Slovakia’s Strongman Heading for a Defeat?

A presidential election in Slovakia is usually a dull affair. The head of state plays a largely ceremonial role and, since 1993, the post has been occupied by fairly pedestrian, aging figures whose footprint on either domestic politics or on Slovakia’s reputation abroad has been negligible. 

Nevertheless, the stakes are higher in the second round of this year’s presidential election that will take place on Saturday. The leading candidate is the current prime minister, Robert Fico, whose party, Smer, has enjoyed a comfortable majority in the Slovak Parliament since the election in 2012. Fico, who has led Smer since its birth in 1999, served one term as prime minister between 2006 and 2010 and has traditionally enjoyed significant public support. A former member of the Communist Party, he once said that he “had not noticed” the Velvet Revolution of 1989, insinuating that free markets and an open political system have brought little good for ordinary people.

While presenting himself as a social democrat, Fico has successfully courted Slovak nationalists. For example, he has been a vocal opponent of recognizing Kosovo’s independence, for fears that the Hungarian-majority areas of southern Slovakia could follow the Kosovar example. While such concerns are baseless, as Slovak Hungarians display very little interest in secessionism, the rhetoric was successful in attracting Slovak voters that had previously supported fringe nationalist parties.

Fico’s cabinets have adopted several controversial policies, including the 2008 press law, which enabled politicians and companies to file successful lawsuits against newspapers. That has resulted in grossly disproportionate sanctions against Slovak media. One Slovak weekly was recently ordered to print a 54-page apology to a former member of parliament. In 2009, the weekly published an article about the parliamentarian’s company that allegedly received large payments from the European Union’s structural funds. Another weekly is currently being sued over another piece of investigative journalism. The €20 million in damages sought exceed, by an order of magnitude, the earnings of the magazine.

According to some, the presidency is an attractive exit option for Fico, whose two years in government have not produced the results that his electoral base hoped for. The country’s chronically high unemployment, especially among young people, shows no signs of receding, and many of the measures adopted by the government—including the repeal of the flat tax or the re-regulation of labor markets—have done little to foster economic growth and sound public finances.

The Most Wonderful Video You’ll See Today

The most wonderful video you’ll see today:

Watch as a deaf woman, Joanne Milne, is overwhelmed by hearing for the first time after having her cochlear implants switched on. This is just another way in which modern technology improves lives of the less fortunate. For more on technological and medical breakthroughs, follow us on Twitter.

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Obama Meets the Pope

President Obama met with Pope Francis at the Vatican yesterday. After the meeting, Obama said that he was “was grateful to have the opportunity to speak with him [the Pope] about the responsibilities that we all share to care for the least of these, the poor, the excluded… And I was extremely moved by his insights about the importance of us all having a moral perspective on world problems and not simply thinking in terms of our own narrow self-interests.”

Later, in an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, “Obama pointed to the Pope’s concern for income inequality, saying … ‘Given his great moral authority, when the Pope speaks it carries enormous weight.’ Continuing to focus on income inequality, Obama said, ‘And it isn’t just an economic issue, it’s a moral issue. I think the Pope was speaking to the danger that over time we grow accustomed to this kind of inequality and accept it as normal. But we can’t.’”

Writing in The Atlantic last December, I took issue with some of Pope Francis’ assertions about the state of the world, including income inequality:

Academic researchers—from Xavier Sala-i-Martin of Columbia University, to Surjit Bhalla, formerly of the Brookings Institution and RAND Corporation, to Paolo Liberati of the University of Rome—all agree that global inequality is declining. That is because 2.6 billion people in China and India are richer than they used to be. Their economies are growing much faster than those of their Western counterparts, thus shrinking the income gap that opened at the dawn of industrialization in the 19th century, when the West took off and left much of the rest of the world behind.

Similarly, in a recent ReasonTV video, I explained why more—rather than less—capitalism is good for the poor. Simply put, poor people in countries with more economic freedom earn a higher share of the national income and have higher per capita incomes than poor people in countries with less economic freedom.

If Pope Francis and President Obama want to help the world’s poorest people, they should advocate for:

  • Free trade, so that African farmers and Asian tailors can sell their goods in Europe and America free of tariffs and quotas.
  • Ending agricultural (and other) subsidies, which are the products of modern crony capitalism and benefit agricultural conglomerates and large corporations at the expense of everyone else.
  • Property rights, so that poor people can gain title to their land and use it as collateral for borrowing.
  • Privatization of education, water supply, health care and other supposedly public goods, which the corrupt and unaccountable governments in poor countries have underdelivered for decades.

