Liberty News

  • The Administration’s Crude Warsaw Pact-Like Approach to Iraq    (Ted Galen Carpenter, 2020-01-17)
    Ted Galen Carpenter A policy statement that the State Department issued on January 10 asserts that “America is a force for good in the Middle East.” It adds, “We want to be a friend and partner to a sovereign, prosperous, and stable Iraq.” Yet the Trump administration’s recent conduct toward Iraq indicates a very different (and much uglier) policy. Washington is behaving like an impatient, imperial power that has concluded that an obstreperous colony requires a dose of corrective discipline. , Washington’s late December airstrikes on Iraqi militia targets, in retaliation for the killing of an American civilian contractor working at a base in northern Iraq, greatly provoked the Iraqi government and population. Massive anti-American demonstrations erupted in several cities, and an assault on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad forced diplomats to take refuge in a special “safe room.” The drone strike on Iranian General Qassem Soleimani outside Baghdad a few days later was an even more brazen violation of Iraq’s sovereignty. Carrying out the assassination on Iraqi territory when Soleimani was there at the invitation of Prime Minister Adel Abdull Mahdi to discuss a new peace feeler from Saudi Arabia was especially clumsy and arrogant. It created suspicions that the United States was deliberately seeking to maintain turmoil in the Middle East to justify its continued military presence there. The killing of Soleimani (as well as two influential Iraqi militia leaders) led Iraq’s government to pass a resolution calling on Mahdi to expel U.S. forces stationed in the country, and he promptly began to prepare legislation to implement that goal. , The U.S. has occasionally exerted pressure on democratic allies, but never treated them like servile pawns. Until now. , Trump’s initial reaction to the prospect that Baghdad might order U.S. troops to leave was akin to a foreign policy temper tantrum. He threatened America’s democratic ally with harsh economic sanctions if it dared to take that step. As Trump put it, “we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before, ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.” Over the following days, it became apparent that the sanctions threat was not just a spontaneous, intemperate outburst on the part of President Trump. Compelling Iraq to continue hosting U.S. forces was official administration policy. Senior officials from the Treasury Department and other agencies began drafting specific sanctions that could be imposed. Washington explicitly warned the Iraqi government that it could lose access to its account held at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Such a freeze would amount to financial strangulation of the country’s already fragile economy. U.S. arrogance towards Baghdad seems almost boundless. When Mahdi asked the administration to “prepare a mechanism” for the exit of American forces and commence negotiations towards that transition, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flatly refused. Indeed, the State Department’s January 10 statement made it clear that there would be no such discussions: “At this time, any delegation sent to Iraq would be dedicated to discussing how to best recommit to our strategic partnership—not to discuss troop withdrawal, but our right, appropriate force posture in the Middle East.” Throughout the Cold War, U.S. leaders proudly proclaimed that NATO and other American-led alliances were voluntary associations of free nations. Conversely, the Warsaw Pact alliance of Eastern European countries formed in response to NATO was a blatantly imperial enterprise of puppet regimes under the Kremlin’s total domination. Moscow’s brutal suppression of even modest political deviations within its satellite empire helped confirm the difference. Soviet tanks rolled into East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968 to crush reform factions and solidify a Soviet military occupation. Even when the USSR did not resort to such heavy-handed measures, it was clear that the “allies” were on a very short leash. Although the United States has occasionally exerted pressure on its allies when they’ve opposed its objectives, it has not attempted to treat democratic partners as servile pawns. That is why the Trump administration’s current behavior towards Iraq is so troubling and exhibits such unprecedented levels of crudeness. America is in danger of becoming the geopolitical equivalent of a middle school bully. If Washington refuses to withdraw its forces from Iraq, defying the Baghdad government’s calls to leave, those troops will no longer be guests or allies. They would constitute a hostile army of occupation, however elaborate the rhetorical facade. At that point, America would no longer be a moral “force for good” in the Middle East or anywhere else. The United States would be behaving as an amoral imperial power imposing its authority on weaker democratic countries that dare adopt measures contrary to Washington’s policy preferences. America might not yet have replaced the Soviet Union as (in Ronald Reagan’s words) the “evil empire,” but it will be disturbingly far along the path to that status. Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at The American Conservative, is the author of 12 books and more than 850 articles on international affairs.
  • Note to Trump: Iraq Is Not a U.S. Colony    (2020-01-16)
    The U.S. treated Iraq as occupied territory when it launched the deadly airstrike on Iran’s Qassem Soleimani and several other Iraqi officials. Now the Trump administration is refusing to comply with Baghdad’s demand to withdraw American forces. Washington soon may find itself one demonstration away from disaster. , Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi denounced the U.S. attack as “an aggression on Iraq as a state, government, and people” and requested that the Trump administration prepare to withdraw its 5,300 military personnel. The State Department responded dismissively: any American delegation going to Iraq “would be dedicated to discussing how to best recommit to our strategic partnership—not to discuss troop withdrawal.” President Donald Trump even threatened to impose sanctions “if there’s any hostility, that they do anything we think is inappropriate.” Later he retreated slightly: “I’m only talking sanctions if we’re not treated with respect.” Though he added that the penalties would make those used against Saddam Hussein, from whom the country was liberated 17 years ago, “look somewhat tame.” , Other nations cannot miss the message today: invite American forces in and they might not go home, ever. , One possibility, according to the administration: closing Iraq’s Federal Reserve Bank of New York account, which contains $35 billion. The mere threat of this further unsettled Iraqi markets. Trump complained: “The United States has paid Iraq billions of dollars a year, for many years. That is on top of all else we have done for them.” Trump insisted that Baghdad pay up or be occupied even though the original agreement authorizing Washington’s presence acknowledged Iraqi ownership of bases used by Americans and recognized “the sovereign right of the government of Iraq to request the departure of U.S. forces from Iraq at any time.” The president is treating Iraq like an occupied power, as if the call for assistance against the Islamic State was permission for renewed American domination. However, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said not to worry. Unnamed Iraqi “leaders” assured him that they want Washington to stay. No doubt some want the U.S. to prevent the reemergence of the Islamic State. Other Iraqis probably told the secretary what he wanted to hear to avoid taking responsibility, and perhaps in hopes that the administration would go easy on them. No sanctions, for instance, and especially no personal penalties, such as denial of visas. After all, they imply, they are helpless before the baying mob. Ironically, the president’s threats and insults only make it harder for Iraqis to back a continued U.S. presence. However, supposed secret support is meaningless. It can’t be measured or proved, and thus leaves Washington in the same impossible position: violating Iraqi sovereignty by occupying it against its expressed will. That is why American forces left the first time in December 2011 (only to return in June 2014): there was neither parliamentary nor popular support for them to stay. If Iraqi leaders are unwilling to make the case to their people, Washington shouldn’t play the heavy. Architects of the Iraq war, who refuse to accept blame for the disastrous invasion, contend that continuing the original occupation would have rescued the country from its future travails. That is unlikely. Even if U.S. personnel had stayed out of internal Iraqi politics, they would not have halted the country’s slide to partisan Shia rule, which spurred the rise of ISIS. And if Americans had interfered, they would have faced attacks from Sunnis angry over their loss of status after Saddam Hussein’s ouster and from Shiites opposed to Washington’s effort to remake Iraq. For instance, Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shia leader who favors “Islamic democracy,” violently opposed the U.S. occupation at the start and was active in the sectarian conflict that enveloped Iraq after the invasion. He threatened to use his Mahdi Army militia against a permanent garrison. (Equally important, the American people wanted to bring home their relatives and friends.) To force Baghdad to accept the continued presence of U.S. troops would be counterproductive, even stupid. Iraqi nationalism recently emerged through large-scale demonstrations, which crossed religious lines and targeted foreign interference as well as government corruption and incompetence. Washington was not exempt from criticism, but Iran received the most attention. Then came the initial U.S. strikes on the Iraqi Shia militia Kata’ib Hezbollah, in retaliation for the missile attack that killed a U.S. contractor, which shifted the conversation. Noted Alissa Rubin and Ben Hubbard of the New York Times, Washington’s action made it “the focus of public hostility, reducing the heat on Tehran and its proxies.” Next came the assassination of Soleimani, who was popular in Iraq for leading the campaign against ISIS, and Iraqi militia leaders. This effectively ended the protests, united perennially antagonistic Shia political factions, created sympathy for Tehran, and focused attention on the U.S. Washington’s insistence that it can forcibly occupy Iraq reinforces the latter factors. Noted Sajad Jiyad of Baghdad’s Al-Bayan Center: “Our politics has also taken on a strong anti-American voice.” An anonymous Iraqi official told the Financial Times: “Trump has accelerated Soleimani’s work in Iraq. They created a mess because they couldn’t understand Iraq.” Civilian boycotts and protests might be the least of Washington’s problems. Violent resistance is possible and will be encouraged by Iran. Iraqi groups that battled Islamic State forces already have reportedly contacted Tehran seeking support. Such efforts may receive the acquiescence if not the support of the Baghdad government. Veteran journalist Elijah Magnier quoted sources in Abdul-Mahdi’s office who complained that “the U.S. is unwilling to listen to reason, to the Iraqi government or the parliament. It has the intention of bringing war upon itself and transforming Iraq into a battlefield, by refusing to respect the law and withdraw its forces. The U.S. will be faced with strong and legitimate popular armed resistance, even if some Iraqis (in Kurdistan) will break the law and will accept the U.S. presence in their region.” Even revered (and moderate) Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani criticized the U.S. assassination of Soleimani and offered condolences to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The spokesman for Kata’ib Hezbollah, headed by the late Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, killed alongside Soleimani, urged “lovers of martyrdom” to sign up to attack Americans. A new Shia militia, Saraya Imam al-Husayn al-Istishhadiya, formed with the explicit intent to target U.S. personnel. Moreover, al-Sadr, now one of Iraq’s most influential political leaders who opposes outside interference by any party, reactivated the Mahdi Army after the U.S. strike on Soleimani. Al-Sadr initially urged Iraqis to be patient and allow the U.S. and Iran to deescalate tensions. However, he then demanded the expulsion of all foreign forces, called for the closure of the U.S. “embassy of evil,” and backed a boycott of American products. He also argued that the parliamentary resolution to expel American forces was not enough and called on “the Iraqi resistance factions in particular and the factions outside of Iraq for an immediate meeting to announce the formation of international resistance groups.” Some, maybe most, anti-American declarations are simple bombast. However, the sources of discontent and anger are many. Iraqis are unlikely to remain quiescent in the face of another American occupation. U.S. military facilities, especially those located within Iraqi bases, will not be easy to defend. American deaths are likely and will lead to retaliation—against Iraqis, which will trigger more attacks. It would take only one violent protest to trigger a crisis. Moreover, other nations cannot miss the message: invite American forces in and they might not go home, at least not without presenting a hefty bill backed by a threat to ruin your economy. Forcibly occupying Iraq for a second time would also undermine administration criticism of foreign authoritarian regimes, such as China in Hong Kong. However, the most important reason for Washington to withdraw U.S. troops is because it is in America’s interest to do so. The Middle East no longer has any claim to being “vital.” The U.S. is now the world’s biggest energy producer. Natural gas and petroleum sources have multiplied worldwide. Israel is a nuclear-armed regional superpower well able to defend itself. Nor does Washington need to occupy Iraq or the Mideast to stop Iran. Tehran has little ability to reach America and is most interested in deterring Washington’s hegemonic aims. Other nations in the region are capable of balancing against Iran. Yet America’s presence in Iraq is the most important flashpoint with Tehran. U.S. forces there pose the most direct threat to the Islamic Republic and constitute the most tempting targets, as retaliation or preemption. As for ISIS, the U.S. intervened at the height of its power and destroyed the movement’s pretense of being a “caliphate,” or quasi-nation state. The group’s personal adherents and ideological tenets live on, but the entire region—Shia and Sunni, monarchies and republics, governments and separatists—is united against the Islamic State. Washington should leave prevention of a revival to the nations most affected. They will do so as long as they cannot rely on Washington to do the job for them. Of course, President Trump has repeatedly found it difficult to act on his campaign promise to stop endless wars, since his own staffers routinely join with outside interests to thwart his policy. The Iraqis have offered a way out. He should respect Iraq’s sovereignty and announce that U.S. forces are leaving, immediately—and permanently. Unfortunately, the president has been captured by Washington’s conventional wisdom. “Eventually we want to be able to let Iraq run its own affairs,” he allowed. “But this isn’t the right point.” However, Washington cannot reoccupy Iraq against its government’s and especially its people’s will. The consequences of imposing an American presence, backed by threats of economic sanctions if not military action, are likely to be catastrophic. Two wars with Iraq are enough. Pompeo said the U.S. will work with Iraq’s leaders “to get to the right place” on American forces in Iraq. The right place is out. Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He is a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and the author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.
  • The UK and the EU Need a New Approach to Trade Remedies    (Simon Lester, 2020-01-16)
    Simon Lester Whatever your view is on the merits of the European Union, it would be hard to dispute that it is one of the most innovative international economic arrangements ever created. Its founders had a general vision, but it took a wide range of institutional and policy innovations during implementation to make it all work. , Seeking institutional innovation As the UK and the EU undertake the difficult process of undoing their relationship and developing a new one, there will be a need for some additional innovation. Trying to use traditional trade agreement obligations as a replacement for this deep and complex economic relationship will be insufficient. One area of particular difficulty will be trade remedies, which include tariffs imposed in response to import prices that are deemed too low (anti-dumping duties) and to foreign government subsidies (countervailing duties). , As the UK and the EU undertake the difficult process of undoing their relationship and developing a new one, there will be a need for some additional innovation. , The term ‘dumping’ is sometimes thrown around loosely in trade policy discussions, but it has a technical meaning that involves a determination of whether the export price of a product is ‘unfairly’ low. A tariff can then be imposed to counteract the impact of this pricing. With regard to subsidies, there is a calculation of the amount of the subsidy, and, similarly, a tariff is imposed to counteract it. The EU is one of the rare trade agreements that eliminates the use of trade remedies on internal trade. As a result, trade between the UK and other EU countries is not subject to trade remedies. I have argued previously that tariffs imposed as trade remedies are unnecessary and problematic here, and should be kept out of the UK-EU economic relationship. This relationship would be permanently soured by recurring claims of ‘unfair trade’ by one side or the other. Nevertheless, trade remedies are an established part of domestic trade policy and are difficult to avoid. Interest groups demand them, and it is hard to have a proper debate over their merits. The UK has already set up a Trade Remedies Authority to oversee a domestic trade remedies regime, and trade remedies are likely to be part of the future UK-EU economic relationship. But perhaps there is room for some innovation here that can make the situation better. One of the issues with the imposition of trade remedies is allegations of bias on the part of the domestic agencies who oversee things. These agencies are thought by many to favour the point of view of domestic industries who complain about unfair foreign trade, and to discount the arguments of importers and foreign producers. But what if the these bias concerns could be addressed with an institutional innovation? Perhaps the trade remedy process could be moved to the international level, with neutral adjudicators, rather than domestic agency officials, deciding the issues. The WTO and NAFTA approach to resolving trade remedy disputes As things stand now, domestic trade remedies are subject to challenge pursuant to the rules of the World Trade Organization on these issues (the Anti-Dumping Agreement and the Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures). If a government does not like how its companies were treated in a domestic trade remedy proceeding, it can bring a WTO complaint against the government responsible. As part of this complaint, the determinations by domestic agencies are reviewed to see whether — loosely speaking — they were reasoned and adequate, and consistent with WTO obligations. That process is useful, but it takes a good deal of time, and given resource constraints only a few domestic determinations  are challenged each year. In the North American Free Trade Agreement — NAFTA — there is a unique set of rules that allow the companies subject to the trade remedy proceedings to bring a complaint against the determination themselves. A NAFTA panel will be set up to review the domestic agency’s decision for consistency with domestic law. Going further The WTO/NAFTA approach still allows the domestic agency to hear the case first. But instead of domestic agencies hearing the case initially, and then an international body reviewing that decision, we could start with an international body that would take the place of the domestic agency and examine each of the trade remedy elements: Whether dumping and subsidization took place, and in what amounts; and whether the domestic industry suffered injury as result. To this end, an international Trade Remedies Tribunal could be established by the UK and the EU and staffed with experts who would evaluate all of these issues and render a decision. If we take the traditional approach to trade remedies, it is sure to create tension between the UK and the EU. Companies subject to trade remedies generally believe the foreign agency that is imposing tariffs on them is behaving unfairly. They see these determinations as inherently biased, and a years long process of review at the WTO is of only limited help. If, on the other hand, the initial determination was international in nature, and therefore seen as more objective, it would have more credibility. It might seem like the wrong moment for international tribunals in UK-EU relations. The people in the UK who support Brexit are looking to get out from under institutions such as the ECJ. But tariffs are a special situation. There is not much appetite in the UK or the EU for new tariffs, and people are going to be surprised and unhappy that a tariff-free, quota-free UK-EU relationship will still involve tariffs under the normal operation of trade remedies. Thus, an independent tribunal that oversees these tariffs and ensures that they are legitimate and necessary could be acceptable here. This tribunal would not interfere with domestic regulation, as the ECJ does; it would only act as a check on tariffs. Ideally, of course, there would be no trade remedies at all between the UK and the EU, as is the case now. But the political realities suggest there will be. If we can limit their abusiveness, the UK-EU relationship will be more peaceful and stable. Simon Lester is the associate director of the Cato Institute’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies in Washington.
  • Fixing FISA after the Carter Page Report    (Julian Sanchez, 2020-01-15)
    Julian Sanchez At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing held shortly after the release of his scathinging report on the FBI’s investigation of erstwhile Trump aide Carter Page, DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz had a telling exchange with Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn): , Blackburn:  Let me ask you this, how often do you find mistakes in a FISA Application? Horowitz: This is actually the first time my office has done a deep dive into a particular application. We’ve done higher level reviews on the FISA process and have found various issues at a higher level, but this is the first time we’ve been able to delve in this way. Blackburn: It’s a fairly fairly unusual occurrence? Horowtiz: Let me put it this way, I would hope so. , Presumably Blackburn had expected a rather different response: That the embarrassing catalog of omissions, errors, and misrepresentations that the IG’s office found in applications for FISA surveillance of Page were extraordinary and unprecedented—suggesting some special vendetta against the Trump campaign.  Horowitz’s discomfiting, candid reply deserves to be unpacked, because it implies at least three important points worth bearing in mind.   First, while surveillance of an advisor to a presidential campaign is certainly an unusual use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, there is no reason to suppose that Page’s case is some sort of extreme outlier. On the contrary—as common sense would suggest and Horowitz’s report confirms—investigators were acutely aware that this was an enormously sensitive case certain to draw intense scrutiny. Thus the initial FISA application targeting Page, at least, was unusually detailed, and received additional layers of review before being submitted to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). It’s reasonable to infer, then, that many of the thousands of FISA applications filed each year have defects as bad or worse than those Horowitz identified here. Second, if we want an explanation for those errors, Horowitz’s answer suggests one more systemic than a cartoonish anti-Trump vendetta: Nobody is doing the kind of thorough investigation that would find and correct those problems. In a criminal investigation, the purpose of a so-called Title III wiretap order is to obtain evidence for a criminal prosecution. While the initial application is submitted in secret, defense attorneys will be entitled to discovery at trial, and have ample incentive to hunt for government missteps. What’s more, investigators know they need to keep track of potentially exculpatory information, which they’ll be obligated to turn over. Even in cases where no prosecution results, the target of a Title III wiretap has to be notified once the wiretap ends, and may take legal action. The purpose of FISA surveillance, by contrast, is gathering foreign intelligence, not collecting evidence for use in court: The vast, vast majority of FISA targets will never be prosecuted. Unlike a Title III, a FISA might be “successful” from the government’s perspective—because it yielded foreign intelligence information—without actually validating its initial premise that the target is a foreign agent. In short, while the FISA process looks superficially somewhat similar to its criminal counterpart on the front end, it lacks the adversarial mechanisms on the back end that constitute a critical part of the criminal process. , The most obvious takeaway from the Horowitz report is that we need far more comprehensive “deep dive” investigations into the use of intelligence tools. , Third, we should be wary of the temptation to think about potential FISA reforms exclusively in terms of this case, and the findings of this one report. Not merely because we don’t yet know which of the problems identified by Horowitz are most pervasive—and thus most indicative of the need for a remedy at the policy level—but because Horowitz focused almost entirely on Title I of FISA, which most closely resembles the traditional warrant process, with judges making particularized probable cause determinations. An intelligence investigation in which a FISA order was sought assuredly made use of myriad other intelligence tools, most of which involve far less oversight: Business records orders (§215), pen registers to collect communications metadata (§214), and National Security Letters for certain categories of financial or telecommunications records. Horowitz says little about these, perhaps because these other tools had not been as central to the public controversy surrounding the Page investigation. But if corners are cut to the extent documented by Horowitz even in the case of Title I orders, the most rigorously scrutinized, we can hardly suppose everything’s copasetic with authorities that effectively operate on the honor system. Title I FISA Orders The most obvious takeaway from the Horowitz report is that we need far more comprehensive “deep dive” investigations into the use of intelligence tools, both to discover how pervasive the defects Horowitz identified are in other Title I FISA applications, and whether there are comparable problems with other surveillance authorities. As the Inspector General’s report demonstrates, there are serious issues that will not be identified by “higher level” reviews, such as the omission of information that would tend to undermine the government’s case. But such “deep dives” need not just serve as a guide for policymakers: They can also serve as a partial remedy, precisely by replicating (imperfectly) the mechanisms and incentives that serve as checks on criminal investigations. While, of course, it is not realistic to expect reviews this exhaustive for any significant percentage of FISA investigations, a deeper review of a representative sample of U.S. person FISA applications—not simply verification that facts asserted in the application have documentary support, but a review of the case file and correspondence for material omissions—may help to reproduce some of the incentives that exist on the criminal side. Case agents will be conscious of the possibility—the risk, if not the certainty—that they will be called to explain why some fact favorable to the target of surveillance was omitted from an application. Even if only a small fraction of FISA applications can be so reviewed, such a process would introduce an incentive to focus on potentially exculpatory information currently absent from FISA. On the front end, the role of existing FISC amici could be expanded to permit discretionary intervention in applications being submitted to the Court—not merely in cases in which the FISC itself seeks their perspective—at least in cases designated “special investigative matters” because of their potential implications for religious, political, or press freedoms. The current remit of the amici is to advise the Court in cases involving “novel or significant” legal interpretations or requiring technical expertise. But civil liberties interests need not be “novel” to require an advocate to make them sufficiently salient to a judge. The participation of amici would add a dimension not typically provided by existing internal oversight, which tends to be more focused on formalistic compliance than weighing competing equities and interests. Finally—and perhaps most importantly—the presumption that FISA surveillance will be permanently covert should be ended. Currently, the only FISA targets who normally become aware of surveillance are the small fraction the government ultimately chooses to prosecute for a crime—which is to say, those whose wiretaps did indeed produce strong evidence confirming the government’s suspicion that they were engaged in wrongdoing. A target whose surveillance proves to have been unjustified, perversely, has no remedy, because they will never learn of it. While there will doubtless be cases in which the protection of sources and methods precludes such notice—where publicizing even the identities of erroneous targets would feed too much vital information to genuine adversaries—this should no longer be the default. At the termination of FISA surveillance of a U.S. person, there should be a rebuttable presumption of notice parallel to that required by Title III surveillance, unless the government can demonstrate to the FISC that such notice would entail a concrete national security harm sufficiently grave to outweigh the target’s interests. (Here, too, FISC amici should have an opportunity to represent those interests.) As the Supreme Court wrote in Berger v. New York, the requirement that targets of a search be given notice absent exigent circumstances “would appear more important in eavesdropping, with its inherent dangers, than that required when conventional procedures of search and seizure are utilized.” Indeed, notice is an important component of what makes a search “reasonable” in Fourth Amendment terms. It was the absence of notice that particularly sparked Lord Camden’s ire in the seminal English case of Entick v. Carrington: , [The warrant] is executed by messengers with or without a constable (for it can never be pretended, that such is necessary in point of law) in the presence or the absence of the party, as the messenger shall think fit, and without a witness to testify what passes at the time of the transaction; so that when the papers are gone, as the only witnesses are the trespassers, the party injured is left without proof. If this injury falls upon an innocent person, he is as destitute of remedy as the guilty: and the whole transaction is so guarded against discovery, that if the officer should be disposed to carry off a bank bill he may do it with impunity, since there is no man capable of proving either the taker or the thing taken. , While the facts of specific cases may justify delaying or waiving notice to a target, that justification should still need to be made on a case-by-case basis: It should not simply be categorically presumed that the government’s ex ante foreign intelligence purpose in seeking a wiretap automatically provides sufficient ex post grounds for leaving a target “destitute of remedy.” Other Surveillance Authorities While the Horowitz report says relatively little about other investigative tools deployed in the Page investigation, government acquisition of detailed financial and telecommunications metadata can in many ways be as intrusive as the collection of content. Yet multiple authorities—including the aforementioned §215, §214, and National Security Letters—permit such information to be obtained with little more than an assertion of “relevance to an investigation.” In the case of National Security Letters, judicial approval is not even required. The FBI could have used this panoply of tools to conduct incredibly revealing surveillance of Page without risking similar criticism, because they would not have needed to establish probable cause to believe he was acting as a foreign agent. It would be enough that the case agents regarded his activities as potentially relevant to their probe. That bar should be raised. Here, current law provides a straightforward mechanism for strengthening civil liberties protections while still allowing investigators enormous flexibility. FISA’s business records authority (§215) specifies that records are presumptively relevant to an intelligence investigation if they pertain to: , (a) a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power (b) the activities of a suspected agent of a foreign power who is the subject of such an authorized investigation, or (c) an individual in contact with, or known to, an agent of a foreign power who is the subject of such authorized investigation. , All three of the aforementioned authorities should be amended to require a showing that records are relevant to the investigation and fall into one of these three quite broad categories. This would help ensure both that the net of “relevance” is not cast so wide it encompasses individuals without a concrete link to a valid investigative target, and that peripheral associates of a target are not automatically or indiscriminately subject to invasive monitoring without some specific basis for believing their records are needed, beyond the mere fact of association with a target. In the case of National Security Records, the scope of telecommunications records obtainable should be restricted to “basic subscriber information”—such as name, address, length of service, and billing address—while more detailed “electronic communications transaction records” and “toll billing records” require use of an authority subject to judicial approval, such as §215. This should give investigators the necessary latitude—and enough initial information—to assess whether a court order should be sought without exposing a detailed roadmap of individuals’ digital activities before a judge is involved. In Page’s case, of course, these changes would not in themselves have made much difference, since the FBI had successfully persuaded the FISC that he was probably a foreign agent. But they might have limited the collateral damage to friends and associates whose finances, phone records, and online activity all became automatically available to the government as a result. While only Page himself was directly subject to full-content FISA surveillance, everyone in contact with him would have become “presumptively” subject to extensive metadata surveillance as a result of that association. In addition to being advisable in themselves, then, reforming these metadata authorities can be thought of as a backstop or supplement to FISA Title I reform. Even with the best imaginable procedures, the government will sometimes target people for surveillance improperly, or for longer than is justifiable. Narrowing the government’s power to acquire metadata ensures that such errors are at least not compounded by authorizing granular monitoring of their entire social universe. Julian Sanchez is a senior fellow at Cato and focuses primarily on issues at the busy intersection of technology, privacy, civil liberties, and new media — but also writes more broadly about political philosophy and social psychology.
  • It’s Time to Make Congress Great Again    (William Yeatman, 2020-01-15)
    William Yeatman In contemporary American government, the presidency is dominating Congress in our system of separate-but-competing branches. This constitutional imbalance is a growing threat to liberty, and the only solution is to make Congress great again. , Let’s start with first principles: The Constitution sets forth our governmental structure in its first three Articles. Article I of the Constitution establishes Congress. Article II creates the presidency. And Article III renders the Supreme Court. Did you notice that Congress is number one? That’s not by accident. The Founding Fathers took it for granted that Congress is first among equals within our tripartite government. Indeed, the Founders feared Congress most of all. In Federalist 47, James Madison worried that Congress’s “impetuous vortex” would swallow up the authority wielded by its coordinate branches. Ultimately, the Founders feared most the concentration of power, which Madison described as being the “very definition of tyranny.” For most of its history, Congress has lived up to these expectations. Now, however, our once-grand legislature is a shell of its former self. With respect to current events, the best evidence of Congress’s fall is the ongoing impeachment debacle. The Founding Fathers intended impeachment to be Congress’s ultimate weapon in a permanent competition with the presidency. In Federalist 66, Alexander Hamilton wrote that impeachment is Congress’s “essential check” on “encroachments” by the executive branch. In accordance with these expectations, past impeachments have been part and parcel of structural battles between Congress and the presidency. Consider President Richard Nixon. Sure, Congress put him through the impeachment wringer, but lawmakers also enacted reforms to shift the balance of power towards Congress. The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, for example, beefed up congressional staff and resources. And the Budget Impoundment and Control Act of 1974 attempted to reassert Congress’s power over the purse. Similarly, the 19th century impeachment of President Andrew Johnson was emmeshed within a larger struggle between the elected branches of government. Today’s impeachment of President Donald Trump, by contrast, has nothing to do with checking executive power. Instead, it’s all about winning the presidency on behalf of the two political parties. Getting two-thirds of the Senate to go along with removing President Trump was never going to happen, so instead House Democrats are using the impeachment inquiry to sway next November’s vote. For their part, Senate Republicans are embracing a trial, reportedly in the hope that a drawn-out process will keep Democratic presidential candidates in the Senate off the campaign trail during the crucial first primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire. Meanwhile, neither the House nor Senate currently is trying to enact substantive reforms that would rein in executive overreach. Rather than competing with the president, both chambers in Congress are leveraging the proceedings to conduct partisan political campaigns for the presidency. What’s going on here? Why have the House and Senate, through the impeachment process, become willing cogs in the oily machinery of the 2020 presidential contest? The answer involves a tectonic shift in American government, from a functioning separation of powers to one that is alarmingly out of whack. To appreciate today’s perverted impeachment process, one must understand how the president supplanted Congress as policymaker-in-chief. Our imbalanced constitutional process results from three interrelated historical developments. The first is that Congress, over the last century, has given away, or “delegated,” much of its policymaking initiative to the executive branch. For the most part, Congress delegates to pass the buck. When voters want something done, lawmakers could legislate policy specifics, but they’ll get blamed if they err. By delegating, Congress can escape accountability by having agencies make tough choices. Thus, Congress has delegated into existence an alphabet soup’s worth of regulatory agencies, which are collectively known as the administrative state. The second historical development is the centralization of power in Congress under the control of party leaders. When Congress first started giving away its power, lawmakers took pains to oversee their delegations through a system of strong committees in the House and Senate. From the New Deal to the Reagan era, powerful committee chairs vied with presidential appointees for influence at regulatory agencies. During the last 40 years, however, Congress changed. Demographic shifts led to the end of blocs of southern Democrats and northeastern Republicans. Without these moderate voices, the two parties became more uniform in outlook. As hive-mentalities were taking hold in Congress, opportunistic leaders, such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-ME), consolidated power with rules changes, procedural maneuvering, and the distribution of party resources. As power shifted from committees to party leadership, Congress lost the capacity to oversee its delegations. This brings us to the third historical development. As Congress lost interest in managing agency policymaking, modern presidents have seized undisputed supremacy over the administrative state. Since Nixon, an unbroken succession of presidents tightened the Oval Office’s grip over agency spending and regulatory output, primarily through the administrative state’s brain—the Office of Management and Budget within the Executive Office of the President. The upshot is that policy now flows from the White House rather than Capitol Hill. In 2018, federal agencies issued 12 rules and regulations for every law Congress passed (3,367 agency rules, compared to Congress’s 291 laws). Nor are these middling measures. Major economic and social policies—identical to those that Congress considered but ultimately rejected—now regularly emanate from the executive branch. For example, Congress couldn’t pass immigration reform, net neutrality, nor a carbon dioxide cap-and-trade, but President Barack Obama achieved the same results unilaterally using the power that Congress already had given away. Republican presidents, alas, are no less guilty of executive excess. To wit, lawmakers denied President Trump funding to build a border wall, but then he exercised his delegated authority to expand the wall without Congress. In a celebrated law review article written when she was a professor at Harvard University, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan wrote that contemporary government is defined by “presidential administration” due to the president’s “comparative primacy [relative to Congress] in setting the direction and influencing the outcome of administrative process.” Today, the president doesn’t merely set the agenda; he controls its creation and execution. In this context—where the president calls the shots and Congress is beholden to party leadership—half the legislature always is unbothered with unbound executive authority whenever “their guy” occupies the White House. It’s a vicious feedback loop. The more powerful the president becomes, the more our party-centric Congress rationally believes that the Oval Office is the most efficient means to implement the planks of a given party’s platform. Of course, the parties whine about executive overreach, but only when they don’t occupy the White House. Neither party seeks to claw back power from the presidency, because each side wants its respective team to exercise executive authority. So, congressional Republicans cried foul about executive power when President Obama resorted to his “phone and pen,” but then rallied to the support of President Trump when he disregarded Congress’s “power of the purse” in funding the border wall. And Democratic lawmakers now complain about presidential power, even though they gave President Obama an ovation when he threatened to bypass Congress on climate change during the 2013 State of the Union address. Today’s supine Congress would be unrecognizable to the Founding Fathers. They understood that a concentration of power threatens individual liberty, so they designed a government with three branches—executive, legislative, and judicial—and gave each the means to check the other. By dispersing power into competing institutions, the Founders’ constitutional design serves to protect our individual liberty. At present, this constitutional design is buckling. As noted above, the Founding Fathers feared congressional power most of all. Federalist 62 warns that an “excess of lawmaking” is a “disease” to which “our government is most liable.” For this reason, the Constitution makes it hard to pass laws. Statutes must be passed by both chambers of Congress, and then signed by the president. It’s an arduous journey for a bill to become a law. By contrast, it’s far easier for the president to impose a regulation. All he needs to do is pick up the phone to get the ball rolling. Because all regulations carry the force of law, a government characterized by “presidential administration” incubates the “disease” of “excessive lawmaking” no less than a government controlled by Congress. Overweening government is a threat to liberty, regardless whether it’s flowing from the executive or legislative branch of government. The solution, of course, is to bring balance back to our separation of powers. Congress must rediscover its institutional ambition, and once again engage in robust competition with the presidency. So, how do we make Congress great again? Congress might be compelled to get its act together, even if it doesn’t want to. For almost 80 years, the Supreme Court has refused to police how much power Congress transfers to the executive branch. Under its “nondelegation doctrine,” the Court allows any delegation, as long as it is bounded by an “intelligible principle.” In practice, however, the Court construed “intelligible principle” so broadly that the concept has no meaning. Even a phrase as nebulous as “public interest” has met the standard. For the first time since the New Deal-era, a majority on the Supreme Court has expressed a willingness to revisit the nondelegation doctrine. Were the Court to add teeth to its “intelligible principle” test, then Congress would be forced to curtail the breadth of its delegations to the executive branch. Turning from the Supreme Court to Congress, there are many institutional reforms that the legislature could take to empower itself vis-a-vis the presidency. Starting with the easiest measures, Congress could remedy its anemic staffing. In fact, the current level of committee staffing is commensurate with levels from the early 1970s, even though government has grown much larger and more complex in the five decades since. And it’s not just congressional committees that are understaffed. Congress also has starved support agencies, such as the Congressional Research Service, the Congressional Budget Office, and the Government Accountability Office. These organizations employed 6,354 professionals in 1991; in 2015, the number stood at 3,833. Congress also could create new institutions to better compete. In the early 1980s, the president unilaterally established the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (within the Office of Management and Budget) to manage regulations out of the White House. Yet Congress has no commensurate capacity. There is an obvious need for Congress to create its own comparable mechanism to oversee agency rules. Congress could adopt simple legislative fixes. For example, lawmakers used to regularly limit the clock on their delegations, such that an agency’s regulatory authority expired after a given time. These “sunset” provisions force Congress to periodically review the programs it creates, before these regimes are re-authorized. Or lawmakers could make greater use of “resolutions of disapproval,” which allow them to veto individual regulations. Since Congress created these “legislative vetoes” more than two decades ago, lawmakers have employed this device fewer than 20 times—far less than two percent of the total number of major rules promulgated by agencies during that span. If it wanted to get bold, Congress could pass more comprehensive reform. The Regulatory Accountability Act, for example, would require agencies to better justify rules that cost more than $100 million. And if Congress wanted to regain the upper hand in one fell swoop, the House and Senate would get behind the REINS Act, which would require both chambers of Congress to approve all major regulations before they took effect. These reforms are fantastic ideas, to be sure, but they’re all nonstarters for as long as love of party trumps institutional pride in Congress. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Even were Congress to pass REINS, no doubt the House and Senate could find a way to avoid accountability. Most likely, we need a new type of lawmaker, one who is cut from old cloth. Lawmakers of the not too distant past understood that the presidency—and not merely its office-holder—is the Congress’s constitutional rival. To restore crucial safeguards for “We the People,” we must Make Congress Great Again. William Yeatman is a research fellow in the Cato Institute’s Robert A. Levy Center for Constitutional Studies.
  • Amtrak's Big Lie    (Randal O'Toole, 2020-01-14)
    Randal O'Toole Recent articles in respected business journals report that Amtrak lost only $29.8 million in 2019 (out of $3.3 billion in total revenues) and that it expects to make a profit in 2020. This is a remarkable turnaround for a company that cost taxpayers more than $100 billion in its first 49 years of existence. Amtrak accomplished this using a simple yet apparently effective technique: It's called lying. , Amtrak's accounting system is so full of lies that even the pro-passenger train Rail Passengers Association calls it "fatally flawed, misleading, and wrong." The first lie is that Amtrak counts taxpayer subsidies from the states as "passenger revenues." According to Amtrak's unaudited report, 17 state legislatures gave Amtrak a total of $234 million in 2019. The taxpayers in those states were never allowed to vote on these subsidies, and the vast majority don't ride Amtrak. These subsidies are no more "passenger revenues" than the subsidies given to Amtrak by Congress. Deducting these subsidies from revenues immediately increases Amtrak's 2019 losses to $264 million. , Amtrak's accounting system is so full of lies that even the pro-passenger train Rail Passengers Association calls it ‘fatally flawed, misleading, and wrong.’ , An even bigger lie is Amtrak's failure to report depreciation in its operating costs. Ignoring depreciation is an old railroad accounting trick aimed at misleading investors by boosting apparent profits. A classic example was the Rock Island Railroad, which ran many fast passenger trains throughout the Midwest in the 1950s. Then Rock Island proposed to merge with another railroad, and to improve the merger terms it began deferring maintenance. By the time the federal government approved the merger, Rock Island's tracks were so decrepit that its passenger trains ran as slow as 10 miles per hour. The other railroad backed out, and Rock Island shocked the nation by going out of business. The Interstate Commerce Commission responded by requiring railroads to include depreciation among their operating costs. This represents the amount of money railroads have to spend or save to keep their infrastructure and equipment in good shape, ensuring that investors would never again be misled by deferred maintenance. Amtrak dutifully includes depreciation in its audited financial statements, but it never mentions it in its press releases about its finances. In 2019, depreciation amounted to $868 million, increasing total losses to $1.13 billion — 38 times as much as claimed. Even with federal capital subsidies, Amtrak is deferring maintenance like crazy. Amtrak passenger cars have expected lifespans of 25 years, yet the average car in its fleet is well over 30 years old. The Boston-to-Washington corridor, which Amtrak has often claimed to be profitable, has a $38 billion maintenance backlog. Fixing just these two line items in Amtrak's accounting shows that Amtrak did not come close to earning a profit in 2019, it won't earn a profit in 2020, and it never will earn a profit. This is because, after counting all subsidies, Amtrak spends four times as much to move a passenger one mile as the airlines. The difference between Amtrak and intercity buses is even greater, which means Amtrak can't compete in any market without heavy subsidies. Of course, airlines and highways are also subsidized, and we should end those subsidies as well. But federal, state, and local subsidies to air and highway travel average around a penny per passenger mile, whereas Amtrak subsidies were 34 cents per passenger mile in 2019. Amtrak's biggest lie is that passenger trains are somehow vital to the nation's economy. Last year, Americans traveled an average of 15,000 miles by automobile, 2,100 miles by plane, and 1,100 miles by bus. Amtrak's contribution was less than 20 miles per person. Even in the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak reluctantly admits that it carries only 6% of intercity travelers. According to the best available estimates, Americans bicycle 8.5 billion passenger miles a year compared with 6.5 billion passenger miles on Amtrak. Being less important than bicycles, Amtrak certainly doesn't deserve the $2 billion in annual subsidies that it requires to run a supposedly almost-profitable operation. Rather than give Amtrak billions of dollars to restore or build infrastructure that it can't afford to maintain, Congress should simply agree to pay Amtrak a given amount for every passenger mile it carries. This will give Amtrak an incentive to focus on passengers, not politics. Over time, Congress should reduce that amount until Amtrak receives no more per passenger mile than airlines or highways. Any trains that can truly be profitable will survive, but if they do, it will be because Amtrak has found ways to efficiently transport people, not because of lies in its accounting system. Randal O'Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of Romance of the Rails: Why the Passenger Trains We Love Are Not the Transportation We Need.
