Daniel J. Mitchell
It’s no secret that I dislike the value-added tax.
But this isn’t because of its design. The VAT, after all, would be (presumably) a single-rate, consumption-based system, just like the flat tax and national sales tax. And that’s a much less destructive way of raising revenue compared to America’s corrupt and punitive internal revenue code.
Advocates of the VAT, by contrast, want to keep the income tax and give politicians another big source of revenue. That’s a catastrophically bad idea.
To understand what I mean, let’s look at a Bloomberg column by Al Hunt. He starts with a look at the political appetite for reform.
There is broad consensus that the U.S. tax system is inefficient, inequitable and hopelessly complex. …a 1986-style tax reform – broadening the base and lowering the rates – isn’t politically achievable today. …the conservative dream of starving government by slashing taxes and the liberal idea of paying for new initiatives by closing loopholes for the rich are nonstarters.
I agree with everything in those excerpts.
So does this mean Al Hunt and I are on the same wavelength?
Not exactly. I think we have to wait until 2017 to have any hope of tax reform (even then, only if we’re very lucky), whereas Hunt thinks the current logjam can be broken by adopting a VAT and modifying the income tax. More specifically, he’s talking about a proposal from a Columbia University Law Professor that would impose a 12.9 percent VAT while simultaneously creating a much bigger family allowance (sometimes referred to as the zero-bracket amount) so that millions of additional Americans no longer have to pay income tax.
Hunt likes this idea.
The Graetz initiative offers something for both sides. It starts, he suggests, with countering the observation once offered by former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers that liberals fear a value-added tax because it’s regressive and conservatives fear it because it’s a money machine. Graetz’s measure overcomes both objections.
Regarding the final sentence of that excerpt, he’s half right. Folks on the left will be happy to know that there will be a lot more redistribution through the tax code.
Graetz addresses the regressivity of most sales taxes, not by exempting food, drugs and other necessities as most of the older European systems do, but with a system of credits and offsets… He provides a payroll tax cut and expanded child-care credits focused on low- and moderate-income workers.
But what do advocates of small government get out of the deal?
Well, they do get something in the short run. Graetz wants to use the VAT money to reduce the burden of the income tax. Rates for households are lowered, with the top rate falling to 31 percent. And the best part of the plan may be that it reduces America’s uncompetitive corporate tax rate to 15 percent.
What’s in the plan, for instance, that would prevent the VAT from becoming a “money machine”? Or what guarantees would be put in place to prevent politicians from re-expanding the income tax?
Unfortunately, there don’t appear to be any safeguards. Professor Graetz has expressed some support for supermajority rules to protect against tax hikes, but he’s quoted in the article explicitly stating that a VAT could be used to generate more money to prop up the welfare state.
The Tax Policy Center found that his proposal succeeds in raising the same amount of revenue as current law. If revenue is to be part of any longer-term deficit reduction, Graetz observes, the value-added tax or the income taxes could be tweaked. “Actually, this would put us in a better situation to address the fiscal crunch down the road,” he says.
That statement scares the heck out of me. We desperately need the right kind of entitlement reform to save America from becoming another doomed welfare state. But what are the odds of getting good changes if politicians think they can continuously kick the can down the road by raising the VAT every couple of years.
Before you know it, we’re Greece!
If you don’t believe me about the VAT being a money machine, perhaps you’ll be more trusting of analysis from the International Monetary Fund. That bureaucracy actually supports the VAT, but the IMF inadvertently revealed in some research last year that the VAT is far more effective at generating new revenue than the income tax.
And that’s true for poor nations and rich nations.
This video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, narrated by yours truly, explains why the VAT would finance the road to serfdom.The Value Added Tax: A Hidden New Tax to Finance Much Bigger Government
Last but not least, it’s worth pointing out that Professor Graetz’s proposal has become more punitive over time. Check out this portion of a Tax Policy Center study showing that the VAT rate has been increased and that a new class-warfare tax rate has been added to the proposal.
So if the proposal has become more onerous on paper, imagine how much worse it will get once politicians get their hands on it.
P.S. To be fair, there’s very little indication that Prof. Graetz wants bigger and more expensive government. He’s proposing a VAT for the same reason Cong. Paul Ryan has proposed a VAT. They think the revenue can be used to reduce the burden of the income tax. They’re not wrong in theory. They just don’t appreciate the danger of giving politicians a new source of revenue.
P.P.P.S. Some advocates say the VAT is needed to forestall higher income tax rates, but that certainly hasn’t been the case in Europe.
Over at SeeThruEdu I’ve got a post responding – sort of – to a recent article on the Common Core by National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru. It’s only “sort of” because for the most part Ponnuru is right on the money: Some of the allegations against the Core are highly dubious, but so are many of the arguments proffered for it. My only quibble is that Ponnuru says that the Core doesn’t represent “Big Brother in the classroom.” Narrowly that’s right – the Core itself is just the standards – but when you look at the data collection and overall federal policy of which the Core is an integral part, fears about Big Brother – or maybe Big Micromanager – coming to a school near you are reasonable.
Check it out!
Today is a great day for freedom. On this day in 1933, the 21st Amendment was ratified, thus repealing Prohibition. My former colleague Brandon Arnold wrote about it a few years ago:
Prohibition isn’t a subject that should be studied by historians alone, as this failed experiment continues to have a significant impact on our nation.
Groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a key force in the passage of Prohibition, survive to this day and continue to insist that Prohibition was a success and advocate for dry laws.
Prohibition-era state laws, many of which are still on the books today, created government-protected monopolies for alcohol distributors. These laws have survived for three-quarters of a century because of powerful, rent-seeking interest groups, despite the fact that they significantly raise costs and limit consumer options. And because of these distribution laws, it is illegal for millions of Americans to have wine shipped directly to their door.
The website RepealDay.org urges celebrations of the “return to the rich traditions of craft fermentation and distillation, the legitimacy of the American bartender as a contributor to the culinary arts, and the responsible enjoyment of alcohol as a sacred social custom.” It’s easy! You don’t have to hold a party. Just go to a bar or liquor store and have a drink.
RepealDay.org says that “No other holiday celebrates the laws that guarantee our rights.” I think that’s going too far. Constitution Day and Bill of Rights Day do exactly that. And in my view, so does Independence Day. But that’s quibbling. Today we celebrate the repeal of a bad law. A toast to that!
