Topic: General

Only Wusses Go to War Without Cause

President Barack Obama has been evidently reluctant to go to war in Syria, but has started down the long and winding road by deciding to provide weapons to the insurgents. Why he is risking involvement in another conflict in another Muslim nation is hard to fathom.

However, the president did act only after former president Bill Clinton warned that Obama could end up looking like a “total wuss” and “a total fool” if the latter did not drag America into war. If there is anyone who should not be giving war-related advice, it is Bill Clinton.

His “splendid little war” in Kosovo left a mess in its wake, including ethnic cleansing by America’s putative allies. Indeed, he always had a curious view of the purpose of war. He once expressed his frustration that he likely would not be considered a great president without prosecuting a major conflict. 

Moreover, why is Clinton of all people accusing another president of looking like a “total wuss” and “a total fool” for hesitating to go to war? After all, as I relate in the American Spectator, he engaged in all manner of personal maneuvering to avoid being drafted to fight in Vietnam. 

That’s fine by me. It was a stupid war in which tens of thousands of fine Americans died as a result of dumb decisions by foolish Washington policymakers. But it is striking how reluctant he was personally to go to war.  Why, some people might consider him to have been a “wuss.”

As I pointed out:

Intervening in Syria is a serious mistake.  The U.S. has no interest at stake that warrants entanglement in another Middle Eastern civil war.  President Ronald Reagan learned that lesson three decades ago and responded appropriately, by getting out fast.

It’s bad enough if President Obama made his decision because he genuinely believes that the U.S. needs to fight another war in another Muslim nation.  It’s far worse if the president acted to ensure that he doesn’t look like a wuss and a fool.  For there’s no bigger wuss and fool than someone who allows Bill Clinton to manipulate him into going to war.

Read the rest here.

 

Scratching the Surface Until We Bleed

Yesterday, the Washington Post published a poignant, ably-written piece on the plight of DC’s high school graduates. Even the city’s top students struggle with college-level work because they’re so ill prepared. The story is heavy on “heart interest” but bereft of “head interest.” It will sadden or even anger most readers, but won’t enlighten them as to potential solutions.

If the writer had dug deep into this story, instead of just scratching at its emotional surface, she would have discovered a wealth of relevant research. Private schools, it turns out, not only have higher graduation rates than public schools (controlling for student and family characteristics), but also higher college acceptance rates and much higher college completion rates. In other words, there is a proven solution to the outrageously poor education children are offered in DC and elsewhere. Derek Neal, Jay Greene (2004), and J.R. Warren (2011) all find that private schools significantly increase the graduation rates of urban (especially minority) children over the rates of similar students attending public schools. Those studies that looked at college completion rates find very strong effects there as well. A very recent journal paper on the subject confirms the earlier findings. And DC’s own private school choice program has a beneficial effect on educational attainment according to federal government research.

But instead of offering solutions, the story merely tugs at our heart strings. Journalism could be—should be—so much more than this.

What’s the Better Role Model, France or Switzerland?

At the European Resource Bank conference earlier this month, Pierre Bessard from Switzerland’s Institut Liberal spoke on a panel investigating “The Link between the Weight of the State and Economic prosperity.”

His presentation included two slides that definitely are worth sharing.

The first slide, which is based on research from the Boston Consulting Group, looks at which jurisdictions have the most households with more than $1 million of wealth.

Switzerland is the easy winner, and you probably won’t be surprised to see Hong Kong and Singapore also do very well.

Switzerland Liberal Institute 2

Gee, I wonder if the fact that Switzerland (#4), Hong Kong (#1), and Singapore (#2) score highly on the Economic Freedom of the World index has any connection with their comparative prosperity?

That’s a rhetorical question, of course.

Most sensible people already understand that countries with free markets and small government out-perform nations with big welfare states and lots of intervention.

Speaking of which, let’s look at Pierre’s slide that compares Swiss public finances with the dismal numbers from Eurozone nations.

Switzerland Liberal Institute 1

The most impressive part of this data is the way Switzerland has maintained a much smaller burden of government spending.

One reason for this superior outcome is the Swiss “Debt Brake,” a voter-imposed spending cap that basically prevents politicians from increasing spending faster than inflation plus population.

Now let’s compare Switzerland and France, which is what I did last Saturday at the Free Market Road Show conference in Paris.

As part of my remarks, I asked the audience whether they thought that their government, which consumes 57 percent of GDP, gives them better services than Germany’s government, which consumes 45 percent of GDP.

