Are the Baltic Republics Serious about Defense?

News stories in the West contend that Russia’s increasingly aggressive behavior is causing the Baltic states and other NATO members in Eastern Europe to become far more serious about national defense.  There is no doubt that tensions in the region are on the rise, including a surge of  incidents involving NATO intercepts of Russian military aircraft operating over the Baltic Sea.  The new congressional approval of military aid to Ukraine may well increase the already alarming level of animosity between NATO and Russia. 

But the notion that the Baltic republics have embarked on serious programs to boost their defense capabilities in light of Moscow’s menacing behavior is vastly overstated.  The military spending of those three countries has merely moved from minuscule to meager.  Although all NATO members pledged after the Alliance’s summit meeting in 2006 to spend a minimum of two percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on defense, few members have actually done so.  Indeed, eight years later, only the United States, Britain, Greece, and Estonia among the 28 member states fulfill that commitment

And Estonia barely met that standard.

All three Baltic governments are going to great lengths to highlight their alleged seriousness about defense, but the actual data fail to support the propaganda.  Amid much fanfare, Estonia plans to boost its military spending from 2.0 percent of GDP to…. wait for it, 2.05 percent!  Lithuania intends to raise its budget next year from 0.89 percent to 1.01 percent.  And Latvian leaders solemnly pledge that their country will spend no less than 1 percent—up from the current 0.91 percent.

The Federal Spending Juggernaut

Over the weekend, the Senate approved the $1.1 trillion Cromnibus spending package, which funds parts of the government through September 2015.

The ink isn’t even dry on this spending bill, and already big spenders in Congress are gearing up to increase next year’s spending above agreed upon limits. The Wall Street Journal describes the situation:

After four years of a divided Congress, Republicans will take full control of both chambers in January with hopes of passing individual spending bills under an orderly process rarely seen in recent years. But complicating their task will be the return of the across-the-board spending cuts known as the “sequester” birthed out of the 2011 debt-ceiling deal, which set caps on spending for the next decade.

A two-year bipartisan budget deal brokered by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D., Wash.) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) eased those cuts for fiscal years 2014 and 2015. But the $1.1 trillion bill passed over the weekend, which will fund most of the government through September 2015, marks the final stretch of that agreement.

In fiscal 2016 the cuts return in full force. Lawmakers broadly agree the reductions inflict blunt pain on the federal budget. But Democrats and Republicans are at odds about how to mitigate them in a dispute likely to grow in intensity during the coming months.

Time to Close Thailand’s Camps for Burmese Refugees?

MAE LA REFUGEE CAMP, THAILAND—Trees give way to primitive wooden homes in the rolling hills approaching Mae La refugee camp on Thailand’s border with Burma.  The largest camp in Thailand, Mae La, holds 50,000 refugees. 

Three years ago Burma’s ruling generals yielded authority to a nominally civilian leadership and initiated a series of ceasefires with various ethnic groups.  The resulting peace is real but imperfect. 

Today there are as many as 150,000 refugees in ten Thai camps.  Overcrowded Mae La was established three decades ago when many assumed that their stay would be short.

Residents are barred from even leaving the camps without official permission.  Education is difficult.  People’s lives, futures, and dreams are all confined by fences and armed guards.

Perhaps worse, sustenance is provided and work prohibited.  This has discouraged independence, enterprise, and entrepreneurship. 

With the changes in Burma serious discussions about closing the camps have begun.  In July Thailand’s military junta declared its objective to repatriate all refugees by 2015.

Mae La refugees I talked to wanted to return, but worried about security.  NGOs observe that a national political settlement has yet to be implemented.   

Suing Gun Businesses Over Sandy Hook

There’s a new legal attack under way against firearms, as the press reports

Ten families touched by the Newtown massacre filed a wrongful death lawsuit Monday against companies that made, distributed and sold the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle that Adam Lanza used to kill 20 children and six staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary two years ago. The suit argues that the gun is a military assault weapon that never should have been on the general market.

Jacob Sullum at Reason has more details, especially on the arbitrary nature of the epithet “assault weapons,” often uncritically repeated in the press. 

