Posts tagged ‘military’

Squishy Words That Create Problems For Using Results of Scientific Studies

The IPCC AR4 summary report had this critical conclusion:

Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG concentrations.[7] It is likely that there has been significant anthropogenic warming over the past 50 years averaged over each continent (except Antarctica)

I want to come back to this in a second, but here is a story the Bryan Caplan posted on his blog.  He is quoting from Tetlock and Gardner's Superforecasting

In March 1951 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) 29-51 was published.  "Although it is impossible to determine which course of action the Kremlin is likely to adopt," the report concluded, "we believe that the extent of [Eastern European] military and propaganda preparations indicate that an attack on Yugoslavia in 1951 should be considered a serious possibility." ...But a few days later, [Sherman] Kent was chatting with a senior State Department official who casually asked, "By the way, what did you people mean by the expression 'serious possibility'?  What kind of odds did you have in mind?"  Kent said he was pessimistic.  He felt the odds were about 65 to 35 in favor of an attack.  The official was started.  He and his colleagues had taken "serious possibility" to mean much lower odds.

Disturbed, Kent went back to his team.  They had all agreed to use "serious possibility" in the NIE so Kent asked each person, in turn, what he thought it meant.  One analyst said it meant odds of about 80 to 20, or four times more likely than not that there would be an invasion.  Another thought it meant odds of 20 to 80 - exactly the opposite.  Other answers were scattered between these extremes.  Kent was floored.

Let's go back to the IPCC summary conclusion, which is quoted and used all over the place  (no one in the media ever actually digs into the charts and analysis, they just stop at this quote).  A few thoughts:

  1. This kind of conclusion is typical of team process and perhaps is a reason that large teams shouldn't do scientific studies.  We wouldn't have aspirin if 500 people all had to agree on a recommendation to allow it.
  2. Climate alarmists often claim "consensus".  Part of the way they get consensus is by excluding anyone who disagrees with them from the IPCC process and publication.  But even within the remaining core, scientists have vast differences in how they evaluate the data.  Consensus only exists because the conclusions use weasel words with uncertain meaning like "most"  and "significant"  (rather than a percentage) and "very likely" (rather than a probability).
  3. Is "most" 51% or 95%?  The difference between these two is almost a doubling of the implied temperature sensitivity to CO2  -- close to the magnitude of difference between lukewarmer and IPCC estimates.  Many skeptics (including myself) think past warming due to man might be 0.3-0.4C which is very nearly encompassed by "most".
  4. It may be that this uncertainty is treated as a feature, not a bug, by activists, who can take a word scientists meant to mean 51% and portray it as meaning nearly 100%.

For an example of this sort of thing taken to an extreme, arguably corrupt level, consider the original 97% global warming consensus survey which asked 77 scientists hand-selected from a pool of over 10,000 working on climate-related topics two questions.  Answering yes to the two questions put you in the 97%.  In the context of what was written above, note the wording:

That anything-but-scientific survey asked two questions. The first: “When compared with pre-1800s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant?”  Few would be expected to dispute this…the planet began thawing out of the “Little Ice Age” in the middle 19th century, predating the Industrial Revolution. (That was the coldest period since the last real Ice Age ended roughly 10,000 years ago.)

The second question asked: “Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?” So what constitutes “significant”? Does “changing” include both cooling and warming… and for both “better” and “worse”? And which contributions…does this include land use changes, such as agriculture and deforestation?

Good Lord, I am a hated skeptic frequently derided as a denier and I would answer both "yes" and be in the 97% consensus.  So would most all of the prominent science-based skeptics you have ever heard of.


A Government Healthcare Alternative

A few years ago I began to find the hard-core libertarian anarcho-capitalist advocacy to be getting sterile.  I would sit in some local discussion groups and the things we would argue about were so far outside of reality or what was realistically politically possible that they seemed pointless to talk about.  Taking a simplified example, baseball purists can argue all day the designated hitter rule should go away but it is never going to happen (players support it because it creates another starting roster spot and owners like it because it juices offensive numbers which drive ratings).  So I embarked on suggesting some left-right compromise positions on certain issues.

One result was my proposed climate compromise, which fit the classic definition of a good compromise (both sides don't like it) as many skeptics disowned me for writing it and the environmental Left campaigned hard against a similar proposal in Washington State.

I tried something similar with a proposal for restructuring the government role in health care.  First, I defined what I think are the two most important problems a government health care proposal has to address.  Most current and proposed plans fail to address at least one of these:

The first is a problem largely of the government's own creation, that incentives (non-tax-ability of health care benefits) and programs (e.g. Medicare) have been created for first dollar third-party payment of medical expenses.  This growth of third-party payment has eliminated the incentives for consumers to shop and make tradeoffs for health care purchases, the very activities that impose price and quality discipline on most other markets.

The second problem that likely dominates everyone's fears is getting a bankrupting medical expense whose costs are multiples of one's income, and having that care be either uninsured or leading to cancellation of one's insurance or future years.

I think the second point is key.  Everyone keeps talking about a goal of having coverage -- coverage even if you don't have money or don't have pre-existing conditions.  But that is not, I think, the real human need here.  The real need is to be protected from catastrophe, a personal health-care crisis so expensive it might bankrupt you, or even worse, might deny you the ability to get the full range of life-saving care.  Everything else in the health care debate and rolled up in Obamacare is secondary to this need.  Sure there are many other "asks" out there for things people would like to have or wish they had or might kind of like to have, but satisfy this need and the majority of Americans will be satisfied.

And so I proposed this:

So my suggestion ... was to scrap whatever we are doing now and have the government pay all medical expenses over 10% of one's income.  Anything under that was the individual's responsibility, though some sort of tax-advantaged health savings account would be a logical adjunct program.

I found out later that Megan McArdle, who knows way more about health care policy than I, has been suggestion something similar.

How would a similar program work for health care? The government would pick up 100 percent of the tab for health care over a certain percentage of adjusted gross income—the number would have to be negotiated through the political process, but I have suggested between 15 and 20 percent. There could be special treatment for people living at or near the poverty line, and for people who have medical bills that exceed the set percentage of their income for five years in a row, so that the poor and people with chronic illness are not disadvantaged by the system.

In exchange, we would get rid of the tax deduction for employer-sponsored health insurance, and all the other government health insurance programs, with the exception of the military’s system, which for obvious reasons does need to be run by the government. People would be free to insure the gap if they wanted, and such insurance would be relatively cheap, because the insurers would see their losses strictly limited. Or people could choose to save money in a tax-deductible health savings account to cover the eventual likelihood of a serious medical problem.

A few weeks ago I started reading the blog from the Niskanen Center after my friend Brink Lindsey moved there from Cato.  If I understand him, Niskanen has quickly become a home to many libertarian-ish folks who focus on real workable, executable policy proposals more than maintaining libertarian purity.  In that blog, Ed Dolan has proposed something he calls UCC (Universal Catastrophic Coverage) which would work very similarly to what I proposed earlier:

Universal catastrophic coverage is not meant to cover every healthcare need of every citizen. Instead, UCC would offer protection from those relatively rare but ruinous healthcare expenses that are truly unaffordable. (Note: As we use the term UCC here, it is not to be confused with the more narrowly defined catastrophic insurance that is available, in limited circumstances, under the ACA.)

