Archives: 11/2009

Who Reads the Readers?

This is a reminder, citizen: Only cranks worry about vastly increased governmental power to gather transactional data about Americans’ online behavior. Why, just last week, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) informed us that there has not been any “demonstrated or recent abuse” of such authority by means of National Security Letters, which permit the FBI to obtain many telecommunications records without court order. I mean, the last Inspector General report finding widespread and systemic abuse of those came out, like, over a year ago! And as defenders of expanded NSL powers often remind us, similar records can often be obtained by grand jury subpoena.

Subpoenas like, for instance, the one issued last year seeking the complete traffic logs of the left-wing site Indymedia for a particular day. According to tech journo Declan McCullah:

It instructed [System administrator Kristina] Clair to “include IP addresses, times, and any other identifying information,” including e-mail addresses, physical addresses, registered accounts, and Indymedia readers’ Social Security Numbers, bank account numbers, credit card numbers, and so on.

The sweeping request came with a gag order prohibiting Clair from talking about it. (As a constitutional matter, courts have found that recipients of such orders must at least be allowed to discuss them with attorneys in order to seek advise about their legality, but the subpoena contained no notice of that fact.) Justice Department officials tell McCullagh that the request was never reviewed directly by the Attorney General, as is normally required when information is sought from a press organization. Clair did tell attorneys at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and  when they wrote to U.S. Attorney Timothy Morrison questioning the propriety of the request, it was promptly withdrawn. EFF’s Kevin Bankston explains the legal problems with the subpoena at length.

Perhaps ironically, the targeting of Indymedia, which is about as far left as news sites get, may finally hep the populist right to the perils of the burgeoning surveillance state. It seems to have piqued Glenn Beck’s interest, and McCullagh went on Lou Dobbs’ show to talk about the story. Thus far, the approved conservative position appears to have been that Barack Obama is some kind of ruthless Stalinist with a secret plan to turn the United States into a massive gulag—but under no circumstances should there be any additional checks on his administration’s domestic spying powers.  This always struck me as both incoherent and a tragic waste of paranoia. Now that we’ve had a rather public reminder that such powers can be used to compile databases of people with politically unorthodox browsing habits, perhaps Beck—who seems to be something of an amateur historian—will take some time to delve into the story of COINTELPRO and other related projects our intelligence community busied itself with before we established an architecture of surveillance oversight in the late ’70s.

You know, the one we’ve spent the past eight years dismantling.

ObamaCare’s ‘Sweetheart Deal’ for PhRMA

The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn reports that back in March, IMS Health projected slightly negative revenue growth for the pharmaceutical industry but recently changed that projection to 3.5-percent annual growth from 2008 through 2013.

“What changed?” Cohn asks. “A major factor, according to IMS, was the emerging details of health care reform … Put it all together, and you have more demand for name-brand drugs … enough to boost revenue significantly.” And:

“If this bill is implemented,” the report concludes on page 138, “an increase in prices on new drugs can be expected.”

How could this be happening?  Oh yeah:

That brings us back to the deal that the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America, which represents those companies, made with the White House and Senate Finance Committee …

The industry agreed to embrace health care reform and, later on, launched a massive advertising campaign to promote the cause. In exchange, the White House and Senate Finance–which had been asking various industries to pledge concessions that would help pay for the cost of coverage expansions–promised not to seek more than $80 in reduced payments to drug makers.

To an industry as big and profitable as the drug makers, giving up $80 billion over ten years wouldn’t seem like much of a sacrifice–a point critics started making right away. But if IMS is right, the drug industry wouldn’t even be giving up $80 billion, in any meaningful sense of the term. If anything, it’d be making more money. Maybe quite a lot of it.

Which is what I predicted, both here and here.

Cohn concludes, “the drug industry has enormous leverage in Congress.” But Cohn still supports the president’s health care takeover. Or is it PhRMA’s health care takeover?

The Other Side Plays Dirty

On the day that we honor veterans for defending our freedom, I read this:

Community groups and Los Angeles Unified officials on Tuesday condemned an anonymous flyer handed to Latino parents that threatened them with deportation if they supported plans to convert their neighborhood school to a charter.

Calling it an escalation in a series of “scare tactics,” district officials and community advocates said distribution of the flyer was timed to weaken one of LAUSD’s boldest efforts to reform public education in Los Angeles.