They said no.

I then asked if they got better government than citizens of Canada, where government consumes 41 percent of GDP.

They said no.

And I concluded by asking them whether they got better government than the people of Switzerland, where government is only 34 percent of economic output (I used OECD data for my comparisons, which is why my numbers are not identical to Pierre’s numbers).

Once again, they said no.

The fundamental question, then, is why French politicians impose such a heavy burden of government spending - with a very high cost to the economy - when citizens don’t get better services?

Or maybe the real question is why French voters elect politicians that pursue such senseless policies?

But to be fair, we should ask why American voters elected Bush and Obama, both of whom have made America more like France?

Public More Wary of NSA Surveillance Than Pundits Claim

Based on a bevy of polls conducted in the wake of revelations that the NSA surveiled millions of ordinary Americans’ private communications, many have prematurely concluded public support or opposition to the government surveillance program (for instance here, here, and here). These polls are insufficient gauges for what Americans actually think for several reasons. First, slight wording differences result in majority support or opposition of the program as described in each particular survey question, as I’ve written about here. Second, the full extent of these government programs is not yet fully known; fully 76 percent of Americans think that we’ll find out the programs are “even bigger and more widespread than we know even now.” Third, most Americans are not even fully aware of the revealed information and its implications—according to a Time poll only 24 percent of Americans say they’ve been closely following the reports of the large-scale government surveillance program called PRISM.

The public’s view of the information leak and revelations about these programs is complicated, as Americans strike a delicate balance between security and privacy. For instance, a Time poll found that 53 percent of Americans think the “government should prosecute government officials and others who leak classified materials that might damage security efforts,” but 54 percent thought that Edward Snowden, the person who leaked the information about the secret program, “did a good thing in informing the American public.” This is likely because only 30 percent, according to a CBS/New York Times poll, think these leaks will weaken U.S. security.

Examining the different poll wordings can still offer value, demonstrating how people’s opinions change when they learn different details of the program. For instance, the public distinguishes between tracking ordinary Americans not suspected of any wrongdoing and collecting records of those suspected of terrorist activity. Pew/Washington Post found 56 percent thought it was acceptable for the NSA to get “secret court orders to track telephone call records of millions of Americans in an effort to investigate terrorism.” However, a CBS/NYTimes poll distinguished between tracking phone records of ordinary Americans and those suspected of terrorist activity. In contrast to Pew, CBS/NYtimes found 58 percent disapprove of “federal government agencies collecting phone records of ordinary Americans” but 75 percent approve of tracking “phone records of Americans that the government suspects of terrorist activity.” Americans continue to reveal their preference for targeted surveillance when 73 percent told a Rasmussen poll that the “government should be required to show a judge the reason for needing to monitor calls of any specific Americans” and 64 percent said “it is better to collect phone records only of people suspected of having terrorist connections.”

Survey data also suggests Americans distinguish between government tracking phone records and government monitoring the content of online activities. Although polls have found public support for tracking phone records to investigate terrorism, most Americans draw the line at government monitoring the content of Internet activity, such as emails and chats. For instance, Pew found 52 percent think the government should not be able to “monitor everyone’s email and other online activities.” Likewise, when Gallup describing the government program as collecting phone records and Internet communications, 53 percent disapproved.

Surveys that assume away potential misuses and abuses of the data not surprisingly find greater support for government surveillance programs. For instance, A CNN/ORC poll, found 66 percent thought the Obama administration was “right” in gathering and analyzing data on Internet activities “involving people in other countries,” while assuring respondents that the “government reportedly does not target Internet usage by US citizens and if such data is collected it is kept under strict controls.” The validity of this later assertion, however, is actually at the crux of the debate for those critical of the surveillance program. In fact, according to the same CNN poll, nearly two-thirds believe the US government has collected and stored data about their personal phone and Internet activities. Moreover, Rasmussen found that 57 percent thought it was likely that government agencies would use the data collected to “harass political opponents.” The fact that the public’s reported support for the program jumps when survey-wording guarantees the collected data will not be abused suggests that part of the reason the public is wary of the program is the very potential for abuse. The public does not desire privacy for just privacy’s sake, rather the public fears loss of privacy because of the potential for misuse or abuse. Questions that assume away this possibility are entirely unenlightening.

In sum, these data suggest the public is wary of untargeted government surveillance of ordinary Americans, especially without a warrant. They are more tolerant of government tracking phone records; however, many draw the line at government monitoring the content of ordinary Americans’ Internet activity.

