Loosie In the Streets, With Patdowns

In a Saturday editorial, the Washington Post calls for further hiking Maryland’s tobacco tax so as to push the state’s smuggled-cigarettes rate, currently around 20%, closer to New York state’s Bloomberg-influenced, nation-leading 57%. The New York policy has proved a highly effective way to bring petty and not-always-so-petty crime to New Yorkers’ everyday lives. With I-95, I-70 and other corridors, Maryland is already one of the most accessible states for contraband smugglers, and if the Post has its way organized gangs on the streets of Baltimore stand to get their hands on a new cash engine that, as one Brooklyn distributor is said to have boasted on wiretap, is “better than selling drugs.” What could go wrong?

P.S. The Post’s editorial never even mentions smuggling or evasion of the law, let alone bring up the Eric Garner case in Staten Island, although the Post’s own news analysts and opinion writers have repeatedly explored the role of taxes in that case. Is it too much to ask of the Post editorialists that they keep up with their own paper?

[cross-posted from my blog on Maryland issues, Free State Notes]

Thailand’s Military Junta Enjoys Power and Postpones Elections

BANGKOK, THAILAND—Thailand’s capital has lost none of its frenetic motion but it is a bit quieter of late, with last year’s demonstrators dispersed by the military.

However, the junta, which took power in May, is not leaving. Instead it recently announced that it was putting off any vote.

Thailand’s political crisis has been years in the making. Once an absolute monarchy, the country’s democracy has been oft interrupted by military rule. A new constitution was instituted in 1997, but the business-military-court alliance hadn’t prepared for telecommunications executive Thaksin Shinawatra. 

In 2001 he won the votes of Thailand’s long neglected rural poor, giving his party a majority and making him prime minister. He spread state largesse far and wide and won again in 2005.

His frustrated opponents essentially gave up on democracy. Thailand’s political losers launched a campaign of disruptive protests against Thaksin, giving the military an excuse to oust the prime minister in 2006. 

However, new elections gave Thaksin’s successor party a plurality. Again opposition demonstrators took over streets.

Security agencies refused to protect the elected government. Courts abused the law to disqualify pro-Thaksin legislators. Elites which viewed themselves as born to rule then pressured coalition partners to switch sides. Bloodshed erupted when so-called “Red Shirts,” who backed Thaksin, traveled to Bangkok to protest the quasi-coup.

In Thailand’s 2011 election Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra and their Pheu Thai party decisively defeated the Democrats. A former deputy prime minister then organized new mobs to prevent the government from functioning.

In May the army moved in. Emphasizing “national happiness,” the junta organized rallies featuring singing soldiers, female dancers in camo, and musicians.

Although soldiers did not arrive with guns blazing, the coup was real. Hundreds of people were arrested. Demonstrations are banned, as are public meetings of five or more people.

Journalists are barred from criticizing the government. Students are detained for using the three-finger salute from the movie Hunger Games. One of the military’s most effective tools of repression is the lese majeste law, which is used to punish even innocent discussions of the monarchy.

Shortly after grabbing control General turned Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said that he hoped not to violate human rights “too much.” In that he has failed dramatically. Burma’s people now are freer than Thais.

The junta originally promised new elections next year after the constitution was changed to create “genuine democracy.” However, the regime now expects to rule at least until 2016.

Normalize Relations with Cuba

The Obama administration hasn’t had much foreign policy luck with the big issues.  But President Barack Obama is making progress with Cuba.

The spy/prisoner exchange offered obvious humanitarian benefits.  The more significant step announced by the president was to drop what he called today’s “outdated approach” to U.S.-Cuba relations.  His objective is to expand travel and trade with Cuba and reopen the U.S. embassy in Havana.

Of course, the administration’s plan has generated complaints from hard-line Cuban-Americans and Republican uber-hawks.  Representing both camps, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio denounced the policy as “absurd” and another example of “coddling dictators and tyrants.”

Rubio substituted rhetoric for argument.  He apparently realized he couldn’t make a practical case for maintaining sanctions, especially that they would ever achieve their purported end. 

A half century ago the Castros created a nasty dictatorship and allied with the Soviet Union.  But the Soviet Union, Cold War, Soviet-Cuban alliance, and Moscow subsidies for Cuba are all gone.  Only the Castro dictatorship lives on, despite the embargo.

Over the years the rest of the world ignored Washington’s ban.  Even after the cut-off of Soviet transfers the sanctions did not bring Havana to heel.

The administration’s plan is to begin discussions over reestablishing an embassy. Regulations would be changed to encourage more travel and remittances, particularly by Cuban-Americans.  The administration also intends to expand allowable exports to Cuba, including agriculture and construction.  The administration will review the designation of Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. 

