Archives: 03/2012

Iranian Rhetoric: Heard and Unheard

Commentators who believe that Iran would nuke another nation unprovoked tend to infer the clerical regime’s future intentions from its hyper-inflated rhetoric. The problem with this logic is that statements from its leadership often get cherry-picked.

Anti-Israeli diatribes made by Iran’s fiery-tongued President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are typically taken at their word, while statements made by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s top leader, go virtually unnoticed. For example, last month Khamenei repeated his country’s vow not to seek nuclear weapons. He called their possession a “sin,” “useless,” and “dangerous.” Last Thursday, Khamenei reportedly praised President Obama’s recent comment that he saw a “window of opportunity” to use diplomacy to resolve the nuclear dispute.

If Iran’s rhetoric is as reflective of its intentions as some lead us to believe, then the Obama administration should applaud these rare and positive overtures.

Indeed, Meir Dagan, head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency for eight years, last night on 60 Minutes declared, “The regime in Iran is a very rational regime.” When pressed to elaborate, he said, “No doubt that the Iranian regime is maybe not exactly rational based on what I call Western-thinking, but no doubt they are considering all the implications of their actions.”

That assessment echoes the chairman of the Join Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, when he told Fareed Zakaria, “…[W]e are of the opinion that the Iranian regime is a rational actor.  And it’s for that reason, I think, that we think the current path we’re on is the most prudent path at this point.”

The administration should be highlighting such statements publicly, especially to members of Congress in order to dampen their ever increasing pro-war hysteria.

Santorum’s Tunnel and Federal Transportation Policy

If, like me, you’re a Pennsylvanian who wants a smaller federal government, you’ve probably been scratching your head at Rick Santorum’s success in the Republican primaries. An article in today’s Washington Times on the former Pennsylvania senator’s lack of popularity in the Keystone State is instructive.

The Times singles out Santorum’s leading role in getting federal taxpayers to foot 80 percent of the bill for a tunnel project in Pittsburgh that even former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell called “a tragic mistake.” (When “Fast Eddie” dings a government project, you know it’s bad.) Indeed, the North Shore Connector was originally projected to cost $350 million but the final price tag will be closer to $528 million. (The Obama administration kindly kicked in $63 million in stimulus funds to help get the over-budget project finished.) As one local critic notes, that’s a lot of money to provide “cheap public transportation” for “Steeler and Pirates fans too lazy to walk across one of four bridges that already connect downtown and the ballparks.”

According to the Times, Santorum’s zeal for the project stemmed from a “deal” he struck with the local trade unions that would benefit from its construction:

‘We had a deal with Santorum,’ said Mr. Brooks, whose Greater Pennsylvania Regional Council of Carpenters, along with other major building and construction trade unions, endorsed Mr. Santorum after the senator went to bat in Washington for construction of the tunnel under the Allegheny River. The tunnel’s only stop is at the two taxpayer-funded sports stadiums built with Mr. Santorum’s support. ‘Very seldom are you going to have a union endorse a Republican,’ said Mr. Brooks. ‘But the project created 4,000 jobs’ — even if they were temporary — for workers in the construction and building trades.

Santorum’s soul-selling is illustrative of the problems with the federal government financing transportation projects.

The tunnel project clearly has nothing to do with promoting the nation’s general welfare. It’s a purely parochial concern that should have been paid for by the people who would use it. But that’s just it – “Yinzers” would have never agreed to pick up the entire tab for the project. That leads to another problem: federal transportation dollars are often allocated on the basis of political, rather than economic, considerations. If you’ve ever taken the white-knuckle drive on I-70 near Washington, PA, then you know that that there’s no way that the money spent on the Pittsburgh tunnel was the best use of transportation dollars in western Pennsylvania. Then there’s the “Bud Shuster Highway” in central Pennsylvania, which only got built because the former congressman was able to use his chairmanship of the House Transportation Committee to bring home the bacon (see here).

