Monday, February 29, 2016

Want to Spread Democratic Values? Try Peace and Trade

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani
Source: Wikipedia
In the aftermath of the Cold War, many US policymakers have publicly embraced the idea of spreading democracy and freedom as a central goal of US foreign policy. It's not clear whether most politicians actually believe in this or have just cynically adopted it for political purposes. But it has been a major component of the marketing of every modern war. So the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was sold as Operation Enduring Freedom and focused not only on getting revenge for 9/11, but also on the lack of women's rights under the ruling Taliban regime. Similarly, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was not exclusively based on the alleged threat of weapons of mass destruction and imagined links to Al Qaeda. Rather, the Bush Administration and its allies also claimed that we would "be greeted as liberators" in Iraq.

Under the Obama Administration, the goal of spreading democracy has taken a partial backseat to the more expansive mandate of humanitarian intervention, but democracy spreading is still there. Thus, when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton makes the unwise choice to defend the disastrous Libyan war, she often celebrates the fact that they held democratic elections afterwards, as if that were an end in itself.

Of course, it is worth debating whether the US really should have spreading democracy as a core mission at all.* But if we accept that premise for the sake of argument, we arrive at an equally important question. If the US does want to spread democracy and expand freedoms around the world, what is the most effective method to do so?

Recent history is quite clear that the answer is not military intervention. The countries that have been most heavily targeted in the so-called War on Terror can be described as many things; functioning liberal democracy is not one of them.

But on the contrary, there are new signs that the alternative approach of peace and trade may be quite effective. The Iran nuclear deal will likely go down as Obama's only significant positive achievement in the realm of foreign policy. Iran's enrichment capabilities were diminished, around-the-clock inspections were put in place, and most important of all, broad sanctions against Iran were lifted in exchange. For the first time in many years, Iran is able to participate in the global markets largely unimpeded. Many of the Iranian people appear to be feeling more optimistic about their future economic prospects.

The moderate President Rouhani successfully campaigned for election back in 2013 on the promise of ending the standoff with the West and bringing an end to the economic sanctions. He made good on that promise. And in the most recent national elections, the Iranian voters showed their broad approval of these efforts. Moderate and Reformist candidates won a lopsided victory in the elections, unseating many of the hard-liners that had attempted to block progress towards a nuclear agreement with the West.

These latest results appear to pave the way for a more rapid normalization of relations with the West and potentially more domestic reforms in the country as well. And all of this now seems possible even though the Iranian political system that governed these elections is far from free or open. As commentator Muhammad Sahimi recently explained, political candidates are subject to a formal approval process by existing political bodies before they are allowed to run, and many candidates are denied. In spite of these limitations, the forces for moderation appear to have made significant gains.

It's difficult to predict exactly how this will play out over the remainder of Rouhani's term. But the initial results offer strong anecdotal evidence in favor of diplomacy and trade as the most effective tools in the foreign policy arsenal. The reason why should be intuitive. It appears that countries, like people, are persuaded more readily by positive rewards than negative coercion. And it's always a great thing when common sense gets another data point in its favor.

*I, for one, would prefer a mission more akin to the Hippocratic Oath: First do no harm.

Is the Anti-Trump Hysteria Justified? Absloutely, Yes; Relatively, Not So Much

Donald Trump's chances of winning the Republican Presidential Nomination seem to grow with each passing poll and primary. Despite concerted efforts by some in the media, the other campaigns, and elite members of the Republican Party, his victory appears to be all but assured. As Trump's success has grown, so too has the rise of virulent denunciations from all parts of the political spectrum. Most commentators appear to see Trump as a uniquely malicious and hateful force in American politics. But it's worth asking the question; is all this hysteria justified?

To some extent, the answer will certainly depend on what issues you happen to prioritize. Our emphasis is on foreign policy issues, where Trump certainly does not appear to be the most dangerous choice. But even when one looks across a broader set of issues, it's clear that Trump's views are not far from the American mainstream. And in the places where his views do diverge from the ordinary, they are not uniformly worse. No, the problem is not his positions as such. The primary problem with Trump is that he's willingly to explicitly state all of the worst subtext that has existed in American politics for some time. In other words, most of what he's saying is not all that new. That he's saying it, is.

To flesh this theme out, it's worth considering Trump's rhetoric and positions on two key issue areas: Torture and Terrorism. And before we get started, we should clarify that we do not support Trump or any of the other major candidates left in the race. Some seem worse than others, but all are pretty bad.

Not one to mince words, Trump recently expressed strong support for the use of torture in interrogating suspects. He even did away with that tried and true euphemism of "enhanced interrogation techniques" and used the T word explicitly. As he explained to a South Carolina audience, "...don't tell me it doesn't work--torture works. Okay, folks?"

As alarming as it may be to hear a potential future president advocating torture, it is sadly not new. In the 2007 Republican primary campaign, Rudy Guiliani advocated for use of aggressive interrogation techniques and suggested the term torture was inappropriate. The 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney held similar views, though he did not advance them in public quite as often. Looking beyond mere political candidates, just over a year ago former Vice President Dick Cheney could be found expressly defending the torture program on national television: "I would do it again in a minute."

But this is not just a Republican problem. It's true that Barack Obama officially released an executive order early in his Presidency that prohibited the most brutal techniques and restricted interrogations to the limits of the Army Field Manual. This was a positive step. Unfortunately, this same Army Field Manual now permits many of the very same techniques that are widely regarded as torture. In other words, Obama's actions on this followed the model employed in other areas--superficially appealing actions and rhetoric without making substantive change.

Worse still, Barack Obama's administration refused to prosecute any prior official that was involved in the torture program, in spite of triumphant admissions of guilt from the likes of Dick Cheney that we mentioned before. That is precisely why torture is still viewed as merely a political issue, rather than an obviously criminal one. And the decisions that legitimized it so rest squarely with Barack Obama and the Democratic leadership that refused to hold anyone accountable.

So yes, it's certainly true that Trump's embrace of torture is appalling. But we must remember that it is simply the latest manifestation in a long line pro-torture Republicans in the post-9/11 era, and it has been enabled by the Democrats' failure to ensure accountability for breaking the law.

Trump made headlines early on in his campaign for his repeated denunciations of Syrian refugees as terrorists in waiting. To address this issue , he proposed to disallow not only Syrian refugees but all Muslims, and send the few refugees in the US back to Syria. Given that many governors have also promised to block resettlement of refugees, and other candidates have expressed support for religious tests on refugees, Trump's ideas sadly do not appear extreme by modern standards.

In a related set of proposals, Trump has also promised to "bomb the shit out of" ISIS. What he apparently means here, is that he would relax whatever restrictions exist in the military's current Rules of Engagement to allow more widespread bombing. In the same speech, he also expressed support for bombing civilian oil infrastructure such as pipelines and refineries. And at one point, he suggested explicitly targeting the families of suspected terrorists. Here again, we find Trump decidedly within the American mainstream. Other Republican candidates can readily be found promising similar things from alluding to using nuclear weapons or suggesting that massive bombing was actually the most merciful policy over the long-term. The major Republican candidates clearly agree that more indiscriminate bombing is the right recipe.

Taken together, all of this implies a kind of blatant disregard for the humanity of non-Western people generally and Muslims in particular. And whether we call this racist or something else, it's clear that it amounts to the worst sort of collectivism. The bad actions of a few have been used to denigrate all members of the broader group--ignoring any and all distinctions that exist within it.

But as before, this is not strictly a Republican problem by any means. As I write this, the US is actively conducting or planning routine airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, the US provides close air support to troops in Afghanistan, its ally Saudi Arabia is conducting airstrikes in Yemen, and US armed drones are periodically conducting still further strikes in (at least) Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya, and Somalia. In theory, the US does its best to avoid civilian casualties. But unintended casualties still happen regularly. 

The response to these events depends largely on the identities of the casualties. When the victims are non-Western Muslims, the issue is downplayed or ignored. The fighting-age males get written off as militants or enemies killed in action, the rest are deemed collateral damage, and, no matter what the death toll is, it will always be deemed to be proportionate to the military objective. When the victims are Western or from Western countries, however, the issue results in a formal address from the White House and an investigation. This official gap in sympathy is also evident when looking at victims of terrorism, as we wrote about in the wake of the Paris Attacks. It's difficult to explain this phenomenon without assuming severe latent prejudice against Muslims on the part of President Obama and key members of his administration.

