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We are not only safer than we think, we are safer than we have ever been, say Micah Zenko and Michael A. Cohen.

The world that the United States inhabits today is a remarkably safe and secure place. It is a world with fewer violent conflicts and greater political freedom than at virtually any other point in human history. All over the world, people enjoy longer life expectancy and greater economic opportunity than ever before. The United States faces no plausible existential threats, no great-power rival, and no near-term competition for the role of global hegemon. The U.S. military is the world’s most powerful, and even in the middle of a sustained downturn, the U.S. economy remains among one of the world’s most vibrant and adaptive. Although the United States faces a host of international challenges, they pose little risk to the overwhelming majority of American citizens and can be managed with existing diplomatic, economic, and, to a much lesser extent, military tools.
This reality is barely reflected in U.S. national security strategy or in American foreign policy debates.

By exaggerating threats, we overemphasize the need for defense spending. It’s a dynamic we saw during the Cold War though there, Zenko and Cohen say, the threat was genuine if overhyped. Here, they argue, it’s nearly nonexistent.

Zenko and Cohen also say, “Such hair-trigger responsiveness is rarely replicated outside the realm of national security, even when the government confronts problems that cause Americans far more harm than any foreign threat.” I don’t know about this. What about inflation- and deficit-hawkery?

Anyway, the takeaway is not only that we are a nation of cowards, but that we are a nation of cowards shooting ourselves in the feet.

Indeed, the most lamentable cost of unceasing threat exaggeration and a focus on military force is that the main global challenges facing the United States today are poorly resourced and given far less atten- tion than “sexier” problems, such as war and terrorism. These include climate change, pandemic diseases, global economic instability, and transnational criminal networks—all of which could serve as catalysts to severe and direct challenges to U.S. security interests. But these concerns are less visceral than alleged threats from terrorism and rogue nuclear states. They require long-term planning and occasionally painful solutions, and they are not constantly hyped by well-financed interest groups. As a result, they are given short shrift in national security discourse and policymaking.

Which is to say, Zenko and Cohen write, we should stop going nuts over the one percent (or less) threats and concentrate on the 99 percent. Which is a nice translation of the Occupy rhetoric to foreign policy.


Glad this clown is gone.  Is it new to claim that stalking and harassment is protected by the First Amendment?  Sneaky penumbrellas.


Douthat gets some pushback on his earlier post concerning assimilation.   His argument was simply that he thinks that bigotry can be justified because it, like procedural liberalism, helps immigrants assimilate.  It looks bad when you state it like that without running it through the pomposity generator, so he’s stepped back a bit.  He wants to draw a distinction between ugly bigotry and positive nativist sentiment, but he concedes that such a distinction is fuzzy and in practice hard to draw, and because he thinks the alternative is European-style assimilation, where no one says anything politically incorrect and immigrants fail to assimilate, better to err on the side of nativist sentiment, which he admits is going to be occasionally indistinguishable from bigotry.

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Will Wilkinson presents what can be described fairly as a non-xenophobic argument for the repeal of the fourteenth Amendment.  He paints a reasonably attractive vision of an economically unified Canada, America, and Mexico, where workers could move about freely, but who would have access to social services and other goodies based on their citizenship.  In such a world, he concludes, it would be very important for other political reasons that citizenship be tied to more than mere perinatal location, and so birthright citizenship would need to be replaced by something else, and he suggests that the various laws employed by various European nations might be good alternatives.  After all, giving someone special rights just because they were born somewhere is the height of moral luck, and hardly cosmopolitan.  Thus, we should work to repeal the 14th Amendment, on liberal cosmopolitan grounds.

What follows is a long way of saying that I think his proposal is seriously deluded.

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In a recent article in The Nation, Jon Wiener of UC Irvine writes about historians who have worked as expert witnesses or researchers on behalf of Big Tobacco. It’s an interesting piece, I think, not least because it suggests that souls don’t come cheap the expert-witnessing business is lucrative: Kenneth Ludmerer, a historian of medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, apparently made more than $500,000 working for tobacco companies. That’s real money!

But there’s a catch (there always is, right?): it’s a contentious business. Ludmerer and other scholars who have worked on Big Tobacco’s side during litigation claim that they’ve been harassed because of their efforts. Ludmerer asks:

Where is civility in this country? These ad hominem attacks are injurious. I had coronary artery bypass surgery in 2005. I’m sure a lot of the disease came from tension from the comments people made about my testimony. I’ve never done anything other than serve the public interest.

