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COGENT PROVOCATEUR:
free agent, loose cannon, pointy stick ... taking an imposing analytic toolkit out of the box, over the wall and into the street ... with callous disregard for accepted wisdom and standard English

reading tea leaves from original angles, we've led with uncannily prescient takes on the federal surplus, the dotcom crash, the "Energy Crisis", the Afghan campaign, the federal deficit.

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COGENT PROVOCATEUR Archives
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NOTE to READERS:
All "major" articles of older material have now been imported, some with updates worth perusing. We'll keep it all on the main page for a while, will add a few loose pieces of history, will trim the main page and index the archives for convenience later.


OUR DEPARTMENTS:

the COGENT PROVOCATEUR:
free agent, loose cannon, pointy stick ...
CAMP ENRON:
... gateway to the next Progressive Era?
Some say it's nothing but a train wreck ... roll in the big cranes, clear the track, see what the crew was smoking. If I thought so, I'd not be writing this ... and if they thought so, they'd not be drumming so hard.


OTHER GOOD STUFF:
Many thanks to Tony Adragna and Will Vehrs, still shouting 'cross the Potomac at QuasiPundit. Early Camp Enron material can be found in QP's Dispatches department.
Friday, May 24, 2002

 
--- What Did the Senator Ask ... and Why Did He Ask It? ---

"What did the President know ... and when did he know it?" For all who recall Watergate, this crystallizing question is etched in iconic memory. Often condensed as "What did he know, and when did he know it?", it's been trotted out at any number of subsequent history's lesser "gotcha" moments.

Of late, this question in this context has been met with howls of outrage, as an unthinkable accusation of Presidential complicity in the 9/11 attacks. Ironic, since "The Question" was originally framed as an abstract of Nixon's defense, not as an accusatory brief.

As vice-chair of the Senate Watergate Committee, Senator Howard Baker (R-TN) was expected to run interference for the President, observe the formalities, and help give the whole stinking mess a decent burial.
Baker had accepted the post with skepticism, later recalling that he saw the Watergate committee as "just a partisan caper by the Democrats. I didn't think it would get anywhere." ( Oakridger)
Baker's opening statement [1973-05-17] framed it a bit differently:
This is not in any way a partisan undertaking, but, rather, it is a bipartisan search for the unvarnished truth.
Yes, mistakes had been made ... campaign hotheads cooked up a rogue operation, and it got out of hand. Not unusual in politics. But now an alliance of political enemies (God knows, he has enemies), journalistic guttersnipes and disgruntled aides had Nixon entangled in a web of guilt by association.

The Question was engineered to take the sting out of testimony that could be damaging but inconclusive. A clarion call to reason, it would carve a clean separation between the festering predicament surrounding Nixon's men (how high up did it go, anyway?), and dispositive links to Nixon himself ... links that (presumably) would never be produced, because they (presumably) never existed, because Nixon (presumably) never dirtied his own hands by directing break-in's and coordinating cover-up's.

[Voices of Nixon & Co. can still be heard reassuring each other over Baker's ability to deflect this or that investigative thrust. Taping proceeded contemporaneous with the hearings until Alexander Butterfield disclosed the existence of an Oval Office recording system -- well after Baker first laid The Question on the table.]

Bartleby's dates the quotation to 1973-06-28, with Baker putting it to White House counsel John Dean: "The central question is simply put: What did the president know and when did he know it?" But the Senator had been rehearsing this line for weeks ... despite staff pressure to whip up something with a little more pizzazz. He uncorked it against a key witness widely thought to be acting out of inexplicable ulterior motives. A Democrat sleeper agent? A Soviet sleeper agent? Who knew?

It would be Dean's word against Nixon's. Dean was a nobody, and Nixon held the high ground. Dean himself only inferred Nixon's early involvment in the cover-up, not the broader network of crimes and conspiracies. The Question would set Dean's uncorroborated suspicions in context, and Nixon could go on being Nixon.