  • Putin's Russia Is Not the Soviet Union Reborn    (Ted Galen Carpenter, 2020-01-14)
    Ted Galen Carpenter Key Point: U.S. foreign policy must catch up with the developments of the past thirty years and reassess its relationship with Russia. , The American public and U.S. policymakers both have an unfortunate tendency to conflate Russia with the Soviet Union. That habit emerged again with the media and political reaction to the Helsinki summit between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump's critics accused him of appeasing Putin and even of committing treason for not doing enough to defend American interests and for being far too solicitous to the Russian leader. They regarded that as an unforgivable offense because Russia supposedly poses a dire threat to the United States. Hostile pundits and politicians charged that Moscow's alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. elections constituted an attack on America akin to Pearl Harbor and 9-11. , Thirty years after the end of the Cold War, it's time the foreign policy establishment learned the difference. , Trump’s supplicant behavior, opponents contended, stood in shameful contrast to the behavior of previous presidents toward tyrants, especially toward the Kremlin’s threats to America and the West. They trotted out Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” speech and his later demand that Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall as examples of how Trump should have acted. The problem with citing such examples is that they applied to a different country: the Soviet Union. Too many Americans act as though there is no meaningful difference between that entity and Russia. Worse still, U.S. leaders have embraced the same kind of uncompromising, hostile policies that Washington pursued to contain Soviet power. It is a major blunder that has increasingly poisoned relations with Moscow since the demise of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) at the end of 1991. One obvious difference between the Soviet Union and Russia is that the Soviet governing elite embraced Marxism-Leninism and its objective of world revolution. Today’s Russia is not a messianic power. Its economic system is a rather mundane variety of corrupt crony capitalism, not rigid state socialism. The political system is a conservative autocracy with aspects of a rigged democracy, not a one-party dictatorship that brooks no dissent whatsoever. Russia is hardly a Western-style democracy, but neither is it a continuation of the Soviet Union's horrifically brutal totalitarianism. Indeed, the country's political and social philosophy is quite different from that of its predecessor. For example, the Orthodox Church had no meaningful influence during the Soviet era—something that was unsurprising, given communism's official policy of atheism. But today, the Orthodox Church has a considerable influence in Putin's Russia, especially on social issues. The bottom line is that Russia is a conventional, somewhat conservative, power, whereas the Soviet Union was a messianic, totalitarian power. That's a rather large and significant difference, and U.S. policy needs to reflect that realization. An equally crucial difference is that the Soviet Union was a global power (and, for a time, arguably a superpower) with global ambitions and capabilities to match. It controlled an empire in Eastern Europe and cultivated allies and clients around the world, including in such far-flung places as Cuba, Vietnam, and Angola. The USSR also intensely contested the United States for influence in all of those areas. Conversely, Russia is merely a regional power with very limited extra-regional reach. The Kremlin's ambitions are focused heavily on the near abroad, aimed at trying to block the eastward creep of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the U.S.-led intrusion into Russia's core security zone. The orientation seems far more defensive than offensive. It would be difficult for Russia to execute anything more than a very geographically limited expansionist agenda, even if it has one. The Soviet Union was the world's number two economic power, second only to the United States. Russia has an economy roughly the size of Canada's and is no longer ranked even in the global top ten. It also has only three-quarters of the Soviet Union's territory (much of which is nearly-empty Siberia) and barely half the population of the old USSR. If that were not enough, that population is shrinking and is afflicted with an assortment of public health problems (especially rampant alcoholism). All of these factors should make it evident that Russia is not a credible rival, much less an existential threat, to the United States and its democratic system. Russia's power is a pale shadow of the Soviet Union's. The only undiminished source of clout is the country's sizeable nuclear arsenal. But while nuclear weapons are the ultimate deterrent, they are not very useful for power projection or warfighting, unless the political leadership wants to risk national suicide. And there is no evidence whatsoever that Putin and his oligarch backers are suicidal. Quite the contrary, they seem wedded to accumulating ever greater wealth and perks. Finally, Russia's security interests actually overlap substantially with America's—most notably regarding the desire to combat radical Islamic terrorism. If U.S. leaders did not insist on pursuing provocative policies, such as expanding NATO to Russia's border, undermining longtime Russian clients in the Balkans (Serbia) and the Middle East (Syria), and excluding Russia from key international economic institutions such as the G-7, there would be relatively few occasions when vital American and Russian interests collide. A fundamental shift in U.S. policy is needed, but that requires a major change in America's national psychology. For more than four decades, Americans saw (and were told to regard) the Soviet Union as a mortal threat to the nation's security and its most cherished values of freedom and democracy. Unfortunately, a mental reset did not take place when the USSR dissolved, and a quasi-democratic Russia emerged as one of the successor states. Too many Americans (including political leaders and policymakers) act as though they are still confronting the Soviet Union. It will be the ultimate tragic irony if, having avoided war with a totalitarian global adversary, America now stumbles into war because of an out-of-date image of, and policy toward, a conventional, declining regional power. Yet unless U.S. leaders change both their mindsets and their policies toward Russia, that outcome is a very real possibility. Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at the National Interest, is the author of 10 books, the contributing editor of 10 books, and the author of more than 700 articles on international affairs. This piece was originally featured in July 2018 and is being republished due to reader's interest.
  • Targeting the World’s Worst Religious Persecutors    (Doug Bandow, 2020-01-12)
    Doug Bandow Christmas is typically a joyous time for Christians. But many believers were not able to celebrate their most important holiday this past year. Or any other. By numbers, Christianity is the most persecuted faith. , For example, confronting a population with more Christians than Communist Party members, the Chinese government has launched a brutal and intensive campaign against all faiths, especially when operating outside of government-controlled bodies. In the Middle East persecution is state policy in such nations as Saudi Arabia and Iran and favored activity of outside forces in Iraq and Syria. No faith is exempt. Judaism remains a perennial target of the most malevolent actors in many societies. Yazidis, Baha’is, and other non-traditional religions are particularly vulnerable to Islamist extremists. Being the “wrong” kind of Muslim can lead to great hardship, even death, in Islamic nations. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) makes an annual report on the status of religious liberty around the world. Persecution is surprisingly widespread. The situation is best in North and South America, though traditionally free countries, such as Canada, are moving in the wrong direction as socially conservative believers increasingly face exclusion and punishment. Africa, Asia, and the Middle East feature extensive religious cleansing and mass murder of people of faith. , Americans of serious religious faith increasingly and justifiably worry about the security of their liberties at home as support for religious freedom becomes just become another partisan issue. , The State Department has named nine particularly egregious offenders as “Countries of Particular Concern.” The winners of the just concluded year’s contest for worst of the worst are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. Although rhetorically clumsy, the label is highly substantive, reflecting severe and systematic persecution. State generally follows the commission’s recommendations, though typically offers Realpolitik leniency based on other geopolitical considerations. USCIRF’s latest assessment details the offenders’ many crimes. Burma. One of the most tragic cases covered by the commission, Burma, also known as Myanmar, seemed headed toward a democratic future four years ago when the military relaxed its hold on power and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won an overwhelming majority of parliamentary seats. But the military continues to dominate security affairs, and Suu Kyi turned out to be a Burman nationalist more worried about strengthening her party’s reelection chances than remedying widespread human rights abuses. USCIRF reported on “widespread atrocities” against the Rohingya Muslims. Although these attacks have been particularly severe, other groups have suffered as well. Noted the commission, “Victims of severe human rights and religious freedom violations have little hope for justice; this includes Rohingya and other Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and Hindus, as well as ethnic Kachin, Shan, Karen, Rakhine, and Chin.” In the case of some ethnic groups, the military and nonstate forces appear to be guilty of “crimes against humanity and even genocide.” The NLD-led government has restricted media freedom to report on such violations of human rights. China. Although economic reform and engagement failed to deliver political liberalization in the People’s Republic of China, the death of Mao Zedong did yield a looser form of authoritarianism. Churches spread, and there are now more Christians than Communist Party members, especially those who join out of political ideology and not personal ambition. But Xi Jinping, who was selected as president and party general secretary in 2012, has fostered a return to Mao and Maoism. The Commission reported that at least 800,000 and perhaps as many as two million Muslim Uighurs have been sent to reeducation camps. Even those not detained face severe repression of their religious and personal liberties. Other believers also face serious and increasing attacks by the Chinese government. The commission reported that in 2018 the regime “effectively banned ‘unauthorized’ religious teachings and required religious groups to report any online activity. Moreover, the Chinese government continued to persecute all faiths in an effort to ‘sinicize’ religious belief, a campaign that attempts not only to diminish and erase the independent practice of religion, but also the cultural and linguistic heritage of religious and ethnic communities.” One senses the ghosts of Madame Mao and the Gang of Four with every new pronouncement from Beijing. Eritrea. This North African country has been called the North Korea of Africa, which is not a compliment. After winning its independence from Ethiopia through a long and bitter war, Eritrea turned inward, creating a totalitarian horror. The regime recognizes only Sunni Islam and the Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Churches. USCIRF explained, “Even these official religious groups are unable to practice their faith freely because the Eritrean government regulates and interferes in their affairs. The government does not allow any other religious groups to register and treats them as illegal.” Conscripts are not allowed to practice their faith. Those arrested often are imprisoned in inhumane conditions. Despite making peace with Ethiopia in 2018, Eritrea has not relaxed domestic repression. The commission noted that “hundreds of people are currently imprisoned for their religious beliefs, but in the extremely secretive and closed-off society there are no official figures.” The only escape is flight, and the number of Eritrean refugees going to Ethiopia has jumped. Iran. The self-styled “Islamic republic” grew out of the overthrow of the U.S.-backed Shah. The regime has been under siege ever since, barely surviving an invasion by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, supported by the Reagan administration, and subsequent sanctions and threats by Washington. Unsurprisingly, religious liberty has suffered. In 2018, USCIRF reported, Tehran heightened “its systematic targeting of Muslims (particularly Sunni Muslims and Sufis), Baha’is and Christians. The government arbitrarily detained, harassed, and imprisoned Baha’is based on their religion and continued its long-term practice of egregious economic and education persecution of the community. Hundreds of Sufis were arrested and scores were sent to solitary confinement and beaten in prison. Christians faced a dramatic uptick in arrests from previous years, and Muslim converts to Christianity continued to face severe persecution.” Jews and Shia reformers also suffered: , Three years ago President Hassan Rouhani promised to liberalize the government’s policy toward religious minorities. However, that effort, if ever launched, was stillborn. The system has grown less tolerant. In fact, the situation today is far worse. The repressive religious order is able to suppress popular dissent only with difficulty; this battle over the regime’s survival is not helping religious liberty. The situation is likely to get worse before it improves. , North Korea. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea sets the global standard for repressive rule. The Kim family dynasty is treated as godly; anyone who promotes a higher loyalty to someone or something else, namely God, poses a severe threat to the system. The commission noted, “The North Korean regime has an appalling human rights record and places unjust restrictions on its people’s inherent right to freedom of religion or belief. The North Korean government maintains totalitarian control over society.” Only a handful of official churches are allowed to exist, mostly, it is believed, for show. In contrast, USCIRF explained, “Any expression of religion outside this heavily regulated sphere happens in secret, and anyone caught practicing religion or even suspected of harboring religious views in private is subject to severe punishment.” Defectors returned from China are most harshly punished if they have contact with Christian activists and churches active across the border. As many as 50,000 believers are thought to be imprisoned in North Korean labor camps. Pakistan. Although the government sought to combat Islamic extremism, in 2018 “religious freedom conditions generally trended negative,” the commission stated. “During the year, extremist groups and societal actors continued to discriminate against and attack religious minorities, including Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Ahmadis, and Shi’a Muslims. The government of Pakistan failed to adequately protect these groups, and it perpetrated systematic, ongoing, egregious religious freedom violations.” Among the most brutal tools of religious repression are the nation’s extreme blasphemy laws, which often are used against religious minorities and manipulated as part of personal, social, and financial disputes. Religious hatred also is a vote winner. USCIRF explained that “the entry of extremist religious parties into the political arena during the election period led to increased threats and hate speech against religious minorities.” Even the best of intentions of political leaders have been frustrated by Islamist demagogues. Saudi Arabia. President Donald Trump criticized the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia during the campaign but has since acted as if Riyadh was the superpower and America the helpless supplicant. Yet the KSA is one of the most repressive states on earth. Even after recent social liberalization, the royal regime maintains essentially totalitarian religious and political restrictions: no dissent of any kind is permitted, and dissidents abroad risk kidnapping, murder, and dismemberment. Saudi officials have, the commission reported, pledged “to promote interfaith dialogue and the flourishing of different faith traditions as part of the kingdom’s domestic reforms,” but nothing has yet changed in practice. The regime “maintained a ban on non-Muslim public religious observance and continued to arrest, detain, and harass individuals for dissent, blasphemy, and apostasy. The Saudi government continued to violate the rights of Shi’a Muslims and non-Muslim minorities, and to advocate doctrine of religious intolerance.” The latter is particularly important. The royals made a proverbial deal with the devil, promoting the intolerant doctrines of Wahhabism in the kingdom and around the world in return for support for the al-Saud dynasty. Yet “after more than 15 years of incremental progress, the Saudi government showed backsliding on improvements to its textbooks that continued to propagate intolerance and advocate violence against religious minorities” and others. The result is likely to be creation of more violent terrorists and murder of more innocents. Tajikistan. This authoritarian former Soviet republic fears not only extremism, as it should, but faith, which it should not. Explained USCIRF, the government continues its “repressive policies, suppressing displays of public religiosity and persecuting minority communities, especially actual and alleged Salafists. Authorities pursued a crackdown on various attributes of faith, including restrictions on wedding and funerary banquets, and pursued extralegal bans on beards and hijabs. Higher Islamic religious education was all but decimated.” More than 2,000 mosques were closed. Such brutality obviously is unjust. It also is likely to spur extremist thought and action. If the only way to pursue a life of faith is illegally, then the potential for illicit teaching and association is far greater. Turkmenistan. None of the Central Asian states turned out well after independence. Alas, the commission warned, “Turkmenistan is widely considered the most closed of the former Soviet states, and this was reflected in the range and severity of the government’s religious freedom violations.” The regime imprisoned conscientious objectors and “continued to be suspicious of all independent religious activity and maintained a large surveillance apparatus that monitors believers at home and abroad.” The government “requires religious groups to register under intrusive criteria, strictly controls registered groups’ activities, and bans and punishes religious activities by unregistered groups.” Those accused of religious offenses often are tried in communicado, receive secret sentences, and disappear “in the state’s prisons system and are presumed to be held without any contact with the outside world.” Their fate can only be presumed, however, since “the full extent of religious persecution is unknown due to the nearly complete absence of independent news media and the threat of retaliation by the government against communities, family members, and individuals who publicize human rights and religious freedom violations.” Unfortunately, there are plenty of also-rans in the race for the bottom. For instance, in its latest report the commission noted that globally “both state and nonstate actors increasingly used religion as a tool of exclusion to isolate, marginalize, and punish the ‘other’ through discrimination and violence.” State also places some countries — oppressive, but behind the CPCs — on a Special Watch List. This year those nations are Comoros, Cuba, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Russia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan. Their characters vary, but the results are similar, gross interference with freedom of conscience and the ability to live out one’s faith. All believers are a risk, but Moscow’s intolerance is curiously and narrowly focused, with Jehovah’s Witnesses the most recent target. In most cases malign governments — authoritarian, communist, or Islamist — are to blame. In Nigeria a virulent Islamic insurgency terrorizes Christians and nonviolent Muslims. Only in the case of Sudan is the ranking positive, since the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir eased oppression of non-Muslims. Khartoum used to be CPC. USCIRF does not stop with these nations. It also surveys a number of other nations in what the commission calls Tier 1 and Tier 2. These oppressive extras are Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Central African Republic, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, Syria, Turkey, and Vietnam. Although the CPC designation is useful, it is merely a starting point. The U.S. and other nations of goodwill have only limited ability to reach into other societies and improve human rights, whether religious, political, or civil. The application of general sanctions hurts people more than governments, usually without policy effect. Targeted sanctions provide moral satisfaction but have yet to ease, let alone end, persecution anywhere. Who believes that Washington’s criticism will cause Xi Jinping, heretofore the new Chinese Mao, to suddenly channel Thomas Jefferson and speak of the eternal rights to life and liberty? Worse, U.S. policy often ignores and sometimes spurs persecution. Washington usually goes soft when its allies — Egypt and Saudi Arabia are current examples — are the oppressors. Indeed, Riyadh is notably more ruthless than Tehran, but the former’s crimes are almost never mentioned by Secretary of State and noted Evangelical Mike Pompeo. The impact of Washington’s policies can be even worse: the invasion of Iraq created chaos, sparked sectarian war, and spread persecution. The Christian community was ravaged, with many believers forced abroad, including to Syria, where they were victimized again, this time by insurgents backed by Washington. In such cases, the best the U.S. could do is adopt the Hippocratic Oath: first, do no harm. Yet support for the oppressed matters, and not just from governments. In fact, assistance from individuals, congregations, activists, groups, and anyone else who believes in the importance of human life and dignity is critical. Such non-political efforts cannot be dismissed as hypocritical cant and pursuit of foreign policy by other means. Private campaigns also can embarrass, hinder, impede, and shame offenders. Equally important, standing for religious liberty lets the victims know that they are not alone. Knowledge that they are backed by a genuine “international community” helps give them strength for what almost certainly will be a lengthy struggle well into the future. Americans of serious religious faith increasingly and justifiably worry about the security of their liberties at home as support for religious freedom becomes just become another partisan issue. Yet believers in the U.S. do not know real persecution. Rather, brothers and sisters in faith abroad are the principal victims of religious intolerance, discrimination and persecution. They require the hopes, prayers, and support of good people around the globe. Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. He is a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan and author of several books, including Beyond Good Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics and Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.
  • Counterpoint: Be Skeptical About the Census    (Matthew Feeney, 2020-01-11)
    Matthew Feeney This year the Census Bureau will begin conducting the constitutionally required census, which takes place every 10 years. Many readers will dutifully fill out the forms, informing the bureau about their household and providing researchers with data. In May, the bureau will begin visiting those who haven’t responded to the census. , But why wouldn’t someone want to contribute to social science and an accurate head count? The history of the census provides ample evidence to justify such reluctance. The census sounds harmless enough. In a representative democracy like the United States where seats in at least part of the legislature are determined by population, it’s important to know how many people live in the country and where they live. The framers of the Constitution codified the decennial census as the mechanism for determining the number of seats each state occupies in the House of Representatives. Yet the information included in the census has been used to violate civil liberties, and it would be a mistake to assume similar abuses won’t occur again. Governments often overreact in the wake of a crisis, and a crucial feature of such overreactions is the collection and analysis of information. During the first Red Scare, a 24-year-old J. Edgar Hoover was put in charge of the so-called “Anti Radical Division” formed by the Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer after a string of anarchist bombings. Hoover, who previously worked at the Library of Congress, used his librarian skills in his hunt for aliens to deport. His team assembled hundreds of thousands of index cards associated with not only individuals but publications and organizations. These notecards aided Department of Justice officials, who conducted the so-called Palmer Raids in late 1919 and early 1920. The raids resulted in thousands of people being arrested without warrants, hundreds of whom were deported. Such zeal for data collection was not isolated to the first Red Scare. Other crises have resulted in increased information gathering. And one of the best sources of information available to the government is the census. After the Japanese navy’s air service bombed the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor in December 1941, military officials reached for the census to facilitate one of the most shameful civil liberty abuses in American history: the internment of Japanese-Americans. A few months after the attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. The order authorized the secretary of war to exclude those considered national security risks from designated military areas. As result, 120,000 people of Japanese descent — the majority of whom were U.S. citizens — were moved into internment camps. Census officials denied that the bureau had assisted Japanese internment. But in 2000 historian Margo Anderson of the University of Wisconsin and Fordham University statistician William Seltzer uncovered evidence that Census Bureau officials provided information on whereabouts of people with Japanese ancestry. In 2000, the Census Bureau director apologized, but only a few years after the apology the bureau was aiding the surveillance of another minority group. In August 2002 and December 2003, the Census Bureau put together tabulations of Arab-Americans for Customs and Border Protection. These tabulations included information on how many Arab-Americans lived in specific ZIP codes. The creation of these tabulations was a small part of the U.S. government’s broader overreaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which resulted in widespread and needless infringements on civil liberties. We should expect that in response to the next crisis officials won’t be shy about seeking census data. This risk is more pronounced when the targets of government surveillance come from broad groups such as “Japanese-Americans” or “Arab-Americans.” The history of American surveillance reveals a list of the targets that is long and diverse. Today the administration is concerned about illegal immigrants. This misguided concern prompted the administration to seek to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census before the Supreme Court ruled against the administration. Future administrations will have different targets. Given that anyone could one day be on the receiving end of government surveillance, it behooves us to be hesitant to volunteer intimate details about our families. Refusing to accurately complete a census form is against the law and could result in a fine. Fortunately, the Department of Justice is hesitant to pursue census refusal cases. It’s true that the census provides researchers with valuable data, but given the history of government overreaction to crises you could forgive those who err on the side of providing less information to the Census Bureau. Matthew Feeney is the director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Emerging Technologies.
  • Croatia Now Ranks among the Freest Countries in the World    (Tanja Porčnik, 2020-01-10)
    Tanja Porčnik With the rise of populism and hybrid forms of authoritarianism, people’s rights and freedoms are under assault in many corners of the globe. Unsurprisingly, among the countries with the most substantial deterioration in freedom in the last year are Angola, Venezuela and Tajikistan. The good news is that freedom has taken root in a diverse set of societies and it is spreading in many of them. Among them is Croatia, which for the first time ranks among the freest countries in the world by quartile. , We recently released the fifth annual Human Freedom Index, the most comprehensive measure of freedom ever created for a large number of countries across the globe. With the index, my co-author Ian Vásquez and I cover 162 jurisdictions and use 76 distinct indicators of personal and economic freedom, applying data from 2008 to 2017, the most recent year for which sufficient data are available. Because of inherent value of human freedoms and their contribution to well-being, freedoms deserve the most vigorous defense. The report is co-published by the Fraser Institute in Canada, the Cato Institute in the United States and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Germany. In the recently released index, we again rank New Zealand and Switzerland as the two freest countries in the world while we again rank Venezuela and Syria last. Other selected countries rank as follows: Germany (8th place), Sweden (11), United Kingdom (14), the United States (15), Japan (25), Chile (28), France (33), Poland (40), Argentina (77), Kenya (79), Mexico (92), India (94), Brazil (109), Russia (114), Turkey (122), Saudi Arabia (149) and Iran (154). How do the former Yugoslav republics rank? The freest country is Slovenia (35), followed by Croatia (37), Montenegro (53), Bosnia and Herzegovina (55), Serbia (58) and, the least free, North Macedonia (65). The index confirms that global freedom remains in retreat as the average human freedom rating for 2017 again falls. At a country level, human freedom tumbles in more countries than not, with some 88 countries experiencing a decline in their freedom ratings compared to 70 countries increasing its freedom since last year. Within the latter group, Croatia experienced the 20th highest increase in the world by increasing its level of human freedom from 7.72 (43rd rank) in 2016 to 7.86 (37th rank) in 2017. Before this significant leap on the Index, Croatia has consistently ranked in the second quartile of countries included. In the recently released report, Croatia for the first time ranks among the freest countries in the world by quartile. Notably, while Croatia has increased both personal and economic freedom in the last decade, it is its economic freedom that has seen flourishing recently, which resulted in the country’s jump from the 73rd position on economic freedom to 56th rank globally, with which the country surpassed Poland and Hungary and is not closely trailing Slovenia and Slovakia. , , So what advances did Croatia see during the first year of Prime Minister Andrej Plenković centre-right government to increase the country’s economic freedom? Granted, some of these strides were spillovers from 2016 when the government was led by former Prime Minister Tihomir Orešković. First, on regulations, Croatia decreased restrictions on the sale of real property measured in days and costs required to register and transfer ownership of property; cut financial barriers to obtain a construction license; maintained commitment to the implementation of a one-stop shop business registration not only to save time and cost but also can make procedural requirements more transparent and accessible; and cut the risk that businesses become more costly due to the regulatory environment, including compliance and bureaucratic inefficiency and opacity. Second, on the size of government, Croatia reduced the extent of government borrowing relative to borrowing by the private sector, decreased the government investment as a share of total investment in the country and reduced the degree to which the state owns and controls capital in the industrial, agricultural and service sectors. Third, on monetary parameters, in light of pursued sound monetary policy by the Croatian National Bank (Hrvatska narodna banka – HNB) and its resistance to devaluate the Croatian currency, the kuna, in order to stimulate export demand, Croatia decreased both the average annual growth of the money supply and the standard deviation of the inflation rate. However, not everything went in the right direction for Croatia in 2017, as the country weakened the rule of law even more than it used to be, with gaining lower scores for judicial independence, the impartiality of courts, protection of property rights and reliability of police. The inability to strengthen the rule of law is actually a common problem of former socialist economies in the Balkans. Finally, the evidence shows the importance of freedom for development. Indeed, the Human Freedom Index report finds a strong relationship between the level of freedom and income. The freest countries in the world by quartile enjoy much higher income per person ($40,171) compared to those in the least-free quartile ($15,721). Further, looking at economic freedom specifically, extensive empirical literature reveals that it is positively associated with not only national income but also economic growth, living standards, economic equality, alleviation of poverty and a variety of other desirable social and economic outcomes. That said, Croatians are projected to experience other positive trends than an increase in freedom to pursue their own opportunities and make their own choices. Tanja Porčnik is a Senior Fellow of the Fraser Institute specializing in economic and human freedom studies.
  • The Obama Administration Wrecked Libya for a Generation    (Doug Bandow, 2020-01-10)
    Doug Bandow Libya’s ongoing destruction belongs to Hillary Clinton more than anyone else. It was she who pushed President Barack Obama to launch his splendid little war, backing the overthrow of Moammar Gaddafi in the name of protecting Libya’s civilians. When later asked about Gaddafi’s death, she cackled and exclaimed: “We came, we saw, he died.” , Alas, his was not the last death in that conflict, which has flared anew, turning Libya into a real-life Game of Thrones. An artificial country already suffering from deep regional divisions, Libya has been further torn apart by political and religious differences. One commander fighting on behalf of the Government of National Accord (GNA), Salem Bin Ismail, told the BBC: “We have had chaos since 2011.” Arrayed against the weak unity government is the former Gaddafi general, U.S. citizen, and one-time CIA adjunct Khalifa Haftar. For years, the two sides have appeared to be in relative military balance, but a who’s who of meddlesome outsiders has turned the conflict into an international affair. The latest playbook features Egypt, France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia supporting Haftar, while Italy, Qatar, and Turkey are with the unity government. , Such is the cost of America's promiscuous war-making , In April, Haftar launched an offensive to seize Tripoli. It faltered until Russian mercenaries made an appearance in September, bringing Haftar to the gates of Tripoli. He apparently is also employing Sudanese mercenaries, though not with their nation’s backing. Now Turkey plans to introduce troops to bolster the official government. Washington’s position is at best confused. It officially recognizes the GNA. When Haftar started his offensive, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement urging “the immediate halt to these military operations.” However, President Donald Trump then initiated a friendly phone call to Haftar “to discuss ongoing counterterrorism efforts and the need to achieve peace and stability in Libya,” according to the White House. More incongruously, “The president recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.” The State Department recently urged both sides to step back. However, Haftar continues to advance, and just days ago captured the coastal city of Sirte. In recent years, Libya had been of little concern to the U.S. It was an oil producer, but Gaddafi had as much incentive to sell the oil as did King Idris I, whom Gaddafi and other members of the “Free Officers Movement” ousted. Gaddafi carefully balanced interests in Libya’s complex tribal society and kept the military weak over fears of another coup. He was a geopolitical troublemaker, supporting a variety of insurgent and terrorist groups. But he steadily lost influence, alienating virtually every African and Middle Eastern government. Of greatest concern to Washington, Libyan agents organized terrorist attacks against the U.S.—bombing an American airliner and a Berlin disco frequented by American soldiers—leading to economic sanctions and military retaliation. However, those days were long over by 2011. Eight years before, in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Gaddafi repudiated terrorism and ended his missile and nuclear programs in a deal with the U.S. and Europe. He was feted in European capitals. His government served as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council from 2008 to 2009. American officials congratulated him for his assistance against terrorism and discussed possible assistance in return. All seemed forgiven. Then in 2011, the Arab Spring engulfed Libya, as people rose against Gaddafi’s rule. He responded with force to reestablish control. However, Western advocates of regime change warned that genocide was possible and pushed for intervention under United Nations auspices. In explaining his decision to intervene, Obama stated: “We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi…could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.” Russia and China went along with a resolution authorizing “all necessary measures to prevent the killing of civilians.” In fact, the fears were fraudulent. Gaddafi was no angel, but he hadn’t targeted civilians, and his florid rhetoric, cited by critics, only attacked those who had taken up arms. He even promised amnesty to those who abandoned their weapons. With no civilians to protect, NATO, led by the U.S., bombed Libyan government forces and installations and backed the insurgents’ offensive. It was not a humanitarian intervention, but a lengthy, costly, low-tech, regime-change war, mostly at Libyan expense. Obama claimed: “We had a unique ability to stop the violence.” Instead his administration ensured that the initial civil war would drag on for months—and the larger struggle ultimately for years. On October 20, 2011, Gaddafi was discovered hiding in a culvert in Sirte. He was beaten, sodomized with a bayonet, shot, and killed. That essentially ended the first phase of the extended Libyan civil war. Gaddafi had done much to earn his fate, but his death led to an entirely new set of problems. A low level insurgency continued, led by former Gaddafi followers. Proposals either to disband militia forces or integrate them into the National Transitional Council (NTC) military went unfulfilled, and this developed into the conflict’s second phase. Elections delivered fragmented results, as ideological, religious, and other divisions ran deep. Militias were accused of misusing government funds, employing violence, and kidnapping and assassinating their opponents. Islamist groups increasingly attempted to impose religious rule. Violence and insecurity worsened. In February 2014, Haftar challenged the General National Congress (GNC). Hostilities broadly evolved between the GNC/GNA, backed by several militias, which controlled Tripoli and much of the country’s west, and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, which was supported by Haftar and his Libyan National Army. Multiple domestic factions, forces, and militias also were involved. Among them was the Islamic State, which murdered Egyptian Coptic (Christian) laborers. The African Union and the United Nations promoted various peace initiatives. However, other governments fueled hostilities. Most notable now is the potential entry of Turkish troops. In mid-December, Turkey’s parliament approved an agreement to provide equipment, military training, technical aid, and intelligence. (The Erdogan government also controversially set maritime boundaries with Libya that conflict with other claims, most notably from Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, and Israel.) Ankara introduced some members of the dwindling Syrian insurgents once aligned against the Assad regime to Libya and raised the possibility of adding its “quick reaction force” to the fight. At the end of last month, the Erdogan government introduced, and parliament approved, legislation to authorize the deployment of combat forces. President Erdogan criticized nations that backed a “putschist general” and “warlord” and promised to support the GNA “much more effectively.” While noting that Turkey doesn’t “go where we are not invited” (except, apparently, Syria), Erdogan added that “since now there is an invitation [from the GNA], we will accept it.” But Haftar refused to back down. Last week, he called on “men and women, soldiers and civilians, to defend our land and our honor.” He continued: “We accept the challenge and declare jihad and a call to arms.” Turkish legislator Ismet Yilmaz supported the intervention and warned that the conflict might “spread instability to Turkey.” More likely the intervention is a grab for energy, since Ankara has devoted significant resources of late to exploring the Eastern Mediterranean for oil and gas. Libya has oil deposits, of course, which could be exploited under a friendly government. Perhaps most important, Ankara wants to ensure that its interests are respected in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, direct intervention is an extraordinarily dangerous step. It puts Turkey in the line of fire, as in Syria. Ankara’s forces could clash with those of Russia, which maintains the merest veneer of deniability over its role in Libya. And other powers—Egypt, perhaps, or the UAE—might ramp up their involvement in an effort to thwart Erdogan’s plans. In response, the U.S. attempted to warn Turkey against intervening. “External military intervention threatens prospects for resolving the conflict,” said State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus with no hint of irony. Congress might go further: some of its members have already proposed sanctioning Russia for the introduction of mercenaries, and Ankara has few friends left on Capitol Hill. Nevertheless it is rather late for Washington to cry foul. Its claim to essentially a monopoly on Mideast meddling can only be seen as risible by other powers. The Arab League has also criticized “foreign interference.” In a resolution passed in late December, the group expressed “serious concern over the military escalation further aggravating the situation in Libya and which threatens the security and stability of neighboring countries and the entire region.” However, Arab League is no less hypocritical. Egypt, the UAE, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, all deeply involved in the conflict, are members of the league. And no one would be surprised if some or all of them decided to expand their participation in the fighting. Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi insisted: “We will not allow anyone to control Libya. It is a matter of Egyptian national security.” Although the fighting is less intense than in, say, Syria, combat has gone high-tech. According to the Washington Post: “Eight months into Libya’s worst spasm of violence in eight years, the conflict is being fought increasingly by weaponized drones.” ISIS is one of the few beneficiaries of these years of fighting. GNA-allied militias that once cooperated with the U.S. and other states in counterterrorism are now focused on Haftar, allowing militants to revive, set up desert camps, and organize attacks. Washington still employs drones, but they rely on accurate intelligence, best gathered on the ground, and even then well-directed hits are no substitute for local ground operations. The losers are the Libyan people. The fighting has resulted in thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of refugees. Divisions, even among tribes, are growing. The future looks ever dimmer. Fathi Bashagha, the GNA interior minister, lamented: “Every day we are burying young people who should be helping us build Libya.” Absent a major change, many more will be buried in the future. Yet the air of unreality surrounding the conflict remains. In late December, President Trump met with al-Sisi and, according to the White House, the two “rejected foreign exploitation and agreed that parties must take urgent steps to resolve the conflict before Libyans lose control to foreign actors.” However, the latter already happened—nine years ago when America first intervened. The Obama administration did not plan to ruin Libya for a generation. But its decision to take on another people’s fight has resulted in catastrophe. Hillary Clinton’s malignant gift keeps on giving. Such is the cost of America’s promiscuous war-making. Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He is a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and the author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.
  • Want to Create an Immigration System That Works? Look to Airbnb    (Ryan Bourne, 2020-01-09)
    Ryan Bourne Plenty of foreigners would value the opportunity to work in the UK for a short period. Lots of UK citizens, meanwhile, would prefer some time out of the labour market to upskill, care for a loved one, or even travel. Yet today these two groups have no means of trading their desires. We have what economists call “a missing market”. , Economists view movements of people for work as synonymous with international trade. Barriers to immigration prevent workers moving to where they are most productive, making the global economy poorer. But as Brexit showed, completely “open borders” appears a politically unsustainable proposition. Voters want migration controlled. They see their country more as a club than part of a global labour market. So although most evidence suggests immigration enriches the economy, voters place heavier weight on the welfare of adversely affected domestic citizens, the localised impact on public services, or perceptions of cultural damage, than on aggregate benefits including to migrants themselves. Hence the Conservatives have pledged to end free movement for EU citizens after Brexit. They’ve promised instead an “Australian-style, points-based system”, applied equally to all countries. Our Government would rank potential migrants according to certain characteristics for determining visa eligibility, including educational achievement, language skills, work experience, or having a job offer. Such a bureaucratic approach — setting conditions and allowing all who fulfil them to enter — is one of three broad ways to “control” immigration. The others are quotas (imposing a crude cap on immigrant numbers) or prices (some financial barrier to entry). Most real-life systems are hybrids of these approaches. Economically, though, not all immigration controls are created equal. Capping numbers creates obvious absurdities. Suppose a limit is set at 99,999 people per year. Would the UK benefit if an international footballer was denied a Premier League job as number 100,000? The answer is, clearly, no. Nor is the Government likely to do well at centrally planning the labour market through a points-based system. Already ministers are talking up a separate visa route for NHS nurses. Agriculture will surely follow. Whitehall has no knowledge of migrant’s potential for entrepreneurship, nor can it second-guess businesses’ needs in an environment in an ever-changing economy. Is there a market-based immigration policy that could harness most of the benefits of immigration, address some stated public concerns, while avoiding these destructive economic impacts? There is. And it comes back to our “missing market” above. One of the most valuable assets we UK citizens have is our permanent “right to work” in a high-wage economy. Yet this is an effective property right we own but can’t currently trade. Suppose instead we had the option to “rent out” this right, leasing it to a foreigner for a contractually agreed period. Technology now exists such that the Government could do for work permits what Airbnb has done for our homes — making ownership of our “right to work” a marketable asset. Just as leasing your home on Airbnb temporarily disables you from living in it, leasing out your work right would temporarily prevent you from working. If such trade were allowed, the foreigner would get the time-limited right to work in the UK in return for the UK citizen (likely to be in temporary need) getting a cash sum they’d prefer. As a voluntary trade, both sides would be better off. Most gains from immigration would still be realised, but with more of the surplus accruing to participating UK citizens. Economists Martin Ravallion and Michael Lokshin have developed such a proposal. Under their scheme, a government auction website would announce start dates and work permit durations for bidding. Eligible UK citizens could register, setting their minimum asking price for giving up their right to work, with foreign buyers registering maximum bids. Software would then “clear” the market, setting the final price such that demand and supply intersect. Those who bid at least the discovered market price would be matched anonymously with UK citizens willing to sell at or below it. Transactions would be complete when payments were transferred through a clearing system to the seller. After the work permit expires, British participants would regain the right to work. Such a rental scheme brings obvious benefits. An unchanged potential number of workers would somewhat alleviate fears about migrants taking jobs. Much of the black market in foreign labour would be eliminated too — now UK citizens, rather than human traffickers, would be capturing the financial gain. What’s more, UK citizens, would, in effect, now benefit from the option of a time-limited, out-of-work “basic income”. This additional social protection, fully funded by market activity, could be used to retrain, move, cope with unemployment, raise children, or remunerate people for caring for the ill, disabled, or elderly. Other details would need to be thrashed out. UK eligibility might be restricted to those with strong employment histories, to stop it compounding social problems associated with long-term unemployment. Some secondary market for people whose situations change will be necessary. Other considerations include whether family members of foreign work permit holders would be able to live in the UK, the lengths of permits, and whether rental payments constitute taxable income. But these are details for a market that’s clearly viable. According to Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, an average of 150,000 immigrants per year (between 2012 and 2016) had stays of just three to 12 months for work or study. Between 1990 and 2017, a large majority of non-UK nationals who left the country had lived here for five years or fewer. A work permit rental scheme wouldn’t be the complete answer. People migrate for non-work reasons too. But if we want to maintain the economic gains of market-based immigration for work, while flipping the economic interests of poorer groups affected by or opposed to it, then Boris should harness technology to create a market in work permits. Airbnb points the way. Ryan Bourne is the R Evan Scharf Chair for the Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.
