Saturday, October 31, 2009

Live and let live

I hesitated to write this blog. It involves venturing into an area beyond my expertise – foreign policy.

On the other hand, how can a blogger stay silent on the most relevant issues of the day?

I offer these comments with uncharacteristic humility.

I refer to U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan (and, to a lesser extent, other places). This involvement is very costly – in terms of dollars and lives (even though modern technology has limited the loss of life in comparison to past wars, resulting, however, in a larger incidence of serious injury with enormous costs in dollars and pain and suffering). Like all government programs, military involvements must be financed by taxation and/or borrowing (future taxation). Like all government programs they are essentially parasitic on the productive efforts of private Americans – they result in a smaller and less productive private sector. Like all government programs they involve huge bureaucracies vulnerable to corruption and institutional inertia – they establish vested interests in their continuation. And like all government programs they have unpredictable unintended consequences.

The justification for all military projects is protection. In order to function a civil society must have secure property rights protected by the rule of law, which guarantees freedom of non-coercive action. With these basic, but elusive, institutions, any society will prosper, regardless of its circumstance or natural resources. But prosperity breeds resentment and envy which often results in foreign threats. There are few, if any, examples of democracies going to war with one another. Threats from outside are invariably from repressive dictatorships or fanatical revolutionary movements. The biggest threat facing the United States today is the one from Islamic fanatics who regard the existence of free societies as an unacceptable threat to their religious mission to impose Sharia law on the whole world.

This is the justification that was used for the invasion of Iraq (bolstered by the bogus accusation of weapons of mass destruction) and Afghanistan. Clearly the case for the latter is much stronger than the former, Afghanistan being the source of the 9/11 attacks. But both cases deserve further scrutiny.

The argument for military expenditures rests on the assertion that they are necessary to keep us safe from those who would destroy us. The most basic level of protection is protection from foreign invasion. One can, therefore, credit the need for an effort designed to identify and apprehend terrorist attacks on American soil. The argument extends, however, to efforts to root out terrorism abroad, before it becomes stronger and to establish "democracy" so as to export freedom and to deny the fanatics environments in which they may grow and expand. In other words, foreign military initiatives are seen as ideologically congenial preemptive efforts. But how is one to weigh the substantial costs of these efforts against the alleged benefit that they keep us safe for the long term?

One reason for skepticism is an evaluation of the results that have been achieved or could be achieved. Are these goals achievable by military efforts? Consider the establishment of "democracy." It is not clear what is meant by this term – hence the scare quotes. In practice it often seems to mean the establishment of open and free elections. This has proven very difficult to achieve, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Free elections often give way to predatory behavior based on deep seated tribal/ethnic rivalries. The kind of "democracy" we are seeking goes much deeper that the showcasing of people voting. It involves the acceptance of private property, protected by a viable legal system, one based on the rule of law, not the rule of a dictator or a privileged group. Without this, elections could not be free for very long.

But this kind of civil society cannot be imposed by military effort. It can only be the result of the voluntary efforts of the indigenous population over a long period of time. To imagine the emergence of a free and open society overnight in societies with centuries of tradition alien to such ideas, is an exercise in foolish wishful thinking.

Let me be clear. I am not defending some sort of moral or cultural relativism. I regard these systems as primitive and I would like to see them replaced so that more people could reap the substantial fruits of the prosperity that comes from Western (Classical) Liberalism – free trade, freedom of expression freedom of movement, and the explosion of options that this brings. What I am saying is that these things cannot simply be planted wherever we think they ought to be. Where they do emerge they are always the spontaneous flowering of local initiatives based on local conditions. I am not aware of any really successful exercise in the forceful imposition of democracy (in this broader sense) by a foreign power.

And if we fail in this "nation building" exercise we find ourselves in a prolonged and increasingly futile struggle that must ultimately be abandoned at great cost to those we leave behind, the best of intentions notwithstanding. (Of course, for many the intentions are not so good – being the protection of a reliable flow of oil – but I speak here of the widespread acceptance of military missions by the public at large being based on moral values).

