Posts tagged ‘Iran’

When Appeals to Authority Fail

This advertisement from the 1970's is a fail on so many levels that it is just hilarious.  Using the Shah of Iran as you source of moral authority?  Cheer-leading the Iranian nuclear program?  Awesome.  Via How to be a Retronaut

 

Wag the Dog

I will fight when my liberty is truly threatened.  But I have absolutely no trust in politicians to determine when this is the case.

Which is why my reaction to this is, Oh Crap!

I am sure it is a total coincidence that, after 35 years of butting heads with Iran, this is occurring during a sputtering economy and within months of a Presidential election.

PS-  I watched Wag the Dog the other night.  Every time Dustin Hoffman said "he f*cked a Firefly girl" all I could think of was Gina Torres, Morena Baccarin, Jewel Staite, and Summer Glau.  Well worth losing the Presidency for.

In A Recession, Obama Presses Chinese to Raise Prices to the Poor and Middle Class

Consider this story in the context of my previous post on the poor having a lower inflation rate due  in part of the effects of Wal-Mart and Chinese -made goods:

President Obama increased pressure on China to immediately revalue its currency on Thursday, devoting most of a two-hour meeting with China's prime minister to the issue and sending the message, according to one of his top aides, that if "the Chinese don't take actions, we have other means of protecting U.S. interests."...

The unusual focus on this single issue at such a high level was clearly an effort by the White House to make the case that Mr. Obama was putting American jobs and competitiveness at the top of the agenda in a relationship that has endured strains in recent weeks on everything from territorial disputes to sanctions against Iran and North Korea.

Democrats in Congress are threatening to pass legislation before the midterm elections that would slap huge tariffs on Chinese goods to undermine the advantages Beijing has enjoyed from a currency, the renminbi, that experts say is artificially weakened by 20 to 25 percent.

Somehow this was written with words like "competitiveness" and "artificially weakened" to hide the fact that what we are talking about is raising prices to American consumers (by as much as 20-25%, one infers from the last paragraph).  Not only would this make Chinese goods more expensive, but it would reduce the downward price pressure on goods made elsewhere.

Which of course is the whole point, because this is a narrow special interest issue putting a few vocal industries interests over those of the broader group of American consumers.  How many of us are consumers?  How many of us work for service and manufacturing and retail businesses that buy Chinese goods?   Now, how many of us work for a product business that competes directly with Chinese manufacturers?  The first two groups dwarf the second, but Obama is just as beholden to these interests as was Bush.

Hilarious Misdirection

Progressive green web site the Thin Green Line takes on subsidies for petroleum products, saying that reducing such subsidies could immediately have a major impact on CO2 production.  Fine with me, I am no fan of subsidies by governments of any private activities, though I don't live in fear of CO2.

However, the author, trying I guess to buff his progressive credentials in a sort of typical knee-jerk for green writers, tries to imply all this largess is somehow flowing to large oil companies, and the implication is that western nations like the US are subsidizing folks like Exxon and BP:

The timing couldn't be better: With BP's oil continuing to pollute the Gulf Coast, the question of how much our alliance with the oil industry really costs us is at the front of the everybody's mind.

The International Energy Agency released an early draft of a report documenting, for the first time ever, how much the fossil fuel industries get in subsidies each year (H/T Grist). The timing is, of course, coincidental: The IEA's work stems from an agreement made at this years G20 conference that subsidies of fossil fuel industries should be phased out as part of international efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

So "” drum roll, please! "” how much money are the energy giants taking in? $550 billion a year.

But the author is, I believe, misunderstanding the study and the underlying economics (no surprise there from a green progressive writer).  This is from a study of 37 developing, not rich, nations.  There is no way these guys are paying $550 billion in cash into private oil company pockets.  In fact, most of these countries barely let the private oil companies even play, or force them into some marginal operator role subservient to their state oil company.

If these countries are subsidizing producers at all, the vast majority who are getting such largesse are large state-run companies, not western private oil companies.

However, my guess (and I have not seen the report yet) is that what they mean by most of these subsidies is actually selling fossil fuels to their citizens at below-market prices.  These subsidies are not transfers of state dollars to oil companies at all, but below-market pricing of oil products to consumers by state-run oil monopolies.   The people getting subsidized here are poorer consumers, not private oil companies.  Countries like China, Iran, Iraq and even Venezuela (run by progressive heart throb Hugo Chavez) sell petroleum products way below market prices to their citizens.  I am fairly certain this is the half trillion dollar subsidy the report refers to.

So we have the ultimate irony of a "progressive" lamenting government-subsidized energy for poorer people in developing nations.  Wow, I never thought I would say this, but if this is the progressive position, I agree with it.  The whole situation does highlight the difficult tension between development and CO2 reduction programs, and reinforces my argument that aggressive worldwide CO2 abatement will mainly hurt the poor.

Bigger Oil

Roger Pielke, Jr. (hat tip to a reader) points to an interesting FT Lex column that should offer some interesting insights to America's progressives:

9c437598-11bb-11df-9d45-00144feab49a

"Big" and "oil" are mentioned so often in the same breath that it is easy to lose perspective. Motorists and environmentalists never tire of berating the dominant supermajors whose petrol stations and share listings make them the public face of the industry, their favourite target being America's ExxonMobil. If market value were the sole magnet for opprobrium then Exxon's executives could breathe a bit easier because PetroChina recently overtook it as the world's most valuable listed energy company.

But there is "Big Oil" "“ last year, Royal Dutch Shell earned more than $1bn a month "“ and then there is bigger oil. No oil major is able to affect energy prices on its own and even Exxon is far smaller than the world's largest energy company. It is not even close. Saudi Aramco's estimated hydrocarbon reserves of 300,000 million barrels of oil equivalent make it 15 times Exxon's size. Exxon comes in about 17th place, with the top 10 being entirely state-owned.

US oil company executives routinely get pulled in front of Congress to defend themselves against charges they are manipulating world oil prices.   Huh? It would be as rational to accuse Grinnell College of manipulating national tuition rates.  Americans can take comfort in the fact that by limiting their ability to seek new oil in the US, we have made sure that oil markets are not controlled by evil publicly traded companies like Exxon and Shell but instead are controlled by entirely more trustworthy entities like the governments of Iran, Saudi Ariabia, Venezuela, Russia, Nigeria, and China.

This chart also supports the one good argument I think there is for peak oil -- that most of the world's oil reserves are controlled by patently incompetent institutions (e.g. governments) that have very bad incentives that make them highly unlikely to invest well.  The only reason these countries are able to produce at all is because western companies are stupid enough to keep walking into this cycle:

1.  US companies invest huge amounts of capital and know-how to build oil industry
2.  Once things are producing, local government steals it all (they call it "nationalization")
3.  Oil fields go into extended decline due to short-term focused and incompetent government management
4.  US companies invited back int to invest huge amounts of know-how and capital
5. repeat

Totalitarians Catching Up to the Internet

Via the WSJ:

His first impulse was to dismiss the ominous email as a prank, says a young Iranian-American named Koosha. It warned the 29-year-old engineering student that his relatives in Tehran would be harmed if he didn't stop criticizing Iran on Facebook.

Two days later, his mom called. Security agents had arrested his father in his home in Tehran and threatened him by saying his son could no longer safely return to Iran.

"When they arrested my father, I realized the email was no joke," said Koosha, who asked that his full name not be used....

In recent months, Iran has been conducting a campaign of harassing and intimidating members of its diaspora world-wide -- not just prominent dissidents -- who criticize the regime, according to former Iranian lawmakers and former members of Iran's elite security force, the Revolutionary Guard, with knowledge of the program.

Part of the effort involves tracking the Facebook, Twitter and YouTube activity of Iranians around the world, and identifying them at opposition protests abroad, these people say.

Interviews with roughly 90 ordinary Iranians abroad -- college students, housewives, doctors, lawyers, businesspeople -- in New York, London, Dubai, Sweden, Los Angeles and other places indicate that people who criticize Iran's regime online or in public demonstrations are facing threats intended to silence them.

Although it wasn't possible to independently verify their claims, interviewees provided consistently similar descriptions of harassment techniques world-wide. Most asked that their full names not be published.

Oil Prices and State-Run Corporate Incompetence

Over the last year or so, I have been relatively optimistic for a relatively significant drop in oil prices over the next 2-4 years followed by a number of years of price stability at this lower level.  This would be a direct analog to what happened in the 80's after the 1978 oil price spike.

