Tuesday, September 13, 2016

New Site Launched

Thanks for checking out The Daily Face Palm.

We're pleased to announce that we've finally completed our actual website. This is the domain; it's very predictable:


We hope to see you over there!

Other notes

This site will still remain available and accessible, at least until we become clever enough to get the redirect links working properly.

Additionally, if you're on the email list, we'll be transferring that over soon. Until then, we'll probably post them in both spots, so the feeds continue to go out like normal.

Feel free to let us know if you have questions in the comments!

Monday, September 12, 2016

September 12, 2016

New ceasefire deal in Syria reached, but may encounter problems

A new ceasefire deal in Syria has been reached by Russia and the US. The ceasefire set to go into effect at sundown today, and represents the most promising chance in weeks for any reduction in violence in Syria.

Unfortunately, that chance still isn't very good. As Bloomberg reports, the Al Qaeda-linked faction in Syria and ISIS will both be excluded from the ceasefire, as terrorist groups. Meaning the all sides in the conflict--US, Russia, Turkey, Kurds, Hezbollah, other rebel groups, and the Syrian government--will be free to continue engaging them. A logical exception, but in practice, it proved fatal to a previous ceasefire deal.

The problem is that, as is widely acknowledged, the supposedly moderate rebel factions that the US supports are known to collaborate with the Al Qaeda group--recently rebranded as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. This, of course, raises the question of how moderate any group can be if it collaborates with people who still celebrate the 9/11 attacks against the US? In any case, it creates substantial practical problems, especially for the Russians. Frequently throughout the Syrian War, Russia has claimed to bomb the Al Qaeda groups, only to have Western countries accuse them of hitting US-backed assets in the region. In reality, both claims can be true simultaneously, given the well-known collaboration between Al Qaeda fighters in Syria and the "moderate" rebels.

Secretary of State John Kerry, in a statement regarding the ceasefire, acknowledged the situation above and warned the US-backed factions that associating with the Al Qaeda group "would not be wise". It remains to be seen, however, whether this sober tone will be maintained when Russian and Syrian bombs continue falling on Al Qaeda and its often US-backed associates (and civilians too, undoubtedly).

For the sake of the Syrian people, we should hope that the ceasefire is thorough and lasts as long as possible.

Hillary Clinton thinks roughly 25% of Americans are "deplorables", but regrets saying so

Hillary Clinton took a page from Donald Trump's playbook this weekend by grabbing the headlines with an offensive quote. Here's how CNN summarized the comments, which were made at a private fundraiser on Friday night (emphasis mine):

"To just be grossly generalistic, you can put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables," Clinton said. "Right? Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it." 
She added: "And unfortunately, there are people like that and he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people, now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric."
Clinton went on to call them both "irredeemable" and "not America".

Given the inflammatory and incredible nature of the comments--effectively condemning a fourth of US voters--one would think this was probably some kind of off-the-cuff remark said in the heat of the moment. But in fact, it appears to be rhetoric that was planned out in advance.

Indeed, speaking just a day earlier on an Israeli television network, Clinton used strikingly similar language, including the odd "basket of deplorables" bit. Again, from CNN (emphasis added):
"If I were to be grossly generalistic, I would say you can take Trump supporters and put them in two big baskets," Clinton said. "There are what I call the deplorables -- the racists, you know, the haters, and the people who are drawn because they think somehow he's going to restore an America that no longer exists. So just eliminate them from your thinking, because we've always had an annoying prejudicial element within our politics."
Once the language went viral, Clinton apologized for the comments--you know, sort of:
Last night I was 'grossly generalistic,' and that's never a good idea. I regret saying 'half' -- that was wrong.
In other words, she apologized for overestimating the size of the "basket of deplorables". This seems reasonable, given that she also implied the number might be close to 11 million, which is obviously nowhere near half of Trump's supporters. We get it; fractions are hard.