Normalization is long overdue.  There’s no longer a security argument for isolating Cuba.  At home the Castros are thugs, but that’s old news and hasn’t been affected by a half century of sanctions.  What we know as a result of essentially a controlled experiment with the embargo is that sanctions do not release political prisoners, generate competitive elections, unseat dictators, create a free press, or foster a market economy. 

Thirty years into the embargo supporters thought their moment finally had arrived with the collapse of the U.S.S.R.  In 1994 the Heritage Foundation’s John Sweeney declared that the Castro regime’s collapse is “more likely in the near term than ever before.”

Another two decades have gone by and all Washington’s policy of isolation has done is given the Castros an excuse for their failure. When I visited Cuba (legally) a decade ago I met Elizardo Sanchez Santa Cruz, who spent years in Castro’s prisons.  He criticized U.S. sanctions for giving “the government a good alibi to justify the failure of the totalitarian model in Cuba.”

Nor does isolation make a symbolic statement.  There have been and remain plenty of worse regimes in the world. 

Moreover, U.S. policy essentially made Fidel Castro.  Had Washington dismissed his regime, he would have receded in global importance, just another windbag dictator in charge of a poor, small state.  Instead, for decades he was seen as the premier global opponent of Yanqui Imperialism.

Of course, it’s important not to overstate the benefits of normalization.  Cubans are limited in what they can buy and also in what they can produce to sell. 

Moreover, while greater economic and political contact will be naturally seditious and undermine Communist Party rule, the regime has carefully controlled past foreign investment.  Much more will still need to be done to encourage a freer society.

President Obama will face strong opposition, but even most Republicans today recognize that the embargo has failed.

As I wrote in National Interest:  “The Cuban people deserve far better than what the Castros have delivered.  Ultimately, their Communist dictatorship will end up in history’s legendary dustbin.  But not yet, unfortunately.”

Normalizing both economic and diplomatic relations with Havana should be seen not as a victory for the Castro government, but for the people of Cuba.  Liberty will come to that land.  The only question is when.  Expanding relations should help speed the process.

Response to Heat Stress in the United States: Are More Dying or Are More Adapting?

One of the concerns expressed by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) with respect to the potential impacts of CO2-induced global warming is an increase in the number of heat related deaths, which they predict should occur in response to enhanced summertime temperature variability and more extreme heat waves, particularly among the elderly.

Is this really the case? A new paper published by Bobb et al. (2014) in the scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives provides an answer. 

In prefacing their work the team of four U.S. researchers writes “increasing temperatures are anticipated to have profound health impacts,” but they say “little is known about the extent to which the population may be adapting.” Therefore, they decided to examine “the hypothesis that if adaptation is occurring, then heat-related mortality would be deceasing over time.”

To accomplish this objective, Bobb et al. used “a national database of daily weather, air pollution, and age-stratified mortality rates for 105 U.S. cities (covering 106 million people) during the summers of 1987-2005,” employing “time-varying coefficient regression models and Bayesian hierarchical models” to estimate “city-specific, regional, and national temporal trends in heat-related mortality and to identify factors that might explain variation across cities.”

With respect to their findings, Bobb et al. state “on average across cities, the number of deaths (per 1,000 deaths) attributable to each 10°F increase in same-day temperature decreased from 51 in 1987 to 19 in 2005” (see Figure 1). Furthermore, they report “this decline was largest among those ≥ 75 years of age, in northern regions, and in cities with cooler climates.”  In addition, they write “although central air conditioning (AC) prevalence has increased, we did not find statistically significant evidence of larger temporal declines among cities with larger increases in AC prevalence.”

Figure 1. The number of excess U.S. deaths (per 1,000) attributable to each 10°F increase in the same day’s summer temperature over the period 1987 to 2005. Adapted from Bobb et al. (2014).

Figure 1. The number of excess U.S. deaths (per 1,000) attributable to each 10°F increase in the same day’s summer temperature over the period 1987 to 2005. Adapted from Bobb et al. (2014).

Based on these findings, Bobb et al. conclude the U.S. population has, “become more resilient to heat over time”—in this case from 1987 to 2005—led by the country’s astute senior citizens. This discovery, coupled with many other similar findings from all across the world (Idso et al., 2014), adds yet another nail in the coffin of failed IPCC projections of increased heat related mortality in response to the so-called unprecedented warming of the past few decades. Perhaps it is high time for all the other apocalyptic projections of the global warming movement to be removed from life support, as they are each equally failing in comparisons with real world data.

References

Bobb, J.F., Peng, R.D., Bell, M.L. and Dominici, F. 2014. Heat-related mortality and adaptation to heat in the United States. Environmental Health Perspectives 122: 811-816.