One argument readers have made against this scenario is that a much larger percentage of the world's oil potential is controlled by lumbering state oil companies than was the case in 1978, particularly given the US Congress's continued cooperation with OPEC in keeping US oil reserves off-limits to drilling.  The theory runs that these state run oil companies have a number of problems:

  • they move and react very slowly
  • they don't have the technical competence to develop more difficult  reserves
  • they don't have the political will to divert oil profits from social programs (including oil industry over-employment and patrimony) to capital spending

This latter issue is a big one - even keeping current fields running at a level rate requires constant capital and technological infusions.  I have written about this issue before, and I am sympathetic to this argument.  Here is Jim Kingsdale on this issue:

Events in Iran since the Revolution are an eery echo of what has
happened in Venezuela since the advent of Chavez.  Skilled workers and
foreign capital and technology have fled.  Corruption has become
rampant  along with incompetence.  Production of over 6 mb/d fell to
below 3 mb/d after the Revolution and is currently about 3.8 mb/d.  The
pre-revolutionary head count of 32,000 employees has grown to 112,000.

Since the Revolution Iran has exported $801.2 billion of oil but
nobody knows where that money has gone.  "Certainly none of it was
invested in Iranian oil infrastructure which badly needs renovation and
repair, upstream and downstream."  The author claims the Iranian
petro-industry is "on the brink of bankruptcy" although such a claim is
not documented.

It is clear that Iran, Venezuela, Mexico, Nigeria, and Iraq together
represent an enormous percentage of the world's oil deposits and
production that is being mismanaged.  The political and management
dysfunctions in all of these countries simultaneously is a major reason
for the world's current energy crisis.  If these countries all operated
in a standard capitalist mode, I suspect oil would be below $50 a
barrel and the ultimate supply crisis might be five or ten or even
fifteen years beyond when we will see it fairly soon
.  There seems to
be little hope that any of these countries will make a dramatic change
in their oil productivity soon.

I am coming around to this argument.  I still think that oil prices are set for a fall, but lower prices may not last long if this analysis is correct.

Update: Of course Maxine Waters would like to add the United States to this list of countries with incompetent government management of oil reserves.

I am Going to Break Every Window in Chris Plummer's House to Stimulate the Economy

We all know that the media is perfectly capable of ignoring even the most basic precepts of economics, but I thought Chris Plummer's article was especially heroic in doing so.  Even more so, it is absolutely stunning in its arrogance.  In his article, he writes on all the great ways that $8 a gallon gasoline will help make the world a better place.  I will stay away from the global warming related issues -- I have a whole other blog dedicated to that -- but here are a couple of the most egregious parts:

They may contain computer chips, but the power source
for today's cars is little different than that which drove the first
Model T 100 years ago. That we're still harnessed to this antiquated
technology is testament to Big Oil's influence in Washington and
success in squelching advances in fuel efficiency and alternative
energy.

   
       

Given our achievement
in getting a giant mainframe's computing power into a handheld device
in just a few decades, we should be able to do likewise with these
dirty, little rolling power plants that served us well but are overdue
for the scrap heap of history.

OK, this first one is a science problem and not an engineering problem.  Here is the problem:  Gasoline contains more potential energy by weight and volume than any power storage source we have been able to invent (OK, its actually second, nuclear fuel is first, but I presume Plummer is not going there).  That is the problem with electric cars, for example.  Electric traction motors are demonstrably better sources of motive power than internal combustion engines.  Even Diesel railroad engines are actually driven by electric traction motors.  The problem is energy storage.  Batteries store much less energy per pound and per cubit foot than gasoline.  Ditto natural gas and hydrogen (except at very high pressures).

This claim that only the political power of oil companies keeps no-brainer alternative technologies at bay is absurd, though it is one that never dies in the lunatic fringes.  Mr. Plummer is more than welcome to make himself a billion dollars by selling one of these mystery technologies he fails to disclose.  I will be first in line to buy.

Necessity being the mother of invention, $8 gas would trigger all
manner of investment sure to lead to groundbreaking advances. Job
creation wouldn't be limited to research labs; it would rapidly spill
over into lucrative manufacturing jobs that could help restore
America's industrial base and make us a world leader in a critical
realm.

This is the broken window fallacy on steroids.  I am a HUGE optimist about the limitless capabilities of the human mind, probably more so than Mr. Plummer (by the way, if he is such an optimist, he should read some Julian Simon).  But the best that humanity can probably do any time soon is offset a goodly percentage of the damage from $8 gas.  There is no net win here.  If there were, he should also be advocating $10 bread, $2,000,000 starter home prices, and $200 a month internet service.  Just think about all the innovation that would be required to react to these!

On a similar note, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Iran's Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad recently gained a platform on the world stage because of
their nations' sudden oil wealth. Without it, they would face the
difficult task of building fair and just economies and societies on
some other basis.

Yes sir.  Chavez would be much worse off if he was getting $8 for his gas rather than $3.  What is this guy thinking?  Well, he says this:

In the near term, breaking our dependence on Middle Eastern oil may
well require the acceptance of drilling in the Alaskan wilderness

OK, but that can be done at $3 gas,and should have been allowed at $2 gas.  This oil could have been developed in an environmentally friendly way years ago.  Only Congressional stupidity stands in the way  (probably with the past support of Mr. Plummer).

The recent housing boom sparked further development of
antiseptic, strip-mall communities in distant outlying areas. Making
100-mile-plus roundtrip commutes costlier will spur construction of
more space-efficient housing closer to city centers, including cluster
developments to accommodate the millions of baby boomers who will no
longer need their big empty-nest suburban homes.

   
       

Sure, there's plenty of
land left to develop across our fruited plains, but building more
housing around city and town centers will enhance the sense of
community lacking in cookie-cutter developments slapped up in the
hinterlands.
This is an aesthetic and taste argument (note the "antiseptic") - the author thinks that suburbs are un-aesthetic and he thinks that urban life is superior.  Not surprising, as he chooses to live in San Francisco, and people there have self-selected for that kind of life.  Fine.  But I don't want it.  And the idea that it is good to pay $8 for gas to conform to his aesthetics is sickening.  (By the way, the opposite of antiseptic is germ-ridden.  Why don't people ever therefore use that as a modifier for urban communities?)

OK, I can't really get to all his points, but I have saved perhaps the best for last.  Here is one of the most incredibly condescending, authoritarian, and insensitive arguments I have ever seen.  He thinks it is better for poor and middle class Americans to pay $8 a gallon for gas because:

Far too many Americans live beyond their means and
nowhere is that more apparent than with our car payments. Enabled by
eager lenders, many middle-income families carry two monthly payments
of $400 or more on $20,000-plus vehicles that consume upwards of
$15,000 of their annual take-home pay factoring in insurance,
maintenance and gas.

   
       

The sting of forking
over $100 per fill-up would force all of us to look hard at how much of
our precious income we blow on a transport vehicle that sits idle most
of the time, and spur demand for the less-costly and more
fuel-efficient small sedans and hatchbacks that Europeans have been
driving for decades.

So, doubling the cost of necessities for the average American will make them financially healthier?  His argument is that people do all kinds of dumb things financially that a smart person like he would never do, and if gas prices drained everyone's wallet, they would not have any money left to make dumb purchases he does not approve of.  If this is such a great idea, shouldn't we all just move to North Korea and have done with it?

The anti-planner, where I got the link, has his own response.

Congress, Sue Thyself

This is almost beyond parody:

The House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved legislation on
Tuesday allowing the Justice Department to sue OPEC members for
limiting oil supplies and working together to set crude prices, but the
White House threatened to veto the measure.

The bill would
subject OPEC oil producers, including Saudi Arabia, Iran and Venezuela,
to the same antitrust laws that U.S. companies must follow.

The measure passed in a 324-84 vote, a big enough margin to override a presidential veto.

The
legislation also creates a Justice Department task force to
aggressively investigate gasoline price gouging and energy market
manipulation.

"This bill guarantees that oil prices will reflect
supply and demand economic rules, instead of wildly speculative and
perhaps illegal activities," said Democratic Rep. Steve Kagen of
Wisconsin, who sponsored the legislation.

I am sure, either through scheming or more likely incompetance, that OPEC countries are under-supplying their potential capacity for oil production.  But if we want to deem this a crime, who is the biggest criminal?   The US is the only country I know of that has, by statute, made illegal the development of enormous domestic reserves.  Just last week, Democracts in Congress, in fact the exact same folks sponsoring this bill, voted to continue an effective moratorium on US oil shale development.  No country in the world is doing less to develop the most promising oil reserves than is the US.  Congress, sue thyself.  I mocked this idea weeks ago when Hillary first suggested it.  If this passes, I would love to see the US counter-sued for not developing ANWR.  Or large areas of the Gulf.  Or most of the Pacific coast.  Or all of the Atlantic coast.  Or our largest-in-the-world oil shale deposits. 