Of course, war is hell as they say. And perhaps some are willing to look past the collateral damage in the Obama years as merely inevitable. According to the most reliable, if conservative, statistics on airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, the US-led coalition has killed a minimum of 933 civilians through 10,000+ airstrikes. Surely, part of this low number is explained by questionable accounting methods and a lack of reliable data in a war zone. Assuming the figures are a decent approximation of reality, however, it is much lower than we might fear. Obviously, it's also much lower than we might expect from the kinds of indiscriminate bombings that have been suggested by Trump and the Republicans. In this area, the Republican candidates, assuming they follow through on their proposals, would be radically more harmful than the status quo. But again, Trump is not really out in front of them on wanting more bombing; he's well within the GOP norms. Indeed given that Trump seems slightly more reluctant to initiate conflicts, he is arguably preferable to his Republican competitors on this score.

What of Trump's proposal to "go after the families?" It's a close competition, but this may be the most horrifying idea offered by the Republican frontrunner so far. But shockingly, it too is not unprecedented. In fact, the drone assassination program appears to have already followed such a strategy on at least one occasion.

I'm speaking here of the unfortunate case of Anwar Al-Awlaki. Awlaki was a moderate Muslim cleric who became radicalized several years after 9/11. He was an American citizen, but he became a very influential voice for radicalizing other Muslims against the US as well. Thus, the Obama Administration decided to use him as their test project for assassinating an American citizen without due process. They successfully assassinated him in September 2011, and there were no legal repercussions.

Then, around two weeks after Awlaki's death, his 16-year-old son Abdulrahman Al Awlaki also died in a drone strike. This was extraordinary given that Abdulrahman had no known ties to terrorism and did not have extensive contact with his father. When journalists pressed the Obama Administration on why Abdulrahman was targeted, this is the explanation offered by then-Press Secretary Robert Gibbs:
I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well being of their children. I don't think becoming an al Qaeda jihadist terrorist is the best way to go about doing your business.
In other words, Abdulrahman was explicitly targeted because of who his father was. Judging from this particular case, it appears that there's a precedent for Trump's proposal to go after the families. And that precedent is President Obama.

But the horrifying nature of the current drone assassination program doesn't actually stop there. Equally bad is the rise of the so-called signature strikes. For the uninitiated, these refer to strikes where the US targets unknown individuals based on certain behaviors that appear to be too terrorist-y. Given that many such strikes occur in places that are not active war zones, it's difficult to imagine what exactly the tell-tale behaviors are--too many group activities with fighting age males perhaps? Whatever the details, this amounts to assassinating someone based on a standard of evidence that might not even justify a warrant in the United States. It's not targeting families because we don't even know who we're targeting. But we still pull the trigger anyways. This has been an official government policy for the duration of the Obama Administration.

It's tough to say whether signature strikes or explicitly targeting family members is a more appalling policy. But it's also not important. It's kind of like contemplating the relative merits of getting mortally stabbed versus being shot--at some point, comparisons aren't really meaningful.

Summing Up

On closer examination of Trump's proposals, we have to conclude that they generally fall within the accepted norms of the modern Republican and Democratic Parties. Trump embraces torture just like his GOP candidates and predecessors. And the leading Democrats haven't opposed it enough to worry about prosecuting anyone. Similarly, Trump's overt bias against Muslims in general has already been underlying our counterterrorism policies for some time--which is why our government is willing to assassinate people in Muslim countries on nothing more than a hunch. The fact that Trump's ideas are not truly abnormal is upsetting in its own right. But it's not obvious that his ideas are much worse than those that have already become acceptable.

This suggests that Trump's real crime is not his ideas or his biases. It's his willingness to express them in explicit ways that should and do make us all uncomfortable. He doesn't support enhanced interrogation techniques; he supports Torture with a capital T. He doesn't just support a "strong national defense"; he wants to go after people's families. Unfortunately, there's little that's new here. But it's not often that all of America's worst ideas are thrown out into the open for all to see. That is Trump's core offense. It's why he's inspiring more passionate opposition than any candidate in recent memory. But if the ideas are really bad, and they are, they should have been opposed all along--no matter what form they took and which party was supporting them.

Friday, February 26, 2016

EU Passes Arms Embargo Resolution Over Saudi War in Yemen

There's a positive new development in the Yemen War that could move the conflict closer towards peace. The European Union has passed an arms embargo resolution against Saudi Arabia, which began bombing Yemen in early 2015. Notably, this measure does not technically compel member states of the EU to act, but it is a step in that direction. 

Currently, the War in Yemen is one of the most severe, and least discussed, humanitarian crises in the world. The Saudi-led bombing and blockade, has led thousands of deaths and it is estimated that 81% or 21.2 million Yemenis are in need of humanitarian assistance. Saudi Arabia initially intervened in Yemen in an attempt to reinstall the former dictator/president, after he was removed from office by a successful armed rebellion. The leaders of the rebel movement are known as the Houthis, which subscribe to a form of Shia Islam. Because Iran's leadership is also primarily Shia, Saudi Arabia, and many American hawks, have attempted to blame Iran for the Houthi uprising. But there's little to no evidence of significant links between the two.

Although the toll of the bombing in Yemen has been substantial, the military progress of the Saudi campaign seems to have largely stalemated. The Houthis still hold the capital of Sana'a and many other areas, This lack of progress, combined with the backing of the US and UK, seemed to suggest the bombing would continue for many months to come. The new embargo has at least a chance of cutting that timeframe short.

Prospects for Success
This embargo resolution from the EU is one of the first instances of criticism on this war from the international community. Previously, human rights groups have written reports about the catastrophe. But since it hasn't been in any major nation's interest to threaten Saudi Arabia over Yemen, these reports have basically fallen on deaf ears.

Meanwhile, the US has been supporting the Saudi policy on Yemen, and has been reluctant to criticize its longtime ally. Many commentators view our acceptance of the Yemen War as an attempt to rebuild the relationship with Saudi after the Iran Deal negotiations. Readers will recall that Saudi sees Iran as a regional rival and thus was sharply opposed to any move towards normalized relations between Iran and the rest of the world. Put another way, the US made peace with our ex (Iran) and Saudi Arabia got jealous; so we're helping them bomb a random third country to make it up to them. If that doesn't make much sense to you, you're not alone.

Of course, it's important to acknowledge that sanctions and embargoes tend to be highly ineffective tools for changing policies. The evidence for this can be found in virtually any recent conflict. Sanctions against Iraq in the 90's got a lot of innocent people killed, but it did not change Saddam Hussein's policies. Similarly, sanctions against Iran over its nuclear energy program did not stop it from dramatically expanding its (safeguarded) uranium enrichment capacity. So, it's clearly reasonable to question why this latest embargo should be a cause for optimism at all.

In our view, there are two key differences. First, Saudi Arabia is actively involved in an aggressive military conflict right now (while the countries above were not). And second, Saudi's armed forces are intensely dependent on foreign allies to supply weapons and expertise, especially the US and UK. Saudi Arabia has little in the way of a domestic defense industry. So if the foreign supply of weapons can be cut off, it has a chance to almost end the war by default. The embargo against Saudi Arabia doesn't need to influence the political decisions of Saudi Arabia. Rather, it just needs to deprive them of the ammunition needed to continue the bombing. That is a much easier task. And it's why this embargo has a higher chance of success than its predecessors.

We'll have to wait and see how many EU countries ultimately honor the call for an arms embargo with Saudi Arabia, and the UK's decision is the most important of all. But it is undeniably good news that Saudi's Yemen policy is receiving the criticism it deserves from international institutions. Hopefully, this will prove to be the first step towards ending the conflict.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Occupational Licensing Could Meet an Overdue End in California

Good news from California this week suggests that the state may consider ending or reforming occupational licensing laws. And if you care about poverty or limiting wasteful government spending, this is important, especially since California often sets an example for other states to follow.

Now, I know this sounds like fantastically uninteresting topic. The name itself seems designed to induce boredom: Occupational (i.e. work) and  Licensing (waiting in line at the DMV). What could be worse?

But this issue is actually a great one because it's something where libertarians, liberals, and even conservatives can all wholeheartedly agree--even if they might do so for different reasons. The only people that support these laws are special interest groups, which again, every political camp defaults to hating. So let's start with the basics.

