Murky Goals in Iraq

The goals that animate the renewed U.S. bombing campaign in Iraq are a muddle. Any rationale for bombing Sunni militants there today suggests a prolonged campaign against them. Any effort we make against Sunni insurgents in Iraq contradicts our pro-insurgency policy in Syria. And while President Obama claims fidelity to the hope of making Iraq a stable multi-ethnic state, by defending Iraq’s Shi’ite regime and Kurdish North against Sunnis, the bombing may hasten Iraq’s dissolution.

The president’s stated goals are clear enough. Last night, he said that the airstrikes have two aims. First, they will protect Americans—several dozen diplomats and military personnel are apparently in Erbil, which is threatened by the recent advances of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Second, the president said that the strikes will defend civilians from the Yazidi minority. Tens of thousands of them are said to be encircled by ISIS militants. According to the president, U.S. aircraft will both drop supplies to the Yazidi and attack ISIS positions to break the siege.  

The first goal doesn’t require bombing. If we are simply concerned about the well-being of U.S. personnel in Erbil, we would evacuate them. But they are there largely to help Iraqis fight ISIS in the first place. Seemingly, we are after some broader objective. Protecting the Yazidi from starvation and slaughter makes sense. But that objective can easily slide into broader ones.

Jury Rejects Self-Defense Claim in Murder Case

Yesterday a Detroit jury convicted a homeowner of second degree murder and manslaughter. Theodore Wafer shot Renisha McBride through a screen door in the middle of the night. McBride had crashed her car nearby and found her way to Wafer’s front porch, where she made some loud noises. Wafter says he awoke to the noise, feared for his life, and shot the unarmed McBride.

Remember all the talk in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin killing and, then, the acquital of George Zimmerman, about how defective our laws were? People kept making the claim that the United States has crazy gun laws, that all one had to do was utter “I shot him because I was afraid!!” and then the shooter could escape murder charges.

Except it doesn’t work that way. Wafer claimed self-defense, but the jury found otherwise. Note that Michigan has a castle doctrine law on its books, but that law does not confer blanket immunity for anyone claiming to have fired a weapon in fear.

For additional background, go here.

Russia Imposes Embargo on Itself

The American economist Henry George wrote, “What protection teaches us, is to do to ourselves in time of peace what enemies seek to do to us in time of war.” In Russia, Vladimir Putin started a war and then, in response to mild American and European sanctions, retaliated by imposing greater sanctions—on his own people.

Even American journalists, whose economic acumen I have been known to question, have noted the likely effects of Putin’s sanctions. See Michael Birnbaum in the Washington Post:

Russia on Thursday banned most imports of Western food products, a sweeping escalation in an economic war that will deal a multibillion-dollar hit to affected nations but will also unreel wide-ranging consequences at home.

The measures were a signal that Russia is not backing down from a confrontation that has sent Western-Russian tensions to heights not seen since the Cold War—and that it is willing to risk barer shelves and higher food prices at home in the name of striking a blow against countries that have tried to punish it over its role in the Ukraine conflict.

Russia has suspended imports of meat, fish, fruit, vegetables and milk products from the United States, the 28-nation European Union, Norway, Canada and Australia for a year. The move came in retaliation for sanctions those countries imposed on Russia….

In Russia, the food measures promised to hit not just city centers, where the urban middle class has grown accustomed to visiting supermarkets overflowing with high-quality imported European cheeses, fish and sausages. Analysts warned that food prices also would increase and that a wide range of Russian industries, including food processing plants, shippers and retailers, would be affected….

“It will be quite sensitive,” said Yevsey Gurvich, the head of the Economic Expert Group. “Not only rich people will feel it, but literally every family will be affected.” He said he estimated that Russian consumer prices would go up 2 percent this year because of the measures.

“Alternatives to imported foods will be more costly, and, anyway, I believe they will be insufficient, and our supplies will diminish. And, hence, prices will go up,” he said.

Americans who wished for more painful sanctions on Russia than President Obama has imposed are getting their wish—thanks to Putin. 

Boris Johnson on National I.D. Cards

The intelligence and entertainment value of national British politics are likely to rise now that Boris Johnson, the euro-skeptical, cosmopolitan Conservative mayor of London, is looking to re-enter Parliament. A steady critic of the European Union’s regulatory and welfare schemes precisely because he believes in an outward-facing and trade-oriented Britain, Johnson may well be the most quotable British politician since Margaret Thatcher. As former David Cameron aide Alex Deane makes clear in a piece in City A.M., Johnson, like Thatcher, is unafraid to speak in terms of individual liberty derived from classical liberalism, even if (also like Thatcher) he has not always lived up to his preachings in office. (Or as the outspoken mayor once himself said: “My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it.”)

Reading the Deane column, this quote from Johnson caught my eye from nine years ago when national I.D. cards were under debate:

I will in no circumstances carry one and even were I compelled to do so, I would take it out and destroy it on the spot were I ever asked to produce it. It is a plastic poll tax that will do nothing to assist the struggle against terrorists and will hugely expand the powers of the state over the individual.

Bring back that Boris. 

Cotton Subsidies and the Upside of Wasteful Government Incompetence

An internal audit by the U.S. Department of Agriculture of the “Economic Adjustment Assistance to Users of Upland Cotton Program” (EAAP) has revealed widespread misuse of subsidies given to owners of textile mills.  The program pays mills based on how much cotton they buy and requires that they spend the money on capital improvements at the mill.  It turns out some owners were just buying whatever the heck they wanted with the money—and that’s probably a good thing.