In the end, Baker's patient, persistent defense interrogatory "What did the President know ... and when did he know it?" would forge link after link in a chain of evidence that eventually sealed Nixon's fate.

Like committee counsel (and now Senator) Fred Thompson's line of questioning that led Butterfield to blurt out his awareness of the Nixon Tapes, The Question stands as a classic case in point of the lawyer's maxim "Never ask a question you don't know the answer to".

But The Question should be remembered first and foremost in light of its original context and intent ... as a rhetorical defense motif for a President who (presumably) had nothing to hide.



Tuesday, May 21, 2002

 
--- Foresight, Hindsight, Insight ---

In a universe of imperfect information, failure is not proof of error ... nor is success necessarily proof of correctness. [Also true in most universes of perfect information, for reasons that need not concern us here.]

Terrorism is not a strategic threat to the US. It wasn't on September 10, it wasn't on September 11, and it isn't today. Terrorists can harass us, they hurt us, they can cost us lives and fortunes, but they can't knock us over or turn us around.

Will Terrorism advance to the rank of strategic threat in the century to follow? Conceivably ... but it doesn't register on my 50-year spread of "Top Ten Threats to Our Way of Life". In fact, Microsoft could deal us more severe setbacks by accident than al Qaeda can on purpose.

Declaring War on Terrorism boosted the reward structure behind terrorist enterprises. So did crying too much about the last hit. So does our "with us or against us" posture. So does unilateralism. So does our out-of-hand rejection of "Moral Equivalence". So does our overwhelmingly successful projection of force in overt conflict. So does the evolving seamless global commercial culture. So would world peace, assuming we were in any serious danger of that.

But the foremost threat elevated by our response to Terrorism has almost nothing to do with Terrorism.



Saturday, May 18, 2002

 
--- Foofaraw Auditions ---

Public comment on the suddenly sudsy 9/11 intelligence review will be an early aptitude test for aspiring 2004 Democratic nominees for President and Vice President. You can't avoid comment and still claim leadership. You don't have time to think it all through, you can't wait to see how it comes out, and you can't appear evasive.

Whatever you do, you can't overplay it just for effect, and above all you can't cross the line ... only nobody (with the possible exception of Cynthia McKinney) knows where the line is yet.

You can be sober and circumspect. You can hedge and nuance, and even win points for that. Extra credit for chewy soundbites. Big bonus points for the defining remark that makes everybody think "okay, I never thought of it like that".

CP won't keep score ... plenty of volunteers for that, and whoever stumbles will have video clips thrown in their faces over and over and over.

But this is also an early aptitude test for aspiring 2004 GOP Vice Presidential nominees -- and Presidential nominees.

And yes, I did say exactly what you thought I just said.



Thursday, May 16, 2002

 
--- What Did We Know, and What Difference Does It Make? ---

In the days following 9/11, CP observed that dredging the intelligence backwaters would turn up any number of artifacts that we could read in retrospect to suggest "somebody knew -- or should have known" ... and that the same would be true of any number of catastrophes that didn't happen ... and that we shouldn't take too much of this too seriously. [UPDATE: Thanks to InstaPundit.com for digging out this 9/17 post to Slate Fray. I agree with Glenn, BTW, the excuse "we never thought of suicide hijackers using airplanes as bombs" is inexcusably lame. Mainstream press hasn't thrashed this one as much as it deserves, but they will ... so I won't. Could we have acted effectively on nonspecific information? We could have shifted the odds and/or lead the adversary to duck and reschedule. Does it matter now? Not all that much.]

There is no shortage of supportive conspiracy fodder, and no doubt GWB profited handsomely from the 9/11 "Trifecta", but Big Oil Theory and Wag the Dog Conspiracy muckrakers are raking over the wrong fields of muck.

Among questions that might more reasonably be asked ...