More important than Clinton's tenuous grasp of fractions, however, this episode reveals the distinct similarities between the Trump and Clinton campaigns for anyone who's willing to look. Trump's comments often focus on demonizing illegal immigrants and Muslims. Meanwhile, Clinton focuses on attacking Trump's supporters (for being racists, usually), and the Russians (for being Russians). The themes and targets may differ, but the strategy is remarkably similar: dehumanize the "other" to frighten people into voting for you.

Clinton's campaign slogan may be "Stronger Together" and Trump might want to "Make America Great Again". But the fact is that once the election is over, the America they will be leading will be more divided than it has been in a very long time. And when that day comes, both candidates and both mainstream parties will deserve blame for making it so.

Another stumble for Clinton campaign--this time, it's literal

With our apologies, our third story is also about the election. It was a busy weekend.

After a 90-minute stint at the New York memorial ceremony for the 9/11 attacks, Hillary Clinton decided to leave the event early. Unfortunately, (at least) two videos captured the moment of her getting in the van to leave. It didn't go well.

In the videos, Clinton appears to stumble or even faint as she steps off the curb. Her assistants were able to hold her up, but not quickly enough to make it unnoticeable. The result was another viral negative story for Team Clinton that needed an explanation.

Given the public nature of the episode and uniquely bad timing--presidential candidate faints(?) while remembering 9/11 attacks--the incident quickly gained traction. The Clinton campaign acknowledged the incident and first said that Hillary "overheated", before explaining later in the day that Clinton had been diagnosed with pneumonia on Friday.

This is certain to be a downer for the Clinton Campaign and has led to new questions about transparency. What we find more interesting, however, is the choice of wording.

As a general rule, cars, computers, and a great many other devices can overheat. But people are not among them. That's why it's kind of an odd phrase to use. This is particularly true when one recalls that an earlier viral Clinton gaffe involved her saying she "may have short-circuited". So wait, it overheats and short-circuits; are you sure we're talking about a human?

Kidding aside, this language is used in an attempt to downplay episodes--in this case, because they probably wanted to avoid saying she was ill, tired, exhausted, etc. But ironically, it actually makes the incidents more memorable. Last time, Donald Trump capitalized on the "short-circuit[ing]" by making an ad about "Robot Hillary" with sparks and all. One imagines a sequel will now be forthcoming shortly.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Apple, Taxes, and Bad Arguments

I've recently acquired a kind of masochistic hobby--subjecting myself to the economic journalism at the progressive media outlet, The Intercept. I'm not entirely sure why I do it. But whatever the reason, every once in a while I come across some delightfully infuriating gems. Today was one of those days.

Unsubtly titled "Paying Taxes Is A Lot Better Than Phony Corporate Courage, Apple", the piece was prompted by Apple's fall product conference, which The Intercept aptly described as a "quasi-pagan" ritual for Mac lovers. But as the title implies, the real focus of the piece was on criticizing Apple's thorough tax avoidance. Apparently, Apple's CEO used the word "courage" during the day's event, and The Intercept is humbly implying that paying taxes would be a much more courageous act for them than whatever they're doing now.

We have previously touched on the Apple-EU tax feud, and won't rehash the details here. However, the piece is still striking for at least two reasons:
  • It shows the ease with which progressive-leaning commentators can simultaneously acknowledge the existence of incentives and disregard their implications.
  • It assumes, without evidence, that increased tax revenues mean better government services, specifically in the realm of education

On the first point, the relevant section from The Intercept reads as follows (emphasis in original):
[Apple's] official corporate position is now effectively We’ll pay what we want, and you’ll deal with it; Tim Cook himself has said Apple will only repatriate its vast billions to the U.S. if it’s at a rate he considers “fair.”
Now, the writer uses scare quotes to denote the apparent absurdity of Apple's position. But the implication should still be relatively clear. If the tax rates were lower (fairer, in Apple's verbiage), Apple wouldn't bother with intricate and onerous tax planning strategies to avoid them. In other words, if the incentive to avoid taxes was lower, companies and people would be less likely to avoid taxes.