The Transit Train Wreck

Investigators have concluded that the driver of the CTA train that crashed at O’Hare earlier this week slept through the stop. Moreover, she apparently had a record of falling asleep at work before. However, investigators also concluded that two back-up systems that should have stopped the train before it crashed even without a waking driver failed as well.

We’ve spent roughly $1 trillion on transit since 1970 for not much return. Capital spending before 1990 is not available, but probably followed a trajectory similar to operating subsidies (=op costs minus fares). Click image to download a spreadsheet with these and other data mentioned in this post.

Meanwhile, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) defends its claim that recent ridership statistics represent a genuine “shift in American travel behavior.” While it admits that per capita ridership has declined since 2008, it blames that on the recession. It prefers to go back to 1995, “because after that year, ridership increased due to the passage of the landmark ISTEA legislation and other surface transportation bills which increased funding for public transportation.” Effectively, APTA argues that people will ride transit if you subsidize them enough, and so therefore subsidies should be increased still further.

(By the way, APTA responded to my statement that virtually all of the growth in ridership in 2013 took place in New York City, saying, “That statement is not true… . Many other systems across the country saw ridership gains last year.” But I never said that every single transit system outside of New York declined, only that the sum total, minus New York, declined, which is easily verified from APTA’s own data.)

APTA is correct that transit ridership bottomed out in 1995, at least according to its numbers. (Federal Transit Administration numbers are a little different and show ridership bottoming out in 1993.) But it is a stretch to say that subsidies are responsible for the growth in ridership since 1995 (or ‘93). Both operating and capital subsidies to transit have grown steadily since the mid 1960s, but ridership hasn’t always followed.

In particular, ridership declined through 1972 to about 6.6 million trips, then increased through 1980 to about 8.5 million trips, hovered around there for about a decade, then declined from 8.9 million trips in 1989 to 7.8 million trips in 1995, then increased to 10.5 million trips in 2008, and has hovered around there since then. If increased subsidies were responsible for the increase after 1995, why didn’t increased subsidies lead to increased ridership between 1965 and 1972 or between 1989 and 1995?

Obama Sends More U.S. Troops to …Uganda?

The Obama administration seems determined to demonstrate that there is no place in the world so geographically remote or strategically and economically irrelevant that U.S. military intervention won’t take place.  Any doubt on that score was eliminated earlier this week when the administration deployed another 150 Special Operations Forces personnel (along with CV-22 Osprey aircraft) to help the government of Uganda track down rebel warlord Joseph Kony.  The new deployment augments the 100 troops Washington previously dispatched to the region in October 2011.  At that time, the administration assured skeptics that the mission was strictly limited in nature.  Clearly, it has now become somewhat less so, and one must wonder whether there will be future deployments to enlarge Washington’s military intervention.

Make no mistake about it, Kony is a repulsive character.  Among other offenses, his followers have drafted children as young as 12 into the movement’s armed ranks, and there are numerous allegations of other human rights abuses.  But no rational person could argue that Kony’s forces pose a security threat to the United States.  And under the Constitution, the purpose of the U.S. military is to protect the security of the American people, not engage to quixotic ventures to rectify bad behavior around the world.

The willingness of the U.S. officials to send Special Operations personnel, who have been trained and equipped at great expense to American taxpayers, on such a mission underscores a growing problem: the unwillingness or inability of U.S. leaders to set priorities in the area of foreign policy.  America’s security interests can (and should) be divided into four broad categories: vital, secondary or conditional, peripheral, and barely relevant. Each category warrants a different response.

Unfortunately, in recent decades, U.S. leaders have had a tendency to lump almost everything into the “vital interest” category.  The reality is that for any nation, truly vital interests are few in number.  National survival is obviously the most important one, but the preservation of political independence, domestic liberty, and economic well-being from external threats all are part of the mix as well.  When vital interests are threatened, maximum exertions and sacrifices are justified.

But that ought to be the great exception, not the rule, when it comes to the conduct of America’s foreign policy.  Even an effort to protect the next highest category, secondary or conditional interests, requires a rigorous cost-benefit calculation.   Secondary interests are assets that are pertinent but not indispensable to the preservation of America’s physical integrity, independence, domestic liberty, and economic health.  An example would be the goal of keeping a key strategic and economic region such as Western Europe or Northeast Asia from being dominated by a hostile major power.  The defense of secondary interests justifies significant, but nevertheless limited, exertions–especially if they involve military measures.

The cost-benefit calculation shifts even more in the direction of restraint when the matter involved is one of peripheral interests.  That category consists of assets that marginally enhance America’s security, liberty, and economic well being, but the loss of which would be more of an annoyance than a significant blow.  The existence of an unpleasant regime in a mid-size country in Latin America (Venezuela comes to mind) is an example of a threat to a peripheral interest.  Russia’s crude coercion of Ukraine is another example.  It may be asking too much for Washington to be indifferent to such matters, but there is nothing at stake that normally requires more than a diplomatic response.

