With Allies Like These…

Close readers of my blog entries will have detected an increasingly irritated tone of late. What with farm subsidies, Doha doldrums, idiotic “solutions” to the trade deficit “problem” and a campaign season upon us, my long-suffering colleagues have become used to my cries of despair.

And now this, through a tip from my colleague and next-door-office-mate, Brink Lindsey (who has no doubt tired of my “You’ve got to be kidding me” exclaims as I read the headlines every morning). The United States has banned Vegemite, that staple food of Aussies everywhere and an emotionally crucial link to the motherland for all us expatriates living in the United States.

According to this article, the FDA allows folate (or folic acid, which has been added to Vegemite) to be added only to breads and cereals (never mind that Vegemite was practically invented for nutritional purposes, to stave off Vitamin B deficiencies).  From a 1996 news release from the FDA:

specified grain products will be required to be fortified with folic acid at levels ranging from 0.43 milligrams to 1.4 mg per pound of product. These amounts are designed to keep daily intake of folic acid below 1mg, because intakes above that amount may mask symptoms of pernicious anemia, a form of vitamin B12 deficiency which primarily affects older people.

Heaven forbid that the flood of Vegemite pouring into the United States should upset the delicately balanced just-enough-but-not-too-much-folic-acid directive from the FDA.

Australia is an ally of the United States. A small ally, yes, but loyal. Our troops have served side by side in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf wars. Australian troops are in Afghanistan and Iraq. And, more to the point, our countries have signed a free-trade agreement

Part of me is taking comfort that this truly is a non-tariff barrier implemented to protect consumer health (misguided though that aim may be), rather than an act of disguised protectionism designed to shield the politically powerful import-competing domestic Vegemite industry located in electorally important swing-states. But it’s unfair all the same. And I’m angry.

Thank goodness my parents smuggled contraband Vegemite through customs when they visited me in July, but I think not of my own well-stocked shelves, but the growling bellies of my compatriots. I plan to share this story with my Australian friends. Expect outrage.

(Please note I am filing this under Civil Liberties, as well as Trade).

What is “Economic Insecurity” and Why Should We Care?

In his new book, The Great Risk Shift, and on the Political Animal blog at The Washington Monthly website a couple weeks back, Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker has been selling his line that “economic insecurity” is on the rise, and the state needs to do something about it.

Hacker seems to me to get a lot of mileage out of equivocating systematically between a psychological and objective sense of the word ‘insecurity’. Hacker may be right that there has been an increase in income volatility (though, I’m told, it is not clear how much this has to do with systemic economic changes, as opposed to details of Hacker’s model and the changing composition of the “households” tracked by the data), and this no doubt causes people some anxiety. But anxiety is not actual insecurity. The Bush administration, in its constant efforts to shore up political support for its so-called “global war on terror” does its best to needle Americans into feeling sufficiently anxious about the constant threat of terrorist attacks. But our anxiety and our national security are two completely separate things. We can feel anxious yet be secure, and we can feel perfectly safe at the same moment a deadly missile bears down upon us from the sky. What matters most is whether we are secure, not how we feel. Likewise with economy security.

It strikes me that Hacker’s strategy is quite like the Bush administration’s in this regard, doing his best to encourage people to feel insecure, in order to sell his favored policy remedy. But all but a very few don’t need a remedy for economic insecurity. We are economically secure. And we don’t need a remedy for volatility, either. We certainly do get anxious about it, but that’s fine. There are lots of things that make us anxious–from public speaking to finding a mate–and the right thing for the government to do about it is nothing at all.

Hacker constantly attempts to connect his proposals to the spirit of New Deal-era “economic security” policy. But this is a stretch at best, dishonest at worst. In 1937, economic security meant something clear. It meant material sufficiency–having enough to put bread on the table, a roof over your family’s head, and clothes on their backs. Hacker simply is not talking about material sufficiency, which is the basis for any notion of economic security worth caring about. He’s talking about the middle and upper middle class, about the anxiety of trading in a Volvo for a Honda. That’s not economic insecurity. That’s just a bummer.

