Archive for February, 2012

I’ve recently returned from the New Hampshire Liberty Forum, held February 23-26 in Nashua, NH and sponsored by the Free State Project. The two evening keynote speakers were libertarian free-range farmer Joel Salatin and investor and recent U.S. Senate candidate Peter Schiff. In addition, session speakers included school-choice economist Angela Dills, former Libertarian Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Ken Krawchuk, jailed marijuana activist Marc Emery’s wife Jodie, economist John Lott, Institute for Justice litigator Clark Neily, libertarian-anarchist feminist Sharon Presley, and Laissez-Faire Books publisher and former Mises.org editor Jeffrey Tucker.

Unfortunately, I had to help take care of a sick child, and I missed most of the talks, including Joel Salatin’s Saturday-night address. However, I did get to hear Jodie Emery, Ken Krawchuk, and Peter Schiff, and, perhaps more importantly, to catch up with many New Hampshire friends. The event received a good bit of local press coverage. Some examples:

Wire NH:

Events like this and their annual summer Porcupine Freedom Festival not only serve to promote the Libertarian mindset, but also create conversation that Free State Project president Carla Gericke says is of the utmost importance to the group’s goals.

“We are striving to live as free as possible,” Gericke said. “With freedom comes great responsibility. Sometimes, when I think about the movement, it’s almost like a form of localization on steroids.”

Gericke believes the Free State Project is attractive to people because the idea of collecting Libertarians to make a difference in government is a practical one. She added that, since her election as Free State Project president in 2011—three years after her own move to New Hampshire—she has been less focused on getting signatures on the statement of intent.

“Some of my focus has actually moved toward attracting people to move,” she said. “It’s great that they signed the pledge, but in terms of things on the ground, the more bodies we have here, the more we can actually accomplish.”

Nashua Telegraph:

The forum, in its fifth year, is the annual meeting for the New Hampshire Free State Project. Free Staters already living in New Hampshire and those thinking about moving here make up most of the participants, but everyone is invited, said Chris Lawless, a Hopkinton resident and the Free State Project’s forum organizer.

“We want people to come meet us, see we don’t have horns growing out of our heads,” Lawless said.

Nashua Telegraph #2:

Freedom to live as one chooses is a powerful ideal, and a conference exploring the concept was worth the drive from New Jersey for Marcus Connor, 37.

“Liberty is dying every day in the United States,” Connor said.

The government is killing it, he said.

That view was espoused in speeches throughout the morning. It was the drumbeat that would sound throughout the various programs of the forum.

One of the day’s first speakers, John Bush, talked of the need to abandon the U.S. Constitution, which he said was written to protect the interests of the nation’s founding fathers, who were “the privileged elite at the time.”

Bush represented Agora 21, described as “a counter-economic approach to building a free society in the 21st century.”

Bush acknowledged the Constitution marked civilization’s best achievement toward limiting government, but added, “I think we can do better. I think we can do much better.”


Keynote speaker Friday is economist Peter Schiff, CEO of Connecticut-based Euro Pacific Capital Inc., who will talk about the current economic business cycle (a sham), what mistakes have been made (too many to count), what to expect next (something worse than the last collapse), and what you can do to prepare (buy gold, vote for Ron Paul, invest in foreign currency).

As you may have guessed, if you’re looking for someone to paint a rosy picture of the country’s gradual economic recovery since 2008, Schiff is not your guy.

“The future is bleak,” said Schiff in a recent phone interview with Nashua Patch.

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Isn’t it a sad reflection on the state of the Republican Party when one is relieved that Romney wasn’t mortally wounded in yesterday’s Michigan primary?  Unless a convention fight is in the cards, isn’t Romney the least bad real choice still available (especially since he and Ron Paul keep playing footsie)?  Good thing there is a lot of ruin in a nation!



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David Brooks is very grumpy today, blasting the leaders of the GOP for hiding from their responsibilities and letting “wingers” and “protestors” take over the party:

In the 1960s and ’70s, the fight was between conservatives and moderates. Conservatives trounced the moderates and have driven them from the party. These days the fight is between the protesters and the professionals. The grass-roots protesters in the Tea Party and elsewhere have certain policy ideas, but they are not that different from the Republicans in the “establishment.”

The big difference is that the protesters don’t believe in governance. They have zero tolerance for the compromises needed to get legislation passed. They don’t believe in trimming and coalition building. For them, politics is more about earning respect and making a statement than it is about enacting legislation. It’s grievance politics, identity politics.

Good point, but what does it mean to be a party leader these days, anyway?  And who, really, are these people, these supposed leaders who are hiding behind the voting booths rather than keeping the unwashed Tea Party zealots from running the party ship aground?   Whoever they are, they are definitely “not honorable to kowtow to the extremes so [they] can preserve [their] political career[s],” says Brooks.   So, these dishonorable, kowtowing bunch of “mainstream conservatives” have lost control of the asylum, and now the lunatics are in charge.

I’m not sure which is more dishonorable, pretending not to be a moderate to win primaries (which Republicans do) or pretending to be a moderate (which is what Democrats have been doing for years).  In either case, politicians keep obeying the fundamental theorem of politics: if you don’t win, nothing else matters.   “Pandering” and “kowtowing” are pejoratives used by pundits to malign politicians for promising to do what voters actually want them to do.  Another word for it is democracy.

The latest news from Michigan is that Democrats are urging their rank and file to go out and vote for Santorum.  It is hard to know if this is a ploy to keep Obama from having to face Romney, or if it is one of those clever tricks to get Republicans to think that Obama is afraid of Romney, thereby encouraging more Republicans to vote for Romney.  Sort of a twist on my enemy’s enemy is my friend (but maybe that is just what Santorum wants you to think?).

The continuing story of the campaign is all the Super-PACS spending loads of money with no one supervising them.  Of course this is mostly the story in the media because no one is more threatened by Super-PACS than the mainstream press.  If everyone is out there saying whatever they want to, as loudly as they want to, with no one regulating them, it not only mutes the message of the official campaigns, but it provides further competition for the media, not to mention making their jobs harder (a chat with the campaign manager on the back of the campaign bus will no longer suffice).

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton is chipping in by warning that our political dialogue is inflaming passions among the Afghanis—like they really need sweater-vested Americans to become inflamed.    It’s like saying Mayor Bloomberg is responsible for inflaming the anti-Yankee passions of the Red Sox Nation.

Who is in charge here?   The thing that social engineers of all stripes hate about market economies is that no one is in charge.  Indeed, it is the lack of central planning that gives the free market its strength.  Does this work in politics, too?

Mr. Brooks longs for the old days when Democrats and Republicans got together over cocktails to hammer out new ways to raise spending on entitlement programs, following which they would go out together to dinner with New York Times columnists.  Those days are gone.

I keep wondering in my mind which would be the worst case scenario: Santorum getting the nomination and getting trounced by a President who will have to do little more than sound reasonable (something he is pretty darn good at); or Romney winning the nomination but entering the campaign so bloodied and bruised that he has little chance, which will lead the ignorant to believe that what the party really needed was a Gingrich, Bachman, Santorum or, God help us, Sarah Palin.  The really depressing thing is that regardless of which scenario plays out, Barak Obama gets to appoint the next Supreme Court justice.  [Ever notice that those who are most outraged about the Court's disrespect for the Constitution are those most willing to sacrifice the appointment power in the name of ideological purity?]

This debate over strong leaders v. democratic processes goes back to the Founding.   When asked whether we were going to have a monarchy or a republic, Ben Franklin quipped,   “A republic, if you can keep it.”

This many years later, it is still not so clear that we can.

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John Heilemann has an interesting essay on the 2012 GOP primaries (“The Lost Party,” in New York Magazine) Core argument: Regardless of who the GOP nominee is (and here the choice is Romney and Santorum), a loss to Obama will and important implications for the future of the GOP.  If Romney wins—and then loses—the lesson will be clear: moderates can’t win. The party will gravitate toward the charismatic populist right. If Santorum wins—and then loses—the lesson will be equally clear, and would open the door to more moderate conservatives (e.g., Jeb Bush, Daniels, Christie).  For the first case, the historical analog is the shift from Ford to Reagan; for the second, the analog is Goldwater to Nixon.  One might disagree with the article’s characterization of Bush, Daniels, Christie et al as moderates–in fact they seem far more conservative than Mr. Romney.  But the overarching argument is nonetheless interesting and the article is a delight to read.

Heilmann ends on an interesting note, suggesting that those who believe that two credible governing parties are vitally important should wish Santorum luck.

A Santorum nomination would be seen by many liberals as a scary and retrograde proposition. And no doubt it would make for a wild ride, with enough talk of Satan, abortifacients, and sweater vests to drive any sane man bonkers. But in the long run, it might do a world of good, compelling Republicans to return to their senses—and forge ahead into the 21st century.


Santorum and Romney most certainly differ on their overt religiosity and their level of comfort in rallying the culture warriors (although I suspect that Santorum is being somewhat mischaracterized by a press intent on repeating a very selective sample of his statements, quite aware that they are repellant to many moderate and independent voters). But on another dimension, both of the top candidates are quite similar: both are statists and neither makes anything more than a rhetorical case against social engineering and aggressive foreign policy. To the extent that this is the case, they have more in common with the incumbent than they do with libertarians who once again seem to find little of interest in the GOP.

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I commented earlier on the noble stand and relatively sophisticated views (for an athlete) of Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas.  But generally athletes and celebrities have little to add to public debate.  Here (in response to a question about the recent contraception rule controversy) is Danica Patrick espousing a view of government that belies reality and is fit for a nation of sheep rather than free men and women.  However,  it is more typical of what one would expect from a celebrity*:

“I leave it up to the government to make good decisions for Americans.”