Here is how UCC might work, as outlined in National Affairs by Kip Hagopian and Dana Goldman. Their version of the policy would scale each family’s deductible according to household income. The exact parameters would be subject to negotiation, but to use some simplified numbers, the deductible might be set equal to 10 percent of the amount by which a household’s income exceeds the Medicaid eligibility level, now about $40,000 for a family of four. Under that formula, a middle-class family earning $85,000 a year would face a deductible of $4,500 per family member, perhaps capped at twice that amount for households of more than two people. Following the same formula, the deductible for a household with $1 million of income would be $96,000.

The cost of the catastrophic policy would be covered by the government, either directly or through a refundable tax credit. The policies themselves could, as in the Swiss model, be offered by private insurers, subject to clear standards for pricing and coverage. Alternatively, they could take the form of a public option, for example, the right to buy into a high-deductible version of Medicare.

With UCC in place, people could choose among several ways to meet their out-of-pocket costs, which, for middle-class families, would be comparable to those of policies now offered on the ACA exchanges.

One alternative would be to buy supplemental insurance to cover all or part of expenses up to the UCC deductible. The premiums for such supplemental coverage would be far lower than policies now sold on the ACA exchanges, since the UCC policy would set a ceiling on claims for which the insurer would be responsible. If the supplemental policies included modest deductibles or co-pays of their own, they would be more affordable still. Although UCC itself would be a federal program, the supplemental insurance market would continue to be regulated by the states to meet their particular needs.

Very likely, many middle-class families would forego supplemental insurance and cover all of their routine health care costs from their regular household budgets, the way they now pay for repairs to their homes or cars. Doing so would be easier still if they took advantage of tax-deductible health savings accounts—a mechanism that is already on the books, and could be expanded as part of reform legislation.

The main thing that has always flummoxed me is that I have no idea how expensive this plan might be.  Dolan is claiming it could be done at reasonable cost.

As it turns out, the numbers don’t look all that bad. Because UCC leaves responsibility for routine care with individual families, in line with their ability to pay, it would be far less expensive than a system that offered first-dollar coverage to everyone. Hagopian and Goldman estimate that their version of UCC would cost less than half as much as the projected costs of the ACA.

The impact on the federal budget would be further moderated if the tax deduction for employer-sponsored insurance (ESI) were phased out as UCC came online. Tax expenditures for ESI currently cost the budget an estimated $235 billion per year, an

For the Record, I Fear Pure Majoritarian Democracy as Well

One of the themes of Nancy Maclean's new book on James Buchanan as the evil genius behind a conspiracy to unravel democracy in this county.  In critiquing her critique, I meant to also make it clear that whatever Buchanan may have believed on the subject, I am certainly skeptical of pure majoritarian democracy.  For me, protection of individual rights is the role of government, and populist majoritarianism can easily conflict with this goal (this is not a new finding, we pretty much figured this out after Julius Caesar, if not before.  Here was a piece I wrote years ago I will repeat here:

Every Memorial Day, I am assaulted with various quotes from people thanking the military for fighting and dying for our right to vote.  I would bet that a depressing number of people in this country, when asked what their most important freedom was, or what made America great, would answer "the right to vote."

Now, don't get me wrong, the right to vote in a representative democracy is great and has proven a moderately effective (but not perfect) check on creeping statism.  A democracy, however, in and of itself can still be tyrannical.  After all, Hitler was voted into power in Germany, and without checks, majorities in a democracy would be free to vote away anything it wanted from the minority - their property, their liberty, even their life.   Even in the US, majorities vote to curtail the rights of minorities all the time, even when those minorities are not impinging on anyone else.  In the US today, 51% of the population have voted to take money and property of the other 49%.

In my mind, there are at least three founding principles of the United States that are far more important than the right to vote:

  • The Rule of Law. For about 99% of human history, political power has been exercised at the unchecked capricious whim of a few individuals.  The great innovation of western countries like the US, and before it England and the Netherlands, has been to subjugate the power of individuals to the rule of law.  Criminal justice, adjudication of disputes, contracts, etc. all operate based on a set of laws known to all in advance.

Today the rule of law actually faces a number of threats in this country.  One of the most important aspects of the rule of law is that legality (and illegality) can be objectively determined in a repeatable manner from written and well-understood rules.  Unfortunately, the massive regulatory and tax code structure in this country have created a set of rules that are subject to change and interpretation constantly at the whim of the regulatory body.  Every day, hundreds of people and companies find themselves facing penalties due to an arbitrary interpretation of obscure regulations (examples I have seen personally here).

  • Sanctity and Protection of Individual Rights.  Laws, though, can be changed.  In a democracy, with a strong rule of law, we could still legally pass a law that said, say, that no one is allowed to criticize or hurt the feelings of a white person.  What prevents such laws from getting passed (except at major universities) is a protection of freedom of speech, or, more broadly, a recognition that individuals have certain rights that no law or vote may take away.  These rights are typically outlined in a Constitution, but are not worth the paper they are written on unless a society has the desire and will, not to mention the political processes in place, to protect these rights and make the Constitution real.

Today, even in the US, we do a pretty mixed job of protecting individual rights, strongly protecting some (like free speech) while letting others, such as property rights or freedom of association, slide.

  • Government is our servant.  The central, really very new concept on which this country was founded is that an individual's rights do not flow from government, but are inherent to man.  That government in fact only makes sense to the extent that it is our servant in the defense of our rights, rather than as the vessel from which these rights grudgingly flow.

Statists of all stripes have tried to challenge this assumption over the last 100 years.   While their exact details have varied, every statist has tried to create some larger entity to which the individual should be subjugated:  the Proletariat, the common good, God, the master race.  They all hold in common that the government's job is to sacrifice one group to another.  A common approach among modern statists is to create a myriad of new non-rights to dilute and replace our fundamental rights as individuals.  These new non-rights, such as the "right" to health care, a job, education, or even recreation, for god sakes, are meaningless in a free society, as they can't exist unless one person is harnessed involuntarily to provide them to another person. These non-rights are the exact opposite of freedom, and in fact require enslavement and sacrifice of one group to another.

I will add that pretty much everyone, including likely Ms. Maclean, opposes majoritarian rule on many issues.  People's fear of dis-empowering the majority tends to be situational on individual issues.

So I Was Wrong Again -- American Politics and No Way Out

About 30 years ago there was a Kevin Costner movie called "No Way Out".  If you never saw it and ever intend to, there is a major spoiler coming.  Anyway, Costner is a military officer having a fling with a woman played by Sean Young, who is also having a fling with Costner's superior officer.  Sean Young turns up dead (probably a fantasy for the director since every director who worked with her wanted to kill her).  There is some sense that Costner's superior officer may be guilty, and Costner is named by the officer to lead the investigation, but with a twist -- the officer is trying to get the girl's death blamed on a mysterious Russian spy, who may or may not even be real, to divert attention from his adultery and possibly from the fact that he was probably the killer.  Things evolve, and it appears that Costner is going to be framed not only for the girl's death but also as the probably mythical spy.  The movie is about Costner desperately trying to escape this frame, and in the end is successful.  But in the final scene, Costner is seen speaking in Russian to his controller.  He is the spy!  The original accusation was totally without evidence, almost random, meant to divert attention from his superior's likely crimes, but by accident they turned out to be correct.

I feel like that with the Russian election hacking story.  For months I have said the Russian election hacking story was a nothing.  It made little sense and there was pretty much zero evidence.  It was dreamed up within 24 hours of the election by a Clinton campaign trying to divert attention and blame for their stunning loss.  I have called it many times the Obama birth certificate story of this election.

