War without Killing?

The United States is going to cut back on airstrikes in Afghanistan, according to the new commander there, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. This decision comes on the heels of Central Command’s release (late on a Friday afternoon) of the executive summary of a report on the killing of dozens – at least – of civilians in Farah Province in Western Afghanistan. On May 4, a B-1B providing air support to US and Afghan forces there bombed some buildings, thinking that they contained insurgents. The buildings were apparently full of civilians.

Everyone seems to think this is a wise policy shift. The center of gravity in an insurgency, we’re often told, is the population. You need their support to find and defeat insurgents. Killing people undermines their support for the occupier and the government. You often hear the same thing about airstrikes in Pakistan.

This is a sensible argument, but it has some problems.  For one, empirics to support it are hard to come by. Second, it isn’t obvious that people cooperate with occupiers or governments because they like them. Support may come instead from the mix of incentives – coercive and economic – that the population faces.  The power to reward and punish behavior probably matters more in generating cooperation than feelings of loyalty, although they are not mutually exclusive.

You might respond that it is simply immoral to kill innocent people, whatever the strategic effects. That takes us to the real trouble with the critique of airstrikes, which is the idea that you can fight clean wars.

The accidental killing of Afghan civilians is a tragedy we should limit (one way to do so might be to simply stop using bombers for close air support).  It is also an inevitable consequence of fighting a war in Afghanistan. Troops are going to use plentiful and occasionally indiscriminate firepower to defend themselves. This problem can be mitigated but not solved. You should not support the war in Afghanistan if you cannot support killing innocent people in prosecuting it. As Harvey Sapolsky (my professor at MIT) points out on his new blog, the allies killed 50,000 French civilians in the course of liberating France in World War II. Today precision munitions save many civilians, but, along with euphemistic words like state-building, they threaten to delude us into thinking that we can fight antiseptic wars that adhere to liberal norms. (The situation is even worse in Germany, where they are arguing about whether to call what they are doing in Afghanistan a war).

As Sapolsky puts it:

Air power is our advantage, especially in a country where our forces are spread thin and the distances are large. Precautions have limited greatly the number of weapons dropped and how air power is employed. But only a little deception apparently is needed to put this advantage in jeopardy. Soldiers are still dying in Afghanistan. If there is no will to inflict casualties then there should be no will in absorbing them. Try as we may to avoid it, war kills the innocent.

For the source of this post’s title see the first article (pdf) here.

Mr. Jefferson Regrets

Thomas Jefferson was an advocate of public schooling, after a fashion. He knew that an educated public was the only protection against government abuses, and he assumed that a state-run, state-funded school system would provide that essential education. If he could only see public schooling today. 

The Arizona-based Goldwater Institute has just released a study on the civics knowledge of that state’s high school students. Matt Ladner, Goldwater’s head of research, administered the same trivial test that’s given to immigrants applying for citizenship, using the same trivial pass/fail threshold. [I know it’s trivial, ‘cause I took it a few years ago.] The results of Goldwater’s little experiment… Oh. My. God. Becky:

     96.5 percent of AZ public high school students failed

Honestly, why did anyone – especially Thomas Jefferson – ever imagine that a government monopoly would be a good way to educate kids about a democratic republic and protect them from abuses of government power?

Support for Federal Reserve Audit Increasing

Last week Cato hosted a policy forum on “Bringing Transparency to the Federal Reserve,” featuring Congressman Ron Paul. As mentioned in CQ Politics, Rep. Paul’s bill, HR 1207, has been gaining considerable momentum in the House, with currently 244 co-sponsors, ranging from John Boehner to John Conyers Jr. In fact, the Senate companion bill was introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke discussed the very topic of Federal Reserve Transparency at Cato’s annual monetary conference in the Fall of 2007.

After praising moves toward greater transparency at the Fed, Bernanke argued that “monetary policy makers are public servants whose decisions affect the life of every citizen; consequently, in a democratic society, they have a responsibility to give the people and their elected representatives a full and compelling rationale for the decisions they make.”

Chairman Bernanke also goes on to argue that “improving the public’s understanding of the central bank’s objectives and policy strategies reduces economic and financial uncertainty and thereby allows businesses and households to make more-informed decisions.” Bernanke’s full remarks can be found in the Spring 2008 issue of the Cato Journal.

Over the last two years, we have seen an almost tripling of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet to $2.3 trillion, resulting from the bailouts of AIG and Bear Stearns and the creation of 14 new lending programs.

Our recent forum, and Rep. Paul’s bill, bring much needed debate and focus to the issue of Fed’s inner-workings.