Of course it is Thomas who was hammered in the media.  Wouldn’t want to disrespect the government since it is only trying to make good decisions for Americans and all.

* Though to be fair to Patrick – even though her argument is still worth castigating given its silly view of government and how (unfortunately) representative it is of the views of so many people – she wasn’t exactly looking to make a political statement when this reporter asked her such an off-the-wall question for essentially a race media event at the NPC.

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The following letter from Koch Industries, Inc. was sent out yesterday in response to the Obama campaign’s recent fundraising smear.  It deserves to be posted in full (and I would have done so yesterday except I didn’t want to bump Sven’s excellent post on education).  I’m sure Bill Maher, George Soros, and other liberals are outraged by rich men trying to influence political outcomes with their “disproportionate” wealth:

 Friday, February 24th, 2012

A Letter to the Obama Campaign

Mr. Jim Messina
Campaign Manager
Obama for America

Dear Mr. Messina:

Because every American has the right to take part in the public discourse on matters that affect the future of our country, I feel compelled to respond directly about a fundraising letter you sent out on February 24 denouncing Koch. It is both surprising and disappointing that the President would allow his re-election team to send such an irresponsible and misleading letter to his supporters.

For example, it is false that our “business model is to make millions by jacking up prices at the pump.” Our business vision begins and ends with value creation — real, long-term value for customers and for society. We own no gasoline stations and the part of our business you allude to, oil and gas refining, actually lowers the price of gasoline by increasing supply. Either you simply misunderstand the way commodities markets work or you are misleading your supporters and the rest of the American people.

Contrary to your assertion that we have “committed $200 million to try to destroy President Obama,” we have stated publicly and repeatedly since last November that we have never made any such claim or pledge. It is hard to imagine that the campaign is unaware of our publicly stated position on that point. Similarly, Americans for Prosperity is not simply “funded by the Koch brothers,” as you state — rather it has tens of thousands of members and contributors from across the country and from all walks of life. Further, our opposition to this President’s policies is not based on partisan politics but on principles. Charles Koch and David Koch have been outspoken advocates of the free-market for over 50 years and they have consistently opposed policies that frustrate or subvert free markets, regardless of whether a Democrat or a Republican was President.

If the President’s campaign has some principled disagreement with the arguments we are making publicly about the staggering debt the President and previous administrations have imposed on the country, the regulations that are stifling business growth and innovation, the increasing intrusion of government into nearly every aspect of American life, we would be eager to hear them. But it is an abuse of the President’s position and does a disservice to our nation for the President and his campaign to criticize private citizens simply for the act of engaging in their constitutional right of free speech about important matters of public policy. The implication in that sort of attack is obvious: dare to criticize the President’s policies and you will be singled out and personally maligned by the President and his campaign in an effort to chill free speech and squelch dissent.

This is not the first time that the President and his Administration have engaged in this sort of disturbing behavior. As far back as August, 2010, Austan Goolsbee, then the President’s chief economic advisor, made public comments concerning Koch’s tax status and falsely stated that the company did not pay income tax, which triggered a federal investigation into Mr. Goolsbee’s conduct that potentially implicated federal law against improper disclosure of taxpayer information. Last June, your colleagues sent fundraising letters disparaging us as “plotting oil men” bent on “misleading people” with “disinformation” in order to “smear” the President’s record. Those accusations were baseless and were made at the very same time the president was publicly calling for a more “civil conversation” in the country.

It is understandable that the President and his campaign may be “tired of hearing” that many Americans would rather not see the president re-elected. However, the inference is that you would prefer that citizens who disagree with the President and his policies refrain from voicing their own viewpoint. Clearly, that’s not the way a free society should operate.

We agree with the President that civil discourse is an American strength. That is why it is troubling to see a national political campaign apparently target individual citizens and private companies for some perceived political advantage. I also hope the President will reflect on how the approach the campaign is using is at odds with our national values and the constitutional right to free speech.


Philip Ellender
President, Government & Public Affairs
Koch Companies Public Sector, LLC

Standard disclosure: I have received funding from the Kochs for educational purposes. However, I was defending “free minds and free markets” long before such a relationship began and this was likely part of the cause not the effect of that relationship.

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Value added?

I’ve been meaning to comment on the public release of teacher performance data since the LA Times did a major data release several months ago.  It is a complicated issue, and there are many reasons not to release the data.  Bill Gates discussed some of them in a NY Times editorial yesterday.

Today the NY Times released its own batch of data, after the teachers union failed in its effort to block the school district from doing so.  From reading the comments on the web site (many of them by teachers) I have come up with my own performance metric: every teacher who displays by their comments a fundamental misunderstanding of value-added measures should receive a negative evaluation.  Some of this is willful misunderstanding of the sort characterized by Upton Sinclair—”It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it”—but much of it is just plain old-fashioned ignorance of the type people go to college to avoid.

Most these misunderstandings take the form of “so many factors affect test scores that the teacher doesn’t have control over.”  True enough.  But value-added measures (when they are based on sufficient sample sizes) by and large remove these factors since the value-added measures capture the change in performance from year to year.   The favorite thing to blame is socioeconomic status.  But a teacher who wants to improve their value-added scores would prefer to teach poor, troubled kids, since there is way more potential upside to improve scores—and it is only the improvement from year to year that matters in value-added measures.  The spoiled brats will do well regardless of teacher, so there is likely a much lower marginal return for teaching the privileged. 

It is dispiriting to hear such important, revealing measures being disparaged by people who have every incentive to understand them, but clearly don’t.  Equally unsettling is the notion that test scores don’t measure anything of value.  It has become conventional gospel among the teaching establishment and, more generally, critics of NCLB, that “teaching to the test” is this horrible thing that no decent educator would want to do.  But doesn’t it depend on the test and the subject?  Standardized test scores are not by any means perfect measures of learning, but they do some things fairly well.  And it seems hard to make the case that someone is a good teacher if his/her students consistently underperform on standardized tests.  Is there really the trade-off between test performance and other educational outcomes not meausured by tests?  I doubt it (and I doubt there is any evidence for it).

Put another way, is it too much to expect that our kids can think creatively and analytically and be able to divide fractions.  I would like my kids to understand things like why we would want to divide fractions in the first place and how fractions relate to the real world they live in.  But if they can’t actually divide fractions, aren’t the higher level analytical skills sort of meaningless?  And isn’t the best way to determine if kids can divide fractions is to give them some fractions on a test and see if they can divide them.  If teaching to the test means kids can actually take take two fractions and divide them and come up with the answer, while not teaching to the test means they can’t, then please, let us have teachers who teach to the test!

I have worries about disparaging and dispiriting teachers—most of whom work hard and do reasonably well.  But evidence is accumulating in study after study that improving teacher performance is the key to educational reform.  How to do that certainly isn’t as simple as publicly releasing data.  However, on balance, efforts to bring accountability into the classroom have to be promoted, however painful.

And one clear signal that releasing this type of data is a good idea is that teachers’ unions oppose it.  The best reform agenda that any public body could adopt is to go through the list of policy options that teachers unions hate and implement each one of them.

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Bribery or justice?

Yasuni National Park — a 10,000-sq-km reserve on the western fringes of the Amazon basin — is indeed a paradise, considered by many scientists to be the single most biodiverse spot on the planet. But it’s a paradise in danger of being lost. Oil companies have found rich deposits beneath the park’s trees and rivers, nearly 900 million barrels of crude worth billions of dollars.

This account, from a recent article in Time, by Bryan Walsh, could be just another story of big, bad capitalists trying to destroy the environment, but there is a very interesting twist:

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has told the international community that his country would be willing to forgo drilling and leave Yasuni largely intact in exchange for donations equal to $3.6 billion over 13 years.

The Yasuni story is an interesting case study in environmental and international ethics.  The first world loves to preach to the third world about environmental values, and Ecuador is giving us a chance to put up or shut up.  There are some complicating challenges, such as the chronic instability of Ecuadorian government, which makes many wonder with the Ecuadorians can be trusted to keep their end of the bargain, rather than just taking the money and then running to the oil companies anyway.

And then there is the question of who, exactly, should pay up.  This grand Coasean bargain is made difficult, in a predictable way, by the game of rich countries trying to free ride off other rich countries.  The benefits of preserving this diverse ecosystem are primarily psychological, not economic or even, perhaps, ecological; thus,  converting those psychic values into dollars is not an easy task.  Who should pay for the environmental benefits, and how do the rich countries come to a bargain that will stick?

I like what the Ecuadorians are trying to do.  They have a resource that other people don’t want them to exploit.  Theirs is a mostly impoverished population who has every right to demand compensation for satisfying the eco-whims of the privileged.  I applaud their willingness to be seen as environmental pirates.

But at the same time, this story is sad because it illustrates the following false dichotomy:

You see, there are really only two options here: 1) the pristine wilderness we see on the left or 2) what happens when oil companies enter the picture, which is seen on the right.

Sadly, these images illustrate how far too many environmentalists frame the effort to preserve environmental value.  We get to choose either the picture on the left or the picture on the right.  They do this by making arguments about how “sensitive” or “fragile” an ecosystem is [fun activity for the reader: ask your favorite environmentalist to name one of the thousands of ecosystems on the planet that isn't "sensitive" and watch him/her fumble for an answer], arguing that any encroachment at all by development will cause the whole system to fall apart.

Hogwash.  No sane person wants to see great rainforests compromised.  On the other hand, most sane people are skeptical that responsible energy development cannot preserve the dominant share of environmental values.  Environmental sanity is, as always, about balancing, not about perpetuating false dichotomies.  This is true in the Yasuni rainforest, and it is true everywhere.

