Tag: New York Times

Our Enemies or Our Allies?

The New York Times reports that congressional investigators have found mounting evidence that “American taxpayers have inadvertently created a network of warlords across Afghanistan who are making millions of dollars escorting NATO convoys and operating outside the control of either the Afghan government or the American and NATO militaries.”

The Financial Times broke this story back in March. But their most startling discovery was that after nearly a decade at war in Afghanistan, Washington still has no clue as to who its true enemies (and allies) are.

Many Americans would be surprised to learn that some prominent Afghan officials are in fact saboteurs of America’s presumptuous and dangerously quixotic nation-building endeavor, instituting policies that feed the insurgency’s momentum in order to get more economic assistance from the coalition. America’s Ambassador to Kabul, Karl W. Eikenberry, said as much last November. Eikenberry warned (of course, to no avail), that Afghan President Hamid Karzai, “continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden…He and much of his circle do not want the U.S. to leave and are only too happy to see us invest further.” [Emphasis added]

Karzai knows very well that once the conflict ends, his open aid spigot will dry up. Indeed, Karzai has become notorious for replacing and undercutting people in his government who become too well-liked and “clean,” fearing these officials will become more popular than himself. Such double-gaming leads us to Karzai’s younger half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai.

He consolidates his power base by acting as the powerful chairman of Kandahar’s provincial council, as well as relying on a mafia-like network of militias, many of whom demand bribes from security companies that benefit from U.S. contracts. The rise of these militia fiefdoms have profited handsomely with foreign taxpayer dollars. “You have about 30 oligarchs who have built little empires with ISAF money,” Carl Forsberg, a researcher at the Institute for the Study of War, told the Financial Times. “We are ultimately creating a shadow government.”

Lamenting America’s strategic paradox, Congressman John F. Tierney (D-MA), chair of the U.S. House National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee said recently: “In this case, the U.S. appears to be inadvertently fueling the very warlordism and corruption that we are pressing President Karzai to curtail.”

U.S. officials say perceptions that power in Kandahar is concentrated in the hands of the Karzai family’s ethnic Pashtun Popalzai tribe fuel support for the insurgency. According to a Pentagon assessment released April 28, Afghan public perceptions of Karzai’s anti-corruption efforts are “decidedly negative” and extend to international forces and the international community. U.S. defense officials also find that the “exploitative behavior” of some Afghan officials contributes to the insurgency’s success.

For far too long, U.S. officials and analysts have concentrated their focus on Pakistan. As regional expert Steve Coll notes, “If you think about it, the United States is essentially waging a proxy war against its own ally. The Taliban are a proxy of the government of Pakistan. We are an ally of the government of Pakistan. We are fighting the Taliban.”

But government officials in Kabul also fit into this equation; unfortunately, this is a government that Washington still endeavors to support.

New York State Should Cut Property Taxes

The New York Times editorialists are at it again.  June 12th’s lead editorial, “The Latest Work Dodge: A Shutdown,” frets over the specter of the New York state government being shut down because Albany’s legislators can’t agree on a budget.  Well, the Times must have breathed a collective sigh of relief late Monday (June 14th).  That’s when the State Senate passed Governor Paterson’s 11th temporary budget extender, which allowed state offices to hang out “open for business” signs on Tuesday.

But, the Times wants a final state budget and claims that more taxing and borrowing and maybe some cuts in school aid will do the trick.  One item that the Times wants off the table in Albany is property taxes.  According to the Times, Democratic state senators outside New York City should stop pushing for restrictions on the rate of growth of property taxes.  I agree.  Instead, the legislators should start pushing for sharp cuts in New York’s oppressive property taxes.  When every U.S. county is ranked according to its average property-tax bill, as a percent of home values, 14 of the highest 15 are in New York state.

As Prof. Steve Walters and I concluded in “A Property Tax Cut Could Help Save Buffalo” (Wall Street Journal, December 6, 2008),  New York should follow California and Massachusetts and cut property taxes.  Voters capped property taxes in California at 1% of market value with Proposition 13 in 1978. That forced San Francisco to cut its rate by 57% overnight and brought forth a tidal wave of investment, even amidst a recession. By 1982, inflation-adjusted city revenues were two-thirds higher than they had been before Prop. 13. Massachusetts voters passed Prop 2 ½ in 1980, forcing Boston’s property tax rate down by an estimated 75% within two years. Massive reinvestment, repopulation and urban renewal followed.