This idea should be obvious at a moment's contemplation. But in The Intercept's telling, this fact is not even worth considering. Instead, we're stuck in a world rich in platitudes and poor in reasoning. The reader is left to conclude Apple is just a greedy corporation, but if they were courageous, they'd pay taxes to help the children. Who needs cause and effect when you have bulletproof logic like that?

Second, The Intercept makes much ado about Apple's marketing emphasis on education. Apple's apparent contribution to this worthy cause is an improvement to their collaborative office software, iWork. Of course, one wonders how helpful it will be given that Google Docs has existed for years and happens to be free.

The Intercept happens to share my skepticism about Apple's iWork plan, but they offer a questionable remedy:
It seems unlikely this will make a substantial difference in the quality of education for children around the world — particularly in countries where public schools are underfunded because companies like Apple deliberately avoid paying taxes.
Again, the takeaway is clear. If Apple and others like them would pay more taxes, public education wouldn't be as bad as it is. This seems reasonable on the surface--the idea that if more money were spent on public schools, the quality would go up. In practice, however, the relationship is not so clear. Indeed, many studies have shown that, at least in developed countries like the US or the EU countries which have been allegedly cheated of tax revenues by Apple, the effect of increasing spending on public education on educational outcomes is negligible. The nature of statistics being what it is, I have no doubt you could find studies suggesting the opposite. But the point here is that the question is very much in dispute.

This odd phenomenon stems from the very unique way we assess problems in governmental institutions relative to the way we assess problems in private institutions. If you went to a store and had a poor experience, what would you think of that business? Depending on the details, you might think they were lazy or incompetent or rude, or some combination thereof. Most likely, your first instinct would not be this:
You know, they probably just don't have enough money. I'm going to keep going back to that store and insist on giving them extra money to help them get on track.

Of course, you wouldn't think that way because it's silly. And yet, that is the default response most of us have when it comes to failures of government. We don't assume that the managers of the government institutions are incompetent and lazy. Instead, we implicitly assume they are blameless in the whole affair and they just need more funding. In some cases, that might be true. But it is clearly unreasonable to assume so by default.

Unfortunately, The Intercept doesn't heed this warning. Instead, the reader is treated to an improbable understanding as a way to criticize Apple.
Assumption 1: Public schools perform badly because they lack funding.
Assumption 2: Public education lacks funding because companies like Apple dodge taxes.
Therefore: Apple could help solve the public education problem if only they paid more taxes.

Both of the supporting assumptions are extremely dubious, but they sound true until you dig deeper. In this way, it's a microcosm for many economic notions advanced under the banner of progressivism--superficially plausible but unable to withstand basic scrutiny.

Summing Up

Obviously, there are many things that are more newsworthy for our purposes than the dimensions Apple's latest iPhone. However, The Intercept's take is fascinating because it shows how many dubious economic assumptions can be subtly baked into an argument without readers, and perhaps without even the author himself, realizing it.

*Also, for what it's worth, I'll have you know I'm not an Apple fanatic by any means. Quite the opposite really. In my adult life, I've bought exactly one Apple device, and in that case, I did so begrudgingly, and as a gift. I don't have any special reason for opposing Apple; their products (and prices) just don't do it for me. On the topic of courage, however, I will say my opinion of Apple rose considerably when they stood up to the FBI last winter on encryption. Paying taxes probably doesn't require much courage; standing up for civil liberties to the most powerful government in the world, on the other hand, most certainly does.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

September 7, 2016

Legacy polishing and regret in Laos as Obama discusses US bombing

Recently, we discussed the legacy-polishing period that comes in the months and weeks before politicians leave office. We explained that President Obama is squarely in that period now, and happily, appears to be trying to redeem himself for the things he failed to accomplish, and the various tragedies he helped create, like Libya and more recently, Yemen. (I'm here assuming he probably recognizes them for what they are, even if he won't acknowledge them as such publicly, for obvious reasons.)