Of course, if Geroge Soros or Al Gore or Bill Gates or the Sierra Club want to get  their money together and pay the Ecuadorians to keep out the bad guys, I’d celebrate that–as long as they don’t use my money.

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The NH House passed a resolution today condemning the White House for its infamous contraception rule.  The NH Journal notes that this was a national first:  “The New Hampshire House of Representatives has thus become the first elected body in America to officially vote to condemn the ruling.”  Although without teeth, this move is still nice to see.  Here is the story:

The Republican-dominated state House of Representatives overwhelming voted Wednesday to condemn the Obama administration’s controversial rule requiring religiously-affiliated institutions to offer health coverage that includes “free” access to contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs. The House’s Resolution 29 passed with a vote of 227-121.  [snip]

“House Resolution 29 is not about the merits of contraception,” said House Speaker William O’Brien. It is not about whether insurers choose to offer coverage for these services in their policies. It also is not about the Catholic Church’s policies on contraception, sterilization or any other of its teachings or beliefs. Rather, HR 29 stands up for our religious institutions that have long-held principles and teachings under assault by a president and his ideology that seeks not merely to reject, but to tear down our liberties.”

“House leadership introduced House Resolution 29 to defend New Hampshire’s long and proud history of religious tolerance, while pushing back against the deeply flawed law known as ObamaCare,” added House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt. “The new mandate from the Obama administration requiring religious organizations to offer insurance coverage for practices that go against the teachings and tenets of their faith is an unnecessary, cynical and unconstitutional attack on religious institutions. To those who say HR29 detracts from this legislature’s focus on New Hampshire’s economy, let us remind them this issue highlights a critical issue facing our economy, the effect of mandates on the cost of health insurance.”

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Tax Simplification

The Obama administration is now proposing to simply the corporate tax code. As the NYT notes:

President Obama will ask Congress to scrub the corporate tax code of dozens of loopholes and subsidies to reduce the top rate to 28 percent, down from 35 percent, while giving preferences to manufacturers that would set their maximum effective rate at 25 percent, a senior administration official said on Tuesday.

Mr. Obama also would establish a minimum tax on multinational corporations’ foreign earnings, the official said, to discourage “accounting games to shift profits abroad” or actual relocation of production overseas.

There is a strong theoretical case for tax simplification across the board. So much of what constitutes our corporate tax code is a dense network of tax expenditures, de facto transfers delivered through the tax system. The same could be said of the tax code more generally.

But the proposal, even in its initial rollout, should raise concerns. The decision to set differential rates for manufacturers reveals that there is no principled objection to using the tax code as an instrument of industrial policy. One might predict that even if this proposal made it through Congress as proposed in an election year (what are the odds?), members of Congress regardless of party would simply take away expenditures at time 1 so they could sell them back at time 2.

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Regulatory Sprawl

The new edition of the Economist  has some rather entertaining articles on regulation in the US (the cover story: “Over-regulated America”). Little in the articles will come as a surprise to scholars of regulation. But there are many entertaining examples of regulatory sprawl and complexity. Some examples:

“The Federal Railroad Administration insists that all trains must be painted with an “F” at the front, so you can tell which end is which.”

“Every hour spent treating a patient in America creates at least 30 minutes of paperwork, and often a whole hour. Next year the number of federally mandated categories of illness and injury for which hospitals may claim reimbursement will rise from 18,000 to 140,000. There are nine codes relating to injuries caused by parrots, and three relating to burns from flaming water-skis.”

Or Dodd-Frank: “At 848 pages, it is 23 times longer than Glass-Steagall, the reform that followed the Wall Street crash of 1929. Worse, every other page demands that regulators fill in further detail. Some of these clarifications are hundreds of pages long. Just one bit, the “Volcker rule”, which aims to curb risky proprietary trading by banks, includes 383 questions that break down into 1,420 subquestions.”

The growth in regulation has been moderated in the past three decades, thanks in part to the introduction of cost-benefit-based regulatory review at the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. OMB review has become far more rigorous and transparent overtime. In many cases, there is clear evidence that benefits exceed costs. However, the review process remains focused on “significant” regulations, ignoring the aggregate significance of seemingly insignificant regulations.  Moreover, there is little in the way of systematic analysis of existing regulations, many of which did not meet the significance criteria imposed under the prevailed executive orders (EO 12291 under Reagan-Bush, EO 12886 thereafter).

President Obama’s OMB has called, quite sensibly, for greater efforts at retrospective analysis (e.g., rather than relying solely on the analysis of significant regulations ex ante, when much of the analysis is based on sophisticated guesswork). But there is little to suggest that this will ever become a priority for agencies or that rule revocation—if taken seriously—would be tolerated by Congress, given that most regulations—even the most absurd—have constituencies.

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For all the usual association of independence movements with violence and “separatism,” the fact is that secessionist movements in liberal democracies usually pursue their aims peacefully, through the democratic process, and central governments resolve not to use military force to prevent secession authorized by a democratic vote (imagine that!). Such is the case in Scotland, where a referendum on independence is to be held within the next three years.

Given that sending Her Majesty’s Armed Forces north of Hadrian’s Wall is simply not on offer, responsible politicians from all British unionist parties are starting to mull openly significant powers for Scotland. The Prime Minister himself has promised a semi-federal union for Scotland if they rejected independence, and business-funded think-tank Reform Scotland and Labour politician Alistair Darling are also on record as supporting substantial fiscal powers for Scotland. The reason such decentralization might be salutary is not only that it might preserve the union (if one believes that should be a goal), but that it moves the UK closer to the principle that each level of government should pay its own way: true fiscal federalism. Of course, for fiscal federalism to work as it ought, you need more than an autonomous Scotland (and Wales and Northern Ireland). You need English local governance to be comprehensively reformed as well.

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Here is a recent tweet from economist “Angus” of KPC fame: “Dear “civilized” world: How long are we going to let this puto Assad murder and oppress the people of Syria?”

I doubt he is being sarcastic so as a political scientist I have the same reaction to this as an economist would probably have to something said by a political theorist along the lines of “Dear ‘civilized’ world: How long are we going to let pharmaceutical companies prevent the poor from receiving the drugs they need?” or “Dear ‘civilized’ world: How long are we going to let banks foreclose on poor people with underwater mortgages?” or something equally lacking in complexity.

I agree with a lot of the posts I see at libertarian websites like KPC but cosmopolitan libertarian and utilitarian takes on foreign policy are usually tough to take seriously in the world as it is (not to mention that their revealed preferences make it hard to imagine they are really that concerned with foreign tyrants).  Then again, it was only a tweet and those guys are batting way above the Mendoza line in general.

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The new macro (part 2)

A new strain of macroeconomics going by the name of “Market Monetarism” is blooming in the blogosphere.  In an earlier post, I sketched out what I saw as the fundamental economic arguments for market monetarism.  The central idea is policy-focused: central banks should target the level of nominal GDP (NGDP), rather than other aggregates such as interest rates or inflation.

But policy proposals only get put into practice if they make political sense, and the political obstacles to market monetarism are significant, perhaps insurmountable.  Scott Sumner argued last Fall that a high inflation target (say 3-4%) is “not politically viable,” but that NGDP targeting is politically sensible “because it effectively combines both facets of the Fed’s dual mandate, and so should be attractive to those on both the left and the right who argue that the requirement to simultaneous address inflation and unemployment makes it impossible for the Fed to tackle either very well.”

There is a certain logic here—though the idea that the left and the right these days would get together to pursue a radical new approach to, well, anything strikes me as naïve. However, it is the sort of grand bargain that appeals to policy intellectuals but not to politicians.  Who is going to be the political leader on this approach?  It is hard to see any elected official trying to build a consensus.  This isn’t an issue that the public can sink its teeth into easily and, therefore, elected officials would probably be too risk averse to take it on (especially given that the number of elected officials who understand macroeconomic policy debates is a very small group to begin with).

Though it is challenging to sell NGDP targeting to the public (and, hence, to elected officials), it is painfully easy to mischaracterize and malign the policy.  Isn’t the policy, after all, really just about easy money and debasing the currency?  Taking this stance isn’t a political challenge, especially since the market monetarists use language like “debasing the currency.”  NGDP targeting in a crisis, such as the crisis of 2008, involves a massive increase in the monetary base.  The Fed aggressively purchases real assets and, as a result, pumps more money into the economy.  This is fundamentally different than printing money to pay government debts, since it doesn’t hurt the government’s balance sheet, and the government is buying (and holding) market assets rather than spending on goods and services  But the Fed is still creating new money, which is a political hot potato.

It is true that the market monetarists do not have to convince the public; they only have to convince the Fed.  Yet the Fed and central banks hardly operate in a political vacuum.  The legitimacy of their rule over the economy is actively contested, and they face a difficult task of steering through the political morass full of people who often hate them and usually have no idea of what they are talking about.

The prime example of course is Ron Paul and others who see the Fed as the Great Bogeyman.  It doesn’t matter than none of the expansion of the monetary base has led to even the slightest amount of inflation, increases in interest rates or anything else indicative of easy money.  Indeed, the market monetarists argue that the Fed’s anemic response to the sharp decline in NGDP in the Summer and Fall of 2008 was the main cause of the Great Recession and point to evidence that monetary policy in this area was actually contractionary, despite the large increase in the monetary base, and that the Fed should have increased the money supply much more than it did.  But try to tell that story to fear mongers like Glenn Beck.

