Archives: 02/2016

Russia Won’t Attack the Baltic States

When the Cold War closed many people believed that history had ended. Europe was certain to be free and undivided.

Alas, it hasn’t worked out that way. But no worries. At least NATO officials are happy. Following Russian intervention in Georgia and Ukraine the alliance rediscovered a sense of purpose through its old enemy, Moscow.

The Obama administration just announced a multi-billion dollar program to bolster U.S. forces in Eastern Europe. Now a Rand Corporation report warns that Russia could easily overrun the three Baltic members of NATO is raising additional alarm.

Said David A. Shlapak and Michael W. Johnson: the “unambiguous” result of a series of war games was that “As currently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members.” The Rand researchers recommended a substantial allied military presence to deter Moscow.

Shalapak and Johnson dismissed the cost, estimated at around $2.7 billion annually, but more commitments require more force structure, and that burden almost certainly would fall upon America rather than the Europeans. Just like the administration’s new initiative for Eastern Europe involving a single brigade.

Their conclusion illustrates the folly years ago of treating NATO as a social club and inducting new members which were irrelevant to the continent’s security and possessed minimal military capabilities. Now the alliance realizes that it is obligated to war against nuclear-armed Russia on behalf of essentially indefensible countries.

Equally striking is how NATO membership has discouraged the Baltic nations from doing much for their own defense. Last year Latvia and Lithuania devoted 1.06 percent and 1.14 percent, respectively, of GDP to the military. Estonia was 2.04 percent—the first time Tallinn met the official NATO standard.

Yet the surging fear over Russian adventurism is misplaced. Vladimir Putin’s behavior is bad, but poses little threat to America, “old” Europe, or even most of Russia’s neighbors.

He has taken Moscow back to the Russian Empire, not the Soviet Union. His government demands respect for its status, protection of Russia’s borders, and consideration of its interests.

Mikhail Saakashvili’s Georgia was actively anti-Russian, pursued close ties with America, and sought membership in NATO—all certain to antagonize Moscow. Ukraine always mattered more to Moscow than Georgia or the Baltics for historical and cultural reasons, as well as the naval base of Sebastopol. Putin acted only after Europe pushed a trade agreement to reorient Ukraine away from Russia and both Brussels and Washington backed a street revolution against the elected president who leaned toward Russia.

Even then, Putin sought to weaken, not conquer, Ukraine. His brutal response was murderous and unjustified, but militarily on par with U.S. interventions.

Putin continues to demonstrate no interest in ruling those likely to resist Russia’s tender mercies. Seizing the Baltic states likely would generate substantial popular resistance.

Moreover, as weak nations currently containing no foreign troops, the Baltics pose no potential threat to Russia. Finally, the Baltic ethnic Russian populations, though significant, demonstrate little sentiment for joining Mother Russia. They prefer cultural connection to political affiliation, creating a poor target for the sort of destabilizing tactics deployed against Ukraine.

So what would Russia gain from attacking the Baltics? A recalcitrant, majority non-ethnic Russian population. A possible temporary nationalist surge at home. A likely short-lived victory over the West. 

As I argue in National Interest: “The costs would be far greater. Grabbing the Baltics likely would spur population exodus and trigger economic collapse. Launching a war without the convincing pretext present in the cases of Georgia and Ukraine might leave the Russian public angry over the retaliation certain to come.”

Worse, Moscow certainly would rupture economic and political relations with the U.S. and Europe and probably start a losing conventional war with NATO. Even more frightening would be the prospect of a nuclear conflict.

The U.S. should stop making defense promises which serve the interests of other nations rather than America. The Europeans should prepare their own defense.

Gallup Finds More Libertarians in the Electorate

The Gallup Poll has a new estimate of the number of libertarians in the American electorate. In their 2015 Governance survey they find that 27 percent of respondents can be characterized as libertarians, the highest number it has ever found. The latest results also make libertarians the largest group in the electorate, as compared to 26 percent conservative, 23 percent liberal, and 15 percent populist.

For more than a dozen years now, the Gallup Poll has been using two questions to categorize respondents by ideology:

  • Some people think the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Others think that government should do more to solve our country’s problems. Which comes closer to your own view?
  • Some people think the government should promote traditional values in our society. Others think the government should not favor any particular set of values. Which comes closer to your own view?

Combining the responses to those two questions, Gallup found the ideological breakdown of the public shown below. With these two broad questions, Gallup consistently finds about 20 percent of respondents to be libertarian, and the number has been risingLibertarians in the Electorate, 2000-2015.

Two years ago David Kirby found that libertarians made up an even larger portion of the Republican party.

So why isn’t all this supposed libertarian sentiment being reflected in candidates and elections? There have been plenty of analyses in the past week, including my own, about why Rand Paul didn’t attract this potentially large bloc of libertarian voters. Maybe people don’t see issues as equally salient; some libertarians may wish that Republicans weren’t so socially reactionary, but still vote Republican on the basis of economic issues. Some, as Lionel Shriver writes in the New York Times, feel “forced to vote Democratic because the Republican social agenda is retrograde, if not lunatic — at the cost of unwillingly endorsing cumbersome high-tax solutions to this country’s problems.” 

