Archive for June, 2010

I’ve been playing around this morning in the FY 2011 Budget, Historical Tables. This is obviously a sign of my poor mental state and general lack of a life, but I can’t help myself. I keep hearing people say that military spending has been cut, or will soon be cut, or is “near historic lows“.

I hear this, and I’m quite sure that it is incorrect, but sometimes the historian in me decides to actually check the facts.

Enclosed below is what I’ve found.

National Defense outlays, 1998 – 2011
  Nominal Real (FY 2005) % of GDP
1998 $268.1 $346.1 3.1
1999 $274.7 $347.6 3.0
2000 $294.3 $361.3 3.0
2001 $304.0 $363.1 3.0
2002 $348.4 $401.7 3.3
2003 $404.7 $444.6 3.7
2004 $455.0 $480.3 3.9
2005 $495.3 $495.3 4.0
2006 $521.8 $499.3 3.9
2007 $551.0 $509.2 4.0
2008 $616.0 $548.6 4.3
2009 $661.0 $580.2 4.6
2010 (est.) $719.1 $626.0 4.9
2011 (est.) $749.7 $644.0 4.9
Change in real spending, 1998 - 2011 86%
Source: The Budget for Fiscal Year 2011, Historical Tables, Table 6-1 — Composition of Outlays: 1940-2015, pp. 131-132

Now, I ask the reader: how does any one of the columns in this table show a decline in “national defense” spending? 

I understand that statistics can be manipulated, and facts are stubborn things, etc., but hopefully I’ve provided a small public service by actually looking at the tables, and republishing the results here.


Bonus question #1: When the federal government speaks of “national defense”, which “nation(s)” are we defending?

Bonus question #2 (for those who think that the answer to #1 is obvious): Why does the United States have a Department of Defense and a Department of Homeland Security? In any other country, this would be redundant.

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Rand Paul, that is:

“Bathroom Bill” passes New York Assembly

The New York Senate and Assembly introduced a bill known as the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) or what many refer to as the “Bathroom Bill.” Senator Duane (D – Manhattan) introduced S2406 in the State Senate, and Assemblyman Gottfried (D – Manhattan) introduced the Assembly version, A5710. The Senate did not move their bill in this legislative session. It awaits action in the Senate Investigations and Government Operations Committee.

The bill defines gender identity or expression as having, or perceived as having, a gender identity, self image, appearance, behavior or expression, whether or not that gender identity, self image, appearance, behavior expression is different from that traditionally associated with the sex assigned to that person at birth. In other words, one’s gender is whatever you feel it is at the present time.

This legislation amends the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act by adding gender identity or expression to that act. If this bill becomes law, one cannot be discriminated against in housing, employment, public accommodations or any other areas of life, because of their perceived gender identity or expression there of. If passed, it would become part of the New York State Hate Crimes Law, which increases penalties when someone covered under hate crimes is the victim of a crime.

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The comedian Michael Feldman wrote a funny and informative piece this week in the NY Times on the raw milk controversy in Wisconsin.  Many small dairy farmers are clamoring for legislation making it easier to sell raw milk.  Interest group politics infuse this issue, but the underlying ideology is the point of this post.

Raw milk is part of the larger raw foods movement afoot in the land.  And the raw foods movement is part of an even larger ideological movement that I call “natural is better” (NIB).   NIB has followers across the population and appeals to people of varying educational levels and social classes.  Although many advocates of NIB are normal folks just interested in being healthy and happy, I argue that the underlying sentiments that animate this movement are strongly anti-capitalist, anti-modernist, and anti-scientific.

From an evolutionary perspective, there is a certain (naïve) logic to NIB ideology.   Because evolution happens very slowly and modern technology developed very rapidly, our bodies are adapted to live in a very different environment than the one in which we now reside.   Thus, if we want to live the life our natural history intended for us, we should consume natural products.  However, from a strict naturalistic perspective, everything in the universe is natural; thus a beaver dam is not substantively different from a DuPont chemical factory.  Since everything is natural, everything produced by natural things must also be natural.  NIB, therefore, is not as much a naturalistic ideology as it is a highly reactionary one.  To adopt an NIB view is to say two things that are hard to reconcile: first, that nature is best; second, that humankind  is somehow outside of (and inferior) to nature.

The raw milk people claim that pasteurization kills all the “healthy bacteria” present in milk.  They do not want to talk about the unhealthy bacteria.  Unfortunately, the healthy bacteria advocates frequently overstate evidence for these supposed benefits and minimize the risks.  Scientists at the CDC summarize the evidence as follows:  “There are no health benefits from drinking raw milk that cannot be obtained from drinking pasteurized milk that is free of disease-causing bacteria. Drinking pasteurized milk has never been found to be the cause of any disease, allergy, or developmental or behavioral problem.”  (See here for more.)

This raw milk movement should give pause to anyone with even a passing familiarity with public health history.  For decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, public health reformers fought against farmers, transporters, retailers and public ignorance to clean up the milk supply in this country (pasteurization was the most important part of this effort, but by no means the only component).  Most historians of public health view clean milk as one of the primary causes of the dramatic reductions in infant and child mortality that occurred in the early 20th century (and one, incidentally, that would likely not have occurred without the hand of government).   When you think about raw milk, instead of imagining healthy bacteria doing magical work in your intestines, you should think about the following:  Brucella, Campylobacter, Listeria, Mycobacterium bovis, Salmonella, Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, Shigella, Streptococcus pyogenes, and Yersinia enterocolitica—dangerous bacteria that can be present in unpasteurized milk products today.  While it is true that even without pasteurization, milk production is vastly cleaner and safer than it was in the 19th century, significant risks from raw milk persist, especially to infants and small children.  Giving raw milk to an infant or toddler is a form of child abuse.

Another realm in which we see NIB affecting daily life is in the area of so-called “natural childbirth.”  Most of my own children were delivered by midwives (at hospitals), so I’m not opposed to midwifery or trying to make the birthing process simple and as non-medical  as possible.   Nature prepares women and infants very well to go through the traumatic ordeal of childbirth.   Mother Nature knows her stuff!

But let’s poke a little deeper into natural childbirth.  One of the things that truly natural childbirth means is a maternal mortality rate (MMR) of about 1 in 100 births.  That is a reasonable estimate of maternal mortality in the United States before modern medical advances of the 20th century.  Several developing countries have MMR today even higher than that (between 1-2 maternal deaths per 100 live births).  Contrast this with the MMR of the U.S. today, which is a little more than 1 in 10,000 births.  In other words, natural childbirth is about 100 times more risky to the mother than modern childbirth.  It is also vastly more risky to the infant.   As long as the birth happens in close proximity to a modern operating room with a trained medical staff,  I say let these natural birthers scream their lungs out, deliver their babies underwater, eat as many silly herbs as they want, and do whatever hocus pocus they learn on the internet.  But what is spooky is the trend towards at-home births, with the idea that being at home is preferred to a medical delivery because “nature knows best.”

We live in a world where modern, educated women are choosing to have their babies at home, feed their children unpasteurized milk and then fail to get them immunized against potentially fatal diseases because a bimbo like Jenny McCarthy has convinced them that immunizations cause autism (They Don’t!).   A common consequence of NIB as it plays out in society is that it can lead unwitting individuals to believe ridiculous things that, ironically, could not be further removed from true nature.  I believe in letting people live their lives, but I also believe the State has some role to play in protecting children.   How to craft policy in this area is one of the great challenges of our day.

This is the first of what will hopefully by several posts on NIB – where it comes from, how it manifests itself, what the implications are, how it shapes our politics, and what the State role is, and possibly other questions of importance.  I look forward to reader feedback.

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See here.

This column is not going to end up in the journalism Hall of Fame (the “Big Shaggy” thing is pretty lame), but Brooks does make one decent point here about the value of the humanities:

It’s probably dangerous to enter exclusively into this realm and risk being caught in a cloister, removed from the market and its accountability. But doesn’t it make sense to spend some time in the company of these languages — learning to feel different emotions, rehearsing different passions, experiencing different sacred rituals and learning to see in different ways?

And given that Thomas Friedman, Bob Herbert, Frank Rich, and Maureen Dowd still write columns for the New York Times, one decent point puts him one up on the competition and might be all we can hope for from the opinion page of our paper of record.

