“A Monumentally Stupid Idea”

That is how Augustus Richard Norton, a Middle East specialist at Boston University, characterized a proposal to send UN peacekeepers to southern Lebanon, an idea championed by Prime Minister Tony Blair and others at the just-concluded G-8 summit.

Norton should know. He once deployed to southern Lebanon as part of a small U.N. observer force that has been there since Israel’s first incursion in 1978. He is also a retired army colonel, a former West Point professor, and the author of several books on Middle East politics and culture.

But Norton is not alone in questioning the wisdom of an expanded UN force in southern Lebanon, as this Washington Post article by Peter Baker and Robin Wright points out.

“It’s a non-starter,” said Timur Goksel, who, like Norton, served with the U.N. force. He now teaches in Beirut. Goksel told the Post, “If the intention is to observe, there is already a force in place. If they are talking of a deterrent force to prevent fighting, it will immediately be seen as an occupation force here. And when you have an occupation force, no matter what your flag, even under the United Nations, that’s when the trouble starts. This is a most ridiculous idea. Nobody will accept it.”

But some people are accepting it – and promoting it, despite the fact that an international peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon is unlikely to succeed in bringing an end to the violence.

Consider the tragi-comic exploits of the current UN mission, the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). The force was first sent there in March 1978, nine days after Israel invaded southern Lebanon in pursuit of PLO terrorists holed up in the territory, and UNIFIL has since witnessed not one but TWO more Israeli incursions into Lebanon, in June 1982 and now in July 2006. On Monday, as the Post reports, UNIFIL issued a statement complaining “that it was unable to supply food and water to its own troops, much less help deliver humanitarian aid to civilians, because Israel had not guaranteed free passage.”

The international impulse to just do something – despite the long track record of failure – might be overwhelming. An argument (not a very good one) could be made that a larger force with a clearer mandate might succeed where the current UNIFIL mission has failed.

Regardless of those particular details, however, the U.S. military should not be involved. As Norton warns in the closing line of the Post article: “The military is overstretched. Most of the army is wrapped up in Iraq. A deployment in Lebanon would potentially be interminable.” 

Our men and women in uniform have more than enough on their plate right now, and the last thing that they (or we) need is to become embroiled in yet another long-running conflict.

 

Paternalism in Arizona

NPR reports:

In a bid to increase voter participation in Arizona, Dr. Mark Osterloh is spearheading a ballot initiative that would automatically make each person who casts a vote eligible to win a million dollars in unclaimed state lottery money.

I would ask two questions about this proposal: Will it work?  Should it be undertaken?  I think “no” should be the answer to both questions. 

Will it work? Many experts argue that it is rational not to vote. The act of voting involves costs and benefits. The costs are getting information about the candidates, going to the polling place, standing in line and so on. The benefits to the voter are the benefits a voter expects his preferred candidate or party to deliver multiplied by the probability that his vote will swing the election to his preferred party or candidate. That probability is very low, which means that the benefits a voter can expect from voting are also quite low. They are much lower, in fact, than the costs of voting. 

The lottery measure proposes to add to these benefits the expected value of a $1 million dollar payoff. However, that value is also quite low.  2,038,069 people voted in Arizona in 2004.  Each would have had an equal chance of winning the payout. Hence, the expected value of the lottery payment in 2004 would have been 49 cents. Would that additional 49 cents attract many more voters to the polls in Arizona? It seems unlikely. Imagine that every voter was promised two quarters to come to the polls and vote. Would that tip their cost-benefit calculations toward voting? 

Of course, we might say that the state of Arizona should exploit the irrationality of voters who lack information about the number of voters or the ability to calculate an expected value. States already exploit such shortcomings with state lotteries. In that regard, the proposal seems unseemly, even immoral. 

Advocates would no doubt argue that the state might exploit voter irrationality for the higher good of getting people to the polls. Is voting such a valuable activity that the state should force taxpayers to subsidize it? 

