Archives: 12/2013

North Korea’s Kim Dynasty Consumes Its Own: No Love in this Family

North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il has been dead not quite two years, but his son, Kim Jong-un, appears to have taken control.  And in a much bloodier fashion than predicted, with the execution of his uncle and one-time mentor Jang Song-taek.  However, no one knows whether the regime is stabilizing or destabilizing.

The ascension of Kim fils never seemed certain.  Not yet 30 when his father passed, Kim had had little time to secure the levers of power.  Moreover, Pyongyang is a political snake-pit. 

Over the last two years hundreds of officials, many in the military, have been removed from office.  Until Jang the most dramatic defenestration was of army chief of staff Ri Yong-ho.  His departure in July 2012, alleged for reasons of health, was dramatic and sudden. 

Of greater concern to the West was North Korean policy.  The country had established a reputation for brinkmanship and confrontation.  The new government reinforced this approach. 

For instance, rhetorical attacks on and threats against South Korea and the U.S. rose to unprecedented heights.  The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea recently detained an 84-year-old American Korean War veteran and tourist for six weeks on bizarre charges.

Equally important, there is no evidence of reform, either economic or political.  Observed Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation:  Kim Jong-un “has increased public executions, expanded the gulags for political prisoners, and increased government punishment for anyone caught with information from the outside world.” 

Now comes Jang’s ouster.  There is no reason for the West to mourn his passing.  But previously family members only disappeared. 

Jang’s execution could demonstrate that Kim Jong-un is solidifying his rule.  Removing another minder appointed by his father would seem to leave Kim more securely in charge.  Moreover, a willingness to execute likely deters anyone but the most determined or desperate from challenging the leadership. 

Nevertheless, the DPRK could be heading for further instability.  The episode is unprecedented, which suggests that something is amiss in paradise.  Jang could have been the casualty of a messy power struggle likely to grow worse.  If he can be taken down, no one is safe.  Fear may widen leadership divisions, spur internal resistance, and draw in the military. 

As I point out in my latest article in National Interest online:

Political uncertainty in Pyongyang almost certainly will reduce the already minimal likelihood of domestic reform and foreign engagement.  If Kim truly has consolidated power, he might feel freer to act.  However, even then orchestrating a wider purge would absorb time and effort.  And if he fears continuing opposition to his reign he probably will put off any potentially controversial policies, especially if they conflict with the interests of the military, which still potentially wields ultimate power.

Further, Jang was associated with economic reform and China relations.  After his death Jang was criticized for his economic activities.  It is hard to imagine economic reform speeding up in a government sundered by a power struggle in which a top economic official was just executed.

The greatest danger is that Kim Jong-un’s apparent ruthlessness may be less constrained internationally than that of his father and grandfather.  If the younger Kim is taking on full dictatorial power, he might misperceive domestic authority as translating into international strength.  Or if his authority is under challenge at home, he might be tempted to provoke a foreign crisis. 

The DPRK long has been the land of no good options, the geopolitical problem with no good answers.  Even if Jang’s execution changes nothing, it reminds us that North Korea remains a threatening yet mysterious presence in Northeast Asia.  And the ongoing leadership transition—whether solidified or unsettled—isn’t likely to bring peace or stability to the region.

Going Bananas: Another Climate Change Hustle

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

We hear that there is looming banana crisis in Costa Rica—the world’s 2nd leading exporter of the fruit—as this year’s crop is being threatened by an infestation of mealybugs, scale insects, and fungal infection.

Petulance, plagues, disease? It must be climate change, of course!

The Director of the Costa Rican Agriculture and Livestock Ministry’s State Phytosanitary Services, Magda González, told the San José Tico Times, “Climate change, by affecting temperature, favors the conditions under which [the insects] reproduce.” González estimated that the rising temperature and concomitant changes in precipitation patterns could shorten the reproduction cycle of the insect pests by a third. “I can tell you with near certainty that climate change is behind these pests.”

This is bananas.