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I’ve been reading a backlog of material today related to the abrupt departure of former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, and the equally dramatic, but arguably more significant, exit of long-time DPJ power broker Ichiro Ozawa. One of the best articles that I’ve seen was published late last week at Slate.

Daniel Sneider, the associate director for research at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford, and a former foreign correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, explains:

This marks the first time a Japanese government has fallen over U.S.-Japan security issues since Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi was forced to step down in the wake of massive demonstrations against the conservative government’s decision to ram through the passage of a revised security treaty in 1960. Currently, the Japanese public blames Hatoyama and the DPJ for mismanaging the alliance. It is a narrative that the Japanese mass media has been pounding away at for months, and there is some truth to it. But eventually, if not immediately, the Japanese public is likely to notice that the nation’s principal ally, the United States, was intimately involved in, if not directly responsible for, the downfall of the Japanese prime minister.

Many months ago, I worried out loud about whether too much pressure by Washington on Hatoyama would undermine his government to the point of collapse. According to Sneider, that was the point all along.

It all becomes clearer in retrospect. For months, the conventional line in Washington has been that the DPJ was ill-prepared to lead Japan. A perennial opposition party, the DPJ didn’t understand how to govern. A few foreign policy wonks held out hope that they would get their act together, but others seem to have been plotting Hatoyama’s demise from the beginning.

Why would this be? Hatoyama rode a wave of voters discontent against the sclerotic LDP to victory; foreign policy was only a small part of that wider campaign. To the extent that it factored in the final result, however, Hatoyama’s suggestion that the LDP had grown too cozy with the United States fit well within his broader critique of the LDP — namely, that it had lost touch with the Japanese people.

Did Hatoyama’s ascendancy confirm that narrative? Do a majority of Japanese, or even a growing number of Japanese, now question the value of a strategic relationship that has prevailed for at least 50 years? If so, might Washington have to revisit the basic strategic bargain, beginning with a renegotiation of where, or even whether, U.S. troops would be stationed on Japanese soil?

The Obama administration made clear, beginning with a visit by Robert Gates in October, and reiterated by Hillary Clinton in January, that such questions would not even be tolerated. The deal negotiated with the previous government concerning bases on Okinawa would not be changed, irrespective of Hatoyama’s promises during the campaign. It was almost as though elections don’t matter.

There was a deeper subtext for Washington that went well beyond the dispute over the U.S. military presence. If Hatoyama was able to hold onto power, might that be a taken as a sign by others elsewhere in the region, or the world, that bucking the United States is a winning political strategy?

Not willing to take that chance, the Obama administration set out to make an example of Hatoyama. They held the line, refusing to negotiate, and squeezing the prime minister against his promise to Japanese voters to do so. The Obama team gambled that Hatoyama would be replaced by someone better. And they and other defenders of the status quo defined “better” as meaning “someone who will do what Washington says.”

The dominant theory within the Beltway concerning Hatoyama’s political prospects portrayed him as a mere anomaly. His election didn’t portend a deepening dissatisfaction over the U.S.-Japan relationship, and sooner or later, the truth would emerge. Japanese had grown both comfortable and dependent under the U.S. security umbrella, and they weren’t going to let partisan politics or the complaints of environmentalists and querulous Okinawans to upset the applecart.

Hatoyama’s ignominious exit seems to be confirm this theory. I’m not so sure. Mischaracterizing the sentiments expressed by foreign populations, or dismissing their concerns as irrelevant, is risky business for the United States, a country that prefers to rule the world by consent.

I’m even less confident in the corollary: that the path to long-term political viability (in Japan, or anywhere else) is to stay on the right side of the United States.

Sneider concludes:

Eventually, after their anger and disappointment with Hatoyama fades, the Japanese people will turn their eyes toward Washington and wonder whether this is how allies should treat each other. It is a good question.

A good question, indeed.

I’ve argued for years, and will do so again: we need capable allies. Willing allies. Empowered allies. Allies who are able to defend themselves, and to occasionally use that power in their respective regions, or, in extreme cases, to act in concert with others to secure their interests far from home.

We have created the opposite situation in Japan – but also in South Korea, and Europe. Our allies are dependent upon us for their defense, and they are understandably reluctant to annoy their protector, even when that protector acts like a bully.

But it is one thing to tolerate the demands of another country as a condition of that country’s willingness to provide security. Will our allies be willing to come to our assistance, if and when we ever need their help?

This is not a hypothetical question. (See: Afghanistan)

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Jonah Goldberg is absolutely right today (I don’t get to say that too often!).

I’m not a binary partisan, but if I were advising the Republican Party, I would  tell them it would be foolish to divert any political attention right now from economic issues (such as spending and debt), the growth of government (size and scope), and government failure/corruption.  Of course, as a political scientist, I am prone to think the bigger macro variables have the most sway - so a lot of this strategizing and messaging isn’t as important as you might think.  But if they are working on the margins, then don’t push pocketbook voters away with social issues from either a conservative or libertarian perspective (unless you can tie them into the larger narrative of government run amok).  And I say this as someone who has very strong preferences on social issues and personal freedom issues*

I would guess that Republican party operatives get this.  And for what it is worth (n=1, so perhaps not much), I made the case for this position recently to a very well-connected Republican insider, and he agreed. 

*(For example, I favor drug legalization even though I think it is immoral to use or abuse most currently illegal drugs).

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His ire raised by a vice presidential pool party with journalists, Glenn Greenwald has a delightfully savage take on much of DC journalism, “Our hard-core, adversarial press corps.” This paragraph reminded me of something Murray Rothbard said about political historians in For a New Liberty:

I personally don’t think that these types of interactions “violate journalistic ethics” because I don’t think such a thing exists for them.  Rather, all of this just helpfully reveals what our nation’s leading “journalists” really are:  desperate worshipers of political power who are far more eager to be part of it and to serve it than to act as adversarial checks against it — and who, in fact, are Royal Court Spokespeople regardless of which monarch is ruling.

Rothbard thought this same charge held for the “court intellectuals” who interpret American history, although presumably the mechanism of their entanglement with the fascinations of power is somewhat different. [Inserting standard Rothbard-was-sometimes-kooky disclaimer here,] I think Rothbard was right about this, and it seems Grover Cleveland might too.


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Rethinking Darfur

I hinted yesterday that I might write something on Darfur, but perhaps it is better to start with a series of questions. 

- Do we actually know how many people have died in the Darfur region of Sudan since 2004? How reliable are our measures of large-scale mortality, in general? Think also Rwanda or the DRC, and recall the controversy surrounding estimates of Iraq war deaths published by the Lancet in 2004, and reprised in 2006.

- If we had a clear sense of the numbers, do we know how the majority of Darfuris died? Were they the victims of malnutrition caused by famine? Of disease, exacerbated by poor health and inadequate diet? Or did they die a violent death?

- If the latter, how were they killed, and by whom? The Sudanese government? Militias supported by Khartoum? Other armed groups involved in the civil conflict there?

- Lastly, do such actuarial questions matter? Is it inappropriate to dispute whether the number killed is 60,000 or 400,000, or some number in between? Does even asking these questions imply a lack of concern for what is, obviously, a gross violation of basic human rights?

Late last month, Cato published a paper by Marc Gustafson, a Marshall Scholar and doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford, discussing just these issues. On Friday, Gustafson will discuss the current state of play in Sudan and potential policy options at a Cato policy forum. He will be joined by Sean Brooks of the Save Darfur Coalition and Jon Temin from the U.S. Institute of Peace. My colleague Justin Logan, who first approached Gustafson about writing the paper for Cato, will chair and moderate the event.

I might return to the broader subject of foreign policy activism later this week, but I will probably hold my fire until I have a chance to hear the arguments presented at Friday’s forum. If you are unable to attend in person (register here), you can watch the event online at www.cato.org.

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I spent the best part of the day the other day with my wife on the top of Masada, the ruins of the fortress that provided the setting for the final battle between Jewish rebels (combined with their wives and children, they numbered 960) and thousands of Roman soldiers. After a lengthy siege at the base of the 1400-foot plateau, the Romans built a ramp and broke through the walls of the fortress. Thanks to Josephus, we have a detailed account of the final hours (if you have not read Josephus, log out now and pick up the Wars of the Jews). After a rousing speech to the men atop Masada comparing the ignoble death at the hands of the Romans (and slavery or worse for the women and children), the men agreed to return home and kill their families. They then drew ostraka to select the 10 men who would execute the others, before following the same procedure to select the one man who would complete the task. When the Romans mounted their final assault the next morning, they found nothing but corpses.

