First the federal government wanted the trees to be trimmed in order to control the birds that nested there. Now the federal government wants to prosecute the tree-trimmer because his trimming affected the birds that nested there. Go figure.
“The man in whose power it might be to find out the means of alleviating the sufferings of the poor would have done a far greater deed than the one who contents himself solely with knowing the exact numbers of poor and wealthy people in society.”
—Vilfredo Pareto, “The New Theories of Economics,” Journal of Political Economy 5: 485–502 (1896–97).
We mostly know the story, but it bears repeating: One year ago this week, Glenn Greenwald wrote a news story that would change the world forever. In it, we learned that the National Security Agency had been secretly collecting enormous amounts of telephone metadata on what were presumably ordinary American citizens. The agency had done so without a warrant and without suspicion of any indiviudal person. The revelation changed forever how Americans think about national security, privacy, and civil liberties in the digital age.
More revelations soon followed. Among many others, these included NSA surveillance of web activity, mobile phone location data, and the content of email and text messages. The NSA also conducted many highly embarrassing acts of surveillance against allied or benign world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the conclave that recently elected Pope Francis. It had subverted commonly used encryption systems. It had co-opted numerous tech companies in its plans. Its leaders had repeatedly lied to, or at the very least misled, the U.S. Congress.
How far should surveillance go? What has been the value of the information gained? What have we given up in the process? What are the risks, should malign actors ever get their hands on the controls of the system?
We are able to ask these questions today because of one individual: Edward Snowden, a systems administrator for the NSA who chose to make public the information to which he had access. We have no choice now but to debate it. That’s simply what democracies do whenever such momentous information becomes public.
Joining us at Cato Unbound this month are four individuals with extensive knowledge in the fields of national security and civil liberties: Cato Senior Fellow Julian Sanchez, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Benjamin Wittes, Georgetown University Professor Carrie F. Cordero, and independent journalist Marcy Wheeler. Each brings a somewhat different perspective on the matters at hand, and we welcome them all to what is sure to be a vigorous debate.
Washington, D.C. is chuckling at the news that two vultures–real live vultures, the sort that circle the sky over roadkill–have settled in to nest in the very urban setting of K Street, symbolic home of lobbyists. Washington Post reporter Theresa Vargas spoke to a raptor expert about what it all means: “Unlike hawks that find their food by seeing it, he said vultures use their sense of smell, following the scent of decay to its source.”
That’s a funny line, but as libertarians at nearby Cato could have explained, it contains a bit of an embedded fallacy. In Washington, the ultimate source of decay is not so much the lobbying but the government’s gathering unto itself an endless array of powers enabling it to punish some economic actors and reward others. Some of those sharp-clawed K Street raptors are looking for fresh carrion to drag back to their paying clients, but they wouldn’t find much to do if Congress and the White House weren’t willing to take down the prey for them. Other lobbyists–maybe we could pick some more admired bird to represent them?–work to keep their clients from becoming today’s lunch or tomorrow’s roadkill.
If you want to cut down on Washington’s growing flock of professional vultures, the best strategy is to cut off the carrion supply by shooing the government away from areas of life it shouldn’t be in.
Washington DC has proposed an anti-auto transportation plan that is ironically called “MoveDC” when its real goal is to reduce the mobility of DC residents. The plan calls for reducing auto commuting from 54 percent to no more than 25 percent of all workers in the district, while favoring transit, cycling, and walking.Click image to download the plan’s executive summary. Click here to download other parts of the plan.
The plan would discourage auto driving by tolling roads entering the district and cordon-pricing. Tolls aren’t necessarily a bad idea: as I explained in this paper, properly designed tolls can relieve congestion and actually increase roadway capacities. But you can count on DC to design them wrong, using them more as a punitive and fundraising tool than as a way to relieve congestion. Cordon pricing is invariably a bad idea, much more of a way for cities to capture dollars from suburban commuters than to influence travel habits.
The plan assumes that the district’s population will increase by 170,000 people over the next 25 years, which is supposed to have some kind of apocalyptic result if all of those people drive as much as people drive today. The district’s official population in 2010 was 602,000 people, a 155,000-person drop from 1970. While Census Bureau estimates say the district’s population is once again growing, it doesn’t seem all that apocalyptic if the population returns to 1970 levels.
The Census Bureau estimates that 54 percent of people employed in the district drove to work, while only 37 percent took transit in 2012. Since part of the MoveDC plan calls for discouraging people outside the district from driving to work in the district, it appears the goal is to cut that 54 percent by more than half. DC’s plan to discourage driving by taxing commuters through cordon pricing is more likely to push jobs into the suburbs than to reach this goal.
Congestion isn’t a serious problem in the district, mainly because the legal height limit prevents Manhattan-like job concentrations. Instead, the main congestion problems are on the highways entering the district. These problems can be solved through congestion tolls, which would encourage some travelers to shift the time they drive. Because road capacities dramatically decline when they become congested, keeping the roads uncongested would effectively double their capacity during rush hour, which ironically could allow even more people to drive to work. DC’s anti-auto planners won’t want to do that, which is why they are likely to focus more on cordon pricing than congestion tolling.
If reducing congestion isn’t the issue, then what is the goal of the anti-auto emphasis? MoveDC says it is “rapidly rising travel costs, and concerns about rising carbon emissions.” People deal with rising travel costs by replacing their cars less frequently and buying more fuel-efficient cars when they do replace them. MoveDC’s solution is to substitute high-cost urban transit for low-cost driving, even though transit actually emits more greenhouse gases per passenger mile than driving.
