June 29, 2005
Bureaucracy Versus Modernity, in China and the rest of the Third World
Bureaucracy exists to prevent surprises; that's why bureaucracy doesn't cooperate with economic growth. One of the world's most interesting riddles is how China, the world-historical champion of big fat bureaucracies, ended up with a government that's comparatively lean and mean and growth-friendly where the governments of India and most of Latin America and Africa are complex and bloated and growth-hindering.
There's little evidence that Chinese officials are less corrupt compared to other developing-country officials, and in fact in many Chinese provinces it seems you can't get any business done without paying off the local Communist Party boss. The difference is that China doing business in China requires fewer officials to be placated, evaded or bribed. Buy off the party boss, and you can get down to business without any more legal niceties. Indian business visitors to China sometimes cite this "what the party boss says, goes" authoritarian environment as a feature that's very convenient for business, but very creepy to Indian (and Western) mindsets of individual rights and business regulation. China's "one-stop shopping" approach to bribing the local government seems to be a sordid but significant part of what makes China an attractive place to develop new business. And it's new business investment, more than anything, that's driven China's economic growth.
But all this leaves me wondering at the underlying question: how did China, of all places, end up with less bureaucracy than India, Peru, and Nigeria?
June 28, 2005
Monopoly Breeds Barriers, Barriers Breed Piracy
Historically, piracy tended to happen as a way of breaking monopolies -- in the 1500s, English ships raided Spanish treasures from the Carribean and Indies precisely when they weren't allowed to trade for them. Fast forward to the 21st century, and the only thing that's changed is the stuff that's pirated: it's still all about breaking past monopolies.
Kevin Drum asks why it's unreasonable for Hollywood film companies to ask to be paid for the work they sponsor. After all, films are expensive, and a world where everyone's a pirate is a world where no one can afford to make a good film. Piracy, in other words, gets in the way of filmmakers getting paid for their work.
What Kevin misses is that sometimes it's film companies themselves who get in the way of filmmakers getting paid for their work. Piracy gets its spur because of the accurate intuition that consumers are getting screwed over by the media companies' market power, in ways that no musician or artist or director benefits from.
The big players in the film industry act as a monopoly cartel, and like all monopolies they're lazy, and Hollywood's laziness shows up, among other things, in us viewers not being able to legally buy the films we want. Sometimes that just means inconvenience: you have to go to a video store to rent a DVD instead of downloading it. Sometimes that means you can't get the movie at all: there's a lot of Japanese anime that's never been legally translated, and so if I want to watch it with English subtitles, I can't pay for it legally -- it's download or nothing. Sometimes it's a matter of price: there are some films I'd pay full price to watch, and others I'd pay quarter-price -- but right now there is no "quarter-price" option. I miss out on those "deep discount" movies -- but the moviemakers, too, miss out on the money they could have got me to pay for them.
Movies, like all information goods, ideally should be available to everyone on customized terms. Ideally you'd have full price and lots of selection for the fans, cut-rate offers of a few things to tempt people who wouldn't normally watch "that sort of thing," and everywhere in between. You can convince yourself that the movie-matinee-DVD-rental system of today clumsily fits that description. But you could make TV and film a lot easier and more convenient (and more tailored, and bigger-selling) with online distribution. But flexible online distribution calls for more innovative nimbleness than the big film industry companies have. So instead of finding ways to make it easier for us to pay for and watch more of what we like -- the iPod approach -- the big companies spend their time making it harder for anyone to get their movies in any but the most traditional ways -- the iLock approach.
If we really had to choose between two worlds, one of infinite piracy and one of zero piracy, then of course zero piracy is what it would have to be. But that's ignoring the reason piracy is so popular in the first place: Hollywood's habitual pose of seeing new technology as a threat to old marketing, instead of as a new opportunity to sell more people more stuff than ever before.
The future we should be aiming for is one in which watching TV or movies is as personal and easy as buying songs off iTunes or Rhapsody. The future we should be aiming for is one in which any musician or filmmaker can put out their work for sale all over the world, with no more up-front cost or commitment beyond what it took to record the song or film in the first place. That future doesn't look the same as a world of pirated downloads. But it's a lot closer to today's pirated-media world than it is to today's Hollywood models.
