Archives: May, 2010

Afghanistan: Hope for Stability Outside of Kabul?

Herat, Afghanistan—Malou Innocent and I have escaped Kabul for the much more pleasant city of Herat, in northwest Afghanistan near Iran and Turkmenistan.  We haven’t left all of Afghanistan’s many problems behind, but the atmosphere here is far different than in Kabul.

Set in a wide plain, Herat played an important historic role as part of the “Silk Road,” the famed Asian trading route.  Although captured by the victorious Taliban, Herat showed little sympathy for its new overlords.  After its liberation the city suffered from the domination of “warlord” Ismail Khan, but sprouts of liberalism increasingly can be seen in Herat.  For instance, though women are expected to cover their hair, women’s organizations have proliferated and gained public acceptance.

Violence is minimal, though an RPG attack six months ago effectively shut down what had been the city’s only five-star hotel, transformed into offices for Westerners.  Set on a hill dramatically overlooking the city, the building offered too tempting a target.

Tight security is evident at the airport, hotels, government buildings, and NGO offices.  But there are far fewer armed police on the streets, machine gun-topped Humvees at intersections, and fortress-like buildings.  Most concrete goes to construction rather than barriers.  Barbed wire is used sparingly, not by the mile, as in Kabul.

The international presence is strong, but not as overwhelming as in the capital.  We generated a lot of attention when we were on the street.  Most reactions were positive.  Children wanted their pictures taken with us; students wanted to practice their English; adults wanted to introduce themselves.  We exercised caution and were closely guarded, but never felt the sense of persistent menace as in Kabul.

Most humbling was meeting with human rights activists.  Our cultures differ dramatically in some regards, but what most Afghans desire is not much different than what Americans want:  peace and prosperity, freedom and opportunity.  Evident on the street are the strong family and friendship ties that underlie Afghan society.  A number of people have stepped out heroically in an attempt to build a better society. 

The consistent frustration of these activists is the Afghan government.  Corruption is pervasive; the police cannot be trusted.  While people disagree over America’s future role, virtually everyone desires a more effective, representative, and honest Afghan government.  And many of them believe that requires less, rather than more, international “aid.”

Malou and I have a few more days in Afghanistan, and another city to visit.  So far it has been a fascinating and challenging visit.  Many hard decisions must be made to reorient U.S. policy.  Among the hardest of those decisions must be made regarding Afghanistan.

What Do The Economist’s Bloggers Think a Free Market Is, Anyway?

A correspondent for The Economist, whose initials are M.S., posts this on the Democracy in America blog:

[T]he new health-care-reform law passed in March is an entirely private-insurer, free-market-based reform. If someone were to refer to it as a “government takeover of the health-care sector”, that person would hold a factually incorrect ideological belief.

I wonder what convinced M.S. that the new health care law is an entirely free-market-based reform.  Was it the expansion of the government’s Medicaid program to another 16 million Americans?  Was it the 19-million-plus other Americans who will receive government subsidies to purchase private health insurance? Was it the new price controls that the law imposes on health insurance?  Or the price and exchange controls that it will extend to even more of the market?  Was it the dynamics those regulations set in motion, which will reduce variety and innovation in health insurance?  Was it the mandates that require private actors to spend their resources according to the wishes of the state?  Or the new federal regulations that will shape every health insurance plan in the United States, whether purchased through the employer-based market, the individual market, or the new health insurance “exchanges”?  Was it the half-trillion dollars of (explicit) tax increases over the next 10 years?  

I wonder what it is about this law that M.S. thinks is consonant with the principles of a free market.  Perhaps we have a different idea of what “free” means.

M.S. lists other “factually incorrect beliefs,” including:

that the Clinton plan would deny patients their choice of doctor, and that the health-care-reform bills in Congress at the time involved government “death panels” that could decide to withhold care from elderly patients on a cost-benefit basis.

I won’t dredge up the Clinton health plan.  But I have previously demonstrated that, when Sarah Palin claimed that President Obama wanted to give a government panel the power to deny medical care to the elderly and disabled based on cost-effectiveness criteria, the president had in fact proposed a panel with the power to do exactly that.

I agree with M.S. about this much: “once people are exposed to false information, it’s extremely difficult to convince them it’s false.”

The ‘What Reasonable Doubt?’ Act of 2010

Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Scott Brown (R-MA), joined on the House side by Reps. Jason Altmire (D-PA) and Charlie Dent (R-PA), today introduced a little publicity stunt in legislative form called the Terrorist Expatriation Act, making good on Lieberman’s pledge to find a way to strip the citizenship of Americans—whether naturalized or native born—who are suspected of aiding terrorist groups. It does so by amending the Immigration and Nationality Act, which lays out the various conditions under which a person may renounce or be deprived of citizenship. 