As I documented in this Cato briefing paper, Americans spend about a trillion dollars a year buying, maintaining, operating, and insuring cars and subsidizing highways, in exchange for which they travel about 4 trillion passenger miles per year for an average total cost of 25 cents per passenger mile (about 24 cents of which is paid by users and 1 cent of which is subsidies). In contrast, Washington’s transit system (for the urban area, not just the district) moved people about 2.5 billion passenger miles in 2012 at a cost of $3 billion, or $1.20 per passenger mile (only 34 cents of which was captured in fares).
Meanwhile, the average car and light truck on the road in 2012 got about 20.7 miles per gallon, meaning (at the average occupancy of about 1.6 people per car) it emitted about 268 grams of carbon dioxide per passenger mile. In contrast, Washington’s transit system emitted an average of 285 grams per passenger mile, partly because nearly all of the electricity used to power the MetroRail system comes from burning fossil fuels.
Moreover, driving is rapidly becoming more fuel efficient. The average car and light truck sold last year got nearly 25 mpg, emitting about 235 grams per passenger mile. By 2040, under the Obama administration’s fuel economy standards, the average car on the road will get about 45 mpg, emitting just 130 grams per passenger mile. The Washington MetroRail system, which is stuck using 1970s technology for the foreseeable future, cannot possibly hope to compete.
Here’s the dirty little secret of sustainability plans like MoveDC: Planners aren’t trying to save the planet by moving people to more sustainable forms of transportation, they are trying to save the planet by reducing people’s travel. Someone with a car may travel more than 10,000 miles a year, but take away their car and put them on the best transit system in the world and they’ll probably travel less than 5,000 miles a year. The result is a dramatic reduction in people’s mobility.
Planners say mobility is less important than accessibility, meaning if they put a grocery store, dentist, and coffee shop in the same building or across the street from the building you live in, you won’t need to drive to consume those services. But the great thing about the automobile is that it doesn’t just give us access to a grocery store, it gives us access to a wide range of grocery stores, forcing them to compete on price, quality, and selection. That competition disappears when most are limited to shopping at stores within walking distance.
Moreover, packing more people and services into smaller areas drives up the price of land, making housing unaffordable and increasing the costs of providing groceries and other services. To avoid the high cost of housing, we’ll have to live in smaller homes, another hidden planning goal. Multifamily housing actually uses more energy per square foot than single-family homes, but planners make up for that by getting people to live in 1,000-square-foot apartments instead of 2,000-square-foot homes.
Less mobility, smaller homes, higher consumer prices: that’s the sustainable future we can look forward to thanks to plans like MoveDC. Americans probably won’t accept that, so it might be more appropriate to name it “Move Out of DC.”
The VA scandal has prompted a debate about whether it should be easier to fire federal workers. I’ve argued that the firing rate for poor performance should be increased.
However, there can be no debate that the current firing rate is very low. In 2013 just 9,244 workers out of a civilian federal workforce of 1.87 million were fired for poor performance or misconduct, according to OPM data underlying this Govexec.com article by Eric Katz. That is a rate of just 0.49 percent, or 1 in 200 a year. Most federal firings are for misconduct, with a smaller share for poor performance.
The Govexec.com analysis found that firing rates by type of employee vary dramatically. Blue collar and lower GS levels (1-10) are many times more likely to be fired than higher GS levels (11-15) and those in the Senior Executive Service (SES). The GS 11-15 firing rate was just 0.14 percent, while the SES rate was just 0.09 percent. Just 7 out 7,940 SES employees got fired in 2013. What would Piketty say about that?
Govexec.com charted the firing rates by department, but part of the differences stemmed from the type of workforce each department has. So, instead, let’s focus on just the largest group of civilian workers in the government—the GS 11-15 group—and see how firing rates vary. These differences may tell us more about how employment cultures differ between departments.
Govexec.com kindly provided me their firing-by-department data sourced from the OPM. I combined that information with data from these OPM tables on total GS 11-15 employment by department.
The chart shows the results. Annual firing rates vary from a low of 0.07 percent in Transportation to high of 0.22 percent in Labor. In Transportation, just 9 out of 12,389 GS 11-15 workers were fired in 2013. In HUD it was just 7 out of 7,703. In Education it was 6 out of 3,477.
VA has one of the highest firing rates for this class of worker at 0.18 percent. But that’s still just 1 in 555 workers in 2013.
Benjamin H. Friedman
My op-ed today in China US Focus gives five reasons why the United States and its Asian allies will deter Chinese military aggression for the foreseeable future. The argument responds to commentators who worry that U.S. military spending cuts or passivity elsewhere have damaged our credibility to defend Asian allies and thus encouraged China to use its growing military for conquest.
The bulk of the article concerns the particulars of U.S. military superiority in Asia, and why recent Pentagon cuts don’t much lessen it. One conclusion is that deterring war is easier than you generally hear.
Washington’s foreign policy elites have a narcissistic take on deterrence; they see it teetering with every foreign policy decision that troubles them. But East Asia’s stability remains robust—insensitive to the annual fights in Congress—because war remains a losing prospect for all major powers.