But it turns out that pursuing any Trump connection whatsoever with Russia has turned up some pretty grubby stories.  In particular, seeing a Presidential campaign -- and the President's son -- fawning over unfriendly foreign governments to get their hands on oppo research is just plain ugly.  That the Clinton campaign may have done shady things to get oppo research of their own is irrelevant to the ethics here (and perhaps one good justification for electing Republicans, since the media seems to be more aggressive at holding Republicans to account for such things).

Sorry.  I fell victim to one of the classic blunders - the most famous of which is "never get involved in a land war in Asia" - but only slightly less well-known is this: "Never underestimate the stupidity and ethical flexibility of politicians."

Postscript:  In general, my enforced absence from both twitter and highly partisan blogs is going quite well.  I will write more about it soon, but I have to mention this:  I had a small break in my isolation yesterday when I was scanning around the radio on a business trip.  I landed on Rush Limbaugh, and would have moved on immediately but the first words I heard out of his mouth were "golden showers".  OK, I was intrigued.  He then used that term about 3 more times in the next 60 seconds (apparently he was going with the "everybody does it" defense of Trump by accusing the Clintons of getting oppo research from the Ukraine, or whatever).  Anyway, any issue that has a Conservative talk show host discussing golden showers from Russian hookers can't be all bad.

I am Not An Isolationist, But...

US military interventions abroad -- at an absolute minimum -- have got to represent some reasonable path to a better future.  It is amazing how even this simple and obvious test is almost never met by our actions.  Instead, I think many folks substitute some test more like "Is the situation really bad?--if so, rev up the troops."  To this end, Assad is clearly a bad guy.  Assad (or someone) using poison gas on civilians is a bad thing.  Russia providing cover for these bad things is also a bad thing.  But what is the alternative?  Obama's support of rebels in Libya is just a fantastic example we should all remember -- the Libyan regime was bad but we supported its overthrow in favor of a situation now which is clearly worse.  Iraq-style regime change is out of favor for good reasons, but at least regime change advocates had a clear explanation of how they wanted to get to a better future with military action -- they were going to take the whole place over with massive military force and stand on it for a couple of decades until, like Germany after 1945, it becomes a responsible citizen of the world.  The costs are high and I don't think it is in our long-term interests to do so, but at least there was a logical story.

What is the story in Syria?  We kill a couple hundred folks with cruise missiles to avenge a few dozen folks killed with poison gasses and, what?  Do the citizens of Syria really need yet another foreign power lobbing explosives into their country?  The only argument I hear is that Assad crossed a line and now we have to show him what for.  But this sounds like an 18th century aristocrat vowing to defend his honor after an insult.  It's sort of emotionally satisfying -- take that, asshole! -- but where does it get us except further mired in yet another foreign conflict we have not hope of making better?  We look back and criticize the major powers in 1914 for getting involved in the constant squabbles in the Balkans but do the same thing in the Middle East, the 21st century's Balkans.

If The US Won't Defend Market Capitalism, No One Will

Yesterday at an event called One Day University, I saw a talk by William Burke-White of Penn and formerly of the Obama state department (I think he was one of many consultants, but I can never figure out seniority from people's biographies - his is here).

Mr. Burke-White was discussing the liberal world order created by the US after WWII and recent decline / threats to this world order and American power.  He discussed five trends or forces driving changes, and you probably can predicts many of them.  He discussed the rise of new world powers (e.g. China), the rise of powerful NGO's (e.g. ISIS) and the expansion of the Internet (which can destabilize traditional powers).  All fine, I have no particular comment on that stuff.  He also discussed climate change, with a picture of Manhattan underwater, and though I am tempted, I won't even respond to that.

What caught my attention was his fifth point -- about income inequality.  He showed a slide with the meme that 8 people (Warren Buffet et al) had more wealth than something like half the world's population put together.   His conclusion was that the liberal world order had failed because so much wealth had been concentrated in a few hands.

Well, if American power and influence is declining in the world and Mr. Burke-White is an example of the thinking of the Obama administration over the last 8 years, I now have a better understanding of why.   Sure there are really rich people.   There were probably 8 really rich guys in 1400 (though they would have all been Kings and Emperors rather than private business people).  The really different, world-changing event over the last 50 years has been the emergence from poverty of over a billion people, as facilitated by market capitalism.  Never before in all of the history of the planet have so many people been pulled out of poverty in such a short time.  Never before has such a large percentage of the globe moved beyond pure subsistence farming.  If the leaders of this country find it impossible to communicate this simple good news, then of course the post-WWII liberal world order is going to struggle.

Look, I understand that baby boomers (a group of which I am barely a member) have a hard time figuring out how to cope with this country's many past missteps.  Yes, we have been ham-handed (and that is generous) in exercising our power and we have often failed to live up to our stated values.  But helping to unleash a wave of market capitalism on the world is among our true successes.   And this is the US's one true source of power, this wave of prosperity we have helped to birth.  Other supposed sources of our power -- a big military and atomic bombs -- are horrifying.  Market capitalism is our one source of strength that is genuinely positive.  If we are staffing the state department with people who don't get this, then no wonder we are losing influence in the world.

Our Two Parties Shift Their Positions A Lot

From an interview of Political scientist Steven Teles by Megan McArdle:

In political science we often model political actors as having fixed interests and positions, and then we try to figure out how they do or don't get their way. But there's actually more play in the joints of politics than that. Some people -- like Ronald Reagan! -- just switch teams entirely. More broadly, as we address in the book, entire parties switch their positions. If we want to understand politics, we need some way of understanding that process.

As I grow older, and have had more time to observe, I find the shifts in party positions fascinating and oddly opaque to most folks who are in the middle of them - perhaps this is one advantage to being part of neither major party.   Some of the shifts are generational -- for example both parties have moved left on things like homosexuality and narcotics legalization.   Some of the shifts have to do with who controls the White House -- the party in power tends to support executive power and military interventionism, while the opposition tends to oppose these things.   Some of the shifts have to do with who controls intellectual institutions like college in the media -- the group in control of these institutions tends to be more open to first amendment restrictions, while the out-of-power group become desperate defenders of free speech (look how the campus free speech movement has shifted from the Left to the Right).

I would love to see a book on this covering the last 50 years.

Federal Government Punishing Private Individuals for the Fraud and Mistakes of Government Workers

From the LA Times, the US Government is demanding that soldiers repay enlistment bonuses years after they were promised

Nearly 10,000 soldiers, many of whom served multiple combat tours, have been ordered to repay large enlistment bonuses — and slapped with interest charges, wage garnishments and tax liens if they refuse — after audits revealed widespread overpayments by the California Guard at the height of the wars last decade.

Investigations have determined that lack of oversight allowed for widespread fraud and mismanagement by California Guard officials under pressure to meet enlistment targets.

But soldiers say the military is reneging on 10-year-old agreements and imposing severe financial hardship on veterans whose only mistake was to accept bonuses offered when the Pentagon needed to fill the ranks.

Note that there is no implication that there was any fraud on the soldiers' part -- they were offered a fair exchange and they took it.  The Federal government is trying to punish soldiers for potentially illegal or fraudulent actions of government workers.  Now that the soldiers have provided the service they promised, the government is trying to take back the money it promised.  But the soldiers cannot in turn take back their service.

