Sunday, December 7, 2008

Accountability, cont.

Holding powerful people accountable for the consequences of their actions can be tough. It’s usually easy for the people at the top to find a scapegoat lower down when something goes wrong. But if the disasters they engineer are spectacular enough, the outcry is usually sufficient to make even powerful people hurt a little and sometimes give up some of their power.

Unless, that is, they hold a government position. In the private sector, people lose their jobs or even go to jail if they precipitate disasters on the job. In government, nothing happens to them unless they lose a war or get their generals so agitated that a coup ensues. In the meantime they’re generally pretty good at image management. There isn’t a tyrant in the world that doesn’t have a sizable fan club.

Multi-national corporations like Union Carbide at Bhopal can do a lot of damage, but but they are minor-leaguers compared with their public-sector rivals.

My local health-food restaurant has a picture of MaoTse-tung up on the wall, looking wise and benign. It’s a nice picture, and it gives the place a touch of color, indicating that the people that run the place have commendably progressive views and think that Mao was generally a fairly good fellow.

They need to read The Black Book of Communism, which details how somewhere between 20 and 43 million people starved to death as a direct result of Mao’s Great Leap Forward in 1959-61. This forced collectivization and clumsy industrialization of the Chinese peasantry laid waste to Chinese agriculture and led directly to what the authors of the book call “what was, and, one hopes, will forever remain, the most murderous famine of all time, anywhere in the world.” Among other attractive features of the scheme was forced labor, which led to minor glitches like the deaths of 10,000 out of 60,000 workers on one huge construction project in Henan.

The authors admit that “Undoubtedly it was not Mao’s intention to kill so many of his compatriots.” He was guilty merely of “economic incompetence, wholesale ignorance, and ivory-tower utopianism.” Those are crimes only if you work in the private sector, apparently. Mao’s reward for his body of work was canonization, both in China and in credulous circles outside it.

Of course, it’s easy to pick on outright totalitarians like the egregious Kim family regime in North Korea or the nightmarish Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Even the left is a little embarrassed by them. But you’ll still see defenses of Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, who wrecked that country’s agriculture with another forced collectivization scheme. His Wikipedia entry notes laconically that "the country fell on hard economic times", choosing not to detail how Nyerere forced the country’s rural population into camps, expropriated the mercantile class and handed industry over to an incompetent bureaucracy.

I’ve been picking on the left so far, maybe because it irks me that left-wing figures always get a pass for good intentions that is not granted to right-wing villains. If you proclaim socialism or some other kind of utopianism as your goal, you can get away with an extraordinary amount of destructive mischief and outright crimes, and people will still sell T-shirts with your picture on them in health food stores.

But you don’t have to be a totalitarian megalomaniac to wreak havoc on an economy or society. Respected U.S. senators Reed Smoot and Willis C. Hawley did their bit to destroy prosperity in 1930 when the infamous tariff act that bears their name instantly kneecapped foreign trade with the U.S., tipping the rest of the world into depression. They were directly responsible for millions of job losses and the descent of large masses of people into penury, but nobody ever suggested they be put on trial for it. And the well-meaning Wayne Wheeler and Andrew Volstead, who midwifed Prohibition in the U.S. in 1919, were never called on the carpet for the explosion of violence and long-term entrenchment of organized crime that resulted from that little brainstorm. They have ideological soulmates in our present-day government, whose ferocious prosecution of the Drug War fuels gang shoot-outs on U.S. streets, large-scale havoc in Mexico and civil war in Colombia.

The people behind these follies may have only the purest of intentions. But bad government policy can do a lot of damage, and people in government are insulated from accountability in a way that you and I aren’t. Democracy is supposed to provide a check on the worst government abuses, but it’s a blunt instrument and an inefficient regulator. Still, it’s still the best thing we have, and it has to be safeguarded wherever it’s in danger. Hugo Chávez has been busily bankrupting Venezuela for a decade now, squandering its oil wealth on untenable populist social schemes. He’s not the first politician to do that. But what makes him a villain is his scheming to stay in power and eliminate all political opposition so he can’t be held accountable for the damage. The Venezuelans mustn’t let him get away with that.

A certain U.S. president may pop into your mind here. I don’t especially want to get involved in partisan arguments, and there’s no need for me to pile on; there are plenty of people on the Dubya beat already. And my view of the past eight years is probably a little more nuanced than that of the people who foam at the mouth and turn red when George Bush appears on TV. But it’s hard to argue that the second Bush administration has been a howling success. Fortunately, we have a Constitution that says you can’t have more than eight years in the Oval Office. That’s our insurance policy.

Our clumsy and imperfect democracy is the only way, ultimately, we can hold these people accountable. We hand extraordinary power to our politicians, much more than the most devious CEO of a multi-national can ever hope for, and a lot of them misuse it. That’s why the brake pedal of democracy is so important. You can always throw the bums out.

If only everyone else in the world were as fortunate.

Sam Reaves

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


In 1991 Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson was hit with criminal charges in India resulting from the 1984 Bhopal disaster that killed up to 8,000 Indians, mostly poor, who had the misfortune to live near the Union Carbide plant that released a deadly cloud of methyl isocyanate into the air early one morning. Anderson was arrested and released on bail when he went to India in the wake of the disaster, then hounded for years by India’s attempts to extradite him following his retirement. He remains a hate figure for many, a symbol of reckless, ruthless multi-national corporations savaging the environment and leaving bodies in their wake as they squeeze dollars out of third-world workers.

I’m perfectly willing to acknowledge that Anderson bore some responsibility for the disaster; there were legitmate criticisms of UC’s safety record and procedures at the plant, and accountability is part of an executive’s job, one reason the top people pull down big pay packets. But in view of the fact that the actual cause of the accident was gross negligence if not sabotage (that remains in dispute) by low-level Indian workers at the plant, the attempt to throw Anderson into an Indian prison seems a bit extreme. Imputing criminal responsibility on the basis of an employee's misconduct? Man, that’s harsh.

But all right, fair enough: let’s agree that the people at the top of a hierarchy need to be held accountable, to the point of doing jail time if necessary, for everything that goes wrong on their watch. Let’s agree further that this should apply not only to the heads of multi-national corporations but also to heads of government.

Now that’s radical. Actually hold politicians accountable for the disasters they cause? That doesn’t happen much. The worst they can expect, usually, is to lose the next election, assuming they allow elections, and slink off to enjoy a cushy retirement.

But to avoid double standards, we need to think about tossing some of these scoundrels in jail. I have several candidates for time in the stocks, based on their performance in office. Let’s start with an obvious one:

Robert Mugabe I’m not sure anyone has ever wrecked a country as fast or as thoroughly as Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980. We’ll skate over his massacre of political and tribal rivals in the 1980’s and his savage campaign against homosexuals to concentrate on his demolition of Zimbabwe’s economy and society, which began in earnest in the late nineties. When white minority rule ended in 1980, Zimbabwe was a reasonably prosperous country that fed not only itself but much of southern Africa. But much of the best land was owned by white farmers whose ancestors had expropriated it from the natives, and it was accepted that some form of land reform was desirable and inevitable. Under British supervision a program was initiated that promoted peaceful transfer of the land with compensation for the white owners (who had, for all their sins, sunk generations of productive labor into it). This didn’t move fast enough for Mugabe, and in 2000 he staged a referendum which was to allow confiscation of white-owned land without compensation. Surprisingly, the referendum was voted down. Mugabe overruled the vote and encouraged his partisans simply to invade the farms.

What ensued was an orgy of violence and theft. White owners were driven out, some tortured and killed, and the land taken over by Mugabe’s cronies. Agricultural production plummeted. No, that’s too mild. It crashed and burned. It seems that Mugabe’s pals were not quite ready to assume responsibility for running a modern agricultural operation. Zimbabwe quickly became dependent on international food aid. Then, in 2004 Mugabe kicked out the aid organizations, claiming that Zimbabwe was capable of feeding itself.

He also demonized foreign companies, arbitrarily seizing majority stakes in many of them. Most of them left. When the ensuing economic crash left Mugabe without enough tax revenues to pay his growing patronage army (the only well-fed sector of society), he started simply printing money, triggering hyperinflation on a scale not seen since Germany’s in the early twenties.

In 2005 Mugabe had his security forces demolish shantytowns where he himself had encouraged rural poor to settle while awaiting housing he promised to build them. The attacks drove thousands of destitute people back into the ravaged countryside.

Today aid agencies are estimating that five million Zimbabweans, nearly half the population, are in imminent danger of starvation. This in a country that was a food exporter as late as the 1990’s. Millions of other Zimbabweans have fled, many to South Africa, where they have been targeted in pogroms by South Africa’s own poor, who have little to share. In a decade Zimbabwe has gone from being a relatively prosperous African success story to a catastrophic humanitarian emergency.

All of this is the direct result of decisions made explicitly by Robert Mugabe, who remains in power, was invited to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization conference (other African leaders threatened to boycott the meeting if Mugabe was barred) and remains a member in good standing of the African Union.

Mugabe held accountable? Don’t hold your breath. He’s the head of a government, and they are held to different standards than heads of private companies. Which is to say, none at all.

I’ll be writing about other candidates for the Presidential Penitentiary, including some closer to home. Stay tuned...

Sam Reaves

Monday, November 10, 2008

The New Guy in Washington

The election of Barack Obama as the next President of the United States has people all over the world fanning themselves and reeling with the vapors. Come January, the man at the helm of the world’s greatest power will be a mixed-race outsider with international roots who clawed his way up the ladder, instead of the anointed son of a moneyed family deeply entrenched in the old power structure. That testifies to the dynamism of our political system, which with all its faults still manages to shake things up from time to time.