Cato celebrated the 75th anniversary of repeal with this policy forum featuring Michael Lerner, author of Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City; Glen Whitman, author of Strange Brew: Alcohol and Government Monopoly; Asheesh Agarwal, Former Assistant Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Office of Policy Planning; and Radley Balko, Senior Editor, Reason.
For the second time this fall, Cato has filed a brief supporting a lawsuit challenging the power of cities to stifle and regulate speech by licensing tour guides—effectively restricting who may lawfully speak to an audience about the city’s history.
In September, we filed a brief supporting “Segs in the City,” a segway touring company challenging a D.C. law which made it illegal to give tours in Washington, D.C., without completing a licensing process that involves a thorough history exam. Now we’ve filed a brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, again joined by First Amendment expert Eugene Volokh, in support of a group of tour guides challenging New Orleans’ licensing scheme. (Both the D.C. and New Orleans guides are represented by our friends at the Institute for Justice.)
Like D.C., New Orleans only licenses guides who can pass a history test. In addition to that blatantly unconstitutional speech restriction, the Big Easy also requires licensees to submit to periodic drug tests. All that just so they can talk about the history and culture of New Orleans without spending five months in prison!
We argue that the licensing regime is a content-based restraint on speech and therefore must pass the strictest judicial scrutiny, so the government needs a compelling reason for it and has no other way of accomplishing the same goal. The law is a content-based speech regulation in that it is (a) triggered by the content of speech, and (b) justified on the basis of the content that it regulates. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that a law regulating the content of speech—as opposed to its location, timing, or manner—is subject to strict scrutiny. The justifications offered for the licensing law refer to the “sufficient knowledge” of the guides and the accuracy of their speech. That is as much a content-based justification as saying that people need to be protected from hearing “erroneous” political opinions or “controversial” historical theories.
Finally, we argue that tour guides are not members of a “profession,” such as lawyers, doctors, and accountants, which could merit less First Amendment protection in order to protect the public from harm. Unlike those professions, tour guides don’t have intimate relations with clients. Instead, like most businesses, they simply have customers. The government can’t possibly require authors, public lecturers, or documentary filmmakers to get licensed in order to protect the public from “misinformation,” and it has no more basis for licensing tour guides.
The Fifth Circuit will hear argument in Kagan v. City of New Orleans early in the new year.
Immigration reform is taking its time in Congress but the executive branch agencies charged with enforcing immigration laws have not been idle. Rather, they’ve been implementing bits and pieces of the reform package on their own – but not any of the good ones.
Last month, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that it will “lock” a Social Security number when E-Verify or USCIS employees, based on new algorithms, believe the number is fraudulent or used fraudulently. The number is locked and a tentative non-confirmation (TNC) is issued to the applicant or applicants using the contested number – preventing any further E-Verify confirmations until the fraudulent user proves he or she is the lawful holder.
“Locking” was proposed as part of the summer’s comprehensive immigration reform bill that was passed by the Senate and in the House’s Legal Workforce Act. Locking was a bad idea in those bills and remains a bad idea today when implemented by regulatory fiat.
The largest and most obvious problem is the Kafkaesque bureaucratic resolution process that could catch employees in an endless loop of lockdowns. To begin with, the onus for establishing a valid ID is placed on the user of the number as opposed to USCIS having to prove that the user is fraudulent. Mere identification by a USCIS algorithm shouldn’t prevent somebody from lawfully working.
Legitimate holders of Social Security numbers that are locked down are forced to go through the standard and long TNC resolution process to unlock their numbers, which in turn involves the use of state and federal issued documents to prove the applicant’s validity.
But these documents are dependent on Social Security numbers. Driver’s licenses in most states, passports, and most of the other forms of government issued ID use Social Security numbers to establish the bearer’s validity. In essence, the holder of a suspect Social Security number is forced to use documentation derived from a number considered suspect by USCIS in order to prove identification to USCIS. The government has not stated how it will resolve this conundrum or even if it has considered it.
Additionally, if a number is locked down due to multiple E-Verify submissions, nothing can stop the fraudulent user of the Social Security number from using that number to acquire government-issued ID. The valid holder of a number, with a valid license and valid passport, would be pitted against the fraudulent holder, with a license and passport that are, on paper, validly issued by the government. How would the valid holder prove who they say they are when USCIS is faced with two or more sets of ID documents that appear valid? Would USCIS have the power to decide who is the valid holder of a Social Security number? What if they decide that the fraudster is correct and dismiss the legitimate holder? What recourse would the legitimate holder have in such a situation?
USCIS took the innaccurate, Kafkaesque E-Verify system and made it worse.
This post was written with the help of Scott Platton.
The longest war in American history drags on, with Washington a captive of purposeless inertia. The Obama administration should bring all U.S. forces home from Afghanistan and turn the conflict over to the Afghans.
After Afghan-based terrorists orchestrated the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration had little choice but to make an example of the Taliban regime as well as target al-Qaeda.
But the lesson that governments which allow terrorist attacks on America lose power was delivered 12 long years ago. The Bush administration soon switched to nation-building in Central Asia.
President Barack Obama then made the war his own, twice increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan. Still, he promised that U.S. forces would return home in 2014.
But now the administration wants to keep between 8,000 and 15,000 troops on station for years if not forever. The newly negotiated Bilateral Security Agreement would run until “the end of 2024 and beyond.”
Why? Afghanistan never was vital to America. Not even during the Cold War, when after the Soviet invasion in December 1979 the conflict offered a convenient and inexpensive (for Washington, not the Afghan people) opportunity to bleed Moscow dry.
As I point out in my latest Forbes online column:
Osama Bin Laden again focused U.S. attention on Afghanistan, but only the transitory terrorist connection made control of Kabul critical to America. With the displacement of al-Qaeda and punishment of the Taliban, Afghanistan quickly receded in importance. Observed Vice President Joe Biden: “we went there for one reason: to get those people who killed Americans, al-Qaeda. We’ve decimated al-Qaeda central. We have eliminated Osama bin Laden. That was our purpose.
So what is Washington doing there today? A mix of nation-building, democracy-promotion, and humanitarian intervention.
However, if the Afghan political system is not stable after years of allied military and financial support, the few thousand personnel the Obama administration hopes to keep in country won’t make much difference. Moreover, war is a dubious humanitarian tool. Afghanistan has been ravaged by decades of conflict.
Why else should Washington stay in Afghanistan? The country’s travails are destabilizing its neighbors, most obviously Pakistan, but the conflict is the most harmful factor. Continuing war after a U.S. withdrawal could affect other local powers, but the price of conflict without America is likely to remain far less than with America.
