Use Your Career Deferment to Work for Liberty

Many law firms are asking their incoming first-year associates to defer their start dates (from a few months to a full year) and are offering stipends to these deferred associates to work at public interest organizations.

The Cato Institute invites third-year law students and others facing firm deferrals to apply to work at our Center for Constitutional Studies.  This is an opportunity to assist projects ranging from Supreme Court amicus briefs to policy papers to the Cato Supreme Court Review.

Interested students and graduates should email a cover letter, resume, transcript, and writing sample, along with any specific details of their deferment (timing, stipend, availability, etc.), to Jonathan Blanks at jblanks [at] cato.org (jblanks [at] cato.org.)

Please feel free to pass the above information to your friends and colleagues.  For information on Cato’s programs for non-graduating students, contact Joey Coon at jcoon [at] cato.org (jcoon [at] cato.org.)

Week in Review: Tax Day, Pirates and Cuba

Tax Day: The Nightmare from Which There’s No Waking Up

Cato scholars were busy exposing the burden of the American tax system on Wednesday, the deadline to file 2008 tax returns.

At CNSNews.com, tax analyst Chris Edwards argued that policymakers should give Americans the simple and low-rate tax code they deserve:

The outlook for American taxpayers is pretty grim. The federal tax code is getting more complex, the president is proposing tax hikes on high-earners, businesses, and energy consumers; and huge deficits may create pressure for further increases down the road…

The solution to all these problems is to rip out the income tax and replace it with a low-rate flat tax, as two dozen other nations have done.

At Townhall, Dan Mitchell excoriated the complexity of the current tax code:

Beginning as a simple two-page form in 1913, the Internal Revenue Code has morphed into a complex nightmare that simultaneously hinders compliance by honest people and rewards cheating by Washington insiders and other dishonest people.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg. The tax code also penalizes economic growth, distorts taxpayer behavior, undermines American competitiveness, invites corruption and promotes inefficiency.

Mitchell appeared on MSNBC, arguing that every American will soon see massive tax hikes, despite Washington rhetoric.

Don’t miss the new Cato video that highlights just how troubling the American tax code really is.

U.S. Navy Rescues Captain Held Hostage by Somali Pirates

gallery-somali-pirates-pi-003USA Today reports that the captain of a merchant vessel that was attacked by Somali pirates was freed Monday when Navy SEAL sharpshooters killed the pirates. The episode raises a larger question: How should the United States respond to the growing threat of piracy in the region?

Writing shortly after Capt. Richard Phillips was freed, foreign policy expert Benjamin Friedman explained the reasons behind the increase in piracy:

It’s worth noting the current level of American concern about piracy is overblown. As Peter Van Doren pointed out to me the other day, the right way to think about this problem is that pirates are imposing a tax on shipping in their area. They are a bit like a pseudo-government, as Alexander the Great apparently learned. The tax amounts to $20-40 million a year, which is, as Ken Menkhaus put it in this Washington Post online forum, a “nuisance tax for global shipping.”

The reason ships are being hijacked along the Somali coast is because there are still ships sailing down the Somali coast. Piracy is evidently not a big enough problem to encourage many shippers to use alternative shipping routes. In addition, shippers apparently find it cheaper to pay ransom than to pay insurance for armed guards and deal with the added legal hassle in port. The provision of naval vessels to the region is an attempted subsidy to the shippers, and ultimately consumers of their goods, albeit one governments have traditionally paid. Whether or not that subsidy is cheaper than letting the market actors sort it out remains unclear to me.

Appearing on Russia Today, Friedman discussed the implications of the increased threat and what ships can do to avoid future incidents with Somali pirates.

Since the problems at sea are related to problems on Somali land, what can Western nations do to decrease poverty and lawlessness on the African continent? Dambisa Moyo, author of Dead Aid, argued at a Cato Policy Forum last week that the best way to combat these issues is to halt government-to-government aid, and proposed an “aid-free solution” to development based on the experience of successful African countries.