The 21st century could be a golden age for content creators. It should be a golden age for content creators. Piracy is part of the problem. But so is Hollywood. If you want me to be sympathetic to the film industry on the piracy subject, show me some companies thinking more about iPod, and less about iLock.
June 22, 2005
In China, the Best Elections Money Can Buy
The Washington Post reports on how in one Chinese village the Communist Party candidate nakedly bought and bribed votes to win the village election. At first glance that sounds like familiar bad news -- corrupt elections in China, how predictable, what a shame! But a closer look at the article shows up several points that say real democracy in China may be closer than we think.
Number one, the Communist Party candidate had to buy his votes, and couldn't just order or declare himself a victory. Even American elections were often bought during the corresponding period of early American industrialization -- just look up the stories of Tammany Hall. Number two, the Communist candidate victory followed repeated Communist defeats, in which the other candidate won and held office, just like in a real democracy. Number three, the vote-buying in the village was noticed and condemned not just locally, but by officials from higher levels of government in the Ministry of Civil Affairs.
All this points to a big Number Four: however weak China may be in democratic practice, the idea of democracy is very strong in today's China. In the words of the rival candidate for village leader on his various successes against the Party:
"They could not stop it," Zhang said. "Everyone knows the power of democracy."
Remarks like that tell us something about China's future. At the end of the Cold War, Russia flirted with democracy and free markets before turning back under Putin to old-fashioned dictatorship, while countries like Poland and Hungary have become basically successful capitalist democracies. A big part of the difference is that ordinary Russians had very little living memory of democracy or free markets, while many Eastern Europeans had a lot more "buried experience" of democracy and market economics. China today is openly a market economy ruled by Communist oligarchs. But below the surface, there's growing experience in and enormous respect for democracy. That suggests that if and when a crisis shakes the Communist dictatorship, the answer won't be chaos -- it'll be elections.
It may not even take a big crisis to turn China democratic. Zeng Qinghong, Jiang Zemin's sometime hatchet man and arguably the second most powerful person in today's China, has a record of pushing for experiments with "inner party democracy," that is, holding free elections for more of the positions within the Communist Party. Even though the Communists' dictatorship seems secure, the value of democracy has been idealized more thoroughly in Chinese politics than in almost any other of the planet's remaining dictatorships. Right now, China has few free elections above the village level. Yet today's Chinese people have more mental commitment to the ideals of democracy than most people in Russia -- or Iraq. It's not certain, but it's possible that democracy will steadily filter up through Chinese government until the country is truly democratic -- without anyone ever declaring a revolution.
June 21, 2005
The Face of Future War: Brainy Missiles Versus Tiny Guns
Guns and missiles are trading their historic roles on the battlefield. It used to be that attackers relied for their breakthroughs on masses of big guns, whether the particular guns were used for the naval broadsides of 18th-century sea combat, the artillery barrages of World War I, or the tank spearheads of World War II. Meanwhile, the first serious military rockets and missiles got their value as a handy tactical defense against an attacker's superior guns, as when Egyptian Sagger antitank missiles surprised and blunted the assaults of Israeli armored forces in the 1973 October War. But these days, most heavy attack missions are being taken over by big and brainy missiles. And on the tactical defense, it looks like our best new tools are very, very small guns.
In naval warfare, guns are already well out of the picture, with the last American battleships scheduled for retirement. The last major use of battleships was for naval bombardment of enemies on land; now, cruise missiles do that mission so well that it's possible to argue that even aircraft carriers should be replaced by missile barges. The same passage to missiles is now happening in land warfare. The new Crusader tube artillery system got canceled as not useful enough for the cost, even as the artillery's Multiple Rocket Launcher Sytem is getting a GPS-guided upgrade. The newest infantry weapon is a long-ranged smart grenade launcher that comes as close as you can get to pocket-sized missiles without putting little rockets in every rifleman's backpack. And what about tanks? The most powerful tank gun isn't a gun anymore, it's a missile: the LOSAT (Line Of Sight Anti-Tank) missile, which can approximately be described as a sharpened telephone pole with a rocket engine on the back. It's fired out of a Humvee-mounted tube as sort of a hypermodern ballista, and it goes through even our own Abrams tanks like, well, a rocket-propelled spear through butter. The guns we still have are very useful, but the writing is on the wall: all the new big guns aren't. Aren't guns, that is. They're missiles.
