It Was Fifty Years Ago Today

Fifty years ago today, the actor Ronald Reagan gave a nationally televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential nominee, Senator Barry Goldwater. It came to be known to Reagan fans as “The Speech” and launched his own, more successful political career.

And a very libertarian speech it was: 

This idea that government was beholden to the people, that it had no other source of power is still the newest, most unique idea in all the long history of man’s relation to man. This is the issue of this election: Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.

You and I are told we must choose between a left or right, but I suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down. Up to man’s age-old dream – the maximum of individual freedom consistent with order – or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. Regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would sacrifice freedom for security have embarked on this downward path. Plutarch warned, “The real destroyer of the liberties of the people is he who spreads among them bounties, donations and benefits.”

The Founding Fathers knew a government can’t control the economy without controlling people. And they knew when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose.

Video versions of the speech here.

For libertarians, Reagan had his faults. But he was an eloquent spokesman for a traditional American philosophy of individualism, self-reliance, and free enterprise at home and abroad, and words matter. They change the climate of opinion, and they inspire people trapped in illiberal societies. And these days, when people claiming the Reagan mantle push for wars or military involvement in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and other danger spots, we remember that Reagan challenged the Soviet Union mostly in the realm of ideas; he used military force only sparingly. George W. Bush, whom some call “Reagan’s true political heir,” increased federal spending by more than a trillion dollars even before the financial crisis. We watch the antigay crusading of today’s conservative Republicans and remember that Reagan publicly opposed the early antigay Briggs Initiative of 1978 (featured in the movie Milk).

And in those moments libertarians are tempted to paraphrase the theme song of All in the Family and say, “Mister, we could use a man like Ronald Reagan again.”

Would that the current assault on economic freedom would turn up another presidential candidate with Reagan’s values and talents. More on Reagan here and here. 

Federalism Doesn’t Mean That States Can Do Whatever They Want

Cato and the Constitutional Accountability Center have filed another amicus brief in a marriage case, this one challenging Louisiana’s restriction of marriage licenses to opposite-sex couples and its non-recognition of out-of-state same-sex marriages. Filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit—where last month we filed in a case out of Texas—this is an appeal from the only ruling to uphold a state marriage law since the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act. (A federal judge in Puerto Rico also recently upheld that commonwealth’s law.)

Our previous briefs, including in that Texas case and also regarding the marriage laws of Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia, Michigan, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, and Wisconsin in the TenthFourth, Sixth, and Seventh Circuits, respectively, focused on the original public meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and its guarantee of “equality under law” for all. Here, however, we focus on federalism, democracy, and why states shouldn’t automatically get judicial deference when they pass legislation.

That is, the Fourteenth Amendment significantly reworked the constitutional order such that the U.S. Constitution now protects individual liberty against state infringement (which wasn’t the case before the Civil War). When the district court held that Louisiana was free to deny loving, committed same-sex couples the freedom to marry because the state “has a legitimate interest … for addressing the meaning of marriage through the democratic process,” it empowered the people of the states to use the democratic process to oppress disfavored minorities and thus overturned the constitutional order we’ve had since 1868.

Government Gold-Plating

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) released his annual Wastebook this past week. It contains a laundry list of doozies. The U.S. government’s gold-plating operations included $190,000 to study compost digested by worms, $297 million for the purchase of an unused mega blimp, and $1 million on a Virginia bus stop where only 15 people can huddle under a half-baked roof. These questionable (read: absurd) expenditures only represent the tip of the iceberg.

Just consider the following: the Speaker of the House currently receives an annual salary of $223,500, and will receive a payment of roughly that amount, depending on the years of service, for life. An annual payment of this magnitude amounts to about five times the average annual wage in the United States. But that’s not all. For those who have had different positions in Congress, their retirements can be augmented. For example, Nancy Pelosi will not receive $223,500 for life, but roughly double that. Why? Because she is a member of Congress, currently the House of Representatives’ Minority Leader, and a retired Speaker of the House. For purposes of computing retirement pay, Congress adds and accumulates. They do not net.

In addition to supporting members of Congress and civil servants, U.S. taxpayers support welfare recipients. And they support them lavishly, too. Hawaii, Massachusetts, and D.C. residents receive sizeable welfare payments (read: salaries). Indeed, the magnitude of these payments exceeds the average salary of an American teacher, as well as a soldier deployed in Afghanistan, by at least $10,000 per year.