How likely is it that viable durable democracies will be established in Iraq and Afghanistan? If the answer is not very likely at all, then what are we doing there and how and when will it end? Would we, and they, not be better off with a much more limited effort, one aimed at containing the export of nefarious ideas and actions. America has no imperialistic ambitions, yet we are continually being drawn into military adventures in far off places, often as a result of the past colonial screw-ups of the European governments who are now our biggest critics. Less idealism and more realism would result in more limited aims. We cannot save the world. And we cannot repair all the wrongs of the past. If we are to win this battle against terrorism it will only be because enough people in Moslem countries have rejected them and their message in favor of something more peaceful and tolerant of us. For the rest we have to be less ambitious.

Supporting Israel and Pakistan may, indeed, make sense, for different reasons. These are indigenous democracies and their collapse would credibly threaten the free world as a whole. In the case of Israel more effort should be involved in persuading Middle Eastern governments to help the Palestinians move beyond grievance to the pursuit of prosperity - by encouraging open institutions of learning, of trade, of development – but his will only happen when the Moslem world gets comfortable with the existence of a Jewish state, a free democratic state.

In the case of Pakistan, much depends on how far the Pakistani people are prepared to go to rid themselves of the Taliban. The Taliban are not going away. They have infinite patience and when suppressed simply fade away only to emerge another day. But they do rely on local support and that will be the key. In the meantime the U.S. is just pursing a holding action and maybe that is the best we can do.

So, thinking it through, I wonder if, instead of debating the commitment of more troops, we should not be pulling back, focusing on the possible and leaving the rest for another kind of fight, the battle of ideas. Having achieved unprecedented and unimagined freedom and prosperity, America is now in danger of destroying it at home by unrealistically attempting to impose it elsewhere. Live and let live.

And, by the way, we should abandon the terrible and costly "drug-war." But that is a subject for another day.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Prize Embarrassment

What can one say about the imbecilic decision to award the Nobel Peace prize to Barak Obama?

On the one had one should not be surprised. After all this is the same crowd that awarded the prize to Yasser Arafat, one of the world's most accomplished and cynical murderers. Or to Jimmy Carter, perhaps the world's most influential anti-Semite. Yet, it strikes me there is something different about this one Рit is more than just the usual hypocrisy and naivet̩. This time there is an added dose of arrogance and smugness.

What the Nobel committee seems to be saying this time around is:

"Here is a prize for thinking and talking like us. We know you have not really achieved any of your stated aims for international peace, but you have acknowledged that our approach is right, that America has been mistaken and that you intend to make amends. And for this, for your enlightened contrition, we are going to give you this important prize. We hope it will help you achieve your noble (no pun intended) aims."

Most people realize that this award is so stupid that it is an embarrassment – and this includes many Obama supporters. A sample from the European press suggests however that the Europeans are not at all embarrassed. They think it fitting to reward Obama in a very public way for becoming more like them, for validating their worldview – including the denial of American exceptionalism. And they see nothing wrong in using this august prize as a political instrument, an instrument of propaganda to try and bolster a political agenda of which they approve. Their arrogance defies imagination.

The committee praised Mr. Obama for believing that "dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts" and also for believing in the seriousness of climate change! (I am reminded of Ayan Hirsi Ali's good friend Teo Van Gogh who was brutally stabbed to death for making a movie about the subjugation of Muslim women. While his crazed fanatical attacker was stabbing him Van Gogh turned to him and said, "Can't we talk about this?" Maybe he should have been awarded a posthumous peace prize, were there such a thing.)

The Nobel citation declares further that Mr. Obama's "diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population." As today's WSJ editorial notes, where is this majority? Most of the world lives in poverty under the rule of brutal dictatorships. The Western Europeans are in danger of being overrun by these cultures but for the power and vigilance of the United States of America whom they love to despise. They are so arrogant that they don't even realize they are not in the majority.

The unfortunate part of it is that the Obamananiacs have convinced many Americans that the Europeans are right. And when we become like Europe who will watch our back?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Inverted Morality

Never in the history of America have so many supported such unscrupulous policies while firmly and self-righteously believing they are doing something very moral.

How to explain this?

If you are not depressed you either don't know what is going on, or else you are in the grip of some strange and diabolical moral code.

If the latter, as I suspect of many, it amounts to the belief that the "rich" are the one's who will be taxed for the benefit of the rest - and it is ok to plunder the "rich"! What about the burden that will be borne by future generations?

