Mueller on Afghanistan

John Mueller, who has been helping out with Cato’s counterterrorism project, has a short essay in Foreign Affairs questioning the premise behind continuing the war in Afghanistan. That is: Al Qaeda would gain haven in Afghanistan absent a U.S. ground presence and use it to attack us here.

Mueller says that the Taliban would not be dumb enough to again offer aid and comfort to the wackos whose attacks brought the U.S. intervention that swept them from power before. I think this overstates the extent to which our enemy in Afghanistan is a singular entity with one way of thinking about its interests, rather than an amalgam of militias that view the utility of cooperation with foreign jihadists in varying ways. But the general point is mostly right.  Advances in UAV technology alone make a replay of the 1990’s impossible.

Mueller’s argument is badly needed in official places like Foreign Affairs where the “failed states are always terrorist havens” thesis is gospel. One can usefully export it to Somalia. The al-Shabab group’s loose ties to Al Qaeda are producing calls for U.S. intervention, despite the lack of evidence that international terrorists are using Somalia as a training ground or could.

Demand for Subsidies

My op-ed on National Review Online today provided new information about the increasing number of federal subsidy programs. The federal welfare state is expanding rapidly.

One friendly reader emailed me:

Ever cross your mind that there’s a reason government programs increase over time? I’ll clue you in: Programs increase because of public demand.

It’s not rocket science, people want more services. Period. Somebody’s got to pay for them. Hences taxes. Or perhaps borrowing. Or a combination of both. In any event, there’s no evidence people are willing to get along with fewer services.

The situation seems simple to me; so why can’t you ideologues on the far right understand what’s going on. Instead, you simply go on bemoaning the existence of programs and taxes you don’t like.

There are numerous problems with this reader’s views, including constitutional problems. But one thing that strikes me is the underlying assumption of the “public interest theory of government,” or the idea that democracies and bureaucracies operate to efficiently provide “services.”

In reality, there are structural problems in government that bias policymakers toward fiscal irresponsibility, as our current $1.8 trillion federal deficit indicates. The issue is not ideology, it is scientific: Does the government actually work as the optimists, like this reader, believe? I think the empirical evidence is in on that question.

Gun Control for the Sake of Mexico: The Meme That Wouldn’t Die

Fox News already debunked the claim that 90% of the guns involved in Mexico’s drug war come from the United States.  Facts aside, the press onslaught continues in a new push for gun control.

The fact is that out of 29,000 firearms picked up in Mexico over the last two-year period for which data is available, 5,114 of the 6,000 traced guns came from the United States.  While that is 90% of traced guns, it means that only 17% of recovered guns come from the United States civilian market.

Where did the rest come from?  A number of places.  To begin with, over 150,000 Mexican soldiers have deserted in the last six years for the better pay and benefits of cartel life, some taking their issued M-16 rifles with them.

Surprisingly, a significant number of the arms are coming to the cartels via legitimate transactions.  They are produced and exported legally every year, regulated by the State Department as Direct Commercial Sales.  FY 2007 figures for the full exports are available here, and State’s report on end-use is available here, alleging widespread fraud and use of front companies to funnel the weapons into the black market.  (H/T to Narcosphere)  This doesn’t even take into account the thousands of weapons floating around Latin America from previous wars of liberation.  This Los Angeles Times article also shows how the cartels are getting hand grenades, rocket launchers, and other devices you can’t pick up at your local sporting goods store.

Perhaps this is why law enforcement officials did not ask for new gun laws to combat Mexican drug violence at recent hearings in front of Congress.

Never mind those pesky facts.  The story at the New York Times recycles the 90% claim.  The associated video is just as bad.  Narrator: “The weapons that are arming the drug war in Juarez are illegal to purchase and possess in Mexico.”  They’re also illegal in the United States.  As the narrator says these words, the Mexican officer is handling an M-16 variant with a barrel less than sixteen inches long.  This rifle would be illegal to possess in the United States without prior approval from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (BATFE).  As the video mentions the expired “Assault” Weapons Ban, the submachine gun in frame would also be classified as a short-barreled rifle and require BATFE approval.  Ditto for many of the rifles shown in the video.  The restrictions on barrel length would not apply to weapons exported as Direct Commercial Sales.  Law enforcement folks call this a “clue.”

The language of gun control advocates is changing subtly to demonize “military style” weapons.  “Military style” weapons is a new and undefined term that means either (1) automatic weapons, short barreled rifles, short barreled shotguns, and destructive devices already heavily regulated by federal law; or (2) a term inclusive of  all modern firearms in a back-door attempt to enact a new gun control scheme.

