Don’t Fear Attacks on the Food Supply

Bruce Schneier, a participant in our January counterterrorism conference, reviews a recent report and discusses the possibility of attacks on the food supply in a post on his blog:

The quantities involved for mass poisonings are too great, the nature of the food supply too vast and the details of any plot too complicated and unpredictable to be a real threat. That becomes crystal clear as you read the details of the different incidents: it’s hard to kill one person, and very hard to kill dozens. Hundreds, thousands: it’s just not going to happen any time soon. The fear of bioterror is much greater, and the panic from any bioterror scare will injure more people, than bioterrorism itself.

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  • Chris Edwards co-authors an article in The Washington Post arguing why we should look to Canada as an example of fiscal conservatism.
  • In Monday’s Cato Daily Podcast, Mark Calabria weighs in on the aftermath of the financial crisis.

Canada and Jefferson’s Natural Progress

Thomas Jefferson famously opined that “the natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground,” but Canada has bucked that gloomy forecast in recent years. As my co-authored op-ed in the Washington Post yesterday showed, Canada has:

  • Cut government spending
  • Cut government debt
  • Balanced its budget consistently
  • Pre-funded its version of Social Security to make it solvent
  • Decentralized power within its federation of provinces
  • Cut taxes, particularly corporate taxes 

Meanwhile, the United States has headed in the opposite direction in each of these policy areas. Consider further that Canada has other economic policy advantages over the increasingly uncompetitive welfare state to its south:

  • Canada has more liberal immigration policies for highly skilled workers than does the United States, which has added greatly to the entrepreneurial vibrancy of Canada’s economy.
  • Canada has long had a stable,  efficient, and competitive financial sector, which avoided the government-assisted meltdown that occurred in the United States.
  • Canada has a home ownership rate as high as the United States, yet it does not have a distortionary mortgage interest tax deduction.
  • Canada recently implemented large Roth IRA style savings accounts, which are much more flexible than the U.S. version.
  • The Canadian federal capital gains tax rate is 14.5 percent, which compares to the current 15 percent in the United States and 20 percent under Obama’s tax plan.
  • Canada has no federal ministry or department of education. The K-12 schools are the sole responsibility of the provinces, yet Canadian kids  generally do better than American kids on international tests.
  • In recent years, Canada has probably been more supportive of NAFTA, and free trade in general, than its main trading partner, the United States.

Major pro-market reforms are possible in advanced welfare states – Jefferson can be proven wrong, as Canada illustrates. U.S policymakers can prove Jefferson wrong as well. They can start by cutting spending, decentralizing power out of Washington, and making pro-growth tax reforms in response to globalization, as Canada has, rather than imposing self-defeating “Buy America” provisions and making childish rants about “corporations moving jobs offshore.”

Pakistani Nukes: The Solution or the Problem?

The New York Times writes up the revelation that Pakistan is rapidly expanding its nuclear weapons arsenal.  Congressmen and Senators, we’re told, are worried that US military aid might be diverted to this purpose.

Two points here.

1. Insofar as we are giving money to Pakistan, it probably doesn’t matter much if we restrict it to our priorities. Money is fungible – by funding something Pakistan might have paid for itself, we free its funds for other priorities. Maybe it’s the case that the Pakistanis view aid that US gives them for counterinsurgency and counterterrorism capability as purely wasteful – and therefore wouldn’t spend a dime if we didn’t provide it. But probably they would have bought much of this capability if we didn’t, and therefore we are freeing up funds for other purposes like the expansion of the nuclear weapons arsenal. If we don’t want to help them do that, we should quit funding them, period.

2. Lots of people point out that Pakistan’s big problem is India – that its preoccupation with its largely indefensible Indian border prevents it from devoting sufficient resources to pacifying its restive Pashtuns and encourages it to employ high-risk strategies like using extremists to tie down Indian forces in Kashmir. 

What you don’t hear much is that nuclear weapons, and particularly the secure second strike capability that Pakistan is likely pursuing, is a potential solution to this problem. Nuclear weapons are a cheap form of defense. In theory, the security that they provide against Indian attack would allow Pakistan to limit its militarization, stop bankrolling extremists, and focus on securing its own territory as opposed to its border. (Note: I’m not arguing that that’s necessarily right, I’m arguing that if you think vulnerability to India is what creates danger for us in Pakistan, you should consider the utility of nuclear weapons in solving this problem).

Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are frightening, no question. But the series of wars Pakistan and India have fought since their split should put that fear in perspective. If they can arrest conventional conflict, the nukes are doing great good.

With our president calling for a nuclear-weapons free world, it’s worth considering whether abolishing nukes makes sense if you can’t abolish war.

Irony! Get Your Red-Hot Health-Care Irony!

Someone forwarded me an email update from our friends at the Center for American Progress Action Fund (motto: “Disagree with us? Then you hate progress.”).

