Archives: October, 2006

Things to Do in Washington When You’re Dead Weight

As public choice theory tells us, bureaucrats tend to act in their own self interest, even though that often comes at the expense of taxpayers. If you’re not yet sold on public choice theory, consider one of the topics at the annual conference of the Senior Executives Association.

Fearful of the possibility of impending budget cuts, this recent meeting of high-ranking federal employees featured a session on “Survival Skills for the Coming Budget Crunch.”

This session could have been an opportunity to instruct senior managers on ways they could reduce or eliminate unnecessary expenditures, pare down the size of their staff, and shed duplicative operations.

Or it could be a lesson on gaming the system and saving one’s own hide.

Here’s how the Federal Times described it:

Managers should consider declaring a crisis in their programs, said Andy Uscher, SEA’s corporate relations director. They should develop relationships with budget examiners and build political support.

If possible, Uscher said, they should connect programs to national security or the president’s management agenda.

They can also argue that cuts have already occurred or assert that reductions would actually increase costs, he said.

They should consider using contractors or consultants instead of new employees, Uscher added.

“Contracting is just not tracked as much as people are,” he said.

So if you’re a senior official in the federal government facing the prospect of a cut to your budget, you should cozy up to politicos, intentionally overstate the importance of your agency, and lie about the implications of budget cuts?

It’s no wonder that the dismal status quo reigns supreme in Washington.

Considering Coulson

In less than 24 hours, Andrew Coulson’s recent post on criticism of the Iraq War has sparked an angry reaction across the blogosphere. It’s all exciting vitriol — and completely misplaced.

Coulson’s post is neither a defense of the war nor a criticism. He claims neither that the war is justified nor unjustified. He does not challenge the fundamental positions of many Iraq War critics. Coulson’s post is an appeal for better thinking; for war critics to drop a voguish but flawed argument against the war, in favor of stronger, more rigorous arguments.

Unfortunately (if understandably), people have become so emotional and politicized over the war that they misunderstand and misconstrue such appeals. They are not distinguishing between sloppy reasoning and good reasoning, and are equating appeals for better arguments to “dumb” and “retarded” opposition. But it would be worthwhile for those critics to take the time to understand what Coulson is arguing, because it would help the critics make their case.

Coulson’s post involves the recent National Intelligence Estimate that includes the claim that the Iraq War has become a recruitment tool for terrorist organizations. Several anti-war critics have seized on this claim to make the following argument against the war:

  1. It is not in a nation’s interest to increase the number of enemies who want to harm that nation. (Call this the Enemy Recruitment Premise, or “ERP.”)
  2. The Iraq War is increasing the number of enemies who want to harm the U.S.
  3. Thus, the Iraq War is not in the nation’s interest. QED

Coulson offers a potent challenge to this reasoning: Many nations, engaged in what have broadly been considered just wars, have violated the ERP. The American colonies, in opposing the British crown, made enemies of the Redcoats and the Hessians. The U.S.’s support of the British in WWII put us on the wrong side of the Axis. The Union’s opposition to secession led to hundreds of thousands of Southerners flocking to the Confederate cause (or, for Southern sympathizers, the Confederacy’s efforts to secede led to hundreds of thousands of Northerners rallying to the Federal cause).

Indeed, it’s difficult to think of any war in history that would pass the ERP. So either (1) no war in history has been in any nation’s interest, or (2) the ERP is wrong.

Coulson’s claim is that the ERP is wrong; creation of enemies is not a sufficient condition for a war being against a nation’s interest. This does not mean that the U.S. will be justified in going to war if we end up “winning” in Iraq. It simply means that critics of the Iraq War need to rely on other arguments for their position. Hence, it is to completely misunderstand Coulson to believe that he’s claiming that what has happened since the war doesn’t matter.

So, what anti-Iraq War arguments could work? Coulson explicitly gives one in his post: “Critics are welcome to argue that we and freedom-loving Iraqis will ultimately lose there, and be worse off if we do” — call this the Loss Argument. Another is that the Iraq War may be winnable, but it will be extremely costly to do so (in blood and treasure) — call this the Cost Argument. A third is that there are alternative, less-difficult ways to promote the nation’s interest in the Middle East — call this the Alternatives Argument. There likely are many other effective arguments.

The Iraq War’s production of more anti-U.S. fighters is a serious concern. But it is not a sufficent condition for the war being wrong — instead, it is a part of a Cost Argument against the war (i.e., those combatants can inflict a terrible cost on both U.S. troops in the Gulf and civilians here at home).

Coulson’s argument is not some obscure semantic point or a straw man argument. It is philosophically significant. For a topic as important as the Iraq War, we should be rigorous in our reasoning. We should not let passions cloud our ability to understand and consider other people’s points of view about the war — especially when those points of view may not conflict with our own.