This sort of retroactive one-sided reneging on government contracts and promises is actually fairly common.  For example, I wrote about it here, where private creditors lost all the money they loaned to the government when it was determined that the government officials who approved the loans did not have the authority to do so.  The punishment for the government taking out loans it should not have was to allow the government to keep all the money and screw the  private parties who lent them money in good faith.

I actually have faced this same thing a number of times in my own business.  I pay the government concession fees for the public campgrounds we operate.  There is a process by which the government can ask us to pay these fees in kind by doing some of the government's capital maintenance for it.  The government likes this because we can spend the money more efficiently and get more done with it, and we (and our visitors) like it because the money gets spent right in the park where the customer fees were collected.  However, it has happened on a number of occasions that some internal audit has determined that some agency official approved an in-kind project they should not have. When this happens, the government often comes to me and tells me that they need the money back.  My response is consistently something like, "Bullsh*t!  I have your approval to spend the money and your promise to be reimbursed in writing -- I can't unspend the money you asked me to spend.  There is absolutely no way I am going to pay the financial cost of you violating your own rules."

I Stand By My Prediction -- Republicans Have Shackled Themselves to a Suicide Bomber

Granted this was not that brave of a call, but nevertheless from July 20:

Back in the depths of WWI, the Germans woke up one day and found that their erstwhile ally Austria-Hungary, to whom they had given that famous blank check in the madness that led up to the war, was completely incompetent. Worse than incompetent, in fact, because Germany had to keep sending troops to bail them out of various military fixes, an oddly similar situation to what Hitler found himself doing with Italy in the next war.  ... Anyway, Germans soon began to wonder if they were "shackled to a dead man."

I am reminded of that phrase as I see that the Republicans have officially nominated Donald Trump for the presidency, perhaps the worst choice the party has made in its history, Nixon included. I don't think "shackled to a dead man" is quite right. I think that "shackled to a suicide bomber" is more apt. Trump is not only going to lose big in this election to an incredibly weak Democratic candidate, but he is also going to kill the Republicans in the House and Senate and any number of down-ballot elections.

Republicans Shackle Themselves to a Suicide Bomber

Back in the depths of WWI, the Germans woke up one day and found that their erstwhile ally Austria-Hungary, to whom they had given that famous blank check in the madness that led up to the war, was completely incompetent. Worse than incompetent, in fact, because Germany had to keep sending troops to bail them out of various military fixes, an oddly similar situation to what Hitler found himself doing with Italy in the next war.  (This is a really interesting book if you have any doubts about how dysfunctional the Hapsburg Empire was in its waning days).

Anyway, Germans soon began to wonder if they were "shackled to a dead man."

I am reminded of that phrase as I see that the Republicans have officially nominated Donald Trump for the presidency, perhaps the worst choice the party has made in its history, Nixon included. I don't think "shackled to a dead man" is quite right. I think that "shackled to a suicide bomber" is more apt. Trump is not only going to lose big in this election to an incredibly weak Democratic candidate, but he is also going to kill the Republicans in the House and Senate and any number of down-ballot elections. Nutty over-the-top crazy talk that might have been mildly entertaining in the primaries is not going to be very funny to voters trying to pick who sits at the other end of the red phone.

As I said on twitter this morning, I almost wish I had not left the Republican party 30 years ago so I could quit today.

The Problem Is That We Should Not Care About "Democracy", We Should Care About Protection of Individual Rights

Perhaps this is yet another negative legacy of Woodrow Wilson and his "Making the world safe for democracy" meme.  We talk all the time about allying with and siding with and protecting democracies, but all "democracy" really means in practice (at least today) is that the country has some sort of nominal election process.  Elections are fine, they are less bad than most other ways of selecting government officials, but what we really should care about is that a country protects individuals rights, has free markets, and a rule of law.  If a county has those things, I am not sure I care particularly if they vote or pick leaders by randomly selecting folks from the phone book.

You can see this problem at work here, :

Most democratic governments – including the United States – condemned the attempted recent military coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and welcomed its failure, citing the need to respect Turkey’s “democratic” institutions. But in the aftermath, Erdogan took the opportunity to persecute his political opponents on a large scale, including firing thousands of judges who might constrain his authoritarian tendencies. Erdogan’s government was also severely undermining civil liberties long before the coup, even going so far as to pass a law criminalizing “insults” to the president, under which hundreds of people have been prosecuted. Erdogan’s own commitment own commitment to democracy is questionable, at best. He famously once called democracy a tram that “[y]ou ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off.”

This raises the question of whether the coup attempt against Erdogan might have been justified. More generally, is it ever justified to forcibly overthrow a democratic government? In this 2013 post, written after the successful military coup against Egypt’s radical Islamist government, I argued that the answer is sometimes “yes.” There should be a strong presumption against forcibly removing a democratic regime. But that presumption might be overcome if the government in question poses a grave threat to human rights, or is likely to destroy democracy itself by shutting down future political competition.

While we can argue if Erdogan is "committed" to democracy, I think it is pretty clear that he is not committed to the protection of individual rights.

What we need is a new alliance not to protect the world for democracy -- that word may originally have meant what I want it to mean but now it seems possible to just check the democracy box merely by having some kind of voting.  We need a new (much smaller than the UN) alliance to make the world safe for, what?  We need a name.  What do we call a country with strong protections of individual rights, free markets, and the rule of law?

Postscript:  yes, there are snarky answers to the last question, such as "increasingly rare" and "net here anymore".

An Obamacare Alternative

After criticizing Obamacare at a party, another person said something like "well you can't criticize it without suggesting an alternative."  This of course is total bullsh*t.  The passage of a bad law to imperfectly achieve objectives with which I disagree does not obligate me to craft alternative legislation to achieve those objectives.

But I decided to take a swing at it anyway.  Taking a step back, I said that I thought there were two overriding problems in health care that the government might address.

The first is a problem largely of the government's own creation, that incentives (non-tax-ability of health care benefits) and programs (e.g. Medicare) have been created for first dollar third-party payment of medical expenses.  This growth of third-party payment has eliminated the incentives for consumers to shop and make tradeoffs for health care purchases, the very activities that impose price and quality discipline on most other markets.

The second problem that likely dominates everyone's fears is getting a bankrupting medical expense whose costs are multiples of one's income, and having that care be either uninsured or leading to cancellation of one's insurance or future years.

So my suggestion I made up on the spot (and I am a little fuzzy on the details as my friend had actually cracked open a bottle of Van Winkle bourbon for a few of us, my first taste of that magic elixir) was to scrap whatever we are doing now and have the government pay all medical expenses over 10% of one's income.  Anything under that was the individual's responsibility, though some sort of tax-advantaged health savings account would be a logical adjunct program.

I obviously make policy better when I am drinking absurdly rare and expensive bourbons, because Megan McArdle (who knows a hell of a lot more than I about health care economics) has apparently been advocating something similar for quite a while

How would a similar program work for health care? The government would pick up 100 percent of the tab for health care over a certain percentage of adjusted gross income—the number would have to be negotiated through the political process, but I have suggested between 15 and 20 percent. There could be special treatment for people living at or near the poverty line, and for people who have medical bills that exceed the set percentage of their income for five years in a row, so that the poor and people with chronic illness are not disadvantaged by the system.

In exchange, we would get rid of the tax deduction for employer-sponsored health insurance, and all the other government health insurance programs, with the exception of the military’s system, which for obvious reasons does need to be run by the government. People would be free to insure the gap if they wanted, and such insurance would be relatively cheap, because the insurers would see their losses strictly limited. Or people could choose to save money in a tax-deductible health savings account to cover the eventual likelihood of a serious medical problem.