  • Regime Change Rarely Succeeds. When Will the U.S. Learn?    (Benjamin Denison, 2020-01-09)
    Benjamin Denison Even after watching the chaos produced in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya following regime change, some in Washington have continued to advocate similar policies toward Venezuela, Iran, North Korea and elsewhere. The belief that removing a foreign government can quickly and easily promote U.S. interests by force still resonates, as we have most recently seen in the response to the escalating tensions with Iran. And that is far from the only example. , The recently released Afghanistan Papers highlight how, for years, overly optimistic policymakers misled the public about the prospects of building a viable Afghan state. Implicit in most of the documents is a feeling that, with the correct strategy or more investment, the war in Afghanistan could have succeeded. Yet the Afghanistan war was not exceptional. It simply continued the trend of regime change leading to adverse outcomes rather than greater U.S. security. , Regime change operations are a roll of the dice that are unlikely to produce a winner. , Forcible regime change, or using military force to overthrow a foreign government, can be enticing when a regime appears to be threatening U.S. security. The logic is that when a regime continues to work against U.S. interests, replacing the regime can be a quick and easy way to change this pattern rather than sustained military action or diplomatic negotiation. The problem, however, is that a resounding amount of research has shown that regime change rarely succeeds. Regardless of the goal, regime change mostly fails to produce better economic conditions, build lasting democracy or promote more stable relations to advance U.S. interests. From Haiti and the Dominican Republic in the 1910s, to South Vietnam in the 1960s, to Iraq in the 2000s, the United States failed to achieve these goals over 110 years of regime-change missions. And when regime change does not achieve these goals, it can provoke a civil war — as it did in Congo following the regime change mission in Léopoldville (now Kinshasa) in 1960 to oust Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba — degrade respect for human rights and create more instability. Worse, rather than being a quick and easy policy success, the instability created after a regime is deposed often leads to lengthy nation-building projects that policymakers never intended. There have been some successful cases of regime change, such as in Germany and Japan after World War II. Some argue that regime change succeeded in these cases because of sustained and substantial economic investment, such as the Marshall Plan, or because of the correct state-building strategy. These earlier successes had more to do with the preconditions in both countries, such as previous experience with democracy, a robust existing government bureaucracy or high economic modernization. Rather than prototypical cases of regime change, they are exceptions that prove the rule: Even with the best conditions present, regime change is difficult and requires massive investment. Unfortunately, proponents of forcible regime change continue to claim that it can be quick and cheap and will not expand into the lengthy and costly missions that have taken place in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Instead of admitting that they do not know what local conditions will look like after a change of regime, policymakers often ask local opposition movements, who tell them what they want to hear rather than an unbiased picture of what is most likely to happen. This encourages over-optimistic assumptions and biased thinking about how the mission will go, and less consideration of the costs if it turns out differently. To avoid future quagmires, policymakers need to recognize that regime change operations are a roll of the dice that are unlikely to produce a winner. Given the human, economic and security costs that accompany these poor odds, policymakers must instead ask whether regime change would still be worth it if it is not the quick mission they envision. Following the mission to oust Moammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011, President Barack Obama resisted calls to overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria, in part, because there was no credible guarantee it would not devolve into the same chaos as found in Libya or Iraq. Similarly, instead of focusing on how desirable regime change in a particular country might be, policymakers need to ask whether the small chance of success is worth the high probability that regime change will produce a dysfunctional state that still poses a security threat. As the fallout from the killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani continues to unfold, regime-change advocates will once again argue this is the first step toward removing the current regime in Tehran. But a key lesson to take from the Afghanistan Papers and more than a century of history is that a better strategy for regime change will not improve the chances that it will succeed. Instead, only by avoiding regime change altogether can the United States avoid future Afghanistan-like quagmires. Benjamin Denison is a postdoctoral fellow with the Center for Strategic Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and the author of the just released Cato Policy Analysis &ldquoThe More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same: The Failure of Regime-Change Operations.”
  • How to Take the Shackles Off African Businesses    (Tanja Porčnik, 2020-01-09)
    Tanja Porčnik Though African nations have enhanced economic freedom since the beginning of the new millennium, most have a long way to go before fully embracing the rule of law and economic liberalisation, which would unquestionably spur economic growth and prosperity. , The Fraser Institute’s annual Economic Freedom of the World report measures the degree to which the policies and institutions of countries support economic freedom. Essentially, the report measures economic freedom through a lens of personal choice, voluntary exchange, freedom to enter markets and compete, and security of the person and privately owned property. The 2019 report, which ranks 162 countries and territories, finds stark differences among African countries, with Mauritius being the freest at ninth place and Libya the least free at 161. Despite its immense wealth in mineral and natural resources, Africa is the most economically unfree continent. Indeed, seven out of 47 African countries that are included in the report are among the bottom 10 when it comes to economic freedom, and more than half of them rank in the lowest quartile. Why should these findings worry Africans? Economic freedom matters. According to more than 1,000 researchers in top peer-reviewed academic journals, people living in countries with high levels of economic freedom have higher levels of income, experience more rapid economic growth, have lower poverty rates, enjoy more political rights and civil liberties, and see lower gender and income inequalities. For example, countries in the top quartile of economic freedom had an average per capita GDP of $36,770 in 2017, compared with $6,140 for bottom quartile nations. Unfortunately, 28 out of 47 scored African nations fall into this bottom quartile. In the top quartile, the average income of the poorest 10% is eight times higher than in the bottom quartile. Unsurprisingly, in the top quartile only 2% of the population live in extreme poverty, defined as living on less than $1.90 a day, compared with 27% in the lowest quartile. Indisputably, development in Africa is contingent upon the promotion of economic freedom. To achieve this end African countries need strong rule of law and secure property rights, lower and simpler regulation, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), openness to foreign direct investment, stable currencies and good governance. Africa has a unique problem: its informal economy accounts for as much as 80% of the region’s GDP and as much as 80% of employment. Research consistently shows that for business owners in Africa among the main factors pushing people out of the formal economy are overzealous regulatory mandates, high taxes, bureaucracy, corruption and weak rule of law. All of them are a reflection of low levels of economic freedom. Here is the reality: African economies will keep underperforming until businesses that today operate outside the legal framework opt to transfer into the formal economy. Why is this important? The path to unlocking prosperity in Africa is paved with the building blocks that formalise the economy. Registered businesses create more jobs, record higher investment, enjoy legal protection against fraud, and have access to credit and capital, which creates opportunities for higher productivity and growth. , Africa is the most economically unfree continent and that is what keeps it poor , To attract businesses into the formal economy, African governments must increase economic freedom by doing two things: establish secure property rights and strengthen the rule of law, and scale back on regulatory mandates and taxes. First, with private property protections it is crucial to emphasise that formal land titles not only tackle widespread property fraud but are also a prerequisite for Africans to be able to leverage their assets to engage in economic activities such as borrowing money, starting a business or assuring their business. Importantly, establishing secure property rights for assets that are informally held would, as the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto estimates, unlock $10-trillion of “dead capital” across the developing world, much of it in Africa. To unshackle this wealth, governments in Africa need to foster a more robust rule of law. Second, high taxes and onerous regulations, such as lengthy and costly registration requirements, licensing and inspection requirements, are discouraging entrepreneurs in African nations from starting businesses and expanding them, or even pushing them into the informal economy. Though economic freedom in Africa is higher than ever before, the continent has a long way to go before fully embracing free and open markets. Crucially, Africans need to muster the determination to stand up to their ruling elites, who generally oppose reforms towards economic liberalism. For better or worse, with these choices the future is in the hands of Africans themselves. Tanja Porčnik is a senior fellow of the Fraser Institute specializing in economic and human freedom studies.
  • Washington Needs to Jettison Its Commitment to Defend the Senkakus    (Ted Galen Carpenter, 2020-01-09)
    Ted Galen Carpenter The United States has an array of defense commitments to allies of which the costs and risks greatly outweigh any potential benefits. Washington’s obligation under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty to consider an attack on one member as an attack on all is a graphic example of such imprudence. Adding the three Baltic republics to NATO means that the United States now is obligated to defend small, vulnerable Alliance members located directly on Russia’s border. Such a perilous (and probably unachievable) mission does not serve America’s best interests and should be rescinded. , U.S. leaders even need to re-evaluate some aspects of Washington’s bilateral mutual defense treaty with Japan. There is a credible case for maintaining that alliance for at least another decade or so. North Korea remains a disruptive factor in the region, and unlike the situation in Europe, there is no multilateral entity comparable to the European Union to which the United States could transfer significant security responsibilities in East Asia. China’s meteoric economic and military rise also provides an important reason as to why the U.S.-Japan alliance remains important for regional stability and a balance of power. , However, the U.S. security pledge to Tokyo should not be a blank check. It is especially important that a continuing defense relationship with Japan does not include backing Tokyo's dubious territorial claim to the Senkaku Islands—a chain of small, uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea. Beijing emphatically disputes Tokyo's claim to those islets (which China calls the Diaoyus), and some nasty maritime incidents concerning the islands have occurred over the past decade. Worse, the balance of air and naval power in the immediate area appears to be shifting in China’s favor, making U.S. involvement in the dispute increasingly perilous. Yet U.S. leaders insist that the U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty include the Senkakus. James Mattis, President Donald Trump’s first secretary of defense, reiterated that position in February 2017, affirming the U.S. commitment to defend all Japanese territory from attack. Mattis specifically asserted that Article 5 of the defense treaty covers the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.  Trump himself subsequently reaffirmed that commitment in talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Such a bold stance was not always Washington’s official position, though. In fact, it is a rather recent interpretation. Barack Obama was the first U.S. president to state explicitly that the alliance extended to the Senkakus: “The policy of the United States is clear—the Senkaku Islands are administered by Japan and therefore fall within the scope of Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security,” Obama stated in a 2014 interview with  Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun. “And we oppose any unilateral attempts to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands,” he added. Washington is exposing the United States to an unnecessary security risk by adopting that stance.  Beijing’s response to Mattis’ unequivocal support for Tokyo’s claims was quite firm. “Diaoyu and its affiliated islands have been Chinese territory since ancient times. These are historical facts that cannot be changed. The so-called U.S.-Japan security treaty was a product of the Cold War, and it should not harm China’s territorial sovereignty and legitimate rights,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang insisted at a press conference. “We urge the U.S. side to adopt a responsible attitude and stop making wrong remarks on the issue of the sovereignty of Diaoyu Islands,” Lu added. Washington needs to rescind any implied commitment to defend the Senkakus. The current U.S. position is based on a strained, revisionist interpretation of the mutual security treaty text that only the last two U.S. administrations adopted. Worse, it needlessly inserts the United States into an emotional territorial dispute between Tokyo and Beijing—one in which it is unclear which party has the better case. It is one thing to continue a security partnership with Japan to maintain stability in East Asia and balance China’s rising power and influence. There are at least respectable arguments in favor of such a policy, despite the risk of exacerbating existing tensions between Washington and Beijing. But inflicting damage on America’s relations with China—and perhaps risking a war with it—over Japan’s murky claim to uninhabited rocks is a case of foreign policy folly. Such risks are imprudent, even though there are valuable fishing grounds and possible energy deposits in the waters surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu chain. The Obama administration’s expansion of the U.S. security obligations to Japan was profoundly unwise. A continuation of the security relationship with Tokyo should be contingent upon the elimination of any U.S. commitment to back Japan's claim of the Senkakus. Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor to the National Interest, is the author of 12 books and more than 850 articles on international affairs.
  • Trump's Red-tape Revolution    (William Yeatman, 2020-01-09)
    William Yeatman Let’s give credit where credit is due: The Trump administration is reintroducing constitutional balance to regulatory policymaking. , His team is doing the yeoman’s work that Congress and the courts have avoided for too long. What makes these developments even more remarkable is that the president is acting contrary to his institutional interests. To be sure, the administration is imperfect on this score. For example, President Trump strained our constitutional structure when he declared an “emergency” to fund a border wall in order to circumvent Congress’s exclusive “power of the purse.” Yet on crucial matters of administrative law, the Trump White House is putting country before executive power. It’s a refreshing break from the past. At issue is an alphabet soup’s worth of domestic regulatory agencies collectively known as the “administrative state.” Think: EEOC, FDA, OSHA, etc. In modern American government, these bureaucracies are the real lawmakers. Last year, for example, federal agencies issued 12 regulations for every law Congress passed, and that was the lowest ratio in a decade. Within the administrative state, unelected bureaucrats can interpret legislation in virtually whatever manner they choose, in effect issuing new laws through regulatory force. In 2009, Congress considered and ultimately failed to pass a “cap-and-trade” system that would have basically rationed energy use in order to reduce America’s carbon footprint. Yet in 2014, at the direction of President Barack Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency issued the Clean Power Plan, the “backstop” of which was — wait for it — a cap-and-trade system that would basically ration energy use in order to reduce America’s carbon footprint. The agency justified its approach based on an expansive reading of an obscure provision in the Clean Air Act, written almost a half-century ago. Since the New Deal, the administrative state’s unabated growth reflects a regrettable abdication of authority to the presidency by the legislative and judicial branches of government. In aggrandizing the executive branch, Congress and the Supreme Court are acting contrary to the founders’ constitutional design, which is, of course, characterized by separate but competing branches of government. Let’s start with Congress. For more than a century, the House and Senate have been giving away ever more of their lawmaking power to the administrative state. These “delegations” take the form of statutes that create and empower bureaucracies under presidential management within the executive branch. Why would anyone give away power? The Founding Fathers, after all, built human nature into their constitutional design: They expected power-hungry leaders in rival branches to cancel each other out. The idea was to protect our liberty from an overweening state. As James Madison famously explained in Federalist 51, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” By giving away policymaking authority, Congress demonstrates “ambition,” but it’s a perversion of what the founders had in mind. Lawmakers are politicians, and tough choices make for attack ad fodder during reelection campaigns. It is far easier for members of Congress to delegate the hard decisions to regulatory agencies and thereby avoid accountability. They delegate to pass the buck. The Supreme Court has abetted the growth of the administrative state by adopting hands-off doctrines of judicial restraint. On the one hand, the court refuses to second-guess how much power Congress delegates to regulatory agencies; on the other, the court has adopted various principles of judicial respect, or “deference,” that permit these agencies to define the boundaries of their own power. This allows Congress to continue to pass off more and more decisions onto executive agencies, which in turn are given wide discretion in determining what it is they are permitted to do. Instead of the separate-but-equal structure the framers of the Constitution intended, we are left with a series of feedback loops, both of which serve to grow the administrate state. The first involves Congress. The president, as manager in chief of bureaucratic governance, has become so powerful that both Republicans and Democrats in Congress now believe that the White House is the most efficient vehicle for achieving their parties’ respective platforms. As a result, half of Congress loses interest in executive overreach whenever “their guy” occupies the presidency. The second feedback loop pertains to federal courts. As the administrative state grows, so does the size and complexity of its policies. Rulemaking records routinely run thousands of pages. Faced with mountains of technical minutiae, courts throw up their hands and rubber-stamp an agency’s “expert” decision. As Congress and the Supreme Court looped themselves out of the picture, the president has assumed center stage. Presidents since Richard Nixon have developed successive layers of controls over the management of agency spending and regulatory output. Their purpose has been to tighten the president’s grip over the administrative state. Trump, in his characteristic manner, is finally shaking things up. Consider how the Trump administration took on judicial deference. For almost 80 years, the Supreme Court gave binding respect to an agency’s interpretation of the regulations it wrote. The big problem with this principle, known as Auer deference in reference to the 1997 case Auer v. Robbins, is that it allows agencies to take procedural shortcuts. Normally, an agency must involve the public in a rulemaking process before it can issue a binding regulation. Yet agencies can avoid these participatory procedures through Auer deference. All the agency must do is issue a “nonbinding” guidance document, which does not require a period of public comment. Then, the agency goes to court, receives deference, and magically, its “nonbinding” rule becomes indistinguishable from a regulation with the force of law. Regardless of who occupied the Oval Office, the simple legal logic remained the same: The Justice Department is an executive branch agency, and broader deference means more power for the executive branch. However, Trump’s Department of Justice is doing things differently. Last term, in one of its most consequential cases, Kisor v. Wilkie, the Supreme Court reconsidered the doctrine of Auer deference. On behalf of the government, Solicitor General Noel Francisco advanced an unprecedented and extraordinary argument. Simply put, the government’s head Supreme Court lawyer asked the court to scale back the scope of Auer deference drastically. “The doctrine raises significant concerns,” Francisco argued in a brief on behalf of the DOJ. “First, its basis is unclear. It is not well grounded historically; this Court has not articulated a consistent rationale for it; and it is … difficult to justify on the basis of implicit congressional intent.” To its credit, the Supreme Court agreed and slashed the scope of Auer deference. The Auer doctrine emerged “maimed and enfeebled,” wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch in his concurring opinion, “in truth, zombified.” Gorsuch is right, and credit should go to the Justice Department. It’s not just the judiciary’s homework that the Trump administration is doing. His team is also performing essential duties long neglected by Congress. Consider, for example, the pressing need for lawmakers to reform the Administrative Procedure Act, also known as the “Constitution of the administrative state.” The act establishes the general framework by which agencies must conduct their business. In this manner, the law provides critical safeguards for the public. The problem is that the APA is almost 75 years old, and it’s showing its age. Congress passed it in 1946, and the law is a product of its times. Back then, agencies rendered policy almost exclusively through trial-like adjudications. For instance, in the wake of the stock market crash, Congress in 1934 created the Securities and Exchange Commission and delegated to it the authority to regulate securities to promote market efficiency. The SEC brought enforcement actions against parties allegedly acting against the public interest, and, through the resolution of these proceedings, would establish a rule that applied not only in the immediate controversy, but also to the general public. Indeed, this is how American courts long have made rules through common law. The APA focuses on these sorts of processes. Today, formal administrative adjudications are comparatively rare in regulatory policymaking. Instead, agencies now rely on rules and guidance, for which there are inadequate procedural safeguards required by the APA. Despite this glaring need for an update, Congress has refused to revisit the statute, on account of the partisan dynamic described above. Prior presidents had been happy with congressional inaction because it works to the White House’s advantage. If the APA remains outdated, executive branch agencies retain loopholes that make policymaking easier. But once again, the Trump administration is doing things differently. Since entering the Oval Office, Trump has issued four executive orders related to administrative law. Collectively, these directives call for agencies to do what Congress has left undone: namely, to update the Administrative Procedure Act. The first results are coming in, and they look very promising. During the first week of December, for example, the Department of Transportation issued what its officials are calling the “rule on rules.” As the agency explained in the preamble, the rule “prescribes the procedures the Department must follow for all stages of the rulemaking process.” Among its commonsense measures is a requirement for agencies to give closer scrutiny to the costs and benefits of major rules. Another welcome reform is that the agency is providing procedural safeguards for the issuance of guidance documents, memorandums, and other “nonbinding” documents that agencies all too frequently treat as anything but. These reforms are virtually identical to measures in the unpassed Regulatory Accountability Act, which has floundered in Congress for years. By writing the “rule of rules” into the Code of Federal Regulations, the DOT is creating policy that binds the agency. While Congress idles, the agency is reforming itself. Other agencies are soon to follow suit in announcing how they have complied with Trump’s executive orders. If the “rule on rules” is any indication, these efforts have the potential to alter fundamentally the administrative state for the better. Which brings us to what might prove to be the president’s most significant contribution to bringing constitutional order to the administrative state, albeit one that is more indirect than the others described above: the nomination and confirmation of Justices Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, two brilliant judges who had been sounding the alarm about the judiciary’s too-passive approach to government-by-regulation. As advertised, the newest justices are yanking on the reins of the administrative state. For almost 80 years, the Supreme Court has refused to police how much power Congress transfers to the executive branch. That’s changing, and, along with Justice Clarence Thomas, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh are leading the charge. Article I of the Constitution vests “all legislative powers” in the Congress. The “nondelegation doctrine” is the idea that it is therefore unconstitutional for Congress to delegate its legislative authority elsewhere, such as to the president or government agencies. The purpose of the nondelegation doctrine is to restrict the ability of Congress to give away its power and responsibility to make laws. Yet it falls to the executive branch to execute the laws, and sometimes doing so requires agencies to make interpretations. As the late Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in 1989, “Once it is conceded, as it must be, that no statute can be entirely precise, and that some judgments, even some judgments involving policy considerations, must be left to the officers executing the law, … the debate over unconstitutional delegation becomes a debate not over a point of principle but over a question of degree.” Under its prevailing understanding of the nondelegation doctrine, the court has allowed any delegation that was limited by an “intelligible principle” of scope and action by which a regulatory agency must conform. In practice, however, the court construed “intelligible principle” so broadly that the concept lost all meaning. Even a phrase as nebulous as “public interest” has met the standard. Yet now, it appears a majority on the Supreme Court wants to revisit the nondelegation doctrine for the first time since the New Deal era. Last term, in Gundy v. United States, three justices signaled support for a masterful dissent written by Gorsuch, in which he issued a clarion call for his colleagues to tame the governmental excesses wrought by the sieve-like “intelligible principle” test. Kavanaugh didn’t participate in Gundy, as he wasn’t yet on the court when it was argued. However, just before Thanksgiving, he issued an opinion in Paul v. United States that expressly endorsed Gorsuch’s opinion. That makes for five justices who’ve shown themselves willing to reconsider the nondelegation doctrine. Were the court to add teeth to its “intelligible principle” test, then Congress would be forced to curtail the breadth of its lawmaking power delegated to the executive branch. It would be a welcome and watershed moment for the constitutional status of the administrative state. It bears repeating that such a profound legal outcome would work at a cross-purpose with Trump's interests. These congressional grants of authority are a source of executive power. By restraining the ability of executive branch agencies to write their own laws, the Supreme Court is checking not just our supine Congress but also the president. Perhaps this curious self-restraint reflects a silver lining to Trump’s pathological distrust of the bureaucratic careerists who man the administrative state. Alternatively, it may be the result of excellent work by political appointees whose toils are unbeknownst to the president. Most likely, it’s a combination of both. Whatever the cause, we should all be thankful. Federalist 62 warns that an “excess of lawmaking” is a “disease” to which “our government is most liable.” For this reason, the Constitution makes it hard to pass laws. By contrast, it’s far easier for the president to impose a regulation. All he needs to do is pick up the phone to get the ball rolling. Because regulations carry the force of law, a government characterized by “presidential administration” incubates the “disease” of “excessive lawmaking” in a manner even worse than that feared by the founders. Overweening government is a threat to liberty, regardless of whether it’s flowing from the executive or legislative branches of government. To a large extent, the genie is out of the bottle when it comes to the administrative state. It’s been here for more than a century, and it’s here to stay, for better or for worse. In this political environment, the question becomes how best to protect liberty. And the obvious answer is to reintroduce checks into contemporary American government. To this end, Trump deserves high praise. William Yeatman is a research fellow at the Cato Institute.
  • Ninth Circuit Review-Reviewed: Major Moves Afoot on APA § 704?    (William Yeatman, 2020-01-09)
    William Yeatman Welcome back to Ninth Circuit Review-Reviewed, your monthly recap of administrative law before arguably “the second most important court in the land.” Let’s get straight to last month’s cases. , The Supreme Court’s Evolving Doctrine on “Jurisdictional Rules” Has Huge Implications for the APA Given that Article III courts have a duty to police their own (limited) jurisdiction, it is perhaps unsurprising that a landmark 1941 report to Congress explained that the “requirement of finality of administrative action as a prerequisite of judicial review [was] formulated by the courts in the absence of legislation.” Congress, of course, codified this prevailing practice five years later by passing the Administrative Procedure Act, whose provisions for judicial review were limited to “final agency action.” For my part, I’ve long taken it for granted that APA § 704’s requirement for “final agency action” is “jurisdictional”—that is, courts are statutorily prohibited from reviewing non-final agency action. Due to my (mistaken) presupposition, my curiosity was piqued by the following statement from a Ninth Circuit order last month in San Francisco Herring Association v. Department of Interior: “In this circuit, the final agency action requirement has been treated as jurisdictional.” This sentence seized my attention because its clear implication is that other circuits treat APA § 704 as non-jurisdictional, which would mean that those courts retain discretion to entertain judicial review of non-final agency action. That was news to me. So I dug around, and I’m glad I did, because there is major reform afoot for a foundational principle of administrative law. Over the last decade or so, the Supreme Court has “tried . . . to bring some discipline to the use of the term ‘jurisdiction.’” Though the Court’s line of cases is uneven, the overall trend is to liberalize access to the courts in the face of statutory limits. The Court’s recent jurisprudence, in turn, has led some circuit courts to question whether the APA’s “final agency action” requirement is subject to judicial discretion in original actions brought before trial courts. And it was this development to which the Ninth Circuit panel was referring in the sentence that caught my attention. I’d known about the Supreme Court’s doctrinal shift on jurisdictional bars to judicial review, but I’d never given any thought to how this change might affect the APA. Now, my mind is blown. This fast-moving area of administrative law is a big deal, and it’s worth monitoring. For the whole story, I highly recommend Sundeep Iyer’s 2016 comment in the Yale Law Journal, titled “Jurisdictional Rules and Final Agency Action.” Panel Pioneers Law on Congressional Review Act In its original form, the legislative veto allowed lawmakers to check administrative action by unicameral, bicameral, or even committee vote. From 1932 to 1975, Congress included 292 of these provisions in various enabling acts. Though employed infrequently, these provisions nonetheless operated as “a central means by which Congress secures the accountability of executive and independent agencies,” according to Supreme Court Justice Byron White. Regulatory agencies feared the legislative veto and, therefore, honored objections registered by lawmakers as rulemakings progressed. Of course, the Supreme Court nixed the legislative veto in INS v. Chadha (1983). Thirteen years later, Congress revived the concept, albeit in a far lesser form, when President Clinton signed the Congressional Review Act (which was part of the Contract w/ America Advancement Act of 1996). Broadly speaking, the Congressional Review Act does two things. The first is a statutory requirement for agencies to send their rules to Congress “[b]efore [they] can take effect.” The second is to amend the House and Senate rules to create a fast-track procedure for considering a joint resolution that would permanently nullify an agency regulation, including a prohibition on using the Senate filibuster. Ordinarily under the Act, Congress has 60 days to check a new regulation; however, if an agency submits a rule to Congress during the final 60 days of a congressional session, or submits the rule when Congress is not in session, the 60-day clock does not start to run until the 15th day of the subsequent congressional session. Mind you, these deadlines apply only to days when the House and Senate are in session, which is only a fraction of “normal” working days. Unlike the original legislative veto, resolutions passed under the Congressional Review Act require the president’s signature. Obviously, a sitting president is unlikely to sign legislation that overturns his own regulation. As a result, the Congressional Review Act comes into play only in limited circumstances—basically, it only applies to late-term rules promulgated by an outgoing administration when the White House changes party. Before President Trump took office, the Congressional Review Act had been successfully employed only once. As a result, the statute engendered very little jurisprudence. But this is changing. Trump has signed 16 legislative vetoes of Obama-era regulations. Legal challenges to these measures are now wending their way through the federal judiciary. The upshot is that courts are making law in uncharted territory. For example, consider the Ninth Circuit panel’s order in Center for Biological Diversity v. Department of Interior, which was filed on the penultimate day of the last decade. At issue was a 2016 Interior Department regulation that prevented Alaska from allowing certain types of hunting on federal land within the state. In April 2017, Congress passed (and President Trump signed) a legislative veto of the regulation. An environmental group then challenged the action in federal court. Before the Ninth Circuit, the plaintiff-appellant appealed the trial court’s dismissal of the case. In Center for Biological Diversity, the panel’s primary doctrinal contribution pertains to the Congressional Review Act’s controversial “Reenactment Provision,” which prohibits agencies from reissuing a “new rule that is substantially the same” as a rule that had been vetoed. The plaintiff-appellant had challenged the Reenactment Provision on nondelegation grounds. To establish standing, the group’s alleged injury “is premised on the assumption that Interior would reissue the [2016 Interior regulation] if a court ruled that the Reenactment Provision were invalid.” But the panel deemed this alleged injury to be too “speculative” to pass constitutional muster. So, what’s the takeaway? The panel’s order indicates that there is only one party that would have standing to bring a constitutional challenge against the Reenactment Provision of the Congressional Review Act. And that party is the federal government. Simply put, the Ninth Circuit won’t perform constitutional review of the Reenactment Provision until a subsequent administration with different politics (than the Trump administration) tries to promulgate a regulation that is either identical or “substantially the same” as a rule that has been vetoed by Congress. Bybee Benchslaps Congress (he speaks the truth) When I first encountered an opinion dubitante, I had to look it up because I didn’t know what the term meant. I was similarly bewildered when I first came across an opinion “respecting the denial of rehearing.” (I wrote about that experience on this blog). Yet I suffered no such confusion on initially reading Judge Jay Bybee’s excellent contribution to the court’s order in San Francisco v. Citizenship and Immigration Services, even though I’d never before seen an opinion of this type. Indeed, there’s no mistaking the meaning of Judge Bybee’s opinion. He’s “concurring, perplexed and perturbed.” Seriously, that’s the court’s actual categorization of Bybee’s opinion! Obviously, Judge Bybee had something to get off his chest. At issue in San Francisco was a controversial immigration policy promulgated by the Trump administration. It doesn’t matter which one, because Bybee’s opinion addresses them all in toto. After observing that the Ninth Circuit has been deluged with “emergency petitions arising out of the administration’s efforts to administer the immigration laws,” Judge Bybee made two points. The first seemed to be a shot across the bow of trial courts in the Ninth Circuit. Because “no one should mistake our judgments for our policy preferences,” Judge Bybee admonished that judges “must tolerate what personally we may regard as a legislative mistake.” For his second point, Judge Bybee set his sights on Congress, at whom he emptied both barrels. He wrote: , [S]o far as we can tell from our modest perch in the Ninth Circuit, Congress is no place to be found in these debates . . . [I]t is time for a feckless Congress to come to the table and grapple with these issues. Don’t leave the table and expect us to clean up. , Hear, hear! I highly recommend Judge Bybee’s “perplexed and perturbed” concurring opinion. William Yeatman is a research fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.
  • The Limits of Weirdos and Misfits    (Ryan Bourne, 2020-01-08)
    Ryan Bourne It is fast becoming one of the most discussed employment advertisements ever. Dominic Cummings’ call for No. 10 job applications from data scientists and software developers, quirky economists and policy experts, and other assorted “weirdos and misfits” has drawn reaction from global public intellectuals, former civil servants, and experience-weary ex-government digital experts. , Now, civil service employment practices, SpAds’ competences, and government project management, are outside my “circle of competence,” as Cummings might say. Without in-house experience, I’ll avoid passing judgment on whether better physics and maths skills or expertise in the economics of auctions might improve Downing Street’s performance. Others who I respect seem positive about his proposals, particularly as it pertains to quantitative skills and institutionalising analysis of uncertainty. Likewise, some of Cummings’ broad proposals for Civil Service reform seem sensible as an outsider: “red teams” to push back on conventional wisdom; rewards for officials actually seeing through on delivering government projects; redundancy for poorly performing officials; more specialism, less generalism. All have clear rationales, though are easier said than delivered. And some tensions clearly exist between them. Greater longevity for brilliantly specialist civil servants, for example, surely creates an institutional impediment to radically adaptive change. Given all the ink spilt debating these ideas, however, an obvious point has been missed. Cummings’ ideas here are for personnel and structural changes to a technocracy. For “better” management and people to deliver systems for a large enterprise (the state). They do not tell us anything, per se, about what he perceives to be the correct role of government — of when it should act, what it should do, and why. Yet without knowing what recruits and the civil service will be working on, it’s impossible to assess claims of the supposed “trillions of dollars lying on the sidewalk” from the “low-hanging fruit” of improved government performance. Yes, yes, we have breadcrumbs signalling towards certain “ends.” This site’s editor thinks Cummings seeks a world of politics as “enterprise association,” harnessing AI, science, big data, cutting-edge communications in pursuit of regional rebalancing, science-led industrial strategies, and value-for-money procurement. Brexit, as Cummings acknowledges, brings necessary major policy change in other areas too, not least the promised immigration system. But reading Cummings’ blog suggests a more romantic and expansive view of what an effective technocracy can achieve. He places central importance on “people,” reading as if tons of government failures would dissipate, and other projects become viable, if only more brilliant physicists, data scientists, or mathematicians, armed with cutting-edges models of uncertainty and understanding of non-linearities, were in government. Policy failure and other challenges, in other words, are downstream. “Bad management” or “the wrong skills” or “incompetent people” are held up as the root cause of bad government; better rational planners could be transformative. My central gripe is that I doubt this is true. Government action ultimately reflects a decision to deliver collective action through the political process. And politics causes a range of structural problems that explain government failure, particularly on economics, irrespective of the brilliance of officials and project managers: Political incentives and short-termism: civil servants ultimately work for politicians, and politicians can be myopic and ignorant, while wanting results conducive to re-election or pleasing interest groups. How else to explain prestige projects such as HS2 when other transport projects clearly could deliver better bang for the buck? Or moving from hugging huskies to denouncing “green crap” to meeting Greta within a decade? Or police spending levels with inflexion points at elections? If civil servants come and go, so do Ministers. There have been five transport secretaries alone since 2010. It’s all very well lamenting a lack of error correction in the civil service, but what about politicians continually demanding things with little record of success in their role as local champions (see current debates about high streets and activist government regeneration). Knowledge problem: Data can help inform better policy, of course. But some significant economic problems are complex and intractable, even to the smartest brains or the newest methods. Politicians and planners seek “a solution,” often creating huge unintended consequences. Markets, by being open forums to fulfil individual wants and needs, instead find tailored solutions for different people. Economies are not predictable systems — if they were, then machine learning could make socialism a reality. Even “the best people” or “the best models” can’t forecast the macroeconomy with decent accuracy because “the British economy” is really 66.4 million people and 6 million businesses, each acting relatively freely. Centralisation: Cummings might want to replicate successful private sector innovation. But market-based activity tends to start small and expand when signals like profits or consumer surveys suggest success. The public sector usually doesn’t have these signals. They could be mimicked by experimentation at local level, or hospital level, or school, with best practice spreading organically. That though, means decentralising power and accepting “post-code lotteries,” which governments are reluctant to do. Instead, project failure is met with new money and large-scale solutions. Without profit and loss, and the threat of financial failure, finding the correct “efficient scale” for much government activity is difficult, no matter what modeling or expertise you have. Scope: Government engages in an extraordinarily diverse range of activities. Yes, individual-focused projects, such as the Apollo programme Cummings highlights, can be successful; but healthcare is more complex. Different policy areas often have conflicting objectives too (see the lower VAT rate on domestic fuel vs. policies to make fossil fuels less attractive). Reformers constantly run into Chesterton Fences – not least because no man can account for all of what the state does. Having a framework of what constitutes core activities and why (whether it’s delivering public goods, solving other market failures, redistributing or more) is, therefore, an important prerequisite for the type of management, resources and approach required. Crowd out: government projects or the hiring of more “brilliant people” would suck individuals and resources out of the private sector, where they could benefit society more. It also disincentives individuals and businesses from finding their own solutions to problems, often creating de-facto monopolies less responsive to users/consumers and technological change. Now, if Cummings is just laser-focused on improving delivery of core functions or projects, necessary Brexit-related change, or solving market failures, then this critique is neutered somewhat. His ideas could well generate improvements to delivery of activities government would be undertaking anyway. But my fear, reading between the lines, is that these hires reflect an ambition for projects encompassing greater government economic activism. In that case, it’s worth revisiting why governments fail where markets succeed. There are limits to what talented weirdos and misfits can achieve. Ryan Bourne holds the R Evan Scharf Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.
  • Bernie Sanders Is on to Something in Education    (Neal McCluskey, 2020-01-08)
    Neal McCluskey Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is taking the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), and test-centric education policy, to task. “We do not need an education system in which kids are simply taught to take tests,” Sanders writes in  USA Today. “We need a system in which kids learn and grow in a holistic manner.” , Sanders is right that federal law has narrowed education largely to a test score (though it has  moved away from that a bit with NCLB’s successor). Unfortunately, he is way off when it comes to solutions. NCLB was signed into law in early 2002 to improve the academic outcomes for all students, especially those in schools with the worst test scores. And it was passed with  strong bipartisan support , because a lot of people had reached the logical conclusion that too many families, especially low-income, were powerless. They had far too little political capital to change their districts, and could not afford the cost of homes in “good” ones. The only hope for them, many concluded, was for the federal government to forcestates and districts to pay attention to everyone. , Bernie Sanders is right that NCLB-style reform—blunt, top-down control—is no way to run an education system. But he is wrong to attack the opposite of such reform: school choice. , The intentions behind NCLB were good, and the assessment of a fundamental public schooling flaw—families have little power—was dead on. But the practical effect was to concentrate power even further from families and communities, putting it in Washington, D.C. And the law relied on essentially one measure—standardized test scores—to determine “good” or “bad” performers, and did so without accounting for unique situations, from poverty levels to English-language learner concentrations, before slapping labels and sanctions on schools and districts. Senator Sanders is right to criticize NCLB. But he is greatly mistaken to also attack school choice, which he does based on some charter schools being managed by for-profit companies, most being non-union, and none supposedly being “publicly accountable.” The fact is, only school choice empowers families to hold their schools accountable by controlling education dollars, especially low-income families who cannot afford to buy expensive homes to escape schools they feel are not serving them well. “Public” accountability, in contrast, is dependency, forcing the poor to rely on political processes and bureaucracies to make schools work. But such processes tend to leave the poor and political minorities largely powerless; they have neither the elite political networks, nor often the sheer size, to significantly influence political decisions. There is one other thing: All children, families, and communities are different, so no one system could serve them all equally no matter how much political power they had. In addition to shunting choice aside, Senator Sanders suggests that “underinvestment in our schools” is a major problem. How one defines “underinvestment” is, of course, crucial, but by what measures we have it is tough to see anything like major underfunding. For one thing, we spend more per-pupil on elementary and secondary education than almost any other industrialized nation. Moreover, as the graph below shows, while there was a decrease in inflation-adjusted spending as a result of the Great Recession, it came after decades of almost unremitting spending increases, and we are almost back at record levels. What has been stagnant , at least since the late 1980s, is average teacher salaries, but that is because the money has been spent elsewhere, especially on other staff. , , Bernie Sanders is right that NCLB-style reform—blunt, top-down control—is no way to run an education system. But he is wrong to attack the opposite of such reform: school choice, which empowers diverse families and educators alike to seek out and provide education as theysee fit. Neal McCluskey is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and author of the book "Feds in the Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples, and Compromises American Education."
