Archives: 02/2014

Leaving Child Alone In Car For A Few Minutes = Abuse?

When I was small, my (conscientious, non-abusive) mother would leave me alone in the back seat of our car for brief spells while she ran into stores to do errands, an experience that’s entirely typical for most people I know from my generation. Nowadays a parent who behaves that way might risk a police record or a serious encounter with child welfare authorities. “In [a New Jersey] appeals court decision last week, three judges ruled that a mother who left her toddler sleeping in his car seat while she went into a store for five to 10 minutes was indeed guilty of abuse or neglect for taking insufficient care to protect him from harm.” The child was unharmed and an investigation of the household found it not otherwise problematic, which apparently still did not suffice to stop the abuse charge from going forward.

When the law behaves this way, is it really protecting children? What about the risks children face when their parent is pulled into the police or Child Protective Services system because of overblown fears about what conceivably might have happened, but never did?

Author Lenore Skenazy, who’s led the charge against the forces of legal and societal overprotectiveness in her book Free-Range Kids and at her popular blog of the same name, explains her doubts about the New Jersey case here and here. Tomorrow, Wed. Feb. 5, she’ll be the guest of the Cato Institute for a lunchtime talk on helicopter parenting and its near relation, helicopter governance; I’ll be moderating and commenting. The event is free and open to the public, but you need to register, which you can do here.

Offer Free Trade, Not Foreign Aid to Egypt

Egypt is racing toward dictatorship.  But Washington always has been more interested in maintaining influence than encouraging democracy or promoting development in Egypt.  That’s why the U.S. provided more than $75 billion in “aid” over the years. 

In fact, the cash bought little leverage.  Hosni Mubarak spent decades oppressing Egyptian citizens and persecuting Coptic Christians despite Washington’s contrary advice.  Israel’s military superiority, not America’s money, bought peace. 

Unfortunately, as elsewhere in the Third World, foreign “assistance” hindered economic development by effectively subsidizing Cairo’s inefficient dirigiste policies.  A decade ago the government finally decided to open the economy. 

Reforms including lower tariffs, enterprise privatizations, and regulation reductions.  Meredith Broadbent of the Center for Strategic and International Studies also cited corporate tax reductions and insurance regulation modernization. 

However, Egypt soon began to fall behind other reformers.  For instance, Broadbent pointed to the survival of “significant elements of a heavy-handed statist bureaucracy.”  The banking system was opaque, monopolistic, and inaccessible.  A joint report by the Carnegie Endowment and Legatum Institute cited the need to give poor Egyptians clear title to their property, reform the bankruptcy law, and reduce costs of opening, operating, and closing businesses.

Corruption was pervasive, with commerce dominated by cronyism and privilege.  The military controlled anywhere between 15 percent and 40 percent of the economy. 

The most serious economic hindrance was expensive consumer subsidies, particularly for food and fuel.  Most of the benefits did not go to those in most need.  Moreover, the cost today accounts for roughly a third of the government’s budget and 14 percent of Egypt’s GDP. 

Thus, even after the Mubarak reforms unemployment and inflation remained high while Cairo ran large deficits.  The situation worsened after the 2011 revolution.  Uncertainty and insecurity discouraged investment and the public deficit increased to 11 percent of GDP. 

The coup was another step backwards.  The government is focused on suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood and reconstituting old political and economic relationships.  Reported the Washington Post:  “now some businessmen and officials implicated in post-uprising corruption probes are again in positions of power and influence, including in the cabinet appointed last summer by the military.” 

The prime minister said the government plans to “rationalize” the subsidy, but economic reform appears to be a low priority.  In September the regime launched a “$4.2 billion program for “economic development and social justice,” the sort of big spending initiative which has not worked elsewhere.   

As I point out in my new National Interest article:

Military rule could offer a form of stability.  However, Gen. al-Sisi’s brutality, including the slaughter of Brotherhood protesters in Cairo in August, has encouraged increasingly violent opposition.  Policemen are regularly being killed, and both auto and suicide bombings are on the rise.

Such violence could frighten off investors and tourists. 

In this environment American financial assistance would be even more harmful than before.  The massive aid coming from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states—given purely for the political purpose of combating the Brotherhood—reduces any financial pressure on the regime to streamline economic policy. 

In contrast, freer trade would be a positive good.  Meredith Broadbent proposed negotiating a free trade agreement—previous talks left off in 2005—and updating the bilateral investment treaty.  The Institute for International Economics once projected that an FTA would increase Egypt’s GDP by three percent annually.

A new accord also would benefit U.S. firms which have been left at a disadvantage by the EU-Egyptian FTA.  Such agreements, Broadbent argued, “can serve as systemic tools to help pry open closed government regulatory processes.”