Obama Lifts Some Travel Bans on Cuba

The Washington Post reports:

President Obama is lifting some restrictions on Cuban Americans’ contact with Cuba and allowing U.S. telecom companies to operate there, opening up the communist island nation to more cellular and satellite service… The decision does not lift the trade embargo on Cuba but eases the prohibitions that have restricted Cuban Americans from visiting their relatives and has limited what they can send back home.

In the new Cato Handbook for Policymakers, Juan Carlos Hidalgo and Ian Vasquez recommend a number of policy initiatives for future relations with Cuba, including ending all trade sanctions on Cuba and allowing U.S. citizens and companies to visit and establish businesses as they see fit; and moving toward the normalization of diplomatic relations with the island nation.

While Obama’s plan is a small step in the right direction, Hidalgo argues in a Cato Daily Podcast that Obama should take further steps to lift the travel ban and open Cuba to all Americans.

Topics:

Fighting Piracy through Nation Building?

Even though I was on vacation last week, I followed the story of the Maersk-Alabama and Captain Richard Phillips with great interest. And I exulted when three of the four pirates met their end. The safe return of the Maersk-Alabama and her entire crew was a clear win for the cause of justice, and could serve as a model. Future efforts to protect ships from pirates are likely to include some combination of greater vigilance on the part of the shipping companies and crews, in collaboration with the navies of the many different nations who have an interest in keeping the sea lanes open and free. (This is one of the themes that I develop in my new book, and that I will discuss next Monday at Cato.)

We do not need to reorient our grand strategy to deal with pirates. We don’t need to reshape the U.S. Navy to fight a motley band of young men in leaky boats. As my colleague Ben Friedman has written, piracy is a problem, but decidedly minor relative to many other global security challenges.

But some are criticizing the approach taken to resolve last week’s standoff. They say that the only way to truly eliminate the piracy problem is to attack and ultimately clean out the pirates’ sanctuaries in lawless Somalia. This “solution” fits well with the broader push within the Washington foreign policy community that would deal with our security problems by fixing failed states.

I have gone on at length, usually with my colleagues Justin Logan and Ben Friedman, on the many reasons why an overarching strategy for fixing failed states is unwise and unnecessary. I won’t expand on that thesis here, other than to point out that of all failed states in the world, Somalia is arguably the most failed. “Fixing” it would require a massive investment of personnel, money, and time — resources that would be better spent elsewhere.

Mackubin Owens offers one of the more intriguing defenses of this approach in a just published e-note for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Owens likens a strategy of fixing Somalia to Gen. Andrew Jackson’s military operations in Florida, a story that features prominently in John Lewis Gaddis’s Surprise, Security and the American Experience. As Owens notes, when some members of President James Monroe’s cabinet wanted to punish Jackson for exceeding his mandate — in the course of his military campaign he captured and executed two British citizens accused of cavorting with the marauders who had attacked American citizens — Secretary of State John Quincy Adams jumped to Jackson’s defense and proposed a different tack. He demanded that Spain either take responsibility for cleaning up Florida or else give it up. And we all know what happened. Under the terms of Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819, Florida became a territory of the United States. Some 26 years later, it became our 27th state.

I’ve vacationed in Florida many times. Walt Disney World is wonderful for the kids; I’ve been there six times. I spent three memorable days watching March Madness in Miami a few years back. Spring training baseball is great fun. Adams couldn’t have imagined any of these things when he acquired a vast swampland; he cared only that Florida under Spanish control, or lack thereof, posed a threat.

Here is where the parallels to the present day get complicated. I’ll admit that I’ve never been to Somalia. Perhaps they have their own version of South Beach, or could have some day. But I’m frankly baffled by the mere intimation that our national security is so threatened by chaos there that we need to take ownership of the country’s — or the entire Horn of Africa’s — problems.

And yet, that is what many people believe. And this is not a new phenomenon. In many respects, we have chosen to treat all of the world’s ungoverned spaces as the modern-day equivalent of Spanish Florida.