Many situations in the world do not rise even to the level of peripheral interests.  They instead fall into the category of barely relevant (or often entirely irrelevant) matters.  Whether Bosnia remains intact or divides into a Muslim-dominated ministate and a Serb republic, or whether East Timor is well governed, can and should be a matter of indifference to the United States.  It is highly improbable that such developments would have a measurable impact on America’s security, liberty, or economic health.  Washington ought to confine its role to one of routine diplomatic involvement on the margins—and sometimes not even that.

Joseph Kony’s activities in Central Africa are a textbook example of a largely irrelevant development.  That conflict certainly does not warrant the expenditure of defense budget dollars, much less putting the lives of American military personnel at risk.

Could Vice President Biden Help Save the Administration’s Trade Agenda?

Francisco Sanchez, former undersecretary of Commerce for international trade in President Obama’s first term, commented on the administration’s trade efforts in a March 21 article in Politico.  His view is that the president will need to get directly involved in making the case for liberalization if he wants his trade agenda to succeed.  Presidential leadership no doubt will be essential.  Certainly few congressional Democrats would be eager to stick their necks out on behalf of freer trade, if they think the president might leave them high and dry by backing away from his commitment to Trade Promotion Authority (TPA or “fast track”), the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

But as I noted in a recent paper, it seems unlikely that the president is sufficiently committed to his trade agenda.  It also is unclear whether developments elsewhere in the world would permit him to devote the time and energy to trade issues that Mr. Sanchez correctly argues is needed.  That raises the question of whether other senior officials in the administration might be able to augment the president’s efforts. 

Would it be feasible for Vice President Joe Biden to play a useful role in achieving the administration’s trade objectives?  Biden knows Congress well and cast many trade votes during his career in the Senate.  He consistently voted in favor of trade liberalization in his early years, starting with the Trade Act of 1974.  Perhaps the Senate was a happier place then, with both parties placing relatively greater emphasis on keeping the United States actively engaged in strengthening the global economy.  Biden’s pro-trade voting record continued throughout the 1990s on behalf of trade policy initiatives – including NAFTA and the Uruguay Round – supported by President Clinton.  However, his approach appears to have changed rather abruptly when George W. Bush became president.  Since then Biden’s only pro-trade votes on major issues were to support the FTAs with Australia and Morocco in 2004.  He wrapped up his Senate career by voting against DR-CAFTA, Oman and Peru.

This background may position Biden to provide helpful outreach to members of Congress who have doubts about the administration’s trade agenda.  Since he has found himself voting both for and against market-opening initiatives, perhaps he would have credibility in explaining why liberalization is the right choice now.

Michelle Malkin Browses Colorado Marijuana Store

Michelle Malkin on her recent experience at a Colorado marijuana store:

For the past three months, my mother-in-law, Carole, whom I love with all my heart, has battled metastatic melanoma. After a harrowing week of hospitalization and radiation, she’s at home now. A miraculous new combination of oral cancer drugs seems to have helped enormously with pain and possibly contained the disease’s spread. But Carole’s loss of appetite and nausea persist.

A month ago, with encouragement from all of her doctors here in Colorado, she applied for a state-issued medical marijuana card. It still hasn’t come through. As a clerk at Marisol Therapeutics told us, there’s a huge backlog. But thanks to Amendment 64, the marijuana drug legalization act approved by voters in 2012, we were able to legally and safely circumvent the bureaucratic holdup. “A lot of people are in your same situation,” the pot shop staffer told us. “We see it all the time, and we’re glad we can help.”

Our stash included 10 pre-rolled joints, a “vape pen” and two containers of cheddar cheese-flavored marijuana crackers (they were out of brownies). So far, just one cracker a day is yielding health benefits. Carole is eating better than she has in three months. For us, there’s no greater joy than sharing the simple pleasure of gathering in the kitchen for a meal, with Grandma Carole at the head of the table.

Do I worry about the negative costs, abuses and cultural consequences of unbridled recreational pot use? Of course I do. But when you get past all the “Rocky Mountain High” jokes and look past all the cable-news caricatures, the legalized marijuana entrepreneurs here in my adopted home state are just like any other entrepreneurs: securing capital, paying taxes, complying with a thicket of regulations, taking risks and providing goods and services that ordinary people want and need. Including our grateful family.

Read the whole thing.

Flashback: Ms. Malkin reviewed my book After Prohibition: An Adult Approach to Drug Policies in the 21st Century.  Here’s a snippet: “The war on drugs is an expensive quagmire that needlessly punishes people who’ve already punished themselves beyond repair.”

For additional background, go here and here.