The primary purpose of the EAAP is to increase the demand for cotton.  The money goes to the mills, but the intended beneficiary is the cotton farmer, who gets an overpaying customer.  By conditioning the payment on an equivalent reinvestment in the cotton mill, the program also hopes to artificially increase the supply of cotton mills.  This, too, is meant to benefit cotton farmers by keeping their customers invested in buying their product. 

If the textile mill owners are using the subsidies to purchase—as the Washington Free Beacon reports—“Ford Explorers, artwork, sound systems, and elephant lamps,” then the program is ultimately less distortive of the U.S. and global cotton market.  That’s a good thing.  If the government is going to take money from some people and give it to others, at the very least we should hope that they do it in the least destructive way possible.

On the other hand, if the mill owners get the money with no strings attached, that increases the incentive for them to take the subsidy in the first place.  My guess, though, is that paying people to buy things they actually want is less distortive than paying them to buy things the government wants them to buy.

So, a toast to government incompetence (this time).  If someone’s going to do bad things, I’m glad it’s these idiots.

Russia, Sanctions, and Food

The Russian government announced on August 6 that it will ban imports of most food and agricultural products from Australia, Canada, the European Union, Norway and the United States for one year.  The full extent of the ban, as well as its effects on exporters and Russian consumers, are not yet clear.  It is interesting, though, to contrast this action with an earlier effort to use food sanctions as a diplomatic weapon:  the 1980 embargo of U.S. grain sales to the Soviet Union. 

The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 with 80,000 troops and 1800 tanks.  President Carter responded by cancelling private contracts to supply 17 million metric tons (MMT) of U.S. wheat and corn to the Soviet Union.  However, he chose to allow shipment of 8 MMT that had been agreed as part of the 1975 U.S.-Soviet Grains Agreement.  Sales in excess of the level assured in the Grains Agreement were embargoed.

Because grains are relatively fungible, and because numerous countries had surpluses available for export, the Soviets were able to replace most of the embargoed grain from willing suppliers.  Argentine agriculture did particularly well during that timeframe.  U.S. agriculture did not do so well.  Market prices had been relatively high, in large part due to strong export demand.  When a considerable portion of that demand evaporated with the stroke of a pen, commodity prices fell precipitously. 

The grain embargo became a potent political issue in the 1980 presidential campaign.  Ronald Reagan’s opposition to the embargo helped to boost his campaign in rural areas.  He took office in January 1981 and revoked the embargo three months later.

In retrospect, the grain embargo generally is seen as supporting the proposition that economic sanctions often inflict greater costs on the country imposing them than on the country at which they are aimed.

The new sanctions are expected to cut off some $15 billion in Russian imports from the EU.  Russia has been Europe’s second largest (behind the United States) export market for foodstuffs, accounting for 10 percent of the EU’s total foreign sales.  The United States has a smaller stake, with only $1.3 billion of food/ag exports to Russia.  That country has been the third largest market for U.S. poultry exports.  About 7 percent of U.S. poultry exports – valued at over $300 million – were shipped to Russia last year, down from 20 percent as recently as 2008.  Russia’s WTO commitments should prevent import restrictions based on political pressures.  Nonetheless, trade in poultry appears to have fluctuated over time in response to the influence of Russia’s domestic poultry producers.  (It’s worth noting that Russia’s import ban does not include either baby food or wine.  It’s not clear how those omissions should be interpreted.)

Police Misconduct — The Worst Case in July

Over at Cato’s Police Misconduct web site we have identified the worst case for the month of July.

It was the case of Eric Garner, who was killed by New York City police officers using a banned chokehold maneuver. A cell phone video of the incident shows Garner (who stood at least 6’3” and 350+ lbs.) arguing with police officers in an agitated state, then pulling back when officers tried to arrest him. Almost immediately, one of the officers started using an illegal chokehold maneuver to subdue Garner, at which point the 350+ pound asthmatic can be heard saying “I can’t breathe” repeatedly.  Garner was pronounced dead a short time later.  The medical examiner has ruled the death a homicide.

Garner was accused of and being arrested for selling single, untaxed cigarettes on the street corner.

Chokeholds have been banned since 1994 because they were determined to be too dangerous. Every officer and recruit is trained not to use them.  In response to the incident, NYC Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has ordered a top-to-bottom review of use of force training methods, with retraining programs likely to follow. It’s a good step, but it won’t do Eric Garner and his six children any good.

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The sexting case from Virginia is too awful and bizarre not to include as a “runner up” for the worst case in July.

Seventeen-year old Trey Sims had been arrested for allegedly sending a video of his erect penis to his girlfriend, also a minor. Prince William County prosecutors charged the teen with two felony charges: for possession of child pornography and manufacturing child pornography. These charges could have landed him in jail until he reached 21 years of age and then put him on the sex offender list, potentially for the remainder of his life. All for ‘sexting’ his girlfriend.

If it wasn’t bad enough already that prosecutors were willing to go forward with such drastic charges—and ones intended to protect children like Trey from adult predators—it gets worse. Manassas city police had already forcibly taken pictures of the teen’s penis when he was arrested, but that, apparently, wasn’t enough. Commonwealth’s attorney Claiborne Richardson told the teen’s lawyer that he either had to plead guilty or they would obtain a search warrant for pictures of his erect penis—which would be obtained by bringing the teen to a hospital and forcing him to take an erection-inducing drug while police officers took pictures of his forcibly-erect penis. Apparently, special software would then be used to compare the penises. When he did not plead guilty, substitute Juvenile Court Judge Jan Roltsch-Anoll granted the search warrant.  Thankfully, it was never actually served.

When word got out about what was happening, the government agents backed off a bit.  Sims just recently agreed to a year of probation to avoid the more serious charges.