Archives: December, 2009

Let Us Hope (and Pray) for Peace

There is something immensely moving about young men and women willing to sacrifice their lives for their country.  Indeed, patriotism mixed with a desire for action can be a fearsome thing.  This combination was on display at West Point after President Barack Obama’s speech on Afghanistan.

The Washington Post reported on a phone call between Academy professor Mike Meese and his son, an Academy sophomore:

Said Col. Mike Meese, chairman of West Point’s social studies department: “There has been an incredible intensity here ever since 9/11. The cadets have a strong belief that this is the defining struggle of their lifetime. Every one of them elected to come here because they want to be a part of it.”

Not long after the speech, Meese received a call from his son, Brian, in his second year at West Point, who watched Obama from the second-to-back row with a solemn face. Brian had spoken with his friends on the walk back from the auditorium to their barracks, and none of them could stop obsessing over one number Obama had highlighted in his speech: 18 months. The deployment of 30,000 additional troops was something they had expected – it was the future for which they had prepared. But why had Obama so forcefully emphasized that he would begin a drawdown of troops in 18 months? What if the war was over by the time they graduated?

Brian Meese, the latest aspiring officer in a family with three generations of service, had prepared to fight in a war ever since he was 12. He had accompanied his father to almost a dozen military funerals, and each one strengthened his resolve. At West Point, he studied Arabic instead of Spanish, judging it more practical for a soldier destined for the Middle East.

“Now I might not get to go,” Brian told his father over the phone this week, his voice betraying disappointment.

“I think you will still have your chance,” his father said. “All of the evil in the world is not going to be defeated by the summer of 2011.”

“You’re taking care of Iraq. You’re taking care of Afghanistan,” Brian told his father. “What’s going to be left for me?”

I can’t help but admire Brian Meese’s desire “to go,” almost irrespective of circumstances. I see the same desire in my nephew, who is currently training to be a SEAL.

Yet war always should be a last resort, a horrid necessity to protect life and liberty within civilian society.  The latter may seem boring in a sense, but it embodies the highest values, the ones for which we sometimes must risk everything.  Thus, we should hope and pray that there won’t be anything “left for” Brian Meese to do in the Army.  Although war can showcase the sublimest of values, such as heroism and self-sacrifice, it more often serves the worst of humanity, spreading death and destruction with wild abandon.

Alas, Mike Meese undoubtedly will be proved right.  There is more than enough evil to go around.  Indeed, there is no reason to believe that evil will ever disappear.  Which is a good reason why the objective of the U.S. government should not be to combat evil, but to protect the lives and freedoms of the American people.  Only the latter goal is realistic, let alone consistent with the principles of individual liberty and limited government.   Unfortunately, the president’s plan to expand America’s military role in Afghanistan seems more directed at the former.

But until the lion lies down with the lamb, the world will remain a dangerous place.  Which means we will continue to need the services of brave young men and women like Brian Meese and my nephew.  I can only hope that when their time for action comes (as seems certain, given present policies), they will be better served by their political leaders than have been so many equally brave American military personnel in the past.

Korea’s New ‘Berlin Wall’

Between 1961 and 1989 East Germany distinguished itself by routinely killing people seeking freedom.  Roughly one thousand people died trying to get over the Berlin Wall and similar barriers along the rest of the border between the two Germanies.

North Korea is following suit.  With anger apparently running high after a currency swap seemingly designed to seize what little wealth people had accumulated privately, the government of Kim Jong-il has instructed its border guards to shoot anyone attempting to flee what amounts to one giant prison camp.

Reports the Associated Press:

North Korea has ordered its border guards to open fire on anyone who crosses its border without permission, in what could be an attempt to thwart defections by people disgruntled over its recent currency reform, a news report said Saturday.

The National Defense Commission — the top government body headed by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il — recently instructed soldiers to kill unauthorized border crossers on the spot, South Korea’s mass-circulation Chosun Ilbo newspaper said, citing unidentified sources inside the North.

It said the order could be an attempt by the communist government to stop members of North Korea’s middle class who are angry over suddenly being deprived of their money from leaving the country.

This horrid system can’t end soon enough.