When we last visited the subject, he was making considerable headway towards closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and his administration had just taken a symbolic but important stand against private prisons. This week, it appears this generally positive trend will continue, as he became the first active US president to visit the country of Laos, which the US secretly and massively bombed during the Vietnam War.

The bombing of Laos checks all the requisite boxes we would later come to expect of a US foreign policy initiative: illegal, brutal, and utterly useless (if not outright counterproductive). The ostensible purpose for bombing Laos was to destroy supply lines used by the North Vietnamese, but this ultimately proved ineffective. However, this wasn't for lack of trying. As Obama noted during his remarks in Laos, the US reportedly dropped more bombs on Laos during the war than it did on Germany and Japan in WWII, combined.

While this would be bad enough by itself, the ongoing tragedy of Laos is that many of the bombs and cluster munitions that were dropped did not actually explode. While this might initially appear to be a good thing, the result is that the country remains littered with de facto landmines that can explode without warning if disturbed. Many Laotians still die each year when they encounter this unexploded ordinance (UXO). Aid organizations have been working for years to help clear Laotian land of UXO, but it is, by its very nature, a very slow and resource-intensive process.

Which brings us to the practical outcome of President Obama's remarks. He committed to giving $90 million to Laos over the next three years to dramatically expand the bomb clean-up effort. Of course, this is still a pittance, when one considers that the US spends roughly $600 billion on Defense spending each year and gives the first-world nation of Israel roughly $3 billion a year in foreign aid that it clearly does not need (and that amount is about to go up). But still, according to ABC, this will be a significant expansion of US aid for this remediation effort.

Given US culpability for the problem and the fact that US discretionary spending tends to be actively destructive, Obama's gesture and financial commitment is a welcome sigh of relief. Taxation may still be theft as we libertarians like to say, but it is tough to imagine a more deserving cause than repairing the damage caused by a past US war. Now, if only we thought about taking this approach to other parts of Asia as well...

Clinton's coughing attack and conspiracy theories

In stark contrast with Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton has kept a conspicuously low profile during the election season. Yesterday, we got a reminder why that strategy was probably wise.

While speaking at a rally in Ohio, which was being broadcast live on MSNBC, Clinton suffered intermittent coughing fits that prevented her from saying much of anything. They were so pronounced that the MSNBC anchor had to comment on it, and they eventually had to cut away from the rally altogether.

Naturally, this has fueled speculation that Clinton, who is about to be 69, may not be as healthy as she claims. If you're a Clinton supporter, this is automatically dismissed as a conspiracy theory that's probably sexist. While if you're a Trump supporter, it's a real concern and a useful line of attack.

Our own take is that it's clearly legitimate to question a candidate's health, and Clinton clearly, despite being younger than Trump, seems to be the less spry of the two. That said, whatever her health condition happens to be in reality, it's probably the least important reason to be concerned about a Clinton presidency. (Her hawkish foreign policy is far more troubling.)

Indeed, I'm actually of the opinion that everyone is looking at this the wrong way. If Clinton really is ill, to the point that it interferes with her job as the FBI investigation report implied, this is really a feature, not a bug. Assuming Hillary's health does limit her capacity to make decisions as president, one of two things seems likely to happen. Perhaps her Vice President Tim Kaine would take a more prominent role--this would be a good thing because Kaine cannot possibly be as bad as she is on foreign policy. Alternatively, she might just be an incompetent leader who can't effectively implement many of her policies. Given that virtually all of her proposed policies are likely to be deleterious, as we've previously discussed, this too is a win.

After all, I'd take an incompetently destructive government over an efficiently destructive government any day. Wouldn't you?

In any case, you can check out the Zero Hedge's full take on the 'Clinton coughing' story and the hypocritical media reaction to it.

ITT Technical Institute shuts down

The for-profit parent company of the ITT Technical Institute colleges has announced it is shutting down all its schools and firing most of its employees. The move comes after the Department of Education announced that prospective students of the colleges could not use federal student aid, and its accreditation was in serious jeopardy.

