Up, Up and Away

The Wall Street Journal reports today that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has asked Congress to increase the statutory federal debt limit from its current $12.1 trillion. I don’t think that this will be the last such request from Geithner, given that the Obama administration’s budget includes the projection in this chart:


Nobody knows who will buy all this debt and what economic damage it will do. But federal policymakers seem hellbent on finding out as they continue their decade-long spending spree.

“Three Amigos” Meet, Drugs on the Agenda

The presidents of Mexico and the United States and the prime minister of Canada are meeting today in Guadalajara. One of the many things they’ll discuss will be cross-border drug trafficking and the violence that accompanies it. Although swine flu is making the headlines, most Americans probably don’t know that drug violence has killed many times more people than the attention-grabbing epidemic.

Who knew this presumably important fact? The well-informed readers of Cato Unbound, that’s who. (Swine flu has killed 1,154 worldwide; since 2006, drug violence has killed more than ten thousand in Mexico alone.)

This month’s lead essayist, former Mexican Foreign Secretary Jorge Castañeda, complains of “A U.S. War with Mexican Consequences.” He notes that we in the United States have a greater taste than Mexicans for both illegal drugs and prohibition. And we have a disturbing tendency to export the consequences of those tastes to Mexico. Without the United States, there would scarcely be a Mexican drug problem. Many policies offered as solutions aren’t working. In particular, militarization is a dangerous step that has worked out badly in other Latin American countries; a U.S. military presence would be politically unpopular and would not be tolerated in Mexico. Mexico pursuing drug decriminalization is just as unpopular in the United States; American governments have worked hard to keep decriminalization off the Mexican political agenda.

Journalist and Latin American affairs expert Stephanie Hanson of the Council on Foreign Relations responds that both countries should consider decriminalization of marijuana and possibly of harder drugs as well. It may be time, she suggests, to admit that prohibition isn’t working, at least as it’s been practiced so far. She points to experiments conducted in the Netherlands, Portugal, and — for those not as well-informed — the experiment in the fictional Baltimore of The Wire, where decriminalization offered a measure of calm, albeit only for one episode.

Another expert in the area, James Roberts of the Heritage Foundation, suggests otherwise. Drug decriminalization and/or legalization will also ruin lives and kill people, just as prohibition has done, except this time it will be done with the support of our governments. Rather than give in to the drug cartels, he recommends fighting them every step of the way. In any event, decriminalization is never going to succeed politically in the United States, so we’re better off with a vigorous, effective prohibition than a halfhearted one.

Tomorrow we’ll hear from Cato’s own Ted Galen Carpenter, an expert with yet another view of the situation. A discussion will follow over the next few weeks and, given the diversity of views, it will no doubt be an interesting one.

‘Cash for Clunkers’ Is a Lemon

Jerry Taylor and I published an op-ed criticizing the Cash for Clunkers program on Friday. We weren’t alone in our evaluation of the program.

Two interesting critical analyses of the Cash for Clunkers program were published over the weekend. The first by New York Times reporter Matt Wald examines the energy savings that would result from the program.  If a clunker traveling 12,000 miles at 16 miles per gallon (consuming 750 gallons per year) were traded in for a new car getting 25 mpg while traveling the same distance (480 gallons a year), the the trade-in would save the driver 270 gallons per year. Multiply that by the roughly 245,000 vehicles that had been traded in under the program as of last Friday, before Congress extended the program, and you get 1.6 million barrels  saved each year. That sounds great until you realize it’s only about two hours’ worth of our daily consumption, which is about 18.6 million barrels per day so far in 2009.  But the savings is probably much less than that because old cars are not driven 12,000 miles per year.

The second critical analysis, examining the program’s effect on carbon emissions, appeared as a figure in the Outlook section of this weekend’s Washington Post.  Over 10 years, the new cars will reduce emissions by 7 million metric tons, which is about 0.04% of the 16 billion metric tons that U.S. cars will produce over that time. That is, taxpayers will pay $147 per ton of CO2 reduction ($1.03 billion dollars divided by 7 million tons). In comparison, the economic literature estimates that the cost of the marginal damages of carbon emissions is between $15 and$50 per ton (see, e.g., this and this).

Bob Barr on National ID

On his AJC “Barr Code” blog, Bob Barr weighs in on the national ID debate, rejecting PASS ID just as much as REAL ID. Notably, he discusses how the immigration issue may bolster pro–national ID forces:

Not content with relying on PASS ID to secure sufficient support where its predecessor failed, some in the Congress — most notably Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John Cornyn (R-Tex.) — are using fear of illegal immigration as another vehicle by which to mandate a national, biometric-identification card that would be required before any person could secure employment. Clearly, those relishing the creation of some form of national identification card and the national database on which it would rest, will themselves not rest until they have realized their dream. Those of us opposed to such a travesty, likewise must not let up.

Tax Tax Tax at the Washington Post

A banner headline at the top of the Washington Post Sunday Metro section reads

It’s Time for Deeds to Step Up to the Plate on a Tax Increase

Columnist Robert McCartney, for years the top editor of the Metro section, says that Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee should “Propose to raise taxes to fix the roads. Yes, you read that correctly. Raise taxes.”