Lastly, when I visited Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011, allied officials justified the Western presence as being necessary to prevent an al-Qaeda revival. However, terrorists don’t need to locate in Afghanistan when they can operate in Pakistan and many other nations.
Moreover, even a triumphant Taliban wouldn’t likely welcome back the group which brought down the wrath of America. Indeed, concluded a Washington Post story on administration deliberations: “Many of the groups that U.S. forces target in Afghanistan—most notably the Afghan Taliban—do not appear eager to attack Americans or U.S. interests outside the country.”
The strongest argument against the “zero option” of no troops is that it would limit Washington’s capability to strike elsewhere, most notably in Pakistan. However, the administration’s proposed deployment looks more configured to act in the civil war that is likely to continue.
Further, the larger the projected presence, the greater the target for terrorists, insurgents, and other malcontents. Better a much smaller counter-terrorist operation, perhaps off-shore, as with Yemen.
Moreover, Washington should scale back its drone operations in Pakistan and elsewhere. So-called “signature” strikes, in which most anyone in proximity to suspected terrorists is viewed as a likely terrorist, undoubtedly kill locals who threaten no one. Further, the U.S. began targeting the Pakistan Taliban apparently on the rationalization that Pakistani militants might threaten Americans in Pakistan, leading to blowback with the PT targeting Americans.
Now, however, President Karzai says he does not want to sign the BSA until after April’s presidential election. He may be primarily engaged in extortion, having explained: “We want the Americans to respect our sovereignty and be an honest partner. And bring a lot of money.”
President Karzai’s chutzpah is in America’s interest. Because of him, U.S. troops actually might leave Central Asia—as they should.
Americans have been fighting in Afghanistan for longer than the Civil War, World War I, and World War II combined. It’s time for America to go home.
Daniel J. Mitchell
Let’s do a simple thought experiment and answer the following question: Do you think that additional laws from Washington will give you more freedom and more prosperity?
I don’t know how you will answer, but I strongly suspect most Americans will say “no.” Indeed, they’ll probably augment their “no” answers with a few words that wouldn’t be appropriate to repeat in polite company.
That’s because taxpayers instinctively understand that more activity in Washington usually translates into bigger and more expensive government. And big government isn’t so fun for those who pay the bills and incur the costs.
So what’s the purpose of our thought experiment? Well, new numbers have been released showing that the current Congress is going to set a modern-era record for imposing the fewest new laws.
But while most of us think this is probably good news, Washington insiders are whining and complaining about “diminished productivity” in Congress. The Washington Post is very disappointed that lawmakers aren’t enacting more taxes, more spending, and more regulation.
…this Congress — which is set to adjourn for the year later this month — has enacted 52 public laws. By comparison, …90 laws were encated during the first year of the 113th Congress and 137 were put in place during the first year of the 111th Congress.
Just in case you don’t have a beltway mindset, another Washington Post report also tells you that fewer laws is a bad thing.
…whatever gets done in December will still be part of a year with record-low congressional accomplishment. …According to congressional records, there have been fewer than 60 public laws enacted in the first 11 months of this year, so below the previous low in legislative output that officials have already declared this first session of the 113th Congress the least productive ever.
Let’s actually look at some evidence. The first session of the current Congress may have been the “least productive” in history when it comes to imposing new laws, but what’s the actual result?
Well, there are probably many ways this could be measured, but one of the most obvious benchmarks is the federal budget.
And it appears that “record-low congressional accomplishment” translates into a smaller burden of government spending.
Indeed, government spending actually has declined for two consecutive years. That hasn’t happened since the 1950s.
And it’s worth reminding people that you begin to solve the symptom of red ink when you address the underlying disease of too much spending. That’s why the deficit has fallen by almost 50 percent in the past two years.
Interestingly, the Washington Post accidentally confirms that you get better policy when you have fewer news laws.
In 1995, when the newly empowered GOP congressional majority confronted the Clinton administration, 88 laws were enacted, the record low in the post-World War II era.
Needless to say, the author isn’t saying that we got good policy because there were a “record low” number of laws in 1995. But if we look at fiscal policy during that period, that’s when we began a multi-year period of spending restraint that led to budget surpluses.
Now for some caveats.
It’s obviously a gross over-simplification to assert that the number of laws is correlated with good policy or bad policy. Sometimes politicians impose laws that increase the burden of government (with Obamacare being an obvious example).
But sometimes they enact laws that increase economic liberty and reduce government (with the sequester being a good example, even though very few politicians actually wanted that result).
To conclude, the message of this post is that we shouldn’t worry about “diminished productivity” in Washington if it means fewer bad laws.
P.S. Since we’re talking about low productivity in Washington, there’s good evidence that bureaucrats don’t work very hard compared to workers in the economy’s productive sector. But that’s probably a good thing. After all, do we want bureaucrats (like this one) being more diligent? That’s why we should focus on reducing their excessive compensation rather than encouraging them to put in a full day’s work.
New international student test results called PISA have been released. See here and here. Once again, U.S. high-school kids did poorly. American kids ranked 36th in math, 24th in reading, and 28th in science among 65 countries and jurisdictions. The U.S. scores were below the average of other countries in all three subject areas.
A number of Asian countries scored the highest on all three tests. But Canadian kids also did very well, scoring toward the top on all the tests. On math, for example, Canadian kids ranked 13th, compared to U.S. kids at 36th.
American policymakers often react to such dismal U.S. results by calling for more central planning of education through federal subsidies and mandates. But note that Canada has no federal education department and no federal subsidies for its K-12 schools. Canadian education is entirely controlled at the provincial and local levels.
The Canadian test score advantage over the United States doesn’t prove that decentralization alone leads to higher scores, but it does prove that the United States does not need any federal involvement in order to become a top-ranked schooling nation. Indeed, Cato scholars have long argued that we would better off abolishing the U.S. Department of Education and ending all federal subsidies.
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.”
About a year ago, a major paper appeared in a high-profile scientific journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology, claiming a link between genetically modified corn and cancer in rats. The findings were published by a research team led by Gilles-Éric Séralini of the University of Caen in France. It was widely trumpeted by people opposed to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Simply put, making a GMO dramatically accelerates the normally slow process of traditional plant breeding, which takes many generations to stabilize some desired new trait in the plant genome, making the philosophical objections to it seem somewhat naïve.
While Séralini’s finding was heralded by anti-GMO activists as an “I told you so,” the paper was promptly, harshly, and widely criticized by geneticists and the general scientific community, many of whom lobbied the journal directly to address the shortcomings in the paper.