Meanwhile, the new trend in defense is not to settle for shooting your enemy, but also to shoot your enemy's shells, rockets or missiles before they can hit you. And how do we do shoot down enemy projectiles? Why, with guns! Robotically-aimed guns firing tiny bullets will shoot down the enemy's explosive before it can hit you! It sounds very Rube Goldberg, and it arguably is very Rube Goldberg, but it seems to work. We're now protecting tanks from RPGs with tiny grenade launchers; we're protecting troops from enemy artillery with a robotic Gatling Gun nicknamed R2-D2; and the Army hopes eventually to be able to protect Future Combat Systems units with Active Protection Systems that can fire an intercepting explosively formed projectile to neutralize an incoming enemy tank shell in flight. Everywhere you turn, the innovations in weapons for the tactical defense aren't missiles anymore: they're guns.
The hidden story here is that combat is being changed by precision. Guns are good when you have to fire lots of shots to hit the enemy. Missiles are better when the enemy's easy to aim at and the important thing is to make each shot count. Precision guidance has meant that any land vehicle is easy to aim at (unless your electronics are spoofed, which is another discussion), which leads to missiles on the offense. But that same precision now makes it possible -- for computers, at least -- to begin to aim at the missiles themselves in flight. It's still damn hard to aim at a flying rocket; you'd like multiple chances to scratch the target. That's why ballistic missile defense (where you only get one or two shots) is so difficult, and why outside of knocking out incoming nukes, you don't see anyone even trying "to hit a missile with a missile." But technology really has come to the point where you can sometimes hit a missile with a bullet.
We're gettng closer to a tactical future where the fundamental "soldier" in high-intensity battle is the missile or unmanned drone itself, and the humans who launch them are just the terrain the missiles are fighting each other to conquer. But the irony is that even as "real" war becomes less human than ever before, more and more of America's real wars are very human, personal, low-tech affairs, where our ability to train police is more important to victory than our ability to blow up enemy tank shells in midflight. Because we're so good at high-tech war that only a desperate fool would oppose us, we instead end up in low-tech wars, in countries that have been made so miserable that they're just full of desperate fools.
The irony shouldn't really surprise us. You can logically prove that no matter how good you are at war, nonetheless your wars will never be predictable. After all, no rational person fights wars where the outcome is a predictable loss. So if you get into a war, either the outcome isn't predictable, or at least one side isn't rational. And if one side is irrational, then even if the outcome is a foregone conclusion, the way irrational people fight their way to defeat is anything but predictable. You can take your pick which of these options -- or all of them -- is on display today in Iraq.
June 17, 2005
China Condemns Millions of Americans to Die From Bird Flu
...I'm not happy with the CCP today: it turns out that they've made the Asian bird flu virus resistant to the best antiviral drug we would have relied on to tame the next outbreak of avian-based flu in humans. They ignored the advice of the World Health Organization and had farmers drug their chickens with antivirals instead of vaccinating them. In effect, they evolved the virus strains for drug resistance. Now the antiviral is useless against the bird flu -- useless not just to poultry, but to humans.
When the bird flu epidemic comes, we'll have to use the second-best drug. Millions in the developing world may not be able to afford any drug (this one was the cheapest), and will no doubt pass on the flu to more victims, possibly more American victims.
Thank you so much, China! Such wonderful brilliance could only be brought to the world by the insightful, open-minded, selfless men of the Chinese Communist Party.
If the EU and the USA were in the habit of cooperating on China issues instead of undermining each other, we could teach China a lesson about not endangering the world community.
But we won't. China will get away with having done something that has endangered millions of lives. Congratulations to the almighty CCP!
June 14, 2005
In Iraq, Watch the Militias, not the Insurgents
Today we learn that Kurdish security forces are snatching up ethnic enemies (Arabs and Turkmen) off the streets of Kirkuk. This follows up earlier accusations that the Shiites' Badr Brigades have killed prominent Sunnis. This is the real story to watch in Iraq, folks. Not the insurgency, not the daily death toll of Americans -- watch the militias.