Grasping for Rationales, Feeding Conspiracy Theories

On June 13, the New York Times reported that America “just discovered” a trillion dollars worth of mineral resources in Afghanistan (HT to Katie Drummond over at Danger Room for offering some enlightened skepticism on the topic).

Of course, the U.S. Geological Survey has known about Afghanistan’s “large quantities of iron and copper” since 2007. The Los Angeles Times reported that geologist Bonita Chamberlain, who has spent 25 years working in Afghanistan, “identified 91 minerals, metals and gems at 1,407 potential mining sites” as far back as 2001. Chamberlain was even contacted by the Pentagon to write a report on the subject just weeks after 9/11 (possibly to expound upon the findings of her co-authored book, “Gemstones in Afghanistan,” published in 1996.)

Given the recent failure of Marjah, which Gen. McChrystal recently called “a bleeding ulcer,” this new “discovery” could offer Western leaders a new way to convince their war-weary publics that Afghanistan is worth the fight. Government officials are already touting this new “discovery” as yet another “decisive moment” or “corner turned” in the Afghan campaign.

In the NYT article, head of Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, said, “There is stunning potential here. There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.”

Afghanistan epitomizes the fate of countries too dependent on foreign patronage, which over time has weakened its security by undermining their leaders’ allegiance to the state. In the long run, $1 trillion worth of mineral deposits could eventually help Afghanistan stand on its own two feet. However, two problems emerge. First, there is little assurance that revenue from mineral resources (which will take years of capital investment to extract) will actually reach the Afghan people and not be siphoned off by Karzai and his corrupt cronies–like much of the international community’s investment does now.

Second, in the short-term, this discovery may feed conspiracy theories that already exist in the region. Though unwise to generalize personal meetings to an entire population, some conspiracy theories that I heard while I was recently in Afghanistan should give U.S. officials pause before announcing that America can help extract the country’s mineral deposits. Some of the wildest conspiracy theories I heard were that the United States wants to occupy Afghanistan in order to take its resources; the Taliban is the United States; the United States is using helicopters to ferry Taliban around northern Afghanistan (courtesy of Afghan President Hamid Karzai); America is at war in order to weaken Islam; and the list goes on.

This “discovery” may force more people in the region to ask: what are America’s real reasons for building permanent bases in Central Asia?

This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post on June 15, 2010.

Dartmouth Withstands the NYT, but the Left Cannot Withstand Dartmouth

Research by scholars at Dartmouth Medical School suggests that Americans waste gobs of money on medical care.  Last week, The New York Times ran a fairly lame critique of the Dartmouth research, by Reed Abelson and Gardiner Harris.  Kate Steadman of Kaiser Health News provides a good synopsis of expert reaction to the story and writes, “Conservative and libertarian health policy bloggers were largely silent, ignoring the debate.”  Although this libertarian wasn’t exactly ignoring the debate, the categorization is largely fair.  More about that in a moment.

Abelson and Harris’s portrayal of the Dartmouth research is completely at odds with my understanding of that research.

Decades ago, Dartmouth researchers stumbled across what may be the best method of detecting wasteful spending in an economic sector as complicated as medicine.  They noticed that patients in some areas consume a lot more medical care than patients in other areas — more office visits (to specialists in particular), more diagnostic tests, more procedures, more hospitalizations, et cetera.  And they began to question whether the patients who consume more care actually benefit from that additional care.  They have therefore spent the past few decades measuring both geographic variation in medical consumption, as well as any benefits for which they can find data.  Do patients in high-spending areas start out sicker than patients in low-spending areas? Do they end up healthier?  Are they more satisfied with their care?  My sense is that the Dartmouth researchers are scientists trying to capture the empirical reality of America’s health care sector.  They have been doing this for a long time, they are very good at it, and they consistently find that a lot of the medical care that Medicare patients consume appears to provide no value.

That finding has drawn intense criticism, not least from health care providers in high-spending areas, whose resource use it calls into question.  Dartmouth researchers have tried to address those criticisms by approaching the issue from whatever angles the data will allow.