Gift Cards: What Congress Gives, the States Take Away

Little noticed in the recently enacted credit card bill was a provision prohibiting retailers and financial institutions from issuing gift cards that expired with a set time, except under certain circumstances.  While card issuers had been using expiration dates to estimate and manage their liabilities, many States had been “collecting” the value of these unused cards as “abandoned property”, as discussed in today’s Wall Street Journal.

Some states have even been going after cards with no expiration date, arguing that if you leave that gift card sitting around your house or in your wallet for too long, then you’ve abandoned.  What’s next, funds sitting unused in your bank account will next be considered abandoned.  The States that require unused gift cards, or unused portions, to be turned over require retailer and card processors to maintain databases tracking card amounts and usage.

There is some comfort, however, in knowing that some States do allow you to re-claim your “abandoned gift dollars,” for instance of the $9.6 million collected by New York State last year in unused gift cards, rightful owners were able to recover $2,150.

Consumer Financial Product Commission Distracts from Real Reform

Today the Obama Administration released a 152-page draft bill to create a new Consumer Financial Product Commission. While intended to protect against consumer confusion and reduce the likelihood of future financial crises, the proposed agency will at best have little impact and at worst contribute to the next financial crisis, with the added effect of decreased homeownership and increased litigation.

The president promises that “those ridiculous contracts with pages of fine print that no one can figure out – those things will be a thing of the past,” The president ignores that those “ridiculous contracts” and “fine print” are the result of previous rounds of so-called consumer protections. The disclosures one receives with a mortgage or a credit card are those mandated by some level of government. They don’t call those credit card disclosures a “Schumer Box” because they were invented by a baron of industry. In addition to the government-mandated disclosures that have failed, are the endless amount of fine print added to protect companies from frivolous litigation. The Obama approach to that problem is to increase the amount of litigation.

If the president were serious about avoiding the next housing bubble and financial crisis, he would propose eliminating some of the various federal policies that contributed to the housing bubble. For instance, how about requiring real down payments when the taxpayer is on the hook – as with Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). Talk about bad incentives; under FHA, a borrower can put almost nothing down and if the loan goes bad, the government covers the lender for 100 percent of their losses.  No wonder we had a housing bubble. In addition, the proposed agency does nothing to address the underlying causes of any type of credit default: unemployment, unexpected health care costs or divorce.

Once again, when given the opportunity to address the real flaws in our financial system, the administration chooses to appease the special interests and provide a distraction from the underlying causes of our current financial crisis.

The Roberts Revolution to Come

As I mentioned yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court surprised many people by ordering a reargument in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Specifically, the Court called for the parties to the case to address the question of overruling Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

The Court decided Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce in 1989.  The state of Michigan had prohibited corporations from spending money on electoral speech. In the case in question, the Chamber of Commerce wished to pay for an advertisement backing a candidate for the House of Representatives. The Chamber took this action on its own and not in tandem with the candidate or his party.  Paying for the ad was a felony under Michigan law.

A majority of the Court in 1989 said the Michigan law did not violate the First Amendment. However, the majority had a problem. Previous cases permitted limits on funding electoral speech only in pursuit of a compelling state interest: the prevention of quid pro quo corruption or its appearance. The Court had also ruled that independent spending by groups could not corrupt candidates.

So the majority needed a novel rationale for approving Michigan’s suppression of speech. The majority concluded that speech funded by corporations would distort the democratic process and that the state could prohibits such outlays to prevent harms done by “immense wealth.” In other words, the Austin majority tried to redefine “corruption” as “inequality of influence.” That revision had its own set of problems. Buckely v. Valeo, the Ur-decision in campaign finance, had excluded equality as a compelling state interest justifying regulation of campaign finance.

It is easy to see why the Buckley Court had rejected equality of influence as a reason for restricting political speech. Imagine Congress could prohibit speech that had “too much influence.” But how could that be determined? A majority in Congress would be tempted to suppress speech that threatened the power of that majority.  Paradoxically, the equality rationale would strengthen those who already held power while vitiating representative government. The First Amendment tries to prevent that outcome.

In last year’s decision in Davis v. FEC, the Court again rejected the equality rationale for campaign finance laws.  More and more the Austin decision is looking like bad law.

Justices Kennedy and Scalia, both current members of the Court, wrote dissents in Austin. Justice Thomas has called for Austin to be overruled in other contexts.  Neither Justices Roberts nor Alito is likely to vote to uphold Austin (or the relevant parts of McConnell v. FEC for that matter). But it would seem that either or both of them were unwilling to strike down a precedent without a formal hearing. That hearing will come on September 9 with a decision expected by Thanksgiving.

Almost six years after the Court utterly refused to defend free speech in McConnell v. FEC, the Roberts Court may be ready to vindicate the First Amendment against its accusers in Congress and elsewhere.