It would be extremely difficult to satirize Hacker’s attempt to arouse our indignation, since he actually begins it with what he intends to be a sympathetic tale about a highly privileged woman with a graduate degree from Harvard worrying whether to withdraw her son from a Montessori school when her husband took a lower-paying job after the tech bubble burst. “It was as if their old life had been swept away by a hurricane,” Hacker says, not even joking. (I imagine that if Hacker ever has his car egged by ne’er-do-well kids, it will be as if a falling meteor had demolished everything he had ever known and ever loved.)

The point is not that this family did not undergo a great deal of anxiety, or have to make wrenching trade-offs in order to fit into their new budget. The point is that their real anxiety is likely less serious, and more easily fixed, than that of a balding, overweight thirty-something who fears he will never find love. The point is that their new, lower post-hurricane budget is large–leaps and bounds beyond the point of objective economic security. It is likely even large in relative terms, compared to the American median (which is itself absolutely large). And a Harvard grad degree is a more tightly-knit safety net than the U.S. government could ever devise. So why are we, qua voting citizens, supposed to be worried about her private anxieties? She is among the most economically secure cohort in the history of the known universe. Why does Hacker think this has any coherent intellectual relationship with the welfare-liberal tradition of making sure its citizens have enough to live a decent life? If the teacup travails of the bourgeoisie are supposed to raise our moral hackles and provide a legitimate basis for liberal politics, then what about our lonely balding bachelor? What can his country do for him.

If that sounds like a joke, it’s not. As Reihan Salam likes to argue, changing norms of marriage and family may play a large role in producing Hackeresque volatility. So if the anxieties based in volatile earnings are a proper matter for liberal policy, why not the anxieties about finding a wife? It’s not obvious that they are entirely separate things.

The main debate between welfare liberals and market liberals largely centers on economic security, understood properly as the odds of achieving economic sufficiency. What system of institutions is most likely to provide everyone with the resources needed to express their autonomy, realize their potential, and pursue their goals? That’s the question. Hacker doesn’t seem to me to even seriously approach it. His case for increased initiatives of state-controlled social insurance largely turns on equivocating on the traditional meaning of economic security and scandalously mischaracterizing the classical liberal ideals of private ownership, voluntary mutual aid, and personal responsibility, about which more later.

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Learning the Right Lessons from Iraq

Like “Who Lost China?” in 1949-50, “How Did We Lose Iraq?” may dominate foreign policy debates in the years to come.  The consensus answer that seems to be emerging, in books like Woodward’s State of Denial and Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City, is “through the Bush administration’s incompetence.”

And there’s certainly something there.  My lord, is there ever.  The Woodward book is an appalling chronicle of bureaucratic flight from responsibility.  It’s Halberstam’s Best and the Brightest repeating itself as farce.  It’s Dilbert plus guns, bombs, and death–and minus the laughs.

In Woodward’s telling, in the run-up to the war, those few officials who understand what an enormous task the U.S. government was contemplating aren’t listened to.  The question “what is to be done?” vanishes in a flurry of powerpoint presentations, interminable and directionless meetings, and interbranch squabbling. The month before the invasion General Jay Garner, tasked with heading up the postwar occupation authority, gathered some 200 people for a weekend-long planning and rehearsal session.  One participant analyzed the conference in a 20-page report, concluding that “the conference did not take up the most basic issue: What sort of future government of Iraq do we have in mind and how do we plan to get there?”    

And if you read the excerpts from Chandrasekaran’s book that ran in the Post, you’ll come away with the impression that the Bush administration decided to staff the Coalition Provisional Authority with back-benchers from a Grover Norquist meeting.  Applicants for positions in the interim occupation authority in Iraq had to pass muster with Pentagon political appointee Jim O’Beirne, husband of the National Review’s Kate O’Beirne, and according to Chandrasekaran:

O’Beirne’s staff posed blunt questions to some candidates about domestic politics: Did you vote for George W. Bush in 2000? Do you support the way the president is fighting the war on terror? Two people who sought jobs with the U.S. occupation authority said they were even asked their views on Roe v. Wade

A 24-year-old Yalie/former White House intern ends up in charge of Baghdad’s stock market; Michael Ledeen’s 28-year-old daughter ends up as one of the people in charge of a $13 billion budget… and on and on.    