  • It is possible, and many critics claim, that high-spending regions spend more because they treat sicker patients.  The Dartmouth folks have therefore controlled for patients’ health status, then measured whether patients in high-spending areas experienced better outcomes.
  • It is certain, as critics also note, that those controls are imperfect.  Dartmouth researchers have therefore controlled for the ultimate outcome — death — by measuring geographic variation in Medicare enrollees’ medical consumption in the last six months of life.  That too is an imperfect strategy, as Reed and Harris note.  It is possible that high-spending regions are doing things that keep some Medicare patients alive and out of that cohort.
  • Dartmouth researchers have compared variations in spending to measures of quality other than health outcomes, including “process” measures that show whether doctors are following evidence-based treatment guidelines.
  • To determine whether patient preferences are driving geographic variation, they have compared consumption patterns to surveys estimating patients’ preferences for more- vs. less-aggressive treatment.

These various strategies consistently show that a large share of medical spending cannot be explained by either patient preferences or better health outcomes.  Indeed, they have even found that higher spending often correlates to lower-quality care.  These findings suggest that perhaps one-third of U.S. health care spending — which amounts to about $700 billion per year, or 5 percent of U.S. GDP — is not making patients any healthier or happier.

These research strategies are not perfect, either individually or in the aggregate, because the data are imperfect and medicine is extraordinarily complex.  (If this stuff could be measured perfectly, it wouldn’t be medicine.)  Furthermore, even if the Dartmouth studies fully controlled for health status and patient preferences, their findings would not prove that all the extra money is being wasted. It may be, for example, that the additional money spent in high-spending areas generates new knowledge that helps save lives  in low-spending areas too.

Nevertheless, this central finding has held up to many different research strategies.  The Dartmouth crowd has produced a sizable and credible body of research that suggests as much as one third of U.S. health care spending — roughly the annual economic output of South Carolina — is little more than a wealth transfer from taxpayers and premium-payers to health care providers and medical suppliers.

Given all this, it was bizarre to see Abelson and Harris claim, “Measures of the quality of care are not part of the formula” (which is untrue), and “Neither patients’ health nor differences in prices are fully considered by the Dartmouth Atlas” (the presence of “fully” makes this claim merely unfair and misleading).  I agree with my left-leaning friends.  This was shoddy journalism.

I have seen only one conservative comment on the Abelson-Harris story.  Since OMB director Peter Orszag invokes the Dartmouth data in his argument for ObamaCare, my conservative friend celebrated Abelson and Harris’s attack on those data.

My conservative friend is in error — but so is Orszag.  As I wrote above, the Dartmouth folks are merely trying to capture what is happening in the world that surrounds us.  So long as the Dartmouth research holds up to scrutiny, advocates of free-market health care reform should embrace it, for two reasons. First, embracing reality is generally a good idea.  Second, the Dartmouth research makes the case for free-market reforms, and against the Obama-Orszag agenda.  The Dartmouth Atlas focuses almost exclusively on the Medicare program, where economists of all stripes acknowledge that government-imposed price and exchange controls, coupled with a lack of patient cost-consciousness, are the driving forces behind persistent excessive spending and a lack of focus on value. (Dartmouth researchers opaquely refer to Medicare’s fee-for-service price and exchange controls as “the current reimbursement system.”) These are not products of the free market.  The wasteful health care spending identified by Dartmouth researchers must be laid squarely at the feet of the Left — or as I affectionately call them, the Church of Universal Coverage.

My conservative friend(s) would do better to respond that a free market can reduce unwarranted variation in health care spending, while government can’t — not in Medicare, and not even in the Veterans Health Administration.

Robin Hood and the Tea Party Haters

What is it with modern American liberals and taxes? Apparently they don’t just see taxes as a necessary evil, they actually like ‘em; they think, as Gail Collins puts it in the New York Times, that in a better world “little kids would dream of growing up to be really big taxpayers.” But you really see liberals’ taxophilia coming out when you read the reviews of the new movie Robin Hood, starring Russell Crowe. If liberals don’t love taxes, they sure do hate tax protesters.