Why were committees of jurisdiction not informed earlier?
Intelligence and Judiciary Committees have been low key, patient and respectful ... but they can't very well ignore a vigilance failure of historic proportion ... and they certainly can't go along with Cheney's earlier intimation that probing too deeply would play into the hands of Evil Axers.

Knowing these connectible dots would surface eventually, why not throw 'em on the table before GWB's "rally 'round the flag" aura started to evaporate?

Did the Bush Administration brief congressional leaders differently, depending on party affiliation?
As with the executive continuity plans directly following 9/11, Republican and Democratic leaders give conflicting accounts of what they were given. Damning if true. A tad less damning if false.

Have GOP Congressional leaders misrepresented their states of knowledge? If so, why? Misguided attempts to provide cover for the White House? Why wouldn't the White House get out in front with clarifications?

On the third hand, differences could track back to simple misunderstandings, or misrecollections, or purposeful offorts to deny external foes a window into US security measures and state of knowledge.

Did institutional agendas keep CIA, FBI, NSC, etc., from connecting the available dots?
CP's spider-sense started tingling years ago, when the Clinton transition FileGate investigation revealed:
(1) Multiple agencies with topmost security missions (including FBI, Secret Service, and OPS) failed to connect the dots regarding each others' persons of interest.
(2) These same agencies failed to maintain the infrastructure (data definition, data exchange, database hygiene) necessary to connect such dots, assuming they wanted to.
(3) Agency brass were relatively less concerned about curing exploitable vulnerabilities, and relatively more concerned about deflecting public embarrassment.
(4) Agency brass, in sworn public congressional testimony, were very willing to misrepresent the diligence they had or had not exercised.

Did a decade of quixotic trophy-hunting divert precious national security bandwidth?
The FBI spent many times more agency resource trying to take down WJC (or lesser targets, such as Janet Reno) than they spent mousing out Osama bin Laden's local affiliates. Much of this was pursuant to court orders, congressional committees and special prosecutors. But some of it was pure uncontained native enthusiasm ... natural enmity for opposite-cultured public figures, the thrill of the hunt, apple-polishing for the Director, and/or the same twists of unappreciated genius that led Hanssen to take up the spy game.

You lay awake at night trying to think of unthinkables ... trying to connect the dots outside the box ... which trail of dots does your mind's eye reach for first? Mohammed's? Or McDougal's?

Did pipeline politics induce GWB to delay acting against al Qaeda?
The action package was on Bush's desk in late summer 2001 ... the same package he brushed up with bombastic rhetoric and green-lighted a few weeks later as the "War on Terrorism" ... an upgrade of a package left by the outgoing administration as a housewarming gift. There could have been any number of good reasons to keep it on ice, to take it under advisement, to send it back for revisions ... Powell's caution, the Iraq Hawks' strategic imperatives, cross-currents from Israel or India or Indonesia, even competing domestic agendas (again, the bandwidth problem). But there could also have been less savory reasons, or at least reasons that wouldn't harmonize with Ari's "that was then, this is now" all-purpose talking point. [UPDATE: NBC breaks the top secret National Security Decision Directive story ... not all that secret, though, was it?]

This may not be as exciting as the X Files version of 9/11 ... but it's a much more promising place to start digging.



Tuesday, May 14, 2002

 
--- Free Trade and Stolper's Whole Truth ---

If an economist was held to a quota of one brainchild per lifetime, the Stolper-Samuelson Theorem wouldn't be a bad pick. Young Wolfgang Stolper had a counterintuitive afterthought over 60 years ago. He checked it out with Paul Samuelson, and learned he'd hit the intellectual jackpot.

Using nothing more than standard competitive market theory, Stolper drew one non-controversial straight line, and then another. Their intersection determines an equilibrium point for factor prices in an island economy ("autarky"). Stolper then supposed a trading partner, drew another straight line, and ... can this be right?! Connect the dots ... relative scarcity changes ... product prices change ... factor prices changes ... factor allocation changes ... real income changes, and ... AAACK! Real income DROPS for a broad class of market participants, even as real output for the whole economy RISES.