The most stinging criticism is going to sound painfully like what we see so often in environmental science, where researchers purposefully design an experiment likely to produce a desired results. Two months ago we documented a similar process that pretty much guaranteed that the chemical currently the darling of green enrages, bisphenyl-A, would “cause” cancer.
In Seralini’s case, the research team used a strain of rats with a known strong proclivity to develop cancer if left to age long enough, which is what they allowed, obeying the maxim that “if you let something get old enough, it will get cancer.”
After an about a year-long investigation into the Séralini results, the editor-in-chief of Food and Chemical Toxicology determined that the findings in the Séralini et al. paper were not methodologically sound enough to support to the conclusions forwarded by the authors. The journal consequently asked the Séralini authors to withdraw the paper. After their refusal to do so, the journal took the unusual step last week of retracting the paper itself, justifying:
The low number of animals had been identified as a cause for concern during the initial review process, but the peer-review decision ultimately weighed that the work still had merit despite this limitation. A more in-depth look at the raw data revealed that no definitive conclusions can be reached with this small sample size regarding the role of either NK603 or glyphosate in regards to overall mortality or tumor incidence. Given the known high incidence of tumors in the Sprague-Dawley rat, normal variability cannot be excluded as the cause of the higher mortality and incidence observed in the treated groups. Ultimately, the results presented (while not incorrect) are inconclusive, and therefore do not reach the threshold of publication for Food and Chemical Toxicology.
Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup, a potent herbicide with little field-demonstrated toxicity in humans. It is used in huge quantities in modern, “no-till” agriculture, in which the soil surface is never broken with a plow. Seeds are “drilled” into the ground surrounded by the background vegetative litter, which, left to itself would soon yield a passel of choking weeds. But, by inserting DNA plasmids that render the crop resistant to Roundup’s toxicity, glyphosate becomes a “chemical plow” that kills the competing weeds while leaving the corn or soybeans to prosper. For what its worth, no-till is much more conservative of moisture, making crops less sensitive to long dry spells, and also “sequesters” carbohydrates which would normally oxidize into dreaded atmospheric carbon dioxide.
As a result, farmers pretty much swim in glyphosate. There’s also substantial exposure to suburban homeowners, who use it to spray down weeds that invade small cracks in blacktop and concrete driveways and sidewalks. There’s simply no evidence for increase cancer in these populations, which should have made anyone question Seralini’s finding at the get-go.
Séralini’s group is apparently now contemplating a lawsuit, claiming that the journal’s actions and criticisms were unacceptable.
We hope this gets beyond “contemplation,” but that’s not likely. The pre-trial discovery process would be interesting, to say the least.
The whole affair is full of fairly sordid details involving the anti-GMO movement, details which are laid out by the Genetic Literacy Project’s Jon Entine over at his Forbes.com blog. It is worth a read.
Almost surely, this will not be the last you hear about this study. Entine sees it playing out this way:
A court airing of this ugly episode now appears inevitable. Rumors abound that Séralini is already in contact with legal counsel and is set to pursue this issue in court, and perhaps in multiple courts. The disgraced scientist, in an attempt to rehabilitate his reputation, could also turn around and submit the article in its current or revised form to a third-tier journal, including the many pay-for-play publications that cater to activist scientists.
Benjamin H. Friedman
Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Mike Rogers (R-Mich) made news Sunday when they both insisted on CNN that the terrorist threat to Americans has grown in the last couple of years. Feinstein’s evidence: “The statistics indicate that, the fatalities are way up.” Rogers agrees and argues that al Qaeda has been “metastasizing” into more groups that engage in smaller attacks.
It’s true that global terror attacks and fatalities increased in 2011 and 2012, according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. And, several new jihadist groups have emerged of late. But, as Marian Tupy showed here Monday, the fact remains that terrorism has for decades been becoming less deadly.
We should also be skeptical that the recent increase in terrorism means more danger for Americans. The cause of terrorism’s recent increase is civil wars and political unrest in Africa, the Middle-East and South Asia, where the vast majority of recent terrorist attacks have occurred.
Meanwhile, terrorists killed fifteen, seventeen, and ten private U.S. citizens (that is, non-military) in 2010, 2011, 2012, respectively. That means the danger to Americans either did not grow or that they mostly avoided it.
The real problem then is not al Qaeda, but the fractured political order in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Nigeria and the like. Feinstein is conflating those problems to frighten us. As John Mueller notes:
When terrorism becomes really extensive, we generally no longer call it terrorism, but war. But people are mainly concerned about random terror, not sustained warfare.
Rogers’ claim that the al Qaeda threat is “metastasizing” into smaller, deadlier cells resembles old arguments that al Qaeda was a hierarchical organization that cleverly decentralized when the gig was up in Afghanistan. But as I explained at greater length here, even in its 1990s heyday, al Qaeda was a fragmented and unmanageable movement.
Its scattered remnant in Pakistan controls little locally and less abroad. Its “affiliates” are either bunches of guys with little capability or Islamist insurgents trading on the name’s cachet to organize their corner of a rebellion. Most of those insurgents target local enemies, not Americans. Those tragic struggles do not necessarily threaten U.S. security.
The fact that the jihadists that do target Americans are now focused on small-scale attacks is a consequence of their limited ability to pull off complex plots. And even the simpler sorts have mostly failed. Given the devastation our leaders tell us to expect from al Qaeda, what Rogers calls metastasis seems like good news.
According to popular myth, Democrats favor government planning of the economy and Republicans favor free markets. Today’s example of why this is baloney comes from the Republican governor of Indiana, Mike Pence. Before I get to the story, readers should know up front that I was a state budget official (2006-2008) in the prior administration of Gov. Mitch Daniels (R).
Yesterday, the Indiana Department of Energy Development announced that it will be “crafting a new energy plan for the state of Indiana.” Well, praise the Lord – the state’s energy planners are going to work with “stakeholders” to make sure Hoosiers won’t be forced to turn to whale oil lamps. No, seriously, Indiana is in trouble. According to the announcement, that’s because the state’s current plan apparently just hasn’t panned out:
Indiana’s current energy plan, the Homegrown Energy Plan, was written in 2006. Since that time, Indiana’s cost of electricity for industrial customers has increased, causing Indiana to slip from 5th lowest in the country to 27th lowest.
Okay, a new vision is clearly needed. Enter former radio host Gov. Mike Pence:
“Here in Indiana, we make things, and we grow things,” said Governor Mike Pence. “These activities require enormous amounts of energy. In order to maintain our historic advantage for low cost of energy, we need a new, updated energy plan.”