Posner on Humanitarian Intervention

Below Andrew criticizes the claim that our Iraq intervention has failed because it has increased the risk of terrorist attacks.  While I, as a caveman lawyer, have little expertise on matters of foreign relations, I am an expert on what other lawyers have to say about foreign relations. 

Here, Chicago law professor Eric Posner (and son of Richard Posner) argues that the Iraq war has revealed a different trade-off:  the uncertain payoff of humanitarian military intervention.

Global Warming Gas Bags

In an op-ed I recently cowrote with Peter Van Doren for the San Diego Union Tribune, I argued that California’s much ballyhooed legislation to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020 should probably be taken no more seriously than a New Years’ Eve Resolution.  The legislation has no teeth, it has offers no program to translate wish into reality, and has all the earmarks of any number of empty environmental pledges that have turned to dust with the passage of time.

There are now strong indications that the story line we predicted for California is being played out in Europe as well.  A report just out finds that without additional measures, the EU will only be able to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 1.6 percent below 1990 levels. Compare that with the 8 percent reduction promise undertaken by those same countries under the Kyoto Protocol.

One reason why environmental laws often cost less than advertised by the business community is that the goals written into those laws are subsequently ignored.  But as long as politicans gain full credit for promises made and can escape blame for promises broken, this is the sort of thing that is the rule rather than the exception.

Shoot ‘Em Before They Poop Again

If I were to ask you what the number one cause of bacterial pollution in the Potomac, Anacostia, and more than two dozen other rivers on the federal “impaired waters” list, what would you guess?  Sewage discharges?  Stormwater run-off?  Agricultural waste?  How about increased mountains of dung from our supposedly threatened wildlife populations?  You guessed it - because we have done such a good job making the human environment safe for all of God’s creatures, we are destroying the planet.

If you’re rushing off to make a bag of popcorn to watch the upcoming brawl between the National Wildlife Foundation (a polluter-defense league if there ever was one) and Greenpeace, walk, don’t run.  Animal pollution good.  People pollution bad.  But regardless, shouldn’t we at least require Bambi to secure a poop permit - or regulate the time and place at which these river-killing vermin can dispose of their waste product in an environmentally friendly manner? 

GOP: Online Gambling Poses Threat to U.S. Port Security

Late Friday night, the U.S. Senate passed a ban on Internet gambling.  The ban now awaits President Bush’s signature.

Sen. Bill Frist attached the ban to the port security bill at the last minute on Friday, conveniently allowing the ban to go forward without any debate.  That also means any senator who rightly believes that online poker is none of the government’s business would also have to vote against a national security bill to vote against the ban – making that senator a ripe target for charges of being soft on terrorism.

The major gaming sites – that is, the legitimate companies regulated by British law and traded on the London Stock Exchange – announced over the weekend that they’ll cease offering service to U.S. customers the moment President Bush signs the bill.  What does that mean?  Well, it means the shady, fly-by-night sites that aren’t regulated or publicly traded will now thrive with U.S. customers.  These gray- and black-market sites are more prone to fraud, more likely to be involved in organized crime, and don’t include the child-protection measures the major sites have implemented.

For all the talk from Sen. Frist, Sen. Kyl, and Rep. Goodlatte about the dangers of this “unregulated” industry, the bill they’ve just passed will actually put the well-regulated gambling sites out of reach of U.S. customers.  The end result?  Online poker and other gaming sites will soon be even less regulated, more likely to attract children, and more likely to defraud U.S. consumers than ever before.  Meanwhile, one of the most addictive forms of gambling – state lotteries – will soon make an en masse move online, thanks to an exemption in the bill that effectively creates an online monopoly for them.

In short, in an intrusive, big government effort to protect Americans from themselves, Congress has passed a futile, hypocritical, counter-productive, protectionist piece of legislation that will make it more difficult for millions of Americans to engage in an activity most participate in responsibly and moderately.  For those people, the bill will probably work.  But it’ll do little to prevent problem gambling, children’s access to gaming sites, or online fraud.

One can’t help but think that for Frist, none of that matters so long as the bill helps Republicans keep control of the Senate come November.

Democracy vs. Innovation

Over at the Library of Economics and Liberty, Duke political science chair Michael Munger has a real gem of an essay lucidly explaining why democracy, which caters to the median voter, won’t produce innovation, which is created by bets with long odds by risk-takers on the fringe.

For political decisions, “good” simply means what most people think is good, and everyone has to accept the same thing. In markets, the good is decided by individuals, and we each get what we choose. This matters more than you might think. I don’t just mean that in markets you need money and in politics you need good hair and an entourage. Rather, the very nature of choices, and who chooses, is different in the two settings.

That part’s not very funny, but most of the essay is. So if you like your political economy at once weird and crystal clear, do check it out.