What are occupational licenses?
Exactly what their name implies. They are licenses granted by a government body that gives the person the right to legally practice a particular profession. Typically, practicing these same professions without a license is illegal and is punishable mostly through fines, but can also result in arrest and/or minor criminal charges.

A surprising array of professions require occupational licenses in the US. And they cover a broad spectrum from licenses that seem conceivably important (doctors, paramedics, etc.) to ones that are obviously silly (barbers, florists, interior designers, etc.). In keeping with our quest for common ground here, we'll keep focus on the most preposterous ones in this article.

What are the economic consequences?
These rules have different effects depending on which group you consider. We'll break it down for each:

New Service Providers
In order to get these licenses, individuals often have to go through specialized education or work as an apprentice for many hours. This increases the upfront cost and the time required before they can get a job, and it's likely to have a disproportionate impact on poor people.

If you have money or can be supported by your parents, these rules aren't a big deal. You could live at home until you finish 1600 hours of Cosmetology school, and your parents could help finance your education and support you until you can actually earn a living. But if you start out poor, and maybe even have a family to feed, you don't have this luxury. You would need to start earning a living now. As a practical matter, that means many professions that require an occupational license would basically become off-limits, thereby limiting your employment and earning opportunities.

Established Businesses and Service Providers
If you already have an occupational license, however, this system works pretty well. The higher the requirements are, the harder it is for anyone else to open a new business and compete with you. That means there are fewer choices in the market for your particular service, and you get to charge higher prices.

Thus, it will not surprise readers to know that industry groups are typically the ones that fight hardest to keep such licensing regulations around. It's not because they are concerned about the public's interest in having a good haircut. It's because regulations help their own business. This kind of behavior is what you'll hear economists describe as rent-seeking--when businesses try to improve their position not by providing a better product, but merely by getting favorable laws passed.

Consumers lose out in this system for the same reason the established providers win. Fewer choices means higher prices and well, fewer choices.

Consumers also lose because some portion of their tax money is necessarily being used to finance the regulatory and enforcement infrastructure of the government. So not only do they face higher prices, they also get taxed to keep those prices up. That's a bad deal.

What are the legal consequences?
As bad as the economic consequences are, the political and law enforcement implications might even be worse.

We mentioned above that these rules occasionally result in arrest. One particularly horrifying example occurred in Orlando, Florida a few years back, when the local police department conducted a series of aggressive raids on barber shops. And you probably won't be surprised to learn that the shops raided in that case were mostly run by minorities.

But even when these policies don't result in gratuitous police raids, the consequences still matter. The fines stipulated in California are not incredibly extreme; it's $1,000 for being an unlicensed barber. But if you're a poor person, and you very well might be if you're trying to pay for 1600 hours of education, this could clearly be a significant sum of money. What if you can't pay? Well, then you might get hauled to court and could even receive a jail sentence. Admittedly, I don't know how frequently this course of events actually occurs, but the fact that it is possible is bad enough. For the unspeakable offense of cutting hair with someone else's permission, but without the proper paperwork, an individual could go to jail. No reasonable person would support that kind of system, but that is what we have.

Ultimately, this whole system creates a lot of minor, victimless violations. The transaction between the barber and his customer is consensual, and presumably mutually beneficial. Yet the government can intervene to punish one of them for it. It makes no sense. And again, because there's no real victim here, that means neither customer nor service provider is going to report the violation. This, in turn, means regulators and law enforcement have to use discretion to seek out the problems. So which neighborhoods do you think they'll go to first?

What's the solution?
Many of these licenses should be dispensed with entirely. There's absolutely no reason why the government should feel the need to insist on a certain number of hours of education to become a florist.

But on the off-chance that some consumers actually could get value out of some of these licenses (perhaps for plumbing or general contracting), there's a great intermediate option. Just make the licenses optional. If plumbing consumers find the licensing requirements important and helpful, they will choose to only use licensed plumbers. These licensed plumbers will then get to charge a higher price than unlicensed plumbers. Thus, some plumbers would find the license helpful for their business, and would be sure to stay licensed.

In businesses where the licenses are unquestionably silly, however, many customers will choose providers regardless of whether they have a license or not. Thus, barbers will probably forego renewing their licenses, customers won't care, and the whole regulation regime will naturally become obsolete.

This is a great solution because it's almost impossible to argue against. If customers find the licensing regulations valuable, then they will continue to exist. If customers do not find them valuable, then what possible reason is there for the government to keep enforcing them anyway? Unless you're a business that stands to benefit, the answer is none at all.

Summing Up
Final decisions haven't been made in California just yet, but it's great news that occupational licensing reform is under serious consideration. If you care about poverty, free markets, limiting the size of government, or all three, then this issue should matter to you. And it's one of many issues where we can all be on the same team.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Trump Wins Nevada; We Contemplate the Unlikely Upside

Donald Trump won last night's Nevada Republican Caucus by a huge margin. All the votes hadn't been counted at the time of this writing, but early results indicated that Trump had around 42% of the vote compared to just 25% for the second place finisher. Indeed, it was such a thorough trouncing that media outlets felt comfortable projecting a winner after only 3% of the votes had been tallied.

Undoubtedly, many commentators will emphasize the important achievement of the second place finisher and what it means for the future. But in reality, it's unlikely to mean much. Trump still holds a commanding lead nationally and is first in every upcoming state except Texas, which goes to Texas Senator Ted Cruz. We'll know more in a week, but it looks quite likely that Republican voters are destined to nominate Trump.

Given the various horrible positions Trump has championed thus far--on immigration, torture, banning Muslims, etc.--this development is naturally depressing. But would you have really felt much better if Cruz, Rubio, or Carson had won instead? I didn't think so. The primary elections had to occur at some point, and the outcome was virtually guaranteed to be some version of terrible. Trump is the version we got from the Republicans.

Before we lose all hope, however, we should acknowledge that the Trump revolution is not all bad. If you look close enough, there is an upside. It comes chiefly from two sources: Trump's slightly isolationist views on foreign policy,* and the irreparable damage he may to the Republican party. We'll take them in order.

Trump's merits on foreign policy are surprising in light of his strongly anti-Muslim domestic proposals. But they are there nonetheless. Here are the highlights:

  • Iraq - He opposed the Iraq War. Better still, he is more than happy to attack his opponents for supporting it. The fact that he managed to win a deeply conservative state like South Carolina in spite of criticizing the war is a phenomenal accomplishment. It's tough to say whether most of his supporters actually agree that Iraq was a terrible idea or merely tolerate it, but either one is a very positive sign.**
  • Russia and Syria - He refuses to demonize Vladimir Putin and would prefer cooperation over conflict with Russia on the issue of Syria. This is still very far from ideal, of course. But it is far preferable to the options proposed by Rubio or Clinton, which call for direct confrontation with Russia so we can defend the known allies of Al Qaeda. And unfortunately, that is not a misrepresentation of their position.
  • No Political Filter - Trump's willing to say true things (and some false things too) that aren't supposed to be mentioned in polite politics. If he faces off against Hillary Clinton in the general election, his lack of a filter could lead to some extremely useful and enlightening exchanges on US foreign policy. Some examples of this tendency in action already are here, here, and here.

Meanwhile, Trump's impact on the effectiveness of the GOP is just as significant. Trump's candidacy represents an open rebellion--not because his ideas are that different, but because he is opposed by every GOP operator and wins in spite of it. You might say that the traditional gatekeepers of political power have lost control of their borders. And while that only produced a deeply flawed Donald Trump this time around, it may have created an opening for the future. 

Bernie Sanders is actually having a similar if lessened effect on the Democrats. No one with power wanted him to even be in the race at this point in February.Yet here he is. And if he had the good sense to offer a real alternative to Hillary Clinton on foreign policy, I think he could have even been in the lead.

In any case, we'll let Nick Gillespie pick up this theme here with an article at The Daily Beast. In a humorous and properly cynical take on campaign 2016, Gillespie explains how Bernie and Trump are destroying the established parties and accidentally could be paving the way for better ideas in the years to come. Here's the article:

*Isolationism and noninterventionism get confused all the time, but Trump seems to fall squarely in the former camp. This derives chiefly from his advocacy of heavily protectionist trade policies (i.e. high tariffs). By contrast, typical noninterventionists would advocate free trade on economic as well as diplomatic grounds. As the famous saying goes, "Where goods do not cross borders, armies will."