Begin with two resourceful traders in an isolated trading "universe". Open the door to a third player, and net real wealth is created ... but one player or another might end up absolutely worse off (and even more severely disadvantaged in relative terms, as the neighbors move upscale). Start with two trading islands, allow a third island into the trading circle, and one whole island could end up worse off.

And there's nary a loose link in the entire construction, no meddling dead hand of government, no strained approximations or corner-case assumptions, no transaction costs, sunk costs or stranded assets. There's no escape from Stolper's result without rejecting the entire corpus of supply-demand market equilibrium economics. The idea that "trade is good for everybody" just doesn't hold water ... at least not in the realm of free-market economics. What are the implications?

Stolper decisively refutes the central marketarian shibboleth. Free trade creates winners and losers. Even in the most pristine libertarian SIM-world, opening a trade bridge can void the free-market consumer warranty of Pareto optimality (which proscribes making anyone better off by making others worse off). That's a big deal, because Pareto optimality is the definitional bedrock of all the market theology we absorbed in Econ 101 -- that free markets are good because they allocate resources "optimally".
Libertarian polemics and Stolper-Samuelson analysis rarely intersect. I say "rarely" only out of an abundance of reserve ... out of thousands of googled citations for Stolper, and tens of thousands for libertarian trade-theoretic watchwords, institutions and heroes, I have not found a single libertarian acknowledgement or critique of Stolper's Theorem.
Stolper also knocks the pins out from under a load of left/labor/Green trade dogma -- that trade is OK in theory, but only if both trading "islands" rise to similar labor and environmental standards (else it drives a "race to the bottom" ... a competition for lower standards). Sorry. Suppose, by fiat, we can decree all those protective standards. Large segments of one or both populations can end up on the losing end of the stick.

Stolper's result also casts a dark shadow over the usual tariff-based protections. Drawing similar lines on similar charts, and connecting similar dots, we see that tariffs can also indirectly reduce real incomes.

Incidentally, similar effects obtain when we relieve trade impediments within an economy ... when we add bridges or freeway lanes, or invent faster, cheaper ways to commute and communicate, or create recognizable national brands, or resolve regulatory differences between neighboring jurisdictions.

So what is Econ 101's good news about free trade? When a pre-existing trade barrier is removed, the combined economy -- Island A plus Island B -- can produce more of everything. In fact, Island A -- collectively -- can afford more of everything, and so can Island B -- collectively. That's happy news -- in general -- which sadly does not extend to every laborer or proprietor on every island. [In the USA, where capital is abundant, relative losers will tend to be the 98% of us whose lifetime incomes derive mainly from labor.]

When you hear the virtues of "free trade" debated in the public square, remember:
(1) Market fundamentalists either don't know what they're talking about, or don't think you can handle the truth.
(2) Classic protectionists guard their winnings at the expense of someone else's ... maybe yours.
(3) Third Way optimists deal with the subject without dealing with the hard issues, or they deal from another deck altogether -- playing the "creative destruction is inevitable, let's get over it" card.

There's a Fourth Way, too -- a Liberal dose of Socialism. Accept the aggregate (social) market economic benefit of trade, tax some of the resulting collective gain, spend that on general public goods and/or subsidies targeted specifically to trade-game losers.

That's where GWB comes down in his latest bid for Trade Promotion Authority, a.k.a. "Fast Track", with emphasis on "wage insurance" expenditures for affected workers. This won't win many admirers in many quarters, but it does contain a germ of a gem of enlightened trade policy.

For my part, I favor combinations of (3) and (4) ... though I have approximately zero confidence in GWB's ability to juggle the competing pieces.

Wolfgang Stolper, by the way, never hatched another big idea, and passed away earlier this year.

See Intl Econ Glossary for general exposition and related vocabulary, and IESC for a concise technical exposition.