In one blurb, CAPAF’s crack team of spin-disclosers chides Republicans for discussing health care reform using the language recommended by pollster Frank Luntz, who “advised Republicans to fearmonger” Obama’s proposals to death!  Or something.

The same email had another blurb titled, “INSURANCE COMPANIES AT THE TABLE?” There, CAPAF’s crack team of spin-disclosers describe how “health insurance companies and lobbying groups” stood beside President Obama last week to announce their support for reducing spending growth.  The blurb continues:

However, days later, the insurance companies tried to walk back their promises, saying Obama had overstated their commitments. Richard Umbdenstock, the president of the American Hospital Association, wrote to his company’s state and local affiliates to “clarify” that “[t]he groups did not support reducing the rate of health spending by 1.5 percentage points annually.” However, the letter to Obama signed by Umbdenstock and the other insurance leaders specifically pledged…

Umbdenstock and the other insurance leaders”??  Since when do we classify hospitals as insurance companies?  And if “the insurance companies…sa[y] Obama had overstated their commitments,” why not quote the insurance companies?  Could they not find such a quote?

It’s as if CAPAF’s crack team of spin-disclosers has decided to blame every development that might threaten a – ahem – government take-over of health care on the insurance companies.  Now why might they want to do that?  Could it be because insurance companies are less popular than hospitals?

And how would CAPAF’s crack team of spin-disclosers know that?  By listening to a … pollster?

Gun Free School Zone Follies

As I have noted before, “gun free” zones are an exercise in fantasy. To some, a place without guns sounds like a great place to live.  Unfortunately, others think they sound like a great place to plunder.

Some recent developments highlight the ability of armed citizens to defend themselves and how localized gun bans near schools or on universities make victims of law-abiding citizens.

A group of Georgia college students at a birthday party owe their lives to the fact that one of them had a gun. (H/T Of Arms & the Law) Two gunmen burst in to the apartment and separated males and females into different rooms. The gunmen began discussing whether they had enough bullets to kill everyone at the party. One of the students pulled a gun from his backpack and shot at the home invader holding the men, chasing the gunman out of the apartment. The armed student went to the next room, where the other gunman was preparing to rape his girlfriend. The student shot the second gunman, killing him.

If the birthday party had been in a dorm, the student probably would have left his gun at home because of the Georgia statute that bans guns on campus.  The students would likely be dead as a result.

A second story comes from Wisconsin, one of the two states with no provision allowing for concealed carry. A man on a bicycle was hit and thrown to the ground by four young men. The bicyclist was carrying a handgun openly, a practice approved by the Wisconsin Attorney General. The bicyclist drew his revolver, pointed it in the air and yelled, “gun!” The four assailants fled. The bicyclist flagged down a police officer to report the incident.

The positive outcome to this story is countered by the fact that the bicyclist was accosted within 1,000 feet of a school. His possession of a gun is criminalized by both Wisconsin and federal statutes.

Although the local district attorney said that the bicyclist will not be prosecuted, the Milwaukee police chief and other Wisconsin law enforcement officials have promised to focus additional scrutiny on persons who openly carry a firearm.

All of this highlights the folly of “gun free” school zones. Using the law to target citizens who will not be protected by the police is a perverse policy. It gives thugs every incentive to focus their criminal activities in the areas around the schools the legislation intends to protect.

Sarbanes-Oxley under Attack… from the Supreme Court!

Today the Supreme Court agreed to review a case brought by our friends at the Competitive Enterprise Institute that challenges the constitutionality of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB, pronounced “peek-a-boo”).  The constitutional problem with the PCAOB – there are many policy problems – is that its officers are appointed in an unconstitutional manner. 

Under the Appointments Clause of Article II, section 2, the president has the exclusive power to appoint and remove government officials.  The members of the PCAOB – which enforces the massive regulatory scheme Sarbanes-Oxley imposes on public companies – are appointed by the SEC, however, which then has limited supervisory/removal power.  While this structural defect may seem like a minor technicality, what it means is that the awesome power to set accounting standards – not least Sarbox section 404, which has cost the economy over a trillion dollars – impose taxes, and levy criminal and civil penalties is vested in a bunch of unaccountable bureaucrats.  Entities with similar authority, even those having a modicum of political independence, such as the IRS Commissioner and Federal Reserve governors, are all vetted by the president and the Senate.

The court below (the D.C. Circuit), however, held that PCAOB members are inferior officers and, as such, Congress “may limit and restrict the power of removal as it deems best for the public interest.”  But this gets the Constitution backwards; Congress isn’t allowed to insulate important decisionmakers from political accountability.  As CEI’s press release says:

If the President can pick and remove the PCAOB members, as the Appointments Clause requires, he will be on the hook for their policy failures, and thus have an interest in making them develop sound policies that protect investors and don’t stifle economic growth.  He won’t be able to blame the red tape on an unaccountable agency whose officials he doesn’t select or control.

The Court will hear the case, Free Enterprise Fund v. PCAOB – which I previously blogged about here – in late fall.