Disaster Collectivism

Naomi Klein, darling of the loonie left, has a new book out called The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. The basic idea is that the insidious forces of neoliberalism take advantage of wars, economic crises, and natural disasters to impose their evil schemes on disoriented and distracted publics. The career of Milton Friedman, the occupation of Iraq, and the bungled response to Katrina are all supposedly cases in point.

Klein is not a serious person, and in this book she does not mount a serious argument. But she does raise an interesting issue: the political implications of crises. It is certainly true that the waves of liberal reform (political as well as economic) that swept the world in the ’80s and ’90s were often triggered by economic crises. Indeed, I wrote a book on the subject in which I interpreted the current episode of globalization as a response to the often cataclysmic breakdown of various state-dominated models of economic development.

There’s nothing terribly surprising about this. Inertia is a powerful force in politics: every status quo has vested interests that benefit from it, while advocates of change push in all different directions and frequently cancel each other out. A crisis, though, can discredit the status quo and demoralize its supporters, while galvanizing particular pro-reform camps and boosting their credibility. Politics suddenly becomes more fluid; rapid and sweeping changes that had no chance of being enacted beforehand now occur in rapid succession.

But it’s ridiculous to portray this dynamic as somehow uniquely favoring one side of the political spectrum. Recall the great triumphs historically associated with the left: the French Revolution was made possible by the financial distress of the ancien regime; the Paris Commune was founded after defeat at the hands of the Prussians; the Russian Revolution was catalyzed by military failures in World War I.

In our own country, it was a one-two punch of cataclysms – the Great Depression, followed by World War II — that brought Big Government to the United States and then consolidated its hold. The unprecedented economic collapse made traditional American attitudes of laissez faire and individual responsibility seem hopelessly outdated; by contrast, the frenetic activity of the New Deal, regardless of the decidedly mixed results, projected boldness and vigor and hope. The subsequent mass mobilization for total war reinforced the shift in political culture. If you watched any of the wonderful new Ken Burns documentary on “The War,” you saw that the “home front” wasn’t just an expression: the diversion of the country’s industrial might to war production, price controls and rationing, extremely high tax rates, war bond drives, and incessant propaganda combined to thoroughly collectivize American society. And it worked: the economy boomed, people reaped the psychological satisfactions of banding together against a common and abominably evil enemy, and in the end America triumphed.

Today people on the left are filled with nostalgia for the political economy of the early postwar decades. I don’t think many of them recognize, though, how heavily their Golden Age depended on the lingering economic and cultural effects of destruction on a mind-boggling scale. They call themselves progressives, yet they pine for the good old days of disaster collectivism.

[cross-posted from www.brinklindsey.com]

Catholics against SCHIP

The Rev. Robert A. Sirico is a Catholic priest, as well as president and co-founder of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.  In today’s Detroit News, he weighs in on the debate over the State Children’s Health Insurance Program:

The Catholic Health Association has blasted President Bush for vetoing a program called SCHIP, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. How can anyone be against the health of children?

Well, public policy is more complicated than that. When the state gets involved in public health, there are unintended consequences. In fact, there is enough wrong with this program to make it possible to oppose SCHIP in good conscience…

There is not a living soul who would not wish that every person, especially every child, would have access to perfect medical care. But the essential condition for universal coverage is universal prosperity, and the only means available to create that is a flourishing and free economy – a condition that programs like SCHIP help to undermine…

It is folly to seek short-term gains at the expense of long-term economic development. Eliminating taxes and regulations that hinder private industry will make greater strides toward universal coverage than any state program can or will…

What I fear most is that politicians use legitimate issues to gather more power unto themselves and their friends in government. The population becomes more dependent on the public sector and less reliant on the sectors over which they exercise real control.

Amen to that.  Now how do we get the Catholic hospitals to stop taking Caesar’s coin?

Five Years On — It’s (Well Past) Time to Make a Choice

Today’s Washington Post op-ed by 12 Army captains who served in Iraq is a sobering but welcome contribution to the voluminous literature on what went wrong in Iraq, and what we should do next. The entire article is worth reading, but the concluding paragraphs boil down the essential points:

There is one way we might be able to succeed in Iraq. To continue an operation of this intensity and duration, we would have to abandon our volunteer military for compulsory service. Short of that, our best option is to leave Iraq immediately. A scaled withdrawal will not prevent a civil war, and it will spend more blood and treasure on a losing proposition.

America, it has been five years. It’s time to make a choice.

This is how the debate over Iraq should have been framed at the outset – before Congress voted to grant the president authorization to use force.

Success in Iraq was always uncertain. How uncertain depended, in part, on the amount of effort we were willing to exert in the endeavor; but it also depended on a number of factors well beyond our control. And there is no evidence that George Bush ever seriously contemplated the costs of waging war for five years – he merely asserted on the eve of war that the costs of inaction outweighed the costs of action.

For a time, the American public went along. Now, five years on, a solid majority disagree. In poll after poll, Americans say that the costs that we have already paid in this war far exceed whatever benefits we might hope to derive from it. And they are looking to cut our losses.

They are unlikely to embrace a further escalation of the conflict, particularly one that entails the draconian step of reinstituting the draft. And they should not do so. As the Army captains concede, we might still fail, even if we flood Iraq with tens or hundreds of thousands more American troops. Hardly a ringing endorsement for that option.