The missing piece here, as was in my plan, is I have no idea how much this would cost.

The Aristocracy of Huckterism

I was thinking about the crazy populist nuttiness of Donald Trump and the misguided focus of Black Lives Matter and the musty socialism of Bernie Sanders.  As I drive around Europe and see ruins of castles and palaces, it occurred to me that we had almost always been saddled with an aristocracy exercising power over us.  Sometimes they won that position through violence and military action, and sometimes by birth.

But it struck me that we have a new sort of aristocracy today:  the Aristocracy of Hucksterism.  These new aristocrats are just as wealthy and powerful as the old sort, but they have found a new way to gain power -- By suckering millions of people to simply hand it to them.   And when they inevitably fail, and make things worse for everyone, they additionally manage to convince people that they root cause of the failure is that they had not been given enough power.

The Saudis Tried to Kill The Shale Oil Business. It May Turn Out The Other Way Around

This article on Saudi Arabia, shale oil, and oil prices was interesting throughout

Saudi Arabia is effectively beached. It relies on oil for 90pc of its budget revenues. There is no other industry to speak of, a full fifty years after the oil bonanza began.

Citizens pay no tax on income, interest, or stock dividends. Subsidized petrol costs twelve cents a litre at the pump. Electricity is given away for 1.3 cents a kilowatt-hour. Spending on patronage exploded after the Arab Spring as the kingdom sought to smother dissent.

The International Monetary Fund estimates that the budget deficit will reach 20pc of GDP this year, or roughly $140bn. The 'fiscal break-even price' is $106.

Far from retrenching, King Salman is spraying money around, giving away $32bn in a coronation bonus for all workers and pensioners.

He has launched a costly war against the Houthis in Yemen and is engaged in a massive military build-up - entirely reliant on imported weapons - that will propel Saudi Arabia to fifth place in the world defence ranking.

The Saudi royal family is leading the Sunni cause against a resurgent Iran, battling for dominance in a bitter struggle between Sunni and Shia across the Middle East. "Right now, the Saudis have only one thing on their mind and that is the Iranians. They have a very serious problem. Iranian proxies are running Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon," said Jim Woolsey, the former head of the US Central Intelligence Agency.

Money began to leak out of Saudi Arabia after the Arab Spring, with net capital outflows reaching 8pc of GDP annually even before the oil price crash. The country has since been burning through its foreign reserves at a vertiginous pace.

Hiroshima in Historical Context

Well, its that time of year again and folks on the Left are out there with their annual rants against the bombing of Hiroshima as a great crime against humanity.

All war is a crime against humanity by those who start them.  And I am certainly uncomfortable that we let the atomic genie out of the steel casing in August of 1945.  But I think much of what is written about Hiroshima strips the decision to drop the bomb from its historical context.  A few thoughts:

  1. We loath the Hiroshima bombing because we in 2015 know of the nuclear proliferation that was to follow and the  resulting cloud of fear that hung over the globe for decades as most everyone was forced to think about our new ability to destroy humanity.  But all that was in the realm of science fiction in 1945.  And even if they knew something of the Cold War and fear of the Bomb, would many have had sympathy, living as they were through a real war that represented possibly the worst self-inflicted catastrophe man has ever faced?
  2. Several other bombing raids, notably the fire-bombing of Tokyo, took more lives than Hiroshima.  Again, we differentiate the two because we experienced the Cold War that came after and thus developed a special fear and loathing for atomic weapons, but people in 1945 did not have that experience.
  3. The ex post facto mistake many folks make on Hiroshima is similar to the mistake many of us make on Yalta.  Lots of folks, particularly on the Right, criticize FDR for being soft on Stalin and letting him get away with Eastern Europe.  But really,what were they going to do?  Realistically, Russia's armies were already in Eastern Europe and were not going to leave unless we sent armies to throw them out.  Which we were not, because folks were absolutely exhausted by the war.  This war exhaustion also plays a big part in the decision at Hiroshima.  Flip the decision around.  What would have happened if a war-weary public later found out that the government had a secret weapon that might have ended the war but refused to use it?  They would have been run out of office.
  4. I once heard a government official of the time say that it was odd to hear people talking about the "decision" to bomb Hiroshima because there was not a decision to make.  We were in a long, horrible, bloody war.  We had a new weapon.  It was going to be used.
  5. The Japanese were not showing a willingness to negotiate.  Yes, some members of the Japanese state department were making peaceful overtures before Hiroshima, but they had no power.  None of the military ruling clique was anywhere in the ballpark of surrendering.  Even after Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, and the Russian declaration of war, the government STILL would not have voted for surrender except for the absolutely extraordinary and unprecedented  intervention of the Emperor.  And even then, the military rulers were still trying to figure out how to suppress the Emperor or even take him hostage to stop any peace process.
  6. It is argued sometimes that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were irrelevant and that the Japanese surrendered when the Russians declared war.  The Russian declaration was certainly an important part of the mix, but I find it hard to believe the Emperor would have taken his unprecedented actions without the atomic bomb attacks.  Besides, even if the Russian declaration was critical, it could be argued the bombs played a huge role in that declaration.  After all, we had tried to get the Russians to make such a declaration for years, and it suddenly came coincidentally a couple of days after the atomic bombs start dropping?  I doubt it.  A better theory is that the Russians were waiting for signs that the war was nearly won so they could jump in and grab some costless booty from defeated Japan, and the bombs were that sign.
  7. It is argued that the invasion of Japan would have cost fewer lives than the bomb.  This is a crock.  Sorry.  There is absolutely no way to look at military and civilian casualty figures from Iwo Jima and Okinawa and come to any conclusion other than the fact that the invasion of Japan would have been a bloodbath.
  8. It is argued that we could have blockaded Japan to death.  This is possible, but it would have 1. Taken a lot of time, for which no one had any patience; 2. exposed US ships to relentless Kamikaze attacks and 3.  likely have cost more Japanese civilian lives to continued conventional bombing and starvation than the atomic bombs did.
  9. It is argued that we dropped the bombs on Japan out of some sort of racial hatred.  We can't really test this since by the time the bombs were ready, Japan was our only enemy left in the field.  Certainly, as a minimum, we had developed a deep hatred of Japanese culture that seemed so alien to us and led to atrocities that naturally generated a lot of hatred.  For the soldier, the best simple description of this culture clash I ever heard (I can't remember the source) was a guy who said something like "for us, the war was about winning and going home.  For the Japanese, the war just seemed to be about dying."   In a time where racism was much more normal and accepted, I would say that yes, this cultural hatred became real racism.  But I would add that it was not like we entered the war with some sort of deep, long hatred of Asians.  If anything, we stumbled into the Pacific War in large part because Americans felt a special friendship and sympathy with China and would not accept Japan's military interventions there.

