Archives: 07/2015

Mission Creep in Syria

This week, the United States and Turkey agreed on a deal to expand cooperation in the fight against ISIS, in part through the creation of an ‘ISIS-free zone’ in Northern Syria. The scope of the agreement is unclear, not least because Turkish officials are hailing it as a ‘safe zone’ and a possible area for refugees, while U.S. officials deny most of these claims. U.S. officials are also explicit that the agreement will not include a no-fly zone, long a demand of U.S. allies in the region.

But what’s not in doubt is that the United States and Turkey plan to use airstrikes to clear ISIS fighters from a 68-mile zone near the Turkish border. The zone would then be run by moderate Syrian rebels, although exactly who this would include remains undefined.

Over at the Guardian today, I have a piece talking about the many problems with this plan, in particular the fact that it substantially increases the likelihood of escalation and mission creep in Syria:

“The ambiguity around the ‘Isis-free zone’ creates a clear risk of escalation. It’s unclear, for example, whether groups engaged in fighting the regime directly will be allowed to enter the zone and train there, or only those US-trained and equipped rebels focused on Isis. US officials have been keen to note that Assad’s forces have thus far yielded to American airstrikes elsewhere in Syria – choosing not to use their air defense system and avoiding areas the US is targeting - but that is no guarantee that they would refrain from attacking opposition groups sheltering inside a safe zone.”

The plan is just another step in the current U.S. approach to Syria, which has been haphazard and ill-thought out. The United States is engaged in fighting ISIS while most fighters on the ground want to fight the Assad regime, a key reason for the abysmal recruitment record of the U.S. military’s new train-and-equip programs in Syria. Increased U.S. involvement in Syria risks our involvement in another costly, open-ended civil war.

Taking Another Look at the Cecil the Lion Story

There is something fishy about Cecil the lion story. Don’t get me wrong, I find trophy hunting nauseating. Still, why on earth would Walter Palmer pay $50,000 to kill a lion? Per capita GDP in Zimbabwe is $936 per year (2014 dollars). If Palmer wanted to do something illegal, he could have killed a lion for fraction of the price. (I assume that any lion would do. Palmer happened to get “unlucky” and kill the most famous lion in Zimbabwe.)

Goodness knows that magnificent wild animals get slaughtered throughout Zimbabwe – for food, skin and horns – on a daily basis and for free. The culprits include hungry locals, corrupt parks officials, members of the military and government officials. It is very likely that Palmer believed (or wanted to believe) that he was buying a legal kill and outsourced the details (permits, etc.) to the locals. That does not make Palmer innocent. He should have known better than go on a safari to a failed state – with no property rights and the rule of law. That said, the story should be understood in the proper context: it is not individual hunters, but poverty and anarchy that are destroying Zimbabwe’s wildlife.

For more on this, see my article in the Financial Times here [$].

India’s Faltering Economic Revolution: Lost Opportunity, Lost Future

Last year Narendra Modi won an unusually strong majority in India’s parliamentary election. Modi subsequently visited the U.S. and was warmly welcomed by both the Obama administration and Indian-Americans.

Although ethnic Indians circled the globe as entrepreneurs and traders, the Delhi government turned dirigiste economics into a state religion. Mind-numbing bureaucracies, rules, and inefficiencies were legion.

Eventually modest reform came, but even half-hearted half-steps generated overwhelming political opposition. Last May the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Modi, handed the venerable Congress Party its greatest defeat ever. He seemed poised to transform his nation economically.

As the anniversary of that visit approaches, the Modi dream is fading. He simply may not believe in a liberal free market.

Moreover, few reforms of significance have been implemented. The failures overshadow the Modi government’s successes and highlight its lost opportunities. Critics cite continuing outsize budget deficits and state direction of bank lending.

Former privatization minister Arun Shourie observed last December: “when all is said and done, more is said than done.” Unfortunately, Modi has missed the “honeymoon” period during which his political capital was at its greatest. Time is slipping away.

DuBose Killing Highlights Importance of Police Body Cameras

Today the Hamilton County, Ohio prosecutor’s office released body camera footage showing University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing shoot and kill 43-year-old Samuel DuBose during a routine traffic stop on July 19th. Tensing will face murder and voluntary manslaughter charges. Speaking about the killing, Hamilton County prosecutor Joe Deters used strong and condemning language, calling the killing “senseless” and “asinine.” He also said that the body camera footage of the killing was “invaluable.” Without it, many would probably have believed Tensing’s erroneous account of the incident.   

DuBose’s death demonstrates once again that body cameras are not a police misconduct panacea. Tensing, who knew his body camera was on, shot an unarmed man in the head and then lied about being dragged down the street. Nonetheless, the tragic incident does provide an example of how useful body camera footage can be to officials investigating allegations of police misconduct.

Ahead of the release of the video Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell said that the video “is not good.” If convicted, Tensing faces life in prison.

I’ve seen many police body camera videos while researching and writing about the technology, and the video of DuBose’s death is certainly among the most disturbing that I have seen.

