Archives: May, 2010

Tuesday Links

  • David Rittgers on the New York bomb plot: “This is one of the few cases in which police surveillance cameras earn their keep. When it comes to deterring crime and terrorism, police on the beat are still the sharpest tool we have. The Times Square plot was foiled by an alert person and a prompt police response — not by a camera. …But cameras aid in the response — helping piece together the plot and track down those responsible.” More on this from Roger Pilon.
  • Quiz Time: If government spending is growing faster than GDP, can the resulting deficit problem be solved by: (A) decreasing the rate of growth of government spending, (B) increasing tax rates, (C) decreasing the rate of growth of government spending and increasing tax rates? Click here to find out how you did.
  • Doug Bandow on what to do about North Korea: “Beijing should take the lead in forging a new, active policy designed to both denuclearize the Korean peninsula and promote political and economic reform in the North.”
Topics:

First Impressions from Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates—I arrived in Abu Dhabi late last night, and have spent the day in a series of meetings (with one more scheduled for this evening).  The 9-day trip, organized and led by Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, will also take us to Dubai and Riyadh. If the accommodations are even half as nice as our current digs (on a 5-star scale, I’d rate the hotel an “8”) then we’re in for a real treat. (Sorry Doug and Malou).

My first impressions of Abu Dhabi generally conform to what I expected based on my very limited knowledge of the place. I last visited here onboard USS Ticonderoga in 1992, but frankly remember very little. A few buildings looked vaguely familiar, but that is about it. I have had to rely on a packet of materials that Jon assembled for our group in order to get up to speed.

This is a wealthy country; oil wealth, to be sure, which can be as much a curse as a blessing. But there are signs of diversification. Cranes abound, and unlike in Dubai, where the financial crisis has put a chill on a once-booming real estate market, Abu Dhabi continues to do well. Indeed, much of the traffic flowing into the city, I was told, is made up of cars from Dubai. I’m anxious to see the contrast when we visit there later this week.

This is a nervous country. Emiratis (at least the ones we met today) are nervous about Iran, a traditional adversary, and a rising power in the region made more powerful by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. They worry about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. They worry about how Iran’s behavior might change if they were to acquire nuclear weapons. But they also worry about the ramifications of military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities, given that the retaliation is likely to be directed at numerous targets in the region. They don’t hold out much hope that sanctions will be particularly effective in convincing the Iranians to reverse course, but they support the effort nonetheless.

Looking past Iran, Emiratis are nervous about a future that depends far too much on proceeds from the sale of oil, and on the contributions of expatriates who make up more than 80 percent of the UAE’s total population of nearly 5 million. These expats operate the hotels and the restaurants. They can be seen building the roads and skyscrapers. They are instrumental in Abu Dhabi’s nascent homeland security unit, the Critical National Infrastructure Authority. They help manage the UAE’s nuclear power program. And they serve as advisers at the highest levels of the national security apparatus.

This is a country that values its good relations with the United States, but that understands that this relationship will always have its limits. In our last meeting of the day, a senior government official reminded us of how far the UAE had come in a relatively short time. Fifty years ago, according to this official, 1 in 4 women died during childbirth, and infant mortality was nearly 50 percent. Now the UAE is among the healthier countries in the world.

They do not take their good fortune for granted, however. They are striving to develop the skills necessary to operate their critical infrastructure, and to be able to better defend their country without having to rely so heavily on foreign assistance.

I’m off to another meeting, but I’ll write more later.

Earmarkers vs. Bureaucrats: Taxpayers Lose Either Way

One of the justifications members of Congress offer for earmarking is that the Constitution gives the legislative branch the “power of the purse.” Congressional earmarkers often denigrate the executive branch’s inability to effectively allocate funds. But just because the federal bureaucracy does an abysmal job of spending taxpayer money, it doesn’t mean lawmakers would do any better.

The following example out of Florida illustrates why lawmakers are just as likely as bureaucrats to misspend taxpayer money. According to the St. Petersburg Times, a developer who has never had a successful project was able to convince four members of Florida’s congressional delegation into supporting a $500,000 earmark for a Tampa affordable housing project. The developer had already wasted $563,000 in federal and state taxpayer funds on housing projects that now “sit vacant and rotting.”