Does Anyone Really Believe This?

James Pethokoukis argues that we might have spent a lot of the $1.3 trillion cost of the Iraq war on containment of Iraq had we fought the war.

I will admit I have not seen the studies, but I declare right now that there is NO WAY.  If we really would have spent $150 billion a year containing Iraq in absence of a war, we should be spending similar magnitudes today on other similar regimes on which we have chosen not to declare war, like Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, etc.  But demonstrably we are not.  One might argue that oil prices would be lower, I guess, but one could also argue that the post-9/11 recession would not have been as deep without a war.  I am sure there is a broken window fallacy in here somewhere.  This reminds me nothing so much as the tortured economic studies that purport to show a gullible populace that it makes sense to build a billion dollar stadium for the hapless Arizona Cardinals because the city will make it all back in future revenues.  Sure.

I am not going to argue the justifications for the Iraq war here.  What I will say is that folks who have enthusiastically supported the war should understand that the war is going to have the following consequences:

  1. In 2009 we will have a Democratic Congress and President for the first time since 1994.
  2. The next President will use the deficits from the $1.3 trillion in Iraq war spending to justify a lot of new taxes
  3. These new taxes, once the war spending is over, will not be used for deficit reduction but for new programs that, once established, will be nearly impossible to eliminate
  4. No matter what the next president promises to the electorate, they are not going to reverse precedents for presidential power and secrecy that GWB has established.  Politicians never give up power voluntarily.  [if the next president is Hillary, she is likely to push the envelope even further].  Republicans are not going to like these things as much when someone of the other party is using them.

Business vs. Government Time Horizons

One of the excuses statists often use to promote government over private enterprise is that businesses are "short-term focused".  They are only after "profit in the next quarter."  They don't "invest for the long-term" like a government can.  Really?

Iran's oil exports are plummeting at 10pc a year on lack of
investment and could be exhausted within a decade, depriving the world
economy of its second-biggest source of crude supplies.

A report by the US National Academy of Sciences said rickety
infrastructure dating back to the era of the Shah had crippled output,
while local fuel use was rising at 6pc a year.

"Their domestic demand is growing at the highest rate of any country
in the world," said Prof Roger Stern, an Iran expert at Johns Hopkins
University, Baltimore.

"They need to invest $2.5bn (£1.28bn) a year just to stand still
and they're not doing it because it's politically easier to spend the
money on social welfare and the army than to wait four to six years for
a return on investment," he said.

"They've been running down the industry like this for 20 years."

You never hear this problem in the privately run oil industry.  And I can say with complete confidence that this is a government problem, not just an Iran problem. 

Take one area in this country I know about, public recreation.   The BLM, the Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Corps of Engineers (not to mention state, county and local authorities) all run thousands of recreation facilities across the country.  And I can tell you that no public entity I know of budgets or spends adequate money on preventative and routine maintenance.  The nature of the process is that Congressmen love to get their name attached to building a new government recreation facility - that's sexy.  But then they never appropriate enough money to keep it maintained.  In their calculus, politicians can get a lot more political mileage from spending money in year 2 on another flashy announcement of a new facility than they can from spending that money to maintain the facilities they funded in year 1.

Can you imagine someone like Disney doing this?  Of course not.  The Magic Kingdom at DisneyWorld, the oldest of the them parks there, looks as fresh and new and well-kept when you visit it as does the newer MGM and Animal Kingdom parks.

And don't even get me started on government pensions and Social Security.  Oops, too late, I am started.  Yes, a few private companies in steel and airlines have under-funded pensions (though the government is partially to blame there) but by the definition of "under-funded" that private companies use, nearly every single public pension fund in the country is under-funded.  That is because most public pensions do not actually put away any money (zero, zip) for future liabilities -- they simply pay this year's required payments out of this year's funds.  States and municipalities have a huge balloon pension burden coming -- just wait twenty years and we will all be talking about it.  And Social Security, for all the smoke and mirrors, effectively works the same way, since current premiums in excess of current obligations are spent on the feds general obligations (if you still think there is some trust fund out there, wake up.)

What are People Afraid Of?

I just don't know why conservatives are so afraid to let folks like Khatami speak in the US.  Sure, he is a lying dictatorial human-rights-suppressing scumbag, but so what?  Its good to let people like this speak as much as they want.  They always give themselves away.  There were counter-protests and lots of debate about Iran in the news and on the nets, and that is as it should be.

I suppose conservatives real fear is that the press will, as they sometimes do, throw away their usual skepticism and cynicism and report his remarks as if they were those of a statesman rather than a thug on a PR mission.  But that's a different problem, and not a good enough excuse to suspend free speech, even for a man who granted it to no one else in his own country.  (I have never bought into the "media bias" critique, either conservative or liberal, in the press, because this seems to imply some active conspiracy exists to manage the news to some end.  Rather, I think it is more fair to say that reporters tend to apply too little skepticism to stories with which they are sympathetic.  For example, many reporters think homelessness is a big problem, so they were willing to uncritically accept inflated and baseless numbers for the size of the homeless population, numbers they would have fact-checked the hell out of if they had come from, say, an oil company to whom they are unsympathetic or skeptical of.)

On the same topic, I don't know why conservatives are so worried about this story of an increase in students from Saudi Arabia.   It used to be that we had confidence that people from oppressive countries would have their eyes opened by living in the US.  We have always believed that intellectually, freedom was more compelling than dictatorial control, and would win over hearts and minds of immigrants.  Our foreign policy with China, for example, is counting on engagement to change China.  Have we given up on this?

Free Speech, But Only If Its Bilateral

I sense I am in the minority on this (what's new) but I just don't understand the outrage directed at the decision to let Muhammad Khatemi into the US for some speaking engagements.  I guess I am enjoying the spectacle, though, of conservatives attacking McCain-Feingold for limiting free speech and then attacking the state department for letting a former head of state (albeit a fairly crazy one) into the country to, uh, speak.

The letter says that allowing
Mr. Khatemi to visit America "undermines U.S. national security
interests with respect to Iran and the broader Middle East." It also
says permitting Mr. Khatemi's "unrestricted travel through the United
States runs contrary to U.S. priorities regarding homeland security."

Taking the first part of this objection, I suppose they are arguing that granting this person a visa is somehow a reward, and we don't want to reward Iran.  Now, I will confess that Iran sucks, but I don't get how this rewards them or sets back our cause.  Yes, if he was received in the White House or by a prominent government official, I can understand it, and I would oppose doing so.  Besides, when our former head of state Jimmy Carter goes to other countries, the trips always seem to have the opposite effect that people fear here, as he tends to hurt rather than somehow advance his home country's interests every time.

As to the second part, I could understand it if someone had a legitimate concern that this was a terrorist leader and he would be spending his time visiting and organizing terrorist cells, but I have not seen anyone make that claim.  Besides, if I was in the FBI, I would love it if he was here to do that, and would follow him all over the place.  The CIA and FBI often leave known agents in place, because it is much easier to stay on top of the person you know about than the person you don't.  A high profile visit by Khatemi should be the least of our security concerns.

This just strikes me as one of those silly political loyalty tests that Democrats seem to like to conduct on domestic policy and Republicans conduct on foreign policy.  If you let this guy in, you are branded as a supporter of terrorism and fascism and whatever else. 

As I said just two days ago:

I am constantly irritated by efforts to ban a certain speaker from
speaking or to drown out their message with taunts and chanting.  If
you think someone is advocating something so terrible - let him talk.
If you are right in your judgment, their speech will likely rally
people to your side in opposition.  As I like to tell students who want
to ban speakers from campus -- Hitler told everyone exactly what he was
going to do if people had bothered to pay attention.

By the way, in explanation of the title of this post, I was reacting to something quoted from Rick Santorum.  Now, I often hesitate to react to comments by Santorum, because, like Howard Dean and a few others, he is sort of a human walking straw man.  But here goes:

On it, Mr. Santorum, who
has cut his deficit against his Senate challenger in Pennsylvania to
single digits, wrote that he should be granted a visa only if Iran
allows their people to hear "free American voices."

Mr. Santorum wrote: "We should insist, at a minimum, that the
Iranian people can hear free American voices. Iran is frightened of
freedom. They are jamming our radio and television broadcasts and
tearing down television satellite dishes in all the major cities of the
country. It seems only fair that we be able to speak to the Iranians
suffering under a regime of which Muhammad Khatemi is an integral part."

