Dick Cheney, Dove?

Rumors continue to swirl that North Korea is about to conduct a test of its long-range Taepodong 2 missile, which would be capable of reaching targets in the United States. The prospect of Pyongyang having not only a small nuclear arsenal but the means eventually to deliver such weapons at great distances has understandably generated agitated commentary in the United States and East Asia.

The latest entry is a Washington Post op-ed by former Clinton administration defense department officials Ashton B. Carter and William J. Perry. Carter and Perry suggest that if the North Koreans do not heed U.S. warnings to refrain from conducting the missile test, the Bush administration should launch preemptive air strikes to take out the missile while it is still on the launch pad. Surprisingly, Vice President Dick Cheney rejected their idea.

It is clear that extremist and reckless proposals have come to dominate a policy debate when Dick Cheney is the resident dove. The Carter-Perry article provides more evidence (as if we needed it) that foreign policy irresponsibility is not confined to neoconservatives in the Republican Party.

Those who propose attacking North Korea need to sit down and take a deep breath. First of all, the rumors about a missile test may or may not be true. On at least two occasions since Pyongyang announced a moratorium on testing in 1999, there have been reports that the test of a long-range missile was imminent. Those reports proved unfounded. This one may as well.

Even if North Korea does conduct a test of the Taepodong 2, it is not the end of the world. Granted, every sensible person would wish that the weird hermit kingdom did not have either nuclear weapons or long-range missiles. But the United States has thousands of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them with pinpoint accuracy. We’ve deterred other weird regimes in the past, most notably Stalinist Russia and Maoist China. We should be able to deter the likes of Kim Jong-il. The North Korean regime, while bizarre and brutally repressive, has never shown signs of suicidal behavior. And attacking a nation that possesses thousands of nukes would definitely be suicidal.

The decision to launch preemptive air strikes would certainly be more dangerous than relying on deterrence. If the Bush administration follows the advice of Carter and Perry and attacks North Korea, it could easily trigger a general war on the Korean Peninsula. The last Korean war cost the lives of millions of Koreans and more than 50,000 Americans. We should spurn any proposal that risks a repetition. 

Dick Cheney is right to be a dove on this issue. One only wishes that the viewpoint becomes habit forming. 

Hillary and the Candlemakers: Not a Parody

One of the most famous documents in the history of free-trade literature is Bastiat’s famous “Candlemakers’ Petition.” In that parody, the French economist and parliamentarian imagined the makers of candles and street lamps petitioning the French Chamber of Deputies for protection from a most dastardly foreign competitor:

You are on the right track. You reject abstract theories and have little regard for abundance and low prices. You concern yourselves mainly with the fate of the producer. You wish to free him from foreign competition, that is, to reserve the domestic market for domestic industry.

We come to offer you a wonderful opportunity… . 

We are suffering from the ruinous competition of a rival who apparently works under conditions so far superior to our own for the production of light that he is flooding the domestic market with it at an incredibly low price; for the moment he appears, our sales cease, all the consumers turn to him, and a branch of French industry whose ramifications are innumerable is all at once reduced to complete stagnation. This rival …  is none other than the sun.

For after all, Bastiat’s petitioners noted, how can the makers of candles and lanterns compete with a light source that is totally free?

Thank goodness we wouldn’t fall for such nonsense today. Or would we?

Last month, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and nine colleagues (ranging from Barbara Boxer to Tom Coburn) endorsed a petition from — you guessed it — the domestic candlemaking industry asking the secretary of commerce to impose a 108.3 percent tariff on Chinese candle producers.

After the Commerce Department approved the candlemakers’ petition, Clinton said in a statement:

This is a real victory for the Syracuse candle-making industry. Our manufacturers deserve a level playing field and we owe it to them to make sure that others do not unfairly circumvent our fair trade practices. Syracuse has a proud history of candle production but attempts by importers to undercut our producers have put that tradition at risk. I am pleased that the Department of Commerce heeded our call to take action against these unfair practices and recognized the importance of this decision to local producers, especially here in Syracuse. We will continue to make the case on behalf of Syracuse candle-makers as the Commerce Department considers its final determination.

But perhaps the comparison is unfair. After all, Clinton and the National Candle Association aren’t asking for protection from the sun, only from Chinese candle producers who are allegedly “dumping” candles in to the American market “at less than fair value.”

What’s the difference, though? Any source that supplies light to American consumers is a competitor of the American candle industry. And any source that can deliver the light cheaper than American candle companies is a tough competitor. Domestic producers will no doubt gain by imposing a 100 percent tariff on their Chinese competitors. But they could also sell more candles if the government required “the closing of all windows, dormers, skylights, inside and outside shutters, curtains, casements, bull’s-eyes, deadlights, and blinds — in short, all openings, holes, chinks, and fissures through which the light of the sun is wont to enter houses,” as Bastiat’s candlemakers requested.

In our modern world, the candlemakers might also propose that electric lights be banned. Think what that would do for the Syracuse candlemaking industry! Sales would soar, profits would soar, jobs would be created. And, no doubt, the owners and the employees would be immensely grateful to Senator Clinton. Of course, Senator Clinton is a centrist these days, so she would not support such sweeping legislation; perhaps she would propose only to ban electric lights from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

In either case, the benefits would not stop with the Syracuse candlemaking industry alone. As Bastiat’s candlemakers told the Chamber of Deputies:

If you shut off as much as possible all access to natural light, and thereby create a need for artificial light, what industry in France will not ultimately be encouraged?

If France consumes more tallow, there will have to be more cattle and sheep, and, consequently, we shall see an increase in cleared fields, meat, wool, leather, and especially manure, the basis of all agricultural wealth.

