Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Who Occupies Whom in Israel-Palestine? Don't Ask an American

A new poll published by the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy, shows that a plurality of Americans misunderstand a fundamental fact about the Middle East. Specifically, a statistically representative sample of Americans and three other nationalities were asked a simple question about Israel and Palestine. The wording of the question and the results are shown below:

(Note that respondents were allowed to give their own custom response as well; those that did are included within the Other category.)

As you can see, the American responses differ significantly from the other countries'. America is unfortunately unique in having a plurality of Americans, 49.2%, who answered the question wrong, believing that Palestinians occupy Israeli land.

In reality, the Israelis occupy Palestinian territories in the West Bank and have an ongoing blockade of the other Palestinian patch of land known as the Gaza Strip.The occupation has been continuous since the Israelis won the Six-Day War of 1967 against its Arab neighbors. In the nearly 5 decades since, Israelis have gradually "settled" on some of the occupied territory, formally displacing the original owners and claiming parcels of land as their own. In other words, it's kind of like what the US did in the Nineteenth Century as to Native Americans as part of what was euphemistically termed Manifest Destiny. The difference is that most Americans understand that our conquering and displacement of Native Americans ranks up with slavery as stains on our country's record. Meanwhile, the idea of Greater Israel, is openly accepted and promoted right now in the year 2016.

And the fact that many Americans do not understand this very basic aspect about the Middle East, probably explains why Americans also have much more favorable views of Israel than most of the world. In a recent global opinion survey, Israel was viewed as one of the top three most negatively viewed countries, with Iran and North Korea. In that same poll, Americans had the second most positive view of Israel (second to Nigeria). Americans misunderstanding on the present state  of affairs in Israel-Palestine also probably explains why virtually all leading American politicians can get away with supporting Israel's actions unconditionally.

For me, this poll on Israel reminded me of a survey that was conducted regarding the 2014 coup in Ukraine. In that case, people were first presented a global unlabeled map (showing political boundaries) and then asked to click on the country they believed to be Ukraine. After they completed that step, they were then asked questions about what kind of actions they would like the US to take in response. In the end, the people who were the furthest away from correctly identifying Ukraine on the map, were also the most likely to support military intervention. Thankfully, this was still a minority, but it was revealing and predictable at the same time. Apparently, the less one knows, the more likely they are to support a) the US intervening, and b) taking the unjust side when it does. (We'll leave a thorough discussion of the Ukraine episode for another day.)

I realize that may seem like a bold claim at first glance, but it actually makes a lot of sense. First, we should note that effectively every recent war has been sold with some kind of lie or half-truth. For instance:

  • Vietnam - Gulf of Tonkin incident
  • Kosovo - Supposedly, a genocide killing 100,000 or more people was happening at the time, but when investigators tried to find evidence of this claim after the war, they found very little that could support it. Indeed, it has been suggested that the NATO intervention might have literally killed more people than the calamity it was preventing.
  • Afghanistan - In fact, the Taliban were willing to negotiate with the US and give up Osama bin Laden. The US didn't like its terms, however, and decided to do a regime change instead.
  • Iraq - The fake weapons of mass destruction
  • Libya - The US claimed that Qaddafi was about to commit a genocide and needed to back the rebels. Unfortunately, the rebels were dominated by jihadists sympathetic to Al Qaeda.
  • (Almost) Syria - The US nearly staged a significant military intervention on the pretense that Assad had used chemical weapons in a massacre that was captured on video. Subsequent reporting, however, revealed that it was a false flag attack by the rebels, done to try to induce US intervention.
And although in some of these cases, the proof of the lie could not be verified until after the fact, it's still true that journalists and antiwar activists, at least from Kosovo onward, were debunking the lies in real time. Thus, people who read and know more about global affairs will also tend to oppose war and other harmful interventions.

That reality is why the recent poll on Americans' understanding of Israel is both important and depressing. Facts shape our opinions. When those facts are wrong, the opinions tend to reflect that.

The Undeniable Case for School Choice

When it comes to public education, just about everyone accepts that some level of government (local, state, or federal) needs to be involved. There are probably many different reasons for this opinion, but the leading justifications seem to basically fall within one of three buckets. Two are based on emotional or moral considerations, while the other is rooted in economics. Broadly speaking, I think they can be summarized as follows:

  • Emotional: It's for the children. Right up there with veterans, children are probably about the most popular group that a policy can favor. No one wants to raise taxes to bail out a bank, but just about everyone might be willing to support the children. Most voters have children or at least young relatives, and supporting them, through the government or otherwise, is seen as an almost indisputably good thing.
  • Moral: Equality of opportunity. A good education can be a gateway to an economically prosperous future. If education was left to the whims of the market, the people who are born poor, through no fault of their own, would have a lower chance to succeed than everyone else. Thus, public education is, at least theoretically, an excellent way for government intervention to even the playing field. (In practice, unfortunately, public schools in poor areas have still proved to be markedly worse than public schools in affluent areas.)
  • Economics: Positive Externalities. We all benefit from living among a well-educated population in many ways. For instance, well-educated people tend to make more money, meaning a larger tax base for the government and either more government programs that may benefit us (infrastructure, etc.) or a reduced tax burden on each of us individually. Additionally, we stand to benefit from the new businesses that educated people may create or the existence of an able workforce. And, the depressing presidential election notwithstanding, an educated population will tend to make better decisions about politics, leading to a more competent and less onerous government. We would all benefit individually from these things even if we had no hand in providing it. Thus, some economists would suggest that education produces what is known as a "positive externality" in economics. That is to say, there are some benefits from the educational transaction (between student and school/teacher) that accrue to third-parties external to the transaction. Since some of the societal benefits of education aren't captured by the person paying for the education (the student or their family), the idea is that we would have less education in society than would be ideal. (This concept also works in reverse for negative externalities like pollution. The polluting factory imposes a cost on the society. But because the polluter and its customers might not have to bear the full costs of that pollution (which are largely born by the local population), it follows that the factory would pollute more than what we might think of as the social optimum.)
Depending on who you ask, some economists might describe this phenomenon--where too little education or too much pollution is generated relative to social preferences--as an example of market failure.* They would therefore advocate government intervention to step in and set things right.
For many people, these arguments, individually or in combination, clearly justify the need for public education spending. Typically, this also translates into support specifically for public schools and teachers. Endorsing public education spending and supporting public schools are seen as two parts of the same whole, but they are not.

All of the arguments advanced above only justify the need for public funding of education. They say nothing at all about public administration. We confuse these concepts at our peril.

When it comes to administration of education, we should all want the most efficient and effective** system we can get. It's possible that that will be a government-run school system. It's also possible that privately administered schools competing against one another will develop a superior model. Given our knowledge of how well competition tends to work in other industries, I personally suspect the private schools will tend to outperform, especially for poorer students. But before we try both models, we can't know in advance which schools will work better. And we also should not assume that we know what features are most important to individual students and parents. To figure that out, we need to empower those students and parents to make their own education choices.

Put another way, we need to have school choice.

I realize that may seem like a loaded phrase to many. Particularly on the left, the idea of school choice is very taboo. It can be seen as a terrible cocktail of empowering private education corporations, encouraging flight from poor (mostly minority) schools that are already struggling, and an assault on teachers to boot. For example, this article covers much of that ground.

However, a new article from the Foundation for Economic Education makes a powerful, intuitive case in favor of school choice. Under the school choice model it envisions, private schools would be allowed to compete alongside public schools for student enrollment. If a student decides to enroll in the private school, the money that would normally be allocated to the public school per student, gets sent instead to the private institution. Thus, the model is still publicly funded, but now there is an element of competition. Common sense suggests this should be the best solution for all of the concerns that matter. If the public schools are superior to the private schools, then students and parents will continue to use them and private schools won't stay in business for long. But if the private schools are preferred, then students and parents get an educational experience they prefer to the one available now. If education is really a priority, this is a win-win, no matter what part of the political landscape you hail from. Here's the full piece:

Public Education is Superior and Must Be Protected from Competition

*Though it's not relevant to the discussion at hand, I should clarify that I don't subscribe to the idea that government intervention is required in either of the examples mentioned here. In the case of education, the problem is essentially a slippery slope-style argument. If one accepts the idea that the existence of a claimed positive externality is sufficient to justify government intervention, there's almost no end to the things that could be justified in this same name. For example, there's a positive externality to living among healthy people--this could justify government intervention in healthcare. Parks generate public externalities--so maybe government should be able to use eminent domain to build a park and increase the overall social welfare. And so on. You get the idea. Validating the idea of public externalities as a case for government intervention puts us on a path to a government that can do almost anything.

On negative externalities, the argument is generally based more on property rights. This can't solve all cases, but a stricter enforcement of property rights is adequate to solve many environmental externalities. See this video on the Coase Theorem for more information if you're interested.

