A Layered Conundrum in Iraq

There’s been much discussion of the relationship between security and political progress in Iraq. Until about a year ago, the thinking was largely that advances on the political front would iron out wrinkles in the security environment. Since the fighting was fueled by competition over power and resources (the basis of politics), once the political problems were resolved, there would be fewer flashpoints to fight over. Then, with the advent of Surgeism, the thinking became that once the security environment was stabilized, political leaders would take advantage of the relative calm to make peace among themselves. The thinking was that it was hard for to make deals with other leaders whose followers were busy killing your followers.

These are oversimplifications, and there is some merit in both arguments. The relationship goes both ways. But in two comments, yesterday and today, you can see how the question of our staying indefinitely affects the security environment and the political environment in different ways. Here’s Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch describing the prerequisite for sustaining the tamping down of violence, particularly in Sunni areas:

“They have to be convinced that we’re not leaving. That’s the issue. If they were to think we’re leaving we’d have also [sic] sorts of trouble,” Lynch said, clambering over a makeshift earthen bridge across the canal.

There’s a perfectly intelligible logic here. If people think you’re leaving, they’re going to start hedging their bets, and making deals with centers of power outside the national government that have large enough constituencies to influence a post-America Iraq. So from a tactical level–trying to control violence in a particular region, say–the point is to convince the Iraqis that we’re not going anywhere.

But then you take that to the strategic level: forcing political factions who don’t like each other into cooperating and compromising on sharing power at the national level. Tom Friedman describes the situation this way:

As one U.S. official in Baghdad pointed out to me last week, “at no point” since the testimony by General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker “have you had the four key Iraqi leaders in the same country at the same time.” They saw the hearings as buying them more time, and so they took it.

“We have created a real case of moral hazard in Iraq,” said Marc Lynch, a Middle East specialist at George Washington University. “Because all the key players think the Americans are going to bail them out, they have no incentive to make any real concessions to one another.”

So if we’re not staying forever, we won’t get cooperation in leveraging local and regional forces into deals like the “Anbar Awakening” and they’ll start hedging their bets. If we are staying forever, the Iraqi national leadership says “What’s the hurry? Let’s see what’s happening in Tehran…” Something that’s helpful at one level is destructive at the other. And the two levels are closely interrelated.

Ann Coulter of the Left: Jonathan Chait

For those who think that it’s just conservatives, such as Ann Coulter, who are mean-spirited, they should check out the new book by Jonathan Chait, a senior editor of the New Republic, entitled The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics.

I managed to get through the introduction and first chapter of Mr. Chait’s book. Alas, I could read no more. Here are some of Chait’s characterizations of supply-side economists and supply-side economics–from the 1970s to the present day–in those first 44 pages:

“Pseudo-economists”, “cult of fanatical tax-cutters”, “amateurs and cranks”, “patently ludicrous ideas”, “preposterous ideas”, “theological opposition to taxation”, “ideological fanatics”, “insane”, “detachment from reality”, “extremism of their agenda”, “triumph of the extreme”, “a cult”, “quasi-religious”, “totalistic ideology”, “crank doctrine”, “sheer monomania”, “plain loopy”, “magical”, “sheer loons”, “deranged”, “wingnuttery”, “utterly deluded”, “crackpot economic theories”, “lunacy”, “ludicrous,” etc.

You get the idea.

Interestingly, Chait ends the first chapter arguing that “Tax rates under 40 percent simply do not have much effect on economic behavior.” Thus, he seems to be admitting that all those crackpots back in the 1970s and 1980s who cut income tax rates from 70% to the pre-Bush 40% might have been right after all.

Of course it’s not correct that tax rates of less than 40% don’t affect behavior. The Wall Street Journal has a front-page story today on the big efforts of Wal-Mart to reduce its effective state income tax rate of just 3.5%.

Finally, note that for Chait’s supply-side conspiracy theory to work, the cult would have had to include governments of every major industrial nation, because they have all cut top marginal rates since the 1970s. The top individual income tax rate across the 30 OECD countries has plunged by 26 percentage points since 1980. If that’s wingnuttery, then I’m all for it.

Are Copyrights and Patents Property Rights?

The latest issue of Regulation magazine has a fantastic article by Peter Menell discussing the divisions in libertarian theory on copyright and patent issues. One one side is what Menel dubs the Property Rights Movement, of which Richard Epstein is a leading theoretician. They see intellectual property and more traditional property rights as fundamentally similar, and apply libertarian insights about the importance of strong property rights in tangible goods to debates over patent and copyright law. For theorists like Epstein, the need to reward the fruits of labor lie at the heart of the libertarian case for property rights, and as a consequence the argument for strong intellectual property rights is identical to the argument for tangible property rights.