  • Progressive Governments’ Economic War on the NRA Fails in Court    (Walter Olson, 2020-01-08)
    Walter Olson Some politicos just can't stop grandstanding, even if it means their court case goes down in flames. Consider what just happened in a federal court in Los Angeles. , Not long ago, progressive state and local officials nationwide were vowing to take down the hated National Rifle Association by targeting its pocketbook. When city authorities in Los Angeles and San Francisco gave that idea a try, they were following the lead of Governor Andrew Cuomo, who had unleashed New York financial regulators to go after the gun-rights organization's access to insurance and banking services. Now all three are facing a reckoning in court, based not on the Second Amendment but on the First. Without needing to even consider the issue of gun rights, federal courts are recognizing that boycotts enforced by government power can menace free speech and free association. The amusing part is that the public officials themselves are helping to provide the basis for these rulings by tweeting and speechifying about how much damage they intend to do the NRA. , In California and New York, efforts to target the gun-rights group’s business relationships are failing on First Amendment grounds. , In December, a federal court in California granted a preliminary injunction against a Los Angeles ordinance requiring city contractors to disclose any business links to, or memberships in, the gun group. It found the evidence “overwhelming” that the city’s intent in passing the law was “to suppress the message of the NRA.” Public officials have been on notice about this sort of thing for at least two decades, since the 1996 Supreme Court case Board of County Commissioners v. Umbehr. In that case, the Court held that a county's having terminated a government contract in retaliation for the contractor's persistent and annoying political speech could violate the First Amendment. Controversial and unpopular speech is protected speech; officials cannot yank a contract from some business, or threaten to, just because it has donated to, or partnered in some venture with, the Sierra Club, the NAACP, or the NRA. Lawyers for Los Angeles tried to defend their ordinance by saying all it did was require disclosures from contractors, which wouldn’t necessarily amount to punishing or chilling speech. But this sort of First Amendment claim comes down to a question of intent. And the court found that the city’s lawmakers had made their intent to suppress speech and association utterly clear. They had done so in the text of the ordinance itself, in its legislative history, and in the statements made at the time by its chief sponsor, Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell (Hollywood-Silver Lake). The ordinance starts off with a long preamble that, amid much demagogy, cites the NRA’s $163 million (2015) in membership dues and asserts that those dues go toward foiling beneficent legislative ends. That helped establish nicely that part of the bill’s aim was “to cut off revenue to the NRA because of its pro-firearm advocacy,” as the court put it. Then there were O’Farrell’s various pronouncements. Earlier in the year, he had motioned the city to “rid itself of its relationships with any organization that supports the NRA” and further moved that the city’s chief legislative analyst “report back with options for the City to immediately boycott those businesses and organizations” that do business with the NRA “until their formal relationship with the NRA ceases to exist.” Were doubt left about his intentions, O’Farrell’s Twitter outbursts through 2018 told of his efforts to jawbone businesses such as FedEx and Amazon into cutting off business relations with the NRA, often tagging friendly accounts such as @everytown, @momsdemand, @shannonrwatts, and @bradybuzz. It was unnecessary to show that the city had actually cut off any businesses, or that any such businesses had cut ties with the NRA for fear of city displeasure. So long as the ordinance was intended to chill speech and association, as it was, it would fall. San Francisco’s similar ordinance, although also the subject of a brief challenge in court, collapsed as a practical matter even more quickly. The measure’s tantrum-like preamble branded the NRA a domestic terrorist group, in a move calculated to draw wide national attention. The text of the ordinance proclaimed that the city should “take every reasonable step to limit those entities who do business with the City and County of San Francisco from doing business with” the gun-rights organization. Commentators promptly pointed out that any such step would fail in court as unconstitutional. Soon thereafter, San Francisco mayor London Breed issued a memo clarifying that “the City’s contracting processes and policies have not changed and will not change as a result of the Resolution” because only an actual ordinance can enact changes to city law. The NRA is suing anyway, but by the city’s own account the measure at this point does nothing except beam out vain hostility. Governor Cuomo was shrewder. He avoided the blatant statements of intent that tripped up his California counterparts. But did he retain enough deniability to survive a court challenge? In April 2018, he issued a statement saying he was directing “the Department of Financial Services to urge insurance companies, New York State-chartered banks, and other financial services companies licensed in New York to review any relationships they may have with the National Rifle Association and other similar organizations.” Review such relationships for what, exactly? Well, “the companies are encouraged to consider whether such ties harm their corporate reputations and jeopardize public safety.” In a press release, he made things a tad more explicit, saying that he was directing his financial regulators “to urge insurers and bankers statewide to determine whether any relationship they may have with the NRA or similar organizations sends the wrong message” (emphasis added). Those regulators, of course, have the discretion to make life very unpleasant for insurers and banks dense enough not to take the hint. Sure enough, the NRA in short order was cut off by some long-term business partners, notable among them one major insurer and one major insurance broker. The state declared that it had found regulatory infractions in NRA-branded insurance-affinity offerings, and in the ensuing settlements with the insurer and the broker it got them to promise never to do business with the NRA again, in New York or anywhere else. Yet at the same time, the NRA says, the state took no action against similarly marketed affinity products sold by others. Cuomo’s financial regulator made things a little more explicit still: “DFS urges all insurance companies and banks doing business in New York to join the companies that have already discontinued their arrangements with the NRA.” In November 2018, a federal court in New York found that all in all, there was enough plausible evidence of “direct and implied threats to insurers and financial institutions because of these entities’ links with the NRA” to allow the group to proceed with a First Amendment suit. While Cuomo was of course free to express his own views, the Constitution would have something to say about it if he or his appointees had made veiled threats against banks and insurers to encourage them to disassociate from the NRA. The court also asked for more evidence documenting a selective-enforcement claim, and this summer, against stiff legal resistance from the state, the NRA succeeded in getting discovery of some state files. In a filing on December 20, the NRA said it had found new documentation of both the pressure and the selective enforcement. One reason the California disputes went so well for the NRA is that the officials just couldn’t help grandstanding at every turn in search of followers’ applause. That’s how O’Farrell, in Los Angeles, helped tweet his side of the case right out of court. But Cuomo, while he’s been more circumspect, has not covered himself as thoroughly as he might have. “If I could have put the NRA out of business, I would have done it 20 years ago,” he declared in response to one legal development. Tell us more, Governor. Walter Olson is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and writes the blog Overlawyered.
  • Trump's Bogus "Off Ramp" Offer to Iran    (Ted Galen Carpenter, 2020-01-08)
    Ted Galen Carpenter President Trump's widely anticipated address to the nation on the growing crisis with Iran contained few surprises and even fewer worthwhile observations or proposals. Instead, it was largely a regurgitation of long-standing hawkish allegations and demands. Indeed, Trump began his speech with the stale refrain that Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon. From there, he proceeded to recite a lengthy litany of familiar allegations about Tehran's behavior: Iran as the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism; Iran fomenting civil wars and undermining peaceful governments throughout the Middle East; Iran being responsible for the deaths of Americans in Iraq and elsewhere. , The president followed those accusations with an offer to commence negotiations on a new nuclear deal to replace the multilateral Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the existing agreement that Trump sabotaged). The broader proffered carrot was an end to U.S. and international economic sanctions if Tehran would only capitulate on Washington's demands. However, the immediate, substantive U.S. action the president announced would move the needle in the opposite direction, with the imposition of new sanctions, accompanied by a thinly veiled demand that America's European allies (as well as Russia and China) support those measures. His call on NATO, the world's strongest military alliance, to become more deeply involved in the Middle East was hardly calculated to ease Iranian worries either. There is little prospect that Trump’s policy will improve Washington’s already hostile relations with Tehran. Indeed, continuing to portray Iran as the Middle East’s arch-villain is both misleading and counterproductive. All of Trump’s allegations were either half-truths or outright falsehoods. Iran is not the world’s principal state sponsor of terrorism; that dubious distinction belongs to Saudi Arabia. 15 of the 19 terrorist hijackers on 9-11 were Saudi nationals, and several Saudi officials had dubious ties to Al Qaeda. Not a single hijacker was Iranian, and no credible evidence has emerged that Tehran had any connection to the attack.Since then, Riyadh has backed extremist Sunni factions in Iraq, Syria, and other countries. Indeed, Saudi Arabia and its allies funded and equipped some of the factions that ultimately coalesced to form ISIS. , There is little prospect that Trump’s policy will improve Washington’s already hostile relations with Tehran. Indeed, continuing to portray Iran as the Middle East’s arch-villain is both misleading and counterproductive. , Similarly, Trump’s accusation that Tehran has fomented civil wars in such countries as Syria and Yemen turns reality on its head. Saudi Arabia, along with Turkey and Qatar, has orchestrated the effort by Sunni insurgents in Syria to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad, a close Iranian ally. Because of Washington’s intense antipathy toward Iran, both the Obama and Trump administrations supported the anti-Assad campaign, helping to plunge Syria into a bloody civil war and to perpetuate that tragedy. Blaming Iran for the horrors in Yemen is even a more outrageous falsehood. The humanitarian crisis in that country is due largely to the Saudi-led atrocity-ridden war of aggression, which the United States has actively assisted despite overwhelming evidence of Saudi war crimes. Even the allegation that Iran has been responsible for the deaths of “hundreds” of Americans in the Middle East (primarily in Iraq) has largely been debunked. None of the attacks, including the devastating carnage resulting from improvised explosive devices (IEDs), would have occurred if the United States had not invaded and occupied that country to overthrow Saddam Hussein. There were at least as many Sunni fighters as there were Iranian-backed Shias in the subsequent insurgency, and contrary to the hawkish narrative, many of those groups were perfectly capable of manufacturing and deploying IEDs without Iranian assistance. Trump and his advisers have thoroughly mismanaged relations with Iran. The earlier assassination of General Qassem Soleimani was especially dangerous and provocative. Doing so on Iraqi territory when he was there at the invitation of the Iraqi government to discuss a new peace feeler from Saudi Arabia, was clumsy beyond belief. Indeed, it created suspicions that the United States deliberately seeks to maintain turmoil in the Middle East to justify America's intrusive military presence in the region. Killing Soleimani (as well as at least two Iraqi political leaders) understandably have provoked Baghdad. Massive anti-U.S. demonstrations have erupted in Baghdad, and the Iraqi parliament proceeded to pass a resolution calling on Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to expel U.S. forces. The legislature has a vote scheduled for January 12 on a law to mandate that step. Trump's boorish reaction to the possibility that Baghdad might order U.S. troops to leave was akin to a foreign policy temper tantrum. He threatened America's supposed ally with harsh economic sanctions if it took that step, virtually guaranteeing that Iraq would cooperate even more closely with Iran. Media accounts convey a sense of relief that the January 7 Iranian missile strikes on two sprawling Iraqi bases housing American forces appeared to have been more of a propaganda display to placate domestic opinion than a serious effort to inflict damage. Indeed, it seemed calculated to avoid killing American personnel.  Critics note that there were other official U.S. installations throughout the Middle East that were both more vulnerable and valuable if Iran had wanted to strike a truly damaging blow. By confining itself to a mostly symbolic gesture, perhaps Iran was signaling a desire to de-escalate the confrontation. But it is also possible that this was a final shot across the bow, warning the United States to back off or the next attack would be far more serious. Even if Tehran did signal a wish to de-escalate and commence a new bilateral dialogue, Trump's response was not helpful. Repeating shrill, exaggerated accusations and demanding Tehran's capitulation is not showing an off-ramp from the road to a disastrous collision. It was more akin to continuing a game of military chicken with the growing risk of a head-on collision. America should be looking for its own off-ramp. Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at the National Interest, is the author of 12 books and more than 850 articles on international affairs.
  • The Wrong Kicks on Route 36    (Tom Miller, Todd Zywicki, 2020-01-08)
    Tom Miller and Todd Zywicki Members of Congress in the House and Senate recently introduced versions of the “Veterans and Consumers Fair Credit Act,” designed to extend to all consumers the interest rate caps currently in place for active-duty service members and dependents. This proposed legislation is modeled after the 2015 update to the 2007 Military Lending Act (MLA), and mandates a nationwide 36 percent interest rate cap on consumer credit. , Supporters of a 36 percent interest rate cap compare it to a “speed limit on small-dollar loans.” Not so. It is an abrupt “pavement ends” sign for millions of Americans. As with all price controls, interest rate caps have predictable outcomes. Interest rate caps create shortages and make credit less available for millions of families. Small-dollar credit products serve millions of people. According to the FDIC, nearly 33 million families have no or only limited access to bank credit. A recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York suggests millions more may be “credit insecure.” That is, they tend to max out their credit limit, have a low credit score, and have a history of late payments. Also, 45 million primarily young, low-income, and minority Americans have poor or thin credit histories. They are ineligible for prime credit cards and bank loans. , If the MLA has not helped service members, why extend it? The MLA is a cautionary tale — not a model — for consumer credit regulation. It seems ripe for repeal, not ready to extend to all consumers. , A primary function of credit is to smooth consumption. More than a third of households making under $50,000 experience month-to-month spikes and dips in their income. Small-dollar credit products help them deal with unforeseen expenses. The choice for these consumers is between using small-dollar credit products and simply going without. In theory, how would a 36 percent interest rate cap eliminate consumer choices? It costs money to produce small-dollar loans. Reducing revenue too much makes loans unprofitable, and lenders will obviously not supply unprofitable loans. This includes installment loans, payday loans, and even pawn shops. Borrowers’ option to use small-dollar credit products is not outlawed, but there is no supply for payday and pawn loans, and no amounts available lower than $4,000 for traditional installment loans at those rates. A 36 percent cap on payday loans for active military, their spouses, and dependents has been in place since the MLA passed in 2007. Its proponents argued at the time that payday lenders near military bases were taking advantage of inexperienced borrowers in uniform, causing them financial distress which compromised their performance. The MLA banned payday loans for military members on those grounds. In 2015, the MLA cap was extended to all forms of credit, including pawn loans — which had been exempt in the 2007 Act. More than ten years later, though, evidence has accumulated that the MLA has had no benefit and might even hurt those it was intended to help. For example, in 2017, researchers found that access to payday loans did not increase bad outcomes, such as involuntary separations and the denial of security clearances as a result of financial distress. Their analysis “suggests no significant benefits to servicemembers from the MLA.” A 2016 study showed access to payday loans made it easier for military personnel to buy food and other goods before their biweekly paycheck. If the MLA has not helped service members, why extend it? The MLA is a cautionary tale — not a model — for consumer credit regulation. It seems ripe for repeal, not ready to extend to all consumers. Tom Miller is Professor of Finance and Jack R. Lee Chair in Financial Institutions and Consumer Finance at Mississippi State University. Todd Zywicki is a University Foundation Professor of Law at George Mason University Antonin Scalia School of Law. Both are adjunct Scholars at the Cato Institute’s Center of Monetary and Financial Inclusion.
  • Trump Stokes Endless War: His Attack on an Iranian Military Leader Will Come Back to Haunt Him and Us    (Christopher A. Preble, John Glaser, 2020-01-06)
    Christopher A. Preble and John Glaser In his last State of the Union address, President Trump boldly stated that “great nations do not fight endless wars.” It was a statement in keeping with at least some of the rhetoric from the 2016 campaign. Taking aim at both Democratic and Republican administrations, he complained about Americans expending precious blood and treasure in Middle East conflicts, to the detriment of both U.S. interests and regional stability. , Trump’s decision to order the assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Soleimani near the Baghdad Airport on Thursday, however, is likely to further draw the United States into the Middle Eastern morass. Tensions between the United States and Iran have now risen to new heights and the world is bracing for a violent Iranian response that could put U.S. forces in the region, and the many civilians likely to be caught in the cross-fire, in grave danger. , Trump and his team seem trapped in a dangerous escalatory cycle, with no end in sight. , How did we get here? It all started with Trump’s reckless decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. That agreement (officially the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) obligated Iran to give up 98% of its stockpile of enriched uranium, two-thirds of its operating centrifuges, and to open itself up to the most intrusive UN inspections regime in the world, according to the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Trump, however, always hated the JCPOA — even though it was never clear that he understood what it actually did. Following months of secret meetings and negotiations, Secretary of State John Kerry presented the framework agreement on the evening of April 2, 2015, with the understanding that additional details would be worked out in the ensuing months. But by the following day, on April 3, 2015, Trump had concluded that the deal was “terrible...for the United States and the world” and that it did “nothing but make Iran rich.” He predicted via Twitter that it would “lead to catastrophe.” It was unsurprising, therefore, when he withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018. He did so despite assessments from the IAEA, the U.S. military and intelligence community, and allies and partners around the world, that Iran was fully complying with its stringent terms. The president then re-imposed crippling economic sanctions on the country as punishment for their compliance, thus denying Iran its side of the bargain. The Trump administration, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the lead, called it “maximum pressure.” All the while, Trump and his allies insisted that pulling out of the deal would absolutely not put us on the path to war. That, they said, was ridiculous left-wing fearmongering. For a full year following this, Iran continued to comply with the nuclear deal. Starting in fall of 2019, Iran began to make calculated violations in an attempt to pressure Europe, Russia, and China to revive the faltering accord, to no avail. Through it all, the Trump administration never gave Iran a viable diplomatic off-ramp — a set of compromises that would persuade Washington to lift sanctions and refrain from threatening military action. Desperate under the weight of America’s economic warfare, Iran then ratcheted up its provocations in the region, attacking oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, bombing a Saudi oil field, and even shooting down an unmanned U.S. drone flying within (or at least near) Iranian airspace. In recent weeks, following a number of tit-for-tat bombings and the storming of the American Embassy in Baghdad, Iranian-backed Shia groups in Iraq began protesting the ongoing U.S. military presence in the country. Now, with the killing of Soleimani, we have a dramatic escalation and, possibly, an act of war. In other words, Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy produced the exact opposite set of results than the administration’s stated intentions. It has been an undeniable policy failure. Presuming, that is, that the ostensible object was to obtain a better nuclear deal with Iran. An alternative goal may be the collapse of the Iranian regime, a fantasy that Iran hawks have been entertaining ever since a popular revolution overthrew the U.S.-backed Shah in 1979. Now the Trump administration appears to be tangled up in its own complex web of contradictory rhetoric, disparate and often reactive military operations, and grossly exaggerated perceptions of the Iranian threat. Lacking a clear path forward, or a coherent strategy, in which some combination of pressure and concessions convinces both sides to back away from the brink, Trump and his team seem trapped in a dangerous escalatory cycle, with no end in sight. In other words, an endless war. Christopher A. Preble is the vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, where John Glaser is the director of foreign policy studies. They are the co-authors of the new book, “Fuel to the Fire: How Trump Made America’s Broken Foreign Policy Even Worse.”
  • Kim Jong-un's Big Speech Is Missing Something: South Korea    (Eric Gomez, 2020-01-04)
    Eric Gomez The report on North Korea’s 5th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee talks at length about nuclear diplomacy and outlines what the future may hold for U.S.-North Korea talks. This emphasis is unsurprising after a year of frustrating diplomatic setbacks and false starts in U.S.-North Korea relations, and many talented analysts are trying to decipher the plenum’s implications for Washington. Yet equally notable is the country not mentioned in the report—South Korea. , The report of the 5th Plenary Meeting is a stark reminder of the depleted role that South Korea plays in negotiations with North Korea. This wasn’t always the case. Not long ago, South Korea was an important player in nuclear diplomacy. President Moon Jae-in’s outreach around the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics kicked off a promising year that included two inter-Korean summits. The second of which, in Pyongyang, produced an important military agreement that significantly reduced the likelihood of military escalation along the demilitarized zone. The military agreement was very detailed and laid out mutual, reciprocal steps that North and South Korea quickly implemented. The fine-grained inter-Korean military agreement stood in stark contrast to the vaguely worded joint statement from the U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore. After racking up early diplomatic victories in 2018, Seoul had its knees cut out from under it by the failure of the February 2019 U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi. South Korea and the United States faced some difficulties getting on the same page in 2018 with the former pushing for more broader relationship improvement with North Korea and the latter prioritizing denuclearization. The tentative draft of the Hanoi joint statement released shortly before the start of the summit indicated that the United States was willing to broaden the scope of diplomacy beyond denuclearization and lift sanctions that were blocking inter-Korean economic projects. This would have brought Washington and Seoul’s diplomatic strategies into closer alignment. Instead, the collapse of the Hanoi summit resulted in Kim relegating South Korea to the sidelines and prioritized pressuring the United States to lift sanctions. High-level contact at the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong ground to a halt, North Korea tested several new types of ballistic missiles and large-caliber rocket artillery, and North Korea conducted artillery drills near the Northern Limit Line—a violation of the inter-Korean military agreement. Kim committed to an all-or-nothing formula for sanctions relief that only the United States could provide by reversing course on UN sanctions that affected entire sectors of the North Korean economy (seafood, coal, petroleum, etc.). , The report of the 5th Plenary Meeting is a stark reminder of the depleted role that South Korea plays in negotiations with North Korea. This wasn’t always the case. , Kim’s calculation is simple: South Korea can’t give me what I want, but the United States can. Therefore, focus all effort on getting the United States to change their policies and don’t waste time with South Korea. The language of the report on the 5th Plenary Meeting indicates that North Korea is content to keep South Korea in its diminished position going forward. There is room for the United States to make progress, the report clearly links the size and composition of the North Korean nuclear arsenal to U.S. policies, implying that different policies could lead to a smaller arsenal, but the burden of action lies with Washington and there is little Seoul can do to help the situation. Moon could try to buck the United States entirely and push ahead with a peace regime and violate sanctions to spur inter-Korean economic cooperation. However, such a move would be tantamount to political suicide given high levels of support for the U.S.-South Korea relationship among the Korean people—even given the deeply unpopular U.S. demand for a massive increase in South Korean financial support for U.S. troops deployments. South Korea should continue to abide by the inter-Korean military agreement, but this may become untenable if North Korea continues to take actions that violate the agreement. Right now, 2020 looks like a grim year for South Korea’s diplomatic outreach to North Korea. Moon Jae-in, who played an important role in moving the peninsula away from the brink of armed conflict and made real progress on reducing the risks of cross-border military escalation, has practically no ability to change the current situation on his own without taking actions that would be risky and politically unpopular. Hope is not a strategy, but it may be Seoul’s only choice for the foreseeable future. Eric Gomez is a policy analyst for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.
  • Donald Trump's Iran Policy Comes Down to One Word: Chaos    (Doug Bandow, 2020-01-04)
    Doug Bandow Imagine a neutral Germany carefully balanced between dueling America and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and celebrated war hero arrived in Berlin, where he was met by the head of a local pro-U.S. militia. Meetings also were planned with German leaders. As his vehicle left the airport Soviet planes struck the chairman's party, killing him and his host. , As stunned U.S. officials processed the news, Moscow announced that the action was meant for self-defense and to deescalate the situation. America’s president then called a press conference, telling reporters: “I guess that makes it okay. No hard feelings. Let’s have those negotiations on U.S. disarmament that the Soviets proposed.” The lion laid down with the lamb as Americans and Soviets held mass rallies holding hands while singing Kumbaya. No, that's not what the president would say. Nor what the American people would do. Nor what would happen. Especially if Donald Trump was president. Perhaps it is unsurprising that those representing the world's sole superpower (or hyperpower or unipower) originally acted as if the U.S. is the essential nation that stands taller and sees further, in Madeleine Albright's infamous words. And which can act unilaterally, imperiously, and recklessly without consequence—deciding, for instance, again in Albright's words, that killing a half million Iraqi babies is a worthwhile price to achieve American objectives. , But there is still time for America to pull back from the brink. , What is shocking is how today's officials ignore years, even decades, of interventionist failure. To believe that Washington can kill a top official of one nation in a strike on a third country without consequence is the triumph of hysterical arrogance over sustained experience. Yet the Trump administration targeted Qassim Suleimani, the notorious head of the Quds Forces of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Also killed was an Iraqi national, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces, an Iran-supported militia, and a number of others. Suleimani's convoy was hit by missiles as it left the airport. No one should shed any tears for Suleimani or al-Muhandis (though, ugly truth be told, neither likely killed as many people as the number of people who died as a result of George W. Bush’s foolish decision to invade Iraq). But foreign policy is not an appropriate tool for meting out presumed justice, a convenient way to eliminate bad people. There are a lot of evil, harmful, problematic people in the world. Too many to turn over to American “justice.” Moreover, foreign policy must be concerned with consequences. What will the impact be on Americans and other peoples? Unfortunately, the administration apparently thought there would be none, at least nothing negative. Instead, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo played Pollyanna: "The world is a much safer place today," he said Friday after the strike: "And I can assure you that Americans in the region are much safer today after the demise of Qassem Soleimani." Why then did the administration rush another 3000 troops to Kuwait as a precautionary measure, in addition to the 14,000 sent since May? Moreover, why did the State Department send out a travel alert urging Americans to rush home: “Due to heightened tensions in Iraq and the region, we urge U.S. citizens to depart Iraq immediately. Due to Iranian-backed militia attacks at the U.S. Embassy compound, all consular operations are suspended. U.S. citizens should not approach the Embassy.” Travelers needing help were told to go to the U.S. consulate in Erbil, the capital of autonomous Kurdistan. So much for everyone being safer. Washington transgressed the usual norms and red lines which govern the occasional violence between adversaries: countries typically don’t target other nations’ leaders. One reason is self-preservation. You don’t want your adversaries to retaliate against you. More open Western societies probably are more vulnerable than authoritarian ones. And, ultimately, there has to be someone to negotiate with when the endgame is reached. Truly decapitating a government can be as problematic for the winner as the loser. In irregular warfare and counterterrorism the U.S. has been more willing to target leaders, but doing so has had little impact on the level of violence. New leaders arise. In the case of Afghanistan’s Taliban, many replacements were more radical than the men they succeeded. Which made a peaceful settlement less likely. Israel has killed a number of top Hamas and Hezbollah leaders; these organizations are no less threatening today. Assassination is ineffective as general strategy. Secretary Pompeo naturally contended that the president was defending the U.S. He claimed: “I can’t talk too much about the nature of the threats. But the American people should know that the President’s decision to remove Soleimani from the battlefield saved American lives.” The secretary contended that Soleimani was “actively plotting” to “take big action, as he described it, that would have put hundreds of lives at risk.” The threat was “imminent,” Pompeo claimed, concluding: “The risk of doing nothing was enormous. Intelligence community made that assessment and President Trump acted decisively last night.” Unfortunately, none of these claims can be taken at face value. The secretary's litany of previous falsehoods is long and leaves him with little credibility. Moreover, the Iraq war provides myriad examples of how to manufacture and manipulate alleged intelligence, cook the results according to preferred ideological and political recipes, and selectively interpret whatever resulted to yield the desired conclusion. The Iraqi experience warns Americans that even specific citations of specific plots by specific sources are suspect. True, the corrupt, dishonest Ahmed Chalabi, who did so much to lie Americans into invading Iraq, is dead. However, the Mojahedin-e Khalq, or MEK, a cultish one-time terrorist group has ties to the administration, and the Netanyahu government, desperate to break Israel's electoral deadlock, is a Trump favorite. Both have strong incentives to use any means possible to convince Washington to eliminate the Islamist regime in Tehran. In any case, tweeted Reuters editor Gerry Doyle, “the problem with this is that it asks us to believe that killing one person undoes an entire military apparatus, or defuses an operation. that's only true in the movies. unless Soleimani was planning to personally carry out the attack, this doesn't physically prevent anything.” The Iranian was no lone wolf or singular mastermind. He ran an organization and had deputies, assistants, and multitude of others involved in any plot. They have the incentive and means to ensure that the show goes on, as it were. So purposeless, undisciplined, and reckless was the U.S. attack that even Iran’s extremists were surprised. Tweeted Negar Mortazavi, diplomatic correspondent for the Independent: “Hardliner in Tehran tells me killing Soleimani is a disproportionate response to embassy protests and makes no sense. Says: They either wanted to kill an Iraqi militia commander and hit Soleimani by mistake, or they are true morons.” Alas, it almost certainly was the latter. The administration apparently imagined that it could shock the Islamic republic into quietude. Secretary Pompeo has been on the hustings claiming the administration wanted to deescalate. The president sent out a curious tweet presumably intended to push Tehran toward diplomacy: “Iran never won a war, but never lost a negotiation!” And the administration reportedly has communicated with Tehran, presumably to press the president’s request for talks. However, if productive diplomacy leading to a peaceful modus vivendi was the objective, Washington aimed its missiles much too high. Soleimani was too important to Tehran, and too popular with the public, making his death impossible to ignore, even by those who may not have been rivals. For instance, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared that Soleimani’s death was “bitter” but that “the final victory will make life more bitter for the murderers and criminals.” Defense Minister (and Brig. Gen.) Amir Hatami said the regime would give a “crushing” response. Even relative moderates had little choice but to threaten Washington. President Hassan Rouhani declared that “The flag of General Soleimani in defense of the country's territorial integrity and the fight against terrorism and extremism in the region will be raised, and the path of resistance to US excesses will continue. The great nation of Iran will take revenge for this heinous crime.” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who negotiated the JCPOA, or nuclear agreement, with the Obama administration, termed the assassination an “act of international terrorism” and declared that America “bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism.” Grant the inevitable posturing and overstatement. After such proclamations, the regime cannot do nothing. Certainly, its leaders cannot be seen shaking Donald Trump’s hand after signing an agreement filled with additional concessions to a government which not only trashed the previous pact but killed one of Iran’s leading revolutionary figures. Narges Bajoghli of the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, warned that the assassination was highly symbolic, but the sort of symbolism that “has the power to move people to action.” Then there is the problem of Iraq, currently convulsed by public protests focused on protecting the nation’s sovereignty. Tehran was the primary target of the protests, but Washington’s warmaking on Iraqi territory has shifted the spotlight to America. Iraqi leaders overwhelmingly criticized the U.S. raid, which Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi called an "assassination." The Daily Beast quoted an Iraqi official as saying: “Some will celebrate, some will mourn, some will seek revenge.” However, U.S.-Iraqi relations were in “real jeopardy.” Abdul-Mahdi said "the two martyrs were huge symbols of the victory" over ISIS. He denounced the “aggression against Iraq” and "massive breach of sovereignty" which violated the conditions governing the American military’s presence in Iraq. He worried about “a dangerous escalation that will light the fuse of a destructive war in Iraq, the region, and the world.” The premier invited parliament to reassemble in special session to “take legislative steps and necessary provisions to safeguard Iraq’s dignity, security and sovereignty.” And that likely means a full-scale assault on America’s presence. Deputy Speaker Hassan al-Kaabi said they would gather and make “Decisive decisions that put an end to U.S. presence inside Iraq.” Perhaps more ominous was the reaction of Shiite extremist religious leader Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army once battled American occupation troops but who had turned populist politician, most recently pressing for his nation’s independence from both the U.S. and Iran. He praised Soleimani and reactivated the Mahdi Army. On Twitter he instructed his "fighters, particularly those from the Mahdi Army, to be ready" for action following the airstrike. At least al-Sadr was ambiguous, only saying that their job was to defend Iraq—though almost certainly he meant from the U.S. Qais al-Khazali, head of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, a member of al-Muhandis’ Popular Mobilization Forces, was more explicit when he also ordered his fighters to get ready. He declared: “All fighters should be on high alert for upcoming battle and great victory. The price for the blood of the martyred commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis is the complete end to American military presence in Iraq.” President Trump's policy toward Iran continues to bear ill fruit. When he entered the Oval Office, Tehran's nuclear program was limited by a tight inspections and safeguard system. The Islamic regime faced internal tensions as the young, especially, hoped for greater economic opportunities in the West. With Iran's nuclear ambitions tamed, the U.S. and allied states could follow up with a challenge to Tehran to moderate its regional behavior in return for additional, appropriate concessions. Instead, the president abandoned the JCPOA, reinstituted sanctions, and added new ones while demanding that Iran abandon its independent foreign policy. Tehran naturally refused. Today Iran is simultaneously facing instability at home and creating instability abroad, more active than ever throughout the Middle East. The regime has revived its nuclear research program and breached the negotiated limits. Tehran's missiles have become even more important in deterring the well-armed Saudi royals, who seemingly have Trump administration officials on retainer. Worse, the U.S. and Iran now are publicly at war. They risk setting off an escalatory cycle which could result in disaster. So much for the policy of maximum pressure. But there is still time for America to pull back from the brink. U.S. policymakers must abandon the fantasy that they can manage the world and especially the Mideast. Rising opposition to America's presence in Iraq should become the catalyst for a general withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region. The Middle East no longer matters so much. The cost of continued American military involvement exceeds any plausible benefits. Allied and friendly nations should take responsibility for their own defense. Most important, the U.S. should declare neutrality in the Shia-Sunni struggle, leaving the players to reach their own accommodation. No more endless wars fought for others. No more military deployments manipulated for the benefit other nations. Rather, a foreign policy finally focused on protecting, serving, and benefitting Americans. Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. He is a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan and author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.
  • Did Donald Trump Just Start a War with Iran?    (Ted Galen Carpenter, 2020-01-04)
    Ted Galen Carpenter The U.S. drone strike that killed Major General Qasem Soleimani, one of Iran's top military leaders, is an extremely provocative incident. It triggered immediate vows of retaliation from Tehran, and there is every reason to assume that the clerical government intends to fulfill those vows. Soleimani was the commander of the Quds Force, which coordinates military and intelligence operations with Iran's allies in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and other countries, making him an especially crucial figure in the Middle East's bruising geopolitical struggles. , Washington’s strike is the latest move in a dangerous tit-for-tat escalation over the past week that began with an assault by a pro-Iranian Iraqi militia that killed a U.S. “civilian contractor” at a base in Iraq. Washington launched retaliatory attacks on several militia installations in both Iraq and Syria. Demonstrators in Baghdad, egged on by militia leaders, then stormed the U.S. embassy, occupying part of the building and forcing staff members to take refuge in a special safe room. President Trump warned that Iran would “pay a very high price” for the embassy siege. The killing of Soleimani appears to have been that “very high price.” , People who assumed that America’s Middle East headaches couldn’t get any worse likely are in for an unpleasant surprise. , But Washington’s move constitutes a reckless escalation. It is a huge provocation that Iran almost certainly will not (indeed, cannot) tolerate. The drone strike especially puts Iraq’s leaders in an impossible position. The current, fragile government already is under intense pressure from demonstrators because of widespread dissatisfaction with economic conditions, political corruption, and other issues. Those demonstrations have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians at the hands of government security forces and forced the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi at the end of November.  Exacerbating those already severe problems, the long-standing, simmering campaign by pro-Iranian militias and other Shiite factions to expel U.S. forces may reach a full boil because of Soleimani’s assassination. Iran is well-positioned and has every incentive now to stoke those tensions to the maximum. Iran’s retaliation for the drone strike may not occur immediately, but it will happen. Western leaders tend to worry the most that the Tehran regime will seek to disrupt shipping in the Persian Gulf and perhaps even try to close the vital Strait of Hormuz. Hawkish retired Admiral James Stavridis notes that Iran has “exceptionally strong asymmetric warfare capability” in several areas. “Cyber [attacks], swarm small-boat tactics, diesel submarines, special forces, and surface-to-surface cruise missiles are all high-level assets.” Stavridis added that “they are also very experienced at employing them in the demanding environment of the Middle East.”  Such a direct military move is possible, but other, murkier scenarios are more likely. As I discussed in a June 30, 2019, National Interest Online article during an earlier crisis, Iranian leaders have an abundance of options for making America’s Middle East presence even more dangerous and less rewarding than it is now. Tehran might well call upon its network of Shia political and military allies throughout in the Middle East to create havoc for the United States. Iran maintains very close ties to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shia militias in Syria. The residual U.S. force deployed in the latter country could be especially vulnerable to harassment and lethal attacks. And one should not ignore or discount the potential role of the oppressed Shia majority in Bahrain. If their seething discontent at the pro-Saudi Sunni monarchy that Washington backs explodes into outright conflict, the Trump administration could find it very difficult to continue basing the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. But it is the animosity and strength of the Shia militias in Iraq that should give Washington nightmares. Those factions already dislike the United States and want U.S. military forces out of their country. The attack on Soleimani gives them an even greater incentive to intensify their opposition, because Washington's drone strike not only killed the Iranian general, it killed the leaders of two of the strongest militias. If the Trump administration had deliberately sought to make the U.S. military presence in Iraq extremely perilous, it could not have adopted a more effective measure. American hawks, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and some other high-level Trump administration officials, have long wanted either a war with Iran or that country's outright capitulation to Washington's policy demands. They may now get their wish regarding the first option. People who assumed that America's Middle East headaches couldn't get any worse likely are in for an unpleasant surprise. Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor to the National Interest, is the author of 12 books and more than 850 articles on international affairs.
