Saturday, March 20, 2004

"I have to put off planning attacks until after tax season." This NYT Mag. article reads likes it was ripped from a movie script - half of me wants to say this is a hoax. An accountant in Long Beach is the leader of an armed resistance movement in Cambodia. The group has already had one unsuccessful coup attempt, but they're not giving up. The State Dept. condemns them, but they've got powerful friends in Congress. They're apparently not afraid of publicity.

The author of the article has no idea how much actual power these guys have in inside Cambodia; hence, it's not clear if they should be even be taken as seriously as the Iraqi National Congress was. Regardless, this story powerfully shows that if you have the money (equivalently, plenty of donors) and your government will just look the other way, then you can have your own foreign policy. This state of affairs is a blessing if you're trying to overthrow an odious regime. Unfortunately, it is also a blessing for groups with less noble objectives. Thus, if the War on Terror is a war against a tactic, then it prospects are about as good as those of the War on Drugs. Fortunately, the War on Terror is just a PC term for the war on Islamism.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

After some investigation, including interviews, Jeffrey Rosen has concluded that Ashcroft is less a religious zealot than a poll-driven politician. (A former senator follows the polls? Who'd have guessed?) Not that this will alleviate libertarian concerns about the Patriot Act, but it is an interesting read. Rosen also got the impression that Ashcroft, being a political animal, was not as concerned as he should be about the technicalities of what is constitutional, overly focusing on the popular idea of vigorous prosecution of crime.
For once, the administration manages to 1) support free trade, and 2) do so in a politically savvy manor.
The US is set to launch its first World Trade Organisation complaint against China, charging that Beijing is violating global trade rules by offering big tax breaks for domestic semiconductor producers.
At issue is a 17 per cent value-added tax that China imposes on all semiconductors. The Chinese government rebates all but 3 to 6 per cent of that tax for domestic producers but retains the full tax on imports, giving domestic chipmakers a huge advantage in an industry with narrow profit margins.
This is the stuff we should have been doing all along, trying to open foreign markets, as opposed to sporadically closing ours based on cynical electoral calculations.
Jacob Levy defends the strong federalism of the transitional Iraqi constitution.
Victor Davis Hanson reminds us of the extent to which we already have free health care.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

The American Spectator has a very informative article about how the health insurance market works. Do you know what ERISA means and what it has to do with employer-provided health benefits? If not, read this article. Among other things, you will learn why "less than 5 percent of the population now buys its health insurance directly from a commercial carrier." (The short explanation is that the free market interprets overregulation as damage, and routes around it.)
Econopundit calculates that compliance with federal regulations costs eight percent of the GDP.

Econopundit has had lots of good posts recently. Here's one on education.
Remember those two divergent BLS employment surverys? Econopundit pointed me to this BLS paper's partial resolution: it depends on what the meaning of the word "employment" is:

The red “adjusted” household survey line represents the smoothed household survey employment series that has been further modified to make it more similar in concept and definition to payroll survey employment. This adjustment to household survey employment subtracts from total employment agriculture and related employment, nonagricultural self employed, unpaid family and private household workers, and workers absent without pay from their jobs, and then adds nonagricultural wage and salary multiple jobholders.
It sounds to me like neither survey is capturing a reasonable definition of employment. On the other hand, if one can make the specific adjustments mentioned above, then obviously the numbers needed to make a better employment statistic are there. So why are we all using the current misleading statistics? Granted, as the BLS paper notes, even with definitional changes, the two surveys still disagree plenty. Still, wouldn't we be better off comparing the two surveys that at least tried to measure the same thing?
According to this ABC News poll, linked to by Instapundit and many others, 49% of Iraqis want a democracy, 28% want a strong leader "for life," and 21% want an Islamic state. Moreover, the strong-leader option isn't that much of a threat: "six in 10 Iraqis can't name a single national leader they trust," and when asked who they trusted the most, no more than eight percent of Iraqis gave the same answer. I submit this as evidence that our attempt to bring democracy to Iraq is not quixotic.

