood, this tradition serves a vital purpose in our republican government: it keeps conservatives united around a set of concrete political and philosophical goals that every layman can understand.

Strange to say, then, that conservatism is increasingly under assault, not from the Left, but from within. This attack is driven by false narratives that blame the Founders’ natural-law liberalism for today’s cultural and political decay. By contrast, the life and work of Frederick Douglass can serve as an alternative model for the conservative movement—a way of upholding natural-law liberalism, and yet remaining introspective about our nation’s origins and future.

I’ve been referring to these “radical traditionalists” for some time as “Right Bolsheviks”.

I think that both of these groups are romantics; their ideas are founded in highly glamorized visions of a wonderful future on the one hand and a glorious imagined past on the other.

I come back to G. K. Chesterton’s remark on the two kinds of reformers:

Let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’

Left or right there are fewer and fewer of the latter sort of reformer every day.


In the Lap of the Gods

I have become increasingly convinced that the future of health care delivery will probably be formed outside the United States. Too many people are making too much money here for anything to change. We will increasingly spend everything on pensions and health care until the Gods of the Copybook Headings catch up with us.


The Unholy Alliance

At Salon Conor Lynch has just noticed to his dismay that liberal interventionists have more in common with neoconservatives than they do with any other Americans:

Indeed, though he has divided the country, President Trump has been a great unifier of neoliberal Democrats and neoconservative Republicans, who have come to see Russian plots against America at every turn. Neocons like Max Boot, David Frum, Bret Stephens and Bill Kristol are among the top Republican hawks who have become liberal darlings in the Trump era. Frum, the former George W. Bush speechwriter and coiner of the infamous phrase “axis of evil,” has become many liberals’ favorite neocon pundit on social media, while Stephens — a prominent climate-change denier — was hired earlier this year as a full-time columnist for the ostensibly liberal New York Times editorial page (not surprisingly, the Times was forced to issue a correction for his debut column defending climate-change skepticism).

At the center of this alliance is not just a mutual antipathy for President Trump but a hostility towards Russia that recalls the paranoid years of the Cold War. Last week this hawkish alliance was made official when a new “bipartisan” group called Alliance for Securing Democracy was formed. This new advocacy group will be led by Laura Rosenberger, a former State Department official in the Obama administration, and Jamie Fly, a former national security adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio. Top Obama-era officials and Bush-era neocons will sit on the board of directors, including Clinton adviser Jake Sullivan, former ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul, Bush-era Homeland Security Secretary Mike Chertoff and none other than Bill Kristol, America’s leading chicken-hawk (who is known best for how wrong he has been in nearly all of his predictions).

Glenn Greenwald summed up this new Trump era alliance in a recent article on The Intercept, noting that “on the key foreign policy controversies, there is now little to no daylight between leading Democratic Party foreign policy gurus and the Bush-era neocons who had wallowed in disgrace following the debacle of Iraq and the broader abuses of the war on terror.”

The Democratic establishment’s apparent shift to the right on foreign policy, along with its newly formed alliance with Republican hawks, is part of an overall trend that reveals how out of touch the party elite have become with the base. Indeed, while leading Democrats have adopted a Cold Warrior mentality, the party’s base has actually shifted further to the left.

Even though I disagree with it I’m not going to quibble about his diction. The foundation of neoconservatism is in opportunistic Democrats who moved to the Republican Party as the Republican Party gained influence. Since then it has picked up some conservatives and Republican moderates.

If there’s one thing we should have learned over the period of the last 25 years, it is that liberal democratic societies cannot be created at the point of a gun. If we’ve learned two things, the second should be that not everyone wants a liberal democratic society.

Liberal interventionists and neoconservatives have a shared quality: they refuse to learn those two painfully obvious facts.

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Mending the ACA

Harvard prof Jason Furman presents his strategy for patching the Affordable Care Act in his op-ed in the Wall Street Journal:

The administration should ensure that insurance companies continue to be reimbursed for the cost-sharing subsidies they provide for households with incomes up to 250% of the federal poverty line, which is about $60,000 for a family of four. The president should also order his subordinates to continue enforcing the individual mandate and to avoid making large, abrupt changes to the marketplaces.