**For more on the significance of Trump's opposition to Iraq, check out radio host Scott Horton's smart take on it from last week. It's only about seven minutes long and starts at around the 2:30 mark.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Charles Koch's Olive Branch to... Bernie Sanders?

Yes, you read that headline right. Recently, Charles Koch penned an op-ed in the Washington Post aimed at emphasizing areas of agreement between principled leftists and libertarians.

If this sounds strange to you, you can certainly be forgiven. On the left, the billionaire Koch brothers are commonly seen as the symbol of all that is unholy and wrong about American politics. And in certain ways this association is a plausible fit. Their company, Koch Industries, is significantly involved in the petroleum industry, it is the second largest private company in the US, and they are politically active. The combination of these factors naturally created a big target.

But when one looks beyond these surface-level characteristics, the logic breaks down a bit. The Kochs identify themselves as libertarians after all. And even when you find an attack on them from the left, their libertarian ideology isn't denied. Rather, it just illustrates how "extreme" and dangerous they are.* It's almost as if these critics think that if you believe hard enough in the Republican party, you somehow become a libertarian.

In reality, however, lumping libertarians in with modern-day Republicans is deeply lazy. It's also confusing. How many Republicans do you know that are antiwar, pro-marijuana legalization, and supportive of criminal justice reform? If you got above five, we'll need to compare notes.

Libertarians actually have a quite a bit of common ground with liberals. We may not always agree on the solutions, but we care about many of the same problems. Koch's article is a hopeful step towards reminding us of that.

The whole article is worth reading, but the following excerpt gives you a sense of the conciliatory tone adopted:
The senator [Bernie] is upset with a political and economic system that is often rigged to help the privileged few at the expense of everyone else, particularly the least advantaged. He believes that we have a two-tiered society that increasingly dooms millions of our fellow citizens to lives of poverty and hopelessness. He thinks many corporations seek and benefit from corporate welfare while ordinary citizens are denied opportunities and a level playing field. 
I agree with him.
This is a great article because it seeks to do the important work of breaking down the tired left-right divide in American politics--or what Matt Welch aptly called the "Effort to Make Us All Dumb."

Surely, some will dismiss the content entirely based on its source.** But liberals that approach it with an open mind may discover an olive branch in a war that should have never started. The opposite of liberalism isn't libertarianism; the opposite of Bernie Sanders is not Ron Paul. On many issues that matter--wars, criminal justice reform, etc.--libertarians and liberals share a common foe. And that foe is theallegedly moderate politicians in both parties like Hillary Clinton or Marco Rubio that supported the very policies that are now in desperate need of revision. We forget this fact at our peril.

*The Rolling Stones piece linked to above has a fantastically dismissive tone which at one point casually references "screw-the-poor ideology" of Ron Paul--since that's obviously a fair way to characterize the most antiwar candidate either party has produced since at least World War II.

**To be sure, no one is denying that the Kochs may have supported some objectionable groups or candidates at times. Looking at the laundry list compiled by Wikipedia, there are at least a couple that seem seriously incompatible with a libertarian perspective on many issues (Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, for example). In any case, the merits of an argument ought to depend more on the ideas offered than the byline.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Back to Bombing Libya

One particularly menacing feature of US interventions in the War on Terror era is that "victory" comes with an expiration date. So Afghanistan was a success story (according to Bush and then Obama) before it went on to become the longest war in US history (and still ongoing). Similarly in Iraq, the US managed to spike the football in celebration a few times, before reality rudely overturned each occasion (Bush first, Bush et al on the surgethen Obama).

The wars just don't seem to stay won. Invariably, the US has to return or extend its stay to stabilize the government so it can delay the embarrassment of admitting failure until someone else's term in office.

It appears we can now formally add another country to this trend. Libya was widely hailed as a success in 2011 after the intervention, including by current Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, amongst others. Indeed, as we note frequently here (largely because we can scarcely believe she was stupid enough to say it in public), she referred to Libya as a case of "smart power" as recently as last fall.

But last week, the US officially conducted a large bombing raid on the country killing around 50 people, at least two of whom appear to have been innocent European hostages. (To be fair though, they were Eastern Europeans, Serbians to be specific, so there's about zero chance anyone in Western media or governments is going to give a damn. Reportedly, their names were Sladjana Stankovic and Jovica Stepic, which clearly sound far too foreign to elicit widespread compassion.)

The goal was to attack ISIS militants who are stronger than ever in Libya now that the country has no real government to speak of. And the attack comes amid recent acknowledgement that US troops are in the country already and actively trying to find allies to work against Syria.

Just like Afghanistan and Iraq, it appears that initial "success" in Libya was but the first round of a much longer conflict. And while Libya has been a wreck since almost immediately following the initial overthrow, it appears things have now deteriorated to the point that the US is considering more active re-intervention. There's not any obvious reason to believe force will achieve a positive outcome, but the public relations need to "do something" is likely too strong to resist.

For more reading on this subject, we're recommending the analysis offered by former Congressman Dr. Ron Paul, who helps shine more light on the futility and blatant illegality of latest attacks. Here's the piece:

Intervention Fail: Back to Libya

Friday, February 19, 2016

Oil Price Hysteria and How Incentives Sabotage Cartels

As you may have heard, the stock market has been a bit of a disaster this year. American stocks have lost about 6% of their value since the beginning of the new year based on the Dow Jones Index, and daily swings of 3 or even 4 percent have not been uncommon. Most stock markets in Asia and Europe have performed even worse with greater losses and volatility. And while no single factor can adequately explain all of the turmoil we've seen, many commentators placed the blame on low oil prices.

Why does oil matter?
At first blush, this doesn't make much sense. It's easy to see why low oil prices would be bad for oil companies. But for just about everyone else, this would seem like a good thing. Consumers benefit from lower gas prices and have more money left over to spend or save. Meanwhile, companies benefit from reduced transportation costs, and will presumably earn higher profits as a result.

The analysis above is perfectly sound economics, yet somehow low oil prices have sent the broader market into a tantrum. The reason for this is that many of the struggling oil companies were heavily financed by debt. As their losses begin to mount, there is a high possibility that some will go bankrupt and fail to repay their loans. If enough bankruptcies occur, they could potentially destabilize the banks that gave them money, leading to a ripple effect that cascades through the overall economy.

In this way, high levels of debt tend to make the economy much more fragile than it otherwise would be. Problems that should be confined to a single industry or group of companies can quickly become problems for everyone. Of course, this is not an argument for bailing such companies out--which can only postpone an eventual collapse. But it is another good reason to oppose the artificially low interest rates established by the Federal Reserve, which encourage consumers and companies to borrow more money. Ironically, in the name of promoting economic stability, such policies make the broader economy more unstable. The current hysteria over oil prices is a reflection of this.

What will happen to oil prices?
Because oil prices actually do matter in the present economy, the market has been desperate for any news that might point to higher oil prices. This has led to an emotional roller coaster of sorts as each optimistic report was widely hailed, but then quickly fell flat as new details emerged. The following headlines give you some sense of the anxiety over this issue:
As you can see, the market has been basically bipolar, and most of the focus is on the possibility output cuts from the major oil producing countries - Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, including Iran, Iraq, Venezuela, and Russia.* The major news outlets clearly seem to have no idea whether a deal will occur or not. The prevailing view at any given time seems to depend on whatever statement was issued last. In reality, the likely outcome of these talks is pretty certain to eventually end in failure. And a basic understanding of economics helps us understand why.

The major oil producing countries mentioned above are facing many of the same problems right now. In varying degrees, the domestic economy of each country is dependent on oil exports, and they also use oil proceeds to finance a substantial portion of the government. Thus, low oil prices have led to weaker economies at home and growing government deficits. All of them would love to see oil prices go higher to reduce these current problems. But all of them are also desperate to get as much money out of their oil supplies as possible right now, precisely because of these same problems.

Their interests create a kind of Catch-22. Collectively, they would like to see lower oil production so that prices will eventually go up in response to reduced supply. But individually, they need to maximize their production to get the most revenue possible. This tension in interests is what tends to make all production- or price-fixing agreements highly unstable in a competitive system.