This is a good place to put that conclusion in historical context. Technology and economics have shifted the cost-benefit calculus of conquest, making it generally counterproductive. That is an explanation for the steep decline in interstate warfare. Cold War nuclear history, as I discussed in a recent co-authored report, supports that point. The balance of terror—mutual deterrence—between the United States and the Soviet Union was not delicate. Arms control agreements and shifting nuclear weapons plans barely affected stability. As John Mueller argues, conventional deterrence, reinforced by the memory of the world wars, was instrumental in keeping the peace. Nuclear weapons were largely overkill.
So the pundits now bellowing about the credibility lost because of crossed red lines or Crimea are using a theory of deterrence that lacks historical basis. Deterrence is especially robust in Asia, where water or mountains separate most major rivals, aiding defense of the status quo. Even a total withdrawal of U.S. forces and defense commitments from East Asia wouldn’t create a dangerous imbalance of power there.
Sadly, withdrawal faces high political hurtles today. For now, probably the best we can hope for is that all the beltway consternation about eroding credibility will accidently reduce free-riding: As I put it in the op-ed:
If allies take U.S. commentary about insufficient pivots and failed red lines too seriously, they may worry enough to pay more for their own defense and give U.S. taxpayers a break. Letting them sweat a bit is in the U.S. interest.
For more on these themes, come see Barry Posen discuss his book on U.S. military strategy next week at Cato.
Over at Cato’s Police Misconduct web site, we have selected the worst case for May. It was the Georgia police officers who threw a flashbang grenade into an infant’s crib after ramming the door open to look for a drug dealer. The officers were executing a no-knock warrant when they threw the flashbang grenade through the cracked door without looking or knowing who was inside the room. The grenade (sometimes the government uses the euphemism “distraction device”) landed on the 19-month-old’s pillow and exploded, causing severe burns to his face and chest. The child and his relatives, who were also sleeping in the converted garage room, were temporary visitors in the home because theirs had recently burned down. The person the police were looking for was not there.
The officers involved expressed regret, and said that they had no idea there was a child present and that if they had, they would have done things differently. The police chief said the incident is going to make them “double question” next time. Hmm. First, why would anyone not already “double question” before blindly tossing a grenade into a room? Second, is the indication that a child is present really the only reason not to go full-Rambo on a house where human beings live? Think about it. Even if the police had solid proof that an adult was selling marijuana, meth, or cocaine from his home, is a flash bang grenade on his pillow a legit police tactic? A legit risk?
Cases like this one not only underscore the brutal collateral damage of the drug war, but also the lack of adequate oversight over police raids like this one. Yes, there will be a lawsuit, but that’s an insufficient response.
Check out the Cato raid map for more police raids that went awry.
Last week Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said that the technology company, which connects riders to drivers through its app, could enjoy a “record-breaking” valuation thanks to its latest attempt to raise money.
Yesterday, Bloomberg reported that Fidelity Investments “is competing to lead Uber Technologies Inc.’s new financing in a round that could value the ride-sharing service at about $17 billion.”
Bloomberg’s reporting went on to note that if valued at $17 billion, Uber would be more valuable than the car rental service Hertz and the technology and appliances retailer Best Buy.
Earlier this year in Illinois, both the state House of Representatives and Senate passed HB 4075 and HB 5331 by veto-proof margins. If signed by Gov. Pat Quinn, the bills would require that the rideshare service drivers pass a background check, have commercial liability insurance of at least $350,000, and be required to obtain a chauffeur’s license if they carry passengers for more than 18 hours a week. These chauffeurs’ licenses are not easy to get in Chicago, the only city in Illinois where rideshare companies operate. They require any driver to complete a chauffeur training course, pass a written test, and demonstrate proficiency in English. The manager of government affairs at Lyft, another company that offers a rideshare service, has claimed that the 18 hour per week regulation would affect the 63 percent of drivers who use Lyft in Chicago. Chicago lawmakers recently passed an ordinance regulating ridesharing, a move welcomed by Uber and Lyft, although the legislation will have to be brought into compliance with HB 4075 if it is signed into law.
Uber and Lyft are facing a legal battle over the Americans with Disabilities Act in Texas. Two Houston women and lead plaintiff Dan J. Ramos of San Antonio are suing both Uber and Lyft claiming that the companies are required to accommodate wheelchair-bound passengers. Elsewhere in Texas, Uber recently followed Lyft’s example and started operating in Austin despite an official ban.
Last week it was reported that Uber is planning to appeal rideshare regulation proposals in Maryland. Uber stated that it would leave Maryland if the Maryland Public Service Commission went ahead with its plan to regulate Uber and other rideshare companies like taxi operators. Taxi operators in Maryland have claimed that rideshare companies have an unfair advantage over traditional taxis.
In Australia, Queensland followed New South Wales in cracking down on Uber, requiring that Uber drivers be at least 24 years old and drive a vehicle made after 2005 with at least four doors. In London, the city’s transportation agency, Transport for London, has asked for a High Court ruling on whether Uber is operating legally by using GPS to calculate fares as opposed to meters attached to vehicles. The Licensed Taxi Drivers Association is planning to cause “severe congestion and traffic chaos” over the issue next week.
Uber’s $17 billion valuation looks all the more remarkable in the face of all this opposition from competitors and regulators. The market is signaling that Uber’s services are highly valued by consumers. What remains to be seen is how frequently politicians will side with consumers – or whether, instead, they will use the power of government to shield entrenched incumbents from innovative competition.