In 2005 Congress enacted the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) specifically to put an end to product liability suits over guns that had been made and sold in accordance with law. The courts have generally enforced it as written – even the Ninth Circuit’s famously liberal Judge Stephen Reinhardt agreed that it was constitutional – which has mostly, if not entirely, led to the dismissal of such lawsuits. The new Connecticut suit seeks to reopen the question by stretching beyond recognition a narrow exception in the law allowing businesses to be sued over “negligent entrustment.” (The firearm used by the Newtown killer had been lawfully sold long previously to his mother.)

Last year I wrote a piece entitled “Six Myths About the Law That Bans Gun Lawsuits” for the Power Line blog, pointing out that the PLCAA for the most part codified the common law treatment of gun liability as it had stood for centuries, thus advancing both a constitutional liberty and the legitimate freedom of interstate commerce against efforts to obtain a radical change in doctrine. I also noted that PLCAA probably make little ultimate difference in the Sandy Hook case because claims against gun makers and distributors over that massacre would probably not have succeeded anyway. And I rebutted a notion that came to be promoted years later, that the law was somehow not meant to reach privately filed liability suits:

A Washington Post report in January [2013] claimed the law poses “unexpected hurdles” to victims of recent mass shootings, whose lawyers are supposedly “surprised” at its pre-emptive effect. At the time Congress passed the law, the Post concedes, big-city mayors had filed a wave of lawsuits on novel theories demanding (for example) that courts begin treating gun sales as a “public nuisance” . “But over the past eight years, the legal shield has increasingly been used to block a different stripe of legal action.” The Post’s implication that Congress intended to restrict only municipal suits, and not tort suits on behalf of individuals, is false. Lawmakers debated the question and chose to include both. One reason is that anti-gun strategists were actively employing individual as well as municipal suits in their nearly successful effort to bury gun makers under the costs of legal defense. An editorial complaining that the law banned both kinds of suits appeared on June 2, 2005 in (yes) the Washington Post.

Let’s not forget that the relatively shallow pockets of gun-related businesses was part and parcel of the abusive strategy of the politicians and lawyers promoting the suits back then: 

because gunmakers were too thinly capitalized to withstand the costs of years of legal defense, it was thought they’d fold their hands and yield to “gun control through litigation” (explicitly couched as an end run against a then-Republican Congress resistant to gun control proposals). …the suits eventually reached judges and were generally thrown out, but not before imposing huge and uncompensated costs on many small companies that had violated no laws. Some were bankrupted.

We may hope that the courts are alive to the ongoing importance of PLCAA, and willing, as appropriate, to apply the tool of sanctions against legal strategists and campaigners who would seek to circumvent its provisions in the name of ideological grandstanding, profit, or revenge.

NOBODY Expects the Spanish Press Contrition!

Back in October, Spain’s parliament passed a horribly ill-advised law at the behest of the Spanish news publishing lobby, the AEDE. Struggling to adapt to the information age in one of Europe’s more troubled economies, the AEDE thought it had hit on a brilliant new revenue source: They got a provision inserted in a new intellectual property law that, starting in January, will force news aggregation sites to pay newspapers for the privilege of linking to their stories.

This never made much sense: News aggregators are a massive source of traffic (and therefore ad revenue) for news sites.  In effect, the law seeks to make it more difficult and costly for anyone to give those sites free advertising.  Indeed, it’s hard to see the point of posting stories online unless you expect people to link to them, and it’s simple enough to automatically prevent search engines from indexing your site’s content if, for some obscure reason, you don’t want people to have an easy means of discovering your content.  But never mind the logic; the law seemed like a foolproof way for ailing news companies to milk a few euros from big tech corporations flush with cash. What could go wrong?

You know how the story ends, right?  Everyone but the newspapers themselves seems to have seen it coming, since something similar had just played out in Germany: Google News, the largest of the aggregators, announced last week that they would be shutting down operations in Spain. Since the company didn’t even show ads on its news site, keeping it open under the new regulations would be an unsustainable, money-losing proposition.

The hilarious coda to the story: The AEDE, which previously complained that news aggregators were “stealing” their work by publishing headlines and tiny snippets of stories, is now begging Spanish regulators to stop Google News from closing. The site’s shuttering, the group complained without irony, “would undoubtedly have a negative impact on citizens and Spanish businesses.” Give them points for chutzpah if nothing else: They’re not even waiting for the blood to dry on the hatchet before bemoaning the loss of their golden eggs.