Regardless of the wisdom of NGDP targeting, it will be very hard for the Fed to pursue aggressive monetary measures while the economically ignorant voices on the right have so much influence.  Ron Paul gets criticized by people on the right for a number of things, but his dangerous rhetoric on the Fed seldom gets challenged. Market monetarists want an unbridled (though rule-driven) Federal Reserve that can move quickly to offset nominal shocks by generating inflation.  It’s hard to think of a political sales pitch that is going to rationalize such a policy action.  During recessions, conservatives want to blame the problem (regardless of what the problem is) on a too-powerful government.  The Fed makes a convenient government target, even when the real problem is that the Fed is being far too conservative, as it was in 2008.

It is true that leftists like the idea of fighting unemployment, so they might be tepid supporters for monetary expansions—in the short run.  But when it comes time to ratchet down the money supply because of excessive NGDP growth, the leftists will quickly abandon any policy consensus.  And, there will always be a segment of the left who see monetary policy not as bad policy in itself but as a threat to fiscal expansion, which is what they really want.   Though the left has a genuine concern for those burdened by economic downturns, what the Krugmanites want, in the core of their being, is a reliable food supply for Leviathan.  The long-term devotion to the regulatory welfare state outweighs any concerns for leveling out business cycles.  This is why the Krugmanites are so eager to argue that we are in a liquidity trap without any monetary tools despite the silliness of this claim (market monetarists argue that no central bank that wanted to devalue its currency has ever failed to do so, and there are a variety of mechanisms to accomplish it).

The long-term concerns of the right, on the other hand, are reducing the scope of government and generating economic growth.  There is a justifiable concern about using policy tools (printing money) in the short run that require a disciplined response (taking the money back) by a government that has never demonstrated long-term economic discipline.  As Tyler Cowan noted today, “there is a widespread belief that central bank discretion will always be abused.”  Even though NGDP targeting would actually curtail the discretion of central banks, Cowan notes that “expansionary” just sounds like discretion.  Cowen also notes the widely held belief that inflation has been the cause of many economic problems, so an explicitly inflationary policy tool sounds like “an affiliation with ideas that are dangerous.”  No matter how skillful the rational for NGDP targeting may be and no matter how hard advocates try to avoid the word inflation, the market monetarists approach to downturns is simple: inflation.  It doesn’t matter that the inflation comes with a promise to contract quickly after NGDP recovers, it will continue to sound like irresponsibility.

But there may be a source of political opposition that is stronger than any of the traditional left-right political battles discussed above.  What I’m talking about is old-fashioned academic politics.  The market monetarists—Sumner (Bentley U.), Woolsey (The Citadel), Beckworth (Texas State, San Marcos), Rowe (Carleton U.), Hendrickson (U. Mississippi)—are economists at relatively obscure teaching colleges writing in blogs.  Where are the prestigious vitas and the prestigious journals?  This is not a critique of their ideas, merely a statement about the hubris of the academy.  Who do these people think they are, anyway, and who takes blogging seriously?

To play the devil’s advocate, it will be important for market monetarism to start playing by the rules, meaning formal papers published in quality peer-reviewed outlets.  The market monetarists have been very critical of the economics profession in many ways, including the failure to call for additional monetary expansion in the critical period in 2008 when NGDP was tanking.  But they need to be more than just a voice crying in the wilderness.  They need to write the papers that get published in places serious economists care about.  The hope for market monetarists is not really getting the left and the right to form a consensus.  The hope comes from the key aspect of the Market Monetarists approach: they take both market signals and market imperfections very seriously.  That is what any sensible approach to business cycles has to involve.  In terms of policy, there is a very real possibility of forging some alliances between real business cycle (RBC) theorists who understand the importance of nominal shocks and sticky prices with New Keynesians who are not ideologically riveted to the fool’s errand of fiscal policy.  That, by the way, is a fairly large group of people.   The love that Tyler Cowen gives them quite regularly is a good start in that direction.  But now they need to move the debate from the blogosphere into the Journal of Monetary Economics and other similar outlets.

Bob Lucas is famous for saying (among many other things, of course) that “the language of economics is mathematics; all the rest is just pictures and talk.”  The blog approach, for better and for worse, is all about pictures and talk.  The new macro, unfortunately, won’t be taken seriously until they start speaking the language of economics.

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My first book, Secessionism: Identity, Interest, and Strategy, has been released by McGill-Queen’s University Press. Secessionism is the first comprehensive, empirical study of the causes and consequences of contemporary secessionist movements worldwide. It also has a normative component, as I interpret from the empirical results a case for “legalizing secession” in order to reduce the incidence of violence.

Anyone who orders the book before August 31, 2012 should do so at the press’ website and use the coupon code “SORENS12″ at checkout for 20% off.

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Not literally, but one wonders if this (from their book The Dictator’s Handbook) is the best explanation for the problem and thus relevant to what justice demands in terms of a solution:

While most of us think of a state’s bankruptcy as a financial crisis, looking through the prism of political survival makes evident that it really amounts to a political crisis.  When debt exceeds the ability to pay, the problem for a leader is not so much that good public works must be cut back, but rather that the incumbent doesn’t have the resources necessary to purchase political loyalty from key backers.  Bad economic times in a democracy mean too little money to fund pork-barrel projects that buy political popularity.  For kleptocrats it means passing up vast sums of money, and maybe even watching secret bank accounts dwindle along with the loyalty of their underpaid henchmen.  

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New York Knick basketball player Jeremy Lin’s story is so good and so much like a Hollywood script it is hard to believe it is true.  Indeed, it shows yet again that lucky coaches entrepreneurs can exploit market inefficiencies caused by imperfect/unclear information or discrimination (anti-Harvard, anti-Asian, etc).  And I’m as excited about the new breakout NBA star as anyone.

But basketball watchers will know that you can’t get it done as a point guard with 9 turnovers like he had last night.  It just gives too many potential scoring opportunities away.  Indeed, his high turnover per minute (he’s dead last in the league among PGs) and low assist/turnover ratio (he’s 61st in the league among PGs) make people like me who want this guy to succeed worry.*  I hope that as Lin gets used to the pace and talent of NBA play that he’ll improve in the turnover area – but not so much as to represent a threat to my Celtics (who already have a bigger problem – age!).  Just kidding.  It would be great to see Lin become a top point guard in the league.

* Though I’m not hearing too many complaints about Russell Westbrook despite his own problems in this regard.  Perhaps this is b/c he plays in Oklahoma?

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1.  Don’t believe the hype department.  According to libgressive commentator E.J. Dionne, Santorum can argue that “he is more or less equally strong against the president” as Romney is.  Really?  Based on a couple of snapshot in time polls?  Does anyone really think a SoCon in today’s America has a serious shot at the Presidency (absent another issue dominating such that the SoCon isn’t really running as a SoCon) or that he is really as strong against Obama as Romney? 

The Obama camp is surely salivating at the idea of running against Santorum.  Not that Romney is that great – he is a weak candidate himself.  But don’t you think you’d be laughed out of the building if – two years ago – you told the President that the Republicans in this ObamaCare, Tea Party, Debt Burdened, and Economically Troubled Era might actually run a hawkish social conservative who couldn’t even win re-election to the Senate not so long ago?  When a liberal columnist starts talking up the threat of Santorum, make sure you’ve installed batteries in your b.s. alarm.  The left would love him as an opponent or at least someone who will bleed Romney of cash and credibility over the next several months (but perhaps they should be careful what they wish for – see here even though I think this scenario is still far-fetched).

Those who would like to see Obama serve only one term need to do one of two things: 1) quickly line up behind Romney as the best but unlikely hope to do so; or 2) hope for Santorum, Gingrich, and Paul to keep racking up enough delegates that the convention is divided (and the adults in the party make the call to Indianapolis or New Jersey).  In the latter case, a Santorum victory in Michigan might help that cause since this outcome would be sure to start even more grumbling (see here).  Wouldn’t it be absolutely perfect if Ron Paul’s delegates were critical to tipping the balance at the convention?  Unlikely, but that would be almost as interesting as 2000.  

So, can I still stay on the Daniels bandwagon?  Not if things go as I expect and there is a limping Rommey on the ticket but no real convention fight.  

2.  Speaking of limping along, NATO is still alive despite being a perfect case of an institution that has outlasted its usefulness.  Fortunately, the U.S. troop commitment to Europe is going to be getting smaller.  If you can stomach the bureaucratic propaganda boilerplate up front, here is a EUCOM statement that details some of the changes. 

Given NATO’s widely acknowledged problems actually performing critical missions outside of Europe and its irrelevance in Europe where peace is largely overdetermined (and even where not, something the Europeans should be securing themselves), the cuts are welcome but still too small.   Are the benefits of a permanent, peacetime multilateral Atlantic alliance really worth the costs, risks, and unintended consequences?  I say bring the boys (and women) home – or at least off-shore.

3.  I find it galling that people on the left (and in the media) get so hot about the Kochs and other wealthy conservatives/libertarians but have nothing to say about other rich people trying to influence politics and the youth using their great means.  Oh yeah, I forgot that this rich woman is public-spirited but the Kochs are simply self-serving (and people like me are the dupes and fools of their self-interested pursuits who actually believe in freedom and markets but haven’t figured out what they are really up to).*

4.  Are you telling me that I can actually exercise self-control and resist things that are bad for me without nudges (or rather pushes or even handcuffs) from the state?  I’m having the trouble summoning up the willpower not to rush out and buy this book immediately rather than waiting for Amazon to fulfill my order through the mail.  

* Disclosure: I have received funding from the Kochs for educational purposes.  However, I was defending “free minds and free markets” long before such a relationship began and this was likely the cause not the effect of that relationship.