Certainly, this development calls for sympathy for the nearly 40,000 active ITT students who are now stuck in limbo as a result--with a partially completed education that will most likely have to be scrapped altogether. However, sympathy for the school itself is a bit harder to muster.

At first glance, this could seem to be a case of government regulations and enforcement cracking down on corporation providing a valuable service to willing consumers. Were that the case, ITT's bankruptcy might be a cause for grief.

However, the specific catalyst for the crackdown shows why this reaction is inappropriate. The cessation of federal student aid spelled doom for their business. This essentially means that, but for the government subsidizing its consumers (students), the business model did not work. In turn, ITT's demise is not a case of the free market being stamped out by big government. Rather, it appears to be a case where a company lived off of the government and died by the government's hand.

So progressives can celebrate the death of another hated for-profit college, and libertarians can take solace in the demise of another corporate welfare recipient (if indirectly). Additionally, perhaps the void left by ITT will let more students discover truly free market education alternatives to a traditional university--alternatives like this awesome apprenticing program, for example.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

September 6, 2016

Filipino President Duterte profanely calls US bluff on human rights

The outspoken Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has quickly gained a reputation for his extreme "law and order" politics and his irreverent behavior. Indeed, he is occasionally described as the Filipino Donald Trump. And like Donald Trump (or any other probable US president) would surely do, Duterte has apparently violated human rights routinely. The alleged violations include summary executions of drug traffickers and some users as part of an aggressive and foolish crackdown on drugs in the country.

It in this context that things recently got interesting. Duterte was scheduled to meet with President Obama in the coming days, and a reporter asked Duterte how he would respond if Obama questioned the Filipino leader on his human rights record. His response was remarkable:
Who does he think he is? I am no American puppet. I am the president of a sovereign country and I am not answerable to anyone except the Filipino people, nobody but nobody. You must be respectful. Do not just throw questions. Son of a bitch I will swear at you in that forum.
That's right. An ostensible ally of the United States called the US president a "son of a bitch". Just as notable, however, Duterte went on to discuss the history of US colonization of the Philippines, and ultimately stated the obvious:
Everybody has a terrible record of extra-judicial killing. Why make an issue about fighting crime?...Look at the human rights of America along that line.
In short, Duterte's utter lack of a filter led him to say what countless other leaders must always think when they get questioned by the US government about human rights. Because anytime that happens, it is the ultimate case of the cat calling the kettle black. It is the height of irony and absurdity alike that the US government--which has conducted three aggressive wars (counting conservatively) in the past 15 years, oversaw a massive torture program (for which no high-ranking officials have been punished), and claims the legal authority to assassinate alleged terrorists anywhere, without due process--makes a point to criticize other governments on their human rights records.

Perhaps if Obama was the leader of Sweden or Switzerland, this could make sense. As it is, US posturing on human rights is nothing more than a joke that most everyone is in on.

But of course, herein lies the tragedy. Because if true, Duterte's extrajudicial killings warrant criticism and condemnation as soon as possible, in the hopes of preventing further bloodshed. The problem is that message cannot come from institutions and governments that are complicit in equivalent policies in other parts of the world. That's why Duterte can call "BS" in advance, and the US president cannot offer any credible defense.

This should be seen as just another negative consequence of US's disastrous interventions in the Middle East and elsewhere. There was a time in the not-so-distant past that the US really was viewed by many countries as a defender of freedom and human rights, accurately or otherwise. Today, after 15 years of perpetual war under Republican and Democratic administrations alike, few observers could be so naive.

Yet another downside, Duterte's comments led to the meeting being cancelled altogether. It probably makes sense, but it strikes me that we will miss out on what could have been a very entertaining press conference.

You can read more on Duterte's remarks here from Zero Hedge.