The other camp sees copyright and patent law as fundamentally different from tangible property rights. It includes F.A. Hayek, many “cyberlibertarians,” and Menell himself. For this camp, the fundamental argument for property rights is not about rewarding creativity so much as managing scarcity. We need strong property rights in tangible property so people can make plans about the use of scarce resources. Since inventions and creative works are non-rivalrous once created, the argument goes, property-like restrictions on their use are at best a necessary evil.

As I’ve written before, my sympathies are with the latter camp. One difference that’s particularly important—and which Menell mentions only in passing—is the issue of clear boundaries. It’s almost always easy to determine who owns which parcel of land and where the boundary lies. In contrast, both copyright and patent law suffer from vexing line-drawing issues. For example, the legal principles governing what constitutes fair use of copyrighted materials is notoriously vague. The result is endless litigation that can hamper technological progress. Patent law can be even worse. Microsoft, for example, has vaguely hinted that the Linux operating system has infringed several hundred of its patents, but no one has been able to figure out which of Microsoft’s 6000 patents they might be referring to. It’s hard to imagine a company complaining that its competitor is trespassing on its land but refusing to give any specifics.

Ultimately, I think that lumping copyright and patent law together with traditional property law obscures more than it illuminates. There may very well be good arguments for expansive interpretations of copyright and patent law, but they’re likely to be rather different from the arguments for robust property rights in tangible goods. It makes more sense to debate those arguments on their own terms rather than confusing the issue by lumping together legal regimes that have relatively little in common.

Will Poland Become the Next Flat Tax Country?

Germany’s statist politicians must be a bit uneasy about the recent election results next door. While they are probably happy that the populist-oriented incumbent government - which periodically got into disputes with Germany - was defeated, they will be very dismayed if the victorious Civic Platform Party follows through on promises to implement a 15 percent flat tax. As the biggest “new” member of the European Union, Poland would add considerable fuel to the tax-competition fire if it adopted a simple and pro-growth tax system. The Financial Times reports on the election and the market-oriented reforms advocated by the nation’s new leaders:

Foreign leaders and Poland’s business community on Monday welcomed the victory of the liberal Civic Platform party in Sunday’s parliamentary elections, predicting the revival of contacts iced up under the previous government and the restart of much-delayed economic reforms. …With more than 99 per cent of ballots counted, Civic Platform had 41.4 per cent of the vote, translating into 209 seats in the 460-member parliament. …Civic Platform is likely to form a coalition with the smaller Peasants party, which will have 31 seats. …Some of the most specific comments, concerning the party’s economic policies, were made by Zbigniew Chlebowski, a potential economy minister. He talked of introducing a flat 15 per cent tax by 2009 and said the government would privatise more energetically than its predecessor.

European Politicians Seeking to Export Big Government

The ideal trade policy is unilateral openness, which hopefully would be copied by other nations. But some argue that trade negotiations are a wise strategy, since one nation’s liberalization can be a carrot to obtain liberalization in other nations. Unfortunately, European politicians want to turn this strategy upside down by using liberalization as a stick to encourage other nations to adopt onerous European-style regulatory burdens. The EU Observer reports on this statist French-led gambit:

According to the European Commission, the EU should…”shape” globalisation. …Speaking at the EU summit Friday (19 October), French president Nicolas Sarkozy proved to be the strongest advocate of such a principle. “Let’s not be naive, we must demand a reciprocity”, he said, complaining about the severe environmental and social requirements placed upon EU businesses, but not followed by their non-European competitors.

The Draft: Way to (More) War

The United States’ increased military activity following the declaration of the “War on Terror” has inspired a growing movement to reinstitute compulsory service — that is, to bring back the draft. Perhaps surprisingly, the movement is largely on the political Left.

We could joke cynically that the new draft movement shows Democrats’ love of slavery is still strong nearly a century and a half after the 13th Amendment. But draft advocates have a serious motivation: They see the return of compulsory service as “a way to peace.”

Their thinking goes like this: If the draft were reinstated, then a cross-section of the public would be directly affected by U.S. military action — our children could be drafted. The public would thus develop a more critical view of military involvement than what they have now. They would pressure Congress and the White House to give greater attention to the troops’ well being, would prompt a withdraw from Iraq, and would decrease the likelihood of questionable missions in the future. As an Iraq war veteran wrote in a Sunday NYT op-ed:

[S]erious consideration of a draft could set off such a violent reaction from the American public that the pressure on politicians to abandon their cliché-ridden rhetoric and begin a well-considered withdrawal would be overpowering.