Absent an inclusive political process, Egypt likely faces an unstable and violent future.  However, economic reform also is necessary.  That is unlikely to come from lectures and money from foreign governments.  But the prospect of increased participation in international commerce would offer a far more powerful and direct incentive for action.  Washington should propose that the two governments free up investment and trade.

Kindly Inquisitors

This week Jonathan Rauch celebrates the new, expanded edition of his book Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free ThoughtHe’s also guest-blogging at the Volokh Conspiracy, itself newly hosted at the Washington Post. In his first post, Rauch sums up a key point of his book and also why its reissue is so timely:

Over the past 20 years, the idea that minorities need protection from hateful or discriminatory speech has gained ground, both in American universities’ speech codes and in national laws abroad. In fact, I argue, minorities are much better off in a system that protects hateful or discriminatory speech than in a system that protects them from it.

Kindly Inquistors offers a moral defense of free inquiry, with a focus on how minorities fare under different approaches to controversial speech. Rauch concludes that when individuals disagree, the only proper approach is the “checking of each by each through public criticism.” 

He terms this approach liberal science, and he recommends it not just in science, but in public policy. One of the most interesting facets of Kindly Inquisitors is the way that Rauch links the free inquiry of science to the free inquiry found in liberal democratic societies; both, he argues, are also akin to the free inquiry found in capitalism.

In all these areas, free inquiry can nevertheless cause genuine harm. Why not restrict, just a bit, if it will prevent some suffering? In the book, Rauch answers:

The truth is that liberal science demands discipline as well as license… It does not give a damn about your feelings and happily tramples them in the name of finding truth. It allows and – here we should be honest – sometimes encourages offense. Self-esteem, sensitivity, respect for others’ beliefs, renunciation of prejudice are all good as far as they go. But as primary social goals they are incompatible with the peaceful and productive advancement of human knowledge. To advance knowledge, we must all sometimes suffer. Worse than that, we must inflict suffering on others.

For many, these words will not be welcome. And for a few truly loathsome people, they will be all too welcome. Undeniably, words a lot like these have been used as a pretext to hurt, which they should not be.

Yet we classical liberals have always welcomed the progress that comes from free minds, from the free exchange of ideas, and from the freedoms of travel and commerce, even if at times they bring disruption, embarrassment, or loss. In science, in public opinion, and in the marketplace, there will always be failures. And yet for a society to succeed, such failures cannot be avoided.

Our faith in mankind’s ability to find and act upon the truth is key: We trust that the process of inquiry, with its defeats as well as its victories, will bring a better and better life for us all. 

Thailand Votes as Thai Democracy Totters

Thailand has voted for the third time since the military staged a coup in 2006. The crony populists won again. The establishment thugs didn’t even compete.  The country is headed toward more and more dangerous political turmoil.

As I explain in my latest Forbes online column:

Thailand’s latest poll was triggered by PDRC mobs in Bangkok which sought to drive Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office.  Although the protestors wear yellow, associated with the Thai monarchy, they are the modern equivalent of Benito Mussolini’s Black Shirts, who seized power through the infamous 1922 march on Rome.

The misnamed Democrat Party and its ally, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), led by former DP deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban, then attempted to block Sunday’s vote. 

The Thai political system is nominally democratic.  But the state typically was controlled by an elitist establishment, essentially a military-royalist-civil service-business-urban/upper class axis. 

That was overturned by the 2001 victory of telecommunications executive Thaksin Shinawatra, who followed the traditional political strategy of tax, tax, spend, spend, elect, elect.  Thaksin won another big victory in 2005, but the following year the so-called People’s Alliance for Democracy launched demonstrations to bring down his government.  The military then ousted him in a coup. 

The next election in 2007 was won by Thaksin’s successor party (though he remained in exile abroad).  But PAD soon launched a series of protests to shut down the government.  After the coalition collapsed, angry Thaksin supporters, called “Red Shirts”—dominated by the rural poor and middle-class—flooded into Bangkok.  The security agencies then killed scores of protestors and wounded thousands of others. 

However, Yingluck, Thaksin’s sister, won the 2011 election.  Last fall PAD relaunched itself as the PDRC and employed storm trooper tactics against her government, even threatening to seize the prime minister. 

Yingluck responded by calling an election, but that was the last thing the protestors wanted.  So the Thai Black Shirts proceeded to block candidate registrations and early voting and halt polling in several areas.

Thaksin embodies the worst of irresponsible populism, and Yingluck is widely viewed as Thaksin’s stand-in.  Worse, however, is Suthep, whose crowds evoke memories of fascist bullies which on election day even attacked Thais seeking to vote.  He called for a “people’s revolution” with an unelected “people’s council,” which he would get to fill, to “reform” election rules, which would guarantee his victory, before the next poll is held. 