A generation or two from now, when children are studying how school choice began to spread throughout America, they will read of such incidents and marvel at the depths to which opponents sunk.

If you’re a policymaker or opinion leader, on which side of that history will you want your name to appear?

Imports Wrongly Blamed for Unemployment

Import competition can throw Americans out of work. Even advocates of free trade like me will readily acknowledge that fact. And nobody needs to remind the people of Hickory, North Carolina.

On the front page of the Washington Post this morning, under the headline, “In N.C., damage not easily mended: Globalization drives unemployment to 15% in one corner of state,” the paper reports in detail how the people of that community are struggling to adjust to a more open U.S. economy:

The region has lost more of its jobs to international competition than just about anywhere else in the nation, according to federal trade-assistance statistics, as textile mills have closed, furniture factories have dwindled and even the fiber-optic plants have undergone mass layoffs. The unemployment rate is one of the highest in the nation–about 15 percent.

Nobody wants to lose their job involuntarily, but a story like this needs to be read in perspective. As I document in my new Cato book Mad about Trade, the large majority of Americans who lose their jobs each year are not displaced by trade. Technology is the great job disruptor, but Americans also lose their jobs because of domestic competition, changing consumer tastes, and recessions.

For every person who loses their job because of globalization, I estimate there are 30 who have lost their jobs for other reasons. I’m waiting for a front-page story on all the newspaper workers who have lost their jobs because of the Internet, or the 30,000 workers laid off by Kodak in the past 5 years because of the spread of digital cameras and plunging film sales, or the book stores and record stores that have shut down and laid off workers because of Amazon.com and iTunes.

Trade is not a cause of higher unemployment nationwide, either, as the Post story seems to imply. Imports have fallen sharply during the latest recession along with the trade deficit. In contrast, imports were rising at double-digit rates when the unemployment rate was below 5 percent. Like technology, trade can put people out of work, but it also creates new and generally better paying opportunities for employment, while raising our overall standard of living.

Our ‘Reassured’ Allies

Justin Logan beat me to the punch, but Robert Kagan and Dan Blumenthal’s op-ed in the Washington Post warrants more than just one comment. Kagan and Blumenthal fret that the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic reassurance” is sure to fail. Aimed at encouraging Russia and China, especially, to cooperate with the United States in dealing with a number of common threats, the two predict that the policy will succeed only in making “American allies nervous.”

Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Not that we should go around making our allies nervous just for the heck of it, but I worry that our allies have grown, well, too comfortable with the current state of affairs in which American taxpayers and American troops bear a disproportionate share of the costs of securing global peace and prosperity.

And who can blame them? From the perspective of our allies in East Asia (chiefly the Japanese and the South Koreans), and for the Europeans tucked safely within NATO, getting the Americans to pay the costs, and assume the risks, associated with policing the world is a pretty good gig.

The same Robert Kagan made this point explicitly, if somewhat crudely, in his book Of Paradise and Power, when he cast the United States in the heroic role as sheriff, while our wealthy allies were portrayed as cowardly, sniveling townspeople, or, worse, saloon keepers who benefited from the protection of the Americans while selling booze to the bad guys.

foto_high_noon_gary_cooper

For at least two decades, we have adopted a strategy designed to comfort our allies. Our goal has been to discourage them from taking prudent steps to defend themselves. Many Americans are beginning to appreciate just how short-sighted this policy was, and is. Such military capabilities might have proved useful in Afghanistan, for example, and they might ultimately serve a purpose in checking Russian and Chinese ambitions, which would be particularly important if these two countries prove as aggressive as Kagan and Blumenthal claim.

Instead, we have a group of militarily weak and comfortable allies who spend a fraction of what Americans spend on defense, and who can muster political will with respect to foreign policy only when it entails criticizing the United States for not doing enough. In other words, we are reaping what we sowed.

But don’t take my word for it. Vassilis Kaskarelis, the Greek ambassador to the United States, bluntly explained the disconnect between what we want our allies to do, and what they are willing to do. As reported by the Washington Times:

NATO members’ reluctance to assume a larger role in Afghanistan is partly the legacy of U.S. military protection, which allowed Europeans to stress social programs over defense for decades, the Greek ambassador to the United States said.