  • Yes, a Deal Between North Korea and America Is Still Possible    (Doug Bandow, 2020-01-03)
    Doug Bandow President Donald Trump wanted to reach an agreement with North Korea. After all, he believes in making deals. But in practice, he isn't very good at concluding them. At least good ones. , He sets unrealistic expectations, exaggerates supposed problems and solutions, fixates on the wrong issues, personalizes political battles, confuses bluster with resolve, abandons America's interests, offends potential allies, and treats everything as a victory. Looking back, only a miracle could have led such a person with such a record to a durable peace with the latest representative of the Kim dynasty. Nevertheless, maybe the age of miracles is not over. Something looking like peace remains possible. But achieving it won’t be easy. Kim Jong-un appears to be taking a much harder line toward the U.S. He could be bluffing, but that seems unlikely. He is no blowhard, at not quite 28 having taken over leadership of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from his father. Despite his lack of experience, he secured power in one of the world’s premier political snake pits. Kim even had his uncle publicly humiliated and executed. Kim also established supremacy over the military, the one institution that could oust him. , Something looking like peace remains possible. But achieving it won’t be easy. , The Korean Central News Agency related the report of Supreme Leader Kim, who “guided” the “5th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea,” of which he is chairman. There was a lot of agitprop, as would be expected. Nevertheless, he appeared to be fully in control and confident of his course. First, he didn’t sound like someone prepared to negotiate away the North’s nuclear arsenal. Reported by KCNA, Kim noted the success in “developing the ultra-modern weapon system possessed only by the countries with advanced defense science and technology” which “means a great victory, and our possession of promising strategic weapon system planned by the Party one by one serves as a great event in developing the armed forces of the Republic and in defending and guaranteeing our sovereignty and right to existence.” These accomplishments “would make our great military and technical power irreversible, greatly promote the increase of our greater national power, raise the power of putting the political situation around us under control and give the enemies the blow of big uneasiness and horror.” Second, he made clear that he took a long view. He said that “the more the U.S. stalls for time and hesitates in the settlement of the DPRK-U.S. relations, the more helpless it will find itself before the might of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea getting stronger beyond prediction and the deeper it will fall into an impasse.” Indeed, he instructed party members that “the present situation warning of long confrontation with the U.S. urgently requires us to make it a fait accompli that we have to live under the sanctions by the hostile forces in the future, too, and to strengthen the internal power for all aspects.” Third, he treated Washington’s behavior as reflecting deep-seated hostile to Pyongyang. He talked about America’s perfidious behavior early and often, beginning with and then returning to the theme after an extended diversion to economics. He warned that “if the U.S. persists in its hostile policy towards the DPRK, there will never be the denuclearization on the Korean peninsula and the DPRK will steadily develop necessary and prerequisite strategic weapons for the security of the state until the U.S. rolls back its hostile policy towards the DPRK and lasting and durable peace-keeping mechanism is built.” But he dismissed the focus on nuclear weapons, declaring: “If there were not the nuclear issue, the U.S. would find fault with us under other issue, and the U.S. military and political threats would not end.” Fourth, Kim threatened to “shift to a shocking action to make [the U.S.] pay for the pains sustained by our people so far and for the development so far restrained.” Exactly what that might mean he did not specify, but later in his speech, reported KCNA, “he stressed that under such condition, there is no good ground for us to get unilaterally bound to the commitment [not to test missiles and nuclear weapons] any longer, the commitment to which there is no opposite party, and this is chilling our efforts for worldwide nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.” More ominous was KCNA’s report: “Saying that we should more actively push forward the project for developing strategic weapons, he confirmed that the world will witness a new strategic weapon to be possessed by the DPRK in the near future.” Taken at face value, Kim's remarks leave President Donald Trump without a North Korea policy. That is no cause for hysteria, however. The North is in roughly the same position as in January 2017: mostly alone against the world, with uncertain support from China and Russia, desperately enhancing its missile and nuclear capabilities. Washington is also similarly situated, the globe's superpower seeking to force North Korea to disarm, with no idea how to do so. Despite occasional claims of impending doom, the U.S. is not in direct danger. The DPRK is focused on defense rather than offense. The Republic of Korea has raced past its northern antagonist on virtually every measure of national power and is backed by the U.S., the globe's most enthusiastic proponent of regime change. For Kim to attack would mean choosing to die in a radioactive funeral pyre in Pyongyang. However, possessing but not using nukes makes it less likely he will share Muammar Khadafy's fate, suffering a death both brutal and public. Moreover, though Kim denounced “the double-dealing behavior of the brigandish U.S.” and America’s “abuse [of] the DPRK-U.S. dialogue for meeting its sordid aim,” he did not dismiss the possibility of negotiations and agreement. Indeed, the course for better relations remained clear. Kim devoted much verbiage to what he called “the hostile policy toward the DPRK.” Most obvious is the imposition of sanctions, intended “to completely strangle and stifle the DPRK.” Indeed, over the last two years, while Pyongyang observed a testing moratorium, he complained, “the U.S. also took more than ten independent sanctions measures only to show before the world once again that it remained unchanged in its ambition to stifle” the North. While Kim talked tough, his desire for a deal was evident. After all, his father and grandfather would never have pursued a modus vivendi with America that would risk opening North Korea to outside forces. Moreover, in the younger Kim’s plenum presentation he spent much time on economic policy: “he advanced important tasks for putting in order the economic work system and order,” stated the KCNA. There was little blather about Juche. Rather, he revealed his desire for foreign economic contact. “We urgently need external environment favorable for the economic construction,” he allowed, though quickly adding that “we can never sell our dignity which we have so far defended as valuable as our own life, in hope for brilliant transformation.” Elsewhere, he noted that “nothing has changed between the days when we maintained the line of simultaneously pushing forward the economic construction and the building of nuclear force and now when we struggle to direct our effects to the economic construction owing to the U.S. gangster-like acts.” Which suggests a return to his father’s byungjin policy in practice if not name. Moreover, Kim indicated his willingness to adjust the nuclear program to reflect U.S. behavior. Reported KCNA: “He said that we will reliably put on constant alert the powerful nuclear deterrent capable of containing the nuclear threats from the U.S. and guaranteeing our long-term security, noting that the scope and depth of bolstering our deterrent will be properly coordinated depending on the U.S. future attitude to the DPRK.” It is unclear what being “properly coordinated” means, but that suggests a willingness to limit—though probably not eliminate—nuclear weapons and missiles. Shortly after the release of Kim’s remarks, President Trump dismissed concerns that North Korean policy might be changing: “We’ll see, I have a very good relationship with Kim Jong-un.” Alas, even if Kim reciprocates the warm personal feelings, he isn’t likely to let them influence his nation’s strategy. After all, both Kim’s survival and his nation’s progress are at stake. The president also observed that Kim “did sign a contract, he did sign an agreement, talking about denuclearization.” That is unlikely to constrain the Supreme Leader; moreover, the U.S. has not performed its side of the bargain and Trump’s abandonment of the nuclear deal with Iran shows how he treats international “contracts.” The U.S. and North share a dangerous moment. North Korean missile or nuclear tests would be highly embarrassing for the president in an election year, especially after Democrats attacked him for being naïve in his dealings with the DPRK. It would be hard for Trump not to match Kim with escalation of some sort. A return to the “fire and fury” politics of 2017 would be a significant possibility. With that would come military threats and an increased chance of war by mistake or misjudgment. Kim has made the first move. Rather than act, he merely indicated his willingness to do so. Thus, he left Washington room to respond by shifting in the other direction. The administration should take advantage of this opportunity for restraint. The U.S. should start by explicitly responding to Kim's charge of American hostility. Washington should end the ban on visitors both from and to North Korea. That would repeal a measure that can only be seen as hostile and would symbolically invite greater contact between the two nations. This step also would cost Washington nothing, since the prohibition is ill-conceived and hampers humanitarian work. Washington also should directly address the North’s security concerns. Persistent threats of military action, the president’s recent admission that he considered preventative strikes in 2017, and Washington’s record of regime change wars all give credence to Pyongyang’s fears. The president should offer his vision for the peninsula, which would be grounded in peace. He should assure Pyongyang that he has no offensive intentions toward the DPRK. Moreover, the administration should address Kim’s desire for a “durable peace-keeping mechanism” by picking up proposals prepared for last year’s Hanoi summit, opening liaison offices and approving an end of war declaration. The former would benefit America by opening additional communication channels with an unpredictable and dangerous government; the latter would recognize a reality for the last 69 years. Both would advance a peace narrative. The president should respond to Kim’s complaint about the lack of reciprocity for his testing moratorium by offering to formalize the end of testing by the North and military exercises by the U.S. and South Korea. Limiting missile and nuclear development is a major plus for America and worth paying for. The president should indicate that he views this as merely the first of a series of agreements that could be reached, with meaningful steps towards disarmament traded for sanctions relief. Along the way Washington should engage Beijing and Moscow, urging their support for this initiative. Trump should indicate his willingness to make concessions on sanctions, as they have proposed, if the DPRK limits arms development and deployment. Failure to live up to the agreements would, however, result in the return of sanctions. Of course, Kim might prove to be more like his father and grandfather than the West would like and reject such overtures. But the only way to know is to make them. And he is markedly different from his predecessors: educated overseas, focused on economic development, skillful in diplomacy, internationally engaged. There is greater hope than before in reducing if not eliminating the threat posed by his regime. Even if Pyongyang proves receptive an especially speedy denuclearization is highly unlikely. The North has invested too much, is too vulnerable, and trusts too little. Nevertheless, even limited arms control would make the Korean peninsula more stable and secure. Two years without the U.S. and North Korea insulting and threatening each other, arguing about the size of their respective buttons, and making menacing deployments was an improvement over the past. Continuing this status quo would be in both countries’ interests. The path to disarmament on the Korean peninsula is narrowing. But the opportunity remains. Washington needs to abandon its expectations and find small areas of agreement with the North to move forward. Toward the DPRK, at least, American policy should be based on “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.
  • After a Decade of Macroeconomics, It’s the Small Things That Need Fixing    (Ryan Bourne, 2020-01-02)
    Ryan Bourne It could have been worse. That’s hardly a stellar verdict on the 2010s as a decade of UK economic policy. Yet in a 10-year period that saw the mopping up of the financial crisis, a controversial deficit reduction programme, and then the political convulsions of Brexit, it doesn’t take much imagination to envisage economic outcomes much weaker than we’ve seen. , After the financial crisis, a mistaken lurch Left in policymaking seemed feasible. Economic commentator Will Hutton talked confidently of how “an old order is once again giving way to another” and of a “once-in-a-lifetime chance to change British capitalism”. The Left had a clear narrative, portraying the financial crisis as the ultimate manifestation of “deregulation” and supposed “neoliberal” excess. Mercifully, they fluffed their lines. Sure. Old, failed ideas resurfaced and became renormalised in public debate — from Keynesianism to strong unions, “New Deals” (this time Green) to price controls. Britain briefly flirted with Jeremy Corbyn, and the Conservatives became more attracted to nannying and susceptible to the allure of central planning themselves. But a sea-change in policy away from markets hasn’t materialised, yet. Britain has, so far, avoided throwing out the baby with capitalism’s bath water. After-the-horse-had-bolted regulatory reform of the banking system instead quickly gave way to a decade dominated by macroeconomic debates — of monetary versus fiscal policy as the best stabilisation tool, stimulus versus austerity for the public finances, and then, most recently, on the short and long-term consequences of Brexit. Plenty of mistakes were made, but Britain’s aggregate outcomes, viewed coolly and objectively, have not been disastrous. Monetary policy after the crash helped avert a deep depression. Fiscal repair in terms of reducing the day-to-day structural deficit afterwards is now largely complete, with headline borrowing having fallen from above 10pc of GDP to around 2pc once new spending promises kick in. What’s more, this has been achieved alongside a remarkable employment performance, no doubt aided by Britain’s flexible labour market. Unemployment, at 3.8pc, is now at its lowest since 1973; the employment rate for 16 to 64-year-olds, at over 76pc, is at its recorded peak. Austerity didn’t deliver a lost generation of workers as some claimed it would. Nor did it result in the skyrocketing inequality and material deprivation some thought an inevitable consequence. In fact, though there are no doubt families struggling in insecure work, or others having seen working-age benefit cuts, the proportion of children in households facing both low income and material deprivation has fallen since 2010. Income inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, is lower now than a decade ago. Britain’s economy has proven more a hardy weed than the delicate flower of politicians’ minds. George Osborne predicted an immediate recession if we dared to vote to leave the EU in 2016. Uncertainty since that referendum has indeed proven a drag on growth, but as with the major fiscal consolidation we saw through to 2016, the British economy has proven a lot more robust and adaptive than many expected. We shouldn’t be Panglossian about the 2010s, of course. With alternative policy, better outcomes could have been delivered. Monetary policy “forward guidance” from the Bank of England proved a huge misreading of the potential of the labour market. The coalition government front-loaded tax rises and cuts to investment spending, proving more of a drag on economic activity than if they’d prioritised reform towards a smaller day-to-day state that did fewer things better. Huge public finance headwinds from an ageing population remain in the future. But Britain’s policymakers’ main mistake was putting too little focus on what became our biggest self-evident structural problem: stubbornly weak productivity growth. Output per worker growth has averaged just 0.3pc a year since 2008, a figure earning the dubious honour of the Royal Statistical Society’s “stat of the decade”. As a result, we are 20pc poorer than we would have been if the pre-crash trends of 2pc productivity growth per year had continued. Now, that counterfactual is no doubt over-optimistic given trends in other developed countries. But as time has gone on, attributing this malaise to a hangover from the financial crash or a consequence of deficit reduction has become ever more difficult to justify. Whatever its causes, the consequences of weak productivity growth – not least weak wage growth and lower tax revenues — deserved a policy reassessment. But so much of the past decade has been spent fighting crises, unexpected political events, or near-term fiscal shocks, we’ve neglected discussion of the microeconomic building blocks of longer-term prosperity. As we enter the 2020s, this focus must change. Brexit is forcing a debate about the nuts and bolts of good trade policy. Boris’s victory is seeing a repoliticisation of infrastructure spending and a battle of ideas on regional regeneration and land-use planning laws. How we regulate machines, driverless cars and digital platforms will become more important as innovation continues apace. The economic consequences of efforts to lower carbon emissions and immigration will be heavily dependent on the nuts and bolts of the frameworks government introduces. Britain’s new Bank of England Governor, Andrew Bailey, will presumably play a key role in preparing the financial sector for Brexit and any regulatory deviations Britain makes after leaving the EU too. Of course, we can never discount the risk of a fresh recession and so the revival of the macro debates. But it’s the quality of microeconomic policy in all these areas that will determine Britain’s long-term economic success. With the public finances now healthier and Brexit delivered, Boris Johnson and his big majority in Parliament have a real opportunity in the early 2020s to tackle the smaller, micro-level roadblocks to broad-based macroeconomic success. Ryan Bourne is the R Evan Scharf Chair for the Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.
  • How Our Economic Warfare Brings the World to Heel    (Doug Bandow, 2020-01-02)
    Doug Bandow Economic sanctions are an important foreign policy tool going back to America’s founding. President Thomas Jefferson banned trade with Great Britain and France, which left U.S. seamen unemployed while failing to prevent military conflict with both. , Economic warfare tends to be equally ineffective today. The Trump administration made Cuba, Venezuela, Russia, Iran, and North Korea special sanctions targets. So this strategy has failed in every case. In fact, “maximum pressure” on both Iran, which has become more threatening, and North Korea, which appears to be preparing a tougher military response, has dramatically backfired. The big difference between then and now is Washington’s shift from primary to secondary sanctions. Trade embargoes, such as first applied to Cuba in 1960, once only prevented Americans from dealing with the target state. Today Washington attempts to conscript the entire world to fight its economic wars. , Even allies and friends, most notably Europe, Japan, South Korea, and India, are threatened with economic warfare unless they accept Washington’s self-serving priorities and mind-numbing fantasies. , This shift was heralded by the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which extended Cuban penalties to foreign companies, a highly controversial move at the time. Sudan was another early target of secondary sanctions, which barred anyone who used the U.S. financial system from dealing with Khartoum. Europeans and others grumbled about Washington’s arrogance, but were not willing to confront the globe’s unipower over such minor markets. However, sanctions have become much bigger business in Washington. One form is a mix of legislative and executive initiatives applied against governments in disfavor. There were five countries under sanction when George W. Bush took office in 2001. The Office of Foreign Assets Control currently lists penalties against the Balkans, Belarus, Burundi, Central African Republic, Cuba, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Nicaragua, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine-Russia, Venezuela, Yemen, and Zimbabwe. In addition are special programs: countering America’s adversaries, counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism, cyber warfare, foreign election interference, Global Magnitsky, Magnitsky, proliferation, diamond trade, and transnational crime. Among today’s more notable targets are Cuba for being communist, Venezuela for being crazy communist, Iran for having once sought nuclear weapons and currently challenging Saudi and U.S. regional hegemony, Russia for beating up on Ukraine and meddling in America’s 2016 election, Syria for opposing Israel and brutally suppressing U.S.-supported insurgents, and North Korea for developing nuclear weapons. Once on Washington’s naughty list, countries rarely get off. The second penalty tier affects agencies, companies, and people who have offended someone in Washington for doing something considered evil, inappropriate, or simply inconvenient. Individual miscreants often are easy to dislike. Penalizing a few dubious characters or enterprises creates less opposition than sanctioning a country. However, some targets merely offended congressional priorities. For instance, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act Congress authorized sanctions against Western companies, most notably the Swiss-Dutch pipe-laying venture Allseas Group, involved in the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline project. GOP Senators Ted Cruz and Ron Johnson threatened Allseas: “continuing to do the work—for even a single day after the president signs the sanctions legislation—would expose your company to crushing and potentially fatal legal and economic sanctions.” Penalizing what OFAC calls “Specially Designated Nationals” and “blocked persons” has become Washington sport. Their number hit 8000 last year. The Economist noted that the Trump administration alone added 3100 names during its first three years, almost as many as George W. Bush included in eight years. Today’s target list runs an incredible 1358 pages. The process has run wildly out of control. Policymakers’ first response to a person, organization, or government doing something of which they disapprove now seems to be to impose sanctions—on anyone or anything on earth dealing with the target. Unfortunately, reliance on economic warfare, and sanctions traditionally are treated as an act of war, has greatly inflated U.S. officials’ geopolitical ambitions. Once they accepted that the world was a messy, imperfect place. Today they intervene in the slightest foreign controversy. Even allies and friends, most notably Europe, Japan, South Korea, and India, are threatened with economic warfare unless they accept Washington’s self-serving priorities and mind-numbing fantasies. At the same time the utility of sanctions is falling. Unilateral penalties usually fail, which enrages advocates, who respond by escalating sanctions, again without success. Of course, embargoes and bans often inflict substantial economic pain, which sometimes lead proponents to claim victory. However, the cost is supposed to be the means to another end. Yet the Trump administration has failed everywhere: Cuba maintains communist party rule, Iran has grown more truculent, North Korea has refused to disarm, Russia has not given back Crimea, and Venezuela has not defenestrated Nicolas Maduro. Much the same goes for penalties applied to individuals, firms, and other entities. Those targeted often are hurt, and most of them deserve to be hurt. But they usually persist in their behavior or others replace them. What dictator has been deposed, policy has been changed, threat has been countered, or wrong has been righted as a result of economic warfare? There is little evidence that U.S. sanctions achieve much of anything, other than encourage sanctimonious moral preening.  Noted the Economist, “If they do not change behavior, sanctions risk becoming less a tool of coercion than an expensive and rather arbitrary extraterritorial form of punishment.” One that some day might be turned against Americans. Contra apparent assumptions in Washington, it is not easy to turn countries into America’s image. Raw nationalism usually triumphs. Americans should reflect on how they would react if the situation was reversed. No one wants to comply with unpopular foreign dictates. In fact, economic warfare often exacerbates underlying conflicts. Rather than negotiate with Washington from a position of weakness, Iran has threatened maritime traffic in the Persian Gulf, shut down Saudi oil exports, and loosed affiliates and irregulars on American and allied forces. Russia has challenged against multiple Washington policy priorities. Cuba has shifted power to the post-revolutionary generation and extended its authority private businesses as the Trump administration’s policies have stymied growth and undermined entrepreneurs. The almost endless expansion of sanctions also punishes American firms and foreign companies active in America. Compliance is costly. Violating one rule, even inadvertently, is even more so. Chary companies preemptively forego legal business in a process called “de-risking.”  Even humanitarian traffic suffers: Who wants to risk an expensive mistake in handling relatively low value transactions? Such effects might not bother smug U.S. policymakers, but should weigh heavily on the rest of us. Perhaps most important, Washington’s overreliance on secondary sanctions is building resistance to American financial dominance. Warned Treasury Secretary Jack Lew in 2016: “The more we condition use of the dollar and our financial system on adherence to U.S. foreign policy, the more the risk of migration to other currencies and other financial systems in the medium-term grows.” Overthrowing the almighty dollar will be no mean feat. Nevertheless, arrogant U.S. attempts to regulate the globe have united much of the world, including Europe, Russia, and China, against American extraterritoriality. Noted attorney Bruce Zagaris, Washington is “inadvertently mobilizing a club of countries and international organizations, including U.S. allies, to develop ways to circumvent U.S. sanctions.” Merchant ships and oil tankers turn off transponders. Vessels transfer cargoes at sea. Firms arrange cash and barter deals. Major powers such as China aid and abet violations and dare Washington to wreck much larger bilateral economic relationships. The European Union passed “Blocking Legislation” to allow recovery of damages from U.S. sanctions and limit Europeans’ compliance with such rules. The EU also developed a barter facility, known as Instex, to allow trade with Iran without reliance on U.S. financial institution. Russia has pushed to de-dollarize international payments and worked with China to settle bilateral trade in rubles and renminbi. Foreign central banks have increased their purchases of gold. At the recent Islamic summit Malaysia proposed using gold and barter for trade to thwart future sanctions. Venezuela has been selling gold for euros. These measures do not as yet threaten America’s predominant financial role but foreshadow likely future changes. Indeed, Washington’s attack on plans by Germany to import natural gas from Russia might ignite something much greater. Berlin is not just an incidental victim of U.S. policy. Rather, Germany is the target. Complained Foreign Minister Heiko Maas “European energy policy is decided in Europe, not in the U.S.” Alas, Congress thinks differently. However, Europeans are ever less willing to accept this kind of indignity. Washington is penalizing even close allies for no obvious purpose other than demonstrating its power. In Nord Stream 2’s case, Gazprom likely will complete the project if necessary. Germany’s Deputy Foreign Minister Niels Annen argued that “Europe needs new instruments to be able to defend itself from licentious extraterritorial sanctions.” Commercial penalties have a role to play in foreign policy, but economic warfare is warfare. It can trigger real conflicts—consider Imperial Japan’s response to the Roosevelt administration’s cut-off of oil exports. And economic warfare can kill innocents. When UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright was asked about the deaths of a half million Iraqi babies from U.S. sanctions, her response was chilling: “We think the price is worth it.” Yet most of the time economic war fails, especially if a unilateral effort by one power applied against the rest of the world. Washington policymakers need to relearn the meaning of humility. Incompetent and arrogant sanctions policies hurt Americans as well as others. Unfortunately, the resulting blowback will only increase. Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.
  • Samantha Power in Bosnia: A Poster Child for Toxic Advocacy Journalism    (Ted Galen Carpenter, 2020-01-01)
    Ted Galen Carpenter The adverse consequences flowing from Yugoslavia's slow-motion disintegration in the 1990s impacted the entire country, but the turmoil and human tragedy was especially pronounced in Bosnia. Three major ethno-religious groups there—Catholic Croats, Eastern Orthodox Serbs, and Muslims—all maneuvered for advantage in a brass knuckles political, and ultimately a military, struggle. All three factions engaged in ethnic cleansing—attempting to expel all ethnic groups other than their own—whenever they gained control of a geographic region. Fighters in all three armies also committed various atrocities. Serb forces seemed somewhat more inclined to engage in such conduct, but the scope of their offenses, both in numbers and severity, was not hugely disproportionate. , The picture that most Western journalists painted was far from balanced, however. In the overwhelming majority of media accounts, Bosnia's murky, multisided struggle became a straight-forward war of Serbian aggression aimed at innocent Croat, and especially Muslim, civilians. The goal of those portrayals was to shame U.S. and NATO leaders into launching a military intervention to support the Muslim cause. Such melodramatic lobbying masquerading as journalism became the template for media coverage of subsequent conflicts in such places as Kosovo, Libya and Syria. One idealistic young American epitomizing the commitment to shrill advocacy journalism in Bosnia was Samantha Power, who in a few more years would achieve fame covering the genocide in Rwanda and publishing a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on that tragedy and the overall issue of genocide. Power was a rising star who eventually would be a high-level foreign policy adviser (culminating with her service as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations) in Barack Obama’s administration. , Like other practitioners of advocacy journalism in Bosnia, Power seemed blissfully unaware of (or indifferent to) the danger that she was presenting oversimplified and brazenly unfair, one-sided accounts. , She showed noticeable tenacity in seeking an opportunity to go to Bosnia to cover the burgeoning armed conflict there. As Power relates in her 2019 memoir, The Education of an Idealist, she was merely an intern at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who lacked press credentials from the organization’s flagship publication, Foreign Policy, or any other recognized news organization. She describes how she solved that problem. “I waited until the Foreign Policy editorial staff had headed home and the cleaners had completed their nighttime rounds on the floor. Once the suite was completely deserted, I walked into the office of Charles William Maynes, the journal’s editor, picked up several sheets of his stationery and then hurried back to my desk. Hands shaking, I began typing a letter impersonating the unwitting Maynes.” Then “determined to get to Bosnia, I went ahead and wrote to the head of the UN Press Office, asking that the UN provide Samantha Power, Foreign Policy’s ‘Balkan correspondent,’ with ‘all necessary access.’” Such conduct said volumes about her obsession to cover the Bosnian war--and about her ethics. Her overwhelming bias about the Bosnia conflict also was evident, and she remains surprisingly candid about it. “I had never been without opinions, but my certitude previously had to do with seemingly trivial issues like an umpire’s bad call in a baseball game. Now, as I researched and reflected on real-world events, I seemed unable to contain my emotions or modulate my judgments. If the subject of Bosnia came up and someone innocently described the conflict as a civil war, I would erupt: It is genocide!” Individuals with that mentality are not news reporters. At best, they are editorialists or opinion columnists; at worst, they crude propagandists. Power and too many of her media colleagues in Bosnia belonged in the last category. She exhibited no shyness about engaging in blatant advocacy journalism. Convinced that “the only way President Clinton would intervene to break the siege of Sarajevo [Bosnia’s Muslim-held capital] was if he felt domestic pressure to do so,” Power concluded that as a journalist “I believed that I had a critical role to play.” Many Western journalists in Bosnia “brought a similar focus to their work,” she contends. They wanted “our governments’ actions to change.” Power acknowledged that “this aspiration was more reminiscent of an editorial writer’s ambitions than that of a traditional reporter, whose job it was to document what she saw.” Indeed, she was frustrated that the advocacy journalism of the Western press corps based in Sarajevo was slow to have a meaningful impact on U.S. policy. Until the summer of 1995, she recalled, “I had believed that if my colleagues and I conveyed the suffering around us to decision-makers in Washington, our journalism might move President Clinton to stage a rescue mission. This had not happened. The words, the photographs, the videos, nothing had changed the President’s mind. While Sarajevans had once thought of Western journalists as messengers on their behalf, they now began to see us as ambassadors of idle nations.” Such language indicated that Power had relinquished any semblance of journalistic detachment and identified entirely with one faction in the internecine conflict that she was covering.  Her frustration with Western policy was rising sharply in the spring and summer of 1995. “No matter how many massacres we covered, Western governments seemed determined to steer clear of the conflict,” she railed. Power’s analysis of the Bosnia conflict displayed much of the overwrought perspective that would characterize her later positions on the Libyan and Syrian civil wars. Her mood became utterly celebratory when NATO launched air strikes on Bosnian Serb forces in the autumn of 1995 and imposed the Dayton Peace Accords later that year. Too many Western journalists in Bosnia (and later in Kosovo), such as CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, exuded similar pervasive bias in their coverage. They acted as though the Serbs were almost alone in practicing ethnic cleansing. Power even explicitly claimed that in the early 1990s Bosnian Serb paramilitaries “had first introduced the chilling term ‘ethnic cleansing’ in places like Banja Luka to describe how they sought to ‘purify’ the land they controlled of its Muslim and Croat residents.” Her statement is factually wrong. Seth Ackerman, a media analyst for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), and veteran investigative journalist Jim Naureckas, note that Albanian nationalists in Kosovo had used the same term and similar rhetoric as early as 1982 to describe their goal of driving out the Serb minority and making that province “ethnically pure.” Moreover, “all of the half-dozen references in Nexis to ‘ethnically clean’ or ‘ethnic cleansing’ over the next seven years [after 1982] attribute the term to Albanian nationalists.” Yet, “despite being easily available on Nexis, virtually none of that material found its way into contemporary U.S. coverage” of either the Bosnia or Kosovo conflicts. Like other practitioners of advocacy journalism in Bosnia, Power seemed blissfully unaware of (or indifferent to) the danger that she was presenting oversimplified and brazenly unfair, one-sided accounts. One subtle but important indicator of her bias, even in her memoir a quarter century later, was that she typically uses “Bosnians” as a synonym for the country’s Muslim population. Power implicitly treated Serbs and Croats as foreign interlopers, even though they lived in Bosnia and in most instances their families had done so for generations. Unfortunately, the approach that Power adopted would epitomize the media’s performance in later conflicts, with the same underlying goal of prodding the United States and its NATO allies to launch or intensify “humanitarian” military interventions. Media accounts of the Syrian government’s siege of rebel-held Aleppo was typical. Boston Globe columnist Stephen Kinzer excoriated the behavior of such journalists, noting that, “much of the American press is reporting the opposite of what is actually happening. Many news reports suggest that Aleppo has been a ‘liberated zone’ for three years but is now being pulled back into misery” by a Syrian government offensive. He noted that Washington-based reporters used sanitized terminology that “attempted to portray even the staunchly Islamist faction, Jabhat al-Nusra, as being composed “of ‘rebels’ or ‘moderates,’ not that it was the local al-Qaeda franchise.” Georgetown University senior fellow Paul R. Pillar likewise was critical of much of the Aleppo coverage, finding it excessively emotional and one-sided. Samantha Power’s performance regarding the Bosnian war was a textbook example of especially toxic advocacy journalism in international affairs. That type of coverage not only is a disgrace to ethical journalism, it has helped foment disastrous, destabilizing Western military interventions in multiple countries. Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at the National Interest, is the author of 12 books and more than 850 articles on international affairs. His books include The Captive Press: Foreign Policy Crises and the First Amendment (1995).
  • Kim Jong-un Hedges His Bets. How Will Trump Respond?    (Ted Galen Carpenter, 2020-01-01)
    Ted Galen Carpenter A great deal of apprehension existed throughout the world in anticipation of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s annual New Year’s Day address. In mid-December, Kim had promised an ominous “Christmas surprise” because negotiations with the United States about North Korea’s nuclear program had stalled. Although that threat failed to materialize, observers still worried about what Pyongyang might be planning. Concerns mounted when Kim spoke to the Central Committee of the ruling Workers Party at the end of December and declared that his country was no longer bound by its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests. Worse, he vowed that his country would soon unveil a “new strategic weapon” to the world. , But that address, outlining Pyongyang’s policy for 2020, still proved to be somewhat anti-climactic. New York Times reporter Choe Sang-Hun notes correctly that Kim “moderated those threats by leaving out the specifics. Mr. Kim did not explicitly say that he was formally lifting the test moratorium or that he was terminating diplomacy. Instead, he said his efforts to expand his nuclear weapons capabilities could be adjusted “depending on the U.S. future attitude. It’s a wait-and-see approach that leaves room for more negotiations.” The bottom line is that we have not yet returned to the alarmingly confrontational situation that existed during President Donald Trump's first year in office. At the same time, we are apparently no closer to a solution to the problem of North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Moreover, although the fragile bilateral détente has not collapsed, the process of trying to normalize relations between the United States and North Korea clearly has stalled. Such an impasse cannot continue indefinitely, and when it ends it could do so catastrophically , Kim’s address was hardly an example of cordial diplomacy, but neither was it a fire-breathing, threat-filled diatribe. , One underlying problem is that Kim cannot be certain even about the identity of the U.S. president after January 20, 2021. Therefore, the durability of any agreements reached with the Trump administration in the coming year is open to question. That risk is even greater given the hostility that leading Democrats have exhibited toward Trump's pursuit of a rapprochement with Pyongyang. If those problems were not enough to make worthwhile negotiations in 2020 difficult, Washington's overall negotiating strategy is unrealistic. The core demand of the Trump administration, as was the case with its predecessors since the early 1990s, is that North Korea must agree to complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization, or CVID. Given how the United States has treated non-nuclear adversaries such as Serbia, Iraq, Libya, and Syria over the past quarter-century, there is almost no chance that Pyongyang will relinquish its small nuclear arsenal or its pursuit of a reliable ballistic missile delivery system.  In the view of North Korean leaders, possession of such a deterrent may be the only thing that prevents Washington from pursuing a forcible regime-change strategy, as it did against those other countries Insisting that North Korea return to nuclear virginity, therefore, is a nonstarter. A more realistic and attainable U.S. policy would be to accept Pyongyang having a small nuclear deterrent, combined with efforts to fully normalize diplomatic and economic relations with that government, despite its odious qualities. Normalization would mean, among other steps, establishing formal diplomatic relations (including the exchange of ambassadors), signing a treaty bringing an official end to the Korean War, the withdrawal of most North Korean as well as U.S. and South Korean troops from areas near the Demilitarized Zone, and the gradual lifting of most U.S. and UN economic sanctions on North Korea. Unfortunately, there will be fierce opposition in America’s political and policy communities to an accord that leaves Pyongyang in possession of any nuclear weapons. Such opposition is misplaced. As various experts have shown, nuclear weapons may be the ultimate deterrent, but they are not very useful either for intimidation or warfighting—unless a country’s political leadership is willing to commit national and personal suicide. Despite the popular mythology in the West that Kim and the rest of the DPRK’s leadership is “crazy,” there is no credible evidence for that conclusion. North Korean leaders certainly are brutal and ruthless, but their actions are not irrational, much less suicidal. Kim's address was hardly an example of cordial diplomacy, but neither was it a fire-breathing, threat-filled diatribe. It epitomized a cautious, hedging strategy, and that's the best we're likely to get in the foreseeable future. Washington's response should consist of steps to revitalize a process of bilateral détente based on more realistic objectives. Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at the National Interest, is the author of 12 books and more than 850 articles on international affairs.
  • A Trump Calendar, Forever?    (Steve H. Hanke, 2019-12-31)
    Steve H. Hanke For more than 500 years, the most popular and influential book after the Bible was The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Varagine. At the end of the 13th century, Varagine was grappling with how medieval Christians perceived time: He mapped the liturgical calendar and the stories of feast-day saints associated with it. The book was a bestseller. , Flash forward to today. We now waste a great deal of time fumbling around with the flawed Gregorian calendar. For one thing, new calendars have to be printed ever year. What a waste of both time and money. But this isn’t the only cost dished up by our Gregorian calendar. Indeed, there are a number of problems and inefficiencies associated with it. Under the Gregorian calendar, the scheduling of the days for holidays, sporting events and school schedules — to name but a few — must be redone each year. What a waste of time and money. , , The Gregorian calendar also causes confusion when it comes to the age-old idea of “time is money.” For example, to determine how much interest accrues for a wide variety of instruments — bonds, mortgages, swaps, forward rate agreements, etc. — day counts are required. The current calendar contains complexities and anomalies that create day-count problems. And there are other financial problems generated by the Gregorian calendar. For example, back in 2013, Apple was caught up in a quarterly reporting fiasco. Following its firt-quarter 2013 earnings announcement, Apple suffered its worst one-day loss in four years as a result of the company’s failure to meet Wall Street’s expectations. This was largely due to a simple calendar-generated error — most analysts failed to account for the fact that Apple’s Q1 2013 was one week shorter than the same quarter the year before. The past 400 years have only seen a handful of cohesive efforts to standardize the modern calendar or iron out the kinks of the Gregorian calendar. The crusade for calendar modernization found one of its most prominent champions in 19th-century industrialist George Eastman, the founder of the Eastman Kodak Co. Driven by a desire to create a more business-friendly calendar, he developed the “Eastman plan.” It was one of the first cogent models of a fixed (or permanent) calendar and was designed to eliminate the practical and financial inefficiencies generated by the Gregorian calendar system. However innovative, the Eastman plan was in many respects crude, failing most crucially to account for and preserve the Sabbath. Like many past attempts at calendar reform, the Eastman plan was doomed by its failure to address religious and cultural concerns. Indeed, one of the major criticisms of such calendar reforms is that they interfered with religious days of rest, which play an integral role in the organization of economic activity, i.e. “the work week.” To solve the problems generated by the Gregorian calendar and avoid the Sabbath pitfall that plagued George Eastman, we developed the Hanke-Henry Permanent Calendar (HHPC). The HHPC offers a comprehensive template for revising the contemporary Gregorian calendar. It adheres to the most basic tenet of a fixed calendar: Every date would fall on the same day of the week every year. So, New Year’s Day would always be a Monday. The year would be divided into four three-month quarters. The first two months of each quarter would be made up of 30 days; the third would have 31 days. So, each quarter contains 91 days resulting in a 364-day year comprised of 52 seven-day weeks. This is a vital feature of the HHPC: By preserving the seven-day Sabbath cycle — and so not inserting “extra days” that break up the weekly cycle — it would avoid the major complaints from ecclesiastical quarters that have doomed all other attempts at calendar reform. There would be a disparity between the necessary length of our calendar (364 days) and that of the astronomical calendar (365.24 days). The HHPC would account for this by tacking an additional week onto every fifth or sixth year. So, there would be an extra seven days added to the calendar in, for example, 2020, 2026, 2032 and so on. This additional week would serve the same purpose as the extra day we count in a leap year in the present system and keep the calendar in line with the seasons. There is no reason why calendrical change cannot occur more rapidly today. Indeed, with the stroke of a pen, President Donald J. Trump could sign an executive order. With that, the HHPC would become the “Trump Calendar” — a permanent calendar mandated for use by the U.S. government. Why not? After all, this is what Julius Caesar did on January 1, 45 B.C., when the dictator perpetuo introduced the Julian Calendar. Steve H. Hanke is a professor of Applied Economics at the Johns Hopkins University. Richard Conn Henry is an Academy Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the Johns Hopkins University.