The “do no harm” principle extends beyond the individual market, where about 1 in 6 Americans get their health care, according to the Census Bureau. To cut cost growth and improve quality, the administration will have to use other tools—many of them bipartisan—that have been created by Congress in recent years. These include delivery-system reforms in Medicare, which shift to payment models that reimburse providers based on outcomes and quality rather than inputs and quantity. A Republican Congress under the leadership of Speaker John Boehner already expanded these reforms after they were originally passed as part of the Affordable Care Act. The “Cadillac tax,” which encourages insurance companies not to offer overly expensive care, should also stay. Neither of these policies requires congressional action. The administration simply has to implement the law as written.

I noticed that he did not mention the increase in the number of counties served by no carrier on the health care exchanges in his op-ed. I will take it on Dr. Furman’s authority that no “death spiral” is taking place. Nonetheless the number of counties served by no carriers or a single carrier is rising, as are premiums and deductibles. Clearly, something is happening.

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The Real Objective in Syria

The editors of the Wall Street Journal are more candid yet about their objectives in Syria:

Does the Trump Administration have a policy in Syria worth the name? If so it isn’t obvious, and its recent decisions suggest that the White House may be willing to accommodate the Russian and Iranian goal of propping up Bashar Assad for the long term.

Last week the Administration disclosed that it has stopped assisting the anti-Assad Sunni Arab fighters whom the CIA has trained, equipped and funded since 2013. U.S. Special Operations Command chief Gen. Raymond Thomas told the Aspen Security Forum Friday that the decision to pull the plug was “based on an assessment of the nature of the program and what we are trying to accomplish and the viability of it going forward.”

That might make sense if anyone knew what the U.S. is trying to accomplish beyond ousting Islamic State from Raqqa in northern Syria. In that fight the Pentagon has resisted Russia and Iran by arming the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces and shooting down the Syria aircraft threatening them. Mr. Trump also launched cruise missiles to punish Mr. Assad after the strongman used chemical weapons.

The muddle is what the U.S. wants in Syria after the looming defeat of Islamic State. On that score the Trump Administration seems to want to find some agreement with Russia to stabilize Syria even if that means entrenching Mr. Assad and the Russian and Iranian military presence.

The president does not have the authority to remove the Assad regime as its primary objective in Syria. That is true under President Trump and it was true under President Obama. It is well beyond the enormous scope of the ill-considered Authorization to Use Military Force. It is in direct contradiction to treaties to which the U. S. is signatory. It does not fall under the rubric of exigent circumstances.

If President Obama wanted to pursue that objective, he should have sought approval from the Congress for it. No president, Republican or Democrat, is a despot with unlimited power, even in the sphere in which the president has the most power, the role of commander-in-chief.


At War With Ourselves

The theme here today at The Glittering Eye seems to be our contradictory objectives. In his column at the Washington Post Robert Samuelson correctly points out how contradictory, even perverse, our goals with respect to health care are:

At a gut level, we know why health care defies logical discussion. We personalize it. We assume that what’s good for us as individuals is also good for society. Unfortunately, this is not always true. What we want as individuals (unlimited care) may not be good for the larger society (overspending on health care).\

Our goals are mutually inconsistent. We think that everyone should be covered by insurance for needed care; health care is a right. Doctors and patients should make medical choices, not meddlesome insurance companies or government bureaucrats; they might deny coverage as unneeded or unproven. Finally, soaring health spending should not squeeze wages or divert spending from important government programs.

The trouble is that, in practice, we can’t meet all these worthy goals. If everyone is covered for everything, spending will skyrocket. Controlling costs inevitably requires someone to say no. The inconsistencies are obvious and would exist even if we had a single-payer system.

Here’s the bottom line:

We are left with a system in which medical costs are highly concentrated with the sickest patients. (The top 5 percent account for half of all medical spending.) This creates a massive resource transfer, through insurance and taxes, from the young and middle-aged to the elderly. (Half of all health spending goes to those 55 and over, who represent just over one-quarter of the population).