A version of this post also appeared on Reason.com

We Need Real Change at the G8 Meeting

The G8 is meeting in Northern Ireland’s Belfast. The group of important industrial states is chaired this year by British Prime Minister David Cameron.  London’s three top objectives are trade, taxation, and transparency. 

No doubt, there will be a flurry of ponderous public statements and breathless press analyses. But as I argue on National Interest online, the meeting likely will be a waste. 

Trade liberalization is a worthy goal, but the U.S. and European commitment to agricultural subsidies has essentially killed the Doha round under the World Trade Organization. America wants to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but including Japan, which wants to protect its farmers, while excluding China, which is the largest economy in Asia, makes the process more than a little complicated. As for a U.S.-European Union agreement, France is standing in the way and other member states are likely to resist liberalization in one area or another.

Only on taxes is more progress likely—unfortunately. As Dan Mitchell long has pointed out, attacks on “tax havens” and such are primarily attempts to mulct more money out of the productive to subsidize the influential. (Influential and greedy. Indeed, higher taxes are used to satisfy perhaps the basest of human emotions, envy.)

Transparency is a better objective, but the greatest offenders are non-G8 members, especially in the Third World. As I point out:

The most important single step in this direction the G8 could take would be to discourage rather than encourage government-to-government transfers, or misnamed “foreign aid.” (G8 gatherings usually include boilerplate promises to up official development assistance.) The wealthy nations should cut the financial windpipe of the most corrupt and wasteful regimes.  Private humanitarian and development assistance from NGOs to private people, and private investment and trade to private companies, are far more likely to deliver positive economic and social results with more limited opportunities for graft and abuse.

Finally, the G8 involves a curious anomaly for the U.S. While Washington pursues greater economic integration in the name of encouraging prosperity and growth, the U.S. could achieve the same result by reducing subsidies to the same countries. The Cold War has been over for 24 years. World War II ended 68 years ago. It really is time for Washington to stop defending Europe and Japan, as well as a number of other, non-G8 defense dependents, such as South Korea.

The Obama administration could make this G8 meeting more useful than normal by adding real substance to the agenda.

Siding with the Heritage Foundation in the “Austerity” Fight with Paul Krugman and the Washington Post

I’m not reluctant to criticize my friends at the Heritage Foundation. In some cases, it is good-natured ribbing because of the Cato-Heritage softball rivalry, but there are also real policy disagreements.

For instance, even though it is much better than current policy, I don’t like parts of Heritage’s “Saving the American Dream” budget plan. It’s largely designed to prop up the existing Social Security system rather than replace the existing tax-and-transfer entitlement system with personal retirement accounts. And while the plan contains a flat tax, it’s not the pure Hall-Rabushka version. One of the most alarming deviations, to cite just one example, is that it creates a tax preference for higher education that would enable higher tuition costs and more bureaucratic featherbedding.

That being said, I’m also willing to defend Heritage if the organization is being wrongly attacked. The specific issue we’ll review today is “austerity” in Europe and whether Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island is right to accuse Heritage of “meretricious” testimony.

Let’s look at the details.

Earlier this month, Paul Krugman wrote that, “a Heritage Foundation economist has been accused of presenting false, deliberately misleading data and analysis to the Senate Budget Committee.” Krugman was too clever to assert that the Heritage economist “did present” dishonest data, but if you read his short post, he clearly wants readers to believe that an unambiguous falsehood has been exposed.

Krugman, meanwhile, was simply linking to the Washington Post, which was the source of a more detailed critique. The disagreement revolves around  whether Europeans have cut spending or raised taxes, and by how much. The Heritage economist cited one set of OECD data, while critics have cited another set of data.

So who is right?

Conn Carroll of the Washington Examiner explains that the Heritage economist was looking at OECD data for 2007-2012 while critics are relying on an OECD survey of what politicians in various countries say they’ve done since 2009 as well as what they plan to do between now and 2015.