That’s not to say, of course, that everything is going to be different now or that Saint Barack is going to solve all our problems by a laying-on of hands. He’s got a passel of them to contend with. Not too many presidents have taken office with more crises in progress. And the entrenched interests and the systemic problems remain the same. We’re going to have a black president, but there are no black solutions to our problems, only pragmatic ones which need intelligence to discern and political skill to implement.

So if you voted for Obama, be prepared for the frustrations and the disappointments, and if you voted against him, relax. He’s not going to turn us into Zimbabwe. There’s too much inertia in our system for that. If Obama proves to be a good president, it won’t be because he’s black—it will be because he has the right vision and administrative skills. And if he proves to be a bad president? That’s right—it won’t be because he’s black. It will be because he shares the flaws of our other bad presidents, who it seems to me were fairly pale of hue. Maybe having a president with a melanin-intensive complexion will help people stop fixating on skin color.

If nothing else, Obama’s win is vindication for my side in a couple of arguments I’ve been having for years. First, I never believed it when people said that the United States was too racist ever to elect a black person president. I’ve been hearing this for a long time, from smug foreigners and guilt-wracked Americans, and I never bought it for a minute. All it took was the right candidate. It’s true that Americans won’t elect a candidate who is primarily seen as a black activist—that’s why Jesse Jackson never got out of the box. But Colin Powell would have been a strong candidate, if he hadn’t had the good sense to put his family first. And Obama proves that even a liberal black can get elected, provided he appeals to more than the Bill Ayerses of the world. Obama, like Bill Clinton, got elected because he understands that the country at large is more conservative than the Democratic party. If he’s as smart as he seems, he’ll keep that in mind as he makes policy, too.

The second argument Obama settles is the one about the role of money in elections. Have you heard any progressives whining about the role of big money in elections since Obama broke his promise about public funding and then broke all the fund-raising records? Me neither. Like it or not, in politics money is free speech, and campaign finance “reform” essentially amounts to incumbent protection. I suspect we won’t be hearing much from the left about this issue for a while, now that the left has learned how to raise truckloads of money.

So sit back, keep your fingers crossed, and see how the New Guy does. It’s going to be interesting, at the very least.

Sam Reaves

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Double standards

Conservatives love to complain about double standards in the media, and sometimes it’s just whining and then every once and a while something comes along that makes you think they’ve got a point.

Sandra Bernhard, in a performance her one-woman show in Washington, D.C., last week said that Sarah Palin would be “gang-raped by my big black brothers” if she tried to campaign in New York city.

Hmmm. OK, let’s admit that Sandra Bernhard is an “edgy” comedienne and that she makes a living by provoking and that sometimes we need to be provoked and sometimes we even enjoy it. But still. That’s a contemptible remark. There’s no other word for it. Besides the almost pathological level of vituperation toward a mere political candidate, I think if I were a black man living in New York I might wish Bernhard had consulted me before making that claim on my behalf. A joke about black men gang-raping a white woman? You’ve got to be kidding me. Can Sandra Bernhard really get away with that?

When Don Imus made a vapid, offensive crack about “nappy-headed ho’s” he was run out of town on a rail. And the reaction to Bernhard’s remark? “The fact that the show has a few riffs like this does not — to my mind — make it a "disgusting show...," says Ari Roth of Theater J, the venue hosting Bernhard’s show. “We’re proud that she’s a new emblem and ambassador for our theater and our center... her large heart, her generous talent, and her big mouth are all a big part of who we are.”

As for Bernhard, she explained by saying, "I certainly wish Governor Palin no harm. I'd just like her to explain to me how she can hold such outrageous views - and then go back to Alaska."

Well, thanks for that. I’ll leave it to you to judge whether Sarah Palin’s views are more outrageous than Bernhard’s joke. Maybe you can catch Bernhard’s show in Chicago, where the Tribune gave her an extensive admiring profile on the eve of her appearance there. Apparently the consequences for Sandra Bernhard’s career are going to be, if anything, positive.

That’s too bad. It remains a truly appalling remark. Why are liberals, supposedly differentiated from conservatives by their greater compassion and decency, prone to such rants when faced with conservative females or blacks? Maybe because some liberals are shallow thinkers who cannot conceive of women or blacks starting from different assumptions or interpreting the world in a different way. They are outraged when blacks and women don't conform to their expectations of the correct political view. They assume that blacks and women must be liberals or else they're hypocrites and scoundrels. And if you’re a hypocrite or a scoundrel, you are beyond the pale.

I don’t mind Sandra Bernhard being edgy. I just want her held to the same standards as anybody else. Forget Sarah Palin-- if you’re a black man living in New York, Sandra Bernhard owes you an apology.

Sam Reaves

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Free Market Free Fall

It’s a tough time to be a proponent of free-market economics, with the financial system in crisis and the real economy heading into a recession. As markets plunge and the government reaches into taxpayers’ pockets to bail out the Wall Street crapshooters who got us into this mess, the triumphalism on the political left is growing. The narrative is that the ascendancy of free-market ideology beginning in the eighties has led to a worldwide crisis and a wholesome political backlash (as exemplified in Latin America), as victims of global capitalism begin to fight for their alienated rights.

A good summation of this position was the speech by Naomi Klein at the University of Chicago on October 4th opposing the establishment of an economics think tank named for Milton Friedman. In essence Klein accuses Friedman and his followers of peddling a utopian vision which has not stood the test of reality but has been imposed by force around the world to allow the rich to get richer while further impoverishing the poor. She calls it a “class war” and says that the rich have won but the poor are fighting back.

There’s no question that income disparities have grown as real wages have stagnated and tremendous benefits have accrued to the top income levels over the past couple of decades. Whether or not this constitutes a war on the poor depends on whether you are inclined to perceive intentional malice behind every negative social development. Karl Popper warned against this “conspiracy theory of society”, and I am inclined to agree with him.

One of Popper’s key philosophical insights was that we cannot, as a point of logic, know all possible implications of our statements, and in the real world this is amply reflected in the myriad “unintended and unforeseen consequences of our actions.” So I’m not inclined to believe that people in corner office suites on Wall Street sat there plotting to impoverish people; I’m rather inclined to believe that they sat there looking for ways to make lots of money. You don’t need a cackling, moustache-twirling villain to explain this scenario. You just need ordinary human failings.

I even believe that at least some of those Wall Street titans thought about the poor occasionally. They probably thought that by paying taxes, giving to charity, and, most importantly, helping to mobilize capital to create new jobs, they were helping the poor. This may well have been self-serving delusion. But the only sensible question to ask is whether, in fact, they were right or wrong in their belief. I don’t think that talking about a war on the poor contributes to our understanding of what alleviates poverty. But it gets a gratifying reaction from an audience.

I don’t know whether Naomi Klein endorses the conspiracy theory of society, but she certainly believes that Milton Friedman’s ideas have served primarily to justify an illegitmate, anti-democratic wealth grab. She is raising legitimate questions about the consequences of the ideas Friedman espoused, and those of us who tend to agree with Friedman have to answer them. We have to take a hard look at what we believe and whether real-world experience bears it out. Another thing Karl Popper said was that the scientific attitude is the critical attitude, and we can (and should) subject even our basic assumptions to criticism.

Whether you think current events are refuting your position, of course, depends on how you frame your position, and the temptation always is to do some rapid tailoring of your position as events overtake it. (“I never said that! I only claimed...“ etc.) I’ll try to be as honest as possible about what I believe and how events are affecting that.

There’s no doubt that the current financial crisis has to make us think twice about the wisdom of the current regulatory structure. In particular, it’s getting tougher to defend the decision in 1999 to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated investment banking from commercial banking. When the act was repealed, I remember thinking, “Well, why not? Won’t this allow banks more freedom to innovate?” Well, I guess it did. If you’re paying attention to the real world, I think you have to reconsider this one.

But I’m going to plead innocent, on behalf of market advocates, to one big charge that Klein implicitly made in her U. of C. speech. At several points she seems to conflate two different propositions: that markets are the best way to allocate economic resources and that markets should be totally unregulated. These are two very different propositions, and I only support the first one.

The first proposition has, I think, been amply borne out in the real world. Centralized economic planning has failed wherever it has been tried, because no bureaucracy can possibly match the demand for and supply of the millions of products that modern life involves. Only a relatively untrammeled price system can do that. (Friedman was far from the only economist to make this point and it is, I think, not widely contested among the economically literate.) Further, the attempt to exercise serious control of an economy must at some point devolve to authoritarianism because it criminalizes consensual economic acts.

This is the proposition I have come to support—that the free market is, by and large, allowing for some real-world cases of market failure that can be remedied without vitiating the principle, the best way to provide for people’s material needs. And I think real-world experience bears this out. Millions have been lifted out of poverty in the past couple of decades as planned economies have been liberalized and market principles have spread.

But I have never believed that markets should be completely unregulated. And I don’t know of many who do. There is a faction of capitalist anarchists out on the libertarian right (or would that be left?) who oppose any kind of state whatsoever, but they are a lonely few.

Laissez-faire does not mean no regulation, as Klein seems to believe. It means that the government should let the price system work to direct resources to where they are most in demand. It means, for example, that the government should not subsidize some products (like ethanol) and penalize others (like textiles from poor African countries). There’s a lot in the free-market position that even the left should be able to get on board with, like opposition to corporate welfare. The phrase laissez-faire applies to resource allocation. It doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to abuses.