For now I just want to note that there are indeed a lot of voters who don’t fit neatly into the red and blue boxes. The word “libertarian” isn’t well known, so pollsters don’t find many people claiming to be libertarian. And usually they don’t ask. But a large portion of Americans hold generally libertarian views – views that might be described as fiscally conservative and socially liberal. 

David Brooks wrote recently that the swing voters in 2016 will be people who don’t think big government is the path to economic growth and don’t know why a presidential candidate would open his campaign at Jerry Falwell’s university. Those are the voters who push American politics in a libertarian direction. David Bier and Daniel Bier wrote last summer about how many policy issues show a libertarian trend over the past 30 years. Find a colorful chart illustrating their findings here.

Politics is often frustrating for libertarians, never more so than during this presidential election when the leading presidential candidates seem to be a protectionist nationalist with a penchant for insult, a self-proclaimed socialist, and a woman who proudly calls herself a “government junkie.” But polls show libertarian instincts in the electorate, just waiting for candidates who can speak to them. 

Read more about the libertarian vote in our original study or in our 2012 ebook.

New Obama Budget: The Usual Reckless Spending Hikes…and a Big New Tax on American Energy Consumers

We have good news and bad news.

The good news is that President Obama has unveiled his final budget.

The bad news is that it’s a roadmap for an ever-growing burden of government spending. Here are the relevant details.

  • The President wants the federal budget to climb by nearly $1.2 trillion over the next five years.
  • Annual spending would jump by an average of about $235 billion per year.
  • The burden of government spending would rise more than twice as fast as inflation.
  • By 2021, federal government outlays will consume 22.4% of GDP, up from 20.4% of economic output in 2014.

I guess the President doesn’t have any interest in complying with Mitchell’s Golden Rule, huh?

While all this spending is disturbing (should we really step on the accelerator as we approach the Greek fiscal cliff?), the part of this budget that’s really galling is the enormous tax increase on oil.

As acknowledged in a report by USA Today, this means a big tax hike on ordinary Americans (for what it’s worth, remember that Obama promised never to raise their taxes).

Consumers will likely pay the price for President Obama’s proposed $10 tax per-barrel of oil, an administration official and a prominent analyst said Thursday. Energy companies will simply pass along the cost to consumers, Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy.com, which tracks gas prices nationwide, said in an interview with USA TODAY. ….a 15-gallon fill-up would cost at least $2.76 more per day.  It would also affect people who use heating oil to warm their homes and diesel to fill their trucks.

Isn’t that wonderful. We’ll pay more to fill our tanks and heat our homes, and we’ll also pay more for everything that has oil as an input.

Is New York’s Climate-Speech Probe Constitutional?

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is pursuing an investigation of the Exxon Corporation in part for making donations to think tanks and associations like the American Enterprise Institute and American Legislative Exchange Council, which mostly work on issues unrelated to the environment but have also published some views flayed by opponents as “climate change denial.” Assuming the First Amendment protects a right to engage in scholarship, advocacy, and other forms of supposed denial, it is by no means clear that information about such donations would yield a viable prosecution. Which means, notes Hans Bader of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, that the New York probe raises an issue of constitutional dimensions not just at some point down the road, but right now:

A prolonged investigation in response to someone’s speech can violate the First Amendment even when it never leads to a fine. For example, a federal appeals court ruled in White v. Lee, 227 F.3d 1214 (9th Cir. 2000) that lengthy, speech-chilling civil rights investigations by government officials can violate the First Amendment even when they are eventually dropped without imposing any fine or disciplinary action. It found this principle was so plain and obvious that it denied individual civil rights officials qualified immunity for investigating citizens for speaking out against a housing project for people protected by the Fair Housing Act.

In another case, in which a company had been sued seeking damages over its participation in trade-association-related speech, a federal appeals court found that the pendency of the lawsuit all by itself caused enough of a burden on the firm’s speech rights that the court used its mandamus power to order the trial judge to dismiss the claims, a remarkable step.

Bernie and the Revolution

John Wagner of the Washington Post reports that Bernie Sanders rallies feature a playlist to back up that “political revolution” he keeps talking about:

Supporters of the senator from Vermont who arrive at events early are likely to hear “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” by folkster Tracy Chapman. And “The Revolution Starts Now” by country rocker Steve Earle. And “Revolution” by reggae legend Bob Marley & the Wailers. And “Revolution” by Celtic punk band Flogging Molly….

There’s “Uprising,” by Muse; “Power to the People,” by the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band; “Make a Change,” by Buckwheat Zydeco; and “Give the People What They Want,” by The O’Jays.