The poll asked many other questions too. Check it out. One odd thing: it says 40% of Iraqis polled self-identified as Sunni Muslim, 33% as Shia, and 23% as just Muslim. I thought the Shiites were at least 60%; that's what I've read everywhere else. The poll claims a 2-point margin of error, though, with 2,737 Iraqis polled, putting an upper bound of 58% on Shia affiliation.
Ooh, more red meat for the base: a senator has come swinging in favor of war with Iraq. And he pulls no punches. U.N. Security Council? We don't need their permission. Allies? France wants to make oil deals with Iraq. Critics? They need to back off, especially those folks making silly distinctions in order to criticize the president. Preach it, brother:
The administration is making it clear that they don't believe that they even need the U.N. Security Council to sign off on a material breach because the finding of material breach was made by Mr. (Richard) Butler. So furthermore, I think the United States has always reserved the right and will reserve the right to act in its best interests. And clearly it is not just our best interests, it is in the best interests of the world to make it clear to Saddam Hussein that he's not going to get away with a breach of the '91 agreement that he's got to live up to, which is allowing inspections and dismantling his weapons and allowing us to know that he has dismantled his weapons. That's the price he pays for invading Kuwait and starting a war.
I mean, as Tom Friedman said in a great article the other day, France Inc. wants to do business with oil and they are moving in the exact sort of opposite direction on their own from the very cause of the initial conflict, which was oil.... I think a lot of us are very disappointed that the French haven't joined us in a number of other efforts with respect to China, with respect to other issues in Asia and elsewhere and also in Europe. These are, this is a disaprpointment. But the fact is this. The president has, in effect, put military action on the table. Secretary (Richard) Cohen canceled his trip, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff canceled a trip, troops are deployed, the aircraft carriers are being brandished. There's no misunderstanding here about where the United States is prepared to go and I think that people need to just sort of back off. It's funny how in Washington inevitably there are always distinctions to be found, even if they're only at the margins here, and I would suggest that if all we're doing is suggesting that the president needs to be doing some diplomacy behind-the-scenes, that's not a bad criticism because he's obviously doing that behind the scenes.
Oh wait, that was John Kerry, in 1997.

Monday, March 15, 2004

Robert Lane Greene makes the interesting argument that Spain's Socialist party, when it takes power, should not withdraw troops from Iraq because Al Qaeda would perceive this as capitulating to terror and would therefore try to influence other elections with terrorist attacks. I heartily agree that Spain should not withdraw from Iraq; the Iraqis need all the help they can get right now. However, I find Greene's rationale for steadfastness very unsatisfying. How Al Qaeda or anybody else perceives Spanish policy on Iraq is a secondary. (If they didn't perceive us to be infidels, then they might not attack us at all, right?) What is primary is whether Spanish Iraqi policy is actually a good policy, as in good for Iraq, good for Spain, good for the West, and bad for Islamism. A Spanish withdrawal from Iraq wouldn't be bad because it would appear to capitulate to mass murder. It would be bad because it would capitulate to mass murder.

While I'm on the subject, I hope the Socialist's victory in Spain is because of something like dissatisfaction with the government early dogmatic insistence that ETA was responsible for the bombing. To think that the Spanish voters actually soured on the incumbent party because they thought involvement in Iraq had made them a terrorist target is quite disturbing. When attacked, the proper response is not, "this is not our fight," but, "this is now our fight." Of course, the idea that any part of the West is not in this fight should have been put to rest long ago.
An excellent Weekly Standard editorial:
Outgoing Spanish prime minister José María Aznar made the decision to back the United States in its war on terror, not just in Afghanistan but also in Iraq. In the face of significant political resistance, he reached the assessment that seems to us the correct one: September 11 was Spain's September 11. In the same way, March 11 is our March 11. It confronts the United States with similarly solemn obligations of unlimited solidarity, not just in words but in deeds.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Tyler Cowen linked to this awesome Heritage paper. These guys don't just say "cut spending." They say, "cut spending; here's what to cut; here's how to cut it." In that sense, these guys are very down-to-earth. But in another sense, their heads are in the clouds; the Republican party has become the governing party. As such, it is not surprising that it has become the party of government. Without a Reagan or a Thatcher (or maybe even a Gingrich), such a transformation is inevitable.