Today, Israeli soldiers are often brought to the top of Masada, where they pledge: “Masada shall not fall again.”

To stand on the site of that historic act forced me to reflect on the meaning of honor and heroism, but also on the role of history. In Israel, history confronts you at every turn. Not simply the lessons offered by antiquity, but lessons that are far fresher in the minds of the citizens. Jews will tell you of what it is like to live with years of the insecurity during the Intifadas. Armenians will talk about the genocide as if it occurred yesterday. Arabs will speak of the jobs they once held, the houses they once owned, and the aspirations they once held (often illustrating their accounts by discussing the difference between a blue and an orange identification card).  Everyone you speak to will draw attention to the importance of peace, but in the next breath history intrudes along with a fatalistic sense that this goal will prove elusive.

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Milton Friedman argued in 1953 (and again in 1967) that economic policy differences are rooted primarily in different views about the consequences of those policies — and that these disagreements could largely be eliminated by better positive economics (!).  Specifically, he wrote:

I venture the judgment, however, that currently in the Western world, and especially in the United States, differences about economic policy among disinterested citizens derive predominantly from different predictions about the economic consequences of taking action – differences that in principle can be eliminated by the progress of positive economics – rather than from fundamental differences in basic values, differences about which men can ultimately only fight.  (1953)

I have been much impressed, in the course of much controversy about issues of economic policy, that most differences in economic policy in the United States do not reflect differences in value judgments, but differences in positive economic analysis.  I have found time and again that in mixed company – that is, a company of economists and noneconomists such as is here today – the economists present, although initially one would tend to regard them as covering a wide range of political views, tend to form a coalition vis-a-vis the noneconomists, and, often much to their surprise, to find themselves on the same side.  (1967)

This is a highly problematic contention and something that not even his wife Rose was willing to accept.  Indeed, she thought nearly the opposite: “I have always been impressed by the ability to predict an economist’s positive views from my knowledge of his political orientation” (1998).*  

My view is that values and interests, not scientific understanding, are at the root of most political differences – and this holds for economists as much as for the rest of us.  Indeed, even when economists are in agreement on policy despite different political views, this is often because of a commonly shared fundamental agreement on values, namely a generally consequentialist – even utilitarian – ethical framework that itself is exogenous to economics as a science.  

It is worth nothing that Milton wavered later in life in his confidence in this earlier view, noting “I am much less confident now that I am right and she [Rose] is wrong than I was more than four decades ago when I wrote the methodology article…” (1998).    

* Rose’s view is very, very troubling since it would make scholarship merely an adjunct to politics rather than a neutral scientific enterprise that might or might not have policy implications. (It is worth explicitly pointing out that she implies the causal arrow is going from political orientation to economic view, rather than the other way around).

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Glenn Reynolds thinks so

At the moment, I think he is wrong.  Lower priced state schools can compete favorably with any alternative lower cost models.  Higher priced public and private universities provide for conspicuous consumption, valuable social networks, and great signals to employers/professional programs/grad schools.  Plus an expanding population, added demand from abroad, and the new GI Bill are going to increase demand for education (or take up any slack produced by those potentially priced out of the market).  The schools that are going to get crunched are the high priced non-elite private schools – but this assumes that we don’t return to high economic growth levels (if we get back on track, people won’t be as price sensitive when it comes to “the children” even if these schools don’t provide everything they claim).

I should also note that the federal government and other levels of government continue to massively subsidize education, politicians will be afraid of cutting in this area, and alternative models still have an enormous mountain to climb to overcome a general culture of higher education (warranted or not) that has everyone thinking that you must go to college. 

Call me skeptical.

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Amusing and telling piece from Slate. Some choice excerpts:

Obama now faces some of the most difficult challenges of his young presidency: the ongoing oil spill, the Gaza flotilla disaster, and revelations about possibly inappropriate conversations between the White House and candidates for federal office. But while these narratives may affect fleeting public perceptions, Americans will ultimately judge Obama on the crude economic fundamentals of jobs numbers and GDP.

Still, Democrats hope that passing health care and financial regulatory reform will give them enough momentum to win in November. Unfortunately, there’s little relationship between legislative victories and electoral victories. Also, what the hell is “momentum”?

Prospects for an energy bill, meanwhile, are looking grim, since Obama has spent all his political capital. He used to have a lot. Now it’s gone. Why winning legislative battles builds momentum but saps political capital, I have no idea. Just go with it.

The one part I quibble with is this:

That candidate will then face off against Obama, whose charisma, compelling personal story, and professional political operation will prove formidable. Actually, Obama will probably win because he’s the incumbent. And because voters always go with the guy who’s taller.

I’m no political behaviorist, but from sundry job talks & such, I gather that the election prediction models find that incumbency is advantageous for congresscritters but not for presidents (even disadvantageous, depending on how long his party has held the office).


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The Pentagon’s inflation-adjusted budget has basically doubled since 1998, and a rising chorus of voices are starting to ask what all this money actually buys us.

The pat answer is that the military keeps us safe; most of the increases in the Pentagon’s budget have come after 9/11. But, in fact, most of the additional monies have nothing to do with fighting terrorism. The better explanation is that the defense budget is the closest thing we have to an industrial policy, providing jobs to engineers and metal benders who have a vested interest in perpetuating the status quo. Precious few people venture to ask how, exactly, the purchase of a particular airplane or ship keeps Americans safe from harm, but an interested few, and their representatives in Congress, understand quite well how jobs in shipyards or airplane assembly lines put food on the table. Dwight Eisenhower famously called it the military-industrial complex.

Fiscally hawkish Republicans tend to make exceptions for the military. Defense is, after all, a core function of government. Many of the other things that our government does are not. Besides, blaming Democrats for undermining U.S. security is a politically reliable trope. Accordingly, it is fashionable today to claim that Barack Obama (like all Democrats, supposedly) has slashed military spending.

He hasn’t. Indeed, Obama’s budgets project real growth for DoD over the next few years. And don’t be fooled by Robert Gates’ latest campaign to find cost savings in his department: the intent is to shift money from the tail to the tooth (from the desk jockey to the warfighter), not facilitate cuts in the top line budget.

What about real cuts? For the past two months, I have been a member of a unique group of individuals exploring ways to responsibly reduce military spending. There have been a few stories in the press and the blogosphere about our efforts (e.g. here and here), but we’ve managed to keep a low profile. Our full coming out party will be this Friday, June 11th at a press conference at the Capitol. I’ll share a few more details fo the report later (it won’t officially be released until Friday), but one broad theme underlies our work that would allow for responsible reductions in the Pentagon’s budget without undermining our security.

We spend too much because we choose too little.

That phrase, coined by my colleague Benjamin Friedman here, nicely encapsulates our problem today. We do not have a clear sense of national security priorities, and our massive military has for nearly two decades obscured the need for any. We have lost our ability to differentiate between those threats that must be addressed by the U.S. military, and those that should be addressed by others. 

In fairness, this is hardly a new problem. In my book, The Power Problem, I point to the famous exchange between Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell in which Albright asked: “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it.”

Powell confided in his memoir “I thought I would have an aneurysm. American GIs were not toy soldiers to be moved around on some sort of global game board.”

But available resources have often defined the strategic object. That helps to explain the strategic incongruity of Athens’ invasion of Sicily, or Napoleon’s ill-fated venture into Russia, even as he had a huge force tied down in Spain. Citing a more recent example, Tulane University professor Christopher Fettweis invokes Parkinson’s Law (loosely, work expands to fill the time available), adapted to international relations theory by Karl Deutsch: a nation’s sense of insecurity expands along with its power (see “Threat and Anxiety in US Foreign Policy,” Survival, April-May 2010, pp. 59-82).

In the same way, the United States in the early 21st century has allowed our massive military to determine our requirements, instead of the other way around. By adopting a grand strategy of restraint, one that took advantage of our unique geostrategic position and encouraged our allies to defend themselves, we could make significant cuts to our military budget without undermining our own security. 

If we fail to change our strategy, however, I fear that one of two unpleasant things will happen. We may reduce our military budget to accommodate rising domestic spending, saddling a smaller and smaller military with more and more missions, similar to what we did in the 1990s. That would be unwise, and unfair to the men and women serving in our military.

