Monday, May 30, 2011

Pending Free Trade Agreements Should Be Approved Immediately

Politicians in Washington love to talk about creating jobs, especially in economically uncertain times such as these. Unfortunately the record shows that they are not particularly good at creating jobs and that, in fact, their efforts to do so can cause more harm than good. It is perhaps ironic, therefore, that there is currently a great deal of hesitation in Washington when it comes approving free trade agreements (FTAs) with other countries, which is quite possibly the most effective action a government can take to create jobs.

Currently, there are three FTAs sitting on the tables of the decision-makers in Washington: agreements with South Korea, Columbia, and Panama, which wait only a few words and signatures from the President and Congress for approval. The moment that these FTAs are approved, trade barriers between America and the other respective nations will begin to be dismantled, opening up those foreign markets for American exports, giving American consumers better and cheaper access to foreign goods, helping keep interest rates low, and generally improving the economic situation for all concerned. If Congress and the President were really serious about creating American jobs and improving the American economy, they would stop playing politics and approve these three agreements without delay.

The idea behind free trade is very simple: legal and regulatory barriers on international trade, such as tariffs, quotas, import and export duties, and all other such things should be reduced to their lowest possible level, and ideally abolished altogether. This seems like such an obviously desirable state of affairs that it's a wonder why it is so controversial. But despite its simplicity, free trade has been an enormously controversial subject since the early days of the republic, when Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson argued over its imagined benefits and drawbacks. The debate has pretty much been ongoing since then and there is no reason to believe it will end anytime soon.

Supporters of free trade declare that removing trade barriers between the United States and other countries expands economic activity, opens new markets to American products, creates jobs, lowers prices, and (as a bonus) improves the prospects for peace in the world. Opponents of free trade say that it costs America jobs by increasing America's trade deficit and allowing foreign competitors to undercut American manufacturers by dumping cheap foreign goods in the American market. While both sides selectively quote data and statistics to support their argument, an objective view of the question shows that the supporters of free trade decisively win the argument. When considered by the unbiased mind, there can be no doubt that free trade is both good for the United States and good for the world as a whole.

Last year, the United States Chamber of Commerce released a detailed study of the impact FTAs have had on the American economy in general and the American jobs picture in particular. Although there are currently seventeen FTAs in operation, the study focused only on fourteen, as it was decided that the three newest agreements had been enacted too recently for their full impact to be appreciated. The report found that the fourteen FTAs generated just over $300 billion in American economic activity and supported more than five million American jobs. Far from costing American jobs, free trade clearly results in a net gain of American jobs. According to Daniel Griswold, trade expert at the Cato Institute, the loss of low-paying blue collar jobs from FTAs are more than compensated for by the simultaneous creation of higher-paying white collar jobs.

Another claim that detractors of free trade like to make is that free trade increases America's trade deficit with the rest of the world. The facts state otherwise. Indeed, if we view the 17 nations with which America currently enjoys free trade status as a single bloc, we would have a significant trade surplus with them. By just about any measure, we gain much more than we lose by free trade.

Of the three FTAs on the table in Washington at the moment, the agreement with South Korea is clearly the most important. South Korea already has the 15th largest GDP in the world and, as one of the so-called "Asian Tigers", has emerged as one of the most important industrialized economies on the planet. Even without free trade status, South Korea is the 7th largest trading partner of the United States and exports to South Korea already support more than 200,000 American jobs. However, up to this point they have enjoyed far greater access to our market than we have enjoyed to theirs. The proposed FTA between South Korea and the United States would eliminate 95% of trade barriers within five years, vastly increasing access to the South Korea market for American exporters.

The United States currently has a trade deficit with South Korea to the tune of about $11 billion a year; approval of the FTA would cut this trade deficit by between $3 billion and $4 billion a year. More to the point, South Korea currently levies a tariff on American agricultural products that is greater than 50%; approval of the FTA would reduce this to nearly nothing over the course of a few years. South Korea will gain easier access to American products, and American businesses will increase their profits.

The FTA would also allow greater access for South Korean investment in the United States, which would lead to an expansion of South Korean-owned production facilities in our country that would create many thousands of well-paying American jobs. Consider the South Korea technology giant Samsung, the second largest chipmaker in the world. In my own town of Austin, Texas, a major chip manufacturing facility built by Samsung employs around two thousand highly-skilled and well-paid American workers and is currently in the process of a major expansion. If the FTA between South Korea and the United States is approved, how many other such facilities will be created across the United States?