My prediction: we will accomplish a lot of the cuts in discretionary spending that the folks in Heritage recommend, though very slowly. What will drive the cuts will be the declining fiscal state of our entitlement programs, which are two thirds of federal spending already. The middle class has the votes, and they hate taxes and love entitlements; they won't miss, say, the U.S. Geological Survey.

Of course, the folks at heritage have ideas about entitlements, such as vouchers: "Vouchers can provide choice without bureaucracy in many other areas. Medicare and Medicaid could be made more like the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP), in which federal employees choose between competing private health plans with the federal government subsidizing the premium. More public housing programs can be replaced with rent vouchers."

I think this is absolutely right, but I'm surprised that means testing isn't also mentioned. Vouchers will make entitlements cost less, increasing the freedom of the taxpayers, and come with fewer regulations, increasing the freedom of the recipients. But they do not alter the following fundamental dilemma:
The middle class loves receiving entitlements.
The rich pay most of the taxes.
The middle class has the votes.
Once the middle class gets used to an entitlement, I don't know what, short of an economic crisis, would convince it to accept significant benefit cuts. (Welfare reform was possible because there aren't that many poor voters.) If vouchers are the first step in moving away from entitlements, then they are so primarily because they make means testing more palatable. If a means test is a stark cutoff such as "Medicare or not," then the middle class will always pass the test. With vouchers, you get a check; that some people need a bigger check than others is not so hard a sell politically. Even better, the "old lady eats dog food so she can afford her drugs" argument becomes an argument for the government to be more generous to poor old ladies, not more generous to every old lady. The middle class is a lot more generous to itself than it is to the poor.
Cry me a river: "Iran said on Sunday it was not clear when U.N. atomic inspectors would be allowed back into the country and said the decision to bar them reflected Tehran's anger at an 'insulting' resolution on its nuclear activities." I think we should have slapped some economic sanctions on these guys long ago. If we don't get serious about this, Iran will become just as nuclearly armed as North Korea. If I were John Kerry, I'd be attacking Bush from the right on this. Granted, economic sanctions may not stop Iran from going nuclear, but it's a lot more likely to work than mere words, which Iran might find insulting. Moreover, sanctions wide enough to really hurt Iran's economy might make the regime's nuclear policy unpopular. Unlike North Korea, public opinion is not yet completely irrelevant in Iran.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Here's a Federal Marriage Amendment I wholly endorse:
Nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to require that marriage or its benefits be extended to any union other than that of a man and a woman.
It ensures that the Full Faith and Credit clause (or any other clause) won't impose homosexual "marriages" on states that don't want them, and it leaves the rest up to federalism, where it belongs.
Apparently, I'm not the only one who thinks Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth is the best cinematic adaptation of the Gospel.
The Iraqi interim constitution. This is what it's all about, folks; this is why we didn't bomb the place flat or install a friendly dictator.

I owe the above link to Steven Den Beste, who also has a great fisking of what Kerry said on Iraq in his interview with Time Magazine. The interview only confirms my fears: if Kerry actually believes what he says, then as President he would be crippled by foreign criticism, for he doesn't claim to differ from Bush fundamentally on foreign policy (as best as I can tell, his prose is very slippery), just on execution; he thinks he could do much better than Bush by being more diplomatic.

As Den Beste's thoroughly points out, what matters in Iraq is primarily what Iraqis think, not what our allies (or our "allies") think. I would add that even were "world opinion" the decisive factor, we can't make everybody love us with just kind words. As president, Kerry would learn that we have real friends, real enemies, and ambivalent acquaintances. Changing who falls in which category requires real concessions and/or real threats from us. I don't want to find out how many concessions Kerry would make before he figured this out. Given how close the election will be, I honestly hope that Kerry is being completely dishonest, and is only saying what he says because he thinks it is hurting Bush politically. At least I have reasons to be hopeful.