The public can forget all the clap-trap they are hearing about austerity. Indeed, a fairly dull knife could cut billions of dollars from the U.S. government’s largess. 

Bulgaria: Liquidate KTB, Now

The long-awaited audit of the Corporate Commercial Bank’s (KTB’s) assets has been released by the Bulgarian National Bank (BNB). In its wake, a debate has arisen about the future of the KTB: Should it be recapitalized? And if KTB is recapitalized, should the Bulgarian or the European authorities be responsible? However, it is clear from the results of the audit that, once the obscurity of the technocratic arguments is stripped away, there can be no debate. KTB should be liquidated as soon as possible, and whatever proceeds can be obtained in liquidation should be used to reimburse guarantees to depositors paid from the Bulgarian Deposit Insurance Fund (BDIF).

KTB should be liquidated because it is not, and apparently never has been, a commercial bank. Had KTB been operated according to commercial banking principles, it would be virtually impossible for KTB to destroy value on the scale witnessed by the independent auditors. As of September 30, 2014, the auditors estimate that 76% of the asset value in KTB’s non-financial loan portfolio, which accounts for 80% of KTB’s assets, has been lost.

Losing 76% on a commercial loan portfolio must be put into perspective. In making loans, commercial banks generally require a senior secured position. This means that in the event of default, the bank may take collateral from the borrower and use the proceeds from selling the collateral to recover the bank’s principal, prior to any other creditor. From 2003 to 2012, Standard and Poor’s found that European lenders recovered 78% of their principal, on average, from defaulted loans with these characteristics. Even where defaulted loans were not secured by collateral, European lenders averaged a 48% recovery rate. Compare these recovery rates to KTB’s pathetic implied recovery rate of 24%, and it becomes clear that KTB was not operating as a real bank.

The KTB audit report tells a story in which KTB blatantly ignored the basic pillars of commercial lending. According to the report, there is little evidence that initial loan underwriting and subsequent credit monitoring ever took place at KTB.

If KTB’s management were just grossly incompetent, it would be bad enough. But it appears they were also criminals. The BNB is forwarding the audit results to the Sofia City Prosecutor’s Office. The auditors state that KTB lied to and misled BNB banking supervisors, and engaged in transactions with no evident commercial purpose. The suspicion of criminal activity is just another reason why KTB should be liquidated, now.

Tropical Cyclones: Is Global Warming Making Them Worse?

Severe hurricanes, or tropical cyclones as they are known by those living outside the United States, are the most intense storms on the planet. Given the amount of damage they can inflict, it’s no wonder that they often are the poster children for the global warming movement—think Hurricanes Andrew, Katrina, and Sandy. Whenever and wherever they occur, you can count on some climate lobbyist telling us that storm was caused, or made worse, by global warming. Indeed, it is a green legend that carbon-induced global warming will cause more frequent or more severe tropical cyclones in the future, resulting in escalating economic damages.

Is that really so? A new scientific study addresses this topic, by Dr. S. Niggol Seo of the prestigious University of Sydney. He examined trends in tropical cyclones affecting Australia and published his results in the academic journal Environmental and Resource Economics.

Writing as background for his work, Seo states that alarming predictions of more intense hurricanes because of climate change “are of great concern,” yet he says there have been “few TC [tropical cyclone] studies in the Southern Hemisphere,” adding that there has been “no economic assessment of damages in the past.” Based on detailed reports of TCs that were generated in the Southern Ocean and hit Australia since 1970, from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, Seo constructed damage estimates “using the reported financial loss, destruction of houses and capital goods, and losses of agricultural crops and livestock after a careful examination of the detailed individual cyclone reports,” which also included “local area income and population density where the storm hit.” 

Seo’s examination of tropical cyclone data back to 1970 is important, because over that time (1970–2006) the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration of the atmosphere rose by 55 parts per million (ppm), or more than half of global CO2 increase experienced since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. In addition, global temperatures over this 36-year period rose by approximately 0.5°C,  to levels that some (controversially) consider unprecedented in the last two millenia. If there is a period of time in which one should be able to find a CO2/temperature-induced signal in the tropical cyclone record, the years examined by Seo would seem to be it. 

Despite this alignment of the stars, so to speak, Seo’s work fails to support claims that global warming is causing or will cause more frequent and severe tropical cyclones. 