The short-term result tends to be that the players involved will formally or informally agree to cut production. This has the immediate effect of sending oil prices higher on the expectation that supply will soon fall. But because each player has such a compelling incentive to cheat and produce more than agreed to, the arrangements typically break down. This is true for countries competing in a global oil market. And it's also true for private companies in any open competitive environment. Cartels and price-fixing arrangements are often seen as key examples where markets can fail and governments may need to step in to protect consumers. But the incentives at work in a free market all but ensure cartels will be unsustainable.

Bringing it back to oil prices, this is great news if you're a fan of low gas prices. If you lent money to an oil company, however, probably not so much. As long as no major new wars break out in the Middle East, look for oil prices to stay low in the near-term until the markets have time to adjust.

*The US has recently become a major oil and natural gas producer as well. But because the US oil industry is largely decentralized to private actors, the US doesn't typically get included in such discussions.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Apple Takes a Stand on Encryption

There's a piece of tentative good news in the realm of encryption and privacy today. In the face of a government court order to hack the pin code of a user's iPhone, they publicly refused to comply. It remains to be seen how the government will fight back, but this could shape up to be a very important development.

Perhaps even better than Apple's action is the reason behind it. Essentially, Apple's CEO justified their defiance on the grounds that compliance would establish a precedent that would allow the government access any data it wanted.

Read the full story today from the Foundation of Economic Education:

Apple Defies FBI, Court Order to Breach iPhone Security

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Why We Should Prioritize Foreign Policy Over Domestic Policy

Yesterday, I argued that Bernie Sanders is a nationalist and that his nationalism is inherently at odds with his belief in equality. It was partially intended as a philosophical discussion on equality, but of course it was also a direct criticism of Bernie's candidacy. In response to this attack, one reader offered a very interesting defense that is worth discussing at length. Essentially, he applauded Bernie's focus on domestic policy in the US and argued that this offered the surest path to benefit people around the world. And accordingly, it would not be appropriate to dismiss Bernie as a nationalist.s

This is an interesting point because it raises the critical question of priorities. And although we may disagree on the specific policies involved, this is an important question for liberals and libertarians alike. Today, it will be our purpose to argue that foreign policy should be the top priority if you care about equality and alleviating human suffering. (I would use the term "humanitarian" to describe this emphasis and be less grandiose, but now that "humanitarian intervention" has become commonplace, it kind of feels like a dirty word.)

Let's begin by properly characterizing the commenter's position. He offered several points, but the key aspect we'll be considering today read as follows:
[Bernie's] platform is largely domestic as a foreign policy, meaning that as he pursues his agenda to improve the plight of all people in the US (because he has clearly stated that immigrants - illegal or otherwise - enemy combatants, and all non-citizens in US custody deserve equal treatment under the law) the US will then be in a healthy enough position to improve the plight of all people. We must lead by example. If we are not the pillar of equality and justice how can we advocate for equality and justice across the globe? If we are not a stable and secure nation of opportunity for all how can we help other nations become stable and filled with opportunity?
Though he and I would likely disagree on the best means for achieving these ends, no one should question the merits of the goals expressed. In some ways, it is a modern edition of the "City upon a hill" vision offered by the founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop (and cited by many politicians since).

And it makes perfect sense as far as it goes. Obviously, no one likes to take advice from a hypocrite. If the US is to be a positive leader, it must do so by leading by example.  I completely agree with that sentiment, and I sincerely hope that I live to see the day when America's role in foreign policy will be confined to only leading by example. But that day is a long way off.

Today, the United States is not a neutral actor in global affairs. On the contrary, the US government is directly or indirectly responsible for much of the suffering that exists in the world today. As President Obama recently bragged, the US has dropped bombs on seven countries during his Presidency. And since most humans tend not to idolize those that bomb them (or other innocent people for that matter), my argument is simple: Before we can consider leading by example, we have to stop causing and enabling direct harm around the world.

It's fair to say that the US policy is hypocritical in domestic affairs as well as foreign ones. Thus, US credibility is unlikely to be restored until both issues are remedied. So in the short run, our priorities must be decided on where we can do the most good (or stop the most harm, if you prefer). And since we have already explained yesterday why we can't intellectually justify prioritizing the interests of Americans over other people, we have to consider each of them equally. So let's consider the numbers.

First, let's look at the likely beneficiaries of positive domestic policy. Let's set aside economic questions, and presume for the sake of argument that Bernie's policies would work precisely as hoped and have no negative unintended consequences. In this light, the primary beneficiaries of Bernie's policy would likely be the following:

  • 2 million Americans currently incarcerated. According to Wikipedia as of 2013, the full prison population in 2013 was actually 2.2 million, and we're assuming the overwhelming majority (~90%) were incarcerated for marijuana possession or given preposterously long sentences thanks to mandatory minimums. Bernie has campaigned on addressing both of these issues.
  • 11 million illegal immigrants, which Bernie would offer a path to citizenship.
  • 45 million Americans living in poverty. Of course, it's unlikely poverty would be fully eradicated by a Sanders or any other presidency. And one could quibble with the definition of poverty, since US poverty isn't quite as bad as say, Yemeni poverty. But again, let's just assume all of these people receive significant benefits for the purpose of the argument.
Adding all these up, a deeply optimistic outlook for a Sanders presidency focused domestically would suggest he could help 59 million people. Not too bad.

Now let us consider the number that could be helped by a radical change in US policy abroad. Apologies in advance for the long list:
  • 32 million - Afghanistan
    • The population of Afghanistan as of 2014. Last year, a record 11,000 civilians were reported killed in Afghanistan, and it's fair to say that essentially the entire country has been destabilized by the ongoing fighting. The US bears responsibility for this by first overthrowing the government of that country in 2001 and continuing to occupy it, bomb it, and support a government that lacks popular support (or any meaningful control outside of the capital city). If the US left Afghanistan, the country would have a chance at self-determination and things could finally start to stabilize.
  • 17 million - Syria
    • The population of Syria proper was around 17 million. By now, this number is probably much lower due to casualties and more refugees fleeing the country. The US was not the only catalyst of this crisis, but our actions, and those of our allies, have prolonged it. If the US were to withdraw support for the not-so-moderate rebels in that country and (ideally) attempt to convince allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia to stop fueling the flames, an enduring ceasefire could be reached much sooner. 
  • 1.6 million - Iraq
    • The population of Anbar province in Iraq circa 2011, which is now mostly controlled by the Islamic State and likely less populous. Obviously, the entire country of Iraq has been disastrously destabilized by the US invasion of 2003 and the brutal sanctions regime before that. But as of right now, most of the suffering is occurring in territories held by the Islamic State. And as the past year and a half of bombings suggest, the Islamic State, like any other insurgency, cannot be defeated by airstrikes. Instead, the US is its greatest recruitment tool.
  • 26 million - Yemen
    • The approximate population of Yemen. Fully 80% of Yemenis are now in need of humanitarian aid after nearly a year of war and blockade by US ally Saudi Arabia, and the entire country has been destabilized. While Saudi Arabia initiated this crisis, it is fully enabled by the US government, which permits the sale of weapons, refuels the Saudi planes, and reportedly even helps select the targets. Without US support, the War in Yemen could not persist. It's true that Yemen was exceedingly poor before the recent war as well, but the US bore a share of the blame for that as well by backing a despotic government in the name of, of course, counterterrorism.
  • 6 million - Libya
    • The approximate population of Libya, as of 2013. Like Iraq, this country was also destabilized by a military intervention pushed by the US. France was a major driver as well, to be sure, but it couldn't have happened without US support. The country remains in chaos as ISIS has gained a foothold and two separate governments are competing for control.
  • 4.4 million - Palestine
    • The approximate number of Palestinians living in Gaza, East Jerusalem, or the West Bank. The much-hyped two state solution is no longer possible. But the blockade of Gaza, the continued theft of land from Palestinians in the West Bank, restrictions on freedom of movement, and the two-tiered legal system would not endure long without diplomatic cover and the ever-reliable American veto on the UN Security Council.
The above is not a complete list; these are just the most obvious crises occurring at present. It omits a share of the blame for the current plight of Egyptians, Ukrainians, Iranians, Somalis, Pakistanis, Cubans, Sudanese, and Bahrainis,  and probably others I'm neglecting. It also omits the numerous refugees that have been driven from all of these countries. But even without explicitly including these groups, the total people that stand to benefit would be 87 million, far higher than the maximum conceivable figure domestically.