Steve H. Hanke
Last week, when President Obama made his trip to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, he claimed that “America’s war in Afghanistan will come to a responsible end.” This turned out to be the greatest applause line of his speech. With his assertion, Obama, in effect, declared himself the hero of the Afghan war – the one who put an end to that nightmare. But what Obama failed to mention was that it was his war, and that nothing but unattractive scenarios lie ahead for that war-torn state. Indeed, Afghanistan might just continue to hold down its ranking as the most violent country in the Global Peace Index.
This gloomy prognosis would not have surprised Thomas Jefferson. Yes, Jefferson’s words point to a fundamental truth, “Governments constantly choose between telling lies and fighting wars, with the end result always being the same. One will always lead to the other.”
Graciana del Castillo, one of the world’s leading experts on failed states, has just written a most edifying book on the Afghan war (Guilty Party: The International Community in Afghanistan. Xlibris, 2014). Del Castillo’s book allows us to finally understand just what a fiasco the Afghan war has been.
Why is Afghanistan, as Bob Woodward correctly termed it, Obama’s war? Del Castillo’s sharp pencil work shows that during the period 2002-2013, $650 billion have been appropriated for the Afghan war effort, and a whopping $487.5 billion of that (or 75%) took place after President Obama took office (see accompanying chart).
If one pulls apart that $650 billion price tag, a variety of interesting sleights-of-hand emerge. For example, about $70 billion was disbursed to what is euphemistically termed reconstruction. But, in reality, 60% of this $70 billion (or $42 billion) was actually spent on beefing up the Afghan National Security Forces. And not surprisingly, 75% of the $42 billion spent on national security forces was spent under President Obama’s watchful eye.
To put these outsized numbers into perspective, just consider that the total cost of the Afghan war from 2002-2013 amounts to $7089 per American taxpayer (based on the number of income tax returns). More revealing is the fact that the annual expenditure rate under the Bush administration was already $222 per taxpayer. Then, it exploded to an annual expenditure rate of $1329 per taxpayer under President Obama.
In addition to laying out the phenomenal spending magnitudes on President Obama’s watch, del Castillo demonstrates just how unsustainable all this Afghan spending is. For example, in 2013, the United States financed over $5 billion of the $6.5 billion needed to field the Afghan National Security Forces. This $5 billion of U.S. financing was roughly 10 times more than the Afghan government actually spent from its own revenue sources. In fact, the U.S. funding of Afghan forces was almost three times the total revenue collected by the Afghan government.
To put Afghanistan’s financing gap into perspective, the Afghan government estimates the total fiscal deficiency that they will face over the next decade would amount to a whopping $120 billion. Considering that a July 2013 Washington Post/ABC poll showed that only 28% of Americans say the war in Afghanistan has been worth the cost, it is unlikely that the U.S. would even contemplate continuing to finance the house of cards it has built at anything close to these estimates.
And if this isn’t bad enough, consider that the countryside has been forgotten and neglected during the war years. It is here where 75-80% of the population resides, and produces its livelihood. The rural population has done what is only natural – farm a cash crop. And, the most attractive cash crop in Afghanistan is poppies. Not surprisingly, the poppy plantations have greatly expanded, from 75 thousand hectares in 2002 (near the start of the war), to over 210 thousand in 2013, surpassing the previous peak of 190 thousand hectares in 2007. Just another small example of the collateral damage associated with war and misguided economic policies in Afghanistan.
If you are interested in financial markets, Cato has an interesting forum tomorrow on bank runs. But if you are more interested in highways and spending, you can catch me at this Heritage forum tomorrow on the Hill.
Which Way for the Highway Bill: Fiscal Reform or Big Government?
Emily Goff, Heritage Foundation; Chris Edwards, Cato Institute; Ken Orski, Innovation NewsBriefs
Wednesday, June 4th, 2014 at 12:00p.m.
1310 Longworth House Office Building
I’m not sure which lunch forum will have the best sandwiches, but I do know that fiscal reform is the best direction for transportation policy.
Christopher A. Preble
President Obama is in Poland today, a visit that coincides with the 25th anniversary of that country’s liberation from communism. His four-day European tour will include a D-Day remembrance, meetings with G-7 leaders, and a possible encounter with Russian President Vladimir Putin in France, all while the crisis in Ukraine rages on.
Moments after stepping off Air Force One in Warsaw, with F-16s as a backdrop, the president sought to reassure our European allies, stating that America’s commitment to their security was “a cornerstone of our own security and it is sacrosanct.” He detailed the increased support America has provided, including a larger presence in the region, and later announced that he would ask Congress to fund a “European reassurance initiative” to the tune of $1 billion.
This is exactly the wrong approach. American taxpayers have been subsidizing the defense of European allies for too long. And they have reacted as one would expect—by spending less.
In fact, only three NATO countries – Estonia, Greece, and the United Kingdom – spent the NATO-mandated 2 percent of GDP on their defense in 2013, and even those three barely met the threshold. That is compared to the United States, which spent 3.7 percent of its GDP on defense, a figure that excludes national security spending in the Departments of Energy, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs.
As this chart prepared by my colleague Travis Evans shows, U.S. spending has risen and fallen over the past 13 years, but spending by NATO countries has consistently declined. And Americans still spend more than in 2002, both as a share of GDP, and in real, inflation-adjusted dollars.
In his speech last week at West Point, President Obama correctly called on U.S. allies to spend more on their own defense. He had done the same thing in March. Bob Gates made headlines in one of his last speeches as Secretary of Defense when he scolded NATO allies for their inadequate defense spending. Such exhortations have consistently failed, and I predicted last week that the president’s latest approach to getting the allies to share more of the burdens would also fail.