Whoa – that’s deep. Think about what Pence is saying: Hoosiers make things…Hoosiers grow things. Only a cold-hearted cynic doesn’t feel a tingle after contemplating such profound insights.
As the saying goes, great leaders surround themselves with great people. Heading up the state’s development of a new energy plan is my former colleague, Tristan Vance. According to a press release announcing Vance’s reappointment, he has extensive experience working in state government. There’s no mention of Vance having real world experience in the energy sector that he’s now in charge of planning, but he did monitor the agency as a state budget official prior to heading it.
Eh, close enough.
Snark aside, there’s a deeper policy concern here that affects taxpayers in all states. Much of the Indiana Department of Energy Development’s funding comes from the federal government (about 70 percent if my reading of state budget numbers is correct). That means, dear federal taxpayers, you’ll be subsidizing the bulk of whatever “plan” the Pence administration comes up with.
Now as I noted in an Indianapolis Star op-ed back in June, Indiana’s dependence on federal funds isn’t unique. Indeed, the other 49 states are similarly dependent on handouts from Uncle Sam. But state taxpayers should understand that federal funds are not a “free” lunch:
The appeal of federal funds to governors is obvious: They get to spend additional money without having to raise taxes on their voters to pay for it. A problem with this arrangement is that it creates a fiscal illusion — state taxpayers perceive the cost of government to be cheaper than it really is. In effect, the federal money and a large part of the annual budget appears to be “free.”
But Hoosiers should be mindful that every dollar Washington sends to Indianapolis is a dollar taken from taxpayers in Indiana and the other states. (The return is actually less than a dollar since the federal bureaucracy takes its cut). The situation is no different when the federal dollars go instead to, say, Sacramento. In addition, economists have found that federal subsidies to the states lead to higher state taxes and spending in the long-run because the federal “seed money” creates a demand for more government.
One could argue that so long as Hoosiers have to send money to Washington, Indiana might as well get a share of the loot. That’s an understandable sentiment, but the blatantly self-serving manner in which the Pence administration goes about distributing the bounty should give Hoosiers pause.
Indeed, the self-serving manner in which the nation’s governors go about playing with federal funds should give all taxpayers pause.
A recent paper by psychology Professor Hal Pashler of UCSD analyzes General Social Survey (GSS) data and finds that immigrants are less libertarian than the U.S.-born. This is an interesting paper and professor Pashler notes the many limitations of his findings – mainly that the GSS doesn’t ask many questions that are good barometers of libertarian ideology. But that hasn’t stopped non-libertarian immigration opponents from using the paper’s conclusion to try and convince libertarians to oppose immigration reform: “With increasing proportions of the US population being foreign-born, low support for libertarian values by foreign-born residents means that the political prospects of libertarian values in the US are likely to diminish over time.”
Here are some reasons why Pashler’s paper shouldn’t worry libertarians much or convince many to oppose immigration:
First, libertarians generally support immigration reform, the legalization of unauthorized immigrants, and increasing legal immigration because it is consistent with libertarian principles – not because immigration reform will lead to breakthrough electoral gains for libertarian candidates. The freedom for healthy non-criminals to move across borders with a minimum of government interference is important in and of itself. General libertarian support for immigration reform does not depend upon immigrants producing a pro-liberty Curley effect – as nice as that would be.
Second, under free immigration the freedom of current Americans to sell to, hire, and otherwise contract with foreigners would increase substantially.
Third, the ideological differences between the U.S.-born and immigrants are relatively small for some of the questions Pashler analyzes. For instance, the GSS asked whether the government should do more or less to reduce economic inequality with a response of “1” meaning the government should do much more and a score of “5” meaning the government should do much less. The average score for immigrants was a 2.75 while the average score for the U.S.-born was 3.18 – a statistically significant difference but hardly one that will push the U.S. toward central planning.
Immigrants also had a more positive view of affirmative action and racial preferences in hiring:
Pashler’s findings here are statistically significant but modest.
Fourth, the ideological differences among Americans of different ages is likely greater than that between an average immigrant and an average U.S.-born American. Differences in geographic location, gender, sexual orientation, education, race, ethnicity, and other factors are also similar in importance, or bigger than, differences in nativity.
Fifth, these ideological differences disappear in subsequent generations although partisan voting patterns may linger for the descendants of immigrants because of identity politics. Adjusting political strategies can mitigate this problem.
Sixth, immigrants are less likely to vote than U.S.-born Americans. Launching anti-immigrant political campaigns does bring out naturalized immigrants to vote against the party that supports restrictions but, more importantly, shifts immigrants and the ethnic groups of which they are a member against the party using such tactics. The collapse in Hispanic support for the Republican Party during and after Pete Wilson’s 1994 gubernatorial reelection campaign blamed immigrants for California’s fiscal problems is a case in point.
Seventh, the Constitution limits the potential political impact of immigrants in several ways that are more humane and less restrictive than stopping the free flow of people. Immigrants have limited political impact because they and their descendants are heavily geographically concentrated - and remain so for generations. According to the 2012 American Community Survey, 65 percent of all immigrants are concentrated in six states: California, Texas, New York, New Jersey, Florida, and Illinois. Because each state elects two senators regardless of population, the political impact of immigration on the federal government is limited because it is so concentrated.
Another way the Constitution limits the political externalities of immigration is by allowing Congress to create a uniform rule of naturalization per Article 1, Section 8, Clause 4. Currently, an immigrant needs to be on a green card for five years before he or she can apply for citizenship. If it turns out there are negative political externalities from immigrants naturalizing and voting then that wait period could be extended to allow for more political and social assimilation before voting. That is a far more humane and achievable way to limit the potential negative political externalities of immigration while harnessing the economic benefits for both the immigrants and U.S.-born Americans.
Interestingly, many of the non-libertarian opinions expressed by immigrants in Pashler’s paper are not libertarian but conservative. Higher immigrant opposition to both marijuana legalization and the publication of anti-U.S. writing by radical Muslims would fit in nicely with some conservative circles.
The political externalities of immigration are important to consider, but the revelation that immigrants are slightly less libertarian than most Americans is not a convincing argument to further restrict their freedom of movement and the freedom of Americans to associate with whom they want.
Andrew J. Coulson
The latest (2012) PISA results are out! PISA is a test of fairly basic, practical skills given to 15-year-olds around the world. Here are some of the highlights:
- U.S. performance is essentially flat across subjects since 2003
- Finland’s performance has declined substantially since 2003
- Korea is continuing to improve, solidifiying its position as one of the highest performing nations
- Already the highest-performing Latin American country, Chile has continued to improve, leaving the regional average further behind.