If France consumes more oil, we shall see an expansion in the cultivation of the poppy, the olive, and rapeseed. These rich yet soil-exhausting plants will come at just the right time to enable us to put to profitable use the increased fertility that the breeding of cattle will impart to the land… .

Thousands of vessels will engage in whaling, and in a short time we shall have a fleet capable of upholding the honour of France and of gratifying the patriotic aspirations of the undersigned petitioners, chandlers, etc.

No doubt, we can expect the same cascade of benefits to ensue from the government’s approval of the petition of the Syracuse candlemaking industry.

I Voted for What?

Rep. John McHugh (R-NY) is an important man in Congress. He serves on the House Armed Services Committee and chairs its Military Personnel Subcommittee which spends $85 billion annually.

Whether he knows how that money is spent is an open question. The Hill reported today that McHugh voted for a defense authorization bill that included a provision “he said he philosophically opposed.” (The provision overrode a federal court’s decision in a dispute between National Guard members and the government about who should pay for correspondence courses).

McHugh apparently had not read the defense authorization bill. Never mind, everyone does it, as The Hill reports, “It is no secret that some — if not most — lawmakers vote on bills that they do not read in their entirety.” McHugh notes that “hundreds and hundreds” of provisions come through, and he relies on his staff “for judgment on more routine matters.”

Members of Congress are elected to work on behalf of their constituents. How can they do that if they don’t read the bills they pass? It is true that the government is so large that supervising how well past laws are being implemented, much less reading bills, takes a lot of time and effort. Maybe more time and effort than even a hard-working member has.

Here’s a thought for members of Congress: maybe the fact that you don’t read the bills you vote for means the government has grown well beyond anyone’s control. Maybe — and this will be shocking to you — the government is too big.

Still Fighting the Last War

The right half of the blogosphere is abuzz with Senator Santorum’s revelation that since 2003 Coalition forces have recovered some 500 pre-1991 artillery shells and other munitions that contain “degraded mustard or sarin nerve agent.” (Not much of a revelation, given that in 2004 the Coalition’s Iraq Survey Group acknowledged the existence [.pdf, p. 18] of pre-Gulf-War shells).

It’s all a bit sad and embarrassing. Do the folks trumpeting this story really expect Americans to hear it and gasp: “My God: Saddam might have put some of those degraded mustard gas shells on his unmanned aerial vehicles, and dusted an American city. I’ve had my doubts about this war, but in the end, it was worth it after all!”

The WMD-based justification for the war never made much sense. As Gregg Easterbrook (among others) has pointed out, “WMD” is a misnomer, particularly when applied to chemical weapons: “Chemical weapons are dangerous, to be sure, but not ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in any meaningful sense. In actual use, chemical arms have proven less deadly than regular bombs, bullets, and artillery shells.” Sure, all of that stuff will kill you, if used properly. But none of it is worthy of the scare term “WMD”–certainly not the sort of decrepit ordnance Santorum’s talking about. Still less can it serve as post hoc justification for the war.

Rube Goldberg, Call Your Office

In a recent blog post, I mentioned L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s quest for control over his city’s public schools.

Well, he got it. Sort of.

After concessions to appease both the teachers’ unions and the school board, the L.A. school district chain of command will soon look like it was designed by Rube Goldberg. On acid.

The Mayor will have more or less complete control over a dozen or so especially troubled schools, and veto power over the Superintendency. The superintendent will gain budgeting powers, except over the union employee contract (which is, of course, the biggest budget item). Teachers and principals will be made no more accountable to parents, but they will gain the power to set their schools’ curricula. The board will negotiate the union contract – except of course that they will lose control over what teachers actually teach. Oy vey.

Had Villaraigosa won the supreme authortity he was seeking, it would have meant a transfer of monopoly power from the board to the mayor, and would have done nothing for the city’s kids. The deal that has been cobbled together amounts to a monopolist with multiple personality disorder. Its prospects are, if anything, even bleaker.

What L.A. needs is for power to be returned to parents. The educational chain of command should involve two parties: the school and the family. If the school fails to measure up, the family should be able to easily move its children elsewhere.

Any other “accountability reform” is self-serving political quackery.

China Syndrome

Higher education policy is being driven by the assumption that to compete in the global economy, especially against burgeoning powerhouses like China, the United States will need a lot more college graduates. It’s the foundation of President Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative, and the ivory tower’s justification for demanding ever more taxpayer dollars.

Ironically, China itself illustrates the pitfalls of having the government set education policies based on predictions for the future. Several sources have reported unrest among Chinese college students and recent graduates, whose unhappiness appears to have a single underlying cause. From today’s New York Times:

In 1998 the government encouraged a vast expansion in college-level education. Hundreds of new colleges were founded almost overnight to accommodate millions of new students thought to be needed as engineers, bankers, traders and marketing experts in the fast-growing economy.

So what happened?

The number of college graduates has multiplied fivefold in the last seven years, to an estimated 4.1 million this year. But at least 60 percent of that number are having trouble finding jobs, according to the National Development and Reform Commission….

As I wrote in a recent op-ed, don’t believe the hype: Special interests and politicians will try to scare you about the future economy in order to take your money. But as China itself has shown, the only thing we can predict with any reliability is that the government’s predictions will almost certainly be wrong.

“Cursive Is Illegal”

Evergreen State elementary school teachers, take note: Olympia is moving against some of your more affluent failures.

Everyone knows that doctors’ horrible handwriting causes problems for patients and pharmacists.  As of this month, it is illegal for doctors in Washington state to write prescriptions in cursive.  (Will italics be next??)

The sad thing is that health care markets have become so calcified that this really, really dumb law might actually enhance efficiency.  I just hope we won’t have to wait long before some medicine-socializer argues that this proves that government planning is superior to free-market health care.  (Any takers?)