The FTA between South Korea and the United States would be the biggest free trade agreement for the United States since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force in 1993. Already, South Korea has signed a free trade agreement with the European Union, and its trade ties with its Japanese and Chinese neighbors are also increasing. If we don't act quickly, the United States risks being cut out of the valuable South Korean market altogether.

Although the South Korean agreement is clearly the most important of the three FTAs currently being debated, the proposed FTAs with Columbia and Panama are nothing to sneeze at, either. Columbia is already the third biggest market for American exports in Latin America, with American exports to Columbia totaling $12 billion in 2010. Approval of the FTA with Columbia would increase this by more than a billion dollars, adding large numbers of jobs in both the agricultural and manufacturing sectors of the American economy, with the export of chemical products and construction equipment deriving particular benefit.

While Panama may be a small economy compared with the other two countries, it is a country whose economy is growing rapidly and which represents an expanding market for American products, particularly in the service sector. Currently, American industrial goods face a tariff of 7% and agricultural products face a tariff of 15%. The FTA with Panama would abolish those tariffs, greatly increasing the profitability of American exports and thereby helping to create and protect American jobs.

The expansion of free trade needs to be one of the central planks of the foreign and economic policies of the United States. It generates economic activity, creates jobs, eases the fiscal crisis, and promotes good relations with other countries. For all these reasons, Congress and the President should quickly approve all three of the free trade agreements that are currently on the table.

Memorial Day

Since the founding of our country during the American Revolution, more than a million American soldiers have given their lives to protect our freedom. From the Minutemen who fought the British at Lexington and Concord in 1775 to the soldiers who are still fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan this very day, we must never forget the brave men and women in uniform who have given their lives for this country.

The Nation Makers, by Howard Pyle (1853-1911)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Pakistan Should Be Stripped of its Status as a Major Non-NATO Ally of the United States

In 2004, when the so-called "War on Terror" was at its height and it was thought that Pakistani support would be crucial in that effort, President George W. Bush designated Pakistan as a Major Non-NATO Ally of the United States (MNNA). This official designation has been extended to more than a dozen countries since it was first created by Congress in the late 1980s. All countries which are classified as MNNA receive several material advantages, such as financing from the United States to purchase military hardware, priority delivery of certain military equipment, participation in military research and development projects, specialized training, and many other such benefits that are denied to other countries.

Over the years, and especially in light of recent events, it has become clear that Pakistan is utterly unworthy of MNNA status. Consequently, its MNNA status should be terminated immediately.

In the weeks since the killing of Osama bin Laden by American special forces on May 2, it has become increasingly clear that high-level elements within the Pakistani army and intelligence services and perhaps members of the Pakistani government itself had to have known hat the Al Qaeda leader was hiding in Pakistan and quite possibly knew exactly where he was. After all, the man's hiding place was a mere thirty miles from the Pakistani capital and inside one of the most important military communities in the country. Although it will be years, if ever, until the full extent of Pakistani complicity in protecting Osama bin Laden will be revealed, to suppose that there was absolutely no complicity at all is laughable.

The fact that the United States did not notify Pakistan of the operation until after it was over illustrates the basic lack of trust perfectly well. We didn't tell the Pakistanis that we were coming to get the Al Qaeda leader because we assumed that the Pakistanis would warn him and thus enable him to escape. This has apparently happened a number of times in recent years, when the CIA attempted to capture various other militant leaders.

Beyond the possibility that they actively or passively protected Osama bin Laden, the Pakistani intelligence service (Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI) has for years been playing both sides in the conflict between NATO and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Indeed, as pointed out by Cato Institute foreign policy expert Malou Innocent in a recent op-ed piece, reports have been regularly surfacing that former Pakistani military officers with ties to the ISI have been assisting then Taliban in their attacks on American and allied troops in Afghanistan and are even represented within the Taliban leadership.

Pakistan unsurprisingly rejects these accusations and points to the offensives launched by the Pakistani Army in the Taliban-dominated tribal regions of the Northwest Frontier Provence, where the Taliban shelters on the Pakistani side of the border. But despite occasional heavy losses incurred by the Pakistanis, it always seems as though these offensives come to a halt just before they inflict serious damage on the Taliban. The Pakistani Army always seems to shy away from engaging the Taliban in a truly decisive manner. Needless to say, this pattern is highly suspicious.