I elaborated on why yesterday at War on the Rocks:
Our allies are unlikely to pick up the slack unless the United States pulls back on its promises to defend others from harm, and reshapes its military accordingly.
This has been clear since at least the mid-1960s, when Mancur Olson and Richard Zeckhauser first articulated an economic theory of alliances. Because there is a general tendency for smaller nations to free ride on the security assurances of larger ones, Olson and Zeckhauser predicted that “American attempts to persuade her allies to bear larger shares of the common burden are apt to do nothing more than breed division and resentment.”
MIT’s Barry Posen states the bottom line succinctly in his new book, Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy. America’s allies, Posen writes:
Make their defense decisions in the face of extravagant United States promises to defend them. They will not do more unless the United States credibly commits to doing less.
Conversely, Obama’s pledges of more U.S. troops and more U.S. money will discourage the Europeans from doing more. Indeed, the president’s actions in Poland belie his burden-sharing rhetoric at home, and should be deeply disheartening to the people who elected him. Americans want genuine burden sharing, but they are likely to get only the phony kind favored in Washington.
We’ve learned about what a huge and dysfunctional agency Veterans Affairs is in recent weeks. I had not realized that the agency added 100,000 workers in just the past seven years.
How large is the VA compared to the rest of the federal bureaucracy? OPM publishes historical data here for the major departments, which I’ve summarized in the two figures below covering 1950 to 2012.
Figure 1: Splits total federal civilian (non-uniformed) employment into defense and nondefense. For nondefense, you can see the modest retrenchments under Reagan and Clinton, and you can see the expansions under Bush 1, Bush 2, and Obama.
Figure 2: Shows the breakdown by department, aside from defense. Veterans (blue line) is by far the largest nondefense department, with 69 percent more employees that second place Homeland Security (red line). One alarming trend is the rapid growth in Justice Department employment (black line), which has doubled since the late-1980s to 117,000 workers.
Data notes: For some departments created since 1950, such as Homeland, it looks like OPM extrapolated the time series backwards based on the original component agencies of the new department. For Transportation on the other hand, it looks like OPM represented employment as zero before it was created. I did one tweak to the OPM data, which was moving TSA from Transportation to DHS for 2002.
The president flew to Europe. He planned to “soothe European friends,” declared the New York Times. He aimed “to stress U.S. commitment” to the continent, said the Washington Post.
That’s certainly what the Europeans want to hear. But they want “something concrete” rather than just “empty words,” explained Bohdan Szklarski of the University of Warsaw. For most Europeans, especially in the east, that means the U.S. putting more boots on the ground. Opined Heather Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, reinforcement of the eastern border is required, “and potentially we’ll have to reinforce it for a very long time.”
The Baltic States are screaming for enhanced military protection. Yet Estonia devotes just two percent of its GDP to defense. Latvia spends .9 percent of its GDP on the military. Lithuania commits .8 percent of its GDP on defense.
Poland may be the country most insistent about the necessity of American troops on along its border with Russia. To its credit, Poland has been increasing military outlays, but it still falls short of NATO’s two percent objective. Warsaw spent 1.8 percent last year.
Only Great Britain and Greece joined Estonia in hitting the two percent benchmark. France and Turkey fall short. Germany comes in at 1.3 percent. Overall NATO hit 1.6 percent last year. America was 4.1 percent.
Per capita military spending is even more striking. My Cato Institute colleague Chris Preble figured that to be $1896 for Americans. And $399 for Europeans. A disparity of nearly five to one.
Unfortunately, President Barack Obama doesn’t appear to recognize the dependency problem. At West Point he merely indicated that “we are now working with NATO allies” to reassure the Eastern Europeans. “We”?
Poland expects to hit 1.95 percent of GDP this year. Latvia and Lithuania promised to up outlays to meet the two percent standard—in a few years. No one else is talking about big spending increases. Absent is any commitment to move European troops to NATO’s eastern borders.
Nothing will change as long as Washington uses the defense budget as a form of international welfare. The more the president “reassures” U.S. allies, the less likely they are to do anything serious on behalf of their own defense.
In fact, the administration has been sending the wrong message throughout the Ukrainian crisis. In early March the administration began taking what Secretary of State John Kerry termed “concrete steps to reassure our NATO allies.” Its efforts apparently worked. In April the Washington Post proclaimed: “NATO Reassurances Ease Fears in Baltics.”
Alas, the impact since apparently faded. So the president has gone back to Europe to try again.
Instead, Washington should unsettle its friends and allies. As I point out in my new article on American Spectator online: “The U.S. government’s chief responsibility is to protect America—its people, territory, constitutional liberties, and prosperity. On rare occasions that requires defending allied states, as during the Cold War. But alliances should serve American security objectives. Defense guarantees should not be distributed for the asking, like candy at Halloween.”
President Obama should tell the Europeans that Washington will be phasing out its security guarantees. There will still be many issues upon which the U.S. and Europe should cooperate. But his priority should be to reassure the American people that he will put their interests before those of countries reluctant to help themselves.
Ted Galen Carpenter
As expected, the presidential election in Egypt confirmed Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as the country’s new leader. It was not exactly the model of a free and fair election. Not only had el-Sisi, as the leader of the coup that ousted President Mohamed Morsi, been Egypt’s de facto ruler for months, but his military colleagues (and their weaponry) were firmly behind his presidential candidacy. Security forces had killed hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members, Morsi’s political base, and jailed thousands of others, including Morsi himself. Subservient Egyptian judicial tribunals imposed death sentences on more than eight hundred regime opponents, following trials that did not meet even the most meager standards of due process, in just the past two months.