We've talked before about the power of paramilitary militias to save or ruin a country facing insurgency. If the Kurdish and Shiite militias really do turn into "ethnic cleansing" forces, then Iraq is headed for a hell that makes the past two years seem like a walk in the park.
Now, if the militias could be corralled to protect the government without targeting ordinary civilians, then the insurgents would to be totally outnumbered without any American troops required. But at the moment, that looks too optimistic. Iraq will have to rely on the Iraqi official government troops. And for all their defects, the new Iraqi soldiers seem to be doing a tolerably good job in places like the mean streets of Baghdad.
As far as Iraqi soldiers go, Thomas Friedman writes today that "training is overrated" when it comes to Iraqi pro-government forces: motivation matters, he says, not training. As usual for Friedman, that's half brilliant and half idiotic. The idiotic half of that: training doesn't matter? Training itself creates confidence and motivation -- ask any United States Marine fresh out of the Crucible. Training also multiplies the impact of motivation: our soldiers from Delta Force and the Ranger Regiment in Mogadishu in 1993 killed about fifty enemy militia for every American death, despite being cut off and surrounded by plenty of well-motivated Somali militamen with largely comparable equipment (although the Somalis' body armor was "human shields", not Kevlar): training, by itself, made the Americans fifty times stronger man for man.
But Friedman is right about this much: if any substantial number of ordinary Sunnis could be motivated to fight for this government the way that the Shiites and Kurds are fighting for (their piece of) it, the insurgency would be over. That's actually what's happened in Afghanistan: most of the Pashtuns (the former Taliban recruitment base) have been sold on the new government being better than the Taliban. That's not true in Iraq. Most of the Sunnis can't trust the new government to be better than Saddam Hussein.
That's a pretty lousy thing to have to admit.
So, what now? Praktike is right that we have to dismiss Daalder's false choice between "do exactly what we're doing right now" and "set up an excuse to pull out." The Administration has, unfortunately, handled post-Saddam Iraq awkwardly from the start, and there's still a lot of things we should be doing differently in Iraq.
Number one, we need to bribe the Sunnis. By any means possible. If we have any especially clueful reconstruction contractors, we ought to concentrate them in some particular Sunni city and prove, by example, that the new regime can deliver a better life for Sunnis than the old one. If we could actually get a few Sunni sheiks to raise a militia that would fight against rather than with the insurgency, that'd be wonderful -- for propaganda to fellow Sunnis as much as for anti-insurgent value. Literal bribes would help, too. Saddam's government ran as much on handouts to local leaders as on fear and terror. It's too late for us to be shy. If boxes of cash in Fallujah and Ramadi can get a whispering campaign going against the insurgency, then we should deploy boxes of cash in Fallujah and Ramadi. If they need good jobs in Anbar province, let's just go ahead and give every town council in al-Anbar authority to hire ten thousand Iraqis on America's payroll for whatever job the town suggests. It doesn't matter how we do it: bribe the Sunnis.
Number two, we still need to put more energy and more creativity into the training of Iraqi government forces. You can find plenty of sources to warn about slow progress, but slow progress is a lot better than no progress. Even if only one out of three units trained is immediately ready to fight, the cost of training Iraqis is far lower than the cost of fighting with Americans.
Number three, if the goal is to reduce American casualties, we can, at some risk to Iraq's long-term outcome, pull Americans back from independent patrols, and restrict American involvement to training, co-patrolling and reinforcing Iraqi government troops. America's most important role in Iraq has never been as a police force, but as a "stand-over" force to keep the Iraqi government forces honest. That doesn't actually require American troops to patrol Iraqi streets -- although Iraq won't get better until someone competent is patrolling most Iraqi streets.
And above all, number four: don't let the militias start ethnic cleansing.
[E1] See also Belgravia Dispatch for some considerations on how to make Iraq's government more attractive to the Sunnis, or more worth defending for the Shiites and Kurds.
[E2] Mudville OPL.
June 13, 2005
Do We Cure Wars with Democracy or with Alliances?
Ikenberry at TPMCafe complains that the President is trusting too much in the peace-making power of democracy and not investing enough in developing new pro-American international institutions. The cute answer is that governments find it easy to turn down American institutional proposals, but find it harder to turn down democracy.