And it's worth noting a key difference here. For people to be helped domestically, a president would have to pass and implement radical policies that may or may not work as intended. To make positive change in the realm of foreign policy, we just have to stop doing the wrong thing. That is much easier, especially since the president has much more control over foreign policy than domestic. Stop bombing countries, stop overthrowing governments, and stop imposing sanctions that only hurt civilians and never actually change policies. (And no, Iran is not a case where they "worked.")

When you really think about it, there's no contest between foreign and domestic policy. Foreign policy affects more people, most of whom are more desperate, and there is a clear path to stop causing harm. For all these reasons, foreign policy should be the top priority for anyone that cares about human suffering, regardless of what their politics are. Bringing it back to Bernie, this makes it difficult to understand his focus on domestic policy if he really cares about equality as he seems to. It also makes it impossible to defend his rather disappointing record on foreign policy issues. To me, the only plausible explanation is that he's a nationalist. It's surely not a unique vice among politicians, but we should still recognize that reality.

And ultimately, it would be great if the US got its house in order and could lead the world by example. But before we get there, we should probably stop destroying other people's houses.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Reject the Nationalism of Bernie Sanders

One of the central principles in Bernie Sanders's campaign for the Presidency is a belief in equality. It lies at the heart of his critique of the American economic system and the billionaire class. It's part of his criticism of the healthcare system in which poor people cannot access the same kind of treatment as richer individuals. It's also fundamental to his criticism of the criminal justice system, in which poorer individuals and minorities tend to be treated differently and worse.

In short, it's everywhere.

But a closer examination reveals that Bernie doesn't really believe in equality for everyone. He only believes in equality for Americans. Bernie Sanders is a nationalist as surely as Donald Trump is. And thinking people should oppose this.

Before we get into the details of this argument, let's first address some likely objections.

The other candidates are nationalists too. Why pick on Bernie?
It's certainly true that Bernie Sanders is not the only candidate that's a nationalist. We're focusing on Bernie because he is perceived to be consistent and principled in a way the others are not. Additionally, Bernie's degree of alleged consistency is sometimes compared to Ron Paul, which I for one, find to be a grave distortion of reality.

Bernie is running to be President of the USA, not to lead the UN.
Obviously true. But we must acknowledge that many policies that are allegedly in the interest of Americans are directly opposed to the interests of citizens of other countries. My purpose is to argue that any sincere belief in equality requires one to care about their interests as well.

Those issues aside, we'll proceed by first defining equality, and then highlight two policy positions that highlight Bernie's indifference to it.

Defining Equality

For the sake of this discussion, we'll adopt a definition that is hopefully acceptable to libertarians and liberals alike. Thus, a belief in equality means supporting equal treatment and equal consideration of an individual's interests. By equal treatment, we're referring primarily to treatment under the law. So, for example, we want a white person and black person to be accorded the same due process rights. By equal consideration of interests, we mean acknowledging that like interests should be treated the same. But we also must acknowledge that some types of interests are inherently superior. For instance, a Lockheed Martin executive's interest in making a profit by selling bombs to the US government is clearly inferior to a civilian's interest in not being struck by said bombs and remaining alive.*

So why do we believe in equality? There may be many good answers to that question, but the answer is most definitely not that we believe all people are literally equal. Our experience in life disproves this on a daily basis. Whether we consider charisma, intelligence, creativity, height, etc., the fact is all people are not equal. It's also true that we can statistical trends across different races or ethnicities as well (e.g. people of German or African dissent tend to be taller than Chinese people). But in spite of this, most of us still think they should be accorded the same basic respect and treatment.

The real reason is because we don't believe in punishing or treating people differently based on factors outside of their control. That's the essence Martin Luther King's dream one day people "will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." You can't control your race, ethnicity, or many other characteristics you are born with, so you shouldn't be treated worse as a result of them. You can only control your actions, so that's the only thing you can be judged on.

Of course, there are some of these basic characteristics that we have some control over, but the barriers to doing so are pretty high. People do change religion, for example, but the enduring geographic distribution of religions suggests most people stick to whatever they were born with. Similarly, some people now physically change their sex, but doing so requires a significant amount of money. Again for the most part, people remain whatever they were born as. Thus, many people (as well as US law) treat these things as a given and hold that members of any group should be offered the same basic treatment and respect as anyone else.**

I would argue that nationality belongs in this same category. People can't control where they are born. And they can only change their nationality after great personal expense and successfully navigating often complicated immigration rules. If we accept this principle then it follows that at least, ethically, we cannot prioritize the interests of Americans over others and still remain consistent with our belief in equality.

And note that the fact you or I happen to be American is not a defense. To see this, consider the following phrase: "Well, I favor Americans because I'm American." When you replace American with white, Christian, etc., you realize you have the exact same justification as every powerful group that has ever persecuted a minority. Clearly, that's not an argument we can embrace.

So if you want to be consistent and you really believe in equality, that belief has to extend to people beyond US borders.

Bernie's Nationalism
All of this brings us back to Bernie Sanders. One of the major platforms of Bernie's campaign is his opposition to major international trade deals. There are good reasons one might oppose these deals, if they gave handouts to established corporations for instance. But this is not Bernie's focus. Rather, his concern is that these trade policies have driven down American wages and cost US jobs. And in certain industries, this is probably true.

But why did this happen? Well, people in China and Mexico and elsewhere were willing to work for a lower wage. And given that both of these countries have a lower standard of living than the US, we should assume that the average person there was actually more desperate. Thus, on what ethical basis can we prioritize the American's interest over theirs? I would argue there isn't one. And this is particularly true when one acknowledges the dramatic increases in productivity created by freer trade, that have made all of us richer on average.

Now a potential objection here may be the working conditions in these other countries. And to be sure, they probably are worse than the prevailing conditions in the US. But unless we assume the workers in these countries are being forced against their will to do so,*** that means these individuals perceive a low-wage job in less-than-ideal conditions to be the best opportunity available to them. We can be sad about that. But it still means that denying them that opportunity would make them worse off.

Moving beyond economic policy to foreign policy, this distinction becomes even more clear. To take one example, Bernie Sanders has said that he will continue the use of drone assassinations. This is a policy that has undeniably killed many civilians, and none of the actual targets are ever proven guilty anyway. So even in the best case scenario, the drone program amounts to assassination based on probable cause for the target. And for the inevitable bystanders, it's assassination based on their association with an alleged bad actor.

In contrast, Sanders has made criminal justice reform a key platform position in the US. He has specifically focused on ending police brutality and disparate sentencing against minorities by the criminal justice system. And he has also expressed opposition to the death penalty in general.
Obviously, it goes without saying that these views are basically impossible to reconcile. Is capital punishment no longer capital punishment when it's done by a missile instead of a syringe? Is there an Arab exception for due process that I don't know about? If there was an alleged terrorist sitting in Central Park, should we drone strike them?

The questions answer themselves. The difference between drone assassinations and police brutality, is that one set of victims are Americans living in America. The others are not.  That's nationalism at work.

Summing Up
As we said at the outset, Bernie's nationalism is not unique among presidential candidates. He's only unique in that he's perceived as holding consistent principles, while the others are not. But a closer examination reveals that Bernie's not consistent either, and his candidacy shows us how nationalism is fundamentally incompatible with a belief in equality.

*The general formulation is an extension of the one offered by Peter Singer in "All Animals Are Equal," which is really an exceptionally thought-provoking piece even if you don't buy the full vegan argument.

**I'm here assuming that the growing trend of Islamophobia consists primarily of people that weren't too concerned with equality in the abstract beforehand. And again, I'm using equality in the narrowly defined way above.

***I'm not denying here that this may exist in some cases and some countries. But by and large, the scandals surrounding outsourced labor that I'm aware of relate primarily to poor working conditions rather than slavery.

Two Consecutive Debates with Antiwar Moments?

If you support peace, modern presidential debates tend to be a pretty depressing experience. On the Republican side, outright advocacy of war crimes is commonplace. On the Democratic side, the frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, is an experienced warmonger and her opponent tends to stick to domestic issues whenever possible.

So when you watch these debates, you're looking for a needle in a haystack. Amidst all the talk of torture, carpet-bombing, "smart power", Internet censorship, and no-fly zones, we're just hoping that at some point something sensible will make it into the discussion as well. Occasionally, there's something worthwhile, but thus far even the best statements have mostly stayed at the surface. Yes, we were grateful when Rand Paul or others made the obvious point that overthrowing dictators often has very negative consequences. But skepticism alone isn't enough to change minds or even make many headlines. For that, you need something more. You need something that confronts the conventional foreign policy wisdom directly.

