Bibi vs. Frost

There is a lot to say about Israeli Prime Minster’s Benjamin Netanyahu’ speech to Congress today. I could object to his use of worst case scenarios and overstatements of Iranian power. Instead I’m taking issue with his treatment of Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. My point, besides being pedantic, is that Frost’s realist sensibility makes him a poor reference for Bibi.

Netanyahu tells us that we face a crossroads. One path is the deal being negotiated, which may contain the Iranian nuclear program temporarily but will “lead to a nuclear-armed Iran whose unbridled aggression will inevitably lead to war.” Or we can do the difficult thing and hold out for a better deal, which “would prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, a nuclearized Middle East and the horrific consequences of both to all of humanity.”

Obama Police Task Force Report Includes Worrying Recommendation

Yesterday, President Obama met with the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which on the same day released an interim report outlining dozens of recommendations related to how policing can be improved. The report was released the day after police in Los Angeles shot and killed a man during an altercation in which, according to the LAPD, he and officers “struggled over one of the officer’s handguns.”

What makes the shooting notable is that at least one of the officers involved in the shooting was wearing a body camera. According to LAPD commander Andrew Smith, the officers who were at the scene were assigned to the LAPD’s Central Division and Safer Cities Initiative, which is outfitting officers with body cameras as part of the LAPD’s body camera pilot program. Smith has said that footage from the body camera will be used in the investigation along with footage of the shooting captured by a member of the public. 

President Obama’s Task Force interim report directly addresses police body cameras without explicitly recommending that they be required. Among the recommendations in the report is that the Department of Justice (DOJ) “develop best practices that can be adopted by state legislative bodies to govern the acquisition, use, retention, and dissemination of auditory, visual, and biometric data by law enforcement.”

The report also makes a worrying recommendation; that the DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) consider offering law enforcement agencies a financial incentive to adopt the national benchmarks and best practices they may propose. It is unclear that the COPS Office — the same office whose grants were sometimes used to fund the increased militarization of police — needs to take a lead in developing national benchmarks for police reform. As in most other policy areas, when it comes to police reform a decentralized approach is better than a centralized one.  

California Outliers

Today’s Washington Post story by Darryl Fears on California drought frequency in a warming world compelled me to take a look at the Golden State’s temperature history. In my 2011 book Climate Coup,  I showed that the alarm over California warming was rather odd, as most of the changes had taken place thirty years previously. 

That was then, and this is now. But what about history?

Long Range Bomber’s Big Bill

Over the next several months the Pentagon will award the contract for the Long Range Strike Bomber. If the Department of Defense’s history repeats itself, cost overruns on the project seem likely.

According to 2010 estimates each new plane is officially expected to cost $550 million. More recent estimates are higher. A 2014 report from the Congressional Research Service included estimates of up to $810 million per bomber. The Air Force is expected to buy 100 planes, which would cost a total of $55 billion even if the low official estimate per plane panned out.

One reason for the projected overruns is that there are only a few suppliers of military aircrafts to the Department of Defense (DoD), and so companies take advantage. The Washington Post describes the situation:

‘Given the steep barriers to entry, it is not surprising that no one has disrupted the combat aircraft market,’ [Todd] Harrison [Director of Defense Budget Studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments] said. Unlike the space launch industry, which also flies commercial satellites, the market for combat aircraft is dominated by a single customer: the U.S. government.

The technical challenges are great, the costs high, the industry highly regulated. And barriers to exit are low: Lose one major contract and you could be out of an industry forever. All of which is why many companies have left the business but “nobody has entered the business of building aircraft since 1969 to any meaningful degree,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group.

And so while Silicon Valley innovation and verve upends industry after industry, the companies vying for the bomber contract are the same stalwarts that have dominated military aviation for decades.

Bottom 90% Pretax Pretransfer Income is no Proxy for Median After-Tax Income

bottom 90 percent vs CBO median

This graph illustrates a few points made in my recent Wall Street Journal article.  First of all, the Piketty & Saez mean average of bottom 90% incomes per tax unit is not a credible proxy for median household income, particularly since the big reductions in middle-class taxes from 1981 to 2003.

Second, the red bars claiming bottom 90% incomes in the past six years have been no higher than they were in 1980 (Sen. Warren) or even 1968 (see the graph) is literally unbelievable.  If that were true then all other income statistics – including GDP – would have to be completely false.  

If You Want Good Fiscal Policy, Forget the Balanced Budget Amendment and Pursue Spending Caps

Back in 2012, I shared some superb analysis from Investor’s Business Daily showing that the United States never would have suffered $1 trillion-plus deficits during Obama’s first term if lawmakers had simply exercised a modest bit of spending restraint beginning back in 1998.

And the IBD research didn’t assume anything onerous. Indeed, the author specifically showed what would have happened if spending grew by an average of 3.3 percent, equal to the combined growth of inflation plus population.

Remarkably, we would now have a budget surplus of about $300 billion if that level of spending restraint continued to the current fiscal year.

This is a great argument for some sort of spending cap, such as the Swiss Debt Brake or Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights.

But let’s look beyond the headlines to understand precisely why a spending cap is so valuable.

U.S. Aid Empowering Organized Crime in Mexico

Two weeks ago I had an article in The National Interest where I made the case against the Obama administration’s proposal to deliver hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Central American governments to help them fight organized crime, promote security and foster economic development. In my piece, I wrote that “…giving $1 billion to governments with dubious records on transparency and human rights will empower corrupt officials to the detriment of ordinary Central Americans.”

Last week, Jesse Franzblau had a revealing exposé in The Nation that proves how counterproductive this sort of aid can be. In his article, Franzblau publishes unclassified documents that show how U.S. authorities continued to deliver millions of dollars in aid to Mexican security agencies despite knowing that those same forces were infiltrated by drug cartels. This money came under the auspices of the Plan Mérida, a $2.6 billion program aimed at helping Mexico fight drug cartels. In some instances, the documents seem to show efforts by U.S. officials to cover up or downplay serious human rights abuses committed by Mexican security forces so it wouldn’t affect the continuity of Plan Mérida.

As Franzblau points out:

While US laws explicitly prohibit the delivery of aid to foreign individuals and units implicated in systematic human rights violations, internal reporting on the implementation of Mérida programs reveals that institutional connections to organized crime are consistently overlooked, ignored or kept hidden from public scrutiny as counter-drug money continues to flow.

This is serious stuff. Instead of helping the fight against drug cartels, U.S. aid might be empowering them. As I mentioned in my article, there is well-documented evidence about how the security agencies and judicial systems of Central American countries have been infiltrated by powerful criminal organizations, from drug cartels to youth gangs.

Franzblau’s article also shows a well-documented phenomenon regarding aid: once it starts flowing, the bureaucracy in charge of delivering it has an incentive to disregard the evidence of whether it is accomplishing its goals or being counterproductive since discontinuing the aid would compromise the bureaucracy’s own existence. In this particular case, Franzblau mentions that “US officials were well aware of the effect that reports of abuse could have on Mérida assistance.”

There is no reason to believe that the Obama administration’s massive aid plan for Central American governments won’t suffer from the same flaws that Jesse Franzblau exposes in his article.

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