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Paul Krugman (NYT) turns to the article that we have been discussing on Pileus (here and here) and Monty addressed in an insightful post on Ace of Spades.  Krugman has never really acknowledged the reality of a looming entitlement crisis (indeed, it often appears that there can be no program large enough, no deficit large enough, no marginal rate high enough). So instead, he turns to the irony of the situation: those in the red states have a higher dependency on the social safety net than those in the blue states, yet they gravitate toward small government rhetoric and the GOP.  The question is: why?

Unsurprisingly, the focus turns to a few well-worn explanations.  One might argue (following Thomas Frank) that the plutocrats, who promise Jesus and deliver tax cuts for the rich, simply manipulate the red state rubes. Alternatively, one might argue (following Suzanne Mettler) that people would love the state if they only understood all the good things it does for them (e.g., many Social Security and Medicare recipients deny that they have used government programs).

Yet, the NYT article that has been the subject of conversation does not provide much support for either of these theses. Social issues rarely find much of an expression in the vignettes and those interviewed seem quite aware that they are using government programs. Their discomfort comes from the fact that they are ideologically opposed to these programs despite the fact that they see no options outside of the safety net. They are, to quote the title of one of my favorite James Buchanan essays, “afraid to be free.” Perhaps it is with good reason, as suggested earlier, given the erosion of civil society institutions and norms of self-help and communal responsibility.

Krugman rightly chastises Mitt Romney for his lack of frankness when addressing the issue of entitlements (e.g., Romney attacks Obama for failing to embrace entitlement reform and then, without a pause, attacks him for slashing Medicare). But I think he fundamentally misunderstands the broader situation:

The message I take from all this is that pundits who describe America as a fundamentally conservative country are wrong. Yes, voters sent some severe conservatives to Washington. But those voters would be both shocked and angry if such politicians actually imposed their small-government agenda.

Perhaps, does this sad state of affairs speak to their conservatism? I am skeptical.

Let me draw a quick example: all of us have known people with severe substance abuse problems. In some cases, it was simply a product of choice; in other cases, they had sought refuge in intoxicants following some significant crisis. They clearly understand the evils of dependency and they are painfully aware of the ways in which their addictions undermine their ability to live a flourishing life. At the same time, after years or decades of abuse, they find the idea of going into rehab unbearable. Some rightly anticipate that the act of regaining sobriety could imperil their very lives. At the very least, it would disrupt their social relationships and daily activities. Given the damage already done, they may wonder whether the benefits of sobriety would be higher than the costs.

Does this mean that they should be avid supporters of universal intoxication? Not to my mind. It means that are in a tragic and untenable situation, often with the assistance of myriad enablers.

A few readers might object to drawing parallels between welfare and addiction. But recall that even the father of the modern welfare state, Franklin Roosevelt, saw the connection when he noted in his 1935 SOTU address that “continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole our relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”

A few years ago, a good friend was dying. Decades of alcohol abuse and heavy smoking had taken their toll. After a stroke, the doctors told me that their immediate concern was not the effects of the stroke but the severity of the withdrawal symptoms. Soon thereafter he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.  Our last meeting occurred in a bar, where he sat with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in another. Filled with cancer, he took a draw on his cigarette, smiled, and said: “These damn things killed me.”

Of course, this was not a new revelation for my friend. He was brilliant, witty, and had made comparable comments in the past when the future was still unclear. Nonetheless, the pain of withdrawal would have been far too great for him to take the steps that would have extended his life.  One might have assuaged his concerns by explaining that the chemical effects of the drugs he consumed had a positive impact on the pleasure centers of his brain. One might have encouraged him to simply celebrate addiction.

He never would have bought it.

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The $4 trillion fraud

Stephen Moore, writing for Political Diary, has this illuminating summary of Obama’s new budget proposal:

President Obama and his budget chief Jack Lew are telling anyone who will listen that the president’s budget released on Monday has $4 trillion in deficit reduction. They even argue this is one of the thriftiest budgets in recent history. But House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan isn’t buying it and has been busy running the numbers.

One revelation is that taxes wouldn’t just go up by $1.5 trillion. In fact, the number is closer to $1.9 trillion, or nearly half the savings that the White House is claiming in deficit reduction. The $400 billion difference is that the Obama budget counts billions of dollars of new revenue, such as the new tax on bank profits, as a user fee, not a tax. He also subtracts refundable tax credits from the tax increase, when everyone agrees that refundable credits — where people get a check from the government — are not a negative tax cut but a federal outlay.

According to Mr. Ryan, because most of the spending cuts are phony, and because the actual Obama budget adds to the baseline of spending over the next 10 years, all of the deficit reduction comes from tax increases. In fact, Senate Budget Committee ranking member Jeff Sessions has released an analysis that reaches the same conclusion. It finds that compared to current law, the Obama budget does not reduce the deficit by one penny over 10 years. Even worse, the “Obama budget increases short-term gross debt accumulation through 2014 by nearly $500 billion.” Yet the White House still claims that its proposal includes nearly $3 of spending cuts for every $2 of tax hikes. Must be the new math.

So how does Mr. Obama come up with $4 trillion in savings? First, he assumes $848 billion in “cuts” by inflating the defense baseline for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and them claiming the planned troop withdrawals as a budget savings.

Another $1.6 trillion from the deficit comes from the debt deal last August that calls for steep reductions in future spending on discretionary programs. But those are cuts that are already built into the spending baseline, not new cuts. A bigger problem is that almost no one believes those nine years of promised across-the-board cuts will ever happen after the first year, 2013, and they may not even happen then.

Then there is $429 billion in planned cuts in doctor reimbursements in Medicare that everyone in Congress and the White House has agreed to fix, but Mr. Obama still claims as fictitious savings.

The joke circulating on Capitol Hill is that this is a budget that gives blue smoke and mirrors a bad name.

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Jonathan Adler at the Volokh Conspiracy blog has a great example of the potential power of non-coercive mechanisms for social change.  In this case, pediatricians are firing patients who won’t vaccinate their children.  There is no coercion involved.  Patients are free to comply with what the doctors want or take their business elsewhere.  Doctors are free to associate with whom they want – or not.  Unfortunately, people are often forced to associate with others (or to associate with others only under the terms set by the state) against their will – and would it be surprising if the state ultimately required doctors to provide service to non-vaccinators?

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A few days back I posted (here) on an article in the NYT that focused on recipients of welfare (usually Social Security, Medicaid, disability) who are dependent on the state but also seem without options. My post ended on a somber note: “the expansion of the safety net has been accompanied by changes in social norms and the displacement of private institutions. At one time, people…might have been confident that their extended families and congregations would never let them fall into abject poverty in the absence of public programs. But it is difficult to imagine that a significant reduction in entitlement spending would lead to a revivification of a world that has long passed.” As a result, reform in entitlement programs—which I see both as inevitable and desirable—will induce a lot of pain, and this should be a source of concern, particularly if it makes incremental reform impossible in a democratic system.

At Ace of Spades, one commentator linked to the post (with the tag: “Americans seem to have difficulty imagining a time when there was no pervasive government-run welfare state”).

“There was a time when the arm of the federal government did not reach far at all, and citizens had to rely on themselves, their friends, their families, and their communities for help and support. And you know what? It worked, mostly. … Misery and hardship is the lot of humanity on this earth. Yet our forbears managed to not only get by, but to build the greatest nation in the history of the world…and they did it without an overbearing, interfering, smothering nanny state monitoring their every breath.”

Of course, it is not difficult to imagine a time when there was no welfare state. That is, in fact, quite easy (no more difficult than imagining a time when dinosaurs ruled the earth). The difficulty comes in charting a course back to that original position. Moreover, I would not deny that there was a time pre-welfare when citizens relied on “themselves, their friends, their families and their communities for help and support.” One may be justified in longing for a return to these times (although these claims are often tinged with a bit of romanticism).

The key point of my original post is there have been significant changes in social institutions and norms in the postwar period. Arguably, much of this has been driven by policy decisions that have altered individual behavior and displaced private institutions. It was once a norm for extended, multi-generational families to live together and pool resources. It is no longer.  Indeed, procreation outside of marriage will soon be the rule. Private pensions and savings once provided the primary sources of retirement income; now two of the three legs have disappeared for many, leaving them dependent on Social Security. Private institutions that once had a mission to provide others in times of need have in many cases been starved for resources (“Why tithe when I pay taxes?”) or coopted by the state,  becoming quasi-private service delivery organizations that would  wither on the vine without a flow of public funds.  If one believes that political and social development is path dependent, one should not expect an instantaneous return to a previous branching point. Indeed, the path may prove arduous.

One could argue—and I think persuasively—that elements of the old order may reassert themselves in the future. But the future is a big place. Changes will not come quickly and not necessarily in ways that one may hope. Significant reforms in entitlements will impose a fair amount of pain in the interim. For some, the pain will be minimal (e.g., readjusting the timing of retirement, deleting costly items from the bucket list). But for others, it will be devastating (e.g., selling the family homestead for rent and food, foregoing medical procedures that could extend life or improve the quality of life).

The observation that there once was a time when welfare did not exist is a bit too easy. We can all imagine a world without welfare. Yet, it tells us nothing about whether a return to this original position is possible (or likely) and whether individuals will willingly accept the sacrifices it will entail.

The characters described in the NYT article referenced in the original post were working class or lower middle class individuals who were sympathetic to the Tea Party but were simultaneously fearful of how they could survive (in some cases, literally) without their existing entitlements. They were not Reagan’s mythic welfare queens, exploiting the system for a life of ill-gained luxury. One can only wonder whether their embrace of small government will prove all too thin once they understand the short-term consequences?

