Archives: 04/2009

NAMUDNO v. Holder Update

Editor’s Note: Cato scholar Ilya Shapiro is blogging about the NAMUDNO v. Holder case from the Supreme Court, and will provide dispatches throughout the Court’s session.

As I walk away from the Court, with the sounds of the NAACP rally fading in the distance, I’m no clearer on how this case will be resolved than when I went into the building early this morning.

This uncertainty mostly results from the rather technical issues surrounding the Voting Rights Act’s “bailout” provision, as well as how narrowly the Court will want to construe the municipal utility’s challenge (as-applied, facial, or some other novel formulation).

What is clear is that the “liberal” justices, especially Ginsburg and Breyer, were downright hostile to the idea of curtailing federal supervision of state voting practices, while the “conservative” justices (not including Thomas, who was characteristically silent) found disingenuous assertions that VRA violations were systemic, or any more pervasive in the covered (mostly southern) jurisdictions than in non-covered ones.

Justice Kennedy sided strongly with the latter group, but, again, that may not mean much for the final contours of the Court’s decision.

However the case comes out, it is important to remember that even a complete striking of Section 5 does not leave voters who have been discriminated against without recourse in federal court; Section 2 has and will continue to be used to remedy VRA violations on a case-by-case basis (and without Section 5’s onerous preclearance requirements).

Cato Unbound Update

This month’s issue of Cato Unbound has drawn an extraordinarily hostile response from a couple of mainstream online publications. Writing at Salon, Michael Lind inferred, mistakenly, that our interest in Seasteading and other radical libertarian projects was due to our disappointment that Republicans lost in the 2008 election. Because this issue was my idea, I feel I can speak effectively to the charge.

As I see things, it was basically impossible to cast either John McCain or Barack Obama as a libertarian. Neither of them shared the policy goals of the Cato Institute to any appreciable degree. Speaking as a private individual, I didn’t vote for either of them, and I don’t regret my choice. I found both Democrats and Republicans profoundly unappealing this election cycle.

This issue of Cato Unbound was motivated solely by my desire to see one particularly radical branch of libertarianism publicly confront its critics. I wanted to see how well it could hold up. Whether it stood or fell, the issue would have served its purpose. Electoral politics had nothing to do with it.

As our disclaimer makes clear, Cato Unbound doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinions of the Cato Institute. No endorsement is implied. Instead, we strive to present ideas and arguments that will be interesting to libertarians and also, if possible, to the general public.

Sometimes this means soliciting opinions that are very, very far from the American mainstream, and also far from our own views. It was a proud day for me when a prominent climate change blog suggested that Hell had frozen over – because the Cato Institute had published a piece by Joseph Romm. But that’s just the kind of place that Cato Unbound has always tried to be. We court controversy.

Some of Lind’s harshest barbs were reserved for contributor Peter Thiel, and for his suggestion that, demographically speaking, women have tended to oppose libertarian policies:

According to Thiel, one problem with democracy is that women have the right to vote:

Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women – two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians – have rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron.

What could more beautifully illustrate the pubescent male nerd mentality of the libertarian than Thiel’s combination of misogyny with the denial of aging and death? We had a nice John Galt libertarian paradise in this country, until girls came along and messed it up!

Thiel continues:

In our time, the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms – from the totalitarian and fundamentalist catastrophes to the unthinking demos that guides so-called ‘social democracy.’

After considering the possible mass migration (if that is not a contradiction in terms) of libertarians to cyberspace and outer space, he opts for Fantasy Island:

The fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism. For this reason, all of us must wish Patri Friedman the very best in his extraordinary experiment.

Here’s an idea. Thiel could use his leverage as a donor to combine the Seasteading Institute with the Methuselah Foundation and create a make-believe island where girls aren’t allowed to vote and where nobody ever has to grow up. Call it Neverland. It would be easy for libertarian refugees from the United States and the occasional neo-Confederate to find it. Second star to the right, and straight on till morning.

Emphasis added. Owen Thomas at Gawker jumped to about the same conclusion, but with even more ad hominem.

Yet Thiel’s claim is not that women should be denied the vote. He writes only that women have tended to favor policies and candidates he opposes, and which he thinks are bad for the country. This seems – to my mind at least – regrettable, but also generally true. Thiel might have chosen his words more carefully, but it’s still quite a logical leap from what he actually wrote to demanding the end of women’s suffrage. Of course women should be able to vote. It’s ridiculous to suggest otherwise. We libertarians just need to do a better job of convincing them that voting in favor of individual liberty and free markets are the best choices they can make.