The U.S. story needs little elaboration. Neither the structure nor the content of American schooling has changed in educationally meaningful ways since 2003. We still have 50 state education monopolies, with a growing but still realtively small homogenizing federal presence.
The “Replicate Finland!” bandwagon was always misguided. It is simply not sensible to take a nation’s performance on a single test, in isolation, as evidence for the merits (or demerits) of its national education policies. There are too many other factors that affect outcomes, and there are too many important outcomes for a single test to measure. For those who nevertheless championed Finland as a model, the latest PISA results are a bit awkward (see, for instance, the book: The Smartest Kids in the World).
Though the Chilean student protests of 2011 and 2012 focused on the desire for free, universal college, the leaders of that movement also harshly criticized that nation’s universal K-12 private school choice program. About 60 percent of children in Chile attend private schools, most of them fully or substantially funded by the national government. One of the most famous protest leaders, Camila Vallejo, was recently elected to the Chilean congress as a member of the Communist party. The influence of Vallejo and her compatriots has shifted public sentiment against crucial aspects of the nation’s private school choice program, despite the fact that private schools themselves remain extremely popular with parents. It is quite possible that, in the coming years, Chile will unravel the very policies that have made it one of the fastest improving countries in the world and the top performer in Latin America.
The NEA has called for higher U.S. teachers’ salaries based on the PISA results, arguing that some of the top performing countries pay their teachers more relative to people in other careers. This is self-serving and scientifically dubious. The NEA presents no evidence for a causal link between overall teacher salaries and student performance, just a bit of random cherry picking that ignores countless confounding factors. To find the real link between average salaries and performance, we can look at domestic U.S. research on the subject. Hanushek and Rivkin, for instance, find that “overall salary increases for teachers would be both expensive and ineffective.” Not surprisingly, a recent review of Ohio’s data on teacher “value-added” and teacher pay finds an inverse relationship:
in Cleveland… teachers deemed “Least Effective” by the new state evaluation system earned, on average, about $3,000 more than the teachers deemed “Most Effective.”
There’s some evidence that tying teacher pay to student performance helps to improve learning, but that’s about it.
Finally, it’s important to remember that PISA is a test of everyday “literacy” in the three subjects it covers (math, reading, and science). If you want to know how well students are learning the specific academic content needed for continuing study at the college level, PISA isn’t your best choice. For that, take a look at TIMSS.
This month’s Cato Unbound tackles an issue as old as humanity, and maybe even older: Sex work has been a part of nearly all human societies, even despite frequent prohibitions. Well, some say, we should allow it – but we should regulate it very heavily.
Lead essayist Maggie McNeill takes a much more libertarian view: simply allow it. Sex work is “not a crime, nor a scam, nor a ‘lazy’ way to get by, nor a form of oppression,” she writes. “It is a personal service, akin to massage, or nursing, or counseling, and should be treated as such.” As a former call girl and madam, she draws on personal experience, as well as the remarkable body of knowledge found at her blog, The Honest Courtesan.
Obviously we wouldn’t be a journal of debate without some vigorous dissent, and it will come this month from a panel of three other experts in the field: Ronald Weitzer is a sociologist at the George Washington University; Dianne Post is an international legal advocate who works on gender-based violence; and Steven Wagner is the president of Renewal Forum, a nonprofit opposed to human trafficking.
Be sure to stop by and see what they have to say over the coming week; feel free to reply in the comments. And if you like what you read, you should also follow us on Facebook and Twitter for regular updates.
This morning the latest results from the Program for International Student Assessment – or PISA – are available, and already some are declaring that they show the United States needs national curriculum standards. Conveniently, we’ve got an effort to implant such standards right now: the Common Core. But do the latest PISA results really show that national standards are what make, in particular, East Asian nations excel, and their absence here is what sticks us in the doldrums?
Of course not. As Jay Greene so helpfully points out as everyone scrambles to cherry-pick data to press their agendas, just “eyeballing” countries’ results tells us basically nothing. There is far too much that affects outcomes to declare your favored reform the right one based on a glance at PISA results. To begin to get at root causes, analyses that allow one to control for numerous variables are needed.
The good news is, such analyses have been done. The bad news, at least for national standards fans, is that they do not support the idea that national standards lead to superior results. Indeed, there is good evidence that national culture – not standards or tests – might be the most important determinant of outcomes on international exams. You can read all about it in Behind the Curtain: Assessing the Case for National Curriculum Standards, a 2010 Cato report intended to weigh in on a debate about the merits of moving to national standards. It’s a debate that, alas, we never really had thanks to the federal government telling states that they either adopt national standards right away, or lose out on federal dough.
With that in mind, maybe one good thing will come out of national standards aficionados declaring PISA vindication of their policies. It will open up the chance to have a serious national debate about how real that “vindication” is.
P.S.: Andrew Coulson will soon be furnishing a much broader analysis of the PISA results than I offer here. Stay tuned!
The Supreme Court has long applied exacting scrutiny to limitations placed on the freedoms of speech and association. Unfortunately, the Court has not extended such protection to those forcibly unionized.
In Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977), the Court accepted that promoting “labor peace”—limiting the number of competing workplace interests that bargain over the conditions of employment—was an interest so compelling that a state may mandate its employees’ association with a labor union, forcing them to subsidize that union’s speech and submit to it as their exclusive representative for negotiating with the government regarding their employment. Since that time, more than a dozen states have forcibly unionized independent contractors who are paid through Medicaid.
In 2003, Illinois forced its home healthcare workers to join and pay dues to the Service Employees International Union as their sole representative before the state. Workers subject to this coerced association have challenged the law as a violation of their First Amendment rights and the case is now before the Supreme Court. Cato, joined by the National Federation of Independent Business, has filed an amicus brief in support. We argue that Abood was wrong when it was decided and should now be overturned. Abood simply assumed without analysis that the Supreme Court had already recognized “labor peace” as a “compelling interest.”
But the cases Abood relied on only regarded “labor peace” as justifying Congress’s exercise of its Commerce Clause authority to regulate labor relations, not as a basis to override workers’ First Amendment rights—and a Commerce Clause analysis is logically irrelevant to the First Amendment. Furthermore, Abood turns the logic of the First Amendment on its head: Unions are designated as the exclusive representatives of those employees that are compelled to support them for the sole purpose of suppressing the speech of dissenting employees, but under Abood it is exactly this suppression of speech that validates coerced association under the First Amendment. Such logic can’t be reconciled with the Court’s strict scrutiny of laws in other First Amendment contexts.