But where do modern wars and terrorism really come from? Do leaders really turn to violence to win concessions from foreigners? Or do they fight foreigners to make themselves seem strong and effective in the eyes of their fellow citizens?
If wars are about practical international issues, then Ikenberry has a point: countries and movements will stay at peace if the international climate makes war seem expensive and unnecessary. Good international alliance/ dispute-resolution organizations make peace more practical than war. A world of lots of alliances and organizations makes aggression expensive (you may have to fight lots of countries at once) but also because they make war seem less necessary (you can get lots of "concessions" by peaceful means). You could argue that both the World Trade Organization and NATO probably have prevented wars just by existing. When it comes to preventing "practical" wars, the degree of democracy underpinning governments probably matters less than the quality of communications and agreements between governments.
But if wars and terrorism come out of domestic politics, then all the international agreements in the world won't help, because the leaders are looking for a fight whether or not it's useful for their country. Iran's mullahs don't agitate against Israel because they think they'd win an Iranian-Israeli war, but because it proves how manly and Islamic they are. Promoting war against Israel gives Iranian leaders political legitimacy they badly need, even if an actual war would be ruinous for their country. Likewise, Osama bin Laden never depended that much on the United States, the "far enemy," giving him what he wanted; his big concern was starting a political uproar in his home kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Warmongers whose goal is domestic politics can't be deterred by the international climate, because they aren't out to influence foreign governments nearly so much as their fellow citizens.
Democracy, on the other hand, is a tolerably good cure for "political warmongers." In a working democracy, even a successful war will only keep you in office a little while longer, while a losing war will get you thrown out. And if you're not in office, forming a political party is a much easier way to get your voice heard than going out and blowing up foreigners. Democracies' internal terrorists have either been mere branch outposts of foreign organizations (like the Soviet-backed Red Brigades of Cold War Italy, or the European Al-Qaeda cells of today), or fringe cult groups with more tabloid impact than real power (like the Weathermen in the USA, or Aum Shirikyo in Japan).
We'd like both, of course -- both a peaceful, "institutionalized" international climate, and as many countries as possible being working democracies. But in the context of the War on Terror, it's hard to blame the Bush Administration for focusing on promoting democracy. With the possible exception of the Palestinians trying to bomb their way to independence from Israel, most terrorist groups today are political, not practical. When terrorism is rooted in domestic politics, democracy is a better answer than international institutions.
June 11, 2005
Latest Anime Recommendations
Dan Nexon reminds me that our master plan for world domination needs to include converting that other Daniel to the cause of anime. The rest of you should probably watch more anime, too. So...
First, if you've never watched any anime (Japanese animation), go buy or rent the first disc of Cowboy Bebop, a brilliant noir series about bounty hunters getting up to hijinks in a sci-fi universe. It'll blow away any ideas you have about cartoons being only for boredom and children.
My own favorites in anime remain the three series that have given me perfect blends of action, setting, character and drama: The Vision of Escaflowne, Angelic Layer and Full Metal Alchemist. But new stuff I've enjoyed recently includes:
- Scrapped Princess -- fantasy-yet-scifi about a girl destined to destroy the world; very good storytelling.
- Samurai Champloo -- a stylish yet silly sendup of / homage to samurai action stories.
- Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex -- cyberpunk future stories with a mix of action, intrigue, and, occasionally, neat little touches of philosophy.
- Last Exile -- a one-of-a-kind science fiction saga about an airplane-flying message courier in a steam-age world at war.
If you like really pretty images of really nasty sex and violence, you should check out Speed Grapher, a Japanese mob-plus-voodoo story. And Den Beste, who got me to try the marvelous Angelic Layer, thinks the world of circus-girl series Kaleido Star. That's next on my list.
June 10, 2005
We Could Have Had Turkey
The Duck of Minerva is another international-relations blog that you IR fans should be reading, especially since one of its writers is Daniel Nexon, and we all know that the best foreign policy bloggers are always named Daniel, right? Anyway, Daniel-not-Drezner-not-Starr-but-Nexon observes a few weak points in a recent post from yet another good new IR blog, the foreign-affairs blog at TPMCafe, which features various accredited folk dishing out a steady supply of thoughtful if melancholy commentary on our President's foreign policy.
