Archives: 09/2013

On Iran, Would U.S. Take “Yes” for an Answer?

Since the election of relative moderate Hassan Rouhani to Iran’s presidency, there’s been a wave of events producing a newfound optimism about the prospects for a peaceful resolution of the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. President Obama sent a letter congratulating Rouhani on his victory and mentioning other, unspecified issues, and Rouhani reciprocated. Obama told Telemundo he saw Rouhani as “somebody who is looking to open a dialogue with the West, and with the United States, in a way we haven’t seen in the past. And so we should test it.”

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, got into the act, reiterating an earlier call for “heroic leniency” in diplomacy over the nuclear program. Khamenei also told the radical and anti-American Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps to butt out of Iran’s politics. At this time of writing, there are reports Tehran has released a number of political prisoners in Iran.

It all adds up to a period of positive trends in relations between the two countries. But it’s important not to overlook the fact that while atmospherics may help bring about talks, the countries are miles apart on the substantive issues surrounding Iran’s nuclear program. Too much attention has been spent on getting to talks, and too little on bridging the chasm dividing the parties.

A central, if not the central, problem is that the American foreign policy community has failed to lay out any conceivable way Iran could satisfy Washington other than immediate suspension of all uranium enrichment with no serious sanctions relief in return, which nearly everyone agrees isn’t going to happen. Congress seems to have two speeds on Iran policy these days: sanctions and asleep. Congress regularly piles on more sanctions to Iran, some painful, some symbolic, because it’s the easy thing to do politically, and no one seems willing to spend the political capital to provide Iran with a realistic offramp by which Tehran could lessen the pain and save face. Unfortunately, Congress’ actions and rhetoric have given the Iranians good reason to fear that our real policy in Iran is regime change, which can’t augur well for a deal.

Adding to the problems, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently reiterated his own ultimatum to Iran, which is certain to fail. Netanyahu, whose hawkish id commands more influence in Washington than one might hope, demands zero enrichment in Iran—a formula no one believes is achievable. This formula puts Israel, and likely the United States, on a path to war with Iran.

So would Sen. Lindsey Graham, who last weekend reiterated his call for Congress to pass a war resolution allowing the Obama administration to bomb Iran when it determines bombing would be appropriate.

The IPCC Is Pretty Much Dead Wrong

Global Science Report is a weekly feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

As the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) nears completion of its Fifth Assessment Report, it is becoming obvious that not only is the report going to obsolete on the day that it is released, but that it will be dead wrong as well.

We have discussed the implications of the IPCC’s failure to adequately ingest new literature—a failure that results partially from the cumbersome IPCC process and partly because the IPCC doesn’t want to include some findings that run counter to its storylines. The major implication being, of course, that the IPCC reports mislead policymakers around the world, which has a trickle-down effect on all of us who are subject to any resulting policies.

In our post on Monday, we noted the following passage from the “leaked” Summary for Policymakers of the upcoming Fifth Assessment Report:

[Climate] Models do not generally reproduce the observed reduction in surface warming trend over the last 10–15 years. There is medium confidence that this difference between models and observations is to a substantial degree caused by unpredictable climate variability, with possible contributions from inadequacies in the solar, volcanic, and aerosol forcings used by the models and, in some models, from too strong a response to increasing greenhouse-gas forcing. [italics in original]

We were generally pleased to see the IPCC admit that climate models are largely failing to capture the rate of rise (or lack thereof) of the global average surface temperature observed over the past 10-15 years. As we pointed out on Monday, we had written as much ourselves a few years ago.

But, the IPCC went way wrong in this paragraph in which they stated:

There is very high confidence that climate models reproduce the observed large-scale patterns and multi-decadal trends in surface temperature, especially since the mid-20th century. [italics in original]

No, they don’t.

Rebel-on-Rebel Violence Explained

Much attention has been focused on divisions within the panoply of groups comprising what is loosely referred to as the “Syrian opposition.” Headlines today in the Wall Street Journal (and earlier) focus attention on the sometimes-fatal form such rivalries and divisions can take: rebel-on-rebel violence.

Such violence may seem counterintuitive—after all, don’t rebels share a common enemy in the incumbent regime?

However, while rebels may share a desire to move away from the political order represented by the incumbent, this does not mean they agree on the political order they should move towards.

Thus, not only will elements enfranchised under the current regime fight to keep the status quo, but those who move away from it may fight amongst themselves to ensure their own vision of the future wins out.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), for example, was particularly adept at eliminating rival claimants to the Tamil liberation movement. These efforts may be further encouraged by foreign sponsors who adamantly share a faction’s vision of the future, have a stake in that political order, and/or may be reassured by violent demonstrations of their protégés’ commitment to the cause.

Moreover, at risk of delving into the world of conspiracy and subterfuge, behind-the-scenes efforts to divide the opposition is also a time-honored survival tactic of incumbent regimes.

To Administer the Fourth Amendment, Recognize Reasonable Searches and Seizures

Over the last few years, I’ve dedicated more and more effort to righting the Fourth Amendment, which has been weakened over decades by doctrines that don’t measure up to the times.