In some ways, the last two presidential debates have given us precisely that. 

Bernie Sanders
First up, we had Bernie Sanders give us a brief history lesson on some of America's foreign policy disasters after World War II. He specifically mentioned the case where the US and British overthrew the first democratically elected prime minister of Iran in 1953 and replaced him with a brutal dictator. He mentioned the disastrous overthrows in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011, both of which are now increasing filled by radical terrorist groups. He also went on an apparently planned attack former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, whom Hillary Clinton describes as a kind of mentor. Here's the relevant discussion of Kissinger from Bernie:
"Where the secretary and I have a very profound difference, in the last debate — and I believe in her book — very good book, by the way — in her book and in this last debate, she talked about getting the approval or the support or the mentoring of Henry Kissinger. Now, I find it rather amazing, because I happen to believe that Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country. I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend. I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger. And in fact, Kissinger’s actions in Cambodia, when the United States bombed that country, overthrew Prince Sihanouk, created the instability for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to come in, who then butchered some 3 million innocent people, one of the worst genocides in the history of the world. So count me in as somebody who will not be listening to Henry Kissinger."
Bernie was absolutely right about Kissinger--a man who successfully advocated for war crimes while in office. And it was great to hear someone to discuss the disastrous foreign policy history of the US, particularly after World War II. It was also surprising because it means that Bernie actually does know and acknowledge the history of US intervention.

But if he does know this history, then why has he been so inconsistent on issues of war and peace? A liberal author I respect, attempted to cast Bernie's Kissinger attack as a sign of the clear difference between Hillary and Bernie on foreign policy. And when the issue comes up, Bernie certainly conveys a much more peaceful note. But in reality, the difference between Bernie and Hillary is really one of degree rather than principle as a new article makes clear.

Donald Trump
Like Bernie, Donald Trump is also very far from a principled noninterventionist. But in Saturday night's GOP debate, he offered probably the best antiwar statements of the entire campaign season. Here are the main highlights (I've just omitted the parts where the moderator attempted to interrupt.):
Quote 1: Obviously, the war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake. All right? Now, you can take it any way you want, and it took -- it took Jeb Bush, if you remember at the beginning of his announcement, when he announced for president, it took him five days. 
He went back, it was a mistake, it wasn't a mistake. It took him five days before his people told him what to say, and he ultimately said, "it was a mistake." The war in Iraq, we spent $2 trillion, thousands of lives, we don't even have it. Iran has taken over Iraq with the second-largest oil reserves in the world... 
George Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes. But that one was a beauty. We should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East... 
You do whatever you want. You call it whatever you want. I want to tell you. They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction, there were none. And they knew there were none. There were no weapons of mass destruction. 
Quote 2: How did he [Bush] keep us safe when the World Trade Center -- the World -- excuse me. I lost hundreds of friends. The World Trade Center came down during the reign of George Bush. He kept us safe? That is not safe. That is not safe, Marco. That is not safe.
In short, Donald Trump took on the Republican orthodoxy head on. And while the audience was apparently full of Rubio and Bush supporters that booed at every turn, the fact is that what he said was true. Yes, the Iraq War was sold on a deliberate lie, and it's also true that everyone else is expected to start doing their job sooner than 9 months after they take a position. Just as important, this is the kind of aggressive truth that can get people to rethink their position. Not his fellow candidates certainly, but maybe their voters.

Of course, none of the above should be taken as support for Bernie or Trump. They're still bad on foreign policy in severe ways. But while they may be deeply flawed messengers, part of their message this past week supported the cause of peace. It's nice to have something to cheer for.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Syria Ceasefire Deal Reached

There is a bit of good news in the foreign policy world today as a tentative ceasefire deal was reached on Syria among the major players. Of course, there are a lot of different sides in the Syria conflict. But the two most important sides are the Syrian government, backed by Russia and Iran, and the US-led coalition, which includes a limited number of rebel factions within Syria.

While this is certainly a positive development, it remains to be seen how much impact it will have on the ground. The rebel factions, outside of the outright jihadist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS, are a very disjointed group. Thus, although the US and a purported representative of the rebels agreed to the ceasefire, it's not clear that the actual rebel groups will cease the fighting on the ground. That is certainly what we can hope for.

Coincidentally, ISIS and Al Qaeda were not included in the ceasefire discussion, which means the air campaign against both groups (and the civilians around them) will continue unabated in any case.

To get a better understanding of this story, we're recommending two pieces today. Up first is a recent article by Gareth Porter writing at Porter argues convincingly that the prospects for a sustainable peace in Syria have increased as Russian intervention appears to have successfully shored up the Syrian government's grip on power. Note that this is in no way an endorsement of that intervention, which has certainly led to many civilian casualties (like all bombing campaigns). But the Russian-Syrian side of this conflict has appeared to be more open to a peaceful solution than the US and the opposition it supported which were intent on regime change. Of course, the Russian-Syrian side was interested in peace precisely because that would be more likely to result in stability for the government, which was desperately needed after a years-long civil war. But it was genuine. Meanwhile, the opposition had little to gain from a peace settlement, and none occurred.

Porter argues that recent gains by Syria and Russia on the ground have changed this calculation. Now that the opposition is weakened, perpetuating the conflict no longer furthers the goal of regime change in Syria. And accordingly, the US and its opposition were willing to talk.

This recent ceasefire agreement is the apparent outcome. And for more on the agreement itself, we recommend this short summary from the ever-reliable Jason Ditz, also at

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Bernie's Hypocrisy on Defense Spending

I confess I was very pleased to see Hillary Clinton's thorough defeat in the New Hampshire primaries this week.* But it's always important to clarify that heartfelt opposition to one candidate does not necessarily entail genuine support for their opponent. Elsewhere, we have suggested that Bernie Sanders may be the least of all the plausible evils remaining in the race for the Presidency. While that may be true, we should not forget all the things that Bernie is terrible on. One of those things is the topic of today's recommendation.

We're speaking of course about Bernie's oddly close relationship with the defense industry.

Bernie regularly condemns corporate handouts from the government and presents himself as the relatively antiwar candidate left in the race. It is therefore surprising that Bernie has consistently supported defense spending on projects of the Lockheed Martin Corporation, which is the largest defense contractor in the world and receives more US government money than any other company. This includes support of the enormously expensive and useless F-35 fighter plane. Essentially, the F-35 is a wealth redistribution program from US taxpayers to the shareholders and employees of Lockheed Martin.

But this is okay with Bernie because he's managed to ensure a lot of those Lockheed employees are in his home state. I'm not speculating here; that's literally his stated justification. Wasteful defense spending isn't going away any time soon, so it might as well be in his district. If that doesn't sound like a regular politician to you, nothing will.

I'll let the article pick up the story from there and fill in the details. Note that it's coming from a left-leaning publication so it's not just a random hit piece. Rather, it's conveying an unfortunate fact about a candidate that many people desperately want to believe in. I still happen to think a Sanders foreign policy would kill the fewest people (or do so with the least zeal, in any case). But it's always important to remember how low the bar is. The least bad option among terrible alternatives is still a bad option. On foreign policy, Bernie Sanders is that option.

And on that light note, here's the link:

Bernie Sanders Loves This $1 Trillion War Machine

*It's not that I'm a sexist though I assure you; I just have an irreconcilable dislike for politicians that have successfully steered the US into aggressive wars. I suspect my opposition to a Dick Cheney presidential run would be similar in character though stronger in intensity. If you like that parallel, you should check out this piece that I borrowed it from.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

New Budget Proposal Keeps Military Spending As High As Ever

President Obama recently set forth his final budget proposal, and it offers a strong rebuke to the usual rhetoric that America's military is in decline. On the contrary, the proposed budget for the military is going to be held effectively constant at $583B for FY 2017, which compares with $584B in 2016.

Predictably, one of the defenses offered for this massive amount is the competition from Russia and China. But this justification does not stand up to any scrutiny. According to recent calculations by the National Priorities Project, the US spends as much on its military as the next seven countries combined (and yes, those seven include Russia and China). Yet in spite of this obvious fact, some Congressional Republicans responded to the proposal by demanding even more money for the military.