Even most Wall Street capitalists think they should be regulated. Here’s what one of them has to say in the current edition of the National Review: “ proclaim that free markets are always their own best regulator is not only to fly in the face of history and common sense but also to ensure that the debate will be lost.” That’s Andrew Stuttaford, in a good discussion of right and wrong regulatory responses to the crisis.

The current crisis is the result of a catastrophic failure of regulation. And it’s possible that it was the product of the same mistaken conflation of propositions by people on the right that Klein makes out on the left. If our politicians took the free-market position to mean that the government should abdicate its responsibility to oversee our financial and economic system to insure its smooth and honest functioning, they were in error. But nothing in the current crisis makes me doubt the basic wisdom of Adam Smith’s or Milton Friedman’s insights into the efficiency of markets in providing for our needs.

The problem is to get regulation right. Financial innovators are always one step ahead of the regulators. And sometimes they need to be reined in. But regulation can be too heavy. And deregulation is not always bad. Real life involves trade-offs, and there’s an optimal point in the trade-off between freedom and prudent restriction which is hard to locate. Whether you incline more to the freedom end of the scale or the restriction end is part of what defines you politically. People can differ about this in good faith. It ought to be an empirical question. The right and the left can talk to each other if they avoid demonizing each other.

In her speech at the University of Chicago, Naomi Klein talked about the way Marxists were disillusioned by the Gulag, how the left had to undergo a healthy process of re-thinking in the wake of the manifest failure of communism. That doesn’t seem to have made her abandon the left; she just wants the left to be smarter. In the same way, those of us who believe that a great degree of economic freedom is a good thing need to be alert to real-world wake-up calls. We can re-think some things without abandoning the central insights of the free-market position. When all the shouting is over, I think we’ll still be on firmer ground than those that think the government should be in charge of distributing economic resources.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, October 5, 2008


The Chicago Cubs have done it again, collapsed in futility in their first playoff series for the second year in a row after winning the National League Central Division race. After a lot of hoopla about how things were different now and a genuinely good Cub team had a chance to break the century-long curse and go all the way, the whole thing turned sour and depressingly familiar.

I watched the second and third games in a bar, surrounded by twenty-somethings who reacted to the unfolding disaster with curses, bowed heads, hands thrown up in despair. Me, I laughed. And I was rooting for the Cubs. I told one of them, “Son, I’ve been watching this kind of thing for forty years.”

I decided in 2003 that I wasn't ever going to let this team depress me again. I’ve been a Cub fan since 1967, when my father took my brothers and me to a game in Wrigley Field and the Cubs beat Juan Marichal and the Giants on two Billy Williams homers and a clutch Ron Santo triple. I was hooked, and I thought I was on to a good thing. Little did I know. I lived through the 1969 collapse, the 1984 collapse, the 2003 collapse. I’ve been watching the Cubs collapse for a long time. I finally realized I don’t have to let it affect me. I'm happy when they win, but when they lose I don't have to care. My kids still love me, I don't have any less money in the bank... I don't give a damn. Life is easier that way.

The Florida Marlins have won two World Series titles in little more than a decade of existence; the Arizona Diamondbacks have won once. Meanwhile the Cubs have had one miserable season after another, with occasional brief spasms of competence ending in excruciating failure in post-season action. How do you explain this? What gives? How can this happen again and again? This is anomalous, eye-catching, epic, spooky failure.

I don’t think there are any curses involved. I think at this point the weight of past failures is so heavy that any Cub team going into the playoffs just can't avoid being tight. They can't just relax and play the game like any other team. It's like thinking about breathing. When you start to scrutinize what you normally do on reflex and muscle memory, it's over. And that's where the Cubs are at this point. Any little thing that goes wrong makes them start to think about what they are doing, and it just goes downhill from there.

I don't expect to see a Cub title in my lifetime. It's just not ever going to happen. It's not a curse, it's just psychology. Each failure makes further failures more inevitable.

But, of course, I don't care any more.

The pity is that this was a really good Cub team-- they won the division, and that's what you put a team together to do. There is a large element of chance in baseball-- you can nail one and have it go into a fielder's glove or nub a dribbler that gets through for a hit. That's why they play series-- one game can be decided by chance, but over a series of games the breaks are supposed to even out. And the more games are involved, the more chance there is that the best team actually wins. That's why the old-fashioned pennant race was a better test of who the most talented team really was. In a short series, anything can happen, and mistakes get magnified.

So give the Cubs credit for being the best team in the National League over the course of the year, and the worst in baseball at handling pressure that will only get worse each time they make the playoffs. I’m not making excuses for them—it’s called choking, and they choked big-time, once again. But I’m starting to think that choking comes with the territory for this old, tired, sad franchise. If this Cub team couldn’t handle the pressure, what Cub team ever will?

If you are a Cub fan, you just have to accept this.

But, of course, I don’t care any more. I’m laughing...

Sam Reaves

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Oops, again

The Afghan government is protesting again that a U.S. airstrike has killed a large number of civilians. The U.S. military says the strike in Azizabad in Shindand district took out 30 Taliban fighters and a long-sought commander; local villagers claim that more than 70 civilians were killed. The military says it is investigating and that “All allegations of civilian casualties are taken very seriously.”

Not seriously enough to consider changing our approach, apparently. This report could be a Xerox of numerous previous incidents; I wrote about this a year ago. Again and again we have killed civilians in airstrikes aimed at the Taliban, provoking protests among the people we are supposedly trying to protect. Now, I am aware that we are at war and that a certain amount of collateral damage is unavoidable. But damage remains collateral only as long as it is accepted by the population supposedly being protected. As long as there is a consensus that deaths are accidental and part of the price paid for the benefits of military action, the term “collateral damage” can be used with a straight face. When that damage reaches the point where the population rises in protest against it, it’s not collateral any more. It’s indistinguishable from hostile action. And the Afghans start to wonder who their real enemy is, undermining everything good we’re trying to do in Afghanistan.

Here’s a thought: maybe airstrikes are not a very good tool in counter-insurgency warfare. Maybe when the enemy is not a massed conventional army but rather an irregular force operating among the population of the country supposedly being liberated, airstrikes can do more harm than good. Counter-insurgency, as the U.S. military is rapidly learning, is a whole different ball game from conventional warfare, requiring a patient approach that gets the population of the country working with us. And reducing a village to a smoking ruin seems a poor way to win the villagers over.

This is a tactical question. I don’t question our goals in Afghanistan. The Taliban need to be defeated so they don’t come back and kill all the Afghan girls who have learned to read. But the Taliban are not considerate enough to operate on clearly demarcated battlefields. They hide in villages. And taking out the whole village only turns the next village over the ridge against us.

Forgoing airstrikes, of course, will mean a certain amount of pain for U.S. troops on the ground. Counter-insurgency is slower, harder and more dangerous to infantry and special forces than the airstrike approach. It’s a tough way to win a war. But in the long run it’s the only way. Look at the successful counter-insurgency campaigns in recent history (e.g. the British effort in Malaya), and there’s no mystery about what works, as laid out in an article by Kalev I. Sepp in the Military Review. Better military minds than mine have looked at this problem.

Somebody in the Pentagon needs to think about this. It’s not too late to save Afghanistan, but if we keep on treating Afghan villagers like furniture, it might be before too long.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, August 10, 2008

This Just In

Somehow the desire to wrestle with Big Ideas evaporated in the summer heat, but I keep on reading the papers. Some random news items and the thoughts they provoke:

Pinocchios in Politics: Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is self-destructing, charged now with 10 felony counts in two separate cases after he allegedly assaulted two sheriff’s deputies trying to serve a subpoena on a friend of his. Kilpatrick had previously been tossed in the clink for violating bond conditions on a perjury rap. I think the pressure’s getting to him.

It’s a sad spectacle any way you look at it. What’s interesting to me is how the whole thing started: with accusations of adultery which emerged in the course of a lawsuit against Kilpatrick brought by a police official he had fired. The suit had nothing to do with Kilpatrick’s love life, but he denied the accusations under oath and was promptly indicted for perjury, starting his death spiral.

Meanwhile, the papers today are full of John Edwards’s confession after repeated denials that he conducted an affair with a staffer while his wife was suffering from cancer. There goes his political career. Maybe he and Kilpatrick can open a hot dog stand together. Then there was Eliot Spitzer. Oh, and the last time a U.S. President was impeached it was all about hanky-panky in the Oval Office, wasn’t it?

The worldly Europeans laugh at us about this. The fact that a political career in the United States can founder on an illicit love affair leaves them shaking their heads. France’s former president Mitterand fathered an illegitimate daughter and lived with his mistress, and the current guy, Nicolas Sarkozy, ditched his wife and hooked up with a fashion model in the middle of his first year in office, all under the glare of the flashbulbs. Nobody’s calling for his resignation, not for that, anyway.

Are we hopeless Puritan boobs in this country? Does a man’s philandering have anything to do with his competence as an administrator, his vision as a statesman? When Georgia and Russia are at war and Pakistan is about to fly into a thousand pieces, is John Edwards really the most important news story? What gives with this?

There’s no question that there’s a strong Puritan strain in our culture; the country was settled by folks who came here because they thought Europe was hopelessly Godless and decadent. There’s no Religious Right anywhere near as strong as ours in Europe. And that’s reflected in our politics.

But there’s more to it than that. Look at what people are actually getting indicted for. Kilpatrick’s original crime was perjury. And Bill Clinton was impeached not for shtuping the help when he should have been attending to matters of state but, again, for lying about it under oath. As for Spitzer, he knew his career was over because he campaigned as a paragon of virtue and then got caught with his pants down.