If you don’t have the stamina for either book, then the Frontline documentary Jerry Taylor mentions below is well worth watching.  Streaming video available here.

Both the Woodward book and the Frontline documentary blast CPA administrator Jerry Bremer for giving the orders to cashier the army and purge even low-level Baathists from government employment (orders that apparently came from Rumsfeld, in any event). A top CIA official and Bremer’s predecessor, Jay Garner, warned Bremer that the orders could cause up to 50,000 people, many of them heavily armed, to become enemies of the occupation authority.  Bremer gave the order anyway, and shortly thereafter the insurgency greatly intensified. 

A few months after leaving Iraq, Bremer, who appears to lack a sense of irony, agreed to a profile in the Washington Post Food Section touting his skills as a chef.  Apparently Bremer makes a heck of a “Fontainebleau with Pomegranate molasses.”   As Francie Bremer, his wife, notes in the article, “When Jerry goes at something 100 percent, you just have to stand back.”  Indeed.

But is it fair to place so much of the blame for our current predicament on Bremer?  Disbanding the army sure seems like a bad idea.  But would the Shiites, who, but for the Sadr uprising in 2004, have not been in open rebellion against the occupation, have been so cooperative if the U.S. left the Sunni-dominated army and Baath party intact? I don’t know.  I haven’t even had the two-week crash course in Iraqi politics that Bremer apparently put himself through after getting the nod.  But here’s a paper [.pdf] from the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute raising the question.  The authors write that

measures friendly to the Sunni would have caused serious trouble within the Shia communities whose cooperation was indispensable for the success of the American effort. … Indeed, if more conciliatory gestures toward the Sunni had been paired with aggressive moves to disarm the Shia militias, the dangers of a Shia insurgency would have been very considerably enhanced. Splitting the difference between rival groups is a logical strategy in polities accustomed to resolving conflicts through tolerance, negotiation, compromise, and restraint, but where irreconcilable demands exist, the result of this method may simply be to alienate both sides.

(hat tip: Chris Preble.)

And is it fair to suggest, as the emerging conventional wisdom seems to, that the administration’s failure to appoint qualified people has led to the current humanitarian disaster in Iraq?  For what it’s worth, CPA official Dan Senor argues that the Chandrasekaran book is a biased account that ignores the many highly qualified officials that CPA had on staff.

And maybe he’s right.  The point is, this stuff is hard.  If you can’t be talked out of it, then it’s best to appoint the most qualified people.  But would a CPA led by the finest Arabists at State have successfully navigated us toward a functioning democracy?  They would still have faced a country that’s the creation of the British Empire’s arbitrary mapmakers, a state with three nations and little common ground.  They’d still have been faced with the task, as alien outsiders, of forging a national reconciliation between groups that do not appear to be ready for it.  Is there any reason to suppose that the United States government is going to be good at that sort of thing?

That’s why I’m leery of the emerging conventional wisdom.  It smacks of John Kerry’s confused position during the 2004 campaign: “I was (sort of) for the Iraq War.  But I’m firmly against screwing it up.”  Well who isn’t?  But if the lesson we learn about this shameful mess is simply that we ought to appoint better people to run the occupation in our next “war of choice”, then we won’t have learned much at all. 

Preparing Children for Adulthood

From the Washington Post:

Recess is dangerous. There’s all that name-calling, roughhousing and bullying. And the fast running! Why a child might trip, fall, even – and perhaps more important – sue.

Given such perils, Willett Elementary School, south of Boston, has cracked down on tag and other “chasing games.” Pia Durkin, the district superintendent, told the Sun Chronicle in Attleboro, Mass., that children’s energies should be better directed toward “good, sound, supervised play.” 

So they’ll be prepared for good, sound, supervised lives.