Ludmerer then insists that he can have his cake and it too although he worked for the tobacco industry, he really hoped the corporations would lose. So “why”, Wiener asks, “did he testify for the industry?” Because Ludmerer “considered it honorable to stand up for doing history properly.” Heroic!

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Five?  Five??  Five?!?!? As in, I spent more on a bagel and coffee this morning five the hell what now??



The cry for security theatre, once more, with feeling continues.  From the Atlantic piece:

The minute Abdulmutallab’s father walked into a U.S. Embassy with news that his son was a potential terrorist, the official in charge was duty-bound to see this through. Every scrap of paper and every byte of data on the suspect should have been called up and frozen. That’s why we have embassies. When the information was passed to the first special agent at the CIA, he or she was duty bound to see it through. When the information was passed to the first administrator at the National Counterterrorism Center, he or she, too, was duty bound to see it to the end.

Everyone who read the name “Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab” prior to December 25, 2009 should be reprimanded and fired.

Much has been made of the fact that Abdulmutallab’s father, in a modern Euthyphro dilemma, informed on his own son.  What has been made has generally taken one of two forms:  jokes about how hard it must be for a Nigerian banker to get his proposals taken seriously FOR OUR MUTUAL BENEFIT, and incredulity that when the man was turning in his son we didn’t immediately arrest the young man or at least put him on the no-fly list or revoke his visa.

The second form is an understandable reaction (his son!), but a moment’s reflection on our recent adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq should show the intelligent observer the perils of concluding that someone is a terrorist based on the say-so of a relative, colleague, or acquaintance.   If I recall, this is now one of the many lingering problems because it turns out that when you detain and torture someone based on the say-so of an informant, chances are that person is innocent, and your best case scenario is now hoping you didn’t radicalize a formerly innocent person who now has plenty of reason to hate you.

Now, obviously, no one’s suggested that Abdulmutallab should have been hauled off and tortured, but the point really needs to be made that just because someone says another person is a terrorist doesn’t necessarily mean that they are, and it’s a good thing if the United States doesn’t act like that.   That it was his father who informed on him is fascinating, but not proof of anything particularly.*

All that aside, there’s an interesting puzzle here that’s being overlooked.

Let’s treat the proposition someone is a terrorist as a proposition for which we can gather evidence that warrants belief that the proposition is true.   Let’s treat all the evidence that we can gather — parental informants, ties to radical imams, patterns of study, religion, country of origin, one way ticket, lack of checked luggage** — like a test, and let’s stipulate further that we have a very reliable terrorist test.  If we present the test with the profiles of 100 terrorists, it will correctly identify 99 of them as terrorists.   1% slip through. For simplicity’s sake, it also misidentifies, 1% of the time, an innocent person as a terrorist.

Now suppose a person about whom nothing is known comes to the attention of the powers that be, and they administer the test, and it’s positive for terrorism.

What is the chance that the person really is a terrorist?  Formulate your answer and then follow the jump.

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Via Leiter, an article on why philosophy lags behind the other humanities’ disciplines in gender parity.   Overall, the discipline is about 75% male, and so it’s quite possible to be the only woman in one’s cohort (or one’s program) or department.  This gives philosophy a reputation as a  bit of a boys’ club, and it’s not one that’s entirely undeserved. Let me riff.

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Here’s another edition of “there is in fact good and nontrivial scholarship in modern historical journals” (we need a catchier name for this series; previously: 1, 2). Today’s installment addresses the question implicit in this post title: how wild was the West?


Randolph A. Roth, “Guns, Murder, and Probability: How Can We Decide Which Figures to Trust?” Reviews in American History 35, no. 2 (2007): 165-175. Accessed 8/20/09, here.


Was homicide really more common in the American West than elsewhere? How can we know?

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Ferdie Pacheco, “The Lector Reads to Women Cigar Workers” (Detail)

Today brings another installment of “there is too interesting and nontrivial scholarship in today’s scholarly history journals,” this one drawn from the flagship journal of US history. The article touches on two of my favorite topics. One, I’ll grant, is a favorite for purely sentimental reasons: my native heath. The other, though, is of long-standing scholarly interest to this blog: the New Deal.


Elna C. Green, “Relief from Relief: The Tampa Sewing-Room Strike of 1937 and the Right to Welfare,” Journal of American History 95, no. 4 (March 2009). Accessed July 7, 2009, here.


How did WPA workers think of themselves—as workers, or as recipients of welfare? How did their employer, the state, see them in return?
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