Dreaming Castro

Peggy Noonan has a wonderful piece in today’s Wall Street Journal. It concludes with a dream:

A closing note: I always thought, life often being unfair, that Fidel Castro would die the death of a happy monster, old, in bed, a cigar jutting out from the pillows, a brandy on the bedside table. My dream the past few years was that this tranquil end would be disturbed by this scene: American tourists jumping up and down outside his window, snapping pictures on their smartphones. American tourists flooding the island, befriending his people, doing business with them, showing in their attitude and through a million conversations which system is, actually, preferable. Castro sees them through the window. He grits his teeth so hard the cigar snaps off. Money and sentiment defeat his life’s work. He leaves the world knowing that in history’s great game, he lost.

Open the doors, let America flood the zone and snap those pictures. “Fidel! Look this way!” Snap. Flash. Gone.

It is hard to imagine that so many find this dream to be a nightmare.

Thoughts on Cuba

The Obama administration’s decision to begin normalizing relations with Cuba has generated much praise and criticism. You can read the lead editorials in the New York Times and the Washington Post to get a flavor for the arguments, pro and con. On the right, the divisions between conservatives and libertarians have found a predictable expression. The editors of National Review are not happy. They conclude: “We fear that yesterday was a good day for the Castros and a bad day for the Cuban people, and for American foreign policy.” In contrast, Juan Carlos Hidalgo (Cato) strikes a much different tone: “The president’s move should be uncontroversial. U.S. policy toward Cuba has been a blatant failure. It has not brought about democracy to the island and instead provided Havana with an excuse to portray itself as the victim of U.S. aggression. It has also served as the scapegoat for the dilapidated state of Cuba’s economy.”

There is little to praise in Cuba.   It remains a dictatorship. On the World Freedom Index, it ranks 170. But China ranks 175 and is a far greater concern with respect to national security. Last year our exports to China were $121.7 billion and our imports from China were $440.5 billion. While progress has been slower in China than many would have hoped, there is much evidence that trade has positive implications with respect to property rights and political liberalization. Perhaps this will be the case in Cuba.

Even if one assumes for the sake of argument that the US policy toward Cuba made sense in the early 1960s, it is difficult to see precisely what justification one can find decades after the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Beyond the antiquated assumptions upon which the policy rests, there is little to suggest that our approach has been effective and much to suggest that it has been both counterproductive and costly.

Of course, in this there is little to separate our Cuba policy from so many other policies that remain firmly in place (e.g., agricultural subsidies, corporate welfare, the punitive war on drugs). Alas, there remains much work to be done.

Constitute.org is a useful website designed by political scientists to let researchers search for and compare constitutional texts on particular topics. Here for instance is a search on secession clauses. Although one of the site’s creators, Zachary Elkins, says that 22 states contemplate some process for state divorce, only three constitutions expressly authorize some part of the country to secede: Ethiopia, Liechtenstein, and St. Kitts and Nevis. Ethiopia lets each people or nationality secede by a supermajority vote of its legislature, Liechtenstein lets each commune secede (I believe this was an addition of the 2003 constitution), and St. Kitts and Nevis lets Nevis secede by a supermajority referendum vote.

In addition to these, Britain’s Northern Ireland Act of 1998 lets the majority of Northern Irelanders decide to join the Republic of Ireland, and the constitution of Uzbekistan lets Karakalpakstan secede with the consent of the Uzbekistan government.

It would be interesting to see how many states define themselves as “indivisible,” thus tying a government’s hands and preventing it from authorizing secession. A search on the term brings up some irrelevant cases, but 72 constitutions contain the term.

By the way, the Prince of Liechtenstein is a moderate libertarian, and their constitution is fairly consistent with the philosophy. Check out his book on the topic.

Last week we received the “good news” about the economy. Unsurprisingly, I was a bit skeptical (here). While jobs are being created—321,000 in November alone—long-term unemployment and workplace participation rates remain abysmal. For those who would like to celebrate the recovery, I recommend Binyamin Appelbaum piece on “The Vanishing Male Worker” (NYT). As Appelbaum notes:

Working, in America, is in decline. The share of prime-age men — those 25 to 54 years old — who are not working has more than tripled since the late 1960s, to 16 percent. More recently, since the turn of the century, the share of women without paying jobs has been rising, too. The United States, which had one of the highest employment rates among developed nations as recently as 2000, has fallen toward the bottom of the list.


