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Foreign Policy Evacuation?

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

Last week, the United States closed and shuttered the embassy in Tripoli, Libya, evacuating from the country its personnel — 158 diplomats and 60 Marines. Fighting between two rival militias reportedly got so close that the embassy was actually being hit by stray small arms fire.

I certainly don’t object to the decision to pull people out. Seems prudent, especially in light of the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which left four Americans, including our ambassador, dead.

But the protective move sends an unmistakable signal about Libya and US foreign policy. Obama’s 2011 military intervention into Libya via NATO — famously promoted as “leading from behind” — has clearly and obviously failed.

Libya is in chaos, unsafe for Americans . . . or Libyans.

President Obama is hardly the sole leader deserving blame. Military campaigns launched by President Bush, who led from in front, haven’t worked, either.

After years of “pacifying” Iraq, at the cost of thousands of American lives, and building up Iraq’s military forces, the Iraqi army disintegrated at the first sign of conflict. The Iraqi government remains thoroughly corrupt.

Sadly, the same fate awaits the end of our nation-building stint in Afghanistan. A recent Washington Post story quoted Sgt. Kenneth Ventrice, a veteran of three tours in Iraq and now serving his second in Afghanistan, saying, “It’s going to fall a lot faster than Iraq did.”

These foreign interventions are failures.

But the biggest failure? Not to learn from our mistakes.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Book-Cooking with Extra Salsa

Monday, July 28th, 2014

Lately, governments have sought to seem more fiscally responsible by re-confabulating how they calculate a measure of economy-wide economic strength called Gross Domestic Product. (The principle involved is ancient. It’s been denominated “fudging.”)

One of the crassest number-jugglers is the Italian government.

Italy wants to comply with a European Union demand that it limit debt to 2.6% of GDP. If the country’s GDP is statistically fattened by using looser rules for calculating it, then debt as percentage of GDP becomes magically “lower” — as a statistical percentage. Italian politicians can lurch to waste more money while still fetching EU handouts.

A year ago, the American fedgov was guilty of similar fudging when it statistically padded our GDP by $500 billion.

Statistical aggregates like GDP entail much guesswork and many dubious assumptions to begin with. For one thing, why is government spending — including that huge portion that dampens or destroys economic production — included in a calculation supposedly measuring economic value?  (A better indicator of general economic strength, Gross Output, hasn’t quite caught on yet. And I don’t expect those highest up in government to push it.)

The purpose of the number-tweaking by Italy, the U.S. and other governments is hardly to improve or amend or salvage whatever is conceivably salvageable in the original number-crunching. The purpose is to disguise bad policies.

But jiggering with how the impact of awful policies is guesstimated in order to better to hide their consequences won’t erase the awfulness of those policies. And curtailing or ending awful policies can be done entirely without peering into statistic-stoked crystal balls.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Google Mugged By Reality?

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

Google says health care is unhealthy.

Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla has conducted what he calls a “fireside chat” with Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. In one much-cited passage, Brin observes that although he is excited about making gadgets like glucose-measuring contact lenses, health care, because “so heavily regulated,” is “just a painful business to be in. It’s not necessarily how I want to spend my time. . . . [T]he regulatory burden in the U.S. is so high that I think it would dissuade a lot of entrepreneurs.” Page echoes his colleague.

A blunt, and fair, observation. But it makes one wonder why these super-entrepreneurs have not been more critical (at least so far as their search engine can tell me) of Obamacare, which multiplies mandates and prohibitions in the medical industry by an order of magnitude.

Top Google executives are known to be liberal in their politics, and presumably have been sincere. It seems, though, that reality is not cooperating with any ideological tilt they may yet harbor in favor of government paternalism.

It’s in fields with which a businessman is best acquainted that he is most likely to recognize the value of freedom — at least his own, if not always that of competitors. So perhaps we should hope that Brin, Page and other Google principals try to achieve something great in every industry there is. That way, they can come around to consistent, principled support for freeing markets.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Lie by Numbers

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

Folks in government regularly lie with statistics.

A ReasonTV interview by historian Thaddeus Russell of Maggie McNeill, a former sex worker, illustrates this well. Russell quoted a U.S. State Department website that claims there are presently “up to 27 million slaves in the world,” and asked Ms. McNeill where that number on “human trafficking” came from.

An expert at a UN conference concocted the startling figure from a complex formula based on government reporting, his own arbitrary compensation for likely under-reporting, and extra points thrown in for media coverage.

Not scientific. At all. “When you are using media reports in the middle of a panic,” McNeill argues, “your numbers are going to keep increasing.”

Further, she notes that there is no way to know the real number of sex workers, voluntary or enslaved — the very fact of prostitution’s illegality not unreasonably engenders distrust amongst sex workers in medical as well as police officials.