**It's almost certain that some readers will want to quibble with the definition of effective education and perhaps also suggest that private schools will be inferior on this count. Thus, allow me to clarify what I have in mind when I say effective--whatever individual students and parents deem to be best for their circumstances. And I know, it's at least conceivable that that could mean a child going to a private religious-based school where the biology textbook of choice is the King James Bible. (Not that there's anything wrong with being a Christian--just using an extreme example.)

But no matter how wrong we might think that is, it is very difficult to justify substituting our judgment or, in reality, a random bureaucrat's judgment, in place of the parent's and student's judgment. On what grounds can we claim to know more about their circumstances and needs than they do? Because we read a survey in an academic journal somewhere? Because Finland had some good test scores recently and they do x? I would suggest there's a very high burden of proof here, and it rests squarely on those who want the government to make other people's decisions for them.

Moreover, a government that can impose the "right" decision on the curriculum across the board can also impose the "wrong" decision on curriculum across the board. And for every case where there's a private religious school teaching students something harmful about sex ed., science, etc., I bet I can find at least one example where an American state or local government is trying to force a similarly crazy idea on all students under their jurisdiction.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Trump's Foreign Policy Interview: The Good, The Bad, and The Passive Aggressive

Donald Trump recently gave a lengthy interview to The New York Times on the all-important subject of foreign policy. During the campaign thus far, Trump has distinguished himself among the other presidential candidates for his willingness to be the most outrageously horrible on this subject in some cases, while also being the sharpest voice of reason against the conventional wisdom in others. So in the aftermath of the Brussels Attacks, Trump bizarrely suggested that torture could be part of the solution to terrorism. Yet Trump has also harshly criticized the Iraq War to Republican audiences, going so far as to state (correctly) that the Bush Administration deliberately went to war under false pretenses. Thus, you never know which Trump you're going to get when it comes to foreign policy. And anytime he speaks publicly on the matter, it ought to be cause for both dread and hope, in roughly equal proportions.

Fortunately, in this most recent interview with The New York Times, it was mostly the reasonable Trump that came through. He was still bad on many issues and revealed substantial ignorance in some spots. But he made a coherent, economical case in favor of reducing American involvement around the globe. In essence, he suggested that the US is subsidizing the defense of many of its allies, and that, unless these allies are willing to reimburse America for the trouble, US troops should come home. Indeed, he even proudly adopted the label of "America First" for his worldview, a reference to the prominent US antiwar / noninterventionist movement prior to World War II.

Based on the NYT's write-up of the interview, here's a quick summary of the good and the bad from Trump:

The Good
  • Questioned the need for NATO, given the fact that the US pays the lion's share of the costs
  • Questioned the need for significant US troop presences in Japan and South Korea, unless the host countries start financing more of the cost
  • Suggested Saudi Arabia's regime wouldn't last long without American support (their grip on power is probably more dependent on their ability to make massive transfer payments to their population based on oil revenue, but still, the US veto on all potential Saudi criticism certainly helps the regime)
  • Suggested there's little reason for the US to be in the Middle East (in the context that oil scarcity doesn't seem to be a big issue post-fracking)
The Bad
  • Suggested that now we need to destroy the oil in the Middle East instead of taking it. Not entirely sure what he meant by that, but it can't be good.
  • Reaffirmed support for a "safe zone" in Syria, which would require a massive US military presence to really enforce and would antagonize Russia. For better or worse, Trump's superficial treatment of this matter seems to suggest he doesn't understand what it entails.
  • Repeated the BS neocon talking point that the Iran Deal involved the US giving Iran ~$150 billion, when in fact, it merely unfroze money that already belonged to Iran (and which the US had effectively confiscated). Oddly, this was partially offset by the fact that he appeared to want remaining sanctions to be relaxed further so American companies might benefit from new trade with Iran.
  • Extolled the merits of an unpredictable US foreign policy, channeling former President Richard Nixon who committed massive war crimes by carpet bombing Cambodia on this pretext.
  • Implicitly suggested a US trade war against China as part of a negotiating strategy.
So it's a mixed bag. But the good things he said are the sorts of messages that are likely to resonate with right-leaning nationalists as well as antiwar types on both sides of the aisle. Why does the US still have so many bases and troops in Japan when there are infrastructure and other needs at home? Why are US troops still on the front line of the decades-old ceasefire in Korea? Why does the US pay so much for Europe's defense when they express little concern themselves? And why should more US troops join the fray in a complicated proxy war in the Middle East that many of our allies have helped fuel--indirectly helping the very extremists that are trying to cause harm to Europe and the US? Couldn't the money saved by withdrawing from these obligations be better spent on just about anything else in the US?

In short, Trump made the quintessential, populist case for a peace dividend--withdraw from needless and costly military involvement overseas, and bring that money back home. Complicated geopolitical theories may offer some possible answers (mostly bad) to the questions posed above. But to the average American that is deeply contemptuous of all things elite right now, those answers are not going to be convincing. Mewnwhile, the noninterventionist aspects of Trump's remarks appeal to basic common sense. So for people who have a clear interest in preserving the interventionist nature of foreign policy, like those at The New York Times, Trump's proposals are very dangerous. 

That might explain why reading the NYT's write-up of Trump's remarks is so amusing. Most of his patently crazy interventionist positions--like favoring the dubious legacy of unpredictability in foreign policy, setting up "safe zones" in Syria, or wanting to "destroy the oil" in the Middle East--were recounted without a peep of judgment from the Times. But when it came to his more sensible noninterventionist suggestions, the NYT consistently stepped in to offer a passive aggressive (and mostly nonsensical) critique of his position. For instance:

After Trump suggested withdrawing US military involvement from the Middle East, here's the NYT:
[Trump] made no mention of the risks of withdrawal — that it would encourage Iran to dominate the Gulf, that the presence of American troops is part of Israel’s defense, and that American air and naval bases in the region are key collection points for intelligence and bases for drones and Special Operations forces.
Of course, there's little evidence that Iran has aspirations to dominate the Gulf, and even if it did, it's not at all clear why the US should care, since they'd obviously still need to sell the oil to get any economic benefit from such domination. Israel is more than capable of defending itself, as it has the strongest military in the region by a large margin, unless we count Turkey which is supportive of Israel anyways. And while it may be true that US bases in the region are used for Special Ops forces and drones; these would appear to be part of the problem. Assuming the primary purpose of such resources is to stop terrorism, the current state of the War on Terror, 15 years on, is strong evidence that it's not working. Back to the Times.

After Trump suggested he would be willing to reconsider long-standing US alliances (and possibly reducing US involvement in Europe), here's the NYT:
At no point did [Trump] express any belief that American forces deployed on military bases around the world were by themselves valuable to the United States, though Republican and Democratic administrations have for decades argued that they are essential to deterring military adventurism, protecting commerce and gathering intelligence.
Yes, he didn't mention that. Because it's absurd.

Even if we assume for the moment that it's true that US troop presences around the globe have reduced other countries' military adventurism, we must acknowledge they have dramatically encouraged US military adventurism. Indeed, as one example, new evidence suggests we couldn't be waging the drone war today without bases in Europe and throughout the Greater Middle East.

Just as important, it's not at all clear whose military adventurism the US global presence has deterred. Russia still intervened to protect its perceived key interests in Syria and Crimea. Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen (with US support). Iran has offered increased support to Syria and Iraq to fight ISIS. And NATO, with US support of course, intervened in Libya to create a failed state there. Where's the deterrence in any of this? Are we supposed to assume that the US bases in Germany have prevented the evil Putin from invading Western Europe? Or is it that China would have already conquered Japan by now if not for US military's ownership of most of Okinawa? Or maybe the US Navy has prevented the rise of a modern-day Blackbeard terrorizing the high seas? Choose your fable and we'll call it the foreign policy consensus.

All this and more await you in the encouraging, passive aggressive summary of Donald Trump's latest thoughts on foreign policy. It's worth your time to check out--for informational or comedic purposes. Here's the link:

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Unfortunate Intersection of Oreos, Nationalism, and Protectionism

Donald Trump and others are taking a brave stand against the consumption of Oreos recently, and somehow it became a big news story. The Oreos are not being targeted for any ill-conceived change in recipe or a newfound desire to lose weight. No, the Oreos' offense is that their parent company plans to shift its manufacturing operations from Chicago to Mexico. So it's yet another case of American jobs being shipped overseas-rivers, and the Presidential candidates are predictably up in arms. For Trump, it's another example of how America loses; for Sanders, it's further confirmation of the evil and greedy nature of corporations; and for Hillary, it's an opportunity for her to show she hates economics as much as her competition. For the rest of us, though, it should be a teachable moment.