A second outcome is perhaps more likely, but no more palatable. We will continue to act as the world’s policeman, intent on defending other countries that should defend themselves. We will spend more money on our military, compounding our long-term fiscal insolvency. Over time, the relative weakness of our allies will impose heavier and heavier burdens on U.S. taxpayers, and U.S. troops, until both crack under the pressure. 

Later this week, I’ll write more about why we should transition to a different global order, one less dependent upon a single hegemon, and outline a different, and far less costly, force posture consistent with a grand strategy of restraint.

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Helen Thomas has been an undeserving, uninspiring, unaccomplished, and (dare I say it) unattractive fixture of the White House press corps for a long, long, long time.  Now she has finally done herself in with her rant about how Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and go “home” to Germany, Poland, and America.

Talk about being out of touch with modern politics.  The fact that no one is that surprised by her comments indicates just how clueless she is and always has been.

But I want to ponder the deeper point.  She is getting jumped on for being anti-Semitic, which I’m not sure is fair.  Just because she feels that Jews don’t have a legitimate right to Israel doesn’t mean she hates Jews.  Nor are the critics of the Israeli government necessarily anti-Semitic either, though they are often accused of such by the Israel lobby.   Similarly, I genuinely hate the regime in Beijing, but I don’t hate Chinese people.

It seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable position that people of Jewish decent, as a whole, have no legitimate claim to the land of Israel (though certainly they do in many individual circumstances where the land was justly obtained).  Indeed, is not the Zionist claim to the land of Biblical Israel grounded in the belief that God granted them this land thousands of years ago?  This claim was contested from the beginning when the tribes of Israel claimed that land from the Canaanites in a rather violent and deadly fashion.  As a believer in the Bible, the Biblical claim carries considerable weight for me personally, but I think it is hard to ground this claim in history, especially in a pluralistic world where people of all faiths (and no faith) have equal rights under the law.

Modern Jews re-obtained the land of Israel as a Jewish state by force.   This is hardly something unique to them, of course.   I’m not a serious student of these matters, but it seems that almost all land around the globe can be traced back to some point of violent conquest accompanied by questionable legitimacy.  In the Americas, indigenous people were driven from the native lands, lied to and betrayed by various governments, and driven almost to extinction in many instances.   Non-indigenous people have faced similar brutality.  For instance, in 1838, the governor of Missouri, Lilburn Boggs, issued a famous “Extermination Order” mandating that all Mormons should be driven from the state or “exterminated.”  Mormons were later driven out of Illinois by mob activity, and in neither instance were they compensated for the loss of their lands.

Many readers of this blog share, along with the bloggers, a strong commitment to property rights.  But how do we legitimately make these claims when the land we own today was, in many cases, taken from someone by force and without due process of law or, as Nozick would say, without “just acquisition?”

I’m merely a novice in these matters and look forward to wiser comments about this topic, but at last Helen Thomas has done something she was never able to do before.  She has unwittingly given us a very serious and challenging question to think about.

[Addendum: I'm a supporter of Israel and of a 2-state solution.  Yet I remain perplexed by the moral certitude that many people have about Israel's right to exist (whether for or against that right).  I understand the Zionist claim, I think, but it seems to me that non-religious claims are problematic, given the way that Israel came about.  Am I just missing something?   For those of you who are experts on such things, isn't the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state a matter over which reasonable people can disagree?  Or do IR scholars, in general, scoff at my claim that reasonable people can oppose Israel's right to exist?]

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The NY Times is reporting that British Prime Minister David Cameron is forecasting “decades of austerity” because of the swelling deficit in the UK.

What caught my eye about this story is the location of his speech, a town called Milton Keynes.  Does some scheduler in the new Tory government have a sense of humor by locating this speech in a town that references the two greatest macroeconomists of the 20th century, John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman?

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From Michael Barone:

We may be seeing something like the “capital strike” of the late 1930s, when investors and entrepreneurs held onto their money and refrained from creating jobs because of high tax rates and intrusive government.

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Like the UK, Germany is planning to “set an example” by virtually eliminating their deficit by 2014. Couple these efforts with those of Ireland, Greece, Spain, and Portugal, and the U.S. is really starting to look out of step.


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The editors at my second favorite blog (with due deference to Cato’s blog, which you all should also be reading), invited me several weeks ago to be a guest blogger at Pileus. I was flattered, but now I’m staring at a blank screen. We’ll see if I come to regret this. Or if they do.

I guess I should start with a personal anecdote. When I was a young ensign in the U.S. Navy, autumn 1989, I had the misfortune of attending gas turbine engineering officer of the watch (EOOW) school. It wasn’t awful, and Newport, RI is a very nice place to hang out (though more pleasant in July than December). On the first day of class, the lead instructor explained that they were going to throw so much information at us in a very short period of time that we’d feel as though we were drinking from a fire hose. He darkly implied that some of us probably wouldn’t be able to hack it.

I barely did, and I remember precisely nothing else from that 10-week course. But the drinking from a fire hose comment stuck with me. I don’t recommend that approach if you’re really thirsty, but sometimes there is no alternative. In over seven years here at Cato, I’ve covered more topics than I care to recount. They’ve all related to national security and international relations. I don’t choose to opine publicly on subjects outside of my area of expertise; I’m too busy even if I wanted to. The world is a big and complicated place. I’ve managed to keep track of who is in charge in Tokyo, Seoul, Berlin, Paris, London, and many places in between. I’ve taken note of most major disturbances, always careful to differentiate between those that directly concern the United States, and those that do not. I know the difference between an F-22 and V-22. In the process, I’ve participated in hundreds of interviews on television and radio, and with reporters, written over 150 articles, and a few books. Plus a slew of blog posts. I could have done more. I’ve passed up on many opportunities to talk about things that I know nothing about, but on balance I think I’ve managed to hold my own. On reflection, I’ve been drinking from a fire hose this whole time. Maybe I did learn something in EOOW school?

So it appears that the Pileus people couldn’t have picked a better week for me to guest blog. I’m crazy busy, and Pileus readers can come along for the ride as I cover a wide range of topics from U.S. foreign and defense policy (later today), U.S.-Japan relations (Tuesday), counterterrorism and homeland security (Wednesday), more on defense policy, especially force posture and the Pentagon’s budget (Thursday), with a wrap up on Friday addressing anything else that has come along during the week. For example, I anticipate short posts on Darfur to highlight this paper and upcoming event here at Cato, perhaps a note about the Director of National Intelligence, and, if I get really feisty, a post on the ensuing World Cup.

Hang on!

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According to this story from the Fortune blog, euro default insurance prices have risen so high that it now costs more to buy a credit default swap on German debt than on U.S. debt. And that’s Germany.

Now, Germany is not going to default. I think the real risk here is that now that the EU has broken the bailout seal, the euro will continue its decline and other countries will allow themselves to get into trouble. A spokesman for the Hungarian prime minister has already said that talk of default in that country is “not an exaggeration.” It may be that Hungary is now trying to shake some cash loose from the EU money tree, but creating market uncertainty is a risky way to do it.


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Sunday Morning Quotation

Friedrich Hayek in his epilogue to The Constitution of Liberty titled, “Why I Am Not a Conservative”:

So far as much of current governmental action is concerned, there is in the present world very little reason for the liberal to wish to preserve things as they are.  It would seem to the liberal, indeed, that what is most urgently needed in most parts of the world is a thorough sweeping-way of the obstacles to free growth. 

The difference between liberalism and conservatism must not be obscured by the fact that in the United States it is still possible to defend individual liberty by defending long-established institutions.  To the liberal they are valuable not mainly because they are long-established or because they are American but because they correspond to the ideals which he cherishes.  (pg. 399)

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Today I stumbled across a story from a couple of years ago on the extraordinary success of Finnish students on international tests.  The correspondent, Ellen Gamerman, writes:

High-school students here rarely get more than a half-hour of homework a night. They have no school uniforms, no honor societies, no valedictorians, no tardy bells and no classes for the gifted. There is little standardized testing, few parents agonize over college and kids don’t start school until age 7.

Yet by one international measure, Finnish teenagers are among the smartest in the world. They earned some of the top scores by 15-year-old students who were tested in 57 countries. American teens finished among the world’s C students even as U.S. educators piled on more homework, standards and rules. Finnish youth, like their U.S. counterparts, also waste hours online. They dye their hair, love sarcasm and listen to rap and heavy metal. But by ninth grade they’re way ahead in math, science and reading — on track to keeping Finns among the world’s most productive workers.