Ideally, reform would occur in a deliberate and reasoned manner. But if broad support for reform is difficult to create or maintain, an incremental path to reform will be politically impossible. Ultimately, fiscal crisis could open the door to changes that are far less compatible with liberty than one might hope. This too, is not difficult to imagine.

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Is there any war (or OOTW) that the United States has fought that it should not have (assuming what was known at the time of the force initiation, not post hoc)? 

What wars/OOTW’s should the United States have participated in/undertaken that it did not?


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As a (relatively) young professor, I hope to have another +/- 30 years in the ivory tower ahead of me.  In order to make that happen, I don’t look much like the caricature of the lazy academic; I’m constantly working on research, teaching, and service.  And I don’t see that letting up much even after I get tenure since I enjoy the kinds of things I get to do as a professor.

But will there be a market for my services in the not-so-distant future?  Or more precisely, will I have the kind of job (and tenure) that my older colleagues in higher education have enjoyed throughout their careers?

To be honest, I’m worried that the answer might very well be no.  Of course, I’m not entitled to anything but what the market (if that word can even be used in higher ed given how skewed it is by government intervention) tells me I’m due (through freely agreed upon contracts).  And if that market disappears, I’m pretty sure that you won’t hear me saying the world owes me something special. 

But I’m still worried.  Higher education is structured in such a way that individuals assume a lot of the upfront cost of entering the labor force with most of the (non-educational) benefits coming later and often in the form of greater job security rather than pay.  Therefore, a lot of folks like me have spent many good earning years without pay (excluding tuition remission, etc) or with little pay in order to build the human capital necessary to enter the professoriate.  If the university system as we know it disappears, many young academics will be left having paid the cost but without reaping the expected benefits.  The prospect of that happening should deter many people from entering the realm altogether.  And I frequently warn young students that the future in all likelihood isn’t going to look like the past.  

But where does that leave people like me in the trenches already and looking towards what many paint as a bleak future?  Worried at the least – because it is hard to read conservative, libertarian, and even more mainstream outlets without hearing bad news about our profession and the imminent demise of higher education as we know it, perhaps even led by those within the sacred temples themselves at Stanford and MIT.

Creative destruction is often a force that occurs very quickly once it starts.  And naturally there will be benefits (and costs) from such changes.  But is it really going to happen in higher education anytime soon?  My eyes may be deceiving me, but I’m not so sure.  Here’s why:

1.  At universities in states like Texas and Massachusetts, new construction and new hiring are occurring on a regular basis.  Enrollments are also booming at many places – which suggests that as long as the public keeps willing to underwrite higher education, the students will keep coming.  This is more so if college attendance is a signalling device without peer (see Caplan) or a mixed product (signalling + assortive mating market + human capital provider + subsidized vacation [by Mom/Dad or the state] + transition to adulthood protection pod) that can’t be easily replicated.  

2.  What is the evidence that the public doesn’t want to keep the higher ed welfare coming?  According to Pew, only 11% of the public want to see a decrease in public spending on education while 62% want it to increase.  Respondents may have been thinking of primary or secondary schooling, but other reports suggest spending on all levels remains popular.  

3.  Public spending has declined during the recession, but generally what the middle class in America wants from the government it will get.  And as private schools continue to charge astronomical prices, there will be pressure from Mr and Mrs Smith to keep providing a subsidized alternative with most of the same bells and whistles (or should I say, rock climbing walls and coffee shops).  This will only come easier once public coffers start filling up again after the recession/jobless recovery ends - which it certainly will unless you think we are headed for Japan 1990′s territory.    

4.  People still think that higher education is necessary to get ahead.   According to one industry paper: “perception does not fully comport with reality — at least in a way that has been widely documented. Recent public opinion polls show solid support for higher education, albeit with some caveats. More than half of the respondents to a poll conducted for Public Agenda and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education that was released last year said they see higher education as essential to achieving success.”  

5.  Alternative models of higher education are still flawed.  Without massive technological innovations (that may be pretty impossible given the complexity of competitors – namely the human brain), most of what professors do is labor intensive and education cannot benefit greatly from economies of scale like other products.  Moreover, the world is pretty dynamic and those archived MIT courses and other on-line offerings are going to get pretty stale real quickly in many subjects (probably not languages or basic statistics, but certainly most others).  And even if lectures are offered over the web by superstar professors, who is going to grade papers and exams, advise students, and write letters of recommendation?  Of course, these are trite observations noted by many – but have these problems really been confronted by Higher Ed 2.0 innovators?

6.  Universities still provide a lot of good learning outcomes, especially for motivated students (though one could ask, at what cost?).  As the Chrony recently noted about the book Academically Adrift, “Some students, disproportionately from privileged backgrounds, matriculate well prepared for college. They are given challenging work to do and respond by learning a substantial amount in four years.”

Ok, to be honest, I’m still worried.  But like Americans in dying or dead industries, I’ll survive as long as I keep my skills sharp and regularly increase my human capital.  And I might have to if McArdle’s post-campus America scenario turns out to be reality.

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Two stories in the news, one local and one national, help us answer that question. First, a pair of stories from the New Hampshire Union-Leader:

Representatives of the state’s major hospitals fought a proposal that could pave the way for a for-profit cancer facility to come to the state at a hearing Tuesday that was notable for the absence of the company that was the impetus for the legislation: Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA).

The bill, HB 1642, would create a special “destination cancer hospital” classification, which would be exempt from the state’s Certification of Need review process for new hospitals, as well as the Medicaid Enhancement Tax on the grounds that it wouldn’t accept Medicaid patients.

The New Hampshire Business and Industry Association’s stand on this pro-competitive, deregulatory bill? The rent-seeking position:

“We don’t think this is the right way for the state to promote economic development,” BIA Vice President David Juvet said. “We are very supportive of New Hampshire having a pro-business climate, and the Legislature has done a number of good things over the past year, but we would never support an effort to create what is an unfair business advantage.”

Next, a story from the Washington Examiner, on a new effort to repeal all energy subsidies:

Freshmen Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas has proposed the loftily titled “Energy Freedom and Economic Prosperity Act,” while the Senate’s Tea Party heroes, Jim DeMint (S.C.) and Mike Lee (Utah), have introduced the companion bill in the upper chamber.

The bill, which Pompeo hopes to insert into legislation extending the payroll-tax credit, would take a huge bite out of energy subsidies by eliminating tax credits for everything from solar panels and wind turbines to oil drilling and nuclear power generation. At the same time, the measure would cut tax rates.

The Chamber of Commerce on this pro-competitive, anti-corporate-welfare bill? The rent-seeking position:

But for some business lobbies, Pompeo’s bill is no good. “This bill is not fundamental tax reform,” Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Bruce Josten told me in an email, “as a result, is punitive to every kind of energy company out there.”

In other words, the chamber won’t go for tax-rate reductions and credit-elimination unless it covers all industries.

Whom do supposed general-interest business associations represent? Not, apparently, business interests in general, let alone the “free enterprise system.” Mancur Olson would have had an answer: the interests of the largest companies, who will be by far their biggest donors.

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Binyamin Appelbaum and Robert Gebeloff had an interesting piece in the NYT this weekend entitled “Even Critics of Safety Net Increasingly Depend on It.”  An early quote provides the context:

 The government safety net was created to keep Americans from abject poverty, but the poorest households no longer receive a majority of government benefits. A secondary mission has gradually become primary: maintaining the middle class from childhood through retirement. The share of benefits flowing to the least affluent households, the bottom fifth, has declined from 54 percent in 1979 to 36 percent in 2007, according to a Congressional Budget Office analysis published last year.

Rather than restating a host of projections that many of us know all too well, the remainder of the piece works through a variety of vignettes of individuals—largely middle class or lower middle-class–who depend on various parts of the welfare state (e.g., Medicare, Social Security disability). In most cases, they  recognize the problem of fiscal imbalances and they detest liabilities being passed on to future generations; many seem like rank-and-file tea party advocates who advocate cutting the size of government.  At the same time, they have few alternatives to the safety net. There comments are in many ways tragic. Here is one example:

She [Barbara] believes that she is taking more from the government than she paid in taxes. She worries about the consequences for her grandchildren. She said she would like politicians to propose solutions.

“We’re reasonable people,” she said. “We’re not going to say, ‘Give it to me and let my grandchildren suffer.’ I think they underestimate seniors when they think that way.”

But she cannot imagine asking people to pay higher taxes. And as she considered making do with less, she started to cry.

“Without it, I’m not sure how I would live,” she said. “With the check I’m getting from Social Security, it’s a constant struggle on making sure that I pay my rent and have enough left for groceries.

“I haven’t bought a Christmas present, I haven’t bought clothing in the last five years, simply because I can’t afford it.”

While I doubt that there is anything approaching a random sample in this piece, the stories are touching and worth reading as you reflect on the long-term liability crisis. The long-term fiscal imbalances cannot be addressed without significant reform in the largest entitlement systems and increases in revenues. But several of the characters in this article (1) recognize this fact but (2) clearly have no sense of how they could survive without the current levels of support.

Obviously, the expansion of the safety net has been accompanied by changes in social norms and the displacement of private institutions. At one time, people like Barbara might have been confident that their extended families and congregations would never let them fall into abject poverty in the absence of public programs. But it is difficult to imagine that a significant reduction in entitlement spending would lead to a revivification of a world that has long passed, at least on a timeline that would be relevant to current beneficiaries.

Reform will come—the status quo simply cannot be maintained. But reform will impose a great deal of pain in a nation where so many have come to depend on the state for so much and there are few live alternatives.

EDITORIAL UPDATE: Those interested in more of Marc’s thoughts on this subject should look here as well.