Angela Merkel's party takes 3rd place in elections in her home state behind nationalist party

The latest evidence of the rise of right-wing nationalist movements came in Germany over the weekend as parliamentary elections were held in Angela Merkel's home state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Merkel's party of Christian Democrats took home third place behind the radical Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which took second place. AfD's finish was remarkable given that it only formed in 2013.

Because Germany's parliamentary elections don't take place nationwide simultaneously, the election doesn't mean that Merkel is going anywhere, at least for the moment. However, it does demonstrate the very significant political risks associated with rapid changes in immigration policy.

That's because AfD has made a name for itself in part for opposing the EU, but primarily for criticizing open immigration policies and the alleged problem posed by a large number of Muslim migrants. In 2015 alone, Germany welcomed over 1 million refugees, predominantly Muslims.

Undoubtedly, an influx of impoverished peoples on that scale was likely to put some strain on the state's welfare system. And inevitably, some small portion of the migrant population (or any other population that size) was going to commit violent crimes, resulting in sensational headlines.

But the real problem is that Germany's immigration policy was so aggressive and public that it was bound to be a convenient scapegoat for otherwise unrelated problems. Worried about your own economic future? It's probably because the immigrants drove down wages in your industry. Worried about rising crime? Yep, that's probably the immigrants too.

Whether these things are actually true is beside the point. They sound convincing enough that a party like AfD can use them to become a major party in Germany.

It remains to be seen how Germany's politics will ultimately shake out. But early indications suggest an alarming backlash. Ironically, an "open door" immigration policy motivated by compassion and tolerance on the part of Merkel appears to have cultivated the exact opposite sentiments among a growing segment of the German people.

Taco truck proliferation and government regulations

The Trump campaign has inadvertently offered another incredible quote / gaffe that is just too good to pass up. Speaking on CNN, the founder of Latinos for Trump gave a hilarious reason to oppose immigration:
My culture is a very dominant culture, and it’s imposing and it’s causing problems. If you don’t do something about it, you’re going to have taco trucks on every corner.
Naturally, this raised two important questions. First, is the Trump Campaign so committed to getting publicity that they're doing these things on purpose? One assumes not, but it can only happen so many times before you have to wonder.

And second, much more importantly, why exactly aren't there taco trucks on every corner?

It turns out the answer is quite predictable. It's the same answer that usually explains why good ideas and products aren't as widespread and abundant as we'd like. That answer is government regulation.

We'll leave it to Charles Johnson at the Foundation for Economic Education to lay out the specifics. He offers an interesting insight on an otherwise silly story.

Here's hoping that, if elected, Donald Trump's vague and occasional praise for deregulation might accidentally unleash the spicy and delicious dystopia that his supporter feared.

Friday, September 2, 2016

September 2, 2016

US Auto Sales Decline Substantially in August
Auto sales data for August was released yesterday, and it proved to be a big disappointment. Every major manufacturer sold less than what was expected, and all but one showed outright declines in sales compared to August 2015. The chart below sums up the negative results fairly well.

Obviously, this is a bad sign for the individual companies involved. But it's also a pessimistic sign for the shape of the US economy in general. Auto sales are often viewed as a gauge of consumer confidence--since people tend to buy new cars when they are optimistic about their financial situation. Thus, weak growth and outright declines among most manufacturers appear to be one more data point that suggests an economic contraction may be on the horizon.

Speaking about these lackluster results, Ford executives indicated that they believed auto sales have reached a plateau. They clearly intended that to be a positive spin, but Zero Hedge points out that there might still be cause for concern:
That's the crazy thing about "plateaus" there's a cliff on both sides.
Read more on these numbers in Zero Hedge's write-up.

EU Attacks Apple and Ireland on Taxes
As part of an ongoing effort to stamp out whatever life remains in the European economy, the European Union recently declared that Apple owes billions of euros in back taxes to the government of Ireland. Ironically, said government of Ireland is apparently joining Apple in an effort to fight the ruling.