Based on this article and my own experience (my mother immigrated from Finland when she came to college in the US, and I have spent a lot of time there), I would attribute the Finnish success to the following factors:

1. Very high teacher quality. Teachers are highly trained (master’s degree is required), and they have a lot of freedom to design their own curricula.  Teaching is a prestigious profession in Finland and draws from the best and the brightest.  Part of this is institutional – pay teachers reasonably well, given them control and a nice work environment – and you get much higher quality teachers than we have in the US.  The other part is the lack of incentives (relative to the US) for pursuing higher income professions in Finland, especially after adjusting for the highly progressive tax structure.  Many young people consider a teaching career in the US end up going into law, medicine, or business because the money is better.  In Finland, those who go into law, medicine or business will end up having lives not that different from teachers.  This increases the relative value of the teaching profession, even though average wages of teachers in Finland are similar to the US, according to the article.

2. A highly homogenous population. Finland has been historically a very closed society.  They have accepted few immigrants (relative to other European nations, though the numbers have gone up in recent decades).  There are few race and class issues bogging the schools down, and the population has a strong and common cultural heritage and national pride.  Immigrants to the U.S. become Greek-Americans and Korean-Americans, but there are very few hyphenated Finns. Leftists like to talk about how diversity improves the quality of education, but I would bet that ethnic, cultural and racial diversity mostly makes education less efficient.  On top of that, Finnish society is built on a foundation of hundreds of years of Lutheran socialization, and Lutherans are all about working hard, not making waves, not causing problems, and doing what is expected.  This is not to say there are not good-for-nothing hooligans in Finland (I’ve met several), but by and large the behavioral nonsense that schools in the US have to put up with (especially in low-income areas) is much greater in the US than in Finalnd.

3. Schools are about education, not sports or social activities.  If the state of Texas were to care as much about teaching math and science as it does about high school football, it would produce the smartest students in the world.  Finns are urheiluhullut (people crazy for sports), but it is entirely outside of schools, as are most other extracurricular activities.  Just as the US made a huge mistake when it tied health insurance to employment, it made a huge mistake in tying extracurricular activities (mainly sports) to schools.  Extracurricular activities are very valuable, but they can exist and thrive outside of schools. Schools do best when they concentrate on being schools, not social centers or athletic clubs.

There is much to admire about the Finnish system, though there is a dark side as well.  In Finland, as in many countries, students are tracked into different educational channels from early ages.  After 8th grade, about half go to vocational schools.  In America, a teenager or even a young adult can wake up and say, I think I want to be an architect.  It won’t be easy, but America is the country of educational second chances.  Young people willing to work can make up for poor performance in the past.  In Finland, only a select few will make it into the architectural program, and some kid with average grades in vocational school just doesn’t end up going to architectural school.  The same is true of most professions.

As a consequence, a large segment of the society is lacking in aspirations.  They are well-educated, comfortable, and generally hard working, but often lacking in ambition.  I worry about the long-run health of societies with a significant ambition deficit.

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A few days ago I posted (forgive me for linking to myself) a question on why and under what conditions it is appropriate to tell outrageous lies in public.  Today, I ask the question of why is it still acceptable for so-called civil rights leaders to say outrageously racist, ignorant and inflammatory comments in public with no censure from the media or from the larger society.

In the WSJ’s “Political Diary” column today yesterday, John Fund referred to the following Jesse Jackson quote from last year:

“We even have blacks voting against the health care bill. You can’t vote against health care and call yourself a black man.”

If a white politician were to say, “You can’t vote for the health care bill and call yourself a white man” his career would be over.  Or if he even said the same thing about blacks that Jackson did, his career would be over.

Yet racist demagogues like Jackson and Sharpton continue to garner the respect and attention of the media and endure relatively little censure.  This is the state of our public discourse at the same time that the media adores and inflates any evidence that Tea Partiers are racist (some of them surely are, of course).   Will there come a time when Jackson and Sharpton receive the same public scorn that is received by David Duke or Tom Tancredo?

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I spent the day today with my dear wife walking the streets of old Jerusalem. I was struck by the absolute beauty of capitalism. Religion so often divides, and the divisions are perhaps no more evident than in this city. Concerns over potential conflicts  today led the IDF to mount a rather impressive number of troops in the city (I saw literally hundreds of soldiers armed with automatic weapons before noon) and they were carefully screening Muslims who were coming to worship. I passed by without incident.

But commerce unites. The bazaars were filled with Jews, Muslims, Christians, Armenians, and tourists seeking mutually beneficial exchanges, bargaining, striking compromises. The air was filled with laughter, debate, and the rustle of the blessed market.

My wife and I had the opportunity to spend the better part of an hour drinking coffee with a Palestinian shop keeper who had spent five years in prison following the first Intifada (he claimed to play a leadership role). He lost his first shop, his home on the West Bank, and his first wife during his imprisonment and came to a single conclusion: the organizations that drive conflict have no concern for those who they mobilize. While he was in prison, there was no effort to take care of his wife and his business. Afterwards, there was no effort to support him, although interest peaked when the smell of violence once again filled the air. He refused, having concluded that he had more in common with Jews and Armenians on the street than he did with the Palestinian leadership or (most certainly) the Israeli government.

Commerce was his salvation. “I wake up early to open my shop. I come home late. Maybe I have time to eat dinner with my wife. Maybe we make love. Maybe she is already asleep. But I don’t think of conflict. I think of my business and what I can leave behind for my son.” In his opinion, Gaza continues because it justifies the policies of Hamas and the government. If they wanted peace, they would welcome those in Gaza to become shopkeepers. They would be too busy to mate and too busy to fight.

Naive, perhaps. But this man made his case, provided  thick coffee, gave my wife a gift and kissed her goodbye, and welcomed us back to his shop. We returned to our inn (near the Damascus Gate) run by an Arab muslim who has found the means of successfully selling his services to Christians and Jews who are quite happy to compensate him for clean lodging at a reasonable price.

Again, the beauty of commerce.

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In the 2005 case Gonzales v Raich, the Supreme Court pulled back on its federalism jurisprudence and ruled that the federal government may prosecute someone for growing marijuana at home for personal use under the authority of the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which grants Congress the right to regulate commerce among the several states. This year, Congress passed a bill essentially federalizing Massachusetts’ health insurance regulations, mandating pure community rating, guaranteed issue, and individual purchase of health insurance, fairly extreme left-wing policies previously unknown to much of the country.

Oddly, these blows to the remnants of American fiscal federalism are coming just as scholars have recognized the virtues of the system. In the 1990s, Barry Weingast’s market-preserving federalism research agenda showed how mobility of people, goods, and capital across borders of a fiscal federation defined by decentralized policy-setting under hard budget constraints could restrain the growth of government and promote economic development. In the 2000s, scholars such as Jonathan Rodden, Erik Wibbels, and Sebastian Saiegh have investigated the economic consequences of federal institutions. What they found was that when subnational governments are responsible for “paying their own way” with own-source revenues, debt is lower and government is smaller. The reason why fiscal federalism constrains Leviathan is that it allows taxpayers to seek low-tax jurisdictions, which in turn encourages these jurisdictions to compete with each other.

Among the true fiscal federations in the developed world – Canada, Switzerland, and the U.S. (that’s it!) – the U.S. is the most centralized. The chart below shows tax decentralization (subnational own-source revenues divided by total government revenues) in 1999, the latest year for which data are available, for a number of OECD countries.

Tax Decentralization, 1999In Switzerland and Canada, over half of all government revenues are raised by provincial/cantonal and local governments through taxes over which they control either the rate or the base. In the U.S., that figure has generally been around 35-40%. Sweden and Japan actually score higher on tax decentralization than the U.S., although subnational units in those countries don’t enjoy nearly the policy and political autonomy that American states do.

Will Americans eventually realize that fiscal federalism actually works and reverse the decades-long trend toward greater centralization? For that to happen, voters and federal politicians would have to realize that the things they want to have done, from gun control to health care policy, are best handled at the state and local level. They would have to take a stand on principle to reject one-size-fits-all federal solutions. Either that, or the Court is going to have to acquire the nerve and intellectual honesty to realize that it’s their job to safeguard important institutions from marauding politicians, regardless of what their personal views might be on the issue before them.


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David Brooks is so smitten with President Obama I’m starting to wonder what color roses he’ll send the White House on Valentine’s Day.  So, is Brooks becoming the Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. of our age?

