Tag: economic output

The War in Afghanistan Is about to Turn Nastier

afghanistanWhile Iraq’s security situation has been improving–though the possibility of revived sectarian violence remains all too real–the conflict in Afghanistan has been worsening.  The challenge for allied (which means mostly American) forces is obvious, which is why the Obama Administration is sending more troops.

But the administration risks wrecking the entire enterprise by turning American forces into drug warriors.

Reports the New York Times:

American commanders are planning to cut off the Taliban’s main source of money, the country’s multimillion-dollar opium crop, by pouring thousands of troops into the three provinces that bankroll much of the group’s operations.

The plan to send 20,000 Marines and soldiers into Helmand, Kandahar and Zabul Provinces this summer promises weeks and perhaps months of heavy fighting, since American officers expect the Taliban to vigorously defend what makes up the economic engine for the insurgency. The additional troops, the centerpiece of President Obama’s effort to reverse the course of the seven-year war, will roughly double the number already in southern Afghanistan. The troops already fighting there are universally seen as overwhelmed. In many cases, the Americans will be pushing into areas where few or no troops have been before.

Through extortion and taxation, the Taliban are believed to reap as much as $300 million a year from Afghanistan’s opium trade, which now makes up 90 percent of the world’s total. That is enough, the Americans say, to sustain all of the Taliban’s military operations in southern Afghanistan for an entire year.

“Opium is their financial engine,” said Brig. Gen. John Nicholson, the deputy commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan. “That is why we think he will fight for these areas.”

The Americans say that their main goal this summer will be to provide security for the Afghan population, and thereby isolate the insurgents.

But because the opium is tilled in heavily populated areas, and because the Taliban are spread among the people, the Americans say they will have to break the group’s hold on poppy cultivation to be successful.

No one here thinks that is going to be easy.

Indeed.

The basic problem is that opium–and cannabis, of which Afghanistan is also the world’s largest producer–funds not only the Taliban, but also warlords who back the Karzai government and, most important, the Afghan people.  The common estimate is that drugs provide one-third of Afghanistan’s economic output and benefit a comparable proportion of the population.  Making war on opium inevitably means making war on the Afghan people.

As both Ted Galen Carpenter and I have been arguing, most recently in speeches to various World Affairs Councils, diverting military attention to the drug war risks the entire enterprise in Afghanistan.  Already some drug-running warlords have been refusing to give intelligence to allied commanders and are killing government anti-drug officials.  Broader popular sentiments also turn against the allies when they deprive farmers of their most remunerative livelihood.

Washington has no obvious long-term answer to the opium trade–only legalization/decriminalization would take the money out of illicit drug production, but American politicians refuse to admit the obvious.  In any case, the Obama administration should focus on the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.  Ultimately, we should emphasize a solution which safeguards America’s fundamental security objectives in Afghanistan, namely, which precludes any terrorist training camps and sanctuary for those who attack Americans.  Once we achieve these goals and bring American military personnel home, we can debate doing more about Afghanistan’s opium fields.

Obama’s Spending Theory

President Obama focused on budget and economic issues in his press conference last night. One concern raised by reporters was that federal deficits were exploding and that Obama’s big spending plans would seem to make the problem worse.

Obama’s response was essentially that higher spending reduces the debt problem, which would strike most people as paradoxical to say the least:

Here’s what I do know: If we don’t tackle energy, if we don’t improve our education system, if we don’t drive down the costs of health care, if we’re not making serious investments in science and technology and our infrastructure, then we won’t grow [the economy by] 2.6 percent, we won’t grow 2.2 percent. We won’t grow. And so what we’ve said is, let’s make the investments that ensure that we meet our growth targets that put us on a pathway to growth as opposed to a situation in which we’re not making those investments and we still have trillion-dollar deficits.

First note that Obama’s budget would drive government health care costs up, not down. But aside from that technicality, the economics of Obama’s theory don’t make any sense.

Government spending on infrastructure, education, science and energy are already at high levels. For example, infrastructure spending today is as high as it was during the 1950s, and higher than it has been in recent decades. If government worked efficiently—as liberals believe it does—then all the highest-valued uses of taxpayer money would already be funded. At the margin, the only place for Obama’s new spending would be on low-value items of less economic importance.

Thus, Obama’s new college subsidies might induce some added young people to attend college, but most of those people are probably pretty marginal students because the high-quality students are already going to college. The marginal students might pick up some added skills, but at the cost of higher tax burdens and less economic output in the years when those folks are out of the workforce. Liberals assume that more spending on any activity they are interested in, whether public or private, is always better, but the real goal of economic policy is to find the optimum because all spending has a cost. (And the optimum level of government spending on most things is pretty darn low, or zero, in my view).

Obama is essentially claiming that even with federal, state and local spending at about one-third of GDP, there are government spending projects left over that are so powerful that “we won’t grow” if they don’t happen.

Serious economists know that that is nonsense. Most government activities have negative effects on growth, not positive effects. Take the largest federal program, Social Security, which will consume about $660 billion in taxpayer money this year. The program is a negative on economic growth because it suppresses personal savings and the taxes to fund it create large distortions. Lots of liberal economists support such transfer programs for non-economic or “social” reasons, but few economists would argue that they expand GDP on net.