So now are we going to allow people free speech only if their country does so in a bilateral manner?  All you Americans of North Korean, Chinese, Iranian, Saudi Arabian, Venezuelan, etc. decent, Beware!   This logic betrays a theory of government that rights don't extend from the fact of our existence, but are concessions granted by the government.  By this logic, people have free speech only as long as the government allows it, and the government has the right to trade away an individual's free speech as a part of a negotiation.    

A Final Note on "Don't Know Much About History"

In an earlier post, I observed that my audio CD of the bestselling book "Don't Know Much About History" struck me as extremely odd, focusing on only the lowest points in American history.  I can report after finishing the CD that it stayed on this path to the end.  After the Cuban Missile Crisis we had conspiracy theories of JFKs death, then the Mai Lai massacre, then Watergate, then Iran Contra, then Monica Lewinsky.  Yes, the last 40 years were summed up in total as Mai Lai - Watergate - Iran Contra - Lewinsky and essentially nothing else.  Wow, what a view of history!  As a libertarian, I am happy to showcase the foibles of government, but this seems like a crazy loss of perspective even to me.

In addition, bits of the history were just terrible.  For example, he said that the Puritans who came to America were much like a cult today and treated as such.  That is a lame simplification of history.  Sure, one can argue that today's religions were yesterday's cults, but it is silly to say that the Puritans were treated poorly in England for the same reasons a cult might be today.  This completely ignores the whole reality of having a state religion in England at the time of the Puritans.  A state religion trying to purge itself of dissent is a really different dynamic than a modern cult getting shunned by mainstream society  (except perhaps when Janet Reno controls some tanks).  This distinction is also important because avoiding state religions is an important foundation block of our government, and its prohibition is buried in that arcane and little discussed thing called, uh, the First Amendment. 

It's clear the author is not a big fan of capitalism, and I would generally not even comment on such a thing because it is so common in academia.  I managed to mostly ignore numerous off-the-cuff quips he makes about evil corporations and greed and the assumption that any action by a rich person had to be out of a desire to repress the masses rather than from principle.  However, his bias creates some really bad history in at least one instance.  In discussing Hoover and the depression, he really lays into Hoover for how block-headed and absurd Hoover was for not initiating massive government welfare programs earlier in his administration.  I mean, he absolutely hammers Hoover for being a total cretin, and the author laughs at various Laissez-Faire speeches by HH. 

But this is a stunning loss of context for a historian.  While government handouts to people who are out of work may seem a no-brainer today, it was absolutely unprecedented at the time.  It had never been done.  And, nowhere in the Constitution, whose 10th Amendment specifically says that Congress only has the specific powers enumerated in the Constitution, does it say Congress has the power to tax one person and give the proceeds as a handout to another to relieve economic distress.  In fact, it was enough of a Constitutional question mark that the Supreme Court would later rule unconstitutional most of FDR's new deal, at least until FDR could repack the Court with his guys.  HH had good reason, beyond just his principles, to believe that he would be breaking the law and violating the Constitution to do as the author suggests.  But nothing of this context is mentioned.  The author only portrays Hoover as an idiot for not being interventionist enough. 

In fact, the author leaves out a point I would tend to make first -- that the Depression would have been much better off if Hoover had in fact been truly Laissez Faire.  Unfortunately, his tightening of money supply in the face of a depression and liquidity crisis via the relatively new Federal Reserve, his acquiescence to the Hawley Smoot tariffs, and his tax increases to close the budget deficit all contributed far more to sending the train off the rails than any intervention could have ameliorated.

So Why Not Cuba?

This week, the US took a step to normalize relations with Libya:

The United States restored
full diplomatic ties with Libya on Monday, rewarding the
longtime pariah nation for scrapping its weapons of mass
destruction programs and signaling incentives for Iran and
North Korea if they do the same

The logic was that Libya still is a sucky dictatorship, but it has taken some important steps forward into the light which we want to reward.  Perhaps more importantly, the administration acknowledges that increasing intercourse with the western democracies tends to have liberalizing effects in countries in this world of open communications (see: China).  Its a difficult trade-off, but I am fine with this.  Certainly we are no virgin in terms of having diplomatic relations with bad governments.

My question is:  Why doesn't this same logic apply to Cuba?  I think it is pretty clear that embargo and shunning over the past 40+ years have had as much effect as they are going to have.  Why not try engagement?  I think this particularly makes sense well before the chaos that may ensue after Castro's death.  If anything, just by reading the behavior of Cuban expats, Cubans remind be of the Chinese in terms of their entrepreneurship, and I certainly think engagement has worked better than shunning in China. 

Of course I already know the answer to my question:  Because Cuban expats make up a large voting block in the most critical presidential election swing state and no candidate wants to be soft on Castro.  But this seems to make it even more of an opportunity for a second-term president who doesn't have to contest Florida again.

Update:  Yes, I did indeed spell it "Lybia" at first.  Seems vaguely Feudian.  Excuse 1:  Blogging is a real time function.  Excuse 2:  Its just a hobby.  Excuse 3:  I was a mechanical engineer in school

Why Hate Speech is Good

If this post had a subtitle, it would be "give 'em enough rope to hang themselves with."  This week has brought one of those perfect examples of why free speech is important, and why it is especially important to let even stupid and evil people voice their opinions.  In what, incredibly, represents a moderation of the response to the Danish cartoons by Muslims (at least vs. shooting priests):

Iran's best-selling newspaper has launched a competition to find the
best cartoon about the Holocaust in retaliation for the publication in
many European countries of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad....

The
daily paper Hamshahri said the contest was designed to test the
boundaries of free speech -- the reason given by many European
newspapers for publishing the cartoons of the Prophet.

"A serious
question for Muslims ... is this: 'does Western free speech allow
working on issues like America and Israel's crimes or an incident like
the Holocaust or is this freedom of speech only good for insulting the
holy values of divine religions?'" the paper said on Tuesday.

Why would anyone want to stop them from doing this?  It will be thoroughly educational to see who steps up and declares their position on this.  Whenever people want to ban hate speech, I always try to point out that Hitler was telling everyone in the 1920's just what he wanted to accomplish, if only anyone really listened.  Hateful screwed-up people need to be put on the record with their most egregious work.  Censoring them only tends to moderate the public view of them and disguise the true dangers they may pose.  In fact,it is sometimes the case that when the media refuses to publish the most hateful or violent of speech, they are actually doing so because they have sympathy for the speaker, whose public image they are concerned about tarnishing, rather than just protecting the sensitivities of the speaker's targeted victims.

More on Surveillance & Detention

I've gotten mail and comments on some of my surveillance- and detention-related posts, particularly this one here, that boil down to "but warrant-less national security eavesdropping is legal". John Hinderaker at Powerline makes this argument fairly compellingly.  To which I can answer, fine, but whether it is narrowly legal or illegal is a topic for partisan blogs who want to score points for or against Bush.  As one of those weird libertarian guys, my intention was to stand aside from the question of legality and instead pose the question of "yes, but is it right?"

Foreigners are People Too

It is interesting that I have to make this point more and more nowadays: Foreignors are human beings too.  For example, this idea that non-US citizens have (or should have) the same rights we do was one I highlighted in my defense of open immigration:

The individual rights we hold dear are our rights as human beings, NOT
as citizens.  They flow from our very existence, not from our
government. As human beings, we have the right to assemble with
whomever we want and to speak our minds.  We have the right to live
free of force or physical coercion from other men.  We have the right
to make mutually beneficial arrangements with other men, arrangements
that might involve exchanging goods, purchasing shelter, or paying
another man an agreed upon rate for his work.  We have these rights and
more in nature, and have therefore chosen to form governments not to be
the source of these rights (for they already existed in advance of
governments) but to provide protection of these rights against other
men who might try to violate these rights through force or fraud

Speech, commerce, property, association, and yes, privacy -- these are all rights we have as human beings, so that the fact of citizenship in the US should not have any bearing on whether our government should respect these rights (except in the case of war, which we get into in a while).

These issues are oh-so-much clearer when we flip our perspective.  For Americans reading this, ask yourself:

  • Does the government of Great Britain (or Russia, or Iran) have the right to wiretap your phone calls at will without warrant or review just because you are not a citizen of their country?
  • Does the government of Great Britain (or Russia, or Iran) have the right to detain you indefinitely without access to a lawyer or embassy if a powerful person in their government declares you an enemy combatant?

