Tag: Foreign Affairs

Unregulated Is Not Unconstrained

The forces that constrain behavior are manifold—moral, physical, financial, reputational, and so on. Formally, the word “regulate,” with its roots in the Latin regulare (“to control by rule, direct”), refers to only one kind of constraint: the governmental kind (or at least some kind of authority). Yet when one calls something “unregulated,” that often seems to imply that it can act on whim, launching itself in any direction it likes. Not so.

Foreign Affairs has a capsule review of a book on non-governmental organizations that relies on the distinction between other constraints and government regulation. The review describes the factors that arguably cause international NGOs to behave well, even though they are “not regulated.”

NGOs are extremely sensitive to criticism and to the fact that their authority flows from a reputation for fairness and integrity. Chapters explore NGOs in areas such as child labor, elections, and human rights, identifying the ways these groups have strengthened their credibility by increasing their own transparency, professionalizing their staffs, and integrating themselves into the wider community of NGOs, which informally commits them to shared standards of conduct. And although NGOs are not regulated, this book makes clear that they are disciplined by the complex donor-client environment in which they operate.

My sense is that the word “regulate” is migrating from its origin in referring to formal and governmental rules to a more general sense of any constraint. (I’m dubious of the move in the opposite direction, which would treat any constraint as governmental.) Until it completes that journey, if you find yourself talking about regulation—and especially if you use the word “unregulated”—it would be helpful to bracket that word by describing which kind of constraint you are talking about. Unregulated is not unconstrained.

‘Subsidy Risk’ in Green Tech

Two-and-a-half years ago, I attended a venture capital conference that focused a good deal on “clean tech.” I wasn’t impressed.

[T]he current vogue for “clean tech” differs from the information technology revolution that has done so much for the economy and society. Venture investors may be turning to government subsidy and regulatory advantage for their portfolio businesses, rather than producing to meet a market demand. “Going green” may mean “going red” in at least two senses—a more socialist political economy and a government even deeper in debt.

Essaying to instill some doubts among investors who were banking on “political will,” I asked pointedly how VCs assessed subsidy risk and the vagaries of public policy. The responses weren’t insightful or memorable.

Some vindication of my doubts comes in an article called “The Crisis in Clean Energy” ($) by David Victor and Kassia Yanosek in the July/August Foreign Affairs.

In the United States, most clean-energy subsidies come from the federal government, which makes them especially volatile. Every few years, key federal subsidies for most sources of clean energy expire. Investment freezes until, usually in the final hours of budget negotiations, Congress finds the money to renew the incentives—and investors rush in again. As a result, most investors favor low-risk conventional clean-energy technologies that can be built quickly, before the next bust.

Elsewhere, they write, “With clean energy suffering from long time horizons, high capital intensity, and a heavy dependence on fickle public policies, some Silicon Valley venture firms are scaling back or even canceling their ‘clean tech’ investment arms.”

Alas, Victor and Yanosek don’t call for the federal government to clear the field so entrepreneurialism can flourish. They offer three bland “shifts in approach” that amount to more of the same. Until the federal government does clear the field, watch for the subsidy muddle in green tech to suppress profound innovations while government-directed investment brings modest returns to investors/tax-consumers at the expense of taxpayers.

Flynn’s ‘Recalibrating Homeland Security’

The May/June issue of Foreign Affairs focuses on “The New Arab Revolt” (also the focus of an event at Cato a month ago). Some of the articles have a touch of datedness because they refer to the continuing pursuit of Osama bin Laden. But not so Stephen Flynn’s “Recalibrating Homeland Security,” ($) a terrific discussion of how the federal government’s post-9/11 policies have failed to meet the challenge of terrorism. Flynn throws a sentence at the living icon of al Qaeda, but the insights of his article are well worth taking in.

Most insightfully, Flynn theorizes just why it is that “nearly a decade after al Qaeda struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Washington still lacks a coherent strategy for harnessing the nation’s best assets for managing risks to the homeland—civil society and the private sector.”

During the Cold War, the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union required “a large, complex, and highly secretive national security establishment.”

To an extraordinary extent, this same self-contained Cold War-era national security apparatus is what Washington is using today to confront the far different challenge presented by terrorism. U.S. federal law enforcement agencies, the border agencies, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) are subsumed in a world of security clearances and classified documents. Prohibited from sharing information on threats and vulnerabilities with the general public, these departments’ officials have become increasingly isolated from the people that they serve.

This helps explain TSA’s effrontery with travelers, the “secrecy reflex,” and the ongoing risk of overreaction. Flynn stresses that focusing on resiliency will do our country much better than those brittle, fear-backed political demands for 100% protection.