Basically I agree with Mr.Nexon's point: the "unilateralism" charge is harder to make convincing than a lot of people (including Mr.Daalder at TPMCafe) seem to think. On the other hand, I will happily pick a nit with my fellow Daniel on what happened between America and Turkey in the runup to our war in Iraq.
Daniel Nexon suggests that Turkey, like France and Germany, may have been determined all along to not cooperate with America on Iraq. But I think Turkey's cooperation was a winnable bit of diplomacy, and the Bush Administration has to take the blame for not getting Turkish cooperation.
Turkey, incidentally, has been one of the few recent cases where an American diplomatic failure cost us an obvious painful price. Because Turkey wouldn't let our troops pass through into northern Iraq, we took much longer to get heavy forces into the Sunni Triangle. By the time we did, Saddam's friends had gone to ground. Secretary Rumsfeld has declared that failure gave a key early boost to today's insurgency.
So, was Turkey winnable? You can never prove "what would have happened." But we know four things that should make us strongly suspect that a more diplomatic Administration could have gotten Turkish approval to pass troops through.
First, Turkish Islamists had strong reasons to want credit for seeing Iraqi Muslims free of Saddam Hussein, while Turkish nationalists had strong reasons to want to give Turkey leverage to veto any would-be Kurdish state. Turkey could not simply stand by and be uninvolved the way "Old Europe" could. Turkey stood to lose much more than France and Germany if the Iraq war happened without it and was a big American success.
Second, the Iraq war was no more unpopular among Turks than our war in Kosovo was among Greeks. And America was less popular in Greece than in Turkey. Yet during Clinton's Administration, the Greeks were persuaded to sign on to Kosovo.
Third, America never brought out the diplomatic heavy hitters for Turkey: no Cabinet official visited during the months of negotiation, and Bush himself had never been to Turkey at all. In the prior Administration, Clinton visited Turkey in person, more than once. So it's fair to say the Bush Administration left a lot of personal-prestige ammunition unused.
Fourth and most importantly, the key Turkish parliamentary vote was extraordinarily close. A 4-vote shift out of over 500 present members would have given approval for troop passage. Are we supposed to believe that better salesmanship couldn't have gotten us even one percent more?
You can always find a way to blame any cause you like (divine humor, Muslim solidarity, the French, Bill Clinton) for why the past happened one way and not another. But by far the simplest explanation of our failure to get Turkish cooperation on Iraq is that this Administration made mistakes in its diplomacy with Turkey.
But let me finish by more or less siding with Mr.Nexon and arguing with Mr.Daalder again: I think unilateralism is a straw man. The problem isn't our unilateral goals, it's our clumsy and hasty negotiating approach that knocks us into unilateral outcomes. President Reagan went after plenty of things that allied populations or else allied leaders didn't like in the least -- putting intermediate-range nuclear missiles on West German soil, skirmishing with Libya, pushing South Korea and the Philippines' dictators toward democracy. But Reagan's team was only rarely blindsided by lack of allied cooperation: either we got them to go along with us or we knew not to try in the first place. Yet Bush's team keeps publically backing projects only to be rejected by surprise. See, for example, our latest South American democracy-promotion initiative, going down in smoke.
If we were going it alone because we knew we had to, that might just be an educated choice. But when we can't even see the rejections coming, that tells us that Bush's diplomatic team is simply less competent than Reagan's.
Which is a pity, because our goals today -- democracy promotion, antiterrorism cooperation, antiproliferation -- require a lot more sustained diplomacy than Reagan's.
June 09, 2005
"Swarming" Tactics: Brought to You by Iraqis, Mongols, and RAND
There's an excellent new RAND-sponsored dissertation by Sean Edwards on "swarming" tactics. These are the "come out of seemingly nowhere, tear 'em to pieces from an unfair position, and disappear" tactics used against clueless medieval Europeans by Mongols in the 1200s, against American infantry by Iraqis today (and, more famously, by Somalis against our troops in Mogadishu in 1993), and against Russians by Chechens in Grozny. It's the favorite current approach of improvised enemy forces defending against Americans and other industrialized armies, which already makes it interesting. But more than that, "swarming" quite possibly represents the tactics of choice we ourselves will use ten years from now.