Yes, ALL modern firearms.  Grandpa’s hunting rifle?  Basis for the system used by military snipers.  The pump-action shotgun you use to hunt ducks and quail?  Basis for the modular shotgun produced for the military.  The handgun you bought for self-defense, a constitutionally protected right?  Used by every modern military.

This is not a new tactic.  The Violence Policy Center has previously tried to fool people by portraying ordinary rifles as machine guns with the term “assault” weapons: “The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons-anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun-can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons.”

Making our domestic policies based on the preferences of other countries is unacceptable, especially in an activity protected by the Constitution.  One of Canada’s Human Rights Commissioners is on record saying that “[f]reedom of speech is an American concept, so I don’t give it any value.”  (Apparently, it makes the folks at the Department of Homeland Security nervous too)  In a similar vein, the United Nations says “[w]e especially encourage the debate on the issue of reinstating the 1994 U.S. ban on assault rifles that expired in 2004.”

It’s not theirs to say, and we shouldn’t listen to an argument based on lies.  Related posts here and here.

Vote for Me!

Final statements in my tax debate with economist Thomas Piketty were posted today at the Economist.

I think I’m softening Piketty up, as he reiterated that a 60% tax on high earners might be OK, rather than the 80% that he suggested.

The voting from readers has been locked at 50%/50% for days. So it is important that you register your vote by the end of tomorrow before the magazine’s “decision” on the winner Friday.

Why So Shy With The Hatchet?

ABC reports, “The Los Angeles Board of Education voted Tuesday to lay off as many as 5,400 teachers and support personnel for the upcoming school year” in order to help close “a roughly $718 million deficit.”

Ok, that’s a start. But the number of public school employees in the US has doubled since 1970, while the number of students has increased by just 9 percent.

The bloated, inefficient and ineffective LA District now spends nearly $13 billion a year –- over $20,000 per student –- so they might want to keep on cutting.

Considering the fact that the median private school tuition is around $4,800, maybe they could just let parents and taxpayers keep, say, a third of that money to spend on education themselves.

Presto, no budget problem! Although there would be a huge increase in unemployed school bureaucrats and ineffective teachers … I think it’s a good trade.

New at Cato, Tax Day Edition

tax-dayHere are a couple of dishes Cato Institute scholars cooked up for Tax Day:

  • Writing for National Review Online, Chris Edwards warns against the dangers of rapidly increasing government spending:

    When filling out your tax forms, you might want to think for a second about where all that money is going. After federal spending roughly doubled in the Bush years, it is growing by leaps and bounds under President Obama. What’s more, the federal government is increasing the scope of its activities — it is intervening in many areas that used to be left to state and local governments, businesses, charities, and individuals.

    There are now a staggering 1,804 subsidy programs in the federal budget. Hundreds of programs were added this decade, and the recent stimulus bill added even more. The result is that we are in the midst of the largest federal gold rush at taxpayer expense since the 1960s.

  • At Townhall, Dan Mitchell rails against the current tax code:

    Beginning as a simple two-page form in 1913, the internal revenue code has morphed into a complex nightmare that simultaneously hinders compliance by honest people and rewards cheating by Washington insiders and other dishonest people.

    But that is just the tip of the iceberg. The tax code also penalizes economic growth, distorts taxpayer behavior, undermines American competitiveness, invites corruption and promotes inefficiency.

  • At CNSNews.com, Edwards argues that policymakers should give Americans the low and simple tax code that they deserve.
  • Also, don’t miss the new Cato video that reveals how troubling the American tax system really is.

Oprah Escapes the Long Arm of the Law

oprahThe Washington Post reports on the latest ruling by the Federal Election Commission:

William Lee Stotts of Cordova, Tenn., filed a complaint in October alleging that Obama’s appearance on Winfrey’s popular talk show during the Democratic primaries amounted to an unlawful campaign contribution that gave him an ‘an unfair advantage over the other candidates, both Republican and Democrat, who were deprived such an opportunity.’

The FEC decided that Winfrey was a media entity and thus qualified for the “media exemption” from the campaign finance laws. Without that exemption, Obama’s appearance would have become an electioneering communication and thereby a violation of McCain-Feingold.

The FEC provides a timely reminder that we no longer have a unified First Amendment. Congress shall indeed “make no law” regarding the freedom of the media, including the freedom to publicize a presidential candidacy. That’s a good thing, by the way. The bad thing is the rest of us are expected to make do with Congress making all kinds of laws limiting freedom of speech. Some animals, I suppose, are more equal than other animals.