The draft advocates’ motivation is respectable. Unfortunately, their strategy is too clever by half — or, perhaps, not clever enough about the incentives and disincentives of political leaders who dispatch troops, and about 20th century American military history.

With no compulsory service, America’s military can only rely on volunteers to fill its ranks. If political leaders are overly aggressive in their use of the military, or if service members are poorly treated, poorly compensated, and poorly trained and equipped, or if they are exposed to unacceptable risk, then the Pentagon will have trouble with recruitment and retention. That’s why, when the United States abandoned selective service in 1973 after 25 years of paying conscripts poorly, training them minimally, and using them as cannon fodder in Korea and Vietnam, the Pentagon had to increase troops’ compensation significantly and reduce their risk of being killed or injured in combat (which was accomplished, in part, by developing and deploying advanced weaponry and improving troops’ skills and training).

Call this the “enlistment veto” — because the United States has an All-Volunteer Force (AVF), would-be volunteers act as a check on the politicial leaders who would send them to war and the military leaders who would command them. If those leaders are reckless and abusive in their use of the troops and miserly in the troops’ compensation, then the military will have trouble filling its ranks. As a result, the leaders would be less inclined to use the military because the understaffed force would be less likely to achieve military success.

Contrast the AVF with compulsory service, where there is no enlistment veto. With the draft, young people are forced to soldier for America’s political and military leaders regardless of the soundness of those leaders’ decisions, their treatment of the troops, and the troops’ level of compensation, training, and equipment. With the draft, U.S. politicians have an ample, cheap supply of military manpower to use as they see fit.

Put simply (and perhaps crudely): If political and military leaders were given a larger, cheaper supply of a vital input to war — namely, troops — would that result in less military involvement or more?

A look at selective service in the 20th century shows politicians can find all sorts of questionable uses for the military when young people are forced to serve. Following the expiration of the WWII draft in 1947, the United States adopted the peacetime selective service program for the period 1948–1973. In that quarter-century, the United States dispatched troops to the following foreign entanglements:

  • China (1948–1949)
  • Korea (1951–1953)
  • Egypt (1956)
  • Lebanon (1958)
  • Panama (1958)
  • Vietnam (1960–1975)
  • Panama (1964)
  • Dominican Republic (1965–1966)
  • Cambodia (1969–1975)

Did U.S. leaders show they more highly valued the cheap, forced labor of the selective service era than the more costly, more discriminating labor of the post–selective service era? Complete data on casualties for the two time periods are difficult to compile, but we can make a rough comparison by using fragmented data [sources]. The two major U.S. military involvements of the selective service era (Korea and Vietnam) saw 81,165 hostile action deaths of U.S. troops and 256,587 wounded. In contrast, for the period 1980–1999 (including the Gulf War and Somalia) plus the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (as of 10/06/2007), U.S. troops experienced a total of 3,927 hostile action deaths, and the three prominent post-1980 military conflicts (as of 10/06/2007) yielded a total of 30,290 wounded.

Granted, the conflicts and geopolitical dynamics of the selective service era are different than the post–selective service era. But given the historical data, it’s very hard to accept draft advocates’ claim that reinstituting compulsory service would make the United States less aggressive militarily and would make political and military leaders more responsive to the troops’ concerns.

Draft proponents would respond that using compulsory service to supply troops for a politically unpopular war would lead to social unrest that would reshape U.S. politics. But is that unrest a stronger check on political and military leaders than the enlistment veto? Consider that there has been precious little change in Iraq policy despite protests and considerable public criticism of the war. And yes, the United States did change course in Vietnam after a lot of 1960s protests — but it took a very long time before that policy change happened. It is difficult to believe that the United States would have fought the Vietnam War the way it did, for as long as it did, if it had to rely on an all-volunteer military instead of being able to call on cheap, forced labor.

The “protests instead of enlistment veto” strategy becomes even more untenable when we consider U.S. demographics. The American public is aging, families are growing smaller and more fragmented, and it is older Americans with adult children — people who are not at risk to be drafted, and whose kids are not at risk to be drafted — who are increasingly dominating American politics. This older, less-connected American majority seems unlikely to take a stronger interest in the well-being of U.S. troops than the would-be volunteers themselves.

America’s Future Foundation Panel on Health Care

Last month, I spoke on an AFF panel on health care reform. Click here to listen to the podcast.

It was a good exploration of the health care debate taking place within the free-market movement, and a good companion to my recent National Review Online article where I offer friendly advice to conservatives wrestling with health care reform.