If you answered "yes", then recognize that the 1979 capture of the US embassy staff in Iran was probably legal by your rules, as was nearly every other detention of American citizens by another country.  If you answered "no", then you need to be worried about what the US is doing in the name of national security, for certainly both Bush and Clinton, among others, claim(ed) these rights.  And if you answered "no" for all other countries but "yes" for us, presumably because you trust our guys but not theirs, I will admit you have some historical precedent, since the US for all its faults has generally acted more honorably than 99% of the other nations of the world over the last 100 years.  But you do need to think about the meaning of the rule of law, and why its always a bad idea to give good men power that you don't want bad men to have.

By saying this, I realize that am I not only out of step with the US appellate courts (as Hinderaker points out) and with the Supreme Court (at least on the detention issue, since they haven't ruled on the warrant-less search powers) but also perhaps with the founding fathers.  While most of the folks who wrote the Constitution understood the notion of rights that are derived from nature rather than from the state, the Constitution is mute on the laws of the US vis a vis foreign citizens (excepts where it comes to war).  It is interesting to note that the Bill of Rights doesn't make any distinctions between citizens and non-citizens - there is nothing, for example, that modifies the prescriptions of the fourth amendment to apply only to searches of US citizens.  One could easily interpret the Bill of Rights as proscribing the actions of the US government against any person of any nationality.  Anyway, if I am in conflict with the founding fathers, so be it -- the Constitution is a fabulous document as totally ahead of its time as would be having 19th century India put a man on the moon, but it was not perfect.

The Magic Words: National Security

You may notice that defenders of these presidential powers tend to play a little verbal slight of hand (in addition to the one discussed here):  They translate the president's powers as CinC to mean "carte blanch for national security issues".  You hear this slight-of-hand so often, one starts to think its written that way in the Constitution, so it is probably good to remind ourselves what that document actually says:

The President shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the
United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called
into the actual service of the United States

That's it.  The president can give orders to the military  -- whether that means he can do anything he wants in the name of national security is a whole other issue.  Folks also seem to want to argue that this CinC power cannot be modified or limited in any way, but that's silly.  The third amendment is aimed solely at the limiting the power of the military.   And certainly the folks who first adopted the constitution and the Bill of Rights believed that the 4th amendment applied to the military as well.  In fact, they would have said especially the military.

The Right Way to do Searches

Here is how we have generally interpreted the 4th amendment:  The legislative branch sets the ground rules, as followed by the Administration.  The administrations selection of targets is reviewed by the Judiciary (warrants) and is also subject to later review at trial (via the admissibility of evidence).  What we try to avoid is allowing the same person to set the rules, choose the target, and perform the surveillance, all in secret and without outside review.  The problems with the NSA wiretapping program is not that it is wrong per se, but that it may violate this process.  The administration is claiming the right to choose the target and perform the surveillance under the own rules and in secret with no possibility of review.   

Declaration of War Needs to Mean Something Again

If there is any part of the constitution that has really gone by the wayside in the last 50 years it is the provisions around declaration of war.  Over the past decades, president's have claimed the power to move forces into action, not just defensively but offensively, without a Congressional declaration of war.  And Hinderaker sees the declaration of war, or the Authorization to Use Military Force
(AUMF) as irrelevant to the legality of warrant-less national security
searches.  He is arguing that the President in his CinC power may search without warrant if it is substantially to fight an enemy.  And, absent an AUMF or a declaration of war, who decides if a group or nation or person is an enemy?  why, the President does.  And, who determines if a surveillance is necessary to fight this enemy? Why, yes, the President does as well.  And who reviews these decisions to make sure the President hasn't chosen to search or wiretap, under the pretext of national security, communists in Hollywood, Martin Luther King, or a self-generated "enemies list" -- no one, I mean, no Administration official in this country would ever do those things, would they?

I have increasingly come to the belief that the AUMF, or declaration of war, is supposed to mean something. (I am not a Constitutional scholar, and don't want to hear about how I don't understand such and such precedent* -- this is my own interpretation).  If one goes back to my first argument above, that all people, not just citizens, are constitutionally protected from our government searching or detaining them without warrant, then the declaration of war is that formal step that is necessary to free the CinC from these restrictions vis a vis a certain named and defined enemy.  The declaration of war, or AUMF, is effectively then the mass warrant, that gives the president the right in his role as CinC to attack those folks with our troops and detain them and spy on them, etc.  And even then, this is not without limit, since none of us are very happy with the Japanese detention precedent in WWII.  This view of the declaration of war is more consistent with the original notion of separation of powers than is the "administration can do anything to protect national security" view.  It allows the President pretty free reign to fight an enemy, including the types of tactics under dispute, but only after the body the founders considered the most sober had approved the war and the enemy (by sober I mean as envisioned by the founding fathers, and not as demonstrated in recent supreme court nomination hearings).

This obviously makes a declaration of war a BIG DEAL, which it should be, rather than just a set piece vote ratifying what the president seems hellbent to do anyway or a statement of moral support, along the lines of a "we support the troops" resolution.  It means that the Congress, god forbid, actually needs to treat the vote with some responsibility and understand the implications of what they are voting for, or else modify the AUMF or articles of war with specific limitations of scope.  And it means Congress needs to think twice and maybe three times before authorizing war against something as nebulous as "A Qaeda" or "terrorism".  And it means that GWB probably is doing nothing illegal, at least in the programs as discovered, but it doesn't mean that the courts or Congress can't change that in the future.

* Constitutional scholars live and die by the great god "precedent", and certainly the legal system would be thrown into disarray if court decisions did not provide precedents for later decisions.  All predictability in the system would vanish.  However, it is more than OK from time to time to go back to the original words of the Constitution to see if the march of serial precedent has somehow taken us off course.  I often liken this to a copier machine.  If you take a plain piece of paper, and copy it, and then copy the copy, and then copy that copy, etc. through twenty or thirty generations, you will end up with a paper that is supposed to be a copy of the original, but in fact is covered with spots and other artifacts that were not on the original.  A series of court precedents can also create such artifacts that can only really be identified not from looking at the last precedent it was built on, but going all the way back to the original Constitution.

Update on Iraq

Here is my update on Iraq:  We are still there, and will be there for a while.  And we are still spending nearly every available financial and human resource, not to mention all of our national attention and available goodwill, on the effort to make Iraq a prosperous and successful free and independent nation, to the exclusion of being able to bring much change about anywhere else in the world.

I can't tell you whether the effort in Iraq is going well or poorly.  Certainly if I pay attention to the major media alone I would assume it's a disaster, but we all know the media has a bias toward negativity that trumps any political biases it might have (after all, your local news station learned long ago that "your kids are happy and healthy, story at 11" is not a very good way to tease the evening news).  Being familiar with alternate sources on the Internet, I know that there are successes as well as failures on the ground.  In fact, you can even sort of deduce the successes from the major media coverage.  When the NY Times stops writing about blackouts in Iraq, you know that the electrical system is fixed.  When the WaPo stops writing stories about shortfalls in re-enlistment rates, you can infer that the rates are back up.

But to me, all this back and forth over success and failure in Iraq is only peripheral to my main problem with the war.  Let's for the sake of argument posit that things are going swimmingly, and we are able to start removing assets and support from Iraq next year.  That will mean that for four or five years, the entire attention and resources of the only country in the world that is able to substantially influence the behavior of other countries will be focused on just one country. 

During the Iraq war and occupation, we have not had the "bandwidth", either in attention or moral authority or resources, to help stave off Sudanese genocide, to steer Zimbabwe off its destructive path, to influence the course of events in Iran or North Korea, to change the behavior of terrorist sponsors like Saudi Arabia, or even to head off Russia's apparent slide back toward totalitarianism. 

Now, one could easily argue that its not our job to fix these things.  And I go through phases of agreeing with this.  However, our invasion of Iraq is predicated on the assumption that it should be our foreign policy to try to fix the worst of these problems.  And if it is, does it really make sense to invest everything we have and more on one country for four or five years (or more?)  From the first days of the war, I have called this my "cleaning of the Augean stables argument".  There are just too many messes in the world to head them all off by military invasion.  Afghanistan probably justified such a military effort, given its direct connections to 9/11, but I am still confused as to why Iraq justified this attention more than 20 or so other nations I could name.  Afghanistan  convinced the world that the US was ready to use the military if it had to, and helped to reverse the perception of weakness left by Carter's response to the Iranian hostage takers, Reagan's bailing out of Lebanon, and Clinton's running form Somalia and refusing to respond to the Cole attacks.  9/11, for all its horors, gave us a certain moral authority in the world to try to clean things up.  This credibility and authority could have given new life to non-military efforts, but we chose not to use them.