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Gotta love the opening of this New Hampshire House attempt to condemn the HHS on the grounds that its action violates our natural rights:


WHEREAS, the right to the free exercise of religion is a natural right and is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Part 1, Article 5of the New Hampshire Constitution; and
WHEREAS, the deprivation by government of this most fundamental natural right is an action which is not consonant with governance in a free republic; and
WHEREAS, the United States Department of Health and Human Services has promulgated an administrative rule which forces American citizens and religious organizations to provide sterilization and contraceptives, including some abortion-inducing drugs, in their health plans, even where this violates the religious beliefs of these citizens and organizations; and
WHEREAS, the United States Department of Health and Human Services action is an unconstitutional use of the power of the federal government designed to compel people of faith to violate their religious beliefs;
NOW THEREFORE, the New Hampshire House of Representatives hereby calls upon the United States Department of Health and Human Services to cease its unconstitutional course of action, and to rescind this rule immediately; and the House further calls upon the members of New Hampshire’s congressional delegation to undertake whatever actions are necessary to ensure that this goal is promptly achieved.

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Governor Scott Walker at CPAC:

Wisconsin, like most states, had a budget deficit last year. But we avoided the major mistakes made by other states.

Some states chose to balance their budgets with higher taxes. We did not because we knew it would be devastating to our economy and a further burden to our citizens.

Other states relied on massive public employee layoffs to balance the books. But I don’t want massive layoffs of anyone – public or private. We are planning on shrinking government through attrition and reform, not through random pink slips.

Some states have also chosen budget gimmicks to balance the budget. We did not do this in Wisconsin because that is part of what caused the budget deficit in the first place.

Instead, we chose long-term structural reforms that helped us balance both our state and our local governments budgets for years to come. We thought more about the next generation than we did about the next election.

More here.

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Afghanistan Buzz

This piece in Armed Forces Journal by Lt Col. Daniel L. Davis is getting a fair amount of buzz.  Titled “Truth, lies and Afghanistan: How military leaders have let us down,” the short article paints a very dark picture of the situation in Afghanistan while accusing military leaders of failing to tell Congress and the American people the “unvarnished truth.”  Regardless of whether you agree or disagree, this is worth reading.

As might be expected, the Pentagon and ISAF have responded.  Here is what the deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti said in response:

It’s one person’s view of this. From my personal point of view, I do a lot of battlefield circulation; I talk to commanders and soldiers; I have assessments from others, like my sergeant major that I put on the battlefield virtually every week to walk with both Afghan and coalition parts. So I take in a lot of — a lot of data from many different places to determine my assessment, to include a very objective, detailed assessment we do every quarter.

So I’m confident that — in my personal view that our outlook is accurate.

I did read the article, and I think that as you read that article, I don’t doubt what he describes in a sense, for instance, his occasion of watching a policeman watch an insurgent depart an area. You know, I think those things happen.

We have an — we have an ANSF that has doubled in size in 18 months, and we’re presently building. So you know, there’s — what I would say to you is that we have to be — try to be very accurate about what we see and what we understand the battlefield to be and not treat it as we want it to be. So I work very hard personally at that, and I also take — I pay attention to what — the folks who perhaps disagree, and I look for people to be around my conference room table that’ll argue with me.

See the linked article for more from the general.

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Shorter Obama to Catholics:   You must have your insurance providers advise your employees where to go to do what you consider immoral acts.  Please provide their contact info.  Don’t worry, God didn’t go through law school or study with the sophists so he won’t see through the plan. 

Nice to see the Catholic Bishops standing up against the state.  If you’ve read any of their writings on this, it is enough to warm the hearts of any libertarian whether you are pro-life or pro-choice.

BTW, if you are an Obama supporter, you gotta admit that this was a real tactical error leading up to the election.  The only upside for Obama is if ObamaCare is really only a Trojan horse on the way to a single-payer system.  Why?  Because the original rule would almost certainly have the Catholics drop insurance, thus dumping more people into a system that won’t work and then leading to pressure for a real single-payer system.

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Will global climate change increase resource-based conflicts around the world? Journal of Peace Research has a special issue on the topic, looking at how weather variability has already influenced the rate of conflict. The issue is free to the public until the end of February. Most of the studies find that weather variability does not cause conflict. Indeed, the horrific Indian Ocean tsunami of 2005 actually led to a quick, apparently durable peace agreement between secessionist rebels in Aceh and the Indonesian government. Here’s the abstract from the introductory essay by editor Nils Petter Gleditsch:

Until recently, most writings on the relationship between climate change and security were highly speculative. The IPCC assessment reports to date offer little if any guidance on this issue and occasionally pay excessive attention to questionable sources. The articles published in this special issue form the largest collection of peer-reviewed writings on the topic to date. The number of such studies remains small compared to those that make up the natural science base of the climate issue, and there is some confusion whether it is the effect of ‘climate’ or ‘weather’ that is being tested. The results of the studies vary, and firm conclusions cannot always be drawn. Nevertheless, research in this area has made considerable progress. More attention is being paid to the specific causal mechanisms linking climate change to conflict, such as changes in rainfall and temperature, natural disasters, and economic growth. Systematic climate data are used in most of the articles and climate projections in some. Several studies are going beyond state-based conflict to look at possible implications for other kinds of violence, such as intercommunal conflict. Overall, the research reported here offers only limited support for viewing climate change as an important influence on armed conflict. However, framing the climate issue as a security problem could possibly influence the perceptions of the actors and contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Erik Gartzke notes that if knee-capping development in middle- or low-income countries is the price of preventing climate change, it is those policies to address climate change that will produce conflict, since development is associated with peace:

The analysis here also suggests that efforts to curb climate change should pay particular attention to encouraging clean development among middle-income states, as these countries are the most conflict prone. Ironically, stagnating economic development in middle-income states caused by efforts to combat climate change could actually realize fears of climate-induced warfare.

If curbing carbon emissions is indeed the only way to stop drastic climate change (natural forcings don’t continue to counteract the human effect, and geoengineering doesn’t work), this argument suggests a possible rationale for having high-income countries pay the biggest initial price.

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A new Washington Post-ABC New Poll asks an important question regarding the use of drones by the Obama administration.

The question: do you approve of “the use of unmanned ‘drone’ aircraft against terrorist suspects overseas?”  83 percent approve, 11 percent disapprove, 6 percent have no opinion.

The truly depressing part comes in the follow-up question: “What if those suspected terrorists are American citizens living in other countries?” 65 percent approve, 26 percent disapprove, 9 percent have no opinion.

Kevin Drum (Mother Jones) finds these results depressing as well (particularly since there is majority support even among self-proclaimed Democrats and liberals). He asks:

How many people approve of these attacks on American citizens if they understand that there’s no court judgment involved, no finding of guilt, no warrant, no nothing? Just the executive branch unilaterally deciding they need to be killed.

The domestic use of drones will likely become far more common in the next few years–a fact that may force some changes in public opinion. The FAA reauthorization bill passed by the Senate on Tuesday and currently awaiting the President’s signature (see WaPo coverage) requires the FAA:

to provide military, commercial and privately-owned drones with expanded access to U.S. airspace currently reserved for manned aircraft by Sept. 30, 2015. That means permitting unmanned drones controlled by remote operators on the ground to fly in the same airspace as airliners, cargo planes, business jets and private aircraft.

It is not hard to imagine a point in the not-so-distant future when drones will become a routine instrument of surveillance in law enforcement? For coverage on this aspect of the FAA reauthorization, see Shaun Waterman (Washington Times) and an earlier piece by Harley Geiger (Center for Democracy & Technology) that develops some of the civil libertarian concerns and argues that the FAA must develop “basic privacy and transparency rules for domestic use of drones” before issuing permits.

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Here is a clip from Tuesday night’s “Freedom Watch” with Judge Andrew Napolitano. (Freedom Watch airs nightly on the Fox Business Network. If you don’t get FBN, contact your television provider!) The topic was a Reuters paper claiming that 14,215 new regulatory rules were put in place on businesses worldwide in 2012. I was one of three panelists discussing the issue with Judge Napolitano.

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My original forecasts for Ron Paul’s primary performances are here. Those forecasts were based simply on the Iowa result, so it was quite possible that there would substantial error, and indeed there has been. Paul significantly overperformed his forecast in New Hampshire and South Carolina, the forecast was dead on in Florida, and then Paul underperformed significantly in Nevada. In yesterday’s elections, Paul did significantly worse than expected in Colorado, slightly worse than expected in Minnesota, and slightly better than expected in Missouri. In general, he seems to be doing worse than expected since Florida.

Why is that? It could be that my forecast model was an unbiased model at the time, but that circumstances have changed unfavorably for Paul’s candidacy. Certainly, recent good economic news probably doesn’t help an antiestablishment candidate like Paul. Perhaps his poor Florida performance, although it should have been anticipated, demoralized some of his supporters. On the other hand, my forecast model could have been wrong, particularly in assuming that Paul’s vote shares would continue to feature overdispersion. It’s possible that with a broadening voter base, Paul’s caucus advantage has declined. Thus, Paul should improve on his 2008 performances everywhere, but not in a manner proportionate to his 2008 performances: there will be some apparent regression to the mean.