Never a Recession in Washington

For those of you worried about starving bureaucrats, politicians, and consultants clogging the streets of Washington, D.C., don’t be.  Everything is fine here!  In fact, there’s more money than ever to spend.

Reports the Washington Post:

As struggling communities throughout the country wait for more help from the $787 billion stimulus package, one region is already basking in its largess: the government-contractor nexus that is metropolitan Washington.

Reports from stimulus recipients show that a sizable sum has gone to federal contractors in the Washington area who are helping implement the initiative – in effect, they are being paid a hefty slice of the money to help spend the rest of it.

The contractors’ work hardly differs from the basic operations of the federal departments hiring them. The Energy Department is paying Technology & Management Services, a Gaithersburg firm, $6.9 million to review applications for renewable energy loan guarantees. The Department of Homeland Security awarded Deloitte Consulting’s Arlington branch $8.6 million to provide “program management and support” for the stimulus plan’s $1 billion airport security initiative, and gave McKing Consulting, a Fairfax firm, a $1.5 million contract to review applications for fire department construction funding.

Held against the total stimulus package, the contracts represent a relatively small portion of spending. But they help explain why the Washington area is weathering the recession so well.

It’d sure be a tragedy if the people doing so much to wreck the economy and deprive us of our liberty suffered as a result.  But no worries.  Washington is truly recession proof!

Of Course Defense Analysts Are Biased

Nathan Hodge of Danger Room deserves credit for saying something uncouth: defense analysts may be biased by the money they raise from defense contractors or access they get from generals.  Recognizing that he’s in a minefield, Hodge treads lightly, insisting that he’s not “suggesting that there’s any funny business” even though that seems to be the point. Fair enough; the guy has to get his phone calls returned. Matt Yglesias follows up, pointing out that these pressures inflate support for militarized foreign policy.

My first reaction was that this is obvious. A little reflection should tell you that anyone who has to raise money to pay his salary fits Bob Dylan’s rule: you gotta serve somebody. And most somebodies in the defense world are parts of the national security bureaucracy or its paid help. Observation demonstrates the theory. But on second thought, maybe it’s not so obvious. Life is full of truths that go unstated and therefore under-appreciated because they are impolite. The fact that the emperor has no clothes is not obvious to everyone until someone has the chutzpah to say so.

Funds and access aren’t the only things that encourage defense analysts to support hawkish foreign policy decisions. I would add social pressure and jobs. The hawkish consensus in DC is reinforced by social convention. Put a guy from Berkeley in Washington, and I bet his social milieu alone would drive his stated views right. Political ambition is even more important. High-level foreign policy jobs in both parties go to those within the establishment consensus. Smart, ambitious people know that. It affects their stated views early.

What irritates me about this situation is not that analysts aren’t truly independent, it is that so many insist that they are. No politics here, they say, just us technocrats. Why not just admit it? Think tanks are political, especially when they take government money. That limits what you can say.

Here’s an essay (pdf) I wrote in 2007 about why we have a precautionary foreign policy. It includes a brief section, starting on page 38, about the biases that nominally independent analysts feel.

Anyone interested in how politics infects political analysis should read Hans Morgenthau’s essay, “The Purpose of Political Science.”

This Week in Government Failure

Over at Downsizing Government, we focused on the following issues this week:

State and Local Corruption

There has long been an unhealthy partnership between Wall Street and state and local governments. Governments use Wall Street to sell their bonds and to invest their worker pension plan money. Corruption takes the form of “pay to play” schemes whereby Wall Street firms bribe public officials in order to get a slice of the government’s financial business.

The Wall Street Journal today [$] summarizes alleged corruption surrounding former New York State Comptroller Alen Hevesi:

California money manager Elliott Broidy on Thursday admitted to making nearly $1 million in gifts to benefit four former top officials in the office that oversees New York state’s pension fund, including onetime state comptroller Alan Hevesi.

…New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo on Thursday said Mr. Broidy acknowledged that he paid at least $75,000 for first-class airfare, luxury hotel suites, a helicopter tour, a car and driver and a security detail on foreign trips. Those trips included a high-ranking official of the comptroller’s office and sometimes the official’s relatives, Mr. Cuomo said. …Mr. Broidy also tried to conceal the money he spent on the trips abroad with Mr. Hevesi and Mr. Hevesi’s relatives, Mr. Cuomo’s office said.