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Ike, not Code Pink

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from an iron cross.”

Of course, sometimes a state must go to war.  But President Eisenhower’s words are worth keeping in mind when we think about going abroad in search of foreign monsters to destroy.


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The LA Times has another in a long line of articles out there on how bad the academic job market is (and has been).  Here is the story of one frustrated job seeker: 

When Elena Stover finished her doctorate in September, she headed to the poker tables. Frustrated with the limited opportunities and grueling lifestyle of academia, Stover, 29, decided to eschew a career in cognitive neuroscience for one playing online poker. She got the idea from a UCLA career counselor, who was trying to help her find employment.

The career counselor bit is a little odd.  Is this how bad the general economy is right now? (Of course not).

The question is, given the obvious mismatch between supply and demand, why do so many individuals with potentially bright futures continue to flood into graduate schools with the intention of someday joining the professoriate?  (And then predictably and frequently become embittered in the process, not to mention suffering really high opportunity costs).  

Here are a few non-exclusive possibilities, among many potential others:

Lack of knowledge.  In other words, they don’t know how bad it really is – either because the students don’t seek the information or graduate programs are not transparent about their job placement records.

Motivated misperception.  They believe what they want to believe.  Some students are unwilling to come to grips either with their own abilities or their odds of success – they just want it so bad they go in with blinders on. 

Riverboat gamblers.  They are willing to engage in a game with a low probabilty of success given the potentially high reward (a great gig, indeed one of the best jobs in America if you believe some surveys).  A corollary of this is that they assume that even if they lose, they will still have other good options given they hold a Ph.D.  Of course, they usually forget the high opportunity costs to get that piece of paper while ending up in a job surrounded by others with less lofty credentials (and higher salaries since others have been working while the Ph.D. holder has been studying).

Status.  Accurate or not, some think the Ph.D. conveys a certain status.  In other words, it is the sophisticated version of the Corvette your business school buddy bought when he landed his first high-paying job. 

I rule (or I can rule through hard work).  Related to the riverboat gambler, the “I rule” student thinks that he is so well-above average that he will get one of the few jobs that do exist.  He’s been told (directly or indirectly) how smart he is forever and thinks the ring is his to grab.  My guess is that everyone that enters HYPS thinks this – which actually might be true for most of them (unfortunately lots of people at lesser schools also think this way).  Or he might just be a hard-worker who thinks he can prevail through sheer will alone (btw, I love this particular guy since this attitude actually goes a long way in life and exemplifies one of the finer aspects of the American spirit).

Government Distortion of the Marketplace.  Government intervention/subsidies (especially in the loan market) are distorting the true costs of a graduate education and allowing students to avoid facing reality sooner.  Government subsidies for undergraduate education also increase the incentives for universities to admit more Ph.D. students than will ever get jobs so that they can cover intro classes or be low-paying teaching assistants (This also works to provide an incentive for graduate programs to be less than open about the realities/costs of entering this business).  

Post-material values.   There are a lot of rich folks (or people with rich parents/relative) out there, and they have the money to go to graduate school without worrying too much about the employment issues facing them at the end.  They either don’t know what to do with themselves (and continuing to hang out in school isn’t a bad way to mark time) or authentically enjoy studying their preferred subject for its own sake.

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A few days ago, James posted an interesting question that I’ve been pondering.  He asked “Is an interest in Marx, then, also an indication of an immature mind, a phase perhaps understandable in the young but unforgivable in adults?”  He asked this question in response to similar critiques of Rand and in recollection of a former professor who referred to Nozick’s libertarianism as “a young man’s philosophy.”

I would broaden this question and ask “Is devotion to a particular philosopher, in general, a young man’s game?”  Do those engaged in philosophical pursuits tend to become less doctrinaire as they get older?

A common — though by no means universal — feature of the intellectual maturation process seems to be increased awareness of the inherent difficulties and uncertainties associated with any particular point of view or direction of inquiry.  As thinking people get older, they tend to become more aware of how little they know and about how hard it is to know anything.  I contrast this with those people who tend to become intellectually hardened and incapable of considering any ideas that challenged their longstanding opinions.  Indeed, I think the hallmark of an educated person is that he/she is a person of the first type mentioned, not the second.

In my observation, the young frequently develop a passion for a particular philosopher–be it Marx, Rand, Nozick, Rawls, Kant, Hayek, or whoever.  The philosopher seems to be less of an issue in explaining the passion than the age of the follower.  Those who don’t study philosophy can still get passionately involved in political causes in much the same fashion.  So, do people “grow out of” certain philosophies or do they just grow out of philosophy?  And, if one grows out of Nozick or Marx, what does one grow into?  Some mixed or pragmatic approach perhaps?

This question reminds me of the bumper sticker that says “Hire a teenager while he still knows everything!”

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Frustration and the Flotilla

It is an interesting and sad time to be in Tel Aviv. Tonight we were returning from dinner via taxi and we had to get out and walk because the pro-Israel rally outside of the Turkish embassy had become so large that the police were forced to close down traffic. People young and old were walking the streets with Israeli flags.  There seems to be an increase in the number of armed IDF members roaming the city, automatic rifles at the ready. (Surprisingly, I saw no coverage of this demonstration on CNN International, but I might have missed it).

Two of the gentlemen we had dinner with (academics from Tel Aviv University) had attended a protest against the boarding of the flotilla, and they estimated that the number of protesters ranged between 600 and 1000. The anti-Turkish protest seemed much larger.

There was a real sense of frustration among the academics who were uniformly on the Left. Some of their observations:

  1. The political Left in Israel has collapsed since the Second Intifada (or more correctly, it has moved dramatically to the Right). As a result, there is far greater unity among Israelis than before.
  2. There is a real sense that so many foreigners who critique Israel have no sense of what things were like on the ground (rockets and mortars out of Gaza, etc) and the sense of insecurity it created on a daily basis.
  3. As much as one might want a negotiated solution, there is agreement that any such efforts would be futile. There are no bargaining partners.  There is little sense that the US is playing a positive role. There is only frustration, insecurity, and anger that past efforts were so thoroughly rebuffed and the press (and external critics) has agreed on a narrative that will be pressed regardless of whether it matches the empirical record.

On to Jerusalem tomorrow…

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Am I the only one perplexed by the embarrassingly lavish praise heaped upon David Souter’s Harvard commencement address by left-liberal commentators? In bashing the notion that judges should rule on the basis of “fair reading” of the law, Souter tries this mind-bogglingly inane reductio ad absurdum:

For those whose exclusive norm for constitutional judging is merely fair reading of language applied to facts objectively viewed, Brown [v. Board of Education] must either be flat-out wrong or a very mystifying decision.  Those who look to that model are not likely to think that a federal court back in 1896 should have declared legally mandated racial segregation unconstitutional.  But if Plessy was not wrong, how is it that Brown came out so differently?  The language of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws did not change between 1896 and 1954, and it would be hard to say that the obvious facts on which Plessy was based had changed, either.  While Plessy was about railroad cars and Brown was about schools, that distinction was no great difference.  Actually, the best clue to the difference between the cases is the dates they were decided, which I think lead to the explanation for their divergent results.

As I’ve said elsewhere, the members of the Court in Plessy remembered the day when human slavery was the law in much of the land.  To that generation, the formal equality of an identical railroad car meant progress.  But the generation in power in 1954 looked at enforced separation without the revolting background of slavery to make it look unexceptional by contrast.  As a consequence, the judges of 1954 found a meaning in segregating the races by law that the majority of their predecessors in 1896 did not see.

If we take what Souter is saying here seriously (which we probably should not), he is saying that Plessy v. Ferguson was rightly decided. After all, his stated view here is that judges should read the constitution in light of the values of their time (arguably, it’s even worse – a close reading of the speech suggests that he thinks judges should simply rule on the basis of their own values).

And then what about this nonsense? “To that generation, the formal equality of an identical railroad car meant progress.” O RLY? In Plessy, the Supreme Court ignored the plain language of the 14th Amendment, which prohibits states from “mak[ing] or enforc[ing] any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” Prosecuting someone for sitting next to a person of color pretty clearly abridges his privileges and immunities. In Plessy, the Court was affirming the conscious and premeditated attempts of Southern state legislatures to re-establish white supremacy after Reconstruction. In doing so, they reversed an earlier decision allowing Congress to prohibit state-level segregation. There is simply no excuse for saying that Americans of that time viewed “separate but equal” as “progress.”