Max Boot and Robert Kaplan compare U.S. military operations in the 21st century to the westward territorial expansion of the 19th century. In 1994, Kaplan authored one of the seminal works in this genre, “The Coming Anarchy,” in which he advised Western strategists to start concerning themselves with “what is occurring … throughout West Africa and much of the underdeveloped world: the withering away of central governments, the rise of tribal and regional domains, the unchecked spread of disease, and the growing pervasiveness of war.” Less than two years later, William Kristol and Robert Kagan wrote, “American hegemony is the only reliable defense against a breakdown of peace and international order.” Boot in 2003 advised Americans to unabashedly embrace imperialism. “Afghanistan and other troubled lands,” he wrote, “cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.”

Americans have resisted such advice, and with good reason. The world will not descend down the path to total ruin if the United States hews to a restrained foreign policy focused on preserving its national security and advancing its vital interests. That is because there are other governments in other countries, pursuing similar policies aimed at preserving their security, and regional — much less global — chaos is hardly in their interests. The primary obligation of any government is to defend its citizens from threats. Curiously, our conduct in recent years suggests that U.S. policymakers doubt that other governments see their responsibilities in this way. Indeed, we have constructed and maintained a vast military largely on the grounds that we, and we alone, must police the entire planet.

In The Power Problem, I quote Machiavelli, who noted in his discourses: “Men always commit the error of not knowing where to limit their hopes, and by trusting to these rather than to a just measure of their resources, they are generally ruined.” I continue:

As Machiavelli would have predicted, the notion of what Americans must do to preserve and advance our own security has steadily expanded over the years to encompass the defense of others. Seemingly unconstrained by the resources at our disposal, we are driven by our dreams of fashioning a new global order. But we are also driven by false fears. We believe that we can only be secure if others are secure, that insecurity anywhere poses a threat to Americans everywhere. If someone on the other side of the planet sneezes, the United States is supposedly in danger of catching pneumonia. The putative cure is preventive war. Such geostrategic “hypochondria” has gotten us all into much trouble over the years. We would be wise to take measure of our relative health and vitality, and not confuse a head cold with cancer.

[Cross-posted from PSA’s Across the Aisle]

Obama and the Interrogation Memos: The Right Decision

President Obama’s decision to release Bush-era memos discussing “enhanced interrogation techniques” is the right decision. Critics, such as the one featured in this Politico article, fail to comprehend terrorism as a strategy. Thus, they are locked into counterproductive policies like secrecy and torture.

Let’s start with the strategic logic of terrorism: By goading strong powers into overreaction and error, terrorism weakens those powers and strengthens itself. Among other things, overreaction and misdirection on the part of the strong power draw sympathy and support to terrorists as it confirms the terrorist narrative that they are in a struggle against evil powers.

Torture or credible accounts of torture provide confirmation of a suspicion among relatively unsophisticated observers in the Middle East (once known as the “street”) that the United States is a colonist and an oppressor of Muslims and Arabs. Secrecy is a way in which such stories grow and multiply. The results of torture and secrecy are millions of people who believe, suspect, or worry that they and their culture are on the losing end of a battle for supremacy in the world. (We have some of those on the American street, too.)

From these millions emerge individuals and groups — eventually perhaps networks — who devote their creativity to developing and eventually mounting attacks on the United States and the West. (The path to terrorism is not simple or well-understood. Several panels in our January counterterrorism conference explored dimensions of this question.)

Just as important, non-participants in terrorism who are ideologically or physically nearby to inchoate terrorists decline opportunities to undermine the terrorism brewing around them. Terrorists are bad people with ugly ideologies, and their neighbors know it, but these neighbors will overlook all that if they see the United States as a wrongdoer. Because of secrecy and torture, the United States loses these natural allies and the security they would otherwise provide.

But what about the loss of enhanced interrogation techniques? “Publicizing the techniques does grave damage to our national security by ensuring they can never be used again,” says a critic, “even in a ticking-time-bomb scenario where thousands or even millions of American lives are at stake.”

The ticking-time-bomb scenario is a movie plot that evidently thrills some in the counter-terrorism community. But the chance of a significant weapon being acquired and used by terrorists is very small. The chance that U.S. authorities will know about it and know who to interrogate at just the right moment: pure fantasy. Such a moment would only arrive as the result of many, many failures on the part of U.S. intelligence and security organizations to protect our interests.