But there’s a method to Gonzalez’ madness.  In it’s recent Warsaw confab on climate change, the UN has made it abundantly clear that one of its endgames is compelling “reparations” for climate damages cost by dreaded emissions of carbon dioxide.  The more that poorer nations make these claims—however fatuously—the more momentum builds to extract capital from me and thee.

May we humbly suggest that calling Ms. Gonzalez’ claim “fatuous” is really being too nice.  She should actually propose compensating the United States for all the excess bananas that are associated with warmer temperatures.

Figure 1 shows banana production in Costa Rica from 1961-2011. Figure 2 shows the temperatures there over the same period. We hate to burst anyone’s climate-change-is bad-bubble, but the correlation between these two variables is positive. That is, higher temperatures are associated with greater banana production (and yield).

  

 Figure 1. Annual production (tonnes) and yield (Hg/Ha) of bananas in Costa Rica (data from FAOSTAT)

 

Figure 2. Annual temperature anomalies in Costa Rica, 1961-2011 (data from Berkeley Earth).

And as far as precipitation goes, the trends down there are all over the place—some stations show trends towards increasing rainfall amounts, while others nearby, towards decreasing amounts.  The geography of the country, along with all sorts of external influences including tropical cyclone activity, sea surface temperature patterns, and larger-scale circulation systems in both the Pacific and Atlantic makes for a very complex pattern precipitation variability, both temporally and spatially, across Costa Rica.  It is virtually impossible to assess the influence of recent human-caused climate change in such a complicated and highly variable natural system.

So you have a situation where annual precipitation variability is high and where warmer conditions seem to be associated with greater banana yields. 

While it is probably not out completely out of the question that some sort of weather influence may, in part, play some role in the current affliction of the Costa Rica banana crop, to implicate human-caused global warming, you’d have to have gone completely…, well, you know.

But climate policy has always functioned best in a data-free environment, about the only way a cheap hustle like that of the Costa Rican National Phytosanitariest merits any attention at all.

Lessons from Dutch Welfare Reform

Welfare advocates regularly urge Americans to look to the European welfare state as a model. At least in the case of the Netherlands, they might be on to something.

The Dutch have just announced a massive reform of their welfare system, designed to reduce dependency and put a new emphasis on work. For example, welfare applicants will now be required to prove that they spent at least 4 weeks actively searching for a job before they become eligible for any assistance. And once they begin to receive benefits they will either have to work or perform volunteer community service. Dutch welfare recipients would be required to take available jobs even if they had to move or commute up to three hours per day.

Given that just 42 percent of U.S. welfare recipients are engaged in even broadly defined work activities (including job training, college, or job search), and that an attempt to restore work requirements to the food stamp program has been met with a storm of resistance, the Dutch appear to be much more pro-work than we are.

Other reforms would reduce benefits by treating families as a single unit, rather than as separate individuals. For instance a mother with two children would receive a single payment rather than three separate payments. The combined payment would be less, based on the assumption of “shared expense.”

According to the Dutch government, the reforms will ensure that welfare is seen as “a safety net, rather than a right.”

What the Dutch apparently understand is that, in the long run, welfare dependency hurts the very people it is designed to help. Making poverty a bit more comfortable may be satisfying in the short term, but the real goal should be to reduce the number of people in poverty. To do that requires people to take more responsibility for their own lives.

That’s a lesson in European compassion that the U.S. could learn from.

How Dare They Not Want Us to Spy on Them!

Some members of Congress are upset that other countries around the world are taking action to protect their citizens from the U.S. spy machine.  But rather than doing something within their own power to address the economic backlash from  U.S. policies by, say, changing the policy, these members of Congress are blaming others and threatening to bully them.  According to an AP report:

Germany has asked European Union officials to consider restrictions that would prevent U.S. companies from processing commercial and personal data from customers in Europe. That could affect the flow of information and hurt U.S. businesses such as Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon.