To see how Paul’s 2012 performances are stacking up against his 2008 performances, I ran a regression on the states with results so far. First, I regressed 2012 performance against 2008 performance linearly. Here are the results:

lm(formula = vote12 ~ vote08)

    Min      1Q  Median      3Q     Max 
-5.0465 -3.8563  0.8463  2.0316  6.8799 

            Estimate Std. Error t value Pr(>|t|)  
(Intercept)   6.9290     3.4156   2.029   0.0888 .
vote08        1.1807     0.3632   3.251   0.0175 *
Signif. codes:  0 ‘***’ 0.001 ‘**’ 0.01 ‘*’ 0.05 ‘.’ 0.1 ‘ ’ 1 

Residual standard error: 4.444 on 6 degrees of freedom
Multiple R-squared: 0.6378,     Adjusted R-squared: 0.5775 
F-statistic: 10.57 on 1 and 6 DF,  p-value: 0.01745

These results suggest that for every 1% in 2008 vote share in a state, Paul is now receiving 1.2% in 2012, in addition to a base of 6.9% everywhere - so getting 5% in a 2008 primary would be associated with a forecast of about 12.9% in 2012. With these eight data points, the simple model explains 63.8% of the variance in 2012 performance.

Next, I turn to a log-linear model, which would be more appropriate if Paul's performances continue to experience overdispersion. Here are the results:

lm(formula = lnvote12 ~ lnvote08)

     Min       1Q   Median       3Q      Max 
-0.36483 -0.22250  0.06901  0.15519  0.35117 

            Estimate Std. Error t value Pr(>|t|)   
(Intercept)   1.5376     0.3628   4.238  0.00545 **
lnvote08      0.6086     0.1768   3.442  0.01377 * 
Signif. codes:  0 ‘***’ 0.001 ‘**’ 0.01 ‘*’ 0.05 ‘.’ 0.1 ‘ ’ 1 

Residual standard error: 0.2805 on 6 degrees of freedom
Multiple R-squared: 0.6638,     Adjusted R-squared: 0.6078 
F-statistic: 11.85 on 1 and 6 DF,  p-value: 0.01377

Although the coefficient estimate is not so easily interpreted, this model actually does a slightly better job than the simple linear model. (I also test various transformations of the independent variable to get at other nonlinearities, but none of those models improves significantly over this one.) So I use these estimates to get new forecasts of the remaining contests. Here they are:

State Date Forecast
Maine 11-Feb 27.2%
Arizona 28-Feb 11.3%
Michigan 28-Feb 14.2%
Washington 3-Mar 15.8%
Alaska 6-Mar 26.4%
Georgia 6-Mar 8.9%
Idaho 6-Mar 32.0%
Massachusetts 6-Mar 8.4%
North Dakota 6-Mar 29.9%
Ohio 6-Mar 12.2%
Oklahoma 6-Mar 9.7%
Tennessee 6-Mar 13.3%
Vermont 6-Mar 15.4%
Virginia 6-Mar 11.6%
Kansas 10-Mar 20.2%
Alabama 13-Mar 8.6%
Mississippi 13-Mar 10.9%
Illinois 20-Mar 12.5%
Louisiana 24-Mar 13.1%
District of Columbia 3-Apr 16.6%
Maryland 3-Apr 13.8%
Wisconsin 3-Apr 12.0%
Texas 3-Apr 12.5%
Connecticut 24-Apr 10.9%
Delaware 24-Apr 11.2%
New York 24-Apr 14.4%
Pennsylvania 24-Apr 25.1%
Rhode Island 24-Apr 15.1%
Indiana 8-May 16.1%
North Carolina 8-May 15.5%
West Virginia 8-May 12.4%
Nebraska 15-May 22.2%
Oregon 15-May 23.8%
Arkansas 22-May 12.1%
Kentucky 22-May 14.9%
California 5-Jun 12.9%
Montana 5-Jun 17.6%
New Jersey 5-Jun 12.1%
New Mexico 5-Jun 23.2%
South Dakota 5-Jun 25.7%
Utah 26-Jun 8.9%

In general, these new forecasts are lower for Paul in his best states and higher in his worst states. (So yes, his support is less overdispersed this time around, suggesting that his new support is less enthusiastic than his core support - not really surprising.) With the new forecasts, it's looking unlikely that Paul will win any states outright, although Idaho, North Dakota, and Maine present possibilities.

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Another brick falls out of the official Camelot tower, yes.  But really surprising, no – although the depth of his apparent depravity is a bit eyebrow raising.  Furthermore, the allegations about drug use aren’t all that noteworthy either, especially after Robert Dallek discussed Kennedy’s issues with drugs back in 2002.

I’m more interested in seeing how left feminists react.  Will they be as silent or defensive as they were when President Clinton’s activities were revealed?  I would think it would be strategically savvy to noisily overcorrect since there is very little at stake in preserving JFK’s memory compared to protecting Clinton’s presidency.  It could also revive their arguments which became less publicly compelling after they failed to chastise Bubba for doing so much of what they said a powerful man should not do. 

I’m guessing a good friend of mine (and economist) who loves Presidents and the Presidency will not be happy to hear this stuff.

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ROE’s vs Insurgents

Interesting story on the fight in Helmand, Afghanistan in the most recent New York Times Magazine.  There is lot that one could comment upon in the piece but I’ll just focus on one thing – the Rules of Engagement (ROE’s) for engaging suspected IED emplacers.  Here is the section of the piece describing one encounter with IED placement:

A marine noticed two men digging with shovels near the road that connects the Shrine to the main base at the dam. He alerted Sergeant Granados, who magnified their images using a remote-controlled camera mounted atop a tower that relays infrared video to a monitor at its base. After watching the men excavate a hole, place an object inside and bury it, Granados radioed his superiors and requested permission to shoot them. The permission was denied. “They want to see components,” Granados complained. “They want to see wires, jugs. We saw something getting put into the ground. To them, that isn’t good enough.” The marines watched the men toss a handful of branches over their project, then flee quickly back to Chinah.      

As one might guess, the failure to take out the suspected insurgents led to this:

I was drinking tea with Jalani when two trucks, loaded with farmworkers heading out to harvest the last of the year’s crop, came bumping down the road leading to the outpost. As they reached the place where the two men were seen digging in the night, a tremendous explosion echoed off the hills and the trucks vanished in a geyser of erupted earth. Thirteen passengers, including women and children, had been crammed into the trucks, but somehow none were killed or badly hurt. A few minutes later, carrying satchels and tools, the Afghans continued toward their fields on foot.

“Where are they going?” I asked Jalani.

“To work,” he said.

Clearly the outcome of this episode could have been a lot worse.  It could have been Americans hit by the IED.  The explosion could have caused the loss of innocent life or severe, lifelong injuries to these Afghans or others. 

And it certainly raises the question of whether the ROE’s were/are way too restrictive even for a COIN fight in which counterinsurgents want to be especially careful about employing force (given the potential for huge negative unintended consequences that would follow from causing an accidental death to innocent non-combatants).  In this case, logic and Occam’s Razor both suggest that one could safely assume that the two men were engaged in an activity that warranted a violent response (is it reasonable to expect that two men could be innocently digging a hole in the road in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night and then dumping something into it – especially given the well-known IED threat in the area?!?). 

Of course, capture would be better than killing – but the latter certainly seemed appropriate in this particular incident.  Indeed, the risk of causing animosity from a mistaken shooting needed to be weighed against the requirement to provide security for the populace.  And in this case, the latter should have prevailed since providing security is critical to winning hearts and minds too and is morally/tactically/strategically superior to merely avoiding direct harm.

Don’t rope em if you can’t ride em?

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The Consistency of Ron Paul

There is an interesting portrait of Paul by David Halbfinger in the NYT. The piece focuses on his consistency overtime and the formative events that shaped his political and economic commitments.

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Israel’s Minister of Defense Ehud Barak:  “It’s good to have diversity in thinking and for people to voice their opinions. But at the end of the day, when the military command looks up, it sees us — the minister of defense and the prime minister. When we look up, we see nothing but the sky above us.”

It is also a great outcome in terms of civil-military relations in a democracy when true.

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Great news on unemployment, as the rate falls to 8.3 percent (Bureau of Labor Statistics report here).  All the normal disclaimers apply, of course (e.g., thing are not quite as rosy when you include those who have fallen out of the labor force in the past few years). But nonetheless, this is good news for the nation (unless you are banking on a bad economy to shape the outcome of the 2012 election or to serve as the lead in to a another editorial on why the stimulus was too small).

Ron Brownstein (National Journal), the potential ramifications for the President’s reelection bid can only be positive:

“Looking forward to 2012, one challenge for Obama has been that groups that he needs to turn out in big numbers — groups at the core of his coalition — have been among those hit hardest by the sustained downturn. Many of them are still suffering. But Friday’s unemployment number showed bigger gains for African-Americans and Hispanics than for whites. And young people, another key Obama block from 2008 that has also been heavily affected, also saw big improvements. For each of those three groups, the unemployment rate is now the lowest it’s been essentially since Obama took office.”

Ben Casselman (WSJ) provides a useful overview of the BLS report. Bottom line:

“Today’s jobs report carries good news on both fronts. The unemployment rate fell, and the employment-population ratio rose. That means the improvement in the labor market is real — people actually found jobs.”

Of course, this improvement may only prove temporary (e.g., if the projections are correct for the Eurozone, there may be some negative consequences for the US growth rate in the next year). But it is always nice to end the workweek on a positive note.

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It’s not just Glenn Greenwald any more; other civil libertarians from the left are beginning to speak out. Jonathan Turley on NPR about his September 2011 LA Times op-ed:

They just have a very difficult time opposing a man who’s an icon and has made history – the first black president, but also the guy that replaced George Bush. And the result is something akin to the Stockholm syndrome, where you’ve got this identification with your captor. I mean, the Democratic Party is split, civil libertarians are split, and the Democratic Party itself is now viewed by most civil libertarians as very hostile toward civil liberties.

More here.

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