Do we have a right to plunder them as well? I am not sure how they answer this. Probably by saying: "Oh who knows what will happen, we have to do something now, lets worry about that later. And it will probably be on the 'rich' of the future generations anyway."

Really? Will there be any "rich" left?

Why are there so few who find this illogical and unconscionable? Will the majority come to its senses before it is too late?

See below from today's WSJ. Read it carefully, and weep.


WSJ: Opinion
The Greatest Show on Earth
Step right up: A new entitlement that cuts the deficit!

Washington spent the week waiting for the Congressional Budget Office to roll in with its new cost estimates of the Senate health-care bill, and what a carnival. Behold: a new $829 billion entitlement that will subsidize insurance for tens of millions of people—and reduce deficits by $81 billion at the same time. In the next tent, see the mermaid and a two-headed cow.

The political and media classes are proving they'll believe anything, as they are now pronouncing that this never-before-seen miracle is a "green light" for ObamaCare. (What isn't these days?) The irony is that the CBO's guesstimate exposes the fraudulence and fiscal sleight-of-hand underlying this whole exercise. Anyone who reads beyond the top-line numbers will find that the bill creates massive new spending commitments that will inevitably explode over time, and that this is "paid for" with huge tax increases plus phantom spending cuts that will never happen in practice.

The better part of the 10-year $829 billion overall cost will finance insurance "exchanges" where individuals and families could purchase coverage at heavily subsidized rates. Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus kept a lid on the cost by making this program non-universal: Enrollment is limited to those who aren't offered employer-sponsored insurance and earn under 400% of the poverty level, or about $88,000 for a family of four. CBO expects some 23 million people to sign up by 2019.

But this "firewall" is unlikely to last even that long. Liberals are demanding heftier subsidies, and once people see the deal their neighbors are getting on "free" health care, they too will want in. Even CBO seems to find this unrealistic, noting "These projections assume that the proposals are enacted and remain unchanged throughout the next two decades, which is often not the case for major legislation." Scratch "often."

Then there are the many budget gimmicks. Take the "failsafe budgeting mechanism" that would require automatic cuts in exchange spending if it increases the deficit. CBO expects 15% reductions in exchange subsidies each year from 2015 to 2018, even though the exchanges don't open until 2014. That kind of re-gifting should have been laughed out of the committee room, but the ruse helps to move future spending off the current budget "score."

Mr. Baucus spends $10.9 billion to eliminate the scheduled Medicare cuts to physician payments—but only for next year. In 2011, he assumes they'll be reduced by 25%, with even deeper cuts later. Congress has overridden this "sustainable growth rate" every year since 2003 and will continue to do so because deeper cuts in Medicare's price controls will cause many doctors to quit the program. Fixing this alone would add $245 billion to the bill's costs, according to an earlier CBO estimate.

Recall that when President Obama started the health-care debate, the goal was "bending the curve"—finding a way to reduce both Medicare and overall health spending. Budget director Peter Orszag talked about "game changers," which CBO has now outed as nonchangers. Comparative effectiveness research about what treatments work best? That will save all of $300 million in Medicare, even as it costs $2.6 billion in new taxes on premiums. More prevention and primary care will increase spending by $4.2 billion.

Senate Finance votes next week, and no doubt this freak of political nature will pass amid fanfare and self-congratulation that their new entitlement will reduce deficits. Never mind that such a spectacle has never happened in the history of the republic. P.T. Barnum had nothing on this crowd, and the bill hasn't even hit the Senate floor yet.

Meanwhile, the bill piles on new taxes, albeit on health-care businesses so the costs are hidden from customers. Insurance companies offering policies that cost more than $8,000 for individuals and $21,000 for families will pay $201 billion per a 40% excise tax, which will be passed down to all policy holders in higher premiums. Another $180 billion will hit the likes of drug and device makers, including $29 billion because companies won't be allowed to deduct these "fees" from their corporate income taxes. Then there's the $4 billion in penalty payments on those who don't buy insurance because all of ObamaCare's other new taxes and mandates have made it more expensive.
The Baucus bill also expands ailing Medicaid by $345 billion—even as it busts state budgets by imposing an additional $33 billion unfunded mandate. The only Medicare cut that isn't made merely on paper is $117 billion in Medicare Advantage, which Democrats hate because it gives one of five seniors private insurance options.

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A18

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