  • Who Needs Judges? Progressives Discover the Virtues of Democracy!    (Doug Bandow, 2019-12-31)
    Doug Bandow Washington is convulsed by politics these days. The presidential election is less than a year away. The House is moving forward on impeaching President Donald Trump. And there is widespread preparation for a possible Supreme Court confirmation battle. , Of course, the last is largely hidden from public view, since there is no vacancy … yet. It is morbid but inevitable business: across the spectrum, officials and activists alike are considering the likely progression of pancreatic cancer in Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. No one wishes her ill, but an election-year nomination would trigger an extraordinarily bitter, high-stakes battle. So everyone wants to be ready. Long committed to result-oriented jurisprudence, the Left fears that it faces payback from conservative jurists after years of unconstitutional judicial activism. AlterNet’s Jake Johnson warned that “Progressive advocacy groups and legal experts have warned that these right-wing judges will have the power to shape U.S. law on climate, reproductive rights, and other major areas for decades to come.” Just like the lefties did who long dominated the federal bench. But they now fear the end is nigh! Progressive activists are pushing for “reform,” which means filling the courts with robed legislators. Emma Janger of the People’s Parity Project argued, “Without a meaningful plan for court reform any presidential attempts to make needed change will simply be blocked by the courts.” Listen to progressive activists and you hear an echo of Teddy Roosevelt’s famous declaration at the 1912 Republican Party convention that “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.” Yet it is the Left that long ago politicized the judiciary, hijacking the legal process and turning court appointments into brutal political battles. As originally conceived, the judicial role was important. Alexander Hamilton explained in Federalist No. 78, , The independence of the judges is equally requisite to guard the Constitution and the rights of individuals from the effect of those ill humors, which the arts of designing men, or the influence of particular conjunctures [circumstances], sometimes disseminate among the people themselves, and which, though they speedily give place to better information and more deliberate reflection, have a tendency, in the meantime, to occasion dangerous innovations in the government, and serious oppressions of the minor party in the community. , Nevertheless, the Supreme Court was the least influential branch. Appointments were viewed more as a burden than an honor. The president administered, and Congress legislated. There wasn’t that much for the court to oversee, even after it claimed the right of final review. There simply wasn’t much for justices to do. The first Supreme Court justice, John Jay, quit to run for New York governor. The judiciary became more important once politicians began to embrace collectivism. First during the Progressive Era and more fully during the early years of the New Deal, the courts sought to vindicate the Constitution by overturning legislation which exceeded government’s constitutional authority. This set off liberal outrage over the supposed attack on and violation of democratic principles. How dare unelected appointees stand in the way of the people’s representatives! But Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s threat to “pack” the court resulted in the infamous “switch in time that saved nine.” The actuarial tables eventually gave him nine Supreme Court appointments and control of the Supreme Court. Resistance to legislation other than that arguably running afoul of the Bill of Rights essentially disappeared. The original constitutional scheme was dramatically altered without formal amendment. Worse was to come, however. Modern liberalism advanced faster within the legal profession than the general population, leading to the highly activistic Warren Court. Even after Chief Justice Earl Warren, who was appointed in 1953, had been replaced by Warren Burger, the judiciary continued its radical romp, highlighted by Roe v. Wade, the infamous case legalizing abortion. Seven justices peered into each other’s eyes and spied constitutional permutations and emanations, which created a heretofore-undiscovered “right” to abortion. Unknowingly, those who drafted, approved, and ratified the Constitution created a mandate that overturned the laws of every state and provided a putative mother with the absolute “right” to terminate her baby. The ruling was viewed as extreme at the time, not even genuine constitutional law, since its relation to the constitutional text was minimal. Serious liberals such as Yale Law School’s John Hart Ely were sympathetic to Roe on substance but critical on process. The justices traded their deliberative role in judicial chambers for the partisan combat of legislative bodies. Conservative anger at such rulings boiled over. House Minority Leader Gerald Ford pushed an effort to impeach Earl Warren. Activist attorneys and think tanks proposed countermeasures, such as stripping the Supreme Court of jurisdiction over issues. Right-leaning scholars promoted the judicial philosophy of “original intent.” There were differences in nuance — exactly whose intent was decisive, and how was it measured? Nevertheless, the meaning given to provisions should reflect the broad political compromise at the time. If folks today want to change the Constitution’s meaning, they should change the text. That was their job, not that of a handful of jurists acting as a continuing constitutional convention with absolute, unreviewable power. The Reagan administration made judicial appointments accordingly. But its efforts were hampered by candidate Reagan’s promise to appoint a woman (Sandra Day O’Connor may have been the most conservative female candidate available, but she was not particularly conservative) and Anthony Kennedy (a desperation choice after the defeat of a conservative nominee and withdrawal of a more libertarian choice). The Left recognized the inherent jurisprudential weakness of its effort to make judges act as politicians. If courts could make it up as they went along, anything goes — which makes coherent judicial principles impossible. So much effort was put into justifying the “living” constitution, which meant that progressive judges were entitled to … make it up as they went along, but to do so seemingly as part of an overarching doctrine rather than self-serving preference. Even after multiple GOP appointments the high court remained activist: William Brennan, Harry Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, and David Souter almost immediately went over to the Dark Side. All would have been credible appointments by Democratic presidents. Burger, O’Connor, and Kennedy all tended to accept the general thrust of activist jurisprudence, though resisting its most extreme advance. So long as the Left still won cases and Democratic presidents were able to add activists to the Supreme Court, progressives accepted the legitimacy of the judiciary. Some district and appellate courts — such as the fabled Ninth Circuit — remained left-wing bastions. With Hillary Clinton seemingly poised to deliver the death blow to conservative judicial hopes, replacing originalist architect Antonin Scalia with the nominee of her choice, what wasn’t to like about judicial review and overruling democracy? , Both Republicans and Democrats have poor records defending the role of an independent judiciary when decisions seem to go against them. , What a difference a couple of years make. President Donald Trump reclaimed — or in Democratic parlance, “stole” — the Scalia seat with the more libertarian-minded Neil Gorsuch. Then Trump replaced a squishy Kennedy with a more serious conservative, Brett Kavanaugh. (Sen. Elizabeth Warren argued that the president also poached this seat when the Senate eliminated the filibuster from presidential nominations, even though in 2011, Harry Reid’s Democrats began that process, eliminating the filibuster for district and appellate nominations.) Now, still within a single presidential term, the judicial coup de grace looms. It is the progressive icon who might be replaced by a virtual opposite, significantly shifting the balance of the Supreme Court. Plus the 170-plus district and circuit court Trump appointments so far. This means that … unelected judges might preempt Democratic decisions of the people! Who would have imagined? This is a terrible crisis! Judges not being on their side! Judges ruling against them! Judges slowing or halting the inevitable progressive revolution and coming utopia! The New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie warned, “A president supported by a minority of voters may shackle future majorities for decades to come.” He sounds a lot like frustrated conservatives who suffered through rule by activist jurists from the 1960s to 1980s and later. Indeed, Bouie is outraged by what liberals — er, progressives, sorry — once held to be a truism: “What lies over the horizon isn’t just a fight over the meaning of the Constitution; it’s a fight over the power to interpret it. Right now, it appears that power rests with the Supreme Court.” He noted that prior presidents resisted that perspective, including Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson. Andrew Jackson, the terrible racist, genocidal populist? Yup. Bouie contended that the people must reclaim “ultimate interpretive authority” from the Supreme Court. Democrats once complained about Republican “litmus tests” on abortion for judicial appointees. Now, they treat Roe as the essential precedent, which any nominee must affirm. Washington State governor and brief presidential candidate Jay Inslee declared, “I’m open to any idea that can make sure a woman’s right of choice is protected.” New York magazine’s Ed Kilgore complained that Trump “broke every taboo by explicitly promising conservative Evangelicals a SCOTUS that would abolish a federal constitutional right to choose abortion.” Party activists and elites are even working overtime to purge the Democratic congressional caucus of anyone less than pure on Roe. More broadly, Democratic presidential candidates and left-wing activists alike are debating proposals to destroy the traditional judicial independence. Most of the ideas center around court-packing. Add seats to the Supreme Court, maybe a lot of them, and fill them with wannabe legislators. A law degree might be helpful. But the main qualification would be the belief that the Constitution requires implementation of the latest progressive agenda. There are other ideas. Warren promised to appoint a worker-advocate, which presumably means someone who reads the Constitution ideologically rather than legally, creates accountability measures such as fast-tracking judicial impeachment (which the Constitution — remember that document? — leaves to the House), and adds appellate judges to Supreme Court cases (not sure how that would work). Mayor Pete Buttigieg proposed an odd system with five Democrats, five Republicans, and five “nonpolitical” jurists chosen by the others. The one sensible idea is term limits. The details are negotiable. Imagine nominating judges to serve, say, eight-year or 18-year terms. Stagger appointments so every president gets a couple, unless illness or accident upsets the process. Even then, service would be for the rest of the term, with reappointment possible. This would offer several important advantages: judges would still be insulated from direct political pressure, court diversity would increase, “bad” appointees would not serve for life, and individual nominations would be less important and thus less worth a fight to the political death. Both parties would have reason to back such an approach. Most important, though, the judiciary would remain free to fulfill its originally intended role: an independent branch of government intended to balance and check the other two. But this won’t satisfy many on the left. Of course, everything is the GOP’s fault, since “their own efforts to pack the courts with ideologues have broken the system,” as Kilgore argued. Uh, how many conservatives and libertarians, let alone Republicans, did Barack Obama appoint? How many would Hillary Clinton have chosen? Republicans used the same system that Democrats used for years. It actually comes down to political power. Brian Fallon of Demand Justice was refreshingly frank: “Democrats cannot sit back and accept the status quo of a partisan Republican five-seat majority for the next 30 years.” He said, “We don’t consider those two seats that Trump has filled to be legitimate.” Ian Millhiser of ThinkProgress argued, “If the Supreme Court’s current majority is committed to one-party rule, then Congress must create a new majority on the Supreme Court that will return power to the voters.” Of course, the definition of being “committed to one-party rule” is deciding contrary to Democratic preferences on controversial legislation such as the Voting Rights Act. Millhiser explained, , If the Supreme Court goes down this road, and it is more likely than not that it will, this assault on voting rights will not happen in isolation. With Kavanaugh on the Court, Roe v. Wade is doomed. Religious conservatives will most likely gain even more rights to discriminate. Laws protecting workers from rapacious employers could be watered down to nothing. And any major legislation signed by a Democratic President is in serious jeopardy for the foreseeable future. , It is a daunting list, but one without much connection either to law or the Constitution, which are areas where Roe fails. In fact, that case already has been altered, though only incrementally over the years. Nor is a radical majority likely. Chief Justice John Roberts has been particularly reluctant to overturn signal legislative initiatives, such as Obamacare, which he saved by using a taxation argument largely dismissed by the legal community. The majority never likes to be checked by the minority. But the only guarantee of essential but sometimes unpopular rights is often the courts. Millhiser suggested that everything would be okay if the threat of court-packing caused the court to moderate, meaning again make it all up when the zeitgeist struck. Or if Republicans joined to support “a constitutional amendment depoliticizing the judicial selection process,” whatever that means. After all, Democrats have been no less partisan than Republicans when appointing Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and a crowd of progressives before them. The fastest, surest way to destroy the judicial branch is for a partisan Democratic takeover by manipulating the process. That would trigger a race to the bottom: Republicans would have little choice but to respond in kind. Indeed, they might expand the process, adding extra circuit and district court judges, as well. At least Millhiser admitted, “Court-packing is a dangerous tactic, though. If either party resorts to court-packing, they risk destroying the legitimacy of the judiciary.” Or there might be a return to the 1960s, with Republican campaigns to oust hyper-interventionists and remove court jurisdiction over anything that matters. Progressives then might ruefully remember why they once believed in the judiciary as a bulwark against government abuse. The Spectator’s Dov Fischer warned, “As soon as people begin to perceive that judges are not following pre-established and properly enacted rules of the game but instead simply are ‘making up rules they personally prefer,’ the entire system of justice collapses.” The Senate Democratic caucus already is enjoying payback for previous decisions. Democrats filibustered eminently qualified judicial nominees by President George W. Bush. A compromise was reached that avoided a challenge to the filibuster itself. But when GOP legislators filibustered President Barack Obama’s court nominees, the Democratic majority eliminated the practice for district and appellate nominees. Democrats sought to filibuster Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, so the GOP eliminated the practice for high court nominees as well — an inevitable decision, since the filibuster is sustainable only if both sides respect it. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) now admits that his 2011 vote to eliminate the filibuster was “probably the biggest mistake I ever made.” Both Republicans and Democrats have poor records defending the role of an independent judiciary when decisions seem to go against them. In the 1960s, conservatives ignored the importance of judicial review when they sought to hamstring judges. A half-century later, many liberals have become unbridled majoritarians, abandoning the tool they once believed to be essential for defending individuals against the overweening state. Perhaps this should come as no surprise. These days the Left rarely even pretends to have any interest in freedom. If liberty isn’t important, who needs independent judges? Those on the left should ask themselves, however, if the democracy-dependent courts that they now desire would have issued Brown v. Board of Education, which finally overturned the infamous decision enshrining segregation, Plessy v. Ferguson. Would any of the civil libertarian decisions celebrated by the Left have received a majority court vote and survived the popular backlash? Free speech almost certainly would have been sharply curtailed years or decades ago. Progressives should listen to their better angels. It was Democrats who blocked President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s infamous court-packing plan. Historian Michael Parrish wrote that the initiative “divided the New Deal coalition, squandered the political advantage Roosevelt had gained in the 1936 elections, and gave fresh ammunition to those who accused him of dictatorship, tyranny, and fascism.” Some modern Democrats express similar concerns. For instance, Sen. Michael Bennet warned against joining “in that demolition” of the judicial appointment process by Republicans. Sen. Cory Booker worried that retaliatory court-packing could result in a grandchild asking, “Hey, Granddad, why are there 121 people on the Supreme Court?” And the Left’s celebrated judicial standard-bearer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, warned that mass appointments “would make the court look partisan. It would be that — one side saying, ‘When we’re in power, we’re going to enlarge the number of judges, so we would have more people who would vote the way we want them to.’ ” She said that even though she has lost influence as the Trump appointees took their seats. Millhiser admitted that “while the price of court-packing is high, the price of failing to rein in a rogue Supreme Court could potentially be even higher.” Presumably Jerry Ford and many GOP legislators agreed with that sentiment a half century ago. Both sides underestimated the risk to liberty, captured by that famous, if overly quoted, scene from A Man for All Seasons, in which Thomas More warns that “This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down … do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?” Will an independent judiciary survive? Warren declared, “It’s not about the expansion, it’s about depoliticizing the Supreme Court.” But the Left has shamelessly politicized the courts for decades. Despite their charming rhetoric about protecting democracy, left-wing activists are most frustrated because the American people continue to resist plans for a socialist, gender-free, PC paradise. That is what Roe was all about, turning the court into a small-scale legislature controlled by the Left. Democrats fear that in the future they will be unable to rely on the courts to impose policies resisted by the American people. The only way to depoliticize the courts is to stop demanding that they decide political and partisan rather than legal and constitutional disputes. If the Democratic Party wants to expand state power, it should strive to convince the American people. And if Democrats want to end constitutional restrictions on expansive government, they should amend the Constitution. Not use judges to subvert the legal order. Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. He is a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and graduate of Stanford Law School. He is a member of the California and D.C. bars.
  • The Rise and Fall of Nicolae Ceausescu, “the Romanian Fuehrer”    (Doug Bandow, 2019-12-31)
    Doug Bandow Traditionally, Christmas is a time of peaceful reflection and restful appreciation of the fast disappearing year. In 1989, there was much to contemplate. , The most dramatic symbol of totalitarian tyranny, the Berlin Wall, fell dramatically. The Evil Empire, as Ronald Reagan memorably described the Soviet Union, was dissolving. The Soviet satellites were gone: Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Bulgaria all defenestrated their communist rulers. Even the Soviet republics were restless, headed out of the Russian-dominated union. Indeed, Lithuania was just a couple months away from declaring independence. Even the ruthless totalitarian state created by Romania’s dictator and dictatress, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, was gone. And they were subjected to justice after 24 years in power. It was imperfect, but it was justice nonetheless. , The Rise of Ceausescu , Nicolae was a member of the communist youth movement. He was arrested and imprisoned multiple times. His 1936 mugshot at age 18 still haunts the internet. His country passed from traditional monarchy to troubled democracy to royal dictatorship to military control to occupied territory. In World War I, Bucharest had gained territory seized from the disintegrating Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires. As World War II approached, Romania lost those lands. First allied with the Nazis, Bucharest switched sides in 1944 but was still dominated by the conquering Soviet Union, which established a communist government. Ceausescu rose within the system, becoming party general secretary in 1965 and president in 1967. He trended liberal at first, easing censorship and denouncing the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. But by 1971, he had shifted back, mimicking the Chinese communists by issuing “July Theses” and imposing “Socialist Humanism,” the ultimate oxymoron. He vied with Albania’s Enver Hoxha to establish the most totalitarian European communist state, while maintaining independence from Moscow. In fact, Ceausescu became the West’s favorite communist, despite the devastation that he wreaked on his own people. , Thirty years have passed, but it is important never to forget the evil that men and women can commit. , His economic policies proved disastrous, destroying his people’s, though not his, standard of living. He established a cult of personality rare in the European communist states. Among his titles were "Leader" and "Genius of the Carpathians." His wife, Elena—who pretended to be a learned scientist—filled a high-profile political role, along with his son Nicu, expected to become his successor. (Romanians joked about the development of “socialism in one family,” instead of country.) The family demonstrated its unique rapacity on a state visit to France in 1978, when the Ceausescus looted their quarters at the Elysee Palace, behaving like “burglars,” complained the French. President Valery Giscard d’Estaing then warned Queen Elizabeth, whose country was next on Ceausescus’ itinerary. Buckingham Palace hid the silver brushes and much more. , The Collapse of Communism , Until Romania, all of the Soviet satellites collapsed peacefully. Erich Honecker, Communist Party General Secretary in East Germany, reportedly was prepared to shoot, but the politburo “retired” him instead. Unlike the other Eastern European leaders, Nicolae Ceausescu was determined to maintain control irrespective of the human cost. He was horrified by reform in Poland, which held the region’s first modern free election, and called for a Warsaw Pact invasion. No wonder Mikhail Gorbachev called Ceausescu “the Romanian fuehrer.” The most critical factor that ended communism as a system of government was Gorbachev’s decision to keep the Red Army in its barracks. The East European communist leaders were mostly cowardly apparatchiks who wanted someone else to do the dirty work. Especially since they could not trust their nations’ militaries to carry out orders to suppress popular protests. Ceausescu was not so squeamish. He made clear that the Soviet Union’s glasnost and perestroika would have no role in Romania. He demonstrated his ruthlessness when demonstrations broke out in mid-December 1989 in Timisoara, which had an ethnic-Hungarian majority. People gathered to protect a minister threatened for his criticism of the regime but expanded their protests to target Ceausescu. On the 17th, security forces began firing on demonstrators. Scores died, hundreds were wounded, and news of the atrocities spread across the country. To reassert control, the simultaneously arrogant and clueless Ceausescu called a large rally in Bucharest on the 21st (touted as a “spontaneous movement of support” for the dictator). He began his usual harangue to the seemingly docile crowd, holding signs and pictures of him and Elena. Then the unthinkable happened: people started jeering and shouted him down. His face registered shock as he sought to quiet the crowd by waving his right hand and shouting, “keep calm.” Order temporarily returned, only to soon give way to even angrier protests. He eventually fled the balcony, taking refuge in what was the Communist Party Central Committee headquarters. , Ceausescu’s Fall , That night, security forces battled people on the streets of Bucharest. The next day protests had spread across the country. Ceausescu sought to address the gathered crowds again, only to be met by a barrage of stones and other objects. The Ceausescus then fled by helicopter from the building’s roof as crowds broke into the headquarters building. The fugitive couple left the capital behind but were captured on the run later that day. Demonstrators were “overwhelmed by joy” as the regime disintegrated, one official observed. But the secret police, or Securitate, sought to regain control. However, the army turned on the Ceausescus and battled the police. Whether the fight was an unscripted revolution or a pageant orchestrated by other communist party leaders determined to take power remains undecided. (The latter charge led to the indictment earlier this year of 89-year-old Ion Iliescu, the former communist official who became Romania’s first elected president, for crimes against humanity. He has yet to be tried.) Nearly 1,000 people died and more than 2,100 were injured in the confusing battles that continued for days across the country. But Ceausescu’s time in power had ended. On Christmas Day Nicolae and Elena faced a drumhead court-martial, captured on tape. In a 55-minute trial, they were found guilty of committing genocide, subverting state power, destroying public property, undermining the national economy, and attempting to flee Romania with public funds. A horrid, disastrous, tyrannical reign of 24 years had come to an ignominious end. Little evidence was offered, but the horror of their rule was evident to all. Their appointed attorneys joined the prosecution in contending that the Ceausescus were guilty of capital crimes. They were sentenced to death. The result was preordained. Gen. Victor Stanculescu already had chosen the execution squad and location to carry out the sentence. The prisoners were bound, with Elena shouting “shame” and claiming that she had raised the soldiers like their mother. Hundreds of soldiers volunteered for the execution squad; one officer reported that “everyone wanted to shoot.” Those chosen didn’t wait for orders to fire and fired often. The former dictator and dictatress were hit by 120 bullets. Their bodies were reburied in a family grave in 2010, largely forgotten by the world, though not Romanians. The show trial was “quite shameful, but necessary,” argued Iliescu. Stanculescu similarly said the trial was “not just, but it was necessary.” He believed a public lynching was the alternative. Or, many feared and the Ceausescus hoped, rescue by the Securitate. For the first time in decades, Romanians were able to celebrate Christmas. And they had something serious to celebrate. A horrid, disastrous, tyrannical reign of 24 years had come to an ignominious end. Thirty years have passed, but it is important never to forget the evil that men and women can commit. And how humanity’s worst tendencies are exacerbated by power, especially absolute power. As we approach a new year we should remember, as oft has been said, that eternal vigilance truly is the price of liberty. Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.
  • India’s Dark Path To Hindu Nationalism    (Doug Bandow, 2019-12-31)
    Doug Bandow India is being convulsed by mass demonstrations against a new citizenship law that places special disabilities on Muslims. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has responded with force, leading to more deaths in a couple weeks than during months of protests in Hong Kong. , Some Western policymakers once saw India as the great democratic hope for confronting communist China. Indian economic growth was poised to spurt past that of the PRC. When Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a majority in the 2014 election, he was compared to America’s Ronald Reagan, expected to free India’s hobbled economy and unleash his people’s productivity. Charismatic and determined, Modi seemed destined to turn his nation into a weltmacht whose interests had to be respected. However, he proved to be more pro-business than pro-market, favoring stronger state control over the economy to support his political objectives. First-term reforms were slow and tentative. He sought to squeeze cash out of the economy, enhancing the government’s power while starving small businesses of liquidity. The result was slower growth—last quarter saw the slowest expansion in six years. Thus, when the BJP sought reelection this year, it talked less about its disappointing economic record than about religious nationalism, especially the continuing conflict with Pakistan over majority-Muslim but India-administered Jammu and Kashmir. The emphasis on Hindu nationalism should have surprised no one. Modi’s career saw him rise through the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, a paramilitary Hindu nationalist organization that promotes Hindutva, or Hindu supremacy. In 2002, as head of Gujarat State, he presided over—and, some charged, encouraged—riots that led to the deaths of hundreds and even thousands of Muslims. He described his reaction to those killings as similar to witnessing the death of a puppy. Although Hindu violence and persecution has most often been directed at Muslims, Christians, who make up a much smaller portion of the population, also are frequent targets. Widespread rioting in Orissa (or Odisha) State in August 2008 left scores dead, thousands injured, tens of thousands displaced, hundreds of churches destroyed, and thousands of homes wrecked. Christians, who often minister to Dalits (formerly called “untouchables”), still badly mistreated by traditional Indian Hindu culture, are routinely targeted by anti-conversion laws. And mobs, often at the behest of “cow protection” activists, have increasingly targeted Christians who deal in cattle. Sharad Sharma, who leads Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a BJP-affiliated Hindu nationalist group, put it bluntly: everyone else has “to be subservient to Hindus and Hinduism.” , A vibrant, tolerant, and democratic India has much to offer the world. , Discrimination, intolerance, and violence have increased on Modi’s watch. Even the traditionally secular Congress Party played the Hindu nationalist card in this year’s legislative contest. Reports the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, India’s “history of religious freedom has come under attack in recent years with the growth of exclusionary extremist narratives—including, at times, the government allowance and encouragement of mob violence against religious minorities—that have facilitated an egregious and ongoing campaign of violence, intimidation, and harassment against non-Hindu and lower-caste Hindu minorities.” Although India has been shaped by the legal culture of its former colonial overlord, Great Britain, New Delhi’s commitment to the rule of law is less than complete. Freedom House rates India as free, but with a middling score, and especially disappointing on civil liberties. In its latest human rights report, the State Department notes “reports of arbitrary killings; forced disappearances; torture; rape in police custody; arbitrary arrest and detention; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; and reports of political prisoners in certain states.” Journalists have been harassed, censored, and physically attacked. Earlier this year, historian Ramachandra Guha warned that India risked becoming an “election-only democracy,” with no accountability afterwards for government misbehavior. This combustible mix has been set afire by the Modi government’s seeming campaign against India’s Muslim citizens, who, at 201 million, number second only to Indonesia’s Muslim population. After the May election, in which the BJP strengthened its majority, parliament banned the Muslim “triple talaq” quickie divorce. In August, New Delhi ended Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy and initiated a widespread crackdown, detaining thousands of people and shutting down the internet. That territory has a Muslim majority but ended up in India during partition because the ruling prince was Hindu. Since then, the sectarian conflict there has been a constant source of tension with Pakistan. In Assam state, which neighbors Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Modi’s government has demanded evidence of presence before 1971 for residents to prove citizenship. When the official registry was published in August, some two million people, including many Muslims, were left off, rendering them potentially stateless and eligible for detention in newly built prison camps. In November, India’s highest court ruled in favor of construction of a Hindu temple on the site of a Muslim mosque destroyed by a Hindu mob in 1992. That round of violence resulted in roughly 2,000 deaths. In early December, both houses of India’s parliament approved citizenship legislation that places Muslims at a disadvantage. The Citizenship Amendment Act expedites applications from migrants who are Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, or Parsee, but not Muslim. Modi insisted that the measure “does not affect any citizen of India of any religion.” BJP spokesman Shahnawaz Hussain went further, arguing that “there is no better country for Muslims than India.” However, the cumulative impact of recent legislation and practice has been to make India more Hindu. Moreover, Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah is planning a national citizenship registry based on Assam’s process. He said it would be used to “flush out the infiltrators from our country.” (Of Muslim immigrants, he opined, “infiltrators are like termites.”) Shah served with Modi in Gujarat and was BJP president during the government’s first term. The minister “wants a Hindu nation much more than Modi,” contends Rajdeep Sardesai, a journalist who covered Modi’s rise. Many Indians fear this vision. Congress MP Shashi Tharoor warned, “The religious bigotry that led to partition and the establishment of Pakistan has now been mirrored in pluralist India.” Financial Times columnist Nilanjana Roy worried that “Mr. Modi and his party are intent on replacing India’s secular democracy with their long cherished dream of a Hindu ‘Rashtra’ or nation,” which would be “a nightmare for Muslims” and anyone who believes in equal rights. Former Supreme Court judge S.N. Srikrishna was blunter still: “They want a theocratic state.” Despite reports that BJP leaders have agreed to suspend the national registry, protesters still fear a de facto religious test for citizenship that could be used to disqualify Muslims and others. Political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta concluded that the citizenship law was “the first legal articulation that India is, you might say, a homeland for Hindus.” Protests began in Assam and have spread to more than 20 cities across the nation, including New Delhi. Frustration with the slowing economy, continuing corruption, and rising authoritarianism have added to the demonstrators’ fury. The government has banned protests in some cities, arrested thousands, deployed paramilitary forces to Muslim campuses, and used live ammunition, killing at least 25 so far. To hinder the opposition, it’s shut down internet and mobile phone networks, closed metro stations, and blocked roads in cities and states with major demonstrations planned. (One police official declared, “Peace is more important than a little inconvenience to you and me.”) , Despite the violence, the BJP remains dominant. And Modi is intransigent, denouncing those who “have an illicit intention of destroying the country” and accusing them of maligning “the country around the world.” Shah proclaimed, “There might be some difficulties along the way but we, and our leader, have the courage.” However, many Indians, especially younger activists, appear to be tiring of sectarianism for political gain. Several states have announced they will not implement the new legislation. Preliminary results in Jharkhand State’s election, which concluded last week, showed the BJP losing its long-standing majority to a coalition of the opposition Congress Party and a regional party. Last month, a switch in political alliances in Maharashtra State ousted the BJP in favor of Congress. A vibrant, tolerant, and democratic India has much to offer the world. Unfortunately, the current government is moving in the opposite direction. Nevertheless, India’s people are proving they are not easily thwarted. India may yet achieve its great promise despite the aggressive growth of malignant sectarianism. Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He is a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and author of several books, including Beyond Good Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics and Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.
  • To Reduce Vaping Illness, Legalize Marijuana    (Jeffrey Miron, J.J. Rich, 2019-12-31)
    Jeffrey Miron and J.J. Rich States that permit recreational marijuana sales tend to have lower rates of vaping-related hospitalizations, according to data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC has linked vitamin E acetate, an adulterant typically reserved to the black market, to 48 of the 51 hospitalized patients it has examined. Governments have often responded to these contaminations by enacting bans on e-cigarettes and other vaping products, but the CDC data suggest they should take the opposite approach. , As with prohibitions throughout history, these bans are misguided. They would push consumers to black markets, where vaping products are more dangerous. In fact, despite the disproportionate popularity of nicotine vaporizers, of the 1,782 hospitalized patients who were asked what type of product they were using, 80 percent reported use of vaporizers containing THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. And due to marijuana's illegality, this figure is likely an underestimate, as patients are likely underreporting THC use to avoid potential prosecution. The CDC has also found THC in the majority of lung fluid samples it has tested in conjunction with contaminates like vitamin E acetate, coconut oil, and limonene, while acknowledging that THC wouldn't necessarily remain in the lungs. But this strong relationship is not because THC is more dangerous to vaporize than nicotine, but because THC vapor fluids are typically purchased on the black market. Vaping first emerged in U.S. markets in 2007 as a safer alternative to cigarettes—it provides nicotine without the harmful tar in burned tobacco. Critics cite the possible adverse effects of nicotine, especially for teens, while harm reduction groups point to potential health benefits of vaping over smoking traditional cigarettes and their carcinogenic tar. Until recently, the consensus supported smokers switching to e-cigarettes. Last March, however, reports of lung illnesses and deaths from vaping began to emerge, with 2,506 hospitalizations and 54 deaths reported to the CDC so far this year. In September, the CDC initially advised consumers of all vaping products to stop use immediately. But at the end of October, CDC Director Robert Redfield warned that THC products, particularly those purchased from "informal sources," seemed to be playing a major role in the lung injury outbreak. Redfield added that users of nicotine e-cigarettes should not return to smoking conventional cigarettes. The federal government still outlaws recreational marijuana use in every state, as does state law in 39 of the 50 states. This means that THC vaping products are usually purchased in black markets and subject to their dangers. , Numerous episodes illustrate that driving markets underground via prohibition or overregulation means riskier products. , Strikingly, states that permit recreational marijuana sales are experiencing far fewer lung injuries. Alaska, which voted to legalize recreational marijuana in 2014, did not report a single vaping-related hospitalization until one case surfaced in December. Overall, states with legalized marijuana have reported approximately 6.7 fewer lung injuries per million people than states that have not yet permitted recreational cannabis sales, according to our analysis of CDC data. There are some outliers among the states permitting recreational marijuana. Despite voting to fully legalize marijuana in 2016, Massachusetts currently has the highest vaping hospitalization rate among legalizing states at about 10 cases per million people. But Massachusetts also only has 33 operating marijuana dispensaries, which implies insufficient access to the legal market. In contrast, the City of Denver has 171 recreational dispensaries alone. Regulations restricting access to legal suppliers correlate with higher rates of vaping hospitalizations, but every state that permits recreational marijuana is still below the average of all states. There are fewer injuries from vaping in legalized marijuana states because consumers have less need to access the black market for THC vaping products. Potentially dangerous additives like vitamin E acetate have been found almost exclusively in underground vaping products, a danger that fades in states with legal marijuana. Vapers—like those who use alcohol, recreational drugs, and most products in general—are better off buying products in legal markets, where numerous mechanisms moderate the dangers of risky products. Competition between suppliers leads to safer products, with above-ground firms developing reputations for higher quality products. Legal producers and independent groups like Consumer Reports test products for safety and report this information. And if these mechanisms fail, tort liability can hold legal suppliers accountable. In underground markets, these mechanisms are absent or less effective. Consumers face greater difficulty finding a competing product if they doubt the quality from any given supplier. They also cannot easily sue for damages without also criminalizing themselves. Sending illegal products to a lab for testing is prohibitively expensive and legally risky for both buyers and sellers. And because they don't compete in an open market with legal protections, sellers of illegal drugs often push products that are adulterated to mask their low purity and increase profit margins. That's why expensive, poppy-derived heroin is so often cut with cheap, synthetic fentanyl, and why THC vape pens on the black market are cut with cheap vitamin E acetate. Numerous episodes illustrate that driving markets underground via prohibition or overregulation means riskier products. Prohibition in the 1920s caused thousands of alcohol poisonings from tainted or mislabeled alcohol. Heroin prohibition, combined with its restrictions on clean syringes, exacerbated the HIV/AIDS outbreak because of needle sharing. And regulation of prescription painkillers has spurred heroin and fentanyl overdoses as consumers switched to underground opioids. The recent vaping-related hospitalizations and deaths fit this pattern. Rather than restricting vaping products, a better policy would legalize marijuana broadly and avoid strong restrictions on nicotine or THC vaping products. Prohibition and overregulation drive these products underground and make them more dangerous. It may be counterintuitive to many lawmakers, but legalization, not prohibition, is the answer to making vaping safer. JEFFREY MIRON is the Director of Economic Studies at the Cato Institute and Director of Undergraduate and Graduate Studies in Economics at Harvard University. J.J. RICH is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation.
  • Does Congress Hate America?    (Doug Bandow, 2019-12-30)
    Doug Bandow President Donald Trump promised to put America first in his foreign policy. He hasn’t had much success—U.S. forces are still fighting every “endless war” he promised to stop—but at least he theoretically has his priorities right. , In contrast, Congress appears to hate America. Legislators of both parties consistently put other nations first. There are occasional exceptions, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, when the president acts on behalf of foreign governments while Congress targets regimes fundamentally hostile to American interests and values. In most cases, however, it is the legislative branch that acts as if it believes its duty is to represent other countries. For instance, Congress has consistently acted as the first-line defense for antiquated, Cold War alliances. The latest National Defense Authorization Act would bar the use of funds to withdraw from NATO and set a minimum U.S. garrison of 22,500 troops in South Korea. The transatlantic alliance and the faux “mutual” defense treaties with Japan and Republic of Korea made sense after World War II and the Korean War. Friendly states had been ravaged by war and were threatened by aggressive authoritarian adversaries. America’s protection allowed them to revive and rebuild. Today, however, Europe enjoys an equivalent economy and a larger population than the U.S. The continent has ten times the economic and three times the population strength of Russia. Italy’s economy alone matches Russia’s. Japan long possessed the world’s second-largest economy. The South has roughly 53 times the GDP and twice the population of North Korea. Yet proposals that Washington shift rather than share defense burdens cause hawkish legislators to run screaming from their respective chambers. Rather than expect allies to learn self-reliance, members maintain the Pentagon as a welfare agency. Horrified that foreign defense dependents might fear being cut off, legislators rush overseas to “reassure” alliance partners. A few years back Congress even approved a “reassurance initiative” increasing America’s financial and troop commitment to the continent. No wonder most European states don’t take defense seriously: they would be fools to do so when Washington is determined to handle it for them. So, too, the determination to preserve security guarantees and troops deployments in Asia. Seoul long has been able to defend itself. Why should Americans continue to foot the bill? Tokyo has enjoyed saving money at Washington’s expense by pointing to the U.S.-imposed constitution with Article 9, which forbids possession of a military. Instead, the Japanese government concocted an under-funded “Self-Defense Force” which until recently was not even allowed to defend American naval vessels which sailed to Tokyo’s aid. In Iraq, other allied troops had to protect the Japanese contingent, which was not allowed to take up arms. What to make of the frenzied insistence that America must protect Ukraine? It has no security importance for the U.S.: throughout most of our nation’s existence, Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Economically backward and politically divided, the country has been undermined by pervasive corruption. It adds little to the West’s strength while intervening on its behalf risks conflict with nuclear-armed Russia. Moscow has treated its neighbor badly, but imagine how the grandees of Capitol Hill would have reacted were the situation reversed: Russia sponsored a street putsch against a democratically elected, pro-American government in Mexico, and offered the new regime membership in the Warsaw Pact. Lindsey Graham and his fellow ultra-hawks would be doing the Maori Haka down Pennsylvania Avenue, demanding war. Washington should leave support for Ukraine to Europe while forging a passable relationship with Moscow. The West has encouraged the latter to leap into China’s arms while causing mischief elsewhere, such as in the Middle East, North Korea, and Venezuela. Sympathy for Ukraine does not justify endangering Americans. , Endless war creates the very enemies cited as its justification. , Even more bizarre is the almost unanimous insistence that Washington defend the Syrian Kurds. The Founders insisted that Congress act to protect the people from promiscuous war-making that was characteristic of European monarchies. Legislators today do not have sufficient cojones to take a stand and vote to authorize U.S. military involvement in the Middle East. Instead, presidents unilaterally take the country into conflicts, often based on manipulations and lies, while Congress studiously refuses to fulfill its constitutional responsibility. Legislators refused to authorize the president to battle the Islamic State, overthrow Bashar al-Assad, steal Syria’s oil, protect the Kurds in Syria (or elsewhere), confront Russia, toss Iranians out of Syria, or stop Ankara from invading Syria, whose sovereignty Washington no longer seems to recognize. Yet at one time or another, the president was expected to do all of those things, most of which had nothing to do with Americans’ interests. The Kurds are a sympathetic people, though hardly as angelic as portrayed. They fought ISIS out of interest, not charity, and such battlefield cooperation does not yield any duty to protect them thereafter. Their best strategy always was to make a deal with Damascus, allowing the latter to retake the border and exclude Turkey. If legislators really believe America has a duty to protect the Syrian Kurdish enclave, how do they define Washington’s responsibilities? Are Americans bound to stay forever to defend the Kurds and all lands claimed now or in the future from every danger, whether known or unknown? For good reason, presidents negotiate and Senates ratify treaties: then the terms are known. Endless commitments and wars, especially in the ever unstable and hostile Middle East, risk the American homeland. Terrorism does not occur because Americans are so virtuous. Rather, terrorism is the poor man’s weapon against a superpower able to deploy carrier groups, army divisions, and air wings to bomb, invade, and occupy other nations. Endless war creates the very enemies cited as its justification. Legislators should put the interests of Americans first. The first step is making war a genuine last resort. The most effective way for Congress to do that is to take seriously its power to say no. Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.
