Does Gitmo Hurt More than It Helps?

This morning, NPR did a story on media coverage of the British sailor crisis in the Arab world. Ramez Maluf, a journalism professor at American University in Beirut, pointed to this commentary by an Arab blogger on the subject:

Iranians should consider those 15 pirates as enemy combatants, and treat them in the same way as they treat our “detainees” in Gitmo. They should be put in orange jumpsuits, and their eyes, hands, and feet should be binded [sic]. After that, they should be kept rotting in cages there for five years without any legal process. That would be just like the U.S. style of democracy. It would be very fair.

Thank God, it appears that the Brits are about to be released. Apparently, what the British are supposed to do is state that they “regret” the incident, and will endeavor to make sure it doesn’t happen again, without admitting that the British entered Iranian territorial waters. I imagine that both of those statements are true, though I suspect that “making sure it doesn’t happen again” may mean different things to the English than it does to the Iranians. There are different ways to ensure that such an incident doesn’t happen again.

John Edwards and Family Decisions

More than a week after Senator John Edwards’s decision to remain in the presidential race despite the recurrence of his wife Elizabeth’s cancer, pundits are starting to sharply criticize the decision. They say that he is consumed by ambition and that his priorities are out of whack.  They say that he should be spending time with his wife and especially with his two small children.

I had a similar reaction: these two children need their parents with them now more than ever.  They may lose their mother soon.  And if their father spends two years campaigning, they won’t see much of him.  If his campaign is successful, they won’t spend time much time with him for the rest of their childhood.

But who am I to judge the intimate family decisions of John and Elizabeth Edwards?  I can’t possibly know as much about their values and goals as they do.

If John and Elizabeth Edwards have spent the past ten—or fifteen—or twenty years working toward the White House, it may well be their very considered decision that that effort should continue.  In particular, it may be that the one thing Elizabeth Edwards wants most in her life is to see her husband in the White House.  Assuming that Elizabeth Edwards genuinely believes that John would be a good president (I don’t, but I’m not making the decision), then she may very well have decided that what he can do for the country is more important than what he can do for his children. As Rick said to Ilsa in Casablanca, “it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

So pundits would do well to assume that no one knows the trade-offs involved in the Edwardses’ decision better than the Edwardses.  In this case, as in so many others, it makes sense to let the people most closely involved in the decision make that decision.

But here’s the irony.  John Edwards doesn’t believe that families should be allowed to make the important decisions about their lives.  He doesn’t think families should be allowed to decide where their children will go to school.  He doesn’t think families should be allowed to decide how or whether to save for retirement.  He doesn’t think families should be allowed to decide what drugs to use, either pharmaceutically or recreationally. He supports a national health care system that would deny families the right to choose their own doctor.

In this presidential year, it would be good for Americans to reaffirm our commitment to the principle that families—not pundits and not government—should make the important decisions about their lives.

NYT Quote of the Day

If all of America were more like the Army, it would be a better country.

– Robert Wright, “My Life In the Army,” New York Times, April 3, 2007, p. A23.

I bet you won’t find many founding fathers expressing this sentiment. Well, unless you’re looking at the founding fathers of the Third Reich or Soviet Russia ….


Supreme Court to EPA: Hurry Up and Wait?

Lots of news outlets have been describing the Supreme Court’s opinion in Massachusetts v. EPA along the following lines: “Supreme Court says global warming is bad; tells EPA to fix the problem.”

Is that right? Not really.

In fact, if you read between the lines of the majority’s decision, its not clear that it will alter EPA policy one jot or tittle.

“Regulation,” under the Clean Air Act, can take a number of forms: It can take the form of declaring aspirational emission standards. Or it can take more draconian forms, such as looming technology mandates and imminent implementation deadlines, backed by tough civil and criminal penalties.

Even assuming that, after the Court’s decision yesterday, the EPA has to “regulate” in the sense of promulgating some GHG emission standards, the Court’s decision leaves the EPA with ample room to argue that it can defer deciding when and how to implement those standards in light of the potentially high and uncertain costs of implementation.

Its true, of course, that some parts of the Clean Air Act prohibit the EPA from undertaking this sort of cost-benefit analysis. The parts of the CAA governing auto emission standards are, however, different. There, the EPA retains considerable discretion weigh costs and-benefits—particularly when it comes to the “when” and “how” of implementing emission controls. For example, as Justice Stevens notes, section 202(a)(2) of the CAA gives the EPA broad discretion to delay implementation of pollution controls to the extent that “the Administrator finds necessary to permit the development and application of the requisite [pollution control] technology, giving appropriate consideration to the cost of compliance within such period.” Put in plain English, that means that if the “costs” of developing effective pollution-reducing technologies are very large, and the pay off of this R&D is in the far-distant future, the CAA doesn’t require the EPA to implement its standards right away.