Update: This does not calm my fears:
Without naming anybody, Kerry said he had received words of encouragement from leaders abroad who were eager to see him defeat Bush on Nov. 2.

"I've met foreign leaders who can't go out and say this publicly, but boy they look at you and say, 'You've got to win this, you've got to beat this guy, we need a new policy,' things like that," he said.

The power of the protectionists

Michael Novak brings us more bad news on the free trade front:
Republican politicians are chilled by a story making the rounds in the state's political circles. A delegation of North Carolina factory owners recently went to Washington to plead for relief from foreign competition. They returned complaining that the president's agents responded with the ''free trade'' mantra. Their verdict: They could no longer support Bush. North Carolina may be changing from a certain ''red'' state (carried by Bush with 56 percent in 2000) to a potential battleground with hopes for capturing Edwards' Senate seat diminishing.
I wonder if the President would have been better off politically if he had consistently supported free trade. How much credit will this story get Bush among free-traders, considering his sporadic but highly publicized past acts of protectionism? No matter what Bush does now, both free traders and protectionist will be suspicious of him. I think Bush's use of the phrase "free and fair trade" in his last state of the union epitomized his stance on the issue: he's a free-trader, but he's very afraid of the protectionists in his party, and not above appeasing them. What really bothers me is the possibly that Bush is doing the smart thing - that free trade really has become a losing issue.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Tony Blair hits another one out of the park with this speech on Iraq:
My view was and is that if the U.N. had come together and delivered a tough ultimatum to Saddam, listing clearly what he had to do, benchmarking it, he may have folded and events set in train that might just and eventually have led to his departure from power.

But the Security Council didn't agree.

Suppose at that point we had backed away. Inspectors would have stayed but only the utterly naive would believe that following such a public climb-down by the U.S. and its partners, Saddam would have cooperated more. He would have strung the inspectors out and returned emboldened to his plans. The will to act on the issue of rogue states and WMD would have been shown to be hollow. The terrorists, watching and analyzing every move in our psychology as they do, would have taken heart. All this without counting the fact that the appalling brutalization of the Iraqi people would have continued unabated and reinforced.

Here is the crux. It is possible that even with all of this, nothing would have happened. Possible that Saddam would change his ambitions; possible he would develop the WMD but never use it; possible that the terrorists would never get their hands on WMD, whether from Iraq or elsewhere. We cannot be certain. Perhaps we would have found different ways of reducing it. Perhaps this Islamic terrorism would ebb of its own accord.

But do we want to take the risk? That is the judgment. And my judgment then and now is that the risk of this new global terrorism and its interaction with states or organizations or individuals proliferating WMD, is one I simply am not prepared to run.
Do read the rest.

This speech, and hence this post, may seem like "old news," but anything worth arguing about is worth being reminded of. I may live to see the day we stop arguing about Vietnam, but I doubt I'll see the day we stop arguing about Iraq. Moreover, our evaluations of our actions in Iraq will inevitably yield corollaries about what our future actions should be, in Iraq and elsewhere. As Blair also said in his speech, "This war is not ended."
This is what McCain-Feingold has wrought:
The Republican National Committee is warning television stations across the country not to run ads from the Voter Fund that criticize President Bush, charging that the left-leaning political group is paying for them with money raised in violation of the new campaign-finance law.
And in a bit of political one-upmanship, the letter [from the RNC] quotes the presumptive Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry, as saying that the objective of the new law "is to eliminate altogether the capacity of soft money to play the role that it does in our politics.
The Democrats deserve this for voting for McCain-Feingold; the RNC has shamed its party by taking complicity with McCain-Feingold, which Bush signed, to a new level. I read about the use of technicalities to suppress to suppress legitimate political speech in places like Venezuela. To read about them here jars me such that I do not hesitate to use the epithet "un-American." A misguided quest for fairness has lead to a pernicious policy that is neither free nor fair. I don't think making George Soros more influential in the Democrats' campaign, relative to groups like, is what any reformer had in mind.