In other words, Americans don’t like liars and hypocrites. I haven’t heard anyone suggest that JFK was a lousy president because he cheated on Jackie. And Barney Frank is still in Congress despite his dalliance with the head of a male prostitution ring because he admitted everything and threw himself on the mercy of his constituents. At least in Massachusetts, voters can be very forgiving. It’s getting caught and not fessing up that’s fatal.

So if you’re up to no good, whether cheating on your wife or cheating on your taxes (remember, Martha Stewart didn’t go to the Big House because of insider trading but because she lied about it to investigators), whatever you do, just don’t try and deny it. When the snoops kick in the door and catch you with your pants down, you’ll probably be OK if you schedule a press conference the next day, haul your wife in front of the cameras to stand beside you, muster up a few tears and apologize to all and sundry. Americans will forgive just about anything except trying to weasel out of the spanking you know you richly deserve.

Oops: Police in Prince George’s County, Maryland, raided the house of a small-town mayor, shot his two dogs, and kept him in handcuffs for a couple of hours before determining that they had made a mistake in identifying him as a drug dealer. The mayor has been exonerated and received an apology, but the dogs are gone for good.

The War on Drugs keeps producing mistakes like this. When you criminalize actions that are essentially non-predatory, consensual and private, you make everyone’s private life police business. This is a violation of so many American ideals it’s hard to know where to start in listing them. In a country which for the most part does pretty well by world standards at leaving its citizens alone, the drug war is a hideous exception, with Gestapo-like raids, high-handed seizures of property and harsh prison sentences for non-violent actions.

Drugs can do great harm. But drug abuse should be regarded as the user’s problem, like, say, alcohol abuse. Drugs should be regarded as a public health problem rather than a criminal problem. Legalize and regulate, and stop kicking in people’s doors.

Sam Reaves

Friday, July 4, 2008


It’s the Fourth of July again, and we’re celebrating something. Most people, of course, are just celebrating not having to go to work, an occasion for a party if there ever was one. But the deep-thinker types insist on asking about the meaning of the occasion, and some of them are not in a partying mood. “...the history of my country has been a series of wars of conquest and subjugation masquerading in mainstream discourse as a series of heroic frontiers...” says Clare Brandabur in an essay on the Arabic Media Internet Network. And “...when it comes to black America's history and Old Glory, there is a hypocrisy that cannot be swept away with one hundred tragic 9-11s,” says the pseudonymous Morpheus on

What about it? Is the Fourth of July a mass exercise in hypocrisy, an orchestrated distraction from the ugly reality of American history? Should we be cringing instead of partying, hanging our heads in shame?

Well, let’s consider. Is there a country on earth whose history doesn’t involve conquest, subjugation and convenient tidying up of history? The Arabs swept across half the globe imposing their religion by force, before they were subjugated in turn by Western colonial powers. The Bantu tribes went marauding into the southern regions of Africa, subjugating as they went, before the the Afrikaners did it to them. And why do the Apache live in the Arizona desert? Because they were driven off the plains by the Comanche. There are few innocent nations, and the European settlement of North America was hardly unique in its expropriation of already occupied land.

Successful expropriation is not what we’re celebrating today. What we’re celebrating today is, on the contrary, the things that redeem American history, the principles and the achievements that manage to raise this project of ours above the familiar sordidness of human affairs. The reason we celebrate the Fourth of July is that on this date in 1776 a document was signed that, uniquely up to that time in human history, asserted as the founding principle of a nation a set of principles, instead of shared ancestry or fealty to a monarch. Unlike say, Germany, where they’re still debating whether third-generation residents of Turkish ancestry can be real Germans, here we say you can be an American as long as you embrace a few key principles. And while those principles were compromised from the start by the existence of slavery and the expropriation of the native peoples, a lot of Americans have expended a lot of blood, sweat and tears over the years to force us back toward those ideals. That’s the central struggle of American history, and that’s the honorable part of it, what we celebrate today.

The ugly side of American history is the human side: the swindles and the massacres and the deportations and the lynchings. Those should never be forgotten, but there’s nothing especially American about them, either. Open a world history text to any page. The particularly American side of our history is how the institutions derived—by fits and starts—from those founding principles have forced us time and again to confront those things. The economy of half the country was based on slavery, and the other half refused to accept that. A cruel system of racial separation was ended by a combination of grass-roots action and pressure from the federal government. And our courts have an irritating habit of telling the government it can’t get away with things that in other countries are done by decree.

A cynic will point out that all of these achievements have been resisted by vested interests. So they have—and they happened anyway, because we were bequeathed a strong and flexible system designed to limit state power and enable reformist zeal. And when we betray our principles, there is pressure for remedy and recompense. It’s an imperfect, clumsy system, but show me one elsewhere that’s done better. There’s a reason why our net migration flow is so overwhelmingly into the United States. Our struggles have produced an extraordinarily dynamic society, with a highly fluid concept of class and a realistic prospect of prosperity for the great majority.

And if you’re black, or Native American? What’s in it for you? Do you have any reason to celebrate the Fourth of July? Well, the African-American community with all its problems is the world’s wealthiest population of African origin, by far. You might celebrate that on the Fourth, without giving an inch on your claim to a fair shake from a society run by whites. As for the Indians, it’s hard to imagine a world in which nobody ever intruded into their stone-age Eden. Sooner or later they would have had to engage modernity. In a best-case scenario, without theft and slaughter, what would the life of the Lakota or the Cherokee look like today? I don’t know. But I suspect that the old ways of life were doomed anyway. Change could have happened without slaughter, maybe, assuming a superhuman prescience and restraint on the part of the settlers the likes of which have never existed anywhere. Ask it this way: is there another framework in which the original nations of America could exist today that would be better than the one that exists, of a modern state ceding sovereignty in local matters to the native communities? If you can’t come up with one, you might as well celebrate the Fourth along with the rest of us.

None of this is to encourage triumphalism or complacency. We’ve got a lot of problems. But we’ve also got institutions and traditions and attitudes that foster solutions to those problems. And those are what we celebrate on the Fourth of July.

Look at the essays I cited above. You’ll see that Clare Brandabur says, “I love my country.” You’ll see that Morpheus says, “ patriotism stands up for the greatest ideals written into the American idea.” I don’t want to speak for them, but I suspect that these two critics of our historical record recognize, in spite of their reservations, the value of what we’re celebrating today—institutions and attitudes that were designed to manage the strife inherent in human affairs.

So have another beer, guilt-free, and raise a quiet toast to those ideas Jefferson held to be self-evident two hundred and thirty-two years ago. They’re what all the fuss is about today.

Sam Reaves

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Platform, Part Four

Foreign Policy

George Washington advised the young United States to avoid foreign entanglements, and that’s not a bad basis for anybody’s foreign policy. The trouble is, foreign entanglements get harder and harder to avoid as a country grows and develops. Much of our prosperity is based on trade, and international trade depends on an international rule of law. So isolationism becomes less viable as globalization advances.

I’m in favor of globalization, so I have to favor things that reinforce an international rule of law. This puts me at odds with people who believe that our participation in international organizations such as the United Nations or the World Trade Organization undermines our sovereignty. It also puts me at odds with people who think that any action on behalf of U.S. interests abroad is by definition imperialism and therefore to be opposed. So both the far right and the far left are going to have problems with my position on our role in the world. Tough.

Globalization is inevitable, and, I believe, a good thing. Trade makes everyone richer, and countries that have peaceful trading relations are less likely to go to war. One prominent feature of the run-up to war in the dismal nineteen-thirties was the proliferation of embargoes and tariffs that crippled international trade, spread the Depression, and provided dictators with ready-made grievances. So I think it’s in our national interest, as well as that of the world as a whole, to promote a smoothly functioning system of international trade.

Beyond trade, peace depends on the ability of people and information to circulate freely around the world. Travel contributes to human knowledge, and travelers need security and predictability in their movement. All of this means coordination between nations and some system of international law. And because there is no law without enforcement, this means some mechanism for international coordination of the application of force, i.e. police and military powers.

The UN and the WTO and other world bodies were set up to provide this kind of international coordination, and they are indispensable in some form or other. Those who complain that we surrender sovereignty by belonging to and cooperating with these bodies are, of course, to some extent correct, and they certainly have a point when they protest the corruption and hypocrisy that is so common at the UN. But to me that means only that, like all human institutions, these world bodies need constant maintenance and reformist vigilance, not that we can do without them. We can’t, not if we want to further the globalization that benefits us as much as anyone else. Globalization has to be fair and governed by rules everyone plays by if it is to find widespread support.

So I favor continued membership in and contribution to world bodies such as the UN and the WTO, while at the same time I favor increased insistence on probity and accountability in those bodies. As the major bankroller of the UN and other bodies, we’re in a good position to insist on these things. We should pay our dues and use our leverage to insist on reform.

In general, then, my foreign policy is based on the principle of strengthening the rule of law in the international arena. But what does this mean applied to real-world conflicts? Let’s get down to cases. I’ve talked about Iraq in a previous post, but let’s recapitulate: What are reasonable goals to pursue in Iraq? At this point, we’re playing damage control, having presided over a disastrous collapse in Iraqi society. Our goal in Iraq should be the restoration of basic security. This appears to be achievable; the surge has had real and positive effects. Beyond that, our goals should be modest. We can’t make Iraq a western-style democracy. Only the Iraqis can do that. We can’t prevent Iraq from cozying up to Iran. We can’t even insist that they agree to a long-term American military presence. We can only restore order, leave the basic structures of an independent state in place, and hope for the best. If our experience in Iraq has taught us anything, it should have taught us to avoid hubris.