This is what you get when you nominate mediocrities to the Supreme Court.

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“And going by Turkey’s rhetoric about the incident and its undying love for the nation-deprived Palestinians, you’d have no idea that the Turks have been killing nation-deprived Kurds for longer than Israel has existed, and have treated them with far more cruelty than Israel would ever dream of doing.” — Jonah Goldberg in The Goldberg File, June 3, 2010.

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When and Why We Regulate

Regulation has attracted more than a few posts as of late, and with good reason. The last few years have brought one of the greatest regulatory failures of the past century, Congress and the administration are in the process of producing the greatest regulatory expansion since the 1970s, and now the catastrophic situation in the Gulf of Mexico.

The standard take on regulation is simple: government regulates to address the various forms of market failure (e.g., informational asymmetries, the failure of firms to act as price-takers, negative externalities, transaction costs, public goods, etc.).  However, as Charles Wolf and others remind us, the market and the state are imperfect alternatives. Every attempt to address market failure introduces the potential for government failure. Each has its costs and benefits, and a prudent person should carefully weigh them rather than assuming ex ante that government solutions are superior to imperfect markets.

I am a bit skeptical of the positive theory of market failure for reasons that are beyond this posting (in essence, I find the market-state dichotomy on which it is premised to be highly suspect given the role of law and public institutions in constituting the economy). Nonetheless, informational asymmetries, negative externalities, etc., do provide compelling justifications for regulation (the real challenge is finding the most appropriate regulatory instruments).

That being said, I would like to highlight an additional role for regulation:  it can induce economic actors to exercise some “enlightened self-interest” and engage in higher levels of self-regulation.

Some regulatory analysts note that corporations work under a regulatory warrant (i.e., what is permitted by laws and regulations) and a social warrant (i.e., what is permitted by a broader set of stakeholders). If corporations violate the social warrant, they may find themselves subject to a stricter regulatory warrant.  Highly salient crises can lead to an expansion of mandatory regulations. Many corporate managers understand this and, as a result, often go “beyond regulation,” seeking to nurture their reputations and protect their social warrants.

Consider the following example. Following the tragic Union Carbine chemical release in Bhopal India, the chemical industry began a concerted effort at self-regulation in the hope of forestalling more significant mandatory regulations. The result (Responsible Care) began relatively weak, but evolved rapidly into a global set of management standards. A similar story can be told in other industries (e.g., nuclear energy, wood and paper production).

For effective self-regulation to occur, it seems necessary that there be some association committed to managing the industry’s reputation as a collective good and willing to eject members for failure to comply. At the same time, regulation (or the threat of regulation) seems imperative to force industry to make the investment in self-regulation.

In the past decade or two, some scholars have concluded that market forces are sufficient to force higher levels of corporate responsibility. To the extent that pollution is a form of waste, for example, the elimination of waste streams can provide cost-based advantages. To the extent that consumers value environmentally friendly production, firms can claim differentiation-based advantages.  This may be true for some firms, but I am skeptical that market forces are sufficient when taken by themselves.

Although many libertarians discount the need for regulations (after all, “didn’t Coase show…”), they may play a positive role in creating inducements for greater self-regulation, thereby forestalling a more direct form of regulation that could prove pernicious on a number of grounds.

One can only hope that, as the recent debacle in the Gulf of Mexico focuses attention on an expansion of regulations, the petroleum industry will respond by dramatically enhancing its self-regulatory capacity. I remain somewhat mystified that the American Petroleum Institute and the International Petroleum Institute have not developed a more coherent set of responses to every potential contingency and developed rapid response teams with easily deployable equipment to ensure that when accidents occur (as they inevitably will), they will not do undue damage to industry reputation.  Hopefully, this recent disaster will help the industry better understand the concept of enlightened self-interest.

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Charles Murray on Rand

A late, but well-aimed, review by Charles Murray on two recent Ayn Rand biographies.  Here is the final paragraph:

Ayn Rand never dwelt on her Russian childhood, preferring to think of herself as wholly American. Rightly so. The huge truths she apprehended and expressed were as American as apple pie. I suppose hardcore Objectivists will consider what I’m about to say heresy, but hardcore Objectivists are not competent to judge. The novels are what make Ayn Rand important. Better than any other American novelist, she captured the magic of what life in America is supposed to be. The utopia of her novels is not a utopia of greed. It is not a utopia of Nietzschean supermen. It is a utopia of human beings living together in Jeffersonian freedom.

I read Heller’s book and found it worth the time despite already knowing many of the stories.  It is better on Rand’s personal life than on her ideas – so I almost wished I had chosen to read Burns’ instead (since I’m not sure I need to read two biographies of Rand in the same year having already read and watched a lot of/about Rand over the years).

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This sounds like a story out of Nigeria or somewhere. A Michigan state senator is introducing a bill to license journalists! (Really, certification – you wouldn’t need the license to report, but it would be a state-sponsored credential.)

HT: Hit & Run

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In his essay, “Of the First Principles of Government,” David Hume wrote:

Nothing appears more surprizing to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as FORCE is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is therefore, on opinion only that government is founded.

Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, is complaining loudly that the federal government is not doing enough about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Jindal lays the fault mainly at the feet of President Obama. My co-blogger Grover Cleveland has linked to a couple articles critical of the attitude of many—including, apparently, Jindal—that (a) the president should just do something, anything; that (b) the president is responsible for all problems, big or small; and that (c) no matter what the problem is, the president can, as if by magic, fix it. Of course, this president has done his share to court these attitudes by enjoying the posture of the I-can-do-anything superhero. (Remember his 2008 “This Is Our Moment” speech, in which he said that his election would mark the moment when, among many other things, the “rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”?)

The catastrophe in the Gulf is showing us once again the silliness of believing that the president, or any other person, can, like Zeus, change the world merely by nodding his head.

But back to Jindal for a moment. Why doesn’t he just do what he wants to do? Why is he waiting for permission from President Obama, or from anyone else? I understand that while Louisiana has authority over its own coastline the federal government has jurisdiction in the Gulf where the oil leak is, but so what? This is clearly an emergency situation in which standard operating procedures may not apply. If there is something Jindal believes needs to be done, and he is ready and prepared to do it—both of which he is claiming are the case—then by all means go ahead!

The power that the federal government enjoys in this case may have statutory authority, but I think Hume’s dictum is right: It rests ultimately on opinion. Jindal has been waiting for permission because it is his opinion, and that of most others, that he needs to ask for permission. It is a habit of obedience and subservience that might serve well in other, normal circumstances. This is a time of crisis, however. So I say: Governor Jindal, become the leader you deride President Obama for failing to be. The near and practical consequence might be a lessening of the consequences of this present disaster; the further consequence might be a healthy challenge to the growing, and I think worrying, consensus that the federal government is the seat of all authority.


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Unfortunately, foolish government rules are commonplace.  And the average Joe and Jane are probably more irked by government when it displays a serious lack of basic common sense than by the problematic moral status of its rule (which is not to say we shouldn’t delve into this latter issue as philosophers and educated citizens).

So here is Bad Government Rule #8,123,987:

According to the Lafayette (Indiana) Journal-Courier:

Starting July 1, any licensed server selling alcohol for off-premise consumption will be required to card all Hoosiers–regardless of how old they look.  That means all retailers from supermarkets to package liquor stores will be turning away customers without identification.

The paper goes on to quote Karah Rawlings, director of the Drug-Free Coalition of Tippecanoe County, who said: 

“We appreciate their [area retailers] commitment to ensure that every person that purchases alcohol does so legally.  It may be a bit of an adjustment. This minor inconvenience of showing identification will help ensure we keep alcohol out of the hands of minors.”

I was interested in learning more about the law so I talked to Ms. Rawlings about it (yes, a blogger doing actual reporting rather than merely commenting on the news).  And while I disagree with her argument above – namely, I don’t think ID’ing Granny will do anything to keep alcohol out of the hands of minors – I found her to be a pleasant, well-meaning, and informative quasi-public servant (the Coalition gets nearly all of its funds from the government, either in the form of grants or countermeasure fees).  Plus I think it is a legitimate use of government power to protect children from themselves – so I’m not opposed to the state forbidding the sale of alcohol to minors (though I think the drinking age is too high). 