Carlo Rotella, director of American Studies at Boston College, writes in the Boston Globe that this Robin Hood is A big angry baby [who] fights back against taxes” and that the movie is “hamstrung by a shrill political agenda — endless fake-populist harping on the evils of taxation.” You wonder what Professor Rotella teaches his students about America, a country whose fundamental ideology has been described as “antistatism, laissez-faire, individualism, populism, and egalitarianism.”

At the Village Voice, Karina Longworth dismisses the movie as “a rousing love letter to the Tea Party movement” in which “Instead of robbing from the rich to give to the poor, this Robin Hood preaches about ‘liberty’ and the rights of the individual as he wanders a countryside populated chiefly by Englishpersons bled dry by government greed.” Gotta love those scare quotes around “liberty.” Uptown at the New York Times, A. O. Scott is sadly disappointed that “this Robin is no socialist bandit practicing freelance wealth redistribution, but rather a manly libertarian rebel striking out against high taxes and a big government scheme to trample the ancient liberties of property owners and provincial nobles. Don’t tread on him!” The movie, she laments, is “one big medieval tea party.”

Moving on down the East Coast establishment, again with the Tea Party hatin’ in Michael O’Sullivan’s Washington Post review:

Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” is less about a band of merry men than a whole country of really angry ones. At times, it feels like a political attack ad paid for by the tea party movement, circa 1199. Set in an England that has been bankrupted by years of war in the Middle East – in this case, the Crusades – it’s the story of a people who are being taxed to death by a corrupt government, under an upstart ruler who’s running the country into the ground.

Man, these liberals really don’t like Tea Parties, complaints about lost liberty, and Hollywood movies that don’t toe the ideological line. As Cathy Young notes at Reason:

Whatever one may think of Scott’s newest incarnation of the Robin Hood legend, it is more than a little troubling to see alleged liberals speak of liberty and individual rights in a tone of sarcastic dismissal. This is especially ironic since the Robin Hood of myth and folklore probably has much more in common with the “libertarian rebel” played by Russell Crowe than with the medieval socialist of the “rob from the rich, give to the poor” cliché. At heart, the noble-outlaw legend that has captured the human imagination for centuries is about freedom, not wealth redistribution….The Sheriff of Nottingham is Robin’s chief opponent; at the time, it was the sheriffs’ role as tax collectors in particular that made them objects of loathing by peasants and commoners. [In other books and movies] Robin Hood is also frequently shown helping men who face barbaric punishments for hunting in the royal forests, a pursuit permitted to nobles and strictly forbidden to the lower classes in medieval England; in other words, he is opposing privilege bestowed by political power, not earned wealth.

The reviewers are indeed tapping into a real theme of this Robin Hood, which is a prequel to the usual Robin Hood story; it imagines Robin’s life before he went into the forest. Marian tells the sheriff, “You have stripped our wealth to pay for foreign adventures.” (A version of the script can be found on Google Books and at Amazon, where Marian is called Marion.)  Robin tells the king the people want a charter to guarantee that every man be “safe from eviction without cause or prison without charge” and free “to work, eat, and live merry as he may on the sweat of his own brow.” The evil King John’s man Godfrey promises to “have merchants and landowners fill your coffers or their coffins….Loyalty means paying your share in the defense of the realm.” And Robin Hood tells the king, in the spirit of Braveheart’s William Wallace, “What we ask for is liberty, by law.”

Dangerous sentiments indeed. You can see what horrifies the liberal reviewers. If this sort of talk catches on, we might become a country based on antistatism, laissez-faire, individualism, populism, and egalitarianism and governed by a Constitution.

Privacy as the Default Setting

Before I can write a blog post, I must lift my hands to type.

I say so because the default setting in life is privacy. Staying in bed maintains privacy pretty well.

Clay Shirky gives privacy a contrary treatment on the New York TimesRoom for Debate blog. We are both discussants there of the question whether the government should intervene to solve privacy issues with Facebook.

Shirky, a teacher in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at N.Y.U., writes:

There are two principal effects of the Internet on privacy. The first is to shrink personal expression to a dichotomy: public or private. Prior to the rise of digital social life, much of what we said and did was in a public environment — on the street, in a park, at a party — but was not actually public, in the sense of being widely broadcast or persistently available.