It is easy and simple to decry an action we dislike, but it is far more useful to understand why it happened in the first place. The latter is what we should be doing here. And while there are probably many reasons that contributed to the company's decision to move its facility--including the relatively high wages of Americans generally, relative to Mexicans; the likely increased costs associated with the Affordable Care Act; and the City of Chicago's steadfast march towards a likely bankruptcy scenario--much of the blame can likely be laid on America's favorable treatment of the domestic sugar industry, which drives up costs considerably for a cookie that counts sugar as it's second most significant ingredient (after flour).

Before we get to the details on sugar, however, it is useful to point out another issue here. It obviously makes sense why American politicians are denouncing a company's decisions to move jobs from America to Mexico; by definition, all of their voters are Americans. It also makes sense why workers at the Chicago facility, their families, and the immediate community would be upset by this decision. It affects them directly, and, given that many of these jobs likely required relatively limited skills, the future employment prospects for the former workers may be bleak in the current economic environment. That's a real problem, and it should not be forgotten. But we also need to acknowledge the other side of the coin. The jobs aren't being lost; they're being transferred. The positions that are currently filled by American residents will eventually be filled by Mexican people. Thus, for the rest of us that are neither politicians nor directly affected, the appropriate reaction is less obvious. Should we prefer, in general, that American people are employed over Mexican people? And if so, why?

Given the level of discussion we might be used to on these issues, it might almost seem like a rhetorical question. It is not. Yes, the simple nationalistic answer of Trump, Sanders, etc., is an option--namely, I'm American, so I prefer the Americans have jobs over the Mexicans--but it is not a defensible position. To see why, just replace "Americans" with your particular racial (or religious) and replace "Mexicans" with a minority group. For example, "I'm white, so I prefer white people have jobs over black people," probably sounds much worse, but in substance, it's the same thing. Given that the vast majority of Americans and Mexicans did not choose to be Americans or Mexicans and were simply born into it, there's no logical reason to prefer one to the other on the basis of a shared identity that, incidentally, you probably did not choose either.

So tribalism isn't adequate to answer this question. Additionally, no one's rights are being violated here; neither the American workers nor the Mexican ones can have a right to a job making Oreos because that would imply someone else has a duty to employ them. That means a rights-based approach to the question isn't helpful either. Instead, the most rational approach to evaluate this narrow question is likely a utilitarian one (i.e. greatest good for the greatest number), using the economic concept of diminishing marginal utility.

Like most academic expressions, diminishing marginal utility is just a fancy label for something we all already know to be true from personal experience. It is probably easiest to understand in terms of food. Let's say you're having a strong craving for a particular kind of chocolate cookie with a creme filling of dubious composition. If you indulge in that craving, the first cookie you have will be the most satisfying (i.e. gives you the most utility, in econ-speak). Then the next cookie will still be pretty good, but it won't give you quite as much joy as the first. This process continues on down the line. And by the time you get to cookie number ten, it's not nearly as impactful as the first one. That's diminishing marginal utility. And don't pretend like you've never had ten Oreos in one sitting. We've all been there. (Haven't we?)

In any case, the same concept applies with money and jobs. The difference between being unemployed and broke versus getting your first decent-paying job (say at $50k a year) is dramatic. If you subsequently got a promotion that increased your salary by the same amount (from $50k up to $100k), this would still be significant, but it's not as significant as going from $0 to $50k. What follows from this general principle is that, given certain assumptions,* one could theoretically increase overall utility (well-being) by taking a job from a person in a healthier economic position and giving it to a person in a more desperate economic position.** That description, incidentally, fits well with the story of Oreos. Jobs are being transferred from Americans who, on average, are likely to be relatively wealthy, to Mexican people who, on average, are likely to be relatively poor. Indeed, that's part of the reason the move is being made: Mexican labor is willing to work for less.

So, based on the utilitarian approach to the issue, it would seem that, if we take any position at all on this event, we should actually favor the Mexican workers over the American ones. And that's before we take into account the fact that the economic evidence on the gains to trade in general tend to be significant and tend to benefit the poorest people the most by reducing the cost of products they purchase. When such effects get added in, we should be even more strongly in favor of trade, even when that means the ever unpopular idea of outsourcing.

Of course, this general theoretical understanding of net gains or utility maximization is probably of little consolation to people that are directly affected by the job cuts. For them, it is more helpful to understand why this happened. And for Americans that could certainly be affected by similar decisions in the future, it's important to understand what policies help produce these outcomes. For that piece, we'll turn to an excellent new article by James Bovard featured at The Foundation for Economic Education. He outlines the unfortunate protectionist policies of the US sugar industry that have created a very difficult environment for large-scale confectionery producers. And he suggests the kinds of policies advocated by Donald Trump, if implemented, would lead to similarly negative outcomes for other industries. Instead of superficially condemning a company for following incentives, outrage is best channeled towards the US politicians foolishly created those incentives in the first place and are promising to create more of those distortions in the future. To that end, here's the link:

Oreo Is Leaving for Mexico and Trumpism Is to Blame

*There are many key assumptions here, and the idea of utility maximization can lead to decidedly unfortunate conclusions if not properly constrained (as we'll see in the next note). One important assumption here, is that we're assuming both that we can quantify a person's satisfaction (utility) in a remotely meaningful way and then compare it / aggregate it with other people's satisfaction. There are obviously reasons this can lead one astray, and Austrian economists would tend to avoid such aggregation / general assumptions about what "the people" want. That said, given that we're just making the assumption that more money tends to be preferable to less, it does not seem unreasonable to assume that is generally true across people.

**This general idea is part of the reason some economists (and others) would tend to favor wealth redistribution schemes. Taking from the rich is a small inconvenience to them and could be a huge boon to whoever it's given too, or so the argument goes. At the extreme of this view, you could have an argument for absolute economic equality / communism. The problem, from a libertarian perspective, however, is twofold. First, the rich person owns the money and, at least in some cases, likely earned it through legitimate, non-coercive means. Provided this is the case, there needs to be a justification to violate this right. (And need alone, would not suffice). This is why we were sure to note that in the above case, there were no rights at stake and thus a utilitarian approach could be more appropriate.

The second problem with such schemes is the disincentives they will create. If those disincentives are strong enough, they could make everyone worse off, even on utility maximizing grounds. Obviously, if the tax and transfer system really did ensure absolute income equality, the incentive system would totally break down and everyone would be poorer.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Legal Marijuana Cutting into Drug Cartel's Business

New evidence has come out regarding the impact of legalized marijuana on the drug trade, and it's good news for just about everyone--everyone except the Mexican drug cartels. Just two years after legal recreational marijuana sales began in Colorado and Washington in 2014 (Oregon and Alaska joined later), the Mexico marijuana industry is already feeling the pinch. Prices are down, quality is up, and the number of marijuana seizures at the US-Mexico border were at their lowest level in a decade in 2015.

This outcome may sound strange at first glance, but it's precisely what economic principles would predict. To understand this, we first have to realize that marijuana prohibition isn't actually a categorically bad thing for marijuana suppliers. Yes, it makes their business model illegal, but this is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it clearly raises the costs of their business, as they have to take various precautions to avoid getting caught. However, it also keeps out competition from legitimate businesses, making their product more scarce. This, in turn, allows them to charge higher prices. Additionally, the black market nature of the transactions would also allow the cartels to do more price discrimination than other businesses. Most customers won't be able or willing to compare prices among a lot of different suppliers, and this also tends to give an upper-hand to the marijuana sellers.

There is also a demand-side effect here. Certainly, there are some people that will be unwilling to do pot precisely because it is illegal. But the dramatic growth in pot use in the US over time suggests that this deterrent effect is not nearly as strong as lawmakers might hope. (And note that the study in that link referred to 2012-2013, before the recreational legalization laws took effect.)

The net effect of the above rules is that production will shift to places with laws that either more relaxed or less well-enforced--or places where the local authorities can be readily bribed to look the other way. In other words, prohibition would tend to shift production to places like Mexico. And since the entire enterprise is already illegal and cannot use the court system to settle disputes, the most violent organizations will come to dominate the industry. Instead of driving their competition out based on superior quality or pricing, they drive them out with force. The customers suffer, but the businesses that do survive make a killing. (Sorry about that.)

When you legalize pot, the above effects are reversed. There's no reason to import pot from Mexico to Oregon, if you can already purchase it locally. And as long as complying with the regulations is not too onerous, most people will make the calculation that it's worth making your supply chain fully legal to avoid the risks of legal consequences. Just as important, the barriers to entry for new competitors get reduced dramatically. Once the exclusive province of (mostly) criminals and hippies, marijuana production has become a lucrative business enterprise for anyone to try their hand at. The result is more professional production practices and economies of scale that couldn't be achieved by people that had to hide their operation from the authorities.

