Archives: 03/2010

RIP Michael Foot, a Socialist Who Understood What Socialism Was

“Michael Foot, a bookish intellectual and anti-nuclear campaigner who led Britain’s Labour Party to a disastrous defeat in 1983, died [March 3],” reported the Associated Press. He was 96.

Foot personified the socialist tendency in the Labour Party, which Tony Blair successfully erased when he won power at the head of a business-friendly, interventionist “New Labour.” Yet Foot remained a respected, even revered, figure.

“Michael Foot was a giant of the Labour movement, a man of passion, principle and outstanding commitment to the many causes he fought for,” Blair said Wednesday. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Blair’s partner in creating “New Labour,” praised Foot as a “genuine British radical” and a “man of deep principle and passionate idealism.”

Michael Foot may have been the most serious intellectual ever to head a major Western political party. He wrote biographies of Labour politicians Aneurin Bevan and Harold Wilson, and of H.G. Wells, and a 1988 book on Lord Byron, “The Politics of Paradise,” and he edited the “Thomas Paine Reader” in 1987. So when you asked Michael Foot what socialism was, you could expect a deeply informed answer. And that’s what the Washington Post got in 1982, when they asked the Labour Party leader for an example of socialism in practice that could “serve as a model of the Britain you envision.” Foot replied,

The best example that I’ve seen of democratic socialism operating in this country was during the second world war.  Then we ran Britain highly efficiently, got everybody a job… . The conscription of labor was only a very small element of it.  It was a democratic society with a common aim.

Wow. Michael Foot, the great socialist intellectual, a giant of the Labour movement, a man of deep principle and passionate idealism, thought that the best example ever seen of “democratic socialism” was a society organized for total war.

And he wasn’t the only one. The American socialist Michael Harrington wrote, “World War I showed that, despite the claims of free-enterprise ideologues, government could organize the economy effectively.” He hailed World War II as having “justified a truly massive mobilization of otherwise wasted human and material resources” and complained that the War Production Board was “a success the United States was determined to forget as quickly as possible.” He went on, “During World War II, there was probably more of an increase in social justice than at any [other] time in American history. Wage and price controls were used to try to cut the differentials between the social classes… . There was also a powerful moral incentive to spur workers on: patriotism.”

Collectivists such as Foot and Harrington don’t relish the killing involved in war, but they love war’s domestic effects: centralization and the growth of government power. They know, as did the libertarian writer Randolph Bourne, that “war is the health of the state”—hence the endless search for a moral equivalent of war.

As Don Lavoie demonstrated in his book National Economic Planning: What Is Left?, modern concepts of economic planning—including “industrial policy” and other euphemisms—stem from the experiences of Germany, Great Britain, and the United States in planning their economies during World War I. The power of the central governments grew dramatically during that war and during World War II, and collectivists have pined for the glory days of the War Industries Board and the War Production Board ever since.

Walter Lippmann was an early critic of the collectivists’ fascination with war planning. He wrote, “A close analysis of its theory and direct observation of its practice will disclose that all collectivism… is military in method, in purpose, in spirit, and can be nothing else.” Lippman went on to explain why war—or a moral equivalent—is so congenial to collectivism:

Under the system of centralized control without constitutional checks and balances, the war spirit identifies dissent with treason, the pursuit of private happiness with slackerism and sabotage, and, on the other side, obedience with discipline, conformity with patriotism. Thus at one stroke war extinguishes the difficulties of planning, cutting out from under the individual any moral ground as well as any lawful ground on which he might resist the execution of the official plan.

National service, national industrial policy, national energy policy—all have the same essence, collectivism, and the same model, war. War is sometimes, regrettably, necessary. But why would anyone want its moral equivalent?

Is Europe Irrelevant?

Paul Starobin at the National Journal’s Security Experts Blog has kicked off a spirited debate surrounding Europe’s military capabilities (or lack thereof). The jumping off point in the discussion is Robert Gates’s speech to NATO officers last month, in which Gates lamented that:

“The demilitarization of Europe – where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it – has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st.” [Justin Logan blogged about this here.]

Starobin asks: “Can America Count On Europe Anymore?”

Is Gates right? What exactly does “the demilitarization of Europe” mean for U.S. national security interests? Should Americans care if Europe has to live in the shadow of a militarily superior post-Soviet Russia? Is NATO, alas, a lost cause?

[…]

In short, should the U.S. be planning for a post-Europe world? Does Europe still matter? Can we count on Europe any more?

My response:

It would be unwise for Americans to write off Europeans as a lost cause, congenitally dependent upon U.S. military power, and unable to contribute either to their own defense or to policing the global commons. We can’t count on Europe – right now – but that doesn’t mean we can never count on Europe in the future.

Americans who complain about Europe’s unwillingness to play a larger role in policing the globe, and who would like them to do more, should start by exploring the many reasons why Europe is so weak militarily.