“Stand up and be counted” appears ominous when “counted” really means “jailed.”

Human trafficking numbers are also over-estimated because government officials tend to define all criminal sex work as involuntary, lumping call girls, escorts and streetwalkers in with actual sex slaves. The argument, of course, is that voluntary sex workers are “victims”; their decisions downgraded on a theoretical level — because of disapproval.

Sure, they are all “victims” in some sense. (A preacher could marshal the argument better than I.) But there remains a difference between a person who goes into an illegal trade seeking a comparative advantage, and somebody kidnapped, imprisoned, and threatened to do the work.

Recognizing such distinctions makes for better public policies than fuzzing them up.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Mercy as a Calling

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

The cause of immigration reform hit a huge speed bump in recent weeks, with the arrival at the border of thousands upon thousands of children from war-torn Central America.

War-torn? Yes. Gangs — micro-governments in the olden style — fed by drug money have turned the Latin American states to our south into war zones, alas not too dissimilar to the gang warfare that beset some of our great American cities.

Only worse.

No wonder the people in those countries are scared, and desperate. “Coyotes” are taking advantage of U.S. politicians’ inability to secure the border, or even cook up a coherent immigration policy, and charge large amounts of money to transport children to “safety” in the U.S.

Where they are gathered and detained.

In the midst of all the partisan bickering — a legitimate clash of ideologies, really — stands one hero: Glenn Beck. While President Obama avoids the border crisis as if avoidance solves problems, radio/TV/Internet sensation Beck is taking his trucks and buses and volunteers directly to the area Obama avoids, the detention centers and surrounding cities and churches.

He’s taking food, clothing, and comforts for the children.

Last night on The O’Reilly Factor he explained  that governments are instituted to provide justice. He laments the lack of justice on  immigration coming from Washington. But the business of the people — of caring Americans — is not primarily justice.

It’s mercy, Beck says. He’s raised millions, and he’s personally taking aid to where it’s needed.

Heroic. And very neighborly.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Border Problems, Solutions?

Monday, July 14th, 2014

Bill Maher began the panel segment of his latest Real Time with Bill Maher episode taking on the “children at the border” problem. He identified the underlying cause: drug cartels.

His solution? Legalize all psychoactive drugs, particularly cocaine.

Wait a minute. The best response to a border crisis is to legalize drugs?

Seems orthogonal to the issue. “Out of left field.”

Which is not to say I don’t support legalizing drugs. But I try not to bring it up every discussion. Could Maher have drugs a tad too much on his brain?

Be that as it may or may not, for the facts I then turned to . . . Cato Institute.

Only to have the good folks at Cato back up Maher’s assertions.

On July 8, Ted Galen Carpenter, a Cato senior fellow, pinpointed the growth in drug cartels’ power in Central America as central to the whole issue. The drug cartels are “driving vulnerable populations northward to the United States to enhance their own profits.”

But the whole picture is more complicated.

A month earlier, Alex Nowrasteh, Cato’s immigration policy analyst, focused on two American border policies that “likely” and “unintentionally” incentivized “some of the migration and the smugglers that carry many of the migrants,” leading to the current debacle of thousands of unaccompanied minors now being housed — in poor conditions — in detainee centers.

True to form, Nowrasteh notes that “some American politicians who blame American law for the surge actually voted for that American law in the past.”

Which is more horrifying: The idea that politicians make things worse? Or that comedians make more sense than our elected representatives?

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Mr. Majesty

Friday, July 11th, 2014

Are American presidents becoming (or have they long since become) tantamount to elected kings?

Cato Institute scholar Gene Healy has penned volumes about the super-sized presidency (The Cult of the Presidency and False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the Presidency, for two). So he’s well-qualified to assess conservative law professor F.H. Buckley’s Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America.

Buckley both credits our Constitution for protecting our liberty and indicts it for fostering the modern assaults on that liberty.

Our government has lapsed into an “elective monarchy,” which also afflicts parliamentary systems but to which presidential systems are especially susceptible. For “presidentialism fosters the rise of Crown government.” It “encourages messianism by making the head of government the head of state,” insulating him from legislative accountability and making it harder to remove him.

Though Healy finds the argument well-defended in many respects, he isn’t entirely convinced. He’d like more evidence, for example, that parliamentary systems are as better equipped to reverse big and bad policies as they are at imposing them.

I’ll let these two argue the nuances regarding which form of out-of-control national government is most dangerously constituted. We can be grateful, at least, that our own elected king is curbed by term limits much less easily shucked than has proved the case in other presidentially governed countries.

Like these others, we may have an elected monarch. But, pre- and post-FDR, he is not a monarch-for-life. Not yet.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.