A couple things to note about this:

First, the act as it stands now contains a provision that could probably be used to revoke the citizenship of terrorists. One of the ways to trigger the loss of citizenship is by:

committing any act of treason against, or attempting by force to overthrow, or bearing arms against, the United States, violating or conspiring to violate any of the provisions of section 2383 of title 18, or willfully performing any act in violation of section 2385 of title 18, or violating section 2384 of title 18 by engaging in a conspiracy to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States, or to levy war against them…

So why isn’t this enough to satisfy them?  Well, I left off the very end of the clause:

if and when he is convicted thereof by a court martial or by a court of competent jurisdiction.

Needless to say, actually “bearing arms against the United States” is a rather more serious offense than providing “material support” for terrorist groups.  Indeed, someone who knowingly provides funding or “expert assistance” (including legal or humanitarian aid) to a designated group may, under current law, be guilty of providing “material support.”  Yet these more serious acts of betrayal still require that someone be convicted in court before the penalty of expatriation can be imposed. If they want to revoke Faisal Shahzad’s citizenship, they can do it already: just convict him of one of those offenses.

Another clause of the existing law provides that someone who joins a foreign military may, indeed, lose their citizenship without being convicted of anything. But as a subsequent section of the statute makes clear, citizenship can’t be revoked on these grounds while the person remains in the United States.  They have to actually, physically “go over to the other side” and take up residence abroad. So again, the assumption is that someone residing in the U.S., and therefore subject to apprehension and trial, ought in fact to be tried before such a drastic step is taken, even if we’re prepared to skip the trial when someone is actually overseas and marching about in an enemy uniform.

Finally, note that the bill’s definition of “material support” for terrorist groups explicitly invokes the criminal statute covering such actions.  Which is to say, revocation of citizenship under the new bill is triggered by committing a particular federal crime. Except that the Immigration and Nationality Act only requires that one of the predicates for revocation be established by a “preponderance of the evidence.” So in effect, the bill takes what is already a crime and says: Proof of guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” is no longer a prerequisite for the imposition of punishment for this crime. 

What a convenient end-run around that pesky due process!  Just think how we could reduce the burden on our courts by doing this for all sorts of crimes!

From Abu Dhabi to Dubai

After another fascinating day in Abu Dhabi, which included a visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (the picture can’t do it justice) and the more-than-5-star Emirates Palace Hotel, we rose early this morning and traveled the short distance (about 90 minutes on the highway) to the second largest emirate, Dubai.

The visit began with a visit to the enormous DP World facility at the Jebel Ali port, one of the most active in the world. Millions of tons, chiefly goods in 20-foot container boxes, move through this facility every year. DP World remains one of the stronger subsidiaries in the troubled Dubai World’s portfolio, and the company and that first visit became a metaphor for the day: Dubai has had its difficulties, but the fundamentals that drove its spectacular growth over the past few decades remain strong. Dubai is located at a crossroads – both strategically and economically. It is leveraging this geographic advantage through investments in infrastructure – from the port expansion, to the just opened metro, to a massive new airport that is still under construction – in the hope of attracting and retaining entrepeneurs and capital. And it continues to celebrate its tolerance and openness, which it hopes can be a model for the region.

Senior officials spoke frankly about their slow response, particularly their inadequate communications, surrounding Dubai World’s debt payments. They understand the value in greater transparency and oversight, but are reluctant to institute sweeping new regulations that might impede their recovery.

But they also sought to correct the record about the actual state of Dubai’s economy. Judging from some news stories, I was expecting to see hundreds of abandoned skyscrapers, cars left unattended on the highway, and tumbleweeds rolling through the city streets. The reality was considerably less dire. There are some building projects that appear to be on hold (cranes not moving, no workers milling about), and traffic on the wide highways is not particularly heavy, but there is still considerable activity both at the port and in the downtown area. Meanwhile, during a visit to the Mall of the Emirates this evening (the one with an indoor ski slope) I found relatively few vacant storefronts (no worse, for example, than what I’ve seen in Northern Virginia).

Anecdotes are one thing; key questions remain. It is difficult to get a read on the actual statistics. And it appears that senior officials in Dubai still don’t know the true gap between the value of Dubai World’s assets and its liabilities.

Meanwhile, just as in Abu Dhabi, there are anxieties associated with Iran’s rising power. This was the other key theme of today’s meetings. Senior officials pointed to their compliance with existing UN sanctions that prohibit the sale of certain materials that might be useful in Iran’s nuclear program. They stressed that they would support additional UN sanctions. But while they are want desperately to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, the repercussions of military action against Iran would hit Dubai the hardest. The very attributes that make the emirate so attractive to enterpreneurs and tourists would evaporate in the event of war. Beyond the lives lost in retaliatory actions throughout the region, capital would seek out other safer investments. Tourists can choose many other places to visit. Or they can just stay home.