Consider, for example, Europe’s half-hearted and inconsistent steps to establish a security capacity independent of NATO – and therefore independent of the United States – since the end of the Cold War. Such proposals have failed for many reasons, but we shouldn’t ignore the extent to which Uncle Sam has actively discouraged Europe from playing a more active role. Most recently, Hillary Clinton expressed the U.S. government’s position that political and economic integration would proceed under the EU, but security would continue to be provided by NATO. This echoes similar comments made by the first Bush and Clinton administrations with respect to European defense. (See, for example, Madeleine Albright’s comments regarding European Defence and Security Policy (EDSP) in 1998).

We can dismiss such comments as useful cover for Europeans who were looking for an excuse to cut military spending in the first place. The demographic pressures of an aging population consuming a larger share of public resources are being felt in many advanced economies, but are particularly acute in Europe.

But the problem goes well beyond the fiscal pressures associated with maintaining an adequate defense. Washington has been openly hostile to any resurgence of military power in European, no matter how unlikely that might be, on the basis of what political scientists call hegemonic stability theory. That theory holds that it is better for security to be provided by a single global power than by regional players dealing chiefly with security challenges in their respective neighborhoods. The argument is that such self-sufficiency is dangerous, that it can lead to arms races, regional instability, and even wars. One can think this a smart philosophy or a dumb one, but we can’t ignore that it has guided U.S. foreign policy at least since the end of the Cold War.

It could be argued that the costs to the United States of providing such services for the rest of the world are modest, but that is ultimately a judgment call. To be sure, the dollar costs will not bankrupt us as a nation, but Americans spend $2,700 per person on our military, while the average European spends less than $700. The bottom line is that Europeans have little incentive to spend more because they don’t feel particularly threatened, and they aren’t anxious to take on responsibilities that are ably handled by the United States. The advocates of hegemonic stability theory would declare that a feature, not a bug. Mission accomplished.

And that might be true, if the greatest threat to global security were a resurgence of conflict in Europe, and if it is truly in the U.S. interest to forever have allies with few capabilities and many liabilities. But that seems extremely shortsighted. The sweeping political and economic integration in Europe has dramatically reduced the likelihood of another European war. In the meantime, the fact that we have many allies with little to offer by way of military assets, and even less political will to actually use them, is forcing the U.S. military to bear the disproportionate share of the burdens of policing the planet. And in the medium- to long-term, while I doubt that we will be facing “a militarily superior, post-Soviet Russia,” allies with usable military power might ultimately serve a purpose if Moscow proves as aggressive (and capable) as the hawks claim.

In short, Secretary Gates’s comments last month suggest that he has stumbled upon the realization that being the world’s sole superpower has its disadvantages. This by itself would be a significant shift of U.S. policy, and therefore drew favorable comments by others who welcome such a change. (See, for example, Logan, Steve Walt, and Sean Kay.)

Getting Europeans to take a more active role – even in their own backyard – will be difficult, but not impossible. It starts with blunt talk about the need to take responsibility and to assume a fair share of the burdens of policing the global commons. But we’ve heard such comments before. What is also needed is greater restraint by Washington, behavior that over time will force the Europeans to play a more active role.

National Standards Coming Soon?

After months of delay, the Common Core State Standards Initiative will soon release draft, grade-by-grade, national curricular standards. According to the CCSSI website, the draft standards will be out this month.

Why the wait? The drafting process has been pretty opaque so outside observers can’t know for certain, but the scuttlebutt is that drafters just haven’t been able to agree on what the standards should contain.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone. As Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby explains in a terrific new piece – which draws on my new national-standards analysis – getting very diverse people to agree on a single standard is extremely difficult, especially if the standard is going to be something other than lowest-common-denominator. It’s one of many reasons that having national standards might sound great in the abstract, but is far from fab in reality.

Hopefully, when the draft standards are finally released we will be hearing a lot more about the reasons, most of which are in my report, that national standards can’t possibly live up to the billing supporters give them. If not, our nation and our children will suffer for it.

“I would like to see a higher percentage of children educated in the state sector” —?

The mystery man quoted in the title is none other than David Cameron, head of the British Conservative party.

It isn’t that Cameron likes the ineffeciency, social conflict, and unresponsiveness to parents that often characterize state schooling. It’s that he ”would like to see… choice and autonomy and diversity in the state sector.”

I would like to see winged-gazelles, sunny winters in Seattle, and a brilliant remake of The Thin Man series.

We’ll both be waiting a good long time.

Surely the Conservative party has a competent economist who could explain to Mr. Cameron why state schools tend to lack the features we take for granted in the free enterprise sector, and that by nationalizing more of Britain’s independent schools he would simply shrink the number that enjoy the freedoms and incentives responsible for efficiency, diversity, and responsiveness to families.

Exum’s Perplexing Non-Response

Last week I wrote a blog post criticizing Andrew Exum’s views on the philosophy of science.  In fact, I was surprised to see that a doctoral candidate at King’s College held these views at all.