Send The International Nanny Packing

As many of us have noted lately, the federal Centers for Disease Control, known originally for their work against infectious and communicable diseases, have shifted focus in recent years to supposed public health menaces like beltless driving, gun ownership, social drinking, and suburban land use patterns. CDC director Thomas Frieden came recommended to President Obama because of his national fame as Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s health commissioner, in which capacity he oversaw portion sizes and donut recipes, restaurant smoking policies and anti-salt campaigns, as well as the occasional infectious disease issue. 

If national nannyism strikes you as bad enough, get ready for the international kind. As the Wall Street Journal noted the other day

The United Nations-run WHO has long been a growing irrelevance, as director-general Margaret Chan spent the week not in Monrovia but Moscow, pontificating at a WHO conference aimed at raising global tobacco taxes. … Since the 1990s, the WHO has gradually transformed itself from a disease fighter to what Dr. Chan calls “a normative agency” that makes international public health rules and promotes political goals like universal coverage. 

The ideology behind this is driven by ideas fashionable in the West, particularly that of rolling out the “tobacco control” model to other consumer goods like food and alcohol. This summer in Nature, for example, much-quoted Georgetown law prof Lawrence Gostin outlined such an agenda under the headline “Healthy Living Needs Global Governance.” According to the abstract of his article, “researchers have identified a suite of cost-effective NCD [non-communicable disease] prevention measures” and now it is time for international regulatory bodies to step forward to impose them.  

Stronger global governance could spur national action by providing funding, creating stronger norms and holding states accountable. The UN’s comprehensive review on progress in NCD prevention, held in July 2014, offered an opportunity for the international community to take concrete steps in strengthening global prevention efforts. This article proposes four concrete steps for a long-term solution: creating a dedicated fund for NCD control and prevention; regulating industry to improve nutrition and restrict alcohol and tobacco marketing; altering the built environment to promote physical activity; and prioritizing prevention in all sectors of government and in the global regimes that govern NCD risk factors.

Barriers to quick adoption of such measures, Gostin laments, include “philanthropic action favoring swift wins in infectious disease control, and the framing of NCDs as an individual rather than collective problem.” That second point you might be right to interpret as annoyance at libertarians and individualists who keep arguing that people choose, and should have a right to go on choosing, what they eat. But pause for a moment to take in Gostin’s first point about how narrow-minded philanthropy is to favor “swift wins in infectious disease control.” The rest of us may see it as inspiring, even heroic when a tech billionaire donates a zillion dollars to roll back the scourge of malaria, Ebola, or some less familiar tropical disease. If you were truly advanced, however, you would see this as a distraction from the task of organizing to regulate pretzel consumption. 

Agencies like WHO promoted their mission to skeptics as a way of addressing communicable diseases that, like Ebola, can quickly jump borders. Why let it arrogate more power to itself than it would need for that purpose?

U.S. Is Losing (Has Lost?) the War on Drugs in Afghanistan

After a decade of reconstruction and over $7 billion spent on counternarcotic operations, the results are in: the United States has lost the “war on drugs” in Afghanistan, although few U.S. officials are willing to admit it. According to this report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), poppy cultivation is actually at an all-time high, over 8 percent higher in 2013 than the previous peak in 2007.

And, with the United States slated to reduce its presence in Afghanistan, the problem is likely to get worse. According to the report, given the “deteriorating security in many parts of rural Afghanistan and low levels of eradication of poppy fields, further increases in cultivation are likely in 2014.”

Some observers are more optimistic, however. A letter from the U.S. embassy in Kabul states that the United States is “making good progress in building the capacity of [its] Afghan partners to design, lead, manage, and sustain over the long term strategic and tactical counternarcotics efforts addressing all stages of the drug trade.”

It’s difficult to understand their optimism. The embassy letter, which is included in the SIGAR report, admits that “poppy cultivation has shifted from areas where government presence is broadly supported and security has improved, toward more remote and isolated areas where the governance is weak and security is inadequate.”

Looking ahead, however, unless one believes—contrary to all evidence—that Afghan government control will expand into these areas as the U.S. military presence shrinks, that should translate to more poppy cultivation, not less. The embassy curiously refused to come to that conclusion.

Washington’s war on drugs in Afghanistan, like its war on drugs in the Americas, tries to defy the most basic law of economics: supply and demand. And it’s having tragic effects, as my colleague Ted Galen Carpenter has observed for years (including especially here and here). So long as the world’s appetite for drugs remains high, willing sellers will be there to satiate it.

It is hardly surprising that a prohibitionist strategy didn’t work in Afghanistan. It is surprising that some thought it would, or still might, given that it has failed everywhere else.