I certainly hope it doesn’t come to that. No one does. There is great potential for Dubai (and Abu Dhabi) to serve as a model for the region. The international character of this place is almost impossible to describe, but I’ll close with one more anecdote. When I flipped on the television, I could watch cricket, two soccer games, handball, or ultimate fighting. I could also watch a movie about tennis in English. Or “Meet the Fockers” with Arabic subtitles. World news in Farsi. Financial news in German or Italian. Movies in Chinese, Korean or French. I could go on.

Tomorrow we’re hoping to visit the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, and then off to Riyadh in the evening.

“Good Federal Spending” versus Bad Federal Spending

Washington, DC is a company town, and the company is the federal government.  Between the executive branch, the Congress, the Supreme Court and all the rent-seekers and hangers-on that come to court power, the city is a veritable petri dish that breeds and nurtures the worst human impulses.  Some Cato people live here, too.

Local politics in DC is so dominated by Democrats that the Republican Party in DC is a perennial butt of jokes.  Between its role as the seat of the federal government and the Democratic Party’s Turkmenbashi-level control of local government, it is a city that conservatives love to hate.

Across the river in Virginia, by contrast, there are lots of Republicans, and they are still able to compete against the Democrats statewide.  Lots of Republican politicians in Virginia sing sweet songs about the dangers of big government and hold themselves out as the true holders of the limited government faith.  But it sure would be nice if they could spit the teat out of their own mouths while they warble:

Ten cents of every federal procurement dollar spent anywhere on Earth is spent in Virginia. More than 15,000 Virginia companies hold federal contracts, a number that has almost tripled since 2001. Total federal spending – from salaries to outsourced contracts – has more than doubled, to $118 billion, since 2000, as homeland security and defense spending skyrocketed in response to the 2001 terrorist attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. By 2008, it accounted for about 30 percent of Virginia’s entire economy.

Federal dollars have filtered through the rest of the economy, too, helping to build the high-tech Dulles corridor and funding new homes and cars for federal workers and contractors and meals at local restaurants. The billions have helped fuel the economic boom cycles of the past decade and have cushioned the blow of the recent recession, particularly in Northern Virginia, where the unemployment rate has stayed stubbornly below 6 percent, less than the state and national rates.

[…]

Good Spending

In an interview, [Governor Bob] McDonnell acknowledged last week that federal per-capital spending is high in Virginia. And it is true, he said, that most of Northrop Grumman’s business comes from the government. But he said the company’s business is largely defense-related, including shipbuilding in the Newport News area.

“I call that good investment and good federal spending,” he said.

He said the government must restrain spending in other areas – entitlements, earmarks and “other kinds of pork projects.”

Note that McDonnell’s definition of “good” versus “bad” spending seems either to be determined by potential lethality or by location in his state.  As the article points out, “defense spending accounts for 900,000 Virginia jobs, close to one in five in the state.”  Moreover, McDonnell makes no argument about why we need to prepare to fight China, which makes up the bulk of the justification for the Northrop project in Newport News.  (Which, by the way, is an awesome sight, in a literal sense, but also terribly wasteful.)

Moreover, you could zero out “pork” and earmarks tomorrow and while morally satisfying, it would not come even close to filling in the giant hole our rulers in Washington have dug.  And as for entitlements?  By all means, let’s take a scythe to them.  Except a recent Economist/YouGov poll asked the question “If government spending is reduced in order to cut the budget, which of the following government programs should receive lower federal funding than they currently do?”  Seven percent ticked the “Medicare” box, seven percent ticked “Social Security” and 11 percent ticked “Medicaid.”  In fairness to McDonnell, only 22 percent selected “national defense” and there was only one item, foreign aid, that won a majority.

If getting the deficit fixed means relying entirely on cutting pork, earmarks, and entitlements, the picture is grim.  Defense spending needs to be on the table.  Even the parts in Virginia.

The Liberty Bus Tour

A new organization called Liberty in America is launching a nation-wide “Liberty Bus” tour in Buffalo next week. The goal is to educate Americans across the country on the need to reduce the federal government’s role in our lives. Downsizing the Federal Government materials will be among the educational resources the Liberty Bus will be making available to concerned citizens.

The following map shows the Liberty Bus’s schedule (click map for bigger version):

Each circle represents an area that is 300 miles in diameter. The idea is for the bus to settle in the center of the area for the designated week and lead or participate in programs in any direction during that week. Folks interested in having the Liberty Bus participate in a program or event should contact Liberty in America here.

For those unable to physically meet up with the Liberty Bus, material from the tour can be requested here.