Many men, in particular, have decided that low-wage work will not improve their lives, in part because deep changes in American society have made it easier for them to live without working. These changes include the availability of federal disability benefits; the decline of marriage, which means fewer men provide for children; and the rise of the Internet, which has reduced the isolation of unemployment.

Welcome to the “New Normal.”

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A Failed Policy

“The US government’s failure to ensure basic transparency and accountability in its torture policies, to provide necessary details about its enhanced interrogation program, or adequately to set out the legal factors involved in decisions to torture hinders necessary democratic debate about a key aspect of US foreign and national security policy. US practices may also facilitate recourse to lethal force around the globe by establishing dangerous precedents for other governments.” *

A failed policy! Consider its key features:

  • Congress and the President approved of the policy based on claims that it could keep the country safe
  • The bureaucrats—praised for their professionalism—adopted brutal techniques, with little regard for civil liberties or basic human rights.
  • Yet, there was little evidence of its effectiveness, despite claims of its supporters
  • Even when the facts were widely understood, no one was held accountable for the violence done to the victims

The details of the CIA’s use of torture are disturbing, without question. But the basic features—as presented above—could be used to describe so much of what the government does. It seems like a good description of our current drone policy and our decades long war on drugs.

I am pleased that President Obama has taken a strong stance against the use of torture. But let us not lose sight of the larger fact that he has also embraced the extensive use of drones, killing thousands, including civilians. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that between 2004 and 2014, there were 405 drone strikes in Pakistan alone, 354 of which were ordered by President Obama. The estimated body count: 2,400-3,888. The estimated civilian body count: 416-959. The estimated number of children killed: 168-204. By way of comparison, according to the Senate Select Committee report,  the CIA detained 119 individuals, 26 of whom were wrongfully detained.

Be rightfully horrified by the details of the CIA’s use of torture. The details are mind numbing. But we should be equally horrified by our drone policy that has killed and maimed thousands.

Read the Senate Select Committee report.

Read the Stanford/NYU report, Living Under Drones.

*By the way, the above quote was taken from the Stanford/NYU report, p. viii. Mentions of drone strikes were replaced with the words “torture” and “enhanced interrogation” The correct quote is:

“The US government’s failure to ensure basic transparency and accountability in its targeted killing policies, to provide necessary details about its targeted killing program, or adequately to set out the legal factors involved in decisions to strike hinders necessary democratic debate about a key aspect of US foreign and national security policy. US practices may also facilitate recourse to lethal force around the globe by establishing dangerous precedents for other governments.”

So the U.S. Senate report on CIA interrogation methods is out, and now we know that the CIA tortured detainees, including the use of violent rectal assault:
cia anal torture

Some of the detainees were terrorists; some were probably innocent. We’ll never know because they were never tried in a court of law:

innocent detainees tortured

Some neoconservative torture apologists oppose the release of the CIA report:

Others respond that the release of the report is essential to making sure the U.S. government never tortures again:

But here’s the thing: it will happen again. No one was ever punished for torturing detainees or giving orders to torture detainees. If you remove all penalties for murder, you don’t think the murder rate will go up? Simply exposing that “murder happens” isn’t going to change behavior in the long run.

If the U.S. government really wanted to keep itself from torturing innocent people again, it would expose and prosecute the individuals responsible.

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

There is great buzz over today’s jobs report. The economy added 321,000 jobs in November.

The New York Times:

“After more than five years of elusive gains, ordinary Americans may finally be about to see the benefits of the recovery where it really counts: in their pocketbooks and wallets. … For the year as a whole, the gain in jobs, with one month still to go, is shaping up as the best in 15 years.”

Washington Post:

November’s numbers cap the best three-month period of labor market expansion since the financial crisis… Some economists said that November’s data — across-the-board job creation, coupled with a slight uptick in wages — has put the American economy in its best position in years.”

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