Idso, C.D, Idso, S.B., Carter, R.M. and Singer, S.F. (Eds.) 2014. Climate Change Reconsidered II: Biological Impacts. Chicago, IL: The Heartland Institute.

Cato Scholars: Ahead of the Curve

Congratulations to former Treasury secretary Robert Rubin, who has become concerned, as he writes in the Wall Street Journal, that

The U.S. rate of incarceration, with nearly one of every 100 adults in prison or jail, is five to 10 times higher than the rates in Western Europe and other democracies, according to a groundbreaking, 464-page report released this year by the National Academy of Sciences. America puts people in prison for crimes that other nations don’t, mostly minor drug offenses, and keeps them in prison much longer.

Of course, if he’d been following the work of the Cato Institute, he could have read about the problems of drug prohibition and mass incarceration in this 2009 symposium at Cato Unbound, this 2013 paper on incarceration rates in the United States and other countries, this Washington Post article by Tim Lynch in 2000 when the U.S. prison population first exceeded 2 million, or indeed my 1988 New York Times article on the excessive arrests and intrusions on freedom in the drug war.

Meanwhile, on the same page of Friday’s Wall Street Journal, former senator James L. Buckley calls for ending federal aid to the states, an idea central to his new book Saving Congress from Itself and inspired by the work of Cato’s Chris Edwards.

Global Warming and World Food Security

In a recent study to come out of China, Liu et al. (2014) write “food security under the changing climate is a great challenge for the world,” noting it has been stated by Porter et al. (2014) in the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report that “the negative impact of global climate warming on crop yield is more common than the positive impact according to the data from the past fifty years.”

That’s not true. Crop yields continue to rise, to the consternation of many, at the exact same rate that they have been rising at since the end of World War II. Even more telling, Liu et al. report studies based on historical data for the past several centuries suggest just the opposite, i.e. that “climate warming is good for crop harvests while climate cooling is bad for crop harvests in the world’s main crop production areas such as Europe (Braudel, 1992; Parker and Smith, 1997; Holopainen and Helama, 2009; Zhang et al., 2011) and China (Zhang, 1996; Ge, 2010; Su et al., 2014) in the temperate region.” They conclude “the current lengths of studies used to evaluate climate impacts on agriculture are too short to detect long-term trends.”

In making their case, the five Chinese scientists employed proxy data-based climate reconstructions that indicate that the Sui dynasty (581-618 AD) and Tang dynasty (618-907 AD) had warm climates comparable with the present, citing in this regard the study of Ge et al. (2003) that shows a strong periodicity in China temperatures. They additionally note that within this primarily warm climate regime, there were imbedded temperature variations—with cooling segments of inter-annual, multiple-decade and century-scale magnitude—which enabled them to assess crop yield responses to both heating and cooling from information provided about food availability in numerous historical documents that have been brought together in several historical compilations that deal with various aspects of China’s past, including Wang (1955), Wei et al. (1973), Li (1974), Liu (1975), Ouyang et al. (1975), Sima (1975), Dong (1985), Wang et al. (1985) and Song (2008). What did they thereby discover?

Licensing Speech in the Big Easy

The First Amendment protects the freedom of speech and of the press because the Framers wanted to prevent the creation in America of a license-based censorship. They were deeply opposed to Britain’s systematic restriction of speech, which treated the right to speak publicly as a privilege conditioned on an express grant of the sovereign’s permission. In order to publish books, newspapers, and pamphlets, or even to perform plays, a speaker had to obtain a permit.

American law has firmly rejected this sort of “prior restraint” on speech. While licenses to engage in potentially dangerous activities like the practice of medicine — or even driving — are often necessary to prevent great harm, the value judgment represented by the First Amendment is that the harm a “license to speak” would do to individual liberty is far greater than any potential harm that could be caused by “unqualified” speakers. It is for this reason that authors, publishers, filmmakers, journalists, and talk-show hosts don’t need to pass a test or ask the government for permission before engaging in their vocation.

Unfortunately, several municipalities seem to think that tour guides should be treated differently. Fearing the calamitous consequences of allowing “ignorant” guides to “mislead” tourists, these cities have instituted licensing regimes that make it a crime for tour guides to operate without a license — a license which can only be obtained by passing a test of history and culture. 

Last year, Cato, joined by First Amendment expert Prof. Eugene Volokh, filed briefs supporting lawsuits challenging the licensing schemes in Washington and New Orleans. While the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit agreed with us that the law was unconstitutional, the Fifth Circuit upheld the New Orleans ordinance, claiming that it was a “content neutral” restriction on speech necessary to protect tourists and the city’s reputation. Joined again by Prof. Volokh, Cato has filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to take this case and reverse the Fifth Circuit’s decision to allow the very kind of licensing scheme that the First Amendment was intended to preempt.