A bipartisan group of House members — 12 Democrats and six Republicans — has sent a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, insisting that nations abandon such efforts as a condition of pending trade pacts. (emphasis added)

Maybe reducing the ability of Americans to do business with foreigners is the only way to keep terrible harm from coming to U.S. companies impacted by this scandal.  I’m skeptical, so let’s ask them:

Lawmakers sent the letter a week after a coalition of businesses including Google, Apple, Yahoo, Facebook and Microsoft penned its own, asking Obama to curb the surveillance programs.

Silicon Valley has been fighting in the courts and in Congress for changes that would allow them to disclose more information about the secret government orders they receive. Several companies are introducing more encryption technology to shield their users’ data from government spies and other prying eyes. (emphasis added)

Since option B solves the problem and increases liberty, let’s try that one first, please.

(I would be remiss not to point out the House Intelligence Committee’s strident condemnation just last year of Huawei, and their subsequent recommendation that U.S. companies avoid doing business with the Chinese telecom giant to ward off vague dangers of cyber espionage.)

Republicans Join Democrats to Bust the Federal Budget

Last fiscal year Uncle Sam had some budget good news.  After running $1 trillion-plus deficits four years in a row, Washington had to borrow “just” $680 billion in 2013. 

True, that was the fifth highest deficit in history, 50 percent greater than the pre-financial crash record.  But it’s only the taxpayers’ money, so what’s the big deal? 

Now Republicans and Democrats have come together on Capitol Hill to increase both outlays and taxes.  Bipartisanship in action! 

That the Democratic Party wants to spend more is hardly surprising.  But the GOP has demonstrated yet again that its principal role in Washington is to hold the coats of Democrats who raid the Treasury.

The legislation adopted by the House drops sequestration, which actually trimmed federal outlays, and hikes spending over the next two years by $62 billion.  In return, Congress promises to lower the collective deficit over the next decade by $85 billion. 

The accord raises revenue, including $12.6 billion in airline taxes. There are a few spending reductions—kind of. 

As I point out in my latest Forbes online column:

in the same bill the House GOP voted to drop discretionary spending cuts for 2014 approved just two years ago.  Yet the new entitlement caps are slated to take effect after two presidential elections and four congressional elections.  Which means the reductions will never occur.

Of course, holding only the House means the Republican Party has to compromise, as it learned during the recent health care battle.  However, a budget fight would have been far easier.  The GOP merely had to support the fiscal status quo, sequester included, unless the Democrats offered equivalent alternative cuts. 

Earlier this year the Congressional Budget Office highlighted the stakes:  “Between 2009 and 2012, the federal government recorded the largest budget deficits relative to the size of the economy since 1946.”  The debt-GDP ratio “is higher than at any point in U.S. history except a brief period around World War II, and it is twice the percent at the end of 2007.”

Vigilantes in Mexico: Another Reason to Repudiate Drug Prohibition

A relatively new development in Mexico’s ongoing drug wars is the increasingly active role of vigilante groups.  That is especially true in Michoacán and other states in the western portion of the country.  I discuss that development in a new article over at the National Interest Online.

The initial temptation might be to cheer on the vigilantes.  After all, the rise of “self defense militias” indicates that a growing number of Mexicans are now willing to resist the power of the brutal cartels and fight back, if necessary.  But for two reasons one ought to resist the temptation to applaud.  First, the nature of many of the militias is exceedingly murky.  Some of them may even be front groups for rival trafficking organizations seeking to displace the dominant cartel in a particular region.

Second, even in cases where the vigilante groups are genuine anti-cartel forces, the growth of vigilantism is a worrisome sign.  It is an emphatic vote of “no confidence” in the government’s ability to maintain order and the rule of law.  That is similar to what occurred in Colombia from the late 1980s through the early years of the 21st century.  As the power of drug gangs and their radical leftist guerrilla allies surged, frightened and angry Colombians formed right-wing militias in many rural areas.  But some of those groups soon became little more than death squads, and for a time, Colombia seemed to be heading down the path toward becoming a failed state.  We certainly do not want to see a comparable trend in our next door neighbor.