This offers yet more evidence that the military is immune to any budgetary pressures, and is one reason why it might be a good idea to bet on stupid, as we've proposed previously. (Coincidentally, Lockheed Martin's stock has been up this week, likely due in part to this news.)

For more on this story, we'll refer to you to the short summary offered by Jason Ditz at You can also check out this longer write-up at the New York Times if for some reason you're looking for something without sarcasm.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Does Money in Politics Really Determine the Outcome of Elections?

This question may seem rhetorical, but the answer is much more complicated than you might think. A new piece at the Foundation for Economic Education blog argues persuasively that money often follows winners, rather than creating them.

It's certainly true that the candidate that raises more money tends to win elections. But correlation is not the same thing as causation. That is, just because the winner had more money does not mean that money was the deciding factor. Moreover the trend that the more well-financed candidate tends to win is not a hard-and-fast rule. The less well-funded candidate can win, and the current presidential primaries, especially on the Republican side, are a perfect example. Jeb Bush is the most well-financed candidate in the GOP and he appears to be just about on his last legs.

If anecdotal examples of the money underdog winning aren't enough, there's also the curious fact that candidates in districts with effectively no competition still receive donations. This suggests that the primary purpose of donors may be less about determining a winner and more about securing influence with whoever wins. Why else would you donate to someone who was all but guaranteed a victory?

Today, the need to get money out of politics is often taken as a given, by many Republicans and Democrats alike. The most prominent solutions involve some kind of campaign finance reform, which is supposed to even the playing field. But all of this is based on an assumption that may not hold--that money determines elections. And before we jump to a solution, we should always be sure to understand the problem.

This article at FEE is a good start in that direction, and there's more in-depth evidence from CATO that's also worth your time.

Learning the Wrong Lesson from Rand Paul

As you have probably heard, Rand Paul dropped out of the presidential race last week after a disappointing showing in Iowa. While this was not altogether surprising, it was certainly depressing. Paul was the last major party candidate in the race that was willing to consistently say something remotely compatible with a peaceful foreign policy. Without him, the clear consensus from everyone is to continue bombing at least Iraq and Syria, continue the drone assassination program, and strengthen an Israeli government which openly prefers ISIS to Iran, amongst other maladies.

But as we recover from the reality that the next president will almost certainly preside over four more years of war, it is important to dissect and understand the failure of the Rand Paul campaign. Here we'll try to make three main points.

Don't blame libertarianism.

Pundits from the progressive left to the establishment right, are gleefully citing Paul's failure as a failure of the libertarian philosophy. This is a mistake for the obvious reason that Rand Paul deliberately did not run as a libertarian.

Back in 2010 when Rand Paul ran for Senate in Kentucky, he ran as an outsider that was fueled by the Tea Party outrage. But he was still sure to brand himself as a Republican, just a new kind. This is what he had to say about libertarianism:
They thought all along that they could call me a libertarian and hang that label around my neck like an albatross, but I'm not a libertarian.
And that general idea continued to guide Paul's tenure in the Senate. He took the libertarian stance on some issues, most of which were safely within the standard Republican paradigm (gun rights, lower taxes), and a couple more controversial issues (NSA spying, the war on drugs, and the Libyan intervention). However, he also took the standard conservative line on other issues that directly contravened libertarian ideas, most notably his deeply dishonest opposition of the Iran Deal. So while it may be accurate to say he was the most libertarian senator and the most libertarian major party candidate, we must also say there was a very low bar in both cases. In the presidential race, the same honor would now probably go to either Ted Cruz or Bernie Sanders (provided you subscribe to the collapse/gridlock theory I offered).

Rand Paul would drop the L-word from time-to-time, but it was not his brand. He was trying to sell a kind of new pragmatic conservatism that was measured and nuanced. Unfortunately, an outraged GOP base wasn't interested.

Rand Paul didn't lose because of ISIS.

Another prevalent narrative about Rand Paul's failure relates to the subject of foreign policy. The idea is that because ISIS was a top priority this cycle, the electorate just wasn't ready for a candidate preaching noninterventionism. If he was willing to just call for indiscriminate bombing campaigns on ISIS like everyone else, then maybe he would have had a chance.

I happen to agree that one of Rand Paul's weaknesses was foreign policy. But it's not because he wasn't enough of a warmonger. Rather, it's because he was too hawkish for his base.

To prove this, it's useful to consider the polling data. When 2015 began, Rand Paul was consistently in the top tier of declared or likely presidential candidates, with national support hovering around 10%. This support was gradually diluted as other candidates entered the race. But Rand Paul's absolute plummet to the bottom of the polls occurred in mid-July of 2015. At the start of July, Paul was at 8% in the national polls. By the time of the first GOP debates one month later on August 6, he was down to just 4.5%. Of course, neither of these numbers is very good, but in the heavily crowded primary of the GOP, 8% meant you were in the conversation. Below 5% meant you were about to share a stage with Lindsey Graham. So what happened in between?

Well, July saw the initial rise of Donald Trump, which certainly played a role. But July is also when Rand Paul officially came out in opposition to the Iran Deal. And for the libertarians and/or peace advocates that did support Rand Paul, this was a bridge too far.

Compromises can be potentially tolerated if they allow you to make progress on the most important issues, but the obvious corollary is that you can't compromise on the most important issue--namely aggressive war against another country. That's what was at stake in the Iran Deal. Rand still paid lip service to preferring to solve the conflict through negotiation, but his actions did not reflect this preference. If the Iran Deal failed, war was likely to follow. Thus, voting against it, was an affirmative vote for more conflict, not less.

Enthusiasm for Rand declined swiftly from then on, and it never broke 5% nationally in the remainder of the campaign. Importantly, this decline occurred well before ISIS was thrust back onto center stage through the Paris Attacks in November. Rand Paul's campaign was already all but dead by then.

Moreover, it's important to recognize that while ISIS is new, terrorism is not. Ron Paul had to deal with the same skepticism of peace in 2008 and 2012. And far from being a liability, foreign policy turned out to be a signature issue for him. There's no reason to think Rand couldn't have achieved the same feat this time.

Pandering lost the youth vote.

In Ron Paul's 2012 bid for the White House, he cleaned up when it came to the youth vote. In New Hampshire, he received 47% of the vote from 18 to 29 year-olds, and in Iowa, he received 48% from the same group. There was no Democratic primary in 2012 since Barack Obama was running for a second term, so it's likely Paul's totals included some independents and Democratic voters as well.

So where'd the youth vote go this year? Well, in Iowa, it overwhelmingly to Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side at 84%, while the Republican youth vote went primarily to Donald Trump at 26% and Carson at 22% for a similar demographic. In that same Republican poll, Rand Paul's support was just 6%.

Since Bernie, Trump, and Carson have essentially no positions in common with Ron Paul, this doesn't make sense at first. Obviously, Rand's views are the closest to his father's on most issues, and yet young voters didn't go for him. Instead, they chose the distinctly anti-establishment candidates on each side.

What this tells us is that most young voters aren't voting on ideology. They don't lean libertarian or socialist, per se. Instead, they are attracted to authenticity. Trump is not really consistent; Carson rarely makes sense and often contradicts himself; and Bernie's compassion doesn't extend beyond US borders judging by his foreign policy. But what all three have in common is that they seem to call things as they see them. They might not be principled or make sense, but they at least seem honest.

Unfortunately, that was a quality that Rand couldn't project during this campaign. He said he opposed war with Iran and then he opposed a diplomatic solution to avert it. He believes in nonintervention and but wants to intervene on behalf of Kurdish independence. He believes in states' rights but supported a federal ban on abortion. And the list could go on. Contradictions like that sound precisely like politics as usual, and they don't win you the youth vote (or many others). In the effort to appeal to everyone, Rand Paul lost his appeal to most.

Summing Up
Ultimately, it's hard to say how a more principled, Ron Paul-esque campaign would have done in 2016. Ron Paul entered the Iowa caucus at a dead heat for first back in 2012 and nearly won. Perhaps Rand could have gained that same momentum, or maybe the demagoguery of Trump and Cruz would have drowned out more cerebral arguments.

While we can't know what that would have looked like, we can say that Rand Paul's compromising on key issues was a nonstarter. It didn't inspire enthusiasm like Ron did, and it didn't win as many votes. But Rand's failure is just that. Libertarianism and peace are not dead ideologies, but the lesson of this campaign is that they should not be diluted.