Now that we are there in Iraq, I tend to be in the stay the course camp.  There are too many recent examples, such as those cited above, where bailing out has created a perception of weakness that have encouraged our enemies to more boldness.  The situation we are in with the Iraqi people is much like the obligation the police have to a mafia informant that the police have convinced to turn state's evidence with the promise of protection against retribution.  If you suddenly throw the guy back out on the street to be killed publicly, its going to be really hard to get anyone else to trust you in the future.

I will confess that there are two things that from time to time cause me to have some doubts about my  stance.

The first was the seeming cascade of good news from surrounding countries in the middle east last January, as a successful Iraqi election emboldened opposition forces in a number of countries, including Lebanon, Egypt, and Iran.  If the neocons are right, and successful democracy in Iraq leads to a cascade effect in the surrounding nations, then my argument about spending too much time and effort on one country loses some of its power.

The second and perhaps more powerful input that sometimes causes me to rethink my opposition to the Iraq war is the insanity that tends to emerge from others who are anti-war, and with whom I do not want to be associated.  Take Cindy Sheehan and her beliefs, since she seems to have been adopted as a spokesperson and mascot by much of the vocal anti-war left. (I promised myself I would never mention Cindy Sheehan in this blog, but if she can meet with the president once and later claim that the president won't meet with her, then I guess I can write about her once and then claim I won't ever mention her).

Ms Sheehan has stated, as have many others in the anti-war movement including Michael Moore, at least five reasons for their being anti-war that drive me nuts:

Insurgents are Freedom Fighters:  Sorry, but no.  Most of the insurgents are ex-Baathists or Muslim extremists who want to reinstate a fascist state in the mold either of Saddam's more secular version or Iran's more fundamentalist version.  The insurgency is the equivalent of what Germany would have been like had the SS followed through on its promise to continue fighting a guerrilla war from the Bavarian Alps.  The world is a better place without the Baathists in power, and the insurgents do not have good aims for the Iraqi people.  Period.

Its all a Jewish plot:  Everything old is new again, and this particular brand of anti-Semitism, seeing Jewish cabals everywhere pulling strings of the government, seems to be back in vogue.  However, is there any particular reason Israel would want to shake the tree in Iraq?  After all, the last and only time they were attacked by Iraq directly was the last time the US went to war with Saddam.  Israel is still surrounded by enemies, with or without Saddam in power in Iraq.  In fact, one could argue that what Israel should really want is for Iraq and Iran go back to beating the crap out of each other in war after war.

It was all for oil:  How?  People always say this, but they can never explain to me the mechanism.  If it was to put US companies into ownership positions over Iraqi oil, we did a damn bad job since the Iraqi's seem to still own all their own oil (though we did head off the French from grabbing the oil).

War is never justified:  I don't think war was justified in this case, but never?  If you make this statement, then it means you have to be willing to live with anything, from genocide to totalitarianism, up to and including in your home country.  As long as there are people who only know how to live by force and wish to rule me, war always has to be an option.

Iraqis were better off under fascism when they had security:  I am not an Iraqi, so I won't try to make this trade-off for them.  However, I would like to point out a huge irony about the folks, mainly on the left, who make this argument.  The very same folks who make this argument for the Iraqis have been faced with the same choice themselves over the last few years:  Would you rather an increased risk of domestic terrorist attack, or greater security at the cost of reduced freedoms via the Patriot Act, more random searches, profiling, surveillance, etc. etc.  Most on the anti-war left have shouted that they will take the extra risk of violent attack in order to retain their individual liberties.  I agree with them.  The difference is that I don't project exactly the opposite choice onto the Iraqi people.

Update:  Professor Bainbridge seems to be in roughly the same boat.

Time to Thaw Relations With Cuba

First, a couple of disclaimers:  The human rights situation in Cuba still sucks, and Castro still is a reprehensible leader.

That all being said, its time to try a different policy vis a vis Cuba.  While the strict embargo of all things and all people back and forth to Cuba may well have been appropriate in the 1960's to make sure Cuba and the world understood our displeasure with Castro, its not working for us now.  Forty-five or so years later, nothing has really changed in Cuba.  Heck, that's more years than the Cold War with Russia lasted.  And, since the economic blockade has become pretty much unilateral, with the US about the only country in the world still observing it, its hard to see Castro throwing up the white flag any time soon.

The US has made its point -- we think Castro is a brutal totalitarian.  Castro has made his point -- Cuba is not going to fall based on US economic pressure.  Its time to try engagement.  This does not mean that the US sanction the human rights situation in Cuba.  It does mean that we acknowledge that engagement with western ideas through trade and commerce have done more to liberalize countries like China, India, and southeast Asia than any other policy we have tried.

Fareed Zakaria has a nice article in the International Edition of Newsweek advocating just this approach, not just in Cuba, but all over the world:

For almost five decades the United States has
put in place a series of costly policies designed to force Cuba to
dismantle its communist system. These policies have failed totally.
Contrast this with Vietnam, also communist, where Washington has
adopted a different approach, normalizing relations with its former
enemy. While Vietnam remains a Leninist regime in many ways, it has
opened up its society, and the government has loosened its grip on
power, certainly far more than that of Fidel Castro. For the average
person in Libya or Vietnam, American policy has improved his or her
life and life chances. For the average person in Iran or Cuba, U.S.
policy has produced decades of isolation and economic hardship.

Don't
get me wrong. I think the regimes in Tehran and Havana are ugly and
deserve to pass into the night. But do our policies actually make that
more likely? Washington has a simple solution to most governments it
doesn't like: isolate them, slap sanctions on them and wait for their
downfall....

Critics could argue that I'm forgetting the many surprising places
where regimes have fallen and freedom has been given a chance to
flourish. Who would have predicted that Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan
would see so much change in the past year and a half? But these
examples only prove my point. The United States had no "regime change"
policy toward any of these countries, and it had relations with all of
them. In fact, these relationships helped push the regimes to change
and emboldened civil-society groups.

Ah, you might say, but these regimes were not truly evil. Well, what
about Mao's China at the height of the Cultural Revolution? Nixon and
Kissinger opened relations with what was arguably the most brutal
regime in the world at the time. And as a consequence of that opening,
China today is far more free"”economically and socially"”than it has ever
been. If we were trying to help the Chinese people, would isolation
have been a better policy?

For years I think we feared to normalize relations with Cuba because we were afraid of looking weak;  however, today, after kicking regimes out of Afghanistan and Iraq and threatening four or five others, I am not sure this is a concern.  Besides, we are normalizing relations with Vietnam, who we actually fought a war against and who are at least as bad at human rights as Cuba. 

I fear that what may be preventing a new policy with Cuba is the electoral college.  Or, more specifically, the crucial status of Florida as a tightly-contested presidential election swing state and the perception (reality?) that there is a large high-profile Cuban population in Florida that opposes normalization, at least as long as Castro can still fog a mirror.

 

Heads You Win, Tails I Lose, Part 2

In my earlier post, I lamented the fact that "progressives" who criticize Bush for being undemocratic, illiberal, overly dependent on the military, and theocratic are proposing alternatives that are much, much worse.  In that post, they were championing Hugo Chavez of Venezuela as their savior.  Now, they seem to be latching on to Muslim countries like Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran as their champions of liberal values. In this interview of George Galloway, recently feted by liberals and progressives on both sides of the Atlantic:

M.B.H.S.: You often call for uniting Muslim and progressive forces globally.

How far is it possible under current situation?

Galloway: Not only do I think it's possible but I think it is vitally necessary

and I think it is happening already. It is possible because the progressive

movement around the world and the Muslims have the same enemies.

*Their enemies are the Zionist occupation, American occupation, British

occupation of poor countries mainly Muslim countries. * * *

*They have the same interest in opposing savage capitalist globalization which

is intent upon homogenizing the entire world turning us basically into factory

chickens which can be forced fed the American diet of everything from food to

Coca-Cola to movies and TV culture*. And *whose only role in life is to consume

the things produced endlessly by the multinational corporations.* And the

progressive organizations & movements agree on that with the Muslims.

Otherwise we believe that we should all have to speak as Texan and eat McDonalds

and be ruled by Bush and Blair. So *on the very grave big issues of the

day-issues of war, occupation, justice, opposition to globalization-the Muslims

and the progressives are on the same side*.

By the way, this is the movement that calls itself "reality-based".

Can't someone today emerge as a rallying point for those of use who are classical liberals and libertarians?

Hat Tip LGF.