Even if the Court chooses to maintain Abood, it should reject the coercive programs at issue here because they’re unsupported by Abood’s rationale and serve no other compelling state interest. The homecare workers subject to the law aren’t employed by the state. Although they’re paid through a Medicaid disbursal, every crucial aspect of the employment relationship, including workplace conditions, hiring, and firing, is determined by the individual cared-for by the worker. The union is thus limited to petitioning the state for greater pay and benefits. Given this limited scope, there can be no serious claim that SEIU’s exclusive representation of some workers has freed Illinois from any great burden due to “conflicting demands” from other workers. Whatever Abood’s long-term vitality, that flawed case doesn’t support the compelled unionization of workers who are in no way managed by the state.
The Supreme Court will hear Harris v. Quinn on January 21.
This blogpost was co-authored by Cato legal associate Lauren Barlow.
Marian L. Tupy
The leaders of the congressional intelligence committees say that the United States is not safer today than in recent years.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview aired Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union that terrorism is up worldwide and the United States needs to be vigilant to combat the growing threats.
CNN’s Candy Crowley kicked off her sit-down interview, asking, “Are we safer now than we were a year ago, two years ago?”
“I don’t think so,” Feinstein replied. “I think terror is up worldwide, the statistics indicate that. The fatalities are way up. The numbers are way up.” Rogers concurred. “I absolutely agree that we’re not safer today … the pressure on our intelligence services to get it right to prevent an attack are enormous. And it’s getting more difficult.”
The recent uptick in terrorism reminds us of the need to remain vigilant. But it is also important to keep in mind long term trends. Below are two graphs generated by Cato’s new website, www.humanprogress.org, using Harvard University Professor Steven Pinker’s data. According to Pinker, there has been a sustained downward trend in deaths from terrorism.
Ilya Shapiro and Trevor Burrus
While much attention has focused on the Senate’s recent vote to eliminate the ability to filibuster judicial and executive nominations, another aspect of constitutonal separation of powers will come to the fore in January when the Supreme Court hears argument in NLRB v. Noel Canning.
The Recess Appointments Clause, which gives the president the power to “fill up Vacancies” in federal offices and judgeships that “may happen during the Recess of the Senate,” allows the president to fill vacancies without going through the normal requirements of obtaining the Senate’s “advice and consent.” The Framers understood that, particularly during the nation’s early days, the president and the rest of the executive branch would be the only members of the government in Washington for the entire year, so important offices may become vacant while the Senate was out of session. The Recess Appointments Clause would thus be an important but rarely used exception to the normal confirmation process.
For nearly 200 years, however, presidents have been whittling down the clause’s requirements. For the first three decades of the Constitution, the clause was interpreted to apply only to vacancies that occurred during a recess—perhaps because a cabinet member died—and didn’t apply at all to vacancies that existed while the Senate was in session. During the Monroe administration, the attorney general first authorized appointments to offices that were vacant during the previous recess.
Next was the question, “what is a recess?” There are official breaks between Senate sessions, so-called “intersession” recesses, but the Senate also takes many breaks during official sessions—whether for Christmas, a weekend, or lunch—so-called “intrasession” recesses. During the Harding administration, the attorney general first authorized a recess appointment during an intrasession recess.
Then came the question of how long such an intrasession recess has to be in order to activate the president’s recess-appointments power. President Harding’s attorney general authorized an appointment during a 28-day recess, and that length has been decreasing ever since. Both Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush made recess appointments during 10-day intrasession recesses.
After Bush made some controversial appointments in this manner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid began holding pro forma sessions every three days during intrasession recesses in order to block further appointments. (During a pro forma session a lone senator gavels an empty Senate to order and 30 seconds later ends the session.) Some describe these as “sham” sessions, but they’re official according to the Senate’s rules. Since Reid devised these pro forma proceedings, both parties have used them to block potential recess appointments. According to the congressional record, the Senate is never out of session during these breaks for more than three days.
President Obama decided to push the degradation of the Recess Appointments Clause to its next logical step by declaring that pro forma sessions were not “actual” Senate sessions. He thus could ignore them and, on January 4, 2012, recess-appointed three members to the National Labor Relations Board, as well as Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. Legal challenges were immediately filed, and Obama has now lost in three lower courts. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit not only invalidated the president’s appointments, but returned the Recess Appointments Clause to its original meaning—that it only applies to vacancies that come into being during an intersession recess.
The government appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court, and Cato has filed an amicus brief supporting the challengers, a canning company. In the brief, we argue for the “lowest common constitutional denominator” that can decide the case. While we fully endorse returning the Recess Appointments Clause to its original meaning, the Court need not go that far. Indeed, the Court need only answer one question to invalidate President Obama’s recess appointments: “Who decides if the Senate is in session?”
Whereas previous presidents had taken the less egregious step of redefining a “vacancy” and a “recess,” Obama went further in defining an “actual” Senate session. We argue that separation of powers demands that the president not be allowed to meddle in the Senate’s internal processes, which the Constitution commits to the Senate’s discretion. (It would even be illegitimate for the Supreme Court to define a Senate session!) We also argue that the president created an ad hoc standard to define a Senate session, which arbitrariness only underscores how dangerous it is to allow the executive to encroach on the legislative branch.
Finally, we point out that the Recess Appointments Clause is on its last legs; unless the judiciary intervenes, there will only be political gamesmanship divorced from constitutional principle. Without the Supreme Court’s strong guidance, the Senate will increasingly have to jump through hoops of the president’s creation to perform its duty to advise and consent on nominations. After 200 years of drift, there’s no reason to believe the political shenanigans will stop here. The Court should stop this constitutional erosion now.
Discussing the problems with a soda tax is both easy and difficult. It is easy because the main argument is fairly obvious: If taxing soda in the name of public health is a legitimate function of government, then there is no functional limit on what government can do under the guise of public health.
But this argument, though straightforward, is a difficult sell because it is not terribly convincing. This is partially because it is a slippery slope argument (“step 1 will inexorably lead to step 10”), and slippery slope arguments are often straw-man arguments. Arguing against step 10 (“so why don’t we just tax all bad foods?”) is not actually the argument being made at step 1 (“I think we should tax soda.”).