This applies especially to Iran. Iran represents a potentially more serious danger than Saddam Hussein’s Iraq ever did, with its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Even if they’ve temporarily mothballed their weapons program, once they have enriched uranium, re-starting it is a snap. How scary would an Iranian bomb be? Maybe no scarier than the North Korean and Pakistani bombs. But every time another dubious regime gets the bomb, the world becomes a more dangerous place. If you are bothered about Israel or India having the bomb, you can’t tell me it wouldn’t be so bad if Iran had it. And pious exhortations aren’t going to dissuade the mullahs.

This is the toughest problem of modern statecraft. We don’t want everybody to have the bomb, but we really can’t stop anybody who is determined to get it unless we’re prepared to wage war. And how many wars can we afford?

Keeping Iran from getting the bomb is an urgent foreign policy goal. But it would be good to find a way of doing that short of total war. We should keep in mind that Iran is a much less monolithic state than Hussein’s Iraq was. To an extent, it is even a democracy, certainly more so than our gallant ally Saudi Arabia. The Iranian government is dominated by hard-liners, but there are also strong reformist currents in Iranian society and even rumbles of discontent in government circles about Ahmadinejad’s grandstanding. A war with Iran would instantly legitimize the hard-liners, unite Iranian society in hostility to the West and shove any positive political trends into the deep freeze. So war should be a last resort.

First, in accordance with our adherence to the rule of law, we should make clear that any nation willing to play by the rules is entitled to reap the benefits. We should emphasize to the Iranians that our opposition is specifically to their infractions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which they are a signatory, and their evident lying about said infractions. Then, without waiting for an improbable change of heart, we need to keep up the carrot-and-stick approach, in conjunction with the Europeans, who seem to agree with us (for a change) that Iran is a problem. The carrot is the offer of technical assistance in developing peaceful nuclear power. As for the stick, sanctions have their role. But the unspoken threat of a few quick airstrikes (either by the U.S. or, more plausibly, by Israel) might concentrate minds wonderfully in Teheran as well. It doesn’t have to be total war. We didn’t need a regime change to make Qaddafi have second thoughts about Libya’s weapons program. And even surgical airstrikes should be kept in reserve. But the U.S. should keep the mullahs guessing by refusing to take the military option off the table.

If you think that’s too harsh, you’re not living in the real world. Ultimately the only answer to existential threats in the nuclear age is deterrence. And deterrence is an ugly thing. Deterrence means we are prepared to be just as nasty as anybody else. It means if you hit me, I’ll hit you back. And that’s childish. But sometimes it’s the only way to keep the peace. Deterrence has to be convincing. People have to be sure that we are both willing and able to commit mass slaughter if provoked. And that’s not a gratifying role to play.

But we have to play it. It’s the only thing that works. In the meantime, we can do our best to get everyone to agree that a nuclear arms race is expensive and dangerous, and keep negotiating and drawing down nuclear arsenals and improving international control of nuclear materials and all of that, and we might even make some progress. But we’re always going to need at least a minimal nuclear deterrent. Pacifism is not an option, not in a world where Kim Jong-Il can run a country.

However, that doesn’t mean that all foreign policy problems are military problems. Somebody said that if all you have is a hammer all your problems tend to look like nails, and as the world’s sole superpower, we risk falling into the trap of wanting everything to have a military solution. We have to make sure we use the other tools we have.

The best tool we have is the undisputed appeal of an open society. Migration patterns are the truest indicator of quality of life, and that fence some people want to build isn’t to keep people in. Even the Muslims want to come here. To a high degree, we have a free economy, a fluid class system and a strong tradition of personal liberty and freedom of expression. All these things come under assault from time to time (from both right and left), but so far they’re hanging on. And as long as they do, most of the world will be on our side, most of the time.

We have to take care of those things here at home. We also have to make clear that they are universal values and that we support their extension. That doesn’t mean we can do it by force. That may work sometimes (see Japan and Germany), but it’s damned expensive. We can’t afford that kind of effort more than once a century or so. It’s better to set the example, nurture relations with like-minded countries and realize that living in the real world is going to mean making compromises sometimes. A dose of Realpolitik is always necessary.

I’ve written before that the War on Terror is a mistaken metaphor—as horrific as September 11 was, it wasn’t a military action. It was a brutal and spectacularly successful crime. Al-Qaeda doesn’t have any carrier groups or armored divisions. What it has is a line of cant that a certain type of shallow-thinking person in the Muslim world finds attractive. But they are a minority, even in Muslim society, and if we don’t further alienate and enrage Muslims with invasions and mass civilian deaths, eventually they themselves will defeat Al-Qaeda. It’s already happening in Iraq. Our approach to the Muslim world should be like our approach to anybody else—offer them the benefits of trade and migration and make clear that in return we expect them to act as responsible members of the world community and police their extremists. A good place to start is with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, our two allies in the War on Terror. We should emphatically support liberalizing political and social currents in those countries.

A full exposition of my foreign policy platform is beyond the scope of a single post because there are a lot of countries and crises in the world. I’ve touched on some of these in past posts, and I’ll deal with others in the future. In general, my approach is based on strengthening the rule of law, even if that means relinquishing a degree of sovereignty, while keeping in mind that ultimately the threat of force is what makes countries toe the line and keeps us safe. I favor supporting the WTO and a serious push for freer international trade. I favor our phased withdrawal from long-term military commitments abroad (like our heavy presence in Korea) and in general a more pacific approach to international conflicts. I wouldn’t have invaded Iraq. But I’m not a pacifist. Afghanistan is a war worth fighting. And there will be others.

But in the long run, the best thing for us and for the world is to promote increased trade and migration between countries, despite the short-term costs to particular interests, because globalization is what will tend to bring everybody’s interests into line. That is not a Utopian vision, but rather a principle to be followed in dealing with the terminal messiness of human affairs. Arrange things so that people have more to gain by trading with their neighbors than by invading them. But be prepared for breakdowns, flare-ups and plain old human savagery. Above all, a U.S. president has to keep a firm grasp on principle and stay on his toes.

Sam Reaves

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Platform, Part Three

Controlling spending is the hardest part of fiscal policy, because everybody’s got their hand out, and everybody’s got a case to make. The number of worthy causes that could benefit from a pile of somebody else’s money is infinite, and people are coming up with new ideas all the time. It’s hard to say no when somebody points out a problem that could use an infusion of money, and Congressmen don’t like to disappoint people any more than you do. So we keep getting new spending programs. And once a program is up and running, it’s even harder to get rid of it. Cancel a program and people lose jobs. Even if a program is a boondoggle, a total waste of money, it’s hard to kill it. There are always people passionately defending it. Usually the argument includes a line like, “This program represents a mere (insert small percentage here) of federal spending, which is nothing compared to what we spend on defense.” The problem is that there are hundreds and hundreds of these worthy programs that cost only a small percentage of federal spending. If you don’t find a way to limit them, they add up.

Meanwhile, everyone’s got an idea about what should be cut—somebody else’s pet program. Some things are no-brainers to anyone with a sincere commitment to good policy, like abolishing farm subsidies and corporate welfare programs. There’s no mystery about what the rotten programs are: the Cato Institute publishes a useful guide to corporate welfare. The information is out there for all of us to see. You’d think you could get everybody behind abolishing corporate welfare; if ever there was an issue ripe for bi-partisanship, this is it. Democrats don’t like corporations and Republicans like the free market, or so they say. But even the most egregious federal giveaways are defended by their beneficiaries the way a drunk defends his last half-pint. And legislators stick up for each other because they’re all implicated—vote for my program and I’ll vote for yours. What’s needed is for taxpayers to raise a stink, loudly and consistently. This means you—e-mail your representatives today.

Everyone’s against earmarks — the pork legislators slip into the budget—and they’re scandalous, of course, but they represent only a small fraction of the budget. The truth is that there’s no magic bullet. There’s no simple answer to controlling spending, no single item or category that can be easily slashed to bring down the deficit and make room for the things you think the government should be spending money on. Unfortunately, limiting spending means, sooner or later, attacking the really big items in the budget: defense and entitlements.

The biggest entitlement is Social Security, and it’s going to bust us if we don’t reform it. If we don’t privatize it, at least partially, we’re going to have to means-test it. There’s no reason well-off people should be receiving a Social Security check each month, even if they have been paying into the system all their working lives. They’ll say they’re entitled to that money, and of course according to the terms the program was set up on, they’re right. But besides total privatization there’s no way to reform Social Security without some injustice somewhere. It’s unjust right now because it’s a regressive tax. And people at the lowest economic levels tend to die before they receive the benefits they have paid into the system. It’s a bad deal for them, compared with what they could make with private accounts (which would be inheritable). There is simply no way to make Social Security fair for everyone; that’s trying to square a circle. Either you privatize it or you admit that it’s a redistributive program. And if you admit the latter, you still have to deal with the funding problems, either by cutting benefits or raising taxes. Anything else is dreaming. You have to recognize limits and stand up to the howls of protest that any meaningful reform will bring. Take your pick—but don’t tell me that continuing the program in its current form is an option. Social Security is going to have to be curtailed, somehow, or we’ll go broke.

As for defense, it accounts for roughly a quarter of federal spending, and it would be nice if we could hack it down to size. Yes, it is a huge burden, particularly with two wars going on, one of them arguably unnecessary. I’d love to see defense spending come down, and I’m not especially a pacifist. Disengagement from foreign entanglements would be a significant part of my foreign policy as President, and that would eventually allow us to cut defense spending significantly. But even if we stay out of needless wars, there’s a limit to how much we ought to slash defense spending. National defense is one of the legitimate functions of the national government, and it’s expensive. The people who have those bumper stickers saying how nice it will be when the Air Force has to hold a bake sale are living in a dream world. Even if we weren’t leaking blood and treasure in Iraq, even if we could get the Koreans and the Japanese and the Europeans to assume the full costs of their national defense, we’d still need a relatively large defense establishment, because part of what keeps the peace is deterrence.