Consider that a Democrat might complain that white evangelical Christians don’t support enough Democrats, and that this works out badly for the country. No one would ever conclude that Democrats want to take away the votes of white evangelical Christians. We would all figure that they are just confronting a failure of practical politics, and perhaps trying to do better at realizing their particular vision of the world. That’s what Thiel was doing too, albeit not via electoral politics. Something about libertarians, however, seems to demand that some people read us as uncharitably as possible.

Seasteading proposes to create a demonstration of how a libertarian society might work. Its proponents believe that if it works, everyone will be drawn to it, including women. Will they succeed? I have some serious doubts, to be honest.

That’s why I set up this issue of Cato Unbound, and why I think the discussion has been valuable.

The War in Afghanistan Is about to Turn Nastier

afghanistanWhile Iraq’s security situation has been improving–though the possibility of revived sectarian violence remains all too real–the conflict in Afghanistan has been worsening.  The challenge for allied (which means mostly American) forces is obvious, which is why the Obama Administration is sending more troops.

But the administration risks wrecking the entire enterprise by turning American forces into drug warriors.

Reports the New York Times:

American commanders are planning to cut off the Taliban’s main source of money, the country’s multimillion-dollar opium crop, by pouring thousands of troops into the three provinces that bankroll much of the group’s operations.

The plan to send 20,000 Marines and soldiers into Helmand, Kandahar and Zabul Provinces this summer promises weeks and perhaps months of heavy fighting, since American officers expect the Taliban to vigorously defend what makes up the economic engine for the insurgency. The additional troops, the centerpiece of President Obama’s effort to reverse the course of the seven-year war, will roughly double the number already in southern Afghanistan. The troops already fighting there are universally seen as overwhelmed. In many cases, the Americans will be pushing into areas where few or no troops have been before.

Through extortion and taxation, the Taliban are believed to reap as much as $300 million a year from Afghanistan’s opium trade, which now makes up 90 percent of the world’s total. That is enough, the Americans say, to sustain all of the Taliban’s military operations in southern Afghanistan for an entire year.

“Opium is their financial engine,” said Brig. Gen. John Nicholson, the deputy commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan. “That is why we think he will fight for these areas.”

The Americans say that their main goal this summer will be to provide security for the Afghan population, and thereby isolate the insurgents.

But because the opium is tilled in heavily populated areas, and because the Taliban are spread among the people, the Americans say they will have to break the group’s hold on poppy cultivation to be successful.

No one here thinks that is going to be easy.

Indeed.

The basic problem is that opium–and cannabis, of which Afghanistan is also the world’s largest producer–funds not only the Taliban, but also warlords who back the Karzai government and, most important, the Afghan people.  The common estimate is that drugs provide one-third of Afghanistan’s economic output and benefit a comparable proportion of the population.  Making war on opium inevitably means making war on the Afghan people.

As both Ted Galen Carpenter and I have been arguing, most recently in speeches to various World Affairs Councils, diverting military attention to the drug war risks the entire enterprise in Afghanistan.  Already some drug-running warlords have been refusing to give intelligence to allied commanders and are killing government anti-drug officials.  Broader popular sentiments also turn against the allies when they deprive farmers of their most remunerative livelihood.

Washington has no obvious long-term answer to the opium trade–only legalization/decriminalization would take the money out of illicit drug production, but American politicians refuse to admit the obvious.  In any case, the Obama administration should focus on the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.  Ultimately, we should emphasize a solution which safeguards America’s fundamental security objectives in Afghanistan, namely, which precludes any terrorist training camps and sanctuary for those who attack Americans.  Once we achieve these goals and bring American military personnel home, we can debate doing more about Afghanistan’s opium fields.

The Politics of Budget-Cutting

helicopterIn Washington, the symbolic almost always trumps the substantive.  Thus, legislators complain, for good reason, about pork and earmarks, which ran about $35 billion at their maximum, and ignore entitlements, which entail some $100 trillion in unfunded liabilities.

So it is with President Obama.  He continues the endless bailouts, which cumulatively now run around $13 trillion.  He proposed a $3.6 trillion budget and will leave us with a $1.4 trillion deficit next year–and nearly $5 trillion in additional debt on top of the massive deficits already projected over the coming decade.  But he asked his Cabinet officers to chop $100 million in administrative expenses.

