Chapman on Iraq

Here’s libertarian columnist Steve Chapman on Bush’s Iraq report card, released last week:

On Thursday, the White House released its latest assessment of the war, and it concluded that on eight of the 18 benchmarks set by Congress, there has been “satisfactory progress.” That was enough for a presidential seal of approval. In other words, getting right answers on less than half the exam questions earns a pass. If the standards for No Child Left Behind were that low, we would be descending toward mass illiteracy.

[…]

By now, we should all know that the president is determined to portray Iraq as a success in the making no matter how much it looks like a failure. He said Thursday that the results of the surge so far are “cause for optimism.” But in September 2004, he was “pleased with the progress.” In January 2005, he said, “I’m optimistic about it.” A year later, he said “we are winning.” The president’s mood is always good and always wrong.

It’s worth pointing out that the White House moved the goalposts–yet again–in its assessment metrics. The Dems in Congress thought they were being tricky by asking the president to assess whether the Iraqis were making “satisfactory” progress on the various metrics, hemming him in by forcing him to either a) put his stamp of approval on what they suspected would be obvious non-progress, or b) concede publicly that the political process was not progressing. Here was the White House’s response, from pages 7-8 of the report, clarifying its assessment techniques:

Standard of Measurement: Section 1314(b)(2)(A) states: “The President shall submit an initial report to Congress, not later than July 15, 2007, assessing the status of each of the specific benchmarks established above, and declaring, in his judgment, whether satisfactory progress toward meeting these benchmarks is, or is not, being achieved.” In order to make this judgment (e.g., whether “satisfactory progress … is, or is not, being achieved”), we have carefully examined all the facts and circumstances with respect to each of the 18 benchmarks and asked the following question: As measured from a January 2007 baseline, do we assess that present trend data demonstrates a positive trajectory, which is tracking toward satisfactory accomplishment in the near term? If the answer is yes, we have provided a “Satisfactory” assessment; if the answer is no, the assessment is “Unsatisfactory.” For those benchmarks receiving the latter assessment, we have explained what, if any, strategic adjustments may be required to improve the present trajectory. (All emphasis in original.)

So the White House defines “satisfactory” as demonstrating a “positive trajectory” that is tracking toward satisfactory accomplishment “in the near term,” a date which remains undefined. Thus, the X-axis in this case, time, could be unlabeled; it represents an infinite timeline constrained only by however the White House cares to define “the near term” at any given moment. Any upward trend could be thus deemed “satisfactory.” We got no evaluation from the White House on how fast the Iraqis should be making progress.

The White House decided to grade themselves on a significant curve, and still could only fudge the report card such that they scored a 44%. Chapman is right; if NCLB had standards like this, the future would look even bleaker.

Major Ruling in KPMG Case

In a closely-watched white collar crime case in NY, Judge Kaplan has dismissed criminal charges against 13 defendants because of the federal government’s interference with the constitutional right to counsel.

Excerpt from today’s Washington Post:

Kaplan said the Department of Justice “deliberately or callously” prevented many of the defendants from getting funds for their defense, blocking them from hiring the lawyers of their choice.

“This is intolerable in a society that holds itself out to the world as a paragon of justice,” Kaplan said, adding that he reached his conclusion “only after pursuing every alternative short of dismissal and only with the greatest reluctance.”

Previous coverage here.

Last year Cato published Trapped, which examines the problems in this area of the law.  The author, John Hasnas, spoke about his thesis here.

A Perverse Burst of Honesty from Europe

European elitists want to create a bureaucratic super-state, but their efforts to further centralize power in Brussels are complicated by the fact that voters generally are opposed to the loss of national sovereignty. In an effort to circumvent these voters and avoid holding referenda, the proposed European constitution has been cosmetically modified and is now being called a treaty. Every so often, however, a politician blurts out the truth and admits (apologies to Hans Christian Andersen) that the Emperor has no clothes.

As reported by the EU Observer, an Italian minister who was closely involved in the drafting process has acknowledged that the text of the constitution/treaty was deliberately made unreadable in order to keep voters from understanding the radical changes that are being proposed. Mr Amato deserves credit for telling the truth, but his admission also is a sign that Europe’s elite have utter disdain for public opinion:

The new EU reform treaty text was deliberately made unreadable for citizens to avoid calls for referendum, one of the central figures in the treaty drafting process has said. Speaking at a meeting of the Centre for European Reform in London on Thursday (12 July) former Italian prime minister Giuliano Amato said: “They [EU leaders] decided that the document should be unreadable. If it is unreadable, it is not constitutional, that was the sort of perception”. …Mr Amato, who is now minister of the interior in Italy, has been a central figure in all stages of the year-long process of writing a new constitution for
Europe. He was vice-president and leader of the socialists in the Convention, the body that wrote the first constitution-draft in 2002-2003 under the leadership of former French president Giscard d’Estaing. …Following two years of ‘reflection’ Mr Amato headed the 16-strong group of politicians which prepared a simplified version of the document. Unofficially known as the “Amato Group” the group stripped the rejected constitution of its constitutional elements - including the article on the EU’s symbols. But the main elements of the original constitution were kept in. …”This is an extraordinary admission from someone who has been close to the negotiations on the EU treaty”, said Open Europe director Neil O’Brien. “The idea of just changing the name of the Constitution and pretending that it is just another complex treaty shows a total contempt for voters.”

DC Government to Petition Supreme Court

The Mayor of Washington DC just announced that the city will ask the Supreme Court to reverse a landmark Second Amendment ruling from the DC Court of Appeals.

This is great news–as the whole idea of this lawsuit has been to get a good case up to the Supreme Court.  Had DC officials not filed an appeal, they would have had to amend DC’s 30 year ban on guns, but they could have kept the case out of the Supreme Court.  By filing an appeal, DC officials are hoping that the lower court will be reversed, but the risk is that the High Court will rule otherwise.  For opponents of the DC firearm ban, it is nice to have a favorable precedent from the DC Court of Appeals–but it is even better to have a favorable precedent from the Supreme Court.

The ball is now with the Supreme Court.  DC has decided to appeal but review by the High Court is hardly automatic.  The Supreme Court declines to hear hundreds of cases every year.   To hear a case, four justices must agree that a particular case ought to be heard.  We will likely learn whether this case, Parker v. District of Columbia, will be reviewed when the Court reconvenes in early October, after its summer recess.

Background on the lawsuit here.  Cato’s Second Amendment work is here.

Who’s Causing Trouble in Iraq?

This morning’s LA Times has an interesting piece on who is actually sowing the mayhem that continues to take place across Iraq:

BAGHDAD — Although Bush administration officials have frequently lashed out at Syria and Iran, accusing it of helping insurgents and militias here, the largest number of foreign fighters and suicide bombers in Iraq come from a third neighbor, Saudi Arabia, according to a senior U.S. military officer and Iraqi lawmakers.

About 45% of all foreign militants targeting U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians and security forces are from Saudi Arabia; 15% are from Syria and Lebanon; and 10% are from North Africa, according to official U.S. military figures made available to The Times by the senior officer. Nearly half of the 135 foreigners in U.S. detention facilities in Iraq are Saudis, he said.

Fighters from Saudi Arabia are thought to have carried out more suicide bombings than those of any other nationality, said the senior U.S. officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity. It is apparently the first time a U.S. official has given such a breakdown on the role played by Saudi nationals in Iraq’s Sunni Arab insurgency.

He said 50% of all Saudi fighters in Iraq come here as suicide bombers. In the last six months, such bombings have killed or injured 4,000 Iraqis.

And yet, apropos of all the recent saber-rattling against Iran that’s taken place lately, the most interesting line in the piece may be this one:

Both the White House and State Department declined to comment for this article.

Why do they have nothing to say about the Saudis?

Inside a Chinese Factory

Via Tom, here’s a fantastic series of posts by the guy who’s setting the Chinese supply chain to manufacture the Chumby, an Internet-enabled alarm clock. Here you can see videos of a Chinese factory floor, with workers assembling sneakers. Here is a story about the fanatical level of dedication he has seen among the workers at the factory—dozens of employees stayed at work until 3 AM while he debugged a flaw in the first run of devices, and then showed up again at 8 AM to resume assembly. And finally, here are some videos of Chinese workers doing extremely detailed work quickly and accurately.

Some peoples’ instinctive reaction to this story is no doubt to wring their hands about the exploitation of Chinese workers. It’s not hard to see why; wages are only about $0.60/hour, and the jobs are tedious. And indeed, when I was in college in the late 1990s, there were a lot of activists who did just that, agitating for the shutdown of “sweatshops” in China and elsewhere. But I think this suggests a better way to look at the situation:

The amazing part is that the Shenzhen factories were complaining that labor rates were way too high. Apparently, minimum wage for factories in other regions is much less, so they are seeing contracts migrate away from their factories and inland where labor is cheaper. Think about it–Americans complain about work going to Hong Kong, Hong Kongers complain about work going to Shenzhen, Shenzheners complain about work going inland China, and to Vietnam (apparently Vietnam is the new hotness for cheap skilled labor).