Wanted: Foreign Policy Alternative

Forward:  The following post contains criticism of the administration's foreign policy, including the war in Iraq.  However, I am not one who wishes to see Iraq fail, just to make me feel better about my criticisms.  In this critical week for Iraq, I wish the people of that country all the best with their fledgling democracy and I am thrilled that their elections seem to be going well.  Writing from here in the US where millions of people don't bother to vote if it's raining, the people of Iraq who are risking their lives to vote have my deep respect.

Summary:

From time to time, like many libertarians, I tend to isolationism -- but as tempting as isolationism may be, that approach is just not supported by history.  As the richest, strongest nation in the world, we run and hide from the rest of the world. In fact, I think the world is well and truly screwed if the US does not actively involve itself in making the world a better place. Since the cold war ended, the US has the luxury of intervening in world affairs and conflicts solely based on its values, such as promotion of democracy or end to genocide, rather than merely to check Soviet power. No longer do we need to support jerks like the Shah of Iran because we feel we must have allies in a particular area. GWB has outlined a fairly clear foreign policy for using American power to unseat dictators using whatever force is necessary. It is fair for us to oppose this policy for being too impatient, too violent, too expensive, too dependent on the military -- but shame on us for ceding the moral high ground of promoting democracy and opposing totalitarianism, as Democrats and many libertarians have. You can't oppose spreading democracy (or set a low priority to it, as Kerry explicitly said he would) and win with the American people. Heck, this is the Democrats' issue "“ how can they give it up to Republicans? When did pragmatic amorality rather than idealism become the hallmark of Democratic foreign policy? Where is the party of Kennedy and Truman and Roosevelt? Democrats have no one to blame but themselves for not clearly outlining a foreign policy alternative to GWB's for using the US's strength to do good in the world.

Continue reading ‘Wanted: Foreign Policy Alternative’ »

Progressives are too Conservative to Like Capitalism

Many in the left to far-left eschew the liberal title nowadays (since they consider liberals now to be wimps and too moderate, like that Clinton guy) in favor of the term "progressive".  This term has gone in and out of favor for over a century, from the populists of the early 1900's to the socialists of the more modern era.

Most "progressives" (meaning those on the left to far left who prefer that term) would freak if they were called conservative, but what I mean by conservative in this context is not donate-to-Jesse-Helms capital-C Conservative but fearful of change and uncomfortable with uncertainty conservative. 

OK, most of you are looking at this askance - aren't progressives always trying to overthrow the government or something?  Aren't they out starting riots at G7 talks?  The answer is yes, sure, but what motivates many of them, at least where it comes to capitalism, is a deep-seated conservatism. 

Before I continue to support this argument, I must say that on a number of issues, particularly related to civil liberties and social issues, I call progressives my allies.  On social issues, progressives, like I do, generally support an individual's right to make decisions for themselves, as long as those decisions don't harm others. 

However, when we move to fields such as commerce, progressives stop trusting individual decision-making.  Progressives who support the right to a person making unfettered choices in sexual partners don't trust people to make their own choice on seat belt use.  Progressives who support the right of fifteen year old girls to make decisions about abortion without parental notification do not trust these same girls later in life to make their own investment choices with their Social Security funds.  And, Progressives who support the right of third worlders to strap on a backpack of TNT and explode themselves in the public market don't trust these same third worlders to make the right decision in choosing to work in the local Nike shoe plant.

Beyond just the concept of individual decision-making, progressives are hugely uncomfortable with capitalism.  Ironically, though progressives want to posture as being "dynamic", the fact is that capitalism is in fact too dynamic for them.  Industries rise and fall, jobs are won and lost, recessions give way to booms.  Progressives want comfort and certainty.  They want to lock things down the way they are. They want to know that such and such job will be there tomorrow and next decade, and will always pay at least X amount.  That is why, in the end, progressives are all statists, because, to paraphrase Hayek, only a government with totalitarian powers can bring the order and certainty and control of individual decision-making that they crave.

Progressive elements in this country have always tried to freeze commerce, to lock this country's economy down in its then-current patterns.  Progressives in the late 19th century were terrified the American economy was shifting from agriculture to industry.  They wanted to stop this, to cement in place patterns where 80-90% of Americans worked on farms.  I, for one, am glad they failed, since for all of the soft glow we have in this country around our description of the family farmer, farming was and can still be a brutal, dawn to dusk endeavor that never really rewards the work people put into it. 

This story of progressives trying to stop history has continued to repeat itself through the generations.  In the seventies and eighties, progressives tried to maintain the traditional dominance of heavy industry like steel and automotive, and to prevent the shift of these industries overseas in favor of more service-oriented industries.  Just like the passing of agriculture to industry a century ago inflamed progressives, so too does the current passing of heavy industry to services.

In fact, here is a sure fire test for a progressive.  If given a choice between two worlds:

  1. A capitalist society where the overall levels of wealth and technology continue to increase, though in a pattern that is dynamic, chaotic, generally unpredictable, and whose rewards are unevenly distributed, or...
  2. A "progressive" society where everyone is poorer, but income is generally more evenly distributed.  In this society, jobs and pay and industries change only very slowly, and people have good assurances that they will continue to have what they have today, with little downside but also with very little upside.

Progressives will choose #2.  Even if it means everyone is poorer.  Even if it cuts off any future improvements we might gain in technology or wealth or lifespan or whatever.  They want to take what we have today, divide it up more equally, and then live to eternity with just that.   Progressives want #2 today, and they wanted it just as much in 1900 (just think about if they had been successful -- as just one example, if you are over 44, you would have a 50/50 chance of being dead now). 

Don't believe that this is what they would answer?  Well, first, this question has been asked and answered a number of times in surveys, and it always comes out this way.  Second, just look at any policy issue today.  Take prescription drugs in the US - isn't it pretty clear that the progressive position is that they would be willing to pretty much gut incentives for any future drug innovations in trade for having a system in place that guaranteed everyone minimum access to what exists today?  Or take the welfare state in Continental Europe -- isn't it clear that a generation of workers/voters chose certainty over growth and improvement?  That workers 30 years ago voted themselves jobs for life, but at the cost of tremendous unemployment amongst the succeeding generations?

More recently, progressives have turned their economic attention to lesser developed nations.  Progressives go nuts on the topic of Globalization.  Without tight security, G7 and IMF conferences have and would devolve into riots and destruction at the hands of progressives, as happened famously in Seattle.  Analyzing the Globalization movement is a bit hard, as rational discourse is not always a huge part of the "scene", and what is said is not always logical or internally consistent.  The one thing I can make of this is that progressives intensely dislike the change that is occurring rapidly in third world economies, particularly since these changes are often driven by commerce and capitalists.

Progressives do not like American factories appearing in third world countries, paying locals wages progressives feel are too low, and disrupting agrarian economies with which progressives were more comfortable.  But these changes are all the sum of actions by individuals, so it is illustrative to think about what is going on in these countries at the individual level. 

One morning, a rice farmer in southeast Asia might faces a choice.  He can continue a life of brutal, back-breaking labor from dawn to dusk for what is essentially subsistence earnings.  He can continue to see a large number of his children die young from malnutrition and disease.  He can continue a lifestyle so static, so devoid of opportunity for advancement, that it is nearly identical to the life led by his ancestors in the same spot a thousand years ago.

Or, he can go to the local Nike factory, work long hours (but certainly no longer than he worked in the field) for low pay (but certainly more than he was making subsistence farming) and take a shot at changing his life.  And you know what, many men (and women) in his position choose the Nike factory.  And progressives hate this.  They distrust this choice.  They distrust the change.  And, at its heart, that is what the opposition to globalization is all about - a deep seated conservatism that distrusts the decision-making of individuals and fears change, change that ironically might finally pull people out of untold generations of utter poverty.

In fact, over the last 20 or so years, progressives have become surprisingly mute on repression and totalitarianism the world over.  In the 1970's, progressives criticized the US (rightly, I think) for not doing more to challenge the totalitarian impulses of its allies (the Shah of Iran comes to mind in particular) and not doing enough to end totalitarianism and repression in other nations (e.g. South Africa, Guatemala, El Salvador, etc etc) 

Today, progressives have become oddly conservative about challenging totalitarian nations.  By embracing the "peace at any cost" mantra, they have essentially said that they can live with anything, reconcile anything, as long as things remain nominally peaceful (ie, no battles show up on the network news).  Beyond just a strong anti-Americanism, the peace movement today reflects a strong conservatism -- they want to just leave everyone alone, no matter how horrible or repressive, and hope that they will in turn leave us alone.  They fear any change that would stir things up.