The backstory is as follows.  Basically, the Coalition wanted a law similar to the tobacco law.  In short, it wanted a law so that people who looked under 27 would have to be carded to prove their age.  It also wanted an increase in alcohol taxes and the physical separation of the placement of alcohol in retail stores from, say, the cereal aisle.  It did not originally seek a universal card check rule.

This is where it gets interesting (and reminds me of Bruce Yandle’s “Bootleggers and Baptists”).  It was retailers who wanted universal carding laws so they would not have to engage in guess work on their end (something that surprised the Coalition).  Of course, these retailers didn’t need a law to get rid of the guess work.  They could just institute company rules that anyone buying alcohol from their stores would have to be ID’ed.  But some retailers (liquor stores and grocery stores) who did universal checks on their own wanted to make sure there was an even playing field by forcing competitors to card everyone too.  In other words, they wanted to impose costs on their competitors so that they would not lose the business of people irked by the laws who would go to stores that applied a common sense rule, thus undercutting them on customer service (rather than price)!     

A coda is in order that suggests someone in the lawmaking process had a bit of commonsense.  While the law is cut and dried (you have to card everyone), there is a loophole that allows a retailer to contest a failure to card fine in court if the person who made the sale thought the customer was over 50.  So it appears as if there is some wiggle room for businesses who would really like to sell Grandma some brandy even if she forgot her ID at home. 

But will businesses just run scared, thus foregoing the sale and turning Grandma away?  They may since they will not want to have to waste time and money to contest any fine they might receive or run the risk of losing in court (and having to pay fines and suffer potential bad publicity for breaking the law).  

The bottom line is that this law will reduce overall welfare without any benefit.  Businesses will lose money on uncompleted sales and individuals will go without a good they preferred (or a purchasing individual without an ID will have to suffer the costs – time, frustration, monetary, and environmental - of having to return home to get an ID and then come back to the store).  Or even more likely, people will have to dig out an ID to prove their age when it is obvious – a small cost but an unnecessary one nonetheless.

HT: Slate.

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A very sad story out of the UK, where a taxi driver has shot to death 12 people and wounded 25 others at latest count. The UK of course enacted a complete ban on handguns after a similar massacre in 1996. Today’s murders were apparently committed with a rifle.

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1.  Clive Crook on the desire for Obama to just do something.

2.  Gene Healy on Who’s Your Daddy?

When you think the government should solve everything and it doesn’t, who do you blame?

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I am pleased to announce that Christopher Preble of the Cato Institute will be guest blogging on Pileus next week (starting Monday, June 7th).  Although I’m biased since he’s a friend of mine, I think it is accurate to say that Chris is a leading light in the Washington foreign policy community.  He’s frequently right when most of that community is so very wrong. 

Here is his impressive bio:

Christopher A. Preble is the director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.  His book, The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous and Less Free, published by Cornell University Press, documents the enormous costs of America’s military power, and proposes a new grand strategy to advance U.S. national security. He is also the author of Exiting Iraq: How the U.S. Must End the Occupation and Renew the War against Al Qaeda and John F. Kennedy and the Missile Gap. In addition to his books, Preble has published over 100 articles in major publications including USA Today, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Reason, the National Interest, the Foreign Service Journal, and the Harvard International Review. He has also appeared on many television and radio news networks including CNN, MSNBC, Fox News Channel, NPR, and the BBC. Before joining Cato in February 2003, he taught history at St. Cloud State University and Temple University. Preble was a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy and is a veteran of the Gulf War, having served onboard USS Ticonderoga (CG-47) from 1990 to 1993. Preble holds a Ph.D. in history from Temple University.

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Libertarians tend to like political decentralization and the principle of subsidiarity (” do everything at the lowest feasible level”). The standard reasoning is that decentralization provides a check on government, especially when combined with mobility across jurisdictions. Thus, if one jurisdiction becomes too overbearing, people can flee to a more welcoming environment, and this possibility will actually prevent governments from running roughshod over their citizens’ liberties, for fear of losing their tax base. Dressed up in the language of rational-choice institutionalism, this is all Barry Weingast’s “market-preserving federalism” model really is.

I would like to posit that, under certain conditions, decentralization can in and of itself represent an increase in freedom, even if government does not shrink as a consequence (even if it grows!).

The argument

Why do radical libertarians think that taxation is theft? Presumably because taxation takes away citizens’ justly acquired property without their consent. But what if they did consent, e.g., through a social contract? Then taxation would be fine, so long as it is levied pursuant to the terms of the contract. But – “I didn’t sign no stinkin’ social contract!” Fair enough, neither have most people – and, eliding a long stream of philosophical argument, it ultimately seems clear that the arguments for empirical anarchism (“very few existing governments have a moral right to rule”) are compelling.

But could a government established illegitimately come to enjoy some legitimacy after a certain period, during which it has performed certain actions? Think about property entitlements. The long history of theft, extortion, and murder in human societies might seem to render virtually all property entitlements illegitimate. But then there are good reasons to think that the moral stain of illegitimate transfer eventually fades as the victims die out and the holdings are transferred justly to subsequent generations. Thus, property entitlements that are illegitimate in origin can eventually be “redeemed.”

In the same way, governments are generally not established by initial unanimous consent (the Mayflower Compact was an interesting historical exception). Therefore, they are morally illegitimate because they violate the rights of nonconsenters. But can governments eventually become legitimate through the establishment of consent? Clearly, no government (that I know of) has ever tried to obtain the signatures of all its citizens to a constitution after the fact. But surely, living under a government can, under some circumstances, convey consent. John Locke’s theory of tacit consent to government holds that “enjoying the dominions of a commonwealth” makes you morally subject to that government – you must obey its laws, or at least not interfere with their enforcement. This theory is inadequate when applied to national states, however, for their very size makes emigration impractical for most. It doesn’t really count as consent if you have no choice.

But what about a condominium association? Let’s suppose a CA was established improperly without all the proper signatures, but carried on governing. It was a morally illegitimate government at its founding. But if you continue to live there for a certain period of time without making a complaint, it seems fair to infer that you have consented to the arrangement. In these circumstances, tacit consent does seem to do some work. Why? Because a condominium association is so small, territorially, that it is easy to leave if you do not like it.

Now replace “condominium association” with “municipal government.” It is reasonably easy to move across municipal jurisdictions. I would venture to guess that there are many towns across the United States where, if all adults were surveyed, none of them would volunteer the belief that their municipal government is illegitimate and has no right to rule. In effect, these town governments enjoy unanimous consent to the basic contract (this does not mean, of course, that there is unanimous consent to every decision the local government makes – but all that matters for “right to rule” is unanimous consent to the basic procedures by which decisions are made).

So if radical libertarians were to go into a town like this and proclaim that resistance to local taxation is just, or that enforcement of ordinances against, say, houses of prostitution is wicked, they would be in the wrong. These policies would not necessarily be violating anyone’s rights, because everyone has consented to the town government’s right to make these decisions. (As an aside, libertarians would probably make more headway with their ideas if they openly acknowledged that local communities should have the right to zone out crack dealerships and brothels, thus cutting the legs out from under the easiest and most unfair reductios of libertarianism.)

In conclusion, decentralization, by placing political decisions in the hands of small-scale governments, can, under conditions of good mobility and respect for basic integrity of the person, inherently improve liberty. “Big government” at the local level need not be unjust, because it often enjoys the consent of the governed. Libertarians need not be complete anarchists, just radical decentralists.

UPDATE: In the comments, Mark LeBar poses a strong challenge to my view that really existing local governments enjoy a moral right to rule. In response, I concede that the right to rule is somewhat impeached by the lack of express consent, but maintain that what matters most is the contents of residents’ “choice sets,” i.e., their real ability to withhold or withdraw consent by moving. In practice, what an impeached right to rule may mean is that there are certain, very fundamental rights that citizens cannot give up except through express consent under conditions of a highly favorable choice set, while there are other rights that may reasonably be considered to be alienated simply through residence and absence of explicit dissent. Local governments would then enjoy a right to rule in the latter areas, but not the former. Levying low taxes might fit the latter category, while imprisoning private drug users might fit the former. This is admittedly a bit arbitrary & not totally satisfactory. Nevertheless, I don’t think I need the strong claim that local governments enjoy any kind of right to rule in order to make the weaker claim that limitations on freedom enacted by local governments are inherently less oppressive (if not totally non-oppressive) than the same limitations enacted by higher-level governments.

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