…Mr. Cuomo’s multiyear probe into the $116.5 billion pension fund has focused on whether decisions about how to invest retirees’ money were wrongly influenced by bribes and politics. Until now, charges have largely focused on the role of placement agents, or financial middlemen that help money managers obtain contracts to manage pension investments. But Mr. Cuomo said Mr. Broidy’s payoffs to benefit state officials were less complicated. “This is an old-fashioned case of payoff to state officials,” Mr. Cuomo said. “This case is effectively bribery.”

…Connections between Messrs. Hevesi and Broidy date back to earlier this decade, records show. A prominent political fund-raiser, the Los Angeles-based Mr. Broidy and his family donated $83,400 to Mr. Hevesi’s campaigns since 2002.

Meanwhile, the New York state pension made $250 million in investments with Mr. Broidy’s firm, Markstone Capital Group LLC. The state’s initial $200 million investment in Markstone was approved in 2003. The move made New York state the largest investor in the fledgling Markstone fund, which focuses on Israeli companies.

This sort of stuff is sickening. But fortunately there is an easy solution to these problems: cap state and local government debt at very low levels and eliminate state and local defined-benefit pension plans.

Regarding the first point, state and local debt has exploded over the last decade. The insatiable thirst for spending by politicians has greatly enriched Wall Street. But I’ve argued that governments ought to mainly finance their capital investments on a pay-as-you-go basis – in other words, out of current revenues. We don’t need a giant muni-bond business and all the problems that go with it.

Regarding the second point, state and local governments should ditch their defined-benefit pension plans and instead offer all new hires defined-contribution plans. That would drain the swamp, the vast pools of cash that government pension funds currently control. After all, many state and local governments have shown that they are incapable of running pension plans with any degree of prudence. A recent academic study estimated that state and local pension funds are underfunded (or overpromised) by an astounding $3 trillion.

The ‘Honest Services’ Law

Next week the Supreme Court will be hearing two criminal cases involving the controversial “honest services” law that has been used by federal prosecutors in recent years to police ethics in government and business.  By focusing attention on the (sometimes)  shady dealings of their targets, federal prosecutors have been able to deflect attention away their own actions, at least with regard to this statute.  No longer. 

We have a preview of next week’s Supreme Court argument because Justice Scalia filed an opinion in February lamenting the fact that the Court had just declined to hear an appeal involving the honest services statute.  Here is an excerpt from Scalia’s opinion:

It is practically gospel in the lower courts that the statute “does not encompass every instance of official misconduct,” United States v. Sawyer, 85 F. 3d 713, 725 (CA1 1996). The Tenth Circuit has confidently proclaimed that the statute is “not violated by every breach of contract, breach of duty, conflict of interest, or misstatement made in the course of dealing,” United States v. Welch, 327 F. 3d 1081, 1107 (CA10 2003). But why that is so, and what principle it is that separates the criminal breaches, conflicts and misstatements from the obnoxious but lawful ones, remains entirely unspecified. Without some coherent limiting principle to define what “the intangible right of honest services” is, whence it derives, and how it is violated, this expansive phrase invites abuse by headline-grabbing prosecutors in pursuit of local officials, state legislators, and corporate CEOs who engage in any manner of unappealing or ethically questionable conduct.

Is it the role of the Federal Government to define the fiduciary duties that a town alderman or school board trustee owes to his constituents? It is one thing to enact and enforce clear rules against certain types of corrupt behavior, e.g., 18 U. S. C. §666(a) (bribes and gratuities to public officials), but quite another to mandate a freestanding, open-ended duty to provide”honest services” — with the details to be worked out case by-case.

Read the whole thing (pdf).  A few weeks after Scalia filed this opinion, the Court evidently reconsidered and accepted several appeals involving the honest services law.  

For additional information, here is a podcast interview and an article I prepared for the Washington Legal Foundation.  For more detailed info on the cases before the Supreme Court, go to SCOTUS blog

For info on trends in the criminal law more generally, go here, here, and here.