We extended MNNA status to Pakistan because we expected their help in defeating the Taliban and winning the larger struggle against global Islamist-inspired terrorism. But has become perfectly clear that they have determined it to be in their interest to ensure that the Taliban is not defeated and that allowing America to remain embroiled in Afghanistan is a price worth paying in order to achieve this. Their intelligence agency is actively supporting our enemy and their military refuses to engage in decisive action against them.

About the only remotely plausible reason for maintaining our existing relationship with Pakistan is that the land supply routes to our forces in Afghanistan run through Pakistan. But as we pointed out in an earlier blog post, we should be wrapping up our military campaign in Afghanistan. Since we should be in the process of withdrawing our forces from Afghanistan anyway, this argument carries little weight.

More telling is that fact that Pakistan apparently doesn't want to be our ally any longer. On May 14, the Pakistani parliament condemned the American raid which killed Osama bin Laden, labeling it "unacceptable" and threatening to cut off the land supply route to our forces. The next day, The Sunday Telegraph reported that the ISI had stopped providing intelligence data to the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies. Is this truly the behavior of an ally?

A key plank of American foreign policy in the 21st Century should be a gradually lifting of the American military footprint around the world. Rather than using military "hard power" so often, we should be withdrawing our troops from their overseas deployments and instead building economic ties through the expansion of free trade and better diplomatic relationships by working through the United Nations and other international organizations. Needless to say, allowing Pakistan to keep its MNNA status does not fit into this picture at all.

Pakistan is a strife-torn, schizophrenic state. Rather than staying in bed with them, we should be keeping them at arm's length. We certainly should not be pumping money into the coffers of their military and intelligence services, as those funds are as likely than not going to be used to attack American forces in Afghanistan. We should not be giving them access to military research and development and they should not be given specialized training. After all, had we discovered that one of our allies was aiding and abetting Imperial Japan after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, does anyone seriously think we should have remained allied to them?

MNNA status for Pakistan should be terminated forthwith.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Government Subsidies to Big Oil Must Cease

Over the past few weeks, as Congress has continued to wrestle with the growing fiscal crisis, the subject of taxpayer subsidies to "Big Oil" companies has repeatedly come up. Senate Democrats recently roasted Big Oil CEOs over a grill regarding these subsidies and President Obama has come out strongly against them. On the Republican side, Speaker John Boehner said a few weeks ago that he was open to getting rid of them, then quickly flip-flopped and declared himself firmly in support of continuing paying the subsidies. Clearly, this is going to be a big issue in the coming weeks and months.

It is probably a considerable understatement to say that the gang of oil companies we regularly group together as "Big Oil" are not exactly the most popular people these days. Americans of all stripes constantly complain about the high price of gas and are occasionally forced to witness massive accidents like the Exxon Valdez oil spill or the BP Gulf oil spill. Better informed citizens often become enraged when they hear of the environmental damage Big Oil causes in distant places like Nigeria and Ecuador, or the manner in which Big Oil pays fraudulent researchers to write bogus papers that seem to cast doubt on the overwhelming scientific consensus regarding global climate change.

These facts by themselves would be enough to make the public angry with Big Oil, but their anger is magnified in view of the immense profits they earn every year. In 2010, ExxonMobil made a profit of $31.4 billion, Royal Dutch Shell made a profit of $20.5 billion, and Chevron made a profit of $19.1 billion. Indeed, over the last decade the five Big Oil companies have made a collective profit of around $900 billion. Consider the high prices Americans are paying at the gas pump, the fact that Big Oil itself continues to rack in such gargantuan amounts of money unsurprisingly makes the average American more than a little furious.

Granted, if the oil companies work hard and earn solid profits by selling valuable oil, that's all well and good. Indeed, that's how free market capitalism is supposed to work. What is definitively not all well and good - what, in fact, is quite bad - is that these Big Oil profits are only possible because Big Oil enjoys large taxpayer-funded subsidies from the federal government. These unfair tax breaks are an affront to the ideals of free market capitalism and essentially steal money from ordinary Americans in order to further enrich people who are already rich. Consequently, they should be abolished as soon as possible.