In sum, Pennsylvania is a good example of why transportation policy should be devolved from the federal government to the states. Unfortunately, Rick Santorum’s purchasing of political support with federal taxpayer dollars shows why members of Congress won’t be in any hurry to give up the transportation golden goose anytime soon.

See here for more on downsizing the Department of Transportation.

Are Markets Pro-Gay?

In case you missed it, this past weekend the Public Choice Society was meeting in Miami.  I missed it too, which is unfortunate as there were a number of great papers presented.  A particularly interesting paper examined the question, does greater economic freedom, that is more market-based institutions, foster tolerance?  The results show a strong impact on increasing economic freedom, as measured by the Economic Freedom of the World index, and tolerance for homosexuals, as measured by the World Values Survey.  There was also a positive relationship found between economic freedom and tolerance for different racial groups, although the impact was much smaller in terms of significance.

The theory behind this relationship derives from Richard Florida’s work, specifically the author cites Florida’s argument:

Places that are open and possess low entry barriers for people gain creativity advantage from their ability to attract people from a wide range of backgrounds.  All else equal, more open and diverse places are likely to attract greater numbers of talented and creative people – the sort of people who power innovation and growth.

On the other hand, another paper, also using data from the Economic Freedom of the World index, found that greater economic freedom was associated with increases in a country’s average body-mass index.  That is, apparently economic freedom makes us fatter.  If the trade-off is more tolerance, but also a few more pounds around the waste, that’s a trade-off I can live with.

Go to Trial and Crash the System?

Yesterday, Law Professor Michelle Alexander wrote an op-ed for the New York Times with the title, “Go to Trial: Crash the Justice System.”  Here’s an excerpt:

AFTER years as a civil rights lawyer, I rarely find myself speechless. But some questions a woman I know posed during a phone conversation one recent evening gave me pause: “What would happen if we organized thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of people charged with crimes to refuse to play the game, to refuse to plea out? What if they all insisted on their Sixth Amendment right to trial? Couldn’t we bring the whole system to a halt just like that?”

The woman was Susan Burton, who knows a lot about being processed through the criminal justice system.

Her odyssey began when a Los Angeles police cruiser ran over and killed her 5-year-old son. Consumed with grief and without access to therapy or antidepressant medications, Susan became addicted to crack cocaine. She lived in an impoverished black community under siege in the “war on drugs,” and it was but a matter of time before she was arrested and offered the first of many plea deals that left her behind bars for a series of drug-related offenses. Every time she was released, she found herself trapped in an under-caste, subject to legal discrimination in employment and housing. …

I was stunned by Susan’s question about plea bargains because she — of all people — knows the risks involved in forcing prosecutors to make cases against people who have been charged with crimes. Could she be serious about organizing people, on a large scale, to refuse to plea-bargain when charged with a crime?

“Yes, I’m serious,” she flatly replied.

I launched, predictably, into a lecture about what prosecutors would do to people if they actually tried to stand up for their rights. The Bill of Rights guarantees the accused basic safeguards, including the right to be informed of charges against them, to an impartial, fair and speedy jury trial, to cross-examine witnesses and to the assistance of counsel.

But in this era of mass incarceration — when our nation’s prison population has quintupled in a few decades partly as a result of the war on drugs and the “get tough” movement — these rights are, for the overwhelming majority of people hauled into courtrooms across America, theoretical. More than 90 percent of criminal cases are never tried before a jury. Most people charged with crimes forfeit their constitutional rights and plead guilty.

“The truth is that government officials have deliberately engineered the system to assure that the jury trial system established by the Constitution is seldom used,” said Timothy Lynch, director of the criminal justice project at the libertarian Cato Institute. In other words: the system is rigged.

In the race to incarcerate, politicians champion stiff sentences for nearly all crimes, including harsh mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes laws; the result is a dramatic power shift, from judges to prosecutors.