According to the article, suckering more money out of Congress was apparently pretty easy:

But the federal earmark process involves little vetting of recipients. So the four members of Congress didn’t know that Foster had never successfully completed a housing project. They didn’t know he exaggerated the involvement of his partners in the proposal he presented to them. They didn’t know he has a record of mishandling grants for much less ambitious projects. And they didn’t know his nonprofit has faced legal troubles, including IRS liens for unpaid payroll taxes.

The lawmakers, who represent Florida and the Tampa Bay area, say they made their decision based largely on information provided by Foster. Others say he never should have gotten a cent.

“I am flabbergasted that this guy’s getting another $500,000. That’s just insane,” said Craig Rothburd, an attorney working pro bono for the Hillsborough County Homeless Coalition. The coalition directed a $400,000 state grant to Foster to develop housing for homeless people. It is now suing Foster for fraud and breach of contract.

Might these lawmakers have put a wee bit more effort into scrutinizing the developer had the money been their own?

Regardless of whether federal funds are allocated by the bureaucracy or earmarked by politicians, both are spending other people’s money. Neither has the incentive to conduct the due diligence necessary to ensure that the money is properly spent. This is one reason why the federal government’s “affordable housing” efforts have been a failure.

Therefore, the question of whether the executive or legislative branch should have more control over spending is a secondary concern. The primary focus should be on efforts to restrict the government’s activities to the small number defined in the Constitution.

Lobbying R Us

Think Washington lobbying is just for the big-money interests? Think you could never afford a lobbyist yourself? Well, think again! At Crazy Eddie’s Lobbying Service, our prices are insane!

The firm is actually called Keys to the Capitol. It was started not by Crazy Eddie or Sy and Marcy Syms, but by Paul Kanitra, who’s happy to call it McLobbying. Keys to the Capitol

targets small towns, humble associations and others of modest means that can’t even consider signing the $10,000-a-month retainers required by many top Washington firms. Instead, Kanitra’s company offers contracts starting at $995, month-to-month agreements and prices and other details spelled out on the company’s Web site.

Want some government money? Want to regulate your competitors? Come on down to Keys!

Now of course it might be that the new, low-priced, easy-to-understand lobbying firm would be helping people get government off their backs. Sort of a “leave us alone” lobbyist for Tea Party times.

Get real. What do you think those small towns want? They’re not hiring a Washington lobbyist, even a cheap one, to get government off their backs. They want a piece of that stimulus money, or that Race to the Top money, or that highway money, or whatever. And take a look at the Washington Post’s description of one of Keys’s first clients,

the aptly named Louie Key, national director of the 3,000-member Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association of Aurora, Colo. Key was shopping around for a lobbyist to help his union on several federal issues, including persuading lawmakers to tighten oversight of repair stations that use unlicensed mechanics.

That’s right. This little ol’ association just wanted a nice simple law to impose new regulatory burdens on their cheaper competitors. That’s Washington in a nutshell. As long as the government has favors to hand out, people will pay lobbyists to get access. So come on down and get yours!

Afghanistan: Complicated, Confusing, and Tragic

Kabul, Afghanistan—Malou Innocent and I have been interviewing a range of people in Afghanistan’s capital.  Getting around isn’t easy.  The traffic is horrendous: automobile ownership has grown on roads built for a different era.  Street upkeep is not one of the city government’s strong suits.  Police checkpoints and traffic barriers dot Kabul.

Arriving at your destination is merely the start.  Military bases, government ministries, Western embassies, luxury hotels, and large businesses are fortified with tall walls, barbed wire, concrete barriers, reinforced gates, and guard posts.  Armed personnel man entrances and patrol grounds. 

As so often is the case, it quickly becomes evident on the ground that foreign conflicts are far more complicated than commonly advertised.  Afghanistan is a diverse and complex land.  Parts of it are stable and peaceful.  Ethnic and tribal divisions run deep, but vary around the country.  Although rural illiteracy is high, many urban Afghans are as educated and sophisticated as the Westerners who have flocked to Kabul.  And most everyone evinces a desperate desire for peace and security.