You can see my efforts and their evolution in my American University Law Review article, “Reforming Fourth Amendment Privacy Doctrine” (2008); Cato’s brief to the Supreme Court in U.S. v. Jones (Oct. 2011), Cato’s brief to the Supreme Court in Florida v. Jardines (July 2012); my Cato Supreme Court Review article,Escaping Fourth Amendment Doctrine After Jones: Physics, Law, and Privacy Protection (Sept. 2012); my Cato Policy Report article, “U.S. v. Jones: Fourth Amendment Law at a Crossroads” (Sept./Oct. 2012); and, most recently, Cato’s brief to the Supreme Court in In re: EPIC (August 2013).

Today, I had the opportunity to expound on my thinking at a National Press Club event hosted by the Electronic Privacy Information Center to discuss their challenge to the National Security Agency’s bulk telephone data collection. Moderator Jeffrey Rosen, recently named President and CEO of the National Constitution Center, alloted me a good deal of time, and we discussed things a little more after the session. I’m ever-sharpening my thinking about how the Fourth Amendment should operate, and how to talk about it.

The starting point is this: The “reasonable expectation of privacy” doctrine, which grew out of Katz v. United States (1967), is a failure. Courts almost never actually investigate whether a subjective “expectation of privacy” is objectively reasonable, and they’re in no position to make broad societal pronouncements on the latter question anyway. The doctrine is not a product of the Katz majority, it’s worth noting, which focused on the steps Katz had taken to conceal the sound of his voice—steps upended by government agents’ placement of a bug in a phone booth without a warrant.

The Fourth Amendment should be administered as a law once again. To administer a law protecting “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” you’d ask four questions:

The Republican Food Stamp Plan is a Modest Step in the Right Direction

Republicans are expected to vote this week, possibly as early as today, on a proposal to cut the food stamp program by $39 billion over the next 10 years, while reforming the program to tighten eligibility and emphasize the importance of work. From the outcry among congressional Democrats and much of the media, you could be forgiven if you anticipated the outbreak of the Great Famine of 2013. In reality, the hysteria is just plain silly given how modest the Republican plan really is.

Note that as recently as 2000, just 17 million Americans participated in The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the food assistance program formerly known as food stamps, at a cost of less than $18 billion. Today, roughly 48 million Americans receive SNAP benefits, costing taxpayers more than $82 billion per year. Yet according to the Department of Agriculture, nearly 18 million American households remain “food insecure.”

In the face of serious questions about whether the growth of SNAP has been justified and whether it successfully addresses hunger in America, Republicans are discussing cuts that simply trim around the edges of the program.

For example:

Aggregate Spending will still remain at elevated levels even with these cuts. Even with the additional cuts (totaling $39 billion), average outlays from 2013-2023 will be almost $73.5 billion, which is more than $5 billion more than outlays were in 2010 (they were $68.3 billion). In 2023, long after CBO projects the effects of the recession to have subsided, with unemployment declining to about five percent, outlays will still be $69.6 billion, higher than any year before 2011, and more than $1 billion higher than 2010.

Almost all of the savings come from returning to traditional SNAP rules or ending loopholes. For example, the Republican proposal would restrict so-called ‘categorical eligibility,’ restoring traditional categorical eligibility, which requires receipt of cash assistance for food stamp eligibility. Currently, there are several ways that low-income families can become eligible for SNAP. For instance, households can qualify for SNAP benefits if they meet the program’s income and asset test: a gross income below 130 percent of the poverty level and a net income below 100 percent of poverty, as well as less than $2,000 in assets (although there are some exemptions, such as the value of houses, a car, and retirement accounts). However, more often participants become eligible for SNAP because they are also eligible for other government welfare programs. Nearly two-thirds of households receiving SNAP qualify through this broader categorical eligibility and were not subject to asset tests or certain income tests. This has allowed eligibility to creep much farther up the income scale, allowing many non-poor Americans to receive benefits. The Republican proposal would dramatically scale back categorical eligibility, requiring more recipients to meet income and asset requirements. As a result, the program would be refocused on those most in need.

The Republican plan would also eliminate the so-called LIHEAP loophole, which allows states to increase benefits for individuals who also receive utilities assistance under the LIHEAP program. Approximately 16 states have used this loophole to leverage nominal (as little as $1) LIHEAP payments into an increase in households’ SNAP benefits. Republicans would require states to provide LIHEAP benefits of at least $20 in order to qualify for the exemption, preventing them from manipulating the system to increase federal payments.

The bill puts a greater emphasis on moving recipients from welfare to work. The Republican proposal simply ends waivers from SNAP’s traditional work requirements that were granted to states starting in 2010. Prior to 2009, able-bodied adult recipients between the ages of 18 and 50, without children, were required to work, participate in an employment and training program, or participate in a SNAP “workfare” program for at least 20 hours per week. Otherwise, they could collect SNAP benefits for only three months in a given 36 month period. That requirement was waived nationwide in 2009, and on a state-by-state basis after 2010. Currently, 44 states have such waivers, although some states have announced that they will voluntarily relinquish their waivers next year. (Oklahoma, Kansas, Wisconsin and most counties in Ohio). As a result of these waivers, in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, only 27.7 percent of nonelderly adult participants were employed, while another 28 percent reported that they were in the process of looking for work. That means that fully 44 percent were neither employed nor actively searching for work. Looking specifically at working age, childless, able bodied adults, almost three quarters or 2.8 million SNAP households, had no earned income.