Saturday, March 06, 2004

I encourage you all to take a look at Robin Hanson's writings. He's a futurist with a cornucopia of ideas, some of them crazy, almost all of them very interesting. For instance, he proposes a system where we "buy health, not health care." I don't know about its feasibility, but it's fun to ponder. For a while now, I've read his stuff on various occasions when I wanted to kick back. For members of the policy wonk species of the nerd genus, Hanson's essays have the leisure value of a good short story.

Friday, March 05, 2004

Victor Davis Hanson has a way with words. His prose is grand, though sometimes a bit too purple for my taste. Brevity being the sole of wit, I most enjoy reading his conclusions:
If White House politicos figured that many who were angered about out-of-control federal spending and immigration proposals would grumble, but not abandon Mr. Bush — given the global stakes involved after September 11, and the specter of a new alternative foreign policy far to the left of that of a Warren Christopher and Madeline Albright — then they were absolutely right.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

I'd define the beginning of presidential general election campaign as the date the first TV ad airs, which would be today. I love to debate policy, but the actual workings of politics do not thrill me. I watched the ads I linked to above and was repulsed by their saccharin sentimental mushiness. Who are the people who sit in a focus groups and says they like this stuff? I want issue ads (from both sides) "going negative" on each other's legislative and executive decisions. These ads remind me that one of the few things I dislike more than a paternal state is a maternal state.
The New Republic has an article by Daniel Drezner strongly critiquing Huntington's Foreign Policy article that I discussed recently. Mainly, Drezner and Huntington are looking at the same numbers but seeing different things. For example, Drezner things Huntington shouldn't worry about linguistic assimilation of Mexicans, for, as Huntington himself notes, "English language use and fluency for first- and second-generation Mexicans thus seem to follow the pattern common to past immigrants." Drezner thinks Huntington shouldn't worry: today's immigrants will learn English just as past ones did. I read Huntington as being concerned that Hispanics, regardless their English proficiency, will also remain proficient in Spanish and push us further towards bilingualism. Drezner doesn't really address this point. In addressing another point, he does note that "60 percent of third-generation Mexican-American children speak only English at home," but he fails to put this in the context of corresponding data about other third-generation immigrant groups. This forces me to ask if 60% is good or bad.

One could turn this statistic around and ask why 40% of third-generation Mexican-American children are speaking Spanish at home. My inclination is to count this number as yet more evidence that a continually replenished population of first-generation immigrants makes Spanish the dominant language in many communities, as Huntington claims. If this is correct, then inevitably most native English speakers move out of such communities, turning linguistic differences into geographic segregation, unless of course immigration rates drop. This point leads me to what I think the most important difference between Mexican immigration and other mass immigrations to America: the others were all waves; they surged but eventually dropped off to very low levels. Given any reasonably economic scenario, if our policies do not change, Mexican immigration rates will not change for the foreseeable future.

As you can tell, I generally don't find Drezner's attack a convincing one. However, I agree with Drezner's article on at least one point: immigrants with very strong ties to their country of origin are not as novel a phenomenon as Huntington claims. Drezner has compelling numbers to back this up:
U.S. officials estimated that between 1870 and 1914, 30 percent of immigrants emigrated back to the country they came from. Among Italians, the rate approached 50 percent because young Italian men went back and forth between the new world and the old country in search of work.
Tyler Cowen recently linked to the Fraser Institute's annual report on economic freedom in the States and Provinces. There's lots of data to peruse. If you're in a hurry, I recommending clicking here and scrolling down to see the charts. Figure 7 shows a tight fit between growth of economic freedom and growth of per-capita GDP (surprise, surprise).