Even assuming that torture actually works, which is very much in dispute, the security given by having the sympathy of millions of people in the Muslim and Arab worlds is much, much greater than the security of having legal authorization to torture. The security of having world goodwill helps ensure that we never arrive at the ticking time-bomb moment.

If that’s frustrating to torture hawks, there are video games where they can avenge the 9/11 attacks over and over again. The rest of us will rue the failings that allowed 9/11 to happen while we work on sophisticated, strategic counter-terrorism that actually secures the country. Many in the intelligence and security communities have sophisticated views on counter-terrorism and are eager to get on with policies that aren’t counterproductive.

President Obama has made the right decision in releasing the memos — and not just right in some abstract legal or moral sense. It is the correct strategic decision for countering terrorism.

His critics’ focus on one or two trees — saplings like the “ticking time-bomb” fantasy — obscures the forest that would grow higher still should the United States persist in being a secretive torturer.

Agony of Defeat

Oh, what a burn. My tax debate with French economist Thomas Piketty was a dead heat, 50-50, for the past four days. Then just as the contest was closing, he pulled ahead to seize victory, 51-49.

The Economist editor described the tightly fought battle:

Chris Edwards got over a strong initial disadvantage to narrow what was originally a strong lead for Mr Piketty to a dead heat, but eventually Mr Piketty has prevailed: but only just—even hours before closing, the vote was split exactly down the middle. One could not have asked for a closer contest: this has been the most closely-fought of our 21 online debates, although it began with a fairly substantial lead for the proposition.

Certainly, the debate revealed high levels of interest in taxation and relative income levels. There were more than 1,100 reader comments posted, making it the “most commented” story on the Economist site for the last 10 days or so. My thanks to all the supportive voters and commenters.

Piketty won the website voting battle, but I don’t think he’ll win the war. Global tax competition has led to large cuts in top tax rates in recent decades, and will continue to exert downward pressure for years to come. However, these are dangerous times as governments press to end financial privacy, to create international tax cartels, and to substitute competition with multinational government power in various other ways.

Private Zips Past Public

Govexec.com reports: “Private sector zips past government in Recovery Act tracking.”

If you want to find out where governments are spending the $800 billion in federal stimulus money, the story reports that you would do better to go to www.recovery.org than www.recovery.gov. The latter is the government website that stimulus-overseer, VP Joe Biden, could not remember the name of. The former is a project of the business research firm Onvia.

The private www.recovery.org does have useful data and charts. But Onvia should have paired the chart ”Estimated Jobs Created by State” with another one titled “Estimated Jobs Destroyed by State” to illustrate the financing burden of all the new spending.

Mike German on ‘Intelligence’ Reports

On the ACLU blog (“because freedom can’t blog itself”), Mike German has a great write-up that captures the depth of error in recent DHS “intelligence” reports on ideological groups.

German shows that any ideology can be targeted if the national security bureaucracy comes to use activism as a proxy or precursor for crime and terrorism:

A Texas fusion center warned about a terrorist threat from “the international far Left,” the Department of Homeland Security and a Missouri fusion center warned of threats posed by right-wing ideologues, and a Virginia fusion center saw threats from across the political spectrum and called certain colleges and religious groups “nodes of radicalization.” These are all examples of domestic security gone wrong.

“Gone wrong” means weak in theory, threatening to liberty, and not helpful to law enforcement:

If these “intelligence” reports described recent crimes and the people who perpetrated them, there would be little problem from a civil rights perspective, and it could actually be helpful to the average police officer. Instead, they have followed a “radicalization” theory popularized by the NYPD (PDF). That theory postulates that there is a “path” to terrorism that includes the adoption of certain beliefs, and political, religious, or social activism is viewed as another step toward violence. Actual empirical studies of terrorism conducted in the Netherlands and Britain refute this theory, but the idea that hard-to-find terrorists can be caught by spying on easy-to-find activists appears too hard to resist to U.S. law enforcement.

The takeaway: “Threat reports that focus on ideology instead of criminal activity are threatening to civil liberties and a wholly ineffective use of federal security resources.”

Mike German was a participant in our January conference on counterterrorism strategy.