Mass Surveillance Opponents Launch

Two grassroots groups opposed to existing U.S. government surveillance policies yesterday launched a new platform aimed at the legislative branch:

A project of Restore The Fourth and Fight for the Future, the website rates House and Senate members on the basis of their votes on surveillance-related legislation since 2012. Those who have voted against continuation of the PATRIOT Act or sponsored legislation to repeal it are deemed to be part of “Team Internet”; those who have championed a continuation of the status quo on surveillance are dubbed “Team Surveillance.” 

Restore The Fourth’s press release provides further details:

The scoreboard builds off a similar tool released last year by a coalition of privacy advocates, adding data from the current Congress, including the PATRIOT Act renewal fight, the USA FREEDOM Act of 2015 and other relevant legislation. 

“We wanted to develop something simple and easy that would allow users to quickly see which politicians oppose mass surveillance, and who’s working to expand the surveillance state” says Alex Marthews, national chair of Restore The Fourth.

At the moment, it is unclear whether those behind will expand the project to include ratings on presidential candidates. Thus far, government surveillance has not been a top-tier issue in any of the presidential debates and is rarely mentioned by the candidates on the campaign trail.

Gholz Recognized for His Work on Political Economy

Cato Institute adjunct scholar Eugene Gholz has been awarded the 2015 Fiona McGillivray award for his paper, “Assessing the ‘Threat’ of International Tension to the U.S. Economy.” Chosen by the Political Economy section of the American Political Science Association, the award is given for the best paper in Political Economy presented at the previous year’s APSA Annual Meeting.

In the paper, which is featured in A Dangerous World? Threat Perception and U.S. National Security, a book that I co-edited with John Mueller, Gholz concludes that the conventional wisdom regarding the economic threat international tension poses to neutral states is “often exaggerated.”

President Obama (like other political leaders before him) is wrong about the economic consequences of foreign tension for the United States, as are most of the academics involved in grand strategy debates.

The bottom line is that it is rarely, if ever, worth spending American resources to prevent foreign instability in the hope of protecting American prosperity, even assuming that such spending effectively tamps down tension.

Gholz, an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, argues that neutral states can sometimes actually benefit economically from foreign tension and even war:

governments in wartime transfer resources from normal production into the war effort, which means that the belligerents’ domestic economy produces less of value for nonmilitary consumers, fewer capital goods to prepare for future domestic production, and fewer export products.

The result is a near-term gap between demand for goods and services and domestic supply—a gap that is typically filled by imports from international markets.

Not every foreign country is well positioned to take advantage of the mobilization-induced consumption binge, but, on net, because belligerent (or scared) economies increase their overall consumption, neutral countries enjoy an economic benefit.

The paper is not a brief for a U.S. policy of instigating foreign conflict, of course: we all recoil from the horrors of war, and any economic benefit that the United States might gain from foreign tension would be relatively small. But the current U.S. strategy’s emphasis on military activism and forward presence is built on the assumption that scaling back U.S. military commitments would hurt the American economy, and that assumption is not justified. There is no reason for the United States to pay direct costs – the costs of our forward military strategy – for a phantom economic benefit.

When presenting the award to Gholz, Professor Lloyd Gruber from the London School of Economics and Political Science, chair of the award committee, lauded the “well-argued, punchy, and provocative” paper:

Using historical examples and reasoning by analogy—the paper likens the effects of the consumption booms that accompany war-fighting to the effects of the peacetime demand shock that would occur if millions of Chinese consumers were to decide to purchase new automobiles at the same time—Gholz makes a compelling case. …His paper is a consumption boom for the reader.

The book in which Gholz’s paper appears can be found here.

TTIP: Battle for the Soul of Trade Policy?

In today’s Cato Online Forum essay, the AFL-CIO’s Celeste Drake asserts that labor unions are not opposed to trade per se, but to neo-liberal trade deals that only benefit corporate entities. Drake argues that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership offers a good opportunity to change the nature of trade agreements to include progressive, standard-raising provisions that promote inclusive growth and shared prosperity. She concludes:

No one believes that righting the course of globalization and trade will be quick or easy.  But if the process is to begin, the TTIP, with informed, active and engaged civil society on both sides of the Atlantic, seems an opportune place to make a stand to change the rules: not to stop trade, but to use it as a tool to achieve a global economy that works for all.

Celeste’s essay is offered in conjunction with a Cato Institute conference on the TTIP taking place October 12.  Read it. Provide feedback.  And please register to attend the conference.

The $4,000 Suit and the Benefits of Exchange

Last week, I wrote about a man who spent 6 months of his life and $1,500 to make a sandwich entirely from scratch, without the benefits of market exchange. The story illustrates how exchange and trade enrich our lives.

After making his incredibly costly sandwich, the same man embarked on an even costlier endeavor: making a suit from scratch. He picked cotton from a field, spun the cotton into thread, wove the thread into cloth, sheared wool from a sheep, harvested hemp, raised silkworms for their silk, killed a deer and tanned its hide to make leather. This process cost him 10 months of work and $4,000.