What exactly are these taxpayer-funded subsidies? As a first example, consider the percentage depletion allowance. Every year, the federal government allows oil companies to deduct from their taxes what they would otherwise have paid on around a quarter of their income. In other words, rather than paying corporate income taxes on 100% of their income, the oil companies pay taxes on around 75% of their income. The ostensible justification for this tax break is that the resources of an oil company (in this case, the oil in the oil fields) decline as production proceeds. If this logic were taken to its obvious conclusion, the federal government should give handouts to movie theater companies because more people are watching movies at home, or to record stores because more people are downloading music from the Internet. It is simply ridiculous.

Another example of government subsidization of Big Oil is allowing the oil companies to deduct from their corporate income taxes what are known as "intangible drilling costs". This means that the oil companies are allowed tax deductions for everything from fuel costs to wages paid to workers to repairs made on drilling equipment - anything that has anything to do with drilling oil, in fact. Similarly, the federal government allows the oil companies to amortize "geological and geophysical expenses", which basically means the costs involved in actually looking for oil.

The tax deductions granted to Big Oil for "intangible drilling costs" and "geological and geophysical expenses" basically mean that the already overstretched taxpayers of America are protecting Big Oil from the basic risks of being in the oil business. It undermines the basic tenants of free market capitalism, in which an entrepreneur has to be willing to shoulder risks in the search for profit, and would probably cause Adam Smith to spin in his grave faster than a proton in a particle accelerator.

Ironically, the political party which most strongly defends these taxpayer subsidies to Big Oil is the Republican Party. I say "ironically", because it is the Republicans, and not the Democrats, who have traditionally been the most supportive of free market capitalism in America and who have most strongly opposed government intervention in the workings of the economy. Even the libertarian Cato Institute, more fanatical in its support of free market capitalism than any other prominent think tank in the country, believes that the Democrats are right and the Republicans are wrong on the issue of oil company subsidies. If their Democratic foes on the other side of the aisle suggested massive tax breaks for, say, the film industry, the Republicans would raise a furious rancor and denounce the idea as sickening socialism. Why, then, do the Republicans betray their free market ideals when it comes to the oil industry?

The Republicans can issue as many talking points as they like, but the brutal fact is that they defend these tax breaks for Big Oil in violation of their free market principles because they depend on money from Big Oil lobbyists to finance their political campaigns. The numbers don't lie; oil and gas companies make vastly larger campaign contributions to Republicans than they do to Democrats. If you are a member of Congress and support these tax-funded giveaways to Big Oil, you'll get a big check from Big Oil to deposit in your campaign account; if you don't, you won't. If that's not bribery, I don't know what is. The simple answer to the question of why the Republicans defend Big Oil subsidies is that they have been paid to do so.

On one point, the Republicans are quite correct: abolishing taxpayer subsidies to Big Oil is unlikely to bring the price of gas at the pump down. But that's not the point. The price of gas at the pump is something that should be set by the mechanisms of the free market, rather than by government decree. High gas prices encourage people to adjust their habits in accord with the reality of oil scarcity, and presents real opportunities for entrepreneurs and innovators to explore alternatives to oil under genuine market conditions. This is how the real world works.

Besides which, the tax giveaways to Big Oil cost American taxpayers a great deal of money, making the fiscal crisis worse than it needs to be. Indeed, the Cato Institute calculates that eliminating the subsidies to Big Oil will result in $43.6 billion being recovered by the U.S. Treasury over a decade. This may not amount to all that much in terms of resolving the fiscal crisis, but every little bit helps. As a Chinese proverb goes, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Government subsidies to Big Oil cost us billions of dollars every year, making our precarious fiscal situation even worse. They are a violation of the principles of free market capitalism that America is supposed to uphold. They effectively steal money from hardworking Americans and funnel it to already wealthy people. On every count, these subsidies are obscene, immoral, and not to be tolerated. They should be eliminated.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Osama bin Laden is Dead, So Let's Get Out of Afghanistan

It has been nearly a decade since the American-led military campaign in Afghanistan was launched in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The main objective was to destroy Al Qaeda or, at the very least, prevent it from using Afghanistan as a base from which to launch further terrorist attacks. The mission was approved both by Congress and by the United Nations Security Council, and it enjoyed the overwhelming backing both of the American public and the international community.

The conventional phase of the war was over quickly, with American troops and their Afghan allies quickly overthrowing the Taliban regime, which had foolishly given Al Qaeda sanctuary, and driving Al Qaeda out of the country. But after having achieved our original objective, we have subsequently found ourselves mired in an endless guerrilla struggle with a resurgent Taliban, in which any sign of progress has been frustratingly elusive. Over 1,500 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan in the decade since, not to mention hundreds of British, Canadian, Dutch, French and other allied soldiers. Beyond the human cost, endless billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on military operations and nation-building activities, which has contributed to the fiscal crisis and which has achieved results which could charitably be described as questionable.