An overwhelming sense of tragedy hangs over this beautiful land.  The evidence of war and instability is everywhere.  The old royal palace still stands, abandoned and wrecked years ago.  The casualties of endless conflict are visible—adults and children hobbling along on only one leg, legless beggars by the road.  “Poppy palaces,” many constructed with drug money, continue to rise while the streets teem with people struggling to find work.  Afghan women covered by burqas walking outside of hotels and restaurants serving alcohol to foreigners.  Westerners abound, fighting the war, running NGOs, advising government ministries, and otherwise attempting to re-engineer Afghan society.

Individual stories remind us how blessed we are to live in America.  As frustrated as we might grow with U.S. government policy, we live in a nation that is prosperous, peaceful, democratic, stable, and still relatively free.  One 27-year-old Afghan, who currently works for a government ministry, told us about how his family decided to flee Kabul after his neighborhood was bombarded as the city was being fought over by various mujahedeen factions.  They returned home from Pakistan after the ouster of the Taliban; now he worries about the future.

The overwhelming message that we have heard so far is that the Afghan government is incompetent and corrupt; as such, it is a poor partner to Western nations seeking to create a functioning state.  Moreover, Western nations, and especially the U.S., are commonly unrealistic in their assumptions, objectives, and tactics.  We have yet to encounter many optimists about allied policy.

Although many foreigners of good intentions are working in Kabul, the flood of money to consultants and NGOs is often wasted or misspent.  Afghans themselves have grown cynical after decades of war; many focus on the short-term and are happy to manipulate Western aid agencies and militaries alike.  At the same time, those who have come forward to idealistically work for a better future are vulnerable and worry about the consequences of an allied retreat.

Every conversation makes it more evident how little we know and hard it is to understand this complex society and conflict.  Malou and I don’t expect our time here to turn us into experts.  But we do hope that we will learn enough to better participate in the Washington debate over U.S. and allied policy towards Afghanistan.

Of Butterflies, Tsunamis, and Draconian Recusal Standards

Last October, I blogged about Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, a lawsuit in Mississippi alleging that the defendant oil, coal, utility, and chemical companies emit carbon dioxide, which causes global warming, which exacerbated Hurricane Katrina, which damaged the plaintiffs’ property.  Mass tort litigation specialist Russell Jackson called the case “the litigator’s equivalent to the game ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.’”  In a brief that Cato was due to file this week, I framed the operative question as, “When a butterfly flaps its wings, can it be sued for the damage any subsequent tsunami causes?”

The plaintiffs asserted a variety of theories under Mississippi common law, but the main issue at this stage was whether the plaintiffs had standing, or whether they could demonstrate that their injuries were “fairly traceable” to the defendants’ actions.  The federal district court dismissed the case but a dream panel (for the plaintiffs) of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the plaintiffs could indeed proceed with claims regarding public and private nuisance, trespass, and negligence. 

In my blog post, I predicted that the Fifth Circuit would take up the case en banc (meaning before all the judges on the court, in this case 17) and reverse the panel.  And this was all set to happen – even though eight judges recused themselves, presumably because they owned shares of defendant companies – with en banc argument slated for May 24.  I was planning to head down to New Orleans for it, in part because the judge I clerked for, E. Grady Jolly, was going to preside over the hearing (the only two more senior active judges being recused).

But a funny thing happened on the way to legal sanity.  On Friday, not half an hour after I had finished editing Cato’s brief, the court clerk issued a notice informing the parties that one more judge had recused and, therefore, the en banc court lacked a quorum.  As of this writing, I still don’t know who this judge is and what circumstances had changed since the granting of the en banc rehearing to cause the recusal.  And indeed, by all accounts the Fifth Circuit is still figuring out what to do in this unusual (and, as far as I know, unprecedented) situation where a court loses a quorum it initially had – having already vacated the panel decision.

In short, the court could decide that the vacatur stands and either remand to a (now-confused) district court or rehear the case in a new random panel assignment.  More likely, however, the court will now reinstate the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad panel decision – and we’ll tweak our brief to make into one that supports the defendants’ inevitable cert petition.

All in all, an illustration of the absurdity both of litigating climate change politics in the courts and of forcing judges (including Supreme Court justices) to withdraw from cases for owning a few hundred dollars’ worth of stock.  If that’s all it takes to corrupt federal judges, we have bigger problems than trial lawyers run amok!