Best of all, legal businesses will compete on who can provide the best price and quality rather than who can engage in the most gratuitous violence.

Of course, there is a chance that one byproduct of cheap, high-quality marijuana is that it will lead more people to use the drug. But this is not a serious problem. Most of the problems associated with illicit drug use derive precisely from the fact that the drugs are illegal. Yes, some drug deals end in violence. But this is precisely because they can't in court. Some illegal drugs are also highly addictive and harmful to one's health. And we think of this addictive quality as driving people to take desperate, often violent measures, like theft or robbery, to get a fix. Fair enough, but cigarettes are also deeply addiciting. How many stories have you heard about a tobacco junkie trying to rob someone for his next packet? I'm guessing not many. Moreover, there's a flourishing industry focused on producing over-the-counter treatments designed to help people get over their addiction to tobacco. People can buy them cheaply, discreetly, and without judgment. Meanwhile, if someone wants to get help for an addiction to illegal drugs, they have to begin by, in effect, acknowledging they are a criminal.

Drug prohibition is a clear example of how the cure can sometimes be worse than the disease. And it doesn't achieve its stated purpose anyways. At least in the case of marijuana, demand has been growing not shrinking in recent years. Making something illegal does not make it unwanted. So even if we did want to impose our arbitrary definition of morality on the rest of America and keep marijuana illegal, the reality of human nature would ensure our failure--certainly on pot, and probably on just about every other vice as well.

There are many compelling arguments against drug prohibition. Libertarians would correctly describe marijuana sales or usage as the epitome of a victimless crime, and suggest we shouldn't make laws against behavior that does not infringe on anyone else's rights. Many others would note the racially disproportionate nature of drug law enforcement, and might reasonably argue that the institutional racism built into the drug war is enough to justify its repeal.

But even if you don't find these moral arguments compelling, economics and pragmatism should still convince us all to favor legalization. The relevant question here is not whether we think using marijuana (or other drugs) is a good idea; it will be used regardless. So the real question is whether we would prefer the drug trade to benefit enormously violent criminal organizations or nonviolent, tax-paying businesses. I'll let you answer that for yourself.

In short, this new evidence is exactly in line with what economists and libertarians would have predicted all along. The end of the War on Drugs will also be the end of the drug cartels. Let us hope it comes soon.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Update on Yemen War: Massacres with a Small Chance of Peace

Tentative good news out of Yemen today as Reuters reports that the combatants have apparently agreed to a ceasefire effective April 10, one week of ahead of formal UN peace talks on April 18.

The news comes shortly after one of the most deadly airstrikes of the conflict occurred last week. The Saudi-led coalition, which is backed and supplied by the US, launched an airstrike on a market in Hajja, which killed around 120 civilians according to the latest reports. This latest massacre drew criticism from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, who suggested the Saudi-led coalition could be committing "war crimes". Mr. Al Hussein also noted that he believed the coalition's airstrikes were responsible for more than twice as many civilian casualties as all other factions in the conflict. Given the inherent imprecision of airstrikes, this should not be surprising.

Readers will recall that Saudi Arabia launched the current Yemen War in response to an uprising by the Houthi rebels. The Houthis were able to force the existing government into exile and take power. The prior leader of Yemen was, for all intents and purposes, a dictator who had friendly relations with both Saudi Arabia and the US. Thus, the Saudis initiated a war in an effort to reinstall said dictator.

Notably, the Saudis claim that Iran is backing the Houthi movement and justify their policy as countering Iranian aggression. But little to no evidence has been produced in support of this claim.

Peace Talks
The news of a ceasefire and a beginning of peace talks is a welcome development. But it should be viewed with skepticism. There have been several previous attempts at peace talks and ceasefires, and none have proved successful. The likely reason for this is that the Saudi military has seemingly failed to achieve any of its stated objectives, and so the terms of a negotiated settlement would probay look a whole lot like defeat.

Predictably, the Saudi war appears to have galvanized support behind the nascent Houthi movement. Apparently, most Yemenis view domestic political movements more favorably than foreign countries that drop bombs on them.

A small chance for peace in Yemen is better than no chance at all. If they fail, the war is likely to continue until Saudi Arabia starts to run up against budget constraints.

Hajja Massacre Eyewitness Account
For further reading on Yemen, we're recommending the survivor's account of the most recent airstrike. It's a quick read, and it's a helpful step towards humanizing the casualties of this sad and forgotten war.

It may be easier for most of us to imagine ourselves in a Belgian airport than an open-air market in the Middle East. But the terror and despair experienced by the victims is very much the same. We'd do well to remember that.

Brussels Attacks and The Continuing Failure of the "War on Terror"

As most people have probably heard, Brussels, Belgium was hit by a string of terrorist attacks yesterday. The most recent reports put the death toll at a minimum of 36 people with over 200 wounded through a combination of bombings and shootings at multiple locations.

But as the old saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The specifics of the most recent attacks are different, but the broad contours are very similar to the Paris Attacks that occurred last fall. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the latest atrocity. The targeted city is highly involved in the Western intervention in Syria; Belgium is the seat of both NATO and the EU. The Belgian authorities responded by launching widespread raids--which are likely to impact innocent people. Prior to the attacks, Belgian authorities had already significantly expanded policing powers in the name of preventing a terrorist attacks. And as with Paris, the attacks in Belgium come after a spate of human tragedies in more exotic countries that inspire considerably less sympathy--such as Turkey and Yemen.

Given all these similarities, it's worth recapitulating much of the analysis we offered in the wake of the Paris Attacks. The motivation and targets were similar; unfortunately, the response looks like it will be as well.

Unequal Suffering
It goes without saying that tragedies in Western countries tend to inspire more sympathy and attention than suffering in other places. Many observers pointed this disparity out in the last major terrorist attack in Europe, and now it appears many outlets have become conscious of it. Today, you could choose from a host of articles that highlighted other recent terrorist attacks in less prominent countries. Many emphasize the recent bombings in Ankara, Turkey, though this piece at US Uncut takes a broader view to discuss the places that have been most affected terrorist attacks in recent years, with Kenya and Lebanon registering near the top.

What is less common, however, is emphasizing civilian casualties caused by Western nations and their allies. Just this past week in Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition, which is backed and supplied by the US, killed upwards of 120 civilians. A UN official commendably made a few headlines about this incident being a "possible" war crime, but that was about it.

The slew of various violent attacks over the past several months, and the reactions they generated, allow us to see the de facto media prioritization of violence. It appears to look roughly like this, from most to least important:
  • Western victims of terrorist violence
  • Western victims of Western violence (for example, the US attack on the Doctors Without Borders facility in Kunduz)
  • Non-Western victims of terrorist violence

  • Non-Western victims of Western (and allied) violence
There's no particular reason things ought to be this way, but it's how they tend to line up. And when you think of all the posturing and saber-rattling endemic of the current Presidential campaign--and all that will be prompted by the Brussels Attacks--it's worth wondering about the last time you heard anyone talk about Yemen.

The Purpose Is To Spark a Reaction
A few sensational terrorist attacks in France, Belgium, or the US is not an existential threat to any of these countries. One has to think about this topic for all of three seconds to know this truth. And it's almost certain that the leaders of ISIS know this as well.

That's because these attacks are not launched on the premise that, by themselves, they'll have any meaningful effect. On the contrary, the purpose to spark an overreaction by Belgian and EU authorities and everyday citizens. That is the only way these attacks succeed.

If Belgium responds by further cracking down on Muslim residents out of fear or launching an expanded bombing campaign in Syria for retribution, then it will bolster ISIS's narrative. Similarly, if Islamophobia rises in earnest from these attacks and leads to discrimination against Muslims, that too increases ISIS's chances of recruiting sympathizers. That's precisely their strategy, because it's their only hope.

The details of the attackers were not fully known at the time of this writing, but it's a relatively safe bet that they were European residents of some stripe. The refugee screening process is likely too time-consuming to get through, and non-Western, non-EU citizens would face heightened scrutiny after the attacks occurred already. Thus, radicalizing people that are already Western residents is ISIS's only chance. And it's why the response to this tragedy is what really matters. If Paris is any guide, Belgium is likely to play right in ISIS's strategy.

The False Trade-off between Liberty and Security
In the aftermath of the Paris Attacks, it was widely reported that France dramatically expanded its emergency policing powers and, presumably, swept up numerous innocent people in the process. France also continuously extended those powers until they appear to have become something like the new normal.

We must not forget, however, that France's neighbor Belgium also dramatically stepped up its own policing powers in the wake of those attacks. This was justified in part the fact that some of the suspects in the Paris Attacks were Belgian citizens. Predictably, the moves were framed as attempting to balance the competing priorities of liberty and security. And of course, in the wake of a vivid terrorist attack, most people are perfectly willing to trade liberty for security.