Western observers, including a Cato colleague, noted the pervasive censorship in the weeks leading up to the election. Government-run media outlets maintained a steady barrage of images vilifying Morsi and hailing el-Sisi as the savior of the nation. The images in the so-called private outlets (the ones that the junta had not shut down) provided images and editorial commentary nearly indistinguishable from the official government publications.
Under such circumstances, the outcome was as predictable as the Crimean “referendum” that ratified Russia’s takeover. El-Sisi won with nearly 93 percent of the vote. The only flaw in this orchestrated farce was a low voter turnout, the one permissible way to protest Egypt’s slide back into dictatorship. But while the Obama administration repeatedly and harshly criticized the electoral charade in Crimea, U.S. officials portrayed the Egyptian election as progress toward democracy. There was a time when U.S. leaders routinely castigated bogus elections in communist countries that produced wildly lopsided majorities for the incumbent regime. No such criticism was forthcoming in this case, just as Washington didn’t denounce the earlier balloting for the new Egyptian constitution that produced a 98 percent favorable vote.
The Obama administration’s hypocrisy is certain to deepen the already alarming cynicism throughout the Muslim world about U.S. policy. One need not shed tears for Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, who embodied ugly theocratic values and practices. But basic decency should have dictated a policy of U.S. neutrality regarding Egypt’s political convulsions. Instead, Washington is moving to embrace the new “friendly tyrant,” just as a succession of administrations embraced the corrupt, thuggish Hosni Mubarak for three decades. As I note in a recent article in Gulan, Washington has even agreed to deliver 10 Apache attack helicopters to Cairo. Repressive regimes have never been reluctant to use such high-tech military aircraft to intimidate or slaughter anti-regime forces. It was utterly inappropriate for the Obama administration to approve such a delivery to the Egyptian junta, and one can anticipate the anti-U.S. reaction of el-Sisi’s opponents if they see those aircraft flying over Tahrir Square the next time there are anti-government demonstrations.
U.S. officials may engage in an abundance of wishful thinking or outright sophistry, but the evidence confirms that el-Sisi intends to be as much a dictator as Mubarak ever was. Not only has he created a cult of personality typical of Third World tyrants, replete with giant photographs of the supreme leader posted throughout urban areas, but he shows a pettiness that may even exceed Mubarak’s practices. As the New York Times reported, el-Sisi has promised to remedy Egypt’s fuel shortages by installing energy-efficient light bulbs in every home, even if he has to send a government employee to carry out each installation. “I’m not leaving a chance for people to act on their own,” el-Sisi stated in a television interview. “My program will be mandatory.” Al Gore and other environmental zealots might approve, but no one who truly values individual liberty should do so.
Yet this is the ruler that Washington has embraced as a new strategic and political partner. It should not be the U.S. mission to impose democracy throughout the world, but neither should this country be the enabler of sleazy dictatorships. We made that error far too often during the Cold War, and it appears that some policymakers have learned nothing from that experience.
Kevin Sabet is a former Senior Policy Advisor to then White House Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske. In this interview with the Heritage Foundation, Sabet discussses his recent book, Reefer Sanity: Seven Great Myths about Marijuana. Let’s examine Sabet’s “Seven Myths.”
Myth #1. I can’t become addicted to marijuana.
That might be a myth, but who cares? Addiction is not, per se, a problem for society or an indvidual; just think about how many people are addicted to caffeine.
Myth #2. Today’s marijuana is the same old Woodstock weed my parents used.
True. Potency is now higher. But who cares? If a given puff has more THC, users can get high while inhaling less. That does not mean people get more stoned.
Myth #3. Smoking marijuana once in a while won’t harm me as a teen.
No statistically valid study finds negative health effects from occaissional use. See here for an excellent debunking of science that claims otherwise.
Myth #4. Marijuana is not tobacco - it won’t harm my lungs.
Little evidence finds that marijuana smoking harms the lungs. Most users do not puff all day, every day.
But even if marijuana does harm the lungs, this is an argument for legalization. When marijuana is legal, users can more readily find high potency marijuana, which, as noted above, means less inhalation. Legalization also faciliates ingestion methods other than smoking (e.g., vaporization, edibles), which reduces risks to the lungs.
Myth #5. I can’t die from marijuana use.
The number of documented deaths from marijuana use is infinitessimal. Does Sabet want to ban Ibuprofen? Swimming pools? Peanuts? Penicillin?
Myth #6. Marijuana is medicine.
Why does it matter whether marijuana is medicine? True, some prohibition opponents base their case on marijuana’s reputed medicinal value, but the case for legalization is strong regardless. Bombay Sapphire martini’s are not “medicine,” but they make me feel better at the end of the day (and I’m glad they are legal).
Myth #7. Marijuana will make me a more focused and better driver.
Give me a break. Perhaps a few zealots have made this claim, but virtually all legalizers agree that people should not drive under the influence of marijuana.
Bottom Line: Sabet’s seven myths are spin, pure and simple.
Peggy Noonan’s op-ed on the weekend was titled “The VA Scandal Is a Crisis of Leadership.” Noonan discusses how President Obama “doesn’t do the plodding, unshowy, unromantic work of making government work.” Obama is not a good manager, and so scandals like the current one are to be expected.