“Read the whole thing” is a bloggic accolade that I use sparingly, recognizing the limits on readers’ time. At a brief 10 pages, despite the hurdle of having to log in/buy access to the article, Flynn’s “Recalibrating Homeland Security” gets my: Read the whole thing.

We Fail More—So Put Us in Charge

The Washington Post reports today on an article coming out in Foreign Affairs in which Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn III reveals a successful 2008 intrusion into military computer systems. Malicious code placed on a thumb drive by a foreign intelligence agency uploaded itself onto a network run by the U.S. military’s Central Command and propagated itself across a number of domains.

The Post article says that Lynn “puts the Homeland Security Department on notice that although it has the ‘lead’ in protecting the dot.gov and dot.com domains, the Pentagon — which includes the ultra-secret National Security Agency — should support efforts to protect critical industry networks.”

The failure of the military to protect its own systems creates an argument for it to have preeminence in protecting private computer infrastructure? Perhaps the Department of Homeland Security will reveal how badly it has been hacked in order to regain the upper hand in the battle to protect us.

Terrorism Is Not an Existential Threat, But Fear Doesn’t Care About That

Last week, coincidence brought together a pair of worthy articles attacking the political adage that terrorism is an “existential” threat.

Gene Healy debunked “existential” in his Examiner column. “Conservatives understand that exaggerated fears of environmental threats make government grow and liberty shrink,” he writes. “They’d do well to recognize that the same dynamic applies to homeland security.”

John Mueller and Mark Stewart, meanwhile, have an article on Foreign Affairs’ web site titled: “Hardly Existential: Thinking Rationally About Terrorism.” They show that conventional assessment methods place terrorism so low on the scale of risks that additional spending to further reduce its likelihood or consequences is probably not justified.

But some readers literally can’t absorb what appears in the two paragraphs above. You might be one of them.

Exquisitely rational arguments like these are “cognitively invisible” in the face of fear, as Priscilla Lewis puts it in the forthcoming Cato book Terrorizing Ourselves. I assume the arguments of Healy, Mueller, and Stewart will be dismissed out of hand by people who view terrorism through their personal lens of fear.

Mueller and Stewart touch on this problem briefly:

Because they are so blatantly intentional, deaths resulting from terrorism do, of course, arouse special emotions. And they often have wide political ramifications, as citizens demand that politicians “do something.” Many people therefore consider them more significant and more painful to endure than deaths by other causes. But quite a few dangers, particularly ones concerning pollution and nuclear power plants, also stir considerable political and emotional feelings, and these have been taken into account by regulators when devising their assessments of risk acceptability.

We know enough to be confident of our security. The questions remaining include: How do we convince others to join the ranks of the indomitable Americans? How do we undercut the political advantage taken of terror fears? And how do we rein in the massive government growth produced by terror politics?

Message to Republicans: Stop Hiding Behind the Troops

In what can only be described as a cheap partisan attack masquerading as patriotic chest-thumping, House Republicans this morning issued a statement opposing Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich’s resolution for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan because… [drum roll please] the Republicans strongly support the troops in Afghanistan.

In a statement of Republican policy forwarded to GOP politicians and their staffers, the House Republican Leadership and the House Committees on Foreign Affairs and Armed Services Republicans write, ”Since the President’s speech, more United States Armed Forces have been deployed to the Afghanistan theatre in support of the implementation of our nation’s counterinsurgency strategy.  Many of them leave behind family and friends for the second, third, and fourth time.  They have been engaged in the largest offensive since the beginning of the war there, and they have done a magnificent job.  House Republicans are mindful these troops and their families will be watching this debate and remain committed to working towards swift and clean action when the resources impacting their military readiness, operational needs, and family support is debated and passed this spring.”

The GOP has got to stop hiding behind the troops. As I mention in a recent article, our brave servicemen and women are being deployed to prop up a regime Washington doesn’t trust, for goals our president can’t define. Sadly, the war not only provides a potent recruiting tool for militants, but it’s clear that it does little to appreciably protect America. As aptly demonstrated by the Christmas Day crotch bomber, the old argument of “We fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here” is complete and utter hogwash.

Tear Down This Wall … between the U.S. and Cuba

The House Foreign Affairs Committee is holding a hearing today on the almost 50 year old ban on travel to Cuba. The ban is part of a broader economic embargo in place since the early 1960s that was supposed to bring about change in the island’s oppressive, communist regime.

Instead, the embargo and travel ban have needlessly infringed on the freedom of Americans, weakened our influence in Cuba, and handed the Castro government a handy excuse for the failures of its Caribbean socialist experiment.

I wrote an op-ed recently advocating change in U.S. policy toward Cuba, and delivered a talk on the same theme at Rice University in 2005.

Will Congress finally change this failed U.S. policy?