My Five Causes of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Rocochet asks this question over the weekend:  What are your top 5 causes of the fall of the Roman Empire.  OK, I will take a shot at this from my decidedly amateur perspective:

  1. Demographic collapse, caused by a series of plagues (perhaps even an Ur version of the black death) and possibly climate change (colder) that depopulated the western half of the empire
  2. A variety of policies (e.g. grain dole) that shifted population from productive farms to the cities.  In the 19th century, this shift was to be growth-inducing as farm labor was moving into growing factories, but no such productivity revolution existed in Roman cities.  The combination of #2 with #1 left huge swaths of farmland abandoned, and the Romans dependent on grain ships from North Africa to feed the unproductive mouths in large Italian cities.  It also gutted the traditional Roman military model, which depended strongly on these local farmers for the backbone of the army.
  3. The Romans lost their ability to be innovative in including new peoples in their Empire.  The Romans had a bewildering array of citizenship and tax statuses for different peoples who joined or were conquered by the empire.  For hundreds of years, this innovation was hugely successful.   But by the 4th and 5th centuries they seemed to have lost the trick.  The evidence for this is that they could have solved multiple problems -- the barbarians at the gates and the abandonment of farm land and the need for more soldiers -- by finding a way to settle barbarians on empty farm land.  This is in fact exactly what the barbarians wanted.  That is why I do not include the barbarian invasions as one of my five, because it did not have to be barbarian invasions, it could have been barbarian immigration.  Gibson's thesis was that Christianity killed the Roman Empire by making it "soft".  I don't buy that, but it may have been that substituting the Romans' earlier incredible tolerance for other religions in their Pagan period with a more intolerant version of Christianity contributed to this loss of flexibility.
  4. Hand in hand with #3, the Roman economy became sclerotic.  This was the legacy of Diocletian and Constantine, who restructured the empire to survive several centuries more but at the cost of at least an order of magnitude more state control in every aspect of society.  Diocletian's edict of maximum prices is the best known such regulation, but in fact he fixed most every family into their then-current trades and insisted the family perform the same economic functions in all future generations.  Essentially, it was Ayn Rand's directive 10-289 for the ancient world, and the only reason these laws were not more destructive is that the information and communication technologies of the time did not allow for very careful enforcement.
  5. Splits in the governance of the empire between west and east (again going back to Diocletian) reduced the ability to fund priorities on one side of the empire with resources from the other side.  More specifically, the wealthy eastern empire had always subsidized defense of the west, and that subsidy became much harder, and effectively ended, in the century after Diocletian.

I will add, as a reminder, that to some extent this is all a trick question, because the Roman Empire really did not totally fall until the capture of Constantinople in 1453.  So I should have stated at the outset that all of the above refers to the fall of the western empire in the late 5th century, which in part explains why #5 is there in the list.

And, if you were in a room of historians of this era, you could quickly get into an argument over whether the western Roman empire really fell in the late 5th century.  For example, the Visigothic Kingdom in the area of modern southern France and Spain retained a lot of Roman practices and law.  But I have gone with tradition here and dated the "fall" of the empire to 476 when the Roman Emperor was deposed and not replaced.

Putting Neville Chamberlain in Historic Context

One of the hardest things to do in history is to read history in context, shutting out our foreknowledge of what is going to happen -- knowledge the players at the time did not have.

Apparently Neville Chamberlain is back in the public discourse, again raised from the dead as the boogeyman to scare us away from any insufficiently militaristic approach to international affairs.

There is no doubt that Neville Chamberlain sold out the Czechs at Munich, and the Munich agreement was shown to be a fraud on Hitler's part when he invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia just months later.  In retrospect, we can weep at the lost opportunity as we now know, but no one knew then, that Hitler's generals planned a coup against him that was undermined by the Munich agreement.

But all that being said, let's not forget the historic context.  World War I was a cataclysm for England and Europe.   It was probably the worst thing to happen to Europe since the black death.   And many learned folks at the time felt that this disaster had been avoidable (and many historians today might agree).  They felt that there had been too much rush to war, and too little diplomacy.  If someone like Britain had been more aggressive in dragging all the parties to the bargaining table in 1914, perhaps a European-wide war could have been avoided or at least contained to the Balkans.

There simply was no energy in 1938, no collective will to start another war.  Even in France, which arguably had the most to lose from a reinvigorated Germany, the country simply could not face another war.   As an illustration, one could argue that an even better and more logical time to "stop Hitler" occurred before Munich in March of 1936 when Hitler violated the Versailles Treaty and reoccupied the Rhineland with military forces.  France had every right to oppose this occupation, and Hitler's generals said later that their forces were so puny at the time that the French could have stopped them with a brigade and sent them running back across the Rhine.  And the French did nothing.

In addition, Britain and France had very little ability to do much about Hitler's ambitions in Eastern Europe anyway.  How were they going to get troops to the Sudetenland?  We saw later in Poland how little ability they had to do anything in Eastern Europe.

And finally, everyone was boxed in by having accepted Woodrow Wilson's formula of "self-determination of peoples."  Building the entire post-war realignment on this shoddy building block is what really led to disaster.  Emphasizing this essentially nationalist formulation as the fundamental moral principle of international relations -- rather than, say, the protection of individual rights of all peoples -- really empowered Hitler.  In the Saarland, in the Rhineland, in Austria, and in the Sudetenland, it lent him the moral high ground.  He was just fulfilling Wilson's formulation, wasn't he?  These were all majority-German lands coming home to Germany.

Postscript:  Years ago in my youth I used to excoriate FDR for caving into Stalin at Yalta, specifically in giving away most of Eastern Europe.  I still wish he hadn't given his moral authority and approval to the move, but even if we stood on the table and screamed at Stalin in opposition, what were we going to do?  Was there any appetite for extending the war?  Zero.  That is what folks who oppose the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan get wrong in suggesting there were alternatives.  All those alternatives involved a longer war and more American deaths which no one wanted.

What Exactly Is the Conservative Theory of Free Markets?

Conservatives say they are for free markets and free enterprise, but then I read stuff like this (have have added the bold):

Lynch supports Obama’s unconstitutional amnesty, believes illegal immigrants should have the same rights to employment as American citizens, opposes voter ID laws, advocates federal intrusion in local law enforcement under the guise of civil rights, supports the government taking private property on flimsy grounds, and offers no opposition to using drones against American citizens.

I agree with some of these concerns, but the one in bold is a real head scratcher.   What theory of free markets do Conservatives hold that accepts as valid the government licensing of labor?  On what possible grounds should a government bar me from hiring, say, a Russian immigrant to do my programming?  Or crazier still, why can I hire a Mexican in my Mexico office but can't have the same person working for me in my Phoenix office?

I have a theory about the Romans that is probably shared by nobody.  The Romans were strong and powerful and vital when they were creating a variety of citizenship types to accommodate multiple peoples who entered the empire in multiple ways.  In particular I think of civitas sine suffragio or citizenship without the vote.  But this was just one of many variations.   By the first century AD  (or CE per the modern academic trend), a lot of people of a lot of cultures and races and over a wide geography called themselves Romans.

By the end of the empire, the "reforms" of Diocletian and Constatine purged all flexibility from both governance and the economy (in sum, their laws amounted to the Directive 10-289 of the ancient world).  By the time the Empire started falling apart, they had lost all ability to integrate new peoples or innovate with citizenship models.  What was eventually called the Barbarian invasions began decades earlier as the attempted barbarian migrations.   The barbarians wanted to just settle peacefully.  And Rome desperately needed them -- their system was falling apart as their farms and countryside was depopulated from a combination of government policy and demographic collapses (e.g. plagues).  Rome desperately needed new people to settle their farms and form the new backbone of the army and the barbarians desperately wanted to settle and had a lot of military skill, but they couldn't make it work.

The Un-discussed Foreign Policy Alternative

I was going to write a longer post on foreign policy vis a vis terrorism and ISIS, but I lack both the time as well as confidence in my foreign policy knowledge.