I enjoy Noonan’s articles and her observations on Obama’s style are right on target, but her view about why the VA scandal happened is off the mark. The president does seem to spend his time giving speeches, strategizing politics, and playing golf rather than rolling up his shirt sleeves and fixing programs. He does seem to be “a show horse, not a workhorse,” as Noonan says. But that’s not why the VA scandal happened.
The VA situation is appalling, but it has common elements with scandals that happen under every president. Those elements include bureaucrats behaving selfishly, politicians promising reforms and not following through, federal workforce dysfunction, and the failed central planning of a complex industry. The VA scandal happened because the government is a giant monopoly with none of the built-in checks of the marketplace. Federal politicians themselves are not a check because they are too distracted and the government is far too large for them to keep track of.
Noonan says, “the president is an executive, and executives manage.” Really? He could efficiently manage the entire $3.5 trillion government and its 2.1 million workers and 2,200 programs? I doubt it. I think we could vote in the head of PWC as the next president, and we would still have scandal after scandal in Washington.
Noonan worked in the Reagan administration, and so she remembers the 1980’s HUD scandal. The shenanigans, waste, and bad behavior under Reagan’s HUD secretary Sam Pierce over eight years were jaw-dropping. HUD under Pierce was a cronyism factory for the secretary’s buddies and Republican donors. Tad DeHaven discusses the abuses in this essay.
Perhaps Ronald Reagan should have been a better manager. But he understood that the problem in Washington is far deeper than just a need to run things better, as many of his famous comments reveal:
“No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. So governments’ programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.”
Chief Justice Roberts Again Rewrites Law, Avoids Duty to Hold Government's Feet to the Constitutional Fire
In today’s ruling in Bond v. United States, the Supreme Court was obviously right to reverse as federal overreaching the conviction of a woman who used certain chemicals to attack her husband’s paramour. This was a “purely local crime,” and the decision to prosecute Carol Anne Bond for it under a law that implements the international Chemical Weapons Convention was an abuse of federal power.
But in deciding the case so narrowly, creatively reinterpreting an expansive federal statute instead of reaching the constitutional issue at the heart of this bizarre case, the Court’s majority abdicated its duty to check the other branches of government. Bond was a case about the scope of the treaty power—can Congress do something pursuant to a treaty that it can’t otherwise do?—and yet the majority opinion avoided that discussion altogether in the name of a faux judicial minimalism. That’s not surprising given that its author is Chief Justice Roberts, who goes out of his way to avoid hard calls whenever possible. (Sometimes the practical result is still the right one, as here, sometimes it’s disastrously not, as in NFIB v. Sebelius, the Obamacare case, and sometimes even Roberts finds it impossible to avoid the Court’s constitutional duty, as in Citizens United and Shelby County.)
It was thus left to Justice Scalia, joined by Justices Thomas and Alito, to do the hard work—to make those balls-and-strikes calls that Roberts promised at his confirmation hearing—and repudiate Missouri v. Holland, the 1920 case that’s been understood to mean that the federal government can indeed expand its own power by agreeing to do so with a foreign treaty partner. (Scalia’s opinion tracks Cato’s amicus brief closely, and cites my colleague Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz’s groundbreaking work in this area.)
One other takeaway here is that the Obama administration has yet again lost unanimously at the Supreme Court, adding to its record number of goose eggs—particularly in cases involving preposterous assertions of federal power. Here Chief Justice Roberts provides the apt langiappe: “The global need to prevent chemical warfare does not require the federal government to reach into the kitchen cupboard, or to treat a local assault with a chemical irritant as the deployment of a chemical weapon.”
Medical care for veterans has become Washington’s latest scandal du jour. Those injured while serving their country deserve prompt, quality medical attention.
Everyone agrees that forcing veterans to wait, and possibly die waiting, for medical care is outrageous. But what to do?
Caring for veterans isn’t cheap. Promiscuous war-making over the last decade has generated an influx of patients, many with debilitating injuries. This year VA is expected to spend roughly $151 billion.
The government has a solemn duty to care for those injured in war. Yet VA estimated that it has a case-processing backlog of 344,000. On average it takes vets 160 days to become eligible for benefits.
After being declared eligible vets had to wait an average of 115 days for a primary care appointment at the VA’s Phoenix facility. As many as 40 vets may have died waiting.
The IG found such practices to be “systemic.” In numerous communities VA employees apparently manipulated data and falsified reports to hide patient deaths as well as delays.
However, the more basic problem is rationing care to meet budget targets. The agency is short hundreds of primary care physicians. The pharmaceutical formulary has roughly one-third of the drugs available to Medicare patients. Available psychiatric services have declined in recent years.
Unfortunately, better management alone cannot fix the agency’s problems. In 1994 former Rep. Robert E. Bauman wrote: “the VA is the quintessential government bureaucracy—administratively officious, laden with red tape and meddlesome regulatory minutia destructive of both quality care and staff conduct.” Quality obviously suffered.
The Clinton administration put Kenneth Kizer in charge of the department and he made dramatic improvements. But his success didn’t last. After leaving Kizer complained that “The culture of the VA has become rather toxic, intolerant of dissenting view and contradictory opinions. They have lost their commitment to transparency.”
Even today the VA doesn’t do everything badly. But access is fundamental.
Complained Hal Scherz, a doctor who served in VA hospitals in San Antonio and San Diego: “patients were seen in clinics that were understaffed and overscheduled. Appointments for X-rays and other tests had to be scheduled months in advance, and longer for surgery.”