Whitehouse believed he had caught Furth and The Heritage Foundation in a bald face lie. …There is just one problem with Whitehouse’s big gotcha moment: The staffer who spoon-fed Whitehouse his OECD numbers on “the actual balance between spending cuts and tax increases” failed to also show Whitehouse the front page of the OECD report from which those numbers came. That report is titled: “Fiscal consolidation targets, plans and measures in OECD countries.” Turns out, the numbers Whitehouse used to attack Furth for misreporting “what took place in Europe” were actually mostly projections of what governments said they were planning to do in the future (the report was written in December 2011 and looked at data from 2009 and projections through 2015). At no point in Furth’s testimony did he ever claim to be reporting about what governments were going to do in the future. He very plainly said his analysis was of actual spending and taxing data “to date.” Odds are that Whitehouse made an honest mistake. Senators can’t be expected actually to read the title page of every report from which they quote. But, considering he was the one who was very clearly in error, and not Furth, he owes Furth, and The Heritage Foundation an apology. Krugman and Matthews would be well advised to revisit the facts as well.

In other words, critics of Heritage are relying largely on speculative data about what politicians might (or might not) do in the future to imply that the Heritage economist was wrong in his presentation of what’s actually happened over the past six years.

So far, we’ve simply addressed whether Heritage was unfairly attacked. The answer, quite clearly, is yes. If you don’t believe me, peruse the OECD data or peruse the IMF data.

Now let’s briefly touch on the underlying policy debate. Keynesians such as Krugman assert that there have been too many spending cuts in Europe. The “austerity” crowd, by contrast, argues that strong steps are needed to deal with deficits and debt, though they are agnostic about whether to rely on spending reforms or tax increases.

I’ve repeatedly explained that Europe’s real problem is an excessive burden of government spending. I want politicians to cut spending (or at least make sure it grows slower than the productive sector of the economy). And rather than increasing the tax burden, I want them to lower rates and reform punitive tax systems.

The bad news is that Europeans have raised taxes. A lot. The semi-good news is that spending no longer is growing as fast as it was before the fiscal crisis.

In the grand scheme of things, however, I think Europe is still headed down the wrong path. Here’s what I wrote back in January and it’s still true today.

I don’t sense any commitment to smaller government. I fear governments will let the spending genie out of the bottle at the first opportunity. And we’re talking about a scary genie, not Barbara Eden. And to make matters worse, Europe faces a demographic nightmare. These charts, reproduced from a Bank for International Settlements study, show that even the supposedly responsible nations in Europe face a tsunami of spending and debt over the next 25-plus years. So you can understand why I don’t express a lot of optimism about European economic policy.

By the way, I’m not optimistic about the long-term fiscal outlook for the United States either. In the absence of genuine entitlement reform, we’ll sooner or later have our own fiscal crisis.

The Framers and Love

As some of you are aware, I recently got married, right here on Cato’s roofdeck, overseen by the eagle of liberty. I’ll spare you the details – there were plenty of “constitutional moments,” including personalized pocket constitutions as one of our wedding favors – other than to highlight my sometime co-author Josh Blackman’s excellent reading on the Framers and love:

We can look to the same patriots that gave us our Constitution to glean some lessons about love, liberty, and forming more perfect unions.

A successful marriage is not that much different from a successful republic. Both require the union of different parties to utilize their comparative advantages more efficiently. Both require a federalist system that structures powers and rights. And most importantly, both must aspire to a higher charter to bond them into one. For the United States it is our Constitution. For Kristin and Ilya, it is their vows.

First, we look to Federalist 51, Ilya’s favorite, where Madison wrote that if men were angels, we would not need government. Alas, neither husband nor wife is always an angel, so both Kristin and Ilya will need to structure a government for themselves to promote their happiness.

Second, to avoid any strife, we should heed Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence, for mere “light and transient” causes are not enough. They must maintain tranquility, as they “mutually pledge to each other their Lives, their Fortunes and their sacred Honor.”

Third, we turn to the father of our country, General George Washington, whose eternal love for his wife Martha carried him towards victory. In one of the rare letters, which Martha did not burn at George’s death, the General wrote to her, “I retain an unalterable affection for you, which neither time nor distance can change.” May the two of you always be in such love, no matter where you are.

May the passion our framers had for our Constitution and Republic, mirror the love you have for each other. And as the history of our nation has witnessed, despite the dividing difficulties, insurmountable challenges, and specters of oppression, the union shall always prevail. As you pursue happiness together, may Kristin and Ilya always cherish their life, and liberty–and hopefully accumulate vast amounts of property, both personal and real. And that way, they can “secure the Blessings of Liberty to their many Posterity.”

If you’re curious about the rest of the ceremony, including Josh’s presentation, you can view it here (the audio is patchy at first, but kicks in before the vows). Yes, I got permission from my wife to post that and, yes, we’ll be going on honeymoon soon – but, like most couples, we’re waiting for the end of the Supreme Court term before getting away.