Yet we know that work is the key to getting out of poverty. Just 2.8 percent of those working full-time today are below the poverty line, compared to 24 percent of those not working. Far from being cruel, by restoring work to a primary component of the welfare system, Republicans would be nudging recipients onto a path out of poverty.

Moreover, it is worth noting that the Republican proposal actually increases funding for pilot projects designed to increase work effort and reduce dependency.

The food stamp program is long overdue for reform. The Republican plan is a very modest start.

House Food Stamps Legislation

Farm bills traditionally contain both farm subsidies and food subsidies (e.g., food stamps). Unable to pass a traditional farm bill passed this year, the House Republican leadership separated the two components. The House passed a stand-alone farm subsidy bill in the summer and now it’s set to vote on a bill that would trim the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (a.k.a., food stamps) by $39 billion over ten years. 

The cost of the food stamps program has seen a dramatic rise since 2000. Both Republicans and Democrats supported expansions of the program in the 2000s. And because the program is counter-cyclical, the rolls exploded with economic downturn and weak recovery.   

The Congressional Budget Office’s May 2013 baseline projects total food stamps spending of $764 billion over the next ten years. The CBO projects that the House bill would spend $725 billion over that period. The following chart shows the projected year-to-year difference. 

The downward trend reflects the CBO’s assumption that stronger economic growth going forward will reduce the number of people collecting benefits. However, if the CBO’s economic assumptions turn out to be optimistic, the actual outlays could be higher. The third chart shows what the CBO projected SNAP spending would be under the 2008 farm bill. Spending for food stamps this year will be almost twice what the CBO projected in 2008. 


Some quick comments:

  • Both Democrats and Republicans support the federal food stamps program. Those of us who believe that responsibility for helping those in need should be handled at the state level (or, ideally, by private means) really don’t have a dog in this fight. 
  • House Republicans previously voted to continue handing out taxpayer money to well-to-do farmers, landowners, and insurance companies. I have no beef with attempts to rein in the food stamps program, but targeting a traditional welfare program for cuts after boosting corporate welfare isn’t just hypocritical – it’s disgraceful. 
  • Accusations that the GOP’s proposed cuts would lead to people starving in the streets are absurd. State and local government officials who believe that the cuts would unduly harm their constituents should ask their taxpayers if they’d be willing to pick up the slack. And, the last I heard, government hasn’t completely crowded out private charitable giving.  

A Flawed Strategy to Intimidate Iran

An especially dubious argument that some advocates of using military force against Syria put forth is that missile strikes would “send a message” to Iran about U.S. power and determination.  In a new article over at the National Interest Online, I point out that not only is the logic of that argument badly flawed in this specific case, it’s not even a new argument.  Numerous hawks during the prelude to the Iraq War a decade ago insisted that eliminating Saddam Hussein’s regime would either intimidate Tehran or (somehow) lead to a popular uprising against the mullahs.

Of course, neither of those developments occurred.  Instead, the United States became mired in a lengthy war that snuffed out some 4,500 American lives, consumed $850 billion in direct costs (plus hundreds of billions more in indirect and long-term costs), and caused extremely bitter domestic divisions.  Moreover, far from being intimidated, Tehran doggedly continued to pursue its nuclear program and became even more recalcitrant toward the United States.  One would like to see the armchair war hawks who pushed the “intimidation” thesis in the Iraq War debate acknowledge their blunder instead of peddling the same foreign policy snake oil with regard to Syria.

Lobbing missiles at Syria might make Tehran even more determined to develop a nuclear arsenal.  Saddam Hussein was a mortal enemy who had invaded Iran and waged a nearly decade-long war.  The clerical regime shed few tears at his departure.  The United States did the mullahs a large favor by removing the principal strategic counterweight to Iran’s power in the region.  Post-Saddam Iraq under a Shiite-led government in Baghdad is actually quite friendly to Iran, much to Washington’s chagrin.

A U.S. attack on Syria would have no such inadvertent benefit for Iran.  In fact, leaders in Tehran would likely view a move against Damascus as merely a prelude to an assault on Iran itself.  Bashar al-Assad’s government is one of Iran’s few close allies, so unlike the U.S. war against Saddam, there would be no sense of schadenfreude in Tehran.  Instead, it would give greater credibility to hard-liners who argue that there is no hope of a decent relationship with Washington, and that Iran must redouble its effort to build nuclear weapons, since the possession of a nuclear arsenal is the only way to deter a U.S. attack.  Blasting Syria might indeed send a message to Iran, but it would not be the one U.S. leaders desire.

U.S. policy makers need to rethink their strategy with respect to Syria, and the Russian chemical weapons proposal has given them the opportunity to do.   They especially need to abandon the notion that attacking another Middle Eastern country will intimidate Iran.  The Iraq War already demonstrated the fallacy of that thesis.