But this is a mistake. Not chiefly because liberty matters more than security, but because there's no way to make the trade. The idea of trading liberty for security implies that something like total security is attainable--a world where nothing like the Brussels Attacks can happen. Unfortunately, this is all but impossible. It's a problem of asymmetry. Would-be attackers need to find only one vulnerability in the public security in order to be successful--basically just any crowded place without an overwhelming police presence. Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies are tasked with trying to prevent every vulnerability imaginable. Even with vastly expanded resources and assuming the highest level of confidence in the law enforcement personnel, this is an impossible task. That the Brussels Attacks just happened even after such powers were expanded offers the latest evidence of this reality.

Ultimately, when thinking about the response to these terrorist attacks, we need to consider which is more likely to produce a better outcome: charging law enforcement with the power and duty to think of and thwart every every conceivable terrorist plan in advance, or ending the aggressive actions that enrage people enough to try to kill Western civilians and themselves in the first place. On pragmatic grounds alone, that should not be a hard question.

Let's hope political leaders find the right answer. Somehow, I'm not optimistic.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Celebrating Obama's Two Foreign Policy Achievements

Yesterday, President Obama became the first sitting President to visit Cuba since 1928. His visit was an effort to solidify his move to normalize relations with Cuba, and by all accounts it appears to have gone reasonably well.

While this remains only the first in a series of steps to fully open up relations and trade with Cuba, it's long overdue. And it's one of two lonely bright spots in President Obama's foreign policy record after seven years in the White House. His other accomplishment is the Iran nuclear deal, which already begun to bear fruit as Iran rapidly implemented their side of the agreement, sanctions have been partially lifted, and the Iranian people showed their approval by electing more conciliatory and open-minded politicians in the most recent elections. (Shortly after the deal was implemented, we discussed Obama's efforts to poison the relationship anew by imposing new, unrelated sanctions on their missile program. Fortunately, the sanctions were not broad-based, and appeared to have little import beyond convincing Iran to trust Europeans more than Americans when selecting business partners--probably a good call.)

The rest of Obama's legacy in the realm of foreign policy is abysmal--including the following:

  • Overthrowing the government of Libya, which is now in abject chaos
  • Supporting, however indecisively, the protracted civil war in Syria, thereby contributing to the rise of ISIS and a flood of millions of refugees from Syria
  • Recognizing the coup government in Egypt
  • Recognizing the coup government in Ukraine
  • Supporting the Saudi-led War in Yemen
  • Prolonging the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in which US troops are still fighting
  • Expanding the use of drone assassinations
Even so, it's important to recognize accomplishments and give credit where it's due. For Obama, that means Cuba and Iran.

Incidentally, the stories of how Iran and Cuba came to be on America's bad side share striking similarities. Both had a brutal US-backed puppet government that was eventually overthrown and replaced by an overtly hostile regime, in 1959 for Cuba and 1979 for Iran. In both cases, relations have been in ill-repair ever since, and the US has tried unsuccessfully to engineer a new coup.

Here, we'll let Dan Sanchez at pick up the rest of the story. Dan's new piece touches on the history of both of these entanglements, and explains how the sanctions designed to combat them were at once doomed to fail and fantastically vicious in their inception. The following quote in particular stands out (emphasis mine):
Moreover, cold wars make it easy for rogue state governments to shift the blame for domestic troubles away from their own misrule, and onto the foreign bogeyman/scapegoat (“bogeygoat?”) instead. This is especially easy for being to some extent correct, especially with regard to economic blockades and other crippling sanctions, like those Washington has imposed on Cuba, Iran, etc. 
Imperial governments [the US] like to pretend that affairs are quite the reverse, adopting the essentially terrorist rationale that waging war against the civilian populace of a rogue state will pressure them to blame and turn against their governments. In reality, it only tends to bolster public support for the regime.
The rest of the piece is equally good. We'll leave you with a link and a hope that President Obama doesn't feel too uncomfortable doing something good for a change:

A New Dawn for Cuba and Iran?

Monday, March 21, 2016

(More) Boots on the Ground in Iraq

Today in bad news, the US has announced its intentions to send more troops to Iraq. The exact number hasn't been specified yet, but the unit that will be deployed has approximately 2,200 members in it. Thus, this could be viewed as the maximum that is going to be sent to Iraq in this latest round of escalation. This amount is on top of the roughly 3,600 existing in the country currently.

Interestingly, the US seems to be abandoning the notion that these latest troops will be merely advisers to Iraqi forces. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter first hinted that the US troops will need to be involved directly in combat in January, and similar sentiments were expressed by the leading US general in Iraq in February.

Admittedly, it's unclear just how important the distinction is between advising on combat operations and directly engaging in them. This latest decision comes on the heels of another US servicemember being killed over the weekend in fighting with ISIS, in what officials attempted to downplay as a "lucky strike". Another soldier was killed back in October while assisting in a prisoner rescue operation in Iraq.

What is perhaps most interesting about this latest development is what's not being said. There's no discussion of any end goal to speak of, and even though it seems to be a complete repudiation of President Obama's oft-stated promise of "no boots on the ground," it's unlikely that any meaningful political opposition will rise against it. Democrats don't want to call attention to the fact that their leader is restarting another war that he supposedly ended, and most Republicans have no interest in stopping such a war, no matter how futile or blatantly unconstitutional it may be.

On that last note, it's worth noting that the ostensible legal justification for this war remains the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that was passed in the wake of 9/11 to go after the perpetrators of that attack (Al Qaeda) and their associates. Given that ISIS didn't even exist at that time and is in open conflict with Al Qaeda, it's hard to see how they fit this description. It gets even more absurd when one realizes that many of the people the US is fighting today in that country were probably adolescents when the authority to attack them was granted.

Lack of legal authority notwithstanding, the war seems likely to continue escalating anyways. As this latest batch of troops is being sent in response to the rocket strike that killed a soldier, so having more soldiers in the country could provide the excuse for future troop increases. More soldiers means a greater probability they will get killed. And when they do, generals will complain that they have a lack of resources for the task at hand, even though none of us can define what succeeding at that task would really entail. And all the while, the heightened presence of US ground troops will be a boon to ISIS recruiting efforts in Iraq and their efforts to recruit sympathizers around the world. Expect to see this situation get much worse before it gets better.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Is Libertarianism a Bankrupt Ideology?

Being a libertarian in Portland, Oregon during an election year is a slightly depressing experience. The topic of politics inevitably comes up--which I admittedly savor--and the overwhelming majority of my friends and colleagues favor Senator Bernie Sanders. Of course, there's nothing wrong with this. Indeed, I previously made the case that he could be the least bad option remaining among major party candidates.

There is some incidental common ground between your average libertarian and your average left-leaning Bernie supporter--on issues like drug policy reform, immigration, and criminal justice reform. But the underlying worldviews could scarcely be further apart. Many libertarian beliefs are on economic principles, limiting coercion, and a healthy distrust of all concentrated power. By contrast, leftists will tend to focus on outcomes and have a strong distrust of concentrated power, but only when it's in private hands.

Thus, even though libertarians and leftists share many of the same goals, political discussions between them can be confusing. The premises we're starting from are so different that it's a high barrier to overcome. As one example, the libertarian suggests a higher minimum wage will kill jobs; the leftist replies that corporations need to treat people fairly. Meeting in the middle between those two positions is obviously going to be a challenge. But that does not mean it isn't worth trying.

In what may be my only article of faith, I like to believe that intellectually honest people will eventually arrive at the same conclusions--provided they share the same values and discuss long enough. To that end, we must always be able to openly consider opposing points of view, especially if we want anyone to sincerely consider our own.

Enter, a somewhat recent article at Salon written by a former Ron Paulian who now supports Bernie Sanders. The piece was recommended to me by a friend who supports Bernie. And given that he has been the unwitting consumer of a great deal of libertarian articles from this blog, it's only fair that I should respond in kind. Here's a link to the piece we'll be discussing.

I gave up Ayn Rand for Bernie Sanders: How I grew up and traded libertarianism for a progressive “socialist”

The article touches on a variety of Sanders' key issues to make its case--ranging from vague critiques of capitalism to poverty and taxes. Unfortunately, it does not offer more than a word (that word being "Benghazi") on foreign policy--where Ron Paul's record would appear to be clearly superior to that of Bernie Sanders, for anyone that doesn't work for a defense contractor.