The Court’s opinion also reaffirms the great deference owed to the EPA’s decision not to enforce any standards that it might promulgate. In the words of Justice Stevens yesterday, an “agency has broad discretion to choose how best to marshal its limited resources and personnel to carry out its delegated responsibilities.” Given the breadth of discretion granted the agency to defer implementation under provisions like section 202(a)(2), and the costs and uncertainties associated with implementation, that deference may give the EPA very substantial room to defer—perhaps for a very long time—implementation of a federal GHG enforcement regime, freeing the EPA to deal with more immediate and pressing environmental problems.

Nor is analysis of the EPA’s leeway to delay implementation much different if, as some assume, the Court’s decision means that GHG emissions are also “pollutants” under CAA provisions dealing with “national ambient air quality standards.” True, in Whitman v. American Trucking Association, the Court held that the EPA must set NAAQS without regard to the costs of implementation. But in his concurrence in that case, Justice Breyer suggested that even CAA requirements governing national ambient air quality standards permit some modified cost-benefit analysis. He emphasized, for example, that when setting NAAQS, the EPA doesn’t have to eliminate “any health risk, however slight, at any economic cost, however great.” It is only required to eliminate “unacceptable” risks, defined as those that the public is not willing to tolerate at any cost.

New American car emissions count for only 6% of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions. Eliminating these emissions wouldn’t necessarily reverse global warming or even appreciably slow it—particularly given the dynamic nature of emissions in developing countries. Thus, its far from evident that the added global warming risks created by new American car emissions are “unacceptable” in the sense suggested by Justice Breyer.  On the face of the record, its also far from clear that the risks posed by other GHG-omitting sources in the U.S., such as stationary sources, are any more publicly “unacceptable” in the sense meant by Breyer, given uncertainty about the payoff of unilateral American remediation and given the cost and current feasibility of GHG control technology.

Ultimately, then, the key flaw with the EPA’s decision may not have been the outcome of that decision, or even the overarching reasons given by the EPA for its decision. The fatal flaw may have been only the conclusory nature of the reasons given by the EPA for its decision. For example, the EPA said that it wouldn’t act now because effective GHG-reducing technologies weren’t feasible at present and wouldn’t be feasible in the near future. But the EPA didn’t make any effort to quantify, or otherwise support with evidence, that feasibility assessment. Instead, it offered its conclusions as facts that courts must accept at face value—something five justices weren’t willing to do. But if the EPA can supplement its feasibility conclusions with at least some evidence, it may be able to pull at least one or two justices—most likely Breyer or Kennedy–into the dissenters’ orbit.

(This post is cross-posted at ScotusBlog).

Review of Barber’s Consumed

I have a review in today’s Wall Street Journal (subscription required) of Benjamin Barber’s new book Consumed, which examines the supposed perils of material plenty. The book’s unsubtle subtitle makes it clear enough where Barber stands: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole.  

Here’s a sample of my take on Barber:

[Barber] sees the explosion of consumer choices today and assumes that Americans are growing ever more materialistic: The more gadgets, gizmos and fripperies the marketplace serves up, the more deeply we fall under commerce’s evil spell. In fact, the opposite is true.

Political scientist Ronald Inglehart has exhaustively documented a world-wide shift toward “postmaterialist” values, in which, as he puts it, the “emphasis on economic achievement as the top priority is now giving way to an increasing emphasis on the quality of life.” The more stuff we have, the less interested we become in simply accumulating more and the more we seek out instead the intangible satisfactions of memorable experiences, meaningful work and self-realization.

The existence of books like Mr. Barber’s proves the point. In an amusing irony, the progress of capitalist development creates a continuing demand for fulminations against the evils of materialism. Thus do anti-market intellectuals like Benjamin Barber find their niche in the consumerist cornucopia they so revile.

For my further thoughts on the revolutionary social consequences of capitalist mass affluence, check out my forthcoming book (out next month) The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America’s Politics and Culture.