The remnants of Al Qaeda have long since left Afghanistan for safer grounds in Pakistan and Yemen. Indeed, a year ago, the CIA estimated that there were as few as fifty Al Qaeda operatives remaining in the whole of Afghanistan. Our battle against the Taliban has continued due to simple momentum; we were fighting the Taliban when we got to Afghanistan because they were protecting Al Qaeda, and we have kept fighting them after Al Qaeda left simply because we were already fighting them. But the Taliban has never been much concerned with the world outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan, having only given Al Qaeda sanctuary because it offered them assistance against their Afghan enemies. In the grand scheme of things, the Taliban poses no real threat to the United States.

The only remotely plausible reason for continuing the war in Afghanistan was the oft-expressed concern that Al Qaeda would return to the country and set up a new base of operations if American forces were ever to leave. But Al Qaeda has effectively ceased to exist as an coherent organization, degenerating instead into a hodgepodge of quasi-independent groups, rather like a piece of broken glass.

Earlier this month, when Osama bin Laden was finally hunted down and killed, the last thin sliver of justification for continuing the war in Afghanistan vanished.

There are currently around 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan, along with large contingents from allied nations. With Osama bin Laden killed and Al Qaeda long since driven from Afghanistan, what exactly is this huge army doing there? What is it trying to accomplish? How does its mission benefit the national security of the United States? Is whatever our forces are trying to accomplish worth the continuing loss in American and allied blood and treasure?

Asking these questions brings only one rational answer: there is no worthwhile purpose to continuing our military campaign in Afghanistan and our troops should be brought home as quickly as possible.

It is not America's responsibility to bring democracy and Enlightenment values to Afghanistan. Indeed, it cannot be and should not be. As President John Quincy Adams once famously said, America "goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own." The problems of Afghanistan are to be resolved by the Afghans, and American intervention in the affairs of the country is almost certain to be counterproductive rather than beneficial.

Besides, if we are to engage in "nation building" in Afghanistan, we need to have an effective Afghan partner with which to do so. The Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai is certainly not such a partner, as it has become one of the most corrupt regimes on the planet. The elections of 2009 were dismissed by virtually every observer as massively fraudulent and blatantly undemocratic, and nepotism and bribery are endemic within every level of the Afghan government.

Attempting to foster a stable society in a country with such a government would be an exercise in futility, and it is not worth the trouble to try. Besides, history shows that efforts by Western nations to change the social fabric of non-Western nations usually end in disaster. The idea of the "White Man's Burden" has been discredit for quite awhile now. Commerce and cultural openness can bring new ideas to a society, but a society can never be forcibly changed from outside at the point of a gun.

More to the point, continuing the war in Afghanistan is precisely what our enemies want us to do. Despite the fantasies of some right-wingers, terrorism has never presented an existential threat to the United States. Instead, the most dangerous aspect of the terrorist threat is their ability to weaken our country through attrition. To Osama bin Laden, every American soldier killed and every American taxpayer dollar spent on the military operation in Afghanistan was a victory of sorts, and it was just such a strategy of attrition by which the Afghan mujahideen contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union during the 1980s.

Because Al Qaeda no longer exists in Afghanistan and the Taliban itself presents no real threat to us, it is difficult to see how the military campaign in the country does anything to improve the national security of the United States. Instead, we are losing American lives and wasting vast amounts of American treasure for no apparent reason. If the surviving leaders of Al Qaeda were to sit down together and craft an American policy best suited to their needs, they could hardly do better. The best policy to avoid falling into this trap is to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan, just as we have wisely been withdrawing from Iraq. Ideally, within eighteen months, there would no longer be any American boots on the ground in Afghanistan.

A rational counterterrorism policy is one that combines effective intelligence gathering and law enforcement with targeted military operations by special forces units. It was this form of counterterrorism that lead to the elimination of Osama bin Laden. By contrast, a strategy of massive military deployments in Muslim nations plays directly into the hands of our enemies by creating the very environment they need to put an attrition strategy into effect, and does nothing to protect the United States from terrorist attacks. Indeed, by increasing Muslim anger against the United States, it seems clear that the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq have increased, rather than decreased, the terrorist threat against our country.