The low wages and tedious work of the early sweatshops were a temporary condition. The author reports that the minimum wage in Shenzhen has been increasing by about 30 percent per year in the last couple of years. As the workers in Shenzhen become more skilled and the companies develop better business relationships with Western companies, demand for the area’s manufacturing facilities rise. The companies expand their facilities and hire more workers, and the competition for workers then pushes up wages. And that, in turn, will lead companies to increasingly transition to more complex and lucrative activities. Firms in Shenzhen will specialize in manufacturing more and more complex products, and eventually some of them will begin designing and building their own products.

That’s what happened in postwar Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, all of which have since achieved Western levels of affluence. The anti-globalization activists meant well, but in reality, the opportunity to become integrated with the global economy will do far more to help the average Chinese worker than anti-sweatshop laws could possibly have done.

Economics and Values

A recent NYT article has roiled the economics blogosphere by spotlighting several prominent economists who ostensibly challenge the “fundamental assumptions” of their field. A snippet:

“Economists can’t pretend that the consensus for free markets and free trade that existed 30 years ago is still here,” said Robert B. Reich, a public policy professor at Berkeley who served in President Bill Clinton’s cabinet.

Part of the reason is the growing income inequality and dislocation that global markets and a revolution in communications have helped create. Economists who question the free-market theories “want to speak to the reality of our time,” Mr. Reich said.

The article references some interesting material, including Alan Blinder’s criticism of offshoring and David Card’s provocative work ($) with Alan Krueger on employment and the minimum wage. However, contrary to its tone, the article is not (for the most part, anyway) about disagreements in economics — it’s about disagreements over values.

Consider, for instance, this bit from Blinder’s recent Washington Post op-ed:

And if the jobs do move offshore, displaced American workers may lose not only their jobs but also their pensions and health insurance. These people can be forgiven if they have doubts about the virtues of globalization.

We economists assure folks that things will be all right in the end. Both Americans and Indians will be better off. I think that’s right. The basic principles of free trade that Adam Smith and David Ricardo taught us two centuries ago remain valid today: Just like people, nations benefit by specializing in the tasks they do best and trading with other nations for the rest.

Blinder does not dispute (and indeed endorses) the economic orthodoxy that trade materially benefits participants. Instead, he notes that a change in trading partners produces both winners (the new trading partners) and losers (displaced partners), and that change can often be painful for the loser — a notion that most all economists would endorse.

Given this economic analysis, Blinder offers a values judgment: the United States should implement public policies to aid displaced workers caught in such change (but he expressly eschews protectionist measures that would prohibit change). Libertarians may disagree with Blinder’s policy proposals (perhaps on the grounds that such policies are not appropriate for limited government, or are economically inefficient, or would create perverse incentives and unintended consequences). But this disagreement is not about economics, it’s about competing values (e.g., limited government is preferable; economic inefficiency is undesirable, perverse incentives and unintended consequences are to be avoided).

Like “hard” science, economics is a non-normative field that attempts to determine certain types of relationships — in this case, economic ones (e.g., what is a minimum wage’s effect on employment; what market power effects result from industry regulation?) — and use those determinations to predict the future. Economic analysis often leads to policy recommendations, but those recommendations are the product of value judgments: Should the well-being of one group of workers (e.g., domestic, unionized, members of a particular group) be promoted over another? Should the harm experienced by displaced workers be mitigated, and if so, how?

From a policymaking perspective, it is useful to distinguish what part of economic policy is about economics and what part is about values. Economic analysis of U.S. farm subsidies and trade protections reveals their effect on farmer and consumer behavior, but good policy ultimately comes from answering such values questions as whether the tradeoff of higher consumer food prices for higher producer revenues is acceptable, or whether ag subsidies are a good use of the public fisc.  Or, concerning Prof. Reich’s comment above about income inequality, good policy would come from answering the values question of whether it is a problem that some people are rich or, instead, that some people are poor.

All of this is not to say that we should not question whether neat, simple economic theory plays out cleanly in this messy, complicated world. The debate ($) over Card & Krueger’s minimum wage findings is one of the most interesting in economics, and the burgeoning field of behavioral economics is reinvigorating long-simmering questions about the rationality of market actors — though those questions may not support the values judgments that the apostates and heterodoxoi presume. But I would argue that economics is not so different from the hard sciences — the core tenets are quite solid (though revolution does occur). What remains (appropriately) shaky is a pluralistic society’s attempts to apply its many values (as well as its hopes, fears, grievances, immediate concerns, and political aspirations), to economic phenomena.