And he says he doesn’t need a new helicopter.  Fiscal responsibility in action.

Alas, the helicopter, while costing billions, isn’t an easy budget target.

Reports the New York Times:

At a Washington conference on fiscal responsibility in February, President Obama tried to set the tone by saying he did not need the new costly presidential helicopters that had been ordered by the Bush administration.

“The helicopter I have now seems perfectly adequate to me,” he said to laughter. On a more serious note, he added, “I think it is an example of the procurement process gone amok. And we’re going to have to fix it.”

But the president is learning that in the world of defense contracting, frugality can be expensive. Some lawmakers and military experts warn that his effort to avoid wasting billions of dollars could end up doing just that.

The administration’s plan to halt the $13 billion helicopter program, announced this month, will leave the government with little to show for the $3.2 billion it has spent since the Bush administration set out to create a futuristic craft that could fend off terrorist attacks and resist the electromagnetic effects of a nuclear blast.

Critics say the Pentagon would also spend at least $200 million in termination fees and perhaps hundreds of millions to extend the life of today’s aging fleet. As a result, several influential lawmakers and defense analysts are now calling for a compromise that would salvage a simpler version of the helicopter that is already being tested.

They say it could be a more palatable alternative in tough economic times than seeking new bids for a more advanced craft, which has proved difficult to develop.

No wonder Washington is known as a place where everything about government is permanent.  Once you start spending money on a program, it becomes extremely hard to stop.  Part of that is the political dynamic of interest groups, the problem so well dissected by the Public Choice economists.  And part of it is legal and procedural.  Contracts are let, cancellation fees are due.  It’s bad to waste money on a gold-plated helicopter.  It seems even worse to waste money developing a gold-plated helicopter, and then getting nothing at all by canceling it.

There is, however, an amazingly simple solution, of which Congress and the president apparently are not aware.

Don’t spend the money in the first place.  Eschew new programs.  Say no to special interests.  Let taxpayers keep more of their own money.

This approach would seem to make sense at any time.  But especially today, with the federal government facing a deficit approaching $2 trillion in 2009.

Didn’t Nancy Reagan lecture us to “just say no”?  We should invite her back for a return tour of Washington, only she should talk about federal spending this time.

Blogging from the Supreme Court - NAMUDNO v. Holder

I write this from the Bar Members’ line waiting to be let into the Supreme Court courtroom for the final argument of the term.

Today the Court hears Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No.1 (“NAMUDNO”) v. Holder. This is a challenge to the controversial Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires, among other things, any change in election administration in certain states and counties to be “precleared” by the Department of Justice in Washington. This is, of course, a remnant of the Jim Crow era, and southern states’ massive resistance to attempts to enforce the 15th Amendment.

In 1965, Congress included Section 5 – which would otherwise be an unconstitutional infringement on peoples’ right to run their own elections locally – as a temporary remedy to an emergency situation. The section has been amended and extended several times (e.g., to add linguistic minorities, Pacific Islanders, etc.), most recently in 2006. But in this last renewal, Congress, despite introducing more than 15,000 pages into the record, failed to even allege the existence of the type of systemic voting discrimination as existed in the 1960s – because, of course, it doesn’t exist any more, and other parts of the VRA exist to cover specific discriminatory incidents.

Accordingly, a small utility district in Austin, Texas, contests Section 5’s continuing validity (if it cannot escape the section’s clutches via a confusing and little-used “bailout” provision). Specifically, NAMUDNO wants to change the location of its polling station to a public garage (from a less convenient location) – a move that obviously lacks discriminatory intent, and showcases the minutiae that the DOJ now has to micromanage.

Cato legal scholars support NAMUDNO’s challenge because, barring the widespread systemic unconstitutional actions of the Civil Rights Era, Section 5 violates our most basic principles of self-government and federalism, and is emblematic of governmental overreach.

New at Cato

Here are a few highlights from Cato Today, a daily email from the Cato Institute.

  • Dan Ikenson and Scott Lincicome argue in a new study that restoring the pro-trade consensus must be a top priority for the Obama administration.
  • In the DC Examiner, Gene Healy discusses Obama’s first 100 days and argues that he’s massively expanded the power of government in a short period of time.
  • In the Asia Times Online, David Isenberg discusses private security contractors in the war in Iraq.
  • Watch Patrick J. Michaels discuss energy on CNBC.
  • In Tuesday’s Cato Daily Podcast, Peter Van Doren discusses the interaction between Congress and regulators on the issue of food safety.
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