But isn’t it perverse to spend so much on war when so many people here at home don’t have access to decent health care? Why can’t we slash defense spending to pay for health care? Well, some would say that paying for health care is a legitimate function of national government, some would say it’s not. Me, I tend to the latter point of view. Health care is consumed by individuals and can be paid for by individuals with the help of insurance. There is a government role in providing a safety net for people who are unable for whatever reason to obtain insurance, but that’s a far cry from having the government directly run a large slice of the economy. Meanwhile, military action by its nature requires centralized decision-making and the coercive coordination of vast enterprises. It’s an inherently collective enterprise, which makes it a great candidate for government control (as well as a significant danger to prosperity and good government—definitely a handle-with-care proposition). So I’d say we’ll always need to spend more tax money on defense than on health care, but I recognize that people can disagree with me in good faith.

This is the debate we should be having. What are the legitimate functions of government, anyway? But instead of debating the underlying issues, we just keep trying to pay for everything, and the costs keep ratcheting up. What we really need is a mechanism to cap federal spending and force politicians to have the hard debates and make the hard decisions each year.

So I propose some kind of legal mechanism to cap federal spending each year. I’m not sure a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution is the way to do it—the Constitution is hard to amend, and for a good reason. The Constitution ought to be concerned with the basic structure of government, not with policy questions like spending and taxation. For a policy question like limiting spending, legislation is the answer. And if we voters (and taxpayers) make enough noise, we ought to be able to shame our legislators into a bi-partisan commitment to fiscal responsibility. A good start might be to stump for the Cato Institute’s measure to cap federal spending, which would cap both discretionary and entitlement spending and would limit spending increases to an indicator such as the sum of population growth plus inflation. This would force legislators to make the tough choices each year.

There are always going to be political fights over limited resources, because needs are literally unlimited. And when you get past the most outrageous layers of largesse, the choices get harder. Reasonable people can differ. But we should never lose sight of the fact that the money the government spends is not free—it comes from you and me. And so the central plank in my platform for controlling federal spending is a cap mechanism that would force the people in Congress to do their job, which is to have a serious debate about what our priorities are and get rid of the things that don’t further those priorities.

Next time: Foreign Policy

Sam Reaves

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Platform, continued

Part Two: Tax Simplification

The U.S. tax code runs to thousands of pages, exactly how many it’s not clear (see an amusing variety of guesses along with the correct answer at Compliance with this monster absorbs millions of hours of labor every year, labor that is thus diverted from productive work. The labyrinthine code is navigable only by specialists who devote years to acquiring expertise in its provisions, another waste of human intelligence. What on earth could possibly fill those thousands of pages? Mainly special favors, provisions that are specifically designed to allow people with friends in Congress to avoid paying taxes. The U.S. tax system is a scandal.

Efforts at tax reform crop up periodically; a major and somewhat effective reform was carried out in 1986, for example. In the twenty-two years since then, however, Congress has been hard at work re-packing the code with special favors, undoing the reform. Reform is tough because every exemption and deduction has eloquent defenders. Give a man a tax break worth millions each year, and he will bring tears to your eyes talking about how vital it is to the health of the nation.

The root of the problem is the idea of allowing reductions in tax liability to encourage certain behaviors. Once this principle is admitted, the system is ripe for gaming. Some exemptions and deductions are (or at least seem) well-intentioned, like the deduction for charitable giving, and others are shameless giveaways to people with influence, like the percentage depletion allowance for mining companies, which allows them to write off a portion of the value of the minerals they extract. (As if they’re not making money from selling the stuff.) All of these breaks reduce revenue, complicate compliance and distort economic behavior.

I say it’s time to scrap tax exemptions and deductions altogether. That’s right, no exemptions. None. Not for your mortgage payment, not for your charitable contributions. I can hear you gasping, “But I’m not a fat cat!” I’m sure you’re not. But I mean it: no exceptions. Nobody gets a break for any reason. By way of compensation, I’d lower your tax rates. “Close the loopholes and lower the rates” ought to be the battle cry of tax reform.

Designing a fair and efficient tax system is tough because there are genuine philosophical differences about what fair means when it comes to taxation. Let’s try to get back to first principles: what is taxation, anyway? As an exercise, write a short essay explaining the difference between taxation and theft. An employer agrees to pay you a certain amount of money in exchange for what you can do for him; the government comes along and says, “Hand over a certain percentage of that or we’ll put you in jail.” Of course, you do receive valuable services in exchange for your money, like sugar subsidies and air strikes on Somali villages. (Am I being too snide?) But payment is not optional. And the government can arbitrarily decide to take more of your money any time it wants.

My point is not to turn you into a tax rebel; a case for moderate taxation with democratic oversight can be made. But proper perspective on taxation requires the awareness that it’s our damn money to start with, something the political left too often forgets. Running the government ought to be like running your local PTA: you decide what you want to accomplish this year, calculate how much money you’re going to need to do it, and figure out a way to raise it. Instead, the government extracts a huge pot of money from us according to an impossibly obscure set of principles that have little to do with how much money is actually needed, and then lets people with clout fight over who should get the biggest chunks of it. Instead of the PTA we have the Black Hand.

Some people think that taxation ought to be used to redistribute money from people who have earned lots of it to people who have not figured out how to earn any of it. Some think taxation should be used to chasten people who were lucky enough to be born with lots of money. Some think we should use taxation to encourage the cultivation of certain crops or the purchase of certain kinds of cars or the setting up of certain kinds of businesses.

Some or all of the foregoing may be desirable; Paris Hilton evidently has too much money and the old woman bagging groceries at my local supermarket probably has too little. But the tax code is not the proper vehicle for achieving social justice. That’s too slippery a concept for congressional appropriations geeks to deal with. And the major problem with letting the tax system be gamed is that the largest faction in Congress is the one which thinks taxation should be used to make certain people wealthy.

So the only meaningful reform of the tax code will be one that scraps exemptions entirely, taking special favors out of the equation once and for all. Now, the next question is whether you go to a flat rate, as a number of countries in Eastern Europe have done recently, or whether you have a progressive rate structure. Here again reasonable people can differ. On the face of it, what could be fairer than a flat rate? Everyone pays X percent of their income, period.

Except that if food costs a quarter of your income each month, ten percent of your income is a lot more to you than it is to someone who spends only a fraction of a percent of his income on food every month.

I’m not outraged on principle by the idea of progressive taxation, but there are some serious caveats. First, there has to be a cap. The curve has to level off. If marginal tax rates get too high, people hide their money, game the system, take their money to Switzerland or just stop trying to make more (thus decreasing investment and job generation). How hard are you going to work to make another ten thousand bucks if the government’s going to take nine thousand of it? High tax rates reach a point of diminishing returns fairly quickly.

So cap it. Ideally the tax rate curve would be asymptotic; as it approaches a reasonably low limit calculated to yield about what the government will need in the coming year (we'll talk about spending control later), the rate would level off, never reaching that limit.

Yes, some people make obscene amounts of money. But then some people like to look at obscene pictures, too. Obscenity is in the eye of the beholder. Who’s to say whether they deserve it or not? Until somebody comes up with a compelling philosophical argument to the contrary, I’m going to say that unless it can be proved by due process of law that you came by your money illegally, you should be allowed to keep the greater part of it. Envy and class resentment are not philosophical principles.

So cap the tax rates. For one thing, people who make obscene amounts of money have to do something with it. Only fools just stuff it in a mattress. Most people invest it, thereby aiding capital formation, economic expansion, and the creation of jobs for people who need them. Even obscene wealth can be socially useful. The idea of taxation as punishment is intellectually bankrupt.

So my platform plank on taxes is the following: Radical simplification of the tax code, meaning close the loopholes and lower the rates. Look at either a mildly progressive income-based system, or one of the transaction-based systems that are being discussed. John Gunther proposes an interesting one in this article. There’s a lot of room for discussion once you’ve deep-sixed the current special-favor regime. Any system that excludes, on principle, the ability of legislators to write special rules for their friends will be an improvement over the current setup.

Of course, the only justification for taxation is to meet the government’s revenue needs, so the primary question remains “How much money does the government need?” I’m inclined to say, “A lot less than it claims.” This will bring us to the next plank in the Platform, the topic of the next post: Controlling Spending.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Platform

All right, it’s time for me to throw my hat into the ring. The presidency of the United States is up for grabs, and the chances of any of the major candidates meeting my expectations are, as usual, slim. For me, voting is always about damage control. So I guess there’s nothing left but to run myself.

On second thought, I don’t really feel like incurring massive debts, sacrificing all hope of privacy forever, compromising what integrity I may have left and, most of all, risking actual election to what is arguably the world’s most important job. So maybe I’ll take a pass. But instead of waiting to see what Moe, Larry and Curly will come up with by way of policy proposals, I’ve decided to stake out my own positions and challenge the candidates either to endorse them or say why they won’t. (I’m sure they’ll be up late tonight in the Obama, Clinton and McCain headquarters, poring over these proposals.) So in the interests of good government without regard to partisan prejudices, here’s my Platform for the Presidency, 2008:

Part One: The War

This is the major issue this year, for any number of reasons. Now, it should be noted that the war in Iraq is nowhere near having the impact on U.S. economy and society that the Second World War or even Vietnam had—not yet. But it still tops the list, because people are dying. Wars have a way of undermining prosperity, confidence, good government, and, not least, good cheer. So we’ve got to figure out where we’re going in Iraq.