I will offer this, though:  There seem to be but two policy positions being discussed

  1. The largely Conservative position that there is a dangerous and violent authoritarian streak running through the world of Islam and that we need to saddle up the troops and go break some heads and impose order
  2. The Progressive position embodied by the Obama Administration that there is nothing abnormal going on in Islam and that what we see is random violence spurred by poverty and thus we should not intervene militarily (I consider the current AUMF proposed by Obama to be political posturing to satisfy polls rather than anything driven by true belief).

Why is there not a third alternative to be at least considered -- that there is something really broken in a lot of Islam as practiced today (just as there was a lot of sh*t broken with Christianity in, say, the 14th-16th centuries) and that Islam as practiced in many Middle Eastern countries is wildly illiberal (way more illiberal than any failings of Israel, though you wouldn't know that if you were living on a college campus).  But, that we don't need to saddle up the troops and try to change things by force.

Conservatives who can look at things like serial failures in Federal education policy and reach the conclusion that we should be skeptical about Federal initiatives on education seem unable to draw similar conclusions from serial failures in US interventions in the Islamic world.  And for its part, the Obama administration seems to be living in some weird alternate universe trying desperately to ignore the reality of the situation.

Yes, I know the first response to all folks like me who advocate for non-intervention is "Munich" and "Czechoslovakia".  So be it.  But if we sent in the military every time someone yelled "appeasement" our aircraft would be worn out from moving troops around.  And we seem to be totally able to ignore atrocities and awful rulers in Sub-Saharan Africa.

As a minimum, I would like to see a coalition of Arab states coming to us and publicly asking us for help -- not this usual Middle East BS we hear that Saudi Ariabi (or whoever) really in private wants us there but publicly they will still lambaste us.  Without this support we can win the war but we have no moral authority (as we did after WWII) in the peace.  Which is one reason so many of our interventions in the Middle East and North Africa fail.

US to Normalize with Cuba -- Limiting Free Interchange with Authoritarian Regimes Only Benefits Their Leaders

I certainly am no Castro apologist, but it strikes me that 50+ years of embargoes and pointless travel restrictions have not brought his regime to heal.  So it is past time to recognize this and perhaps try something else.  So kudos to President Obama for doing something that apparently only a lame duck President who no longer has to worry about winning the Florida electoral votes can do, he is going to normalize relations with Cuba.

This should be good news for anyone who opposes the Cuban regime and its oppression. Time and again over the last 50 years, we have seen cultural and economic interchange fell more authoritarian governments than any amount of military action.  When we cut off free exchange with authoritarian regimes, we are doing their leaders a favor.

Why Reform of Police Accountability is Unlikely

It's as simple as this:  Republicans fetishize the police (like they do the military) and will always give them the benefit of the doubt.  They have this gauzy teary-eyed love of the police.  Just watch Megyn Kelly on Fox to get the idea.  Democrats are allied with public unions and will not under any circumstances take on the powerful police unions who fight any attempt at accountability tooth and nail, a behavior Democrats have become habituated to enabling for other unions like the teachers unions.

The issue is mostly about giving police accountability that matches the special powers over the use of force we give them.  But it is also about racism.  It just burns me up to have folks in power point to the business world constantly for supposed institutional racism, when in fact I witness very little if any day to day.  The one institution I see that clearly has elements of institutional racism are many police forces, but no one will touch them.

Every year there are hundreds of police shootings and the number that are determined not to be justifiable rounds to zero.  What are the odds there is a process involving humans with this small of a Type I error rate?  We are learning form cell phone cameras that the stories we used to believe from police officers about events are often total bullsh*t.  And yet still police are not held accountable even when there is horrific video evidence showing them out of control.

At the drop of a hat, at the smallest hint of a single example of a bad outcome, the government will not hesitate to impose enormous new restrictions on private individuals.  But even with the most overwhelming evidence the government will not put even the lightest restrictions in itself or its employees.

I have always shied away from my fellow libertarians on the anarcho-capitalist end of things who wanted to privatize the police force.  I always thought use of force to be a unique privilege and one dangerous to hand out to private groups.  But I am starting to see that I was thinking about it wrong.  It is a dangerous power to give to anyone, but at least if you give it to a private party someone might possibly exercise a little accountability over them.

Walter Olson has a good roundup of police and lethal force here.

Postscript:  Here is an example of what I mean:  The Obama Administration has imposed significant rules on universities to bring greater accountability to sexual assailants when it was perceived that the universities did not impose enough accountability on such predators.  I think the Administration has gone overboard in stripping away the accused due process protections and handing justice to people who will not manage the process well, but its the seriousness of this effort I want to point out.  While I don't think the Administration's actions were appropriate to colleges, they would represent an entirely appropriate response to police violence.  Someone needs to step in and enforce some accountability.


Drone War Legacy

In campaigning for the Presidency, Obama made it clear that he thought that much of the violence and hatred directed at Americans was self-inflicted -- ie our often ham-fisted, aggressive interventionism in the affairs of other countries, frequently backed by military force, was aggravating the world against us.  If we stopped, the violence against us would stop.

I rate this as partially correct and partially naive.  As the richest state in the world, one whose culture pours into other countries to the dismay of many of the local elites, we will always earn the ire of many.  But we certainly have made it worse with our actions.

But this just makes it all the more frustrating to me to see Obama's continued support, even acceleration, of the drone war.  I am not sure there is any other practice that emphasizes our arrogant authoritarian militarism than the drone war.  Americans are not used to a feeling of helplessness, so it is perhaps hard to fully empathize.  But imagine the sense of helplessness to watch American drones circling above your city, drones you can't get rid of or shoot down, drones that lazily circle and then bring death from above almost at random.   I can't think of any similar experience in recent western experience, except perhaps the V2 rocket attacks on London in WWII.

The Obama Administration claims that these are clean, surgical tools without any collateral damage.  They do this by a rhetorical slight of hand, essentially defining anyone who is killed in the attacks ex post facto as being guilty.

As is often the case with government activities, it is worse than we thought:

Via the British group Reprieve comes a report asserting that U.S. drones in Yemen and Pakistan kill 28 "unknowns" for every intended target. What's more, "41 names of men who seemed to have achieved the impossible: to have ‘died,’ in public reporting, not just once, not just twice, but again and again. Reports indicate that each assassination target ‘died’ on average more than three times before their actual death."

So much for the precision of drone strikes, which promise a future of war in which civilians and other forms of collateral damage are spared ruin and destruction. As President Obama said in 2013, by "narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us, and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.”

Well, sort of. From the Reprieve report:

As many as 1,147 people may have been killed during attempts to kill 41 men, accounting for a quarter of all possible drone strike casualties in Pakistan and Yemen. In Yemen, strikes against just 17 targets accounted for almost half of all confirmed civilian casualties. Yet evidence suggests that at least four of these 17 men are still alive. Similarly, in Pakistan, 221 people, including 103 children, have been killed in attempt sto kill four men, three of whom are still alive and a fourth of whom died from natural causes. One individual, Fahd al Quso, was reported killed in both Yemen and Pakistan. In four attempts to kill al Quso, 48 people potentially lost their lives.

Why Private Companies May Stop Taking Incidental Government Contracts

Bruce McQuain has an article on how McDonald's is closing some contract-operated fast food outlets at military bases.  The article speculates that the closures on new government minimum wage regulations for government contracts.

