Mexico’s New President and the War on Drugs

Mexico elected a new president last week, Enrique Pena Nieto. Mexico is the most important bilateral relationship to the United States, but Mexico’s politics and economics receive less attention from the American people and in the American press than it should — so blog about it I will!

Nieto recently did a sit-down interview after his victory in which he says he wants to tweak Calderon’s anti-drug strategy, but mainly stay the course. He cites the success of Colombia and — like so many in Latin America, the United States, and Europe — he sees the dogged persistence and strategies of President Uribe in Colombia as cause for inspiration.

But exporting the Colombia strategy to the rest of Latin America has been tried and hasn’t worked. Washington Monthly in January published a good piece on Mexico, Colombia, Uribe, Plan Colombia and why Colombia’s war on drugs strategy has failed in Mexico. One excerpt:

At a very basic level, Colombia circa 2002 faced a very different set of problems than what Mexico faces today—and Uribe’s “democratic security” strategy was tailored to the former. Drug trafficking was linked to an armed insurgency that, however corrupted over the years, still rested on an ideology and concrete political goals. FARC and the paramilitaries both cared about territory for its own sake. Mexican cartels, on the other hand, are less bothered by symbolic gains and are happy to operate near or even within state institutions.

The very natures of the two states are different as well. “Colombia had never been in control of its territory, so the real challenge was to assert state authority for the first time,” explains Shannon O’Neil of the Council on Foreign Relations. “In Mexico, that’s not the problem. The government has a presence in every small municipality; the question is, who do they report to? It’s a very different challenge; Mexico’s challenge is corruption.”

Before we can draw lessons from something else, we have to make sure it’s actually analogous. Colombia and Mexico are both countries. They both have drug traffiking problems (which of course are fueled in part by the insatiable American demand for those drugs). But it’s still apples to oranges with respect to how the countries deal with the problem.

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Bret Stephens, who’s smart and, I should say, very funny in person, says in his most recent column that we shouldn’t forget the enormous strides Mexico has made to becoming a stable democracy–the fact that we don’t talk about it shows how far they’ve come.

What’s Driving Class Bifurcation?

On the economic and cultural gap between the so-called “Whole Foods people” (which has become a class in itself) and “Wal-Mart people”:

The vectors driving American class bifurcation are fundamental: the decline in demand for low-skilled labor, the rise in earning power and independence of women, the desire of people with talent and education to marry each other and socialize together. None of these things is likely to change, or even necessarily should change. Unless we abolish farm machinery and factory automation, good low-skilled jobs are never coming back. Women are not going to renounce their economic and social freedom. Yale-educated moms are not often going to marry high-school-educated dads.

Notice, too, how the vectors intersect with and reinforce each other. Low earnings and poor job prospects make men less marriageable, so women enter the work force without marrying, making work more optional for men and men more optional for women. More kids are thus born to single moms, who tend to wind up poor, disadvantaging the kids. Meanwhile, the very fact of not marrying reduces men’s earnings, so the less men marry the less they earn, and the less they earn the less they marry. As all the little gears and wheels turn, lower-class neighborhoods grow more disorganized and isolated. Wash, rinse, repeat.

That’s from Jonathan Rauch’s informative and eloquent review of Charles Murray’s latest book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010.

Other sentences from the review:

…marriage and family structure have surpassed race in determining socioeconomic standing. (If you are an unborn baby choosing parents and you want to avoid poverty, you should pick married black parents over unmarried white ones.)…

In my view (shaped by living and working in Britain), the overriding fact about Europe’s social systems and norms is their similarity to America’s, not their differentness; Europhobia, in my view, is one of modern conservatism’s more curious and unattractive tics.

U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East and China

Two recent foreign policy articles are worth reading; they’re especially interesting when compared to each other.

Mark Helprin’s sobering essay in the Claremont Review of Books is titled The Central Proposition. It’s about American foreign policy as it relates to the utopian Bush/Obama vision of the Middle East. It opens:

For a decade, the central proposition in America’s foreign relations has been that it is possible to transform one or another Islamic nation and indeed the Arab Middle East or the entire Islamic world. We have apportioned a crippling share of our resources and attention to this project. We have tried force, diplomacy, aid, propaganda, confession, persuasion, apology, personality, and hope. And as one approach fails it is supplanted by or combined with another, the recipe depending upon who happens to be in the White House.