Andrew Exum

Today Exum posts a perplexing non-response, forswearing any interest in getting involved in the debate…that he brought up in his first post.  Instead, he accuses his critics of getting their “proverbial panties in a twist” and posts a response from a reader that doesn’t defend the views Exum expressed in his first post.

I’m not quite sure what to say, other than that this isn’t much of a response.  Note, though, that he obliquely makes the same argument he made last week, criticizing Dan Drezner’s “willingness to hold forth on the peoples and politics of the Arabic-speaking world and Iran without any time spent in the region or training in its languages.”

Richard Pipes made a similar argument when he argued that despite his lack of expertise in nuclear weapons or security studies he was qualified to lead the Team B project because of his “deep knowledge of the Russian soul.”  And we all remember how that turned out.

Even Unpopular Causes Get Full First Amendment Protection

Under Washington’s constitution, a popular vote must be ordered on any bill passed by the legislature if a specified percentage of state voters sign a petition for a referendum. Washington’s Public Records Act makes public records, including such referendum petitions, available for public inspection. In 2009, opponents of same-sex marriage used the referendum procedure to attempt to reverse a state law which expands the rights of state-registered domestic partners. Proponents of the law sought access to the petition and two of the petition signers sought a preliminary injunction to prevent disclosure of their personal information, arguing that the PRA violates their right to speak anonymously.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the right to access trumps the right to anonymity. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether the First Amendment right to privacy in political speech, association, and belief requires strict scrutiny when a state compels the public release of identifying information about petition signers, and whether compelled disclosure of such information is narrowly tailored to a compelling government interest.

Cato filed a brief supporting the petition signers, in which we argue that the Court should establish a bright-line rule prohibiting laws that mandate the full disclosure of petition signers’ identities and contact information. Public disclosure carries significant burdens and unconstitutionally chills the exercise of First Amendment rights when no compelling government interest is at stake.

If the Court finds that the state has a compelling interest in public disclosure, disclosure exemptions are constitutionally required. Failure to require exemptions would permit the government to suppress the expression of offensive or unpopular ideas and would discourage individuals from associating in the first place.

Finally, our brief argues that even exemptions are not a substitute for strict scrutiny and provide inadequate protection where disclosure is not justified by compelling state interests. Exemption rules still chill speech, by their nature as an ad hoc process without fixed standards; the government is ill-suited to identify which groups should be exempt from disclosure, as is evidenced by their poor track record of erroneously suppressing controversial or unpopular speech.

The case, Doe v. Reed, will be argued in April.

Real World Evidence for the Laffer Curve from the Government of Washington, DC

President Obama is proposing a series of major tax increases. His budget envisions higher tax rates on personal income, increased double taxation of dividends and capital gains, and a big increase in the death tax. And his health care plan includes significant tax hikes, including perhaps the imposition of the Medicare payroll tax on capital income – thus exacerbating the tax code’s bias against saving and investment. It is unclear why the White House is pursuing these punitive policies. The President said during the 2008 campaign that he favored soak-the-rich taxes even if they did not raise revenue, but his budget predicts the proposals will raise lots of money.

Because of the Laffer Curve, it is highly unlikely that all of this additional revenue will materialize if the President’s budget is approved. The core insight of the Laffer Curve is not that all tax increases lose money and that all tax cuts raise revenues. That only happens in rare circumstances. Instead, the Laffer Curve simply reveals that higher tax rates will lead to less taxable income (or that lower tax rates will lead to more taxable income) and that it is an empirical matter to figure out the degree to which the change in tax revenue resulting from the shift in the tax rate is offset by the change in tax revenue caused by the shift in the other direction for taxable income. This should be an uncontroversial proposition, and these three videos explain Laffer Curve theory, evidence, and revenue-estimating issues. Richard Rahn also gives a good explanation in a recent Washington Times column.

Interestingly, the DC government (which certainly is not a bastion of free-market thinking) has just acknowledged the Laffer Curve. As the excerpt below illustrates, an increase in the cigarette tax did not raise the amount of revenue that local politicians expected. The evidence is so strong that the city’s budget experts warn that a further increase will reduce revenue:

One of the gap-closing measures for the FY 2010 budget was an increase in the excise tax on cigarettes from $2.00 to $2.50 per pack. The 50 cent increase in the cigarette tax rate was projected to increase revenue but also reduce volume. Collections year-to-date point to a more severe drop in volumes than projected. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Maryland smokers who were purchasing in DC in FY 2008, because the tax rate in the District was less than the tax rate in Maryland, have shifted purchases back to Maryland now that the tax rate in the District is higher. Virginia analyzed the impact of demand when the federal rate went up by $0.61 in April and has been surprised that demand is much stronger than they had projected–raising the possibility that purchasing in DC has moved across the river.  Whatever the actual cause, because of the lower than anticipated collections, the estimate for cigarette tax revenue is revised downwards by $15.4 million in FY 2010 and $15.2 million in FY 2011. Given that cigarette tax rates in neighboring jurisdictions are now lower than that of the District, future increases in the tax rate will likely generate less revenue rather than more.