The Populist Assault on the Latin American Press

Mary O’Grady writes in today’s Wall Street Journal on the Kirchners’ threats to press freedom in Argentina. Unfortunately, the attack on free expression is part of a worrying trend that is intensifying in some of the region’s populist countries. For more, see Gabriela Calderón’s post on Ecuador here; and my posts on Ecuador and on Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s efforts to close down Globovision TV here and here.

Kristof: Drugs Won the War

New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof’s latest column is about the failure of the drug war.  Excerpt:

Here in the United States, four decades of drug war have had three consequences:

First, we have vastly increased the proportion of our population in prisons. The United States now incarcerates people at a rate nearly five times the world average. In part, that’s because the number of people in prison for drug offenses rose roughly from 41,000 in 1980 to 500,000 today. Until the war on drugs, our incarceration rate was roughly the same as that of other countries.

Second, we have empowered criminals at home and terrorists abroad. One reason many prominent economists have favored easing drug laws is that interdiction raises prices, which increases profit margins for everyone, from the Latin drug cartels to the Taliban. Former presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia this year jointly implored the United States to adopt a new approach to narcotics, based on the public health campaign against tobacco.

Third, we have squandered resources. Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard economist, found that federal, state and local governments spend $44.1 billion annually enforcing drug prohibitions. We spend seven times as much on drug interdiction, policing and imprisonment as on treatment. (Of people with drug problems in state prisons, only 14 percent get treatment.)

I’ve seen lives destroyed by drugs, and many neighbors in my hometown of Yamhill, Oregon, have had their lives ripped apart by crystal meth. Yet I find people like Mr. Stamper persuasive when they argue that if our aim is to reduce the influence of harmful drugs, we can do better.

Good stuff.  Jeff Miron is a Cato senior fellow.  Here’s a link to Cato’s new study, “Drug Decriminalization in Portugal,” by Glenn Greenwald.  More Cato research here.

… But What Is “Cyber”?

Cyberwar. Cyberdefense. Cyberattack. Cybercommand.

You run across these four words before you finish the first paragraph of this New York Times story (as reposted on msnbc.com). It’s about government plans to secure our technical infrastructure.

When you reach the end of the story, though, you still don’t know what it’s about. But you do get a sense of coming inroads against Americans’ online privacy.

The problem, which the federal government has assumed to tackle, is the nominal insecurity of networks, computers, and data. And the approach the federal government has assumed is the most self-gratifying: “Cyber” is a “strategic national asset.” It’s up to the defense, intelligence, and homeland security bureaucracies to protect it.

But what is “cyber”?

With the Internet and other technologies, we are creating a new communications and commerce “space.” And just like the real spaces we are so accustomed to, there are security issues. Some of the houses have flimsy locks on the front doors. Some of the stores leave merchandise on the loading docks unattended. Some office managers don’t lock the desk drawers that hold personnel files. Some of the streets can be too easily flooded with water. Some of the power lines can be too easily snapped.

These are problems that should be corrected, but we don’t call on the federal government to lock up our homes, merchandise, and personnel files. We don’t call on the federal government to fix roads and power lines (deficit “stimulus” spending aside). The federal government secures its own assets, but that doesn’t make all assets a federal responsibility or a military problem.

As yet, I haven’t seen an explanation of how an opponent of U.S. power would use “cyberattack” to advance any of its aims. If it’s even possible, which I doubt, taking down our banking system for a few days would not “soften up” the country for a military attack. Knocking out the electrical system in one region of the country for a day wouldn’t let Russia take control of the Bering Strait. Shutting down Americans’ access to Google Calendar wouldn’t advance Islamists’ plans for a worldwide Muslim caliphate.

This is why President Obama’s speech on cybersecurity retreated to a contrived threat he called “weapons of mass disruption.” Fearsome inconvenience!

The story quotes one government official as follows:

“How do you understand sovereignty in the cyberdomain?” General Cartwright asked. “It doesn’t tend to pay a lot of attention to geographic boundaries.”

That’s correct. “Cyber” is not a problem that affects our sovereignty or the integrity of our national boundaries. Thus, it’s not a problem for the defense or intelligence establishments to handle.

The benefits of the online world vastly outstrip the risks - sorry Senator Rockefeller. With those benefits come a variety of problems akin to graffiti, house fires, street closures, petit theft, and organized crime. Those are not best handled by centralized bureaucracies, but by the decentralized systems we use to secure the real world: property rights, contract and tort liability, private enterprise, and innovation.

Samuelson: Obama Would Increase, Not Reduce, Health Care Costs

Columnist Robert J. Samuelson, writing in this morning’s Washington Post:

It’s hard to know whether President Obama’s health-care “reform” is naive, hypocritical or simply dishonest. Probably all three. The president keeps saying it’s imperative to control runaway health spending. He’s right. The trouble is that what’s being promoted as health-care “reform” almost certainly won’t suppress spending and, quite probably, will do the opposite…

The president summoned the heads of major health-care groups representing doctors, hospitals, drug companies and medical device firms to the White House. All pledged to bend the curve. This is mostly public relations. Does anyone believe the American Medical Association can control the nation’s 800,000 doctors or that the American Hospital Association can command the 5,700 hospitals?…

The main aim of health-care “reform” being fashioned in Congress is to provide insurance to most of the 46 million uncovered Americans…But the extra coverage might actually worsen the spending problem.

How much healthier today’s uninsured would be with that coverage is unclear…

The one certain consequence of expanding insurance coverage is that it would raise spending…

It’s easier to pretend to be curbing health spending while expanding coverage and spending. Presidents have done that for decades, and it’s why most health industries see “reform” as a good deal.