Big-Government Republicans for Lieberman

In the Wall Street Journal, Dan Henninger writes admiringly of Sen. Joe Lieberman and the Republicans who are flocking to Connecticut to campaign for him, notably Jack Kemp. The Boston Globe adds that many Republican donors close to the White House are donating to Lieberman: former Bush campaign manager Joe Allbaugh, former ambassador Mel Sembler, former Sen. Don Nickles, “and the heads of several Texas-based corporations.” Republican strategists tell the Globe that Karl Rove’s publicized phone call to Lieberman was a signal to Republican donors and politicians.

What are these Republicans doing? They’re subordinating every tenet of the Republican philosophy to the war in Iraq. That’s the only issue on which Lieberman is in line with Republican or conservative principles. Lieberman has a lifetime rating of 17 from the American Conservative Union. But maybe he’s getting better? No, his rating was 8 in 2005. On government spending, the National Taxpayers Union rates him 9, slightly worse than Dodd, Feinstein, or Boxer.

Lieberman votes against tax cuts and spending cuts. He’s coauthor of a bill to implement the Kyoto Protocol. He votes for gun control and mandatory seat-belt laws, and against tort reform. He votes to restrict political speech (the McCain-Feingold act) and to punish people for “hate crimes.”

It’s understandable that Republicans don’t want Ned Lamont in the Senate. But to campaign for a lifelong big-government liberal simply because he supports President Bush’s increasingly unsupportable war in Iraq is to declare limited government across a wide range of issues less important than this failing war.

Criminal Negligence in Iraq

OK, keeping up with energy and enviro related insanity is so difficult that sometimes, it’s easy to fall behind on the newspapers.  So over the weekend, I tried mightily to catch up on unread issues from the past week of The New York Times.  That explains why I’m so late to catch this amazing review of PBS’s Frontline “The Lost Years in Iraq,” which was published last Tuesday.

Unfortunately, I missed the show, which likewise aired on Tuesday.  But here’s a quote from the New York Times review:

Certainly some of the [Iraq Reconstruction Group] staff members seemed a bit underqualified.  Colonel Hammes recalls that the person given the job of planning for [Iraqi] prisons and police was 25 and that this was his first job after college.  He didn’t worry about having a staff of only four, the young appointee said, because they were all his fraternity brothers.

This is jaw dropping stuff.  If I were a Congressman and this information had crossed my desk back in 2003, I would have submitted articles of impeachment of President Bush right then and there.  This is criminal negligence and incompetence so amazing that words can’t do the matter justice.

Gotta go back and catch that show. 

I Hear Voices

I don’t want to tempt fate by declaring that the tide is turning against the costly and interventionist federal agriculture programs, but there have been several critical (in both senses of the word) editorials and investigative series this year on farm subsidies. The voices protesting about farm programs seem to be getting louder.

For a recent example, bravo to the Washington Post, for its editorial on Saturday denouncing the crop insurance boondoggle – yet another agricultural policy fleecing consumers and taxpayers in order to make farming a risk-free enterprise. The editorial follows a series earlier this year from the Post, entitled ’Harvesting Cash’ (you can view that series here).

The insurance program works thus: the government pays 60 percent of the premiums for crop insurance ($2.3 billion last year), and also pays a fee to insurance companies for administering the program (over $800 million). All this for crop failure losses of $752 million (yes, that’s right, the losses cost less than the administrative fees). The insurance does not, however, remove the “need” for disaster payments – over $6 billion worth since 2000, according to the Roanoke Times.

Taxpayers can sleep well at night, however, knowing they are funding “something good, the rural life”, in the words of a farmer quoted by the Post. (I wonder how much money would flow to farmers if the charity was voluntary?)

Kudos also to the Boston Herald, for their Sunday editorial on the subject (view here) and the Roanoke Times (here) for their own version. The latter editorial could be especially influential since Bob Goodlatte is the representative for Roanoke County and Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.

It is encouraging to note the number and breadth of newspapers covering this subject. The LA Times, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Des Moines Register, the Denver Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Orlando Sentinel have all run editorials on farm programs this year. Let’s hope that the voices are heard, and that voters and their representatives start to demand change.