Category Archives: Politics: International

Minor Note on the Moscow Embassy Expulsions

It pains me to blog anything that might be misunderstood as pro-Trump, especially in this moment of quite terrifying saber-rattling at North Korea, but I do feel compelled to note that Trump’s otherwise bizarre thank you note to his model (and perhaps master) Vladimir Putin (see Trump Praises Putin Instead of Critiquing Cuts to U.S. Embassy Staff) might in fact have, however accidentally, some connection to reality.

I was immediately reminded of Charlie Peters’s famous account 1982 of When Less is More:

I LIKE TO RECALL the time the Czechoslovak government got mad at our then-ambassador, Ellis O. Briggs, and ordered two-thirds of our embassy staff to return to the United States. Briggs found that the remaining third constituted the most efficient embassy he had ever known.

I had heard of a few similar cases: When Bill Keller and Ann Cooper compared the American embassies in Morocco and Mali for The Washington Monthly, they found the latter, at less than half the size of the former, more efficient. When the District of Columbia reduced its garbage collection crews from four men to three, the result was not less but greater productivity. Such examples are, however, difficult to uncover because they are not the sort of truth bureaucrats yearn for the public to know.

So I was delighted to hear recently that the Japanese Foreign Ministry, among the world’s most efficient, is exactly one-third the size of our State Department. Indeed, the entire Japanese government has but 506,000 employes. Thus a nation with a population half the size of ours manages to make do with a bureaucracy less than one-fifth our own.

There is a simple solution to the slot problem. It is consolidation of jobs. Combine the distribution director’s job, for example, with that of another employe who also really works only half-time. That way you still can eliminate one employe, but you’ll be doing it in a way that does not harm your organization.

When I was working at the Peace Crops in the mid-sixties, it became clear that the headquarters was succumbing to the usual Washington tendency toward overstaffing, and I was assigned to look into the problem. What I discovered was that for each of the 50 or so countries to which our volunteers were assigned, we had Washington officials who were called program officers, training officers and volunteer support officers. These people spent most of their day in meetings with or writing memos or talking on the phone to one another.

We could have saved the time involved in these communications and in the bureaucratic squabbling that accompanied them by turning the three jobs into one. My suggestion to do just that was opposed with considerable passion by almost everyone concerned. The argument was that each job involved a different kind of expertise. But the truth was that the necessary expertise, as in the case of so much administrative work, was acquired on the job.

Still, I lost the argument…

Don’t get me wrong, if I had to bet I would say Trump’s comment was motivated either by a businessman’s (and self-professed gamesmanship master’s) instinct to say that his rival’s effective counter-move in fact causes no pain, or maybe by a more generalized desire to make nice with Putin.  But facts are facts.

PS I am morally certain that the same bloat problem infects the modern university.

PPS It also reminds me of a great 1960s or 70s-era joke about the United Nations:

Supposedly the UN got concerned about all the American critiques of overmanning, so they hired management consultants to do a report about staffing needs in hopes of disproving them.  A team of consultants thus went floor-by-floor interviewing everyone at UN HQ about what they did, starting from the bottom and working their way up. When they got to the 30th floor, they found an office that was absolutely empty except for two suited employees sitting at two bare desks with nothing on the desks except phones.

“What are you doing?” one consultant asked they guy on the left.

“Nothing,” he replied.

“And what are you doing?” the consultant asked the guy on the right.

“Same as him,” replied the other.

The consultants duly noted “duplication of effort” in their report.

Posted in Korea, Trump | 1 Comment

In France the Center Didn’t Just Hold — It Crushed

Meanwhile, in France, President Macron’s new party, the LREM, crushed its rivals on both the right and left.

This picture is amazing:

Per the BBC:

Ahead in 400 constituencies out of the 577 that make up France’s National Assembly, the party is heading for a convincing majority far higher than the 289 seats needed to control parliament. That does not even take into account the 100-odd seats where Mr Macron’s centrist MoDem allies are in the lead.

His centrist alliance could control 415 to 455 seats after the second round on 18 June, experts predict.

And many of them are political novices, so this could get interesting.

Posted in Politics: International | Leave a comment

A Modest Proposal for an Afghan Exit Strategy

The papers say the US is spending $3.1 billion per month on the war in Afghanistan. And I’m sure that doesn’t count the long-term care costs for wounded soldiers after they get home.

At $37.2 billion per year our spending is about half the Afghani GDP at purchasing power parity – or, if you prefer, about double their GDP at the official exchange rate. The population of Afghanistan is about 33.3 million persons. So we are spending about $100 per Afghani per month; call it $1200 per Afghani per year.

The average income in Afghanistan has been estimated at US$ 1,883 I suspect this is a PPP number, and quite inflated. The Asia Foundation did a study which found that The average monthly income in households where women contribute to family earnings was 10,197 Afs (approximately USD $158). By comparison, in households where women do not contribute, the average monthly income was 10,851 Afs (approximately USD $168). (Study at p. 63.) Whatever the truth may be, I’m betting the US spends more in Afghanistan than the entire earnings of at least 98% of the population.

Are we getting our money’s worth? How, if our goal were to influence Afghanistan might we put that money to work in income support (bribes if you will), building things (nation-building if you will) and creating institutions designed to keep things modern and running after the subventions stop (imperialism if you must)? We could probably do worse than just give $500 per year to every Afghan woman for starters, and wait for the animal spirits of capitalism to explode.

Previously: A Modest Dinner-Party-Based Proposal For An Iraqi Exit Strategy (Sept 27, 2003) ($3000/year per Iraqi)

Posted in Econ & Money, Politics: International | 1 Comment

Pity the Fiction Writers

You cannot make this stuff up.

This is not a photoshop, but a genuine pix released by the Saudi Press Agency, memorializing the moment when Donald Trump joined Egyptian dictator Abdel Fatah al-Sisi and Saudi king Salman bin Abdulaziz at the opening of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology. Video, if you care.

Posted in Politics: International, Politics: Tinfoil, Trump | Leave a comment

The New Tilt Against China

Surely someone has noted by now that the first corollary of a putative Trump tilt towards Putin’s Russia is a tilt against China?  For just as Kissinger and Nixon opened relations with China as a counterweight to the USSR, so today is a tilt towards Russia a way to push against China.  In that context SecState nominee Rex Tillerson’s scary and bellicose words about denying China access to the islands it has built up in the South China Sea not only have a simple logic, they seem almost predictable.

If Vietnam gets a kind word, we’ll know for sure this is the strategy.

It is both crazy and not.  The South China sea situation is perhaps the nastiest and likeliest to blow flashpoint in the US political-diplomatic landscape, with only the perennial middle east giving it competition.  Yes, even Pakistan and North Korea are less scary right now.   So if you think think China is problem #1 — ie that Putin will be satisfied with Crimea, or in any case can be deterred from Poland and the Baltic states, then allying with Russia to leash China might seem to make crude sense.  Doubly so if you are thinking trade war.

If, that is, you are trigger happy.

Time to ratchet up the worry meter to ….

Posted in Politics: International | Leave a comment

The Most Disturbing News Article of the Week?

And it isn’t even directly about Donald Trump. Or then again maybe it is.

Across numerous countries, including Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States, the percentage of people who say it is “essential” to live in a democracy has plummeted, and it is especially low among younger generations.

— Amanda Taub, How Stable Are Democracies? ‘Warning Signs Are Flashing Red’

This graph says it all:

xxint-essential-democracy-jumbo

Posted in Civil Liberties, Politics: International | 2 Comments