Not one to mince words, the article starts by describing libertarianism as a "bankrupt" ideology. Unfortunately, the author does not attempt to define this libertarianism ideology. This quickly becomes confusing, as the author proceeds to essentially conflate Ron Paul's brand of libertarianism with the following:
  • The Tea Party
  • Congressional Republicans who pushed the Benghazi scandal
  • Donald Trump
  • The right, in general, with an obligatory Ronald Reagan reference
Now, I don't assume any malintent on the part of the author, but I'd like to suggest this is a grave slander to libertarianism. Yes, libertarians shared some core grievances with the Tea Party Movement--such as the bailouts. So did Occupy Wall Street. From this fact, however, it clearly does not follow that they are part and parcel of the same whole. Moreover, it's deeply silly to blame libertarians for things that are wrong with government today because it implies that libertarians were in power at some point. Obviously, they have not been. So if one wants to critique Republicans in general or Donald Trump, please be my guest. Just don't pretend there's anything libertarian about them when you do so.

The author isn't making a philosophical critique of libertarianism, so we won't offer a philosphical defense. Instead, we'll touch on a few of the hot political topics mentioned and discuss the libertarian position on them. (Or to be more precise, since libertarians don't agree on everything, this is really just my take on them.)

Taxes and Poverty
From the article:
For too long, the anger and passion has been driven by Tea Party types and libertarians. Their solution seems to be throwing more gasoline on a trailer-park fire. Inequality? Cut taxes for the wealthy and implement a “flat tax.” Poverty? Eliminate the social safety net and cut food stamps.
Inequality is a problem, but poverty is a bigger problem. On the left, these are thought of as essentially the same issue. They are not.

To see why, imagine for a moment some future state in which the 1% has grown massively more wealthy than they are today, controlling say, 90% of all the wealth. But in this same world, the economy has expanded sufficiently that even the poorest people have shelter, access to clean water, and are no longer food insecure--that is to say, a world in which extreme poverty no longer exists. If the same economic system that produced massive inequality also eradicated poverty, would this be an acceptable outcome? I would say yes. 

Of course, you may object that the hypothetical world I've offered is implausible. But in fact, if you look at trends in global poverty over time, it's what we see occurring in the world today. The top income bracket has gotten progressively more wealthy over time, but extreme poverty around the world is the lowest it has ever been.

Reasonable people can disagree about just how much wealth redistribution programs might help or hurt the progress on poverty. But at face value, it is true that the same capitalistic system that has produced today's inequality, has also caused a dramatic reduction in poverty around the world. The problem is that we often imagine the economy as a fixed quantity, in which case wealth redistribution seems imperative to fix poverty. But if the economy is not a fixed amount--and clearly it's not--it follows that it is also critical to support policies that maximize economic growth as well. Those policies would likely include things like cutting taxes (for everyone).

Which brings us to the bogeyman of the "flat tax". Without getting too much in the weeds here, if one is going to have an income tax, it should not be truly flat. It should be progressive up to a point. So perhaps, the first $50,000 is entirely tax free, and then the rest is taxed at a flat rate of X%. That's the only credible kind of flat tax plan; it's difficult to make a strong case for why the government needs to take a cut of a desperate person's first few dollars of income. On this, the author and I should agree.

Of course, I say "should" there because the fact is that America already has a flat tax. Sure, we don't call it that; we call it the payroll tax. But that's what it is. It's a roughly 15% flat tax on everyone's income, starting from the first dollar earned.* And, as part of Bernie's new healthcare proposal, he wants to raise it considerably. For more on this, please see our previous discussion on Bernie's new tax. A literal flat tax is not a good thing--but that's true for payroll taxes as well as income taxes. And before one begins to contemplate welfare programs to help the poor, maybe we should start by preventing the government from taking the money they already have.

The question of a social safety net is a harder one. Certainly, returning 15% of their income is a great start towards reducing the need, but it's unlikely to eliminate it entirely. The general opinion of libertarians would be to suggest that private charity tends to be far more effective than direct government assistance. The reason is because the private charity has to prove to its donors that it's actually making a difference in order to keep getting donations and existing. In contrast, the government gets the taxes automatically and doesn't really need to prove to anyone that it is solving the problem. This understanding might recommend a policy that further encourages charitable contributions.

In the long-run, most libertarians would probably agree that a minimal or non-existent safety net was ideal. But we're a very long ways from that in any case, and cutting such things is nowhere near the top priority. For now, the focus should be on protecting the benefits of the most vulnerable people by setting the distribution programs on a more sustainable financial course. We recently outlined such a program in a series of articles on Social Security.

Socialism Inverted
From the article:
Sanders calls himself a socialist, which is just about as big an American insult as you get. Conventional politicians and business people decry the evils of socialism, except when they are wallowing in it. America has the most generous socialist government that has ever existed in human history, but it only applies to millionaires. If you’re on the board of a bank or massive corporation, the government has unlimited socialism for you. No cost loans, favorable bankruptcy laws, bailouts and tax breaks without limit. At the same time, unemployed students cannot discharge student loans no matter how bleak their financial circumstances. Socialism has been inverted. Rather than deployed for the poor and struggling, it’s doled out endlessly to people who don’t need it.
There's not much to disagree with here. Obviously, corporate welfare isn't literally the only kind of welfare, but it is the most insidious sort. No libertarian worth their salt would dispute that.

But notice that all the items the author highlights as problems are things the government has done for corporations. He's right to complain about them. But we must also ask how it became that way.

Here, libertarians would point to the problem of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs. Government will consistently fail to act in the public interest when it comes to questions of corporate welfare because the incentives are wrong. It'd work with just about anything, but let's consider the case of GM, which got bailed out during the financial crisis. The management and investors of GM had a very powerful incentive to see that deal go through--their very livelihood was at stake. But by contrast, the average taxpayer didn't have as strong incentive to oppose it. The loan was around $11B, and even if we assumed it wouldn't be paid back, that would come to less than $40 per individual citizen (assuming ~300 million Americans). So, who do you think Congress is going to hear from more, the people trying to save their whole company, or the people that might save $40, at some point, by opposing it? That's not a hard question.

Coincidentally, Bernie was in favor of that form of corporate welfare (though he ultimately voted against a bill including it because it also included bank bailouts). But the bigger point here is that large central governments are inherently corruptible because of the problem above. And you can hope for campaign finance or lobbying reform to solve that problem, which has plagued us for years. But those reforms suffer from the same fundamental challenge in getting passed. Even if they could work, the lobbyists have a much stronger incentive to block the reforms than the average voter does to support them.

Alternatively, you could solve it by eliminating the government's power to play favorites in the first place. A weaker government with less discretion--as the Constitution envisioned--isn't worth corrupting. So if you care about corporate welfare, libertarians would suggest your first goal should be to limit the size of the government that provides it.

Walmart and Totalitarian Corporations
From the article:
Corporations benefit from weak labor and a beaten down population. Many are almost too powerful to tame. Walmart generates more money in sales in a year than the GDP of Norway. (Don’t worry I’m sure it doesn’t do anything evil with all that money.) Walmart and like-sized corporations are no longer businesses. They are instead autonomous, totalitarian states existing right in our own nation. They care only for their own interests, unconcerned with national borders or anything like the public good.
Here, I'm particularly interested in the description of Walmart as a totalitarian state. The folly in this should be obvious. If I disagree with Walmart's policies or just hate the color blue, I don't have to shop there. I can just drive to a different store. And in my particular case, living in Portland where Walmart has been banished by public opinion to the deep 'burbs, shopping at anywhere besides Walmart is actually more convenient. But the key is that, to my knowledge, Walmart isn't forcing anyone to do anything. The employees don't have to work there; the customers don't have to shop there.

The whole interaction is voluntary.

I have a sneaking suspicion the same could not be said of your run-of-the-mill totalitarian state. By definition, the totalitarian state (and actually, any government) has a monopoly on just about everything it does, and almost none of it is voluntary. I don't go to the DMV, because I love the experience. I go there because I have to. And I don't pay taxes because I hate money and love financing wars. I pay them because if I don't, my property would be confiscated or I'd eventually go to jail. If I think the government is wasting my money or providing poor service, my only real recourse is to vote once every two years for a candidate that may or may not care about my pet issue. By contrast, if Walmart does something I hate, I can stop giving them money the very next day.

Since Walmart is a favorite punching bag for everyone, however, perhaps it's useful to say a word in their defense. Yes, I realize it's their marketing slogan, but there is some truth to the idea that Walmart helps its customers "Live Better". Walmart made its mark on the world by relentlessly driving down prices in its stores. One could object to some of the means used to achieve this--paying low wages, overseas labor, etc. But Walmart doesn't exist to give jobs to Americans. It exists to sell cheap products, cheaper than anyone else, and make a profit doing it. In the process, it just so happens to help poor people afford more goods and have a higher standard of living than they otherwise would.