Watch the footage below.

As Racists Return to the Mainstream, Be Sure to Deprive Them of Power

I hope I’m wrong to see it as racism returning to the mainstream. Indeed, I hope that the long, agonizingly slow erosion of racial fixations from our society will continue. But I found it interesting to see a Washington Post blog post explaining a recently minted epithet—“cuckservative”—chiefly with reference to the president of a “white nationalist” organization.

Apparently, we have such things in the United States, credible enough to get online ink from a major newspaper. I’m not against reporter Dave Weigel’s use of the source. I take it as confirmation that some of our ugliest politicians have even uglier supporters.

I don’t think it’s likely, but one can imagine a situation where these currents join a worsening economic situation to sow public distemper that gives actual political power to racists. Were some growing minority of political leaders to gain by advocating for ethnic or racial policies, do not count on the “good ones” standing against them. Public choice economics teaches that politicians will prioritize election over justice, morality, or any other high-minded concept.

It is poor civic hygiene to install technologies that could someday facilitate a police state. That includes a national ID system. I’ve had little success, frankly, driving public awareness that the U.S. national ID program, REAL ID, includes tracking of race and ethnicity that could be used to single out minorities. But that’s yet another reason to oppose it.
 
If the future sees no U.S. national ID materialize, and no political currents to exploit such a system for base injustice and tragedy, some may credit the favorable winds of history. Others may credit the Cato Institute and its fans. We’re working to prevent power from accumulating where it can be used for evil.

There Was No Place Like Canada

Speaking of myths about U.S. banking, another that tops my list is the myth that the Federal Reserve, or some sort of central-bank-type arrangement, was the best conceivable solution to the ills of the pre-1914 U.S. monetary system.

I encountered that myth most recently in reading America’s Bank, Roger Lowenstein’s forthcoming book on the Fed’s origins, which I’m reviewing for Barron’s. Lowenstein’s book is well-researched and entertainingly written. But it also suffers from an all-too-common drawback: Lowenstein takes for granted that those who favored having a U.S. central bank of some kind (whatever they called it and however they chose to disguise it) were well-informed and right-thinking, whereas those who didn’t were either ignorant hicks or pawns of special interests. He has, in other words, little patience with history’s losers, whether they be people or ideas. Like other “Whig” histories, his history of the Fed treats the past as an “inexorable march of progress towards enlightenment.”

Don’t get me wrong: I’m no Tory, and I certainly don’t think that the pre-Fed U.S. monetary system was fine and dandy. I know about the panics of 1884, 1893, and 1907. I know how specie tended to pile-up in New York after every harvest season, and that by the time it got there not one but three banks were likely to reckon it, or make claims to it, as part of their reserves. I also know how, when the harvest season returned, all those banks were likely to try and get their hands on the same gold, and how this made for tight money, if it didn’t spark a full-scale panic. Finally, I know that one way to avoid such panics, on paper at least, was to establish a central bank, or “federal” equivalent, capable of supplying banks with emergency cash when they needed it.

Yet I still think that the Fed was a lousy idea. How come? My reason isn’t simply that the Fed turned out to be quite incapable of preventing financial crises, though that’s certainly true. It’s that there was a much better way of fixing the pre-Fed system. That alternative was perfectly obvious to many who struggled to reform the U.S. system in the years prior to the Fed’s establishment. It could hardly have been otherwise, since it was then almost literally staring them in the face. But it should be equally obvious even today to anyone who delves into the underlying causes of the infirmities of the pre-Fed National Currency system.

The Progressive Increase of the Urban Heat Island’s Influence on Temperature Records

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.”

Perhaps no other climatic variable receives more attention in the debate over CO2-induced global warming than temperature. Its forecast change over time in response to rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations is the typical measure by which climate models are compared. It is also the standard by which the climate model projections tend to be judged; right or wrong, the correctness of global warming theory is most often adjudicated by comparing model projections of temperature against real-world measurements. And in such comparisons, it is critical to have a proper baseline of good data; but that is easier acknowledged than accomplished, as multiple problems and potential inaccuracies have been identified in even the best of temperature datasets.

One particular issue in this regard is the urban heat island effect, a phenomenon by which urban structures artificially warm background air temperatures above what they normally would be in a non-urbanized environment. The urban influence on a given station’s temperature record can be quite profound. In large cities, for example, urban-induced heating can be as great as Tokyo’s 10°C, making it all the more difficult to detect and discern a CO2-induced global warming signal in the temperature record, especially since the putative warming of non-urbanized areas of the planet over the past century is believed to be less than 1°C.  Yet, because nearly all long-term temperature records have been obtained from sensors initially located in towns and cities that have experienced significant growth over the past century, it is extremely important that urbanization-induced warming – which can be a full order of magnitude greater than the background trend being sought – be removed from the original temperature records when attempting to accurately assess the true warming (or cooling!) of the natural non-urban environment. A new study by Founda et al. (2015) suggests this may not be so simple or straightforward a task.

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