And as I read through his article, I kept waiting for the most famous “Revolution” song of all, by the Beatles. Apparently you won’t hear that at a Bernie Sanders rally. Now, my more music-savvy colleagues tell me that’s probably because the Beatles’ label, Apple Records, is very tight-fisted about rights. But I wonder if it just might be that John Lennon’s lyrics are a little too cautionary:

You say you got a real solution
Well, you know
We’d all love to see the plan…

You say you’ll change the constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it’s the institution
Well, you know
You better free you mind instead
But if you go carrying pictures of chairman Mao
You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow.

Of course, Bernie hasn’t been carrying any pictures of Chairman Mao. But he did honeymoon in the Soviet Union – in 1988! – and in the 1960s he spent some time on an Israeli kibbutz run by a pro-Soviet group (Noam Chomsky called them “split between Stalinist and Trotskyite”). So that disparagement of Mao might be a little too close for comfort. Not to mention the skepticism about radical solutions and changing the Constitution. In fact, as he moves to a national campaign, maybe he should add a few songs from the American Revolution.

Getting China to Become Tough with North Korea

It is no secret that the United States wants China to take a firmer stance toward its troublesome North Korean ally.  That was true even before the North’s satellite launch/long-range ballistic missile test.  And Chinese officials may be receptive to the argument that steps need to be taken to rein-in Kim Jong-un’s regime, even at the risk of destabilizing his government.  But as I point out in a China-U.S. Focus article getting Beijing to accept the risks entailed in becoming more assertive toward Pyongyang will require some major changes in U.S. policy.

At a minimum, Washington will have to respond favorably to China’s long-standing demand that the United States be willing to engage North Korea in wide ranging negotiations to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula.  Chinese officials are increasingly uneasy about Pyongyang’s behavior, especially the regime’s continued defiance of China’s warnings not to conduct more nuclear weapons or ballistic missile tests.  But Chinese policymakers also still cling to the belief that much of North Korea’s belligerence and recalcitrance is the result of the U.S.-led campaign to isolate the country.  Only by offering a comprehensive settlement to Pyongyang to finally end the state of war on the Peninsula, lift most economic sanctions, and establish diplomatic relations, will Washington convince Beijing that it truly seeks to an equitable outcome.

If the United States makes such a generous offer and Pyongyang rejects it, an already uneasy China will be even more impatient with its North Korean ally.  And China is the one country that can inflict real pain on Kim Jong-un’s regime.  Beijing supplies North Korea with a sizable portion (by some estimates more than half) of its food and energy supplies.  If China severed that link, North Korea would soon face an economic and social crisis.  Beijing has been reluctant to take that risky step for two reasons, however.  First, it could well trigger chaos in North Korea, perhaps bringing down Kim’s regime and leading to massive refugee flows out of North Korea into China.  That is no small concern, but in addition to that headache, Chinese officials worry that the United would seek to exploit such a situation to its geopolitical advantage.

For all of its annoying behavior, North Korea is an important buffer state to China, separating the Chinese homeland from the U.S.-led alliance system in East Asia.  Destabilizing North Korea carries the inherent risk that China might then confront a united Korea on its border—a united Korea in a military alliance with the United States.  Even worse from China’s standpoint, it might have to deal with the presence of U.S. air and naval bases in what is now North Korea.  The buffer would be gone.

Even verbal assurances that the United States has no plans for such bases would provide scant comfort.  Chinese leaders are fully aware that U.S. officials promised their Russian counterparts when the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe evaporated that NATO would not expand eastward.  Today, all of those nations are members of the U.S-led NATO, including several directly on the border of the Russian Federation itself.  Moreover, the United States is building up its forces in the eastern members of the alliance.

Chinese leaders are determined that nothing comparable will take place in Northeast Asia.  They will want something more tangible than an easily forgotten paper promise.  Fortunately, the United States can offer that more tangible guarantee.  Washington’s military alliance with South Korea is a Cold War dinosaur.  It was formed at a time when South Korea was poor, weak and war-ravaged.  Worse, that weak South Korea faced a heavily armed North Korea fully backed by both Moscow and Beijing.  South Korea could not have survived without U.S. protection and massive U.S. aid.

Ted Cruz, PolitiFact, ObamaCare & Jobs

I have two posts up at Darwin’s Fool on ObamaCare’s impact on jobs. In one post, I critique Politifact’s ruling that GOP presidential candidate (and Iowa caucus winner) Sen. Ted Cruz (TX) is a liar for claiming that ObamaCare is a job-killer. An excerpt:

In their rush to label Ted Cruz a liar, PolitiFact ignored economic theory, ignored economic consensus, ignored problems with the evidence they had amassed, ignored that some of the evidence they collected supports Cruz, ignored reams of anecdotal evidence, and dismissed Congressional Budget Office projections based on nothing more than a subjective and arbitrary distinction PolitiFact themselves invented.

In the other post, I offer a compilation of media reports about employers who have eliminated jobs or switched to part-time hiring.