Clearly voting is not valuable for those who choose not to vote. The justification for subsidizing voting and the lottery must be that voting provides benefits to people other than the voters who choose not to vote. At one time, experts thought non-voters differed substantially in outlook from voters. If so, voters were a skewed sample of the electorate, and elections did not contain all information about the preferences of “the people.” Studies have shown, however, that non-voters do not differ substantially in ideology or in partisanship from those who do not vote. If everyone voted, the outcomes of elections would change little if at all. It is unlikely, therefore, that society would gain much new information from the electorate by subsidizing an election lottery. 

In the end, for all the appearances of incentives and rational calculation, Mark Osterloh is just another paternalist who believes that people would be morally better if they participated in politics. He enlists the greed of the gambler to serve the endless crusade to “improve” the character of other people through state action. The proponents of the lottery inhabit a world where voting has replaced prayer, and politics has taken the place of religion. What is missing from this crusade, like other crusades before, is any sense that people should be left alone to make their own decisions about whether to vote and that whatever decision they make should be respected, even by the busybodies who think politics is next to godliness. 

And the unclaimed lottery money, of course, should be sent back to the people of Arizona through a tax cut.  

U.K. Gambling CEO Arrested at U.S. Airport

Details are still sketchy, but it looks as if David Carruthers, a U.K. citizen and CEO of the U.K.-incorporated, U.K.-traded public company BetOnSports.com, has been detained at a Fort Worth airport while switching flights between the U.K. and Costa Rica. He will now apparently be charged in the U.S. for running a company that’s legal in just about every Western country except America.  Reuters reports:

The U.S. Department of Justice said on Monday that BetOnSports was among 11 individuals and four corporations facing various charges of racketeering, conspiracy and fraud.

The founder of BetOnSports, Gary Kaplan, 47, was also charged with 20 felony violations, and a warrant has been issued for his arrest, the Department of Justice added.

“BetOnSports.com and other gambling Web sites operated by Gary Kaplan and his co-defendants offered gamblers in the United States illegal wagering on professional and college football and basketball,” said a copy of the indictment seen by Reuters.

It’s probably worth noting that Carruthers is an outspoken advocate for legalizing online gambling in the U.S. He recently debated Rep. Jim Leach on the issue in the Wall Street Journal. If Carruthers is being held solely because U.S. customers illegally do business with his legal, U.K.-based company, that’s disturbing enough.

But things could get even more interesting.

Carruthers was careless enough to have step foot on U.S. soil, even if only to switch planes. But as the Voluntary Trade Council’s Skip Oliva explains, the U.S. and the U.K. have also entered into some curious extradition treaties since September 11, and the U.S. has exploited those treaties to effectively kidnap British citizens who broke no British laws, and extradite them to the U.S. for trial on charges of violating U.S. law.  It’s worth noting that the cases Oliva writes about are iffy white collar crimes that have nothing to do with terrorism.

And let’s not forget the Mark Emery case, in which the DEA’s zealous persecution of medical marijuana users led them to extradite a medical marijuana activist from Canada for charges of marijuana distribution in the U.S..  It was inarguably a purely political arrest. The DEA bullied Canadian and British Columbia law enforcement officials – where marijuana laws are lax, if enforced at all – into doing its bidding.

The jihad against online gambling spilling out from Congress these last few months portends a showdown between the U.S. and the U.K. What’s interesting is that this time, the U.K. is unlikely to back down.  Britain has embraced Internet gambling and gets a substantial amount of tax revenue from the $12 billion U.S. consumers spend gambling online each year, much of it with U.K.-incorporated gaming sites.  You have to think U.K. officials would have an interest in maintaining those revenues, not to mention in protecting their citizens, and in the integrity of the tech sector of their markets, which took a spill after Carruthers’ arrest.

Might the U.S. try to enforce its gambling ban by extraditing gambling executives in other countries? Would those countries comply? What are the implications of either scenario?

If Congress succeeds in pushing through its farcical, ill-considered ban on online gambling, these are just a few of the issues that’ll inevitably pop up down the road. I’ve written before about some possible free trade entanglements the bill presents. But here’s another: One way U.S. consumers may get around the bill’s deputizing U.S. banks to enforce the gambling ban would be to simply open accounts in banks based overseas. Will Congress then attempt to ban wire transfers between U.S. banks and overseas banks that allow transactions with gaming sites? I wouldn’t put it past them.