Convoluted and Confused: Yet More Leonhardt-Bashing

Are we libertarians so cranky about David Leonhardt’s review of Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism because he really hit us where it hurts? No. We’re cranky because the review truly is astonishingly clueless. As big government conservative Ross Douthat puts it:

As I said, I hold no particular brief for libertarians, but as evidence that they have a particularly noteworthy “soft spot” for tyranny (compared to whom? the New York Times?), this [i.e., Friedman’s hour with Pinochet; Rothbard’s electoral flightiness; Rand’s HUAC testimony] is thin stuff indeed, and it feels like a lazy book reviewer’s attempt to find some bones to pick with a movement he doesn’t know all that much about.

Lazy and ignorant, yes. But also convoluted and confused! In his embarrassingly incoherent penultimate paragraph, Leonhardt fires away completely indiscriminately in an attempt to score some kind of hit (why the effort, anyway?) by mentioning obscure anti-Semites actual libertarians have never heard of, airing completely baffling claims about Bush’s “free-market approach to rebuilding Iraq,” and making representations about Cato’s stance on global warming that should get the fact-checker fired (if the Times used one). But David Boaz and Gene Healy have touched on all this below. So let me address this choice bit from Leonhardt:

In fact, across a range of major issues — energy policy, health care, retirement savings — a hybrid form of laissez-faire capitalism and collectivism seems to be ascendant. The market will be allowed to work its efficient magic, but government will step in to correct the market’s failures. “Libertarian paternalism” is the name two University of Chicago professors, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, have devised for one version of this philosophy.

Many of the purists who populate “Radicals for Capitalism” would surely hate an idea like libertarian paternalism. But they also might understand that they helped to make it possible.

Now, Leonhardt is right that libertarians have helped make the popularity of “a hybrid form of laissez-faire capitalism and collectivism … ascendant” by making it completely intellectually discreditable to argue for collectivism unleavened by markets. He seems to think he’s making an interesting or relevant point by observing that Sunstein and Thaler have used a pattern of shapes that happen to spell the word “libertarian.” As I’ve pointed out before, this has nothing to do with libertarianism, the idea, and is little more than a spoonful of orthographic sugar to make their old fashioned paternalist medicine go down. Leonhardt also makes it sound as if “market failure” arguments are some kind of sexy new intellectual discovery that give the lie to full-on free marketeers and have breathed fresh life into the fusty old political philosophy of regulatory control by political elites. But, no.

Market efficiency does count as “magic,” as Leonhardt puts it – if the solidity of mostly empty-space matrices of molecules count as magic, that is. It’s just the way the world works, and minimally well-educated people know it. Magic surrounds us! That freely-set prices in well-ordered markets efficiently coordinate human cooperation and enable large surpluses from trade – that markets facilitate human prosperity – is an empirical fact now well-understood by anyone worth listening to about economics, politics or policy. That so many intellectuals (so many economics reporters?) still don’t understand how or why market coordination works, and don’t feel ashamed by their ignorance, shows just how far we have still to go.

A key to understanding market coordination is understanding that dynamically self-correcting systems need a steady stream of reliable feedback, which is what shifting market prices provide. If more people understood this, more people would be prepared to ask: Do policymakers in democratic governments generally receive the kind, quality, or volume of informational feedback they would need to spot and fix market failures – that is, to reliably spot genuine “market failures,” to devise the policies that would in fact correct them, to implement those policies in time, to assess accurately whether the policies are working, and to revise or remove them as circumstances change? Do democratically elected politicians generally receive the kind of feedback they would need to be motivated to do all that, even if such feedback mechanisms did exist? Do they get the feedback they would need to be motivated to appoint bureaucrats who would be motivated to make use all that information? Etc., etc. If the answer to each those questions is “Yes,” then why are we in Iraq, for example? If the answer to those question is “Yes,” then our world contains magic indeed.

Government initiatives often need a lot of magic to work, which is why they so often don’t – which is why there is so much government failure. However, part free-market, part statist chimeras don’t always need magic to fly, since markets can haul a lot of dead weight, if they are free enough. But what should we call the belief that we would all fly higher if only government could work more of its sandbagging magic? The audacity of hope. The extent to which “hybrid” energy, health, and retirement policies are going to be improved is the extent to which the government takes steps to stop banning certain kinds of markets – like dynamic spot-price markets in electricity, or real risk-sensitive insurance markets for health care.

As Brian Doherty’s book makes abundantly clear, libertarians have done more than anyone else over the past century to explain to the world how and why people flourish when we limit the institutions of coercion and legalize the institutions of free association and free exchange. No other major American political movement has such a clean conscience, such un-dirty hands. Leonhardt’s confused and aimlessly belligerent review should remind us that Doherty’s inspiring short history is only a beginning.