The dispute stems from the fact that Ireland, an EU member, has made the conscious decision to establish a very friendly tax environment, featuring a mere 12.5% corporate tax rate (as compared to 35% in the US at the federal level). In fact, various incentives and other carve-outs in the tax code meant that Apple had to pay an effective tax rate of just 0.005% to Ireland.  As a result of such policies, it's no surprise that many large corporations including Apple have chosen to move parts of their organization to Ireland in order to take advantage.

Understandably, the EU claims that corporations in other EU countries can't compete against companies that face such a low tax burden. This is likely true, but it is actually an argument in favor of Ireland's system. If companies with significant Irish operations are more successful and competitive, this is clearly a good thing for the Irish economy in general. But instead of encouraging other EU members to become more like Ireland, it is trying to coerce Ireland to drag itself down.

It's an open question whether the EU's coercion will prove successful, however. And over at the Foundation for Economic Education, Dan Sanchez makes a hopeful case that this dispute might pave the way for an "Irexit" out of the EU. Read his take here.

Israel Approves New Settlements in the West Bank
Continuing a long trend, Israel announced approvals of more settlements in the West Bank this week. As usual, it drew moderate criticism from the US State Department, though even the government sources that spoke to Reuters acknowledged that the underlying policy will remain the same.

And that US policy is an odd mixture of annoyed tolerance on the one hand and unconditional financial support on the other.

Settlement building is really just a euphemism for slow-motion colonization. Or, if one prefers a more modern term, the policy amounts to large scale eminent domain, implemented primarily on ethnic grounds. If that sounds awful, it should. Settlement expansion involves the government of Israel expropriating land from Palestinians in the West Bank and transferring it to Jewish citizens for development. The government of Israel then provides extensive security for these settlements.

The West Bank was conquered by Israel militarily in 1967 and has been occupied militarily ever since. Of course, not even the radical Israeli government would claim that superior firepower is a legitimate basis for claiming property rights. Instead, the ostensible reason settlements are legal is based on religion and collective historical property rights. As Reuters puts it (emphasis added):
Israel, which captured the West Bank in a 1967 war, rejected the criticism by Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N.'s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process. It said Jews had lived in Judea, the biblical term for the West Bank, for thousands of years.
So in this vein, the Israeli government isn't stealing land from Palestinians; rather, they are restoring the property rights of long lost heirs. You know, just like John Locke would have wanted them to.

If we take for granted that Jewish peoples of some sort did live in the West Bank decades and centuries ago, this point is still irrelevant for determining property rights today. To believe otherwise leads quickly to absurdity.

For instance, my last name is German, and presumably, at some point before my ancestors saw fit to drop the umlauts, some of them lived in or around Germany. That said, it is clearly not reasonable for me to show up in Germany today at an immigrant's house and demand their keys. While some of the specifics differ, Israel's justification for settlement expansion and eminent domain in the West Bank is not fundamentally different from this.

That's why this policy of the Israeli government should be criticized. And if the US criticism were sincere, it would also involve cutting off the billions of dollars provided in foreign aid to Israel each year. But with Hillary or Trump in the White House, we should probably shouldn't get our hopes up.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

September 1, 2016

Hillary Clinton Channels Republican Foreign Policy in Speech to Veterans
In an anticipated speech to the American Legion in Cincinnati, Ohio, Hillary Clinton continued to strike a hawkish tone on US foreign policy. This was not unexpected, but it should be depressing. On the whole, it is safe to say that Clinton is positioned to the right of Donald Trump on matters of war and peace.

If you care about US foreign policy, that's bad news. Between the two major party candidates, we effectively have a choice between a candidate in Clinton who is predictably pro-war and a candidate in Trump who is not predictable at all, on everything except Russia (which he is thankfully decent on most of the time).

So what exactly did she say? Well, it involved some cringe-worthy nationalism that used to (and still should) make folks on the left squirm. Like this gem:
We are an exceptional nation because we are an indispensable nation. In fact, we are the indispensable nation.
Got that? We're the best country in the world, and not only that, the world needs us. At this point in history, however, one wonders whether the world feels the same way about us...