Nevertheless, Prime Minister Yingluck was reelected.  But Suthep is determined to take power irrespective of his lack of popular support and the Black Shirts want to make the country ungovernable. 

Yingluck’s opponents may file charges of alleged electoral violations and urge the Election Commission to nullify the vote.  That could trigger violent demonstrations from the Red Shirts.  By blocking candidate registrations the Black Shirts prevented the poll from filling the required 95 percent of parliament’s seats, requiring by-elections before the body can open.

The opposition also may turn to the courts, which are hearing a number of highly political charges.  However, Red Shirt activists are unlikely to peacefully accept a judicial coup.

If all else fails, the Black Shirts are likely to take more radical steps to overthrow the new government.  Chaos in Bangkok might cause the military to stage another coup.  But the 2006 coup leader, Sonthi Boonyaratglin, warned that the military likely would face violent resistance from not just the Red Shirts but the “mass” of people.

In short, Thailand’s political future looks at best uncertain and at worst disastrous.  The only hope may be constitutional reform reducing central government power.  If Bangkok was less dominant and regions could chart their own course, the Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts would have less incentive to battle to the political death.

Thaksin may be a blight upon Thai politics, but Suthep and his allies are a cancer.  Unfortunately, in Thailand democracy does not guarantee good government.  However, authoritarian, undemocratic rule would be far worse.  Suthep’s Black Shirts will bear the primary blame if their nation descends further into violence and disorder.

About That Coke Ad

I was among the many who misted up at the gentle, lyrical “America Is Beautiful” Coca-Cola commercial last night, but it turns out to be controversial in some circles. Former U.S. Representative Allen West called it “truly disturbing” and thinks it indicates the nation is on the “road to perdition” because it shows various participants singing portions of the song in languages other than English. He goes on to quote Theodore Roosevelt – a President closely associated with the Progressive movement, and no hero to me – that “we have room for but one language here” in America.

One irony here is that the cause of English-language assimilation is doing way, way better today than in the days when bossyboots Progressives like Teddy Roosevelt were banging on about it. It used to be that it would take three or more generations to melt away the language isolation of Finns or Norwegians in the upper midwest, Czechs in Nebraska, Quebecois in upper New England, or Deutschlanders in the parts of Pennsylvania and Maryland where German remained the predominant language long into the nineteenth century. Today, modern popular culture being the force it is, the American-born kids of native Bengali or Ukrainian speakers are likely to enjoy perfect fluency in English. 

Meanwhile, a writer at Breitbart is also upset at the ad, which not only uses “several foreign languages” but “also prominently features a gay couple.” Please no one tell him about the 25-year “Boston marriage” of Katharine Lee Bates, author of “America the Beautiful.”

Socialism in Venezuela, like Socialism Everywhere, Means Shortages

After 15 years, Hugo Chavez’s socialist revolution is finally reaching socialism’s signature achievement: shortages of toilet paper. The Washington Post reports:

CARACAS, Venezuela — On aisle seven, among the diapers and fabric softener, the socialist dreams of the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez looked as ragged as the toilet paper display.

Employees at the Excelsior Gama supermarket had set out a load of extra-soft six-roll packs so large that it nearly blocked the aisle. To stock the shelves with it would have been pointless. Soon word spread that the long-awaited rolls had arrived, and despite a government-imposed limit of one package per person, the checkout lines stretched all the way to the decimated dairy case in the back of the store.

“This is so depressing,” said Maria Plaza, 30, a lawyer, an hour and a half into her wait….

Why is it always toilet paper? I understand why a poorly coordinated economy isn’t likely to produce complicated goods like cars (see the Soviet Lada, the East German Trabant, or the gleaming 1950s American cars still in use on the streets of Havana) or computers. But how hard is it to produce toilet paper? Not that toilet paper is the only thing in short supply:

Each day the arrival of a new item at Excelsior Gama brought Venezuelans flooding into the store: for flour, beef, sugar. Store employees and security guards helped themselves to the goods first, clogging the checkout lines, and then had to barricade the doors to hold back the surge at the entrance.

Meanwhile, as long as you can blame the Americans, the capitalists, Snowball, or Emmanuel Goldstein, you can retain the support of at least some of the people:

“The store owners are doing this on purpose, to increase sales,” said Marjorie Urdaneta, a government supporter who said she believes Maduro when he accuses businesses of colluding with foreign powers to wage “economic war” against him.

“He should tell the stores: Make these items available — or else,” she said.

The regime takes credit for what it can, making sure that

products sold by recently nationalized companies carried little heart symbols and the phrase “Made in Socialism.”

The queues in front of the stores should carry the same symbol.