GOP 99% Socialist

As I note in my New York Post op-ed today, Republicans are fond of implying that President Obama is a big-spending socialist. But the House GOP recently offered a spending cut plan that was able to find savings worth less than one percent of Obama’s budget.

As Tad DeHaven and Brian Riedl have also pointed out, the GOP spending reform effort is rather pathetic. It proposed specific annual budget cuts of about $14 billion per year.

Consider that the center-left budget wonks at the Brookings Institution put their heads together a few years ago and came up with a “smaller government plan” that proposed about $342 billion in annual spending cuts (by 2014). The Brookings authors note:  

These cuts are achieved by reducing government subsidies to commercial activities ($138 billion); by returning responsibility for education, housing, training, environmental, and law enforcement programs to the states ($123 billion) … by cutting entitlements such as Medicaid, Social Security, and Medicare ($74 billion); and by eliminating some wasteful spending in these entitlement programs ($7 billion).

Thus, the Brooking’s scholars found cuts more than twenty times larger than the House GOP leadership cuts, and Brookings proposed its plan back when the deficit was about one-fifth of the size it is today. (Note that both the Brookings and GOP plans would also put a cap on overall nondefense discretionary spending, in addition to these specific cuts).

My point in the New York Post piece is that the GOP needs to challenge Obama’s big spending agenda at a more fundamental level. They need to do some careful research, pick out some big spending targets, and go on the offense.  Why not propose to eliminate the Departments of Education and Housing and Urban Development? Why not sell off federal assets, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, in order to help pay down the federal debt? Why not open up the U.S. Postal Service to competition?

Obama won’t agree to these reforms at this point, but they would hopefully open a serious national debate about reforming our massive and sprawling federal government. Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the congressional Republicans in 1994 didn’t win by splitting hairs with the Democrats over 1% of spending. They offered a more fundamental critique.

At least, GOP leaders need to offer up spending reforms as bold as those of the Brookings Institution.

Not So Free Love in San Francisco

Yet again the city of San Francisco is demonstrating its “love” for humanity.  By threatening to fine them for getting their garbage wrong.

Reports MSNBC:

Trash collectors in San Francisco will soon be doing more than just gathering garbage: They’ll be keeping an eye out for people who toss food scraps out with their rubbish.

San Francisco this week passed a mandatory composting law that is believed to be the strictest such ordinance in the nation. Residents will be required to have three color-coded trash bins, including one for recycling, one for trash and a new one for compost — everything from banana peels to coffee grounds.

The law makes San Francisco the leader yet again in environmentally friendly measures, following up on other green initiatives such as banning plastic bags at supermarkets.

Food scraps sent to a landfill decompose fast and turn into methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas. Under the new system, collected scraps will be turned into compost that helps area farms and vineyards flourish. The city eventually wants to eliminate waste at landfills by 2020.

Chris Peck, the state’s Integrated Waste Management Board spokesman, said he wasn’t aware of an ordinance as tough as San Francisco’s. Many cities, including Pittsburgh and San Diego, require residents to recycle yard waste but not food scraps. Seattle requires households to put scraps in the compost bin or have a composting system, but those who don’t comply aren’t fined.

“The city has been progressive, and they’ve been leaders and it appears that they’re stepping out of the pack again,” he said.

San Francisco officials said they aren’t looking to punish violators harshly.

Waste collectors will not pick through anyone’s garbage, said Robert Reed, a spokesman for Sunset Scavenger Co., which handles the city’s recyclables. If the wrong kind of materials are noticed while a bin is being emptied, workers will leave what Reed called “a love note,” to let customers know they are not with the program.

“We’re not going to lock you up in jail if you don’t compost,” said Nathan Ballard, a spokesman for Mayor Gavin Newsom who proposed the measure that passed Tuesday. “We’re going to make it as easy as possible for San Franciscans to learn how to compost.”

A moratorium on imposing fines will end in 2010, after which repeat offenders like individuals and small businesses generating less than a cubic yard of refuse a week face fines of up to $100.

Businesses that don’t provide the proper containers face a $500 fine.

Most everyone wants to be loved.  But this sort of government “love” we can all do without!

Latvia Retains Flat Tax, Disappointing Class-Warfare Advocates

The Baltic nation of Latvia is in the middle of a serious economic downturn resulting largely from a credit bubble and excessive government spending. This created an opening for those who have long wanted to undo the nation’s flat tax and impose a discriminatory system. Indeed, the economic Luddites at the Tax Research Network were already celebrating the expected demise of the single-rate tax. Unfortunately for them (but fortunately for Latvians), the government made a stunning announcement that the flat tax will be retained according to Reuters:

Latvia’s government is to reduce old age pensions and state sector salaries but not raise taxes, it said on Thursday as it tries to win more loans and avert crisis and possible currency devaluation. The five-party coalition government agreed with social partners such as unions and employers on ways to find savings of 500 million lats ($1.01 billion) to win further loans from the International Monetary Fund and European Union, which are seen as the only way to survive a deep economic slump. “It was a difficult decision and it will not be popular but it had to be done,” Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis told reporters after a marathon and sometimes chaotic government session of almost 12 hours. “Our decision is sending a signal to the EU that we are serious,” he added. Against expectations, the government decided against introducing a progressive income tax for the first time to replace the current flat tax of 23 percent. The moves will include a cut in old age pensions of 10 percent, a whopping 70 percent cut in the pensions of those who still work, and a 20 percent cut in state sector salaries.

To be sure, this may not be the last word on this issue. Latvian politicians eventually may decide to undo the flat tax. Or perhaps Iceland’s new left-wing government may be the first nation to backslide to a so-called progressive tax system. Regular readers of the blog may recall that we have a theme song that we include every time there is an announcement of a new flat tax nation. In preparation for bad news, we have selected a theme song for when a nation decides to go in the wrong direction.