Frankly, I doubt this explanation.  I know something of the world of government contracting, and contractors in these cases routinely just pass on wage increases to their customers in the form of higher prices.  After all, their contracts give them a monopoly of sorts in these bases.

I would like to offer an alternative explanation.

In March, a new regulation took effect that all contractors with anything larger than a $50,000 a year contract with the government must go through an expensive affirmative action planning process for ALL of their locations, not just for the people involved in that particular contract (41 CFR 60-2.1  and 41 CFR 60-4.1)

We don't do government contracting work.  We lease government facilities, but get paid 100% by customers -- since we don't take government money, we are not a contractor.  But there is one exception.  We have a $52,000 a year contract to clean bathrooms near the campgrounds we operate in California.  Basically, we bid this contract at cost because we want the bathrooms cleaned well -- if they are not, it hurts our nearby businesses.

In this contract, we have government-mandated wage requirements under the Service Contract Act.  When these mandated wages go up, we just raise the price to the government in proportion.  No big deal.

We were informed that having this contract, under the new March Obama regulations, now made us liable to go through an expensive and time consuming affirmative action planning process for every location -- of which we have over 120 -- not just for this one contract.  So this one contract was going to force us to create 120 annual written plans and presumably get them approved by someone in the government.  No way.  I might have done it if I only had to do a plan for the contract, but it is just too much work to do this everywhere merely because I have a $52,000 contract on which I make no profit.  So we told the Feds we were dropping the contract.

I think it is very unlikely that private businesses will be accepting government contracts as 5 or 10% of their business any more.   This new regulation just imposes too much cost on the other 95% of the business.  Many will drop the government contracts.

I wonder if this is what is really going on with McDonalds.  A regulatory requirement that applied just to the base operations, like a minimum wage, strikes me as manageable.  But having these three or four contracts drive an expensive requirement to create some sort of affirmative action plan for every location - essentially every one of their tens of thousands of stores, so tens of thousands of plans - that would drive them out of these contracts VERY fast.

Emulating North Korea

I have little tolerance for enforced patriotism of any sort.  In fact, having loyalty oaths and singing songs and genuflecting to flags all seem more consistent with totalitarianism than the values of liberty that patriots are nominally trying to promote.  If I were rotting in a crappy Phoenix jail for being caught with marijuana or busted for driving while Mexican, I would be even less patriotic

Dozens of Arizona inmates will eat nothing but bread and water for at least seven days in the latest punishment by one of America's toughest sheriffs.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio handed down the sentence after inmates defaced American flags hung in each jail cell. He says the men tore the flags, wrote or stepped on them and threw them in the toilet.

The flags are part of a push for patriotism in county jail cells. Arpaio has ordered thatGod Bless America and the national anthem be played daily in every jail facility.

This isn't Arpaio's first controversial move. He made headlines for keeping thousands of inmates outdoors in repurposed military tents in weather that was hotter than 117 degrees. He also made male inmates wear pink underwear.

He banned smoking, coffee and movies in all jails. And he's even put his stamp on mealtime. Inmates are fed only twice a day, and he stopped serving salt and pepper – all to save taxpayers money, he says.

Is Israel Really The Worst Country On Earth?

The American Studies Association has voted to initiate an academic boycott of Israel ostensibly to protest its denial of civil rights to Palestinians in the occupied territories.   Forgetting for a moment Israel's unique security concerns (what would the US do if Mexico routinely lobbed rockets and artillery shells into US border towns), the implication is that the Palestinians in Israels have it worse than any other group in the world, since this is the first and only such boycott the ASA has ever entered into.  Is it really worse to be a Palestinian in Israel than, say, a woman anywhere in the Arab world** or about anyone in North Korea?  Do academics in Cuba have more ability to write honestly than they do in Israel?  I doubt it.

The only statement the ASA makes on the subject that I can find is in their FAQ on the boycott

7) Does the boycott resolution unfairly single out Israel? After all there are many unjust states in the world.

The boycott resolution responds to a request from the Palestinian people, including Palestinian academics and students, to act in solidarity. Because the U.S. contributes materially to the Israeli occupation, through significant financial and military aid - and, as such, is an important ally of the Israeli state - and because the occupation daily confiscates Palestinian land and devastates Palestinian lives, it is urgent to act now.

A couple of thoughts.  First, I am not sure why US material aid is relevant to choosing a boycott target.  I suppose the implication is that this boycott is aimed more at the US than at Israel itself.  But the question still stands as to why countries like Saudi Arabia, which receives a lot of US material aid as well, get a pass.  Second, the fact that Palestinian academics can seek international help tends to disprove that their situation is really the worst in the world.  I don't think the fact that the ASA is not hearing cries for help from liberal-minded academics in North Korea means that there is less of a problem in North Korea.  It means there is more of a problem.

I am not a student of anti-semitism, so I can't comment on how much it may explain this decision.  However, I think it is perfectly possible to explain the ASA's actions without resorting to anti-semitism as an explanation.  As background, remember that it is important for their social standing and prestige for liberal academics to take public positions to help the downtrodden in other countries.  This is fine -- not a bad incentive system to feel social pressure to speak out against injustice.  But the problem is that most sources of injustice are all either a) Leftish regimes the Left hesitates to criticize for ideological reasons or b) Islamic countries that the left hesitates to criticize because they have invested so much in calling conservatives Islamophobic.

So these leftish academics have a need to criticize, but feel constrained to only strongly criticizing center-right or right regimes.  The problem is that most of these are gone.  Allende, the Shah, Franco, South Africa -- all gone or changed.  All that's left is Israel (which is odd because it is actually fairly socialist but for some reason never treated as such by the Left).  So if we consider the universe of appropriate targets -- countries with civil rights and minority rights issues that are not leftish or socialist governments and not Islamic, then the ASA has been perfectly consistent, targeting every single country in that universe.

** To this day I am amazed how little heat the gender apartheid in the Arab world generates in the West in comparison to race apartheid in South Africa.  I am not an expert on either, but from what I have read I believe it is a true statement to say that blacks in apartheid South Africa had more freedom than women have today in Saudi Arabia.  Thoughts?

Update:  I twice emailed the ASA for a list of other countries or groups they have boycotted and twice got a blurb justifying why Israel was selected but with no direct answer to my question.  I guess I will take that as confirmation this is the first and only country they have ever targeted.  They did want to emphasize that the reason Israel was selected (I presume vs. other countries but they did not word it thus) had a lot to do with he fact that Israel was the number one recipient of US aid money (mostly military) and that it was this American connection given they represent American studies professors that made the difference.  Why Pakistan or Afghanistan, who treat their women far worse than Israel treats Palestinians, and which receive a lot of US aid, were not selected or considered or mentioned is not explained.  Basically, I would explain it thus:  "all the cool kids are doing it, and we determined that to remain among the cool kids we needed to do it too".  This is a prestige and signalling exercise, and it makes a lot more sense in that context, because then one can ask about the preferences of those to whom they are signalling, rather than try to figure out why Israel is somehow the worst human rights offender in the world.

By the way, by the ASA logic, it should be perfectly reasonable, even necessary, for European academic institutions to boycott US academic institutions because the US government gives aid to such a bad country like Israel.  This seems like it would be unfair to US academics who may even disagree with US policy, but no more unfair than to Israeli academics who are being punished for their government's policies.   I wonder how US academics would feel about being boycotted from European events and scholarship over US government policy?