If our national survival hung in the balance, if our very existence was threatened by an escalating civil war in Iraq, we would be spared such discussions: we would invest what was necessary, and worry about the consequences later.

But Iraq always was, and always will be, a war of choice. We should choose to terminate the mission, and refocus our attention – and, where appropriate, our still-strong military – on the enemies who struck us on 9/11.

That the choice is clear does not imply that the choice is easy. The ramifications of a U.S. withdrawal are likely to be horrible in the short term, especially for the many Iraqis who risked their lives by cooperating with the American forces, and the many more who are likely to be caught in a worsening civil war. We should do what we can to help the Iraqis, especially those who have helped us.

There are still other concerns. The real risk of that civil war spreading beyond Iraq’s borders, actions that could spawn a wider regional conflict, requires that a U.S. military withdrawal be combined with a diplomatic offensive to encourage all of Iraq’s neighbors to take prudent steps to contain the violence. Our problem is also their problem; they would be wise to cooperate with us, and with each other, to prevent a far worse catastrophe from unfolding there.

But such considerations do not change the basic calculus for the United States: given that we should not be willing to pay whatever might be needed to win, recognizing all the time that victory is uncertain, and might take years to achieve, we should leave.

I commend these 12 soldiers for their service in Iraq; and, although it can’t compare to their courage and sacrifice over there, I commend them for weighing in on the issue.

Surveillance and Doublespeak

The Washington Post has a story today about the government’s data collection activities. Unfortunately, the article repeatedly says the FBI is “requesting” information from the phone companies. That’s misleading. The FBI is using subpoenas and national security letters. Thus, federal agents are demanding information from the businesspeople. A refusal to comply means fines and jail. This is an area of law and policy that needs much more attention.

Barry Posen: The Case for Restraint

Director of MIT’s Security Studies Program, Prof. Barry Posen, takes to the pages of The American Interest to make “The Case for Restraint.” The gist is this:

Since the end of the Cold War, the American foreign policy establishment has gradually converged on a grand strategy for the United States. Republican and Democratic foreign policy experts now disagree little about the threats the United States faces and the remedies it should pursue. Despite the present consensus and the very great power of the United States, which mutes the consequences of even Iraq-scale blunders, a reconsideration of U.S. grand strategy seems inevitable as the costs of the current consensus mount—which they will. The current consensus strategy is unsustainable.

If we understand properly the current foreign policy consensus and review the four key forces affecting U.S. grand strategy, the contours of an alternative strategy will emerge. The alternative, a grand strategy of “restraint”, recommends policies dramatically different from those to which we have grown accustomed not just since the end of the Cold War, but since its beginning. The United States needs to be more reticent about the use of military force; more modest about the scope for political transformation within and among countries; and more distant politically and militarily from traditional allies. We thus face a choice between habit and sentiment on the one side, realism and rationality on the other.

It’s a great piece, and has rankled to no end the commentators invited by TAI, including Niall Ferguson and Ruth Wedgwood. Rarely can one be generally encouraged by the foreign policy debate in Washington, but this is one of those times, and Posen is quite a capable advocate for his–and my–position. Here’s hoping his phone starts ringing.

Not Burying the Good News

The New York Times reports:

Death rates from cancer have been dropping by an average of 2.1 percent a year recently in the United States, a near doubling of decreases that began in 1993, researchers are reporting.

“Every 1 percent is 5,000 people who aren’t dying,” said Dr. Richard L. Schilsky, a professor of medicine at the University of Chicago and president-elect of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. “That’s a huge sense of progress at this point.”

I’ve complained in the past that good news like this gets buried or ignored, while even minor bits of bad news make the front pages. In this case the good news was bannered on the front page of USA Today and was the lead story on the CBS Radio News. (It was on page A18 of the Times, but teased on page 1.)

The Times did manage to find the cloud in the silver lining: As is universally the case in all human affairs, the decline is not uniform across all demographic groups. In particular, groups who still have high rates of smoking are not seeing cancer declines as large as other groups. But the news still fits the message of Indur Goklany’s book, The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet

Why Can’t Republicans Embrace Corporate Tax Cuts Like Canadian Liberals?

When they were in power, Canada’s left-wing party reduced the corporate tax rate from 28 percent to 19 percent. Now they are proposing to reduce the rate even more (and by more than the trivial 0.5 percentage point reduction proposed by the incumbent Conservative Party). As reported by Tax-news.com, the leader of the Liberal Party makes a very strong supply-side/tax competition argument for the lower rate:

Liberal Leader Stephane Dion has pledged to further reduce the Canadian federal corporate tax rate to better compete with other countries and strengthen Canada’s economic sovereignty. …Dion told the Economic Club of Toronto…“A lower corporate tax rate is a powerful weapon in the federal government’s arsenal to generate more investment, higher living standards and better jobs.” …The previous Liberal government reduced the federal corporate tax rate to 19% from 28%. Dion said he would go deeper than the Conservatives have done with their reduction to 18.5% in 2011. …“If you lower the corporate tax rate, you lower the cost of capital for Canadian companies. Therefore, these companies are induced to spend more on capital equipment. As for foreign investment, we need a big hook to snare investment, including Canadian investment, that might otherwise go south of the border. Finally, it would strengthen Canadian companies against foreign takeover,” Dion concluded.