It would be nice to have a simple position on Iraq, like “We should pull all the troops out immediately” or “We should keep a large military force in Iraq as long as necessary to achieve victory,” but, unfortunately, complex situations don’t always admit simple solutions. It’s one thing to say that invading Iraq was an appalling strategic mistake and that our failure to keep order in the wake of the invasion was a shameful abdication of responsibility, and quite another to say that the solution is immediate withdrawal. Once you have broken the water main, it’s a little irresponsible to slink away hoping nobody will notice as the neighborhood floods.

Our destabilization of Iraq has metastasized into a region-wide crisis involving, among other things, a resurgence of long-neglected and disenfranchised Shiite populations. There is no longer any such thing as an Iraq policy divorced from the dynamics of the region as a whole. And our capacity to influence events in Iraq and the wider Mideast, militarily or otherwise, is limited. Step one in forming an intelligent Iraq policy is to abandon hubris and realize that our ability to shape the destiny of an alien, diverse and fractious polity is severely constrained. We need realistic goals.

Turning the Middle East into collection of model democratic states is not a realistic goal. Even determining the long-term shape of the Iraqi polity may not be a realistic goal. Preventing any Iranian intervention in Iraqi affairs is not a realistic goal. All of these are things that are simply not in our control, at least not militarily. We can’t afford the degree of military involvement that would be necessary to achieve the long-term outcomes we think are desirable. Militarily, our goals must be short-term. So let’s look at what can be done.

I think goal number one has to be the re-establishment of internal security for Iraqis. This is a moral obligation devolving on us by reason of our invasion of Iraq. By destroying the old Iraqi order, we assumed responsibility for the most basic function of the state, the assurance of basic life security. As long as ordinary Iraqis can’t go to the market without having a decent chance of making it home, we have an unfinished mission in Iraq. And that means first concentrating on achievable gains on the ground, the nuts and bolts of counter-insurgency. I don’t think that goal is unattainable. Our military action in Iraq has been, intermittently, effective. And we’re getting smarter. Soldiers are good at learning from their mistakes because they have to be. Violence in Iraq has declined as our tactics, not least those of co-opting former insurgents, have improved. The bar must not be set too high—perfect social peace in Iraq is beyond us. But an end to the worst excesses of jihadist cells and sectarian militias is not. And it would be disgraceful to abandon the effort at this point, when the responsibility for the anarchy lies with us. Even more disgraceful would be an abandonment of those Iraqis who have collaborated with us. They should be offered whatever aid and protection they need to establish themselves in safety, in the U.S. or elsewhere.

Goal number two must be to set up and leave in place an Iraqi security establishment capable of keeping internal order. This is largely a technical problem. It means providing training and material assets, and we’re pretty good at that. Here again perfection cannot be the goal, because if it is we’ll be in Iraq beyond John McCain’s hundred years. Ultimate responsibility for integrating the private militias into the military, resolving sectional disputes and assuring national unity lies with the Iraqi government. We cannot make Iraq proof against civil war. But we can provide the elected Iraqi government with sufficient trained battalions to raise the costs of insurgency to deterrent levels. The recent commitment of Iraqi government troops against Shiite militias is an encouraging sign, however indecisive the results.

When we have achieved these two goals, which should be plainly and loudly announced to all parties, it will be time to plan our withdrawal from Iraq. Until then, we’re committed. That’s my platform.

Next time: Tax simplification

Sam Reaves

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Ditch the DH

It’s Opening Day, and I don’t care what the weather’s like: spring is here. The start of the baseball season is psychological springtime, every year. You can’t explain the appeal of baseball to somebody that just doesn’t get it. It’s all tied up with childhood, the cycle of the seasons, optimism and rebirth and all that jazz. Besides, it means the warm weather is coming.

So I’m happy today. I’ll even try not to be a curmudgeon about the designated hitter. OK, I tried there for a second. Now listen up: once again this summer American League teams will play all their games in violation of the fundamental rules of baseball. Corrupted by this example, amateur teams across the country will follow suit, and countless games of baseball will be played by two teams of ten players each, with two players on each side leaving and then re-entering the game several times, in flagrant violation of the substitution rules. This infraction of baseball’s fundamental laws will enjoy the sanction of its highest governing bodies.

This is, of course, a scandal. But sadly, the designated hitter doesn’t provoke arguments any more. There just aren’t many people around making serious and principled arguments against it. Unless we can revive the outrage, we risk seeing this abomination become a permanent and unquestioned part of the game.

So what’s wrong with the DH? First, it violates the principle that every player goes both ways, that every player must play defense and offense. From prehistoric times, a baseball player has had to be able to catch, throw and field a position. If you didn’t have a glove, you couldn’t play. The advent of the DH has produced the baseball equivalent of the football punter, trotted out a few times a game to do his special trick, and hapless if asked to do anything else. In baseball it’s the lug who can hit the ball a mile (if he connects) but can’t throw or track down a fly ball to save his hide, and may not even own a glove.

I can hear you saying that the baseball equivalent of the punter has existed all along: the pitcher who steps to the plate to bat and looks as feeble as Granny at the family picnic. Sure, Dean Chance and his like were a sorry spectacle. But there have always been pitchers who can hit. Surely the pleasure of seeing Rick Sutcliffe knock one out in the playoffs is worth sitting through a few feeble at-bats by lesser athletes in the number nine spot. The reasons why pitchers don’t hit as well as position players are complex, but still insufficient to justify the DH. We should expect pitchers to at least try to hit, even if we recognize that as a group they will never do it as well as outfielders (or even utility infielders).

This brings us to the crucial point, the fundamental reason why the designated hitter is an abomination. The DH is wrong because it is based on a notion that has done great harm to American society in the past few decades: the notion that if people fail to meet standards, the correct response is to abolish the standards. It started in education: sometime in the sixties, the idea began to gain currency that when students fail to work up to standard, the only humane response is to lower the standards.

It was this idea that gave birth to the DH. “Pitchers can’t hit? So why make them? We’ll give them a pass. We’ll let these oafs who can’t field bat for them. We'll spare them both some embarrassment and while we're at it we’ll save the game, which is in dire distress because there isn’t as much scoring as in basketball.”

This latter idiocy, of course, was part of the package: the idea that baseball was dying because the public wouldn’t support a game unless scoring took place at promiscuous levels. This delusion grew with the decline in offense that occurred in the late sixties. Anybody who truly understood (and valued) the game knew that the batting freeze of the sixties was a phase that would eventually pass, as of course it did, even in the DH-less National League. The frenzy to “save” baseball took grotesque forms, including proposals to widen the foul lines, play baseball by the clock, and other idiotic ideas. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.

With the unhappy exception of the designated hitter. We’ve had a generation of the designated hitter now, and we can compare DH baseball to the real thing. Has National League ball been less exciting than American League ball? Have NL fans left the ballpark in droves, disgusted by the sight of pitchers at the plate, bored to distraction by a dearth of offense? It was steroids, not the DH, that led to the last offensive explosion in baseball, and anyway that made us all realize that maybe offense isn’t everything. All the DH has done is to inflate AL offensive statistics, prolong a few careers (at the expense of a few young ballplayers stuck on the bench, it should be noted), saved a few pitchers a little embarrassment. It has made life simpler for AL managers. It has devalued the notion of the complete ballplayer and robbed some pitchers of a chance to show what they can do (sorry, you won’t be seeing Dontrelle Willis at the plate this year).

The DH has had its run. It is time for those responsible for the well-being of our game to come to their senses and send it back where it came from. It is time for the designated hitter to be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Sam Reaves

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Lonely Colombia

It seems war has been averted in the northern part of South America, as Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador agreed to disagree at an emergency session of the Organization of American States in the Dominican Republic this week. This followed Colombia’s bombing of a jungle base on Ecuadoran territory which killed Raúl Reyes, a top leader of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the rebel group that has posed a serious threat to the Colombian state for thirty years. The raid elicited outraged reactions not only from Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, but also from Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Venezuela and Ecuador sent troops to the Colombian border, and for a few nervous days it seemed as if a real shooting war might break out. The OAS meeting restored calm by agreeing to investigate the matter but, tellingly, stopped short of condemning Colombia. The countries have re-established diplomatic relations and sent the troops back to the barracks.

Mexico is up in arms as well, since it emerged that several Mexican students who were in the camp were killed or wounded. Demonstrations all over the region are condemning Colombia’s Álvaro Uribe for ordering the raid, and President Bush’s declared support for Uribe is taken as evidence that this is yet another case of U.S.-backed oppression of those who would lead Latin America out of poverty and underdevelopment. The FARC has the ear of the world’s university students and those whose sympathies lie on the political left.

Who you root for depends on your political convictions, of course, but it’s getting harder to pretend that the FARC is a legitimate political and social movement. They may have been starry-eyed idealists thirty years ago, but as Colombia has become more prosperous and more democratic, the FARC has become more and more criminalized. Their principal lines these days are drugs and kidnapping for ransom, both of which are lucrative enough to keep them going, but neither of which makes much of a political platform. Colombia’s previous president, Andrés Pastrana, declared a cease-fire, handed over a large chunk of the country to the FARC as a safe zone and started negotiations, only to see the FARC use the breathing room to step up recruiting and widen its drug and kidnapping operations. Many of the FARC’s hostages were kidnapped during the supposed negotiations and some have been held for years.