The rise of vigilantism in Mexico is yet another reminder of the disastrous consequences of drug prohibition.  That strategy greatly raises the retail price of a product that a large number of consumers insist on using.  Creating such a lucrative black market premium fills the coffers of those willing to defy the law to traffic in that product.  And the vast majority of individuals and groups willing to take that path are ruthless criminal elements.  Prohibition, in short, empowers and enriches thugs.

Washington’s enthusiasm for and insistence upon preserving an international drug prohibition policy has caused enormous problems for Mexico and other drug-source countries. As the leading consumer of illegal drugs and the most powerful member of the international community, the United States largely determines the direction of policy on this issue.  Fortunately, there are signs of changing attitudes on both the domestic and international fronts.  Public opinion surveys show that a majority of Americans are now in favor of legalizing marijuana, the mildest of illegal drugs, and such states as Colorado and Washington have already adopted modest legalization measures.  Uruguay has gone even further, legalizing not only the possession and use of marijuana but also commerce in that drug.

Uruguay’s course is the correct one.  It’s not enough to legalize drug possession—the trade itself needs to be taken out of the hands of criminal syndicates.  And if we wish to defund the cartels, abolishing prohibition must apply to all currently illegal drugs, not just marijuana.  Our policy makers need to internalize the lesson that prohibition not only does not work, it causes horrific unintended consequences.  That was true of America’s foolish crusade against alcohol in the 1920s and early 1930s, and it is true in spades of the current crusade against illegal drugs.  The surge of vigilantism in Mexico and the threat of chaos it embodies should spur policy makers to finally recognize that reality.

The Constitution Still Applies on College Campuses

Few could imagine a more troubling free speech and due process case than that of Hayden Barnes. Barnes, a student at Valdosta State University in Georgia, peacefully protested the planned construction of a $30 million campus parking garage that was the pet project of university president Ronald Zaccari. A “personally embarrassed” Zaccari didn’t take kindly to that criticism and vowed to retaliate.

Ignoring longstanding legal precedent, the Valdosta State University Student Handbook (a legally binding contract), and the counsel of fellow administrators, Zaccari ordered staff to look into Barnes’s academic records, his medical history, his religion, and his registration with the VSU Access Office. The federal district court found that Barnes’s due process rights had been violated and denied Zaccari qualified immunity from liability for his actions, but also interpreted Barnes’s First Amendment claim narrowly and sharply reduced his award of attorney’s fees.

In the first appeal of this case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit (decided in 2012), Cato joined a brief filed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education on behalf of 15 organizations arguing that qualified immunity was inappropriate given Zaccari’s brazen violation of Barnes’s constitutional rights to free speech and due process. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the denial of qualified immunity, restating that malicious public officials aren’t entitled to special protections when they clearly violate the rights of another.

Now again before the Eleventh Circuit on the question of damages, Barnes is appealing the district court’s narrow interpretation of his First Amendment claim and the way it handled attorney’s fees. Cato has again joined with FIRE and numerous other groups on a brief supporting the full vindication of Barnes’s freedom of speech.

In this latest brief, we argue that the district court’s ruling threatens to encourage further First Amendment violations by inexplicably letting the defendants off on lesser claims (which weren’t even pled)—even though Barnes’s complaint clearly set forth detailed allegations of First Amendment-violating retaliation. We also argue that the district court erroneously applied a severe across-the-board reduction of its attorney’s fees award, even though that amount was supposed to address costs already deducted from the total. The court even granted reverse attorney’s fees for some of the defendants who were held not liable, going so far as calling those claims frivolous solely because they were unsuccessful.

The Eleventh Circuit should rework the attorney’s fees award, especially given the incalculable public benefit derived from such suits. Students who stand up for their constitutional rights are rare, and imposing unfavorable fee awards will only make it more difficult for them to secure strong representation. (Barnes’s counsel is the renowned First Amendment lawyer, and friend of Cato, Robert Corn-Revere.) While the district court did acknowledge that Hayden Barnes’s First Amendment rights were violated, its remedy consisted of half-hearted half-measures  We hope that the Eleventh Circuit corrects that mistake, sending university officials the loud, clear message that constitutional protections don’t stop at the edge of campus.