  • Christmas 1953: Lost Liberal Opportunities in the Soviet Union    (Doug Bandow, 2019-12-28)
    Doug Bandow The Cold War eased slightly in 1953. In July, an armistice ended fighting in the Korean War, though a peace treaty remained out of reach. It was the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin on March 5 which allowed that conflict to end. His successors wanted to reduce tensions and redirect national resources. But the best chance for serious reform died along with Stalin’s secret police chief in December. , Officially, Stalin suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. However, Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria, longtime head of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, or NKVD — the secret police boss who killed so many on Stalin’s orders — is suspected of poisoning Stalin. After the war, Beria had yielded direct control of the NKVD (which became the Ministry of State Security, or MGB) while overseeing general national security affairs. Stalin consciously weakened Beria’s authority and appeared to be preparing a new purge; the former’s earlier political cleansings, highlighted by mass arrests and murders, began with removal and execution of the security chief who managed the previous bloody campaign. Beria was living on borrowed time and knew it. Since everyone in the leadership likely breathed more freely with Stalin dead, no one was inclined to investigate his passage across the river Styx. A collective leadership emerged. Initially, Georgy Malenkov was first among equals, later to be supplanted by Nikita Khrushchev. Beria was Minister of Internal Affairs — which absorbed the MGB after Stalin’s death — and first deputy prime minister. Most important, he controlled an army of sorts, armed personnel who could be deployed throughout the capital. And no one was immune to blackmail, intimidation, or arrest — the much feared dawn knock at the door. The only person who previously had held Beria in check was Stalin, the early Bolshevik who had out-maneuvered and murdered most of his one-time revolutionary comrades. Even Leon Trotsky, the legendary Red Army commander who suppressed the Kronstadt rebellion, proved no match for Stalin. , Almost certainly Beria desired to grab the top spot. Those around him feared he might win it. In June, Malenkov, Khrushchev, and Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, with the assistance of Marshal Georgy Zhukov and a squad of armed officers — whose sidearms proved useful after Beria was separated from his bodyguards — arrested the security chief. He was charged with being an “imperialist agent” and conducting “criminal anti-party and anti-state activities.” Relieved of his posts, he was tried and executed on December 23rd. According to official accounts, anyway. He might have been killed shortly after he was arrested. Alive he remained dangerous. With the sentence foreordained, why wait for the verdict? Decades later Beria’s son, Sergo, went to court seeking rehabilitation for his father. With communism behind them, Russians began seeking a measure of justice for the endless crimes committed in the name of the Revolution. Beria père was a loving family man who sought to temper Stalin’s excesses, argued Sergo. However, the NKVD head did far more than just “follow orders,” even if that would be an adequate excuse. He initiated the infamous Katyn murders of Polish POWs and intellectuals, for instance, proposing their execution to Stalin. Beria, like the Nazis, employed slave labor, inmates incarcerated in the NKVD-controlled Gulag, for armaments production. He also was in charge of the murderous mass deportation of ethnic minorities as the war concluded. Contrast that to the case of those seeking judicial vindication who had been imprisoned or executed by Beria’s NKVD. Even though his supposed trial was less than fair, the judges were unmoved. Of course, it is unfair that his master today remains buried in a place of honor in front of the Kremlin Wall in what is called the Kremlin Wall Necropolis: visit Moscow and you can pay homage to one of history’s greatest mass murderers. Nevertheless, there would be no whitewash of the great executioner’s role. , Yet there was another side to Beria, one that could have transformed the Cold War decades earlier. Although a loathsome mass murderer and rapist — he was noted for kidnapping young women whom he found attractive — he was competent and effective. Not just in brutal repression. During World War II, he oversaw the production of strategic raw materials; later Stalin placed Beria in charge of the nuclear weapons program. An academic horrified by Beria’s crimes, Yury Khariton, nevertheless admitted that “It was impossible not to admit his intellect, willpower, and purposefulness. He was a first class manager, able to bring every job to its conclusion.” More significant, he was no doctrinaire communist, despite joining the Bolsheviks. During the ensuing civil war, Beria fought against the Red Army and was almost executed after his surrender. He expressed no political views as he rose through the security services. When freed from Stalin’s oversight, he veered toward the liberal, even radical. Perhaps this should not be surprising. As the Soviet Union wound down, KGB operatives were among the most worldly and cynical officials. When Vladimir Putin took over first as Russia’s prime minister and then president, he showed no ideological animus toward the West. He was evidently a Russian nationalist as opposed to believing communist. Beria, a Georgian by birth, seemed to hold a similar perspective. Beria began the process of destalinization by playing tapes of his conversations with the late dictator to the Communist Party Central Committee. He initiated an amnesty for almost a million prisoners, though political detainees were excluded. “Then prison conditions were suddenly relaxed and there was talk of reforming the brutal criminal codes,” wrote author Amy Knight in the New York Times. , All because of the most unlikely of liberals, Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria. , Beria also halted steps taken as part of a new Stalinist purge: for instance, after Stalin’s death, Beria freed Jewish physicians accused of murdering Soviet leaders in the bizarre “doctors’ plot” and arrested the security officials in charge. Beria also cut back his ministry’s economic activities, which relied on slave labor, and transferred responsibility for the Gulag to the Ministry of Justice. Extraordinary, but there was more. Beria criticized the emphasis on Russification of ethnic minorities, urging respect for local identities. Explained Knight, he “called for the appointment of natives to leadership posts in the non-Russian republics and for the use of native languages in official business and schools. Russian officials were quickly replaced and sent back to Moscow.” He indicated the possibility of allowing Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, forcibly swallowed by the USSR after the culmination of the Hitler-Stalin pact, to reclaim their national autonomies, though remaining subservient to Moscow, like the other Eastern European satellites. Most important, Beria, who under Stalin had no foreign policy responsibilities, apparently favored allowing German reunification, trading a neutral Germany for Western financial aid to the Soviet Union. He recommended that East Germany’s leaders stop attempting to impose socialism on a hostile population and said of the so-called German Democratic Republic: “It’s not even a real state but one kept in being only by Soviet troops.” In short, Beria imagined the end of the Cold War 36 years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Indeed, had he had his way, the infamous barrier would never have been built since the city and country long before would have been united. , No doubt Beria’s colleagues worried about the possibility of him replacing Stalin. From the start, Khrushchev sought to build a coalition against the security chief. However, Beria was a dangerous man to oppose and may have saved his colleagues’ lives by ending Stalin’s life. Malenkov remained an ally of Beria until the June 1953 popular uprising in East Germany, which unnerved a Kremlin leadership already unsettled by Beria’s attack on the dominance of ethnic Russians. At that point, his ideas looked potentially destabilizing for a regime still recovering from the horrors of World War II. Indeed, it has been argued that Beria supported reform only to create chaos, thereby providing an excuse for his security forces to take control. Yet his proposals were more detailed, extensive, and far-reaching, even revolutionary. He seemed serious in wanting to end the East-West confrontation. Thus, author Robert Service was probably correct in contending “that Khrushchev and his friends eliminated Beria as much because his proposals threatened the stability of the state order as because he was a killer-policeman. No Soviet leader until [Mikhail] Gorbachev would have as wide a reformist programme.” None of this can minimize Beria’s extraordinarily murderous criminality. Yet imagine the early end of the German Democratic Republic. Relaxed Soviet control of Eastern Europe, forestalling the brutal suppression of Hungary’s 1956 revolution and Czechoslovakia’s 1968 Prague Spring. Imagine the Baltics able to preserve more of their independent identities and avoiding decades of suffocating Moscow-directed repression. And most important, a Kremlin engaged with, and to some extent economically dependent upon, the West. It is difficult to imagine such a system staggering along until 1991. The Evil Empire, as Ronald Reagan styled the Soviet Union, would have evolved into something less horrific, or simply collapsed, much sooner. Lives would have been saved, freedoms would have been restored, hopes would have been revived. All because of the most unlikely of liberals, Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria. It was not to be. It took another surprising liberal in charge of a much weaker Soviet Union to trigger, largely inadvertently, the process of disintegration. Which resulted in the joyous Christmas of 1991, with the final lowering of the Soviet flag over the Kremlin. After 74 bloody, brutal, horrible, evil years the disastrous Bolshevik experiment finally was over. Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. He is a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan and the author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.
  • How Economic Liberals Can Win the Tory Battle on Economics    (Ryan Bourne, 2019-12-26)
    Ryan Bourne Twelve months is a long time in politics. This time a year ago, journalist Anatole Kaletsky asked: “Is cancelling Brexit now inevitable?” Theresa May had junked a meaningful vote on her backstop-laden withdrawal agreement, certain of defeat, but survived a Tory leadership challenge. , Labour was neck-and-neck with the Conservatives in the polls. Remainers in Parliament saw a path to delaying Brexit for long enough to facilitate a kangaroo-court second referendum, preventing the supposed Brexiteer agenda of Britain becoming Singapore-on-Thames. Now, Brexit by Jan 31 looks inevitable. Boris Johnson — a pro-Brexit prime minister — is entrenched with a stonking parliamentary majority of 80. While the Conservatives are united on Europe, Labour tears itself apart over whether Brexit caused its devastating election defeat. Far from Thatcherism 2.0, Conservative success in working-class towns has seen the party embrace higher public service spending, regional regeneration and public infrastructure investment as a platform for government. Singapore-on-Thames has given way to Taiwan-on-Trent, in rhetoric if not fully-fledged policy. To say the past 12 months have been a whirlwind would be severe understatement. But those interested in a healthy, dynamic, market economy risk letting the relief of avoiding a Christmas socialist revolution mask a warts-and-all assessment of our current plight. British politics appears locked now in an equilibrium pitching variants of socialism against a new, as yet policy-undefined, blue-collar Toryism. Electoral dominance for the latter was not and is not inevitable. Only an unusually transformative political figure in Boris Johnson, intent on delivering Brexit, could have increased the Conservative polling numbers by the 20 percentage points seen in recent months. Classical liberal economics — the premise that a free economy, relatively unhindered by government action, tends to deliver high growth and a fairly efficient distribution of resources — is being squeezed out of political life. As politics realigns along cultural divisions, free-market capitalists find themselves politically homeless. As Stephen Davies of the Institute of Economic Affairs has outlined, “place” proxies well for their dilemma. Major global cities tend to be cosmopolitan in outlook. But the dominant political manifestations of this outlook are either left-wing (globalist, woke left politics and radical green economics) or liberal (in the Scandinavian social democratic sense of taming the free market’s excesses and state-delivered economic security). Old towns and rural regions, particularly those “left behind”, find themselves on the other side of the cultural divide — rooted to local communities. But their dominant political manifestations come in desire for active government regeneration and industrial planning, or, even in its most pro-market variety, a form of “capitalism in one country”. Those who support free and open markets both at home and abroad might have found aligning with Boris over Corbyn a relatively easy decision, but they worry about the direction the Tories could lean into. On election night, former David Cameron adviser Craig Oliver distilled the shift nicely. Cameron had tried to unite the Tory shires with metropolitan liberals. Now, Boris’s coalition combines the shires with working-class towns. A shift from being electorally united on economics and divided on culture to united on culture but divided on economics means the Conservatives’ commitment to existing economic orthodoxies (for good or ill) is no longer assured. A thin manifesto leaves much to play for, hence why groups are limbering to fight for the party’s economic soul. Lest the party fall pray to age-old errors — that buying local makes us more prosperous, or subsidising failure generates success, or that industrial planning works — classical liberals in the Tory tribe urgently need to adjust their energies to explain how free-market ideas can be pro-working class, and how it is central government that often impairs economic opportunity for the regions. They have some policy building blocks already in place. With different electoral economic tensions, the Tory party platform is unsurprisingly a ragtag of economic ideas. But some are pro-market. Boris is instinctively anti-nanny state, for example. His team has made positive noises towards pro-investment tax reform to raise productivity, land-use planning reform to improve worker mobility, an expansion of free trade to reduce prices, and freeports to offer a reasonably market-friendly way to encourage development in coastal areas. But to prevent other bad interventionist ideas taking hold, pro-market types need emphasise a key truth: the higher public service spending Boris desires requires a growing economy. And that can only come sustainably from embracing dynamism and economic change, not insulating industries or regions from it through tariffs, state aid or even preferential taxation. Economic liberty breeds security — at least in the long-term — because it facilitates adjustment to new realities. But in the short-term, adjustment is painful. What liberal Conservatives need concentrate on is devising policies that work with market signals, using them as a guide for the skills, infrastructure, housing and research policies needed to allow more people to enjoy economic success. That requires economic liberals having a compelling story about how government deters inclusive growth for people in our left-behind towns and regions. First, policy constrains the growth of many flourishing cities through bad housing and land use policies, making it more difficult for people in poorer cities and towns to move to new opportunities. It then imposes one-size-fits-all solutions on the country — national minimum wages, national public sector pay bargaining and regional transfers — which, though alleviating hardship in poorer areas, make it more difficult to attract and build new private sector businesses using their competitive cost advantages. Having done that, economic policy power is then centralised further in Westminster, stripping communities of meaningful fiscal tools to encourage private sector development, or incentivise clearing of space for new activity. If free-marketeers fail to convince Boris that this should be his focus, and that a pro-working class agenda can be centred on growth, devolving power and central government humility, then plenty stand ready to offer up the old, dirigiste ideas of subsidies, protection and throwing money at regeneration. And if a year in politics can be transformative, then five years of such a Labour-light agenda could deliver a lot of disappointment.  Ryan Bourne is the R Evan Scharf Chair for the Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.
  • Media Elites to Assange: Fight for Your Own Hide    (Ted Galen Carpenter, 2019-12-26)
    Ted Galen Carpenter WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange languishes in a British prison awaiting probable extradition to the United States to stand trial for violating the Espionage Act of 1917. Ironically, he is serving jail time for jumping bail on trumped-up sex crime charges in Sweden that even the Swedish government has now abandoned. Most Western, especially American, mainstream journalists, though, have expressed at most tepid opposition to the persecution of Assange, even as reports mount that his health has deteriorated to an alarming extent. , This is shameful and jeopardizes the news media’s own long-term interests. The worst thing about such conduct is that so many reporters have bought into the Justice Department’s insistence that Assange is not a “legitimate” journalist. John Demers, the DOJ’s assistant attorney general for national security, bluntly stated the government’s thesis earlier this year. “Julian Assange,” Demers said, “is no journalist,” since he engaged in “explicit solicitation of classified information.” Other Trump administration officials have conducted a similar campaign to delegitimize Assange’s status as a journalist, thereby justifying his prosecution for espionage. “WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service,” CIA Director Mike Pompeo said in April 2017 during his first public speech as head of the agency. “Assange and his ilk,” Pompeo charged, seek “personal self-aggrandizement through the destruction of Western values.” , The Committee to Protect Journalists mimics the government and drops the jailed Wikileaks founder like a hot potato. , Unfortunately, much of the U.S. press seems eager to exclude Assange from its ranks. A decision by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in early December underscored the mainstream media’s willingness to disown Assange. The CPJ refused to include him on its annual list of journalists jailed throughout the world. CPJ Deputy Executive Director Robert Mahoney’s attempt to explain the decision was an exercise in painful linguistic contortions. His December 11 blog post on the CPJ website used the unequivocal title, “For the sake of press freedom, Julian Assange must be defended.” Much of the substance of the post, though, pointed to the opposite conclusion. “WikiLeaks’s practice of dumping huge loads of data on the public without examining the motivations of the leakers can leave it open to manipulation,” Mahoney sniffed. He continued: , To some, Julian Assange is a warrior for truth and transparency. To others, he is an information bomb-thrower. The question with which CPJ has had to grapple is whether his actions make him a journalist. Each year, we compile a list of journalists imprisoned around the world, based on a set of criteria that have evolved as technology has upended publishing and the news business. After extensive research and consideration, CPJ chose not to list Assange as a journalist, in part because his role has just as often been as a source and because WikiLeaks does not generally perform as a news outlet with an editorial process. , By using an array of rhetorical gymnastics, Mahoney and the CPJ tacitly accepted the Justice Department “logic” for prosecuting Assange, even as the CPJ officially condemned the prosecution itself. The bottom line is that the CPJ legitimized the government’s campaign to put Assange outside the boundaries of legitimate journalism. Kevin Gosztola, managing editor of Shadowproof.com, aptly pointed out the underlying problem with the CPJ’s tightrope act: “Can a laudable press freedom organization claim Assange is not a journalist without aiding the political case brought by prosecutors in President Donald Trump’s Justice Department?” Gosztola also highlighted a likely reason for the CPJ’s ambivalent (at best) stance: “CPJ’s Board of Directors is composed of many journalists in the U.S. media establishment, an establishment which clings to the notion that Assange is not a journalist in order to maintain a supposed distinction between his work and their work.” Whatever their motives, journalists who excuse or justify efforts to prosecute Assange are acting as gullible tools in the government’s ongoing campaign to plug leaks and stifle criticism, especially regarding defense and foreign policy issues. The intent is clearly to suppress embarrassing revelations by WikiLeaks and other players. But the strategy the CPJ and its cohorts have adopted is akin to appeasing a tiger in the hope that it will eat the appeaser last—or, ideally, become sated with its initial victims. This approach is both unprincipled and myopic. The government has already made worrisome forays against troublesome mainstream journalists who have published embarrassing disclosures. Barack Obama’s administration conducted electronic surveillance of both New York Times reporter James Risen and Fox News reporter James Rosen in an effort to identify their sources. The government even named Rosen as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in an espionage case brought against his source. Similarly, the administration asserted that it had the right to prosecute Risen, even though it chose not to take that step. Those were ominous warning signals. The New York Times reported that President Trump expressed even greater interest in prosecuting journalists who utilize leaked classified information. In his much-discussed February 2017 Oval Office session with FBI Director James Comey (during which Trump allegedly asked Comey to end the investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn), the president reportedly backed the Obama approach. “Alone in the Oval Office, Mr. Trump began the discussion by condemning leaks to the news media, saying that Mr. Comey should consider putting reporters in prison for publishing classified information.” Government prosecutors are going after Assange because he is an especially controversial figure and therefore a more vulnerable target. But prosecuting him and WikiLeaks for espionage poses a mortal threat to a free and independent press in the United States. It is extraordinarily dangerous to the health of the First Amendment to allow the government to decide who is or is not a “legitimate” journalist. Only legacy publications friendly to the national security bureaucracy could then count on restraint—and, as the Rosen and Risen cases indicate, even that expectation would be quite fragile. The CPJ and other media institutions that choose to abandon Assange are playing the role of the government’s useful idiots and imperiling their own best interests. Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor to The American Conservative, is the author of 12 books and more than 850 articles on international affairs.
  • Progressives, Beware of Julius Caesar's Fate    (Steve H. Hanke, Joshua Blustein, 2019-12-25)
    Steve H. Hanke and Joshua Blustein As we consider the manifestos of today’s progressives, we should ask: What can we learn from the reign of Julius Caesar? Julius Caesar established the Roman Empire and crowned himself dictator perpetuo — “dictator for life.” Just how did he become so powerful? Caesar promised the Romans everything under the sun — everything that they would not have to pay for. , If this story rings a bell, it’s because Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and today’s progressives are doing the same thing. They are proposing Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, free college, student-debt cancellation and an ever-expanding laundry list of “free” programs. We should all ponder what Cato the Younger and Cicero pondered: How is all of this going to be paid for? As it turned out in Caesar’s case, he relied on an aggressive “squeeze-the-rich” strategy. Does this sound familiar? Julius Caesar was Rome’s greatest popularis, a man of the people. Appian of Alexandria described Caesar as wanting to introduce “laws to better the condition of the poor,” with the goal of the gradual equalization of the classes through a broad program of redistribution. He engaged in a legislative frenzy, pushing many bills and laws. He penned a land reform bill with the goal of — as Plutarch explained — dividing land “among the poor and the needy.” He spent exorbitant sums on public works to help ease unemployment. He remitted a whole year of rent for poor tenants and ordered — in effect — as Suetonius reckons, the cancellation of one-fourth of all outstanding debt. He instituted rent controls and gave handouts of 100 denarii to each pleb. Furthermore, public entertainment was frequent, and it was free. After crossing the Rubicon and enduring years of war, the people deserved, according to Caesar, to be rewarded for their resilience. For example, in 46 B.C., Caesar hosted enormous festivals, parades and gladiatorial games — often lasting weeks. Showered with all of these “freebies,” the public adored Caesar. How did this “free-for-all” strategy work out? Led by Cato, opposition to Caesar’s policies was fierce in the Roman Senate from the very beginning. The Senate managed to kill Caesar’s land bill, with Cicero calling the proposed law “a plot against liberty,” warning that Caesar’s rhetoric would lead to an “an onslaught on private property … cancellation of debts … [and] plundering the well-to-do.” Even some members of the public began to question the viability of Caesar’s giveaway schemes. To quell the Roman public’s concerns, Caesar proclaimed: “Let none of you suspect that I shall harass any man who is rich or establish new taxes; I shall be satisfied with the present revenues.” Caesar was lying. He confiscated the wealth of overseas dependencies and fleeced the lands he conquered. But, in need of evermore cash to fuel his largess, Caesar decided to squeeze the wealthy and forced the rich to empty their pockets into the public treasury. He increased duties on luxury imports, introduced Rome’s first sales tax and enforced strict sumptuary laws. In 49 B.C., he attempted to enforce a wealth cap at 15,000 silver or gold drachmas. The masses were elated. They even went so far as to demand bounties for servants who reported their masters for avoiding Caesar’s wealth tax. And, a wealth tax it was — 100 percent — on any riches over the cap. Today’s “down-with-the-rich” fever is nothing new. Indeed, it plagued Rome over two millennia ago. But, Caesar’s revenue-raising schemes fell short. Consequently, his treasury ran up huge debts, and the tide turned. Suetonius writes how “even the commoners began to disapprove of how things were going, and no longer hid their disgust at Caesar’s tyrannical rule but openly demanded champions to protect their ancient liberties.” By then, it was too late. Cassius Dio relates how “the populace … [found] much more fault [because Caesar] had expended countless sums on all that array. In consequence a clamour was raised against him … that he had collected most of the funds unjustly.” How did the great popularis respond to this protest? He personally grabbed three of the rioters, chopped off their heads and displayed their severed skulls near the Regia. In the end, after Caesar’s assassination, Cicero looked at the treasury and bemoaned: “our knottiest political problem is shortage of money.” Caesar’s spending had left its mark; there is no such thing as a free lunch. All of Caesar’s “free” programs were seductive, until they weren’t. The treasury was depleted, and the Roman Republic, which had endured 500 years, crumbled as a result. Steve H. Hanke, a professor of applied economics at the Johns Hopkins University, is the founder and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health and the Study of Business Enterprise. He is also a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. Joshua Blustein is a research associate at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health and the Study of Business Enterprise.
  • A New Secularism Is Appearing in Islam    (Mustafa Akyol, 2019-12-23)
    Mustafa Akyol For decades, social scientists studying Islam discussed whether this second biggest religion of the world would go through the major transformation that the biggest one, Christianity, went through: secularization. Would Islam also lose its hegemony over public life, to become a mere one among various voices, not the dominant one, in Muslim societies? , Many Westerners gave a negative answer, thinking Islam is just too rigid and absolutist to secularize. Many Muslims also gave a negative answer, but proudly so: Our true faith would not go down the erroneous path of the godless West. The rise of Islamism, a highly politicized interpretation of Islam, since the 1970s only seemed to confirm the same view: that “Islam is resistant to secularization,” as Shadi Hamid, a prominent thinker on religion and politics, observed in his 2016 book, Islamic Exceptionalism. Yet nothing in human history is set in stone. And there are now signs of a new secular wave breeding in the Muslim world. Some of those signs are captured by Arab Barometer, a research network based at Princeton and the University of Michigan whose opinion surveys map a drift away from Islamism — and even Islam itself. The network’s pollsters recently found that in the last five years, in six pivotal Arab countries, “trust in Islamist parties” and “trust in religious leaders” have declined, as well as attendance in mosques. Granted, the trend isn’t huge. Arabs who describe themselves as “not religious” were 8 percent of those polled in 2013, and have risen to only 13 percent in 2018. So some experts on the region, like Hisham A. Hellyer, an Egyptian-British scholar, advises caution. Yet others, like the Lebanese-born popular Middle East commentator Karl Sharro, think there is really something going on. “It is true to a certain extent, and you can feel it in many places including the Gulf,” he said regarding the secular wave. “It’s the beginning of something that will take a long time.” What is the cause? “It is mainly Islamist politics and some of the social and political manifestations of the Islamic awakening,” Mr. Sharro argued. These include, he said, “disappointment with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the shock of ISIS, fatigue with sectarian parties in Iraq and Lebanon, anger at the Islamist regime in Sudan.” When you leave the Arab world and look at the two important powers nearby — Iran and Turkey — you can see the same trend, but on a bigger scale. , Across much of the Islamic world, many Muslims are disillusioned with the ugly things done in the name of their religion. , In Iran, the Islamic Republic has ruled for 40 years now, but it has failed in its zeal to re-Islamize society. “Instead, the opposite has happened,” the Middle East scholar Nader Hashemi has observed. “Most Iranians today aspire to live in a democratic, liberal and secular republic, not a religious state run by clerics.” Indeed, many have had enough of those clerics, and are bravely defying them in the streets. In Turkey, my country, a softer but similar experiment has taken place in the past two decades. Under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s formerly marginalized Islamists have become the new ruling elite. This allowed them to make their faith more visible and assertive — but it is also a fig leaf for their insatiable lust for power. So, as the Turkey-born sociologist Mucahit Bilici has observed, “today Islamism in Turkey is associated in the public mind with corruption and injustice.” And many Turks detest it more than ever before. The disillusionment is often only with Islamism as a political instrument, but it can turn against Islam, the religion, itself. In Turkey, the latter is manifested in a social trend among its youth that has become the talk of the day: the rise of “deism,” or belief in a God, but not religion. Pro-Erdogan Islamists are worried about this “big threat to Islam,” but perceive it, tragicomically, as yet another Western conspiracy, rather than their own accomplishment. How far can this secular wave go? Only God knows, to offer a religious answer. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that this wave differs from the kind of secularism imposed on the Muslim world about a century ago, under authoritarian Westernizers like Ataturk of Turkey or Reza Shah of Iran. Theirs was a top-down revolution, imposed by the state and was widely perceived as inauthentic. This time, however, we are speaking of a bottom-up trend, coming from society, from people fed up with all the ugly things done in the name of religion. That is why it reminds me of the beginnings of the Enlightenment, when Europeans, having seen the horrors of religious wars and persecution, developed the idea of political secularism, while also championing reason, freedom of thought, equality and tolerance. Of course, those fine ideals can be compatible with Islam as well, as “Islamic modernists” have been arguing since the late 19th century. Moreover, Tunisia, a rare bright spot in the Arab world, suggests that there is hope in this moderate path. But if Islamists and conservatives keep their old ways, they may face a radical version of the Enlightenment: fiercely anticlerical and decidedly antireligious, reminiscent of what turned France against a hegemonic Catholic Church. Therefore, if Islamists and conservatives really care about the future of Islam rather than amassing power in its name, they should begin thinking about ending all the ugly things they have attached to that name — civil wars, authoritarian rule, hate-filled teaching. Islam, at its core, has many virtues to inspire humanity — such as compassion, humility, honesty and charity. But they have been eclipsed for far too long for the sake of power and the dictates of bigotry. Mustafa Akyol (@akyolinenglish) is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a contributing writer and the author, most recently, of “The Islamic Jesus.”
  • A Better Way to Bring Lending to the Underserved    (Diego Zuluaga, 2019-12-23)
    Diego Zuluaga Regulations aimed at increasing low-income Americans’ access to credit are getting a long-overdue revamp. Two of the three agencies responsible for enforcement of the Community Reinvestment Act issued a proposal earlier this month to change the way they assess how banks lend to underserved communities. The proposal is modest, but it includes some important changes to CRA regulations that will focus on lending to low-income households and recognize that banks are increasingly going branchless. , The CRA, enacted in 1977, applies to banks but not credit unions or fintech lenders. It requires banking regulators — the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Federal Reserve Board — to ensure banks “meet the credit needs” of the communities where they operate, without sacrificing bank safety and soundness. Regulators give banks a rating based on their performance. If banks do not perform well, regulators may block their future expansion and merger. When the CRA came into being, competition between banks was limited: most states prohibited branching and no states allowed out-of-state banks to enter their markets. The Fed also capped interest on deposits, giving banks cheap access to funds. These barriers to competition have gradually disappeared since the 1980s, ushering in rapid consolidation, a near-doubling of the number of bank offices, and a wider set of banking options for consumers. At the same time, non-banks such as Quicken and Kabbage have taken up a growing share of the mortgage and small-business lending markets on which the CRA focuses. These non-banks often lend to low-income communities as much as or more than banks. It has long been time to update CRA regulations to reflect these structural changes to the U.S. banking landscape. Yet the CRA has not undergone meaningful change for nearly 25 years. That’s why the OCC and FDIC reform proposal, without being ambitious, can better address the credit needs of vulnerable households. For example, under the proposal, loans to high-income borrowers would no longer earn banks CRA points. By counting both loans to low-income borrowers and loans made in low-income areas toward their CRA evaluations, regulators presently reward banks for extending mortgages to prosperous professionals who do not need help from the government. My research shows that, from 2012 to 2017, between 65 and 70 percent of CRA-eligible mortgages in the District of Columbia went to high-income residents of low-income areas. Furthermore, there was a strong association between CRA-eligible mortgage lending and declines in the minority share of residents of individual D.C. neighborhoods. Gentrification is often inevitable, and it can have a very positive impact on neighborhoods and their historic residents, especially when zoning laws allow housing supply to respond effectively to rising demand. But gentrification neither needs nor deserves help from government policy. The proposal also takes account of lending in areas where banks have substantial activity but no physical presence. Existing CRA rules evaluate banks only where they operate branches or ATMs. But the Internet has made it possible for banks to collect deposits and make loans without a physical presence. Digital banking far away from branches is now the growth strategy of some established banks as well as aspiring entrants. Regulation should recognize this change. Under the OCC and FDIC’s proposal, banks that receive more than 50 percent of their deposits from outside the places where they have branches and ATMs will be assessed, and receive CRA points for, activity in the areas where more than 5 percent of their digital deposits originate. This change will not only better reflect the scope of a modern bank’s activity, but it will discourage banks from concentrating their CRA-eligible lending in places that do not need it. For example, Salt Lake City is a preferred headquarters location for nationally active internet banks. But it makes no sense to evaluate banks whose activity is national for their activity in Salt Lake only. Furthermore, Salt Lake may need CRA lending less than other parts of the country. The proposed change is therefore both more efficient and more equitable. Not all of the proposed changes are desirable. For example, the various ratios proposed for quantifying banks’ CRA performance come dangerously close to prescriptive lending quotas. While putting numbers on banks’ lending activity can make compliance easier and increase the consistency of CRA evaluations, regulators simply lack the knowledge to know the right amount of lending for each bank in each part of the country. Indeed, one of the virtues of our market-based banking system is that it collects funds from savers and lends them to qualified borrowers, regardless of where they live. Putting regulators in charge of credit allocation is not good for efficiency or financial stability. Despite the proposal’s shortcomings, it is a shame that the Fed did not sign up to it. As the smallest CRA regulator, responsible for just 16 percent of banks by assets, the Fed is not expected to take a leading role in its review. But by failing to signal its support, the Fed risks fomenting inconsistency in CRA enforcement, which can only harm banks and the achievement of the CRA’s goals. As the proposal gives all institutions with assets below $500 million, comprising 72 percent of U.S. banks, the right to opt out of the proposed changes, the Fed’s reticence is still more baffling. The OCC’s and FDIC’s CRA reform proposal will not revolutionize the enforcement of that 42-year-old law, but it will focus CRA activity on truly underserved borrowers and acknowledge the banking landscape of 2020. It very much deserves a hearing. Diego Zuluaga is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Monetary and Financial Alternatives.
  • Don't Freak out About Impeachment    (Gene Healy, 2019-12-20)
    Gene Healy Nobody likes losing his job, but if there's any country on Earth that's copacetic about firing people, it's these United States of America. Almost alone among industrialized democracies, the U.S. hews to the old-school regime of employment at will, which means most of us can be frogmarched out of the building at any time—for good reason, bad reason, or no reason at all. , Further up the food chain, "for-cause" termination is the norm; but with contracts that allow removal for offenses as vague as "moral turpitude" or "failure to perform," that doesn't shield CEOs from getting turfed out unceremoniously when they misbehave or don't live up to expectations. Does it bother us when an old lech like Les Moonves of CBS or some new economy manchild like Adam Neumann of WeWork gets the business end of creative destruction? Like hell it does: This is the country that pioneered the idea of firing people as entertainment. For 14 seasons of NBC's reality TV game show The Apprentice, Americans tuned in eagerly to see which contestants would be shown the door with the signature line "You're fired!" Then, in 2016, we went and elected the game-show host president of the United States. Since his inauguration, Donald Trump's tenure has been a whirlwind of self-dealing, management pratfalls, and public meltdowns of the sort that might get a mere captain of industry summarily canned. Luckily for him, he's failed upward into a post that comes with more job protection than the vast majority of American workers enjoy. Somehow we've decided that the one job in America where you have to commit a felony to get fired is the one where you also control nuclear weapons. Given the damage an unfit president can do, shouldn't it be easier to get rid of one? , Barriers Nowhere in the Constitution , "Four CEOs Were Dethroned Just This Week," Forbes reported one day before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced she was opening an impeachment inquiry into Trump's conduct. In fact, 2018 saw a record 18 percent of large-company chiefs forced out, according to the article. "Mercurial, flamboyant and self-destructive CEOs" are increasingly being told to hit the bricks "when their questionable ethics pose a threat to the reputation, mission or growth of their companies." A good thing, too: All the way up the corporate ladder, the ability to replace an underperforming or misbehaving employee is essential to keeping companies nimble and responsive. Free competition in America's labor markets is, according to libertarian legal scholar Richard A. Epstein, "the surest road to social prosperity and business success." Not when it comes to the chief executive officer of the federal government, however: That guy should be harder to fire than a New York City public school teacher, apparently. "Impeachment is the ultimate constitutional sanction" requiring "the most serious deliberations," Epstein wrote as debate heated up in September. "For Democrats to pursue the risky impeachment option shows more about their frenzied collective state of mind than it does about Trump's many foibles." Epstein is hardly alone in that hypercautious view. Judging by how long it takes us to get there and how rarely we do it, Americans seem profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of firinga president. Before 2019, we'd made only three serious attempts at it in our 230-year constitutional history, impeaching just two of 44 U.S. presidents: Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Only Richard Nixon, who quit before the full House could vote, was (effectively) removed from office via the impeachment process. Meanwhile, over the last century, the American presidency has grown vastly more powerful—and more dangerous—than America's Founders could ever have imagined. On the home front, our presidents increasingly rule by executive order and administrative edict; abroad, the commander in chief's war powers have become practically uncheckable: He can add new names to the Predator-drone kill list, and even launch thermonuclear "fire and fury," virtually at will. You could blame the system, and you'd have half a point. Our Constitution's Framers took a broad view of impeachable "high Crimes and Misdemeanors." Per Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 65, presidents could be defenestrated for the "abuse or violation of some public trust." Alas, the founding fathers also stuck us with the nearly insurmountable two-thirds requirement for conviction in the Senate—an innovation that came late in the Convention and that was approved without debate. By accident as much as design, our system makes it painfully difficult to remove a president. And the political culture makes it harder still, by erecting barriers nowhere to be found in the Constitution. We've come to view the process as a source of constitutional crisis itself, rather than as a potential solution to one. Yet if history is any guide, we have little to fear from what's shaping up to be our fourth serious effort at presidential impeachment. Whether it succeeds or not, the attempted firing of Donald Trump will cause the republic little harm and may even do it some good. , High Anxiety , Still, just try telling that to American political elites haunted by specters of wounded democracy and constitutional collapse. Should we dare invoke this dire remedy, they warn, we can be almost certain that something horrible will happen. "Impeachment is hell," Ken Starr, the former independent counsel whose four-year investigation led to Bill Clinton's 1998 rebuke by the House of Representatives, frequently declares. It's "a terrible, terrible thorn in the side of the American democracy," he recently added. (Now he tells us.) But it isn't just the president's copartisans wailing that dirge. Even those who'd dearly like to see Trump ejected often join in. "I'm heartbroken about it," Pelosi professed at a September 28 press conference announcing the investigation. "There is no joy in this. We must be somber. We must be prayerful." It's doubtful Madame Speaker was entirely on the level here (no joy?); even so, she felt compelled to feign the fear and trembling Americans seem to expect when it comes to offboarding a president before his term is up. Impeachment is "a hammer blow to democracy," frets former Obama svengali David Axelrod. It's an "extreme constitutional remedy," echoes Late Show host Stephen Colbert. "A Trump impeachment should terrify you," warns New York Times columnist Frank Bruni—though you should feel the fear and do it anyway. No, don't, quails The Washington Post's Karen Tumulty—"not because he doesn't deserve it" but because impeachment "would be a terrible thing for the country." If, God forbid, we ever need to deploy this ultimate sanction, writes Harvard law professor Lawrence Tribe, "we can hope only that the nation survives with its spirit intact and the strength to rebuild all that's broken." Is impeachment really as grave as all that? Few if any of the Framers viewed the prospect of a presidential pink slip with the unbridled horror now common among America's political and intellectual elites. "Some mode of displacing an unfit magistrate is rendered indispensable by the fallibility of those who choose as well as by the corruptibility of the man chosen," Virginia's George Mason argued at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. "A good magistrate will not fear" impeachments, Massachusetts' Elbridge Gerry insisted; "a bad one ought to be kept in fear of them." North Carolina's Hugh Williamson thought there was "more danger of too much of lenity than too much rigour towards the President." In that, he'd prove more right than he could have known. , False Alarmism , Now, as in past impeachment debates, pundits and pols menace the public with the proverbial series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary. Impeachment, we're told, risks overturning the will of the people, distracting us from the vital business of government, and unleashing a host of evils—up to and including, if the president himself is to be believed, another civil war. Such fears are radically overblown. The silliest charge is the most common: the notion that the impeachment process is an affront to democracy, an all-caps "COUP intended to take away the Power of the People," as Trump put it in an October tweet. Twenty years ago, with Bill Clinton in the crosshairs, it was Democrats hurling the c word: "This partisan coup d'état," Rep. Jerry Nadler (D–N.Y.) insisted, "will go down in infamy in the history of this nation"—like Pearl Harbor, apparently. Only a partisan hack would say such things. Trump's removal would "reverse" the 2016 election only if it installed Hillary Clinton rather than Mike Pence as his successor. What kind of a "coup" replaces one elected official with his hand-picked, duly elected, and loyal-to-a-fault running mate? We're also told that impeachment is a dangerous distraction from…whatever else the federal government would otherwise be doing. "The president of the United States should be allowed to run the country, not have to focus on this kind of crap," Trump reportedly insisted at a recent cabinet meeting. "This is not what the country wants to talk about," huffs New York Times columnist David Brooks. But recent history suggests that whatever disruption impeachment causes will be minor and manageable. During the Clinton imbroglio, Judge Richard A. Posner observed in his 1999 book on the subject, "government ticked along in its usual way through thirteen months of so-called crisis." It's not as if the choice is between impeachment and federal business-as-usual. Anytime serious i-word talk is in the air, the president already faces a hostile Congress and multiple investigations. The question is whether some additional disruption is worth it to finally bring matters to a close. Besides, what are Congress and the president being distracted from? Reining in trillion-dollar deficits? Not much chance of that. Perhaps they would be handling what Brooks informed us in another column is the public's core concern: "elite negligence in the face of national decline." , Civil War II? , The Trump era has added a brand new hobgoblin to the usual parade of horribles: the allegedly looming threat of civil war. "Try to impeach him, just try it. You will have a spasm of -violence in this country, an insurrection like you've never seen," raves erstwhile Trump consigliere Roger Stone. The president himself sent "#CivilWar2" trending in late September when he tweeted a warning from MAGAchurch Pastor Robert Jeffress that impeachment would "cause a Civil War like fracture in this Nation." That dark prophecy is no longer confined to the fever swamps. Respectable opinion mongers from The New Yorker to The Atlantic now grimly contemplate the risk of mass Red-on-Blue violence. Fortunately, there's little reason to take this catastrophizing seriously. Granted, in a country with more guns than people and a surfeit of angry loners, we can't rule out the possibility of an impeachment-inspired Pizzagate attack, or worse. But political scientists who study actual civil wars confirm that they're practically unknown in developed democracies. If the opening skirmishes are any indication, "Civil War 2" will be fought mainly on the internet, with angry memes as the major armaments and boomers defriending each other on Facebook as the primary casualties. As one wag summed it up on Twitter, "America is too fat for a civil war." There's no evidence that impeachment even leads to noticeable civil unrest. Were it otherwise, surely we'd have learned that the hard way in the 1970s. From the Weathermen's "Days of Rage" in Chicago to the hippie-punching "Hard Hat Riot" in New York, the Nixon era saw a level of political violence we'd find appalling today. For one 18-month stretch in 1971–72, America suffered an average of almost five domestic terror bombings daily. Yet even with that bloody backdrop, the 37th president's eviction proceeded peacefully. In the end, nobody thought Nixon was worth rioting over. Hamilton was spot-on when he predicted that any serious fight to remove the president would cause partisan resentments to fester. But sometimes impeachment can lance the boil. As the constitutional scholar Sandy Levinson pointed out in a March article for Cato Unbound, Nixon's resignation even led to "a brief 'Era of Good Feelings,' at least until Gerald Ford pardoned" him. (Mike Pence might want to take note, should it come to that.) , ‘I’ve Been Flynted’ , "Our long national nightmare is over," Ford famously pronounced in his maiden speech as president, not long after Nixon's cringe-inducing double V-for-Victory salute and departure via helicopter on August 9, 1974. Nixon's struggle had been our struggle, Ford maintained, "the internal wounds of Watergate more painful and more poisonous than those of foreign wars"—a comparison that might have seemed grotesque to the war widows tuning in, given the 22,000 American casualties Nixon racked up in Vietnam well after he knew the war was lost. The revelers who gathered in D.C.'s Lafayette Park had a healthier attitude: They hung a sign on the White House fence reading, "Ding dong, the witch is dead." "I'll tell you what I remember most about Watergate," journalist Jeff Greenfield enthused 10 years after the fact: "It was fun." Fun?! That sounds positively transgressive, but maybe Greenfield was on to something. We get so little for our tax dollars. Is the occasional bit of entertainment too much to ask? Throughout American history, presidential impeachments have been safe, legal—and all too rare. But what few we've had have provided their share of merry spectacle. The 1868 impeachment of Andrew Johnson centered on the rather boring charge that the president had violated the short-lived Tenure of Office Act by sacking his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, without senatorial approval. But even that had elements of slapstick. Sec. Stanton refused to give up his post, camped out in his office, and barricaded the door. (It's a wonder that move didn't occur to diva-ish former FBI director James Comey after Trump fired him in May 2017.) With the cooperation of a local judge, Stanton got an arrest warrant issued for his designated replacement, who was hauled out of bed, still drunk from the night before, by a district marshal. The war secretary got less help from his wife when he sent to her for food and clothes. Instead she came by to berate him for making a fool of himself. The Johnson impeachment was D.C.'s hot ticket of the season. A young Mark Twain filed dispatches from the proceedings: "The multitude of strangers were waiting for impeachment. They did not know what impeachment was, exactly, but they had a general idea that it would come in the form of an avalanche, or a thunder clap, or that maybe the roof would fall in." Charles Dickens, in town on a U.S. speaking tour, wrote his editor that it was "lucky I made so much money at first," since the House debate "instantly emptied our great gallery here last night, and paralyzed the Theaters in the midst of a rush of good business." To give Ken Starr his due, the Clinton impeachment saga probably was hell for a few people. But save for Monica Lewinsky, most of them deserved it. For the rest of us, the scandal was a guilty pleasure. Even the collateral damage was amusing. Republican losses in the 1998 midterms—driven in part by the unpopularity of the impeachment effort—forced Newt Gingrich to resign as speaker of the House. His would-be successor, Rep. Bob Livingston (R–La.), had to quit as well upon learning that one of his own extramarital affairs was about to be exposed. "I've been Flynted," he told his colleagues, referring to Hustler publisher Larry Flynt's impeachment-inspired crusade to unearth sexual hypocrisy on Capitol Hill. And it was instructive, to say the least, to observe the lengths to which Clinton would go to keep his job. In his book, Judge Posner summed up the saga as "the ultimate Washington novel," the major effect of which was "to make it difficult to take Presidents seriously as superior people." That's a lesson worth relearning time and again. , De‐​Imperializing the Presidency , Of course, you could argue Trump already has us covered as far as that lesson goes. On a daily basis, he's doing an amazing job of demystifying the presidency, without the inconvenience of a House inquiry and a Senate trial. If so, then what good is the current impeachment effort supposed to do? That's a question raised recently by executive-power critics on both the left and the right. "Recent partisan impeachment crusades haven't challenged the gravest executive excesses," The American Conservative's Jim Antle pointed out. "Drone an American citizen, no worries. Drone on about Joe Biden in a telephone call, constitutional crisis." "If Trump is going to be impeached," The Intercept's Murtaza Hussain wrote, "don't fool yourself that what he's allegedly done to Hunter Biden is the worst crime he committed while in office." It's a fair point: The third-rate shakedown attempt at the heart of Ukrainegate probably isn't even the worst thing Trump did in the month of July. Even so, in politics, as in economics, incentives matter. Lower the cost of bad behavior and you'll probably get more of it. Not launching an impeachment inquiry in this case would signal that, going forward, it's perfectly acceptable for presidents to use the diplomatic and foreign policy powers of the office to, in John Dean's memorable phrase, "screw [their] political enemies." Moreover, to tolerate Trump's blanket stonewalling of Congress would establish the precedent that it's OK for presidents to ignore lawful subpoenas if he thinks the people investigating him are "biased." Repudiating those notions is hardly a waste of the House's time. Antle and Hussain are right to suggest that the more fundamental problem is the office, not the man. The presidency has grown far too powerful to entrust to any one fallible human. Will the current impeachment drive do anything about that? Impeachment's core purpose is to serve as "a bridle in the hands of the legislative body upon the executive servants of the government," as Federalist No. 65 puts it. But history proves there's no guarantee any particular impeachment will further that purpose. The Johnson showdown coincided with, but probably didn't cause, a long period of congressional assertiveness. Bill Clinton's personal "hell" had little effect on the balance of powers between the branches, other than forging a bipartisan consensus to get rid of independent counsels. It's only the Nixon impeachment struggle that sparked a wide-ranging effort to de-imperialize the presidency. As Americans began to understand in the 1970s, the real "national nightmare" was what Nixon and his predecessors had been able to get away with for far too long. The 37th president's abuses had highlighted the dangers of concentrated power, and the exercise of long-dormant muscles in the impeachment drive seemed to embolden Congress to push further to reclaim its rightful authority. The congressional reformers of the '70s did more than force Nixon from office. They pushed for legislation that would make it harder for a future Nixon to abuse his office. The post-Watergate Congresses enacted a suite of significant, if imperfect, restrictions on executive power: passing the Presidential Records Act and strengthening the Freedom of Information Act to increase executive-branch transparency; passing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to limit the president's ability to spy on Americans; passing the Privacy Act and Tax Reform Act of 1978 to restrict executive misuse of lawfully collected personal information. Additional reforms, such as the Impoundment Control Act, the War Powers Resolution of 1973, and the National Emergencies Act, addressed powers Nixon had abused outside the context of Watergate. The post-Watergate Congresses made a lot of mistakes, and the good they did was steadily undermined by less assertive lawmakers in the decades that followed. But they carried out the last serious effort to limit executive power. Impeachment wasn't a "distraction" from that effort but the catalyst for it. Today, for only the fourth time in American history, an American president has been forced to contemplate early retirement via the impeachment process. Those of us who'd like to downsize the presidency itself have little to fear from that process and some reason to hope. Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power (Cato 2008) and Indispensable Remedy: The Broad Scope of the Constitution’s Impeachment Power (Cato Institute).