It is time for us to pack things up in Afghanistan and bring our troops home.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Happy Europe Day!

This blog is written by an American for a primarily American audience, yet it is important for all American citizens to remain fully informed about social and political trends throughout the world. Not only is this necessary in order to simply be a well-informed and well-rounded person, but events in foreign nations obviously impact the United States both directly and indirectly in a multitude of ways. One of the most consequential social and political trends taking place overseas, which has gone almost unnoticed by the American media but which all Americans should follow with interest, has been the gradual economic and political unification of Europe in the form of the European Union.

Today is Europe Day. It marks the day in 1950 when French Foreign Minister Robert Schumann gave a momentous speech which he laid out a proposal for pooling the coal and iron industries of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy and West Germany into a single market. This idea, the brainchild of the remarkable civil servant Jean Monnet, led to the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community, which served as the forerunner to all the pan-European institutions that culminated in the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 that created the European Union.

The process of European integration has been long and not entirely smooth. Yet it is a process that the United States of America should both follow with interest and support from a respectful distance. A stable world is obviously in America's fundamental interest, and a strong EU is a powerful force for global stability. The EU now forms what amounts to a single economic superpower, and thus provides both an immense market for American exports and an outstanding source of imports of goods and services of all kinds. American interests are not harmed in any way by the increasing unification of Europe, and Americans of all political stripes should be cheering the success of the European project.

The idea of a common European defense policy has proven to be one of the most controversial aspects of the European project. Americans should welcome the advent of a common European defense policy, up to and including the creation of a genuine European Army, as it would completely remove the already dubious rationale for maintaining a large American army on European soil. A strong and unified European defense policy would allow us to finally withdraw our troops from European soil, which is not only good in and of itself, but also necessary to meet the challenges created by the need to cut military expenditures.

At the same time, we should remember that the EU is a European affair and generally keep our noses out of their business. Efforts by past American presidential administrations to persuade the EU to admit Turkey as a member of the bloc have often angered the EU leadership. Who are we, they rightfully ask, to tell them who does and does not get to join the European club? The extent to which Europe becomes economically and politically unified is nobody's business but their own, and it is not the duty or the right of the United States to attempt to exert influence on such questions.

If for no other reason, Americans should wish the European project well because of the critical role the institution has played in keeping the peace in Europe. Indeed, whenever I think about the European Union, I think of this photograph:

This picture was taken in 1984. On the left is French President Francois Mitterand; on the right is West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. They went together to the city of Verdun, where in 1916 French and German soldiers had slaughtered one another in unimaginable numbers. They stood silently together before the Douaumont Ossuary, where the unidentified remains of more than 100,000 French and German soldiers are entombed. In my opinion, this picture symbolizes the true purpose of the European Union, and should be ranked with Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima and the Earthrise picture from Apollo 8 as one of the most moving photographs of the 20th Century.

That nations which, for long centuries, made war on each other and butchered each other in great numbers can come together to create a set of economic and political institutions which have helped secure peace and prosperity for the European people, and have essentially made the idea of a war between major European powers entirely unthinkable, should cause all human beings of goodwill to shout for joy. That is why, on this Europe Day, all Americans should extend best wishes to our cousins across the Atlantic Ocean and hope that the European Union becomes a force of ever-increasing importance in global affairs.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Where Are the Advocates for a Medium-Sized, Efficient Government?

These days, we hear a lot about the supposed struggle between "Big Government" and "Small Government". As so often happens in American politics, nearly everyone has migrated to two utterly-polarized extremes, ignoring the vast empty space in the middle. As odd as it seems, there are few partisans for the position which strikes me as obviously correct: we need a medium-sized, efficient government.

Let's start with the advocates for Big Government. They seem to be of the opinion that if you simply pile enough money onto a problem, you can solve it. This logic is inherently flawed, as any number of historical examples can verify. Simply increasing the amount of funding directed towards a certain, vaguely-described problem (i.e. drug use in rural communities) tends to result in cascading inefficiencies which, in turn, create bloated bureaucratic organizations. In addition, it often has unforseen side effects that actually make the problem worse, as we have seen with many programs of foreign aid to developing countries.