There are any number of other examples of the strong conservative streak in the progressive movement.  Here are a few more that come to mind:

  • Despite at least 40 years of failure in the public schools, progressives vociferously oppose any radical changes to the public education system.  In particular, they resist any program involving school choice, as they are totally condescending in their utter lack of faith in the average parent's ability to make the right choice for their family.
  • Progressives refuse to even consider the possibility that individuals should be trusted to make their own decisions regarding some portion of their Social Security retirement funds.  They can couch their opposition in a lot of fear talk about benefit cuts, but at the end of the day (and take this from someone who has had this argument with numerous liberals and progressives)  the argument always boils down to "we don't trust people to make investment decisions that are as good as the ones we would make for them".

Well, I have again written too long, and I'm tired.  If you are not ready to rush to defend the barricades of capitalism, you might read my post from last week called "60 Second Refutation of Socialism, while Sitting at the Beach".  Most of what I have written here has been said far more eloquently by others.  Of recent writers, Virginia Postrel, in the Future and its Enemies, has written a whole book on not just capitalism but dynamism and progress in general, and why people of all political persuasions tend to be scared by it.  Brink Lindsey addressed many of these same issues as well in his book Against the Dead Hand.  Of course, the Godfather of individual choice and societal dynamism is Friedrich Hayek.

Good Stuff at Scrappleface

First, Scrappleface reports:

After a week of tough negotiating by France, Germany and Britain, the Islamic Republic of Iran has conceded to reduce the size of nuclear warheads it will use in the eventual bombing of Paris, Berlin and London.

I might have thought this was humor until I read this line, which seems all too real:

Iran has pledged to stop enriching uranium, while retaining 20 operating centrifuges, and continuing to process plutonium

LOL.  Even better, Scrappleface also reports that CBS is considering emulating recent moves by the Ukraine press to abandon bias:

Inspired by a public pledge from Ukrainian TV journalists to provide unbiased reporting from now on, CBS News has launched an internal investigation to assess the potential impact of such a move.

Go read it all.

Leaving America

I got a good laugh today at all the folks, mostly on the left, who were saying that they will leave the country now that Bush is re-elected.

I was a reluctant Bush supporter. As a Libertarian, voting for major-party candidates is seldom a satisfying experience. I am well aware of the baggage Bush carries - he is not a small government libertarian. He is, however, also not a trial lawyer, not promising to balance the budget on my back, and not assuming that terrorists are wronged freedom fighters we should negotiate with.

Anyway, for all the flaws of either candidate, a Bush or Kerry America is still the best place on earth. Period. Those of you who want to leave will quickly find that, for one, America has some of the freest immigration policies in the world - just try to get a green card or a work permit for Canada or France. Good luck finding a job in Germany or France, as the semi-socialist policies that you likely admire there keep unemployment rates in the double digits. And by the way, don't expect any welfare benefits if you perhaps are imagining a slacker paradise, for though we in the US may be generous and argue how many benefits to give immigrants, you aren't getting anything as a new immigrant over there. Oh, and if you find a job, have fun with that first tax bill. And for those who want to go the extra mile and be human shields in the Gaza strip or Fallujah, you will certainly have an interesting time as you discover that that "religious fundamentalist" Bush looks like Madeline Murray O'Hare compared to your new islamo-fascist buddies.

UPDATE #1

I know the above seems exaggerated. It is not. Go read the comments section at Kos or Wonkette or Atrios. However, for just one example, try No Right Turn which has this:

There's not a fuck of a lot separating Osama bin Laden's Islamo-fascists and Dubya's Christian fundamentalists - they even follow the same god. The only real difference lies in who they want to kill. There's nothing there worth believing in, and nothing to hope for, except maybe that they'll all kill each other so that we members of the reality-based community can get on with our lives in peace

Hard to know where to start. OK, for fun, lets compare Bush to the Islamo-fascists on the three areas that most tick off Bush's detractors. Remember that I am a libertarian, so "Bush detractors" on many of these issues includes me:

Gay Rights: In the US, gays can live many places openly with some but decreasing harassment. Bush does not want them to marry. In some Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, pre-invasion Afghanistan, and Iran, homosexuality is punishable by death. Lets see, can't get married vs. death penalty. Equivalent?

Women's Rights: For some reason, this is defined in our country as being able to have an abortion. I would have thought free speech, ability to vote, right to bear arms, etc. would be women's rights too, but that is not what people seem to be talking about when they say it. So, on abortion. Abortion today in the US is legal, safe, and readily available. Bush has attempted to put some restrictions on it, such as parental consent for teenagers and elimination of certain types of procedures, but has never publicly advocated making it entirely illegal. In most of the Arab world, abortion is illegal. And, if the pregnancy is the result of sex out of wedlock, the woman risks being stoned to death. In addition, women have virtually none of those "other" women's rights we have in the US, like being able to vote, drive, show some skin, have a job outside the home, speak freely, etc. A black man in apartheid South Africa had far more rights and freedoms than a woman in the Arab world. Lets see - restrictions on certain abortion procedures vs. the status of a slave and the likelihood of getting beaten or stoned to death. Equivalent?

"Obscene" or profane speech
In the US, people have an incredible amount of freedom to say about any jackass thing they want to say. People such as Michael Moore who skewer our leaders or like Larry Flint who produce pornography are not only tolerated, but feted and made wealthy. The one exception is that the Bush administration has been more aggressive in enforcing decency standards against broadcast TV and radio, in part because of the anachronistic way these were originally licensed. This has resulted in fines related to Janet Jacksons breast and Howard Stern' language. In the Islamo-fascist world, no dissent is tolerated, nor is pornography, bad language, or anything else unacceptable to the priests. In the US, priests can complain about your low standards, but can't generally make you shut up. In Iran, for example, the priests can have you killed for your speech or form of expression, and they do. Routinely. The Janet Jacksons and Howard Sterns of Iran are probably dead. Let's see - some restrictions on TV and radio stations using the 7 banned words and showing nudity or death. Equivalent?

I am sick of these moral equivalencies. As it turns out, I actually disagree with the Bush position on many of the issues above, but I think it is absurd to say that Bush is as bad as the Islamo-fascists. The tone of the piece is to somehow pitch this as a religious war, that it is just about Christians trying to kill Muslims. But go back to September 10, 2001. Not many people in this country spared many thoughts to the Muslim world. It was only after about 3000 non-denominational deaths that people got worked up. By the way, WTC attack 1 occurred long before anyone in the Arab world ever heard of W, and the September 11 attack was planned long before he was in office. I swear that people increasingly are trying to reverse the causality here - it won't be long before I read somewhere that the 9/11 attacks were in revenge for W's invasion of Iraq.

By the way, I can't resist one last quote from this same post:

A recent New Statesman editorial commented that having watched one great beacon of hope - the Soviet Union - collapse into a nightmare, the world could hardly bear it if the other one - the United States - fell as well.

Stalin? Soviet Union? Beacons of hope. Unbelievable. The far left increasingly calls itself the "reality-based" community. Does any of this match your reality? For more, see here. Hat tip to Kiwi Blog for the link

UPDATE #2

In my original post, I jokingly said that I was taking up a collection to help people by buying them airplane tickets out of the country if they so choose. Though it was a joke, I still took it off. It sounds too much like the old conservative "America, love it or leave it" junk. America is a better place for having the broadest possible range of opinion, and I would be sad to see this end.

UPDATE #3

This post turns out to be a warm-up for this more complete post on trying to keep some sense of perspective post-election

Before We Argue - Lets See If We Are Living In The Same Universe

Back some years (decades, eek!) ago when I was in college, I used to really burn hot in political arguments. I could not let any statement go from anyone without an argument. And, being a libertarian, I could always find something to disagree with someone about. Since then I have mellowed a lot, and can let a lot of things pass.

Today, its hard to resist arguing about the war in Iraq, but I often find myself in the odd position of opposing the war in Iraq but disagreeing with most of the premises and assumptions of other people I meet who are opposed to the war. Though I oppose the war, I find myself sharing assumptions about the world that are more prevalent among proponents of the war. This might have made me uncomfortable at one point of my life, but as a small-government individual-rights libertarian you get used to this kind of thing, after seeing everyone argue if the government should be in the boardroom (Democrats and increasingly Republicans) or the bedroom (Republicans and some Democrats) or both (Pat Buchanan).

Over time, I have devised a couple of tests to get at these conflicting assumptions. These tests have evolved over time but they seem to retain their power to sort out people who are operating in an alternate reality.

Here are the two tests, in their current form (though longer for this print edition). In each case, choose either A or B, based on which seems more correct to you. Elements of both A and B will have been true from time to time and in isolated incidents. Try to choose which represents the fundamental truth to you.

Continue reading ‘Before We Argue - Lets See If We Are Living In The Same Universe’ »