Read the whole thing.  I am glad to see this attention to the deplorable plea bargaining system that has developed here in the USA.  Susan Burton and Professor Alexander pose an interesting thought experiment, but it is not realistic.  The government has enormous leverage over everyone’s liberty.  By offering straight probation to some and threatening others with additional charges and more prison time, the persons accused would be unable to hold the line–individuals will take the deals offered and surrender their right to a trial.

If we take the Constitution seriously, the only options open to us are (1) scale back the criminal codes–especially the drug laws; (2) spend the money that will be necessary to conduct the trials; (3) amend the Constitution.

For more background, go here (pdf).

This Week at Libertarianism.org

From the ongoing new and interesting stuff appearing at Libertarianism.org:

George H. Smith kicked off the week with a new Excursions, turning from the intellectual roots of state education–his topic of prior last three essays–to its earliest critics, beginning with Joseph Priestley, the Englishman who discovered oxygen. Smith is also featured in one of the new videos we posted: a 1996 lecture he gave on the moral right to resist authority.

Our Exploring Liberty series of original lectures on the theory and history of libertarianism gained a worthy addition. The economist David D. Friedman introduces and expands upon the idea of a free market in law that he first developed in his classic book, The Machinery of Freedom.

Trevor Burrus contributed a post to Libertarianism.org’s Free Thoughts blog on how libertarians should approach participating in politics. Writes Burrus,

In an age of increasing politicization it becomes more and more necessary to “win” libertarian goals through politics. It is crucial, however, that concessions to politics do not compromise the libertarian message that political choice must be limited in its reach. If we only focus on the next election, this message may be lost and politics will take over, perhaps forever.

We also added new video of Marshall Fritz–founder of the Alliance for the Separation of School and State and Advocates for Self-Government and creator of the World’s Smallest Political Quiz–speaking at an International Society of Individual Liberty conference about the need to keep government out of education.

As always, you can stay up to date with everything going on at Libertarianism.org by following us on Twitter or Facebook.

House GOP Leadership Takes Brave Stand on Ex-Im…

…and agrees to wind down the bank maybe in a year. Not exactly a profile in courage. From The Hill blog earlier this week:

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) plans to bring a bill to the floor by the end of March that could eventually end Ex-Im “subsidies.”

“We are working toward a bipartisan solution for the Export-Import Bank that will include reforms and begin to set a long-term policy goal to eliminate these subsidies going forward,” a GOP leadership aide said. “The legislation continues to be developed and we hope to consider it on the floor by the end of March.” [emphasis added]

(More details from Inside U.S. Trade [$]). When Mr. Cantor says “begin to set a long-term policy goal to eliminate these subsidies going forward,” I think we can all assume that the ”bipartisan solution” he is proposing would come into effect at around the same time, to quote P.J. O’Rourke, that the pope sits shiva.

As I described in a paper last year, the Ex-Im Bank is a perfect example of unnecessary and damaging corporate welfare, and of an agency engaging in activities in which the federal government has no business. It has been around for almost 80 years.  It’s current charter expires at the end of May, which seems like a convenient time to let it die. Why the delay, Mr. Cantor? What exactly are you waiting for?

In case you missed it, the Wall Street Journal had a great editorial on Ex-Im last Saturday. And here’s Veronique de Rugy’s take.

You Keep Using the Word ‘Affordable.’ I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means.

The federal government gave a $10 million “affordability” prize to a giant corporation for manufacturing a $50 lightbulb. The Washington Post:

The U.S. government last year announced a $10 million award…for any manufacturer that could create a “green” but affordable light bulb.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the prize would spur industry to offer the costly bulbs…at prices “affordable for American families.”…

Now the winning bulb is on the market.

The price is $50.

Retailers said the bulb, made by Philips, is likely to be too pricey to have broad appeal. Similar LED bulbs are less than half the cost.

This is the same federal government that refers to ObamaCare, which costs more than $6 trillion, as the “Affordable Care Act.”