Earlier this year, the General Accounting Office released a long-anticipated report on inefficiency in the federal government. Reading it made one unsure whether to laugh or cry. To take a few examples, there are nearly fifty individual federal programs focused on job training, more than eighty programs devoted to monitoring the quality of teachers, and fifty-six programs that attempt to improve financial literacy. The GAO report found that fifteen separate federal agencies have programs focused on food safety, and seven separate agencies have programs focused on homelessness. On numerous occasions, the authors of the GAO report were unable to ascertain the actual purpose of specific federal programs, and they often found that programs lacked any reliable means of oversight or of determining whether they were actually meeting their goals.

This is simply ridiculous. This is not to say that the problems these programs attempt to address are not real and serious, because they are. But attempting to solve these problems by simply piling on more money and creating more federal programs is a recipe for disaster. Not only will it not work, but it is costing American taxpayers billions of dollars and making an already disastrous fiscal crisis even worse. Massive duplication of efforts simply creates an ever-increasing number of federal employees attempting to do the same thing, and this does no good for anyone.

But do the obvious failures of Big Government prove that the advocates of Small Government are necessarily correct? Should we, to paraphrase Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, shrink the federal government to the size where it can be drowned in a bathtub?

Absolutely not. The ideological advocates of Small Government are as misguided as the ideological advocates of Big Government. Just as the advocates of Big Government are deluded in thinking that throwing endless amounts of money at social problems will somehow solve them, the libertarian advocates of Small Government are deluded in thinking that society can properly function in the near-total absence of government. It might have been able to do so in the agricultural world of Thomas Jefferson's day, but it certainly cannot in the infinitely more complex world of the early 21st Century.

To see the need for rational government intervention, consider the following anecdote. In December of 2003, within a week of one another, two equally-sized earthquakes struck on the opposite sides of the world. Each measured about 6.6 on the Richter scale. One struck in California, where it caused some property damage and killed two people. The other struck in Iran, where it completely destroyed the city of Bam and killed 25,000 people. California suffered far fewer casualties and property damage than Iran mostly because government building codes designed to protect buildings from earthquakes were in place in California and not in Iran.

If the GAO report illustrates the problems of too much government, 2010 saw several events which illustrated the dangers of too little government, among them the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster in West Virginia and especially the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In both cases, if more stringent government regulations had been in place and had those already in the books been properly observed, the disasters would have been avoided, lives would have been saved, and tremendous environmental damage would not have taken place.

If the Small Government advocates had their way, who would prevent credit card companies or health insurance companies from exploiting vulnerable citizens? Who would maintain the transportation infrastructure of the nation? Who would educate the children? Despite the dreams of the Small Government advocates, it is indisputable that there are certain things society requires which can only be provided by government.

It is a concession to common sense that ruiniously expensive government programs that contain massive duplication of efforts and are absurdly inefficient should be abolished. It is also a concession to common sense that reasonable government regulation and intervention are necessary in order for the economy to properly function and, at a certain level, for society to work.

As we listen to the partisans of Big Government and Small Government scream at each other, where are the advocates for a Medium-Sized, Efficient Government?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Thoughts on the Death of Osama Bin Laden

President Obama confirmed last night that a special operation carried out by American forces inside Pakistan resulted in the killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and that his body is in the possession of the United States.

While it is important to remain somewhat detached and never give way to feelings of bloodlust, it is impossible not to feel satisfaction and pleasure at the news of the death of this monster. Bin Laden had been the world's most wanted man ever since September 11, 2001, when the terrorist attacks he masterminded on New York and Washington D.C. killed thousands of innocent people. The world is a safer and better place now that this brute of a man has been sent to meet his maker. President Obama and his national security team, not to mention the men and women of America's military and intelligence services, are to be congratulated on a job well done.

On the one hand, Osama bin Laden had long since lost effective communication with and control over the Al Qaeda organization, which has become much more decentralized in recent years. The organization itself will continue to remain a threat to America and other nations for some time to come. On the other hand, the public image of Bin Laden was responsible for much of Al Qaeda's mystique and propaganda, and his death has obviously been a shattering blow to the terrorist network.

Many questions are raised by the news that has been coming in. Could the Pakistani government honestly have been unaware of Bin Laden's presence near their capital city for so long? How will his death affect the revolutionary movements which have sprung up across the Arab world in recent months? How will this affect the campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan? Inevitably, people will begin wondering how this news will affect the political balance within the United States.

But those questions are for another day. Right now, let's follow the President's advice and remember the unity the nation felt in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. At long last, we have taken out the mass murderer who was responsible for so many deaths, and that is a fact worth celebrating.