Veterans’ organizations such as Veterans of Foreign Wars traditionally backed a specialized system for vets. However, many veterans’ health problems are not unusual. Indeed, the longest waits today are for primary care. Moreover, there is no reason that only VA facilities can serve patients suffering from combat trauma.
The federal government should separate the functions of guaranteeing from providing vet access to health care. As I pointed out in my column on Forbes online: “Uncle Sam has a sacred obligation to ensure that they receive treatment on their return. That does not, however, mean the VA must build the hospitals, hire the doctors, and provide the services.”
Government should put money into veterans’ hands to purchase insurance tailored to their special needs. Existing VA facilities could either be privatized or focused on combat-related ailments common to vets.
This would be no jump into the unknown. Specific services are outsourced locally when they are unavailable at a VA facility. Moreover, only 16 percent of vets rely on the system as their principle caregiver.
Sen. John McCain, a Vietnam vet, argued: “Let’s let our veterans choose the health care that they need and want the most and not have to be bound to just going to the VA.” House Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller suggested that the VA at least allow vets who have to wait for more than 30 days to go outside for care at government expense.
Business as usual is not an acceptable response to the latest VA scandal. We should transform how the government cares for those who performed the toughest service of all.
Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. "Chip" Knappenberger
Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”
In preparation for President Obama’s unveiling, today, of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new proposed regulations to limit carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants, the EPA has released its updated “Climate Change Indicators in the United States.” As you may have guessed, the report claims manmade climate change is upon us and it is bad.
Last summer, the president announced his Climate Action Plan aimed at mitigating future climate change by executive fiat—in other words, avoiding Congress and public opinion—and simply commanding from on high that U.S. carbon emissions be reduced (never mind that they were already declining, or that any U.S. reductions, no matter how large, would have no meaningful effect on the future course of the climate).
Since then, the administration and the scientists it pays to study global warming have been rolling out report after report pointing to the horrors that have already occurred (like the record-long time since a Category 3 hurricane crossed a U.S. beach?), and how things will certainly get much worse from human-caused global warming if we don’t act now to head it off—that is, stop burning coal to produce electricity.
First was a report from the scientists’ lobby for government funding, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), then came the federal National Climate Assessment report, and now the latest from the EPA—just in time for the president to cite in his remarks.
All along we have been saying that these reports are not scientific, but instead are purely political, documents. That became quite clear in last week’s congressional hearing testimony by Daniel B. Botkin, who once believed global warming was a terrible problem, but has since taken the opposite position.
Perhaps there is no finer example of the politicization of “science” than what the “Indicators” report the EPA just handed us.
The figure below is a portion of a screen capture from the “Heat-Related Deaths” section of the EPA’s new “Climate Change Indicators” website. It is labeled “Deaths Classified as ‘Heat-Related’ in the United States, 1979–2010.”
We don’t know anyone who could look at this chart and not be left with the strong impression that heat-related deaths in the United States are on the rise—apparently confirming the president’s concern about climate change and underscoring his desire to do something about it.
But notice the asterisk at the bottom of the box. Here’s the text associated with it:
Between 1998 and 1999, the World Health Organization revised the international codes used to classify causes of death. As a result, data from earlier than 1999 cannot easily be compared with data from 1999 and later.
In other words, you shouldn’t plot pre- and post-1999 data on the same chart because the data are not comparable, lest you mislead the uninitiated reader. The EPA ignores its own warning and instead plots the two sets of not-easily-compared data side by side on the same chart, ensuring that they are compared!
Such an analysis would probably grade out as an F in an undergraduate paper, but perhaps the EPA is suffering from a bit of “Noble Cause Corruption.” After all, they are trying to save us from certain death.
The proper way to view the EPA chart is to put your hand over the data points on the right-hand side of the chart (1999 and onwards) and then over the data points on the left-hand side of the chart (pre-1999 data). In doing so, you’ll see that during both periods the rate of heat-related mortality does not rise.
For those who want a clearer image of the truth when it comes to the effect of global warming on trends in heat-related mortality across the United States, see the figure below, taken from a brand new study by Jennifer Bobb from the Harvard School for Public Health and colleagues. The graph shows the number of heat-related deaths (for every thousand overall deaths) that result from the daily temperature being 10°F above normal, from 1987 to 2005. The trend is strongly downward—in other words, fewer deaths are associated with heat.
Temporal trends, from 1987 to 2005, in the excess number of deaths (per 1,000 deaths) attributable to each 10°F increase in the same day’s summer temperature, nationally in the United States (excerpted from Bobb et al., 2014).
Or as Bobb and colleagues put it:
This study provides strong evidence that acute (e.g., same-day) heat-related mortality risk has declined over time in the US, even in more recent years. This evidence complements findings from US studies using earlier data from the 1960s through mid-1990s on community-specific mortality rates, as well as European studies that found temporal declines in heat-related mortality risk, and supports the hypothesis that the population is continually adapting to heat. [citations removed]
Not only is the risk from extreme heat declining, but so too are the actual numbers of people dying from extreme heat both in the United States and abroad (when properly standardized for demographic changes and population growth).
This is opposite from what the EPA chart leads you to believe.
The only way for the EPA to be so out of touch with the prevailing science is to be so on purpose.
We can’t help but to think that purpose will be revealed today.
Bobb, J.F., R.D. Peng, M.L. Bell, and F. Dominici, 2014. Heat-related mortality and adaptation in the United States, Environmental Health Perspectives, http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1307392