“For 40 years, you have a system [of] not bothering about military, security and stability expenses,” [Mr.] Kaskarelis told editors and reporters of The Washington Times. “Because these issues were handled by the United States after World War II … everybody was happy.”

[…]

Mr. Kaskarelis said…that most European governments support the war in Afghanistan but lack the military infrastructure to contribute as equal partners.

“They don’t have the capabilities, because in the last 50 years, the U.S. offered an umbrella in terms of military, security and stability,” he said. “You had the phenomenon [in which] most of the successful European economies – countries like France, Germany, the Scandinavians – channeled all the funds they had on social issues, health care, pensions, you name it.”

Mr. Kaskarelis noted that this system grew out of the wreckage of World War II and that without U.S. aid, his own country “wouldn’t exist today” as an independent, democratic state. But to readjust is difficult, he said.

“Can you imagine how a government can sell such … an idea to its general public without having a revolution? They cover the expense of the hospital, but to say, ‘We won’t cover 100 percent of your medical expenses, we will start covering 80 percent, because the other 20 percent [will be used] to upgrade our military capabilities to be used in NATO and Afghanistan. Can you imagine this?”

(H/T Charles Zakaib)

Actually, I can “imagine” a time when other countries are responsible for their own defense. Indeed, I wrote a book on the subject. Maybe I’ll send Amb. Kaskarelis a copy? And while I’m at it, perhaps Messrs. Kagan and Blumenthal should get one too?

Should We Simultaneously Make China More Powerful and Try to Contain It?

PLARobert Kagan and AEI’s Daniel Blumenthal have an op-ed in today’s Post criticizing President Obama’s policy on China.  It contains the odd dualism in neoconservatism whereby neocons endorse contradictory assumptions about international politics, putting a logical inconsistency at the center of their argument.

First, Kagan and Blumenthal write that “China is behaving exactly as one would expect a great power to behave.  As it has grown richer, China has used its wealth to build a stronger and more capable military.  As its military power has grown, so have its ambitions.”

Then, however, Kagan and Blumenthal seem to endorse U.S. China policy over the past 30 years:

For decades, U.S. strategy toward China has had two complementary elements. The first was to bring China into the “family of nations” through engagement. The second was to make sure China did not become too dominant, through balancing…The strategy has been to give China a greater stake in peace, while maintaining a balance of power in the region favorable to democratic allies and American interests.

Except these two elements aren’t complementary at all.  If the authors think that a wealthier China is naturally going to get more ambitious and more capable, and that these developments are contrary to U.S. interests, why would the authors endorse engagement, which has helped make China more wealthy?  (Their language is imprecise, so it’s possible they do not.)

John Mearsheimer recognized this logical implication, and therefore in drawing up his theory of offensive realism wrote that “the United States has a profound interest in seeing Chinese economic growth slow considerably in the years ahead.”  (This constitutes an example why Mearsheimer refers to the “tragedy of great power politics.”)  There are not a lot of people making this argument openly, and there are a lot of people who’ve offered criticisms of it, but if you want to contain China, you really have to make it unless you resort to some very cute argumentation.

Instead of facing up to the contradiction, Washington has opted for cute argumentation, conceptualizing its China policy as “congagement,” that is, part containment and part engagement.  This strategy involves making China richer and militarily more powerful, while hoping that the Seymour Martin Lipset story about economic growth facilitating the development of democracy comes true in China, and then the democratic peace is supposed to kick in, ensuring that we won’t go to war with China.  To my mind, this is a very tenuous set of arguments: ultimately, I don’t think there’s much evidence we’re willing to grant China something like its own version of the Monroe Doctrine in East Asia, but at the same time we’re helping it get to a point where it’s more likely–and more capable–of pursuing this kind of influence.

I criticized this argument back in 2006 [.pdf] in The American Conservative, if anyone has interest.  It would be good to hear more China hawks spell out their logic on this stuff, because the longer it goes unscrutinized, the more worrisome the implications of flouting the contradiction become.

Prosecutorial Immunity

Last week the Supreme Court heard the case of Pottawattamie v. McGhee. The gist is whether prosecutors who fabricate evidence against persons accused of crime can be sued and held liable for money damages, or whether they are immune from suit.  The Crime & Federalism blog reports on the back-and-forth at oral argument in a post entitled “Prosecutors should feel the chill.”

Cato filed an amicus brief in the case.  A ruling is expected by the Supreme Court by June.