Helprin gives intellectual/historical credence to what many Americans are feeling on an emotional level: a desire to pull back, to restrain ourselves, to give up on democratization projects, to be less interventionist even when there’s humanitarian aims.

But isn’t democracy and the desire for freedom universal and shouldn’t powerful countries enable that?

To succeed, a paradigm of “invade, reconstruct, and transform,” requires the decisive defeat, disarmament, and political isolation of the enemy; the demoralization of its population; the destruction of its political ethos; and the presence, at the end of hostilities, of overwhelming force. In Iraq and Afghanistan none of these conditions was fulfilled, the opposite impression flowing mainly from our contacts predominantly with an expressive, Western-educated elite, and from our failure to understand that despite the universal human desire for freedom, equity, safety, honor, and prosperity, the operational definitions of each of these objectives can vary so much as to render the quality of universality meaningless.

Helprin ends his piece saying that as we’ve been bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, China continues to rise as America’s most challenging long term foreign policy issue.

Which leads to Robert Kaplan’s fascinating profile of John Mearsheimer in the latest Atlantic. It’s an overview of the man, his ideas, how his “muscular” foreign policy beliefs compare and contrast to other thinkers. And it’s about his conviction that the smartest foreign policy minds and the bulk of the Pentagon budget should be focused on China, not the Middle East. (Kaplan spends ample time on Mearsheimer on Israel, so I won’t rehash those qualifications/disclaimers here.)

I found it broadly educational, but I wanted to point out two minor quotes/sentences somewhat unrelated to the thesis of the article:

“Offensive realism,” he writes in Tragedy, “is like a powerful flashlight in a dark room”: it cannot explain every action throughout hundreds of years of history, but he exhaustively goes through that history to demonstrate just how much it does explain.

I like the flashlight metaphor as a clever way of saying “despite a few exceptions, it’s mostly right.” Also this:

As Huntington once told his protégé Fareed Zakaria: “If you tell people the world is complicated, you’re not doing your job as a social scientist. They already know it’s complicated. Your job is to distill it, simplify it, and give them a sense of what is the single [cause], or what are the couple of powerful causes that explain this powerful phenomenon.”

That’s the job of a lot of leaders, isn’t it? Take complexity and simplify it, then explain it, then assign causes, and finally propose action for dealing with it.

Book Notes: Launching the Innovation Renaissance

AlextAlex Taborrok’s Launching the Innovation Renaissance is full of common sense about how to promote innovation in America. Unlike so much “innovation” literature that is disconnected from policy realities, Taborrok offers specific policy observations on patents, immigration, education, and more. He also offers helpful ways to think about themes like the rise of China. At two hours tops to read and a $2.99 price point for the e-book, it is an easy way to be brush up on some of the straightforward ways to accelerate innovation in a country.

My highlights from the book:

After hundreds of years of experience, there is surprisingly little evidence that patents actually do promote the progress of science and the useful arts.

Imitation is not as easy as it appears even with an exact recipe. What is true about recipes and the French Laundry is also true about innovation in general. It takes effort and time to imitate a product even when the formula is known.

The major vice of a prize fund is that it replaces a decentralized process for rewarding innovation with a political process.

“Sit down, stay quiet, and absorb. Do this for 12 to 16 years,” we tell students, “and all will be well.” Most of them, however, crash before they reach the end of the road — some drop out of high school and then more drop out of college. Who can blame them? Sit-down learning is not for everyone, perhaps not even for most people. There are many roads to knowledge.
How many visas are allocated to people of extraordinary ability from China, a country of over 1 billion people? 2,803. The same number as are allocated to Greenland.
Should Bill Gates get prostate cancer, his billions will get him a private room and a personal physician, but they won’t do much to extend his lifespan beyond that of a middle-class man with the same disease.
The United States benefits not just from more idea creators in China, India and the rest of the world but also from more idea consumers. Recall the problem of rare diseases. People with a rare disease are doubly unlucky: They have a disease and only a few people with whom to share the costs of developing a cure. Misery loves company because company can help pay for research and development. Misery especially loves rich company. I wish ill on no man, but if I get a rare disease, I do hope that Bill Gates gets the same one.
I see two views of humanity. In the first view, people are stomachs. More people mean more eaters and less for everyone else. In the second view, people are brains. More brains mean more ideas and more for everyone else. The two different perspectives are not just a matter of ideology or mood. We can look for evidence for or against these views.