The heartening side of all of this is that it shows how technology, trade, and commerce can work together to circumvent heavy-handed government meddling. The distressing part is just how far some in the U.S. government will go to impose their values on American citizens.

I guess nobody ever said moral crusading was easy.

No Need for a Mandate

Much of the justification for an individual health insurance mandate, like that pushed by Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and the Heritage Foundation, is that people who lack insurance in the current system still receive medical treatment when needed.  The cost of treating these “free riders” is shifted to the insured and the taxpayer.  In particular, it is suggested that these uninsured individuals will end up at hospital emergency rooms.  Advocates of universal single-payer systems often make similar arguments.

But a new study in Health Affairs shows that that there is no significant difference in emergency room use between insured and uninsured populations.  The study concludes that increases in the number of uninsured are not likely to lead to an increase in emergency room visits.  However, the study does show that Medicaid beneficiaries use emergency rooms more than either the insured or the uninsured.  This may result both from the difficulty that Medicaid patients have in finding primary-care physicians willing to treat them at Medicaid’s low reimbursement rates, and from the fact that emergency room visits are essentially free for the Medicaid patient.

One other finding is worth noting as well.  Contrary to public perception, noncitizen immigrants actually use emergency rooms less than citizens.  Emergency rooms are not being overrun by illegal immigrants.

George Will vs. the Neocons

Apropos of yesterday’s post plugging George Will’s condemnation of the Weekly Standard and neoconservatism, Will extends his remarks in his column for today’s Washington Post.  It’s tough to excerpt, but just to convince you it’s a George Will column, it ends with a baseball analogy:

Neoconservatives have much to learn, even from Buddy Bell, manager of the Kansas City Royals. After his team lost its 10th consecutive game in April, Bell said, “I never say it can’t get worse.” In their next game, the Royals extended their losing streak to 11 and in May lost 13 in a row.

Keep an eye on the Weekly Standard’s blog for a response.  Thanks to Steve Clemons for the tip.

Downside of Disclosure

The Washington Post reports today about the emergence of the Democratic Alliance, a group vetting organizations for wealthy, liberal contributors. The group has an interesting rule:

The alliance has required organizations that receive its endorsement to sign agreements shielding the identity of donors…The group requires nondisclosure agreements because many donors prefer anonymity…Some donors expressed concern about being attacked on the Web or elsewhere for their political stance; others did not want to be targeted by fundraisers.

Of course, the United States has a long tradition of anonymous speech and political activity, including The Federalist Papers. The donors to the Democratic Alliance continue in that tradition. Their desire for anonymity proves that mandatory disclosure of money in politics imposes costs on participation.

Those same costs affect donors to political campaigns who do not have a right to anonymous speech. In fact, a donor who gives to a challenger threatening an incumbent member of Congress faces a greater risk than that confronted by the donors to the Democracy Alliance.

Given their experience with the downside of disclosure, perhaps the donors to the Democratic Alliance (or the organizations they fund) will lead the way toward liberalizing or eliminating mandatory disclosure of campaign contributions.

Overkill

balko_whitepaper_300x394.jpgToday, my paper on SWAT teams and paramilitary tactics is finally released. It’s been the thrust of my research for nearly a year, now. It offers a history of SWAT teams, legal background, analysis and criticism of their increasingly frequent use and abuse, and an appendix of case studies that documents more than 150 botched raids.

You can download it for free [pdf]. If you want a slick, bound copy, you can order one for $10, and you’ll also get a copy of Gene Healy and Tim Lynch’s paper on the constitutional record of George W. Bush.

We’re also launching an interactive map to accompany the paper. The map plots every botched raid I’ve found in my research, with a description of what happened and a list of sources. You can sort the map by type of incident. So, for example, if you want to see only those raids where an innocent person was killed, it would look like this. If you want to see raids where a nonviolent offender was killed (a recreational gambler or potsmoker, for example), it would look like this. If you want to see all of the “wrong door” raids where no one was killed, it would look like this.

The map is also searchable by year, state, and type of incident.

Cato’s news release on the paper is here.