The other reason the argument is difficult is because it is hard to ignore the science. Perhaps it is true that a tax on soda will help public health. In fact, I’ll concede for the sake of argument that taxes on soda will increase public health.
So, as someone who opposes soda taxes, what arguments do I have left if I’ve made these concessions? There are three: 1) The Primitivism of Politics; 2) The Modern Fallacy of “Public Health”; and 3) A Properly Formulated Slippery Slope Argument
1) The Primitivism of Politics
What I call “primitivism” could also be called “tribalism” or “special interests.” Politics becomes increasingly primitive as it affects more of our most personal decisions. When politics starts deciding how to educate our children, what health care we can buy, and what we can freely eat or drink, our only way to fight back is by forming interest groups and “making our voices heard” in the city council, the state legislature, or Washington, D.C. In other words, those with tribes win; those without lose. Despite the efforts of the soft drink industry, the soda drinking tribe is clearly losing its effectiveness.
Why? Well, partially because rates of soda consumption are starting to mirror class divisions. According to one poll, only 11.2 percent of those living in upscale Chelsea or Greenwich Village drink at least one “sweetened beverage a day.” Soda guzzlers are often perceived to be of a lower class. We don’t usually think of a bright-eyed Harvard grad going into her office at Mayer Brown carrying 64 ounces of Mountain Dew Arctic Burst. No, we think of her carrying a Venti Caramel Brulée Frappuccino, brimming with 520 calories and 50 percent of her recommended daily allowance of saturated fat. That’s about as many calories as one liter of soda and significantly more fat.
Why should sodas be taxed and not the frothy coffee concoctions that are often preferred by upper-class people who, not coincidentally, tend to make the laws? Some people may think that both should be taxed, but a “Starbucks tax” is not currently on the table.
As the push for marijuana legalization gains momentum, tobacco users are being increasingly marginalized. Is there a coherent principle that animates this difference other than that the tobacco smoking tribe is shrinking while the marijuana smoking tribe is growing? Similarly, is there a principle that exempts coffee drinks from health taxes? Perhaps it is asking too much for politics to be principled, but maybe we can demand more than a primitive battle between interest groups where the preferences of the ruling class usually win.
2) The Modern Fallacy of “Public Health”
Although the concept of public health was and is important when dealing with broadly agreeable initiatives, such as waste abatement and vaccination, it is increasingly becoming a politicized concept.
Individuals are either healthy or unhealthy within a society, but society itself isn’t one or the other. Individuals’ decisions about what risks they are willing to take and how much they are willing to trade pleasure for diminished health are incredibly personal and should not be overly politicized. This becomes more difficult when health care costs are increasingly socialized, but the principle that health care decisions are deeply personal should be adhered to as much as possible.
Some people skydive, some people eat rare hamburgers daily, some people drink soda. All of these can be hazardous to your health. But what isn’t included in statistics about public health is the pleasure that people take in doing things and consuming things that may not be healthiest. The optimally healthiest society may not be the best society to live in, and we should be weary of technocrats making subjective judgments about trade-offs between health and pleasure.
3) A Properly Formulated Slippery Slope Argument
Although the traditional form of the slippery slope argument is often fallacious as I’ve discussed, it is possible to formulate an effective slippery slope argument: If the principle that animates step 1 is identical to the principle that animates step 10, then there is no “limiting principle” to stop the progression. This is particularly true in law where past decisions become precedents.
The movement to tax and prohibit unhealthy things seemingly has no clear limiting principle. It is worth pondering extreme counter-examples to see if we can deduce a limiting principle (somewhat similar to the infamous “broccoli question”—can Congress make you purchase broccoli?—during the Obamacare litigation): If certain style of haircut were shown to significantly contribute to health, would mandating or subsidizing that haircut or taxing other haircuts be off-limits? Should video games be taxed because they contribute to couch potato-ness?
These questions can help us focus on another question: namely, are we treating free, responsible adults with the respect they deserve? We aren’t regulating “society,” after all, we’re regulating people. Yet many public-health proposals treat free, responsible adults as if they are resources, asking only whether their behaviors make them take too much or give too little. Conservatives often make similar arguments about drug use—that legalizing drugs will lead to lost work production and the moral decay of society.
Arguments like these do not treat people with respect, and they encourage lawmakers and technocrats to regard people with different tastes as parasites rather than people.
We should be better than that.
Kuwait City, Kuwait—“I read your blog post,” Dr. Anood Al-Sharikh told me when we met. “Kuwait isn’t really liberal, but more liberalish, don’t you think?”
She’s right, though in the Middle East even liberalish is a major advance over ugly authoritarian systems like the Saudi theocracy. Kuwait hosts many traditionalists and Islamists who live conservatively, but there is space for most everyone. Many women, like Al-Sharikh hold professional jobs, travel the world, and dress fashionably.
Moreover, politics is freer than elsewhere in the Gulf. Kuwait is ruled by an emir who appoints government ministers, but an elected National Assembly can challenge government ministers and force a cabinet’s resignation. On Tuesday I sat through some the “grilling” of the health minister, a liberal royal who I met last year when he was working in the prime minister’s office. Animated legislators vigorously challenged his performance as well as the arguments of their colleagues while pushing a no confidence motion.
Still, the government clearly has the upper hand, aided by problems elsewhere in the Gulf. A year ago, Kuwait was host to multiple demonstrations by an angry opposition which ranged from secular liberal to Islamist. Today “things have calmed down,” noted Waleed Moubarak of Alghanim Industries. That’s positive, in his view, since you “can only sustain so much political drama.”
But more happened than people being worn out. The authorities “sucked the wind out of” the opposition movement, noted Al-Sharikh. The “government struck back effectively” in a notably illiberal fashion, jailing some people and using its various forms of influence. It even pressed Islamist clerics to issue fatwas against the opposition. Moreover, she asked, “how can anyone in Kuwait be against the government,” which offers jobs, provides homes, pays for education, and more.
Internal contradictions hobbled the opposition: by allying with Islamists, the liberals were effectively promoting a political agenda that included imposing dress codes, closing churches, executing blasphemers, and enshrining sharia as the fount of law. Equally important, the collapse of the Arab Spring had a sobering effect. A bank analyst told me “the public was fed up, it saw chaos in Egypt, violence in Syria, and said that is not for us. People decided there was more to lose than to gain if they went down that particular route.”
In fact, Kuwait well demonstrates the tensions between a democratic polity and liberal society. Thus the “liberalish” country’s fascinating paradox: today, at least, Kuwait’s hereditary emir might be more likely than an elected parliament to encourage development of a free society.