This enormous swath of personal life, as we used to call it, existed on a spectrum between public and private, and the sheer inconvenience of collecting and collating theoretically observable but practically unobserved actions was enough to keep those actions out of the public sphere.

That spectrum has now collapsed — data is either public or private, and the idea of personal utterances being observable but unobserved is becoming as quaint as an ice cream social.

“[I]t is keeping things private that requires effort,” he writes.

I think Shirky has inadvertently overstated the effects of the Internet on privacy. The dynamics he describes are definitely in play, but they exist almost exclusively in digital social life. For the rest of life, it’s still the other way around. Privacy is easy. You can just stay in bed. Pursuing publicity takes effort.

When you go out into the world, making effort to give publicity to yourself in pursuit of your wants and needs, you must trade some personal information for interaction, yes. That’s physics: photons and sound waves doing what they do. Nobody considers this a privacy problem because of our long experience with it and acculturation to it.

The online environment has similar information demands—when you go online, giving publicity to yourself in pursuit of your wants and needs, you must trade some personal information for interaction—but it has different properties: information is easier to record. Again, though, the rise of the Internet didn’t change privacy on the street, in parks, and at parties, except in the still rare instance when someone is recording and uploading information.

If we were to conduct all of life online, maybe it would be fair to say that protecting privacy takes effort. But even as a digital denizen, the majority of my experience—certainly the most important and valuable of it—is offline, face-to-face interactions with friends and loved ones or time alone.

Here, privacy is the default. Nobody knows my thoughts unless I tell them. Almost never is anyone capturing the conversation in a digital format. Rarely is anyone uploading images. Facebook isn’t hoovering up the information. Doing these things would take effort that nobody is expending.

The Internet didn’t foreclose the use of real space for the conduct of life as Shirky implies by talking about offline living in the past tense. It expanded our freedom by giving us another space—a new option to use as we see fit. Declining to use that space is as normal, natural, and necessary as eating breakfast (which is impossible to do online, by the way). Maybe some of the digerati conduct their love-lives online, but this should be a disqualification for discussing the social impact of the medium for failure to understand how it fits into most people’s lives.

Privacy debates premised on the omnipresence of digital media are interesting and fun, but I don’t think they’re grounded in people’s actual experience of the world (exception!), and they tend to overstate the significance of online privacy problems.

A Bum Rap for Limited Government

Every so often an editorial comes along that is so obtuse that you wonder if it came from human hand. I allude, not surprisingly, to the item in this morning’s New York Times, “Limits of Libertarianism,” which arises from the kerfuffle over Rand Paul’s critique of the 1964 Civil Rights Act for its undermining the private right to freedom of association. 

The editorial’s main target, however, lies beyond the Paul senatorial campaign. It’s the tea party movement and its libertarian, limited government themes. But from the start the Times conflates limited government with anti government. They’re not the same. More broadly, the editorial shows beyond doubt that the Times, ever the friend of “enlightened government,” finds danger lurking mostly in the private sector. (One wonders just how it is that those not-to-be-trusted private actors become so quickly enlightened once they get their hands on monopoly government power.) 

Thus, we’re told that the libertarian theory of private liberty has “roots in America’s creation, but the succeeding centuries have shown how ineffective it was in promoting a civil society.” Really? What history have the scribes at the Times been reading? Their next line, presumably supporting that claim, only compounds the mystery: “The freedom of a few people to discriminate meant generations of less freedom for large groups of others.” Is that what slavery was, private discrimination, to be corrected by government?

Apparently, because following immediately is the editorialists’ main point: “It was only government power that ended slavery and abolished Jim Crow, neither of which would have been eliminated by a purely free market. It was government that rescued the economy from the Depression.”

Where to begin. Skip the Depression point; it’s been so often refuted that one does so again only with embarrassment for its authors. The first claim, however, warrants more than passing attention. Contending that only government power saved us from slavery and Jim Crow, it ignores the role of private power – the abolitionists, and the civil rights movement – that brought about that government power. More important, it invites us to believe that government had little or nothing to do with slavery and Jim Crow in the first place when in truth we would have had neither without government’s creation of those legal institutions, with legal sanctions that kept them in place. Indeed, it is limited government, government limited to securing our rights, that is the surest guarantee against those twin evils.