Government Job Security

Federal employees are generally overpaid. Federal, civilian employees made $81,076 in 2013 in wages, on average, compared to $55,424 in the private sector. Their benefit packages are particularly out of line with the private sector. Total compensation including wages and benefits for federal, civilian employees was $115,524 in 2013, on average, compared to $66,357 in the private sector.

A new study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that the advantages of government employment include more than just higher compensation.  Government jobs are more secure, and employees are more likely to keep their jobs during economic downturns.

The authors of the study, Jason L. Kopelman and Harvey S. Rosen, used data for 800,000 workers from 1984 to 2012 to study the differences in job loss rates between workers in the private and public sectors. They wanted to determine how the differentials changed during recessions. They asked: Are government jobs more secure during recessions?

The results are striking. According to the researchers, “public sector jobs, while not generally recession-proof, do offer more security than private sector jobs, and the advantage widens during recessions. These patterns are present across genders, races, and educational groups.”

The researchers found that private sector workers are 4.2 percent more likely to lose their jobs than federal employees during nonrecession periods. The gap grows during recessions; private workers are 6.5 percent more likely to lose their jobs than federal employees. During the Great Recession, the gap narrowed slightly. Private workers were only 5.3 percent more likely than federal employees to lose their jobs.

The results for state and local government employees are similar. Private sector workers are 4.6 percent more likely than local government employees and 4.7 percent than state government employees to lose their jobs during a recession.

The study does not discuss the causes of the high federal job security, but a number of reasons seem obvious: civil service protections, the strength of federal employee unions, manager unwillingness to fire poor performers, and the greater budget stability in the government than the private sector.

In sum, the new NBER study provides input to the discussion about federal versus private pay. Federal workers received generous compensation packages, but they enjoy other advantages as well, such as higher job security.

Today Is Bill of Rights Day

Today is Bill of Rights Day. So it’s an appropriate time to consider the state of our constitutional safeguards.

Let’s consider each amendment in turn.

The First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.” Government officials, however, have insisted that they can gag recipients of “national security letters” and censor broadcast ads in the name of campaign finance reform.

The Second Amendment says the people have the right “to keep and bear arms.” Government officials, however, make it difficult to keep a gun in the home and make it a crime for a citizen to carry a gun for self-protection.

The Third Amendment says soldiers may not be quartered in our homes without the consent of the owners. This safeguard is one of the few that is in fine shape – so we can pause here for a laugh.

The Fourth Amendment says the people have the right to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures. Government officials, however, insist that they can conduct commando-style raids on our homes and treat airline travelers like prison inmates by conducting virtual strip searches.

The Fifth Amendment says that private property shall not be taken “for public use without just compensation.” Government officials, however, insist that they can use eminent domain to take away our property and give it to other private parties who covet it.

The Sixth Amendment says that in criminal prosecutions, the person accused is guaranteed a right to trial by jury. Government officials, however, insist that they can punish people who want to have a trial—“throwing the book” at those who refuse to plead guilty—which explains why 95 percent of the criminal cases never go to trial.

The Seventh Amendment guarantees the right to a jury trial in civil cases where the controversy “shall exceed twenty dollars.” Government officials, however, insist that they can impose draconian fines on people without jury trials.

The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishments. Government officials, however, insist that a life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense is not cruel.

The Ninth Amendment says that the enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights should not be construed to deny or disparage others “retained by the people.” Government officials, however, insist that they will decide for themselves what rights, if any, will be retained by the people.

The Tenth Amendment says that the powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved to the states, or to the people. Government officials, however, insist that they will decide for themselves what powers they possess, and have extended federal control over health care, crime, education, and other matters the Constitution reserves to the states and the people.

It’s a disturbing snapshot, to be sure, but not one the Framers of the Constitution would have found altogether surprising. They would sometimes refer to written constitutions as mere “parchment barriers,” or what we call “paper tigers.” They nevertheless concluded that having a written constitution was better than having nothing at all.

The key point is this: A free society does not just “happen.” It has to be deliberately created and deliberately maintained. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. To remind our fellow citizens of their responsibility in that regard, the Cato Institute has distributed more than five million copies of our pocket Constitution. At this time of year, it’ll make a great stocking stuffer.

Let’s enjoy the holidays but let’s also resolve to be more vigilant about defending our Constitution. To learn more about Cato’s work in defense of the Constitution, go here. To support the work of Cato, go here.