And yet, we govern this massive health-care sector — representing roughly a third of federal spending and nearly a fifth of the entire economy — only haphazardly, because it responds to a baffling mixture of moral, economic and political imperatives. It will certainly strike future historians as curious that we tied our national fate to spending that is backward-looking, caring for people in their declining years, instead of spending that prepares us for the future.

That is emphatically not the case in the UK, France, or Germany. As I have previously documented here intergenerational health care spending is much more equal elsewhere than here. It’s almost as though the presence of the Medicare subsidy encourages more care than would otherwise be the case.

Here are Mr. Samuelson’s prescriptions:

We need a better allocation of burdens: higher eligibility ages for Social Security and Medicare; lower subsidies for affluent recipients; tougher restrictions on spending. But this future is impossible without a shift in public opinion that legitimizes imposing limits on health spending.

My preferred course would be slightly different. I would change the incentives that lead inexorably to more treatment. The expectations in the health care sector need to change.


The Missing Link

Here’s another op-ed with a single, crucial paragraph. In Josh Rogin’s Washington Post op-ed on U. S. policy with respect to Syria, here’s the paragraph:

Last week at the Aspen Security Forum, CIA Director Mike Pompeo laid out what he sees as U.S. interests in Syria. He said the United States has two principal enemies there, the Islamic State and Iran. In addition to stopping Iran from establishing a zone of control that spans the region, the U.S. goal is “providing the conditions to have a more stable Middle East to keep America safe.”

I guess it’s to be expected that a spy chief be less than candid. If those are the U. S. interests they could have been accomplished long ago if the U. S. had assisted the Assad regime rather than arming its adversaries. It seems to me that some goals are missing from that list.

Mr. Pompeo followed that up with this remarkable statement:

“We don’t have the same set of interests” in Syria as Russia, said Pompeo. What are the Russian goals in Syria? “They love a warm-water naval port and they love to stick it to America.”

There seems to be quite a bit missing from that statement as well. It’s all very puzzling. Isn’t it the case that if the U. S. hadn’t armed, trained, and supported Syrian rebels including Al Qaeda in Syria, the Syrian government wouldn’t have needed to summon outside help from Iran and Russia? Didn’t some of the arms we provided fall into DAESH’s hands?


Michael G. Vickers is more candid in his Washington Post op-ed:

Acquiescing to Assad remaining in power, and ending support for the Syrian moderate opposition, would strengthen our adversaries, further convince allies that the Trump administration places Russian interests above our own, enable Iran to consolidate strategic gains, increase the global jihadist threat to the United States — and make a stable Middle East that much harder to achieve.

Abandoning the goal of removing Assad from power will place the United States on the side of not only the barbaric Syrian regime, which has American blood on its hands dating to the early 1980s, but also Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. This is strategic folly.

I believe he has stated the sequence of events incorrectly and, consequently, got his causality reversed. The “Syrian moderate opposition” exists only in the imaginations of people inside the Beltway. The choices have always been between tolerating the truly reprehensible Assad regime and radical Islamist terrorism. We’re on the wrong side.

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The War in Afghanistan

To my eye the most vital paragraph in Laurel Miller’s New York Times op-ed on negotiating peace in Afghanistan is this one:

The Taliban is violently opposed to the United States military presence on Afghan soil but does not have aspirations beyond Afghanistan. A peace deal could allow the United States to focus its resources on threats from the region that are directed toward the homeland and core American interests.

I can’t help but wonder when Ms. Miller reached that conclusion. From 2013 to 2017 she served the Obama Administration and then the Trump Administration as special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Did she inform her superiors of that? Did she reach that conclusion only recently?

Hasn’t that always been the case? Didn’t the U. S. invade Afghanistan in the first place because although they had no aspirations of their own beyond Afghanistan, they played host to Al Qaeda which did? Isn’t it reasonable to believe that having expelled the foreign invaders from their borders, as they would undoubtedly see it, they would be willing to host Al Qaeda or DAESH again?

That has always been the problem with the war in Afghanistan. We can’t stay and we can’t leave.