The speech also involved some completely disingenuous rhetoric for good measure:
We can't cozy up to dictators.
Apparently a swipe at Trump, this is actually a much better attack on Clinton herself. As one of many examples to choose from, she once famously referred to the (now former) dictator of Egypt and his wife as "friends of my family".

For more on the speech, check out this write-up from Daniel Larison at The American Conservative.

New Trump Immigration Speech Same Unworkable Policy
In related news on the campaign trail, Donald Trump gave a major speech on immigration. Some were expecting a softening of his previous proposals, but that's not what they got.

Instead, Trump stayed firm on the idea that amnesty would not be granted and the "beautiful" wall will go up. The only real nuance was added by omission. Trump reiterated his pledge to deport illegal immigrants who happen to be criminals (I.e. broke laws other than immigration ones), but he did not spell out his plan for dealing with the remaining undocumented immigrants, estimated to be around 11 million.

The hardline conservative position on the matter is to deport all of them, but this is mistaken on several levels. First, it's clearly wrong from an ethical perspective. Illegal immigration, as such, is a perfect example of a victimless crime. The harm caused by someone from Mexico moving to Texas is no different than a California resident moving to Portland, where I live. In both cases, the harm is zero. It's possible they could receive more government benefits than they pay in taxes, but if you are concerned about that, the solution lies in reducing the welfare state not deporting immigrants. Similarly, it's possible some undocumented immigrants may steal or commit violent acts. But these things are already illegal--and again, problems that are in no way uniquely caused by immigrants.

Moreover, even if one rejects the moral argument, deportation is so obviously impractical that it's odd we even discuss it. If the undocumented immigrants made up a country, it would be roughly 1/3 the population of Iraq. But instead of trying to simply occupy it, the goal of a mass deportation plan would involve rounding up every single one of them, presumably against their will, and transporting them elsewhere. The expenses associated with such a program are difficult to imagine. More importantly, the expansion of government police and surveillance powers needed to implement such a program would surely erode the liberties of all Americans--not just the immigrants being targeted.

In spite of these obvious flaws, however, it appears Trump and the media are content with pretending this is a real policy consideration. Fortunately, the rest of us know better. No matter what he says, Trump isn't going to deport 11 million immigrants, because frankly, there's virtually no way he could pull it off even if he wanted to.

For more on this story, check out this take from CNN, which offers a reasonably fair summary of Trump's speech as well as his recent visit with Mexican President Peña Nieto. Happily, the latter event ultimately proved to be oddly civil and uneventful.

Large Container Shipping Company Declares Bankruptcy
In a move that is likely to have major ripple effects, the international container shipping company Hanjin Shipping filed for bankruptcy this week. According to Zero Hedge, this is the largest bankruptcy for a container shipping company in history.

The immediate fallout is likely to be substantial, as the bankruptcy filing process is likely to disrupt shipments that were in process. This occurs because ports may not allow them to dock if they are unsure Hanjin ships will still be able to pay fees.

In the slightly longer term, the bankruptcy is likely to make a substantial dent in the balance sheets of the banks that lent to it, given the size of the company. The exact magnitude and distribution of this cost will be evident as the bankruptcy process proceeds.

Finally, perhaps the most important aspect of this story is what it says about the state of the global economy. The profits of the container shipping industry rise and fall with the global economy since they are the key intermediary for international trade. If the economy is doing well, more goods are shipped, and the container shipping industry performs well. When times are bad, the container shippers are among the hardest hit.

It is possible that Hanjin is just a one-off occurrence, and its bankruptcy stems from poor management. However, it seems more likely that their failure is further evidence that the global economy is very weak, even if Janet Yellen and the Fed would like to protest otherwise.

For further details on this, check out the main write-up at Zero Hedge here and a follow-up piece indicating several Hanjin ships have indeed been stranded off the California coast.