  • The Assault on Qatar Was Another Big Saudi Failure    (Doug Bandow, 2019-12-19)
    Doug Bandow DOHA, QATAR – The small Persian Gulf kingdom of Qatar put itself on display last weekend with its annual Doha Forum. The event's broad theme was governance in a changing world. , However valuable the conference discussion, another important purpose of the gathering was to showcase the land of just 2.8 million, of whom little more than 300,000 are citizens. I was hosted by the government and treated well, if not quite like visiting royalty. The emirate has spent more than two years under diplomatic, economic, and cultural assault by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. However, Qatar has survived and even prospered. Today it looks and feels normal. Even those without oil wealth feel secure. A driver, a Syrian refugee, told me that he and his family were no longer suffering from any impact of the blockade. , Riyadh gambled on a two-year bullying blockade, but Doha played its hand well and now the Kingdom is ready to make nice. , In June 2017, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, along with their financial and military dependents, most notably Bahrain, Egypt, and Jordan, broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar, expelled Qatari citizens, banned all commerce and travel, denied access to airspace and territorial waters, and punished their own citizens who sympathized with Doha. In what has been called the Second Arab Cold War (in 2014, the Saudis and Emiratis briefly cut diplomatic ties), the coalition issued a baker's dozen demands. Their acceptance would have turned Qatar into a puppet state, effectively governed by the Saudis and Emiratis. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi hypocritically accused Qatar of funding terrorists, a practice they, as well as other Gulf States, had long tolerated, to Washington's frustration. The more serious complaint appeared to be over Doha's relative foreign policy contrariness, refusing to follow Saudi Arabia's lead and backing different radical Islamist factions in regional political and military struggles. (For instance, Saudi Arabia's taste runs to fundamentalist Wahhabists, who preach hatred against everyone other than extremist Sunnis, while Qatar prefers the Muslim Brotherhood, which promotes political activism.) Doha also maintains civil relations with Iran, with which it shares a natural gas field. Even worse, Qatar's state-backed Al Jazeera has publicized the crimes of other Gulfdoms, such as the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi agree that criticism is a bad thing, which is why they insisted that the emirate shut down its news service. Whatever one thinks of the Saudi/Emirati charges, for the Qatari ruling family, compliance—the equivalent of surrender—was not an option. Said Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, the Saudi group was “demanding that we have to surrender our sovereignty,” which was something that Doha would “never do.” Qatar suggested negotiation, which was summarily rejected. That left the country isolated and endangered. There was even a threat of invasion by Saudi Arabia. However, Doha played its weak hand well. It turned to Kuwait, a friendly Gulfdom independent of Riyadh, to act as mediator. Oman, another small Gulf state with a more balanced foreign policy, encouraged reconciliation and handled Qatar-bound maritime traffic. Doha upgraded relations with Iran, which opened its airspace—Qatar Airways now boasts that it has even more destinations than before—and became an important source of food imports. The Qataris even invited in the Turkish military to forestall any invasion. Doha also highlighted the role of America’s Al Udeid air base, winning support from the U.S. Defense and State Departments despite President Donald Trump’s initial tweets backing the Saudis. At the Doha Forum, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin defended Qatar’s role in combatting terrorism financing. He urged America’s allies to heal their breach. The gathering highlighted bilateral ties that have become key to Qatar’s success. The U.S. sent a large delegation, including Mnuchin; Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and adviser; and Zalmay Khalilzad, currently negotiating with the Taliban. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif addressed the participants. Turkey’s defense minister and foreign minister, along with a presidential adviser, spoke. The heavy Turkish representation may have been an indirect response to whispers that Doha might negotiate away Ankara’s military presence. Last weekend, Qatar’s Foreign Minister al-Thani rejected such fears: “Any country that opened up for us and helped us during our crisis, we will remain grateful for them…and we will never turn our back to them.” The assault on Qatar is one of Riyadh’s most important failures. Rather like the invasion of Yemen, what was supposed to be a quick and simple victory has instead highlighted Saudi impotence and reinforced the crown prince’s reputation for recklessness. He appears locked in another struggle that he doesn’t know how to resolve. When confronted with the failure of his anti-Qatar campaign, MbS downplayed the effort, saying it was only of minor importance. Rather than acknowledge a mistake, Riyadh suggested that it might dig a 37-mile canal to act as a moat along the border with Qatar, essentially turning it into an island. Still, there are glimmerings of hope. Mnuchin’s comments demonstrated that the president’s extended genuflection to the Saudi royals has not affected his administration’s approach to Qatar. Those who make and administer policy identify with Doha and desire compromise. Washington has criticized the extreme Saudi and Emirati demands. Moreover, Gulf Cooperation Council discussions after the September attack on Riyadh’s oil facilities included Qatar. Rice University’s Kristian Coates Ulrichsen suggested that this “dialogue opened a space for diplomacy, whereas the maximalist and take-it-or-leave-it nature of the 13 demands in 2017 had represented an ultimatum rather than a basis for negotiation.” Saudi Arabia invited Qatar’s emir to attend last week’s GCC meeting. Although there was no talk about the issues dividing GCC members, the emir’s presence suggests that the Kingdom has abandoned its earlier hopes of expelling Qatar from the GCC. Moreover, the Wall Street Journal reports that Doha had made a settlement offer, which included abandoning the Muslim Brotherhood. Foreign Minister al-Thani later stated that no concessions that “affect our sovereignty and interfere with our domestic or foreign policy” would be offered. Riyadh had apparently backed away from several of its most outlandish conditions. As yet nothing has come from such efforts. Nevertheless, a couple weeks ago, Foreign Minister al-Thani spoke of the contacts: “We hope that these talks will lead to a process where we can see an end for this crisis.” The Saudi foreign minister also acknowledged discussions but said the content was best left in private. Another promising sign: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE sent football (soccer) teams to the Arabian Gulf Cup in Qatar. Two years ago, the contest was moved to Kuwait, since the foregoing three refused to travel to Qatar. The Saudi ambassador to Kuwait, Sultan bin Sa’ad al-Saud, observed that “sport might repair what politics has ruined.” The UAE may be the more important barrier, pressing Riyadh not to make concessions. Ulrichsen observed: “The leadership in Abu Dhabi remains resolutely opposed to any normalization of ties and easing of the blockade.” Last week, the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted that “the onus lies with the one that caused the crisis, to reconsider erroneous policies that led to its isolation.” He said Doha’s conversations with Riyadh are “a repeat at attempts to split the ranks and evade commitments.” Even so, MbS may decide that continuing confrontation benefits Iran. Riyadh seems to be slowly moving toward the same conclusion regarding the war on Yemen, which has proved to be catastrophic for all concerned. Gulf unity would obviously be the best policy in facing Iran. Should Doha demand more than a return to the status quo? Madawi al-Rasheed, a visiting professor at the London School of Economics, warned against accepting the Saudis’ “new conditions of servitude.” She explained, “For reconciliation with Qatar to succeed, Saudi Arabia needs a new approach to foreign policy. It should realize that neither its current diplomacy nor its military aggression against other countries, for example Yemen, will crown it the king of Arab affairs. It cannot lead the Arab world by conspiracy, petrodollars or military strikes.” Foreign Minister al-Thani emphasized, “We believe we are still at a very early stage, and what happened in the last two and a half years was a lot and there is, I think, a need for some time to rebuild trust again.” Still, the governments are talking. He observed: “We have broken the stalemate of non-communication to starting a communication with the Saudis.” Washington should encourage the Gulf states to work through their problems. However, actions speak louder than words. The administration’s most important contribution to a negotiated settlement might have been its refusal to attack Iran for apparently targeting Saudi oil facilities. The Saudi royals decided that if they cannot count on the U.S. military to act as their bodyguards, then Riyadh has greater reason to settle ongoing disputes. If the Kingdom truly wants peace and stability, it should abandon its reckless campaign for regional hegemony. That obviously means ending the costly military intervention in Yemen. Also necessary is stopping the failed political offensive against Qatar. Today, Washington’s supposed friends, most importantly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have become greater threats than Iran to regional peace and stability. Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He is a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.
  • Tobacco Sales Ban for Those Under 21 Would Make Teen Vaping and Smoking Worse    (Trevor Burrus, 2019-12-18)
    Trevor Burrus At a time when teenage smoking is dropping to unheard-of levels, the federal government this week is likely to raise the legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21. The provision is included in a massive spending package that President Donald Trump is expected to soon sign to pass in the coming days to avert a government shutdown. This move is not only unwarranted and unnervingly paternalistic, but it could also result in more dangerous tobacco use by young adults, as the ban would have the perverse effect of pushing them to consume more traditional combustible tobacco rather than comparatively safer vaping products. , We sometimes forget that those over 18 are legally adults. Being 18 means you can vote, die for your country, get married, have children, get a credit card and buy a rifle. As with drinking, it is dismaying that there are those who would give a gun to an 18-year-old to kill people in foreign countries, yet they would not let them buy tobacco products. But even if you don't have an ideological objection to restricting the sale of tobacco products to younger adults, there is a very practical reason to oppose the pending tobacco ban if you care about public health: Raising the legal purchase age for tobacco and vaping products would encourage young adults to consume more cigarettes, because they are more common and therefore would be more accessible under a ban than the relatively new, smaller supply of vaping materials on the market would be. Similarly, use of combustible tobacco that is more cost-effective (such as rolling tobacco) would also likely increase, as it always becomes more popular when cigarettes become more expensive, a common result of scarcity. A prohibitionist ban would additionally probably result in more teenage vapers using illicit counterfeit vaping products, because that's what people turn to when legal channels are shut off. But these products are much more dangerous than regulated products from reputable companies, as demonstrated by the recent wave of vaping-related illnesses and deaths — most of which (though not all) were linked to illegal and off-brand vapes. Moreover, the unprecedented decline in youth cigarette smoking should be seen as a great public health victory, and vaping should be celebrated as a significant cause of the reduction. Rates of youth smoking have fallen drastically in recent decades. According to the New York Times, in 1997 24.6 percent of 12th-graders reported daily cigarette smoking, but by 2017 that number had dropped to 4.2 percent. That cigarette smoking has declined is a good thing, and the precipitous decrease in youth cigarette smoking is likely in large part due to the prevalence and availability of vaping. In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that youth cigarette smoking was cut in half in just five years, an astonishing public health victory. At the same time, e-cigarette use increased dramatically. Despite recent scares, vaping is almost unquestionably safer than using combustible tobacco. Even former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb acknowledges that e-cigarettes “ are not nearly as harmful as lighting tobacco on fire and smoking it.” While there’s still much to learn about the effects of vaping, long-term and otherwise, the CDC acknowledges that “ E-cigarettes have the potential to benefit adult smokers who are not pregnant if used as a complete substitute for regular cigarettes and other smoked tobacco products.” And that’s a good thing, since, according to the National Youth Tobacco Survey, 87.9 percent of regular high school vapers (vaping 20 to 30 days a month) had previously been smokers, compared to only 12.1 percent of regular vapers who never smoked. Officials in the U.K. have highlighted that 1.2 million Brits have quit smoking by using e-cigarettes. But that doesn’t mean that there’s an “epidemic” of vaping. In fact, only 5.7 percent of high schoolers are regular vapers. That means almost all of the teens who are vaping are doing so sporadically. Yet, rather than treat this as a victory, American public health officials have turned their sights on vaping. They vilify vaping as a gateway to smoking (that’s not been established), while the health risks are exaggerated. A zero-tolerance mindset has led many public health officials to declare that “youth use of tobacco products in any form is unsafe,” without trying to weigh comparative harms. Bicycle riding can also be quite dangerous, but rather than ban bicycle riding, we encourage using a helmet. It’s certainly safer to never ride a bike than to ride one with a helmet, but we appreciate that the best course is to minimize the risk without outlawing a behavior many enjoy. Yet anti-vapers would adopt the tactic of trying to ban bicycle helmets on the theory that they cause more people to ride bikes. Like riding a bike with a helmet, vaping is a relatively safer way to consume nicotine. The zero-tolerance mindset and the scare tactics employed by vaping opponents have caused an increasing number of people to believe that vaping is as dangerous as smoking. A Reuters poll in September found that 63 percent of Americans disagreed with the statement that “vaping is healthier than traditional cigarettes.” That’s up by 16 percent since 2016. Youthful smoking has long held attractions, and billions of people around the world clearly enjoy using nicotine. While many public health advocates would rather that no one use nicotine — as well as that no one eat fast food, drink soda or do any number of pleasurable, yet risky, activities — that isn’t a realistic goal. Instead, over-18 adults should be given the opportunity to make relatively healthier decisions. Trevor Burrus is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and editor in chief of the Cato Supreme Court Review.
  • How out of Control Is Our Surveillance State?    (Julian Sanchez, 2019-12-18)
    Julian Sanchez The F.B.I.’s investigation of the former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, we can now say with assurance, was a train wreck. In his report, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz cataloged a damning list of egregious errors, omissions or misrepresentations in filings to the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approved nearly a year’s worth of wiretaps on Mr. Page. , Many Republicans have taken this as proof that the investigation was hopelessly contaminated by anti-Trump political bias. That would be the optimistic scenario. Unfortunately, it’s probably much worse than that. If the F.B.I. botched its applications for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants against Mr. Page because of political bias, after all, problems of the sort Mr. Horowitz identified are most likely unique to this case. The bureau obtains about 1,500 FISA warrants each year, and an overwhelming majority have no connection to domestic politics. The solution is also similarly simple: Toss out the bad apples who acted on political motives and add a few layers of safeguards for the tiny fraction of cases that are designated “sensitive investigative matters” because they do intersect with politics. , Americans deserve a stronger assurance than “hope” that their Fourth Amendment rights are being respected. , That might be a reasonable response if we were confident the Page investigation represented an outlier or aberration. The chilling reality, however, is that we have no idea whether that’s the case. At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week, Senator Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, zeroed in on this point. When she asked Mr. Horowitz whether finding mistakes in a FISA application was “a fairly unusual occurrence,” he responded, “I would hope so.” Americans deserve a stronger assurance than “hope” that their Fourth Amendment rights are being respected. The sheer quantity of serious defects in the FISA applications targeting Mr. Page — which officials consistently told Mr. Horowitz received far more review than normal, because agents understood the applications would doubtless attract controversy and scrutiny — raises an obvious and disturbing question: If they’re this sloppy with a target involved in a presidential campaign, how bad is it in ordinary cases, which the public will never learn about and which are unlikely to ever be the topic of congressional hearings? We needn’t worry so much about that, of course, if the defects of the Page warrants were products of political animus against the Trump campaign. But the report provides very little reason to think that’s the case. The case for supposing bias is the culprit here leans heavily on the former F.B.I. agent Peter Strzok, now notorious for a voluminous history of text messages denigrating Mr. Trump and suggesting that he would not become president because “we will stop it.” But while Mr. Strzok played a supervisory role in the earliest stage of the Page investigation, it’s hard to tie him to the specific problems Mr. Horowitz identifies. As the report notes, Mr. Strzok “was not the primary or sole decision maker on any investigative step” and at one point opposed FISA monitoring of another Trump campaign staff member that case agents proposed. Moreover, the problems Mr. Horowitz documented in the initial FISA application filed under Mr. Strzok’s watch were significantly less serious than the outrageous omissions and misrepresentations to the court that occurred in the subsequent applications to renew the wiretap, after Mr. Strzok’s role in the investigation had ended. With one significant exception — an F.B.I. lawyer responsible for improperly altering an email related to the final renewal application — Mr. Horowitz didn’t find signs of Mr. Strzok’s intense animus among others who worked on the FISA warrants. The report notes that among the huge quantity of internal communications reviewed, the inspector general identified “a small number of text messages and instant messages” in which members of the investigation team “discussed political issues and candidates,” but that these “did not raise significant questions of potential bias or improper motivation.” If there’s an explanation for the errors Mr. Horowitz documents suggested by his reports, it’s not political bias. It’s confirmation bias. The F.B.I.’s interest in Mr. Page — and its suspicions that he might be a Russian intelligence asset — predated his involvement in presidential politics. He had reportedly been the target of a FISA warrant in 2014 and was the focus of yet another counterintelligence investigation opened in April 2016 by the F.B.I.’s notoriously Trump-friendly New York field office, months before the bureau started an inquiry into potential links between the Trump campaign and Russia’s election interference operation. When investigators got wind of Christopher Steele’s notorious dossier, which made Mr. Page a pivotal figure in a “well-developed conspiracy of cooperation” between Mr. Trump and the Kremlin, it would have seemed like confirmation of what they already suspected. Having adopted this theory, investigators began to exhibit classic signs of confirmation bias, readily absorbing new information that fit the model they’d built, while overlooking or explaining away facts that didn’t fit. The worst misrepresentations to the court that Mr. Horowitz uncovered are sins of omission — new information the bureau obtained as the investigation progressed that should have led it to question previous representations it had made to the court. The many layers of review FISA applications go through — laid out in a set of rules known as the Woods Procedures — were ill equipped to detect this sort of problem, because the Woods Procedures focus on confirming that facts in the application match documents in the F.B.I.’s case file. But you can’t fact check a claim that doesn’t exist — which means the process is bad at detecting important information that has been left out. Officials who reviewed later applications also told Mr. Horowitz that they typically focused on the new information in each submission. That means assertions they’d made early on ended up effectively being taken for granted: Nobody was revisiting early assumptions to see whether they still held up in the face of new data. If this explains why the Page investigation went increasingly off the rails, it’s an explanation that has little to do with partisan politics at its heart. But that would mean there’s little reason to think the Page investigation is special in this respect. There’s an urgent need, then, for the inspector general to do more such “deep dives” and figure out just how pervasive the problem really is. Fortunately, the inspector general is already taking a first step in this direction, having begun a review that will “examine the F.B.I.’s compliance with the Woods Procedures in FISA applications that target U.S. persons.” But in itself, that’s not enough: While Mr. Horowitz found violations of the Woods Procedures in the Page case, they weren’t the most serious distortions. Those occurred precisely because the Woods Procedures aren’t well calibrated to catch material facts that get left out. To do that, you’d need to do the kind of intensive and comprehensive case-by-case review conducted in the Horowitz review, not just run Woods vetting a second time to see whether the results tally. Doing this sort of deep dive for a representative sample of FISA applications will, of course, be both expensive and extremely time consuming. But it’s well worth it to find out just how badly our surveillance state is broken. Julian Sanchez is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.
  • Washington Post Still Hasn't Corrected an Obvious Education Blunder    (Corey A. DeAngelis, 2019-12-18)
    Corey A. DeAngelis The dean of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education claimed in a December 10 Washington Post op-ed that “public funding for schools has actually decreased since the late 1980s, adjusting for constant dollars." However, data from the National Center of Education Statistics shows that real per-pupil spending clearly has not decreased since the 1980s. In fact, inflation-adjusted, per-pupil spending has actually increased over the last three decades. , Robert Pianta's claim is incorrect regardless of how the data is sliced. According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ database, inflation-adjusted education funding increased by at least 36% since 1989 — whether you look at state, local, federal, or total dollars per pupil. The increases are much larger if you look at overall spending amounts rather than per-pupil totals. , Inflation-adjusted, per-pupil education spending has increased by at least 36% since the 1980s. , The subheadline of Pianta’s Washington Post column alleges, “the one thing we haven’t tried in the past 30 years is sufficiently investing in our schools.” In addition to being incorrect, it is also not clear what spending level would qualify as “sufficient” to Pianta. After all, the nationwide data shows the U.S. already spends over $14,700 per student each year. How much does each state allocate toward education? The Washington Examiner's Jason Russell previously summarized this information for each state using Census Bureau data from 2013. We now have more recent data from 2017 showing that about 28% of all state budget expenditures go toward education. This statistic has remained relatively steady over time. Census Bureau data from 1993, the oldest period of data available, also indicates that about 28% of state government expenditures went toward education across the country. , , The 2017 education spending data, the most recent complete data available, indicates that Vermont (35%), Texas (34%), New Jersey (33%), Georgia (33%), and Connecticut (33%) allocate the biggest proportions of their budgets toward education. Washington, D.C. (17%), Hawaii (20%), Alaska (22%), California (23%), and Florida (24%) allocate the smallest proportions of their budgets toward education. However, Washington's place at the bottom of the list in terms of education spending as a percentage of its budget is deceiving due to D.C.'s unique budget situation. The federal district notably spends over $28,000 per child each year, which is almost double the national average. There's plenty of room for disagreements about education policy, and there are reasonable arguments to be made regarding the optimal level of education funding and the best type of system to facilitate education spending. But we should all be able to agree on basic verifiable numbers. Let's vigorously debate how to improve schools and student outcomes. But let's be factual: Inflation-adjusted, per-pupil education spending has increased by at least 36% since the 1980s. Corey A. DeAngelis is the Director of School Choice at Reason Foundation and an adjunct scholar at Cato Institute.
  • The Tragedy of Donald Trump: His Presidency Is Marred with Failure    (Doug Bandow, 2019-12-18)
    Doug Bandow North Korea may have been the one issue on which President Donald Trump apparently listened to his predecessor, Barack Obama, when he warned about the serious challenge facing the incoming occupant of the Oval Office. Nevertheless, Trump initially drove tensions between the two countries to a fever pitch, raising fears of war in the midst of proclamations of “fire and fury.” Then he played statesman and turned toward diplomacy, meeting North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, in Singapore. , Today that effort looks kaput. The North has declared denuclearization to be off the table. Actually, few people other than the president apparently believed that Kim was prepared to turn over his nuclear weapons to a government predisposed toward intervention and regime change. Now that this Trump policy is formally dead, and there is no Plan B in sight, Pyongyang has begun deploying choice terms from its fabled thesaurus of insults. Democrats are sure to denounce the administration for incompetent naivete. And the bipartisan war party soon will be beating the drums for more sanctions, more florid rhetoric, additional military deployments, new plans for war. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) already has dismissed the risks since any conflict would be “over there,” on the distant Korean Peninsula. At which point Trump’s heroic summitry, which offered a dramatic opportunity to break decades of deadly stalemate, will be judged a failure. If the president had racked up several successes—wars ended, peace achieved, disputes settled, relations strengthened—then one disappointment wouldn’t matter much. However, his record is an unbroken string of broken promises, opportunities squandered, principles violated, and intentions abandoned. , Trump's performance record as president is comprised of an unbroken string of broken promises, opportunities squandered, principles violated, and intentions abandoned. , There is no relationship more important than that between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. Despite Trump’s supposed friendship with China’s Xi Jinping, the trade war rages to the detriment of both countries. Americans have suffered from both the president’s tariffs and China’s retaliation, with no end in sight. Despite hopes for a resolution, Beijing is hanging tough and obviously doubts the president’s toughness, given the rapidly approaching election. Beyond economics, the relationship is deteriorating sharply. Disagreements and confrontations over everything from geopolitics to human rights have driven the two countries apart, with the administration lacking any effective strategy to positively influence China's behavior. The president's myopic focus on trade has left him without a coherent strategy elsewhere. Perhaps the president's most pronounced and controversial promise of the 2016 campaign was to improve relations with Russia. However, despite another supposedly positive personal relationship, the Trump administration has applied more sanctions on Moscow, provided more anti-Russian aid to Ukraine, further increased funds and troops to NATO Europe, and sent home more Russian diplomats than the Obama administration. Worse, Washington has made no serious effort to resolve the standoff over Ukraine. No one imagines Moscow returning Crimea to Ukraine or giving in on any other issue without meaningful concessions regarding Kiev. Instead of moderating and minimizing bilateral frictions, the administration has made Russia more likely today than before to cooperate with China against Washington and contest American objectives in the Middle East, Africa, and even Latin America. Although Trump promised to stop America's endless wars, as many—if not more—U.S. military personnel are abroad today as when he took office. He increased the number of troops in Afghanistan and is now seeking to negotiate an exit that would force Washington to remain to enforce the agreement. This war has been burning for more than eighteen years. The administration has maintained Washington's illegal deployment in Syria, shifting one contingent away from the Turkish-Kurdish battle while inserting new forces to confiscate Syrian oil fields—a move that lacks domestic authority and violates international law. A few hundred Americans cannot achieve their many other supposed objectives, such as eliminating Russian, Iranian, and other malign influences and forcing Syria's President Bashar al-Assad to resign or inaugurate democracy. However, their presence will ensure America's continued entanglement in a conflict of great complexity but minimal security interest. The Saudi government remains corrupt, incompetent, repressive, reckless and dependent on the United States. Only Washington's refusal to retaliate against Iran for its presumed attack on Saudi oil facilities caused Riyadh to turn to diplomacy toward Tehran, yet the president then increased U.S. military deployments, turning American military personnel into bodyguards for the Saudi royals. The recent terrorist attack by the pilot-in-training—presumably to join his colleagues in slaughtering Yemeni civilians—added to the already high cost of the bilateral relationship. The administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” has proved to be a complete bust around the world. As noted earlier, North Korea proved unwilling to disarm despite the increased financial pressure caused by U.S. sanctions. North Koreans are hurting, but their government, like Washington, places security first. Russia, too, is no more willing to yield Crimea, which was once part of Russia and is the Black Sea naval base of Sebastopol. Several European governments also disagree with the United States, having pressed to lighten or eliminate current sanctions. The West will have to offer more than the status quo to roll back Moscow’s military advances. Before Trump became president, Iran was well contained, despite its malign regional activities. The Islamic regime was hemmed in by Israel and the Gulf States, backed by nations as diverse as Egypt and America. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, sharply curtailed Iran's nuclear activities and placed the country under an intensive oversight regime. Now Tehran has reactivated its nuclear program, expanded its regional interventions, interfered with Gulf shipping, and demonstrated its ability to devastate Saudi oil production. To America's consternation, its Persian Gulf allies now are more willing to deal with Iran than before. Additionally, the Trump administration has largely destroyed hope for reform in Cuba by reversing the Obama administration's progress toward normalizing relations and discouraging visits by—and trade with—Americans. The entrepreneurs I spoke to when I visited Cuba two years ago made large investments in anticipation of a steadily increasing number of U.S. visitors but were devastated when Washington shut off the flow. What had been a steadily expanding private sector was knocked back and the regime, with Raoul Castro still dominant behind the scenes, again can blame America for its own failings. There is no evidence that extending the original embargo and additional sanctions, which began in 1960, will free anyone. For a time, Venezuela appeared to be an administration priority. As usual, Trump applied economic sanctions, this time on a people whose economy essentially had collapsed. Washington threatened more sanctions and military invasion but to no avail. Then the president and his top aides breathed fire and fury, insisting that both China and Russia stay out, again without success. Eventually, the president appeared to simply lose interest and drop any mention of the once urgent crisis. The corrupt, repressive Maduro regime remains in power. So far, the president’s criticisms of America’s alliances have gone for naught. Until now, his appointees, all well-disposed toward maintaining generous subsidies for America’s international fan club, have implemented his policies. More recently, the administration demanded substantial increases in “host nation” support, but in almost every negotiation so far the president has given way, accepting minor, symbolic gains. He is likely to end up like his predecessor, whining a lot but gaining very little from America’s security dependents. Beyond that, there is little positive to say. Trump and India's Narendra Modi are much alike, which is no compliment to either, but institutional relations have changed little. Turkey's incipient dictator, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, receives a free pass from the president for the former's abuses and crimes. But even so Congress is thoroughly arrayed against Ankara for sins both domestic and foreign. The president's aversion to genuine free trade and the curious belief that buying inexpensive, quality products from abroad is a negative has created problems with many close allies, including Canada, Mexico, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and multiple European states. Perhaps only with Israel are Washington's relations substantially improved, and that reflects the president's abandonment of any serious attempt to promote a fair and realistic peace between Israelis and Palestinians. This is an extraordinarily bad record after almost three years in office. Something good still might happen between now and November 3, 2020. However, more issues are likely to get worse. Imagine North Korean missile and nuclear tests, renewed Russian attempts to influence Western elections, a bloody Chinese crackdown in Hong Kong, increased U.S.-European trade friction, more U.S. pressure on Iran matched by asymmetric responses, and more. At the moment, there is no reason to believe any of the resulting confrontations would turn out well. Most Americans vote on the economy, and the president is currently riding a wave of job creation. If that ends before the November vote, then international issues might matter more. If so, then the president may regret that he failed to follow through on his criticism of endless war and irresponsible allies. Despite his very different persona, his results don't look all that different from those achieved by Barack Obama and other leading Democrats. Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.
  • A Wealth Tax Is a Tax on Business    (Chris Edwards, 2019-12-17)
    Chris Edwards Anti-wealth fever grips the Democratic Party and seems sure to carry into the election year. The economic boom is lifting all boats, yet presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders argue that the wealthy are gaining at our expense. They are pushing new wealth taxes even though most of Europe repealed such taxes as too damaging. , Rising Democratic star Pete Buttigieg says he is “all for a wealth tax,” and also wants higher taxes on corporations, incomes and capital gains. Evoking the zero-sum narrative of Warren and Sanders, Buttigieg claims “most of our economic growth goes to a smaller and smaller slice of the wealthiest Americans.” Joe Biden—a supposed moderate in the race—also wants higher taxes on corporations, incomes, and capital gains. Biden has shied away from a wealth tax, but he is not above throwing bombs at the wealthy, arguing on his website that “this country wasn’t built by Wall Street bankers and CEOS and hedge fund managers.” Leftist politicians can dish out rhetoric, but they seem ignorant of how wealth is created or how it is used. They seem to assume that top wealth is just expensive toys. In discussing her wealth tax plan, Warren’s website says, “Consider two people: an heir with $500 million in yachts, jewelry, and fine art, and a teacher with no savings in the bank.” Actually, most wealth of the wealthy is business assets, not yachts and other personal assets. A recent study by Matthew Smith, Owen Zidar, and Eric Zwick detailed the assets of the top 0.1 percent of the richest Americans, who are those with net wealth above $16 million. Forty two percent of their wealth is equity in private businesses and 31 percent is equity in publicly traded businesses. Another 22 percent is bank deposits, debt, pensions, and other assets. Just 5 percent of this group’s wealth are their homes. A rough guess is that one quarter of the deposits, debt, pensions, and other assets are holdings of government debt. That means almost 90 percent of the wealth of the top 0.1 percent of Americans consists ultimately of equity and debt in businesses, which fund capital assets that spur economic growth. Looking just at billionaires, Wealth-X estimates that just 2 percent of their fortunes consist of homes, yachts, jewelry, cars and other personal assets. Consider the richest man in America, Jeff Bezos. His homes are worth a huge $150 million, but they account for just 0.1 percent of his total wealth of $114 billion. The great majority of Bezos’ wealth consists of his 12 percent ownership of Amazon, a company he founded in his garage in 1994. Leftists often complain that wealth is “concentrated.” But in terms of how it is used, the wealth of the wealthy is dispersed widely across the economy in productive business assets. Bezos’ wealth reflects Amazon’s vast global operations that employ 650,000 people. Without wealth or capital supporting them, those folks would not have jobs and billions of packages would not be delivered. Warren says, “The top 0.1% of families—the richest 1 in 1,000—now have nearly the same amount of wealth as the bottom 90% of American families combined. Meanwhile, for everyone else, opportunity is slipping away.” But with his Amazon assets, Bezos is generating employment opportunities for many people while slashing prices for hundreds of millions of consumers. Bezos’ wealth is publicly traded equity, but what about the largest part of wealth at the top—private equity? The biggest private company in America is Cargill based in Minnesota. The Cargill and MacMillan families own 90 percent of Cargill, which has annual revenues of $114 billion. By building Cargill over the decades, the families have become wealthy while creating opportunities for vast numbers of people in the food, agriculture, and transportation industries. Leftist politicians who want higher taxes on wealth apparently assume that capital and labor, or wealth and workers, are enemies. But the capital assets on Cargill’s balance sheet of $62 billion enable the company to employ 160,000 people in a huge enterprise crucial to America’s economy. People may point to the $150 million in homes that Bezos owns as excessive. But those personal assets are already hit by local property taxes, which are a form of wealth tax. The problem with the Warren-Sanders-Buttigieg wealth tax is that it would not just tax assets used for consumption such as homes, but also a vast amount of assets used for production. Democratic efforts to tax wealth and capital would severely damage the ability of Amazon, Cargill, and many other businesses to provide jobs and incomes to millions of Americans. Capital and labor are complements, not enemies, and that is why such taxes would be so damaging not just to the rich but to every worker in America. Chris Edwards is director of tax policy at the Cato Institute and editor of www.DownsizingGoverment.org.


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