So we can look at it as an autonomous totalitarian statelet, with all the nefarious undertones that entails. But we could also look at it as one of the most successful poverty relief agencies in the world--since we're just using words without any real connection to their meaning. In reality, it's neither of these things. It's just a business pursuing its own narrow profit-motive. Fortunately, the resulting benefits extend beyond the board room.

Summing Up
The author concludes by emphasizing the common ground that leftists and libertarians share, and an implicit call to have them join the Bernie movement. One wonders how many libertarians would still be reading after the balance of the article was spent alternately mischaracterizing their views and expressing total contempt for them. The article was less about refuting libertarian ideas and more about simply declaring them to be wrong. Which is fine. He's entitled to his opinion, and I'm sure many Salon readers appreciated his take.

Still, he is right to point out the common ground. Leftists and libertarians share many of the same goals; we just see different paths forward. And if we are to find common cause more often, we must begin by first understanding the ideas in depth--both our own and colleagues' on the other side. Because you can't critique an idea you do not understand. And you cannot persuade anyone if you start by denouncing them and their ideas as "bankrupt".

*Technically speaking, it's actually worse than a flat tax in terms of progressivity. After a certain dollar threshold, high-income individuals are exempt from paying a portion of the taxes on the remainder. This makes it an explicitly regressive tax. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Major New Developments in Syria--For Once, Not Entirely Bad

There's been big news on the Syria Front, and it could have significant implications for the fledgling peace process that is currently underway.

Syrian Kurds Poised to Declare Autonomous Region
Up first, the Syrian Kurds are planning to declare an autonomous, federal region within the areas of northern Syria that they already control. The formal declaration hadn't occurred at the time of this writing, but it appears it will fall short of declaring outright independence from Syria proper. On the contrary, the Syrian Kurds are suggesting this federalized model could be extended as a model for a Syria.

At the risk of sounding patronizing, it might be useful to clarify what precisely "federal" means in this context. In the US, the term "federal" has a confusing connotation to it. After all, in US history, it was the Federalist Papers that ultimately convinced the newly freed colonies to ratify the US Constitution which created a much stronger central government than before. Similarly, given how large and wide-reaching the US government is today, you could be forgiven for thinking of federal as short-hand for a powerful central government.

In its more native usage, however, it really means the opposite. A federalized system is one in which the central government typically has relatively little authority and leaves a lot of the decisions up to the various underlying subregions (states, provinces, cantons, etc.). That's what the Syrian Kurds are hoping for as the eventual outcome of the Syrian War.

And as models go, you could do a lot worse. From an economics standpoint, federalized systems are appealing for two key reasons. First, they offer the opportunity for experimentation with different policies, and would potentially allow citizens to more readily move to a region that fits their political or economic preferences. For instance, it's easier for me to move from Oregon to New Hampshire in the US, than it is for me to move from Oregon to, say, Switzerland. Ultimately, the federal system can allow subregions to compete against each other to lure people and businesses to their area. Over time, we would expect this to produce better policies than a governing system that is more monolithic.

In the context of an ongoing civil war, another aspect of federalism might be even more valuable. It virtually goes without saying that there is a lot of deep mistrust and resentment on all sides of the Syrian conflict. Given this, how likely is it that they are going to be able to agree on what the new government will look like? Will there be free and fair elections? Even if there are, will all sides really accept the outcome as final or just resume fighting if they don't get what they want? It's tough to see how this all ends well. But one thing that could be helpful is to lower the stakes. If a more federalized model is embraced, the central government is weakened and it matters less which people and parties get to lead it.

While, on the surface, the Kurdish proposal seems reasonable enough, it does not look like it is going to be well-received by many of the players in the peace process. The ruling Syrian government opposes it, the US opposes it, and Turkey is probably plotting more shelling or airstrikes against the Syrian Kurds as a response (unfortunately, that's not hyperbole). The US apparently rests its opposition to the move on the idea that the US will only accept a federalized solution if it emerges through the peace process. But this is obviously a bit ironic since the Syrian Kurds in question were excluded from said peace process (most likely at Turkey's behest). Indeed, their exclusion is what appears to have prompted this announcement in the first place.

As a clarification here, we should point out that we're not suggesting the US take any particular stance on the Kurdish announcement. We have previously argued, on the related question of outright Kurdish independence, that this is a very volatile and complicated issue that the US best avoid taking sides in. From the standpoint of the American people, that seems to remain the most sensible policy today as well.

But if the US is going to be sitting at the negotiating table, we'd probably prefer they were supporting a federal option instead of just reiterating the untenable demand that Assad must go. The former has at least some chance of since; the latter just ensures the war will continue.

Russian Force Withdrawal
The other big news story this week is that Russia announced they will begin removing most of their forces in Syria this week, having achieved their objectives. This development is important, and positive, for several key reasons:

First and foremost, it should reduce tensions between the US and Russia over time. One of the US government's key talking points on Russia has been the idea that they were somehow hellbent on rekindling a world empire after their actions in Crimea and Syria. This never made much sense, but that didn't stop it from gaining wide currency in the US media. At its most hysterical pitch, the reliable Senator McCain could be found blaming Obama's weakness for allowing Russia to reinsert itself in the Middle East. Given how well it's worked out for the US, it's not altogether clear why this was supposed to be a bad thing, even if it were true--the most likely answer being that John McCain is fascinated by the game of Risk and desperately wanted to live it out in real life. In any case, however, it turns out that wasn't true. Or if it was, Russia's new Middle Eastern empire was the shortest in history.

Second, a reduced Russian presence should translate into fewer airstrikes occurring in Syria, and along with that, fewer civilian casualties.

And finally, the removal of Russia's significant military aid to Syria may make Assad more eager to negotiate a peaceful settlement quickly. The Syrian military made significant gains with Russia's help. It is not immediately clear whether those gains would be reversed when the support is removed, but it is a real possibility. Thus, Assad has a clear incentive to negotiate a settlement while he is in relatively good shape and avoid the potential erosion of his position in the future.

Finally, for more commentary and analysis on the Russian withdrawal, we recommend a new piece by Ray McGovern at If podcasts are more your thing, you can also check out Ray's interview on the Scott Horton Show, which addresses this same topic. (Note: it's part of the 3/16 show if you go that route.)

The Transparent Absurdity of the FBI's High School Spying

Each Presidential election seems to inspire more than its share of hyperbole and fiction. I can't remember the last election that wasn't obviously "historic" or "pivotal" or worse, a "fight for the soul of America". Indeed, there have been so many wars for America's soul that--if America's other recent wars are any guide--it's probably safe to assume there's not much left to save.

The likely salvage value of US essence notwithstanding, this too is a crucial election cycle of course. And as we discussed previously, the election of Donald Trump strikes many as the most apocalyptic possible outcome. So mass protests have ensued, and there have been a myriad of strange bedfellows sounding the call to Stop Trump--all to no apparent effect thus far.

Perhaps what's most interesting about this reaction to Trump's candidacy is what it implies about the people who are concerned. I'm not sure I can cite poll data to prove this conclusively, but most people seem to be (justifiably) concerned that his bombastic rhetoric would translate into deeply flawed policies, such as racial profiling or curtailing First Amendment protections. To be sure, this is absolutely a legitimate fear. But the only reason this should inspire such a harsh response is if we assume that these troubling policies are a radical departure from the status quo. Unfortunately, they are not. And recently, we received another awful reminder of this fact.

The FBI just revealed a plan to more systematically monitor and identify high school students for signs of "radicalization". The plan is part of the FBI's ill-advised Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) efforts, and they are trying to encourage teachers and fellow students report on suspicious behaviors. Naturally, the FBI has enough common sense not to overtly target a particular ethnic or religious minority as the most likely threat. But they don't have to. Think about American culture for all of five minutes and it's not hard to imagine which kids most students and teachers are going to suspect first.

From the educational materials, here are a few items that might be indicators of future "plans to commit violence":
  • "Talking about traveling to places that sound suspicious"--I wonder if any Arabic city names would fit the bill?
  • "Using code words or unusual language" -- because what self-respecting teenager uses slang unless they're a future terrorist?
  • "Using several different cell phones and private messaging apps" -- burner phones aside, what teenager besides a terrorist would use messaging apps?
  • "Studying or taking pictures of potential targets (like a government building)."-- and no selfies either!
Yeah, definitely none of those items is going to lead to false accusations or abuse. But then it gets worse.

The FBI's educational materials, which are conveniently available online, also highlight some common examples or themes of "violent extremist propaganda":

  • Corrupt Western Nations
  • We Must Fight Back
    • Explicit narrative provided: "Our people are being oppressed. No one is doing anything. We must fight back."
  • Superior Race
  • Government Mistrust
  • Environmental Destruction
This, I submit to you, is crazy. When I was in high school, I would have adamantly agreed with 2 out of 5 of those themes (1 and 4, to be precise). Indeed, I actually did my senior project on the utterly destructive and deceptive nature of US foreign policy. Hell, I even name-dropped Ron Paul in my commencement speech. But apparently, if I was in high school today, the FBI would see me as teetering on the edge of violent extremism. That's what antiwar people are known for after all--violence.