On the other side, Colombia is a functioning democracy, with alternation of power by elections, an array of genuine political parties and a free press. It is admittedly a democracy under stress, and the Colombian elite has been criticized for its links to the vicious right-wing militias which were as bad or worse than the FARC, but two things should be pointed out: the right wing paramilitaries emerged relatively recently, as a response to the government’s inability to stem rebel violence, and Uribe has made great efforts to dismantle them. The fact that perfect justice has not been achieved (some paramilitary leaders have gotten off lightly) should not obscure the fact that in Colombia today the principal source of violence is the depredations of the FARC, not the paramilitaries or the state.

As for Chávez, his reaction was a guilty one: computers seized by Colombian commandos at the site of the raid allegedly indicate that Chávez has been secretly funding the FARC. If proven, this is much more of an act of war than anything Colombia has done. Meanwhile, under Chávez’s stewardship, Venezuela’s agricultural output has tumbled, requiring it to import large quantities of food from the same Colombia Chávez threatened with war this week, and oil output is declining as Chávez squanders the oil wealth on utopian social schemes, proving again that socialist ideologues should never be trusted with the reins of an economy (see Zimbabwe). Chávez knows that a little saber-rattling helps to distract people from his own incompetence.

Colombia deserves our support in this fight. It is a struggling democracy whose principal problems come from abroad: the raging drug war imposed by the U.S. and the Neanderthal political vision of Hugo Chávez and the FARC, who learned nothing from the fall of communism. Álvaro Uribe has one of the toughest jobs on earth, and he is doing a creditable job.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Wolf Dreams

I’ve just finished reading a thought-provoking book called Wolf Dreams (À quoi rêvent les loups, in French) by Yasmina Khadra. This is the female pseudonym of an exiled former Algerian army officer who made his name writing very dark crime novels set in contemporary Algeria, some of which have been adapted for movies or TV in France. (Khadra writes in French, but several of his books have been translated into English.) His crime novels featuring Algiers police Commissaire Llob are stylish, razor-sharp, noir tales set against the background of Algeria’s repressive political system, corruption, and seething social conflicts.

But Khadra has also written several novels which depict, from the inside, the ferocious Islamic insurgency which raged in Algeria in the 1990’s. I’ve read two of those, In the Name of God (Les agneaux du seigneur) and now Wolf Dreams. And I’d say that anyone who wants to understand Islamic extremism ought to read them, too.

In the Name of God focuses on a village in rural Algeria as it succumbs to a local band of fundamentalists led by a charismatic imam. Wolf Dreams is set mainly in the capital, Algiers, and follows a young man’s trajectory from unemployment through religious awakening to full-fledged insurgency. Both books provide a chilling look at how a compelling ideology can channel malice, legitimize thuggery and suppress humanity.

Indeed, the most disturbing element of Khadra’s depiction is the human familiarity of his characters. To most of us, jihadists can never be more than caricatures—the violence of their rhetoric and their actions is so extreme that they are simply opaque. We can’t locate the human being in there anywhere. So our only reaction is revulsion. And that’s only natural—people who decapitate hostages on video can hardly expect anything else. But while the jihadists have willingly suppressed their humanity, they are not a new species—and Khadra shows us where they came from.

This is by no means to plead for sympathy. Khadra is quite explicit about the appalling cruelty of the Islamists, particularly toward women. (Kidnapping, sexual slavery and eventual murder is the frequent fate of female victims of Islamist raids.) There are no redeeming features of the Islamic insurgency to be found in these books. But Khadra’s point is that the men (and yes, women) who are drawn to jihadism are no different from people who have been drawn to extremist movements elsewhere. People who are disaffected, alienated, maybe just bored, are easy prey for ideological snake-oil peddlers. And extremist ideologies make explicit and effective use of the old, toxic claim that the end justifies the means.

Khadra’s message is that Islamic extremism is like all the other extremisms that have come and gone. It is an ideology peddled by a ruthless minority in a society under stress. In this it resembles Nazism in the crumbling Weimar Republic or the totalitarian brand of Shinto espoused by the military clique that took Japan into the Second World War. This means that it can be beaten.

Of course, that first means that it has to be fought. It can’t be appeased. Sometimes we are going to have to shed blood in resisting it, because it is ruthless. But also, while it can be beaten, it can’t be beaten only by military action. When all the Al-Qaeda bases have been bombed to rubble and all the leaders killed or captured, there is still going to be a long arduous task to be done—the task of engagement and debate and patient insistence on the political values that so exasperate totalitarians: the rule of law and plurality and tolerance and rational debate and limits on power.

Some people claim that Islam is incompatible with these values, that it is essentially totalitarian. I don’t think it is—I think the appeal of these values is powerful enough to change Islam without destroying it, just as they changed Christian society in the course of the Reformation. I think the existence of voices like Yasmina Khadra’s is evidence of that.

Yasmina Khadra is a Muslim and an implacable opponent of jihadism. He’s also a humane and tolerant observer of people and a fine writer. I recommend his books highly.

Sam Reaves

Monday, February 4, 2008

Free Trade

Free trade is a tough sell for a lot of people. When your job goes south, or west to China or wherever, it’s asking a lot to expect you to wave the banner for unhindered trade between nations. When you’re sitting there looking at unpaid bills with the first faint stirrings of desperation in the pit of your stomach, textbook explanations of comparative advantage are not going to be much comfort. You’re going to find it hard to be philosophical. You’re going to be much more inclined to call your congressman.

On the other hand, when Nissan opens a plant that gives you and your cousin jobs, or the company you work for adds an extra shift because their export sales have doubled this year, you tend to take it for granted. And when was the last time you wrote a politician to say thanks for that Chilean wine you’ve been getting at the Safeway because it’s just as good as the stuff you used to buy and a lot cheaper?

Free trade produces small numbers of obvious victims and large numbers of anonymous beneficiaries. That asymmetry is a problem for the people trying to make the case for free trade. This includes most economists, but economists don’t write our laws. Politicians do, and they’re the ones fielding the phone calls from the laid-off workers.

The victims of free trade are easy for journalists to find, and they always have specific decision-makers to blame—- the executives who decided to shift production to China. The beneficiaries, on the other hand, mostly don’t have a clue about how much they pay for shoes or televisions compared to people elsewhere or even about how prices are set. All most people know is that they wish prices were lower and jobs were more plentiful. So when they turn on the Chinese-made TV set they got such a good deal on and see politicians telling them that foreign competition is bad, they are happy to believe it.

A good example is the current controversy in Mexico over the lifting of tariffs on corn. Thousands of people, mostly farmers, protested in Mexico City on January 31st against the lifting of tariffs on corn from the U.S. The farmers protest that they can’t compete with subsidized corn coming from big mechanized producers north of the border. They’re right—they can’t. But the real question is whether that ought to be their aspiration. Most Mexican farmers farm less than five acres. They’re subsistence farmers, in other words. Now, I’m not sure why subsistence farming is so glamorous to anti-globalization activists-- perhaps it’s because Indians hacking at small uneconomical plots are so much more photogenic than tractors on big efficient farms. But the reality is that subsistence farming is poverty farming. Most subsistence farmers are dirt-poor, and a lot of them can’t wait to get off the land and go to the city and get a job in the Nike factory.

In Mexico, a lot of subsistence farmers have been given an incentive to stay on their farms and keep raising corn by government subsidies. Without them, most Mexican farmers would have either left the land or made the transition to more economical crops better suited to their plots. (Corn is particularly ill-suited to the small, arid plots that the poorest Mexicans farm.) Mexico would import most of its corn from the U.S. And all Mexicans would benefit from lower prices. (The way ethanol subsidies are currently driving up corn prices on both sides of the border, to the benefit of farmers but the detriment of consumers, is a separate issue and much more of a scandal than free trade.)

But it is true that any change in economic arrangements, like letting in cheap corn or moving production to China, is going to hurt some people in the short run. So what about those people who can’t pay the bills because their jobs have disappeared? Don’t they count?

Sure they do. But media coverage and outrage are selective. Few tears were shed for laid-off oil workers when the oil business tanked in the eighties. And environmentalists want to shut down whole industries based on coal and other carbon-producing technologies. I imagine at least some environmentalists are aware that people will suffer as carbon-related jobs disappear. But they don’t think that those jobs are more important than solving the carbon problem.

We should look at free-trade related job loss the same way. Laid-off workers should get temporary assistance and a new job. And, in a dynamic economy like ours, they usually do. Meanwhile, the gains from free trade make the economy as a whole more productive, which benefits everyone.

Most people, whether in the U.S. or Mexico, don’t understand how markets work to efficiently allocate resources. All they know is that there oughta be a law to protect them from economic adversity. And there usually is—which just prolongs economically inefficient and even contradictory arrangements, like paying subsistence farmers to stay on the land while letting in imports they can’t compete with. Putting politicians in charge of deciding what should get produced and how much of it is a recipe for absurdities like our tangled farm policy here in the U.S. Eliminating subsidies and tariffs and letting companies and individuals seek the best deal wherever they can find it is a much better way of making economic decisions.

And that’s all free trade is. Now, it’s quite true that NAFTA, CAFTA and all the other FTA’s that are popping up are not really free trade agreements—they’re managed trade agreements, which means they are messy political compromises with all that implies in the way of payoffs, bribes and sweetheart deals. But even under NAFTA’s absurd thousand-plus pages of micro-managing, Mexico and the U.S. both saw exports grow and unemployment fall. The warts on NAFTA are not an argument against free trade; they’re just another argument against politicians trying to run the economy.

And that’s the real problem. Politics always trumps good economic policy.

Sam Reaves