If you're a military-analysis geek, go read it for yourself. (Or a military history geek: he has a great list of cases of historical swarm tactics in the appendices.)
I want to read over it again first, but in a couple days I'll put up a short summary of Edwards' excellent look at the history of swarm tactics, plus what thoughts I can offer you on the really interesting angle of swarming: where it's going next, both for our enemies and for us.
[E1] Mudville OPL.
June 06, 2005
Science to the Rescue: Vaccines for Ebola and Marburg
The New Scientist passes on a report of successful vaccines for Ebola and Marburg, two of the scariest diseases on the planet. See also this report and an NYT article. The scientists have tested it in monkeys, and they expect success in humans:
"The data would suggest that instead of 100 percent chance of dying, they would have an 80 percent chance of survival," Jones told reporters.
It's almost impossible to express how horrible these viruses are. Ebola and Marburg each convert "virtually every part of the body into a digested slime of virus particles". Along the way, whatever part of you isn't virus slime bleeds: your skin itself pours out your blood through its pores, and finally you die. And anybody who touches your blood-dripping body gets infected. And everybody who gets infected, dies.
There's no cure. And, until now, no immunity. Just a 90 to 100 percent of dying, once you get it.
Everybody's nightmare has been an airborne (instead of just contact-borne) strain of Ebola or Marburg, with deaths in the millions. (And not just in Africa; if one infected person got on an airplane to America or Europe, it'd be epidemic time for us all.)
But now, there's a vaccine, at least one that works for monkeys (our close cousins, and I trust close enough for the vaccine to carry over, although that's not guaranteed). The vaccine was developed by genetically altering another, less dangerous, virus so that it expressed some of the distinctive proteins of Ebola or Marburg, giving the body a "fingerprint" matching the deadly viruses for the immune system to watch out for. If the vaccine carries over to humans, two of our worst nightmares will vanish off the charts, thanks to a few scientists (and their government funding!) in Canada, France and the United States.
I love the twenty-first century.
June 02, 2005
Now I Believe Our Military Really Is Overstretched
They're cutting flying time for Air Force pilots. That's flying time, as in "training time," as in "make sure our pilots can do their job and help our guys and not get killed time."
That's pretty damn serious.
What the heck is going on with our budget process?
No Crisis + No Confidence = No European Constitution
Here in America, our first "constitution," the Articles of Confederation, was a miserable botch. The United States Constitution as we know it only took hold because the AoC system was so bad. Even then it took nine of the thirteen colonies being ready to unite and leave the others behind for everybody to sign on to the Constitution.
So it's not surprising that the French and Dutch population have turned down the constitution that would have pulled them so much closer to the "United States of Europe". Unlike in 1700's America, Europeans today have no great crisis requiring them to act as one. What's more, the European leaders who were selling the EU constitution were already national failures. France, Germany and several other European countries are suffering from low economic growth and miserably high unemployment, plus a looming pension crisis that makes America's Social Security reform debate seem like pocket change. If France's leaders can't handle France's economy, why should the French, much less the Dutch, trust France's leaders with a rewrite of the whole system of government?
Democracy's dirty little secret is that we mostly judge leaders' proposals by our confidence in the leaders. There are plenty of Republicans who will support any policy President Bush backs simply because they trust him, and plenty of Democrats who have vowed never to trust anything Bush suggests, no matter how reasonable it sounds. A booming France would have supported the EU Constitution; this France, troubled, struggling, did not.
But while it's fun to see the "let's make trouble for America" French leaders fail, we shouldn't gloat over the failure of the European Constitution. On most global issues, a united Europe would make a better partner for the United States.
Outside Japan, the Europeans are the only other really powerful group of believers in peace and democracy. We could get a lot more out of China, Iran, North Korea and the rest if the Europeans had the unity to put real pressure of their own on those countries. And while France and Germany as individual countries are never going to take over our burden of being "the world's policeman," a united Europe would be a lot more likely to step in and put out some of the brushfires that we don't have time for.
I don't have much good to say about the European Constitution that just got rejected, or the European politicians whose failure led to that voter rejection. But if a united Europe is the price of getting Europeans to take a bigger role in keeping peace in the world, then sooner or later, a united Europe will be in America's interest.