At the end of the video documenting how he made the “suit,” he stands in a bizarre-looking outfit with pants that end at his knees and says with regret, “OK, even with all that work, I might have run a little short on material.” Even after 10 months of intense labor, he was unable to come close to matching the quality and price of a product that he could procure through the free market. 

Thanks to market exchange and the division of labor, obtaining new clothes is simple and increasingly affordable. For example, increasing cotton yields have lowered the price of a staple fabric material.

The real price of a suit, measured in the number of hours it takes an average worker to earn enough to buy one, has declined: a two-piece wool suit cost the average American 12.4 fewer hours of work in 2012 than it did in 1956. (Check out Professor Don Boudreaux’s analysis for further details).

Critics sometimes decry increasingly affordable clothing, viewing falling prices as a sign of worker exploitation. In 1891, U.S. President Benjamin Harrison summed up this viewpoint when he said, “I pity the man who wants a coat so cheap that the man or woman who produces the cloth or shapes it into a garment will starve in the process.” However, as Johan Norberg pointed out yesterday in the U.K. Huffington Post, far from making people poorer, the garment industry has actually helped to decrease poverty. As he eloquently puts it:

Western activists rail against “sweatshops,” but among researchers and economists from left to right there is a consensus that these jobs are the stepping stones out of poverty.

Take a moment to consider what you are wearing right now, and how much work went into its creation, from the harvesting of its raw materials to the finishing touches. No one person created it—it is the fruit of a complex family tree of mutually beneficial human cooperation through the market.

The United States Should Stop Treating Russia as an Enemy

The private meeting between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the United National General Assembly session in New York apparently did not go well. The atmosphere was frosty, and both leaders also used their speeches before the UN body to take verbal shots at the other country. That outcome is most unfortunate, because Russia and the United States have important interests in common that are being damaged by ongoing bilateral tensions. In particular, both Moscow and Washington want to see ISIS decisively defeated and the overall threat of radical Islamic terrorism diminished.

Yet the Obama administration objects strongly to Russia’s growing political and military presence in Syria to support the beleaguered government of Bashar al-Assad against ISIS insurgents. Washington seems to resent any manifestation of Russian geopolitical influence outside the borders of the Russian Federation, even when it might indirectly benefit U.S. interests. Worse, U.S. leaders continue to cling to the fantasy that simultaneously seeking to defeat ISIS and Assad is a coherent policy. 

Washington’s clumsy handling of relations with Russia has brought the two countries dangerously close to a second cold war. As I discuss in a new article in Aspenia Online, both sides bear responsibility for the deterioration of the bilateral relationship, but the bulk of the blame lies at the doorstep of the United States. And trouble began long before Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine triggered the most acute crisis.

Shooting a 68-Year-Old Who Poses No Threat Violates Clearly Established Law

Can it really be the case that a police officer violates the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on using excessive force when he points a live firearm at a non-threatening individual, but not if he actually shoots and kills this person? That’s the argument being made in Stamps v. Town of Framingham, which is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

During a military-style SWAT raid on the home of 68-year-old grandfather Eurie Stamps—to execute a drug-search warrant regarding his stepson’s alleged activities—Officer Paul Duncan pointed an assault rifle at Stamps with the safety disengaged and his finger on the trigger, even though Stamps lay on the floor with his hands up. Duncan now claims that he became immune from suit when he unintentionally fired the rifle and killed Stamps.

Under the doctrine of “qualified immunity,” government officials—including police officers—are immune from suit if their actions don’t violate a “clearly established” constitutional right. The crux of Duncan’s argument is that when his weapon discharged, he became immune from suit even if pointing an assault rifle at Stamps was an unconstitutional act by itself—because there’s no clearly established right against accidental death. This ridiculous argument was duly rejected by the lower court, because it’s both legally unsound and practically dangerous.

The Roberts Court at Ten

Ten years ago today, Judge John Roberts took the oath of office to become the 17th Chief Justice of the United States. Although we speak of “the Roberts Court”—its 10th term now behind it, its 5th under its current composition—it’s somewhat misleading to do so since it seems to imply that the chief justice has more power than in fact he has. To be sure, he leads the Court in a number of administrative respects, including the not inconsiderable power of assigning opinion writing when he’s in the majority in a given case. But at the end of the day, his vote counts for no more than that of any other justice.

Nevertheless, that’s the custom, so with those milestones before us, it’s worth asking how the Roberts Court is doing from a classical liberal perspective—liberty through limited constitutional government—the perspective we at Cato’s Center for Constitutional Studies have advanced since our inception over a quarter of a century ago. Given Roberts’ 2012 and 2015 opinions upholding Obamacare and his ringing dissent last June in the same-sex marriage case, one is tempted to answer “not well.” Those opinions speak volumes, about which I’ll say a bit more shortly. But on balance, it’s been a fairly good record. There are exceptions, for sure, and many cases are decided on technical grounds having little to do with substantive issues. But the Roberts Court has generally been supportive, for example, of property rights, religious liberty, free speechespecially political speech in the campaign finance contextand the Second Amendment, and it has mostly stood against affirmative action, executive branch overreach, and a number of other governmental intrusions.