The benign nature of a few of these themes is tough to overemphasize--for instance, who in their right mind would possibly argue that the US government (or any other Western government) isn't corrupt?*

What is even more important, however, is what's not there. There's no mention of religion at all. Now perhaps someone might suggest that this is because the First Amendment would effectively prevent the FBI from stigmatizing religion. Then again, any sincere reading of the First Amendment would also nullify this entire enterprise of trying detect indications of future violent acts based on clearly political speech. Thus, it would seem Constitutional adherence is not their top priority. Note that this is also the same agency that decided "Mohammed Raghead" was an appropriate placeholder name for a would-be suspect in training materials (apparently, John Doe was taken). So something tells me political correctness isn't quite their top priority either.

Instead, perhaps it is a tacit admission of the fact that we have known for years. By and large, terrorists don't become terrorists because they just believe in Islam so hard or decided to binge-read the Qur'an over winter break. No, terrorism is motivated by political grievances--and a sense of solidarity with the victims of American and Western foreign policy. That's precisely what the "We Must Fight Back" example above is alluding to. In spite of all the hysterical posturing about our values being under attack and radical Islam, it appears that at least some members of the government actually do understand this. Hopefully, they'll spread the word to their colleagues in government sometime soon.

Those were just a few of the highlights in the FBI's new program. The interested reader is encouraged to check out the full write-up from Sarah Lazare at AlterNet. You can check out this great interview between Scott Horton and Arun Kundnani, one of the sources cited in the piece.

Today, many people are understandably fearful about what a Donald Trump Presidency would look like. Unfortunately, we don't really have to wonder. The answer is that it probably wouldn't look all that much different than Barack Obama's. The US government doesn't need to get Donald's okay to start surveilling and persecuting Muslims; it has already been hard at work on that project for some time.

*Granted, your archetypal third-world despot is going to be more corrupt. But the theme put forth by the FBI offers no nuance, so we'll take it at face value.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Missing the Point in the Trump Chicago Protests

In the aftermath of the canceled Trump Rally in Chicago, there was a dizzying array of mistaken and confusing commentary on the subject. It was a big news story, so you probably heard about it. But in case you didn't, basically Trump had scheduled a characteristically massive rally at a venue in Chicago. Many left-leaning protesters got tickets to the event, and others held rallies outside. The protesters who got tickets to the event apparently planned to continuously disrupt Trump's speech when he arrived, and their presence was significant enough that it was creating a very tense situation between protesters and supporters. In response, Trump canceled the event citing the safety concerns.

Trump claimed that he took this step on advice of law enforcement, while others have disputed that claim. Ultimately, it's not really an important detail. A big protest happened; a political rally was canceled; and some violence broke out after the cancellation anyway. These are the relevant facts.

For the sake of analyzing this story rationally, it's useful to set aside our political preferences for the moment. Perhaps surprisingly, your opinion of this event shouldn't hinge on whether you think Trump really will Make America Great Again or think he's a racist jerk. (Though for the record, we'll note that we do not support Donald Trump, and have previously argued that while he's clearly awful, he's not obviously much worse than the major party alternatives. American politics circa 2016 is just pretty depressing across the board in our view.)

Now that the disclaimers and background are out of the way, let's move on to the details.

Stop Talking About the First Amendment
A common theme in the aftermath of this event was debating the right to free speech. On the left, a common argument was that the protesters were exercising their right to protest, free speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment protections, and should be applauded for standing up to the racist rhetoric. On the right, people claimed that Donald Trump's right to free speech / First Amendment protections had been violated. Indeed, there was a delightful symmetry to it. As a bonus, neither side is actually correct--at least as far as the First Amendment is concerned.

See, the problem here is that the First Amendment, protects freedom of speech and protest from government crackdowns. It does not say anything about private actors. If you don't believe me, just read it:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The First Amendment does not guarantee protesters the right to heckle a speaker, nor does it give said speaker a right not to be heckled by private actors. It's just not a First Amendment issue. The government, in this case, wasn't suppressing anyone's speech, so the Constitutional amendment isn't really relevant.

That said, the protesters who got into the event and deliberately attempted to disrupt it would likely be guilty of trespassing. The idea here is that when they got tickets to the Trump event, they are implicitly consenting to not disrupt the event.* If they proceed to disrupt the event (and thereby violate the implicit agreement), the Trump Campaign or the venue's security would be within their rights to kick those protesters out. If the protesters refused, then at that point, they would be trespassing.

At first glance, this could seem counterintuitive, because we often talk about freedom of speech / protesting in the abstract. But in reality, most protests do violate minor laws--usually trespassing. If you get a permit to hold a rally, then you're fine. But if you just engage in spontaneous direct action--particularly if it's on private property--you're probably violating some laws. Whether it will be enforced debatable, and it might well be worth doing. The point is that civil disobedience is part and parcel of protesting. In fact, it's often a deliberate tactic to try to get more press coverage for an issue.

Similarly, the right of free speech, such as it is, is only the right to not have the government suppress your speech. If you come to my apartment and insult my cat, I can tell you to get the hell out. You don't have a right to free speech in my apartment because I set the rules there. And if you don't like it, you can leave. Coincidentally, this is also how it works on social media. Twitter recently has gotten publicity for blocking certain people that were accused of expressing intolerant or hateful views. There too, many people complained about freedom of speech violations. And certainly, Twitter's actions were irritating to libertarians that believe freedom of speech should be extended to even, and especially, those marginal we find disagreeable or downright appalling. But it was not illegal. Twitter sets the rules on its website, just like I set a rule that no one is allowed to comment on my cat's weight in my house. (She's self-conscious; back off.) And if you don't like it, you can leave.

Effects of Silencing Speech
Moving beyond these technical matters, it's true that the protests did effectively silence Trump for the evening. This was hailed as a success by many and suggested as a possible model for the future. This tweet captures the sentiment well I think:

This is mistaken for two reasons. First, on a philosophical level, this is problematic. If you believe in the merits of free speech or tolerance, you have to also tolerate things you disagree with. That's kind of fundamental to the notion of tolerance. You don't have to tolerate ideas you like, because, well, you like them. It follows that support for the idea of free speech is meaningless if you don't support free speech for those that you find most repellent. Yes, Trump says horrible nationalistic and bigoted things all the time. But if you believe in free speech--and as Americans, most of us theoretically do--you should want him to be able to express those ideas regardless.

Just as important, it's worth noting that this tactic will obviously backfire in this campaign cycle. For many disenchanted, right-leaning folks, the left is just as much the enemy as the GOP Establishment. That's why every desperate effort by think-tanks and "respected" Republican politicians to condemn Trump has only boosted his support. It's the old "enemy of my enemy is my friend" logic applied to electoral politics. The American and Republican electorate may not know much, but they appear to know enough to despise Establishment politicians like John McCain or Mitt Romney. So when these voices speak out against Trump, it only boosts his brand. At this point, this effect should be expected.

The same rule applies to the left. Just think about it. For his supporters, one major appeal of Trump this year is his complete dismissal of political correctness--and yes, that's why he says things that are more overtly bigoted than his competitors. By staging a protest against what he says--on the grounds that they are offensive--plays directly into his hands. Even though the concerns are clearly warranted, the effect is that it adds to his appeal as the anti-political correctness candidate.

Moreover, how likely is it that the average centrist American is going to look favorably on a massive protest, from mostly college kids, that shut down a popular political candidate's rally and ended in violence? It doesn't even matter who started the actual violence. It should be obvious that this narrative is likely to work in Trump's favor.

Indeed, there's already some evidence that this is the case. A new post-Chicago poll indicates that, among potential voters whose opinions were shifted by the Chicago rally, two-thirds were more likely to vote for Trump and only one-third was less likely to support him.

This outcome is so predictable that it beggars belief why the condemnations keep coming. Nobody cares. Instead, if Democrats or the GOP establishment really wanted to #StopTrump, they should be endorsing him. Have Lindsey Graham, Mitch McConnell, and Harry Reid come out in support of Trump on the same day and then see how well his poll numbers hold up. Is it really the case that no one with power has thought of this plan? Or are they just too uncomfortable with the idea of weaponizing their own unpopularity? Whatever the reason, it's clear that unless they stop helping his message, Donald Trump is quite likely to be the next US President.

*This great blog post from Paul Grad offers an expanded analysis of the libertarian / property rights angle on this story.