No doubt a lot of Republicans are hoping that Deeds will take the Post’s advice.

McCartney goes on to say that taxes must go up because (in bold) “The public sector needs to expand.” Because, you see, the infrastructure is failing in Virginia and also in D.C., and “Virginia’s roads clearly require extra revenue.”

Well, let’s see. Virginia’s state budget doubled between 1996 and 2006, from $17 billion to $34 billion. And the governor’s office estimated last December that the state would spend $37 billion in 2009 and $37.6 billion in 2010. Thanks to the recession, and to the state’s habit of spending during good years as if the party would never end, those numbers may drop slightly. But even with the current shortfalls, the budget’s gone up by $20 billion in the past 14 years, and they can’t find enough to fix the roads? What have they spent that extra $20 billion on?

Do Mr. McCartney, Mr. Deeds, and other tax-hikers ever think about prioritizing state spending? The Virginians who call themselves the Tertium Quids do. They urge the legislators to review the recommendations of the Wilder Commission and the Virginia Piglet Book to find some opportunities for savings.

But as usual, state governments spend with abandon while the money rolls in, and then when the lean years hit, they declare that they’ll need more money to teach math and fix the roads. It’s called the Washington Monument Syndrome — never cut the waste, the fat, the golf courses, the layers of bureaucracy, the fringes, the frills; threaten to cut the most basic or traditional or popular functions of government in order to pressure the voters to go along with a tax increase. Journalists shouldn’t play along.

Meanwhile, the Post’s Outlook section fronts a column by economist Gregory Clark declaring that we need to

Tax and Spend, or Face the Consequences

Specifically, he says, there will be no jobs for the stupid people in the new dynamic economy, so those of us with jobs are going to have to be taxed to the bone to support a huge class of nonworkers — or face revolution, I suppose. Which is even worse than congested highways.

Other Post writers have joined the tax-hike chorus recently: Steven Pearlstein, “Health Reform Threatened by Conservatives’ Anti-Tax Fantasy”; constant editorials on “the transportation funding problem”; Ruth Marcus on Obama’s need to display “political courage” by raising taxes so he can keep on spending; etc.

Alas, it is a constant frustration to the Post that, as Gregory Clark puts it, “The United States was founded, essentially, on resistance to taxes, and to this day, an aversion to the grasping hand of the state seems fundamental to the American psyche.”

The Fever Swamps of Paranoia

The “birthers” are no longer the most paranoid set of nutcases in town.  Take for example this conspiracy uncovered by New York Times columnist Frank Rich:  1) Among the groups urging Obamacare opponents to protest at congressional town halls is FreedomWorks;  2) The chairman of FreedomWorks (a position not involved in day-to-day operation of the organization) is former House Minority Leader Dick Armey; 3) Dick Armey is also employed as a lobbyist for DLA Piper, a DC law firm; 4) Among DLA Piper’s clients have been pharmaceutical companies.   

Got it?  Connect the dots? 

True, it is a bit confusing that the pharmaceutical companies are actually supporting the president’s health care plan.  In fact, they’ve even run television ads urging Congress to pass it.  But that just shows how devious they are. 

And today, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi writes in USA Today that is “un-American” to tell “lies” about the healthy care bill.  This comes only days after she discovered that anti-Obamacare protestors carried Swastikas.

Its only a matter of time until they uncover the truth: a secret Neo-Nazi anti-Obamacare cabal in Buenos Aires.

Iranian Show Trials Continue — As Divisions Within Regime Grow

The news out of Iran continues to be bad, as show trials continue, with Stalinesque confessions.   However, protests are rising over torture and other abuse of prisoners.

Reports the New York Times:

A top judiciary official acknowledged Saturday that some detainees arrested after post-election protests had been tortured in Iranian prisons, the first such acknowledgment by a senior Iranian official.

Meanwhile, a second day of hearings was held in a mass trial of reformers and election protesters, with more than 100 people accused of trying to topple the government. The accused included a French researcher and employees of the French and British Embassies, prompting angry responses from Britain, France and the European Union.

But even as the trial appeared to further the campaign by the hard-line establishment to intimidate and silence the opposition, at the expense of alienating Iranian moderates and the West, the statement on torture by the judiciary official, Iran’s prosecutor general, revealed continued divisions within the government.

Speaking to reporters at a news conference, Qorbanali Dori-Najafabadi, the prosecutor general, said “mistakes” had led to a few “painful accidents which cannot be defended, and those who were involved should be punished.”

Such mistakes, he said, included “the Kahrizak incident,” a reference to the deaths of several detainees at Kahrizak detention center in southwestern Tehran.

It is frustrating to have to stand by as such  human rights abuses occur, but that is almost always the case irrespective of the country.  There usually is little that Washington can do.  So it is in Iran.  Absent initiating war,  the U.S. government — which already has imposed economic sanctions against Tehran in response to its nuclear program — has no good options.

Ultimately, the Iranian people, who appear to be increasingly restive under an ever more repressive system (which  these days looks more purely authoritarian and less genuinely Islamic), will have to force reform.  The sooner they succeed, the better for them and believers in liberty around the globe.